The Worth of One Life

She tightened the restraints and checked them three times. The man struggled futilely as she stood and looked at him, bound to the straight-back wooden chair. A wad of cloth muffled any words he attempted to shout at her. Haley once thought she was incapable of murder, of snuffing out the life of any creature, but she found it grew easier with each sacrifice.

She pulled the wad of cloth from the man’s mouth and began unraveling it.

“Let me go you stupid bitch,” he screamed. The building was empty. She made sure of that so no one would hear him scream. She chuckled at him.

“Why would I do that?” she asked. “You can’t say you don’t deserve this.” She took the length of cloth and wrapped it from his chin to the top of his head. She dug a wooden cylinder out of her bag. It was intricately carved. A knob carved with the likeness of a face protruded half-way down the cylinder. She placed the knob in the man’s mouth to once again stifle his words, then she tightened the cloth until he could no longer move his jaw.

“I would say I’m sorry about this,” she said, “but to be honest, I’m not. The world is better off without trash like you.” She pulled out a knife and shoved it into the man’s chest. She stared into his eyes as he glared at her first with hatred, then pain, then fear. Blood dripped to the floor, but she continued to stare until the light faded from his eyes. The cylinder rattled as he died.

She wiped the blood from her blade, cut the cloth, and withdrew the soul-catcher from the man’s mouth. Counting tonight, it had rattled 98 times. One more and I can finally bring him back, she thought.

She grabbed the canister of gasoline and doused the body then sprinkled the room. She pulled out her lighter, lit a cigarette, and inhaled deeply. Danny was the reason she quit, and she promised to quit again when she had him back, but she could not fight the overwhelming need to have one after each of her kills. They were all terrible people. That was the only way she could convince herself to even do it. She would only collect the souls of those who shouldn’t have to wait to go to hell.

Haley looked at the body in front of him. She’d already forgotten his name. She found him through the sex offender registry. He had received a light sentence for a heinous act, and she took it upon herself to remedy that fact because it would serve her purpose and relieve the world of a terrible person. Before her crusade, she would have simply been saddened and sick upon hearing what he had done. Now she had strength.

She took one more draw and exhaled. A flick of her finger sent the glow of the cigarette tumbling through the air. The room ignited upon its landing and Haley watched from the doorway as the flames engulfed the room. Then she left for home. The knife and soul-catcher safely secure in her coat pockets.

The next day she perused the local paper for news of any recent crimes. She was really looking for suspected persons she could use as her last sacrifice. She was so near the end she felt impatient, but knew she had to be careful. Her exploits were not going unnoticed.

One article mentioned her nightly activities as a cleansing fire across the city. She smiled at the phrase, but could not shrug the fear that her victims have been tied together. The police were surely investigating the killings. They could potentially have leads. She hadn’t seen anything, but they may purposely be keeping the search quiet. She had to be careful. It would all be worthless if she were incarcerated before she could finish. It would be almost be worse if she were caught after she succeeded.

She scanned the paper until she found a lead. A man had been accused of several hate crimes over the course of the last few years, but he had never served second for the damage or fear he caused his neighbors. He even fired gunshots at their house. They moved after he was released a third time without any consequence. He would be her last sacrifice. Her impatience won out. After tonight, she would set this all behind her and live the life she was meant to have.


The soul-catcher rattled. Before she could remove it from the dead man’s mouth, the spirit within it emerged. A darkness hovered behind the body. The spirit’s form was darker than the shadow cast in the moonlight. Green flames emerged as eyes set into a pale-white skull.

“You are but one of few to have accomplished this task,” it spoke. The raspy voice echoes around the room as if it did not belong to the form in front of her.

“Give him to me,” she said.

“Ah, but you have not yet finished what you have started,” the voice circled her.

“What do you mean?”

“What is the worth of one soul?”

“You said yourself ninety-nine souls could be traded to bring one back from the dead.”

“I did, but collecting ninety-nine souls was merely the beginning. The final requirement now falls before you. The worth of one soul is not quantifiable by numbers. A sacrifice is required by those who would reverse death.”

“What are you saying?” Haley could feel tears welling in her eyes. All of that work. All of those people. The things she had done. She could not believe it was all for nothing.

“One more soul is required to bring your son back. The soul that has tied his to this world. Yours.” The black shroud moved and lifted the soul-catcher from the dead man’s mouth. The knife floated from the man’s chest. Both items were brought before her. A green flame swallowed both items. The blood from the blade evaporated within the flame.

“Do what must be done,” the voice echoed.

Haley grabbed the soul-catcher. The green flames died away at her touch. She slowly inserted the knob of the cylinder into her mouth. She gripped the handle of the blade and held it above her chest. Tears danced across her cheeks.

The soul-catcher bounced against the concrete floor. The blade soon followed. Haley fell to her knees. “How can I be certain you can bring him back,” she called.

A laugh grew louder around the room. “What do you think I have been doing while you toiled away in this…..mortal plane?” The shadow beneath the skull pulled back to reveal an incorporeal image of her son.

“Danny,” she yelled.

“He does not have the ability to hear you in this form. Complete the task and he will take your place in this world.”

The blade and soul-catcher once again were encased in green flame. She picked them up and readied herself. The image of her son gave her the resolve to finish what she had started.

A rattle sounded in the room followed by hollow laughter on the wind. Outside, the cries of a child filled the air.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

I was certain it was a dream. Everything was blocky, monochromatic, and nothing seemed in focus. I entered a cave to find carefully stacked pixels forming the vague image of an old man. He gifted me a sword and offered no instruction, but I knew what I had to do. I scoured the world, defeated monsters, and eventually achieved my fate. She was safe, which meant I could rest.

I believed I would wake to familiar surroundings, but I was wrong. Instead I woke to a woman’s voice calling for help. My body was slightly recognizable, the landscapes more defined, but again I was tasked with a heavy burden. Weeks passed without rest until I completed my task. I had saved a kingdom, and my reward was another nightmare.

My eyes opened to the insistent nagging of a fairy who had found her way into my home. She bid me to follow her where I learned once again I was fated to save a world in danger. Something in me wanted to forego this responsibility, but my nature prevailed.

My travels revealed my fate to be the eternal struggle between three forces. The evil strength of a monster, the wisdom of a goddess, and myself. Each part woven together into the fabric of destiny. My eyes opened time and time again to complete a task that tested the limits of my strength. I would never know peace.

Through each resurrection I realized I was not alone. She was always with me. The goddess who took up arms beside me to battle the demon. I do not know how many lives I have lived, nor which memories are real, but knowing I will always find her when I wake up is enough. For her, I will never stop fighting.

Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. This is another short one at 178 pages. It was first published in 2013 and is a reflection of childhood. A man revisits his childhood town for a funeral and finds he is drawn to the pond at the end of the road that a childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock, once claimed was an ocean.

Most of the book recounts certain events of his childhood and his interactions with Lettie, the youngest of her family that is still able to see the world as it is. Something ordinary humans no longer see. Our main character gets pulled into this ancient world while trying to stay within his own. It all starts when he sees the aftermath of a man’s suicide which seems to spark a series of fantastical events that are frightening, mystifying, and uniquely magical.

I would not consider this a children’s book. I’d say it’s more for those who have grown up and forgotten the elusive magic of childhood. The good and bad. The frightening imagination. The wonder. The exploratory drive to know more about the world. This book is a look through that lens. It is also a reminder that the lens fogs over with our day-to-day adult responsibilities, and we need clean it every so often so as not to forget what it means to be alive.

If you have not read Neil Gaiman, this is a good book to start with. If you have read Neil, then you’ve probably already read this book. If not, then you’ll know if you’ll like it. He is great at what he does, which is make you believe the magic he spins within each sentence. I’ve recommended his books before and I will probably continue to recommend them as I read them. This book, however, is one that I think can be returned to with each time reading like new. The words won’t change, but our lens will, as it does with each passing year.

Happy Reading.

 

Tradition

“I was a kid. Eight years old and ecstatic to finally be allowed to accompany my father on his annual trip up north. No more than a hike really. I couldn’t tell you why I was so excited, but I can tell you that what I learned that day was essential to who I am now.”


The sun hadn’t yet risen when my father woke me. He had already packed our bags so all I had to do was shoulder the pack and follow him. My only job that early was to not fall behind. My tired eyes almost appreciated the dim early light. The overcast sky made the damp air chilling and my father encouraged me to put on the jacket he packed for me. I refused for no logical reason until my fingers began to grow numb.

After three hours, I was ready to quit and go back. My logic was that to return meant a three-hour walk by myself and also never learning why my father took these trips alone every year. My mother had refused to tell me, saying “One day your father will take you. Then you will know.”

I looked forward to it. Asking every year if I could go. Every year he said no. I began to think he would never take me. This year was the first time I didn’t ask and didn’t expect to go. He never told me. He just woke me up.

The clouds had dissipated and the sun was peaking when we finally turned from the roadside path into the woods toward the mountain. By this time, I had walked the sleep out of my body and replaced it with a creeping ache. The only thing worse than my feet beginning to hurt was the lack of food in my stomach. I held out knowing my father would stop because he was hungry too. Just before I couldn’t bear it any longer, he tossed me a nutrition bar and we kept walking. It didn’t help much but after a while my stomach finally quieted down.

We climbed as evening began to set and it was nearly night before we stopped. I was too exhausted to care about anything more than food or sleep. He let me rest while he started a fire and set up our tent. He settled in and started making dinner by setting a can of beans in the embers near the outside of the fire. The throbbing in my feet had dulled a bit when he asked me to gather wood for the fire. Enough to last the night. He asked gently which caused me to answer in kind before I even realized what I said.

Night had fallen and with a full stomach all I wanted was sleep. He could see me drifting off and would poke me with the charred end of the stick he used to tend the fire, look at me, and shake his head. This kept up for a few hours and I was nodding off yet again, my shirt already covered in soot, when instead of poking me he spoke.

“I think it’s time,” he said.

I opened an eye and was thankful to finally go into the tent and sleep, but that wasn’t what he meant.

“I’m sure you’ve wondered what I do up here every year.”

I perked up a bit. Hoping he would tell me his secrets.

“The truth is I come up here every year to learn from your grandfather.”

The confusion must have been visible on my tired face because he smiled one of his rare smiles.

“There is a tradition that runs in our family. We are tied to this mountain and every generation has come back to our town when they are near the end of their lives. You’ll find the graveyard filled with our ancestors. All you need to know is…” another, brief smile, “…you can always find help atop this mountain. What do you remember of your grandfather?”

I didn’t remember much. He died when I was two years old. All I could remember was white hair and a stern look. I didn’t want to tell my father that, so I just shrugged.

“That’s what I thought. I could tell you about the time he owned a bar in Tennessee. Or the time he was hit by a car while out for a walk and he asked the driver if they were okay. I could tell you a hundred stories, but a story is like a photograph. It is only a few minutes. It can’t tell you who someone really is. It gives you a precise moment, and we are each made by millions of moments. You may be too young to appreciate this, but I thought you might be ready. What do you think dad?”

I began to realize my father had gone insane, but then a shot of adrenaline raced through my system as a man walked out of the trees from the peak of the mountain. I thought it was a stranger coming to kill us but my father greeted the man. They hugged, something I’d never seen my dad do to anyone besides my mother. My eyes were starting to hurt and I had to force myself to blink. They sat down. I studied each of their faces in the firelight. They could have been brothers.

“He may have recognized you if you were older,” my father casually said to my deceased grandfather.

“Perhaps,” my grandfather said, “but it was hard to move when I was that old, and no one wants to be old. We just don’t have a choice in the matter.”

“Fine. Maybe it’s better for him that you came like this. Now, let’s get going before the sun catches us.”

I was too afraid to talk despite the hundreds of questions running through my head, and they effectively ignored me as I listened to them talk about all sorts of things. They made efforts to include me, but I was too shocked to react.

I saw a new side to my father that day. He talked about things I never knew he was concerned about let alone even thought about them. He opened up and I began to see him for who he was and not what he let the world see of him.

They finished talking as dawn began creeping to the horizon. They stood and hugged. I never moved from my spot by the fire. My grandfather came over and squeezed my shoulder. Then he walked into the woods toward the peak of the mountain. I wouldn’t see him for another year.


“I never really appreciated the small things my father had done for me. Like letting me sleep while he got everything ready for me in the mornings, driving me around, supporting me in his reserved ways. He took great care of me and never complained. I always thought he didn’t care much because he never said much. But every year I was reminded and even when he went back to his old ways after leaving the mountain, even when I eventually forgot how open he could be, I truly knew who he was. I guess what I’m trying to say is, if I fall into his habits, don’t ever think I don’t love you.”

I smiled at my son and hoped he didn’t think it was a rare sight. He was starting to nod off despite the fairly one-way conversation. “I think you’re ready. What do you think dad?”

Dust

Entry #4

I was surprised to discover a reaction so quickly. My theory was sound, but I imagined it would take possibly hundreds of tests before I found a reaction strong enough to be considered sufficient evidence for validation. The element producing the reaction was Xenon. I began with the noble gases to determine if this substance could affect an element that was considered nonreactive. I am surprised to say the least, but more than that I am beyond excited. I will continue to move through my experiment as planned to determine if other elements cause a reaction. It may be possible that several interact with the substance.

Entry #17

I’ve finally tested all elements currently known. The substance reacts to the following: Xenon, Gallium, and Mercury. I’ve sacrificed sleep to my research in an effort to speed through this first step of the experiment. I was extremely thorough with each test, but I fear I may need to rest before continuing. I’ve yet to report my findings to General Stewart. I would not be surprised if he has a camera within the lab or even gets reports of my entries into this log. In either case, I do not fear the man. Past experiences have led me to understand that these men only seek results and do not care about the process. Though I believe Stewart is a better man than others I have worked with, I fear he falls into the same pattern of thought. I will wait until I have something of significance before providing a report without omissions.

Entry #32

It’s been weeks since I’ve moved beyond the initial phase, and no progress has been made. General Stewart has already begun to grow impatient. He has not removed his genial attitude but I have picked up subtle signs of his impatience. I believe he understands that this substance, which is now referred to as Dust in all official reports, is not something that can be fully understood quickly knowing where it originated. He is both fearful of its potential while eager to control it. It is too early to tell if the latter is even possible, but isn’t every soldier’s dream to control the most devastating weapon on the field?

Entry #164

I must admit I was happy to deliver good news. The General seemed beyond excited to receive a report that did not end with “No Progress Made” and I was brimming with excitement as I wrote it. We are one step closer to understanding what this substance is capable of.

Entry #188

They are threatening to remove me from this project. It’s been months since we realized the Dust was able to duplicate when placed in proximity of water. I have not been able to explain how the process works or why. I can say that I am thankful that the container of this Dust did not land in an ocean or even near a stream. If it had, I can’t imagine what would have happened.

The Dust is isolated but reacts in a way seemingly impossible when placed near a single molecule of water. I find it strange the Dust hadn’t reacted before. After all, the body of an average human male consists of nearly 60% water. Perhaps there is something within our blood that negates its growth. I will research this new theory.

Entry #213

General Stewart claims the only reason I am allowed to continue my research is because he advocated for me. I believe him to a degree, but also know that I have made sufficient progress and they now fear removing me from this project after what I have discovered. However, they have taken half of the Dust from my lab despite my objections. I don’t believe they are having another team start research on it. I fear they will create a weapon using the knowledge we currently have from my own discoveries. Primarily the reaction with water that allows it to duplicate quickly, and its reaction with plasma proteins, specifically albumin, which causes the Dust to deteriorate rapidly. I withheld the information at first knowing full well what they could do with it should they decide to use it against our current enemies. It’s the perfect solution. It’s humane, at least it would be seen as humane.

Drop even the smallest amount in the enemy’s water supply and it will consume all of their resources. Asset denial. No army can survive without food. The issue is the aftermath. Once the Dust is let loose, there is no real way to guarantee it can be contained. In the public’s eyes, it will be the weapon that only kills the supplies but leaves the people alive. They won’t consider that the Dust will decimate water and food supplies and effectively leave whatever population it is used against with both famine and drought. A situation where no human can survive. If left unchecked, the Dust would consume the oceans in a matter of days.

General Stewart has enough foresight to consider the consequences of such actions, which is my only consolation that they will not yet create such weapon. I will continue my research, but perhaps I should begin theorizing a way to neutralize the Dust should it grow beyond the control of its handlers. Now that I am no longer the sole guardian of it, I think it wise to explore such options.

Entry #218

I’ve found some comfort after testing my recent theory. The Dust duplicates when near water, but when it comes into direct contact, it changes its composition from a powder to solid. This at first was very troubling, but I then placed 1 ml of albumin on the surface of the solid and it reverted back to dihydrogen monoxide. The Dust seemingly removed from the compound entirely. Just as it can duplicate without source material, it can be removed as well. I now have a means of destroying the Dust should something terrible happen. I know how this information will be received if I convey it to the General. For now, I will keep it to myself.

Entry #297

They raided my lab yesterday. They copied all of my notes and even this informal recording of my work. I now know what they have done with the Dust they took several months ago. Two bombs have already been dropped upon the eastern continent. The strategic points they chose were predictable knowing what I do. One was dropped on Mount Baikal, where the Omul River is sourced, and the other in Lake Jacinto. I fear these actions were made too soon and without sufficient knowledge of the forces at play. There are too many unknowns, but I am told this was the final stage of the war and we were losing. I have not left my lab in over two years and have not had or asked of news about the war so I do not know how much truth I’ve been told. The weight within my stomach tells me that no matter how desperate our situation became, we should never have used the Dust in this manner.

Entry #363

My suspicions have been confirmed. I have tested what I can with the amount of Dust I was able to take from my lab as I was forced from it. I had the forethought to hide a small vial within the lining of one of my lab coats. They were nice enough to let me pack before being shipped to another isolated facility. There is no lab here, but I can continue my research.

Simply placing blood on the solid Dust is not enough to create the negation effect. I’ve found that the plasma’s ratio must be nearly 50:50 water to protein to have this desired effect. Since nearly all plasma consists of 90% water, the military’s solution will not be work. The Dust has already converted all major water sources on the eastern continent to solid material. The war has ended, but the treaty stands unfulfilled as our country cannot deliver what was promised. We are now only able to take in refugees while the eastern lands become inhospitable.

I’ve contacted General Stewart about my solution to the problem. I fear that blood donations will not be enough to change the current quantity of the now solid form of Dust.

Entry #701

I have not slept soundly in three months after discovering what lengths that were taken to prevent the Dust from depleting the most abundant resource on the planet. The eastern continent is now barren. It’s population once nearing two billion people has been reduced to tribes of thousands. The few million refugees that were taken in by my own government were used to combat the Dust from reaching our shores. They….they were harvested for their albumin. Hundreds of thousands died before the government realized they needed a sustainable source to effectively combat the Dust from consuming the entire planet. They have established required blood donations from all citizens. It may be too soon to say with any certainty, but early reports show the Dust is receding. We may yet survive.