At Last, The Destination

Although the sun sat high in the midday sky, the figure who approached me was draped in a shadow so complete as to let no light escape the boundaries of its form. Its frame was crisp but the features blurred and I knew in that instant that none who lived was allowed to view its terrifying countenance.

“You have come for me?” I asked, my voice betraying the courage I strove to display.

“Come?” the figure said in a voice neither male nor female but not wholly unpleasant. “No, my dear, I am always present.”

“But you surely do not deny that you are the Grim Reaper?”

“The Reaper I am, yet not so grim. And I pose no danger to you for Death is not to blame for death. If it offers you some measure of comfort, think of me as the ultimate destination of your lifelong journey.”

The Reaper spoke without guile. Its words, a wave of tranquility, washed over me and suddenly I found myself in the embrace of a satisfaction I had never known in all my days. This newfound contentment was accompanied by the realization that I had overcome insurmountable obstacles and completed a near-impossible task, and as I accepted the Reaper’s hand, warm and soft to the touch, I slowly exhaled all the limitations of the physical world and welcomed the painless transition into the final stage of existence.

The King of Wretches

I do not have a favorite season, per se, but whenever summer rolls around, my head swims with near-endless possibilities of how I can alter not only my reality but the reality of existence itself so that I am finally able to live a life in which my head falls on the pillow with no worries and I awaken in the same manner.

But at this moment any life other than my own would be an improvement. You must understand, when you live in the gutter, climbing up onto the pavement can feel like reaching Shamayim, the first heaven, but there is not much chance of climbing that high. My wings, or what is left of them, have not been able to bear my weight for quite some time now.

And I am not alone. I lie here amongst the other bodies that convulse on a human Richter scale that makes it impossible to pray and have those prayers heard. My lips, dry and cracked haven’t kissed another in a century of lifetimes, though I myself have been kissed by a fate who cruelly calls my name and announces my presence, the King of Wretches Among Wretches. This fate who comes down from on high feigns love for me, lifts my head slightly, and kisses me deeply and passionately before abandoning me without uttering a word.

So here I exist, an enemy of sleep as I am cursed to remain awake and endure, trying to mask my terror because I was instructed to know no fear but I feel my reserve crack and my secret dreads are beginning to seep through. Left for dead but not truly dead, I sometimes raise myself to my full height and threaten to leave but Those Who Know realize this is an empty threat. My soul is anchored to this spot and even though I can beseech the wind to lift away this all too fleshy carapace, what would I be without that which makes me unique? What sort of life would a soulless one be?

Alas, I am far too proud to beg, even for mercy. Accepting charity never seemed quite fitting to me, which means I stay in anger and at the dawn of each new day I let the carrion pick away at the bits of me that have gone necrotic from disuse. I curse the fact that when they take to the sky they never steal away the bits that made me the monster that led me to be in this predicament in the first place. It is as if the universe believes its very own balance is better with me assuming this role.

The sad truth is that not all dead are buried in the field with the flowers. Some lie rotting away to nothing, slowly dying from wounds that never heal. The minor injuries you suffer repeatedly every single day that rip the scabs off to bleed you anew. It is the slowest death imaginable. Where you die a little more on each anniversary.

And in time these injuries celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, and even holidays. And you cry outwardly until the tears no longer come, then you cry inwardly and when people cannot see you weep, they assume that you have moved on and think it is acceptable to pretend the bad thing never happened and things can return to normal, without realizing that there is no longer a normal to return to.

The parent of dead hopes and dreams never stops being a parent in their hearts. And you spend the rest of your life gathering the leftover pieces and remnants of a future life well past its sell-by date and inhume it in the backyard of years gone by in a specially constructed box of disappointment.

The Secret

The moment Lavelle stepped through the door, I realized something was wrong. He had just come home for winter recess, head shaved bald and immediately retreated into his room claiming to be exhausted from the trip. When he finally made an appearance at the dinner table, he asked if we could go shopping for some new clothes from the big and tall section. Lavelle, like the rest of my side of the family was thin and vertically challenged so when I questioned him he claimed “it’s the style now, you wouldn’t understand.” It was an obvious lie but I loved my son and went along with the deception.

While selecting stretch fabric shirts and elastic band pants that were several sizes too big for his wiry frame, Lavelle shyly asked if I could take him to see an animal therapist. I could have handled my initial response better but it was such a bizarre request that caught me out of left field. I began badgering him with questions and demanding answers until he broke down in tears and revealed that he had become a werewolf.

We did a joint counselling session with a therapist who took my son’s claim in stride. She gently suggested that Lavelle could only have true happiness if he found a way to be comfortable with his authentic self. Doing my part, I assured my son that I would continue to love and support him. I told the therapist that I was scared for him because I felt with all the torment he was experiencing by holding everything in and hiding the truth for so long, something would cause him to break and harm himself, the way some people do when they reach the final straw.

The odd thing about the whole situation was I was never afraid for my own life. I knew my son would never hurt me. And the only major adjustment I had to make was whenever he visited home during full moon periods, he tended to leave portions of his victims on my doorstep, the way house cats brought glory gifts to their owners when they killed mice, leaving me to dispose of the evidence and follow YouTube tutorials on “biohazard remediation,” but these were the things one does for love.

Dear Madd Fictional: Jacks With Ghosts

Even though it’s a brand new year and a year’s worth of possibility is out there just waiting to be discovered, times are still tough. Not just for me but for everyone these days and as such, I found I needed a side hustle to help make ends meet. I tried everything from Human Fracking to Milky Way Real Estate Developing to Kickstarting The Zombie Apocalypse and they all turned up snake eyes…until I stumbled upon my true calling: Starting An Online Advice Column.

To be clear, I’m not that well-known in the “advice community” yet but the types of questions put to me so far made my editor ask me to share the most memorable letter I received in my role as a Relationship Advisor:

Dear Madd Fictional,

By profession, I am a Paranormal Cleaner and if you’re not familiar with that term, I am the person that paranormal investigators call once they have established that a residence or business establishment is inhabited by entities that have moved on beyond the mortal plane of existence. It is my job to collect the spirits and physically remove them from the premises. In your head, you might be picturing the box trap gizmo from Ghostbusters right about now but the truth is a lot less complicated. The simplest way to capture a ghost is to either use a metal box that contains a layer of soil from hallowed ground (typically a church or cemetery) or a lit candle placed inside an open-lidded glass jar. Once captured, they are covered with a pinch of salt and buried in hallowed ground, which leads to my problem.

Each time I collect an Interactive Personality, Ectoplasm, Poltergeist, Orb, or Funnel Ghost, instead of burying them in hallowed ground, I take them home and release them in my bedroom. When certain urges arise, I strip down, anoint myself in equal parts cinnamon, calamus, cassia, and myrrh, in olive oil (except for my private area), and practice onanism as the spirits swarm around the room. Is this normal?—J.W.G., Pinellas Park, Florida

My response was simple:

Dear Jacks With Ghosts (I’m assuming that’s what J.W.G. stands for)

First, allow me to say that I do not actively participate in kink-shaming, you do you, let your freak flag fly, and all that good stuff, as long as it’s with consenting adults, consenting being the key word there. You haven’t specified in your letter whether the spirits have given you permission to be confined in your bedroom and made to watch you shake hands with the milkman. Also, out of curiosity, do you make them perform lewd acts on themselves and each other to aid in your banister polishing? And better still, do they physically interact with you (which I can only imagine and describe as nulling the void)?

As an answer to your question of it being normal, have you visited adult websites and conducted a search for what you’re doing? If you cannot find content that matches your act, I believe you know where you stand in the kinkiverse.

Happy New Year!

Hangover Comfort Food – Madd Fictional Style

Naturally, I want you to make the most of your holiday season, regardless of what you celebrate or how you choose to celebrate it, but, if you’re the sort who lets loose during the season to be jolly (hey, you do you, I do not party-shame) you might very well be nursing the mother of all hangovers and be in need of the perfect science fiction comfort food.

For you, you left of center, go against the grain, free-spirited individual you, I have a suggestion for a sandwich in three parts:

Part One – Eggs

Mix four Gro’ok eggs (the yellow-speckled ones that are currently in season, not the purple ones) and a quarter cup of low-fat Tomurian milk (from a contented Olkturian, preferably one that’s married with a happy home life). Scramble with a pinch of moon salt and Mercury pepper. Add your hot sauce of choice to taste (the higher the Scoville, the better, as far as I’m concerned).

Who am I, you ask? If you don’t know, you better ask somebody. I happen to be an actual chef who can flat-out burn each and every single TV cook who claims to be a masterful chef. Gordon who? Jamie what? Nigella how? While they putter around their studio set kitchens, I travel the interstellar byways slaying pretenders and tenderizing them like so much…

Meat – Part Two

Combine half pound Caitian snork torso (domesticated, wild is too gamey for the hangover palette), half-pound ground snork (your choice, the gaminess might actually work here), a third cup Aaamazzarite seasoned bread crumbs (still living, it’s the best way, trust me), one-half teaspoon each of hillbilly powder and gun powder, and a pinch of moon salt and Mercury pepper. Press into inch-thick patties; grill with a laser or cook in a photon skillet.

Being the type who naturally ruffles feathers, I’ve been the recipient of some negative feedback on social media. One so-called influencer called me “shanktastic” Is this meant to be an insult? Because it ends in “tastic” but it starts with “shank” and I gotta tell you my legs are good enough to eat right off the bone.

Part Three – Sandwich

Layer the portion of the egg over the meat portion over a slice of Choki cheese (make sure it’s properly dead and not just hibernating as that could lead to your unfortunate demise) on an Orion monkey poopy-seed bagel (I know what you’re thinking, but have you ever tried monkey poo? Don’t knock it…). Drizzle on Blazing Inferno Hellfire Sauce (wear protective gloving during the pouring process, naturally) and serve.

Serves four. One bite and your hangover will dissolve immediately (so might your tongue but “et comedens caveat” – “let the eater beware”). Oh, and make sure you clear a path to the restroom. No sense in ruining your furniture because you can’t control your party indulgences (still no party-shaming).

If you survive, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the meal.

A Tin For Tinder

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Houses live, despite being constructed with inanimate objects and once-living-now-dead materials, and only at night, when the humans who inhabit them quiet down and seek refuge within the secret fears and hidden desires of dreams, do they make their presence known. It comes in the throat clearing pipe rattles and the eerie creaks and moans as the domicile stretches from its support beams to the rafters before settling down upon the foundation once more. And somewhere in between these growing pain noises, I hear you through wooden slats, insulation, and drywall.

You are busy conducting your nocturnal activity of burning bridges. You do this when you think I am asleep, which I pretend to be for I do not know how to confront you on this matter. Although I have never caught you in the act, I discovered the place in which you secret your tinderbox, that rusty lozenge tin containing pieces of flint, firesteel, and the charcloth you use as tinder.

But it is not physical bridges you set fire to, it is connections. Human connections. At first, you severed ties with your coworkers. When that supply well ran dry, you turned your attention to the neighbors, both long-standing and new. My family was next, which should have been easy for you as you never considered my kin an extension of your own. To my surprise, yours followed shortly after. Now, it is only you and I, and I hear the striking of flint and I know without a doubt that I am next. I should get out of bed, should stop you, but I do not because I do not know how to process the reality that you no longer desire me in your life. I tell myself my love for you is strong enough to withstand your attempt to distance yourself from me, but the truth of the matter is, as I hear the charcloth catch fire, I can feel the grasp of my love for you beginning to weaken.

I had not realized until I felt the radiant heat as you approached with your flame, that our connection was a living bridge, a spiritual combination of the northeast Indian tribal root bridges, which are formed by training the roots of the banyan tree to grow across watercourses, and the Japanese Iya Valley bridges, constructed using wisteria vines woven together when they grew long enough to span the gap.

I am surprised at how very hot and very slow-moving the fire is. It creeps at its patient pace, causing destruction to the fruits of our happy memories, the flowers of our passion, and the buds of future events in the making. The fire chars through the vines’ bark to consume the cambium layer beneath, the thing that is essential for the growth of the vine’s vascular tissue; and without it, the vines die.

I shed tears, though I no longer know why, for when you return to the bedroom, smelling faintly of smoke and slip under the covers, I move away from your touch for I do not know you. All the memories created in this place are ghosts that have evaporated like dreams upon waking. In the morning I will leave of my own volition, never to return and the only thing I will carry with me is your precious tin for tinder. I am filled with the sudden need to divorce myself from all human contact.

The Man

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In the beginning of what most believed in their heart of hearts to be the End of Days, there was The Distant Signal. It came in the form of a definitive and verified multi-language message broadcast to all the countries of Earth simultaneously.

What should have been a moment of joyous acknowledgment that we were not alone in the universe, was tainted by a subliminal signal that triggered an automatic flight response in all the various and sundry life forms on the planet.

Dubbed The Great Terror by the media, it opened the door to speculation about the global impact alien contact might have on world governments, organized religions, stock markets, and most importantly human existence.

Then came news of the one person on the planet unaffected by the subliminal signal.

His business card was made of carbon-fiber-reinforced thermoplastic. Laser etched in red on the back was his phone number, four digits, no area or country code, because it wasn’t needed. The number could be dialed from anywhere in the world, toll-free. The front of the card delivered the most accurate message any business card ever had. It told the bearer exactly who he was in two simple words:

The Man

Normally slang that referred to either the government, an authority in a position of power, or a drug dealer — which he had no issue with, as he had allegedly been all those things in his youth — it currently served as a term of respect and praise.

The Man had no official credit rating, never owned a bank account, and his fingers never knew the texture of cash. His currency was the Boon License, a service performed, payable by a service at his behest.

The Man never advertised his services, and thanks to a universal binary code, he wasn’t searchable on the internet. His legend was viral, spread word of mouth from those who benefited from his services. The downside of this Chinese whispers campaign were all the old wives’ tales that attached themselves to his accomplishments like gossip remoras:

  • He was incapable of telling the truth and he gained supernatural powers by winning a bet with the Devil in a liar’s competition.
  • He thrived on the broken hearts of virgins after he stole the purest form of love from them.
  • He was born without a soul.
  • He was a genetic engineering experiment using stem cell materials that haven’t been able to be duplicated.
  • He was born with one hundred percent brain capacity and as a result, has all the information stored on every computer and the internet in his brain.
  • He averted World War Three by winning the jackpot in a poker game with the world’s superpowers.

For a person who bartered in boons, how could he resist collecting favors from the entire planet? But when The Man accepted the offer, he scoured governments, both domestic and foreign, for help, with absolutely no success.

Once The Man signed the contract, he was elected to make first contact, and the world leaders resigned from their posts and contingency plans were underway to build underground shelters. He could not find a government, nation, country, or individual to stand by his side.

The final extraterrestrial message contained a set of coordinates for the rendezvous point. Although no one would stand by him, he was able to call in several favors to arrange transport to one of the remote volcanic islands in the south Atlantic Ocean, Tristan da Cunha.

The alien armada arrived like a meteor storm, ships of shifting geometrics burned through Earth’s mesosphere and parked themselves in the stratosphere around the entire planet so that they blotted out the sun.

Plunged into darkness, The Man stood his ground as a lone, illuminated craft, smaller than the other ships, descended to the rendezvous point and touched down on the soil light as a feather.

The ship altered its form and peeled itself away from its passenger and repurposed itself into a ramp. The alien glided forward. It existed on the outer fringes of humanoid description but The Man found its features and its form somehow alluring.

The alien handed him a card with strange markings and upon contact with his skin, the card pricked his thumb and took a DNA sample. The markings changed, cycling through alphabets until it hit his native earthbound English. When all the letters were in place, it simply read:

The Woman

The alien smiled.

A Scrapbook of Daydreams

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That kind of relationship is doomed before it even begins,” her mother warned. “His type… they can’t be faithful, it isn’t in their genetic makeup.” But Alison paid no heed and fell headfirst in love with the living embodiment of a daydream.

She thought she’d made the right decision. What did her mother know? And in the beginning, Alison felt vindicated because he was always there for her, never once realizing that was the normal way daydreams functioned, recurring whenever the mind was idle.

The daydream held her in bed and distracted her with his essence so that she drifted off to sleep without the usual brain clutter that triggered her chronic insomnia, and made sure he was the first sight Alison saw when she woke up. He never slept. What use would a daydream have with sleep? He simply watched her and waited until she began her cute pattern of soft snoring, before taking a stroll through her mind.

He never spoke. He preferred instead to flash images in Alison’s mind. Naturally, he knew exactly what he was doing. Knew he owned the keys to her heart and soul and, as often was the case with the person in control in a relationship, he doled out his attention and affection in small doses. She tried, really tried her best not to be greedy and not to demand more, but that, like most things, was easier said than done.

Then one morning, after he laid her head on the pillow to rest the night before, as he had done numerous times, he was gone. No note that indicated where he was off to or when he would have returned.

Then began the dark times. Seconds, minutes, hours stretched into the forever period of withdrawal, where Alison was crushed beneath the pressure of constant craving when her heart sat within her chest like so much dead weight.

And after the craving stage had crept along at its snail’s pace, along came the self-examination stage to fill the void. What had she done wrong? Was she too needy? Smothering? And when she grew weary of guessing, of trying to rewrite the past as if that would have somehow altered the present so that he was still here with her, Alison tried to find a place for him in her past. A drawer or compartment where he could have remained tucked away until such time as she was stronger and more capable of dealing with the memory of him.

Forgetting him might have been much easier if not for the images he filled Alison’s head with, the stories weaved through pictures. They remained and were strongest when the dawn approached. That must have been when he left.

When her mother visited, she asked, “Why can’t you look me in the eye?

I don’t want to do the whole I told you so thing, Mom.” Alison replied.

When have I ever done that?

You don’t say the words, but I can see it in your eyes.

That’s a lie and we both know it,” her mother said. “The truth is you don’t respect me, maybe rightfully so.

Respect you? You’re a drunk, Mom. I’m sorry, there’s no other way to say it.” The words were out of Alison’s mouth before she could stop them.

I’m a recovering alcoholic…

Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. I mean, why would I take advice from a woman whose life is a shambles? Your drinking didn’t only wreck your marriage, it destroyed my family! So, how are you wiser than me when it comes to affairs of the heart?

Her mother exhaled slowly. “I understand more than you realize. You think you’re the only one who’s ever gone through what you’re going through, and that’s not necessarily your fault. When you’re young, you always feel that way.

But I’m here to tell you, kiddo, you’re not the first or only person to fall in love with a daydream. Not only did it happen to me, but I convinced him to marry me and we had you.

Dad?

Yeah. You think your father left because I drank, and that’s my fault because I should have explained it to you, but I didn’t know how. The truth is I started drinking when I felt him slipping away. I tried to hold on the best way I knew how but the inherent problem with a daydream, even a recurring one, is that they’re never meant to stay in one place for very long. They’re born to stray.

Oh. Mom… !” Alison hugged her mother as tightly as she could. She hoped somehow her mother could feel just how sorry she was about everything that happened between them over the years.

Realizing what a fool she had been, and instead of living in a past relationship and trying to hold her life together with spit and string, Alison chose to work on rebuilding the relationship with her mother, a woman who was stronger than she ever realized.

And every now and then, when there was that familiar twinge in Alison’s heart, a fast but powerful thought of her wild one, her mother helped her collect the stories in a scrapbook of daydreams. But Alison hadn’t done it for herself, she did it for the little one who would be arriving any day now.

Her daughter deserved to know about her father.

Vacancies, Vacancies Everywhere, Yet None of Them For Me

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My secret self—the bit of me that hides in plain sight just behind a corner of reality—has been wandering my memory palace of late, searching for an empty room in which to steal a bit of solitude for I sometimes need to swaddle my internal dialogue in silence when even the quietest place on earth can offer me no rest.

You might have surmised correctly that I’ve been met with very little success.

Oh, there are rooms aplenty in which I enjoy the occasional lounge-about, each filled with bric-à-brac I’ve accumulated along the way. Items or concepts or vagueries that may or may not find their way into a story, plot germs that piqued my interest for one reason or another, displayed neatly on shelves beside those things kept precious, but each of these pieces of me gives off unique vibrations that assault my mind’s ear like anamnestic tinnitus.

A few of my unused characters who can afford the steep rent have made the suggestions that I either choose my favorite among them to room with or take turns bunking with every one of them for short periods as not to overstay my welcome.

But that really isn’t my style. I like the idea of knowing where characters are so that I might visit them and engage in brief social interactions when I’m in the mood, and leave them to their own devices when I’ve had my fill. And although I am quite capable of being alone in a crowded room, I cannot find solitude with people around, not even the people in my mind, the ones that I have breathed life into.

My irritation at not being able to claim residence in a place that I have been constructing since childhood is beginning to infect other areas of my life. My current location annoys me. My inability to write annoys me. The presence of other people annoys me. The sameness of the day annoys me. Even my annoyance at everything annoys me.

And so Sunday comes ’round and I am attempting to build a new foundation for the memory palace extension on the lone and level sands of ground-down ideas, in a new territory where the old housing rules may not apply. Eventually, when my hoarder nature reveals itself and this section of the palace becomes filled with miscellanea most likely better left forgotten…

I’ll repeat the process. Search for my own patch of solitude. Light a candle and still curse the darkness. Build another room. And fill it with possessions that squeeze me to the point of eviction.

The Choosing Field

Umoja The Choosing Field

The Centria planted its feet atop the announcing mound and parted its lips slightly, a hairline fracture in a granite face that could not easily have been identified as either female or male, yet the sound it released rang out, dominating the mesonoxian air. The melodious octave, a tone lower than any being of flesh could detect unless at the precise moment of their birth or death, spread across the fields drowning out all other sounds. It was not merely a song though, it was an experience of music, one that incited a childlike fascination and curiosity within the listener but unlike a siren song that was an alluring appeal, The Centria’s aria was a command to be in attendance.

However, one tiny essentia who had named herself Umoja, declined to go to the ceremony. On outward appearances she was simply sitting in a field, plucking recall-me-not flowers and braiding them into a wreath. Internally, it took every iota of will to resist The Centria’s call. She strained her newly acquired imagination into picturing a giant hand of stone reaching from the ground and holding her as tight as it could, anchoring her to her favorite spot beside the ruminating pond. She did not appreciate being made to do things, especially things that brought her no pleasure. Truth be known, she did not much care for the gathering as she was not competitive like the others and with such a large crowd she was certain she would hardly be missed. So engrossed in her thoughts of rebellion, she hadn’t noticed the arrival of Custodian.

“Did you not hear The Centria calling for you, Umoja?” Custodian’s face, androgynous like The Centria, was pleasant and its tone gentle as always. No one had ever seen it be otherwise.

“I-I-I,” Umoja endeavored to hold onto her rebelliousness, but it evaporated in the presence of Custodian’s warmth. “I am not needed there.”

“Not needed? Why would you think that?”

“I am never chosen.”

“You are in pending status.”

“What?”

“It is another way of saying not yet. Never is an infinite word and is inaccurate in this case. You should have said I have not yet been chosen.”

“And I never will be.”

“That word again,” Custodian chuckled softly.

“I am not good enough or strong enough or loved enough.”

“Do you actually believe that?” Custodian took a knee, wrapped arms around Umoja and pulled her close. “Everyone here is equally good and equally loved. And as for being strong, you resisted The Centria’s call. I cannot remember anyone else in history ever doing that and my memory is long and infallible.”

“Really?”

Custodian nodded. “You should try being less hard on yourself. You are still forming and are not nearly what you will one day become.”

“And you know what that is?”

“How could I not? Your destiny is written all over your beautiful face.”

Umoja sprang to her feet, ran to the pond and studied her reflection. “I do not see anything.”

“Because you have not developed that sense yet and despite what you currently believe, I doubt you will remain here long enough to see what I see.”

The essentia spun back to Custodian, wide-eyed, “What does it say?”

“What does what say, dear?”

“My face! What is written on it? Please tell me! Please?”

“You have positioned me between the things I must say to you and the things I want to say. Sadly, I will not reveal your writings for one should never know their fate.”

“But what if I do not like my fate? How can I change it if I do not know what it is?”

“It would be foolish to attempt to outwit the plan you were destined for.”

“But…”

“If we are to continue this conversation,” Custodian interrupted. “It will have to be at a later time because I do not know about you, but I would rather not have The Centria vexed with me, so I am heading to the Choosing Field. Will you join me? I would appreciate the company.”

Umoja still did not want to go but Custodian had been so nice it would have been rude to refuse, so she nodded and placed the recall-me-not wreath on her head. Custodian scooped Umoja up and folded itself around her. They flew over the sea of emotions, past the knowledge trees and through the imagination mountains. She held on as tight as she could manage, occasionally nuzzling Custodian’s essence. She had never been this close to anyone before, felt this safe. She would not have traded this moment and wanted it to last forever, but the problem in a place where time has no meaning, where eternity is equal to an instant, is that treasured moments disappear within the blink of an eye. No sooner had Custodian lifted Umoja, they arrived at the Choosing Field.

Self-doubt played across Umoja’s face as she looked up at Custodian who was now surrounded by a light so bright one had to squint for risk of being blinded by its radiance. But within that light, there existed a warmth and comfort that Umoja wished she could take with her. Custodian leaned down to adjust Umoja’s recall-me-not headdress and smooth her rough patches. Her essence no longer fit her properly, it felt loose and saggy in places as if she had shrunken too small to fill it all the way. Every rejection seemed to take a bit from her and if things continued this way soon she would be little more than a husk.

The land was packed with preborns, essentias like herself yet uniquely different, as far as the eye could see in any direction. With a gentle nudge from Custodian, Umoja made her way down the aisle and squeezed in between a row of preborns, settling for a spot in the center of the crowd instead of taking a place in front which was her right. This gathering was her twenty thousand four hundred thirty-ninth which made her the oldest preborn in attendance, something that many of the essentias never failed to bring up. They questioned why Umoja had been overlooked so many times for so long. The inquiries weren’t born of malice, the new arrivals were merely curious but being the focus of unwanted scrutiny and speculation was never easy for her. Sometimes it was downright painful. But she bore it with all the grace she could muster, offering shrugs and smiles as answers.

The Centria’s song continued at a lower pitch, fading into the background when Custodian moved to a position before the crowd and began her speech.

“We are here to acknowledge and celebrate you magnificent preborns and the journey some, perhaps most, hopefully all of you are about to take. For the chosen, you are about to enter a new world filled with things beyond your imaginings. Some wondrous, others less so. Know that you come from a place of love, a place of hope and your arrival will be the cause of much joy. It is important that you keep within you, tucked away deep, the knowledge that you are not nor ever will be truly alone. You will not understand the importance of this yet, but I ask you to have faith, especially when faced with adversities you cannot even begin to fathom as of yet.”

The preborns nearest her watched in amazement as Umoja silently mouthed the words as Custodian spoke them. “You are life. You are the keepers of the secret knowledge of the universe. As such, it is expected that you will not speak of this place or this process. For most this will not be an issue since you will be unable to properly communicate upon arrival at your new homes. You must learn how to operate your new body which has an extensive learning curve as well as learn the language which is different from our form of communication. By the time you have fully acclimated, the knowledge of this place will reside in a place not reachable by your conscious mind. Since there are exceptions to this rule, we ask that should you remember, please respect our rules and keep the secret from those who might sabotage our way of life.”

Speech done, Custodian asked the first row of preborns to line up in front of The Centria, who began singing a different tune, more complex, covering a vast span of notes in rapid succession. That was Umoja’s problem, the reason she had been held back. She studied the notes and practiced them repeatedly whenever her schedule was not occupied with other important matters, but she found it impossible to change notes swiftly and seamlessly, unlike the first row of preborns who had not struggled even slightly as they sang along with The Centria matching notes until they were in perfect harmony. One by one they faded from this place, transported to their new homes. Row by row the preborns took their places before The Centria and blended their voice perfectly with the melody and departed.

Finally, it was her turn. Her place in line put her directly in front of The Centria which only made her already anxious heart beat faster. Just behind the vessel of the sacred song, Umoja saw Custodian, in violation of the rules during the ceremony, offer her a secret smile. Her anxiousness began shifting to excited hopefulness. She could do it. Custodian had faith in her and perhaps that would be the little push that helped her go all the way this time. The Centria began the song and Umoja’s first note was so off-key it drew stares from the preborns in line with her. If she returned their stares, she would have been done. This would have been her latest, her greatest disappointment and perhaps her final opportunity. How many more chances would they have allowed her before giving up completely?

Instead, she closed her eyes and thought of her deepest desires. The desire to have a home. The desire to belong to a family. The desire to be loved. The desire to build a life that demonstrated just how thankful she was to have been selected and given a chance to make a difference in the world beyond this world. Umoja opened her mouth and instead of forcing herself to hit the notes in unison with The Centria, she sang her own song which tasted sweet on her tongue yet made tears fall from her eyes. Suddenly it no longer mattered whether she could mimic the birthing song, all she wanted to do was sing her song forever, feel the happiness that was born of a sorrow that was now understandably necessary. She had finally accepted herself and her place in the workings of all things.

She opened her eyes and was prepared to stand off to the side to make way for the next row of preborns when she made eye contact with Custodian who also had tears rolling down its cheeks. Custodian mouthed the words, “Outwit your fate” as it beamed the brightest smile Umoja had ever seen and gave two thumbs up. Umoja was confused by this but returned the thumbs up only to notice her hands were turning translucent then transparent.

She had done it! Somehow she managed to sing the birthing song correctly. She wanted to run up to Custodian to give it a big hug and thank it and tell it that she loved it but it was too late. She had completely vanished.

The transition was a bizarre one. She could feel numerous types of sensations entering her presence. She was about to be born. She closed her eyes and prayed to be placed in the body of a girl. There had been stories of preborns that were birthed into bodies of genders in which they did not identify and the difficulties that resulted from this. Umoja had always identified as a girl and she wanted ever so badly to be placed within a girl’s body, so she made the biggest wish she ever made and closed it with the chant, “I am a girl. I am a girl. I am a girl.” But soon into the process, she realized this was not the case. There was an oddness to her new body that she could not identify outright but she somehow knew that she had been placed into the body of a boy. And for a moment there was a twinge of disappointment but it was short-lived. She was successful in her endeavor to be born and she felt healthy and she would make the best of the situation with nary a complaint and live the best life possible for all involved.

But in the back of Umoja’s mind, a tiny voice chanted, “I am a girl. I am a girl. I am a girl.”