Sunday, July 15, 2012

Getting Back at it

Rewrites on The Traveler are long since finished, as you might have guessed, and you will notice that I have posted the first two chapters here on my blog.  You will also notice I reposted all three short stories from Iden and the rest of Dying.  All those stories are available to buy on Amazon if you would like to take them with you. The Traveler is now available in print on Amazon as well as for Kindle and for Nook on Barnes and Nobel. 

In other news, I finished the first draft of another book, not affiliated with the Book of Iden series.  This one is called Nukular Wars in Space and is a Science Fiction Comedy.  I hope to have that ready for public consumption soon and will be posting some chapters.  You will probably not be seeing many short stories for a while as I have a lot of long projects in the works.  Thanks for bearing with me and reading my work.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it!


The Traveler, Chapter Two

2. The Dark Forest

            A cry like thunder erupted from the coal black steed as it reared back onto its hind legs.  Its rider, clad in shining green armor, fixed him with a menacing stare through the narrow eye slit in his gilded helm.  The gargantuan knight loosed a guttural snarl and lowered his lance, pointing it directly at the young wanderer’s heart.  Quaking in fear, he tumbled backward away from the charger as it kicked at the dirt.  The knight loosed a sinister laugh.
            “Just a boy,” he growled, his voice heavy with disdain.  “Lord Buxton must have been sick or drunk to let a whelp like you put ‘im down.  No matter, you’ve come up against a real man now, Lott.  Your debt is settled today.” 
            The young man shuffled frantically away from the knight until he stubled to the ground.  Over the years, he had learned to suppress his anguish and fear, but at once, it all came rushing back.  He had run so far, but it seemed he could never outrun his debt.  The day would inevitably come when he would have to pay back what he owed in his own blood, but it need not be today.  He swallowed his fear and reached for his sword where it lay in the grass.  The knight’s spurs flashed against the black of the horse’s flanks and it surged forward like a bolt from a crossbow.  The young man climbed to his feet and raised his sword.  Then, pausing a moment to picture his own death, he smiled…
            The traveler’s eyes snapped open to reveal a hazy, unfamiliar world.  An eerie presence hung in the air and pressed in around him until his breathing became labored.  Shadows danced across the snow, blurred by the sleep still clinging to his eyes.  A dark horseman on a black steed lurched up before him.  He fumbled for his sword and lashed out at his attacker.  An earsplitting cry wrenched him back into reality.  The haze cleared and the wasteland congealed back into focus.  The black steed became the chestnut brown horse.  The traveler’s stomach turned at the sight of the cut he had made across the horse’s side.  It was shallow, but he cursed himself just the same and rushed over to the animal apologizing, even though he knew the horse had no idea what was happening.  Much to his surprise, however, the horse replied with a bregrudging nod. 
            After binding the creature’s wound, he sat down by his knapsack and gazed up into the sky.  The black clouds had cleared once the traveler left the village, drawing back the mask that shrouded night and day.  Calmed by the gentle warmth of the sun, he turned his thoughts to food.  Opening his sack, he rifled around in search of something to eat and was rewarded with a loaf of bread and a canteen of water.  Cold bread and warm water would have seemed less than appetizing had it not been so long since he had last eaten.  The traveler wondered if perhaps different rations might prevent any further nightmares.  However, as he had no other choice in fare, he put the idea from his mind for the time being.  His options limited, he decided avoiding sleep was the best way to avoid dreams.
            He paused for a moment, food hanging out of his mouth, and tried to remember what exactly he had dreamed.  The dream was quite terrifying, he recalled that much.  However, try as he may, he could not remember anything specific.  At any rate, he was not interested in reliving the terror.  Turning to his horse, he let slip a facetious remark:
            “If it’s all the same to you, I think we’ll be moving out now.”  The traveler allowed himself a light-hearted chuckle, but his laughter was cut short when the horse shrugged and stood up.  The traveler gaped for a moment, the horse’s reaction leaving him befuddled.  Deeply disconcerted, he resolved to avoid any further such moments by keeping the rest of his thoughts to himself.  He gave the horse a suspicious look which was returned with an unconcerned grunt.  Side by side, the companions plodded on Northward.
            It made sense to the traveler that if the old man expected him to reach the woods in four days, and he traveled both day and night, he would make it there in only two.  However, three days passed with no sign of the woods of which the old man spoke.  The traveler was fairly certain he was headed in the right direction, and unless his horse was intentionally letting him go astray, which he wouldn’t put past it, he should have arrived at his destination.  He was beginning to wonder if it had been unwise to trust a strange man he met in an empty town, but he seemed to remember something about remaining brave in the face of uncertainty.  So far it seemed the only danger was the night’s chill.  He pulled his cloak tight and soldiered on toward the horizon.
            As dawn broke on the fourth day, he began to pass wiry shrubs and bushes.  The thinning snows gave way to a wide grassy field dotted with flowers, short greening trees and other auspicious signs of life.    Soon, the trees began to grow thicker until he found himself in the midst of a sparsely wooded forest.   Four days, almost exactly, he thought, as if the old man knew I would not sleep. 
            “Curious,” he said out loud.  The horse turned to him and shook its head with an irritated growl.  “What is the problem with you?  You have quite the attitude and I see no justification for it.  The old man put you in my service and that means I am your master.”  At this the horse bucked backwards with an indignant snort.  “Defiant are we?” the traveler asked, moving toward it with quick, bold strides. 
            “Perhaps I should climb on your back and show you the correct place for creatures of lesser intelligence.”  This statement seemed to amuse the horse.  Throwing its head back, it erupted in a jovial whicker. Undaunted, the traveler stepped forward to grab the bridle and mount.  Shuffling sideways, the horse kicked its front feet forward, narrowly missing the traveler’s head.  He lurched back in surprise and stumbled over his own foot, hitting the ground hard.  Scrambling back to his feet, he dusted himself off and sighed.
            “It would seem that I have not yet earned your respect.  I guess I haven’t quite done anything deserving of it so far.  I am talking to a horse after all,” he said with a grin.  Unamused, the horse turned abruptly and continued north through the trees.
            An hour later, their expedition came to a sudden halt.  The trees had grown thicker as they traveled until they arrived at a line so closely knit that the traveler could find no way through.  Broad, gnarled tree trunks wound together into a veritable wall of foliage.  Even if he could climb through, there would be no way for the horse to pass.  The young man resolved to walk the tree line until he found a passage inside.  He looked east, then west, then leaned on a tree and sighed. 
            “Any ideas?” he said, turning to the horse.  It looked him in the eye for a moment and then gestured with its head to the right. 
            “Better than any ideas I had.”  Pushing himself from the tree, he adjusted his cloak and turned to the east.  After about three hours of wandering along the tree line, they came to a wide arch formed by two tall trees whose branches tangled high above them.  Running from the arch into the woods was a small dirt path, too narrow for the traveler and his horse to walk side by side.  Instead, he took its reins and led it in behind him, leaving the grassy fields and snowy expanses of the south behind him. 
            At the outset, the sun shone through the tree tops lighting their way.  But as the path began to wind and twist, the canopy grew thicker and the light dimmed.  The traveler began to sweat despite the chill beneath the trees.  It could be no later than mid afternoon and already the light had dwindled to a kind of twilight.  He soon found himself stumbling over roots and rocks as he tried to follow the ever-fading path.  After about an hour of half-blind meandering, the traveler decided to stop for the night in the hopes that in the morning the sun might shine at a more favorable angle and allow him to see the path.  He took two steps into the trees and sat down on what he desperately hoped was a large flat boulder.  The horse was shrouded in shadow but for its glowing orange eyes.  All the same, he could sense the creature’s disapproval.  The rumbling growl that cut through the darkness proved him correct.  The beast’s dissatisfaction with his choice of camping area would have to go unheeded, he decided.  Though it occurred to the traveler that his horse would very likely know this land far better than he did, he had had enough of the attitude he was receiving and deemed it necessary to remind it who was the human and who was the beast of burden.
            The traveler took off his haversack and began to sift through his provisions.  Another chunk of hard bread and a few mouthfuls of water would have to suffice.  The old man seemed to care little for his well being and the young traveler feared he might soon become malnourished.  His current fares, while sufficient for his current purposes, left his sense of taste somewhat wanting.  As he chewed, he tried to remember banquets past and the lush flavors of his youth.  Try as he may, however, nothing came to him.  In his mind he could almost picture a plate of food, something warm and steaming, but somehow the tastes escaped him and left him with nothing but the flavor of stale bread. 
            The traveler sighed and washed down a doughy lump with a swig of cold water.  Try as he may, he could find nothing to dull the haplessness of his situation.  He lay back on the flat stone and surrendered to his unalterable condition.  Then, like a sudden squall descending without notice on a tiny fishing boat, the traveler’s four days without rest caught up with him and plunged him into the darkness of sleep.  As he slipped away, a light wind blew through the trees.  The horse shivered, sensing the oncoming cold.  He too was tired, but he knew that one should never let one’s guard down in the Great Forest of Shadows.  His fiery eyes blazed into the night, always watching for what he knew was never far off.
            The traveler bolted upright out of one haunted darkness and into another.  Soaked in cold sweat, he stumbled to his knees and listened to the strange sounds that echoed through the woods.  The wind howled through the trees creating an unnatural moan.  At first, he thought his lack of sleep had left him delirious.  Shadows danced between the trees as the wind howled like a hungry wolf.  The hair on his neck rose to attention and he knew in a moment this was something more than the idle tricks of a weary mind.  Above the groaning of the trees, a bloodcurdling cry tore through the darkness.  The traveler turned to his horse in a panic.  The creature’s fiery eyes stared back at him through the gloom with subtle tremble that betrayed a genuine fright.  The cry repeated, this time much closer, and a realization struck him hard: they were being hunted.
            The traveler rooted around in the darkness for his sword, terror driving him wild as he scrambled around on the forest floor.  His search was fruitless.  He had somehow lost his only defense against whatever was approaching.  Tears sprang from his eyes as he fell to the ground in a miserable heap.  His horse, calm in this moment of desperation gave a loud cry and kicked the traveler, rolling him on his back and jolting him back to reality.  Returning to his senses, the traveler reached to his side and drew the sword that had been hanging from his waist the entire time.  As he pulled the weapon from its scabbard, the blade caught every trace of light and reflected it into the surrounding forest. 
            The sudden illumination blinded him for an instant before revealing a creature more terrifying than he could ever imagine.  It stood on two legs, like a man, but therein laid the only resemblance.  The creature had the massive, powerful body of a bear with matted silver fur. Its face was flat but for its black bulbous eyes and sharp incisors stuck out from between its closed lips.  The beast had long powerful arms, each ending in five razor sharp claws.  Long, sharp spikes parted the fur on the beast’s arms and torso.  It loosed a guttural moan and reached out as if to envelop the traveler in a deadly embrace.  It reeled for a moment, stunned by the sudden glare of the sword.  Not willing to wait for the creature to recover, the young man leapt forward and plunged his sword into what he hoped was the creature’s heart.  It fell backwards into the brush with a soft thud.  As it lay dying, it let out a shrill cry that echoed throughout the forest with a deafening blast.  Moments later, the cry was answered by a dozen other calls far off in the darkness. 
            Terror gripped the traveler.  He grabbed his pack and the horse’s reins and took off running down the path.  Using the gleam of his sword to light the way, they ran headlong into the gloom, dodging roots and low hanging branches.
            As they ran, the dirt path began to fade.  Grass sprang up under his feet and the underbrush closed in around them.  Soon, the path disappeared entirely.  The traveler cursed his ill fortune and swept his sword side to side in search of a new trail.  Far off, but closer than before, another shrill cry tore through the woods.  The traveler sheathed his weapon, extinguishing its light for fear it might betray them.
            “Wouldn’t want anything to give away our location,” he said to the horse.  The creature stared back at him, two orange orbs glowing in the darkness. 
            “Perhaps you should close your eyes.”  The horse merely glared back, its gaze unwavering.  The traveler wrapped his cloak around himself until it shrouded his entire body and curled into a ball in the underbrush.  The horse snorted its disapproval but he paid it no heed.  His exhaustion caught up with him in a wave of anguish springing on him more ferociously than the terrible creature he had just faced. 
            “It isn’t fair,” he whispered to the darkness as tears welled in his eyes.  “What have I done that this madness should befall me?  This shouldn’t be happening to…”  The horse whickered and turned him on his back with a swift kick.  A picture flashed through his mind of the silver creatures tearing him apart while he cried out for fairness.  Is that what you want? he thought.
            “No…no that’s not what I want at all.”  Pushing himself to his feet, he unsheathed his sword with a primal howl.  The sudden bright light shot a jolt of pain through his eyes and he staggered backward.  An anguished cry to his left told him that he was not the only victim.  His eyes adjusted to find three of the silver creatures standing close by, all still reeling from the sudden flash of light.  Mustering what valor he possessed, the traveler leapt towards the closest creature and lashed out with his sword.  He was rewarded with a cry of pain and wheeled around to where he hoped the second creature still stood.  His sword struck something soft and warm liquid splattered onto his hands.  Skipping backward, he took quick stock of the situation, his eyes now fully adjusted.  To his right, one creature stood bent forward, clutching a gash across its midsection.  Not far from it, another crumpled to the forest floor, a sickening sound bubbling up from its opened throat. 
            The third creature stood just a few steps away and was bigger than the others by a quarter.  Undaunted by the traveler’s lucky blows it bellowed a chilling cry and hurtled full speed toward him.  As it charged, its eyes met the travelers and froze him with a cold hatred.  The creature’s eyes were black and dead, like two bottomless pools rising up to swallow him. 
            For a moment, he stood transfixed.  The creature plunged towards him on all fours, spikes bristling and fur glistening in the low light.  Its claws gripped the earth as it charged toward him.  Crouching down onto its hind legs, it launched itself at the young wanderer.  Its mouth opened to reveal several rows of pointed yellow teeth.  The sickening smell of rotting meet wafted before it and shook the traveler from his trance.  Instinct overtook him at the last moment and he fell to the side, narrowly avoiding the attack.  The putrid stink hung in the air, choking the traveler as he tried to catch his breath.  The creature turned to face him with a hiss and reared back on its hind legs.
            Adrenaline surged through his veins and the world narrowed, leaving just him and the creature.  The traveler sprang up and swung his sword in an arch toward the beast.  It lifted its arm and blocked the blow effortlessly with a spiked elbow and lashed out at him with the other hand.  He fell to one knee, dodging the creature’s claws by a hair’s breath and jabbing at its unprotected abdomen.  It hopped backwards and parried his thrust with its claws.  Throwing back its head, it cried out and charged him again.  Fumbling around in the underbrush, the traveler found a thick branch and flung it at the creature, striking it in the stomach.  Jumping to his feet, he swung his sword at its face and managed to clip the creature’s nose.  Enraged, it jumped forward and slashed the traveler, opening the flesh on his forehead.  Hot blood spurted from the wound, stinging his eyes as it ran down his face.  Blinded by his own blood, he swung his sword in a mindless fury.  More blood splashed across his face, but this time not his own.  He heard the creature cry out in agony as his blade sunk into its torso.
            Just like that, it was over.  The creature fell to the ground with a thud and the traveler dropped to his knees.  He knelt in the underbrush for some time, shaking violently, the blood still running down his face as he tried to wipe it away. 
            “I-I just killed those things,” he whispered to no one.  The horse grunted nearby and kicked at the ground. 
            “Did you see what I did?  How I moved?” the young traveler continued, his voice rich with wonder.  The horse whickered and turned away, gazing off into the darkness.  Still amazed at what he had done, the traveler sat back against a mossy tree and let down his sword.  Adrenaline subsided and an uneasy peace took its place.  The path had vanished entirely and there was no telling how many more of the creatures still lurked in the darkness.  He wiped the last of the blood from his eyes with the tail of his cloak and felt the cut on his forehead.  It was not as bad as he had first thought, but blood still seeped from the wound.  Tearing a strand from his cloak, he made a bandage and tied it around his head just tight enough to slow the flow.  Dazed from the battle, the traveler leaned back against a tree and closed his eyes, happy for just a moment’s respite.
            A soft rustle from the bushes brought his moment of calm to a quick conclusion.  The traveler jumped to his feet and swept his sword in a circle, casting its glow into the brush as he set himself for the coming attack.  Instead, much to his surprise, he saw no grotesque creatures, nor did he hear their earsplitting cry.  He only heard a quiet voice, whispering to him from the dark. 
            “Come with me, good traveler.”  Shocked, he backed away from the voice. 
            “W-who are you?”  The traveler looked high and low for the source of the voice, but it might as well have come out of thin air.  He began to back away from it when a cry went up in the woods behind him.
             “We must not delay.  Two score more Furhärads pursue you.  The time for bravery has ended.  Prudence now takes the forefront.”  The brush rustled again and the traveler heard the soft patter of feet hurrying off through the woods.  A moment later, he heard the clapping of the horse galloping after them.  Stunned by this sudden abandonment, he froze, unsure whether or not to trust this invisible stranger.  The gravity of the moment struck him and gave him pause.  As far as he could remember, he had never killed anything before.  Now the dark blood of these Furhärads, as the voice called them, dripped off his sword blade like a mountain spring trickling onto the forest floor.  Everything had happen so quickly, he had not had time to think.  He was caught in the middle of a dark forest in which he did not belong being asked to trust the words of a man he did not know.  And now a new voice added its will to the mix.  The fog of fatigue made it all too much for him to handle.
            All feelings other than fear fled when the cries of a dozen furious Furhärads joined in one terrible chorus.  His reservations forgotten for the time being, he turned from the cries and ran headlong after the horse and the strange voice.  The forest assailed him viciously as he tried to keep up with the beating of hoofs ahead.  Trees leaned in to slash at him and roots grasped his ankles as he hurried through the woods, exhaustion weighing on his every step.
            They had run for what felt like several hours when a tiny dot of light pierced the darkness.  At first, the traveler thought the light was some vision born of his own desperation and fatigue.  However, as they ran on, the light began to grow.  Soon beams of sunlight broke through the tree tops and he could see the plain outlines of trees, the shapes of bushes, and the back of the horse.  The last of these was not the most pleasant, but it did make following a bit easier.  Despite the growing light, he still could not see whatever owned the voice that had called him to follow. 
            Behind him in the black of the forest, the cries had subsided.  The forest grew thinner, and before long the full light of day shone down on them.  When the horse finally came to a halt, the traveler searched for his new guide.  Much to his distress, he could see no man before him.  Puzzled, he began to fear that the voice had led him astray.  His pulse quickened as he stretched his gaze as far into the distance as he could.  He turned to the horse and his eyes narrowed.
            “What have you done?  Why would you think running off after a strange voice was a good idea?”  The horse glared at him and gestured toward the ground by his feet.  The traveler looked down and jumped back in shock.
            “My apologies for being short with you before, but the situation was dire.”  The traveler’s jaw dropped in disbelief.  For a human like himself to say this would have come as no surprise.  However, the creature that stood before him did so on four legs and was covered in fur.  It had the appearance of a wolf, but was slightly smaller than what one would normally find in the wild.  Its hair was black on top, but faded into a light tan color around its muzzle, turning to white as it approached the underbelly. 
            “I am taking you to the land of the Drak-tarno.  The land of my people.  You will be safe there.”  The creature waited patiently for his reply, but the traveler was dumbfounded.  He searched his mind for some precedent to aid in his assessment of this development, but found nothing.  Nothing he could think of told him for certain that this creature should not be talking to him, but its vocalizations felt out of place just the same.
            “Very well,” it continued.  “I expect you must be weary from your travels.  Be that as it may, this is not a safe place to rest.  It would be best if I brought you before our king.  No doubt he will want to meet you, and I am quite certain you do not wish to go back the other way,” it said, nodding towards the darkened forest behind them.  With that, the little wolf turned and ran on through the bushes.  Satisfied that this creature meant him no harm, though still confounded by its ability to speak, he hurried after it, the horse trotting at his side.

The Traveler, Chapter One

1.  The Old Man and the Horse

            A cold, merciless wind cut at the young wanderer’s face as he struggled through pale drifts of snow.  His hands numb, he fumbled unfeeling at the crimson eagle clasp that held his tattered cloak in place.  The remnants of a fading thought pursued him, thinning and disappearing like the footsteps he left in his wake.  He struggled to cling to the faint vision that hung on the edge of his mind, but it slipped away and disappeared into the frigid expanse.  Black clouds blanketed the sky in an unwavering mask that blotted out both sun and stars, leaving day and night indiscernible.  Time and distance meant nothing on the icy plane.  The wasteland ruled his past, his present, and any future he could hope to conceive. 
            He clutched the cloak tightly around his body and soldiered on into the swirling snow.  A gust of wind flung a blast of flurries into his ashen, blue-gray eyes.  He wiped away the blur with an unsteady hand and peered into the darkness before him.  On the horizon, a light flickered and bounced in the wind and gave him a start.  The traveler lurched to a stop and dropped to one knee.  After countless hours and days of wandering in the darkness, a sudden rush of joy brought hot tears to his eyes.  They dribbled down his numb face and froze in his coarse brown stubble.  In half a second the light became everything.  Fire erupted in his veins lending untapped strength to his weary limbs.  He surged forward toward the tiny point of light, his last shred of will dragging him on through the darkness.
            As the light grew, shadows formed around it.  A tiny village rose out of the snow to welcome his approach.  His pulse quickened at the sight of it and he doubled his efforts, breaking into a half sprint towards his new salvation.  An eerie feeling caught him as he passed the first hut.  Scattered lines of footprints led in and out of the village, but all the huts were cold and empty except for one on the far edge.  There, yellow-orange flames cut a hole in the gray and lifeless waste.  Dancing rays of light spilled out of the doorway onto the snowy ground.  As he drew near, he heard the crackle of the fire, its warmth inviting in the midst of the cold, ghostly town.  The traveler drifted inside on a cloud of anticipation and waning adrenaline. 
            A hollow-eyed old man sat hunched beneath a ragged blanket by the fire. 
Tresses of tangled grey hair hung like long wisps of smoke from his head.  Across from him stood a chestnut brown courser with a jet-black mane.  The creature turned and considered him with dark eyes wreathed in flame.  Its gaze entranced him and enveloped his mind.  It drew him in until everything else fell away and he was taken to another time and place.  Leaving the hut behind, he soared over vast open lands and men toiling upon them.  He saw joy and pain, families driven from their lands and an entire people forced to flee their homes.  Villages burned while man, woman, and child alike bled beneath the harsh yoke of war.  Had this animal witnessed all this suffering?  Such strange things to see in the eyes of a beast, he thought.  He remained transfixed until the voice of the old man shook him from his trance.
            “You must excuse my companion.  His concerns, while heartfelt, are unfounded.”  The grizzled old man ignored a whicker of protest from the horse and rose to his feet, extending his arms with a kind smile.
            “Welcome to my home, traveler.  You have come a long way.”  The man’s voice was harsh, but it carried with it a certain comfort.  It slipped through his ashy whiskers like a hot wind through a snow laden forest.  “I have been watching your approach since you came over the horizon.” The old man eyed the crimson clasp on the traveler’s cloak.
            “Good, it is really you.  I was concerned by your appearance.  You are younger than I expected.”
            The traveler opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated.  He had traveled far, pushing himself onward through the darkness in search of some respite.  Now that he had found it, he was still as lost as ever.  This stranger seemed to know him, which he found at once both comforting and disturbing.  Somewhere in his heart, a thousand questions burned like live embers, but his mind lay blank.  Standing in the narrow doorway with his mouth hanging open, he searched for the right words to express a feeling he did not understand. 
            “Do not fret, traveler,” said the old man.  “The wasteland lies at your back.  You need not fear it.  Speak, you have walked a great distance to come here.  Certainly there is something you seek.”
            “I have come in search of something, that is true,” he said, unfamiliar with the sound of his own voice.  “For all the hardship I have suffered along the way, I fear I know not what.”  The old man nodded with a solemn smile.
            “I know, traveler, and I know what it is you seek.”  The traveler’s pulse quickened and blood rushed to his face.
            “Will you tell me, sir?”  The words tumbled out of his mouth.  With a heavy sigh, the man lowered his head and spoke.
            “I will tell you what I know, young man, but first I must ask you something.  I need you to tell me what you know about how you arrived in this land.  What do you remember about your journey to this place?”  The traveler slouched back, deflated.  This was the last question he wanted to answer. 
            “There is little to say,” he replied.  “This land is strange to me and the path I walked to come here even stranger.  I cannot tell you what I do not know myself.”  He paused, expecting some expression of disapproval, but instead, the man seemed encouraged by these words.  Struggling to one knee, he began rummaging around in the straw behind him.
            “Good, good.  It is just how I hoped then.  There is little time to waste.”  The traveler shook his head in confusion.  He tapped the man cautiously on the shoulder and cleared his throat.
            “You said you knew what I was searching for?” 
            “Of course!” the old man shouted with a broad smile.  Then, as if catching himself for a moment, he continued.  “Well, that is to say, I know where you can find it.  North of here there is a vast forest, and in there you will find the Monastery of Sherushae.  There are strange forces at work in that place and powers you could not imagine.”
            The traveler’s heart sank as a word circulated in his mind.  He could only just grasp at its meaning, but the thought of it made him feel uneasy.  He could not help but chuckle at himself for even considering the idea of magic.  At the same time, he had been searching for something he did not understand from the earliest shadows of his memory.  Perhaps this was not so unbelievable.
            “I do not think I believe in such things as magic,” he insisted, though still unsure.  The old man paused for a moment with a quizzical look.
            “Magic?” he scoffed.  “Who said anything about magic?  Such a ludicrous idea,” he said and returned to his shuffling.  The traveler, however, was not satisfied and responded with growing impatience.
            “You speak in mysteries, sir.  If it is not magic, then what is it?  What powers do you speak of?” he said, his voice beginning to shake.
            “Not magic,” the old man said flatly.  “Magic is a fool’s errand, boy, and I expect you to remember that.  I apologize if you are unsatisfied with the guidance you are receiving, but as you haven’t any other direction, perhaps it would be best if you heed my words and head north.”  The traveler was somewhat indignant, but the logic in the old man’s words was irrefutable.  Perhaps he is right, he thought.  I have no better options.
            “Good,” the man said without waiting for him to speak, “I have not prepared in vain.  I have packed you some food and brought this horse to accompany you.  Your journey will not be a short one, but I assure you it will be well worth it.  On the fourth day of your travels, you will arrive at the Woods.  This is a dangerous land, so I have packed a sword for you; I trust you know how to use it.”  The old man drew a long sword from the hay that surrounded him.  It was the most brilliant thing the traveler had ever seen.  Though there was very little light in the tiny shed, it caught every bit of it.  A soft blue light radiated magnificently off the curious metal from which it was wrought.  The hilt was simple; steel wrapped in leather, with a black stone set into the bottom.  The handle was elongated, but thinner at the bottom to allow for both one handed and two-handed use. 
            “Nothing like it has ever been made in your world.  The blade is a metal called Calaron, mined from the Great Mountains of the North.  It gives a blue glow, unlike any other metal known to Man, and is nearly unbreakable.  I have packed you provisions in the bags on the back of the horse.  He is the best horse I have, traveler.  Take good care of him.”  The old man paused for a moment.  His eyes grew dim and his voice prophetic.  “There are hard days ahead of you, traveler.  I do not envy you”
            This statement took the traveler aback at first, but gazing into sleek steel, he saw his own face reflected in the blade.  A curtain of auburn hair lay across his brow giving way to a pair of cold blue eyes.  The rigid metal fashioned a guise of strength in his otherwise unremarkable features.  He raised the sword in a battle stance and a wave of confidence overtook him.  The road behind him was cold and dark and the way before him led into the unknown, but his fear of what might lie before him slipped away.  In his hands he held a tangible symbol of his purpose; a powerful tool that would lend its strength to him and define his otherwise indefinite presence in this place.  His excitement was immeasurable. 
            “Traveler,” the old man said in a soothing tone, “Calm your mind.  It is only a sword.  It holds no magical force, my son, no key to the meaning of life.  It is not an answer to your questions.  The sword is only a means to protect yourself from the danger that lies ahead of you.  The sword will never give you an answer; answers will come to you when you are ready.” 
            A sharp wind blew in through the opened door and brought with it a chill that cut through the warmth of the shed.  The old man turned to the wind with a start. 
            “It is time you moved on, my son,” he whispered.  “You have a long journey ahead of you.  Head northwest until you reach the woods.  The horse knows where he is going, but there will be others to help you on your way.  Do not deny yourself aid from unusual places.  Beware, however, not all you will meet in the woods will be friends; you may have to use that sword.  Now you must go.” 
            “Wait,” the traveler pleaded, the last traces of his strength draining from his body.  “Can I not rest here for but an hour?  My journey has left me quite weary.”  The old man shook his head sternly.
            “You’ll find no more comfort here, young traveler.  The way north to the woods is barren and flat.  Rest there…if you can.”
            The old man led the traveler out the door with his horse and sword.  They walked to the outskirts of the cold, dead town where they stopped at the edge of yet another windswept expanse where the old man turned to the traveler.  “I must leave you now; you have taken the first step.  My part is done.” 
            “The first step where?” he asked.  The old man gave a little smile.
            “The first step into Iden.”  With that, the old man turned and walked away.  The traveler sensed he should not press the question further.  Instead, he turned to the vast wasteland.  With no knowledge of what lay before him and no understanding of what lay behind, he forced his fears and uncertainties to the back of his mind and pressed onward into the unknown.  

Dying, Part Seven: The Young Man and Epilogue

            The setting sun shone on the small assembly in Scott’s room, casting tall shadows across the floor and up the far wall almost to the ceiling.  Mr. and Mrs. Meyers sat by his bedside flanked by his two older sisters.  I leaned against the far wall, unsure of myself amidst Scott’s family.  I had offered to leave them alone with him, but Mrs. Meyers had flatly denied any such idea.  She was even surprisingly receptive to Bridget’s presence, even though the two had never met before today.  Mrs. Meyers’ uncharacteristic serenity alarmed me at first, but it occurred to me that she was only doing what a mother should do.  A mother can often times surprise you like that.  Just when you expect her to break into hysterics is just when she takes a firm hold on the situation.  In the last minutes of her son’s life, she was doing just as she had done for the first twenty-two years.  She knew it would do her son no good to see her suffering and she would never dream of adding to his pain. 
            For my part, I was greatly appreciative of Mrs. Meyers’ permissive mood.  Bridget was a welcome presence in an otherwise uncomfortable situation.  I felt like an intruder in this family’s darkest moment and I am certain she felt similarly.  She stood beside me silently, leaning against the wall.  Occasionally, she would place a comforting, though awkward, hand on my shoulder, and I would nod thankfully.  Beyond that, the room remained under a heavy silence.
            Scott had said little since our discussion earlier that afternoon.  He was quite lethargic and seemed wholly disinterested in further conversation.  Before he slipped into sleep for the last time, however, he made his best attempt at saying goodbye.  He told his parents that he loved them and they told him they loved him too and always would.  He thanked Bridget for coming and thanked me for sticking with him the past few weeks.  I tried to say it was nothing, but the words wouldn’t come.  Despite all we had gone through since we first learned of his illness, I couldn’t help but wonder where we had gotten with it all.  Scott seemed to sense my apprehension, because he beckoned for me to sit down in the chair beside him.
            “What’s the matter, Jack?” he said.  I looked at him silently for a few moments before he added: “aside from the obvious.”  I shifted uncomfortably for a moment, not sure if it was worth bringing up so close to the end, but Scott’s face was insistent.
            “I don’t know,” I said.  “I guess I was just wondering…did it help?”  Scott’s parents seemed confused, but he nodded.
            “If nothing else, it was a nice way to spend my last few days.  I can’t say I feel any more ready that I did a month ago, but think about where we’ve been and what we’ve heard.  I’d say we learned a hell of a lot about living, huh?”  I was still uneasy.
            “I don’t want to think I failed you,” I said, my voice shaking.
            “Then don’t!” he replied with a tired smile.  “I don’t feel like you did.”
            “But you wanted to learn about dying.”  Scott shrugged.
            “Well, maybe it was for you then.  You might as well hang on to what happened these past few weeks and not be sore about it on my account.  I’d hate for you to have wasted a perfectly good month just screwing around in a hospital.”  I took a long hard look at his face, trying to decide whether it was worth trying for one last meaningful conversation, but I could tell the sickness had finally conquered his will to know.  He was calm and, as much as one can ever be, ready to let go. 
            I’ll never know what went through his mind in the last few minutes of his life.  He fell asleep shortly after we spoke and drifted slowly away.  Looking around the room, I saw on the faces of those gathered the same acceptance that Scott had attained in his last hours, but I didn’t understand it.  More so now than ever before, the entire situation seemed cruel and unjust.  I felt surrounded by the willing acceptance of a young man’s passing in the prime of his years.  As the steady tone of the heart monitor slowed, I felt an aberrant fury welling up in my chest.  Though I knew there was nothing to be done for him, I hated everyone around me for not crying out in anger; as though their acceptance made them complicit in his death.  I eyed resentfully the glaring light that streamed in through the hospital windows and cursed all the things I saw and felt that he never would again. 
            In an instant, my infuriated fever broke and I looked dizzily back at the hospital bed before me.  The steady tone of the heart monitor broke into a flat buzz and the room was filled with a collective release of misery.  My legs grew weak and I collapsed into a chair beside the bed, my body a heap of exhausted anguish.  I don’t know how long we sat in silence before they came to take him downstairs.  No words were exchanged as we filed out of the hospital room.  Bridget put her hand on my shoulder as I turned down the hall.  I stopped and looked at her, both our faces wet with tears.  She looked as though she wanted to speak, but nothing came.  Instead, she stepped forward and hugged me tightly.  Then, nodding slowly, she turned and walked away down the bustling hospital corridor and disappeared.  I took one last look the at room where Scott and I had passed his final month and wiped the moisture from my face.  Taking a deep breath to compose myself, I lumbered away wondering just what the hell I was supposed to do now.
End of Part Seven


            My palms were sweating as I gripped the smooth oak of the church lectern.  The podium was shaky and entirely too low for me, but I leaned on it nonetheless, happy with whatever support it could give.  Looking out nervously across the small crowd in front of me, I saw a few comforting faces and a handful of unexpected ones.  Scott’s parents sat in the front row with his sisters, smiling at me with somewhat misplaced gratitude.  My empty chair stood in the row behind them with Bridget sitting awkwardly beside it.  Near the back, I could see Roger still glaring as crossly as we had left him, but somehow more serene than before.  By the exit, Corporal McGreevy stood in his fatigues.  He had come to talk to me before the funeral, saying he would be shipping out this afternoon, but he wanted to come for a few minutes to pay his respects. 
            As for me, I had been asked by Mrs. Meyers to deliver a eulogy and was now standing uncomfortably in front of an audience of family and friends, most of which I didn’t know.  I felt self-conscious and certain that most of the congregation was wondering who this dumb kid was who thought he had the right to speak at their beloved Scott’s funeral.  In reality, I knew that no one was thinking that, but I couldn’t help feeling presumptuous.  I stood at the parapet for quite some time, a hundred expectant looks boring into my seemingly empty skull.  Looking down at the few words I had been able to write, I couldn’t help but think that Scott must be somewhere laughing at me at that very moment.  A swift glance at the casket dragged my head back into focus.  I hope you’re enjoying this, I thought.  Turing my notes right side up, I took a deep breath.
            “I had the pleasure of knowing Scott for the past five years as well as spending his last few days with him.  Most of you know about his vibrant spirit and rollicking sense of humor.  You know that he was a caring person who stood by those who stood by him and did so fiercely.  Everyone who met Scott learned quickly that he was an intelligent and witty person who always sought to know more.  More than anything else, however, Scott was a man who lived.
            “When Scott learned suddenly that he had a very short time left to live on this earth, his spirit was not defeated.  Over his last month of life, he sought to understand something that most of us will take a lifetime to comprehend.  This journey led him across the paths of other travelers all in some way seeking answers to the same question.  Some of them seemed to have it all figured out and some of them not so much.  Some of them didn’t even know what they were doing.  But, in the end, I think Scott did.  Something about his last hours told me that he had come to the point where he was ready to go.  In the end, I think he really did find what he was looking for.  What that was exactly, I couldn’t tell you.  Not just because it’s not my place to, but because I don’t know and I may never know.  So I guess I’ll do my best to tell you what I learned instead.
            “As young people, we all went through the phase of wondering who we are.  The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that maybe we should stop to consider that question a little more often when we’re older, and I’ll tell you why.  Death, and in a large way life, doesn’t have a meaning for you unless you assign it one.  That’s not to say that life is inherently meaningless.  I mean quite the opposite really.  The particulars in the meaning of life can be so drastically varied that meaning itself is limitless.  Dying then, is itself limitless in meaning because death’s meaning is beholden to life.  In his last hours, I think Scott came to understand what his life meant to him and in so doing learned the same about his death.  That’s what he was trying to learn and I think, in a way, it’s what he was trying to teach me.  After everything, I know I still don’t understand it, but I also know that’s ok, because what matters now is to find out what living means.  If I can do that, I think that, when death finally comes, I just might be ready.”
            I withdrew from the pulpit slowly and made my way back to the hushed and somewhat bewildered congregation.  A few odd looks were exchanged here and there, but not even a whisper broke the silence.  I took my seat next to Bridget who was one of the few people not looking at me sideways and I tried to focus on anything but the speech I had just concluded.  Several seconds passed and, for a moment, it seemed like the entire service had come to a befuddled halt.  Mrs. Meyers turned to me, her face stony and still red from constantly flowing tears.  I felt immediately ashamed, as though my speech had been in some way offensive to Scott’s memory.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had been selfish to speak about what I had learned the past few days, rather than how much he had meant to me over the years. 
            Then, just as the guilt was building to a head, Mrs. Meyers’ face relaxed into a motherly smile.  She placed her hand on my knee and nodded kindly.  With that, she turned back to the front and the service resumed.  I sighed deeply, relieved that I had not offended her and comforted by the weight of the past few days lifting off my shoulders.  Though it was painful to lose so close a friend, I was grateful to Scott for what he had given me in his last days.  My position in life hadn’t changed much in the past month and I think, in a way, neither did Scott’s.  The things that matter the most don’t change in a month or even a year.  Who you are may not change over a life time, but it might just take that long to figure it out.

The End

Dying, Part Six: The Old Man

            The next morning, I arrived at Scott’s room to find that he had a roommate, something that had not happened for the entirety of his stay.  Now, however, a man of greatly advanced age lay in an identical hospital bed a few feet away from Scott with his eyes shut tightly.  I gave Scott a quizzical look, but he just shrugged weakly.  Tiptoeing over to the side of his bed, I sat down in a chair and looked over at the new arrival.
            “How are you doing?” I asked, turning my attention back to Scott.
            “I’m still alive anyway,” he replied, his voice wavering feebly.  “I think I’m on six different medications to keep me that way, but they don’t think I’ll last much longer.  Maybe a day or two from now.  My parents were here all night; they just left a few minutes ago.  Dad said they’d be back as soon as they could.  They left to go pick up my grandmother.”
            “That’s good,” I said.  “Any other visitors?”
            “Bridget popped her head in around dawn to see how I was,” he answered with a sly smile.  I smiled back, happy to see him in some semblance of a good mood.
            “Oh?  What did she have to say?”
            “You know,” he said, a wily look on his face.  “She professed her love for me; asked if I wanted a parting kiss before I died.”  I raised my hand to punch his shoulder, but thought better of it and laughed instead.
            “Nah, we talked about you a little, actually.  She somehow got the idea that you’re some kind of nice guy.”
            “Hah, silly thing to think.  She say anything else?” I pressed.
            “Oh, not too much,” Scott replied, clearly enjoying himself.  “She mentioned how worried you were about me.  Did you really cry?”  His knowledge surprised me and my face grew warm in embarrassment. 
            “She told you about that?!” I said, nearly shouting.  I couldn’t believe my confidence had been betrayed.
            “No,” he said, laughing.  “It was just a guess.  Remember how you cried when we broke that car window outside our dorm room?  Classic Henk.”  I sighed heavily, trying to sound furious, but Scott just laughed harder until he flew into another coughing fit.  I moved as if to help him, but balked.  It occurred to me that I had no idea what I could do, so I sat back in the chair and watched him.  He took a few sips from a water cup and breathed a heavy sigh. 
            “What have you been up to when you’re not wasting away in this hospital?” 
            “Nothing too interesting,” I replied.  “Job searching a little, but the outlook is bleak.  Other than that I spend most of my time avoiding doing things for my parents.  This whole dying thing is actually quite a help with that.”  Scott chuckled.
            “Glad I could contribute to your being a deplorable son.”
            “I’m eternally grateful.”  I looked up at the old man snoozing across the room.  “So what’s the deal with this fella?”  Scott looked over at him and shrugged.
            “I don’t know, he’s been asleep since they brought him in here this morning.”  Much to our surprise, the old man turned and looked at us.
            “I’m not asleep, son, there’s just not that much to look at around here.”  Reaching over to the little bed remote, he raised the head until he was sitting upright.  “What brings someone so young to the hospital?” he asked. 
            “Dying,” Scott replied disinterestedly.  “You?”
            “Oh, the same I expect,” he said.  “This old body is just about used up.”
            “I guess this one is too,” Scott said grimly.  “I would have liked to get a little more mileage out of it though.”  The old man laughed, but there was something peculiar in his voice.  He seemed to laugh with the remembrance of past happiness rather than as a reflection of current delight, as though he knew he should, but needed to look back to something that once made him happy in order to cut through the melancholy of the present. 
            “We’d all like a little extra time to enjoy the things we love, but our time comes when it comes I suppose.”  The old man shifted his tired body like rusty gears trying to force yet another turn. 
            “With all due respect, sir, it’s easy to have that sentiment when you’ve lived as long as you have.”  Scott moved with a similar fatigue.  “I feel a little cheated out of a few life experiences.  You’ve had a lot more time to do great things.”
            “Oh, I don’t know about that,” the old man replied.  “Just because I had more time, doesn’t mean I did any better with it.  Sure, I did lots of wonderful, good things, but I did plenty of the bad things too.  I had years and years to succeed, but I had just as many years to fail.  The innocence of a young life is something to cherish.  Some of the things I’ve done, I’ll regret my entire life.”
            “Sure,” Scott replied.  “It’s not all good, but maybe I don’t want to miss out on all the bad either.  Life is life, you know?  I’ve met a few people in my time here and they’ve all lived so much more than I ever will; or at least have the potential to.  I’ll never sell a car, or save a life, or comfort the sick and dying.  Even Roger,” he said, and then paused for a moment realizing the old man couldn’t know who Roger was.  “I met this kid who tried to commit suicide.  We had this whole discussion about living and dying.  The point is though, he’s got all the potential in the world and what do I have?  I know I’m going to die and I’m not unhappy with the way I’ve lived, but I just wonder what the value of it was.  I’ve hardly done anything compared to these people.  What value has my life really had?”  It hurt me to hear what Scott was saying, because I felt that he had been very important in my life, but I didn’t know quite what to say.  The old man looked thoughtful for a few moments before he spoke again.
            “Well young man, I’ll tell you what’s always gotten me by.  I’m not going to go into detail, but I’ve been a pretty bad guy in my life time.  I even spent a little time in a cell way back in my younger days.  The one thing that kept me going in harder times was the idea that everyone matters in their own way no matter what they’ve done in their life.  What gives us real worth is being human in general.  That’s already enough.  Some people might have achieved a lot of good and some people may have done terrible things, but what never changes is that they are people and a person never loses their intrinsic value.  At least that’s the way I’ve always seen it.” 
            “I don’t know about that,” Scott said.  “I’ve met people in my life that have done so many bad things they don’t even seem like people anymore.  One of the things I was telling Roger though, is we do have plenty of potential to make up for it.  The thing is: you need time to make up for the bad things you’ve done.” 
            “Never really seen it that way,” the old man replied.  “There are a few bad things I’ve done that I don’t think I’ll ever make up for.  Sometimes the shame of it doesn’t seem to have faded at all in twenty or thirty years.  It’s as if I’d just done them yesterday.  That being said though, I prefer not to think of a man as the sum total of all his deeds.  I consider myself a good man in my later days and you seem like a good man too.  The way I see it, a good man is a good man.”  Scott looked up at the ceiling for a while, his breath labored.  I could see him working it all over in his head.
            “I guess I just don’t want to think that my impact on this world is so small; that I’m already done mattering.”  That was about all I could stomach.  I reached deep and pulled out all the compassion I could.
            “Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, compassion not being my strong suit.  “You think you’re gonna die and the next day I’m just going to find a new best friend?  Am I the same person I was five years ago?”  He looked at me quizzically for a few seconds.
            “What do you mean?” he asked. 
            “Well, do I still hide in corners at parties?”
            “Sometimes,” he replied.  “Though I guess that’s only when you smell really bad.”
            “Right,” I said, rolling my eyes.  “But seriously.  I’ve changed a lot in the past five years and a lot of that has to do with you.  Those were important years in my development and almost all of that is going to stick with me for the rest of my life.”
            “That’s nice of you to say.”  Scott wasn’t accustomed to this kind of talk; At least not from me.  I could tell there was some discomfort in his demeanor, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me.  My best friend was about to die, after all.  I thought for a moment about all the people in the world who had lost a friend without getting the chance to really tell them how they felt towards them.  I pushed past the mental block that fought with me over the release of emotion and forced myself to face the bare facts of the situation.
            “It’s not just about being nice, Scott; and I’m not just saying this because you’re my friend.  I admire you in a lot of ways.  Just about every improvement I’ve seen in myself over the past five years has been a result of my admiration of you.  You are absolutely my best friend; but beyond that, you’re the best all around person I know.”  I finished with a deep breath, not sure if I had stopped for air before the end.  Scott was looking at me with a sort of shocked expression.  I was fairly certain he had always known how I viewed him, but the look on his face said he had absolutely never expected me to articulate those sentiments.
            “Thanks,” he said, and then added, “wow.”  We sat silently for a few minutes, with my embarrassment slowly building inside my chest.  After a while, the old man, who I had entirely forgotten existed, broke the silence and caused me to jump.
            “Well, Scott.  It certainly sounds like you’ve made an impact in this world to me and quite the positive one at that.”  Scott, still a little shocked, simply nodded.  I searched for more words to add, but the sentiment was complete.  I had never been the strong speaker between the two of us and Scott knew it.  He had never been uncomfortable with praise before, but I think the sincerity of my statement was more than he could stand. 
            We barely spoke for the rest of the day.  I was reluctant to leave the conversation as such, but I could tell there was little else to say.  For his part, Scott seemed perfectly inclined to leave it at that.  He was appreciative of the sentiment, but he also recognized the difficulty with which my words were spoken.  Whether or not he had taken the old man’s words to heart, I couldn’t tell.  Two nurses carted the old man out an hour later and we nodded to him silently.  Scott didn’t speak again until I was getting up to run out for lunch.  As I pushed my chair out of the way, he cleared his throat weakly.
            “I’m not going to ask you if really meant all that earlier; I know you’re not much of a liar.  It just makes me want to live even more, you know?  If I’m such a big deal for you, it seems like I need to be around.”
            “Well sure,” said scrambling for the right words.  “I’d rather you be around too, but you know I’ll always remember you, yeah?  I won’t forget.”  Scott looked displeased by this.
            “That’s a living comfort; the idea of me being remembered I mean.  How is that going to help me when I’m dead?”
            “Well, if you don’t mind me saying, what else is there?”  He looked at me with a perplexed expression.  “Living comforts I mean,” I continued.  “I can’t give you anything that will comfort you when you’re dead, Scott.  At least, I don’t think I can.” 
            “I suppose so,” Scott said with a limp nod.  “I guess that’s all there is then, huh?  Not to put too fine point on it.”  I sighed and sat back down in the chair.  He looked me in the eyes and broke into tired smile. 
            “I suppose I’ve learned just about all I’m gonna learn by now, eh?”
            “Hey, slow down there, Scott,” I said, unwilling to allow him to continue his current train of thought.  “I’m sure we can find you another lesson or two.”  Scott shook his head, his smile unwavering.
            “No, I don’t think so.  I can really feel it finally; more than just weakness.  Every breath is getting just a little harder.  I think we both know where this is going.”  I shook my head, but I knew he was right.  He reached over and grabbed my arm and I scooted a little closer. 
            “My parents will be here soon and they’ll tell the family, but you’d better tell all our friends.  Go get Bridget too, huh?  She told me she wanted to be here for both of us if she could.”  I nodded, a hot tear escaping down my face.  He nodded back and let go of my arm.  I paused for a moment, not sure what to do.  Scott looked up at the clock by his bedside and took a deep breath.  Something in the back of my mind begged me to find something else to say, but nothing came.  Standing up, I gave him one last smile and turned away.  The instruments hummed and the monitors beeped and the afternoon sun peaked through the hospital windows to warm the last hours in the life of my best friend.

End of Part Six

Dying, Part Five: The Priest

            In the week following Roger’s visit, Scott’s condition had deteriorated quickly.  All sorts of machines were brought in that I recognized from various medical TV shows, but couldn’t really name specifically.  There was the heart thingy with the bleeps, some kind of drippy deal, a kidney cleaner and one or two other things.  All of this, I learned, was designed to keep Scott alive for an extra day or two. 
            Scott himself was still in rather dampened spirits since Roger left.  Bridget popped her head in once or twice, but it didn’t seem to cheer him up at all.  I tried what I could, but there just wasn’t anything that could shake him out of it.  For the moment, on top of his despair, Scott was visibly anxious.  His parents visited yesterday and, through tears and various other displays of grieving, informed him that they had asked one of the local priests to come to the hospital to talk with him and administer the last rites. 
            Both Scott and I are Catholics, but as often happens in the college world, our zeal for the sacraments had dulled a little.  I knew he still went to mass every week, but I also knew it had been years since his last Confession, and he was dreading the list of infractions he would soon be asked to rattle off to the priest.  Admitting your transgressions to anyone was difficult, but Scott’s concerns were deeper than just that.
            “What if it’s not enough?” he said in a hollow voice.  “So I’m forgiven for all the sins and such, but I haven’t exactly been a zealot, you know?  Is going to church and tossing in some community service going to be enough?”
            “I don’t really know,” I shrugged.  “Sorry, I’m not really an expert.”  And I wasn’t.  I hadn’t been any more attentive than he had.  It wasn’t that I didn’t believe or anything like that.  I guess it just didn’t seem as important the past few years.
            “But you’ve been a good guy as long as I’ve known you,” I said, trying to sound encouraging.  “I can’t imagine your Heavenly Resume having too many black marks on it.”  Scott snorted and cracked a half grin.  It was the first time I had seen him smile in three days.
            “Maybe I’ve done a few things you don’t know about,” he replied with a sly look.  I shook my head at him and he sighed.
            “I’m not ready for this,” Scott said earnestly.  “This is getting a little too real.  I’ve only got a little more than a week or so and I don’t feel any more prepared than I did the day I found out.”
            “Well, like I said before,” I replied.  “Maybe it’s just not something you can ever really prepare for.”  Scott frowned.
            “I thought that’s what all this religion was for, you know?  I thought if I lived like I was supposed to and took all the lessons to heart, then I’d have a better understanding of what comes after this.”
            “Oh, I don’t know about that,” I said thoughtfully.  “I think, rather than a preparation for death, it’s supposed to be a prescription for life.  It’s like what Dewey said about education.  It’s not a preparation for the future, it is life itself.”  Scott rolled his eyes.
            “Yeah alright, professor.  So I’ve lived this good life and all and I don’t mean to be impertinent, but what’s the ‘man upstairs’ got for me now?”  A silence filled the room as Scott finished.  I wasn’t a hundred percent comfortable with answering his question, but I knew he meant it.  A cautions feeling of relief came over me, however, when I noticed the black clad figure standing in the doorway.  The priest looked to be about fifty years old.  His hair was graying and his face slightly wrinkled.  He glided into the room casually and looked from me to Scott.  We both nodded a little and said ‘hello father’ in unison.  He smiled at us and sat down in a chair next to the bed.
            “Hello, gentlemen,” he said in a deep, husky voice.  “My name is Father Carroll.  Which one of you is Mr. Scott Meyers?”  We both fumbled for a few moments before Scott sputtered out:
            “The um, dying one.  Er, I am, Father.”  Father Carroll smiled and extended a hand.  Scott took it and shook.  Father Carroll then turned to me.
            “And that would make you Jonathan Henk?” 
            “Jack,” I said nervously.  “I mean, yeah.  Hi.”  We shook hands and Father Carroll turned back to Scott. 
            “Now,” he said with a grin.  “I understand you have been out terrorizing patients and nurses for the past two weeks.  Nothing interesting on the television?”  Scott coughed a bit and forced a half smile.
            “No, I mean…well,” he stammered.  Then, gathering himself for a moment, he spoke with an unexpected confidence.  “I’m not ready to face death without some concrete idea of what I’m up against, so I’ve been talking to some people to try to get a better understanding of what is about to happen to me.”
            “Hm,” the priest mumbled, pondering the statement.  “And what did you find out, Mr. Meyers?”  Scott took a deep breath that puffed up his chest as though ready to make some great statement.  When his lungs reached capacity, however, he burst out in a string of coughs that deflated him almost entirely.
            “Not a lot,” he said, when the coughing subsided.  “I’ve essentially learned that you can’t tell people what dead is or how they should die and that I ought to live how I know is right no matter what my situation while finding out what death really means to me.  That’s about it.”  He finished, exasperated, and stared at the priest.  Father Carroll nodded and waited for a moment to be sure he was finished. 
            “Well,” he said, once he was certain he would not interrupt.  “That doesn’t sound like too bad a start.  I’m not certain I follow where you’re coming from with the first half, but all that about living how you know is right and knowing what dying means to you seems pretty sound.”
            “Ok, sure,” Scott said, his voice showing his frustration.  “But that just brings me back to square one.  All I wanted to know was what death was really in the first place.  So now I’m supposed to know what it is for me?  That’s not really getting me any closer.” 
            “I don’t know if I would say that,” said Father Carroll.  “Dying is just one part of living, right?  So why shouldn’t death reflect life?”  Scott looked uncertain and I was at a bit of a loss.  This was out of my league and I knew it, but Father Carroll seemed to be in his element.
            “As Catholics, we believe in an afterlife, right?  But even that life hinges on how we lived in this life.  So if you feel that you have lived a good life now, then dying is nothing to worry about.  If you have not lived a good life, you should maybe be a little nervous.  But the way I see it, if you were going to honestly change how you live, you would have done it by now.  Death is just the conclusion to the story of this life and it is rarely a twist ending.  You see - ”
            “But what if I don’t believe in an afterlife?” Scott asked, interrupting.  The priest was a little taken aback, but he thought about the question.
            “Well, it’s not really my area of expertise, but I wouldn’t think that would change things all that much.  Even if you don’t believe there is something after this, death is just the period at the end of a sentence.  If you lived peacefully, you’ll die knowing that you were a peaceful person.  If you lived violently, you’ll die knowing that.  At this point, you’re already the man you’ll be when you die.  You may not be sure of who that is, but don’t think death is going to change that.”  Scott sat quietly for a long time, the gears turning slowly behind his eyes.  After a long time in silence, he spoke with a cold, deadpan demeanor.
            “I’ve always thought of the question of ‘who am I’ as something little teenagers ask themselves when they don’t fit in or something.  It never really occurred to me until now that maybe that’s a question we should all be asking ourselves every day.  Who am I and am I ok with the answer.” 
            “It’s an important question,” Father Carroll said, his tone warm, but serious.  “And I think that, given a little time, you can find the answer.”  He paused for a few moments as his words sunk in.  Scott’s gaze remained stable, but the tension in his face seemed to relent as he breathed. 
            “Now, Scott,” Father Carroll whispered.  “I hoped you wouldn’t mind talking with me in private for a little before I administer the last rites; in case you had anything to confess…”  Scott nodded slowly and Father Carroll turned to me and smiled.  I smiled back and turned away from the bed.  I could hear their quiet voices beginning the Act of Reconciliation as I walked out of the room.  Down the hall, I could see Bridget getting off the elevator and turning in my direction.  My heart skipped a beat, but I tried to keep my composure.  As she approached, I smiled and waved awkwardly. 
            “Hey,” she said, returning my smile politely.  “Is Scott asleep?”
            “No,” I replied.  “But he’s in there with Father Carroll right now.  I’m not sure how long he’ll be talking to him.”
            “Oh, I see,” Bridget said, looking a little surprised.  She looked away for a moment, a perplexed look on her face. 
            “Something wrong?” I asked, worried I had offended her with either my smell or my appearance.
            “No no,” she said.  “I just didn’t realize…”  There was a pause for a moment as I waited for her to continue.  I soon realized she would not, so I tried to fill it in for her.
            “That he was Catholic?  Yeah, sorry.”
            “Er, yeah.  Don’t be sorry,” she said, half laughing while she spoke.
            “I’m not,” I replied, my head swirling.  I tried very hard to compose myself, but my feelings on Bridget are already well documented.
            “We both are,” I said, pushing the thought out one word at a time.  “We met in church, actually, but not like, in the good way.”  She raised her eyebrows curiously and I realized I needed to qualify my answer.
            “We went to a Catholic college and our freshman year we both got busted for drinking on campus in separate events.  Mine was a load of crap really.  I wasn’t even really drinking, my roommate was.  I was really un-” I cut when I realized I was rambling.  For her part, Bridget was being very polite.
            “Anyway,” I continued.  “As punishment we had to clean pews at the church and that’s how we met.”
            “Oh, cool,” Bridget said, her head bobbing up and down.  “Sorry about my reaction there, I didn’t mean to be disrespectful.  I was never religious myself so I guess the whole idea takes me off guard a little.
            “Yeah, I can understand that,” I replied.  “I was raised Catholic from day one and I still have some trouble with it.”
            “Does it help much in times like these?” she asked, her face contorting immediately as though she regretted the question.  I smiled to reassure her and answered.
            “Well, it does and it doesn’t.  It helps me to think that Scott will go on at some level of existence, but it doesn’t really do anything to help the fact that he’s gone from me.  I mean, we say they always stay in your heart, but when someone dies, I don’t know.  No matter how well I hold on to and honor his memory, he’s still never going to be standing next to me, telling me I’m an idiot for liking Marvel more than DC again.  It’s stuff like that that really hurts, you know?”  Bridget nodded and gave me an understanding smile. 
            “I know, it’s tough.  I know my father will never stand next to me and hold my hand again or anything like that.  He’s just going to lie there until he passes away.”
            “It’s hard to take,” I said, my face growing hot as I fought against the slowly sprouting tears.  “There isn’t anything either of us can do for them.  It’s like all we are is spectators, watching as they inch away from life.  He’s so bent on knowing and I feel terrible that I can’t help.  I feel like I’ve let him down.”  She put her hand on my shoulder, and the first tear escaped from my eye. 
            “Scott’s still alive and you can still be there for him.  If I’ve learned anything from talking with you two, I know you’re not going to let him down.  If it helps any, I’ll be there with you.”  It did.  The tears now flowed freely from my face, but the knowledge that I wouldn’t stand by Scott alone was a help.  I don’t know where I got the nerve to do it, but I turned and hugged her tight, crying onto her shoulder.  Any chance at impressing her with some kind of macho fortitude was blown out the window, but I didn’t really care.  She patted my back and I sobbed, looking for something inside myself that would give me the strength to face the final days of my best friends life.

End of Part Five