Dealing With Pessimists

As an author, I often receive criticism about what I do. Not if I’m good or not, more like people simply doubting that anyone who wants to be an author could actually become that. Today I had an exchange with someone who called into question my ability to do what I do. This isn’t the first time that’s happened, and it sure as Hell won’t be the last. But when this sort of thing happens, I always think of an old story I heard years and years ago. I think it’s good for other aspiring artists, or anyone who wants to make their dream a reality, to read. And remember it when someone tries to tell you that you can’t achieve your dreams.

There was once a swamp full of frogs. These frogs all went about their day without trouble, no one doing anything to upset the daily routine. One day, however, a small group of young frogs came across a tree at the edge of the swamp. The tree was rather tall, but had a delicious looking fruit growing from the high branches. The frogs all wanted to eat the fruit, so tasty did they look, but they were afraid of climbing the tree, because it was far taller than anything else they had seen in the swamp, and they were only small frogs.

Finally, one frog worked up his courage and began to climb the tree. As he climbed, the other frogs gathered below and started to call out to the climbing frog, yelling, “Come down, you won’t make it! You’ll fall! Come back, you’ll fall!”

The first frog made it about a quarter of the way up the tree before he finally lost his grip and fell back down to the swamp.

Another frog suddenly decided to give it a try. He hopped forward and began to climb. As soon as he started to climb, the other frogs all began to shout again, “Don’t do it, you’ll fall! It’s too big, you won’t do it! You’ll fall!”

The second frog made it a third of the way up the tree, but then slipped and fell back into the swamp.

It continued that way all morning. A frog would attempt to climb the tree, and as the other frogs all shouted their doubt down below, the frog who was climbing would eventually slip and fall.

Finally, the smallest frog hopped forward. He said nothing to the other frogs, but just began to climb. The frogs down below all yelled out as they had with all the others, shouting, “You’re going to fall! Don’t do it, come back! You’ll fall!”

But the little frog just kept climbing. He made it a quarter of the way up, a third, then halfway. The frogs down below started to yell louder, insisting that he would fall, that he can’t make it, to just stop.

Still, the little frog climbed. He climbed all the way to the top of the tree, made his way out onto the branches and began picking the delicious fruit. He ate his fill, then dropped some down to the other frogs down below. He then easily climbed back down to meet up with the group of frogs who all stared at him in amazement.

“How did you do that?” they all asked the little frog.

But the little frog was deaf.

He never heard them shouting their doubt. And because their pessimism went unheard, there was nothing to stop the little frog from succeeding.

A Little Something For Halloween

Dark Crow

*Note from the author.

Before you start reading this short story, perhaps a little context would be useful. First of all, this is a continuation of a short story published in my collection of horror and thriller tales, Sinister Nightmares. The original story, The Crows, was about an old man who killed crows for pleasure, until they decided that they’d had enough. You won’t need to have read The Crows to understand this story, however. I decided this story, which I wrote a year or so ago, but did nothing with, was suitable for this Halloween post as I am currently writing my horror novel, City of Crows, and the themes of which go relatively hand in hand.

Something else to bear in mind while you read. In ancient beliefs, crows were, and still are, thought to be the keepers of the dead. They carry the souls of the dead to the afterlife. And, sometimes… bring them back.

Happy Halloween.

The Returned

The pearly white cat rubbed against the teenage boy’s leg, meowing as he held out the piece of meat. She was purring and staring up at the food with anticipation, the bell on her collar jingling gently with every movement. Her bright eyes and pearly white coat stood out easily in the darkness of the alley as midnight approached.

“Here, puss. Good puss. Puss-puss-puss,” the boy was cooing.

Just as the cat stretched out its neck to gently take the food that was being offered, the boy quickly reached down with his other hand and grabbed the cat by the back of the neck, causing her to yowl in surprise. The boy lifted the cat off her feet by the scruff of her neck, grinning as he did so. He tossed aside the bait he had used and walked deeper into the alley. He stopped and reached down to something by his feet, which he had stashed beside some overflowing trash cans.

He lifted the canvas bag up and shook it open. Then he shoved the pearly white cat inside. He zipped it shut as the cat began to cry a long, drawn-out howl that only cats can manage. The boy thumped the bag with his fist and snapped, “Shut up in there!”

A few minutes later, the boy was walking over a small bridge that stretched across a river in the middle of town. The cat was still crying from within the bag, her pathetic mewing becoming more and more emphatic. The boy approached the edge of the bridge and looked around quickly, trying to keep the bag hidden between his body and the bridge wall. After he determined that there was no one around, he turned to face the water and lifted the bag up onto the ledge.

Meow!” the cat called miserably. The boy could feel the poor creature shaking inside the bag, but this just made him smile.

With a small nudge, the boy pushed the bag over the edge. He heard the cat cry as she fell. He heard the splash as the bag hit the water. Then he heard nothing else as the bag sank beneath the surface. He stood there for a few minutes, staring down at the water, waiting until he knew enough time had passed for the cat to have definitely drowned.

Serves it right, he thought. Stupid cat.

Suddenly, he felt a shadow pass over him. Looking up, he saw a dark shape circling overhead, flying lower and lower. As he watched, he saw a crow swoop down and land on the bridge wall, only a few feet away. He watched the crow as it appeared to peer over the edge of the bridge and down to the river below. It was very still as it stared down to the murky water that flowed beneath. Then it slowly lifted its head and stared at the boy with one dark eye. It neither moved nor blinked. It just stood there, staring.

“What are you looking at?” the boy sneered.

The crow finally flapped its wings and ruffled its feathers. It lowered its head and opened its beak, cawing loudly at the boy, who jumped at the sudden movement of the bird. The boy scowled, feeling stupid for being scared by a bird. He stepped closer to the crow and swung his hand out at it, forcing it to hop backwards.

“Get outta here!” he snapped.

However, the crow only walked closer, snapping its beak at him and cawing in annoyance.

“I said, get the f-OW!” the boy cried out in pain suddenly, dancing backwards and clutching his hand. He had swung at the crow again, only to receive a vicious peck on the flesh between his thumb and index finger. The boy looked down at the wound as he clutched it tightly and saw blood seeping between the fingers of his uninjured hand. The boy left quickly, shouting abuse at the crow that was still sitting on the side of the bridge, cawing loudly into the night.

As the boy hurried along, ducking through an alleyway, he silently cursed the bird for taking a sizeable chunk out of his right hand. He considered going back to see if it was still there and, if it was, throwing a rock at it. Maybe he could break its wings and throw it into the river after the cat. He continued along, lost in violent thought, until he noticed a pair of eyes on a window-ledge above, staring down at him. Looking up, he saw a grey tabby-cat sitting on the ledge, watching him with wary eyes, twitching its tail from left to right.

The boy smiled to himself, thinking that maybe he could break the cat’s neck to get out some of his frustration. He took a step toward it, moving slowly so as not to startle it.

“Puss-puss-puss,” he called. “Here, puss.”

But the cat flattened its ears and hissed loudly at the boy, making him pause and think twice before getting closer.

“Fine,” he said under his breath. “If that’s the way you want it.”

He bent down and picked up a fallen brick from the ground. He lifted it over his shoulder and took a careful step closer to the growling tabby, trying not to scare it off before he could crush its skull under the brick. The tabby hissed and swiped a paw at the air as the boy came within arms-reach. He smiled and lifted the brick a little higher, taking careful aim.

Rrowr!”

The boy felt something land on his shoulder, startling him into dropping the brick, and in the same instant, something sharp bit into his earlobe.

“Ahh!” he cried out in pain. He jumped around in the alley, clutching his ear as the second cat that pounced from somewhere above and bit his ear leaped away and joined the tabby on the window to watch the boy clutch at his ravaged ear.

“Son of a bitch!” the boy shouted. He locked eyes with the pair of cats on the window and glared with contempt. “You’re dead, you mangy bastards! Both of you, you’re…”

He stopped in mid-sentence as he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Turning his head, he saw another cat peering out at him from behind a dumpster. Then another two lifted their heads from inside. More appeared from around garbage cans, others were perched on windowsills; dozens more were on the rooftops, staring down at him in the centre of the alley, more than the boy could count. He stared around at all of them, uncertain of what to do. There were more cats in this alley than he had ever seen in one place. But what the boy found particularly unnerving was the fact that all the cats were completely still and silent. No pacing, no meowing, no cleaning. They were all just staring at him with bright unblinking eyes.

Behind him, the boy heard a noise, the rustle of feathers and a loud caw. He turned in the direction of the noise and looked down the alley back the way he had come, back toward the bridge. He looked out the end of the alley into the street, expecting to see a crow, but what he saw was definitely not a crow.

It was a cat… with pearly white fur.

It was sitting on the sidewalk, bathed in the light from a street lamp above its position, giving a glowing quality to its fur coat. Its eyes shone bright and yellow, reflecting the light shining down on them, as both were locked on the boy’s. The two stared at each other, neither moving, neither making a sound, amidst the crowd of cats who were quietly watching.

The boy began to back away, deciding that the situation was entirely too weird and unsettling. The hairs on his arms and the back of his neck were all standing on end and he figured the best place he could be right now was anywhere else. He turned and walked quickly away, not stopping or slowing down to even look over his shoulder. But as he walked away, he could feel a hundred eyes on his back and he couldn’t get out of his mind the picture of the cat with the pearly white fur. And how it had looked slightly wet.

The next morning, after a restless night of inconsistent sleep, the boy dragged himself into the kitchen for breakfast. His father was already seated at the small breakfast table, a plate of toast crumbs pushed aside and his hand wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee while he read the newspaper, a breeze from the open window rustling the corners of the pages. He glanced up at his son when he heard him enter the room.

“Jeez, what the hell happened to you, boy?” he growled, looking at his son’s ear.

“I was attacked,” the boy muttered.

“Christ, more fights?” his father snapped, slamming his paper down on the table.

“It wasn’t a fight!” the boy snapped back. “I was attacked by a cat.”

His father grunted and returned to his paper. “You and cats, I don’t know why you hate them so much. You’re as bad as your grandad, before he disappeared.”

“Why?” the boy asked as he poured himself a bowl of cereal, not really caring that much.

“Ah, the old bastard hated crows. Couldn’t stand ‘em, killed ‘em every chance he got. His hunting cabin was full of stuffed ones he’d shot.”

The boy’s hand jerked in surprise as he poured the milk onto his cereal, spilling some onto the counter.

“Crows?” he repeated.

“Yes, boy, crows! You know, those big black birds that eat road-kill. And clean that mess up, you useless tool.”

The boy quickly wiped down the counter and sat down at the table with his cereal.

“I saw a crow last night,” he said. “It bit my hand.”

“Hmph,” the boy’s father grunted. “I guess they’re not that bad.”

The boy frowned and ate a spoonful of cereal. He chewed, but felt something strange in his mouth. The cereal felt wrong. He stopped chewing and looked down into his bowl. It took a moment for his mind to register what he was seeing, but once he realized, his eyes bulged and his face turned white. He dropped the spoon and gasped. Suddenly he felt he couldn’t breathe. He choked and spluttered and clawed at the table. He tried to stand, but in his panic he only knocked his chair over and clutched the table, unable to find his feet as he flailed them about, his sneakers squeaking on the kitchen floor.

“What-” his father began, but realizing that his son was choking, he leaped to his feet and rushed around the table. He began slamming the boy hard on the back with the palm of his hand, again and again, until finally the boy coughed up the blockage and spat it out onto the table. He gasped for breath and fell to his knees, still leaning on the table.

“Jesus, chew your food, boy!” his father growled.

But the boy didn’t hear him. He was staring in horror at the glob on the table he had just spat out. It was a wadded ball of fur. And in his bowl of cereal, countless more hairs swam amongst his breakfast, each one an easily recognizable pearly white.

That evening, the boy’s father went to work at the warehouse for the night shift. The boy stayed home and played video games, trying not to think about that morning. Normally, he would have gone out on a Saturday night, but after what happened, he just felt like it was a better idea to lie low. He didn’t want to go out, just in case all those cats were waiting for him. Especially the pearly white one.

But as he sat there, playing the most recent Assassin’s Creed game, he heard something. Curious, he paused his game and listened.

He could hear the soft jingling of a bell.

He looked around the room for the source of the noise, but could see nothing that might have made a sound like a bell.

The boy walked to the front door, switched on the exterior light and peered through the peephole, thinking that someone may have been ringing the doorbell, and that the doorbell was broken. But when he looked through the hole, there was no one there. He began to turn away, but something caught his eye. He looked through the peephole once more and tried to focus on what he had seen at the edge of the front lawn, just on the line between the light and the dark.

Cats. Three of them. Just sitting there, staring at the house. The boy moved to a window and looked outside. He saw other cats, more of them this time. He counted almost a dozen, all sitting motionless and staring at the house. He ran to another window and was met with the same sight. He moved to another window, and another and another, cats, cats, cats, all still, all staring, dozens upon dozens of cats, their eyes glowing softly in the night.

The bell rang again.

The ringing had become louder and more insistent. The boy was finally able to hear the direction it was coming from and turned to face the closed door to the kitchen. The ringing was coming from there, from inside the house. The boy’s eyes grew wide and his blood ran cold, rendering him frozen in place as he realized something he should have thought of much earlier.

His father left the kitchen window open.

The boy’s first thought was to flee the house, but the sight of the cats waiting outside was all that stopped him from doing so. The boy looked around quickly for something to defend himself with and his eyes landed on the iron poker beside the fireplace. He snatched it up and lifted it into a swinging position on his shoulder. Cautiously, he approached the kitchen door. He placed a hand upon it and gently pushed, moving slowly into the room.

At first, he thought the room was empty. His eyes scanned the area and saw nothing out of place. But then he noticed that sitting on top of the fridge was a large, black crow. When it saw the boy enter the room, it turned to face him. It lowered its head and fluffed its wings, shouting one defiant caw!

The boy gripped the poker tighter in both hands and took a step closer to the bird, ready to knock its head clean off. The crow turned its head and looked at the boy with one glassy eye, a black orb that the boy could see himself reflected in. He could see himself standing with a ferocious look on his face, the iron poker positioned over his shoulder, ready to swing.

Suddenly, he saw something move off to the side. He turned his attention to the movement and his blood ran cold for the second time. The cats were coming through the window. The boy backed up as the swarm of felines came in through the window and filled the kitchen. The flow seemed to never end as cat after cat after cat just kept coming through. But they didn’t attack. They didn’t growl or hiss or spit. They simply found a place to sit and waited, their curious eyes fixed on the boy, who had backed up against the wall, his way to the door now blocked by a sea of cats.

Then the bell rang again.

The boy looked around the room for the noise, but saw nothing. As far as he could see, none of the cats wore bells, but even if they did, they were so still that it never would have rung in the first place.

Again, the bell rang, and the boy realized something. The sound was slightly muffled, as though it was coming from inside a sealed box or jar.

Caw! The crow cried once more.

With one more ring of the bell, the boy finally understood and was consumed with confusion and terror at the realization of where the sound was coming from. Surrounded by dozens of cats and under the judgmental eye of the crow, the boy dropped the poker in his horror and would have fallen over if he weren’t leaning on the wall.

The bell was inside him.

He lifted his shirt and looked at his exposed torso. His mouth dropped open, his hands started to tremble and all of the colour drained from his face. There was something pressing against the inside of his stomach, pushing the flesh outward before settling, then repeating the process again. And with each movement, the bell rang gently.

Suddenly, the boy felt wracked with pain. He clutched his stomach and doubled over, falling to his knees as he grimaced and cried out. He tried to scream, but instead he just began to cough violently. He felt something trickling down his chin and saw that he had coughed blood up onto the floor. He kept coughing, more and more blood falling to the tiles. He was on all fours, trying to crawl towards the phone to call for help, but he was rendered immobile from the pain that had started in his stomach and was now making its way into his chest. He looked around helplessly, but saw only the indifferent stares of the cats and the cold eyes of the crow, still high above on the fridge.

The boy stopped coughing, but this only alarmed him more, because now he couldn’t draw breath. He tried to inhale, but it was a futile attempt. He gasped and panicked and tried once more to reach the phone, but he was weakened from pain and the throng of cats blocked his way. He began to gag, his back heaving and convulsing. Blood was dripping from his mouth and running down his chin and neck, spattering all over the floor. Small claws suddenly poked out through his neck, gouging the flesh as they scratched from the inside. The boy clutched at his neck as the pain grew more unbearable and more blood poured from the open wounds. He could feel the bones in his neck shifting and cracking as something was forcing them around, as though trying to make room. He felt something ripping and tearing at the back of his throat, hitting him with a fresh bout of intolerable pain. When he felt something flopping around inside his mouth, he lowered his head and spat it out. When it hit the floor, he didn’t know how to comprehend what he was looking at. He stared at it, delirious with fear and pain and blood loss, not sure if it was even real. His tongue was lying on the floor, ripped out of his mouth, now in the pool of blood on the kitchen tiles. Finally, the boy felt something pushing around the inside of his mouth. He opened wide and let it out.

First came the paws. They both stretched out of the boy’s mouth and searched for something to grab hold of. Failing that, the claws extended and they were dug into the boy’s cheeks. As the cat began to drag itself out of his mouth, it left deep gouges in the sides of the boy’s face, more blood now running from his cheeks and dripping onto his shoulders.

The cat’s head emerged from the boy’s mouth, its ears flattened, moving faster now that it was almost halfway out. It clawed at the boy’s face some more until it was finally free and leaped nimbly to the floor, the bell on her collar jingling happily and her pearly-white fur stained with blood.

The boy stared at the cat and the cat stared back at him. The boy was wobbling on his hands and knees, his eyes drifting in and out of focus, his breathing short, weak, and ragged, blood still oozing from his mouth and the tears in his neck and cheeks. He blinked slowly, barely conscious. On some level, he noticed that the crow cawed loudly and the pearly white cat was moving closer. As his vision faded, he saw the other cats finally move. They began to move toward him, following the pearly white cat, meowing loudly, all licking their lips.

When the boy’s father got home well after midnight, he was annoyed to find that the exterior light had been left on. As if the bills weren’t high enough already. His annoyance was not abated inside where he saw that his son had left on all the interior lights as well as the TV with one of his video games running. He began stomping through the house, calling for his son, but was confused when he got no response. He searched every room, but found no sign that his son was home, or had been recently.

When he walked into the kitchen, he stopped short, staring down at the floor.

“What..?” he began, but trailed off. He knelt down and picked up the poker from the tiled floor. Looking around, he could see nothing else out of the ordinary. He glanced out the window, but there was nothing that could tell him where his son had gone. There wasn’t even anything of little interest. Only a very fat pearly white cat; sitting on the fence, cleaning its fur.

Life After Death: A Glance At Things To Come

“Okay, class,” Darius began, switching the projector to the next slide, which consisted of a list of textbook titles and chapters. “We’ll leave our discussion there for now. I’d like you all to read these before next week, and we’ll continue our discussion on-”

“Hey!”

Darius stopped short as the angry shout from the back of the lecture hall interrupted him and caused every student to turn their heads in surprise and curiosity. Storming down the aisle between the seats was a heavyset man with not a single hair on his head. Darius watched, perplexed, as the man stomped angrily to the front of the lecture hall and stopped just short of running into Darius and jabbed a finger into his chest.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve, pal,” the man growled, poking Darius’ chest a couple more times.

“Dad!” a female student cried out, sounding horrified and humiliated. “What the Hell are you doing?”

The man poked his thick finger into Darius’ chest once more, ignoring his daughter, and said, “Just what’s your game, huh? You get a kick out of brainwashing kids with your fairytales?”

“Sir, please calm down,” Darius frowned, resisting the urge to grab the man’s poking finger and break it. “Let’s step outside and discuss what’s bothering you. Everyone, you can go to your next classes.”

“No way, pal,” the man snapped, shaking his head. “These kids stay right where they are and hear some truth for a change. What gives you the right to fill my daughter’s head with your nonsense? This is supposed to be a school! But here you are, every damn day, telling her and the others about God and Angels and ‘the truth about religion,’ what gives you the right? My daughter is smarter than that, she doesn’t need you confusing her with talk like God is actually real.”

“Sir, if you insist on talking about this in front of the students, fine,” Darius scowled. “I’ve never been so bold as to force the students to believe any particular thing. They each have their own faiths and I wouldn’t dream of belittling them or trying to change their beliefs in any way. But you’re right. This is a school. And I teach facts. This is Religious Education. Not a church. I don’t preach and I don’t proselytize. I teach about the history of religion and we discuss aspects of theology from many faiths. Nothing more. Now, if you have a complaint about my teaching style, you’re more than welcome to take it up with the Dean.”

“I have,” the man snapped. “He shut me down. I guess you got him brainwashed, too. So I’m here to talk to you and make you stop making my kid think that there’s actually a God.”

“Oh, is that what this is about?” Darius asked, suddenly amused. “You don’t believe in God, so no one else should either?”

“That’s not what I said,” the man growled. “Just not my daughter. She’s smarter than that.”

“Oh my God, Dad, just go home!” the apparent daughter shouted.

“Stay out of this, Bella,” the man snapped. Then, turning back to Darius, said, “I’ll be making a formal complaint about you. You’re not being respectful to the beliefs of these students.”

Darius just smirked. Then, leaning slightly to the side so as to see around the large berth of the angry man, said to the class, “Does anyone here think that I have brainwashed them in any way?”

No one said a word. Darius could see heads shaking and others were snickering and smirking at one another.

“No one?” Darius pressed. “Well, does anyone else think that I’ve been disrespectful toward their faith?”

Again, no one responded in the affirmative.

“What about you, Bella?” Darius asked, looking at the angry man’s daughter. “I don’t mean to single you out, but do you agree with your father? Am I a disgrace to teaching?”

Bella looked directly at her father, her face bright red from embarrassment, but her expression one of intense rage. “Absolutely not, sir.”

“You’re filling their heads with garbage!” the man shouted, apparently ignoring his daughter and all of the other students. “You need to stop talking to them like God is real, or I’ll make sure you never teach again.”

“So even after the Global Revelation,” Darius began, “you still don’t believe there’s a God? No Heaven? Nothing after life at all?”

“Of course not, it’s ridiculous! And anyone who thinks otherwise is either stupid or kidding themselves.”

“Dad, what about the Angels?” Bella demanded angrily. “Doesn’t that prove anything?”

“They weren’t Angels, I’ve told you that already,” the man argued. “They were soldiers from some government agency testing new weapons or something. I don’t know for sure, but I do know they weren’t Angels!”

“Okay, let’s say you’re right,” Darius began calmly. “Let’s say they weren’t Angels, despite all the eyewitness accounts. What about all the people who died and were then resurrected? What about how they claim to have seen parts of Heaven?”

“Well, I’ve never seen proof of any of that,” the man huffed. “They’re probably just making it all up for attention. And who says they died at all? They could have just been drugged or something.”

“Oh my God,” Bella moaned, hiding her face behind her hands.

“So even after all of the things that happened only a few years ago, you still don’t believe in God?” Darius asked.

“There is no scientific evidence at all that there is a God!”

“Oh, science?” Darius grinned. “So you’re a man of science?”

“Yes, I am,” the man said defiantly, puffing his broad chest out.

“And why do you think science and God can’t coexist?” Darius asked simply.

“Because science is real and about fact,” the man snapped. “It’s not some imaginary, magical, sky daddy!”

Darius barked a laugh. “Magical sky daddy? I have to remember that one, that’s creative.”

“Laugh all you want, pal, but science proves that there is no God,” the man snapped, jabbing a finger at Darius once more. “Now are you going to stop confusing these kids or what?”

“Okay, sir,” Darius said firmly. “Poke me again and we’ll have something completely different to discuss. But if you want to keep talking about science versus God, let me rebut in terms that, as a man of science, you’ll understand.”

Darius paused for a moment and gathered his thoughts, aware that every student was now going to be late for their next class, but they didn’t seem to care. What they were witnessing was far more interesting.

“Before you judge anyone, or go ahead and claim that everything you say is truth, consider these scientific facts. You can see less than 1 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the acoustic spectrum, meaning that there are things that exist that you can’t see or hear at all times. As I speak, we’re all traveling at 220 kilometers per second across the galaxy, the speed of which we can’t feel. 90 percent of the cells in your body carry their own microbial DNA, making them technically not ‘you.’ The atoms in your body are more than 99 percent empty space, none of them are the ones you were born with, and every single one of them was born inside of a star. Human beings have 46 chromosomes, which is two less than the common potato. And finally, the existence of a rainbow depends entirely on the conical photoreceptors in your eyes. For any animal that doesn’t possess those conical photoreceptors, the rainbow doesn’t exist. So you don’t really look at a rainbow, you create it. Now, that’s pretty amazing, considering the scientific fact that all the colors you can see represent less than 1 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum. Now, ask yourself, just how much are you missing?”

To this, the man didn’t seem to have a response. He merely gawked at Darius for a few seconds longer, completely lost for words. But then the angry expression returned to his face and he began to storm towards the exit without saying a word to Darius at all. However, he did pause just long enough to bark at his daughter, “Come on, Bella, let’s go. You’re not taking this class anymore.”

“I’m staying, Dad,” Bella replied curtly. “I like this class. And I don’t have to agree with everything you believe.”

The man glared at his daughter for a moment, gave Darius one last contemptuous look, then stormed out.

A short while later, Darius was tidying up his papers and getting ready to clear out of the lecture hall. After the students had begun to leave, Bella had rushed over to Darius and apologized roughly a thousand times, each times with Darius responding “It’s okay, don’t worry about it.” Darius had almost entirely put the encounter with the angry man out of his mind when he heard someone speak behind him.

“You handled that quite well.”

Darius turned at the sound of the male voice and came face to face with an unfamiliar man. Although, face to face was probably not the most accurate phrase. The man was so tall, it was more like face to chest. Darius looked up at the man and saw a kind, handsome, and smiling face.

“The man who insisted on poking you continuously,” the stranger smiled. “You dealt with the situation honorably. And addressing the issue in scientific terms to prove your point was nothing short of inspired. I am impressed.”

“Um, thank you,” Darius replied, taken aback and confused. “Can I help you with something?”

The stranger grinned. “Perhaps. I am in need of some rather specific knowledge. I have recently come to the conclusion that the one who would be best suited to aid me in my search for understanding is a man such as yourself. A former Reaper.”

Darius nearly fell over in his shock.

“What?” he blurted. “Reaper? What do you mean?”

“I believe you know perfectly well what I mean, Darius,” the stranger replied softly. “You were a Reaper for over two hundred years before Elohim restored your humanity as a reward for purging the world of the scourge formally known as Abzu, and his sadistic army. Do you deny this?”

Darius didn’t know how to reply. He stared up at the stranger, who stood at roughly seven feet tall, but then Darius noticed something about him. His eyes. They were a brilliant shade of green.

“You’re an Angel,” Darius realized aloud.

“Very observant,” the stranger replied kindly. “Yes, I am an Angel. My name is Sandalphon. I am here to seek your guidance.”

Life After Death: Darius

Darius stood at the front of the lecture hall, the projector screen towering behind him as he looked out at the hundreds of young faces staring back at him expectantly. Each student sitting with their fingers poised over the keys to their laptops. Darius cleared his throat nervously. This was the first lecture he was speaking at and, despite Peyton’s assurances that he would do great, Darius was still terrified of sounding foolish.

“Good morning, everyone,” Darius finally said loudly. “This is Religious Studies and I’m Professor Freeman.”

Darius paused and let the name he had adopted upon regaining his humanity sink in. After a moment, he continued.

“In this class, we will be discussing the history and philosophy of many religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and many other ancient pagan religions. Before we get started, though, are there any questions?”

Darius expected no one to raise their hand, that everyone would be lost in their own thoughts as they counted the minutes before they could escape his boring, droning, voice, but to his surprise a hand in the front row rose up into the air.

“Yes?” Darius asked. “What’s your name?”

The young girl with the brown ponytail that seemed pulled far too tight lowered her hand.

“Alisha, Professor.”

Darius nodded. “Okay, Alisha. What’s your question?”

Alisha glanced around nervously, apparently hesitant to speak up.

“I was just wondering, sir,” she began. “With all the problems in the world, why is religion important? Why do we keep it around when people start wars and bomb schools over it? Shouldn’t the government just outlaw religion? At least, public displays of it, anyway. If no one was trying to change what other people believed, because they didn’t know, then wouldn’t the world be more peaceful?”

Darius felt every set of eyes in the room turn and lock onto him, waiting for his response. He thought for a moment, carefully considering Alisha’s question before answering.

“Would you say that it’s religion’s fault that women are often oppressed?” Darius asked.

Alisha, still hesitant to speak up, simply shrugged a little and then nodded. “Um, maybe. Yes?”

“Does anyone else agree?” Darius asked, louder, looking around the lecture hall. “Is religion to blame for terrorism? For segregation? Homophobia? Racism?”

Darius saw a few people nodding, while others simply shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Darius turned back to Alisha.

“Here’s a hypothetical question, Alisha,” Darius began. “Let’s say the young man sitting behind you took out a knife and stabbed you with it. Will you blame him? Or the knife?”

Alisha looked surprised and confused, as did the boy seated behind her.

“Um, I’d blame him,” Alisha replied, still confused. “I mean, he was the one who stabbed me. But what does that have to do with religion?”

“It’s the same concept if you think about it,” Darius replied, smirking. “The knife in our hypothetical situation was just a tool. And so is any religion. If wielded by the wrong people, yes, it can be dangerous, used to justify numerous acts of cruelty and oppression. People have, and do, use religion as a scapegoat for their own actions. But religion cannot be held accountable for how people use it. People interpret the texts, and then decide how to apply them. The texts were written by men, and then handed out as though God had faxed them to us. So to answer your question, no. The world would not be better off without religion, because if all religious institutions suddenly disbanded and declared themselves to be completely full of it, what then? The people who used religion to justify their cruelty would only find other means to defend what they do. The cruelty would remain, but the comfort that religion brings to just as many good people would be gone. The world has had to drastically reevaluate itself after those Angels attacked, but all the religious denominations have found solace and comfort in their faiths. What would the world be like right now if humanity had not had the guidance of religion to turn to?”

Alisha was nodding, but then the boy seated behind her raised his hand and asked a question of his own.

“So, which one’s right? I mean, we know Angels are real now, so we have a pretty good idea that God is real, too. So… Which religion has it right? And if God’s real, just how powerful is he? And where is he? Which religion is right?”

Darius smiled, a cheeky smile that looked like he had a secret he wasn’t about to share.

“All of them,” Darius replied. “Which is why we should study them. To get past the theology and find the history that’s hidden away within. And once we all understand each other’s faith, that’s when we can have the peace that Alisha was asking about. Now… Let’s get started.”