The last time I saw him, he was working on a wood burning project, an art thing. I’d never known him to do anything creative, and it looked really good. I couldn’t see enough of the finished thing to know what it was, I just know that it looked good.

I wanted to tell him that we should hang out soon, that we should go bowling on Saturday or maybe to the zoo. I wanted to tell him that I’d missed his company and that it wasn’t doing him any good to shut people out of his life.

But I didn’t. I just said hey and left. I don’t even know if he knew I was gone.

It was the last time I ever saw him alive, though he lived another 20 years.

I wonder if he ever finished the burning, what it was, and how it came out.

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Can the young want Time? He felt slow and out of sorts, but was it a want for Time? She came and went so effortlessly that he wasn’t sure if it was desire or something else, just a comfort to see her again and know that she was coming and going still. He liked to know that she had a purpose, and through her, he found his. But can the young really want for Time, or just want after her, chasing her as if they never got the chance to get to know each other.

Time was a frivolous creature, her hair made of moonlight and skin the color of the darkest night. Her eyes twinkled and sparkling, always laughing and always careful to be sure you got caught and captured by her passing gaze.

He saw her here and there, reflected in a watch or in the lock screen of his cell phone, but he was never able to meet Time face to face until, on a particularly misty morning, he came across her in the town square with a load of watch parts from the local pawn shop borne behind her by her handmaid and servant, the Motley Man.

“Tell me, O Time, what is my purpose? Why does it seem that I am always chasing you, yet never really knowing you?”

Time’s laugh was as silvery alarm bells. “None know me, not even myself,” said she. “I simply endure, as I have been enduring, keeping the World Clock wound and Time’s Arrow straight.”

He would not be dissuaded. “Show me, O Time, how I can know you better and use you better and spend you better.”

“Very well,” she said, and his heart leapt. “Go into the Jungle of Luud. My servant will accompany you. Do as he commands you and you will find yourself in the Sacred Geometry. There you will find the one you seek. When you have pulled her from the Geometry, you will understand Me.”

He bowed deeply and led by his misshapen guide, he set out for the Jungle of Luud and his beloved Mona.

Ah, Mona. He had met her first in the Pearls. She was sitting under the perpetual moonlight, scribbling away in a small violet book.

“Mona, my dear,” he said. Mona did not look up but merely nodded, still deep in her book. “It has been so long. Whatever have you been doing?”

“I have been writing,” Mona said, appearing to embellish her journal.

“I can see. I was told you have the answer to Time.”

“Do I now?” Mona asked.

“I suppose you must. How do you spend Time these days, then? How might I make better use of my time, as you do?”

“Ah, my friend,” said Mona, “Lately I have been writing, but the rest of the time I have been simply living.”

“That is a rather vague answer,” he grumbled. “I am living now!”

“Not really. You’re existing, certainly, but to enjoy each moment, and invest your whole being into it, now that is truly living. And as I am investing myself in this writing.”

With that, Mona disappeared into her journal. He took up the fallen book, put it in his pocket, and carried Mona out of the Sacred Geometry, going out to live his life.

Warm summer’s sunset sinking low over the graveyard. The man and his Mona, bowed with old age, held each other on the bench while they watched the sunbeams play pink and orange before death’s deep red took them. The Motley Man stood at the cemetery gate, with Time and her handmaiden behind him.

“Now?” the Motley Man asked.

“No, give them a moment yet,” sighed Time with bated breath.

Mona and the man sat in loving embrace, and as the last rays of maroon burst into cold, purple night, they kissed, hearts pressed together, and Time waved her hand forward, and the Motley Man set out in a broad pace toward the two.

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They call it the third place.

Neither work nor home, a third place comes without the marionette strings and strong negative associations that come along with a workplace. It’s free of the endless distraction, chores, and laundry that swirl about the home. A third place is a sanctum apart, a place of peace and productivity.

For many, their third place is a library. Ample seating, books leeching the musty odor of delectable knowledge, and–most importantly–free internet access. But for a librarian like me, libraries ARE work, which means that relaxation and creativity and free internet access without dirty laundry must happen elsewhere.

What better place than a coffee shop? Life-giving, elixir-of-the-morning coffee (iced, of course, even in the dead of wintry mix February) plus wireless that usually works when you don’t have anything important to do plus a generous supply of tables and comfy chairs. Plus, for a hermit like me, the constant comings and goings of people jonesing for java can lend an air of sociability to a solor witing session.

Starting in 2010 or so, my third place was High Point Coffee just off West Jackson Ave. It wasn’t ideally placed, being in a strip mall perpendicular from the main college causeway and not easily visble unless you knew it was there. For the first few years I lived in town, in fact, I had no idea it existed. But for National Novel Writing Month 2010, I was invited to a write-in there by a fellow scribe.

They never showed up, but I kept coming. It wasn’t even for the coffee at first; I fell in love with the armchairs that let you sink in deep and nest, the titanic ottoman that could hold an entire disseration or novel revision, the crackling gas fireplace. With a double-bank of windows there was always plenty of sunlight, and an airy open layout allowed for maximum customization of tables, chairs, and snaking cords seeking the four precious outlets.

In time, once I realized that the caramel frappuccino I’d been drinking was a little too cold and a little too sweet, I fell in love with High Point’s iced mocha and iced vanilla (without whipped cream, of course, since I’m watching my figure). The large size of each was enough to fuel an entire session of third place noveling or blogging, augmented on occasion by a delectable $1 jumbo chocolate chunk cookie (but not the raisin cookies, since those imposters are disappointment made real and set loose upon a sinful world). It was to the point where, when I approached, the baristas sometimes had my favorite already started.

I only threw them a curveball by asking for the pumpkin spice a few times.

It’s kind of funny, and maybe a little embarrassing, how much someone can get wrapped up in their third place. Half of the pop songs on my iPod were yanked from the very air of High Point by SoundHound fur purchase. The baristas often became my friends as they came and went; I think half of the stylish people in my local circle worked there at one time or another. I took out-of-town visitors there, took dates there, even glued foam heads to their wooden coffee stirrers in one memorable art session. When I became a National Novel Writing Month honcho in my own right, our most informal and celebratory meetings were always advertised on Facebook with a coffee bean motif.

A Starbucks opened up just down the road on the site of a bulldozed Burger King the other year, and another indie coffee shop–much narrower and less well-lit, with uncomfortable wooden hipster furniture–not long before that. Both places fronted the main drag, meaning they were more easily visible. And though there were certainly busy times, especially near exams or after football games, the great draw of High Point as a third place was that you could always find a place to sit and spread out.

I had long feared that my third place would close, and gave them plenty of business to try and forestall such a horror. Every NaNoWriMo write-in had a table tent admonishing attendees to buy all the java they could. And yet, when they announced with less than two weeks’ notice that they’d be closed forever by Valentine’s Day, it hit like a sledgehammer. I’d built so much of my routine as a writer and as an (attempted) leader of writers to that one place. All but a few of my friends were out of a job. Generous tips in the last few weeks and a souvenir keep cup were all I could manage.

If that sounds a little silly, getting all busted up over a java joint closing, consider this: of my 2200 blog entries, perhaps 20% were written there in the grip of a chair deeper than a philosophy course. Every novel I tried to write from 2010-2015 was attempted there as much as it was at home; I owe three finished drafts and four unfinished ones to my third place. When I had mind-numbing chores to do at work and an open schedule, I’d sometimes retire there to work in peace and rate undergraduates or read faculty applications.

Worse, no other place is as close or as bright or as comfortable; ever since the library where I work installed a Starbucks above my office they’ve lost whatever luster they might once have had (their coffee is awful too). The other indie shops in town are either too far away or too uncomfortable. There’s one other High Point location, the last survivor, but it’s downtown where the parking is meager and the drunks run thick. It’s always packed to the gills and overrun with weirdos, like that creepy dude who takes surreptitious pictures of ladies’ lower limbs.

I’ll live. I’ll find another third place. But you never forget your first, whether it’s your first third place or your first indie java joint. Farewell, HPC West; we’ll always have the writing.

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The excitement of wee sleepers, safely tucked into bed. I’ve not known it for decades.

Some will never know it at all.

And yet, selfishly, I mourn a feeling that I will never have again. And let the wonder of the morning, brightness and joy, pass me by in a cloud of melancholy. And let the horror of those without, those who have never and will never, glide by in my preoccupation.

Does that make me a bad person, or just a mediocre one? And which is worse?

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The public administrator’s office, the place where the unknown and indigent dead’s estates were tracked down and disposed of, was an unlikely customer for cutting-edge technologies. Yet when a body was discovered, there was so much that the public administrator needed to know: the names of next of kin, terms of a will (if any), assets and debts. Investigations tended to be long and expensive.

With the introduction of cerebral synergy units, that all became much easier. The raw contents of a mind dumped at the coroner’s office, turned over to whoever needed it.

“All right,” said Calvin, speaking into a recorder built into his headset. “This is Calvin Matthews, an investigator working for the City of Hopewell public administrator’s office. My subject today is one Mr. Joseph Devine, born January 9, 1950 and found dead of natural causes in his home on November 19, 2015. In accordance with a warrant issued by the City of Hopewell circuit court, I am now going to attempt recovery of information and assets through cerebral synergy.”

There was no switch to throw, no button to press. All it took was a thought.

Calvin was Joseph Devine.

There was dancing. So much dancing! Joseph had, in the words of his neighbors, been a man who kept to himself, a man who never went out. But the memories that animated his life, that took up the greatest portion of his being, were of dancing and lights, laughter and the pungent odors of bodies in motion.

The Speakeasy on West State soon after it opened in ’67. Long hours of gyrating in blinding smoke to jazz players up from Chicago, down from Detroit. That disco joint on Division, what had it been called? Zucker’s. It had burned down in ’78, never rebuilt. But every nut and bolt of the place was laid out in Joseph’s mind.

His partners were blurry, indistinct, unimportant. All that mattered was the experience, music on the keen cutting edge of the world, and the motion. And then it had all come to an abrupt halt.

Inspired by the song ‘Joe 90’ by Hiroki Kikuta, released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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Said she: “Why dost thou do this, the selling of tissues? Surely the income thou earnest cannot cover thine costs, not in a time and a city which hast known much of sorrow yet prides itself on never shedding a tear.”

Said he: “It is my lot to soak up the tears of a weeping world. For all they who hold in the weeping for lack of something soft with which to meet their sorrows, I am there. For all those who wish to comfort and dry the tears of their dearest ones, I am there.”

Said she: “But why?”

Said he: “For I have known much of weeping in my own life. I have never turned down a person who sobbed but could not pay.”

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The Captain’s crew explored the reef and lagoon for several hours, many of them marveling at the long-silent technology and well-preserved relics of the Bygone Age that still littered the beach. The tower at the center of the lagoon was at an unsteady angle, and exploration was limited to ten minutes at a time by the Captain’s orders. He also opened the arms locker to make sure that none of his men attempted to make off with a valuable antique, as he fully intended to see anything they took from the islands placed in a museum or given over for a thorough examination.

“Look at this, Cap’n,” said the bosun upon returning from his shift exploring the unsteady tower. “A message in a bottle.”

“Aye, that it is. And a fine way of keeping the note from being corroded by salt water and spray.” Uncorking it, the Captain read the missive aloud:

To all who may read this, know that I have struck out in search of something bigger than my island and myself. I do not regret taking this chance over a life of safety and comfort. All I ask of anyone who finds this note is to honor my choice and to do what they can to see that our little home, and the years we spent there, are not wholly forgotten.

-Nerissa-of-the-Sea
-5734-MY

“What do you make of that, Cap’n?” said the bosun, noting his commander’s silence after the last words faded away amid the roar of surf and sky.

“I suppose that whoever lived here made the same choice we all did,” the Captain said thoughtfully. “We’ll do our best to honor their wishes.”

“Do you suppose they found their way? Found another shore?”

The Captain looked out to sea, taking in the green swells, the dark shape of his own vessel, and the towering clouds on the far-distant horizon. “I’d like to think so,” he said after a time. “I’d like to think so.”

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The mummified and discolored skin around the glowing points of light that were the lich’s eyes softened, the great sloping brow beneath what long and stringly strands of white hair remained to him lifting in surprise. “Lady Syn,” he croaked in a voice that was tomb and sepulchre doors creaking on their hinges.

“Lord Verice.” Dessicated flesh about the other lich’s sunken cheeks and her own ember-bright eyes grew gentle, even compassionate–and expression they had not worn for countless years of sorcery and undeath. Tentatively, she reached out a hand that was alive with dark magicks and ran it over Verice’s face, recoiling not at all when it rustled across parchment-thin spots or the jagged hole where once had been a nose.

“It has been so long,” Lady Syn said with uncommon gentleness.

“So long.” What might have been a tear, watery and impregnated with vile preservatives, slid an oily path down Lord Verice’s cheek.

“I have…done things,” Syn said softly. “As you can see. Things that not all would be proud of.”

“You have done what you must,” said Verice, sadly but firmly. “As have I.”

“Do you think…that perhaps…we could…?”

Verice shook his head. “It has been too long hasn’t it? Do we even remember how to feel the way we once felt?”

“The memory will have to be enough,” Syn croaked sadly. “Or the memory of the memory.”

Inspired by this image.

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Paulsen, head of the Auctions Unlimited team that had hired me, thrust a pitted and flimsy set of keys at me. “Here. First key’s for the main door, second’s a skeleton for the bar and restaurant, third’s a skeleton for the upstairs. No key for the basement; there’s black mold and our liability won’t cover it.”

The Royal Tecumseh had been Deerton’s shining jewel in the boomtown days, lying as it did astride both the road and the rails, within spitting distance of the sawmills. The salad days of cutting and shipping wood south to be made into furniture gave way to a leaner but no less golden age as a rail transshipment point, and the thriving restaurant, bar, and hotel served as the community’s focal point.

“You’re to prepare a written inventory of the contents and photograph each item. Multiple views.” Paulsen took a fresh, deep drag from his cigarette and rubbed out the stub on one of the Royal Tecumseh’s old No Smoking signs. “You can combine them into lots within reason. Every item or lot gets a tag from the stack in your bag.”

It had all ended so subtly that I was scarce able to notice it at the time. The last trains had come through in 1985, and they’d torn up the rails in 1990. The demand for wood had withered away, with what little remained of the furniture industry further south now reliant on cheap foreign timber. In an attempt to remain relevant, the Royal Tecumseh had undergone renovations in 1980. They’d been a disaster, slathering stucco and paint over the intricate brickwork and aluminum siding over the ornate pediments that had been common to all buildings of the 1870s (to say nothing of slapping cheap pressboard panels and kitschy artwork over the old wallpaper and woodwork).

“The auctioneers arrive in two weeks and demolition starts in four. That’s your timetable. You can stay in one of the rooms upstairs if you want, but there’s no heat and no water and the place is lousy with rats.” Paulsen offered no alternatives; the Royal Tecumseh had been the only hotel in town, after all. I figured I could walk in from my parents’ old house, since I’d already arranged for the water and sewer to be temporarily reconnected.

A minor bribery scandal had been the end; it had come out that the proprietors, the sixth set of hands the Royal Tecumseh had been in since its inception, had been quietly avoiding inspections through payola. They’d lost their liquor license, and with it the last vestige of business. The doors had shut for good in 2002, with a few half-hearted attempts at revivals. A 2004 attempt to reopen the restaurant as a deli had folded in six months. A plan by a couple of out-of-towners, the Patels, to remodel a bed and breakfast out of the place had failed when the tax assessor had shown up with a $40,000 bill in arrears–a gift from the last owner they’d failed to mention when handing over the keys.

“Payment is expenses up front–keep your receipts–and then a lump sum afterwards, plus five percent of the auctioneer’s premium. You do a good job, there might be more work for you in Petoskey at our next job.” I forced a smile. With the Hopewell Tribune belly-up along with a lot of the other newspapers statewide, and an unemployment level closer to Gaza than anywhere else in the USA, I was lucky to have found a gig that allowed me to use my camera and pen at all. If nothing else, the job would delay the inevitable for a few months. Most people who limped back to Deerton wound up working at McDonald’s.

Looking around the dark and musty confines of the Royal Tecumseh as Paulsen finalized his paperwork, I wondered how someplace once so prosperous and still so historic could have been so mismanaged. The entire east part of town had all but withered away with it, and persistent rumors that the place was haunted hadn’t helped. There were ghosts there, all right. Just not of the sort that made the walls bleed.

They were the ghosts of wasted potential, of squandered history, of the Rust Belt still quietly oxidizing as people like me stood by and did nothing.

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“Harry, you really need to relax,” said Greg. “Stressing like this, missing sleep…it’s not good for anybody, let alone someone who’s…not well.”

Harry was ensconced in a hospital-style bed, surrounded by crumpled pieces of looseleaf paper, open composition notebooks, and three laptops (his current model and the two previous ones) on the tray that was supposed to hold his food. “You need to call a spade a spade, Greg,” he said without looking up. “End-stage pancreatic cancer isn’t ‘not well.’ It’s ‘dying.'”

“You know, they say that a positive mental attitude helps,” Greg said. He shuffled through a few of his old friends’ papers, which seemed to date all the way back to their high school days. Reams of faded pencil told of the stories Harry was always scribbling in class when he should have been paying attention.

“They don’t say anything about a realistic attitude, though,” Harry replied, his eye still riveted to his computer screen. “This is a hospice, Greg, not a hospital. The most positive mental attitude in the world isn’t going to change six to eight weeks left into anything but six to eight weeks and seventeen seconds left.”

Greg sighed. The nurses had told him that Harry had been at his computers and in his notebooks constantly since he had them shipped in the day after he had arrived. He’d barely slept, ate only enough to keep from starving, and refused to partake in any of the activities or painkillers that had been proffered.

“Marilyn says her prayers are with you,” Greg said. “I ran into her in the supermarket the other day. Perhaps she’ll come to visit.”

“Well, that’s more than most people get from their ex-wife, so be sure to thank her for me.” Harry’s fingers were flying over his keyboard. “Maybe if she’d managed to crank our a kid or two with me, instead of McPherson, there’d be a better reason for a visit.”

Greg pulled up a chair. “Is this really how you want it to end, Harry? Cut off from everybody, with me as your only visitor? I’ve seen the logbook.”

“Everybody was cut off from me long ago,” said Harry. “My own doing, so caught up in that goddamn firm that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I made my bed, and now I’m quite literally sleeping in it. Wailing and gnashing my teeth aren’t going to help.”

Greg glanced at the computer screen; it looked like Harry was writing prose fiction with a separate window open for an outline. “Well, at least one thing hasn’t changed,” he said, trying to force a smile. “Still writing your stories.”

“After a fashion, yes.” Harry hadn’t shifted his gaze from the monitor since Greg had come in, the glow making his wan features, ravaged by disease, seem even more drawn and angular.

“Goddamn it, Harry, will you stop that?” Greg cried, fed up with being all but ignored.

“Don’t you see that I can’t, Greg?” Harry shouted back. He met his friend’s gaze for the first time, and Greg could see that his eyes were teary.

“Why not?”

“Every day for fifty years I wrote a little of this and a little of that,” Harry said miserably, indicating the accumulated papers and laptops with a sweep of his hand. “Hardly finished anything, never published anything, because I told myself that there would be time later on. The firm or Marilyn or some other little bit of life always came first.”

“It’s natural to think that, looking back with 20/20 hindsight,” said Greg. “That doesn’t mean that you have to bear yourself up over it now.”

“No,” Harry said. “No, no, no, no. I have to finish them, Greg. I have to finish them all: every novel I ever abandoned, every story I left half-finished, every poem that needed the right rhyme, every play that could use a better ending! I have to finish them all, and there’s not much time!”

“Why? Why do you need to finish them so badly?” Greg said. “Why is it more important than living what’s left of your life, Harry?”

“Because when I die, every piece of information that’s up here,” Harry tapped the crown of his head, “dies with me. All the endings, all the plots, all the characters, dead as a doornail. Unfinished forever. It’s like burning a library full of books that have never been written, and it’s my own damn fault for putting it off for so long.”

“So what?” Greg continued. “People leave unfinished stuff all the time.”

“You don’t understand,” Harry said desperately, plaintively. “The life I led, the choices I made…these stories are all that will be left of me after I die, Greg. They’re the only thing I have left to give the world, and the only part of me that has any chance of living on. I can’t let it end with them all unfinished. I just can’t.”

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