The Gentleman's Coin | Short Story

I met Death once.

He was an older gentleman, seated at a park bench near me and talking with a young woman. His hair was long and grey, slicked back beneath a velvety black hat. Round-framed glasses pinched his prominent nose, and his mustache was full and quite well-groomed. The gentleman’s posture was casual, yet I knew who he was the moment I saw him. My suspicions were confirmed once I overheard his conversation.

“I can tell you the time and place. You can choose the way, if you’d like.” His voice was deep, and he spoke softly.

The young woman’s back was turned to me so I couldn’t hear her words, but I knew them from her body language.

I… I don’t know. Can I think about it for a while?

The gentleman shook his head, his expression apologetic.

I see… She sighed and looked out over the park in a daze, eyes staring through the distant trees and people. A lock of hair fell over her face, but she didn’t seem to notice. The gentleman fiddled with an object in his palm. For nearly two minutes she was motionless, but I saw her eyes working through the question. Then she sat upright suddenly, leaned towards the gentleman, and whispered.

“March 14th, twenty one years from now,” he replied. “ It will be at a café near Sixth and Main, but it hasn’t been built yet.” He spoke carefully and calmly, making eye contact only at the end. It was personal, but not emotional. She nodded and stood up. He tipped his hat. Then she walked across the park in a light stride, something between numbness and floating. It occurred to me then that the woman could be no more than thirty. Already she was more than halfway through her life.

The gentleman stayed at the bench for a while, watching the children and dogs, still fumbling with the object in his hand. Curiosity got the best of me, so I went and sat next to him.

“You want to know who I am, don’t you?” he said without averting his gaze.

“Of course,” I replied, though not as confidently as I’d have liked.

“But you already know.” He turned towards me, pulling his focus from the merriment of youth. “I’m Death. Well, the current incarnation, at least.” He looked at me with warm, but weary eyes.

The look on my face asked the next question for me.

“I wasn’t always Death.” He held out his palm, upon which was a bronze coin. It looked ancient, the faces polished smooth by centuries, maybe even millennia. His eyes darted across the mirrored surface, catching reflections from a past life. “I found this one day,” he started, entranced by the object. “Just laying there on the sidewalk. I knew what it was, just as you knew who I was, but I still picked it up.” He hefted it lightly, weighing the choice he’d made. “Back then I was like you. Like all of these people. I had a life, I had love, and ambitions. I didn’t realize it had changed me until... well, there’s no turning back after that.”

For a long moment we both stared at that little piece of metal.

“You want to know why I told the woman when she would die, don’t you?”

“Well… yes. I always thought death was a mystery.”

“Perhaps. But you see…” With a flick of his thumb he tossed the coin high into the air and caught it in his fist. When he opened his hand the coin bore the face of a middle-aged man, wreathed in intricate filigree. There was a pattern hidden in the designs, and I could feel my mind straining to decipher it.

“This is a person who will die by me.” His voice was heavy. “You can’t read it, but these patterns reveal the time and place of his death. Most of the time it’s too soon to do anything about it.” He glanced at his watch and shifted uneasily on the bench. “But sometimes it’s far enough away that I can give them a choice.”

“I go to them, ask if they want to know the time and place, and let them decide how they want to go. Most don’t want to know. It’s their choice, so I just let them be. But then… then, there are the ones like her,” his eyes locked to the young woman, now just a speck among the hundred figures wandering through the park. “I can tell who they are before I even ask. Something in the eyes. They’ll ponder it for a while, then whisper how they want to die. Always a whisper. I tell them their time, we part ways, and they go about their life.”

“You still haven’t explained why. Just giving them that option, it… it feels wrong!” I had trouble keeping the frustration from my voice.

“Because it changes them.” the gentleman replied. “Takes the pressure off, gives them something solid in life. I don’t know for sure.” His eyes dropped to the coin. “And I guess it changes me too. They get to live as fully as they want with the time they have. With purpose. And when I see them again, they’re happier for it. Something I never…” His voiced faded as his fingers turned the coin over and over, each flip revealing a new face. He smiled, though I could tell he was on the verge of tears.

I looked out at the young woman one more time, wondering what her world must be like now, imagining the pressure of living each day to it’s fullest while knowing how few were left. Then another thought lodged in my mind: what had she chosen as her way to die?

The gentleman snorted, glanced at his watch one more time, stood up, and straightened his coat. He started to walk away, then stopped and turned to me.

“Since you were kind enough to chat, I’ll give you the choice. Would you like to know your time?” He held out his hand, the coin resting in his palm. On it was a face, embossed in bronze, adorned with delicate patterns. My face.

My eyes locked to the horizon. Unfocused, wandering the myriad possibilities. I don’t know how long I sat like that, but he stood by patiently until I’d made up my mind.

A minute later I watched as he strolled purposefully across the park, no doubt heading to his next appointment. I pondered our parting words and by the time I realized my thoughts had wandered, he was gone.

I smiled, gathered my things, and went about my life.

10 Miles

Today I wanted to break from tradition and share a personal achievement.

On Saturday I broke 10 miles (16 km) on a run, with an average of 8 minutes per mile (5 min/km). This was something that I've been working towards for a couple months now, and is very exciting. But there's a lot more to it than that, because a year ago running wasn't even on my mind.

Last January I injured my knee, presumably due to over-exertion from running over the winter without a proper exercise routine. After that I took a break, and honestly wasn't sure if I would ever go back to it.

Almost eight months ago I picked it up again, but this time I took it slow. My goal was reaching 5 miles, the distance I almost hit before the injury. At that time, 5 miles was cemented in my mind as the target for the foreseeable future of my life - maybe I would hit 6 on a good day, but that would be my running distance.

Starting again was slow and very, very painful. I had lost almost everything from before, and my first runs were well over 9 minutes for a couple of miles, but I did it. My legs were sore for days and my lungs and sinuses burned, but I pushed myself to run twice a week. There was a big mental change though - I didn't punish myself if I only got one run in, couldn't go as far, or had a slow day. The only important thing was that I was trying, and that I kept going.

When I hit 5 miles I stayed there, as I had planned, for a good three or four months. I think it was my dad who told me I could probably do a 10K - about 6.3 miles - and got me to consider longer distances. I'm a big fan of the metric system, so I went for it, and after another month or so had made that 10K by accident. I started to include more hills and shorter interval training runs to build up strength and endurance. My legs, once sore for days, were tired afterwards, but fine the next day.

Then a funny thing happened.

I realized that running felt good to me. Like, really good. I almost always run at night because I leave work pretty late (and am not a morning person), and the cool air and twinkling lights of the city make it quite pleasant.

I remember when I hit 7 miles - it felt like I was discovering a new world because I went farther into the city. I found the joy of running in the rain, and the thrill of secretly racing rickshaws and skateboarders. I learned how mystical the piers were on foggy nights, and how the bay with a full moon and stars overhead feels like running through space. Running let me be an explorer of my city, but also of my self. When I reached 7 miles, I needed to make 8, and then 9, and then... well I made it to 10. And I realized that it wasn't until I improved and hit those low goals that new ones that I had never considered came into view.

What I'm getting at is not the achievement, but the new perspective on, well, perspective. I think we often have these goals that are quite lofty, and in our attempt to reach them we fall hard and give up on them.

But maybe that's necessary.

Maybe, that failure is what lets us to come back with humility. We try it again, but say things like "this time, I'm just going to focus on doing this a few times a week" or "maybe instead of a whole book, or even a chapter, I'll start with a good first page". And then we do that. And then we do it again. And we keep that up until we realize we're pushing further, and faster, and all these little things we'd never considered before are second nature to us now.

And then, one day, we look back on how far we've come, smile, and keep pushing forward.

Thanks for reading, folks. It means a lot.


POST POST

For anyone who's curious, my next target is a 20K, and then a half marathon. I can see the desire to run a full marathon now, but I think that's still far off. I won't, however, say it's out of the picture!

Also, I realized that I basically ran the length of Deimos, the smallest moon of Mars. Its longest dimension is about 14 km. I find things are much more fun when you compare them to space things. After all, "I ran the length of Mars' moon" sounds way cooler than "I ran 10 miles".

Deimos-MRO.jpg

Deimos, from Wikimedia.org  - How many moons can you run?

Dox | Short Story

Back in school I used to take this stuff called Doxofin. It was stimulant my roommate’s friend whipped up while developing a nootropic for some startup that never took off. She was chem major. Damn good, but damn lazy. She never got around to graduating.

First time I took it was because I was curious. She gave me forty milligrams because she didn’t know how powerful it was at the time. About half an hour in I felt it hit. It was that feeling of running all-out, legs extending as far as they could go, and not feeling out of breath or exhausted. A pure, open, mental sprint that lasted for an hour. Every word, every movement, was calculated, analyzed, optimized, and purely efficient.

After that, I was hooked.

My grades never got better, but they didn’t need to. I was top of my class. My productivity, on the other hand, well that skyrocketed. The stuff I came up with back then blows my mind now. It got me where I am today. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t lost that. Sometimes.

I experimented to the point where I knew exactly how much to take to hit the level I wanted to function at. Eighty milligrams became the base dose. Take that seventeen minutes before class with sixteen ounces of OJ and I could get my work done for the upcoming class, while taking notes and catching up with friends. A hundred-forty milligrams just after dinner would get me a productive all-nighter on a Friday. Another hundred Sunday morning would get my sleep cycle reset for the rest of the week. Sure there was the burnout afterwards — your brain can only run on max for so long, but it wasn’t so bad.

Two hundred milligrams.

Third time I did that was the last time I touched Dox. Two hundred was about six hours of high-octane thinking — eight if you took an additional fifty at the four hour mark. But the crash, that was hell. Depression in the worst, most logical way. I wasn’t good enough to be at that school. All of my accomplishments were because of the drug, not me. Even when I looked at my output for those two years, I would think “yeah, but other people are doing so much more and they don’t take anything for it”. I was worthless, and I was smart enough to know that was true. In the eyes of the universe, we are all worth nothing.

I never contemplated suicide. I was too stubborn for that, and I wanted to prove to the unfeeling world that I was not just a blip on the radar. But I lost the will to operate for days at a time. One of the residual effects of Doxofin is that your perception of time stays warped. Minutes feel like hours, and days… well, that’s an eternity. Kind of like a dream, but worse because you’re trapped in reality. I know that the second time was just a week, but I swear I aged six months from that.

My roommate’s friend had moved onto another job, somewhere in Thailand I think, and with her went my source of Dox. Part of me knew it was the best thing for me. A different part told the first part it was wrong, and gave a well-reasoned argument for why I should keep taking it. Neither side won, because after I stopped I figured out how to synthesize it myself in three days. Like I said, residual effects.

Ten years later I find myself here. On a ship, about eighty thousand kilometers past the Moon, moving away much faster than I should be. An hour ago I became the last living member of my crew. Well, technically that’s not confirmed. I only recovered evidence of three bodies, but after the explosion there wouldn’t be much left of the fourth.

Thirty three minutes ago I got suited up, possibly for the last time. Twenty six minutes ago the module I’m in vented the last of its oxygen to a hull breach, and two minutes after that I determined my only source of breathable air is two kilometers away on the other side of a centrifugal research station. Given how long I’ve been away from Earth, I approximated my bone-mass loss at five percent and my muscle loss at eleven percent. I haven’t eaten in four and a half hours and I’ve used up everything I ate, judging by the slight tremor in my right hand.

Fourteen minutes ago I popped two hundred milligrams of Doxofin, which should kick in within the next thirty seconds. I don’t know how I’m going to make it across two kilometers on a quarter tank of oxygen, but in three minutes I will. All I have to do is wait…

 

 

Boom. Let’s do this.


Side Note: I've renamed this to "Space Drugs" to better set expectations ahead of time, so people realize this is a short fiction and not something more akin to a memoir. Hope you enjoy it!

Fog Giants | Short Story

When I was little, I used to see giants in the fog. Their long limbs would sway like trees, drifting over the misty fields where I would play. They were always silent, always stoic, these tall, limber shadows walking with us in the woods. Each was unique, recognizable by their movements and the creaks of their ancient joints. My friends and I gave them names, but I’ve long since forgotten them all.

 
 

Back then they would come right up to us, just barely out of reach. We would go on adventures through the forests, vanquishing the demons from our dreams and finding buried treasure lost to the world of adults. They guarded us against the terrors of the woods, and showed us the secret paths over the deepest streams and through the thick brush filled with thorns. Sometimes we would borrow ropes from home and climb high into the trees, hoping to see their faces, but we never could climb high enough.

 
 

One day my friends and I were playing in the forest. The skies were clear and the barren trees had started to grow the first leaves after winter. It was a bright, dry day and from the hilltops we could see for miles. We were digging up crayfish in the creek when ear-splitting cracks echoed through the woods nearby. In our naive curiosity we went to investigate, taking a vantage from a nearby ridge. Figures of men, huddled around another form, their bodies tense and angry. We had spotted something they didn’t want us to see, and though we thought ourselves sneaky, they spotted us too.

I’ve never forgotten the biting air rushing through my mouth and nose as I sprinted through the underbrush. They were fast, but these were our woods and we knew them perfectly. My friends had split, gone in different directions in the hope our divergent paths would confuse the men. I was on my own, and heard two sets of feet chasing me down, accompanied by metallic clicks I dared not think about. The rustling of brush and cracking of dead branches blended into a cacophony that seemed to last forever.

 
 

It wasn’t until my lungs were burning and my legs had turned to rubber that I realized the thick, white fog enveloping me. The woods were filled with it, and I could barely see the trees ten feet away as I stumbled through them. The footsteps chasing me were gone. I collapsed on the ground and looked up, and the shadows of the giants looked down upon me, their bodies a towering wall protecting me from the world. I lay there for hours, nervous, shaking, and exhausted, but the fog didn’t clear that day.

My friends and I never talked about what happened. I’m not even sure it was real, anymore. Eventually we grew older and drifted apart, our lives taking us on our divergent paths. Sometimes though, when the weather is just right and the fog creeps along the streets, I spot one, just out of the corner of my eye. My old invisible friends, keeping watch over me even now.

 
 

I hope you enjoyed this little story. I wanted to try something different, adding a few little illustrations to go along with it. I have a few more that I'm working on that I hope to share soon. Thanks for reading!