I. I climbed to the top of the city, as high as I could go. Flights of stairs bowed before me, banisters kissed my hands. At last I reached the summit, and from there I could see forever, time stood still with no one but me and the clouds to experience it. I untied my shoes and set them aside, stood six inches higher, freed my toes over the edge of nothing: me, the king of the end of the world. Awake at last, I breathed the thin, clean air, said goodbye to the concrete, and leaped into the sky. II. I hoped for nothing, but I did not deserve nothing. I opened my eyes to a cold ceiling, wood adorned with cobwebs. Dirty light trickled in between boards nailed over the nearby window long enough ago that they were rusted loose. Where was I? This house wasn't mine, yet it looked so familiar. The rooms were disjointed, they didn't belong-- I've been here before. It was my house, or some kind of conglomeration of the various houses I'd lived in growing up, the rooms and furniture placed as though I'd left them one day, collecting dust, collapsing, but otherwise just as I remembered them. Suddenly I felt as though I didn't belong here. My stomach tied itself in knots, my eyes felt like they were expanding in my head. Dread washed over me like a wave, even before I heard the noises from downstairs, and I knew something else didn't think I belonged here, either. III. Through the door came something inhuman, grotesque and twisted up, its parts foreign to me, though clearly out of shape and out of place, maybe out of time. If it had eyes, I have no doubt I would've seen hatred in them, anger and violence directed at me simply for existing in this place. In ways I could barely comprehend, it moved through the doorway, what could've been its head twisting and jerking, seeking me out, hunting me. It made a sound I'll never describe or forget, and then it came toward me, and I ran for my life. IV. This world could barely be called a world, for all it had was earth. The house stood in the middle of nowhere, nothing but dirt in all directions, uneven, littered here and there with gravel and dust, all of it sprawled out, discarded under a deep brown sky. Still I ran, careful not to trip over the occasional rocks or pebbles. I looked behind me once and saw a small dot on the horizon: The house (or perhaps the Creature?). I noticed footprints on the ground, slightly less dirty dirt, where my feet fell. Still somewhat afraid, I stopped running to check the bottom of my shoe, and found a blackened sole. I noticed then the snowfall, only it wasn't snow, it was black on black fluttering from the sky, ashes. V. Time is different in this place. Where sand falls in an hourglass, always constant, always moving, here time was more like dust, fluttering, floating, sometimes moving, sometimes stagnant. For days or weeks or seconds I wandered the wasteland, trying to keep in a straight line, trying to keep that thing behind me. Slowly it occurred to me that I was being punished, that this was what I deserved, and just then a feeling came over me, so apparent that it may as well have been a voice, confirming my fear. It said only one thing: "You will walk." VI. Nothing is so bad with someone beside you. Restless nights, hunger, sadness, music you don't like, films you don't want to watch. Pain. Endless walks. Suffering. Waiting. In this place, I am truly, utterly alone. VII. Only the universe or time or god or death or nothing-at-all knows how long I walked, kicking up a wake of dust, leaving behind the same emptiness I saw unending ahead of me. A shape appeared in the distance, faint at first, so faint I thought I imagined it. As time went on it grew larger, closer, more solid, more there: a mountain. Something. I knew I was meant to climb it, to reach its peak, and maybe this wasn't all for nothing. Eventually, with the mountain growing ever so slightly with each passing year, the dust gave way to patches of grass, standing dead stalks that blew in the wind, and almost without me noticing, I stood in a field of ash-covered grass. VIII. Across that field, worn and twisted frames of mirrors protruded from the earth, jagged pieces of glass clinging to them, or littering the ground. Though I was the only soul who walked that land, in the reflections I could still see the faces of those who broke the mirrors, as twisted and broken as the wood and glass, shame and disappointment in their eyes, disgust at their own appearances. But to me, they were beautiful, each and every one. Except for my own. IX. I felt something then, similar to what I'd felt when that creature had chased me in the house when I first arrived here, eons ago. Though where that was a feeling of displacement, of being chased or hunted, this was the opposite: a pull where that was a push, a collapse where that was a hanging. I heard a voice, a sobbing, pure sorrow, and followed it to a woman amid the broken mirrors. It looks as though the dust collected around her, but when I was closer I realized it was a cloud of flies, buzzing and landing upon her and dropping dead with the passing of time. She made no attempt to dissuade them, only sobbed, her hands on her face. Then she looked into a mirror and screamed, and I saw her take a piece of jagged glass from the ground. I looked away as she gouged out her own eyes. She continued to scream, not in agony, but in the same pain that had come from seeing her own reflection. When her screams returned to crying, I could bear to look again, and saw her discard her eyes, throwing them on the ground. Flies surrounded them, devoured them, laid their maggots within them. The passing of time saw the woman's eyes grow back, tearful, blood streaking down her cheeks. Then she saw her reflection, and again gouged out her eyes, leaving them for the insects. I realized it was an endless cycle, and I wished I could help her. Could I convince her not to look in the mirror? No, I'd rather convince her what she saw wasn't worth her reaction. Before I could do anything, I felt a familiar fear, one I'd felt lifetimes ago, and turned to see the creature from the house, finally caught up to me. X. All the walking was nothing compared to the effort of the climb. Each jagged rock cut at my fingers, each lift of my weary legs threatened to be the last. But I had hope now, something I'd been missing for a while. Once upon a time, I'd jumped into the sky. Now I climbed. Up and up I went, where that creature couldn't follow, above the mirrors and the ash, where the air was clear and something like stars shone above, little lights or maybe little holes poked into a sheet of darkness that covered this place. Maybe I could reach one and claw my way out. XI. From the summit I could see everything: All the things I'd left behind. The reasons I'd left, how they paled in comparison to what could've been. I could see the hole I'd left in the world, all the things that had left holes in me, and the things that would've filled those holes if I'd only kept going, kept walking, kept climbing. And here, I could see the wasteland wasn't endless, in fact it wasn't even all that expansive. I could see the creature, how it too was a part of me, not something to run from, but to embrace. All the things, good and bad, that come together to make up a person. XII. But what good did it do me now? Here, in this place? Atop the mountain was the trunk of a long-dead tree, long-dead like me. I squeezed myself into a crack in the tree, sat inside the stump, safe from everything out there. I felt sheltered, secure, even in my loneliness, even in my emptiness. I couldn't help but laugh. Had I learned nothing? giving up had gotten me nowhere. Climbing mountains had brought me here. There must be something left out there. XIII. With only one way to find out, I ran down the mountain. XIV. If you were beside me, it would've been different. I wouldn't be in this place. (I'd be somewhere.) I never would've leapt. (I'd have stood my ground.) I never would've run. (I'd have faced my fears.) Never been alone. (You'd have been right there.) But you aren't here. You weren't even there. You meant the world to me. That was my mistake. I shouldn't have lived for you. I should've lived for me. XV. Sometimes things disappear when you aren't looking. Sometimes small things, sometimes things you don't even miss. Sometimes everything, and you'll never be the same. Everyone leaves. Drifts from the tree. My roots are planted, and I stay here. But summers come and go, and even when you fall, someone comes along and fills that void in me, at least for a little while. At least I'm warm again. Not alone. Not always. Maybe someday someone will even stay. What a beautiful place that would be. XVI. You held out for me A handful of hyacinth petals I held out in return A handful of dust. And when time had frozen And all stars had settled, All memories fading, All worlds gone to rust No words were spoken No shedding of tears Just both of us wading Through oceans of years What do we find At the edge of time But beginnings and ends The world starting again I looked in your eyes You looked back at mine We stood at the end Waiting for death, my oldest, dearest friend. XVII. New Wings. New Day. New Winds. Fly Away.