Flashpoints By Joshua Viola and Keith Ferrell

Flashpoints
By Joshua Viola and Keith Ferrell 
Published Issue 089, May 2021


The first half of Flashpoints was published in Issue 089, May 2021. Click this skull icon for Part 2 to finish where you left off reading in print.


Max lay in bed, accompanied by the familiar chirping beeps of his health monitor. Brave, his dog, stretched out alongside him, her presence the only comfort in a world that had abandoned him. Max couldn’t turn his head, but he gazed into the mirror slanted over the room. After the accident, he hated seeing what had become of his body — a weak, shriveled shell of the young man he had been. But as time went on, he made progress, exceeding doctors’ expectations by taking command of his shredded nervous system. He studied himself in the mirror now and imagined the moment he would sling his legs off the mattress and stand once again.

***

Everything changed the day Max’s father died.  He recalled how anxious his mother was when his dad hadn’t returned from the several-hours drive across the state line to buy fireworks. Mostly, what Max remembered was that it was the Fourth of July. Looking back, he felt guilty that a holiday stuck out more in his mind than his father’s absence. His mom put on a fearless face that evening and took him to a friend’s house. “He probably just got lost on the way there,” she said, her smile shallow and guarded like she was hiding something.  Max didn’t ask what was bothering her. He knew that behind closed doors, his parents were fighting. Because he kept quiet about his misgivings, his mom assumed he wasn’t aware of the drama. What was the point of talking about it?  Max was happy when his mom said he could stay at Wesley McKay’s that night. Wesley’s parents, both of them, remembered to buy fireworks days ahead of time. But Max didn’t end up sleeping there just the night of the Fourth of July; he was there for two nights and three days. Which was fine by Max. Hopefully by the time he returned home, his parents would have finally sorted out their problems. When his mom finally picked him up from Wesley’s house, she seemed strange and quickly shepherded Max into the car. On the drive home, her complexion lost its color and she looked as white as porcelain with an expression just as brittle. Max was certain she’d pull over to park on the shoulder and break down into one of her crying rituals but, to his surprise, she kept going as if the act of driving was the only thing keeping her from breaking into pieces. With a quivering voice, she said, “The police found your dad’s car in a pond about an hour from the house.” Her grip tightened on the steering wheel and she swallowed hard. “They said he probably fell asleep and lost control.”  Probably. Max’s mind unfolded, revealing a thought he’d buried in his subconscious because it was too horrible to contemplate. The day before his dad went missing, he overheard him telling his mom he was going to take his own life. The memory blossomed like an open wound, radiating with pain that spread like a pool of blood across his consciousness and sucked Max into the void. He felt himself swirling down, overwhelmed by the truth that his father had not just forsaken the world and his marriage, but forsaken Max as well, branding his young mind the horrific words he would never forget: I would rather kill myself than live with you. An intense weight threatened to squash Max into insignificance. His only defense was to build a wall around himself to barricade his pain and pretend he didn’t care.

***

On New Year’s Eve, Max and his mom were in Virginia, watching fireworks at his Uncle Dan’s house. Max liked visiting his uncle and staying in the old Victorian farmhouse. It was the strangest house Max knew, which was one of the reasons he loved it so much. The immense three-story structure was flanked on two sides by turrets that climbed another story above the confusion of gabled roofs. The place resembled the house in Psycho, that movie he had watched at Wesley’s five months back. But the Psycho house was scary while Uncle Dan’s was friendly and welcoming. His uncle lived at the edge of a quiet road just outside the small town but was close enough for them to see the fireworks from his porch. The night was one of merriment. They snacked from platters of sandwiches, chips and cookies. They popped popcorn, drank hot chocolate and spiced cider. His mom sang old show tunes. Uncle Dan did magic tricks and taught Max how to fan a deck of cards with his thumb.  As the evening approached midnight, Max scooted to the edge of the porch, where he could best enjoy the panorama of exploding pyrotechnics. Huddled in his coat, he watched the starbursts filling the velvet sky with jewel-like constellations of Christmas colors: red and green and gold. The fireworks whistled upward and exploded in a chorus of violent cheer and as the detonations faded, he couldn’t help but overhear his mom and Uncle Dan talking about him from the opposite end of the porch.  “I wouldn’t worry about him, Susan,” Uncle Dan said. “That’s a lot for a nine-year-old to digest.” “He hardly said anything when it happened,” his mom said. “Not even at the funeral.” “Oliver would’ve been proud of him,” Uncle Dan said. It was always strange for Max to hear his father referred to by his middle name, but that was how Uncle Dan addressed his brother. “He’s a real strong kid. As strong as Oliver ever was.” Uncle Dan’s husky tone got even thicker when he spoke of his brother. When his voice broke, Max turned to regard his uncle. Max’s mom put a hand on her brother-in-law’s shoulder. She kept quiet, sniffled, and turned her face back to the cold sky. Uncle Dan caught Max’s gaze and beckoned, patting the porch railing. Max shook his head, determined to watch from where he was. He hated that they assumed he didn’t feel anything about his father’s passing. He was almost ten. He understood what happened. His father was dead, gone forever. And the vagueness about his death only confirmed what Max knew to be true, that his father had taken his own life. A string of explosions snapped Max’s attention back to the sky. The fireworks formed the outline of a Christmas tree, which was funny given that Christmas ended a week ago. At the top of the tree, a new shape shimmered into view and as Max focused to figure out what it was, the joy of the moment vanished.  Max had never seen a Christmas tree topper that wasn’t a star. Fully formed, this one looked like a human skull with bright green eyes, and he shuddered at the absurdity of it all when he realized it was still growing, looming so large and menacing that his curiosity became fear. The green glow of its eyes lashed out as emerald flames that resembled nothing like regular fireworks. He rose from his chair and stumbled backwards, finding himself in his mother’s arms.  “You’re trembling, Max,” she said. “What’s the matter, Maxie?” Uncle Dan asked. “The — the skull,” Max answered. Hadn’t they seen it, too? “Skull?” his mom said, confused. “What skull?” Uncle Dan bore into Max with his green eyes sharp and intense. All of the men in his family had green eyes. His dad, Uncle Dan and even Max. He met his uncle’s gaze but worried if he stared too long, he’d see flames coming from his sockets as well. “Have you been watching scary movies again?” his mom asked. “No,” Max said, pointing at the sky, where the fireworks had disintegrated into a spill of dying sparks. “There. Where the Christmas tree was. They put a skull on it instead of …” He couldn’t bring himself to say anymore, not when both of them were looking at him like he was crazy. “You’ve got quite the imagination, Maxie,” Uncle Dan said, patting his back. “It’s kind of like making out shapes in the clouds, huh?” “Yeah … I guess,” Max said, clinging to his mother. “Another year ends, another begins,” Uncle Dan said. “Time passes and we have no say in the matter.” He winked at Max. “At least our matter has no say in the matter.”

***

Uncle Dan was always an eccentric guy. He got married during graduate school, Max remembered his dad saying once, but it hadn’t lasted because he spent too much free time on his weird hobbies. “Astral physics,” his dad had explained. “X-Files stuff.” Max didn’t understand what that meant until a few years after his father’s death, when he finally got around to watching that particular TV show for the first time. It meant things that science couldn’t explain, things as imaginary as ghosts and Big Foot. When he was fifteen and during one of his frequent visits, he wandered up to Uncle Dan’s study. Besides an extensive assortment of bizarre books on occultism, the room displayed an impressive collection of ouija boards, tarot decks, and crystal balls, but they were all on high shelves to show that they were off limits.  Uncle Dan was at his desk, thumbing through his journals. “Is the stuff you’re researching, like, fake?” Max asked, bluntly. Uncle Dan laughed. “Most of what I study and teach can be proved by science — but not all of it. There’s a lot science doesn’t yet understand.” “Like what?” “Visions. Projections. Astral transit. Traveling through the thickest curtains of the universe. I’m only just beginning to grasp those truths, but I’m on the brink of a breakthrough, Maxie.” He shut the journal. “As great a breakthrough as any in history. The answers are all around us, we just have to look hard enough for them. They’re binary. Just simple combinations of ones and zeros.” Max didn’t understand much of what his uncle was saying and wasn’t sure he wanted to, but that didn’t stop him from reading the book Uncle Dan handed him. Quantum Mechanics and the Enigma of Time Travel. It was dense reading and never convinced Max that time travel was possible. He had seen Back to the Future and The Terminator. He even read that novel about going back to the Middle Ages by the guy who wrote Jurassic Park. He took the book back upstairs to his uncle a few days later and told him fiction was great and everything, but time travel wasn’t real. Shockingly, Uncle Dan didn’t disagree. “No, time travel as it occurs in most books and films doesn’t exist — but I’m working on a theory of how it might actually exist,” he said. When it came time for Max and his mother to leave, Uncle Dan gave him a small stack of other special books. Their margins were full of Uncle Dan’s notes, so it felt like reading not just the authors’ theories, but also his uncle’s interpretations stacked on top of theirs. Uncle Dan seemed to believe that time travel through astral projection was possible — if you unlocked the parts of your mind you weren’t using, you could learn to pitch your spirit forward or backward in time. Max thought that sounded cool, but to believe it, as his Uncle Dan did, was clearly nutty. Three months later, before he and his mother could make the trip to visit Uncle Dan again, they received a letter from his uncle’s lawyer. When his mom explained that it was an appointment to the reading of Uncle Dan’s will, Max felt that void in his consciousness gape open again, and he imagined himself flung down and clawing the ground to keep from being swallowed into that terrible maw of despair. Max faded in and out and found himself sitting beside his mom in the lawyer’s office, listening to this stranger recite the will. Uncle Dan had left his big old house to Max’s mother. The lawyer handed a second envelope to Max, explaining that the will stipulated Max was to receive this letter. As Max read its contents, he felt himself emerging from the hole, fully aware and absorbing what his Uncle Dan had written. It wasn’t quite a suicide note. Rather, it read like a lab report, neatly printed with penciled afterthoughts scrawled in the margins. Uncle Dan believed his future self would have already perfected the art of projecting backwards in time. He then described, in clinical detail, what he intended to do at a particular time on a particular day — which was to put a gun to his head. Upon reading this, the air in Max’s lungs and throat turned ice cold. He couldn’t breathe and forced himself to recall warmer thoughts until he could proceed. Uncle Dan had believed that he’d never get as far as pulling the trigger, because he was convinced his future self’s astral projection would arrive, just in time, to prevent it. He was convinced that if the threat to his own safety was real, it would be sufficient to convince his future self to act and finally put those years of hard study and practice into motion. Several days after the date and time of the intended experiment, a worried neighbor found Uncle Dan’s body in his study. The neighbor came to the funeral. She was kind and offered her condolences. Aside from her, there were maybe half a dozen other people, including Max and his mom. Uncle Dan wasn’t disliked by any stretch, but he’d been a recluse and made it known he preferred to spend time alone. When his mom decided to sell Uncle Dan’s house and buy a smaller place, Max didn’t blame her. His uncle lived too far away from the main street, the shops and the school.  Word of his uncle’s death spread and everyone in Max’s hometown avoided him, even his friend Wesley. People gossiped how likely it was that two brothers would commit suicide. The implication being that Max and his mom were somehow complicit. When she suggested they move away from town, Max didn’t object. School started only a few weeks after their arrival in the quiet, rural town that Uncle Dan — and Max’s father, too, in childhood — had called home. To Max, with his uncle gone, it felt like anything but. He avoided his classmates, hating the way they all stared, whispering things like he was the nephew of the crazy guy who shot himself. The last items removed from Uncle Dan’s house were his computer and books. With no friends at school, Max seemed glad he had something to keep himself occupied — but the deeper into his uncle’s research he delved, the sadder he became. It was as if his young life was mired in despair. He lacked purpose and seemed only to exist and suffer. Max wasn’t sure when the nightmares started, and he wasn’t sure why he dreamt about being chased by a white delivery truck, the skull made of fireworks looming large behind it, but it was enough to wake him in a cold sweat, pulse hammering. Even during daylight, as the first month of school progressed, shapes flitted at the periphery of his vision.   He cared little for school, much less his grades. Still, his mom reluctantly told him at dinner one evening that his teachers definitely noticed.  “Why didn’t you tell me you’ve been doing so poorly?” she asked. “I want to help.” Max shrugged, staring past his mom and out the window. He watched the sun sink and wished he could reach out and restrain it. Not just stop its descent but freeze it, hold it in place forever just above the horizon, along with everything else in his life.  “I guess … I just hadn’t noticed. Sorry.” “Your algebra teacher’s going to set you up with a tutor,” his mom went on, collecting herself. “It’s not going to help with how things have been at home. I wish you’d try to make some friends. I’m worried about how lonely you’ve become, but I have an idea for that.” “Okay, fine,” Max said, finally meeting her eyes. “To the tutor, I mean. What’s your idea?” She wouldn’t tell him. Then, on Saturday morning, when it became obvious where she was driving to, Max felt a little patronized at first. He was a teenager now, not an apprehensive little kid. She parked outside an animal shelter, where he heard muffled barking. Inside the shelter, they walked by a number of noisy, large dogs. Max knew they were just scared and traumatized — Like me, he thought, a grim realization — until coming across a kennel with several puppies. Tiny little boxers with square muzzles and pointed ears. “Want to get to know one of these girls?” asked the veterinarian tech. “The fawn is super friendly.” “Sure,” Max said, startled at how cheerful the boxer puppy was when the tech placed her in front of him. The little dog scampered down the corridor, daring Max to give chase. While Max’s mother and the tech exchanged small talk, Max finally got the puppy to sit down and let him pet her. She climbed in his lap, licking his face until, inexplicably, she twisted around in Max’s arms and started to bark at something. Maxed looked up, startled. The human skull from that New Year’s Eve night all those years ago had returned.


Start here for the second half of Flashpoints to finish where you left off reading in Issue 089.

He glared at it, shushing and hugging the dog. What did this apparition want? Was he losing it? The more Max fussed over the puppy, the angrier the skull seemed to grow, green flames licking from its eye sockets. After a moment, Max realized the apparition wasn’t going to do anything besides just float there and watch. “I want this one!” Max said to the skull, loud enough so that his mom and the tech would hear. They stared at him as the skull vanished, leaving glittering traces in its wake. The puppy quieted. Max smiled at his mom. “Sorry, I got a little excited.” “You sure told it, didn’t you, girl?” he whispered, scratching the puppy behind her ears. “You’re a brave girl, aren’t you?”

***

Max took the puppy home and named her Brave. She learned fast and grew even faster. With the dog’s companionship, plus the tutoring and some counseling Max’s mother arranged, school got better. What didn’t improve, however, was sleep. Max’s nightmares persisted, awakening him in the early hours of dawn with a rapid-fire pulse and the cold, creeping dread of a fast-approaching delivery truck and the skull glaring down at him. At the foot of the bed, Brave barked and snarled. After school let out, Max dove back into his research on astral projection and time travel. He spent his summer months getting a YouTube channel off the ground, because he figured he might as well share his knowledge with an audience. His channel grew in popularity, although he knew his co-star, Brave, had a lot to do with that. Max started ninth grade in September, and desperately wished he wasn’t going back to school with nightmares that therapy and medication couldn’t cure. But some of his classmates thought having an accomplished YouTuber in their midst was cool.  Brave was still his best friend, though. Their Saturday morning walks in the dog park were the highlights of Max’s week. One Saturday in early October, he let her off the leash and sat down to read his latest acquisition, a book on paranormal phenomena. Just as Max was beginning to consider expanding his channel to include topics like cryptids and ghosts, Brave’s frantic barking broke his concentration as she chased after another dog. The tiny mutt was heading in the direction of the busy two-way street on the far side of the park. No sooner had the other dog’s owner called it back when Max realized Brave was still running. As he raced after her to the curb, she slowed, her barking pitched up to a howl. The skull loomed before them both, hovering in the midst of traffic, more immense and threatening than Max had seen it before. It floated in a swirl of pitch-black smoke, its burning green eyes bright and angry. He felt heat coming off the skull, scorching his skin the closer he got to Brave and the street. Max hooked Brave’s leash to her collar and ran home. He didn’t stop until they reached his house. It was only once they’d gone inside, Max refusing to answer his mother’s questions about why he was so winded, that he realized he left his book in the park. He didn’t dare go back.

***

Weeks later, after discussing the incident with his therapist, Max decided he’d follow her advice — no matter how paralyzing a fear it evoked in him. The skull wasn’t real, she’d said. It was just the manifestation of all the pain and loss and anxiety Max had bundled up since his dad and uncle had died. He needed to confront those fears. Brave was only feeding off them. The dog hadn’t seen or sensed anything beyond what Max was projecting. He decided to take Brave for another walk to the park, their first time back since the last event. If he was going to put all of this behind him, he needed to get on with it. They took a longer path than usual, giving Max time to prepare for what might be awaiting them. The ground on the way was covered by fresh fallen leaves and, beneath them, the rotting remains from past seasons. Max loved the scents that filled the October air — the sweetness of late flowers and the occasional wafts of decay. They passed beneath branches of trees with a few clusters of orange and yellow leaves clinging obstinately. The walk eased his nerves. As they finally approached the park, Max bent down and scratched Brave’s ears. They stood there for a few minutes and, after a long, deep breath, Max guided Brave forward. He scanned the ground on the off chance his book might still be there. That it wasn’t didn’t bother him. “We’ll be okay, girl,” he said. “As long as we have each other.” Max recognized the regulars. The woman with the tiny dog Brave had chased a few weeks ago. An older man with a corgi. It all felt reassuringly mundane. Max spent a while sitting on the bench where he liked to read, watching Brave play with a tennis ball in the dry grass. He kept her on a loose leash this time. He wasn’t going to risk letting her off again. He removed one of Uncle Dan’s books from his backpack and read highlighted portions from a chapter on separating the mind from the body. Just then, the sky on the far side of the park darkened and the skull appeared, looming larger and larger, threatening to swallow everything. Brave snarled. Maybe it was real after all. The dog charged, snapping the leash out of Max’s hand. She dashed after the apparition at full speed. Spurred into action by the only thing Max feared more than the skull — losing Brave — he chased her toward the busy street.  “Brave!” he shouted when they were almost to the curb. “Get back here!” When she reached the curb, Brave didn’t listen, and darted into the street. There were no vehicles in sight. Max barreled after her, shouting desperately for her to come back. He never saw what hit him. But the skull, in its increased agitation, did.

***

Max didn’t remember much of the first few months after the collision. He wasn’t in a coma for all of that time, but he might as well have been. Once he was alert enough to comprehend what was going on, his mother and doctors explained the situation. He had saved Brave, but in doing so, he was hit by an oncoming delivery truck and left paralyzed from the neck down. They said he would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. It was a miracle he survived. Max should’ve fallen into a deep depression and cursed the world over the unfairness of this catastrophe. But strangely, as he lay on his bed or sat in his electric wheelchair, attended to by nurses and technicians, his mind settled into a weird hum as he struggled to understand the reason for this tragedy. And equally strange, that despair over the loss of his father and Uncle Dan, was gone, that gigantic chasm of regrets and heartache, now closed as if squeezed shut between tectonic plates. Brave made the experience easier to bear, as difficult and painstaking as physical therapy was. Max didn’t know what he would’ve done if he’d lost her. As soon as he could speak clearly enough to start vidding again, he did. It was a useful way to document his recovery, to see, week by week, month by month, that he was, despite the odds, still alive.  Max was able to find some of the books Uncle Dan had left behind on audio and e-book, and, with the help of an experimental new brain-to-computer interface, he read the electronic volumes with ease. It was almost like his uncle was still with him in a way that even his father was not. Uncle Dan’s death was tragic, but it had, ironically, given Max’s life purpose. Nearly five months after the accident when he had finally been sent home, an e-book was recommended to him by a subscriber, one who left a single comment: Read Journeys Beyond the Body, Maxie, and you’ll understand. Maxie. Only his uncle ever called him that. Even more bizarre, the subscriber was identified by a string of ones and zeros: 01000100 01100001 01101110 Binary.  He input the numbers into a translator. Dan. Max jerked, an impossible reaction given his paralysis. Had Uncle Dan contacted him, not from beyond the grave, but through the astral plane? Try as he might, Max tried to move again but couldn’t. He glanced at himself in the mirror, at his useless hands and legs. Had he hallucinated? He reread the string of 0s and 1s. Dan, still. A shiver of recognition wiggled down the base of Max’s skull. He fell asleep reading the recommendation, then awoke with a start, feeling uneasy, like he wasn’t entirely himself. Detached, somehow. He collected his thoughts and moved his tongue, the magnetic implant in his mouth allowing him to control his wheelchair. He backed away from his desk and made a quick sweep of the room. Brave was there, asleep next to his cluttered bookshelf. She raised her head, yawned, and panted. Turning his attention back to the computer screen, Max tried to pick up where he left off. The chapter he’d been reading was an engrossing theory of astral projection representing a functional map of the body’s entire nervous system. Re-reading the section brought an epiphany crashing down, sudden as a firework. Had his future self — his remaining unparalyzed nerves in his brain, his skull — traveled back to his younger self watching those pyrotechnics in the sky over a decade ago while he was sleeping? And again and again, flashing his astral self to specific points in time until his projection appeared over the busy street by the park. Was the skull — no, Max — warning himself of the approaching delivery truck to try and change the future? Or was the skull foretelling of events that needed to happen if Max was to be here? Paralyzed, yes. But his spirit free for the first time in his life. Nerves alight, Max’s fingers twitched. Brave must have noticed, too, because she got to her feet and trotted to him. Max gazed into the mirror and willed his fingers to move. They did, barely, but enough for him to brush against Brave’s cool, wet nose.  Cool.  Wet.  The sensations were glorious. His eyes blurred with tears. A signal pulsed down his arm for his hand to wipe his eyes, but they remained still. Not yet. Soon. Uncle Dan’s death was tragic, but it led to Brave’s presence in Max’s life — and to a great door of knowledge opening up to him. Max wiggled his fingers again, rubbing Brave’s nose. Now, he had work to do. He had hope.


Joshua Viola is a #1 Denver Post bestselling author, four-time Colorado Book Award finalist, and the owner of Hex Publishers.


Keith Ferrell was the author of a dozen or so books, fiction and nonfiction, as well as over 1,000 magazine and encyclopedia articles and essays. He was co-author, with Brad Meltzer, of the New York Times bestseller History Decoded. From 1990 to 1996, he was editor-in-chief of OMNI Magazine. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’sBlack Mist, Millennium 300, Nightmares Unhinged, Cyber World, among others. His website.

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