Chapter 1 – The Main Character Dies
Winfrey was enjoying a new book and her favorite pastries when the world ended.
One moment, she was taking a sip of coffee, and the next her house exploded around her, firing bits of burning rock and splinters of wood that pierced her skin. She threw herself to the floor, trying to protect her head and face.
Crying and whimpering, she stayed curled up like a fetus while the ground shook and winds raged, the scorching air burning her lungs with putrid chemicals and ash.
She stayed in that position for a long time, so long that she became numb to her terror. Finally, the earth stopped moving and the wind subsided. Winfrey waited a while more to make sure it was truly safe, then struggled to free herself from the debris that piled on top of her.
Coughing and flailing, she crawled out from under a pile of wood, glass and rocks, staring around herself with wide, scratchy eyes.
She coughed as she stood, and gaped in shock. The walls of her second-story apartment were gone.
Not only were her walls gone, but all her neighbors’ walls were gone, and the houses across from her didn’t even exist anymore. Instead, a massive crater stretched a kilometre wide. Downtown, and most of the surrounding neighborhoods, were gone.
What was left of the city was burning. The sky was burning too, thick red clouds roiling like they were alive. Winfrey stared up them, then gasped when an enormous shadow moved behind the clouds.
“My god,” she whispered, unable to tear her eyes away from the shadow. “What is happening?”
A sudden thought took over. Her family! She had to let them know she was okay.
Winfrey scrambled frantically across the remnants of her apartment until she got to the kitchen table where she’d left her phone. Miraculously, it was still there.
Sending up a prayer of thanks, her trembling fingers opened her contact list and tapped ‘Mom’. After two rings, someone picked up.
“Winnie, honey, are you okay? The news suddenly came up with an emergency broadcast, saying a bomb went off. Honey, you okay?”
Forty years old, the sound of her mamma’s voice still made Winfrey tear up. “Yeah, I’m okay,” she got out. “I was at the edge of the blast. Are you and daddy all right?”
“Yes, we’re fine, honey,” her mom assured her. “Candace and Monique are here with us. And we— hold on, they’re saying on the news that this is happening everywhere. Oh, Lordy what is going on in the world? We need to phone Rose. Denver!” she suddenly yelled. “Denver, turn down the tv and phone Rose!”
“Momma,” Winfrey said. “It might take a while, but I’m coming to you, okay?”
“Of course you’ll come here,” her mother said, not bothered by explosions that could level a city, so long as her daughters were all safe. “You come home as soon as you can, honey. Family needs to be together right now. Don’t worry about anything else, you do what you gotta to make sure you get yourself here safely. We’ll figure out everything else after that, you hear?”
“Yes, mamma,” Winfrey said pressing the phone to her ear and hugging herself with an arm covered in dust. “I don’t know if they got emergency vehicles coming or what, but I can probably find a car and—“
A scream on the phone made her blood freeze over, and the line went dead.
Then the keening began, a low sound that began as a vibration and quickly rose to a volume and pitch that broke Winfrey’s eardrums. She dropped the phone, clapping her hands in agony to her ears.
Her eyes were drawn again to the sky, where a huge creature shifted behind the clouds, just out of sight. Then the sky erupted into flame again, aimed at the crater.
Winfrey’s legs collapsed under her. It was a shame couldn’t finish her book and pastries. She hoped her family would be okay.
Winfrey closed her eyes, not wanting to see the tsunami of fire rolling toward her.
It was hard counting stars. They were so far away that Winfrey couldn’t tell if the one she was looking at was single big star, or two little ones clumped together.
Deciding to count it at one star, she moved on, then realized she’d lost count again. With an inward sigh, Winfrey started over.
She didn’t know how long she’d been drifting in space, but it felt like an eternity.
After the fire on Earth hit, she remembered feeling a brief moment of agony, then a spinning sensation as if her very soul was being flung to the far edges of the universe.
Which was an accurate description, because her soul had been flung to the far edges of the universe. Or so she thought. It was hard to tell.
When she realized she couldn’t see or feel her body, terror hit like ice scraping against her. She was in agony until she finally managed to calm herself down again.
After the initial panic faded, Winfrey realized that she didn’t actually feel pain, because she didn’t have a body anymore. She was just a soul floating along, unharmed by the cold vacuum of space. Thank god.
Having just an incorporable soul, she could ‘see’ in all directions at once. The blackness she’d mistaken for blindness was actually because of how empty this part of the universe was.
Tiny pinpricks of stars winked in the distance, but otherwise Winfrey was all alone. There were no suns, planets, moons or even asteroids close. As far as she could tell, not even a spec of space dust floated nearby for her to haunt.
Nothing to distract her when the grief hit.
Her parents. Her family. What happened to them? She’d heard that scream over the phone just before she died.
A heavy, claustrophobic feeling choked her soul. Winfrey felt like she was drowning in the memories of those last moments, and lost sight of the stars around her.
The grief pressed down hard, but it didn’t last forever. Eventually it began to fade, and on its heels came anger.
Anger blazed hot lie fire, and because it reminded her of being burned alive, the ice shards of terror scratched at her again.
Then she would calm, and think of her family again, and grief began anew.
Winfrey spent decades like this. Terrible memories brought alternating waves of choking grief, burning anger and icy fear.
It wasn’t all torment, though. At times, her soul became too tired to continue the cycle, and she got a little break. She used those ‘breaks’ to count the stars.
At first she did it out of boredom. When she lost count, became frustrated and entered the cycle of torment again.
But after a while, she realized that it wasn’t important to actually keep count. If she lost track, she could just start all over again. It wasn’t like there was anything else to do.
Eventually, a new state began to take over. It was calm, and it felt like warm, creamy hot chocolate on a snowy day.
Within the feeling of calm, Winfrey began to explore other memories. Happy ones.
She remembered her mother bustling around the kitchen, teaching her the secret formulas for delicious treats that were the envy of the neighborhood.
Her father often pulled her aside to press a new book into her hands, assuring her she’d love it. He was proven right when she stayed up through the night to finish it, lost in the secret world between its pages.
She remembered her sisters, and how they’d drove her crazy when they were younger. Back then, she believed they existed just to make her life miserable. As time passed, however, old grudges mellowed under experience and maturity. They became best friends who Winfrey could talk to, and could always rely on.
Finally, her beloved fiancé.
Winfrey visited her memories of him often. They were old memories, soft and worn like an old letter read over and over. If she really focused, her soul could just about feel his gentle fingers trailing down her skin, and his strong arms keeping her warm.
He was the best choice she’d ever made for herself. She never regretted that choice, even when he got cancer and left her after only ten years together. She remembered his last words to her.
With weak, dry lips, he whispered how beautiful she was, and how lucky they were to have found each other. And he told her to be brave enough to choose the life she wanted. Anything was fine, as long as she was happy.
All of these memories were the only thing that kept Winfrey sane while she floated alone.
Decades passed in continuing cycles of painful emotions. But as her soul became more and more tempered, the calm she felt settled deep inside.
Eventually, displeased by the lack of attention, all the negative emotions packed up and left for greener pastures.
So here Winfrey was, not particularly worried or uncomfortable, just bored enough to count the stars.
But she’d lost count again. Should she revisit memories again?
Well, what do we have here then?
The voice came completely unexpected, echoing in her mind, and Winfrey’s soul tickled with shock. For a moment, she thought that she’d finally snapped, and was imagining things.
But the voice had been real.
Nearby, an old man with dark wrinkles skin sat cross-legged. He wore ragged clothes and his face bristled with white scruff, but his eyes sparkled kindly. She had the oddest feeling that she knew him from somewhere.
She should say something. What should she say?
A greeting! She should start with a greeting. But she didn’t have a body to speak. Damn. What if he got annoyed by her silence and passed by.
She wanted to beg the kind-looking man to stay with her.
I can’t stay, but I can take you with me, the old man said, sounding amused. And you can just think freely. I can hear all your thoughts.
A god? He didn’t look how she thought a god would. Then she felt a swirling sensation of embarrassment when it hit that he must have overheard that thought right then. Hopefully he wouldn’t be mad.
The old man laughed. I’m the Wandering God, girl. I don’t need the flashy looks, glory or any of that nonsense. I appear in whatever form the viewer feels comfortable with, usually someone harmless they’ve met before.
At these words, the niggle sensation that she knew him from somewhere clicked into place.
You’re 1st Street Ben, she thought.
That so? he said, interested. And who that be?
1st Street Ben was an elderly homeless man she often chatted with in the morning. He often slept in the park near the high school where she worked as a librarian.
That so? the old man said, scratching his chin the exact way she remembered Ben had. Well, good enough for me, so long as it’s good enough for you. But tell me: what’s a nice soul like you doing out here in the middle of nowhere? No worlds in this neighborhood.
Winfrey explained what had happened to her, and the old god shook his head sadly.
Destruction of a world, huh? he said, and heaved a sigh. Yes, I remember the Devourer swallowed up several worlds before the gods could stop it. How long ago was that? A thousand of your Earth years, I think.
This revelation made Winfrey spin. A thousand years!? She’d often joked to herself that it felt like she’d been here for eternity, but she hadn’t expected it was actually such a long time.
Well don’t worry, I won’t leave you here, the old god said. Actually, I’m on my way to see a young friend of mine. If you like, I can reincarnate you there. Unless you have a specific world in mind.
Winfrey thought about it. Do you know what happened to the other souls from Earth? I’d like to join them, if I can.
The Wandering god grimaced in sympathy. I’m sorry, child, but they’d have been scattered like stardust after your world was destroyed. Other gods will gather them up and tuck them into the reincarnation life of new worlds, but there’s no way to tell where the current of the universe took them.
Sadness pressed lightly on her soul.
Thank you anyway, she said. If that’s the case, then I’ll join any world you think would be best. I can be happy anywhere. I’m not fussy.
Happy anywhere, the god muttered thoughtfully, stroking his stubbly chin. He leaned in to look more closely at her, and Winfrey realized that distance only made him appear normal sized. In fact, he was large as a giant.
The god chuckled at her thoughts. When he held out his hand, Winfrey found herself moving for the first time in a thousand years, her little soul nestling into his palm like dandelion fluff.
It was embarrassing how thrilling the sensation of movement was.
You know, this is the best kind of coincidence, he said to her. I was just thinking to myself on the way, how nice it would be for my little friend to have a companion. And lo and behold, I come across you. Almost like I was meant to find you.
He shrugged. Well, the universe moves in mysterious ways, so I won’t question it. He smiled. Did you know, young lady, that your soul and karma are almost perfectly refine and even?
She didn’t know that, but it was flattering to hear.
Will that help me in the world you’re taking me to? she asked.
The Wandering god looked down at her mischievously. About that, he said. How would feel about becoming the Guide for a god?