Excerpt for Lifting the Veil: Fallen by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Book I of Lifting the Veil

A Novel by John O’Brien

Published by John O’Brien at Smashwords

Copyright © 2018 John O’Brien

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in review, without permission in writing from the author. You may contact the author at

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Other books by John O’Brien

A New World Series

A New World: Chaos

A New World: Return

A New World: Sanctuary

A New World: Taken

A New World: Awakening

A New World: Dissension

A New World: Takedown

A New World: Conspiracy

A New World: Reckoning

A New World: Storm

Companion Books

A New World: Untold Stories

A New World: Untold Stories II



Ares Virus: Arctic Storm

Ares Virus: White Horse

Ares Virus: Phoenix Rising


Red Team: Strigoi


A Shrouded World: Whistlers

A Shrouded World: Atlantis

A Shrouded World: Convergence

Author Notes

First, thank you for taking the chance with this book. For those of you who have read my earlier series and books, I want to say that this one is very different than those others. So, I’ll mention from the very get-go not to expect the same kind of writing and style that you found in those.

As this is a different story than the one I’m used to writing, I have a few disclaimers that I want to put out right off the bat. Although this is a story references to portions of the book of Revelation, it is in no way meant as a religious text or ideology. I don’t mean or want this to be taken literally or for the reader to think this is an establishment of belief. The same goes with regards to any politics that might be within. This started off as, and is completely, a story. I ask that you take it that way and don’t read anything else into it.

In the same regard, this also isn’t a scientific or deep reading into the Book of Revelation. It is a very simplified version with some of the chapters and verses used for the story. In places, I have altered some of the aspects. For instance, Revelation has the seven seals placed upon a single scroll. In the book I have changed that to seven scrolls, each with their own seal.

Now, there are several nations mentioned and their actions are only for story progression, nothing more. Again, this is not a book about ideology, either religious or political. I joked to my mother when I gave her the manuscript that I have stayed away from both of those in all of the previous books, yet here I have included both in great quantities, as if I had saved them for this very purpose. So, again, read this without thinking there was a deeper meaning portrayed. And, I apologize in advance if anyone from those nations is offended. I meant no disrespect.

As you read, the story isn’t exactly linear and there are parts where the time line jumps forward and back to a degree. And, as time is measured differently in the spiritual realms as opposed to that on Earth, there may be some events that don’t appear in sequence. Some of the story is based on a higher level look at world events, with glimpses of personal experiences. The news articles within are pulled from current events and ones that we are experiencing in real life. I’ve included them in detail, some being repetitious, just to present real-time references. Please excuse them if they come across as tedious.

There are parts that may seem repetitious, but I offered them in the story from the contextual point of view of the character in the story. And as such, the descriptions may appear to be the same as ones mentioned in previous sections.

So, now that I have the disclaimers out of the way, let’s talk about the book. This whole story began during one of my sleepless nights and envisioned and angel on earth fighting in a realm we aren’t able to witness. I pictured a figure holding a blazing sword with eyes of silver glowing fiercely. The story took off from that and I was up the rest of the night composing the book you’re about to read in my head. The next three nights were sleepless ones as well as I narrowed it down. Then, I hit the keyboard and it was writing non-stop for days on end as the tale unfolded onto the monitor. I had one scene I wrote right off the bat that was supposed to be at the start or middle. As the story unfolded, it ended up at the very end and a second book in the series needed to tell the entire tale. I just hope I have enough story for another one…haha.

This is a tale told on two levels; the one in heaven as light fights the growing darkness, and the one on earth where souls live through the results of decisions made. It was both and exhilarating story to write, and a frustrating one. In some parts, I could let the tale unfold as it wanted to and flow without guide posts set into place. In others, the story had to be carefully sculpted in order to fit within precise guidelines and may come across as a quasi-documentary. And the research required was seemingly endless. For every hour I wrote, I spend at least that much time or more researching. I have to admit that I almost set this project aside as it became far too complicated. But, I stuck with it day by day and it eventually straightened itself out.

I really hope you enjoy the story on the pages inside, and again, don’t read too deeply into it. Thank you all for the tremendous support you have given me over the years. I am often humbled by how much I have been given and I thank you! Drop back over and leave a review when you finish as I’d enjoy seeing how you liked this book. Again, to all of you, thank you!


Table of Contents


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine


Chapter Ten

About the Author

Connect with me Online


Elohim stood atop the thick wall, the white surface marbled in gold. On both sides were ten elders with furled wings, holding their scepters. Silver eyes blazed, their gaze searching beyond the heavens. With light and music without source filling the air, the elders turned their attention to focus on Elohim.

Elohim stared beyond the borders of the realm to the creation of life they were all responsible for. Fashioned from the tree in the garden, a sacred place guarded by the Cherubim, souls were created and grown in order to join with the light once they had proven capable. Elohim turned his gaze to the elders, taking note of how few remained after the fall. The darkness had been dispelled long ago, but had escaped its prison and began assailing the Earth. Souls became corrupted, the darkness growing within them and allowing it to gain strength. Since then, the battle had been unrelenting.

Holding his staff in a firm grip, Elohim returned his concerned gaze toward Earth. The population centers of humankind dotted the surface, cutting into the beauty of nature from which they had been carved. Darkness hovered over the cities, making each look cancerous and bruised, and threatened to engulf the entirety of light’s creation. But, in the midst of the spiritual gloom covering the Earth, bright spots of light shone. The battle for souls had been a long one, and the light had found itself on the losing end. Lucifer and the others who had fallen were subtle and patient, their power growing with the passage of time. It was time to stem the tide before everything was lost.

Elohim banged the heel of his staff on the marbled wall and a gong rang outward, echoing across the heavens. Trumpets blared, the air vibrating from their blasts. Angels that had gathered in the air overhead flew forth, their gleaming armor catching the light and their readied swords with blazing white fire radiating from the edges held in their hands. Leading the contingents were the remaining seven archangels, their faces grim with determination. The armies of heaven streamed out, ready to battle the demons of the dark and drive them back.

Saddened that events had come to this point, Elohim thought about how humankind had brought this upon themselves. They had forgotten who they were, forgotten their purpose, and had delved into selfish endeavors. The tree of life gave them free choice in order to grow, their decisions allowing the soul to either prosper or diminish. Darkness was at fault. It had twisted that same free will into choices that that now strengthened the enemy. Time and time again, this had happened throughout the course of creation, forcing his hand.

This time, however, the darkness was too strong and his only choices were to fight or to forever banish the life he had created. And even if they prevailed, it might not be enough; the darkness had grown so strong that it might be able to break the doors of heaven.

Even if the creation were destroyed, that wouldn’t end the fight. The souls captured by darkness were still tied to the tree of life, and Lucifer and his minions were torturing them in order to foul the roots of the tree. However, if he could deny the dark more souls, he felt he could contain the damage and preserve the light. That meant the light would never grow, but it also meant it couldn’t be destroyed.

The echoing horns faded and the armies descended into the spiritual plain as the demons readied themselves in defense.

Chapter One

Apocalypse—(Ancient Greek: ἀποκάλυψις apokálypsis, from ἀπό and καλύπτω, meaning “lifting of the veil”)

With a host of angels following, Michael swept toward the gathering darkness. The demons of hell had prepared and were ready for them. Clutching his spear, he looked to the sides, where his brothers were leading other hosts. The upcoming battle wasn’t one in which he could flank or use subterfuge. This was a pure frontal clash between old enemies with the goal to push back the minions of darkness. He held three hosts back in order to reinforce or flow through any gaps they managed to create, but for the most part, this was to be a battle of strength versus strength.

The hosts of hell were arranged behind greater demons. Michael felt the presence of the three brothers who had chosen to follow Lucifer, but couldn’t see them in the gathered mass. Further to the rear, he felt the presence of the thirteen elders who had fallen.

Flaring his wings, beating them in great sweeps, he halted and hovered above the amassed horde. Those behind gathered and readied themselves. Glancing over his shoulder, the light of the heavens shone from each angel, their silver eyes bursting with light. There wasn’t a flicker of fear or despair, their faces stoic and determined. Each knew what they faced; each was ready. To the sides were Raphael, Gabriel, and Uriel, each with their own host and holding bright swords sheathed in light. Behind were Selaphiel, Azriel, and Chamuel, all recently risen to replace those who had fallen.

Below, the demons waited in endless columns and rows, each enshrouded in flickering red flames and smoke. Red surrounded black eyes as they gazed in anger at the gathered armies of light. Michael raised his spear and sent a bright streak of light upward where it erupted in a massive explosion of righteous thunder. Below, the demons answered with a monstrous roar that shook the foundations of the universe.

Hovering, with great gusts of wind billowing from his wings, Michael’s eyes blazed. Some on Earth equated angels with mercy, kindness, and benevolence. Not on this day. Today they carried vengeance and ruthlessness. Angels could be terrifying if roused to anger, their sense of justice not the same as those who walked the surface of the earth. Not a soul of humankind could withstand the gazes now directed toward the armies of darkness.

Never one to make speeches of glory, Michael folded his wings and dove at the waiting masses. His bellows in a language never heard by human ears rang across the universe, the force of his words alone driving some of the demons clear of the field in fear. Behind him, the angels of light followed with song on their lips and bright swords held firm.

Balls of fire streaked toward the descending horde only to splash against opaque blue shields cast by the four streaking archangels. His phrases drawing energy from the cosmos, Michael released his shield and thrust his spear forward. A bolt of light raced downward with a clap of thunder. It slammed into the leading ranks and tore a wide swath through their midst. Other streams of light from his brothers and sisters to either side tore through the demon ranks. Bluish-white light mixed with flame and black smoke, the echoing howls of those slain fading as if from a great distance.

Additional balls and streaks of fire rose, slamming into hastily raised shields. Each forceful impact created cracks in the raised angelic shields, the subsequent hits widening those already formed. Behind the leading archangels, voices rose that filled the heavens with music. The chanting songs that sprang forth were nothing like those heard within heaven’s walls, but were instead deeply foreboding and filled with malice. The skies thrummed with the voices of a million angels singing as they carried their swords to battle. Light rose from the ranks and streamed toward the demon horde. More demons turned and ran rather than face the terrible swords of light.

The shields weakened and cracked, exploding asunder from the assault launched below. Fireballs rose and crashed into the descending angels, but still they dove. Michael rolled and turned from an approaching streak of fire. Swinging his spear, he sliced at the furnace-hot flames. Connecting, an explosion of white and red threw him to the side. Recovering, he resumed his dive.

As the distance between the armies closed, the greater demons leapt upward to meet the oncoming mass. The two forces collided in an explosion of light and sound. The fading enraged wails of demons being sent back to their prison reverberated across the battlefield. Angels were returned to nothingness in great flashes of light.

Dismissing his favorite weapon, Michael summoned a sword of light. He parried the sweeping arc of a demon’s flaming sword, reversing his swing to cut through the thick neck of the reeking beast. The smell of sulfur surrounded him, red flames shooting from the parted neck. The head flew into the air, the red around the orbs and flames from within the blackness fading before being snuffed out. The body of the vanquished foe collapsed into dense black smoke, the demon’s scream of fear, knowing the pain it would face upon its return to prison, pierced the air and quickly faded.

Without slowing, Michael plunged into the mass. His sword parried and struck, flames and smoke marking his victims. Red and white sparks flared from weapons connecting. Beneath his winged helmet of gold, Michael’s eyes blazed with fury. Demons were struck down from behind as they tried to flee the sweeping light of his sword, the mass pushing forward to battle preventing the escape of those fleeing his wrath.

White arcs of light traced the passage of his sword as he struck deep into the horde. Angels fell to either weapons or blasts from larger demons. But those who survived followed in Michael’s path, carving a wider one. With demons encroaching on all sides, Michael swept up over the battlefield. Angels sang and demons roared. Bluish-white light mixed with red. The demon lines were thick, those in front struck down from the onslaught. But greater demons rallied those behind and stemmed the crushing assault of angels.

Michael spotted one greater demon, flames belching from wide nostrils and viscous black smoke rising from its body, as it tore into a flock. It flung blasts of acid fire, flashes of light marking where angels were struck down. Summoning his spear, Michael hurled it toward the demon. Trailing a stream of light, the spear raced across the battlefield and slammed into the demon with an explosion of light.

With dense smoke flowing from a grievous wound, the demon roared and turned, searching the skies for the one who dared assail it. For a brief moment, Michael and the demon locked eyes, both staring with intense hatred. With a snarl, the demon moved away from its assault and launched toward the archangel. Recalling his spear, Michael again hurled it toward the oncoming demon. The monstrous creature held out a taloned hand, sending red fire and smoke toward the incoming streak of light. The two met in a shower of sparks, both spear and fireball deflected. Banishing the spear, a sword of light was summoned into Michael’s hand. Folding his wings, he hurled himself toward the encroaching demon.

Balls of fire and streaks of light were thrown, each impacting with gigantic blasts. The streak of light that was Michael and the line of fire of the demon closed the distance and met, showering sparks of red and white shooting outward from the meeting of weapons. The two passed, smoke leaking from the demon’s earlier wound. Michael turned and dove forward without hesitation, beating the demon’s own turn.

Without slowing, Michael swung his sword in a great arc, the blade cutting through the demon’s armor and slicing deeply. They passed again as dark sulfuric smoke rolled outward from the fresh wound. Michael heard the beast snarl as the archangel flung his wings wide and stopped in midair. Rolling over his back headfirst, he stabbed over his head, the sword slicing through the demon’s shoulder. The blade extended from the demon’s chest, flames and smoke from the demon running along the protruding length of Michael’s sword. The demon made a backward cut as Michael pulled the blade free, slicing along Michael’s wing. With a howl that reverberated across the battlefield, the demon vanished in a cloud of smoke.

Ignoring the pain, Michael held his sword, the weapon surrounded by flickering bluish-white flames. Touching his sword to his wound, Michael gritted his teeth as the cut closed in a flash of light. Each use of light’s power weakened him, but he was an archangel, a symbol of heaven’s might, and that power ran deep.

Looking over the battlefield, he saw his brothers and sisters cut deep into the masses, their white lights beacons within the enclosed darkness. Angels and demons swirled, light and flame flaring. Yet the horde was immense and many had yet to join the fray. Michael turned back to the fight, light from his bolts tearing ragged alleys through the enemy. Bodies were thrown from the impacts of each bolt, launching into others along the sides or into the air. He hurled himself into their midst, gathering his power with loud chants. Demons looked up at the approaching streak of light, the uttered words striking fear. Those in his path tried to scatter, but for many, it was too late.

Michael landed among them, the words from the last line of chant rising in volume. Holding his sword in both hands, he raised it high, light streaming from the mighty blade. With a final shouted utterance, he swiftly brought his sword down. A wave of light exploded outward with a mighty clap of thunder. Demons, both greater and lesser, were flung out in a wide circle, those closer vanishing in clouds of smoke. The wave of light rolled further, overcoming the retreating demons who disappeared with screams as the light bowled through them.

With a mighty sweep of his wings, Michael launched upward to survey the battlefield. Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel were assaulted by waves of demons. They each held within a great circle, their swords carving deeply into those who attacked. The angels with them were being slowly overcome, swamped by endless waves. More demons fell than angels, but they were far more numerous and could better afford the losses.

Above hovered Selaphiel, Azriel, and Chamuel with their waiting armies. Michael considered holding them back, but then called them forth to relieve the pressure on the flocks in peril. Chanting again, seeing the singing angels descend into the fray, Michael dove toward the front lines. With a shout, his sword descended in a flash, again creating a large open area free of demons. Angels filled the void and quickly cleared those stunned. Together, they began to carve a wide path through the ranks of darkness.

The three armies of light that had been waiting in the wings fell upon the hordes with vengeance, tearing large gaps. Noting the tide had changed, Michael gathered the other six archangels.

“Brothers and sisters, we have withstood their counterattacks. Now we push them back. Together, we will carve holes through which the warriors of light will follow.”

Gabriel, with several red slashes showing on her wings, wearily nodded. Raphael and Uriel were also breathing heavily, their wings char-streaked. The other three had just entered the fray and were little marked. However tired, their eyes blazed silver with resolve; knowing their losses, they were eager to finish the fight.

Spread at equal distances to each side, the archangels overflew the battling angels and demons. Hovering overheard, Michael raised his sword. Each of the archangels’ chants carried across the battlefield, the ominous nature of their words bringing hope or dread depending upon which side of the line the listener stood. Sword and spear momentarily halted, many in mid swing, as the chants of seven archangels flowed as one. Light gathered around the seven, bright stars shining with brilliance.

Angels again found their voices and added their songs, the words promising pain and retribution. Demons, large and small, shielded their eyes from the radiance shining from the heavens. They saw only blinding radiances with shards of light that beamed outward. Those bright stars soon began streaking toward them.

Michael lowered his sword, its tip pointed at the demonic horde. Seven archangels folded their wings and raced downward. Their eyes blazed fiercely from inside helmed heads; gleaming armor reflecting the light, glowing swords pointed at the waiting horde. The demons, blinded by the light, turned and ran in whatever direction they felt was away. Balls of fire rose from demons who stood their ground, only to meet and flow in streaks of flame around summoned shields. The seven flew through the resultant explosions, appearing unaffected as their gathered power held.

Bolts of light flashed downward, carving lines of death. Each landed in an explosion of light, the combined thunder deafening. With waves of light rolling outward, the trance caused by the chanting archangels was broken. Swords that had stopped in mid-swing started anew. The skies were filled with clashes, sparks and lights flaring. Michael’s sword flashed out, breaking through the armor of the demons to find purchase in their thick skin. The reek of sulfur filled the air, the screams of the dying a continual cacophony. Demons were sent back to their prison by the thousands, by the tens of thousands. The light had broken through the defenses and the demons scattered, their fading screams echoing across the battlefield.

Michael stood on the battlefield, exhausted. Beside him, Gabriel panted, her charred wings hanging. Michael looked into the silver glow of his sister’s eyes, seeing the same fatigue he felt. Above, the angels sang in glory. The field was theirs, having been cleared of the demon horde.

“If we never have to do that again, my friend, I’ll consider myself fortunate,” Gabriel commented, looking upward to the remnants of the armies they brought with them.

“I’m going to sleep for a hundred Earth years, or lie in the garden and eat grapes until I explode,” Michael replied.

“Good luck eating that much with the Cherubim watching. Now, if you wanted to distract them, I could—” Gabriel responded, interrupted by a sound.


Michael tensed as he felt the presences appear.

“Well done…well done. Such magnificence…such majesty. I’m impressed. And I had a ringside seat to it all. What luck! You’ve grown stronger, Michael. Been going to the gym? Or perhaps it’s from running endless errands and being a sycophant,” a cultured voice called out.

Michael and Gabriel’s heads simultaneously snapped toward the voice, spear and sword appearing in their hands.

“Lucifer! You traitor…you’re next,” Michael called, taking a step toward the figure.

“Now, now. Such hostility. That’s rather unbecoming of you,” Lucifer said, shaking his head.

The figure standing at a distance was clad in black armor, dark locks hanging from a bared head. His eyes blazed red, smoldering, with dark smoke drifting about him like an aura. In his hand, he held a long sword, the length emitting ethereal smoke that flowed upward and trailed off. Folded at his back were wings the color of a raven. Behind him stood twelve others in similar armor, viscous smoke rising from each one.

“I’m not kidding. I’ll end you here and now. Step forward and face me. Or, will you continue to be a coward and hide behind the skirts of your minions?” Michael called.

“Always the hothead. I warned Elohim about you. But would he listen? No. See, that’s his weakness. He never listens, even when reason is placed at his feet,” Lucifer commented, clucking his tongue and shaking his head.

Michael stepped forward, his wings unfurling.

“Ah, ah, ah,” Lucifer scolded, his finger waving back and forth. “Oh, I brought a few others.”

Lucifer gestured to the side where three other figures stood some distance from each other. They were clad the same as Lucifer, in black armor with dark wings folded. Behind helms of black, red eyes glared. Each held a sword of dark smoke, the semblance of red flame flickering deep within.

“You know them, yes? Friends of yours, perhaps?” Lucifer chuckled.

“Olivier!” Michael scowled. “How dare you show your face?”

The central figure stepped forth, his great black wings unfurling.

“Okay, fine then. You first,” Michael growled, his spear glowing brighter. “Luvart, Verrier, you’re going down as well. It’s time your treachery came to an end.”

“As much as I’d like to watch that, I have something more special planned,” Lucifer said.

Luvart and Verrier, once archangels as was Olivier, spread their arms wide. Behind them, a vertical line of red formed, stretching high overhead. The lines then twisted to the side, forming gigantic doorways opening onto the yellow, orange, and reds of billowing fires. From within, demon hordes emerged with a roar. The three archdemons, once archangels, soared into the air, joined by an immense horde growing larger by the second.

* * * * * *

Elohim watched the return of his armies, their numbers much diminished. Gabriel soared past, giving Elohim a shake of her head. The other archangels, their wings charred and damaged, all flew past with the remnants of those who had set forth. Michael flew to him, his great wings damaged as well, creating large drafts of wind that stirred Elohim’s silver locks. Hovering briefly, Michael settled next to him, his wings folding behind as a grimace crossed his features. The look on his face told Elohim everything.

“They come,” Michael stated.

Chapter Two

Some angels had remained behind on Earth during the retreat, refusing to give up their human charges. Michael had merely nodded at the news, expecting no less from the guardians. In the swirling darkness below, they were able to hold, but by the barest of margins. Battles were being fought for souls on both sides, voices compelling actions. It was the privilege of the soul carrier to choose, through their thoughts and actions, which one they held dear. Some souls floundered in confusion, so battles raged over possession, and attempts were made to influence decisions. Souls were being put to the test and the angels who remained behind found themselves in constant battles.

All across the world, humanity felt an unexplained dread descend, along with feelings of hopelessness. Anger flared and could be found around every corner, whether submerged or brought to the forefront. Protests abounded, various issues coming to the vanguard, some of which hadn’t been previously known. Shouts and angry words flowed from mouths and keyboards, the same ones that had previously preached peace and understanding. Everyone had a cause and championed it with raised sword. Sides were taken and heels dug in. Anger and rage were inflicted on others for no apparent reason, many times turning to action. Emotions warred as the world seemingly turned mad and ate at itself.

But, there were a few who cast the anger aside, who championed for peace and harmony—their voices drowned in a sea of venom. It seemed that if you didn’t have a side, something was wrong with you. But, these few maintained and kept their integrity, fearful of what the world had become. They continued on with their lives, refusing to engage in the hatred that was hidden inside the facades of compassion and understanding.

* * * * * *

Colorado, summer, two years before the exchange

Frank looked up from his computer and glanced through the panes of his window. Sunshine covered the green of his lawn, the limbs of the trees and bushes along the edges swaying back and forth in a gentle breeze. A bird winged its way across the yard, its shadow flitting over the grass. The view outside presented a direct contrast to the way he was feeling. Outside was a vision of peace, which was the exact opposite of his current emotions.

He had been perusing newsfeeds, his anger boiling to the surface. Lately, it seemed that everyone was becoming offended over everything, which really meant over nothing. Articles and posts exclaiming the righteousness of individual views littered the internet. It seemed that there was little compassion or understanding to be found, or acknowledgement of others’ beliefs. Comments turned to hate and name-calling as conversations narrowed to spouting contempt and hatred. There was little room for true discourse or mature conversations around differing ideas. He could remember a time with his friends when they were able to discuss opposing opinions with respect and without drawing blood.

He was aware that the anger he felt over the response of others was hypocritical, that his belief that everyone had suddenly become idiots added to the prevalent direction of humanity toward ire. Even though aware of what he was doing, it didn’t help or change anything and only led to confusion deep within. He was angry that others were angry, and that just didn’t make any sense. He hadn’t always been that way. Back when he flittered across the world in the armed service, he didn’t really care that others had other opinions and many a night was spent with his comrades discussing the differing merits to an argument. They didn’t come unglued or rage at each other, and were actually able to see and understand the opposing viewpoints. And, if not actually seeing them, then at least respecting them.

Where did this all go sideways? he thought, hearing a faint chime from the bells hanging on his porch.

Shutting down his laptop, Frank contemplated tossing it into the creek that ran adjacent to his property. Instead, he rose from his chair and stretched his aching back. Wanting to absorb some of the peace he viewed outdoors, he strode to the back door and stepped onto his back deck. The warmth of the sun’s rays fell on his head and shoulders. Instead of the peace he expected to feel, an uneasy feeling swept over him.

With a sigh, he tamped down the uneasy feeling as he was used to doing, and plopped into one of the deck chairs. Rays of sunlight streamed though breaks in the outlying trees from a bright blue sky. He stared at the afternoon sky, the sunshine full upon his face. Birds flittered across the yard, sweeping up into the limbs.

Basking in the light, feeling the warmth of the day cover him, Frank began to let go of his pent-up emotions. Unexpectedly, he felt a warm glow form deep within him and, for a moment, tears sprang into his eyes. He closed them, letting the peace invade his body. Opening his eyelids, he looked across the backyard and into the surrounding trees. The beauty that lay before him was overwhelming. He breathed in the air filled with warmth. The scent of the grass, the bushes, and surrounding firs and cedars filled his nostrils. It was good to be alive; he felt he could sit in his current place forever. He pushed to fully let go of the emotions he had stored for so long.

A familiar sensation of anxiety threatened to intrude into these tender feelings. This was a common occurrence. Whenever peace threatened, anxiety rose up and pushed it down. It was as if any serenity was intrusive and made him anxious. His best defense was to push all emotion away and go through life feeling numb.

That’s not right, he thought. I’m only sometimes numb. Mostly, it’s anger or pain hovering just below the surface.

The anxiety had become so common that it seemed normal. That was his base sense of being and anything upsetting that balance became anxiety in itself. Besides the constant apprehension he carried, there was a shield of numbness he had erected as protection from the turmoil of emotions that his PTSD brought. It was a battle he waged every day of his life. And, when that battle neared the surface, it brought either tears or rage so intense that it threatened to consume him. With effort, he would force his shield back into place before anger overtook him or hopeless sadness consumed him. Sitting on the deck, with the tranquility of nature all around, peace threatened to pierce his shield.

Rather than endure the flow of unending tears, he began to stuff the feelings down and erect his defenses. With a start, he felt the presence of a hand on his shoulder, there but not there.

A voice inside his head whispered, “It’s okay. Let it go.”

Frank didn’t know what to think, but the hand and voice felt comforting. He knew it wasn’t real, only a manifestation of his anxiety. But, he relented and halted the numbing process. For the first time in many years, he gave in and let the peace fully engulf him. It tore through his safeguards, shattering the shield into pieces. He wasn’t prepared for the deluge of emotions that materialized, seemingly from nowhere.

Sadness overtook him, but with it also came a feeling of joy. It raged through his body, cleansing in a way, but in the way a coarse scrubbing pad cleans a soiled pot. This scouring exposed emotions that had been tucked away for a long time…he had hoped it would be forever. Tears fell unabashed.

He faced the things he’d done, the friends he had lost. He brought in each memory, good or bad, sad or angry. They settled into a new place. The memories seemed to float in the blue sky. Frank apologized for some of the things he had done, said real goodbyes to friends. He sought the forgiveness of families whose sons he had slain, recognized the times he was angry for no reason, lashing out, and asked forgiveness. The battles he had fought for so many years, long after the actual wars, washed away with each salty drop that fell. After such a long time, he was healing.

All at once, the birds chattered and, deep in the woods, a chorus of coyotes howled mournfully. He had seldom heard them sing in the middle of the day, their howls carrying and echoing among the trunks. Frank looked up, the feeling of comfort still present. A large flock of birds flew high overhead, vanishing past tree limbs that stretched skyward.

Lingering on his deck in the light of the day, he felt strong as the tears trickled. The stark contrast between what he felt and what was presented by the mass of humanity was so at odds that a realization clicked in his head.

“It’s time,” he quietly spoke.

With a nod, he forgot all that he had been so worked up about as he settled further into the deck chair, appreciating and accepting the peace of nature. He wasn’t sure how he knew, but it came with such certainty: The world was ending and a scant few would see past it. The thought was overwhelming and filled him with fear. But, Frank wanted to be one of those who survived, almost felt that it was imperative, if for no other reason than to see what was on the other side and to retain this feeling. He would set to work planning for his survival when the sun next rose, but for now, he would sit in his deck chair and purge the deep emotions he had kept suppressed for so long.

* * * * * *

Boston, Summer, two years before the exchange

Marie pulled into the lot, the wheels of her early model Honda slowly crunching over pieces of gravel scattered in the paved lot. Backing into a parking place at the edge of the lot, the faded white lines barely visible, she placed the vehicle in first gear and shut off the motor. This was just another day crammed in the middle of others. There was a lot of anger demonstrated throughout the world, but she had mostly numbed herself with what was happening to the outside world. She had her own problems to deal with. Deep down, she was ashamed of what she did for a living, but couldn’t see a way out.

Arranging the rearview, she gazed at her reflection. Locks of wavy raven hair flowed past her shoulders and down her back, framing a strong jawline and high cheekbones. She wasn’t too keen on her nose and thought it was too big, but others had told her she was beautiful. She turned her head from side to side, tired green eyes looking for flaws in her makeup.

Her Mediterranean ancestry was prominent in her olive-tinged skin and dark eyebrows. Pulling her makeup kit from inside the clutch on the passenger seat, she dabbed a few places and reapplied the light blush she wore. Marie then turned her gaze to the nondescript and windowless cinderblock building in the middle of the lot. Neon lights portrayed a woman grinding back and forth, with rows of blinking lights announcing live girls and an arrow pointing to the only door. As with every other day, she dreaded stepping into the building that smelled of spilled beer and sweat. She had to remind herself daily that the pay was decent and that she needed the job.

Another woman exited a nearby car, stepping across the lot in high-heeled shoes with her fake breasts barely held in by a button-up blouse. The short skirt revealed toned legs and the promise of a firm body. The woman gave a quick wave before disappearing through the door.

Marie stayed in her car as a feeling of dread swept over her. She was fearful of the times in which she lived. When she did take time to look outside of her life, she saw hate everywhere, with everyone taking sides over the smallest issues. Even her friends, more acquaintances than anything else, posted vitriol while at the same time preaching peace and understanding. Life just didn't make sense anymore, and she felt she had nowhere to turn. She had no one to talk to about her life and what was happening in the world around her. Even when she tried to have normal conversations, they eventually turned angry. Everywhere she looked, words of hatred were spewed toward others who didn't share the same beliefs. This scared Marie more than anything else. Protests seemed to spring up every day and erupt in violence. Weapons now seemed to be a part of every demonstration.

I mean, who brings a weapon to a protest if they don’t mean to use it?

Insanity seemed to be everywhere and in all walks of life. Madness reigned; the entire world seemed to be splitting between two sides. And it was only growing worse. Even the two sides were being split into smaller ones as issue upon issue fought for prominence.

I wish everyone would just stop. I wish the madness would end.

The clear blue skies overhead and the warmth of the sun seemed to be in direct contrast to the darkness she knew waited inside the building. Another intense feeling of dread rode through her body and she found her hands shaking from the experience. The feeling grew stronger each time her gaze fell on the building. Even the warm day and clear skies brought her no peace.

Two voices warred in her head, one telling her not to go in and the other reminding her that she needed the job. She felt sick to her stomach from the battle being waged and didn't know what was the right thing to do.

In the corner of her eye, she saw a flash of white streak past her window. Turning her head, she didn’t see what could have caused it. There was only the paved lot with loose gravel piled up along the edges, tall brown weeds growing along a rusty chain link fence littered with shards of broken glass and cigarette butts.

Just on the verge of her periphery to the other side, she thought she saw a boiling mass of black mixed with red, smoky tendrils shooting outward. Quickly turning her head, she saw only the busy traffic moving along a three-lane avenue across from a cracked sidewalk, the occasional hole filled with broken chunks of concrete. Horns honked from impatient drivers, some slowing to gaze at the sign and wonder about the entertainment offered inside. The light at the intersection went through the usual motions of blinking from red to green, yellow to red.

With voices warring inside her mind, Marie returned to contemplating what she should do. To set foot inside the building would be stepping off a cliff. But, if she drove away, she might eventually end up on the streets, homeless and hungry.

A heavyset man with greasy hair opened the door and stood there, his head turning from left to right as he surveyed the parking lot. He caught sight of Marie sitting in her car and motioned with his hand for her to hurry.

“Hurry up. You’re going to be late,” the man shouted from the doorway.

Confused and unsure, Marie hesitated.

“Marie, for God's sake, if you're late again I swear I'm going to dock your pay and cut your days,” the man insisted.

Marie didn't move.

“You have five minutes or that’s it,” the man said, pulling his head back inside the door and letting it close.

With a deep sigh, Marie opened her door and set her foot on the pavement. The interior light came on and the car chimed as she pushed herself from her seat.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” she said, realizing that the chime meant she had left her keys in the ignition.

Retrieving them, she exited and swung the door closed, the sound echoing across the lot to reverberate off the concrete structure.

Taking a step toward the building, she felt a chill breeze sweep through her from a wind that wasn’t there. The illness and tension in her stomach increased. She envisioned the sweaty men inside, the feel of patron’s hands against her skin as they deposited dirty and wrinkled bills in her G-string, some straying fingers trying to feel more of what was underneath. The thoughts sickened her even more and she leaned over to deposit her hour-old lunch onto the pavement.

The feeling that things weren't right in the world grew, her fear of the humanity around her increasing. Wiping her chin, she pulled a Kleenex from her clutch and blew her nose. She then turned and reopened her door, climbing back into the vehicle that had numerous dents and a few rust spots, a reflection of the way she felt about her own life.

Marie started her car and pulled out of the debris-filled parking lot; as she turned onto the road, a measure of peace suddenly engulfed her. She didn't know what she would do from that that point forward, but she felt that she had made the right decision. In the back of her mind she thought she heard singing, the words and language unknown.

Unseen by Marie, wings folded protectively around her from an angel behind, silver eyes blazing in warning to the encircling demons.

* * * * * *

With his vision blurred, Carl knelt in his room and shoved rounds into a magazine. He was so angry that it brought tears to his eyes. Life wasn’t fair, but he was going to show them just how unfair it could be. He was sick and tired of being pushed around; he was going to get back at them the only way he knew how.

Today had been the last straw. In gym, someone had thrown a rubber ball at him, colliding with the side of his head. The stinging pain and tears it brought hurt less than the ensuing laughter. He looked across the gym floor to see other students pointing and laughing at his misery. The teacher had come out and hushed everyone, strolling over to see if he was all right. Fingers gripped his face and turned this way and that, all the while snickers coming from the others in class.

“You’ll live,” the teacher said. “Now, get in line so I can take roll.”

Carl was sure the teacher had witnessed everything and yet done nothing about it. Sure, Carl watched him talking to the other boys, but none of them had been sent to the office or even given pushups as punishment. They had totally gotten away with it, as they always did.

That had been the entirety of his life and he wasn’t sure from where it stemmed. Yeah, he wasn’t very athletic or strong, but that didn’t make him less of a person. He considered himself fairly smart, and the few friends he did have laughed at his jokes. But a majority of kids in the schools he had attended had pushed and bullied him with no provocation, at least that he was aware of.

Usually, he was able to laugh it off and move on with his day. On the outside, at least. On the inside, it hurt. He just wanted friends—he had tried numerous times to be included, but was always shunned. Carl went from group to group, trying to be accepted. He tried drugs to be included with the potheads, he shoplifted a few times to prove he had what it took to be one of them. At first, a few seemed to accept him, but time showed that he had been used and he found himself again on the outside.

Walking down the halls between classes was always a painful experience. He heard the words behind his back as he passed groups of students hovering at their lockers. Shoulders crashed into his with an “oops,” followed by laughter. Snickers trailed behind in his path as he negotiated his way to classes. Always on his mind was the question of what he had done to cause the derision. But, he also knew deep down that high school was the pinnacle that many of his deriders would know in life; that once he cleared the nightmare that was teenage life, he would vault ahead of them by leaps and bounds. He just had to weather the storm and get through it.

However, lately, behind his whatever attitude and outward nonchalance of absorbing abuse, there grew a deep-seated anger that had never before been a part of his life. Sure, he didn’t like what was done to him, but he had always looked ahead to a future without the assholes and bullies. His sights had been set on the light beaming ahead that was the future.

His sister was in college and had told him that life on campus was nothing like the pettiness of high school. No one would care what he looked like, what he wore—for the most part—or what he did. Those who had similar interests would be plentiful and he would find them in classes in which he chose to attend. That was the place he tried to keep in focus. But now, all he felt was boiling rage that blotted out everything else. He finished filling all of the handgun magazines and put the weapon back in place in his father’s closet. Tomorrow, he would reclaim it and show those fucking bastards who thought they could do as they pleased a lesson that there were consequences to their actions.

He opened his laptop and spent the remainder of his evening pouring over the articles that a fickle and biased press spilled across pages. Carl contemplated broadcasting an online statement for those on his mental list to be aware of a coming vengeance, but he withheld from succumbing to that urge. He wanted it all to be a fucking surprise.

He couldn’t sleep during the night, his thoughts turning to his parents and sister. Yes, they would be devastated, but wouldn’t they also be proud of him for finally standing up for himself? The world would be turned to the problem of bullies and he would be thought of as a martyr. All through the night, he visualized the headline splashes, people conducting candlelight vigils in his honor, and then turning on the bullies for creating such a tragedy. His teenage mind became filled with images of his sacrifice spurring others into action. He, Carl, would become the leading event that brought a landslide of hurt to bullies everywhere. He wasn’t so much taking out the bullies who made his life a living hell as he was protecting others who were in the same situation as him. Carl gave little thought that this might be his last night on Earth, his mind filled with glory.

In the morning, Carl plowed through a bowl of cereal, his mom chatting about something that he didn’t hear. His dad said his goodbyes and kissed his mom on the cheek, coming over to ruffle his hair. Carl looked up and smiled as his mom talked about what was for dinner. He would miss them.

Images of camping or laughing while watching movies surfaced, the times around the dinner table when stories were told and moments were shared. The future he had dreamed of flared into his mind, of leaving behind the hatred and pushing his life ahead. Memories played in his head of the good times with his family, and images of a future in which he stood in the stead of his father with his own family and children. Carl felt confused about the action that had seemed so right while lying in his bed the night before.

I just need to hang on for a little while longer and this whole thing will be in the past.

His dad left; Carl heard the sound of the car starting and pulling out of the driveway. His mom kissed him on the cheek and wished him a good day, then she too left, in their second vehicle. Carl sat at the table, watching the second hand of the kitchen clock tick along. He had to leave in the next three minutes or be late for his first class. The hateful words of his classmates should he walk in late spurred him to grab his backpack. Still confused about what to do, he grabbed the handgun and stuffed it in his pack before making his way out of the door and to his bicycle.

Entering the front doors, along with others who were hurrying to make their first class, Carl didn’t draw the weapon and start wielding justice as he had imagined the previous night. He went to his locker and stowed his pack, suddenly feeling self-conscious about leaving a gun in the locker. After all, the school periodically brought in dogs to search for drugs. If they did, they could surely find the gun, too. Hurriedly grabbing his books, he slammed the locker closed and rushed to his first class.

The bell rang, signaling the end of class. Books slammed closed in a series of heavy thumps. Desks scooted across the linoleum floor as students scurried to their feet in a rush. The door opened to the din of students shoving their way into the hall, bodies cramming together in the packed shuffle to lockers and next classes. At his locker, Carl quickly shoved his books onto the shelf, reaching for the ones he’d need next.

He was slammed into his locker door as a tall, broad-shouldered student who captained the football team banged his shoulder into Carl.

“Watch it, faggot,” the boy said, his eyes humorously staring into Carl’s to the sound of snickering from his surrounding friends. Across the hall, several cheerleaders in their uniforms also snickered.

A dark shadow crept across Carl’s vision, a swirling mass of darkness that blotted out everything else. Something snapped inside Carl, a deep-seated rage taking hold. Without thought, he reached into his pack and withdrew the handgun. Turning quickly, Carl brought the semi-automatic to bear and pulled the trigger.

The loud retort rose above the clamor filling the packed hallway. Blood splashed into the air as the football captain’s head was thrown forward from the bullet, his skull shattering around the entrance wound and the surrounding hair instantly matting with blood. The round traveled through the brain and exited with force out of the top of the forehead. Meaty chunks flew from the large hole in a spray of red.

Screams erupted in the hall at the sound of the gunshot, as the boy fell face forward. The teen’s teammates all turned toward Carl, their faces betraying shock and the horror of what just happened. Undeterred, Carl fired, shooting toward each of them, the retorts coming in quick succession. The teens held up their hands as they saw the barrel swing their way, attempting to fend off what was coming, but knowing they were powerless to stop it.

More blood sprayed into the air as additional bullets found flesh, the rounds pulverizing insides. Two of the jocks were thrown backward from the impacts, crashing into those who had packed the corridor and were frantically trying to push their way beyond the sudden eruption of violence.

The crowd thinned as Carl stepped to the captain’s still form. Blood pooled on the scuffed linoleum, slowly growing in size. Carl kicked at his former tormentor, slipping on the now slick surface. His booted foot slid through the pooled blood and came to a halt as he caught his balance.

“Yeah, that’s right, motherfucker. Are you impressing any cheerleaders now? Fucker!” Carl yelled, his voice carrying above the still screaming crowd that was trying to escape.

One of the boys was moaning on the floor, blood leaking from wounds to his chest and side of his neck. Hands clasped the two wounds, trying to stem the flow of life slowly spilling out from the ravaged skin.

“Not laughing now, are you?” Carl said, his eyes full of malice.

“Please…please,” the boy cried, pushing his body away with a scramble of legs. “We were only kidding…I’m sorry.”

“Too late, fuckwad. Should have thought of that before,” Carl answered, the gunshot echoing down the hall.

Looking up, Carl saw the last of the crowd vanishing around corners, their screams still reverberating. Many of the locker doors were still open and swung in the emptied hall. Four bodies lay at his feet, blood streaming from red pools toward the edges of the corridor. To Carl, it didn’t seem real, like he was looking at something someone else had done. Still, the anger burned inside.

“You fuckers!” he shouted, emptying more rounds into their bodies. “Look at what you made me do.”

A whimper from across the hall drew his attention. One of the cheerleaders was pressed against a row of lockers, her hands to her mouth and tears streaming down her cheeks. She sniffled, looking from Carl to the ravaged bodies in the hall. Carl raised his handgun, pointing it directly at the girl.

“Pleee...eeee…ase don’t,” the girl whimpered between sobs.

Looking through the sights, the front center post between the gap of the two rear ones, the girl’s face beyond, Carl attempted to place her face. He remembered seeing her on the sidelines of the football field, her arms swinging with pom-poms as she and the others sang and chanted motivationally. In a quick flash of memories, he attempted to recall seeing her face amid the torments he endured. He couldn’t recall seeing her as a part of any of it, no hidden snicker, no look of hatred or condemnation. He had passed her many times in the hallways, but she had never given evidence of the former.

“You get to live,” Carl said, lowering the handgun. “After all, I’m not a monster.”

“Tha…thank you,” the girl whimpered, edging along the lockers, startling when she connected with an open one.

“Go on. Get out of here,” Carl urged. “You’re safe. There’s a reckoning coming and you aren’t part of it.”

The sobbing girl sniffled again, then turned and ran, disappearing around a corner.

“Okay, let’s get on with this,” Carl mumbled, a litany of names crossing his mind.

Walking past the still bodies, he strode down the middle of the narrow hallway, silhouetted against light streaming in from windows set over a set of stairs at the end. His handgun was held at his side and he strode with purpose. Vengeance walked the corridors.

As Carl walked past a classroom, the sound of shuffling came from behind a closed door. He grabbed the handle and twisted, the knob turning in his grasp. He pulled the door open to the sound of erupting screams. Stepping inside to the middle front of the room, a few students leapt to their feet and raced to the far corner. Some remained frozen under the desks, huddled in terror. All eyes held their frightened gazes on Carl, some flickering to the weapon at his side. Carl glanced down to the door handle, noticing the lock on the inside.

“You should have locked the door. I mean, that’s just survival 101,” he said, glancing at the figures inside the room.

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