The Far Beyond
The Just Beyond, published by 48fourteen in 2013, is Book One of The Beyond Trilogy. The series tells the story of deeply empathetic Michael Chandler from his humble mortal origins to his ultimate cosmic destiny. Book Two, The Far Beyond, is being written now. The final volume, Beyond All Else, completes the saga.
The Far Beyond recounts Michael's journey to the dark side of the Afterlife in search of his lost brother Max. Plot detail and news about the manuscript process will appear here as the work progresses. Check out the Prologue and the first scene pf Chapter 1 below. :)
*************** SPOILER ALERT! ***************
If you haven't read The Just Beyond, the excerpts from the sequel on this page might ruin some surprises in that first book. Happily, it's fast and easy to get your hands on Book One. :).
THE FAR BEYOND
Even before he saw it, instinct told him that something around the corner was wrong.
Michael Chandler, fourteen years old and at the moment dashing for the exit in a race to catch the No. 416 school bus, could feel this even before his hand touched the bar latch door at the back of the school. What had snared his attention was the face of a younger boy, a stranger, that Michael could faintly make out through the door’s reinforced security window.
It was no surprise that Michael didn’t recognize the kid. September always filled Borel Middle School in San Mateo, California with unfamiliar faces. Mostly they were gawky pre-teens just entering sixth grade, taking that first tentative step from childhood to adolescence and awe-struck at sharing a school with the “big kids”.
It wasn’t the boy’s roundish, sun-freckled face beneath an orderly summer buzz cut, a remnant of the season just passed, that had caught Michael’s eye. It was the expression: the mouth pinched into a grimace, the tiger-nosed snarl, blue eyes wild and piercing. Together they formed a picture of menace that looked utterly out of place on a twelve-year-old.
As Michael pushed through the door his gaze swiveled automatically, transfixed by the unexpected and disturbing image, noticing now beads of sweat glistening on the reddened temples and a savage pitch of the shoulder. The door swung back, revealing the tableau in its entirety, and Michael lurched to a dumbfounded halt.
The boy’s knuckles were spattered with blood. In front of him, two other boys were struggling to restrain a third, a feisty scrapper bleeding from the mouth and nose but still breathing figurative fire. He was giving the aggressors all they could handle, wriggling like a wrangled alligator in a defiant effort to break free of their arms. And though he was two years Michael’s junior and new to the school, Michael knew the boy taking the beating. Intimately so. It was his brother Max.
Max and Michael, the only children of common-sense George and socially effusive Cheryl Chandler, were not the best of buddies. Their shared gender and slim age difference predetermined that rivalry would dominate their overlapping childhoods. As if that weren’t enough to ensure separation, the brothers’ personalities were poles apart. Michael was gentle, cordial, embracing, as ebullient as he would ever be in mortal life. The tragedies that would later break him still lay ahead unseen. Max by contrast was wild, fearless, quick to temper and intensely private in his inner feelings. They could never be friends; they were barely able to be brothers.
But that wasn’t enough to prevent all interaction. Sometimes the tension abated, and sometimes they inadvertently stumbled into each other’s lives. This was going to be one of those times. For all Michael knew, Max may have done something to deserve this treatment; in fact, it was probable. Max was a professional provocateur. But he was also Michael’s brother, his younger brother at that. And that meant something.
“Hey!” Michael cried, slamming his backpack to the ground with an angry thud and shoving his open-palmed hand so hard into the redhead’s shoulder that it knocked the boy off his feet in a clumsy cartwheel.
The other boys stared in shock, hoping uncertainly that their leader would regain himself and set the world straight.
“Let him go.” Michael’s words, delivered in a quiet, measured tone, came out ominous just the same. “And don’t even think about doing this again.”
The redhead was getting up slowly, brushing grass and dirt off his clothing, hauling himself erect with crippled caution. He made a gesture with his head over his left shoulder, and his companions released Max. The prepubescent thugs sauntered away sullenly, one of them muttering under his breath: “Next time.” Little did he suspect that “next time” would arrive in the form of a one-on-one pounding at the hands of their present victim, that each of the three would meet this fate in turn, that forever after they would cross the street, dart out of the restroom, or run to the other side of a field at the sight of Max.
Michael turned to his brother. He was a mess, his skin flushed hotly, blood and bruises on his face, tears of anger pooling in his eyes.
“Are you all—” Michael began, but before he could finish the question, without warning Max shoved him hard in the chest with both hands, his eyes burning like an arson fire.
As he recovered from the shock, it was all Michael could do to restrain himself from responding in kind. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he spat, incredulous.
“Stay out of my business!” Max barked, eyeing Michael with a visceral loathing that seemed to penetrate his soul.
“Business?” Michael was getting hotter by the minute. “You mean the business of getting beat to hell?”
“I don’t need you!” Max screamed.
“Apparently you do,” Michael shot back.
Now the tears were flowing unrestrained. “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!” Max shrieked, with such violent emotion that Michael recoiled as though physically struck.
Michael let the harsh words hang in the air for a long moment, then shook his head and made a dismissive gesture. “Screw it, then,” he glared. “Go ahead and get your ass kicked, if that’s what you want. I’m done with you.”
“Good!” Max retorted. Michael loped off toward the bus zone without another word.
It would be years before Michael could make sense of this episode. Max was neither psychotic nor a glutton for punishment. He didn’t want to be beaten, but even more emphatically, he didn’t want to be humiliated. Max was perfectly capable of handling his own peer affairs — and he needed to. By the second week of kindergarten he had been fed to the hilt with comparisons to Michael. Max was a person, too — his own person, a separate person, not some second rate knock-off of his brother. Their birth order was a matter of pure chance — didn’t people see that? Apparently they didn’t. Not once did they anticipate or encourage Max to out-perform Michael: it was always, “I hope you live up to his example. He set the bar high!” Not once did an introduction omit some reference to the older brother. Not once did they celebrate or even recognize Max’s uniqueness, the qualities he possessed that made him different, the traits that not only set Max apart but surpassed his brother, characteristics that, in many ways, made Max not Michael’s equal but his better.
All younger siblings hunger for sunshine away from the pall of their elders’ shadows. For Max Chandler, born with a tempest in his teapot and a chip on each shoulder, it went triple.
Michael did eventually realize and appreciate this. He recognized that it was necessary, and admirable. But by that time, it was tragically too late.
Dinner that night was thick with hidden tension. Max and Michael ate at the table as usual with their mom and dad, but said uncharacteristically little. Cheryl Chandler attempted several times to strike up a warm family conversation, to no avail.
Michael wondered if his father noticed the artful makeup job Cheryl had applied to Max to obscure evidence of the beating. If he had, George Chandler was not letting it on. Their father was a practical man, simple and no-nonsense, living life invariably inside the box. He was certainly the type that might miss clues that strayed too far from the expected. That said, he was also the type to let sleeping dogs lie when appropriate if, for example, he felt a person had already been punished enough by the consequences of a bad decision. He ate his dinner normally, betraying neither knowledge nor ignorance, leaving Max’s secret unrevealed.
It must have really galled Max, Michael mused, having the makeup put on. Max had never tried to hide his aggression — he wore it like a badge. But he had been warned not to fight by their father on numerous occasions, and the last one had come with an ultimatum. “No more trouble,” George had said sternly. “If you can’t behave, you’re going to a private school. Not the cushy rich people-type, either. You’re going to class in a church basement with strict discipline and rules, and only about a dozen kids. It’s your choice, Max.”
Max had nodded penitently. But he never meant it for a second. By the end of the next week he was himself again: brooking no offense real or imagined, radiating malice toward anyone who rubbed him sideways, and settling things by force if a boneheaded oppressor failed to take the hint.
But Max was no fool, and he heeded the warning. From then on he took pains to hide such confrontations from his family, from his father most of all. And in this he was successful right until the day he died.
Michael never betrayed him. He developed a grudging respect for Max, who on the brink of adolescence was finally beginning to emerge from unbridled recklessness toward a more sophisticated manner. By high school the fighting had stopped, and while they did little together, the boys were no longer mutual antagonists. In fact Michael even conspired in his brother’s coming-of-age depravity at times, helping him drag a passed-out buddy into the tool shed to sleep off a bender, occasionally letting Max in through a window when locked out of the house as a consequence of missing curfew. Things seemed to be going in the right direction, for each of them personally and for their sibling relationship, and Michael began looking forward to joint vacations with their wives, merry holidays with their children, a series of warm, fun family reunions continuing into old age.
These were bright aspirations, normal ones, realistic and even probable. It was the kind of relationship most siblings achieved in adulthood, given time, no matter how contentious their younger years. It was a vision that thrilled Michael, one he had every intention of fulfilling, and one that, despite their childhood conflicts, Michael viewed less like a wish and more like a commitment. It would vindicate his faith in Max completely.
But Destiny had other plans.
Though he buried it deep, Michael would, right up until his own death, never get over the guilt he felt about the events that had ended his brother’s life.
Max was sixteen, a sophomore at the same school Michael attended as a senior. A springtime dance loomed, and Max had secured a date with the most popular and desirable girl in his class. Not to risk squandering this opportunity, he had invited her to dinner a few weeks beforehand to establish a rapport. Leaving nothing to chance, among other meticulously engineered factors such as his choice of restaurant and the time of day, he had decided to present her with a cut red rose for the occasion.
But when the day came for their dinner date, a mere half hour before he was supposed to pick her up, Max realized with horror that he had forgotten this crucial element of the plan.
Regular florists were closed, but a nearby convenience store stocked suitable roses in a refrigerator. A family member had reminded Max of this fact, and immediately off he went, jubilant at his reprieve. Over time, recollection of which family member had actually reminded Max faded, until George Chandler — who had always believed it was Cheryl — took to assuming the blame just to spare his wife the devastating truth.
Though nearby, the neighborhood a few streets away where the convenience store was located had a dangerous reputation. For that very reason the Chandlers hardly ever shopped there, using it only when their cars were so low on gas that to drive further risked running out. That was the main reason Max had forgotten, or perhaps never even noticed, the roses they kept. He had been there a grand total of three times.
Max had set the pump to filling his tank and headed into the store — and walked in on a stick-up. A man wearing a ski mask stood next to the counter, brandishing his pistol at a little girl who was crying miserably. Her lack of English barred comprehension of what the robber wanted from her, and she was terrified of doing the wrong thing.
The sight of her ignited Max. As the thug wheeled to face the mini-mart’s door, Max burst in and rushed him. A second later Max lay in his own blood on the cold tile floor, a .38 caliber hole through his chest.
The police, summoned by a silent alarm tripped by the level-headed cashier, arrived just as Max fell. The shooter was hustled away in handcuffs, and an ambulance for Max arrived in less than three minutes.
It would have made no difference if they had come within three seconds. The bullet had torn a mean gash in his heart. There was no point even trying to revive him. Max was gone before the gurney reached the EMT van.
That was the picture in his mind’s eye whenever Michael’s thoughts wandered back to that day. This persisted even though Michael had not been there to see it, had not even shown up at the scene afterward amid the throng of titillated onlookers that TV news had shown lining the yellow crime scene tape. His next proximity to Max, his last, had been at the funeral four days later. As a pallbearer he was amazed at how light the casket felt when borne by four carriers, even with the corpse of a sixteen-year-old inside. He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother. Michael had been offered the chance to say a few words at the service, had even written something out, but when the day came, he found himself too debilitated with grief to speak. In fact he had been forced to excuse himself during the minister’s eulogy to go behind a nearby tree and vomit. It was this experience that had kept him from attending Vicki Valentine’s funeral four years later.
It was more than the loss of his brother. Unbeknownst to anyone else there, Michael harbored an even deeper layer of anguish, a knowledge he would later wall off and suppress so effectively that at times he doubted it himself. But in lucid moments, there was no denying the horror. It plagued him like a ball and chain, a burden that could be forgotten during sleep or repose but that came thundering back the moment he tried to move.
It was a secret he kept hidden even from himself. The fact of it was too painful, and made him feel too helpless. Over the years he had trained himself to swat it down at the first sign of revival, and most of the time he felt detached from it, as though it were a story about a friend. Suppression of the event was essential to Michael’s mental health — doubly so because of his trademark empathy, the compulsion he felt to help people in need no matter who they were. He couldn’t bear the knowledge that he had failed his own brother, his only sibling, that he had in fact sent Max to his death.
Of course, something similar had happened with his soul mate Vicki Valentine when he first reached the Afterworld. He had strained mightily but could catch no sixth sense glimpse of her. In that case, he had been wrong. It turned out that Vicki was in the mortal world at the time he reached for her. And the diluted signal he had picked up — caused by the proximity of her Afterlife “Place” to his — he had misinterpreted as a reflection of his own love for her, a shade from inside him summoned by his unrequited longing.
But this feeling he had about Max was different. It was stronger than the ghost of Vicki he had picked up from her Place. The connection to Max was real, solid, persistent. But it was so far away, the furthest such sense Michael had ever perceived. It was possible to travel great distances in the Afterworld with scant time or effort, but to Michael, the distance to Max felt like the stretch to a faint star from mortal Earth. Straining to its limit the Afterlife sense that helped people find their loved ones, Michael could catch only the faintest flicker of Max in the Afterworld. It was like a candle a million miles away. It seemed beyond spanning.
And Michael knew why.
Cheryl Chandler had not steered Max to the convenience store. Nor had George. First shock at the death, then preoccupation with burial arrangements, then grief over the loss and finally that ubiquitous solvent called the passage of time, had blurred and distorted memory. But deep inside Michael, there was no question. He knew the truth. It was Michael himself who had told Max of the convenience store roses, mindful even at the time of how dangerous the environment was. He had even smirked at the thought of Max crossing paths with one of that neighborhood’s badasses, perhaps the only figures in all the South Bay whose hair-trigger vindictiveness rivaled Max’s own.
He was sorry for that now. Achingly, soul-wrenchingly sorry. Michael Chandler, who should have been his protector, had instead sent his little brother to the grave.
And there was nothing he could do. Most mistakes in life could be rectified, resolved if not reversed, with due penance and remorse. Not so this. Max Chandler was dead, and once someone was dead, all chance of making things right with them was cut off. There could be no apologies, no compensation, no maturation or healing. For all his anguish, for all his self-bitterness, Michael was utterly powerless. Max Chandler was dead, and the dead could not be reconciled. In all of Heaven and Earth, in all the vast universe, there was nothing Michael could do to make it up to him. Nothing in the world could now grow or even sustain the grudging respect and quiet camaraderie that had begun to develop as they approached adulthood. Nothing now, nothing tomorrow, nothing ever.
Or so Michael thought. But the book wasn’t closed on Michael and Max Chandler. Not by a mile. It had only just begun.
CHAPTER 1 – THE DARKENED STAIR
Michael Chandler had been dead twenty-seven years when, for the second time in his existence, he found himself staring down a dark stairwell that shouldn’t be there, gazing over cold stone steps that might, by the look of them, descend all the way to Hell.
It wasn’t entirely the same. For one thing, on the first occasion, he had been alive in the mortal world. He’d had no frame of reference, no knowledge of realms beyond Earthly life, no context to judge what the staircase might mean. The maw of that cavity had burned a hole up through his bedroom floor, and the stone steps had been luminous, or at least illuminated by some otherworldly light despite the featureless void that flanked them on either side. Dark mist had issued from the aperture and swirled about his bedroom floor. And there was that Afterworld entity — a grim apparition with a haunting message, one that even now he did not fully understand.
This time there was no fire, no mist, no light except for shafts of sun squeezing through cracks in the ceiling above. And these steps spiraled crudely out of sight, nothing like the long, straight descent of that earlier stair that extended right to the vanishing point.
Most poignantly, there was no entity; these stairs were as empty as a corpse. Yet a disturbing odor emanated from the dank hole, like fetid swampland with a touch of deathly decay. And that smell, evidencing some form of life or un-life, felt as tactile and present as any supernatural being.
Michael’s friend Charlie Paris had explained to him the significance of unnatural stairs. He could recall it now almost verbatim. “Those kinds of stairs, ones that shouldn’t be there at all, are echoes of the rift between good and evil,” Charlie had told him. “They’re like a moral ‘bridge.’ Down leads toward evil, up toward good. The further it descends, the deeper the evil.”
Michael shuddered. Even beyond the foul smell, these stairs felt like a sinister descent. In his years since relinquishing the mortal world, this stair-hole was the first phenomenon he had ever encountered that seized him with genuine apprehension.
Anxiety gripped him all the more powerfully because he knew what was coming. On that first occasion, thirty-two years old and in mortal shock, Michael had fled. He had run to his car and sped madly off, not looking back and never returning to his abandoned home. This time would be different, and he had no choice in the matter; there was no alternative. This time, Michael Chandler was going down.
THE FAR BEYOND