Defeating the Dogstar, part 1: Darkness
The "old man" returns. (An allegory in 3 parts)
Today’s post is a departure for me, at least in the context of The Journey Continues. It’s been over 15 years since I last wrote fiction—back in the days when I used to do NaNoWriMo every year. For various personal reasons, I’ve hesitated to return to it.
But here I am, diving back into the realm of the imagination, playing around with characters, and rediscovering the strange and mystical way that bits of dialog and lines of plot pop into my head when I’m doing something completely unrelated.
This story, which I’ll be releasing in 3 parts over the next 6 weeks, came out of Season 2 of Foster, an online writers’ collective that I’ve been part of for a couple of years and that I’ve given a nod to in other posts. Although Foster primarily offers editing services (from actual humans!), the collective also runs 5-week experiences called Seasons that give writers the opportunity to dig deeper into the stories they want to write, explore their craft, and collaborate to create finished pieces that reflect deeper thoughts, insights, and experiences.
When Season 2 started, all I had was an opening scene. I never expected the story to grow into what it has: a ~6,500-word exploration of faith, love, trust, and truth. While primarily an allegory based on the Biblical concept of “putting off” the old self and becoming new in Christ, it has an autobiographical undercurrent that has, admittedly, made it one of the more difficult things I’ve written in the recent past.
I’m deeply indebted to the Season 2 participants and fellow Fosterati who helped me bring this to fruition:, , , Asad Rhaman, Jess Sun, JG of , Lisa Dawson, and Rick Rollins.
It’s been a wild ride. I welcome any feedback, reactions, and insights that you feel moved to share. 🧡
If you’d rather read the story in your inbox, you can subscribe by dropping your email here. 👇🏻
"...put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts..." ~ Ephesians 4:22
I can't do this anymore.
It was the first thought in her head as she arrived at the door, bag of groceries in one hand, keys in the other, insides wound up like a rubber band stretched and twisted almost beyond capacity, brain pulsing with thoughts she'd rather ignore.
Through the door, tossing the keys onto the hall table with a clank, scattering yesterday's unopened mail. She kicked the pile aside with a frustrated grunt, headed down the hall—
And stopped short, stifling a scream.
The grocery bag slipped from her arms and crashed to the floor, sending glass shards and a river of red sauerkraut juice spattering across the tile. She stumbled back, hand over her mouth, and stared at the scene in the kitchen, willing it not to be true.
He was back.
Lounging in a chair, dirty motorcycle boots on the table, a beer bottle dangling from one hand and a cigarette from the other. Two streams of smoke escaped his nostrils as he grinned, laughed, mocked her reaction in that familiar self-deprecating way: as if the entire world was a cruel joke and he was the butt of it.
"Miss me?" he asked.
It was him, no mistaking it. The gravelly voice, the black hair, the battered jeans and faded band t-shirt. Even the half-circles under his eyes, standing out on pale skin. She would know him anywhere—a painful reality she was far from equipped to deal with after a day like today.
"I told you not to come back." Her voice was thin, much less forceful than she would have liked.
He shrugged. "The door was open."
Had it been? No. She'd locked it before she left, hadn't she? And she was absolutely sure she'd never given him a key.
"Get out." More force this time, but still not enough to convince him—to convince herself—that she wanted him to go.
But he had to go. If she didn't get rid of him now, didn't take a stand, he'd insinuate himself into her life all over again. Pass out on the couch after another bender or blast Beatles records at ungodly hours until the neighbors complained. Drink pots of coffee and leave toast crumbs all over the counter on the off chance he felt like eating. Fill the apartment with the stench of cigarette smoke: a choking cloud that hung over him and threatened to engulf her the longer he stayed.
She despised him, and yet...
And yet. There was always an "and yet."
And yet...he was familiar. He was predictable. He was, in a sickening sort of way, comforting. She knew what to expect with him, how to respond to his moods—like having an alter ego, a reflection of herself outside her own mind, someone to look to when she needed to make sense of her existence.
He was looking at her now, expression hovering between amusement and hurt, stubborn hazel eyes penetrating her feeble insistence.
"That's quite the welcome," he said at last.
"I mean it. Get out."
Sauerkraut juice made a crimson channel under the table as he took one last drag on the cigarette and dropped the butt into the dregs of the beer. He swung his boots to the floor, and for a moment—just a moment—she thought he might comply.
But this was him, after all. He unfolded himself from the chair and ambled toward the counter by the stove, radiating an air of nonchalant rebellion.
"You want coffee, or am I making it for me?" The act of staying was implicit in his voice.
"You're not making it for anyone," she replied. "Get. Out."
That grin again, just the faintest hint of a smirk at the corner of his mouth to show he was unconvinced. He slid the lid off the coffee pot—a freestanding stainless steel electric perk model she'd picked up at a yard sale—and began making himself coffee as if he'd never left.
As if he never intended to leave.
That was how it went, wasn't it? He showed up when he liked, and she had no say in the matter.
It made her sick.
But the tremor in her voice, the slight hesitation as she tried to kick him out, spoke of something else: a connection she could never quite break no matter how many times she resolved to be rid of him. She didn't know if she could cope without him to look to when the darkness came. He was the only person in her life whom she was confident she couldn't disappoint.
The coffee pot burbled, a sudden sound in the silence. He opened the cabinet by the sink and helped himself to a mug, deep blue with a chip out of the rim. The one he always used and that she should have gotten rid of long ago. He gave her a knowing look over his shoulder as he set it on the counter and settled in to wait for the coffee.
Every movement was deliberate, casual, almost rhythmic, but there was something else: a chink in his bravado that suggested he wasn't quite so secure as he let on. The fact that she saw right through it should have given her the courage to make good on her demand for him to leave.
But she'd always seen right through him. It was like looking at herself.
"Why?" The word escaped before she could stop it.
He glanced at her, one eyebrow raised. "What?"
"Why did you come back?"
Another shrug, nonchalant, arms crossed over his chest as he watched the coffee pot. "You wanted me to."
"I never said that." In fact, she distinctly remembered telling him she hated him and never wanted to see him again. She could still feel the hot tears that flowed as he laughed, knowing—as he always did—that part of her still clung to all he was even as she desperately wanted to let go.
"You didn't have to." He filled the mug, deep brown liquid sending a swirl of steam into the air. "You need me."
The words hit her so hard that they nearly knocked a scathing retort from her lips. But she couldn't argue. He was right. She had tried so many times to eradicate him from life, but it was like trying to root out an invasive weed: a battle that always ended in frustration, pain, and resignation. She was never strong enough.
He lifted the mug and studied her through the steam, eyes probing until she had to look away.
"No matter what you try to make of yourself, you can't dig deep enough," he remarked. "There's always more. Always another layer of filth." A sip of coffee and a grimace, as if the bitterness reminded him of something far deeper that he—and she—didn't want to consider but couldn't avoid.
Deep down, she did want him to come back. To lose him would be to lose part of herself, a part that validated all the darkest, most dysfunctional aspects of her character.
With him around, it was okay to resent her lot in life, to use unresolved injustices as an excuse for brokenness, to insist on approval and acceptance even when she grossly mistreated people. He did it all himself—and more—with masterful technique, and he always had the words to reassure her that she never had to change.
Letting go of him meant sacrificing support for her misery, being alone to face the reality of the scum that surfaced in the cesspool of her heart on days like today, when frustrations and disappointments mounted and all she wanted to do was crawl inside herself and not come out.
"I'm not you." Her voice was almost a whisper.
"I'm all you'll ever be," he replied. No malice, no patronizing, just a statement of fact punctuated by that maddening grin. "You've always known that."
"No. You are my past." She'd told herself this dozens of times since the first time she realized he couldn't stay, that his presence was poison and would destroy her if things continued as they were. She repeated it in her head and under her breath in the dark hours after the explosive argument that shattered their closeness and placed them forever in opposition, as if saying it enough times would give her the courage to believe it.
"You don't believe that." He voiced her thoughts again, tone measured and confident. "I wouldn't be here if you did."
"Stop." The command cracked apart as it met the panic rising in her chest. Her breath stuttered in quick bursts that threatened tears she didn't want to shed. "You don't belong here. I never asked you to come back. This is not your home, and you have no right to keep showing up."
Silence. For a long moment, he simply studied her face and her stance over the top of his mug. She scrutinized him in turn and saw a shift in his expression, the self-assurance melting into the look he got when he convinced himself that the whole world was against him and there was nothing to do but drink his misery into oblivion or disappear into the night on his motorcycle like some tragic, disaffected antihero.
He set his coffee aside and turned back to the cabinets. To her alarm, he reached up to fetch a second mug: the tall one with the black interior and the hand-painted mermaid wrapped around the outside. Her mug, which she'd picked up at the local coffee shop when he and she were still unbroken. Something that, like him, she'd never quite been able to let go of. He slid it onto the counter next to his own and reached for the coffee pot. Her heart skipped, battering against her chest like a caged bird desperate for escape.
"We might as well accept that we're on the same path," he remarked while he poured. "I'll never amount to anything, and neither will you. You've told me yourself: you can never do anything right. So why bother trying? We'd both just be wasting our time." He returned the pot to the counter with a thunk and watched steam rise above the smiling mermaid, looking beyond it to a darker place she knew all too well but wished she couldn't see. "No matter how many times you try to climb up the ladder and reach some imagined ideal of yourself, I'm all you'll find. You haven't got anyone else." He turned and held the mug out, a simple gesture made terrible by the intensity of his gaze. "I am your reality."
She was fighting for breath now, his words robbing her of air. She could feel the tears trying to escape, could see herself from the outside: standing there, trembling, the mug of coffee the only barrier between her and endless darkness.
It was her biggest fear, to become like him: degenerate and without anchor, making excuses for herself as failure after failure piled up until she was crushed under the weight of her own despair.
She could never do enough to measure up. Days like today were evidence of that: the work contract that fell through after weeks of negotiation; the to-do list laden with more responsibilities than she had time to manage; the phone call from her mother that devolved, as usual, into yelling and tears.
The cycle was familiar, inevitable: fall down, fall behind, never make meaningful headway. Stay stuck in the pit of her failure while opportunities for success and happiness hung perpetually out of reach. Grasp desperately for the kind of love she'd wanted her whole life but find only his twisted, self-serving, self-motivated demand for validation.
The coffee swirled in front of her eyes, a vortex that, if she took the bait, would suck her straight into his personal hell. To wrap her hand around the smiling mermaid would be to admit defeat, to assent to everything he'd said—everything he'd ever said, today and throughout the whole of the dark dance he called their reality.
But what choice did she have but to finally accept his presence? She hated everything about him, but she needed somebody to lean on who wouldn't pull away. And he never had. He didn't care about her, but at least he didn't expect her to live up to anything beyond what he already knew her to be. Even her darkest depths didn't shock him.
The smell of coffee filled the room. Her hands shook, uncertain whether to reach out or to fight.
Yes, okay, I’m a horrible person for putting a cliffhanger here. 😅 Feel free to leave a comment and yell at me (or let me know what you think so far)!
Or go on to part 2. 👉🏻