The dream was like all his dreams of late. He saw many things through his mind's eye but the why of it all eluded him still. There were things he should know, things that danced on the edge of awareness but never came into the light. The settings flashed, his perceptions changed, but the scenes always ended the same. It was in those ends that he began to comprehend the truth.
It opened in the year 123 A.S. Over a hundred years had passed since the Secession of the Free States and the scars of war had all but faded. Just for an instant he glimpsed the way the land had looked during that time of war, burnt and gray and empty. But, in the way of dreams, the charred remnants were gone before he could focus on them, replaced with lush forest. He wound his way through tall pine trees as he followed the path that led him home.
As he watched, cold fingers seemed to play up and down his soul. With the duality of dreams, he watched and dreaded each step taken down the path. Part of him knew fear even as he looked through the eyes of the man who walked the path in the woods.
He looked up to watch the treetops sway in front of the clear blue sky and, before his gaze returned to the forest floor, the fear spiked. As the watcher, he knew what he would see. A man stood not five feet away, his face hidden in shadows.
He knew what was coming but was helpless to prevent it. He never saw the knife that sliced up into his ribs. He struggled to draw breath. His teeth clenched against the pain that washed over him. He needed answers but couldn't fight the pain that consumed him.
The year was 187 A.S. and he walked along a city street. He marveled at the number of people that would actually choose to live in such a confined space. The crowd was thick this time of day, a great throng, fenced by colossal structures of their own design. He had been here for over a year but, in the dream, he couldn't remember from where he came. He walked these streets day after day, could not take a step without touching another human soul, yet never had he felt so alone.
He stopped, allowing himself to be jostled by the pedestrians rushing past. His eyes were drawn to a man who materialized out of the crowd right in front of him. He wanted to run, but he was frozen in the dream. His feet would not move, terror flashed before acceptance. He closed his eyes just as his chest caved as if hit with a hammer. There was no time for a last breath before the darkness came.
He jumped to the year 317. He was in a bed, staring up at the ceiling. He was wary of sleep but couldn't seem to remember why. There was something about dreams, something about death, but it was lost in the ether. He felt the knowledge was there, just under this layer of thought but... did he want to uncover it? Had he thought this very thing before?
He threw off the covers and swung out of bed. It was at that moment that something, someone, grabbed the back of his head. He didn't fight as he felt the line being drawn across his throat. He didn't struggle as his lungs filled with blood and the life drained away. How long had this gone on? How could it stop? The questions repeated over and over, without answer until all that was left was the darkness.
A young man woke with tears streaming down his face. He wiped them away with the back of his hand. The dreams had been with him for so long now that the days of being wrenched away were far behind him. He thought about taking another drink but decided against it. He had good buzz going and would need what was left in the bottle come morning.
He had suffered through these dreams almost nightly now and had come to realize that they weren't just random expressions of his subconscious. The events that played out in his mind as he slept were recollections of past experience. The time and places changed but, in the end, he never avoided death. In all the dreams he remembered upon waking, never had his been a natural death. It was always at a young age, come out of nowhere for no reason, murdered at the hands of a stranger, never his fault but his fate just the same.
The trepidation that threatened to drive him mad was replaced with acceptance. A complete surrender to what was to come. It would be soon now, this life would end and he'd be born to do it all over again in another time. It would be quick, it would be violent, and he would be dead.
He rolled over and drifted to sleep wondering how it would end this time.
Jack Murphy opened his eyes to the new day, hung-over as usual. He didn't feel like getting up, didn't feel like doing anything but lying here until his head stopped pounding, but nature called and there was whiskey to drink. He swung out of bed and wiped his eyes, trying to force them to adjust to the light that crept past the curtains. He rested his elbows on his knees and hung his head, taking slow, deep breaths while he tried to gauge just how bad he was going to feel this morning.
He sat motionless until the pounding in his temples subsided to a manageable throb then raised his head just enough to look over the ruined mess that was his hotel room. Empty whiskey bottles, pizza boxes, and dirty clothes seemed to cover everything in sight. He ran a hand through his hair then listened to his bones creak as he struggled to get to his feet. He swayed and bit back the wave of nausea that threatened to overwhelm him.
He navigated through the mess, made it to the bathroom without tripping over anything then flipped on the light. It was a move he regretted immediately. The fluorescent might as well have been a laser in the eyes. Half blind and half drunk he flipped off the light and focused on the bottle of whiskey by the sink. He grabbed it, took a healthy drink, and sighed as the warmth spread out from his gut. He didn't consider himself an alcoholic just yet, but he walked a damn fine line. He only drank heavily after the death dreams, but they were coming almost nightly now.
Bottle in hand, he shuffled over and collapsed onto the bed. He took another pull from the bottle, closed his eyes, and tried to sort his thoughts. The images were so vivid it was hard to differentiate between the real world and worlds recalled in rhw dreams. He was Jack Murphy now, but he remembered walking the path through a forest and the knife as it cut through his ribs and into his lung. He remembered walking through a city and the pain of being shot like it happened yesterday.
Now he was afraid to sleep, knowing that he would dream of a hundred different lives and dying in a hundred different ways. Sometimes, in the dream he sensed that it hadn't always been this way. There were brief instances, memories of memories, that he had been important once. An impression that what he dreamt now only hinted at the lives he had led. He didn't understand the purpose. What was the point of living, of trying to achieve anything if it was going to end at any moment?
A knock on his door brought him back to the now and set him on autopilot. He jumped out of bed, set his bottle on the nightstand, and threw on the jeans he had worn yesterday. Even though it was just after six in the morning the gray light of dawn blinded him when he opened the door.
"Can I help..." Jack stopped in mid-sentence and slunk back to the bed, more importantly to his bottle. "Jesus, Carl, I thought it was someone important."
Carl didn't bother with invitations as he followed Jack into the room. "It's nice to see you too, buddy. I just wanted to stop and see how you were doing this morning."
Jack didn't have anyone he would consider a friend but Carl Langum came as close as there was. Ever since the old man had moved into the room next door he had gone out of his way to get Jack to converse. It had taken awhile, but after six months Jack had finally warmed up to the old man.
If it was possible to feel sorry for anyone, he felt sorry for Carl. With all his family and friends gone, the old man spun tales of a life just as lonely and depressing as his own. Jack had come to trust the man; there was a bond forged when another person was just as screwed as you.
Jack had never asked his age, but Carl looked like he must be in his seventies or eighties. As old as he seemed, the guy had all his wits, and all his hair. Long and gray, it stuck up every which way on top and fell down to his shoulders in the back.
Jack took another drink from his bottle and motioned to the only chair in the room that wasn't covered in trash or clothes. The words were a growl as the bourbon slid down his throat. "What are you doing up and dressed at this hour? Are you desperate for company or what?"
Carl took a seat and ran a hand through his hair. "I'm up and about because you managed to scare me to death when I heard you screaming through the friggin' walls again."
Jack managed a smile. The liquor was really starting to kick in. "You're a saint Carl. I've lived in this room for three years and you're the only one that's ever looked my way, much less come by to check on me."
The old man leaned out of his chair far enough to grab the bottle. After taking a big swig he handed it back with a wrinkled, but very steady hand. "No offense, but I think it's because you make everyone else around here nervous." He leaned back and crossed his legs out in front of him, brushing unseen lint off his pant leg. "With the sorry excuse of humanity we've got living in this place, that's not saying much."
Jack scratched at the stubble on his chin. "I don't make you nervous?"
The lines around Carl's eyes deepened when he squinted. "I'm an old man and I've seen a lot in all my years. Underneath that brooding drunk exterior I see a young man that's got a lot of problems he doesn't quite know how to handle." Carl rocked forward, grabbed the bottle out of Jack's hand and held it without taking a drink."Why don't we take a drive and get you away from everything for awhile? It smells like a sewer in here and I could use some time away myself."
Jack looked at the bottle and sighed. He spotted a t-shirt wadded up on the bed and pulled it over his head. His shoulders were broad enough and his chest thick enough that with a shirt, the extra pounds he carried weren't so easy to spot."Why would I want to go anywhere?I know my job doesn't pay much but..." he waved his hand around the room, "it's enough to pay for these fine accommodations and keep me fed." He grabbed the bottle out of Carl's hand and took a drink before he sat back down.
Carl leaned forward, his eyes hidden under a wrinkled brow, his voice a low rasp with an edge. "I've known you six months and most would say that's six months too long.I'd call you crazy if I didn't know you better than that. You sit around waiting to die because some stupid dreams have you convinced that's your fate. You've pissed your life away because of them."
Jack swung his legs up to the bed and leaned back against the headboard."How many times are we going to go over this? You have no idea what it's like to relive your last moments over and over again.Hell, I dread going to sleep and I wake up terrified. You live like this for even a week then I might put some stock into what you say."
"You damn well better listen to someone. Your life is crap now and it's going to stay crap unless you get off your ass." Carl's voice never rose but there was power behind the words, like the man was used to getting what he wanted. He took a deep breath and when he smiled he was the same old Carl again. "All I'm saying is you could use a little vacation from all this, maybe gain some perspective. I've got some land in the country and I haven't been there in a while. We could check it out and just hang out for a time. No hassles and no crap job for you to worry about. You might even be able to figure out what's in your head so you can get on with the rest of your life."
Jack let his head fall back against the headboard. "You're not going to take no for an answer this time are you?"
Carl shrugged from his chair. "Not this time, no."
"Well, it looks like I'm going on a trip then doesn't it?" Jack took another drink and tried to keep a straight face while he squinted at his friend. "You're not planning any funny business are you?"
Carl's face bloomed into a thousand old man lines when he smiled. "Nope, no funny business, just some time for you to think things through. It'll be a lot better than hanging around here and watching all the hookers and druggies, I can tell you that. Who knows, you might even learn something."
Jack shook his head. "I don't know about that, but a change of scenery would do me good. It was about time I started looking for another job anyway. I was getting tired of washing dishes. When are we taking this little trip anyway?"
Carl looked at the almost empty bottle in Jack's hand before he spoke. "Why don't we leave tomorrow morning? You've got to pack and I'm sure you've got some things to wrap up." Carl rose and made his way to the door, careful not to step on anything. He turned before he left. "Don't worry about packing too much. If we stay out longer than a couple of days we can always pick up what we need."
According to the clock on the nightstand it was officially 10:07 pm and Jack was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, although he wasn't entirely sure where the day went. He remembered going to the store and picking up a case of whiskey after Carl left, just to be sure he'd have enough, and beginning to pack while he had his first couple of drinks. He didn't have to worry about packing too much; everything he owned fit into the two suitcases sitting by the door next to his case of whiskey. He remembered parking himself on the bed, remote control in hand, and drinking until the world went away.
Now that he was awake he figured he'd just watch more TV and drink until Carl got him moving in the morning. He was lying there half asleep, with the TV droning on, when a pounding on the door got his heart racing. He stayed on the bed for a moment thinking of a few colorful phrases he would share with Carl for scaring the heck out of him.
He crawled out of bed and threw open the door. "So what's the story..." It was all he was able to say. The light from the hotel sign wasn't great but Jack saw enough to know that the man standing there wasn't Carl. He tried to shut the door. In his mind he shouted for a do-over. The stranger's arm shot out and jammed something into his gut.Every muscle in his body contracted and a smell like burning hair filled his nostrils.
For a few moments there was no thought, no awareness of self, and that made him wonder if he was dead. Yet with that thought he knew that he was alive and thinking. He was on his back staring up at the cracks in his ceiling. He tried to use his arms to lever himself up but only managed to rock himself a bit on the floor. His thoughts coalesced and he realized that he had been shocked. He knew that if he didn't get up things were going to get real bad real quick.
He fought to make his muscles obey but no matter how hard he tried he could not get them to respond. He lay on the floor helpless as a babe, unable to move his head to watch the man who had done this to him. Terror spiked when the stranger came into his field of vision, looking down like a butcher pondering over a side of beef.
When the man took a syringe out of his pocket and knelt beside him, the terror melted away. Jack smiled as the full weight of the situation settled on him. This was the moment the dreams had prepared him for. The years of obsessing had come to an end. Even as he faced death, he knew in his soul that this was not the end, just a new beginning.
He had never been afraid of death itself. It was the instant of death that bothered him. It was the fact that he didn't know when it was coming, only that his life would be taken before he had a chance to live it. The dreams conditioned him over the years. He drew breath but didn't live. Why live if it was just going to be taken away again and again? He would have a different face, a different name, a different road to the same destination.
He smiled even as he felt the needle puncture his arm. Warmth spread from his arm to the rest of his body but he was unconcerned. Only when he caught movement behind his attacker did the smile falter. He watched a hand jerk the stranger's head up by the hair and a knife slice through the stranger's neck. For the first time in memory, he saw his attacker die before his life ended.
Death approached quick and quiet as the stranger fell away, and Carl knelt beside him. He might not have long in this world but there was no fear. He tried to thank the old man but he couldn't get enough air into his lungs to form the words. He hoped that in his next life he did more than drink his time away. For the first time Jack Murphy welcomed the darkness when it came.