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A novel by
“Grant his wish.”
“Provide him aid.”
“Do not obstruct or steer.”
“Keep him close.”
“And let him go.”
“But do not interfere.”
“Tonight we forge.”
“Tonight we plant.”
“Tonight we mend the whole, IF…”
“you lie to none,”
“but of our part,”
“you tell no living soul.”
DEAR ANNA AND DUSTY
I used to think I would get used to hiding like this, but with every passing year, it grows harder to endure. There are so many things I wish you knew, about who I really am, and was, and what was going on under your noses when we knew each other. Whatever you may think, Dusty, my disappearance had nothing to do with our last altercation. I’ve always wanted to you to know that, but there seemed no survivable way to tell you the truth. And yet, the urge to just keeps swelling like a tumor inside of me. That is why I am writing this to give to you. Someday. When I find the courage—and a way to do it that will not cost us all more than my conscience would allow, even if my heart could bear it.
I cannot see how either of you will believe the story I’m about to tell, but I swear to you by every good thing either of you ever saw in me that every word is true. I know you’ll think me crazy when you read it, but I hope you’ll ask yourselves if this seems like the writing of a mad man—beyond its subject matter, I mean. Is it disjointed or irrational? Do I sound as if I have no grasp at all of how the real world works for people like yourselves? Most of what’s described here happened well before we met. If I am mad now, I was every bit as mad back then. So ask yourselves this too: how could we have known each other like we did—especially you and I, Dusty—and yet, not even a professional like you, Anna, ever thought to question my sanity before?
I know there’s nothing I can say to make this tale easier to swallow. But please, please try to believe me. So much could depend on it someday—for all of us.
THE NIGHT I DIED
One way or another, I’m pretty sure I died on the night of my fiftieth birthday.
There’s no easing into this. I did warn you that I’d sound insane.
But it’s a damn strange ghost that everyone can see and touch and talk to. A ghost that has to eat and shit and piss and sleep—that dreams and sweats, and smells unless it bathes. Not dead then. Not just dreaming either after all these years. So, what am I?
I still don’t know.
I guess I must say something first about the man I was, though there seems very little to recommend him.
His whole life until that night could be summed up in one short phrase: ‘well behaved.’ Unless you’ve personally experienced the misfortune of being well behaved for more than short, healthy spurts, you can have no idea how sad that was.
I was generally liked back then, if loved by no one I could have pointed to quickly, had I ever thought to try. I was dignified, content, and generally healthy, if never very charismatic or wildly happy. I had diligently worked my way up into management at a small firm in the city. I owned a pleasant condo and a pleasant car—both kept clean and in perfect working order at all times. In short, I’d spent my life executing every move on any dance chart I’d encountered with modest precision and unexamined confidence. Oddly though, until that night, I had managed somehow not to notice I was also entirely alone, even though—or perhaps because—I’d been that way almost all my life.
I think fifty had always been a magic number for me, unconsciously—an irrevocable line in the sand of time, which I’d dreaded reaching for years. As it approached at last, I so profoundly suppressed all thought of it that when a much younger colleague named Brian congratulated me on “the upcoming milestone” I just blinked at him in confusion, wondering what important business deadline I’d forgotten, or worse yet, never heard about at all.
Once my confusion had been remedied, he seemed horrified to hear I had just planned to ignore the day. “It’s not as if you’re turning ninety,” he said. “Fifty is just –”
“Do not say ‘the new forty’,” I remember growling, as if it were a joke.
Brian shook his head, almost affectionately as I recall, insisting that he could not allow me to go home on such an occasion “to some microwave dinner and an episode of Survivor.” It appalls me even now to think I was that transparent.
He said his wife and he were taking out a visiting friend that night, and pressed me to come along and let them buy me a nice birthday dinner. He assured me that their friend, Jessie, was a delightful, intelligent woman with a great sense of humor, and promised there’d be no embarrassing tableside sing-alongs, gifts, or surprise guests.
A less well behaved man might just have said ‘no thank you.’ I said, “Shouldn’t you ask your wife about this first? And your friend? It seems an awful lot of trouble on such short notice.” None of which meant no to a well-intentioned youth like Brian.
By that evening, the plan had expanded to include an early movie before our meal. I had agreed to meet them at the theater, but a string of mishaps at work made me late, and the previews had started by the time I found Brian waiting just through the inside door to guide me down the darkened aisle to a seat beside their friend.
I could barely see her in the darkness, but Jessie’s palpably relaxed and welcoming demeanor put me instantly at ease. We exchanged whispered pleasantries during the last few trailers, and, within seconds, she had made me laugh. Within a few more seconds I had made her laugh too. Our instant rapport surprised me, and I soon realized that Brian had not exaggerated her intelligence or wit.
Even after the movie started, she kept leaning up to whisper droll observations about the film into my ear, so softly that I doubt even Brian or his wife could hear. I would whisper some reply, and we would chuckle silently—our seats so close that I could feel the subtle trembling of her laughter.
She was intensely charming, and made me feel something I doubt I could have named then, but I can tell you now that it was ‘young.’ When I realized that the delightful scent tugging at my attention was her perfume, I wondered suddenly if Brian and his wife might actually have set me up with this friend of theirs on purpose—an absurd thought, all the more unsettling as I realized how little I would mind if it were true. To my quiet amazement, this was turning out to be a very pleasant birthday after all.
Then the movie ended, the lights came up, and my tidy little dirigible of denial crashed like the Hindenburg.
Beside me sat a lovely girl whom I was sure could not be more than nineteen years old. Oh, the humanity. I no longer recall a single specific thing Jessie or I said to each other that night, but I can tell you verbatim what my first thought was when I saw her in the light: “It’s years too late to meet this girl. Or any girl like her.”
I was later informed that she was twenty-four. It was a birthday celebration. Ages were discussed. Mine was fifty. The five-year error in my estimate of Jessie’s age did nothing at all to suture the wound inflicted by this utterly un-looked-for ambush.
By now you’ll be thinking, ‘So he meets some pretty little thing who’s way too young for him. The world is full of them. Grow up, for heaven’s sake.’ And you’d be right if any of this had really been about Jessie, but she was just the trigger, not the bullet.
A life forfeited as slowly and cautiously as mine had been leaves the forfeiter ample time to build walls around the loss, brick by mundane brick, day by unexamined day, so quietly that he need hardly know he’s building anything at all, much less what he’s walling out—or in. But oceans can accumulate behind such walls, until the slowly mounting pressure from one side becomes so great that just a tiny crack is all it takes to bring them crashing down.
You must understand how long and carefully, if unconsciously, I’d kept myself from anything or anyone that might have led to such a breach. Had I seen this girl for even seconds in the light before we shared those hours in the darkness, my heart’s smallest portals would have sealed instantly against her and all she represented, without so much as a whisper to alert me. I’d have been cordial all evening, even charming in a fatherly fashion, and gone home after dinner with no tiny clue that anything at all had been preempted. I’d been doing it for years. Who knows how long I might have kept it up before some other Trojan horse slipped past my defenses. This just turned out to be the night, and poor Jessie the unwitting instrument.
To be honest, I was hardly even aware of Jessie any more by the time I begged everyone’s forgiveness for leaving early, on grounds of feeling suddenly unwell—an excuse which, I suppose, must only have increased the drama surrounding my failure to appear at work the next morning—or ever again.
I should just have gone home. But I was far too upset to think of sleeping, or even sitting still. So I drove downtown instead, parked my clean, well-maintained car in an all-night garage, and went out to walk the City Center’s empty streets, desperate to conceive of some speedy way to re-inflate my ruined blimp.
I am never likely to forget a single detail of that night.
It had rained some, earlier, leaving the deserted streets puddled and slick, the air clear and chilly, smelling of wet concrete and asphalt. Here and there between the tower tops a hard-edged star pierced the dozing city’s half-light. The night was silent, disturbed not even by a passing car for minutes at a time. The sheen of sodium streetlights, traffic signals, and neon signs reflecting so brightly off of all that wet pavement made the few remaining shadows even more impenetrable.
My suit coat was too light for the weather, and it got colder as the hours passed, but I was in such a state of despair that I hardly noticed. I just walked and walked—trying to outdistance the inescapable consequences of a lifetime’s folly.
The way I saw it then, I had been tricked—not by Brian or Jessie, but by ‘fate’—into encountering myself and my life after all those years of hiding from both. Of course, no one had tricked me but me. And here I was, doing it again. The all-that-can-wait trick I’d been using for so long had just morphed seamlessly into the it’s-too-late one.
Deep down, I’d known for decades what I truly wanted: a few real friends; a wife and children; a handful of adventures—just the normal kind that equip you to grin knowingly at other such adventurers, and receive such grins in return.
Yet I’d put all this off, again and again, waiting for some more spacious and convenient tomorrow when all my more urgent business had been seen to: the endless streams of email, bill paying, mail-in rebating, and receipt arranging; the acquisition and maintenance of things; the maneuvering for advancement; the house cleaning and grocery shopping for microwaveable dinners eaten in exhaustion, alone in my tidy house, before an endless train of ‘reality TV’ shows, watching people even less real than myself live lives more fake than my own. All I’d really wanted was to be someone that someone like Jessie would have wanted, back when someone like Jessie could have wanted him. Why, I wondered miserably, had I never admitted all this to myself before? And why, after hiding from it so carefully for so long, had I suddenly let myself see it all that night?
Though I didn’t know the answers then, they seem clear to me now.
I had allowed my walls to crack at last precisely because, having crossed the magic line of fifty, it was finally officially too late to do anything about it, and so there were no longer any fearful obligations incurred by acknowledging my real desires—except, perhaps, despair. But mere despair required none of the effort, risk, or courage that desire, hope, or, God forbid, action, might have thrust upon me had I faced any of this sooner.
That night, however, with decades likely left to wait, hopelessly and pointlessly, for some legitimate exit from this impossibly costly, failed experiment in cowardly evasion, I had no idea what I was supposed to do with all the empty, useless years ahead of me. How was I to survive the suddenly inescapable consciousness of all I might have been and done had I just dared to face myself while there was still time?
Mercifully, I had only moments to contemplate this dark abyss before I was distracted by much more immediate trouble.
I was walking past an alleyway, and heard a very disturbing sound.
There were no words in it. … It might almost have been a mewling cat, but I knew right off, somehow, that it was a child, in some kind of real trouble.
I peered into the narrow passage, but it seemed almost as if the darkness had congealed there somehow. … Which it might have, I suppose. They can do such things.
“Who’s in there?” I called out.
A high-pitched little squeal, abruptly silenced, left me rigid with alarm.
The violence conveyed in that small, aborted sound was terrifying. But some even deeper instinct must have trumped my fear, because, without really thinking, I rushed stupidly forward, fists absurdly raised, and ran straight into someone much too large.
The darkness thinned then, just enough for me to see what I had hit.
It wore a long gray coat of tattered herringbone, and ragged, sooty pants that reeked of stale sweat and urine and something else I still can’t name, unpleasantly burnt and herbal. Its head was hideously deformed: cranium shrunken, jawbone overgrown, eyes and nose too small, mouth too large and fleshy, opened in a kind of ghastly ‘O.’
Terms like gigantism and elephantiasis sprinted through my vapor-locked brain, but I never once thought troll.
That’s right. Troll.
And while I’m losing you again, let me insist that you have likely seen things every bit as strange, or even stranger. You just didn’t notice. The last time a troll crossed the street in front of your car, you thought, ‘Wow! Look at the size of that guy! And what an awful birth defect! Poor man.’ The light turned green, and you drove off without a second thought. None of us ever recognizes what we know cannot possibly be there.
They count on that.
But I digress.
One of the creature’s huge hands held a teenage girl up against the alley’s brick and mortar wall, by the throat. Her feet dangled off the ground. Its grip prevented her head from turning, but her terrified eyes slid toward me, begging eloquently.
I wish I could tell you that I yelled, ‘Unhand that child, you fiend!’ and took a swing at it, but no. I just stood gaping up at both of them until, in one swift, flowing movement, the creature dropped the girl, and swung the arm he’d held her with around to club me in the head.
I don’t remember leaving the ground—just bouncing off a dumpster further down the alley. Then he came to finish me. It was like being dropped into a threshing combine. I never once regained control of my body, or even thought of trying. Fear and all but an increasingly remote rumor of pain simply vanished into global disbelief accompanied by two calm, clinical thoughts: I made it to fifty, and, I’m not going to live through this.
A VERY CARELESS WISH
I came to sometime later, on my back, staring up at a slot of night sky between silhouetted walls and fire escapes, with no idea where I was—until I tried to lift my head. The sirens and alarm bells this small movement set off throughout my body brought everything back into focus, and my confusion lurched back into fear that it might still be waiting somewhere just beyond my line of sight.
The pain wasn’t distant anymore. Every time I gasped, rosettes of fire bloomed against my lungs. The smallest shift or flex brought sickening sensations of grinding bone or the internal gush of liquids where I knew none should be gushing. I was sure I’d die. I just wasn’t sure how much longer it might take or how much more painful it might get.
Though I didn’t try to move again, my eyes never ceased to rove in search of the monster. Yet it took me several minutes to notice the stranger sitting almost right above me on a dumpster, so still that I had simply taken her for a pile of rags and bags.
She stared down at me in silence, her face half hidden in cascades of dark, wavy hair, her hands buried in the folds of a long, tattered skirt in faded colors.
“Is he gone?” I whispered.
She nodded. “Not many of your kind can say they’ve fought a troll and lived.”
I had no idea what she meant then. And even if I had, I wouldn’t have believed her, any more than you believe me. I only asked if she had called for help.
“Is that what you wish?” she asked.
I didn’t even think about how strange her question was. I merely realized that… perhaps it wasn’t. Hadn’t I just been wishing for some escape from pointless years of waiting out my failed existence? And here it was. Surely half the dying was already done. Why waste all that just to hang around for thirty more years of bitter dregs?
I told her no, I didn’t want her calling anyone. Dying was a mercy.
“You do not wish to live?” she asked skeptically.
“Not this life,” I groaned, beginning to shiver from both cold and shock.
“What life then?” she asked.
“The life I should have led,” I gasped in pain. “There’s no way to fix things now. Nothing left for me to want…but an end to this.”
“What would you have fixed?” she asked.
What would I have fixed? … The wave of grief this question caused just made my broken body seem a fitting final punishment for my utter failure as a human being. I began to moan, and then to sob. “Everything!” I cried. “I just want to do it over! No one ever tells you what it’s for—what any of it’s worth—until it’s all too late!”
Crying caused my injuries to scream, but the pain was almost welcome, like a knife with which to stab at all the unbearable regret and shame writhing in my gut. I went on crying, while the woman watched, until I felt nothing anymore but empty, wishing only that my body would give up and get this over with.
The woman wouldn’t let me be, though. She seemed incredulous that anyone would really want to go back and mess their diapers or spit up their milk all over again. She said I didn’t remember how much work it had been just to learn to think—or talk, or walk, or use a spoon. She told me that to do it once was like a miracle of penance, and that to do it twice seemed a really dreadful wish to her.
She seemed almost to be scolding me, and my grief gradually gave way to irritation. “Fine,” I finally interrupted. “I’d wish to be twelve then, or fourteen. If I’d known everything at fourteen I know now, I’d have ruled the world before turning twenty-five. That’s all I’m saying.”
It still hadn’t even crossed my mind to ask her who she was, or what she was doing there. Pain and shock can make you very Zen, I’ve found.
“But you’re wrong,” she insisted. “No matter what you knew, you’d just make all the same mistakes again. For all the same reasons. Mistakes are how life works.”
“For Christ’s sake, lady, I’m dying! Must I debate my last regrets with you? Who are you, anyway?” I finally asked. “What are you doing here?”
She fell silent for a moment. Then, quietly, she said, “It was my daughter that you saved tonight.”
I looked away, feeling embarrassed, and guilty somehow about yelling at her. Then it hit me what she’d said—that I had saved somebody’s life. A child’s.
Struggling not to weep again, I thanked her for giving my existence some redeeming value at the end.
She sighed, braced her hands against the dumpster lid, and slid down to stand over me. “You have little cause for gratitude to me, I think.”
She smiled. A sad smile, but it changed her weary, weathered face completely—made her lovely as an angel. “You are a better man than you seem to know. And my debt to you is far beyond any payment I can give.”
Then, to my confusion, she just turned and walked away. At the street, however, she looked back and said, “If this does not turn out as you imagine, please remember that I warned against it.”
I had no idea what she meant, or why she was leaving, but suddenly I did know how much I didn’t want to die alone. I craned my neck to call her back, but must have had some spinal injury as well, because one god-awful flash of white-hot pain from back to head left me only time to hope I wouldn’t wake again.
And I didn’t, really.
Did she think she was doing me a favor? Bestowing some reward?
Shouldn’t she at least have warned me?
She had tried, I guess.
Even if she’d told me what was going to happen, I would never have believed her. And if I had, somehow, would I have possessed the sense to refuse? Not that night. That night, I would have run through fire for this without a thought for details. All I wanted was my second chance. And she had clearly taken very careful notes.
When I woke again, the alleyway was bathed in morning light. I felt marvelously rested—more limber than I’d felt in years, and filled with almost manic energy—until I sat up to find myself swimming in someone’s gigantic suit, wearing lithe, freckled, hairless little arms and hands that could not possibly belong to me either.
Little crossed my mind at first but the white noise of numb incomprehension, then the suspicion that I was still unconscious or hallucinating, and finally the panicked possibility that I was dead.
Was this what happened when people died? Did they wake as little cherubs, right where they had fallen, tangled in whatever they’d been wearing at the time? Was some angel going to come now and direct me to the celestial shuttle? Or some devil maybe? Would they send a man to Hell who’d died to save a child? The whole thing scared me right back into unconsciousness before I’d even tried to stand.
The next time I awoke, a darkly uniformed young man was bending over me. At the alley mouth an ambulance was parked, its lights flashing silently as morning traffic whizzed past in the street beyond. Behind its steering wheel a second man in uniform spoke into a hand unit.
The fellow bending over me said he was a paramedic, and started asking simple questions I had no idea how to answer, like, “How do you feel?”
Well, … great, I thought, compared to how I’d felt the night before, yet not so good about still being unable to find my hands or feet inside the expensive, wool-blend parachute I wore. I just said, “I’m not sure.”
“Are you injured anywhere?”
No, in fact, I wasn’t—anymore—but could no more tell him I’d been road kill just hours before than that I had been fifty when I’d gone to bed here. Yet, when he asked me who I was, I blurted out my name by force of habit.
He looked concerned and said he’d found a wallet in the suit I was wearing which contained I.D. and credit cards for someone of that name who was, unfortunately, a fifty-year-old man. Did I know the man whose clothes these were? Was I, perhaps, confused about my identity?
Golly gee. You think?
I started babbling increasingly absurd assertions about who I was—no, really!—and about what had happened to me—But I swear it’s true!—until the grim sympathy forming on his face finally made me understand that I was milliseconds from being bundled up and hauled off to a loony bin.
That’s when the bigger picture finally began to register.
I was a child again—somehow—without parents, or even one acquaintance who’d believe that I was me, or a house that anyone would believe I owned, or a car that I could legally drive—if I could even reach the pedals anymore—or any job I could attempt returning to without being sent straight off to some child-psychiatrist I could no longer afford to pay. My ill-advised dying wish had been appallingly short on all sorts of crucial provisions. I should have asked to be fourteen again knowing everything a less imbecilic man of fifty might. I had no idea how I would survive, but at that moment I just wanted some ‘sane’ cover story to buy time with while I figured out what the hell was really happening, much less what to do about it.
“No, wait,” I said. “You’re right. I guess I am… confused. I think… My… uncle, yeah, these must be his clothes… I don’t know what they’re doing on me… My uncle and I were… Something happened. I… I don’t remember what. But my name is …is…” As I scrambled for some more plausible name than my own to give him, the face of an acquaintance back in school popped suddenly to mind—I have no idea why—and I just borrowed his.
“Yes,” I said. “I remember now. I think… my name is Matthew.”
Hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Mark Ferrari's upcoming novel, Twice--the first book in a new three book urban fantasy series coming soon. Stay tuned for further excerpts from more new writing by Mark Ferrari.