The images flash before my eyes in shades of black, white, and red.
A bloodstained angel. A needle. A woman in a red dress. Homeward Bound.
I awaken from my trance, gasping for breath and leaning over the bathroom sink. Crimson drops of blood spatter on the white porcelain. I look up into my grimy bathroom mirror and see that I am bleeding from my eyes. My face is ashen and I am sweating profusely. My head is throbbing.
I turn the faucet and splash cold water on my face. It’s always the same.
I don’t know what the images mean. All I know is that over the course of the next 24 hours, they will appear to me again, not in vision, but in the real world. And at the end of it all, someone will die.
I’ve been having visions since I was a young man. At first, I tried to decipher them. I tried to help the people that I saw, tried to save them. But after a while I realized they couldn’t be saved. No matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, the story always ended the same way. With death.
Eventually, I found that it was safer to distance myself, not just for my own sanity, but for legal reasons. There’s only so many times you can appear in close proximity to death before people start to wonder if it is a coincidence.
At first, I thought that the visions might be a gift from God. Then I thought they were more likely a curse from the other guy.
Now the visions mean little more to me than a bitch of a headache and the knowledge that the day ahead is going to be a shitty one.
I turn off the water and look at myself in the mirror. Still look like shit, but at least the color was coming back to my face. I see the reflection of the clock behind me and I swear under my breath. Maybe I can get a few more hours sleep in before work.
I scan the floor of the club, the pulsing music, flashing lights, and hot sweaty bodies all doing their part to make my headache worse. My colleague, the muscle-bound idiot standing beside me, is doing his bit too, chatting away at me about creatine or glutamine or some other shit; I can’t really be sure on account of the loud music and my not giving a fuck.
As I’m scanning the floor, my eyes fall on a man sitting at a booth by the dancefloor. I’d noticed him when he came in an hour ago for no other reason than he was not what you’d call our typical clientele. His skin was a few shades lighter than everybody else in the club, aside from the two young ladies he’d brought with him. ‘Orientals’, my colleague had called them, spitting the word out as if it had soured his mouth.
Despite the color of his skin the man looks like a pimp, dressed in a tailored silver suit, sitting back in his booth, sipping on a glass of Henny and watching his two companions ‘dance’ together. I say dance, but what they’re doing looks more like fucking than anything else. Not that they’re the only ones. I swear, what these kids call dancing these days is enough to make my grandma blush – and she’s dead.
Whatever, I think. They’re not hurting anyone. No one even seems to notice them. Except for the idiot beside me, that is. The moment they’d entered the club, he’d been watching them closely, seemingly offended by their mere presence.
The Asian man in the booth sees me watching him and shoots me a wink. The wink is obvious, despite the distance and erratic lighting.
Unfortunately, my colleague sees the wink and mistakes it for being directed at him. Of course, he immediately takes offence. He charges towards the Asian man’s booth, and I am forced to follow.
My colleague, all 300 pounds of him, looms over the Asian man and growls, “I think it’s time for you to go.”
The man looks up at him with a smug smile on his face. He gestures to the table in front of him. “But I’m not finished with my drinks.”
My colleague does something stupid then. He reaches over and swipes the glassware off the table. Glasses and a half bottle of cognac smash on the ground. The music and dancers continue to pulse, unfazed by the commotion. Even the two Asian ladies only look over momentarily, before continuing to grind on each other.
The Asian man, however, jumps to his feet and gets right up in my colleague’s face. His smug smile is gone and in its place is a face full of murderous intent. It scares me, and I don’t scare easily. In this line of work, I’ve had to deal with a lot of threats, fueled by a mixture of testosterone, alcohol, and drug cocktails. This man’s face, though, was different. In his eyes, I could not sense any anger, but rather something cold and dispassionate, like the eyes of a snake just before it strikes.
My colleague is either too thick or too angry to notice this. He also doesn’t seem to notice the Asian man’s hand snaking towards the inside of his jacket.
Before I even have time to think, I’m already moving. I’m grabbing the Asian man by his collar and forcing his arm behind his back. Then, I’m marching, practically lifting, him towards the rear exit. He’s much smaller than me and I’m full of adrenaline. Kicking the exit door open, I shove him out of the club. He falls into the alley onto his hands and knees, his palms and expensive silver slacks scuffing against the harsh, wet asphalt.
The exit door swings slowly shut, but not before I see the man turn to look at me. He sees my face with those same, snake-like eyes, only now they are no longer cold. I see in them a mixture of humiliation, hatred, and fury. It is only for a second, but I get the sense that he is using that second to memorize my face.
I usually eat a turkey sandwich after I finish my shift. I used to get pulled pork, but recently my doctor told me that I should try to lay off the fatty foods. I buy from a deli close by my house that’s been around forever and yet has still somehow managed to go unnoticed by the hipsters. Generally, I prefer to take my sandwich home and eat it on the couch while watching daytime television, but today the weather is nice, so I decide to take my sandwich out to the park to eat.
I sit alone on a bench and take my first bite. It’s good. I close my eyes and chew the bite slowly, savoring the crunch of the lettuce and the complementary flavors of turkey and lingonberry jam. I breath in the scent of pine trees and freshly cut grass and I feel the grime of the nightshift sloughing off me, like so many layers of filth.
Before I know it, I’ve finished my sandwich. I crumple up my paper bag and am about to get up to leave when I feel something fall lightly into my open palm. My hand closes around it unconsciously. I look down at my closed hand and a familiar sense of dread washes over me.
I know that what I see inside will only give me despair and yet I am unable to stop myself, like a man looking into the coffin of his recently deceased mother. I slowly open my hand. Inside, there is a pine needle, fallen from one of the many trees in this park. The needle from my vision.
“Are you okay?”
The voice comes from beside me. A woman’s voice. Again, I know what I am going to see when I look up.
Sitting beside me is a woman wearing a red dress. The dress is exactly as it appeared in my vision, kind of formal looking and out of place in the park that we’re sitting in. Not that I can talk. I’m still dressed in my work clothes – my well-worn black suit and white tee combination that reeks of old booze.
The woman is looking at me with concern. She has a kind face – the face of a natural caregiver, perhaps a schoolteacher or an aged care worker. Her hair is pulled back in a loose bun, a single lock of wavy, brown hair falling across her face. I see that her eyes are emerald green.
“Huh?” I say blankly.
The woman continues to look at me with concern. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
I take a moment to gather myself. If she only knew how accurate her observation was. Finally, I manage to say, “I’m fine.” A light breeze blows the pine needle from my hand.
The woman looks at me doubtfully for another moment, before smiling and turning to look up at the foliage around us. She takes a deep breath. “Don’t you just love the smell of pine trees?” she asks.
I give a non-committal grunt, not wanting to engage.
She continues, either not noticing or choosing to ignore my indifference. “No matter what’s happening in my life, this smell always makes me feel better. Refreshed, you know what I mean?”
I know exactly what she means. Many times in the past have I visited this exact park for the exact purpose of clearing my head with the scent of pine trees. Yet today, they offer no solace. So, I remain silent.
The woman in red begins fidgeting. She opens the tiny black clutch that sits on her lap and pulls out an even smaller black box. She opens the box to reveal a ring – a simple band with a single white stone in the center. The sunlight catches the stone. It looks expensive.
The woman looks down at the ring and her smile falters a little. She whispers to herself. “Am I really gonna ask her?”
Her words are like a punch to the gut.
“What if she says no?”
An elbow to the face.
“Maybe now’s not the right time.”
A kick to the groin.
Finally, I can’t take it. Despite every part of my being that is screaming for me not to get involved, I turn to the woman and ask her, “Do you love her?”
The woman in red turns to me, somewhat shocked by both the suddenness and nature of my question. I can see the cogs turning in her head. Then, her shock is gone and a look of certainty replaces it. “Yes,” she tells me, and I can see she is telling the truth.
“Do you want to be with her for the rest of your life?” I ask.
“I do,” she says without hesitation.
“Then be with her. As much as you can. For as long as you can.”
The woman nods slowly, processing my words. Then, she looks at me in the eyes and smiles. A wave of sadness washes over me as I see the endless potential in her eyes, the pure unbridled optimism in her smile. I dimly notice that she is wearing a pendant around her neck, attached to which is a small, crystal angel. Not bloodstained. Not yet, anyway.
She snaps the black box closed and puts it back into her clutch. She jumps to her feet, takes a step away from the bench and turns to face me. The sun is at her back and I squint up at her silhouette.
“Thanks, mister,” she says to me. “I’m going to ask her tonight.”
“Why wait for tonight?” I reply. “Why not ask her now?”
The woman in the red dress seems to consider this. Then she turns and gives me a cheerful wave over her shoulder. All I can do is sit there and watch her walk away, crumpled paper bag in one hand, surrounded by the smell of pine trees and the faint chirping of birds.
I’d spent a longer time at the park than I’d intended, sitting and trying to get my head right. If I could avoid it, I didn’t tend to interact with the people in my visions. There was no way to save them and getting myself involved only served to mess with me more when they reached their eventual end. I am always haunted by those that I couldn’t save, but even more so when I can put a face to them.
So I sat on that park bench, the face of the woman in the red dress swirling around in my thoughts, trying to push her from my mind. Before I knew it, the sun was low in the sky and I was no closer to forgetting what she looked like. In times like this, when the scent of pine trees fails to make me feel better, I often turn to booze for the answer.
The liquor shop is just across the road from my apartment, which is convenient to a dangerous degree. The clerk knows me by my order – two bottles of Jack Daniels, the cheapest in stock. I am exiting the liquor store with a brown paper bag of alcohol under my arm when I see the woman in the red dress again.
She’s just across the road from me, exiting an apartment building. I realize that it is my apartment building. Christ, has she been my neighbor this whole time?
The woman looks the same as she had in the park earlier today, in her red dress with her hair done up. She hasn’t noticed me. She’s too busy digging around in her clutch for something.
As she approaches the street, she pulls out what she was looking for – her cell phone, which seems to buzzing. As she pulls it out to receive the call however, a familiar black box also tumbles out of the bag. With a sense of dread, I watch as the black box bounces onto the pavement and skitters out onto the road.
In the next moments, the world seems to slow down. I see the woman in red, one hand holding the phone up to her ear, the other hand reaching out to the precious black box as it falls away from her. Her eyes widen and her mouth opens in an exclamation of alarm. As she steps out onto the road to retrieve the box, I see a flatbed truck speeding towards her. There is a peculiar sculpture on the bed of the truck, tied down with bungee cables. It is made of some kind of shiny metal and consists of several, interconnecting geometric shapes. I don’t know what it is supposed to represent, but there is a plaque at its base that reads “Homeward Bound” in raised letters.
For the second time today, I move without thinking. The brown paper bag falls from my hands in slow motion as I sprint towards the woman in the red dress. The only thought that passes through my mind is one that screams, you can’t save her! I hear glass shatter behind me. I hear the squeal of tires as the driver of the truck sees us and attempts to stop. I see the woman turn her head in the direction of the sound. Her eyes widen as she sees the truck. She thinks it is the last thing she is going to see.
Then, I am tackling her. My body hits her with enough force to take the wind out of her and we both sail through the air. The front fender of the truck narrowly misses my legs. As the truck skids to a stop, we both crash heavily to the pavement. There is a heavy metallic clang as the sculpture comes free from its restraints and lands on the road, suffering a significant dent that is sure to reduce its artistic value.
We lie on the pavement for a moment, trying to catch our breath. This isn’t supposed to happen, I think to myself. This is wrong. I look over to the woman in the red dress. Her knees are scuffed and she is dazed, potentially concussed. But she is alive.
No, I think to myself. How can this be wrong?
I slowly get to my feet and offer her my hand. She takes it and I raise her gingerly to her feet. She sways, and I hold onto her so that she doesn’t fall over.
“Thank you,” she says. Then she looks at my face and confused recognition enters her eyes. “You – ” she begins.
I feel a sharp pain in my back. I look down and see that a wet patch of blood is blossoming through my shirt, soaking rapidly through the white cotton, growing in size. Somebody walks brusquely past me from behind. An Asian man dressed in a silver suit. He is holding a knife. It is dripping with blood. He turns his head and looks over his shoulder briefly and I am met by his cold, snake-like gaze. Then he is gone, walking past the crowd that is gathering around us.
The woman in the red dress is unable to hold my weight as I collapse to the ground. Lying on my back, I see her crying face as she screams for help. She doesn’t know what has happened, only that there is a lot of blood. There is blood on her dress, and on the angel dangling at her neck. My blood.
I look up at her and smile. She tells me I’m going to be okay, but I know better. It’s time for me to rest. I close my eyes…
…and take my last breath.
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