I’m lying in bed, staring into the eyes of the woman I love, wanting to stay there forever, but knowing that I’ll be gone soon.
And I might never find my way back.
I don’t know why it happens. I don’t know how long it’s been happening. But I just can’t stay fixed in reality, in the reality I want to be in. I move through space and time, or whatever, unfixed, bouncing across and between the possible realities. It happens frequently, without any warning. For the longest time, I didn’t have any hope, any reason to think I’d ever live a normal life. I’m not sure I even wanted one. Sometimes seeing every possibility seemed… normal to me.
Then I found the reality I shared with her, and now I spend my life treasuring each moment I can be with her, always hoping that the next shift will take me back to her.
So, still staring into her eyes, treasuring the moment, I reach out to take her hand. She grips my fingers tight, and smiles against the tears.
And then I’m gone…
I’m sitting in a wickerwork chair, at an open-air table, a café. Before me is a spectacular view of the sun rising over some city I don’t recognize. My heart is still pounding, fear-sweat drying on my brow in the cool morning air. I try to calm my breathing, to assure myself that everything is all right.
I sit there, slowly recovering from the fright. The sunlight slowly spills across the cityscape spread before me, washing the dull grays and brown with soft, orange light. It could be a moving painting, the colors spreading across the canvas before my eyes. It’s still early, and there are only a few people in sight, walking along the streets or sitting on park benches.
Glancing around to see if anyone’s paying attention to me, I settle back in my chair. On the small table before me sits a cup of something, steam rising in the cool air. I pick it up, take a sip, the warm, rich flavor of good coffee washing over my tongue. I sip again, even though its hot enough that I wince. When I set it back down, there’s only the faintest rattle of cup against saucer.
Then I see her.
She’s working, over at the counter, fiddling with an espresso machine, then wiping down the counter. I just stare, watching her move, the way her hair sways, the little motions of her hands, the poise and balance she shows.
Do I know her in this reality? Do I come here often? Do I come her because of her? Have we ever talked?
For a moment, it’s enough simply to drink in the sight of her. I know I’m staring, but I couldn’t look away if you held a gun to my head. As if sensing my gaze, she looks up, and our eyes lock. She smiles, a little uncertainly, but with something in her expression that seems to be both challenge and invitation. Like, if I’m up to it, so is she.
I start to stand, wanting nothing more than to go over and say something, anything. I can’t explain anything to her, can’t hope to make her believe or understand. But I can’t sit here and do nothing, either.
Then I’m gone…
“Move it, soldier!”
A rough, gloved hand grips my shoulder, dragging me to my feet and propelling me forward. I stagger into a run, juggling the familiar-yet-unfamiliar weight of the rifle I clutch to my chest. Ingrained instincts and training tell me how to carry the weapon, how to run crouched low, keeping my head down, presenting less of a target.
Around me, everything is noise and light, explosions and gunfire, shouts and screams. The hiss and snap of bullets flying past me. The percussive whump of a grenade cooking off, following by the hiss and patter of debris raining down. I see the rest of my squad, those who made it out of our Hummer, stacking up against a wall across the street. I run toward them, no objective beyond regrouping and waiting to follow orders.
I hit the wall with my shoulder, twist my body to press up against the stonework. It’s dark, sometime after nightfall, but my surroundings are lit by the hellish gleam of fires burning across what used to be a city, in some part of the world where people used to live in peace, but don’t anymore.
The squad sergeant hits the wall next to me, muttering a fervent curse as he ejects the magazine on his assault rifle, swaps it out with a fresh one. “Sound off!” he yells. “Who’s left?”
My squad mates respond in a ragged chorus, which he somehow understands.
“LT didn’t make it?” It’s as much a statement as a question, and he curses again. “Okay, we can’t stay here. Ambushers will have a second wave. Push on.” He gestures up the street. “Move it, move it, move it.”
I just follow the man ahead of me, putting one foot in front of the other. I keep my eyes moving, like I’ve been trained, not knowing when or how I was trained. But I don’t know where I am, or what I’m doing here.
All I know for sure is that I don’t want to be here. I know where I do want to be, with her, somewhere else, some other reality. But I’m here now, led to this time and place by choices I made. Maybe they were good one; maybe they were bad ones. Would I make them again, knowing where they would lead? Knowing they would take me away from her? I don’t know. Maybe everything happens for a reason. Maybe we’re all just lost in a hell of our own making.
The first guy in line reaches the corner, holds up a closed fist, bringing us all to a halt. He peers around edge of the wall, pauses, then steps around. An instant later, the staccato chatter of an emplaced machine gun rattles down the narrow street. The soldier’s body staggers back into view, drops to the rubble-strewn street, and doesn’t move.
“Hold position!” shouts the sergeant. He looks up and down the street, jaw working like he’s chewing on the problem. Then he points to a nearby doorway. “We’re gonna cut through this building, flank that gun. Stack up and ready to breach!”
I follow the order, and my training, taking position behind another soldier, tapping him on the back to let him know I’m in place.
Sarge slaps an explosive on the charge, steps to the side of the doorway. “Breaching!”
A loud bang, and the door disintegrates into splinters of wood. The soldier ahead of me is moving through before the debris settles, and I’m right behind him. He sweeps one direction, I go the other. There’s no sign of movement.
“Clear!” I shout, and footsteps behind me tell me that the rest of the squad has followed.
With Sarge in the lead, we head through the building, room to room, checking the corners, careful going through each doorway. I can’t help but notice the little details of the place. A dinner table set for a meal, the food spoiled and covered with dust. A rocking chair sitting by a cold fireplace, someone’s abandoned crochet project lying on the floor. A scatter of children’s toys, building blocks and cars, strewn across a throw rug. This was somewhere people lived. Somewhere they just went about their lives. What happened to turn it into a war zone? Who was responsible for this all falling apart? And will they ever come back to pick up the lives they were forced to drop? Why would anyone create a reality like this? Why would people let it get so bad?
As we sweep forward, I peer into a small room off a hallway, my rifle at the ready. Inside, there’s a little bed, the sheets tangled and hanging off onto the floor. In the center of the mattress is a bloodstain, around a cluster of bullet holes that have torn the material to shreds. The sight catches me, holds me frozen in place.
With a roar, a figure leaps out of the room’s closet, lurching toward me. I get only a few details, the enemy uniform, the gun in his hands, the barrel swinging toward me. The spurt of fire, followed by the loud report. The force of the bullet hitting me, driving me back. The pain, tearing through my chest.
I’m falling, knowing that I’ve been hit. Has this ever happened to me before? What will happen if I die in this reality? Am I about to find out?
Then I’m gone…
I sit up straight, a pained gasp rattling out of my throat. One hand goes to my chest, clutching at a wound that isn’t there anymore. I’m sitting in a chair, at a cheap table, in a dingy little apartment.
The place is filthy, falling apart. Dark stains gather in the corners, where the plaster is crumbling. The carpets are so worn you can see through them. Take-out containers cover the counters in the tiny kitchenette, dirty clothes lie everywhere. The air stinks of rotten food and old sweat. Through the thin walls I can hear the sounds of other lives nearly as lost and hopeless as mine, loud music blaring from three units away, the couple above me having another screaming fight, and somewhere a child crying inconsolably.
It's the last bastion of a man who’s lost everything, a place to dwell, to live in regret and the desperate wish that he’d done things differently.
And I deserve it.
I drove her away. I didn’t tell her when there was time, didn’t explain, didn’t try to make her understand. I didn’t give her a chance, didn’t respect her intelligence and generosity enough. Maybe if I had, I could have changed things, made things better. Now I’m left with this reality… and it’s no place to exist.
On the table in front of my sits a gun. It’s loaded. I do this a lot, I somehow know. I’ve been here many, many times. It seems like the logical end. I don’t know if I’ve ever pulled the trigger, don’t know how many realities I’ve ended like that.
What would happen if I died here? May as well ask what happens to raindrops when they strike the ocean. There are so many possible realities, formed and shaped by ever decision we make, every decision we don’t make. When one ends, does something of it continue on, or does it just fade into background noise?
My hand inches closer to the gun, a part of me eager to find out. The rest of me just wants it all to end.
Then I’m gone…
“Hey, baby.” A hand reaches out, touches my face. “It’s all right. You were having a nightmare.”
My gaze snaps to hers. It is her. She’s here. I’m here. We’re lying in bed, staring at each other. I’m back, I’ve found my way back to her. We’re together, in the reality we share. A sob threatens to escape my throat, desperate gratitude welling up in me.
Her hand strokes my cheek, calming me. She knows something is wrong. She’s seen me like this too many times. There are tears in her eyes, an unspoken plea for me to let her help, any way she can.
I catch hold of her fingers, squeeze tightly. I don’t want to leave her, ever. But I know I’ll be gone again soon, sent spinning through the many possible realities, left to wonder if I’ll ever make it back to her.
What happens to her when I’m gone? What happens to this reality when I’m no longer here to share it with her? Does she just forget me, like I’m a dream that she wakes up from every morning? Or does she remember, and want to stay with me as much as I want to stay with her? Is there a way I can use that, use our shared reality like an anchor, something to hold me in place? I know nothing can come of not trying, so maybe I should find out.
Still holding her hand, still clutching at this reality, I take a deep breath. “I need to tell you something…”