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Fiction

“So, tell me why you’re here?”


Len picked at a thread on the couch and avoided eye contact with the psychologist. Why was he there? Mostly because of his heartless, cheating, thieving monster of a wife, he supposed.


Ex-wife.


“Closure,” he said.


The psychologist nodded, her face impassive behind her steel-rimmed glasses. She glanced down at her notes.


“I see here you’re suffering some health issues?” she asked.


Len shrugged. He was sixty-eight, of course there were health issues.


“Care to elaborate?”


“Not really.” He picked at the white patch of skin on his ring finger, and stopped, feeling the psychologist’s gaze seeking meaning in the movement.


She shuffled her papers. “Do you understand how the process works?”


No, he didn’t. But Allie had come here every Friday since his diagnosis, and he needed to know what this place meant to her.


“A little, I guess,” he said.


He’d asked them, of course, once he’d seen her bank statements, if they could please kindly hand over her records. Help him make sense of what happened.


But they said no. Disappeared was different to dead, apparently. He disagreed.


It burned just the same.


The psychologist smiled. “Great. Let’s go over the finer details.”


Len stared out the window, her words drifting into the background. An old Pōhutukawa tree twisted and snarled above the lawn, tufts of red erupting from its edges. Mean with aesthetics, generous with flowers. Allie loved Pōhutukawa trees.


“… you can’t cheat time, obviously.”


Len stiffened. “Pardon?”


The psychologist frowned, tapping her gold pen against her pad, the clacking filling the room. 


“It’s important you understand this, Len,” she said. “Once you’re in the boat, your subconscious, or soul, if you prefer, accesses the life stream, and guides the boat.”


Allie always harped on about cheating time. She couldn’t accept his fate. Their fate. Towards the end, she’d tap away at her keyboard, ‘researching’, her face bathed in the green light from her laptop. Getting closer. And getting further away.


“Ready?” the psychologist asked.


No. Not at all.


“Sure.”


“Just lie back and relax.” She adjusted her glasses. “Remember, your past selves look different, but your subconscious will recognise them. And don’t fight the river.”


Len lifted his feet onto the couch and stretched, picked at his ring finger, and closed his eyes.


“You walk down the path. The sun is shining. The birds are singing. You come to a river.” The psychologist spoke slowly. Soothingly.


Len stiffened. Allie had paid for this? Every week? In the hope it would heal his cancer? She was more of a fruit loop than he had realised.


“The river is flowing slowly and a small boat bobs at the end of the jetty. The sun is shining. The birds are singing.”


He forced himself to lie still. To be fair, he could think of worse ways to spend an hour.


“You climb into the boat and settle amongst the cushions. The sun is shining. The birds are singing.”


The boat was small. Pale blue. Fat purple cushions, rimmed with gold, covered the floor. Luxurious. Inviting. He stepped into the boat, and it swayed gently. 


“You untie the boat and settle into the cushions, letting the boat drift down the river. The sun is shining. The birds are singing.”


Len nestled, lifting his chin, the sun warm on his face, the cushions cradling him in a gentle hug.


But one dug into his back. He rolled over and pulled at it.


And froze.


“As the boat drifts down the river, you let go of your worries. Drifting slowly, leaving your worries behind. The sun is shining. The birds are singing.”


On the inside wall of the boat, just under the top railing, was a message, tiny shaky letters written in pencil. Len ran his finger over the pencil, smudging it. His heart pounded and a cold sweat ran over his body.


Fight the river.


Written on the side of the boat.


In Allie’s handwriting.


#


“You left abruptly last time, Len. I didn’t expect to see you again.”


Len picked at the thread on the couch, the silence hovering between them. To be fair, he didn’t expect to come back either. But he’d paid for three sessions. And there was the message. 


“We didn’t get a chance to debrief. Would you like to share your experience?”


Len picked at his nails. He got in the boat, faffed about with the cushions, had a small existential crisis when he saw a message from his crazy wife. Ex-wife. Got jolted back to the present and charged out of the room.


“It was fine.”


“It’s important to remember, the person we are today will make different choices to the person we were yesterday, or last year, or last lifetime. We wake up a different person each day.” The psychologist leant forward and adjusted her glasses. “We can only judge ourselves on the choices we make today. Right now.”


“Pardon?”


“I’m wondering if you saw something in your past life that upset you?”


Len picked at a piece of skin beside his nail, the skin stretching, blood pooling before it snapped. Allie hated that habit.


“No.”


“Tell me about the life you saw.”


“I didn’t see anything.”


The psychologist frowned. “You didn’t see anything?”


“The boat didn’t move.”


“Oh.”


Len swallowed. “What?”


She shook her head, her neutral mask replaced. “We access our past lives to learn from our past. But sometimes we’re so blocked in our present life that we need to heal the hurts of now prior to healing the hurts of before.”


Len dabbed at a spot of blood rolling down his finger. The chemo made his skin so thin. 


“Perhaps we should look at some of the trauma you’re experiencing in this life.”


Perhaps we shouldn’t.


“Okay.” His voice was husky, and he coughed.


The psychologist nodded. She looked down at her notes. “Your wife took a significant proportion of your joint savings before she left.”


Len blinked. He hadn’t expected her to know that.


He’d been quite pushy with the receptionist when he was trying to get them to release Allie’s files. It probably wasn’t his finest hour. But he had been desperate to find her.


He waited for a question.


“That must have been quite a shock.”


“I guess.” Len shifted in his seat. It was. But the bigger shock was finding the money invested in another man’s name.


“Is that what you’re hoping to achieve here? Find a connection with Allie? A common interest, a chance to win her back when you find her?” The psychologist held his gaze.


He looked away. Something like that. “No.”


She raised an eyebrow. Len shifted. The couch creaked.


“Can we just try again?” he asked.


She sighed. “It won’t be any different.”


Len stared at her.


“It’s your money.”


Not really. Most of it was Don Rickby’s now.


“Lie on the couch and close your eyes.”


Len closed his eyes.


“… is shining. The birds are singing.”


He walked down the path to the boat, bobbing gently in the river.


“You climb into the boat and settle amongst the cushions. The sun is shining. The birds are singing.”


He stepped into the boat, and nestled, lifting his chin, the sun warm on his face, the cushions cradling him in a gentle hug.


The same cushion dug into his back. He rolled over and pulled at it, his hand hitting something round underneath.  


“As the boat drifts down the river, you let go of your worries. The sun is shining. The birds are singing.”


He reached under the cushion and gripped the object, pulling it into his lap. A smooth wooden oar. With two words written in pencil, running down the handle.


Time Cheat.


Len clenched his jaw. Allie was a time cheat. Her disappearing act had cheated him out of any joy in his final months.


“As the boat drifts down the river, you let go of your worries. Drifting slowly, leaving your worries behind. The sun is shining. The birds are singing.”


He sighed and leant back on the cushions, closing his eyes, letting the sun warm his face. The boat bobbed on the river but didn’t move.


The sun was shining. The birds were singing. She robbed him of his present. And his future.


And now she was robbing him of his past, too.


His eyes snapped open, and he pushed himself up, his jaw tight.


Time Cheat.


He reached under the cushions and pulled out another oar. He needed to let go of her. Letting go was hard.


Perhaps there was another way. He sliced the oars through the water, and the silence shattered, screaming like a record playing backwards, unearthly and piercing.


The boat lurched, and his stomach clenched, bile bitter in his mouth. He heaved the oars again.


And again.


And again.


And the boat began to move.


Upstream.


#


“I’m glad to see you again, Len. Embracing your healing, good on you.”


He wouldn’t exactly call the process healing. So far, he’d got seasick in an imaginary boat, jolted back to the present, and still hadn’t accessed any past lives, or found his wife.


Ex-wife.


“Is the boat the same for everyone?”


The psychologist blinked. She paused, her pen hovering over her pad. “What are you asking?”


“Is it the same boat? Has anyone been in that particular boat before me?”


She shook her head. “No. Time streams are individual, so everyone has their own boat.”


“Oh.” Len shifted on the couch.


He picked at the band-aid on his hand, the corner lifting, leaving a sticky residue on his skin. Everything took so much longer to heal these days, his body realising it just wasn’t worth the effort.


“Well, that’s not exactly true. Soul mates share a time stream.” The psychologist looked to the side and adjusted her glasses.


Len swallowed, his throat tight. Allie always said she was his soul mate.


“Soul mates?” he asked.


She also said she’d die for him. They were her last words to him before she transferred their life savings to Don Rickby and pissed off into the breeze.


“People whose subconsciouses, or souls, are entwined. Deeply. Anyway, let’s not get distracted on our last session.” The psychologist smiled.


“Last session?”


“Yes. You’ll find today you can take yourself back. Your subconscious will recognise the technique.”


Len blinked. That was news to him. “But is there some advanced course? Allie came every week for months.”


While he was having chemo. She’d framed it as therapy. She’d be the one left behind, so it made sense while he was treating his body, she should treat her mind.


The psychologist coughed. “Well, people aren’t honest one hundred percent of the time.”


Len lay down on the couch. Well, wasn’t that profound.


“I’m ready,” he said, and closed his eyes.


“You can do it yourself,” the psychologist said. “Just…” She coughed again.


Len propped himself up on one elbow and looked at her. “What?”


“When you’re close to the end of your time in this life, your boat is less stable. It’s important you don’t do anything that could make you fall into the time stream.”


Falling into the time stream. That sounded less than ideal. “What happens then?”


“We don’t exactly know.” She shrugged. “Nothing good.”


He walked down the path towards the boat. The sun was shining. The birds were singing. He stepped in and nestled against the cushions. One dug into his back.


That same one. There was something hard inside.


He pulled it into his lap and fumbled through the plush velvet, looking for the zipper. He yanked it open, and plunged his hand into the stuffing, seeking the hardness robbing him of his joy.


And found a small white envelope.


His fingers trembled as he tore it open and pulled out a single piece of paper with four words written on it in scrawling pencil.


I’d die for you.


Len closed his eyes, his breath catching in his throat. He tipped the envelope, and a ring tumbled into his hand. A wedding ring.


Allie’s wedding ring.


He hugged it to his chest, clinging to the last tangible part of his lie.


And sobbed.


I’d die for you, she’d said. Even if she didn’t mean it, he did. But his past wasn’t going to cheat him of his present. He would let the time cheat go.


Accept his truth.


She’d left him. Taken his money. Run off with another man. Stolen his joy in his final months.


And yet.


He still loved her.


And he was okay with that.


The boat drifted down the river towards the mist.


“No,” Len cried, grabbing the oars.


He didn’t want to go back. He’d made his peace. Allie could have Don Rickby. He’d have the rest of this life.


He jerked the oars. And heaved. The world lurched and his stomach clenched. He heaved again. The boat stopped. He heaved again. And again. And again.


The world shattered, breaking open into a single sound, piercing, rough, excruciating.


And the boat moved.


Upstream.


Waves smashed against the side of the boat. The sound thrashed. He wanted to lie down and die.


But he didn’t. He was fighting the river. He heaved, hauling the boat upstream.


The boat writhed, spitting the cushions over the side. Len gripped the oars and looked at the wooden floor. Scrawled in thick, bold pencil letters was a single word.


Jump.


Len paused. The roaring intensified, consuming him. He closed his eyes.


And jumped.


#


“Don. Don. Don. Can you hear me?”


Len opened his eyes and blinked. He was lying on a beach; the sun was shining, and the birds were singing. Water lapped at his feet.


“Oh Don, thank god, you’re okay.”


Len rolled onto his side and pushed himself up, coughing. His lungs burned.


“I’m Len,” he said, his voice hoarse.


A young woman stood in front of him, blonde curls tumbling around her face. She smiled, her eyes warm as she gripped his shoulder.


“No, you’re Don Rickby,” she said. “Not Len.”


Len shook his head. Of all the names to call him, why Don Rickby? He picked at his ring finger. And froze. His skin was smooth. Unblemished. Fresh.


He turned his hands over and over, staring at them, his mind sluggish, uncomprehending. Smooth. Unblemished. Fresh. He ran his hands over his body. It wasn’t a sixty-eight-year-old body.


It wasn’t his body at all.


He closed his eyes. It was a lot to take in.


“You think I’m Don?” he asked, finally.


She nodded, her face disappearing into dimples. “You’re not only Don, but you’re also extremely wealthy, because of some savvy investing from a fabulous woman over a hundred and twenty years ago.”


Her words hummed in his chest, and a tiny flicker of hope tingled across his back. It couldn’t be true.


“What year is it?”


“2147.”


He staggered to his feet, his heart pounding, throat tight. It just couldn’t be true. Please god, let it be true.


“Allie?”


She nodded.


He stumbled onto the sand. “I thought you’d left me.”


Allie looked towards the water, digging her toe in the sand. “I’m sorry.”


“Why didn’t you just tell me?”


Allie wiped her eyes. “It was an advanced technique, and it took me by surprise when I broke through. I just had to have faith that you’d figure it out.”


Len stepped towards her. Allie. His Allie. In the flesh. She’d risked everything to save him. Never doubted he’d believe the best of her and follow her fractured trail of breadcrumbs.


“I'm sorry,” he whispered. "I doubted you."


She pulled him into a hug, her soft curls tickling his cheek. "But you made it in the end."



“Thank you,” he whispered.


“Come on,” she said, pointing at the city beyond the sand. “Let me show you around.”


Len glanced over his shoulder at the ocean. In the distance, a young Pōhutukawa tree stood on the boundary of the sand and the grass, reaching for the sun, its limbs strong and straight, and full of promise. 


Len smiled and followed his wife towards his new life.


His wife.


The time cheat.

June 24, 2022 07:30

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21 comments

Betty Gilgoff
23:20 Jul 14, 2022

A beautiful story. Well done. You definitely make it work, easing the reader into believing this could happen, that one could find a way to cheat time. I love the way you develop Len, so simply having him say one thing, doing another, so full of anger and also of love, hurting yet curious. You slowly give us the back story, but only what we need to know.

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Beth Jackson
02:32 Jul 25, 2022

Thank you for your kind comments, Betty!! :-)

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H.R. Glick
12:45 Jun 30, 2022

This is everything I could've wanted from this prompt and MORE! Well done, Beth! I cannot wait to read more!

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Beth Jackson
07:51 Jul 01, 2022

Thank you so much! :-)

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Seán Mc Nicholl
11:47 Jun 29, 2022

Beth! What a story!! Brilliant idea! You portrayed Len so well, the stoicness of an older man was spot on. The most-truths he’d give to the psychiatrist whilst internally feeling the complete opposite, so true! Lovely heartwarming ending! I thought the whole story was wonderful!

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Beth Jackson
08:03 Jun 30, 2022

Thank you, Seán! I really appreciate your kind comments! :-)

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Rama Shaar
02:44 Jun 29, 2022

This gave me chills! Soulmates, hypnosis, trust... all great things for me to read and dream about.

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Beth Jackson
04:33 Jun 29, 2022

Thank you, Rama! :-)

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Jim Firth
09:39 Jun 28, 2022

Beth, I first thought that the letters carved into the boat were Len's subconscious communicating with him, but now I realise these are the 'Fractured breadcrumbs' that Allie left. This is really clever plotting that kept me gripped throughout and was then wrapped up so beautifully by the end. I like all of the repetition throughout of Len picking his finger, the Pōhutukawa tree; it was nice to see both of these transformed at the end when Allie's plan works out. Also, the repeated words that help to enter the time stream were effective in ...

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Beth Jackson
04:33 Jun 29, 2022

Thank you, Jim! I really appreciate your kind and insightful comments!! You’ve made my day! :-)

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Kelsey H
09:09 Jun 27, 2022

Very intriguing plot, I love the concept of the time stream. I loved the sense of mystery which is created with the messages coming from his wife, and it came together so well at the end.

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Beth Jackson
04:33 Jun 29, 2022

Thank you Kelsey! I really appreciate your kind feedback! :-)

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Michał Przywara
20:18 Jun 26, 2022

A very nice story :) There's mystery here, suspense, the supernatural, betrayal, romance, and time fraud. Fantastic! I really liked Len's interactions with the therapist, where his thoughts are constantly at odds with his words. It really gave the impression of a hurt man who didn't really even know why he was there, other than something deep in his mind was compelling him to do so. Like he said, a need for closure. I particularly liked the line, "Towards the end, she’d tap away at her keyboard, ‘researching’, her face bathed in the green...

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Beth Jackson
04:15 Jun 27, 2022

Thank you Michał! You always write such insightful comments, and I’m always so grateful to receive them! Thank you, I really do appreciate it! :-)

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R W Mack
19:08 Jun 26, 2022

It's nice to see some well-played stories coming out amongst a lot of what I've read lately. This was really well done. I like any story thay keeps me guessing and I won't lie that I was expecting a much darker plot. Then again, I've been writing so much suspense and horror lately that it's probably my contemporary default setting.

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Beth Jackson
04:11 Jun 27, 2022

Thank you for your kind comments! I really appreciate you taking the time to comment and read! :-)

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Jay Mc Kenzie
06:45 Jun 26, 2022

Beth, this is lovely. I love the unfolding narrative: you play your hand beautifully, giving just enough with each treatment. It's such a gorgeous idea too.

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Beth Jackson
18:21 Jun 26, 2022

Thank you, Jay! I really appreciate your kind comments! :-)

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H L Mc Quaid
08:53 Jun 24, 2022

Great story, well-constructed and beautifully-written. The gradual unravelling of the mystery gripped my attention and I drifted on the boat towards the end (no need to fight the when the prose flows so smoothly). Lots of evocative lines. One of my favourite: Disappeared was different to dead, apparently. He disagreed. It burned just the same. As for critique, of a sort, I did wonder why he didn't recognise her...Do they get new bodies? Thanks for sharing, I enjoyed this immensely.

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Beth Jackson
01:17 Jun 25, 2022

Thank you so much for your kind comments, Heather! I really appreciate it! That critique is super helpful and I’ve managed to patch that up a bit! Thank you!! :-)

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H L Mc Quaid
13:45 Jun 25, 2022

I see, you did that with one, simple sentence. Much clearer now. :)

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