Contest #5 shortlist ⭐️

The Many Lives of William Foster

Submitted into Contest #5 in response to: Write a story about someone who finds life meaning in an unexpected place.... view prompt



It was a sticky day in July when William Foster’s heart decided to stop beating. He was tending to his tomato plants when his heart muscles contracted and his body broke into chaos. The steady stream from the watering can began to shake, and he fell to his knees as his body shut off. The last thing he saw was the summer sunlight dancing off the window of his studio apartment.

* * *

   He was floating. His body was lighter than air—no longer burdened by loneliness and old age. His eyes were closed, but it wasn’t dark. Behind his eyelids was a warm glow, and for the first time in his life he was enveloped in a complete and impenetrable peace.

   William opened his eyes. High above him was a cloudless, white sky. There was no sun, but rather, the sky itself emitted a soft glow, like a white-hot ember. He was lying on his back in a field of lilies swaying lightly in the breeze. He sat up and attempted to rub the confusion out of his eyes. In the distance was a city of glass. A silvery river flowed into one end of the city and out the other. Glittering towers stretched into the sky, shimmering like quartz. The glowing sky struck dull rainbows from their glassy surfaces. It was a beautiful sight, and very strange.

   “Well, are you just going to sit there?” William turned and saw a handsome young man dressed in a black suit. Light blue eyes stared down at William.

   “Aren’t you hot?” William asked. “It’s July.”

   “No,” the man said.

   “You’re wearing a suit in the middle of the damn summer,” William said.

   “Are you hot?” the man asked.

   “Yes,” said William. He was always hot; it seemed he could never escape the city’s heat. It radiated from the pavement, buildings, and car exhausts; it was there when he went to bed and greeted him first thing when he woke up.

“You’re lying,” said the man.

   William opened his mouth to retort and then closed it when he realized the man was right. For the first time in months he wasn’t hot. He was perfectly comfortable, and each time he began to feel even the faintest trace of heat the breeze picked up and he was fine again. It was like the Earth was listening to him.

   William gently lifted himself off the ground, expecting the usual aches in his knees—but they never came. “Are you God?” William asked.

   “No, I’m James,” the man said.

   “Oh,” William said, “I’m William.”

   “I know,” James replied. He then turned and began walking towards the city. William, not knowing what else to do, followed. He didn’t understand why he wasn’t panicking. Instead, a wave of calmness had washed over him.

   “Where am I?” William asked. James didn’t reply, just continued walking towards the shining glass towers.

   After what seemed like hours, they finally reached the city where there was a small crowd waiting for them. The faces looked vaguely familiar, but William could not pinpoint how he knew these people.

   They were standing in what seemed to be a park at the city’s entrance. Glass benches were scattered around the outskirts of the park, and a few people were sitting. There were no roads, only narrow, worn dirt paths that wound their way through the glass towers. Beautiful, white flowers that William had never seen before sprung up in random patches.

   William had originally thought the glass structures were buildings, but after seeing them up close he noticed they were flat, paper-thin sheets of glass that climbed into the sky. They looked too modern for the natural landscape and too perfect to be manmade.

   “Someone tell me what’s going on,” William said. “Right now.”

   Just then one of the glass towers burst with color, and images flashed across the surface like a giant movie screen.

   A man was sitting at the kitchen table with his head in his hands, while a woman stood with her arms folded in front of the stove. William’s parents. He had never seen them so young.

  We can’t afford a baby, his father said. We can’t even afford to feed ourselves.

  We’ll make it work, Michael, his mother said. Maybe a baby is exactly what we need.

  God dammit, Elizabeth! His father picked up a glass from the table and hurled it at the wall where it instantly shattered into hundreds of pieces.

   William ran towards the glass tower. His parents had been dead for years, but he still wanted to help. As soon as he reached the tower it flashed off, leaving William staring through clear glass.

   A different tower a couple of yards away sprang to life and another scene filled the surface; William ran to it as the crowd watched. This time it was after William had already been born. He was ten years old and lying in bed, covered in a thin, patchy blanket. He watched as his younger self struggled to keep warm. As William stood transfixed by the scene in front of him he began to shiver. He was cold. He had never been so cold. He turned away from the screen, not wanting to relive moments of his childhood he had worked so hard to forget. But now, at the end of his life, he could see that that’s what his life had always been: a constant cycle of longing and unhappiness.

   William turned to face the crowd. “What’s going on?” he said. “Somebody tell me what’s happening!”

   A woman in overalls stepped forward. “Take my hand,” she said. William knew he could trust her, but he didn’t know why. Before he knew what he was doing he reached forward and grasped the woman’s small, wrinkled hand.

   The tower closest to them clicked on. A much younger version of the woman appeared on the screen; she was throwing a tennis ball to a golden retriever in a grassy field. A honey-colored house with a red slate roof stood in the background, surrounded by brightly colored wildflowers and dark green vines that had begun to creep up the siding. William could smell the irises and feel the dog licking his fingers. The screen flashed off and once again William faced clear glass. The woman squeezed his hand, and William turned to face her. Realization spread through his body like fire.

   “You’re me,” William whispered. The woman smiled but said nothing and slipped back into the crowd.

   James stepped forward and placed his hand on William’s back. “You’ve been here before, William,” he said.

   “I don’t understand,” William said. “What is this place?”

   “We are previous versions of yourself. Previous lives you have lived.”

   William turned towards the crowd and stared into all the faces of his former self. They smiled at him softly, encouragingly. There was an old black man, wearing faded blue jeans and a baseball hat. A little girl with a pink bow and ballerina slippers. A lanky teenage boy with freckles and braces. A middle-aged Indian woman wearing a purple Sari. They all, however, had the same light blue eyes.

   “How is this possible?” William asked.

   “Your soul is your only defining characteristic. It travels from body to body,” James said.

   “Why did you show me those memories from my childhood?” William asked.

   “You are shown the most trying and painful moments of your life, so you have the chance to avoid them in the future, to see what you can change and what you can avoid,” James said. “That only seems fair. You’re normally shown your best memories as well, but you don’t seem to have any, William. You’ve lived a lonely life. The happiest you have been in a long time was when you were tending to your tomato plants, and, well, it just seemed rude to show you the final moments of your life.”

   William thought about what James had said. Did he really not have any happy memories? He thought back to all those birthdays and holidays spent alone. He didn’t have any family. No wife or kids. He’d never been on vacation—he’d never even been outside of New York. He lived paycheck to paycheck, never being able to escape the poverty of his childhood.

   “What now?” William asked.

   “Now you get to decide where you go next,” James said.

   A few yards away a glass surface rippled with color and images filled the screen. William moved closer to get a better look. A minuscule house sat on a tiny plot of land. The roof was slopping and missing shingles, and the siding was two different colors, but unlike William’s childhood home, it was cared for. Potted plants decorated the front porch and hung in baskets from a wooden awning. Sunflowers bloomed on the side of the house and a porch swing with a faded yellow cushion welcomed visitors. The scent of honeysuckle filled William’s nose and he inhaled deeply; he had never smelled anything so wonderful.

   The glass rippled and transitioned to the inside of the house, where a shabby looking kitchen filled William’s view. A small, faded wooden table was littered with bills, and William couldn’t stop the memory that flooded his mind. He was four years old, standing next to the kitchen table where his dad sat with a pile of papers and a bottle of whisky in front of him. What are you doing daddy, William asked. You’ve sucked up all my money, his dad said, because of you, I can’t afford to pay these damn bills. William ran into his room and came back a minute later, his arms full of toy cars. He placed them on the table in front of his dad. Here, daddy, William said, I want to help. William’s dad removed his reading glasses and turned to face his son, And what the hell do you think a piece of plastic is going to pay for? his dad asked. He then stood up and with one sweeping gesture flung the cars off the table, hitting William’s face and chest before they crashed to the floor.

   At seventy-three years old, William could still see the look of disgust on his dad’s face as he bent at his feet to scoop up the cars. Now, looking at this rundown kitchen and a table full of bills, William could not stop the tears that ran down his cheeks.

   The glassy surface flashed again and they were in a bathroom. A woman was kneeling on the floor with her face in her hands while her husband sat beside her. His empty eyes were full of tears; his shoulders hung in defeat. A pregnancy test lay at his feet. Negative it read. The woman trembled with heartbreak, and her husband wrapped his arms around her. I’m so sorry, she said.

   The tower flashed off and William’s own blue eyes were reflected back at him. Lines covered every inch of his face. When did I get so old, he thought. To him, he would always be that helpless and unwanted four-year-old.

  The screen broke out in color and a new house came into focus, except this time, a mansion loomed proudly behind iron gates. A large circular driveway filled the front yard of a white brick house. Sculpted bushes lined the walkway up to a set of black cherry double doors. A delicate, marble fountain was set in the center of the driveway, and the melody of the soft gurgling water filled William’s ears.

   The picture faded and a sparkling white-marble kitchen filled the screen. A vase of long-stemmed yellow roses stood in the center of the kitchen table, and through the sliding glass doors William could see the family. A man stood by the grill while the woman sat in a lounge chair beside him, sipping wine. Two young boys were splashing and playing in the pool, enormous smiles plastered to their faces.

   William inhaled sharply. He had always dreamt of having a sibling. Someone to laugh with and fight with. Companionship was something he had never known; nearly everyday of his life had been spent in solitude. He feared that in the end, loneliness would be what took him.

   The glass tower flashed off and James cleared his throat. “Well,” he said, “what do you think?”

  William wiped his eyes. “What do I think?” he asked.

   “You get to choose,” James said. “One of these lives is yours.”

   William dropped to his knees. His entire life had been a whirlwind of powerlessness, fear, and neglect. “I really get to choose?” he said. He thought of the brothers playing in the pool, and the beautiful house becoming his home. His heart throbbed at the thought of being a part of it. No pain or hunger. No freezing cold nights and hateful glances.

   William looked into the crowd; some people had their heads bowed and were silently weeping—others were staring at him with a watery smile.

   “What’s wrong?” William addressed the crowd. “Why are you all upset?”

   “Don’t you see?” James said. “We all contain the same soul. We feel what you feel.”

   William blinked back tears. “What happens after I choose?”

   “You’ll come with us,” James said.

   “And where will we go?”

   “We become the air and the flowers. We are water and trees and growth. We will be omniscient; our knowledge is total and you will never know happiness, never feel peace, such as this,” James explained. “We’ll leave these bodies; we simply have no use for them. But we will return to them after our soul’s next cycle has passed.”

   William walked over to one of the glass benches where he sat with his hands folded in his lap. He stared down at the worn hands that had endured so much suffering and hardship. He feared for the child of his next life—he wanted him to have the best life imaginable, yet when he closed his eyes all he could see was vacant, heartbroken eyes staring back at him.

   “It’s time, William,” James said. “You must choose.”

   That same moment, a baby boy with fragile blue eyes was born, and a new mother wept with a love she never imagined could have existed.

September 03, 2019 21:49

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