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Urban Fantasy LGBTQ+ Drama

This story contains sensitive content

Content Warning: Mentioned suicide attempt, mental health issues, character death

It’s the first day of the new year, and Jasper wakes up in a bed that is not his own.

The first thing that registers is the cold, and when he reaches for Charlie’s warmth his fingers instead meet a cool plaster wall. He jerks upright, alarmed and confused, and almost falls out of a bed that is far smaller than what he’s used to. He blinks the sleep from his eyes as he adjusts to the dim light. He’s in a dark room hung with posters and sticky notes.

His room.

There’s an ache in his head that feels like the onset of a migraine as he struggles to remember what happened last night that would force him to stay over at his mother’s house. He recalls the New Year’s party he and Charlie attended in the town square—crowded and noisy, reeking of alcohol—and then the infinitely better private celebration Charlie put on for him when they got back to the farmhouse. Afterward, Charlie had snuggled up to him in bed and whispered Happy New Year. Jasper sleepily pressed a kiss to the top of his head and drifted off, safe in the knowledge that next year would be even better.

And yet here he is, with his legs tangled in the sheets of his old bed in his old room in his old house.

Feeling a familiar tightness in his chest, he grabs for the titanium band on his left ring finger. It’s always grounded him, ever since Charlie gave it to him on that perfectly overcast fall day. The ridges and grooves of the ring are ingrained in the memory of his fingertips, a constant reminder of how far he’s come and how much more he has to look forward to.

His fingers meet bare skin.

Wrong. Wrong. All of it is wrong. The heaviness of the stagnant air presses down on him like miles of ocean until he can’t think, can’t breathe. All he knows is that he needs to get out. All he knows is that he needs to go home.

He nearly crashes into his step-father at the bottom of the stairs.

“Hey, watch yourself!” Raymond’s expression moves from irritation to unease as he takes in Jasper’s wild eyes. He clears his throat. “Did you, uh, have a nightmare? I know you don’t normally like to talk about—”

“Why did I stay over last night?” Jasper blurts out.

Raymond looks even more uncomfortable. “...Because you live here? Jasper, are you feeling alright?”

“What day is it?” Jasper demands, because he’s read enough science fiction to get a creeping suspicion of what’s happening. “What year?”

When Raymond tells him the date, Jasper feels like a punch in the face would have been easier to recover from. It’s the first day of the new year, three years ago. Unless Raymond is pulling a very out-of-character prank, Jasper has somehow traveled back in time.

Back to the day Charlie arrived in town.

Jasper presses his hands against the sides of his head, struggling to keep his breathing even. Everything that had happened in those three years—watching sleepy little Asher’s Vale wake up and transform into somewhere worth living, forming the band with Bruno and Sabira, learning to trust and love the strange new man in his life—it all suddenly hasn’t happened yet.

“This is a dream,” he hears himself say, and yet can’t bring himself to believe it.

“Jasper, you’re worrying me,” Raymond says, though he looks more annoyed than concerned now. “Have you been smoking anything other than cigarettes lately?”

Jasper has to swallow back a frantic laugh, because Raymond finding out he smokes weed is such a hilariously small concern right now. He turns and walks away, ignoring Raymond when he calls after him.

His mother greets him as he makes his way through the shop at the front of the house, moving toward the door.

“Morning, hon. You’re up early.”

Jasper stops and turns to face her across the counter. “Has Charlie moved in yet?”

His mother’s smile brightens. “I’m surprised you remembered his name. Though I suppose it makes sense you’d be interested; he’s about your age.”

Jasper’s already grabbing his jacket to throw on over his hoodie. “I’ll be down at the farm.” He’s out the door before he can hear her response.

He takes his motorcycle, hoping the rush of cold air across his face will help settle the storm inside his mind. It doesn’t. He keeps thinking of the impossibility of it all, how nothing makes sense and might never again. Twice more he glances down at the missing ring, and twice more he feels that awful weight crushing down on him.

It’s a miracle he doesn’t crash on the winding, snowy road out of town. Somehow, he makes it to the farm in one piece.

Pulling up in front of the gate, he feels another wave of grief roll over him. The fields that Charlie worked so hard to clear and replant are choked with snow and overgrowth. Looking at what might as well be a vacant lot, he feels tears sting his eyes. The life he and Charlie struggled for is gone, not lost but erased like it never happened. Everything the two of them went through together, wiped out like a deleted file. He slides off his bike and onto his knees, suffocating.

“Jasper?”

His head jerks up at the sound of his name. And there he is.

He looks different now, of course—he didn’t grow his beard out until last year—but Jasper couldn’t mistake that voice anywhere. He feels like he’s been enveloped by cool shade, safe from the scorching oppression of the sun. Charlie knows his name. He remembers.

Jasper surges to his feet, reaching for him automatically. He needs to touch, to hold, to be sure.

Charlie draws back. His eyes are wide. “I—I don’t… What are you doing here?”

“What’s going on, Charlie?” Jasper's voice is hoarse. “Why is everything…” He gestures at the overgrown farm.

Charlie’s brown eyes blink once, twice. “You…remember me?”

“What? Of course I— We were married last fall. We’ve lived together for just over a year now.”

Charlie stares at him. “No,” he says slowly, “that’s not right. We’ve never met.”

Another punch to the face. Jasper’s breath hitches. “But you do know me. You recognized me.”

“I—I heard Jackie mention you when she helped me move in,” Charlie says, and he starts to fiddle with his fingernails like he does when he’s got a bad hand in poker. “She said to look out for her son with the motorcycle.” He takes a breath and his hands curl with resolve. “I have to go. I need to get to the shop for supplies—”

He starts to turn away, but Jasper grabs his shoulder. “Please,” he begs, “please, I don’t know what’s going on but whatever it is, we can handle it together. We always do…”

Charlie stops and gives him a long, almost wistful look. Then he shakes his head. “Something went wrong,” he mutters. “This was supposed to be a clean start.”

Jasper opens his mouth to ask what he means.

The world goes black.

It’s the first day of the new year, and Jasper wakes up in a bed that is not his own.

He sits bolt upright, and in a few instants takes in the dark room and the absence of his wedding ring.

It feels like some sort of sick nightmare where he thinks he’s finally woken up only to be pulled back under.

He throws off the covers and stumbles up the stairs. In twenty minutes, he’s back at the farm.

Charlie’s eyes widen before he plasters on a smile. “Hi there,” he calls as Jasper comes to a stop. “I’m Charlie. I just moved in.”

Jasper slams down the kickstand with more force than necessary. Still astride the bike, he folds his arms over his chest and glares at Charlie. “You’re a bad actor,” he says flatly. “What’s really going on?”

“What do you mean?” Charlie’s smile widens as if to compensate.

“Yesterday we were married,” Jasper says, and though he means to say it angrily his voice threatens to waver on the last word. “The day before that we were talking about—about starting a family. Now the whole vale looks like it did three years ago and you’re pretending you don’t know me when you clearly still do. What happened?”

Charlie’s face falls. “Again?” he says, though Jasper gets the feeling he’s not really addressing him. “What the hell is this?”

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” Jasper says. “If you’d just tell me what—”

It’s the first day of the new year, and Jasper wakes up in a bed that is not his own.

He yells in frustration and slams his fist against the wall. It does nothing but hurt his hand.

He stays there, stinging knuckles pressed against cool plaster, as his eyes begin to blur again.

Why is Charlie acting like this? A day ago he’d told Jasper four times that he loved him. He’d laughed at his sarcastic jokes, beamed when he talked about the new game he was developing, and slow-danced with him at the party, his head tucked contentedly against Jasper’s chest.

Jasper can’t give that up. Even if Charlie has.

This time, he simply stands outside the shop. Charlie arrives less than twenty minutes later, slowing his stride when he sees Jasper waiting. His eyes turn downcast. When he tries to rush past Jasper into the store, Jasper steps firmly in his way.

“Please move,” Charlie whispers, and for a moment his voice is so despondent that Jasper almost does. He takes a deep breath before responding.

“Charlie,” he says in as gentle of a voice as he can muster, “we need to talk. You can’t keep me in the dark forever.”

Charlie’s eyes dart sideways as though hoping he can escape the situation.

“Don’t reset,” Jasper begs. “I don’t know if you still…if you ever…” He swallows past the feeling of a stone in his throat. “I don’t know what you’re feeling right now, but I still love you. Please, whatever is going on, let me help.”

Charlie presses his eyes closed. He nods.

Relief washes through Jasper’s body. “Okay. Okay. Rory’s Diner?”

Charlie watches him intently for a moment as if not sure he’s being sincere. In the end, he nods again. He follows Jasper through the streets to the diner, which is just starting to see its first customers at this hour. Charlie orders both of their favorites without needing to ask. They retreat to a table in back.

“So, the time loop,” Jasper says before either of them have a chance to take a bite. “What’s causing it? Do you know?”

Charlie lowers his eyes. “I’ve never found out why or how, exactly, but I know where it all started. The morning after my—my attempt, when I woke up in the hospital…”

It’s the most natural thing in the world to reach across the table for his hand, a simple, familiar comfort. Charlie looks at their intertwined fingers as if startled. He blinks, and his eyes are wet. Jasper squeezes gently.

With a deep breath, Charlie continues. “I was desperate. I—I always thought I had an out, if things got to be too much, but even that choice was taken from me. I remember grasping for anything, anything at all that could make it all bearable, and I…I think I made a wish. I think I wished for…something that will change my life forever.

“And the next day the lawyers showed up,” Jasper says. “You learned about the missing clause from your grandfather’s will, about the farm.”

Charlie nods. He squeezes back. “It certainly changed my life.”

“And you think the time loop is because you said forever?

He nods again. “Whenever I choose to reset, or whenever I die, the loop starts again on my first day in the vale. My first day of my new life. And…” He hesitates. “The day I met you.”

Jasper remembers it. Charlie had been shopping when Jasper emerged from his room to stuff his pockets with more energy bars. Charlie said something friendly to him, and he’d made an ass of himself responding. He shudders.

Charlie is smiling. “It was cute,” he assures him, as if reading his thoughts. “Gruff and abrasive, maybe, but kind of cute. It certainly didn’t put me off for long.”

Jasper feels the corners of his mouth twitch upward before he pulls them back down. “So…why reset when you did? We were…you seemed happy. Happier than you’d been in a long time.”

Charlie’s smile slides off his face. “You died,” he says quietly.

Not the response Jasper was expecting. “I—what? How?”

Charlie doesn’t look at him as he speaks stiffly, as though reading directly from medical records. “3:29 am on the first day of the new year. Your heart underwent ventricular fibrillation. I’m told it was fast and painless.”

Jasper stares at him, suddenly becoming acutely aware of his own heartbeat. Faster than normal. Probably not a weird reaction to having his time and manner of death described in detail. Probably.

“That was the first time I reset,” Charlie continues woodenly. “I didn’t mean to—it just happened. I was confused at first, but then I realized that something—God, the universe, whatever—was giving me a second chance. The moment you believed me, I got you in to see a cardiologist. Then they said—”

When his voice breaks, it’s all Jasper can do not to leap up and hold him. The motion is reflexive, like taking his hand, like smiling with him, like being with him, but he manages to reel in the impulse. This version of Charlie, he suspects, hasn’t known him for a while.

“They said the damage was already done,” Charlie continues. “That you had five years, tops. Of course I knew you only had three.”

The words churn in the pit of his stomach. Three years. “I can—I’ll stop smoking, I’ll work out, I— Charlie, please—”

He’s shaking his head. “It never works,” he says. “The most you ever got was two extra months.”

Now Jasper’s the one gripping Charlie’s hand like a lifeline. Three years.

“How could you not tell me?” he chokes. “The last time, the one I remember—we were married, and it was New Year’s Eve, and you—you were happy—”

Charlie finally raises his eyes to Jasper’s. “I lost count, you know. How many loops. How many times I tried to save you. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched you die, how many years I’ve relived. That final time…I made another wish. Wished for you to be with me, always. I had wished it a hundred times before, but this time was different. This time I knew something had changed. I was happy because I thought that was it, we could finally live our lives together. I could stop repeating the past.”

Jasper blinks away tears of his own. “But it didn’t work.”

“It did,” Charlie whispers. “In an awful, awful way, it did.”

It takes a moment to sink in. “Oh, fuck,” Jasper says. He says it again. “I’m—I’m stuck here now too?”

Charlie nods, miserable.

“Is that why you’ve been so distant?”

The table is quiet for a long moment. “After you died in that loop, I did something I’d never done before. I—I kept going. I thought a million times about resetting, just once more, but…I knew it would never work. So I just…lived. Without you. It was hard. But it got easier over the years.” The ghost of a smile returns to his face. “I fell in love again. Had kids. Didn’t last too long, but it wasn’t so bad.”

Jasper wonders if Charlie knows how much this hurts. He wonders if the pain is visible in his eyes as Charlie describes the future they’ll never share.

Charlie exhales, some measure of peace returning to his face. “I died from old age, I think. Just fell asleep and woke up back in the vale, sixty years younger. I didn’t think I would, you know. I thought that by letting you go, I could be free. Turns out I just made the cage a little bigger.”

Jasper sits back, feeling his head is a balloon exposed to vacuum. He looks around the diner and sees couples and families eating, drinking, and chatting like everything is normal. Like the world didn’t just turn inside out.

Everything he thought he knew—about life, about love, about Charlie—lies in pieces. His eternity stretches out before him, harsh in its clarity. He will never have a career or build a reputation as a game dev. He will never attend his friends’ weddings. He will never raise a child, or make it through grad school, or live to see old age.

“Jasper.” Charlie’s eyes are soft with more than just pity. “I’m sorry. For everything. We can make the most of it. It might be only three years, but…those three years will last forever. Now that you’re here, maybe you can find something I missed. Maybe one of us can make another wish. And in the meantime…”

He holds out his hand. Jasper doesn’t have to think long before he takes it.

Three years pass, and on the first day of the fourth year, Jasper wakes up in a bed that is not his own. A sense of calm and familiarity descend.

He knows the way home.

June 19, 2022 18:35

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