By Dustyn McCormick
The sky was the color of sharp edges and rained equations. The staccato sound of a military drumbeat assaulted his nasal passages. The air tasted purple, blue as it was sucked into his lungs, orange, and green as it was exhaled. He ran furiously through the hills, arms pumping madly, legs swinging at his side; he cut through the air like a brick through chocolate pudding.
The Thing was chasing him. He could smell the claws about to squish into him, hear the musky sweat as the creature neared. He fell to the flesh covered ground, tripping on a fish, landing in a puddle of twos and getting covered in fours. Sixes dripped off him as he stood. His elbows screamed as he started running, exhaustion pumped through him. The Thing got closer.
The thick air pushed against him, slowing him down, The Thing’s breath covered his flesh in a soggy fur. The rain of multipliers flew past his eyes as The Thing’s teeth tore into him like roasted marshmallows and ripped through his fur-covered flesh.
He awoke screaming; the nightmare pulsed behind his eyes and clung to his mind like shrink wrap. His eyes darted around to the faces looking at him as he slowly remembered where he was. His students were staring at him, some of them looking scared, others amused. The principal wasn’t going to like this. He took a few deep breaths to steady himself before speaking.
“Sorry, class, I must’ve dozed off.” His voice shook betraying his shaken nerves.
“Mr. Thomson?” A girl in the front row raised her hand. His mind worked furiously to catch her name as dizzying thoughts flew through it.
“Yes, Sally.” Steadier now; almost normal.
“Why are you naked?” she asked as the class started laughing.
“Wha–,” he trailed off, looking down at himself. Beads of sweat popped out on his body as his eyes took in his nakedness. The principal really wasn’t going to like this.
The laughter in the class got louder as his member betrayed him and started getting firmer. The news stories flashed before his eyes. He wondered if it would be one count of indecent exposure or thirty. He chanced a glance back at the class. The kids were laughing, some were pointing, and a few of the girls had turned a furious shade of red. In the back row sat the Thing. His mind grabbed onto the image and his body screamed at him to run.
He listened to the scream and bolted out the door into a busy subway station. A few commuters looked at him as he ran by. Some looked past him for the mugger that must be chasing him. Seeing nothing, they shrugged their shoulders and continued waiting for their train.
He slowed to a walk and looked down at himself. His suit and tie sat comfortably on him. His briefcase swung heavily in one hand. He found a bench and sat, placing his briefcase in his lap. He figured he must’ve dozed off waiting for the train to take him home. It must’ve been a busy day at the office though he couldn’t pick out any details from his memory.
It didn’t matter, he was on his way home where he’d be able to have dinner, sit down with a good book, and maybe review the Zimmerman account. No wonder he’s exhausted, the damn Zimmerman account has been on his mind so much the past month. Obviously, it was disrupting his sleeping. As soon as he sealed the deal on the account, he’d take a well-deserved vacation somewhere tropical.
Lost in these thoughts he failed to notice as the crowd rushed toward the stairs. The screams of fear did nothing to grab his attention. Only the loud claxon wail of the fire alarm pulled him away from his thoughts. He looked past the crowd running towards him and saw the flickering dance of a fire down the tunnel. The Thing stood in front of the tunnel.
He grabbed his briefcase and ran toward the stairs. His feet pumped like the pistons of an engine as he took the stairs three at a time climbing toward the street. Heat clawed at his back, as everyone’s fear became a palpable thing. The Thing got closer. He could feel it behind him, catching up. He climbed faster.
Sitting at the edge of a stream, back against a tree, and fishing pole in hand, he jerked awake. A smile sat upon his lips as the sun beat down, warming him. He hadn’t had a bite all morning and that was more than okay with him. He enjoyed the peacefulness of sitting with his pole in hand, the insects buzzing around him, birds singing in the trees, and the river gurgling its way past him.
He realized it had been too long since his last trip to the cabin. Maybe it was the memory of the happy times shared with Mary that kept him away, but he knew he should’ve embraced the pain of those happy memories sooner. Only now did he really feel like he was recovering from her loss. He came up here to say goodbye to that time, farewell to the grief, and prepare to move on with his life. As excitement coursed through him when his pole bent from a bite, he knew the mission had been accomplished.
His hands grabbed tighter on the pole and he jerked it, setting the hook. He could tell immediately that it was a big one. He stood, leaning all his weight against the pull of the fish on the end of his line. His mind started wondering if his line was going to break and looked around in a futile search for help. Nobody here except him.
The fact of his aloneness swept around him, covering him like a heavy blanket. His knees weakened as a sudden jerk pulled on the pole. His hands refused to let go and he was yanked into the river. He inhaled a surprised gasp as he was pulled under. He tried to let go of the pole but his hands wouldn’t listen.
All his attention focused on his hands, trying to force them to let go, as he was pulled deeper and deeper. The sunlight darkened as the water deepened. His lungs started burning and screaming for air and still his hands would not let go.
Panic raced through him, he knew he’d have to breathe soon. His last panicked gasp exited in one short exhale as he saw Mary’s body float past, a smile on her lips, her head still smashed from the truck that hit them. He inhaled deeply of the water surrounding him as the panic overcame all rational thought. The last thing he saw was Mary turning into The Thing and laughing as he was pulled closer to its grasp and further into darkness.
It was completely dark around him now. Some force pushed him forward. He didn’t know what lay ahead, only that he didn’t want to go. He spent the last few months warm and comfortable. Wrapped snuggly in this little cocoon that now seemed intent on forcing him out.
He heard familiar sounds, the steady thumping around him, though now it was going quite fast. The voice that talked to him occasionally was now loud and strained. The walls closed in around him and pushed him down a dark tunnel. In the distance, he saw a light. He didn’t want to go toward it.
He tried to force himself back; he wanted to stay in his cocoon. He didn’t want that voice to be strained or the thumping to be fast. Panic surged through him as the light slowly pushed closer. The light disappeared as his head pushed against something soft and warm. His shoulders struck something hard.
The hard object was unyielding. It held him back. The soft and warm thing against his head opened. For the first time he could remember, he felt cold. It shuddered through his body, tensing his muscles. The fear coursed through him, blocking out any thoughts of his warm tunnel, the strained voice, or the quickly pounding thump.
His shoulders slipped on the hard object. He moved further into the cold. He started screaming as his eyes were assaulted by a piercing light. His ears were pounded by unfamiliar noises. The world swung around his head with dizzying speed.
Everything moved so fast, he didn’t feel comfortable anymore, being passed around by giants, everything was too bright, too loud, and his breath was too light. He was placed on something hard with millions of tiny things poking into his back. “What is this torture?” was the only clear thought moving through his head.
One of the giants started rubbing his chest, yelling something. The familiar voice was much louder now, hoarse and strained. None of this made any sense to him, his eyes started to focus against the glaring light, and looking down on him was The Thing. His breath caught in his throat cutting his scream short. The Thing started pushing on his chest. He couldn’t breathe.
His chest was burning, his body felt light, and he needed to get away but couldn’t get up. His feet struggled to grab purchase on the millions of little hairs poking into him. He started feeling weak, the will to continue fighting slowly left him. Comfortable darkness surrounded him as the familiar voice let out a scream that faded into the distance.
He scratched at something pinching his arm, probably a damn mosquito looking at him for dinner. His eyes slowly opened with sleep still burning in them. He looked around the tent, the snores of the others drifted around him. His muscles ached; they would loosen up as the day progressed. He realized it was still dark outside and that they hadn’t been called to wake up. He rolled over in his sleeping bag and closed his eyes.
A soft whistling sound pierced the night, a surge of adrenaline screamed through his body, forcing his eyes open. He jumped up and dashed out of the tent, the others followed behind. They ran for the bunker as the whistling got louder.
Explosions erupted as they ran. A panicked charge for safety as the world exploded around them. He dove through the opening of the bunker, into the waiting arms of the darkness inside. Suddenly he was alone. The whistling and explosions continued outside, and still nobody joined him.
Disoriented in the dark, he tried to climb the mouth of the bunker. To find the light of the explosions and to see where everyone else was. A soft grunt behind him jolted his body with fear. The Thing was waiting for him here in the dark – he had run straight into its lair. He turned for the opening.
As he gained the top of the entrance, his eyes briefly caught the site of his torn and dismembered team members before the world turned to fire in front of his eyes. His skin was seared with extreme hellfire heat; he felt the tearing and popping as his limbs were ripped from his body. He heard The Thing behind him, laughing.
He found himself surrounded by brilliant white light. A man looked at him with a gentle smile playing on his face. He looked around and saw nothing but the white light and the man in front of him.
“Where is it?” he asked, his voice trembled with fear.
“Where is what, Jeff?” the man answered.
He looked at the man warily.
“How’d you know my name?” he demanded.
“I know all about you, Jeff.”
“Who are you?”
“Your guide,” the man answered.
“You have slipped, Jeff, there was an accident.”
“Slipped? Accident? Am I… dead?”
The man laughed softly and shook his head.
“No, Jeff, you aren’t dead. Not yet anyway.”
“What do you mean, not yet?”
“It’s up to you, Jeff. If you want to be dead, you can be.”
“I don’t understand,” Jeff said and sat on the white ground. The man sat in front of him, his eyes sympathetic and his smile oddly comforting.
“Jeff Thomson, thirty-five-years-old at the time of the accident, married for ten years, no children. At the time of the accident, you were a high school math teacher. Your wife, Mary, was still in school working to become a doctor,” the man said in a friendly tone, his deep voice soothing Jeff’s nerves.
“What happened?” Jeff asked.
“You were walking home from school. You had just started crossing the street when you were struck by a car,” the man said in a matter of fact tone.
“A drunk driver?”
“No. One of your students actually, Miss Sally Summerfield, while texting her boyfriend.”
“Sally did this? How is she?”
“She’s fine, in shock, and she feels horrible, of course.”
“But you said I slipped,” Jeff said.
“Yes, you did. The accident put you into a coma. Right now, you are in hospital. Mary is at your side. Both of your legs are broken, a broken rib punctured a lung, and you have severe brain hemorrhaging.”
“But I’m still alive?”
“Yes, you are. Machine’s are doing most of the work for you but you are still technically living.”
“Are you… God?” Jeff asked in awe.
“No, no, no” the man chuckled, “I am just your guide.”
“What kind of guide?”
“One to help you through your current crisis.”
“You have slipped out of time, Jeff. It started as a dream, a nightmare, not uncommon in coma victims. Then you slipped.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that while the body of a thirty-five-year-old married husband lays broken in a coma in intensive care, there is also the body of a sixty-year old retired teacher, widower, half drowned in a river, with a large fish at the end of a fishing line. There is the shattered body of a twenty-five-year-old sergeant, the victim of a mortar attack, and the body of a fifteen-minute-old infant, all of them waiting on your choice.”
“So all of those things I saw, they really happened?” Jeff asked quietly.
“In a way, yes. The birth you saw was actually your birth. You were never in the military however, so that is a different history. The old man is further in your possible future if you want to go that way.”
“But if I haven’t experienced any of that, how can I go there?”
“If you choose the military version of your life, you will gain the memories that go with it, and lose the memories of the one you have lived. If you go back to the life you have lived, nothing changes. The infant will allow you to live your life all over again, but you will forget everything. If you choose the old man, your life will be shortened and you will remember everything that happened from the day of the accident until that memory but not clearly.”
“That’s not an option, why would I want to go back to a time when Mary is dead?”
“Actually you’d be going forward to a time when Mary is dead. I understand what you mean though. So Jeff, which life do you want?”
“I want to go back to Mary. Why would I want to change anything?”
“I don’t know that answer, Jeff. However, if you were completely sure that you wanted to be there, you wouldn’t be here.”
“Have you gotten a good look at The Thing that chased you here?”
“It’s a monster, hairy, claws, huge, with sharp teeth, and it wants to eat me.”
“It wants to eat us all, Jeff. That thing looks different to everyone who sees it. To me it’s nothing but an antique passed down through the generations.”
“What is it then?”
“It’s Time, Jeff, an embodiment of the time we have lived and the time we have left. Everyone sees it in their own way, depending on how they feel about it. You are obviously scared of time.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Why are you scared of time?”
“I’m not scared of time!” Jeff yelled. As the yell echoed off into the distance he heard a loud snarl behind him. He turned his head and saw The Thing. He jumped up and ran behind the man. The Thing made no move to chase him.
“What’s it doing?” Jeff asked.
“Standing still for now. We are outside of time.”
“Oh, okay, maybe I am a little afraid,” he admitted as he slowly walked over to inspect The Thing.
“You know so much about me, why don’t you know that?”
“It doesn’t matter what I know, Jeff, only what you know.”
“Mary is sick. Cancer. She’s doing alright now, but the treatments are making her sick. If they don’t work, she’ll only live another year, maybe less.”
“So why don’t you skip ahead, avoid the pain of her death. Or start over, maybe never meet her or go to the entirely different life, become a war hero. Why go back to now?”
“That’s where Mary is. It hurts, yes, but that’s a part of life, isn’t it? The fear and pain caused by love. I don’t want to give up twenty-five years of my life just to miss the pain of her possible death. If I do that, I’ll lose the time I have left with her.”
The man smiled at Jeff.
“Will she die?” Jeff asked as another snarl escaped The Thing.
“I don’t know that, Jeff. Even if I did, I couldn’t tell you. That’s just the risk you have to take.”
“I want to go back to Mary. My condition can’t be good for her.” For the first time Jeff’s voice took on a note of confidence. As he spoke, he watched The Thing change. He watched as it slowly shrank: the claws became smaller, the gaping mouth with sharp teeth turned into a snout. Its body elongated and sprouted a tail. After a few minutes, The Thing no longer looked like a snarling monster but like a large dog.
“Why did it change?” Jeff asked.
“You aren’t as scared of it now. It can be your friend, or it can bite you.” The man produced a leash from behind his back and handed it to Jeff.
“Put this on it, and it’ll lead you back to where you want to go, instead of chasing you. Make a friend of time, Jeff, and it will stand by you faithfully until the end. Keep it as an enemy and it will chase you forever.”
Jeff took the leash and attached it to a collar he hadn’t noticed on the dog. He stroked the dog’s fur and heard it softly pant. He felt the dog’s sides heave as it panted. A stray thought crossed his mind about how much it looked like a German Sheppard and how he might get one when he recovered.
“Goodbye, Jeff, I hope I don’t see you again for a long time,” the man said as he started to turn away and walk off.
“Wait, who are you?” Jeff asked.
“I am your–”
“I know, I know, my guide, but what is your name?”
“I think you know it already. When you recover and get your dog, you’ll name it after me. I’ll see you later, Jeff.” The man turned and slowly faded into the whiteness.
Jeff looked down at the dog and patted its head.
“Come on, boy, take me home.” The dog barked and started walking.
The incessant beeps are the first to intrude on his sleep. Slowly he becomes aware of the dull pain in his legs, his chest, and the pounding in his head. He is aware of Mary beside him, her small hand holding his. He tries to squeeze it but only manages a small twitch. It is enough.
She raises her head and looks at him. It takes his eyes a moment to adjust and bring her face into clear focus. She is crying. The tube in his throat prevents him from speaking. Distantly, he hears her call for a nurse, saying he is awake.
The nurse comes in and runs him through tests, squeezing fingers, moving toes. Each movement causes pain in him and joy in Mary and the nurse. Slowly his memory of the accident returns, he remembers the nightmare world and the dream of being naked in class. Everything else fades from his mind.
The tube comes out the day after he wakes up; he spends another week in the hospital. Mary is a constant by his side, her doctors say the treatments are working and she is getting better. His doctors say he is recovering at an extraordinary rate. Despite the pain and the haze caused by his medication, he is happy.
Two months later and he is back in class. His students welcome him with a large round of applause. Before returning, he has a meeting with Sally and her parents. She cries an apology. He assures her that it’s ok. It was an accident, but he extracts a promise from her to never again text while she is driving. She claps loudest of all in her front row seat.
Mary’s cancer gets pronounced fully in remission. Ever since waking up, he has had a strong desire to get a dog, surprising Mary. Before the accident, he never had an interest in pets. She agrees and they begin looking. One day while a storm rages and his injuries hurt him, he finds the perfect dog. A German Shepherd puppy, with bright, intelligent eyes and a heart-shaped black mark on its side.
He buys the puppy and takes it home to Mary who falls in love instantly. When she asks him about the dog’s name, he falls silent for a moment. He looks deep into the dog’s eyes and the dog stares back. The answer comes to him as if from the dog’s mind.
“Gabriel,” he says, the dog yips and pounces into his arms.