Keeping the cross hairs centered on the man's chest, Ian watched the stranger through the rifle's telescopic sights. The man, well over six foot, walked along the beach toward the truck. He was dressed entirely in the same dark olive green from head to foot. His head was covered by a peaked cap and his face hidden behind a black gas mask. Ian fought the compulsion to squeeze the trigger. The stranger was well out of range, but Ian still felt the urge to shoot him.
Taking great pains to leave the truck exactly as he found it, the stranger spent a long time carefully inspecting the truck. As the stranger turned his back to him, Ian noticed a deadly looking crossbow was strapped to the man's dark green backpack; he was looking at the same man who had shot the deer in the clearing
Ian lifted his head from the sights. The stranger was little more than a tiny blur on the far shore. Laying the rifle against the rocks that concealed him, Ian sat up and lit a cigarette. He debated whether he should leave the cave and contact the man on the beach.
He had no desire to face the man without a weapon, yet if he went unarmed, his intentions would seem more peaceful and less threatening. Perhaps they could team up. The stranger made a better friend than an enemy, but then, what would the stranger want with Ian in the condition he was in? He was severely weakened by the sickness, and that weakness would allow the stranger the advantage over him. Ian decided to wait until he could face the stranger with all his faculties intact. Anything less, and he stood no chance against him if anything went wrong. He wasn't strong enough yet.
A hot flash of fever swept through him and Ian lay on his back. What am I going to do? He felt he'd been sick all his life and couldn't recall the sensation of being well. He stubbed out his cigarette, picked up the rifle and rolled onto his stomach. He peered down at the lake through the sights. The stranger had gone. Blood oozed from the wounds he had carved in his arms and Ian shook his head; the cuts were taking a long time to heal.
He walked back to the cave and sat down behind the plastic barrier, leaning the rifle against the cave wall. Ian ripped up one of his shirts to bandage the gashes on his arms, but the pieces didn't hold very well and slipped off, exposing the open wounds. He couldn't summon the energy to adjust them. He opened the doctor's bag and pulled out several pill bottles, reading the labels one by one. He emptied their contents on a large rock and scooped up a handful of pills. Ian swallowed the entire handful, gulping them down with warm water from an almost empty plastic jug. He didn't care what the pills were, just as long as one of them was a painkiller.
His body ached and his muscles were tired and weak. Despite his fear of the Dream, Ian's eyes would not stay open and he drifted in and out of a strange fog-shrouded consciousness, not quite asleep yet not really awake either. He stared down at the white skin on the inside of his arms. His body was covered with petechiae, tiny reddish-purple spots. He wasn't sure if they itched or not. A warm fluid exuded from the mass of ulcers which had begun growing inside his mouth. He wearily pulled the silk scarf from his head and pulled off his helmet. An unusually large number of strands of hair stuck to the lining, and curious, he lifted his hand to his head and pulled gently at a tuft of his hair. It pulled free of his scalp effortlessly and without any pain. He stared at the handful of hair protruding between his fingers, opened his fist and let the hair fall to the floor.
He had lost hope. He no longer cared about the stranger murdering him in his sleep - he was going to die anyway; the stranger would be doing him a favor.
In a way, it gave him a convoluted kind of hope - finally his torture would end.
But he didn't really want to die.
I want to live!
I want to live happily ever after.
Like in the fairy tales I used to read as a kid. Like the mindless television shows I used to watch. Like the way everyone told me I would be if I kept my nose pressed to the grinding wheel. Like the way that the Otherlife was supposed to be...
But the Otherlife is gone.
And so has my happy ending...
I can't shake the feeling that I'm suffering like this because I didn't live my life the way that I was supposed to in the Otherlife. I keep going over the events in my life, rerunning them and trying to figure out what I should have done differently that would have saved me from this agony-
I should have done this, I should have said that, I shouldn't have done this...
Wishing I'd lived the life of a saint.
No matter how good I was before the War, it still would have blown everyone away, and I'd still be sitting here and the world would still be the way that it is.
Or would it?
What should I have done?
What could I have done?
Anything, I guess.
I remember watching demonstrations by peace groups protesting for nuclear disarmament and thinking they were all crazy. Some of them were genuinely crazy, I guess, but they were one thing that I wasn't-
They were right!
With the queer twisting which the War has turned everything around upon itself, they had been sane, and the rest of us were insane. How many wanted nuclear war? How many wanted their friends and family blasted into nothing more than dust, atomized in the furnace of an atomic fireball?
Everyone simply gave up and allowed the War to happen, allowed the nightmare to become reality, allowed the inertia of the arms race to build at such a frenetic pace that it carried the human race to its inevitable conclusion. For most people the War was already unthinkable; the whole madness of the nuclear umbrella over our heads was just a nightmare that would sooner or later go away. But it didn't. It made itself known so subtly, ingrained itself so carefully into our lives that every man, woman and child in the world strained under its yoke, coiled into tight little circles of paranoia. Like clockwork springs wound too tightly by the rules and regulations which the paranoia imposed upon our lives, we directed the tension outward - Us and Them. The nightmare was so horrible to contemplate, we wanted to stop thinking, we wanted a quick fix for everything, and the knee-jerk reaction was the simplest and easiest solution to every problem. The urge to lash out and stop the nightmare became so strong that it finally exploded and all of Humanity shot away from each other like neutrons blasted from the core of a nuclear explosion, accelerating at such a high initial velocity that we careened off each other in a frenzied orgy of death and destruction. Speeding off in different directions, we were carried away by the energy of the explosion before any of us had a chance to react, only to die in the vast vacuum of this new world which is slowly decaying in an entropic loneliness.
A nuclear explosion impacting on every level of existence, Humankind simply self-destructed.
All you did was shrug your shoulders. “Oh well, we're going to be nuked. That's Life...”
But it wasn't Life...
It was the murdering of millions of human beings, the slaughter of an entire planet, the death of Humankind.
Sometimes, when he closed his eyes, the mad grinning skull of Death, hideous in its victory over the millions he had claimed, stood with his scythe and dark hooded robe in the shadows before him, its bony hand beckoning to Ian to join the countless souls it had already overtaken.
Ian resisted the seductive offer of silent oblivion. To let himself die was to give up all hope, not merely for himself, but for the future of Humankind. To succumb to the pressure and allow himself to slip away would be admitting that all of Humankind had failed. By reducing the value he placed on his own life meant admitting that everything that had been accomplished and brought into existence by the human race was worthless, and that Humankind should have never existed. That its existence was some ghastly mistake that had now been horribly and finally rectified.
Perhaps it's true.
Perhaps Humankind is worthless.
But who am I to judge?
Neither me or anyone else has that right. Humanity has been executed without knowing it was on trial. Faced with the immensity of the darkness around him, my writing seems pointless. Why am I writing at all? Something pushes me to write down my thoughts. Am I looking for some purpose to this life? Will all my questions be miraculously answered on these pages?
Far off in the distance Linda called his name and Ian looked up from reading the tattered notebook resting upon his lap. He was sitting on the toilet. Linda called him anxiously again from the other side of the locked bathroom door. He closed the book. Ian felt guilty and knew he had to hide the notebook. His eyes scanned the bathroom searching for a place to put it where Linda wouldn't find it.
Linda knocked louder on the other side of the locked door.
“What is it?” he asked as unconcernedly as he could while his eyes searched for a place to hide the book.
“Are you okay?” she called through the door.
“Sure,” he called back, “Sure, why wouldn't I be?”
“You locked the door.” Her voice betrayed a trace of accusation and it annoyed him.
“Oh, did I?” he asked with feigned innocence. He stood up and flushed the toilet, and using the noise of the water flooding the bowl to cover any sound he was making, Ian wedged the book in the space between the toilet tank and the wall. He stepped back to make sure that the book couldn't be seen and smiled, pleased with the results, and then went over and unlocked the bathroom door. He took a deep breath and opened the door, still smiling.
Linda stood in the hallway dressed in her robe, her hands folded nervously across her waist. The apprehension in her eyes changed quickly to relief as she saw him. He smiled at her and she looked at him almost apologetically.
“I thought you were-” she began, then stopped.
“Thought I was what?” he asked amiably.
She bit her lip and turned to walk back to the bedroom.
“Wait!” He grabbed her arm and she whirled fearfully. He didn't understand. Why was she afraid of him?
“What's wrong?” he asked.
She looked at him as though she was searching for something, her eyes colored by a heavy sadness.
“You don't know?” she asked.
“No,” he replied truthfully, but her question made him realize that he had no memory at all from the time that he had looked up from the book. All he knew was that he had come from a time and place far, far away from where he found himself, and that the journey had been long and hard.
“I... I... I can't remember...” he stammered weakly, “I can't remember anything.”
“Nothing?” she asked incredulously.
He shook his head.
“Oh God-” she whispered. Pity welled up in her eyes and she reached up to touch his face but her hand refused to make contact. Ian sensed an invisible barrier separating them.
The book would tell him what had happened. He wanted to return to the bathroom and read it, but he didn't want Linda to see it. Before he could talk to her, he would have to read the book. Ian turned to walk back into the bathroom.
“Don't go in there!” Linda shouted hysterically. He turned to look at her.
Her hand went up to her mouth.
What is she afraid of? he wondered, The book?
“Please don't go in there,” she whispered, “...please...”
“Okay,” he said, perplexed. He stepped toward her, slipping his hand around her waist. “Okay...”
Linda had tensed at his approach, but the tightness suddenly drained from her as she burst into tears and pushed herself into him. He stroked her hair gently to comfort her and wondered what was wrong with him.
I'm going crazy, he thought, I'm going crazy, and she has to watch. That's why she's so afraid... I'm going crazy. No! I feel okay. I feel normal. Rational. So what's wrong with me?
And as he asked himself the question, the answer dawned on him. I am normal. Everything is normal. This is a dream. Crazy things happen in a dream. It's normal for crazy things to happen in a dream. He still had no memory of the War, but he knew he was dreaming. The thought didn't disturb him and he was content to allow the dream to continue. He held Linda in his arms and closed his eyes so that he could concentrate upon the feel of her body against his.
“Just a dream...” he whispered happily.
Linda tensed and pulled away from him angrily.
“No it's not!” she shouted at him, “It's not a dream! It's real! Everything here is real! I'm real! And you're real!”
Ian smiled at her condescendingly.
“It's only real because you're a part of the dream,” he explained gently, “but I'll wake up and...” he gestured around him, “...all this will be gone.”
“No!” she screamed at him, “Why won't you listen to me? This is real! It's not a dream!”
She grabbed him by the arms and held him tightly in her hands, staring into his eyes intently.
“Can you feel my hands?” she asked him, her grip increasing the pressure on his arms. He felt an inexplicable stab of pain and winced.
“Please,” she pleaded, “I can't stand this anymore! You've been sick and I've tried to help you but I can't. I don't know what to do anymore!”
“Linda-” He wanted to explain to her, but he didn't know what was happening to him any more than she did.
“No!” she whispered fiercely, “No more talking! I've talked until I'm blue in the face and you just don't listen!”
“Linda, I'm sorry,” he said smiling, “but it is a dream-”
“Fine!” she said angrily, “You just keep telling yourself that! I've had it!”
She turned angrily and stormed into the bedroom. He watched helplessly, not knowing how to turn the dream around. He wanted to make love to her, not argue.
How can I prove to her that it's a dream? he wondered, This isn't the way it's supposed to be...
Ian heard Linda banging around in the bedroom, and walked to the doorway. Her suitcase lay open on the bed, some of her clothes thrown hurriedly into it. A sharp ache formed in the pit of his stomach as she shucked off her robe and pulled on her jeans.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
She didn't look up at him.
“Lisa said I could stay with her for a few days,” she said as she did up her jeans.
This dream is all wrong, he thought.
“I need you, Linda,” he said weakly.
She had been buttoning up her blouse and sighed in frustration. “We've been through all this before,” she told him, “I can't help you anymore. You need someone who knows more about this than I do. A psychiatrist.”
“What?” Ian asked incredulously.
“Don't tell me you don't remember that either?” His look must have told her that he didn't.
She opened her purse on the night table beside the bed and pulled out a small white card, and held it up for him to see.
“I already talked to a doctor,” she explained slowly and clearly, “This is her card. She knows all about you and wants you to go and see her. She can help you and so can I. But not until you go and see her.”
She put the card carefully on the night table.
“I want you to call her and go and see her,” she said, “If you do that for me, I'll come back, but not until then. Do you understand?”
But she didn't.
She didn't understand that she was only a part of a dream. Then suddenly Ian knew how he could prove to her he was right. He remembered the cave and the test for the Dream and knew she would finally understand. He turned and walked down the hallway to the kitchen.
Ian opened the drawer beside the sink and pulled out a butter knife. He dropped it back into the drawer and picked up a steak knife. Perfect! He smiled happily and walked back to the bedroom with the knife in his hand.
Linda froze when she saw him.
“What are you doing?” she asked nervously.
“Simple,” he said to her pleasantly, “There's only one test that works to prove a dream from reality-”
“Give me the knife,” she said firmly.
“Not until I show you I'm dreaming.”
And he stabbed the knife into his arm and she screamed, but Ian knew that he'd proved his point. There was no pain. He held his arm out with the steak knife imbedded in it to show her, and as the blood dripped from the wound, he stood as if he were Christ displaying the marks of the crucifixion to an unbelieving disciple.
“See?” he said quietly, “It's only a dream...”