There are Many Lives Here

Long absence. Too long, which is customary with me and blogging.  Hopefully I’ll sort of make up for it with a much longer update than usual. For awhile there, writing had become more difficult than ever. I lost the reason why I write, but the past few weeks has improved my outlook on all things, including writing, and in turn resummoned creativity.  Perspective. While I focus on my newest fantasy novel–which I began and restarted many times now, always feeling that something was not quite right, that I was trying to target some fabled audience rather than writing for me and a specific audience (thanks Tim Ferriss)–I neglected the blog. Again. I’ll try to remedy that.

Enjoy.

Day wakes him hours later. He sits up, frustrated with himself for falling asleep on the verge of remembrance. This sky is not the same now; it lacks stars, those links to something within himself. Clouds have returned gray and seamless.

Scratches and cuts decorate his bare arms, the straight-jacket reduced to a sleeveless shirt, and even that is somewhat tattered. Red splotches stain his skin, a few wounds still oozing. The bones of his forearms are too visible, skin elastic, stretched tautly across bone. Not hungry, he knows he must eat to fight the weariness, is already tired despite just waking. Clothing also seems necessary. The linen pants are too thin, the straight-jacket not a shirt, no shoes or socks and he suffers a night chill from sleeping outside.

Back inside, he wanders aimlessly, searching for a map, a floor plan, some semblance of place, but finds only signs pointing to rooms and sections he doesn’t want or understand. A scrub sink proves easy to find, the warm water washing away the blood. He lathers himself with soap up to his shoulders. He will shower if he finds a shower. Finds a bottle of peroxide and pours it over his arms, empties the small brown bottle before realizing what it held and what it may mean. What all of this means. Although vacant, the hospital has not been looted. Treasures lay everywhere, waiting to be plundered. He should have grasped this sooner but focused on remembering rather than seeing. The instruments remain, medicines and machines, bandages. But the people are gone. The patients as well, but maybe this isn’t where patients lie in their beds and stare at ceilings and die lonely, sterile deaths. He rather not discover those rooms.

The halls are wider here, closed wooden doors on both sides and bedded stretchers parked against white walls. White floor, white ceiling. The doors, numbered, are the doors he didn’t want to find. Secrets hide behind them, corpses with secrets, or the dying with secrets, and the dying always have the least to hide. They’ll share secrets with him—secrets he doesn’t want to hear. But the doors are shut. The secrets go unheard, waiting in silence.

He eventually enters a lobby, the U-shaped receptionist desk and more desks and chairs to sit and wait, all unoccupied. The televisions are black. No one sits and waits.

A bowl of candy, lollipops with a chewy center, sits atop the counter. He takes one from the glass bowl—what should perhaps hold fish instead of lollipops—unwraps it and puts it in his mouth. A sweet and good taste, as candy should taste, and it intensifies his hunger. He considers sucking on lollipops until the roof of his mouth cracks and bleeds. That seems like something he would do, or something someone would do.

Later, much later, he’s sitting on a rugged floor studying photographs. He has spread them across the floor all around him, in a circle. His hunger forgotten, he stares at the photographs and wonders what he’s seeing. The room is dim, almost dark, barely any light trickling through the shuttered windows. He could open the shutters but fears being watched. By what, he does not know, only that something could watch him and this is supposed to be a private moment between himself and people he has never known and will never.

Photographs of friends and families, on boats and at picnics and weddings and kickball games. Staff excursions, perhaps, or family vacations, or maybe neither. A joyful bride, the groom even happier. The pictures aren’t important, and yet they are. They reveal nothing, remind him of no one and nowhere, but he feels like he’s done this before. Many, many times. Rifled through photographs, surrounded himself with them as he has now. Or maybe it’s just the past he’s obsessed with. Something about the past.

Photographs of the hospital. Green Lanes, reads the enormous green letters above the front entrance. The hospital looks new and inviting and everything it no longer is. People stand outside, a semicircle of hundreds. Smiling, presumably happy.

Where did everyone go?

More so, why did they leave him to die alone?

Why did no one leave a note? Anything? Why did they just vanish?

He stands and steps across the photographs, knows he will be the last one to look at them. He finds a duster coat hanging on the coat-rack. The coat is dark gray almost black, buttons glossy black, shoulder capes to ward against the rain and a hood for the same. A heavy material, wind and waterproof and intimidating by appearance alone, too big for him but he will grow; he cannot be more emaciated. Many pockets, including two inner and deep, and inside one he finds a white piano key and a boarding pass for a train. He keeps them. The coat sleeves fall to the joints of his fingers, the hem at his ankles. He will need shoes. Boots.

Life works in strange ways, he concludes. And unfair ways. Mostly unfair. From straightjacket to duster coat. He almost smiles before realizing there’s really nothing to smile about.

The coat swishes as he walks. A cadence to his limping gait, a song he can hear, that speeds up and slows down depending on his motions. Usually very slow. There’s no piano this time, and no soft rains. No tangible composition. Just swish, and swish, and swish.

The signs lead him to a cafeteria. Outside he looks in, the walls opaque white plaster and wood to his waist, glass everything above. At least this glass isn’t broken, just smudged, blurring everything within. The door, also glass, opens easily. There’s too much glass here. He could never throw a stone without a following shatter or scuff. Long tables of chrome with equally chrome chairs, chrome railed barriers where people would wait in line, and chrome carts where chrome trays pile high, into chrome towers. Skyscrapers standing erect, shining so silver.

He crosses the room in haste, wary of the surrounding glass, the eyes that could peer in and study him. He does not wait in line because there is no line and nothing to wait in line for, and passes through an open door leading into the back, the kitchens and storage. More chrome here, but not as burnished. In the kitchen he finds cutting knives lodged in a block of wood, orderly in their designated holes. Two kitchen knives sinister in size and sharpness. He has nowhere to sheath two knives and pockets seem like a poor choice. He puts one knife back and moves on, the other gripped too tightly.

The storage rooms offer more—food, so much he does not know where to look. He had expected to find the shelves bare, everything, down to the breadcrumbs, ransacked. Isn’t that what happens in the movies? The world is supposed to be barren. Looted. A desolate existence. Instead, there’s too much of everything. Far more than he could ever carry or eat. Canned goods line the walls, loaves of bread air-wrapped in green plastic, bottles of water and juices and sodas and sport drinks. Potatoes, enormous canvas bags of potatoes. This is more than he wanted. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be.

He was to come here and drop to his knees in surrender, acknowledge the dearth of food, water, life. Rather, he can survive here for months, years, possibly forever. He knows he will not do that. He will eat, and drink, and prepare to move on, and then he will move on. Staying here, in Green Lanes, was never an option, and even now, with this feast before him, this impossible feast intended to feed an entire hospital, even with all this, staying here is still not an option. He will waste away here. Not physically, but mentally and spiritually.

Spiritually, the hospital will attempt to consume him, its soulless husk dragging him into the depths. He feels it and sees it in the walls and floors and darkness so thick and lethargic. From the first moment, his first waking seconds, he has felt the preterition here, heard the silence, tasted the…there’s no taste here. He’s getting ahead of himself.

He must eat and pack and put Green Lanes behind him. This place offers him nothing but the past, and the past, although mostly forgotten, still manages to haunt him. Photographs and stars, music and someone he can’t quite remember but knows is real. She has lived at some point, at some place, and cannot be entirely forgotten. A figment of his imagination, perhaps, but he must identify that figment before he can…overcome it? Whatever he wants to do with it.

The sack dragging behind him is loud against the tiled floor. Cans fill the sack, along with bottles of water, as much as he can carry. More than he can carry, which explains the sack dragging behind him. He hates making this much noise but has little choice. Weakness ails him. At another time, years ago, a stronger him—surely he must had been stronger—he would have carried the sack over his shoulder for the long trip ahead—surely the trip will be long—but now he, and it, drag.

The food has not helped. He ate too much, too quickly, and feels sick because of it, his stomach heavy with cold beans and applesauce. Instead of energy, lethargy fills him. His arm tires from dragging the sack, so he switches arms until that arm also tires, and switches again and again, his travels echoing down the hall, the cans clattering.

He decides he will smile when he is happy, and when he knows what his smile will look like. Green Lanes lacks mirrors. Maybe no one wants to see themselves.

He finds a mirror. Irony, he decides. The mirror presents him a man in his late twenties, maybe early thirties. Black hair short as if recently cut, which doesn’t make a bit of sense. Black stubble darkening his face. He’s thin, too thin, almost skeletal, may perhaps be handsome if he gains some weight. Ordinary nose and mouth, nothing special about them. It’s his eyes that possess him. Intensely blue, translucent glacial ice beneath a bright sun, filled with sights and memories he’s now glad he’s forgotten. Fearful eyes despite his lack of fear, too animated to stare at for long, alive with terror. Not afraid, but haunted. So deeply haunted.

What has he seen? What has seen him? What’s forgotten, so deep within?

This is why mirrors were a bad idea, so long ago.

He must have wandered long today, spent too much time in the cafeteria, or staring at himself, or coming to random halts in random halls and wondering why certain thoughts keep appearing in his mind, because the sun is already setting. A few hours yet. The sun will vanish where it vanished yesterday, behind trees so red and orange and yellow, more so when the setting sun brightens their reds and oranges and yellows, when everything, the entire world, is a little more golden and fragile.

Green Lanes is too large and he cannot find his way out. Just outside, to the backyard with flowers so white and purple, or the side, or the other side, but never the front lawn, and he rather not wander the grounds. There’s too much out there. Just…too much everything. He’ll be ready for it tomorrow, after a night of sleep and dreams, so very little sleep and so many dreams.

Maybe he will step on glass again, and maybe he will wake to find his soles free of glass. Souls, too, are made of glass, the sort that does not crack or fissure but shatters into countless shards. Shards that remind him of stars, twinkling and shimmering and creating their own existence.

There’s song about that—twinkling stars. It’s very old, he thinks, and forgotten. At least to himself. Little star. Twinkle twinkle. Wonder about us all below.

That’s not how the song goes. Not at all.

And that’s not the song he’s supposed to remember.

He must find an escape from Green Lanes, to some other lanes and lands less green, where songs are still remembered and music resonates.

They find each other before sunset, twenty minutes before darkness would have kept them apart.

He enters the room and stops, doesn’t know where he is, what ward or wing or whatever you call these places. A man lays in the corner bed, beside a window with heavy blue drapes drawn across it. The room is almost dark, the man visible only due to his paleness. His blue eyes are open and moving. They stop on Trent.

“You don’t belong here,” he says, voice raspy and weak. His bed tray is positioned above his chest. The plate is empty. So is the plastic cup. “Or do you?”

He shakes his head. “No.” His own voice frightens him, so that he jumps. He has not spoken in so long, forgot what he sounded like, is not convinced he ever knew. “I’m just…here.”

“Of course you are,” the old man says. “Give me water.”

He isn’t sure how the stranger knows he has water—perhaps the enormous sack—but he nods and approaches, withdraws a bottle from his pocket and places it on the bed tray. The man is ancient, his face a map of wrinkles, his eyes cloudy blue, those clouds filled with hurt and loss, his hair white and only in patches and discolorations mark his skull. The machines beside his bed sit silently. No beeping. No lines zigzagging. The television stares black and lifeless. This man will soon die. Should already be dead. He clings to life, refusing to let go even after everything else has already surrendered.

“I can get there,” the old man says, pointing to the bathroom. “To fill this,” he says, pointing to the cup. “But the water tastes dead and I hate standing. It hurts, standing, and there’s no one left to help. Two waters.” He raises two fingers. “No food. Eating hurts. I’m going to die, you know.”

He nods. “So will I. We’ll all die, eventually. At least I think that’s how it works.”

The old man tries to laugh then stops, grimaces, coughs up dark blood onto his chin and shirt. “You’re a philosopher. A man of cliches. Of course we’ll all die. It’s just a matter of when and how. I suppose I should have added soon. I’m going to die soon, you know.”

He doesn’t tell the old man that he hates cliches, and in that, too, there’s a memory buried so deep. “I know,” he says, instead. “I know you’ll die soon.”

“I know,” the old man says. “But sometimes it’s something you have to say out loud, for someone else to hear. You’ll understand if you ever foresee your own death.”

“Where did the others go?” He fears the answer, fears that he even dared ask the question.

“They just didn’t come back,” the old man says. “The lot of them, anyway. And those who did left in a hurry. Couldn’t take me, an old dying dead man.” He coughs again. Talking seems to pain him; his hands, gripping the cup of water, are gnarled and veined, his fingernails fleshly pink. He spills water onto his shirt, doesn’t seem to notice or care or care to notice.

“Where did they go?”

The old man shrugs, sips the water, shrugs. “Not here.” Shrugs, sips the water. “They probably went off to find their gods. And a place filled with the dead and dying isn’t a place for any god.”

“It seems like the perfect place,” he argues. “They left you to die?”

“Maybe they did. I don’t know why anyone does anything. I’ve been confused all my life. Or, at least, from a certain point in life.” He coughs up more blood. Doesn’t care about that, either. “I want you to kill me,” the old man says after minutes of silence, after Trent has sat in the corner nearest the bed, in the darkest shadows.

He only stares from those shadows. He has never killed a man. At least he thinks he hasn’t. That seems like something he would remember.

“You’re wearing a duster coat,” the old man says, grinning, blood on his lips. “Do you wield a revolver?”

There’s still the knife from the kitchen in his free hand, which neither of them have mentioned. He lets it slip to the floor; maybe the old man has not seen and will not hear the clatter.

“I don’t want you to stab me, you fool. If I wanted to die painfully, violently, I’d just lay here waiting for it like I have been. I’d live the life I’ve already lived rather than the one I should have. Opportunities, don’t let them go. Seize them. Live. For the sake of life, live. And I’m not going to kill myself. I’ve already sinned enough, but if you do it for me…”

“I won’t. Can’t.” But he’s already unsure. Maybe he has killed a man. Maybe he will.

“A needle,” the old man says. “See the bag of fluid up there?”

He does. Nods.

“Stick the needle into the hole. You’ll see it. Draw the fluid out, then stick the needle in me. My veins are easy enough to find.”

That, at least, is true. “And you can’t do this yourself?” The old man shakes his head. “And you want to die?” Nods. “And you’re certain?” Emphatically nods. “Is this sinning? Helping you die?”

“Living is sinning. We’re all ruined, and we’ve been ruined from the beginning, whatever beginning you believe in. Is it a sin to kill an old man when he begs for death, when he’s already dying and wants to die quicker, when there’s pain and nothing more, when everyone else has already left him and he just lays here waiting for the end, when he’s made so many mistakes and regrets so much and can’t remember the faces he’s loved and lost? If that’s a sin, then maybe we have it all wrong, maybe we don’t want to go where we think we’re going after we die. If mercy is a sin, then sin. I’ve done it. And I did, so will you.”

He takes a deep breath. He has, really, no choice. He can’t let this old man die here alone, and he cannot take him on a nameless, directionless journey. He finds a needle with little effort and returns sooner than he likes, almost wishes he never found the means for death. He had hoped to return and find the old man already dead. But now he stands above the dying man with death in his hand.

“I need something from you first,” he says. “I need it.”

“A favor from a dying old man? The impending death of the virgin spirit.”

“What?”

The old man shrugs and grins that grin of his, the one with blood on the lips and teeth. “What is it that you want?”

He looks at the window, sees the heavy drapes, but sees beyond them too. Trees outside, the warm colors of cold autumn, black ash falling from the sky, soft and warm rains the sound of music. Breathe in the ash. Breathe in the rain. One dissolves the other, the world melting into a puddle of murkiness, ink that cannot write but is black enough to cover pages. Not with words, but with enough substance to capture meaning and significance. Disappear here, it will say, or imply, and all will disappear here, and there, into the black of dreams, the shadows of the universe . And vanish, and then silence. The rain, so soft and warm and from so high above, will melt everything into their original compositions. Songs before music—lyrics, and tones, and tempos, and cadences, and sound. Songs of silence until there is sound. And music, true music, will change everything, will breathe life back into death and give death reason and purpose. And memories, the memories.

He shakes his head, expels the dizziness and confusion from such thoughts. He wants so much and has so little. “Tell me what happened. Why is the world like this? I was asleep a very long time.”

“Of course you slept for a very long time,” the old man says. “You’re from the time of cowboys and Indians, when men went around wearing duster coats and shooting each other in the face with revolvers.”

Humor even in death. If you cannot laugh at death, you cannot laugh at anything; he wishes the old man would say this. “Please. What happened out there? Why does ash fall from the sky?”

“From Heaven on fire.”

“That doesn’t seem very possible.”

“And what seems more possible? A volcano? Melting you down? A sea of fire? Do you even know where you are?”

“No.”

“Me either, but it’d be nice if someone told us.”

The two of them lay there and stand there, motionless, gaze around the room, looking at nothing. There’s no one to tell them anything.

“My television was out by the time everyone vanished. No one told me anything. So I’ve just laid here and waited for someone like you to come kill me. To save me. Just go. Stab me and go. I can’t tell you more than what I already have. My throat hurts. I want to die. I just want to die.”

When the world’s gone, you should be gone with it. Not his words, but he remembers them well enough. Maybe he even said them, once, or twice, months, or years, ago. But the world isn’t gone. Just pieces of it, and maybe even that’s an overstatement. Back in the padded room, in the straight-jacket, there and then the world had been truly gone. Just him and padded walls, rolling over and rolling back over.

Now he has this—a needle and an old dying man to kill. His improvements are minimal at best. At least he has found someone else still alive. For now.

“I’m going to kill you now,” he says, and it doesn’t seem all that difficult. “Are you sure this is what you want?” Such an absurd thing to say and ask. He’s not supposed to be here, ending a life. But if not here, then where?

“This is what I want,” the old man says. “And remember to inject me. Don’t just stab me like a pincushion. This is what I’ve wanted for a long time.”

“I’ll inject you.” He brings his hand down on the old man’s forearm, finds a vein on the inside of his elbow, does not know if it’s the correct vein, if there is a correct vein to help someone die, but this one seems as good as any. The old man inhales as the needle enters, says nothing as the fluid, whatever it is, passes into his dying body. “Will you die soon?” he asks, shocked to find himself perfectly calm, his hands sturdy, not shaking, his mind clear. Nothing has changed. He has killed a man and nothing has changed. Shouldn’t a metamorphosis occur? A grand shift of conscious and thoughts and ideals? Shouldn’t there be something? A revelation?

Nothing is ever as it seems. It’s the little things that spur the most change, the random moments in life, the people you stumble upon and who stumble upon you. Killing a man just happens, and besides, he killed no one. He just helped him die.

“Will you die soon?” he repeats.

“Very soon. I’ll be sleeping soon. Dolphins will carry my soul away.”

“Dolphins?”

“Anything’s possible when you die. I dreamed the last time I slept, you know. I’ll tell you about it as I die. It’s important, so listen. This dream changes everything. It is everything.”

“I’ll listen.” He listens.

“My dream.” The old man is drowsy but his voice is clear. Maybe he’s dreaming now. A pleasant thought, to dream as you die, unaware of everything, alive in your subconscious, to die without pain or remorse, just fading away, drifting away, slowly losing yourself to the eternal dream, and all is painless. “My dream. A wormhole surrounded by the most beautiful colors spinning madly, a mosaic of shades and hues, the richest and finest glass, all swirling and swirling and swirling. I stood on a sloop in the middle of it all. Do you know what a sloop is?”

He shakes his head.

“It’s a ship, a small sailing ship,” the old man says.

“Like a sailboat?”

“No, it’s a sloop. Not a sailboat. Details, details are everything. A sloop, and there’s a woman, and I’m younger, so much younger, in my twenties, and the woman is near enough the same age, and she turns, and she’s a love from long, long ago. Do you know those loves, the loves you’re destined for, and destined to lose even though they mean everything to you? The loves you can never forget, even in death? The real loves?”

He thinks he does but isn’t sure. But destined to lose? No, he doesn’t want to believe that.

“She turns to me, beautiful and regal, copper skin, dark hair wavy like a storm at sea, dark spirit and dark soul but still kind and gentle and loving. A complicated, complex and crazy woman. The most stunning darkness, a shadow in a world of light. So dark and so bright. Sapphires dangle in her hair, and her hair sculpts her face, and the angles, and she, and her beauty, are all perfect.

“And she tells me that there are dolphins here, and our souls, and we’re here to find our souls, together, because we’re destined to be together, for each other. Our souls are entwined, and together, in this wormhole on this sloop, we’ll find what we’ve always been searching for. It only took her death, and me outliving her for thirty-two insufferable years, to find what we’re all searching for. Not just her and I. But everyone.”

“What are we searching for?” he asks despite knowing the answer. He has known from the beginning, from before the beginning. It isn’t hard to guess.

“Love, but you already knew that. Dying men should only talk about love, even if all they know of it is heartache and loss. That’s all that matters, and never forget it. Love. Love, even if it kills you. I’m going to find my dolphins now, and my soul, and her. She’s been without me for too long.”

“And you her?”

The old man nods, smiles this time. Not a grin, but a smile. He is happy. “And me. And me.”

The old man shuts his eyes, and sometime later, dies.

He’s haunted not by the passing, but by questions. He hopes the old man found his soul and his soulmate, his love. He hopes there’s more to life and death than life and death. He hopes for many things, but night has falling long ago and he will sleep.

The old man is many halls and rooms behind. Sleeping near the dead did not appeal. Instead, he finds a linens closet, shuts the door behind him but cannot lock it, instead barricades it with a heavy wheeled basket of laundry, puts towels against the four wheels so that they cannot turn or move.

He hears the dead roaming the halls outside the closet but knows what he hears is nothing at all. Even the wind, outside these walls, is serene. If leaves fall, and they do, they do so gently, drifting as leaves so often do.

Before sleep he realizes he never learned the old man’s name and is gladdened by this fact. Life and death are easier without names. In a perfect world we’d all be nameless, and namelessly we would swim with dolphins to find our souls with our soulmates, and all would be good.

Day feels colder than he remembers. Autumn, and autumn should not be so cold, the wind biting, his nose running, eyes watering. He thanks the beginnings of a beard for what little warmth it offers. The duster coat has a hood, and he pulls up the hood and hides in its shadows, listens to the wind beating against the material.

He stands outside, in front of Green Lanes, on a rotary. The front doors behind him are shattered now; they wouldn’t slide open so he shattered them. A chair, wooden, thrown. Avoiding glass had proved difficult again, but still without shoes, he managed. He wonders if the old man had shoes, if he should have asked.

The dead do not need shoes.

The rotary circles an island of grass and the big green almost comical letters spelling out Green Lanes.

He’s outside, where he wanted to be, but now he’s not so sure. The world seems much larger now. Endless, even. A lack of people makes everything feel bigger. The lawn seems to go on forever, tall grass bending in the wind, to the lines of trees miles away. He imagines ballgames being played here, multiple ballgames and still enough room for more. There’s always room for more, until there isn’t. On the other side of the big letters, the road slices through the green as a sliver of black. It goes on and on and on, again to those distant lines of trees. Miles of walking, but he has already walked miles through the hospital.

Driving a car. Much better than walking so long and so far, to wherever he may end up. He turns down the road not leading away from Green Lanes, but around the side of the hospital, to the parking lots and other wings. If only this thought came sooner, but now is better than never. He recalls all the empty parking spots he viewed from the windows high above. Finding a car within so much emptiness does not seem likely.

The hospital seems dead from the outside. A mammoth creature misplaced in time and place, dead where it arrived and now rotting. Darker outside than it was inside, the white walls stained grayed and shadowed beneath the overcast sky. Seamlessly leaden everywhere he looks. Ash falls. It always falls. Occasionally he puts his hand out and catches tiny black flakes, but most of the time they fall away from him, everywhere he is not. The ash has no meaning to him. It’s simply part of the world, as if ash has always fell from the sky and covered the ground thick enough to mark every footprint. And perhaps it has. Perhaps he’s remembering the past incorrectly. Blues skies are a dream. There’s no sun, has never been.

Only soft rains and ashen ash and sometimes stillness and sometimes cold winds and sometimes silence and sometimes music.

An underground parking lot, where darkness dwells extreme and unsettling—until his eyes adjust to what really isn’t all that dark. Floodlights running along the walls illuminate the concrete tomb in desiccated yellow. If there’s anything left down here, it will be buried forever, until even the floodlights fail and darkness claims this place as its own. Until then, something remains alive so long as the lights still function. A good sign. There’s power, somewhere, from some source.

His barefooted footsteps echo against the concrete. The ceiling isn’t very high, the thick pillars many and spread out evenly. It truly is a tomb. He passes a handful of cars and trucks and jeeps, finds them locked but is still surprised to find them at all. A slab of concrete solves the locked problem; he’s always breaking glass, should stop before it becomes an issue. Civilized men don’t go around breaking glass to solve their problems, but is he civilized? Is there even a reason to be civilized? The world seems to say no. A fortuneteller would speak these words aloud, enigmas in her purple eyes.

He finds almost nothing in the vehicles—two lighters, which he takes, and a flashlight, which he takes, and a few packs of gum and mints; he pockets it all. More people should start carrying shoes in their cars.

He does not know how to hot-wire a car and now is not the time to learn, does not even know where to begin, or how to begin, or if all cars can even be hot-wired. Time is of the essence. That’s probably not true, but it gives him reason not to dawdle, to believe he has an objective here, or anywhere, and that he cannot waste time tearing cars apart and tying wires together. The hospital is still too near, directly above him. Too near to forget.

The dead old man is dead and only getting older. His padded cell somewhere above, so deep in Green Lanes he could never find it again even if he tried. He will not.

He forgets how many cars he tries before finding one with the keys inside. He had never expected such good fortune and is unnerved and distrusting of it. The world works in strange ways, too much in his favor, as if unseen forces guide him along. The keys lay on the leather seat inside the small black car, and he stands outside the car, staring in. How many people leave their cars unlocked, their keys in plain sight? What happened here? Everyone fled in haste, perhaps in carpools, with friends and family rather than alone. No one wants to be alone. Leave Green Lanes behind for safer pastures. Not alone, but together.

But the hospital seems safe, separate from the rest of the world. And here he is, safe, well-fed, watered, and fleeing just like everyone else. A hospital seems like the safest place. The others should have stayed. Yet he cannot; he’s not like them, not an employee or patient with a family and memory. He’s a man with nothing, trying to find his past and why he’s forgotten it. Trying to find what’s wrong with him, or was wrong with him. Things that cannot be found here.

A shame, that. Part of him appreciates Green Lanes, the security and safety it offers, the near endless supply of supplies, the medicines and machines and implements. If only more of him didn’t hate it, enough to steal a stranger’s car and drive into a strange new world.

The car drives silently, smoothly. The gas tank is nearly full. The radio does not work. Or it does, but the stations broadcast silence. Of all he has heard and seen and ascertained thus far, this silence is the most foreboding. The world has moved on. An event. A happening. A badness. His mind cannot make better sense of it, just that tragedy has struck and even the radios are silent. It makes him feel childish, thinking of life and the world in such a way.

Something bad. Something wicked.

His head hurts and driving tires his eyes. He’s only been driving for a few minutes, with extreme caution, trying to remember if he remembers how to drive. He does, one foot pressing down on the pedal, and the other pedal when he wants the car to stop. At least he remembers that. He drives with one hand—the left—as the other flips through the stations, finding silence. It fills the car. The windows are up. Silence cannot escape and sound cannot enter. He begins to whistle but cannot recall a song and returns to silence. It sits beside him as a faithful passenger. A CD-player in the dashboard but he cannot find CD’s to play and is irrationally enraged. He slams his hand against the dashboard and jumps at the sound of his own creation. Silence disturbed.

Day feels like night, or close to it. The headlights automatically brighten.

Long ago, or maybe not so long ago, he would aimlessly drive at night and listen to the same song on repeat, again and again and again and again. He remembers this but not the song’s name, or what it sounded like, or even the genre of music. He only remembers that it was a sad song, a depressing song, a song of memories and losses, but not the reasons why, and that he finds solace in such music. How it makes him feel, the emotion in the voices and words and notes. He remembers how this particular song made him feel—hope for the future but grief for the past and present—reminded him that while memories fade and faces and names wash away, the most precious memories linger forever. Treasured and vaulted deep down. People enter your life and never, can never, leave, even when they try to make themselves vanish. It’s sometimes good to vanish, and sometimes impossible.

Trapeze swingers fall from ropes high in the sky and are caught by nets.

He must find that net, and fall into it.

He glances beside him and sees a small piece of white paper on the passenger seat. He stops the car and picks up the paper.

The world passes us by before we realize it. The mistakes I made were for us, I think. The hurt and pain, for us.

The script is elegant cursive, the paper delicate in his hands. He reads again, and again, not knowing what to make of it. Whoever wrote the message left it vague, and whoever was meant to receive it likely understood the vagueness, the meanings behind and within it. But he’s lost and somewhat disappointed with himself for reading the private message.

The world passes us by before we realize it. There is truth there, so true. Times moves quickly despite how slowly life ppears to pass. Time flashes, and then is gone. Time moves even quicker when you lose years, a lifetime, to a shattered memory.

He rolls down the window to toss the message into the wind, then reconsiders and pockets it.

The mistakes I made were for us, I think. The hurt and pain, for us.

Someone else may stumble across the message, and he doesn’t want that.

The road runs straight for a long time. He could have slept, drifted in sleep as the car drifted along, and woke safe in the middle of the road, still moving. Trees crowd the roadside almost close enough to reach out and touch. A blur of reds and oranges and yellows and browns, a tumultuous painting of a sea of fire, a sea on fire. Every so often he stops the car and sits in the middle of the road and stares off to the side, then the other side. The leaves look the same everywhere. While thousands of leaves float through the sky and tumble across the road and spin in private cyclones and are swept into the currents of his passing car, the trees do not seem to have lost a single leaf. The branches are full and flourishing and animated with color while the ground beneath is thick with the dead of autumn, as if a new leaf always replaces the fallen. A life for a life. A life replacing a life.

There are many lives here, and many deaths.

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