Waking at Sunset

“Dreams lead to dreams,” she says. “You taught me that, or we taught each other. Dreams, and minds, are connected. Everything is connected. We’re connected.”

“Everything happens for a reason. Just like the greeting card said. With the train. No matter how much life sucks. Wait, what train?” He’s already forgotten the card; it belongs in another world, another him.

“Do you truly believe everything happens for a reason?” she asks, her dark eyes questioning him more than her words. She does this, stares at him so intently, seeing parts of him no one else has ever seen. It fills him with wonder. It terrifies him. It makes him remember and forget.

“Yes,” he eventually says. “Otherwise life is nothing more than chaos, a world of random events, and some things are not random.”

She smiles at him. Her smiles, he knows, are rare even when she’s happy. She always seems to be thinking, brooding, so that her smiles are earned and mean something. She begins to leave the room, the floorboards creaking beneath her even though she is light and graceful like a dancer. She turns at the last moment, as she has done before—before—and stares at him over her shoulder. Finally, she leaves the room.

He watches her leave.

She has done this before.

He glances over his own shoulder far too often. An habit now, a memory lodged so deep that he cannot stop himself. The world is always empty behind him. She’s never watching him with eyes that see everything.

“I know it sounds crazy, but I can hear your voice.”

“When?”

“Always,” she says. She’s afraid. He knows when she’s afraid because she bites her bottom lip and looks away, into the elsewhere.

“What do you think that means?”

“Something. It must mean something. If you ever wrote me a letter, or anything really, I wouldn’t just read it, but I’d hear your voice reading it to me. Is that crazy? Or is it normal? Do people usually hear voices? I mean really hear it.”

He thinks for a long while. “It sounds crazy. And normal. You know, I once believed in coincidences.”

“And now?” she asks.

“Now I don’t know what to believe.”

“Do you usually sleep in unfamiliar places?”

He lifts his chin off his chest and looks up, across the table he’s sitting at.

Another man sits on the other side, his black hair long and hiding half his face—that face cleanly shaven and seemingly chiseled from a stone of all sharp edges unable to be smoothed, his cheekbones high and knife-like. He’s wearing a wrinkled pinstripe tuxedo and a black fedora with a single white stripe all the way around. His one visible eye, light green, glistens. Part of him seems young while the other part seems very, very old.

“Yes,” he says. “I do it more than I should. Fall asleep randomly, but for a reason.”

The man smiles as if amused. “And that reason is?”

“I’m trying to recall my past, and the only part of me that remembers lives within my dreams. My subconscious.”

“You realize that sounds crazy, don’t you?”

“More crazy than any of this?”

“I fear you have a point. My name is Hannigan.”

“You’re the first person to give me a name.”

“You’ve met others?” This seems to surprise him. “And nowadays, most people have lost their names.”

“Two, but now I’m starting to think it’s only one. I don’t know if the first person was real.”

“Things are often not as they seem. I see you found my dancers, my guests, my friends, but they bore you? Asleep in the ballroom. I never thought I’d live to see the day, though I never thought I’d live this long. Not as they seem,” Hannigan whispers, far away.

“They aren’t real? Ghosts? Spirits? What are they?”

Hannigan makes a sweeping gesture and removes his fedora, puts it back on. “Holograms,” he says as if the word tastes horrible on his tongue. “I wish they were ghosts. That would be far more interesting. Instead, they’re almost real, and perhaps they’re more real than you and I, as at least they’re making progress. Dancing, enjoying themselves. What are we doing? What have we ever done?”

He’s unsure if Hannigan wants an answer. “We’re watching them live.”

“Yes, friend, and that’s all we ever do. We watch, because our times are long gone. This world now belongs to the dead. And the holograms. We’re but silent and unseen observers, and these are the dancers and doers and livers. The dead, the spirits, the holograms of the past, are those who truly populate this world. Their memories, and memories of them, and we, you and I and the others lost out there, watch and wait for our times. To die, that is. We have nothing else. We live to die to live again. I’m unsure if that counts as existing.”

He nods and watches the dancers, the happy couples. They’re smiling, all of them. Gazing into the eyes of their partners, loving without words but with touch and sentiment, with sight alone, for sight, alone, is capable of miraculous things. He realizes, suddenly and regrettably, that he’s jealous. These people aren’t even real, just images rendered through space and time, and he’s jealous. Fingers laced together and heads on shoulders, lips touching every now and then, so many significant whispers, but it is the eye contact that truly uncoils him, that tears and tugs at his heart.

Their eyes are so desperately locked together, and he knows, from experience he cannot remember, that they’re seeing more than just eyes. These are not random couples out for a night in the city. These people did not just meet in this ballroom—or train station—and asked each other for a single dance before the music ends. They are in love, and some will fall out of it and some deeper into it, and some will cry tears of pain and others of bliss, and some will bless their fortunes and others scorn fate and the world, but, for now, all are completely and utterly in love, and, for now, that is enough. More than enough. It is everything; there need not be anything else. And, for that, he is horribly jealous.

Hannigan seems aware. “They sadden me as well. I weep, at times. But they do not care. They just dance and dance and I pretend to hear their whispers.”

“Then why watch them? Why not turn off the music and the holograms? Why not end the night once and for all? That last dance when you bid farewell.” He holds his head in his hands, eyes on the floor.

Hannigan sits still and silent for so long that maybe he didn’t hear the question, or has forgotten. But he finally answers. “This is the only way I can remember. This is all I have left. See, over there, in the corner, the man in the gray tuxedo? That’s me. The hair’s different, and my eyes aren’t the same, and I’m smiling there when I don’t smile here, but that’s me just the same. You can go closer if you like, if you need proof.”

He doesn’t need more proof; he sees just fine from where he’s sitting and why would Hannigan lie? He probably wouldn’t have noticed the detail, but now it’s obvious. The men are nearly mirror images. Only one seems incapable of smiling; wrinkles and indents scar Hannigan’s face where he has frowned for so long. The difference, slight in some ways but far too telling in others, unsettles him. That a man can lose so much joy in…how long? Four years? Longer? Maybe that isn’t as unsettling as he thought. Four years is a long time. But the change is still drastic, the two men the same but not. They could never hold a discussion, their views of the world and themselves too far removed from each other, ignorant from love and tainted by loss, still in love and haunted by it.

“And the woman?” he asks even though he knows the answer and what will follow it.

“Cecie. She’s dead now, along with the others you see here. A miracle she survived as long as she did, though a curse as well. It got harder, living with it after so long. Everything’s impossibly hard now.”

“What got harder?”

Hannigan shakes his head, his fedora tipping with the motions. “We don’t talk about that. Not here. So few sanctuaries to the past still remain. So few preserved memories. Music is so fleeting. It will be the last to die, I think. When all else fades, music will still resonate. Only, no one will be around to hear it. But that’s her, my Cecie. She was beautiful, wasn’t she?”

He’s not sure what beauty is other than the woman he can’t remember, the face and voice already forgotten. How is it that memories of her fade so quickly, like a dream he tries to recall, to keep fresh forever? He nods. “Beautiful.” Hannigan will appreciate that.

“We danced through the night, this night. See the way she’s looking at me?”

“She looks at you like lovers do.”

“We ignored the rest of the world, as we should have. Our flesh disregarded our disgraces. The music played, and together we heard it.”

“Music…does that.” At least he thinks it does. More than coincidence.

“She cheated on me once, you know.”

“I didn’t know.”

Hannigan turns and stares at him, his green eyes dull and watery, then back to staring at himself and his dead lover. “More than cheated on me, though I’m not sure you could even call it cheating, as we weren’t quite together then, but we were in love. We admitted that much to each other, so who knows what to call it? Odd, that. In love, madly and wildly and entirely so, but we weren’t together. We were barely talking, you know. Not for years. We told each other we were perfect, both by ourselves and for each other, and I think we meant it. At least I did. But we were young fools and went our own ways, at least for a time. Wise in some ways, and fools in all others. See us over there? See us so young?”

Early twenties, he guesses. Hannigan looks much older now; the years did not treat him kindly, or with kindness.

“Young and stupid and foolish, but we eventually made it work. Took almost too much from both of us. I was losing her, I knew it, and if you forget everything you ever see and do and hear and say, if you forget everything, everything, you must always remember to never let her slip away. If you find her, that soul that somehow, unexplainably, connects with yours, you must give your entire self to her no matter how much you may lose, no matter what the cost. That’s what life is, why we stand on solid ground.

“We give pieces of ourselves we can never get back. And we give him them willingly.

“Does he drive you wild, I asked. What do you feel when you’re with him? I asked her if she truly feels alive without me. I told her we were in love. Not just me, and not just her, but we, us.”

“And she came back?”

Hannigan nods. “She said she never truly left, that she was just confused. Afraid. It’s a big, bad world, and people lose themselves in it too easily. Too frequently. You blink, and then you’re lost, or she’s lost, or you’re both lost. She’s gone. But she came back and we lived our life. Some of it, at least. Not enough, before she died.”

“She died from what killed the others?”

Hannigan nods. “I couldn’t save her. So this is what I have. Locating the hologram took time and patience. What I witnessed, what I did, what this world’s become. You can see, if you’d like. They may be awake right now, somewhere in the city. The train station offers a view of almost everything, and it’s safe. Relatively. Nothing is safe now. Do you want to see? Have you seen? You seem confused, like you’re part of this world but not really, like you haven’t seen the things you should and shouldn’t see. Do you want to see?”

“Should I see?”

“You should see.”

“Then I’ll see.”

They’re standing on the rooftop overlooking the world. Or at least what’s left of it.

“The rains are soft, when they come,” Hannigan says. He adjusts his fedora then readjusts it to the way he just had it. “So I usually sleep up here. If they ever do come, the people of this world and not the rain, they can’t get up here when the hatch is closed, and it’s always closed. I sleep in the corner,” he says, pointing to the sleeping bags and tent. Bricks lay on the tent corners so the wind does not steal it. “And I shoot them with those,” he says, pointing to the pile of firearms and cases of ammunition. He has never seen so many guns, would not know how to begin working them.

Pull the trigger; he knows that much and little more.

“You shoot what?”

“You know so little. Where have you been all this time?”

“Asleep.”

“Then perhaps it’s time you begin to wake.”

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