Below you will find the beginning of Part Three of my long novel, Soul Thief. A little late, but here it is. It is an especially long chapter, 22 standard pages or about 11,000 words. Again I would like to thank you guys and gals for staying with me on this, for your patience and understanding. For the most part this novel is being written on the fly, which is to say, a chapter a week, even as I am working on a multitude of other projects and trying to meet several deadlines. So I hope you will forgive me if I’m not exactly on schedule from week to week. I am doing my best to craft the best possible story under the circumstances and like you, I am anxiously awaiting the payoff, which will come, I promise you.
So, without further ado, here we go—
PAST PRESENT AND FUTURE
Three years after the terrible incident at the home of Tommy and Savannah Ricker, Doug’s life hadn’t exactly returned to normal. They had not been easy years for him or for his family. It took months for the media circus following the incident to die down, and even then he was uncomfortable going outside alone, afraid of being accosted by tabloid reporters with their cameras. For months following the incident, radio and television talk shows had been inundated with pseudo-scientists, conspiracy theorists, psychics, and every other brand of nut job willing to offer their opinion on the boy with the strange sight. Doug had had his fill of them, and he’d learned to be cautious.
But that was the least of Doug’s worries. There were other things brewing with his life and his family that he didn’t much like. His mother, for instance. Since the accident she had been different. Now she looked at him differently and treated him differently; with politeness and reverence. She had always been a caring person, now she was beyond that. She was so sweet and kind butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Doug thought he knew why she had changed. He sensed that she was afraid of him and it freaked him out. He wanted her to just be Mom again even if it meant he might get punished once in a while for being bad, for just being the boy that he was. That hadn’t changed, had it? He was still just an ordinary boy. But nothing was the same and the truth was, Doug felt like a stranger in his own home. He just wanted to be a normal kid again.
Dad was sort of the same way with him except he knew that his father wasn’t afraid of him exactly. When he spoke to him his voice was all bluff and hearty, like he was talking to him man-to-man, as if he was now a member of the big guy club rather than just a frightened eleven-year-old kid. He could not believe the incident had changed his parents more than it had him. He just wanted things to be normal again.
But it looked like that wasn’t going to happen any time soon. It seemed the experience at the Ricker residence had altered them all in some incontrovertible way. But it hadn’t just changed his family. It had changed the lives of everyone around him. The parents of Tommy and Savannah were different, as well as the parents of both Janet, the dead babysitter and Lance, her overly rambunctious teenage boyfriend. For some reason they all blamed Doug for what had happened on that fateful morning. Considering he was the soul survivor of the incident and had later claimed to have seen the whole thing happen in some sort of trance, (big mistake) Doug supposed this was a normal reaction. After all, who else were they going to blame it on? Doug, even at a young age, was keenly aware of human nature and he realized that people always needed something or someone to blame everything on. It was one of the weaknesses of the human spirit. He didn’t like it but he accepted it.
The kids and teachers at Lowden Elementary School where he attended classes also treated him differently; the teachers with a tense kind of caution, and most of the children with a subdued sense of awe. Doug understood that the majority of his classmates were under orders from their parents to stay away from the boy with the cursed sight. Some kids obliged, most didn’t. There were a few with minds of their own that thought the whole thing was quite cool and didn’t see any logical reason to avoid Doug. Nadia Ziegler was one of those kids. She was a tall, thin bookish girl with owlish glasses, a penchant for numbers and an IQ purported to be in the stratosphere. She’d been Doug’s friend since their first day of school together and, as she’d put it, was not about to let small minds and stupid superstition interfere with that friendship. She knew Doug well enough to know that he didn’t do anything wrong. If he said he’d been a mere witness to events on that day then that’s exactly what he’d been. Doug didn’t lie. She wasn’t sure how she knew this, she just did. Nadia sensed something good in Doug that totally belied all the idiotic things that had been, and were still being said about him. She did believe that the incident had matured Doug in ways that her eleven year old mind could not quite grasp. It had made him wiser, older and more mature. And there was something else that hadn’t been there before. Some sort of aura that made him stand out from the rest of the students in some incomprehensible way. But the truth was, none of that mattered. Even if the incident and all of the accompanying publicity hadn’t happened she would still be Doug’s best friend. She liked being around him. He made her feel good, caused her flesh to tingle and her heart to flutter wickedly. And Nadia came to the conclusion that she quite liked those feelings.
Doug wasn’t so sure that he’d become more mature or wiser by the incident, as Nadia liked to say. But he did know that he had changed. Perhaps he had hardened, become more in tune with the realities of the real world which was probably a good thing.
It had been two years since the incident at the Ricker residence. And other than the headaches and the social issues everything seemed okay. At least to Doug it did. In all that time there had not been even a whisper of a similar incident. If he was some sort of seer, as some people liked to say, then there certainly wasn’t any evidence of it. Of course there were the inevitable know-it-alls who would not let the issue die. They liked to accuse him of hiding his prophesies so that he and his family could be left alone. And there were some who made accusations that he was selling his prophetic secrets to the government. Yeah, right. Nothing could be further from the truth. The real truth was, his mind was quiet and he was grateful for that.
Then came the inevitable prelude to the event that would alter his life forever. It was September and Doug was in class at Lowden Elementary School. On that morning they were in social studies class with Mrs. Mathews. One of their recent subjects was a local political issue, a hotly contested mayoral race between the incumbent, Ronald Cheney, who was a white conservative, and his liberal opponent, a black man named Jimmy Johnson. Johnson was slightly ahead in the poles and there were a lot of people in city politics who were adamantly opposed to his candidacy. Special interest was busy blitzing the airways with anti-Jimmy Johnson ads and the students were tossing around ideas about why this was so. Until this issue came up, most of the students in Doug’s class had no grasp of the differences between liberal and conservative politics. All were somewhat aware of race issues, however, for even in a school with a minimal black student population, there were the inevitable tensions.
So on the morning they were discussing the ins and outs of the mayoral race and its possible ramifications, Doug began to feel a strange pressure inside his head. He was used to the headaches, of course. Ever since Tommy Ricker had punched his lights out and a small shard of bone had become lodged in his frontal lobe, Doug had been subject to sudden and intense attacks of abject agony. He had never experienced an attack while at school, however, and Doug had never been terribly concerned that he might. His teachers had been briefed on what to do if one should occur, of course. First call his mother at home, and if that failed, call his father at work, and if that failed call his doctor’s office for further instructions. Although severe, the headaches weren’t usually debilitating. From the onset, however, Doug sensed that this one would be different.
As he tried to concentrate on his studies, the pain came on him with a vengeance, and within a few short moments it was threatening to crack his skull open like the shell of an egg. Waiting for it to pass he put his head down on his desk, resting it in the cradle of his arms. But the pain did not pass. Instead it strengthened, tearing a rent in his brain’s frontal lobe. It was the first time since the day of Tommy and Savannah’s disappearances that Doug thought he might be experiencing another vision.
“Douglas McArthur!” Mrs. Mathews said sternly. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Unable to answer her Doug could only groan in agony.
“Douglas! I’m talking to you!”
Without warning the rent in Doug’s brain widened until it seemed he could see every star in the universe through it. The classroom expanded into a giant hollow place as Mrs. Mathews’ stern voice faded, and the children seated at their desks around him began to speed away from him like galaxies fleeing some colossal big bang. The only sound in the great hollow of Doug’s new universe was the distant but soothing voice of his best friend Nadia Zeigler. It’s okay, Doug, Nadia was saying. Just hang on, we’ve got you. We’re not going to let you die.
In that moment Doug was keenly aware of the fact that he was not a child anymore and that he was not really here in this distant place and time reliving a terrible moment, and that it was not Nadia Zeigler’s voice he was hearing. Somehow past and present had become strangely intertwined. Nadia Zeigler was long gone from this world, after all. Following high school she’d gone to Bowdoin College, then on to Harvard University where she’d graduated with a master’s degree in economics. From there she had gone to work as an analyst for a prestigious Wall Street brokerage firm. On the morning of September 11, 2001 she had been at work at her desk in the south tower of the World Trade Center when the first jetliner struck. Being that she was seventy-six floors above the streets of Manhattan it’s not surprising that nothing of Nadia Zeigler had ever been recovered from the wreckage of the twin towers. Not so much as a tiny strand of her DNA was found. It was as if she’d never existed at all. No, this was not the voice of his long lost friend Nadia Zeigler, Doug surmised. What he was hearing was Lucy Ferguson’s voice soothing him as he lay dying in an airport restroom from two gunshot wounds to his upper torso.
The expanding galaxy began to slow, as if it were made of rubber and was reaching its apex. It snapped back suddenly and Doug was irrevocably hauled back into the world of his youth, reliving a moment that he never wanted to think about again. He recognized the parking lot behind City Hall. A rather large crowd of people stood facing a man on a podium who was talking into a microphone. Doug knew who the man was, of course. It was Jimmy Johnson, the city’s new mayoral candidate.
Doug watched in horror as a man with a raised gun moved through the crowd toward the podium. Deep in his psyche Doug was aware of the same dreaded presence he had first encountered on the day Tommy Ricker broke his nose.
Get out of my head! Doug railed to the presence, to no avail, for some twisted logic told him that the demon was as much in the world of Jimmy Johnson and the lone gunman as it was in Doug’s head. In his vision he saw the black, leathery robe with the attached cowl, and somewhere beneath the cowl in a whole other universe of terrible possibilities, a single blood-ruby eye seemed to burn into Doug’s brain with the intensity of a laser.
Doug was keenly aware that the people in the crowd could not sense the demon’s presence. But what he could not understand was why they were willingly moving aside as the gunman passed through their ranks. Couldn’t they see that the man held a gun? Couldn’t they see the man? In a moment of horrifying clarity Doug realized that they probably couldn’t. Somehow the demon had blocked the gunman’s presence from them. These thoughts came to Doug as if in a dream. Actually the entire episode felt very much like a dream, but Doug had the sinking feeling that it was not a dream at all, that it was happening at this very moment in some past, present or future universe that did not even remotely resemble life on planet earth.
The gunman stepped up his pace, moving quickly toward the stage. He stopped directly in front of Jimmy Johnson and raised the weapon. “Look Out!” Doug screamed from within the confines of his dream, and only later would he be told that he had screamed those actual words aloud for his entire class to hear as he sat with his head cradled in his arms at his desk, writhing in agony. So of course his cry fell on deaf ears, because Doug wasn’t actually there in the parking lot behind City Hall on that morning, he was in class at Lowden Elementary School, dreaming the entire episode in some sort of twisted time warp just moments before it happened. Or perhaps he was in an airport restroom at some point in the distant future dying of two gunshot wounds to the upper torso.
No matter, the shit was about to hit the fan regardless of whether Doug was seeing it in past, present, future. And there wasn’t a fucking thing he could do about it. Good ole’ mayoral candidate Jimmy Johnson was going to die. This was indisputable. So, oblivious, Jimmy Johnson went right on preaching his message of tolerance, liberation and change as if nothing at all was out of place. And nothing was, other than the fact that a lone gunman was standing directly in front of him. A lone gunman that nobody saw until it was far too late.
As a matter of fact mayoral candidate Jimmy Johnson became aware of the lone gunman and his intentions at just about the same moment the gunman squeezed off the first round. The last thing Doug saw in his dream/trance before the weapon coughed once, then twice, was the startled gas-cramp expression on Jimmy Johnson’s face. Doug felt the cold, dead dread of an inconceivable loss swell in his soul to the bursting point. He tried to move closer to the podium but his legs would not cooperate. That was because he wasn’t there, of course. He was sitting at his desk with his head resting in the cradle of his arms, his legs twitching like the legs of a dream runner, weak and useless.
Even so, Doug’s body convulsed once then twice as he felt the bullets slam into Jimmy Johnson’s upper torso. But wait, were the bullets slamming into Jimmy Johnson’s upper torso or were they slamming into Doug’s? No matter. That was another place and time, a distant future that had no relevance to this moment. Or so he told himself. In the next instant Doug saw two dark, little holes appear in Jimmy Johnson’s chest. With the still startled expression on his face Jimmy Johnson went to his knees before the crowd, his arms stretched out in supplication like some parody of a healing preacher, before keeling forward on the podium and slamming face down onto the deck like a sack of wet laundry.
At that moment it seemed the audience of onlookers all became simultaneously aware of what had just occurred. Screams went up in the audience and they began to move at once. In the second or so following the shooting, a group of astonished witnesses closed in and subdued the gunman, disarming him.
As Doug regained consciousness his body continued to convulse with spasms. Then a distant voice rose up out of his consciousness telling him to hold on, Doug, I’m not going to let you die, and Doug realized yet again that all of these experiences were occurring at one singular moment in time. His chest ached and his head felt like it had been struck by lightening. “Oh, God, no,” he said in a terrified voice, his head nearly splitting with the effort of his words. “I saw it!”
“What did you see, Douglas?” Mrs. Mathews asked, her voice dripping with suspicion. That’s when Doug realized he was back.
“Murder,” Doug said.
“Murder? That’s ridiculous. You were sleeping at your desk and then you fell out of your chair—”
“It saw me,” Doug said, cutting Mrs. Mathews off. “It knows who I am! It wanted me to see.”
“What on earth are you babbling on about, Douglas?”
“The thing! The Collector! It knows me. It knows that I can see it and the things it does.”
“Douglas, stop this! I’m warning you.”
Doug realized that he was lying on the floor beside his desk with Mrs. Mathews kneeling over him, staring at him with a mixture of fear and abject loathing. His classmates had all gathered around, eyes wide with amazement. Doug noticed that his nose was bleeding, the wetness pouring out of it, running past his mouth and onto his chin. One of his classmates produced a wet paper towel—not surprisingly it was Nadia Zeigler—and when Mrs. Mathews tried to take it from her she petulantly pulled it away and applied it to Doug’s nose. “He’s my friend,” Nadia said, as if Mrs. Mathews might somehow further injure Doug with it.
“It appears that you’ve had some sort of seizure,” Mrs. Mathews said. “Can you sit up?”
“Someone’s killed Jimmy Johnson,” Doug said.
“What?” Mrs. Mathews’s eyes narrowed to fine slits, the expression conveying equal parts suspicion and loathing.
“You saw nothing of the kind, Douglas McArthur. You had an attack, that’s all.”
“Yes! And stop it this instant. Now, I’ll ask you again, can you or can you not sit up?”
“Yeah, I think so.” Doug glanced around at all the gawking faces. He suddenly felt it best that he not say another word. Actually he was sorry he’d said anything, but the cat was out of the bag and Doug knew that nothing he could do or say would ever get it back in. Doug lifted his head and began to rise, but the effort only exacerbated the headache. He groaned and sank back down.
Mrs. Mathews put her hand on his chest to stop the effort. “Don’t try,” she said. “I’ve asked Mr. Willis to call an ambulance.”
“Ambulance!” Doug said with horror. “I don’t need an ambulance.”
“I’m not so sure, Douglas. I’m aware of your . . . problem, you know.”
“Yes, of course, you know . . . the bone shard . . . and how it got there. And the . . . other things. The . . . stories.”
“They’re not stories,” Nadia Zeigler said, coming to Doug’s defense.
“And how would you know that, young lady?”
“Because I know Doug and I know he wouldn’t lie.”
Mrs. Mathews snorted. “Yes, so you say.” She gazed narrowly at Doug again. “Well if they’re not stories then perhaps there’s something more telling at work here.”
“Like what?” Nadia said with suspicion.
“I don’t like your attitude, young lady.”
“What are you talking about?” Doug asked, but he thought he knew. She was well aware of the Ricker kids and of what had happened on that terrible day two years ago. And like everyone else she’d listened to the talk shows and the pundits and had heard a variety of theories as to what had actually happened. One school of thought was that Doug was psychotic and actually believed he’d seen it all happen. Another was that Doug was an evil child who had perhaps caused it to all happen. He suspected that Mrs. Mathews was of this latter ilk. Plain and simple, she thought he was evil.
“It doesn’t matter what you think!” Doug said.
“No, I don’t suppose it does,” Mrs. Mathews replied averting her eyes. “In any case I’m not about to take unnecessary chances.”
“Right,” Doug said brushing Mrs. Mathew’s hand off his chest and sitting up. His headache was starting to retreat in slow radiating waves. Nadia Zeigler handed him the wet paper towel. He took it and wiped his nose, handing it back to Nadia, who deposited it in a wastebasket. The nosebleed had stopped.
Mr. Willis, the school principal, suddenly appeared in the doorway. His beady eyes looked scared behind his thick glasses. Doug saw that there was a film of sweat on his brow. “I’ve called an ambulance,” he said, “but the child looks like he’s fine to me.”
“He’s not fine,” Mrs. Mathews said crossly.
“Yes I am,” Doug said and began rising to his feet.
“Are you absolutely sure,” Douglas?” Mrs. Mathews pressed. “This is not something to be fooled with.”
“Yes,” Doug insisted. “I said I’m fine.”
“If you think I should, Mrs. Mathews,” said the school principal. “I’ll call them back and cancel.”
She looked appraisingly at Doug.
“I’m really okay,” he said.
“All right, Mr. Willis,” Mrs. Mathews said resignedly. “But call Douglas’s parents. I think he should go home for the rest of the day.”
“Mr. Willis! Mrs. Mathews!” A third teacher, Mr. Trask came running into the room, panting, out of breath.
“What is it, Mr. Trask?” Mr. Willis asked irritably.
“I just heard it on the news.”
“Jimmy Johnson. He’s been killed down behind city hall. A gunman shot him dead in front of cameras and a whole crowd of people.”
Mrs. Mathew’s head shot around and she glared at Doug. Her face had gone ashen and her hand went to her heart. Doug saw fear, perhaps even hate in her stare. Mrs. Mathews said no more. She struggled to her feet and stumbled to her desk, fell into her chair and put her head in her hands.
“What’s wrong, Mrs. Mathews?” Mr. Willis asked, staring at her in bewilderment. The entire class was eerily silent in that moment.
Later, as most of the city sat glued to the television set watching the tragedy unfold again and again, Doug and his parents among them, Doug began to believe, not for the first time, that he was a cursed child. Something had given him the ability to see bad things, terrible things, caused by an evil that moved and swelled within him. And even then, in that long ago September when Doug was just ten years old, he wondered if Mrs. Mathews could be right; if he, in some twisted and terrible way, might actually be the evil that was causing all those terrible things to happen.
Doug went to bed that night but it was a very long time before he slept. He could think only of the shimmering bubble inside his skull and of that fleeting moment of recognition where he had once again come face to face with his tormentor, a supernatural creature that called itself Collector. In his dream the presence spoke to him:
I know you can see me, Doug, and the things that I am capable of. I know you do not understand this power that has given you such extraordinary sight. Perhaps in time you will. You wish it all to be illusion, this is understandable, and in a way it is, in a way that the rest of humanity cannot see. But I promise you, if you come and join me in my dark purpose, together we can have it all, you and I.”
Doug woke in a cold sweat, tears wetting his face. “Please, God?” he begged. “I’m not bad. I didn’t take Tommy and Savannah. And I didn’t kill Janet and her boyfriend. And I didn’t kill Jimmy Johnson. I saw it all happen but it wasn’t me that did it. Honest. Please tell me I didn’t do it. Please tell me that thing’s not a part of me.” No reply was forthcoming, however, and Doug lay in tormented twilight for the remainder of that eternal night, half in and half out of some terrible place in which he had no hope of escaping, his visions filled with fever and phantoms and death.
Not long after the murder of Jimmy Johnson, Raymond Abernathy, his killer, an upstanding member of church and community, said that his soul had been stolen by a thief on that morning in April, a morning filled with so much hope and promise. The decision to shoot Johnson had come to him in the wink of an eye and it had been the devil himself who’d given him the inspiration. “He stole all the good things from me on that day,” Abernathy confessed to a jury of his peers. “Then he put a gun in my hand and told me what I had to do. I had no power to resist,” Abernathy said, “for my soul was gone.”
Raymond Abernathy, who had never done an illegal thing in his life, having no other choice, had pled insanity at his trial. But the jury had not believed him insane and he was sentenced to life in the state penitentiary.
And once again, much to his chagrin, Doug had become the center of unwanted attention. The teachers and students at Lowden Elementary School had not been able to resist the urge to talk about what they’d seen and heard on that fateful morning in September, and before long the inevitable press had picked up on the story and there ran another long series of articles on the cursed child with the terrible sight. The phone calls began afresh and reporters started camping out on their doorstep. This time even the government took notice. Not that they hadn’t noticed the first time around. They’d just stood back and quietly watched, wondering what exactly was going on; if it was a lie, a joke or just a fluke. So when two years later the same kid had a similar experience of sight they decided to get into the act. The office of the director of the NSA contacted Doug’s father wanting to interview his son. Mr. McArthur flatly refused to allow it. When the NSA representative pulled the national security card, Doug’s father had warned him to stay away from his son or lawyers would become involved. And if that did no good then he would take his family out of the country and never return.
The United States Government has a long reach, the representative told him.
Don’t try me, Mr. McArthur had answered.
He’d never heard another word from the NSA.
Once again Doug had become infamous, much to his and his parents horror. There were front page tabloid stories, book, television and talk show offers, propositions of prayers of repentance from Christian fanatics; exorcism rights from the Catholic faithful. Every weird cult in America tried to contact them. But all offers were declined and Doug and his family mostly hid inside their house, like vampires hiding from sunlight, only emerging when necessity beckoned. The hubbub did finally die down, as all sensations eventually must. But once again Doug’s life had been tainted. He did not want to accept the facts of the terrible sight he possessed. Surely there were others with similar vision. He could not be alone in his purgatory. But no one ever came forward with information on any other such person, so Doug finally resigned himself to the terrible truth of the matter; that only in the darkest aspects of a boy named for an American hero did these terrible things occur.
The rest of that school year following the murder of Jimmy Johnson had been awkward for Doug. The teachers and children alike treated him with a quiet sort of reverence, as if he was a house of cards that might collapse if anyone got too close or looked the wrong way at him. He made good grades that year but few friends.
The year that followed went pretty much the same. For the most part Doug was free of the crippling headaches, the blackouts and their accompanying horrific consequences. And he was grateful for that.
In September of that following year he went back to school with a renewed hope that he had outgrown the visions and the terrors of his past.
In November his life was torn apart. Doug had just turned twelve. His parents had been on their way to the bank to sign papers for the new house they were buying. Everyone was so excited. His father had taken the day off for the occasion. They were all going out to dinner that night to celebrate. Doug had wanted to take the day off from school and join them in celebration but they hadn’t allowed it. For years following the incident Doug tortured himself with what-ifs. What if they had let me skip school and go along with them to the bank? Would it have mattered? What if the bank had scheduled another day instead of that particular one to sign the papers? What if it had been the next day, a day that was sunny and warm instead of rainy and cold? What if? What if? What if?
Other than school Doug didn’t have much of a social life. Nadia Zeigler remained loyal, however, and Doug was grateful for that. Nadia was maturing into a lovely young lady and Doug would have been a fool not to have noticed. They began seeing each other after school, doing homework together, spending leisure time in one another’s company. They’d even taken to holding hands and had awkwardly kissed a few times. There was nothing spoken about the affair, but both Doug and Nadia knew that some sort of relationship was brewing.
And of course after the first incident Doug had made a new friend in police lieutenant Rick Jennings. Jennings was a kind and understanding man and while Doug’s real father was busy working twelve hours a day six days a week building the plumbing supply company he’d co-founded with a friend, Doug was mostly left to his own devices. When he was home, dad wasn’t really there at all, Doug knew. Since Doug’s first psychic incident it seemed his father had been on a fast track to distancing himself from Doug and his concerns. All the negative publicity had been very bad for business.
So increasingly Rick Jennings was taking up the slack for an absent father. He took Doug to his little league games and the skateboard park, drove him around in his police car when he was off duty, bought him ice cream down at the Dairy Delight, and they did a lot of talking. Jennings had managed to get Doug to open up about the two incidents. He spoke of what he’d seen in vivid detail, and in time Rick Jennings knew more about Doug’s psychic occurrences than anyone else on earth. Even so, the particularities of the two incidents were as elusive as ever and Doug could offer nothing concrete that might help solve the mysteries.
He claimed that Tommy and Savannah talked to him sometimes but to Jennings it was vague as to how two children missing for years and presumed dead could accomplish such a feat.
“They talk to me in my head,” Doug had told Jennings on a number of occasions. “They say they’re in a place called the House of Bones. It’s cold and lonely there but they don’t have to eat or sleep.”
That was that. Doug could offer no more and Jennings had seen no point in dwelling on it. Jennings was satisfied that Doug had told him all that he knew and he felt that dwelling on it would be non-productive, perhaps even unhealthy for the child.
Jennings was an avid fly fisherman and he began taking Doug to his favorite stream in Northern Maine on weekend fishing trips. Sandy Bend was a fast rushing river with strong currents and long stretches of deep, quiet water that held trophy brook trout. Above the stream there were tall cliffs of solid rock that reminded Doug of a miniature version of the Grand Canyon. Jennings taught the boy the rudiments of fly casting and before long Doug was as good as, or perhaps better than his teacher. Doug loved camping on the river’s banks, pulling trophy trout from its waters and cooking them over an open fire. It was mostly a private place for the two of them, so isolated that they rarely met other humans along the way. These were times that Doug would always hold dearly in his heart for they were some of the best of his young life.
The world spins suddenly out of control and Doug remembers an incident from that long ago time and place. He is remembering lots of things he shouldn’t be, considering he’s dead, dreaming or both. But what the hell, he has no control over events so he might as well go with the flow.
He and Jennings are at River Bend. The two of them have split up. Jennings has gone down stream and Doug has gone up. Doug sees a likely spot across the stream where an eddy has formed above a deep pool. Doug has waded out into the middle of the stream in order to get closer to the eddy. The water is nearly up to the top of his waders here and the current is powerful. On his very first cast he hooks a large brook trout and plays it for quite a while, trying to tire it out before bringing it in close enough to scoop into his net. He knows from what Rick Jennings has taught him that if you try to haul the fish in too quickly, before it is fatigued, it will make a run for it and snap the leader. Doug plans to release the trophy trout anyway but the challenge is to do it properly so that the big fish is not injured and doesn’t have to spend the rest of its life with a hook in its mouth trailing a nine foot leader behind it.
Then something totally unexpected happens. The loose gravel beneath Doug’s feet is suddenly washed away by the stream’s strong currents. Doug loses his footing and begins to fall. The rocks just beneath the surface are slippery and when he puts his foot out to regain his balance he steps on one of these slippery rocks. Now he is past the point of no return and is going down. He drops the rod so that he can use both his hands to break his fall. But it is too late. In an instant he is dragged beneath the surface by the rushing water and carried down stream. The water is freezing cold, numbing. He struggles, trying to claw his way up out of the icy depths but his waders have filled with water and only seem to be dragging him deeper as he rolls with the current. He cannot breathe.
Finally his limbs and his lungs give out and he stops struggling. He realizes he is drowning and in that moment of complete resignation he is vaguely aware of Lucy Ferguson’s voice telling him that she has him and that he is not going to die. Then he realizes that he can not be hearing the voice of Lucy Ferguson because this is more than twenty years before he will meet her in an airport cafe. More than twenty years before he is murdered in an airport men’s room. But how on earth could he have been murdered in an airport men’s room if he drowned in the icy waters of Sandy Bend twenty years earlier?
No matter. Everything is all mixed up anyway. He is colder than he has ever been. And as the icy currents take him he dreams about the day his mother and father died.
It is very much like the day of the Jimmy Johnson incident, in that he is attending classes at Lowden Elementary School when the nearly unbearable agony slams into his frontal lobe like barbed needles of fire. It is second period algebra when the pain strikes him, followed by the convulsions, and finally, the all- encompassing blackness that feels very much like death. And in the darkness of that terrible place a small pinprick of light appears, growing ever larger, opening like the iris of a camera lens, until it begins to form a picture.
Now Doug is no longer in class at Lowden Elementary School. Nor is he drowning in a cold river in Northern Maine, or dying of two gunshot wounds in an airport restroom in Tampa, Florida. Now he is in the backseat of his parent’s car going with them to the bank so that they can sign the papers for the new house they are buying. But no, that can’t be right. They’d insisted that he go to school instead of with them.
He realizes suddenly that he is seeing everything through a distorted and far-away lens and that he isn’t really in any of those places. Not in the physical sense at least. But he is there, in all of those places, past, present and future, somehow, some way. He sees the backs of his parent’s heads, and they are talking and moving animatedly, like actors in a sped-up silent movie. The day is drizzly and the air is heavy with fog. Drab scenery and ghost vehicles flash hypnotically by, water swishing from beneath their tires shooting rooster-tails skyward as they do so.
The old familiar but dreaded bubble begins to swell suddenly inside of Doug again, wanting to burst his head open with gripping pain. Doug is not really surprised. He’d been hopeful that this vision would not be like all the rest, but down deep he’d known the real truth. He is surprised at the coolness of his observation. Has he accepted his fate or has he just learned to look at it in a clinical and detached way?
No matter, for soon the cold realization of why he is here in the backseat of his father’s car strikes him like a whiplash. Try as he might he can do nothing to change the inevitable; in these joyless journeys it seems that he is merely a spectator to events, with no apparent control over their outcome.
And as this realization washes over him terror strikes his heart and swells within him like something alive and poisonous. He tries to move, to shake himself out of the grim reality of this terrible vision, hoping perhaps that if he can shake himself awake, nothing bad will happen. But it is not to be. He tries to warn his father, futile as it is. He knows that physically, at least, he is in his classroom at Lowden Elementary School, and that his screams are being heard only by his teacher and classmates. He knows as well that they are probably staring at him like something poisonous. But at the moment, Doug does not care. He screams at his father for him to stop the car. But his father does not hear him. That’s because he isn’t actually there, of course. He reaches out and touches his mother’s arm, and for only the shortest of moments he believes that she has felt his touch because he sees goose bumps rise on her bare flesh. She turns slightly toward him and he sees a quizzical expression form on her face. It’s me, Mom, he says, but of course she does not hear him. The moment passes and his parents continue gabbing in that animated silent-picture way, as if nothing has happened, as if nothing is wrong. Doug realizes with cold certainty that in their world, nothing is wrong.
Up ahead a tractor trailer shoots around a turn heading straight for them, its eighteen wheels shooting gigantic sprays of rainwater in all directions. The truck is moving way too fast for the road and visibility conditions. Doug screams in frustration. The bubble keeps right on swelling, wanting to crack his skull like a newborn bird cracks the shell of his birth egg. And again Doug knows—although he doesn’t know how he knows—that there is something in the bubble, some force of intelligence that recognizes him.
It knows I’m here, Doug thinks. It knows I can feel it. I am some sort of conspirator in this, like it or not. Something happened back when I was eight years old that wasn’t supposed to happen. It began with that bone shard Tommy Ricker drove into my frontal lobe, and it allows me to see things I was never supposed to see. I wasn’t meant to know about him, the evil one. But I do know. Somehow, since that day, I have this connection with death. I’m part of it. I’m part of him. And he and it are part of me. He is death and I am death’s conspirator. Worse still, he knows that I am death’s conspirator.
The bubble bursts suddenly inside Doug’s head, sending a lightening bolt of white-hot energy exploding outward in all directions, threatening to shatter his skull. Doug is certain in that hideous moment of searing pain and unbearable torment, that like it or not, he is in league with the dark. And in that moment of bursting energy, he sees the dark thing that calls itself Collector materialize on the seat beside him, its dark cloak shimmering, its single red eye a burning beam of pure evil. The Collector moves. But it doesn’t move so much as it ceases to exist in one place and appear in another. The dark thing shoots forward and pulls its cloak over Doug’s father’s head. Doug watches his father yank the car’s steering wheel hard to the left, right into the path of the oncoming tractor trailer truck. In that moment he can hear his mother’s hoarse and desperate scream, even as his own futile scream bursts from his mouth.
In a heartbeat it is over. The car in which his mother and father are riding is suddenly squashed. There is a huge concussion. Sprays of shattered glass and twisted metal explode through the car’s cabin like shrapnel from a bomb-blast, blocking out everything in its destructive haste. Doug feels something in that moment that he will never be able to properly explain nor forget; it’s as if the very souls of his parents enter him, and live there for a few fleeting seconds, anguished beyond articulation, writhing, clinging, grasping to hold on, not wanting to give up. But having no choice, they finally succumb to the inevitable and pass through him, deserting him as certainly and as suddenly as they had entered him, leaving within him a void that would never again be filled.
Doug awakens at his desk screaming, his classmates gawking. His wide-eyed teacher, a different one this time, but one who is privy to Doug’s spells, rushes from the room to get help. The child with the terrible vision has come awake after a two-year hiatus and everyone knows that there will be hell to pay for it.
Doug bolts from his seat, oblivious of his paralyzing headache and his aching heart. He exits the school building, running headlong into the driving torrents of rain outside. He squats, leaning his back against the cinder block building with the cold wetness pouring down over him, shivering. He remains there for a long time, his mind a jumble of white noise, his body unable to move, unable to react in any meaningful way, so certain is he of what has occurred.
In time a police car pulls into the yard. Rick Jennings and Aunt Tesla, his mother’s sister are both there. By now his teacher has gotten the principal and they are all standing in the rain, trying to coax him inside, but he refuses. He sits cowering like a scared animal in the hollow where the two wings of the school come together. His mind is heavy and sick with the vision, with the empty feeling that his parents have left inside him on their way to wherever they’ve gone, like two jagged holes at the center of his soul.
The dark bubble of expanding energy that takes the vague form of a human being is his enemy, stealing from him everything he has ever loved. He wants desperately to convince himself that this is not so, but all the sad, staring eyes tell a different story. If he’d had a scalpel and a surgeon’s skill he’d have cut out that area of the frontal lobe where the bone shard had pierced his brain like some macabre psychic lance.
He stands shakily and stares into the driving torrents, seeing nothing, feeling nothing but numbness in his aching heart. He wants to run away and never come back. Aunt Tesla begins to speak but Doug stops her with the simple raising of his hand.
“I know,” he says, in a hollow voice that comes from somewhere beyond childhood, a voice that is edgy with some terrible and mature bitterness. “They’re both dead! They’re never coming back. I was there. I saw it happen. I felt it. Maybe I even caused it to happen.”
He turns his burning eyes up to his aunt, silencing her again, and she can only gasp at what she sees. She turns away from his dark stare, dropping her purse in the process, spilling its contents all over the wet earth at her feet. As she stoops to pick up the scattered remnants, she steals uneasy glances at Doug. Her eyes say: No! You cannot see such things. You cannot cause such things. You’re a child, not a devil. But her heart does not agree with her mind and Doug knows it, he sees it in her eyes. He sees it in all the staring eyes around him. If Aunt Tesla had been wearing a crucifix Doug was certain she would have whipped it out and brandished it at him in that terrible moment.
Mr. Willis, the school principle, having had previous experience with Doug’s visions, saying nothing, turns and wanders back inside the school.
After a long moment, Rick Jennings says, “Doug, come along with me in the patrol car and we’ll talk.” He puts his hand out tentatively, as if he is afraid that Doug will snap it off.
Doug crouches there in the rain and shakes his head emphatically. “I don’t want to talk.”
“But you must, son. It’s the only way you’ll get through this.”
“I’ll never get through it,” Doug says.
“Yes you will, Doug. You must.”
Aunt Tesla makes no attempt to comfort him. It’s okay. He doesn’t want it. He bolts from his crouched position and pushes roughly between her and Jennings, running out of the school yard and down Hawthorn Street. He runs nearly five miles before exhaustion overtakes him and he huddles, soaking and numb, at the base a weeping willow tree, hugging his knees and staring at his feet.
It isn’t until after the funeral that he actually cries. And it isn’t Aunt Tesla’s arms he goes to in those terrible and desperate moments, but Rick Jennings, the only one who truly understands his pain and the terrible things he has been forced to witness.
In all the years after that, up until the time of her death from breast cancer in 1996, Aunt Tesla never asks him how he’d known all the terrible things that had plagued his life thus far. It was almost as if the answer to such a question would have been more than her simple, fundamental circuitry could have born.
She raised Doug to manhood, however, in spite of her feelings, and she was always a kind and gentle guardian. But in all those years between the death of his parents and her own death, she’d never dared lay a physical hand on him.
Doug is still dreaming. Impossible because he’s dead, and dead men don’t dream. Or so he has always believed. Nevertheless he cannot stop the endless stream of thoughts that have somehow invaded his being. He is no longer at Lowden Elementary School rehashing the terrible moments of precognition that changed his life so dramatically. And he is no longer drowning in a cold mountain stream in Northern Maine. And it seems he is no longer in an airport restroom dead or dying from two gunshot wounds to the upper torso. Somehow he is on an airplane and they are in flight. He knows this because he recognizes the high-pitched whine of the engines and feels the pressure of altitude in his ears. A wave of trepidation washes through him. He’s so damned cold. Colder than he remembers ever being. His breath puffs from his mouth in big white clouds and he has to hug his arms around himself to stay warm.
Doug looks to his left and sees that the old priest from the churchyard is there, sitting in the seat across the aisle. Doug does a doubletalk, closes his eyes and opens them again. The old man does not go away. Nevertheless Doug understands that this must be a dream (a dead man’s dream) because the man is dead. No doubt about that. He had literally died in Doug’s arms, which reinforces again in Doug’s mind that he too must be dead. But the old guy seems so damned real. His cheeks are hollow indentations, his face is a network of interconnecting lines and wrinkles, his dark haunted eyes are filled with terrors. He picks his hand out of his lap and thrusts an object toward Doug. It looks like an ancient arrowhead encrusted with verdigris. But Doug knows this is not the case. He remembers very clearly what the old priest had told him. It is the broken-off tip of an ancient weapon. Doug suspects that it has something to do with Christ, but finds this patently absurd. Why would he be given an artifact that had anything to do with Christ? He’d never been a religious man, hardly ever stepped foot inside a church. If it was true, then the priest must have gotten the wrong guy. But now that he thinks about it, he realizes it couldn’t be the same object, because the one he’s familiar with is still in his jacket pocket wrapped in a soft piece of cloth. Doug reaches into his pocket to feel for the object and it is not there. Fear settles in his belly. Stupid man. How did he manage to lose it so quickly?
A gold chain dangles beneath the fisted artifact in the old man’s hand, and Doug realizes that it might actually be the same object. The priest’s arm is skeletal; loose sacks of liver-spotted flesh hang off it. The hand is a twisted claw with long yellow nails, not unlike that of a talon, and it grasps the object arthritically.
“Here,” the old man says, thrusting the artifact at Doug. “Take it.” His voice is a rasp. “I never wanted it to begin with. I did not ask for it. I have carried it nearly my entire life waiting for this moment to pass it on. You are the chosen one, not me. I am too old, too far gone. Take it!” he insists, thrusting the object ever closer to Doug’s face. The claw of a hand with the thick yellow fingernails is shaking very badly, yet it is insistent, thrusting, thrusting, urgent. “Do not have much time,” he sputters. “Taaaake iiiit!”
Doug feels something painful grip his right arm, so he turns toward the window. There sits Annie beside him and she has his arm in a death-lock. She looks frightened out of her wits. He understands now that he is most definitely dreaming this because Annie is back in Palm Harbor with her father, not here in this wretched airplane beside him. He wants the dream to end, he has a very bad feeling about it, but the dream refuses to go away, and so, not having much of a choice, Doug rides with it.
Annie shrinks in closer to him. “Who is that awful man?” she asks.
“Somebody I met at your mother’s funeral,” Doug replies. “He’s the one that killed your father.”
“Dad’s not dead!” Annie says with incredulity.
“Oh he’s dead all right, Annie. I saw him die. The old fucker’s some sort of magician. He might even be immortal. He knows how to con the reaper. What do you think of them apples? He wants to reshape the world in his own image. You should know that. Christ, you’re his daughter. And you agreed with him. You said he was a man of vision.”
Annie’s brow is covered with large beads of sweat and her eyes are huge. She is moving her head slowly from side to side now, and her tongue, which looks as dry as desert sand, licks out between parched lips reminding Doug of a serpent. Her skin has turned yellow, the color of spoiled milk.
“He’s not really a bad man, Doug,” Annie says and her lower lip is trembling. “Just a little misguided.”
“Misguided?” Doug says grunting out a laugh. “Get a clue, Annie. I’m on my way to Hell right now to see if I can save the world from his wrath. But I suppose it’s too late for you, isn’t it, girl? You’ve already succumbed to his wrath. It happened a long time before I met you.”
“You bastard!” Annie slaps Doug across the face. Not surprisingly Doug feels no pain at all. “Who’s going to save the world from your wrath, Doug?”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about, sweetheart,” Doug says in his best Humphrey Bogart voice. And as he speaks a great cloud of cold steam exits his mouth.
“Don’t give me that,” Annie replies. “You have things inside you too. I know you do. You think you’ve been fooling me all these years but you haven’t. I hear your dreams sometimes in the night.” The grip she has on Doug’s arm tightens, and he can feel the cold lizard-touch of her fingers kneading the flesh there. He shudders in revulsion and pulls away. “Are you really that much different than my father?”
“Maybe not,” he says. He remembers all the dreams and visions of death. And he knows that he and the Collector are somehow linked, as is Annie’s father. Doug is sweating profusely now, even as he hugs his frigid arms to his body. He’s so cold. Jesus, can somebody turn up the fucking heat? He doesn’t like this dream at all. A pall of impending doom suddenly washes over him. He wants to jump up and rush forward to the cockpit. He wants to tell the pilot to turn the plane around because something terrible is surely about to happen. He feels so claustrophobic. Annie’s eyes are huge now, larger than her pallid face. They are two enormous whirling pin-wheels that seem to have swallowed her face entirely.
The person in the seat ahead of him turns around and Doug sees with mild shock that it is Jeff Dean, the hippy with the mean surveillance machine. Jeff smiles his huge infectious smile and says, “You didn’t really think you were gonna get away so easily did you, amigo? I knew it was there in your pocket all along.”
“What are you talking about?” Doug asks.
“Jesus Christ, amigo, are you thick, or what? Listen, do I have to spell it out for you? I’m talking about the Artifact. They all think it’s some sort of path to God, but they’re wrong. In truth it’s just the opposite.”
“Don’t believe him,” the old priest says. “He’s just trying to confuse you. Please, take it.” He’s still thrusting the object at Doug trying to get him to take it.
“Not true,” Jeff Dean says. “The Collector gave it to you!”
“The Collector?” Doug says. “No way.”
“He’s a liar,” says the priest. “He just wants you to die. And if you don’t take this you will. I can assure you of that. Here, you need to put it against your heart.”
“Don’t do it, Bro,” Jeff says. “The old fuck is just trying to shit you. But he can’t shit me. Never gonna happen. That’s because you can’t shit the shitters.” Jeff Dean’s face swells suddenly into a vast and yellow smiley face that dances with glee. “Florida dreams, that’s what it’s all about,” the dancing face says. “Florida dreams. Jeff Dean’s the name, surveillance is the game. Don’t forget about that. Don’t ever forget about that. Not much escapes the ole’ surveillance machine. I can see right through suitcases. Shit, I can see through pillows. I’m the freakin’ tooth fairy. So, I think it would be very wise if you kept your seatbelt fastened, old buddy. Something tells me it’s gonna get a little bumpy up here in a few minutes.” Suddenly the huge and gleeful smiley face begins to decompose before Doug’s eyes. The grinning skull loses its flesh and melts like hot wax, the eyes dissolving like bloody snowballs, running down the waxy cheeks in two reddish-yellow streams.
Back across the aisle the old priest grins at him, but the smile is not one of glee, instead it is one of elemental agony. His gums are black now, and green teeth protrude crookedly from them, like ancient moss-covered tombstones. “You must take it,” he rasps, “or forever be doomed. It is the only way.”
Doug looks from the old man to pie-eyed Annie and feels the terror in his heart. “There’s something on this airplane,” Doug says suddenly. “A bomb, maybe.”
“No, not a bomb,” Annie replies, but suddenly her voice is not Annie’s anymore. Now it is the voice of Lucy Ferguson, the woman in the airport restroom who is soothing him as he dies. “It’s something different, something magical and quite invisible to scanners. Christ, the tooth fairy can’t even see it.”
“Take it,” the old man says, thrusting the artifact at him.
“What is that thing?” Lucy Ferguson asks.
“A magic talisman,” Doug replies. “It has no will of its own but contains a whole shit-load of power. It’s the tip of the spear that pierced Christ’s side at the crucifixion. The one who possesses it controls the very fabric of nature. Isn’t that just my luck? To be entrusted with something like this. Me of all people. A carpenter from Maine. Christ, I’m not even close to a holy roller. Haven’t been inside a church since my parent’s funeral when I was twelve years old.”
“Doesn’t matter,” the old priest says. “It was meant for you.”
Doug does not want to touch the artifact. He does not want the responsibility. He does not believe he is capable of properly tending the power the thing possesses. But somehow he understands that he must. He knows there is no other way. The cold lizard hand grips him like a steel vice. The man urgently shakes the artifact in his face and Doug can hear the faint tinkling of metal on metal as the chain rattles against it. Finally Doug reaches out and snatches it.
“Around your neck!” the old man says. “Quickly! It needs to be against your heart.”
“But I already have one of these—”
“No, she took it from you after you were murdered.”
“Who took it?”
“I did,” said the voice of Lucy Ferguson. “Don’t you remember?”
“It needs to be around your neck,” insists the old man. “Hurry, it will bring you back to life.”
“Impossible. Once you’re dead you don’t get a ticket back.”
“This is your ticket,” says the priest. “Now quickly, before it’s too late.”
Doug hesitates only a split second before he hangs the chain around his neck.
The old man crumples back into his seat like a deflated balloon; it is as if a tremendous weight has been lifted from his shoulders. “There,” he says. “It is done. Now I can finally rest in peace.”
Doug looks to his right and Lucy Ferguson is staring at him as if he’s lost his mind.
“You had a bad dream,” Lucy says. “I tried to wake you but I couldn’t. One of the flight attendants stopped by and she couldn’t wake you either. You were making a lot of noise. You frightened some of the passengers.”
“What did I say?”
“You were talking about Annie and Armageddon and you cried out that there was some kind of bomb on the plane. You reached into your pocket and put that thing on.” She pointed at the artifact. Her eyes were dull and afraid. “The flight attendant wasn’t taking any chances. She went forward to inform the captain.”
“Oh shit,” Doug says. “Now everybody is going to think I’m a lunatic.”
The airplane rocks suddenly and dangerously. There comes the sound of a muffled explosion from somewhere below. Passengers scream and a huge rent opens up in the side of the aircraft right beside Lucy Ferguson. Doug feels his seat settle slightly, and his heart leaps into his throat. The aircraft rocks again with a secondary explosion and the crack widens into a gaping fissure. He can see white puffy cumulous clouds hurtling by within an arm’s length. A high shrill whistling sound comes from the opening and he realizes that it is a combination of engine noise and pressure escaping the cabin. Then the window pops out and Lucy Ferguson gives him a grim look. She reaches out to grasp his arm but it is too late. Her seat vibrates, breaks loose and is sucked up and out through the opening, taking Lucy with it. Lucy, still strapped to her seat vanishes into an endless abyss of blue sky.
The cabin suddenly fills with noxious smoke, people choking and coughing but mostly just screaming. Pressure rushes out, carrying with it everything that isn’t strapped down. Oxygen masks fall from overhead compartments and people are grabbing for them and placing them against their faces. Flight attendants are screaming for people to buckle their seatbelts, to stay calm while they themselves are filled with hysterical emotion. Luggage and clothing fly toward the opening. Doug ducks down in his seat to avoid being struck by a flinging missile. Things whiz by his head like speeding bullets and exit the aircraft like gas escaping a deflating balloon. The pressure leaving the cabin is pulling severely on him. He realizes that it’s a miracle he wasn’t sucked out of the aircraft along with poor Lucy Ferguson. Or had it been Annie? No matter. This is all a fucking dream. A dead man’s dream. Other passengers haven’t been as fortunate; screaming and flailing some fly toward him. He ducks as they slam into his seat before being propelled out through the opening. Bodies slam into the side of the cabin; some at odd angles bent and broken, some folded like rag dolls. Doug hears bones crunching and sees trails of blood following the unfortunate doomed.
The plane slips sickeningly to the right and goes into a dive. Doug can see bits and pieces of earth through scudding clouds, perhaps twenty thousand feet below. A whirling laptop computer strikes Jeff Dean in the neck like some macabre Frisbee. His huge yellow smiley face head lifts cleanly off its shoulders and rolls down the aisle like an errant wheel before being lifted up by the sucking air and propelled out through the gaping fissure. A stream of blood follows the smiley face, tracing a line along the top of the seats and splattering onto Doug’s shoulder and the side of his face.
The ground is closing fast. The airplane is rocketing toward earth at an insane speed. Doug knows that when it strikes, the destruction will be catastrophic. Everyone and everything will be instantly vaporized into atoms before being incinerated in a 20,000 degree furnace of misting fuel. Suddenly an idea strikes him. What the hell, he thinks. I’m dreaming all this anyway. Dreaming or dead, or both. I’ve got nothing to lose. The ground is closing like an express train and the airplane is coming apart at the seams, roaring like a meteoric locomotive.
Follow your heart.
By now most of the passenger’s screams have been silenced either by smoke or lack of oxygen. They’ve either passed out or died. Doug figures this might be a good thing.
He is glued to his seat by the gravity of at least a dozen G-forces. He finds it very hard to even move his arms. He feels himself losing consciousness, choking on the noxious smoke. He struggles to stay awake. He feels an insane calm wash over him and chalks it up to the experience. He’s calm because he’s dreaming, of course. Or dead. Or both. Doesn’t fucking matter which. The important thing is, none of it is real. So he watches almost reverently as the ground rushes up to meet him.
He moves his hand in an agonizing effort to grasp the clasp of his seat belt, pulls. Nothing happens. Not surprised. Dreams. You can’t trust the fuckers. He pulls on it again. This time it comes loose. He crawls toward the opening like a bug on a wall. Centuries pass. Everything is glue, but he’s not worried. He’ll get there in time. In dreams as in death, time distorts. A minute can stretch into an eternity, a million years go by in the wink of an eye.
As he is thinking these thoughts the sucking air picks him up and propels him out through the opening in the fuselage. He slams against a jagged shard of torn metal and feels an ugly pain erupt in his chest. And then he is outside of the aircraft. He is floating. The tail section whizzes past, the horizontal stabilizer missing him by a hair’s breadth before it breaks off and glides away like some warped and distorted version of a sail plane. The fuselage is now a nose-heavy bomb, no wings, no tail, and like a bomb, it falls swiftly toward the earth, a free-falling missile of certain destruction.
In sharp contrast to what he is seeing, or what he thinks he is seeing—curiously, Doug feels like he weighs nothing. He seems suspended in mid air. He watches the bomb full of shattered dreams descend into the forest leaving him far behind. Impossible because Newton proved five hundred years ago that all objects, regardless of weight and mass are subject to the same laws of gravity. They’re supposed to fall at the same rate. But it seems those laws do not apply here. They only make sense in a rational universe. The universe Doug’s occupying at this particular moment in time—dead, dreaming or both—seems to have taken a permanent leave of absence. Nevertheless, he watches horrified as the airplane-turned-missile slams into the forest and explodes in a massive mushroom cloud of white light blinding him like a photoflash as all sensory perception ceases.
And he knows nothing more for a very long time.