Chapter Three

Chris didn’t sleep again for three nights. He was afraid of what he might see in the dream now if he did sleep. He didn’t know how he could face Sherry again, even if only in a dream. He had failed her a second time, and this time she had died as a result.

Finally on the fourth night since Sherry’s passing, Chris did sleep for his body just couldn’t stay awake any longer. He hadn’t been back to work, he wasn’t answering his phone, he hadn’t been eating, and combined with the lack of sleep, he was quite a ragged sight. He hadn’t shaved since the accident and his beard had begun to grow thick with black whiskers from the top of his cheek bones to the middle of his neck.

Mostly he sat with the dim light of the sun peaking through the drawn shades by day, by night the only illumination coming from a 40 watt bulb in a floor lamp in the corner of his bedroom and the glow from his computer screen.

He had just purchased the computer a few months earlier with a Christmas bonus from Howard Johnson’s, along with the AOL Internet service. Until this point, he had used the computer sparingly, a weekly email to his parents to satisfy their never ending obsessive curiosity with his life. He figured it must be a ‘parent’ thing. Her looked forward to being a dad someday himself, the key word being ‘someday.’ For now he was in no hurry.

The first night after Sherry’s death, Chris had spent most of the night pacing the floors of his small duplex. Bedroom to kitchen to living room and back down the five-foot hall past the bathroom and back into his bedroom. Fearing the idea of going to sleep, he had actually stood at the side of his bed, lifted up the mattress and leaned it against the wall so that he could not lie down on it. This left the room wide open and every time he entered it he made a long slow loop and paced right back out the door without stopping.

As he walked, he tried not to think about Sherry. He tried not to think about the dream. He tried thinking of when he should go back to work. He tried thinking of what to have for breakfast. Despite the fact that he had always had the same thing for breakfast, it was still no simple task to think about it anymore. Four times during the first long and seemingly endless night, he thought maybe he could think better, or less, in the shower. He tried to think of things to think about. But nothing could seem to shake the unwanted thoughts that continued to press so hard against his tired brain. The hill, the tombstones, the eerie glow in the sinking sky, the Priest, the casket, the fading of Sherry.

Anymore he wasn’t real sure if she had actually been fading or not. Maybe a trick of the eye or something. Maybe just being more aware of details the more often he visited the dreamland site. He managed to convince himself during his several mile trek from room to room that in dying, it made more sense (not that any of it truly made any sense at all, but…) that she would begin to solidify in her predestined coffin as opposed to fading out of it. If he were to go back to sleep now, he was sure she would be there again, more solid than ever, dead, but waiting for him, none the less. And because he felt responsible for her death, because he had failed her, he didn’t think he could face her again. But somehow he knew that if he slept, he would return once again to the hill, he would feel the eyes upon him, watching, anticipating, judging. If Chris had his way, he would never sleep again.

His parents called three times, all before noon, the day following Sherry’s last. Chris let each one ring until the cheerful sounding answering machine fielded their concerns for him. He knew they would just keep calling all day until they heard from him, and his mother still left a message consuming the entire two-minute talk-time allotted on the machine for each call, so he decided to sign on to the Internet and drop them a quick, hopefully calming email to satisfy their persistence.

Apparently his note worked. The calls stopped and he had received an email in response to his, restating their vows of unconditional love with a request to keep them up to date and to call sometime; they were thinking about him. He responded with another, assuring them that he appreciated their concerns and that he would indeed let them know if there was anything they could do, but right now he just needed some quiet time to himself.

This method proved to work over the following few months. As long as he continued to get at least a couple of quick notes off to them in Seattle each week, they seemed content. They continued with the daily emails of encouragement and concern, but that beat the daily phone calls for now. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk to his parents for he loved them very much and had always kept in regular contact with them. But right now, he didn’t want to talk to anyone. He didn’t want to answer the questions about how he felt. He didn’t know how he felt. He didn’t have the answers. He needed time. He needed to be left alone for a while. He needed to stay awake.

He knew his parents would be quick to answer his initial email so he started idly browsing around AOL’s gateway to the Internet while he waited for their letter. He looked at news pages, less interested in the news itself than in how easy it appeared to be to retrieve it. He found a few sports stories of mild interest, checked the weather conditions for his weekend paper route, just in case he actually felt up to doing it this weekend. He looked up Howard Johnson’s corporate website which he had always meant to do since getting his computer but hadn’t bothered yet.

When he heard the metallic "You’ve Got Mail!" it startled him while he was absently reading about the first Howard Johnson’s Inn to be erected. It was boring, but it was mind-consuming boring. An hour had passed and he hadn’t thought once about the casket atop the hill. His eyes were heavy and bloodshot and tired, since he had not slept the night before, but his second wind had kicked in once the sun had risen, along with another hot shower and two bowls of Lucky Charms cereal, the main staple in his diet the last few days.

Chris clicked on the icon of a mailbox and read his new email. It was his parents’ response, as he had expected. They were the only ones he got any mail from anyway, but he managed to crack a small smile thinking how he would have lost in the office pool as to how long it would have taken for that response to come. His money would have been on ten minutes, fifteen tops. It had actually taken an hour. He figured his mom must have insisted on keeping the phone line open in case Chris decided to return one of her calls right after connecting to the Internet, leaving a busy signal to greet any caller. Then his dad probably finally convinced her that he may not be returning the calls because he might already be online and that it couldn’t hurt to check. Chris managed another brief smile imagining the whole conversation they must have had over how to best reach him as he sent back his assurance that he would be fine. He did love his parents, loved the fact that they cared so much, but he also didn’t want to worry them needlessly. There was nothing they could do that might help his current situation, at any rate.

Then recalling how he had just spent the last hour not thinking about the things he didn’t want to be thinking about, over the next two days, until he just couldn’t keep himself awake another minute, most of his time was spent exploring AOL and the edges of the Internet.

He was fully aware of the fact that he couldn’t stay awake forever. He finally brought his mattress back down from the wall and straightened out the pile of sheets and blankets that had fallen to the floor. He had begun nodding off in the chair in front of the computer every few minutes and his neck was stiff and tense and sore. He knew sleep was going to win the battle of wills soon, and decided he might as well get comfortable and prepare for the ride. Suddenly he didn’t seem to care for thrill rides any more. Suddenly he thought the merry-go-round was looking pretty darn good again, its boring routine circles taking you nowhere--predictable and tame.

Sixty seconds after Chris laid his head down on his freshly fluffed pillow on that fourth night since Sherry had died, he was out like a light. And at some point after he had fallen asleep, he found himself once again on the winding path between the old gray markers leading towards the hill where the Priest and his small band of mourners dressed in black stood around the open gravesite. He tried not to walk the path with which he had grown so familiar in his dream; tried to will himself awake; tried to defy the pull, to close his eyes, to not see, to wish the scene away. But the wind behind him continued to urge him forward. His eyes refused to close. His feet refused his command to stand fast, to turn and run. Reluctantly, he ascended the hill.

* * * * *

Nothing had changed. The Priest still held his same solemn, watchful post. He could still feel the faceless blank stares coming from the mourners surrounding the grave. The coffin sat closed, poised to be lowered into the freshly dug earth as it had each previous time he had approached. Everything was the same, yet he sensed that it wasn’t. Chris knew that whatever was under the coffin’s lid was not going to be the same.

For a moment Chris wondered, now that Sherry had died, why the coffin hadn’t already been lowered. The funeral had been yesterday. He hadn’t been invited to the funeral, of course, but he had seen her obituary and the funeral plans the night before while perusing the Star Tribune newspaper online. She had been buried earlier yesterday afternoon, her coffin now six feet under the earth’s surface. Yet here was her coffin in front of him, still above ground, still waiting for him.

The coffin began to open, just as it had every night that he had taken this unwanted trip to the edge of the hole. Panic began to creep under his skin as he felt a shiver run the length of his back. He couldn’t face Sherry, or whatever might be left of Sherry in the coffin, even if this was just a dream. But Chris peered into the coffin as it opened despite his desperate wish to change the ever-recurring script.

His eyes widened and a wave of relief flowed through his body as he realized that Sherry was no longer in the coffin. There was still someone there, but it wasn’t Sherry.

Of course it isn’t her, he thought, she’s dead. And then as an afterthought, he thought, So why am I still having the dream?

Now laying in Sherry’s coffin was an elderly man. His face was covered with the lines and crinkles and cracks of old age. His hair was thin and white. His eyes appeared dim and faded, like Sherry’s had been, lifeless, but still seeing. Unlike Sherry, he wore a broad, genuine smile on his face, looking eerily out of place on an old man laying inside a casket. His skin was pale, but not as pale, or faded, as Sherry’s had appeared on the previous night. He was dressed in what looked to be his best Sunday suit, complete with a red carnation above the left breast pocket. He was quite noticeably very happy to see Chris.

"Hi there," the old man said after the lid to his coffin had completely raised. "Are you my angel? Can I go see Annie now?"

Chris was still getting over the fact that Sherry was no longer in the coffin and couldn’t think of a response to the question. He knew he was no angel and he had no idea who this man was, let alone who Annie was. Chris looked up at the Priest, confused and feeling embarrassed for being assumed an angel while in the presence of a truly holy person. But the Priest didn’t seem to mind, didn’t even seem to have heard what the old man had said. He continued to stand silently at the head of the grave with his head bowed, holding his now closed Bible to his chest with both arms crossed over it.

"I’m sorry, sir, but I am no angel," Chris finally said in response to the old man. "And I don’t know why I am here…wherever here is."

"You must be here for the transition then, until my angel comes for me. My angel is going to take me to my wife. She was called last year, and now I have finally gotten the call to join her," the man said, still smiling ear to ear. "God gave me cancer so that I can be with her again."

"You are dying?" Chris asked, though he knew the answer already.

"I am moving on," the old man explained. "Our spirit never really dies. Our bodies get old and tired, but our spirit, our soul, that which makes us who we are, moves on."

"How long have you been sick?" Chris asked.

"It’s been three months," the old man replied. "It’s been awfully lonely, the waiting, that is. I am glad you are here to keep me company until my Angel comes. It mustn’t be long now. I am looking forward to being with my Annie again soon."

"I don’t know why I am here," Chris repeated. "I don’t think I am supposed to be here. I don’t even know where here is."

"Oh, you can’t be here if you aren’t supposed to be here, my friend," the old man said. "This is a place where our spirits await the angels to guide us to Heaven. This is where we shed our physical bodies and move on to a truer form of existence. This is where we come to be reunited with our loved ones who have moved on before us, and with God."

"But I am not moving on," Chris pointed out. "I am asleep. I am dreaming. And you are in my dream. Or maybe somehow I am in your dream. I don’t know. But I know it is just a dream, it just doesn’t feel like a dream. But it is just a dream," Chris added, trying to convince himself more than anyone else.

"Not everyone knows they are moving on," the old man continued. "Some folks are taken from their bodies by God before they are finished with them. Only God knows why, but that is His will."

"No," Chris said. "I am not here to be moving on. I am not here as anyone’s Angel. This is a dream. This is just a dream! IT’S JUST A GODDAMN DREAM!!" he yelled, looking up at the Priest in defiance.

As if provoked by his own admission of this fact, or his denial of any other possibilities, Chris suddenly woke up. He could still see the old man in his mind’s eye quite clearly. He could still hear the raspy rhythm of his aged voice.

Chris looked sideways at the clock glowing in the dark on his bedside table. 4:30 a.m. He felt exhausted but knew there was no way he was going to get any more sleep, so he dragged himself out of bed and made his way to the shower.

It was then, standing under the warm and pulsating water, that he decided he couldn’t go back to his desk clerk job. He had no idea at the time how he was going to pay the bills on his part-time weekend paper route, but he knew he couldn’t face people right now, and being a desk clerk in a busy hotel in downtown Minneapolis meant facing people all day long. He couldn’t face the questions and the sympathy and the generic words of encouragement. Nothing anyone could say could possibly make him feel better about being responsible for a young, vibrant woman’s death. And then there was the dream. How could he explain that to anyone? Sherry was now gone. But the dream still remained.

* * * * *

Over the following few weeks, Chris began to alienate himself from his friends and the life he had known before the accident. He had received a one-hundred and fifty thousand dollar settlement (plus related expenses) from the insurance company that covered the bungee operation, only a drop in the bucket compared to what Sherry’s grieving parents had received, but still more than he felt he deserved for his role in the whole mess.

He picked up some additional paper routes for the Minneapolis Star Tribune to help make up for the loss of his full-time work at Howard Johnson’s. He knew he’d need to replace the full-timer with a new one eventually, but for now he couldn’t find the motivation to go out and hunt down a new source of income.

Instead he began filling in for the Tribune, delivering routes for carriers on vacation or sick, or routes that didn’t have a permanent carrier assigned to them for the time being. Before long, taking on the routes that he liked as his own whenever he could, he had accumulated enough permanent routes to keep himself busy throughout each night and he discovered he was making almost as much as he had as a desk clerk. And he was able to do it all from his own car, alone, without interaction with people.

Three months after Sherry’s death, the only people Chris spoke to anymore were the faces in the coffin of his daily demented dream. His papers were always dropped off in his driveway sometime after midnight for him to have delivered by 7:00 a.m. each morning. His friends had by then given up on trying to bring him out of his funk. And his parents in Seattle, 1600 miles away, didn’t even know yet that he had not returned to his job of the last six years at Howard Johnson’s. It would have just made them worry.

Chris had come to accept and expect his daily trek through the graveyard. The old man that had been in Sherry’s coffin after she had died had been there each night for almost a full month. They talked about the old man’s life and his wife that he expected to be joining soon. Chris discovered his name was William Shavver and his wife’s name had been Annabelle.

William and Annabelle had owned and managed their own little antique shop and had never had any children. The store had been their whole life. They had kept it open all the way up until Annie’s death, but William had been unable to keep it going by himself. He had sold the store for much less than it was worth and had begun his wait to join his wife in Heaven from the day the sale was finalized, praying every night for God to take him that night in his sleep. But each morning he had awakened to discover he was still among the living.

Now God had given him cancer and he was very excited about being reunited with his wife. And, according to William, God had sent Chris to keep him company until his time to depart finally came.

Chris didn’t say so, but he didn’t believe that was why he was there. Being raised by atheistic parents, and steeped in logic and science, he had never believed in God. Though he had to admit, he hadn’t yet come up with a better reason for his being there.

After two weeks of visiting and getting to know William, Chris began to see the change. The fading had begun. William’s time was drawing near.

Chris genuinely liked William and his stories of how he and his wife had come upon this antique or that one. When he found the new face of a middle-aged, over-weight man who looked like a car dealer you wouldn’t want to buy a car from, he had mixed emotions. He hoped that William was now in some way with his Annie once again…though he doubted it.

The new face, and the many faces that followed over the next few months in his dreams, never quite touched him the way William Shavver had. Some were happy to be moving on, as both Sherry and William had put it, and some were quite bitter about it. The ones that were tough were the few that didn’t even know it was coming.

When William had given Sherry’s coffin over to Barry "Trust Me" Johnson, who didn’t stay long before his appendix burst, Chris had surfed the Internet seeking out the obituaries from newspapers around the country trying to confirm William Shavver’s life…and death. Three days, hundreds of newspapers and thousands of deaths later, Chris decided the search was fruitless but that his not finding William’s name neither proved nor disproved anything. He was a nice old man. Let him rest in peace.

Chris wished he could rest in peace.

Up to now, Chris mostly just listened to the inhabitants of Sherry’s coffin as they talked of their lives or tried repenting their misdeeds in hopes of gaining favor into the heavens. A few of the faces were there for a week or two, but most came and went in a matter of two or three days. He never recognized any of the new faces and he was grateful for that. He often wondered when he went to bed if he might someday see one of his own aging parents in the coffin and how he would react. Or maybe even his own face. But so far Sherry’s had been the only face he had known.

Chris fell into a routine. He delivered his papers by night to pay the bills and keep from going hungry, though his appetite had also dropped off quite a bit since the accident. During the morning daylight hours he slept, and dreamt. He usually spent the rest of his time sitting at his computer on the small desk in the corner of his bedroom backed against the newly, heavily draped window. He mindlessly surfed the web for nothing in particular and kept his parents’ concerns at bay via timely emails. He kept the house dim to dark around the clock. Most light, Chris had ascertained, just tended to reflect obnoxiously off the computer screen, making it more difficult to read.

Chris no longer feared going to sleep. He never looked forward to it, and there was still something very unsettling about the Priest that Chris continued to try not to think about. But sleep was a necessity, a fact of life, for now. The only options were not options.

Maybe this is my penitence, he thought, my price to be paid for the bed that I made. Or maybe this is my fate, preordained by some greater being, by God. Sherry’s life and death just another foothold or stepping stone to fulfill some twisted plan for my otherwise meaningless existence. But usually what he fell back on was, Or maybe it’s just damn, shitty luck.

He really couldn’t bring himself to believe in any single supreme being, a God. At this point in his life, however, he wasn’t going to say there wasn’t one, either. But a God worthy of the praise He received world-wide, Chris figured, could never be so cruel as to dish out the pain and torture that exists on a daily basis among non-believers as well as believers. Or else He has a very sick sense of humor. And fate? The idea that he had no control over his life, that his script was already written, that he-was-who-he-was-and-was-going-to-be-who-he-was-going-be-and-there- wasn’t-a-damn-thing-he-could-do-about-it-like-it-or-not philosophy never sat well with him at all. If nothing else he believed in this world were true, he wanted that one to be; there was no such thing as fate. He needed to know that mankind, or at least himself, controls its own destiny. If mankind is destined to self-destruction with nuclear fall-out and genetic screw-ups in the name of science, so be it. But he wanted to be the one deciding what he did with his life as he lived it, who he’d call his friends during that life, and which flavor ice cream he had for dessert at his last meal. He wanted to be the one responsible for asking Sherry to jump with him. He wanted to believe that his life was and always had been his own--his own triumphs, his own choices, his own mistakes. The good and the bad, but his nonetheless. That was important to Chris. Maybe the last strand of reality holding his vulnerable state of mind together. So much of what he had always believed was being tried and tested right now.

But fate…only a true Devil would allow such a thing to exist.

* * * * *

Chapter Four


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As Fate Would Have It

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Chapter Twenty
Chapter Twenty-One
Chapter Twenty-Two
Chapter Twenty-Three
Chapter Tweny-Four
Chapter Twenty-Five
Chapter Twenty-Six
Chapter Twenty-Seven
Chapter Twenty-Eight
Chapter Twenty-Nine
Chapter Thirty
Chapter Thirty-One
Chapter Thirty-Two
Chapter Thirty-Three
Chapter Thirty-Four
Chapter Thirty-Five
Chapter Thirty-Six
Chapter Thirty-Seven