by Ken Grimwood



Jeff Winston died, alone; yet still his dying wasn’t done. He awoke in his office at WFYI, where the first of his many lives had so abruptly ended: Reporters’ schedules posted on the wall, framed picture of Linda on his desk, the glass paperweight that had cracked when he had clutched his chest and dropped the phone so long ago. He looked at the digital clock on his bookshelf:

12:57 PM OCT 18 88

Nine minutes to live. No time to contemplate anything but the looming pain and nothingness.

His hands began to shake, tears welled in his eyes.

‘Hey, Jeff, about this new campaign –’ promotions director Ron Sweeney stood in his open office door, staring at him. ‘Jesus, you look white as a sheet! What’s the matter?’

Jeff looked back at the clock:

1:02 PM OCT 18 88

‘Get out of here, Ron.’

‘Can I get you an Alka-Seltzer or something? Want me to call a doctor?’

‘Get the hell out of here!’

‘Hey, I’m sorry, I just …’ Sweeney shrugged, closed the door behind him.

The tremors in Jeff’s hands spread to his shoulders, then to his back. He closed his eyes, bit his upper lip and tasted blood.

The phone rang. He picked it up in his shaking hand, completed the vast cycle that had begun so many lifetimes ago.

‘Jeff,’ Linda said, ‘We need –’

The invisible hammer slammed into his chest, killing him again.

He woke again, looked in panic at the glowing red numbers across the room:

1:05 PM OCT 18 88

He threw the paperweight at the clock, smashed its rectangular plastic face. The phone rang and kept on ringing. Jeff blotted out the sound of it with a scream, a wordless animal bellow, and then he died, and woke with the telephone already in his hand, heard Linda’s words and died again, again, again: waking and dying, awareness and void, alternating almost faster than he could perceive, centred always on the moment of that first heavy agony within his chest.

Jeff’s ravaged mind cried out for some release, but none was granted; it sought escape, whether in madness or oblivion no longer mattered … Yet still he saw and heard and felt, remained alert to all his torment, suspended without surcease in the awful darkness of not-life, not-death: the eternal, paralysing instant of his dying.

‘We need …’ he heard Linda say, ‘… to talk.’

There was a pain somewhere. It took him a moment to identify the source of it: his hand, rigid as a claw where he clutched the telephone. Jeff relaxed his grip, and the ache in his sweaty hand eased.

‘Jeff? Did you hear what I said?’

He tried to speak, could issue nothing but a guttural sound that was half-moan, half-grunt.

‘I said we need to talk,’ Linda repeated. ‘We need to sit down together and have an honest discussion about our marriage. I don’t know if it can be salvaged at this point, but I think it’s worth trying.’

Jeff opened his eyes, looked at the clock on his bookshelf:

1:07 PM OCT 18 88

‘Are you going to answer me? Do you understand how important this is for us?’

The numbers on the clock changed silently, advanced to 1:08.

‘Yes,’ he said, forcing the words to form. ‘I understand. We’ll talk.’

She let out a long, slow breath. ‘It’s overdue, but maybe there’s still time.’

‘We’ll see.’

‘Do you think you could get home early today?’

‘I’ll try,’ Jeff told her, his throat dry and constricted.

‘See you when you get here,’ Linda said. ‘We have a lot to talk about.’

Jeff hung up the phone, still staring at the clock. It moved to 1:09.

He touched his chest, felt the steady heartbeat. Alive. He was alive, and time had resumed its natural flow.

Or had it ever ceased? Maybe he had suffered a heart attack, but only a mild one, just bad enough to push him over the edge into hallucination. It wasn’t unheard of; he himself had made the analogy of a drowning man seeing the events of his life played back, had half-expected something like that to happen when the pain first hit him. The brain was capable of prodigious feats of fantasy and time compression or expansion, particularly at a moment of apparent mortal crisis.

Of course, he thought, and mopped his sweating brow with relief. That made perfect sense, much more than believing he’d actually been through all those lives, experienced all those –

Jeff looked back at the phone. There was only one way to know for certain. Feeling slightly foolish, he dialled information for Westchester County.

‘What city, please?’ the operator asked.

‘New Rochelle. A listing for … Robison, Steve or Steven Robison.’

There was a pause, a click on the line, and then a computer-synthesized voice read out the number in a dull monotone.

Maybe he’d heard the man’s name someplace, Jeff thought, perhaps in some minor news story. It could have got lodged in his mind, to be subtly woven into his delusion weeks or months later.

He dialled the number the computer had given him. A young girl’s voice, thick with sinus congestion, answered.

‘Is, ah, your mother home?’ Jeff asked the child.

‘Just a minute. Mommy! Telephone!’

A woman’s voice came on the line, muffled and distorted, out of breath. ‘Hello?’ she said.

It was hard to tell one way or the other, she was breathing in such quick, shallow gasps. ‘Is this … Pamela Robison? Pamela Phillips?’

Silence. Even the breathing halted.

‘Kimberly,’ the woman said. ‘You can hang up the phone now. It’s time for you to take another Contac and some cough medicine.’

‘Pamela?’ Jeff said when the girl had put down her receiver. ‘This is –’

‘I know. Hello, Jeff.’

He closed his eyes, took a deep lungful of air, and let it out slowly. ‘It … happened, then? All of it? Starsea, and Montgomery Creek, and Russell Hedges? You know what I’m talking about?’

‘Yes. I wasn’t sure myself that it was real, until I heard your voice just now. God, Jeff, I started dying over and over, so fast, it was –’

‘I know. The same thing happened to me. But before that, you really do remember all the things we went through, all those lives?’

‘Every one of them. I was a doctor, and an artist … you wrote books, we –’

‘We soared.’

‘That, too.’ He heard her sigh, a long, empty sound full of regret, and weariness, and more. ‘About that last day, in Central Park –’

‘I thought it would be my last time, I thought that you – were gone. Forever. I had to be with you towards the end, even if it was only … a part of you that didn’t really know me.’

She didn’t say anything, and after several seconds the silence hung between them as the lost years once had.

‘What do we do now?’ Pamela finally asked.

‘I don’t know,’ Jeff said. ‘I can’t think straight yet, can you?’

‘No,’ she admitted. ‘I don’t know what would be best, for either of us, right now.’ She paused, hesitated. ‘You know … Kimberly’s home sick from school today – that’s why she answered the phone – but it’s not just that she has a cold, this is the day after she got her first period. I died just as she began to become a woman. And now …’

‘I understand,’ he told her.

‘I’ve never seen her grow up. Neither has her father. And Christopher, he’ll just be starting high school … These years are so important for them.’

‘It’s too soon for either of us to try to make any definite plans right now,’ Jeff said. ‘There’s too much we need to absorb, to come to terms with.’

‘I’m just so glad to know … that I didn’t imagine it all.’

‘Pamela …’ He struggled for the words with which to express all that he felt. ‘If you knew how much –’

‘I know. You don’t have to say any more.’

He set the phone down gently, stared at it for a long time. It was possible they’d been through too much together, had seen and known and shared more than they could ever measure up to in this world. Gaining and losing, taking hold and letting go …

Pamela had once said that they had ‘only made things different, not better.’ That wasn’t wholly true. Sometimes their actions had had positive results for them and the world at large, sometimes they’d been negative, most often they’d been neither. Each lifetime had been different, as each choice is always different, unpredictable in its outcome or effect. Yet those choices had to be made, Jeff thought. He’d learned to accept the potential losses, in the hope that they would be outweighed by the gains. The only certain failure, he knew, and the most grievous, would be never to risk at all.

Jeff looked up and saw his own reflection in the dark smoked glass of his bookshelves: flecks of grey in his hair, faint puffy bags beneath his eyes, thin lines beginning to crease his forehead. They’d never be smoothed out again, those marks of age; they would only deepen and proliferate, new hieroglyphs of lost youth written ineradicably across his face and body with each passing year.

And yet, he mused, the years themselves would all be fresh and new, an ever-changing panoply of unforeseen events and sensations that had been denied him until now. New films and plays, new technological developments, new music – Christ, how he yearned to hear a song, any song, that he had never heard before!

The unfathomable cycle in which he and Pamela had been caught had proved to be a form of confinement, not release. They had let themselves be trapped in the deceptive luxury of focusing always on future options; just as Lydia Randall, in the blind hopefulness of her youth, had assumed life’s choices would forever be available to her. ‘We have so much time,’ Jeff heard her say, and then his own repeated words to Pamela echoed anew in his brain: ‘Next time … next time.’

Now everything was different. This wasn’t ‘next time,’ and there would be no more of that; there was only this time, this sole finite time of whose direction and outcome Jeff knew absolutely nothing. He would not waste, or take for granted, a single moment of it.

Jeff stood up and walked out of his office into the busy newsroom. There was a large, U-shaped central desk at which Gene Collins, the midday editor, sat surrounded by computer terminals flashing the moment-by-moment output of AP, UPI, and Reuters, television monitors tuned to CNN and all three networks, a communications console linked to the station’s reporters in the field and their own network’s correspondents in Los Angeles, Beirut, Tokyo …

Jeff felt it flow through him, the electric freshness of the once more unpredictable world out there. One of the news writers hurried past, rushing a green bulletin sheet into the air booth. Something important had happened – perhaps something disastrous, perhaps some discovery of surpassing wonder and benefit to humankind. Whatever it was, Jeff knew that it would be as new to him as it would be to everyone else.

He’d talk to Linda tonight. Though he wasn’t sure what he might say, he owed her, and himself, at least that much. He wasn’t sure of anything anymore, and that realization thrilled him with anticipation. He might try again with Linda, might someday rejoin Pamela, might change careers. The only thing that mattered was that the quarter century or so he had remaining would be his life, to live out as he chose and in his own best interests. Nothing took precedence over that: not work, not friendships, not relationships with women. Those were all components of his life, and valuable ones, but they did not define it or control it. That was up to him, and him alone.

The possibilities, Jeff knew, were endless.

HTML style by Stephen Thomas, University of Adelaide.
Modified by Skip for ESL Bits English Language Learning.