- Countdown -
Immediately after the event–Armageddon as many refer to it as–all the worries of the past seemed pointless. Whatever hardships you faced, your loved ones faced, complete strangers faced seemed null and void. The world, and most everyone in it, was tossed into the same hellish shitstorm challenge; survival.
Not just in loose terms; getting by paycheck to paycheck, being homeless on the streets begging for money, food, and booze. Literal life and death survival. The world sprung into chaos, and everything you thought you knew no longer applied. The game had changed; a game everyone was forced to participate in.
You began to long for the days where fears of not making your rent on time or a check bouncing was the epitome of a rough time. A life of distress. Like when you entered adulthood and discovered the world is one fucked up pile of shit and you wish nothing more than to be a child again; innocent of the reality surrounding you. Innocent if lucky. Always wishing you could go back.
Except you can never go back. Like words spoken and actions taken in blind rage, you can never take them back. Only mitigate the damage. Things, however, would never be the same.
Our sins had apparently caught up with us. Our hate upon the world begat more hate and left its mark.
All we could try to do was mitigate the damage.
* * *
Jack sat alone in the third bedroom which had been converted into an office. At his desk, centered in the middle of the room, he leaned back in his chair. It wasn’t leather, or very cushiony, but more like one you would have if working in the corporate world stuck in a cubicle. He thought that by avoiding luxury, he would be more prone to focus on work. The room was simple; the white walls bare with the exception of a single poster behind him. He valued simplicity.
Bookshelves lined the far wall; three in total, one in each corner and the third evenly spaced between them. He also valued symmetry. The books, two deep, were organized by author and title. All of his favorite “masters” of literature neatly categorized by his OCD, there for his viewing if ever needing a spark of inspiration. There was only one issue with the collection. He was not among them. No Jack Winterton.
Perhaps the name wasn’t as befitting, lacked the flowing roll off the tongue, as some of his counterparts. An alternate pen name may be more suitable. Jack Winterton... He would have to disagree with the assessment. It was a very plausible name to attach on a creative piece of work. It almost sounded like a hero’s name, if he did think so himself.
Below, on the bottom shelf of the middle bookcase, was an array of books on writing and publishing. Books that he had read a handful of times, the hope being that each reading would uncover some tip or technique he may have missed. Something that would eventually help him make his break into the writing world. In the end, they ended up hindering him more than helping. Jack found he began to worry about too many miniscule details to such an extent that he would just freeze up. The creative process jarring to a halt and leaving him alone with nothing. A blank canvas.
He became aware that his eyesight was blurred. Just on the outer edges; his peripheral vision. It caused a slightly skewed, tunnel effect.
His attention turned to his desk where, unlike the the tidiness of his literature, papers were spread in disarrayed piles. In a tray to the upper left corner of his desk was a collection of rejection letters he had received from various publishers. Jack had read once that it was a good idea to save each one, as an inspirational tool. All he found it caused were bouts of self-loathing and depression. His laptop sat haphazardly on two smaller piles of paper, opened with a blank word doc staring back at him. Taunting him. Challenging him to speak to it, to humble it with his verbose expertise.
There was a slam. He didn’t actually see it open, but when he looked over to the door, to his right, his wife was standing in the hall. She just stood there looking in the room, seemingly unaware of his presence. The tunnel vision narrowed more. Her red hair, straightened and styled, framed her face. Behind her black framed glasses, grey-blue eyes stared into a void.
Jack was unsure how, but they were suddenly standing face to face, holding hands; He was aware they were still in the office, but it was out of focus. He stared into his wife’s eyes, now alive and seeking out his own. He cupped her hands in his, rubbing his thumbs against them. Caressing her, for some reason attempting to comfort her. Was she angry?
He reached up and tucked back some of her hair behind her ear. His finger trailed down her freckled cheek as he studied her lips, wanting to run his finger over them, to kiss them.
“I feel like something big is coming, Lisa. I just know it.” He smiled at her, and it was returned. It always was. “I think this next project is going to be the one.”
His wife tilted her head down. When she returned his gaze the smile had faded. “I know, Jack.” She brought her own hand to his face, running it along his scruffy jawline. He had forgotten to shave again. “You always think something big is about to happen. Each new project will be “The One” and we’ll be set for life.” He thought he heard pity in her voice.
“This one will be different. It has everything, babe. Tragedy, conflict, love transcending all odds of opposition. Human survival transcending almost complete annihilation.” His hands were pulled away from her, in front of him, animated; stressing the factors he was pointing out. He felt her hand leave his face, the warmth going with it. “There will be a plane crash, there’s always a plane, ya know? Oh, and a dog. I put that in for you. I know you love them. Don’t get me wrong, I love them too, but you definitely more so. Still unsure what kind of dog, but...”
She took his hands into hers, stopping their random jostling, and squeezed softly. “That sounds wonderful, it really does. I would read it in a heartbeat. Even make a movie if I could, but things are getting bad, Jack. Right here, right now. We are barely staying afloat.”
He gave an involuntary facial twitch at her last remark. Serious business, in the middle of talking about something exciting. He wanted to pull away, but let Lisa keep his hands in her grasp. Her hands were always so soft. He was looking down at them. Her nails were painted a deep purple, currently matching the shirt she was wearing.
“Why are you so upset?” He asked.
She brought a finger under his chin and pulled his attention back to her eyes. “Listen, I’m not upset.” Her eyes sought understanding from him. He could feel them attempting to intrude into his being, wanting to make sure he fully comprehended that what she was saying was true. He was very familiar with this. “It is important that you understand that. I love you, and have done all that I can to help support your dreams. When you quit your job, I didn’t push you to find another right away. Remember?” He nodded. “You wanted to pursue your writing, and it was fine for a time. I wanted you to follow your heart and indulge your passion.”
“And I appreciate that, I really...”
She squeezed a little tighter. “I know you do, but it’s time to try to find something. It’s been time for the past six months. You can still write while working, everybody does it. We need the income.” Lisa’s voice was sweet and soothing, but he felt like he was being boxed in. Like he was being attacked. The blurring intensified and his full vision shut out more.
Why is she so upset? Why is she doing this now?
“Lisa, something big is coming,” Jack repeated, “and I want you to be there with me when it happens.”
There was a blur and they were apart again. Both standing, but he was back at the desk while she was in the hall. Something was off, though. It was like he was looking down at himself, watching a movie of the two of them. Images flashed through his mind. Memories of a fight, words exchanged in panicked anger, packed suitcases and bags.
What is going on? “What’s happening?” he asked aloud.
“I’m going to stay at my parent’s for a while. Just for some space, just to think.”
Images of a photograph came to him. In it, his wife and two children were embraced in laughter. He recalled it being taken earlier that year. What about the children? “What about the children?” Jack was back in his body, staring at his wife. She was wearing a different outfit, but he had no idea how she could’ve changed so fast. “Jack Jr. starts school this fall.”
His wife answered, “It’s all taken care of. He and Natasha will be coming with me, and will still be able to attend the same school. We’ll literally be right down the road, remember?”
Please don’t go. “Why are you leaving me?” Please don’t leave me. Jack couldn’t move, he felt glued in place. All semblance of the office faded. The blurring increased until if phased into blackness. Just a dark tunnel with his wife in the distance, standing in the hallway.
“I’m not leaving you, this is temporary. For the time being, I will still be paying the rent and bills, but I need you to understand this is serious. You’re thirty-five. You need to grow up, and find a job. I love you to death, but I need you to focus. We need you to focus.” Her voice was still sickly sweet.
Focus? What’s going on? A sense of deja vu overcame Jack. These scenarios, fights, outcomes. All of them felt familiar. No, please. Don’t leave me again.
He couldn’t control his reaction. “Why are you being such a bitch?” Everything was scripted. Why is this all happening again? What’s going on? He felt trapped within his body. His mouth moved and the words flowed out, but he wasn’t in control. Meanwhile, his inner-dialogue was free.
Suddenly, his wife was no longer in front of him, and the hall was drowned out in the same growing blackness. There was a tightening in his chest. He wanted to scream out. Scream at his wife for doing this to him, for leaving him. Leaving him all alone. Wait, until the kids are gone. Don’t scream around them. He hated screaming, but it was welling up from deep within him.
Countdown from ten, and the nightmare will end.
Jack closed his eyes tight. Ten, nine, eight... He remembered the first time he met Lisa. She was sitting in the coffee shop, working away on her laptop. He normally wasn’t a coffee drinker, but that day he needed the caffeine; a kick to make it through. When the bell on the door signaled his entrance and she looked up, their eyes locking, he could sense it. The feeling that, for whatever reason, this woman would somehow play a role in his life. Please stay with me, don’t go.
Seven, six... The darkness was all there was. Had there ever been an office to begin with? Don’t make me do this all again. Why couldn’t I change anything? Somehow the darkness grew in substance, beginning to take form.
There was the slamming of another door, somewhere in the distance. He refused to open his eyes, because he knew there wouldn’t be anything to see. He had lived this all before. Five... Images from the birth of his daughter flashed through his mind. Lisa holding Natasha in her arms, his love going out to them both. He could sense dark tendrils stretching out for him. He tried to focus his mind on other events in his life. Ones that brought him love and joy, but the welling up inside was increasing. His teeth clenched and his heart raced.
Four... He had to get out of there. Please, God help me. There was no answer, just black vines of sludge working their way around his body. Three... The feelings of despair were inescapable. The darkness began to feel comforting, wrapping around his waist and moving upward. Jack felt the desire to give it what it wanted. Don’t scream, hold it in. I can change this. I don’t want to be alone.
Tears welled up in his eyes, as the anger was attempting to force itself out. He tried to swallow it down. His neck flexed, veins protruding. Two... He had to hold it in. The frantic need to change the outcome of his path flared. He was outside, in the darkness, again watching himself from above. Watching the vile pitch of midnight consuming his entire body.
It pulsed as it wrapped around his neck, not choking him, but caressing. Coaxing him into releasing his rage. How dare that bitch leave him? Grow up? The blackness hissed and whispered to his soul.
Everything was already predetermined; scripted. Jack allowed himself to release from the struggle of maintaining any semblance of faux control. Eyes still shut tight, tears beginning to stream down his face, he bellowed out into the emptiness. All the rage and anger burst forth, exploding from within. The darkness swarmed and enveloped him completely; surging into his mouth, filling him up. It didn’t drown out his scream, but amplified it. The scream was endless, the darkness offering a constant supply to fuel it for eternity.
* * *
Jack’s eyes snapped open.
He was kicking himself back against the wall, screaming out into the room. It was matched by the blaring horn of a truck that had crashed through the wall just ahead of him. Unlike in the dream realm, though, his scream faded. He sat there heaving, taking in gulps of air, trying to discern where he was. His lungs burned and his mouth was dry.
As his tear-filled eyes began to focus on his surroundings, he couldn’t help but feel relieved that the nightmare was finally over.