|"The first condition of immortality is death."
|-- Stanislaw J. Lec (1909 - 1966)
Clay Ambrose was a dead man.
He'd been late for one too many dates, and when he showed up again, almost an hour late, Deirdre was going to kill him, and he'd have no one to blame but himself.
Clay glanced down at his watch again, cursing himself for wasting even more time, and tried to brush his teeth faster.
7:50. He was doomed. They would find his mangled corpse in a dumpster, behind the restaurant, and no jury in the world would convict her.
Clay spit toothpaste into the sink, resisting the urge to look at his watch again, and then rinsed the sink out in a half-assed bachelor way. He would have cut that crap out, once he and Deirdre were married. He'd seen her apartment, and Deirdre Winthrop was just one step shy of being a total clean-freak.
His eyes flicked down to his watch again, as he grabbed his wallet and headed out the front door. Not that there was going to be a wedding anyway. If she didn't actually murder him horribly, as she had every right to, she was certain to call off the wedding.
Kane would probably have said that there was some deep underlying reason that Clay was always late, but then again, in spite of being his friend for many years, the esteemed Dr. Winthrop still seemed to feel that Clay wasn't good enough for his sister. Of course, Kane always just laughed and said that his sister had nothing to do with it; he didn't think Clay was good enough for anybody.
The security lock clicked loudly behind him, just seconds after he realised that he didn't have his keys. He frantically twisted the doorknob, to no effect, then looked down at his watch, and tried it again, before finally conceding the inevitable and going around back to see if he could find a window he could get in.
Not quite 15 minutes later, he went out through the front door again, this time with keys in hand. If nothing else went wrong, he should get there no more than an hour and a half late.
A sheet of water struck him full in the face, as the skies ripped open and thunder exploded through the night.
Clay was drenched by the time he got to his car, and his glasses were so wet, he could barely see. He wiped them off with his even-wetter shirt, which only managed to transform the drops of water into hopeless smears, and eventually just threw them into the passenger seat, in disgust.
Deciding that he might as well try to call her again, he dialled the number from memory, and then held the phone awkwardly, between his shoulder and neck.
"You have reached Deirdre Winthrop. Please leave a message at the tone." Clay didn't even know why she even bothered to have a mobile, since she never answered the damn thing.
"Deirdre, honey, it's Clay again. I'm running even later than I thought. You wouldn't believe--" He stopped in mid-sentence, unwilling to continue with the excuses that he'd been about to spout. "Anyway... I'm almost there. See you in a few minutes. Love you." *CLICK*
He tossed his phone onto the seat, knocking his glasses into the floor.
He was just about to launch into a stream of curses, when his car hit a patch of water and forced his attention back to the road.
As the rear of the car started to slide, Clay's mind raced. He knew exactly how to handle a situation like this. He knew everything he needed to do, to get the car back under control, and he knew the things he should never do, because they would make the situation worse. This was an emergency he was prepared for.
In a split second of panic, everything he knew leapt from his mind, and he slammed down the brakes, as hard as he could.
Predictably, the car began to slide even further out of control, and Clay watched in horror as the world rotated around him.
As the rear-end swung into the other lane, it almost seemed to stop for a second, before the wheels dropped off the shoulder, and the car began to lean to one side, as it continued to slide.
Clay was thrown around violently, as his car continued down the steep embankment. Then it toppled, and flipped, and he seemed to be falling forever, upside down.
Lying broken and helpless against the roof of his car, Clay watched as rivers of oil ran up the cracked windscreen, and then blacked out as he flew through that same glass, when the car hit the ground.
He was mercifully unconscious, as the broken shards clawed at his battered body, and never felt it when his head struck the ground, killing him instantly.
|"Nearly all men can stand adversity,
|but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
|-- Abraham Lincoln (1809 - 1865)
Clay Ambrose ran his hands through his hair, and stared at the cup of coffee, growing cold in front of him. This was crazy. He obviously wasn't dead, in spite of whatever he remembered, or thought he remembered, about last night.
By the light of morning, his dreams seemed hazy and indistinct. He remembered being on trial, and reliving the crash, but not much detail. It had definitely involved a lot more pain than he actually remembered from the real accident.
He had also died.
In the dream version of events, that had been absolutely clear, which pretty well proved that it was just a dream and nothing more. The problem was that he was having a really difficult time actually BELIEVING that, even though he knew it was true.
Wasn't there supposed to be some kind of sign, when things like this happened? Wasn't he supposed to have his appendix grow back, or notice a missing scar or something? Wasn't something supposed to be different, beyond the unsettling wrongness he felt inside, but tried to ignore?
The only problem was that he'd never had his appendix removed, and he couldn't really remember if he'd had any scars anywhere. There might've been a scar on his left elbow, from when he fell off his bike when he was 9, and there definitely wasn't one there now, but he was pretty sure it had faded years ago.
Clay shook his head. Why was he even dwelling on this? It was crazy. He was breathing, and his heart was beating, and that just wasn't the sort of thing that dead people did. Clearly, he was very much alive.
He took a sip of lukewarm coffee, pouring the rest down the sink, and then looked around his kitchen, feeling strangely out of place and unsure of what to do now.
It was just a silly dream.
|"The truth is rarely pure and never simple."
|-- Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900)
Clay squeezed the cloth again, watching the red water go down the drain. It was all true. The accident had changed him somehow, turned him into whatever he was now.
He reached up and touched the smooth skin of his temple, pressing down to feel the bone beneath, whole and unshattered.
He had died, again, and yet here he was, also again. 'How?' was a good question; 'Why?' was another one. He didn't know the answer to either.
He wrung the washcloth out and tossed it into the hamper, pondering how he was going to get the stain out of his sofa. He could just put a pillow over it for now, but he might end up having to get the whole thing reupholstered.
His thoughts were interrupted by a knock. He went downstairs and opened his door to find two police officers standing outside.
"Mr. Ambrose," one of them said, "Can we come inside for moment please? One of your neighbours reported a gun shot. He seemed to think it came from your house.
|"Any fool can tell the truth,
|but it requires a man of some sense to know how to lie well."
|-- Samuel Butler (1835 - 1902)
"Damn you, Kane!" Clay shouted, his eyes burning with tears, "Damn you..." He collapsed onto the couch, breathing in ragged gasps, trying to figure out what to do.
Normally, in a situation like this, he'd call Kane, not that he'd ever really been in a situation like this before, but still, if something bad happened, Kane was always the one to call.
Not this time though.
Clay's hands were sticky with blood, and he felt sick, far worse than he'd felt any of the times he'd died so far. He picked up the gun, and stumbled around holding it for several minutes, before dropping it to the floor again, and sitting back down.
He certainly couldn't call Deirdre, that's for sure.
His head was pounding, hurting a thousand times worse than any bullet, and he wished he could just die, for real this time, with no return.
"Why is this happening?" he demanded, but there was no answer.
He ached, all the way down through his heart, right into the depths of his soul. He hurt in all the places where he had always believed he was safe. Nothing was safe any more; everything was wrong, and nothing was safe.
He just sat there for a moment, staring down at the blood, always so much blood. This time is was different though. This blood would never wash out.
Finally, deliberately, he picked up the phone, smearing it with bloody fingerprints, and called 911.
|"Nothing endures but change."
|-- Heraclitus (540 BC - 480 BC)
Clay trembled uncontrollably, as weeks of repressed panic and stress flooded through his system. He'd done it; by God, he'd done it. Just a little while longer behind these bars, and he'd be free.
In his mind, he could still see Deirdre's eyes, red and swollen, as she sat there crying in the courtroom. He could feel the torment she had been going through, as the last fragment of hope that she'd been clinging to was ripped away from her.
He had crushed her, brutally, with every word out of his mouth. "With maliciousness and forethought," Clay mumbled, repeating the words of the District Attorney. He had known exactly what it was doing to her, and he'd done it anyway. Perhaps he was his father's son, after all.
Deirdre was his only regret really. The rest of it didn't matter, but he did wish there'd been some way of doing this without having to hurt her so badly.
Clay smiled, relieved to see some small sign that he hadn't completely sold his soul yet. Maybe there was still some hope for him.
It would just be a matter of which happened first, his redemption or his execution.
|"There is always some madness in love.
|But there is also always some reason in madness."
|-- Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900)
"Could you help me with something for a minute, Clay?" the librarian asked.
"Certainly, Ms. Hamlin," Clay answered, putting aside the book he'd been reading.
"How long have you worked here, Clay?" she asked, with a cross expression, but a twinkle in her eyes, "Don't you think you could call me Novia now?"
"If you want me to," Clay answered, walking over to her desk.
"I'm sorry to bother you on your day off, but I can't seem to connect to anything," Novia pointed to her computer, "and can't get anyone in I.T. to answer the phone."
"No problem," Clay said, reaching around behind the machine, "It might just be your--" He held up a cable, which had been dangling behind the desk, "--network cable. This one seems to come loose a lot. You might want to ask them to get you a new one." He plugged it back into the port, but it refused to click.
"Ah," Novia said, feeling stupid, "I should've thought of that, sorry."
"I'm sure you had other things on your mind," Clay said kindly.
"Thanks Clay," Novia said, resuming her work.
"No problem...Novia," Clay smiled warmly, and went back to his book.
Novia watched him from the corner of her eye.
Clay Farren was a bit of a mystery. The library had hired him as a janitor, but it had quickly become obvious that he was very over-qualified for the job.
Before long, he'd been helping out with various tasks, and he'd become the person everyone called on when they were having equipment troubles. She'd tried to get him to apply for an I.T. position, but he'd politely refused. For some reason, he'd seemed almost offended, or maybe frightened, at the idea.
So, he was still officially the janitor, but he did a lot more than that, and everyone knew it. Yet he still swept and gathered up trash, without complaint.
Nobody knew anything about him either. In a small town like this, that was more than odd. He kept to himself, with nothing but a kind word or a helping hand for anyone who asked, but he never talked about himself, or his life prior to six months ago.
There were rumours; there were always rumours. She'd heard hushed whispers that he was in witness protection, or that he was an escaped convict, or even a serial killer. The truth was, though, that no one really had any idea.
He did his job, and more, and spent the rest of his time reading, either in the library, or in his small one-room apartment in town. He didn't read fluff either; Novia had checked. She'd looked over the books he'd checked out and they covered a wide range of topics, from technical to philosophical.
One thing was certain. The quiet, gentle Mr. Farren was very intelligent, a lot smarter than he wanted anyone to realise.
Novia risked another glance, and then smiled inwardly.
He was also kind of cute.
|"Faith is, at one and the same time,
|absolutely necessary and altogether impossible."
|-- Stanislaw Lem (1921 - )
"Can you walk?" a hushed voice whispered urgently.
Clay tried to answer, but his new throat didn't seem to know how to talk yet. He nodded instead, creating a sudden wave of nausea.
"Please, we need to hurry." He felt himself walking, being half-pulled along. His new skin was impossibly sensitive, so much so that the roughness of his clothes and shoes, was almost unbearable.
In the distance, he heard sirens, coming closer, and felt a wash of heat from behind, from the still raging fire.
"No-via?" he croaked.
"I'm here Clay," she said reassuringly, "but we really need to keep moving."
He faded in and out of consciousness, somehow managing to keep walking, mostly because Novia was right there with him, helping him along.
There was a terrible smell in the air, the scent of smoke and decay, and Clay realised that most of it was coming from him.
"Step up," Novia said, guiding his feet up a small set of stairs.
He staggered again, feeling dizzy, and grabbed hold of the rail, leaving behind sooty handprints.
"Keys?" Novia asked.
Clay reached in his pocket and pulled out his keys, handing them to Novia, who unlocked the door.
Clay stepped into his apartment, and collapsed, finally giving in to his body's desperate need to continue the difficult task of rebuilding.
|"Grief teaches the steadiest minds to waver."
|-- Sophocles (496 BC - 406 BC)
Clay dropped the gun and fell to his knees, whimpering in a low, continuous tone.
"I take it back. I take it back. I take it back," he chanted, willing it to be, begging, pleading, but what was done, was done.
"Please!" he wailed, "PLEASE!" His ears rang from the volume of his own voice.
He cradled Novia's head in his lap, caressing her hair, and hoping that any minute she might open her eyes and look him. God, how he wanted to look into those eyes again, to feel her presence, to hear her voice.
He cried, until there was nothing left, and his empty tear ducts painfully tried to weep dry tears.
"Novia..." he whispered lovingly. She would hear him; she had to hear him, and she'd come back. That was all. She was just waiting to hear his voice, and then she would wake up.
She didn't wake up though. She wasn't ever going to wake up. She wasn't going to smile, or talk, or laugh, ever again, and the weight of that loss was unimaginable.
Clay leaned down and kissed her shattered temple, and then gently laid her head to rest on the ground. "No one will ever die and leave you alone again," he said softly.
Then he stood up and ran off into the woods, without looking back.
|"We often give our enemies the means of our own destruction."
|-- Aesop (620 BC - 560 BC)
They were back there somewhere, chasing him. There were two of them now. Sinclair had been after him for a long time, and now that Detective was there too. Clay wondered if they were aware of each other.
"Are you sure you don't want any beans?" Clay asked Novia, but she just shook her head, no.
It was nice having Novia back. He didn't know if he would've made it this long, without her. She didn't smile much any more, and he missed that, but it was just so good to see her again, and to hear her voice, even if... even though she was... Clay sighed and smiled at her.
He wouldn't be able to stay here long; he never stayed long anywhere any more. He had done terrible things, things he regretted, and all for nothing. All those deaths, and he hadn't found a single person like him.
Clay scraped the inside of the can, getting out the last few cold beans.
If he thought there was any way that he could actually end it, he'd just let Sinclair catch up with him, and be done with it. If the man found him, he knew he'd be killed, but then he'd come right back, so what was the point?
If the Detective caught him, well that was even more uncertain. What would he do, arrest him? They could execute him again maybe, but then what? Prison?
"Do you want me to start a fire?" Clay asked Novia, concerned that she might be cold.
"I'm fine Clay, thanks," she said softly.
Clay reached up a scratched his scraggly beard, which had grown out substantially, as had his hair.
"We'll have to go soon, you know," he said, "but we could do something first, if you want. Maybe jump off a bridge or something like that." He shrugged.
"No, Clay," Novia said, shaking her head, "No more deaths, yours or anyone else's."
"Oh right, I forgot," Clay said, "Sorry."
Yes, it was good to have Novia back again... even if she was just in his mind.
|"Death is not the worst; rather, in vain
|To wish for death, and not to compass it."
|-- Sophocles (496 BC - 406 BC)
"Good Morning, John!" Shiela Greer said cheerfully. She always said everything cheerfully; it was one of the many things Clay despised about her. "How are we feeling today?" she asked, as always, which was one of the other things he hated.
Clay, however, said nothing. He never said anything, because he couldn't say anything. He couldn't speak or move, so much as a muscle. He just lay there, listening and thinking, and wishing to God he could just die already.
It was a miracle, that's what the doctors had called it, their exact words even. The bullet had lodged in his spine in such a way that paralysed him completely, but didn't kill him.
All of his autonomic systems continued to work perfectly, that was the miracle part apparently. His heart continued to beat; he breathed; he even blinked, but conscious movement, of any kind, was out of the question.
"Why don't we let some light in here?" Nurse Greer asked, smiling, "Wouldn't that be nice?"
They had prepped him for surgery, even taken him to up to the operating room, but it turned out they couldn't remove the bullet without killing him. How funny was that?
If Clay had been capable of laughing, he would've. He'd also have cried and screamed and done a hundred other things that were no longer possible. It was so funny. A person could just die laughing; that's how funny it was.
Nurse Greer checked his pulse, and fluffed his pillow, whistling mindlessly. Later today she would probably come back and read to him, out of one of those god-awful novels she was so fond of.
As she held the pillow, Clay mentally begged and pleaded with her to please just press it down over his face. If she would just do that one small thing, this nightmare would end.
Instead, she put it back, gently laying his head down, and pushing a few stray hairs out of his eyes. She kept him shaved, kept his hair cut, his nails trimmed; she took care of him in almost every possible way, but she couldn't find enough mercy in her heart to kill him.
"Okay, John. I've got to check on my other patients now," Nurse Greer said, "but I'll be back later."
They didn't know his name. He was listed as John Doe, and so Nurse Greer called him John. It was her idea of the personal touch, he supposed, even though she wasn't sure whether or not he could even hear her. She talked to him anyway, just as though he could.
In her own way, she was being kind, but to Clay, trapped like this, knowing that he was only one breath away from recovery, it was hell. All he had to do was die, nothing more complicated than that, and then he could get up out of this bed, and walk away.
That wasn't going to happen though, not any time soon.
Clay lay on his bed, silent and still, mentally cursing the 'miracle' that kept him here.