A Shade For Every Season, A Short Fiction
The end began with the fight.
She had screamed at him so loudly that he had actually thought one of her pupils were going to pop. The vase she had been so happy to buy, now became the missile hurled at him to shatter against the china cabinet. He had left the house wondering if he even truly wanted to come back.
The fight consumed every thought as he sat behind the wheel, driving but not really seeing. He looked down at the passenger seat for a moment when the sound of brakes and horns snapped him back to attention, and as he jerked the wheel, his fleeting thoughts were of how the median looked. It stretched away from him as if being pulled by a rubber band and the world around him slowed to a near-halt. He looked around, wondering if the car was spinning or if it was just him. His stomach felt like it was turning upside down as he felt a dull impact to the back of his head and the world blinked away.
He looked around and instead of the car, found himself suspended amidst a swirling mass of gray clouds. They roiled around in all directions, occasional flashes of light so brilliant as to leave harsh after images in his eyes. He felt the tremor of a massive explosion and pulled away instinctively.
In the blink of an eye he was standing in a long hallway. There was a dull illumination about everything, everywhere he looked but he could not detect any actual source of the light. The hallway seemed to stretch out away from him into infinity, with occasional doors marking either side.
He was still taking in the surroundings, trying to understand how he had come to this place when he noticed the child standing next to him. The face looked so familiar as he looked down at it. As he scrambled for a mental foothold, the child gazed up at him as if waiting for the answer to an unspoken question. He couldn’t understand why he felt so familiar until the realization flooded in.
The child was him.
The child-version of himself reached up and held out his hand, waiting patiently. It was impossible to accept what he was looking at but there were so many pictures lying around their parents’ house, it would be hard not to recognize his own face, even at such a young age. It was him in every way, greeting himself as a seven year old guide waiting to take him…where exactly? Jacob reached out and took the tiny hand in his and together, the two began walking down the hall. To their left and right, the doorways began to open and his child companion stopped at each, clearly expecting him to look within.
In one room, he saw himself as a teenager, hunting for the first time with his uncle. He was reaching down to lift a baby rabbit up out of a nest, looking around to see if anyone was watching before taking hold and twisting the head until the neck broke. The next room contained the college version of himself, in bed with the waitress from the restaurant he had met during his part time job. She sat atop him, already taking him into her as she was removing her bra, moving onto him as she took his hands to place them onto her breasts. In another room he saw himself at the age of ten, at his grandfather’s funeral. The scenes jumped back and forth, displaying moments that he remembered vividly and yet had given almost no thought to since.
The tiny hand that was once his own gripped him suddenly and he saw that they had reached the end of the hallway. Jacob looked down into his own face and watched as the child that once was him slowly began to dissipate, vanish away from reality. He looked up, now standing at the base of a staircase leading into darkness. The world felt like it was wobbling around him as he took one unsteady step forward. The stairs were solid underneath him so he followed that first step with a second, and then a third.
The room he stepped up into was an empty hospital room. There were no windows or doors, just equipment unused inside a sterile operating theater. He turned to look over his shoulder and saw that the stairs were now gone. When he turned back he saw that a patient was now strapped down to the exam table, which was tilted up to an almost entirely upright position. Even with all of the blood and damage to the patient’s face, he could still recognize what he was looking at.
The patient on the bed was him, like looking into a distorted reflection. This version of himself on the bed looked like he had been badly beaten, with bruises, cuts and lacerations all over his body. Immediately, his body began to sear with pain and the details of the car accident began to come back to him. Fresh wounds appeared on the injured version of himself, cuts opened up on the arms and face, causing blood to start flowing freely. He remembered the shattering glass, the sensation of being thrown forward. This was what he must look like, a three dimensional mirror on the table. As he stepped forward for a closer look, his mangled self opened his eyes and spoke to him softly.
“What you were is gone forever. What you will be is never known and what you are is not long for this world.”
Jacob shook his head, “I don’t understand what you mean.” He tried to ask for more but the injured version of himself had already drifted into a state of unawareness, looking blankly off into the open space of the room. A repetitive beeping had started to fill his head, starting slowly and now reaching a manically frantic pace. He felt sweat beading up on his forehead and looked around the room, not understanding where he was or what was happening. If these shades of himself were supposed to be functioning as guides of a sort, they had yet to explain to him what he was doing in this place or where they were taking him.
There was a deep vibration that he felt, not from the walls or the floor, but from within himself. He looked up and saw that the hospital bed was now gone, replaced by a simple wooden ladder, going up towards a ceiling that had now become, impossibly, hundreds of yards away. He took hold of the rungs and began to climb, white knuckling as he was buffeted by increasingly powerful blasts of hot wind. The ladder swayed from side to side, and the muscles in his legs were twitching, either from fear or fatigue.
The ground below him had long since vanished into a swirl of dense fog when his head ran up against something solid. He looked up but found that he was still staring up into open space with no sign of whatever barrier he had just encountered. His hand shook badly as he reached out and could definitely feel the solid surface. It gave slightly as he applied pressure, making him think about trap doors leading up into attics and crawl spaces. He pushed upwards and first heard a skree that could have been the sound of rusty hinges followed by the heavy sound of a door falling open. Where blue sky had once been above him, there was now a portal leading into darkness amongst the clouds. Jacob climbed up and pulled himself through.
The ladder dissolved from under his grip and out of instinct, he grabbed futilely at thin air and screamed even after his brain had registered that he was standing on solid ground. He was on the roof of a building of skyscraper height, looking out into gray horizons. An old man stood by the ledge, gesturing for him to come over. Jacob couldn’t help but scrutinize him as he approached. Could this also be him? A version of himself that was yet to come?
The man gestured towards a coin operated set of binoculars mounted into the stone ledge and handed Jacob a brilliantly gilded golden token. Jacob inserted the coin and peered through the eye holes.
The world was engulfed in flames.
Everywhere he looked, all there was to see were towering plumes of smoke and flame, waves of heat he could feel even from such a great distance. He pulled back and looked at the geriatric reflection of himself but the only response he got was a shrug and a turn of the head, to gaze off into the horizon.
“I don’t understand!” Jacob yelled again. His older self pointed at the binoculars and handed him another coin. He looked again but this time saw an expanse of the most beautiful valley he had ever laid eyes on, grass so green and waters so blue that it almost hurt to look upon them. He could see fish in the lake, birds in the trees, deer in the field.
Then, like a photo negative exposed to heat, the image in front of him started to curl in from the edges, blistered and begin to burn until again he was looking out upon a maelstrom of fire.
Three versions of himself he had seen. His past, his present and this. “Is that supposed to be my future?” Jacob asked, “Is that what you’ve been showing me? Some kind of a warning?”
He looked up, and now saw all three versions of himself staring back; the child, the accident victim and the senior citizen. As they stared him down, their hands came up slowly to take hold of each other and in one last flash of blinding light he was suddenly looking at a perfect mirror image of himself.
Again, the sound of hospital monitors filled his head. He could also hear the sound of distant chatter, like doctors and nurses in an operating room. In that moment, the only thing he cared about was getting back into the life he did not realize until now, how much he wanted. He could never return to the past, his expectations of what his life should have been and his fears of what was yet to come. He needed to leave it all behind so that he could truly live his life within each moment.
He looked down from the rooftop, thinking idly that it sometimes took rising up above things to be able to look down and take perspective.
He stepped up onto the ledge in a sudden moment of inspiration and looked down into the billowing storm clouds below. Jacob stepped off the edge.
Hot screaming air rushed past him as he fell, headfirst into a swirling mass where no light entered. Then, after an eternity of a moment he found himself rushing down into a luminescent ocean of stars and light that grew only brighter.
His eyes snapped open in time for him to jerk the steering wheel and apply the brakes. He pulled to the left and was able to get the car stopped as the truck barreled past him, nearly clipping him in the process. A few more seconds and he would have planted the front end of his car into that median.
Jacob shook his head and looked into the rear view mirror, scanning traffic for an opening and smiling ever so slightly, either from the elation of still being alive or from the ever elusive understanding of what really was important to him in the one life he had been lucky enough to be blessed with. He resumed his path, spirit renewed in the foundry of second chances.