Categories > Books > Dark Tower


by Neilostroff 0 reviews

What if everything we perceive, all we experience, is just a figment of someone else’s imagination? And what if that someone is dying?

Category: Dark Tower - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Angst - Published: 2013-02-28 - 9221 words

Chapter 1

Text message:
I’ll love you until the day I die.

The world exploded.
“Incoming RPG’s!” someone shouted.
Smoke engulfed the sleeping quarters. It took a few seconds for Christopher to wake up and fully realize what was happening. Confusion erupted as men scrambled for safety. Coughing, Christopher yanked on his army boots and stumbled outside wearing only his government issued boxer shorts and t-shirt. Bullets whistled through the air.
He dove into a foxhole where several of his bunkmates had taken cover. He looked out to assess the situation. In the distance, muzzle flashes looked like cameras popping at the Academy Awards as they strafed their position. Green and red tracers lit the night sky.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“Bastard’s snuck in through the perimeter!” a sergeant stated. The sergeant pulled a pair of night vision goggles to his eyes and scanned the ridgeline. “Chatter indicates insurgents are getting reinforcements from a neighboring province! We’re trying to scramble choppers!”
“Where are the crews?”
“They’re being located! It’s chaos on the north side!”
Soldiers yelled and screamed and emptied their M-16’s unleashing drones of automatic gunfire. Return sniper bullets pinged and chipped away at the concrete bunkers. He could hear the thumping echo of large shells exploding in the upper valley. A rocket propelled grenade screamed overhead and hit the supply dump with a virulent purple flash. Explosion shook the earth blasting debris. Shrapnel nicked the American flag tattooed on Christopher’s right forearm.
Another RPG impact rumbled the ground. Christopher pulled his t-shirt over his mouth and nose to shield his lungs against the choking fallout. Phosphorous shells landed in the center of the encampment releasing bouncing white orbs of smoke. Thundering echoes of F-16 Fighting Falcons roared a few miles away.
“Get me a damage assessment!” a panicked voice screamed from a nearby radio. “We’re getting nailed over here! We need more guns in this fight!”
Christopher’s training automatically kicked in. Without thought to his own safety, he scrambled up and raced across the air strip toward one of the waiting Apache attack helicopters. Spinning rotors stirred clouds of sand that nearly blinded him as he hopped through the open door. Noise of the heavy engine was deafening.
The pilot turned his head.
“Who the Hell are you?” he barked.
“Sergeant first class Christopher Parker, sir! I’m a gunner specialist! What can I do?”
“Where’s your uniform, sergeant?”
“My tent’s been mortared, sir!”
The pilot turned around and flipped switches on the consol.
“Man your position!” he said. “No sense sitting here like ducks.”
Christopher dropped down into the gunner seat and pulled the safety harness across his chest. A few moments later, they got grid reports and received clearance for liftoff. Powerful thrust rattled the Apache and the imposing war machine rose into the air. Christopher’s adrenaline skyrocketed. This was what he was taught to do. What he’d spent months readying for. All the classroom work and preparation was now being put into practice.
Tracers arched across the sky. Machine gun fire popped rapidly from the dunes and Christopher tensed over his controls. Insurgent forces were shooting from beneath blankets that masked their heat signatures. He couldn’t get a lock.
“Over there!” the pilot stated, and steered the craft toward dozens of muzzle flashes.
Plinking sound of bullet impacts reverberated through the Apache’s interior but Christopher wasn’t overly concerned. The Apache’s reinforced, double thick steel hull was well protected against small arms fire.
“Approaching target,” the pilot said. “Maneuvering low overhead.”
The Apache turned sharply and then dropped altitude. Christopher switched on the main gun turret.
“Enemy confirmed!” the pilot stated. “Just beyond the—”
A warning siren blared. Christopher’s stomach jumped.
“They got a lock!” the pilot stated. “Evading!”
The Apache veered hard left and swooped up so quickly Christopher’s stomach felt like it slipped to his feet. The interior alarm wailed.
“Evading!” the pilot repeated.
The Apache turned so sharply Christopher thought it would roll, but the craft came out of it and then dove low.
“Can’t shake it!” the pilot hollered. “Evading!”
The Apache careened high setting off the stall warning. Fear coursed through Christopher. Sweat dripped down his spine. His heartbeat throbbed in his neck. Visions of his family, friends, and Eve raced through his mind.
“Brace!” the pilot screamed. “Oh shit! Brace! Brace! Bra—”
Explosion ripped through the craft jarring it violently sideways. The interior lit up like fireworks on Fourth of July. Exhaust turned crimson. Christopher’s body strained against the harness as the craft freefell toward the earth. The Apache seemed to momentarily regain control and then twirled recklessly bouncing Christopher against the restraints. Smoke filled the interior. Warning lights flashed and buzzed in a maelstrom of chaos. He heard the pilot scream and then felt the hard smack of the Apache hitting the sand and spin wildly as the rotors tore apart. Christopher slammed against the controls and cracked his ribs. Sunburst of pain swept across his body. He grabbed for consciousness but it winked away.

Chapter 2

“Christopher!” Janet screamed.
She ran a hand through her shoulder-length, grapefruit-colored hair feeling frustrated at her young son’s unexplained absence. If she didn’t find him soon they were going to miss his dental appointment. And the office charges if you miss.
She roamed through the living, across the den, down the hallway, and then headed up the steps, all the while her strained voice shouting, “Christopher! Christopher!”
She poked her head into her daughter’s bedroom. “Stephanie have you seen your brother?”
Stephanie was watching a movie on her ipad and texting on her phone. She looked up with distracted eyes and a questioning teenage expression.
“Who?” she asked.
Stephanie gave no sign of understanding and looked back down at her devices. “Who?”
“Real funny. He must be out back.”
Janet’s sight roamed the room: clothes everywhere, books and papers strewn about the floor, a small mountain of old Cosmo girl and Seventeen magazines stacked haphazardly in the corner. She’d been nagging Stephanie for a week to pick up, but as usual, she’d been ignored.
Why can’t Stephanie be more like Christopher? Janet thought.
Although he was only eight-years-old, Christopher was already neat and organized well beyond his years. His bed was always made and his closet was always tidy. He got that from his father who had served in Operation Desert Storm and was always arranging and tidying the house as if they were about to undergo a spot inspection.
“I want this room clean by tonight, young lady!” Janet stated, taking her frustration at Christopher’s absence out on Stephanie. “I’m tired of asking you!”
“Sure, mom,” Stephanie replied, in a leave-me-alone kind of way.
Janet’s irritation at Christopher’s disappearance was turning to anger. The sixty bucks she’d have to pay for the missed appointment gnawed at her. Christopher was going to be in big trouble if she didn’t find him in the next five minutes. She’d have Dan dole out the punishment when he came home from work. The army had made Dan good at handing out discipline.
She descended the stairs and hurried out the back door. Air was chilly and leaves on the large oak tree in the center of the freshly mowed lawn were dressed in pastel colors of early fall.
“Christopher!” she called, peering around for any indication of the boy.
He wasn’t in the yard.
She walked around the side of the quaint single home.
He wasn’t there, either.
A moment of fear seized her as she worried this may be more than him hiding from her because he didn’t want to go to the dentist. He might be hurt or kidnapped. Images of flyers with the picture of an abducted child invaded Janet’s mind. On the flyers were pictures of Christopher.
She fought the panic threatening to overwhelm her as she hurried around to the front of the house. There was no sign of him.
“Christopher!” she hollered. “Christopher, where are you?”
Stephanie’s bedroom window slid up.
“Mom, who are you yelling at?” she asked. “The whole neighborhood can hear you!”
“Where is your brother?” Janet replied, hysteria building in her tone. “We’re going to miss his appointment!”
Stephanie’s eyebrows drew together. “What are you talking about?”
“Don’t play with me, Stephanie! Help me find him!”
Her voice fractured.
“Mom,” Stephanie said. “I don’t know who Christopher is.”
“Your brother!”
Stephanie cocked her head. “I don’t have a brother!”
“Where is he? Where is he hiding?”
“I don’t know, mom! I don’t know who you’re talking about! You’re not making sense!”
Janet felt a flare of fear. Real mother’s fear. It shot through her like an exploding arrow. She ran back inside and searched frantically through the living room; throwing open closet doors and drawers and looking under the furniture, even though Christopher was too big to fit.
Stephanie had come out of her bedroom and stood at the top of the stairs. Her eyes were wide and her face pale.
“Mom, you’re scaring me.”
Janet looked at the walls. Pictures showed her and Dan, Stephanie as a baby, Stephanie taking guitar lessons, she and Dan at the beach, Stephanie’s elementary school graduation. There wasn’t a single picture of Christopher with his brown hair and bright smile. Not a single one!
“Where are they?” Janet huffed, barely able to keep it together. “Where are they?”
“What?” Stephanie asked meekly, looking like she was about to cry.
“Pictures of Christopher!” Janet screamed at the top of her lungs.
She rushed up the stairs with a heavy concussion of footsteps, passed Stephanie, who recoiled against the top railing, and swung open the door to Christopher’s bedroom. Hysteria blasted over her. She stood petrified, unable to move.
Short of breath, she took a step backward and then another and then stood a moment, heart pounding, head swimming in hallucinogenic disbelief. Shock formed a lump in her throat and would not let her speak or swallow. In a rush of terror, she flew forward to the bureau and rummaged through the drawer for Christopher’s things, throwing papers and file folders to the floor.
“Mom, are you okay?” Stephanie asked, as she slowly entered the room and stepped toward her. “Mom?” She paused. “What are you looking for in dad’s office?”
“Where are Christopher’s things?” Janet seethed, her voice manic high. “His clothes, his Star Trek bed sheets, his collection of army figures, his toy muscle cars? Where are they?”
“I… I don’t know,” Stephanie peeped.
Janet’s instinctual emotions exploded with the force of dynamite.
“Where’s my phone?” she shrieked, her eyes alive, her breath hitching. “Find my phone!”
“It’s beside the couch,” Stephanie replied, fearfully.
Janet raced down the stairs her feet barely hitting the wood. Her fingers snatched the device like a magnet to steel, but she fumbled getting Dan’s contact info on the screen. Finally, she hit it.
His phone rang once.
A third time.
“Pick up!” she screamed, exacerbated. “Pick up! Pick up! Pick—”
She drew a deep breath and shouted. “Where’s Christopher?”
“Janet, calm down,” Dan’s voice was even and rational, he was always even and rational, another trait evolved from his army training. “What’s wrong?”
Janet felt her legs buckle. She put a cautionary hand over her middle and took deep, steadying breaths to get the words out. Her eyes filled with tears and she suddenly smelled smoke.
“I… can’t… find… Christopher!”
Momentary silence ensued from the other end. Dan cleared his throat and then said very directly.
“Who’s Christopher?”
Smell of smoke intensified and she started coughing.

Chapter 3

Christopher came to in what was left of the ravaged, smoke-filled fuselage and started coughing. Pain knifed through him. His t-shirt was blood-soaked and in shreds and clinging gruesomely to his torso. His side ached and his brain was drowsy with a head injury. Tremendous ringing chimed in his ears, but he could hear the crackling roar of fire combined with sparking electronics.
He unsnapped his harness, reached out with his good hand, and shook the pilot’s shoulder.
“Sir!” he choked out. “Sir, are you okay?”
He shook the pilot again and then stopped when he saw the long piece of metal sticking through the pilot’s throat and bright red bubbles frothing from the injury. The pilot’s eyes were open and fixed and the whole left side of his head was smashed in where his helmet had cracked. Christopher reeled back as nausea rolled his stomach. He had never seen a dead body before.
A gauge exploded spewing tiny spears of glass. Aloft on adrenaline and wracked with pain and fear, he kicked out a panel, spraining his ankle, and crawled from the burning craft. Flames rose into the night sky causing shadows to shimmy on the sand. Pillars of black smoke vomited from the wreckage.
Dazed and bleeding, Christopher trundled into the desert and tried to acclimate himself to figure which way he should hike to the base. His hands trembled violently at the thought of the dead pilot and his own dreadful predicament, alone and unarmed in enemy territory. It was stupid of him to climb aboard the Apache without a sidearm.
He figured the Apache had traveled around four or five miles. Rescue and recovery should be swift. His platoon was the best group of soldiers with which he’d ever served. They had trained together at Fort Bragg and had won so many commendations that they were assigned to Afghanistan as an intact unit.
Though RPG attacks on the base were quite common it never resulted in any real damage or casualties, except for tonight. In the seven months Christopher had been stationed in the desert, he’d only fired his gun about a half dozen times at enemy soldiers. He spent most of his time patrolling the local villages, providing security, and flushing out possible insurgents.
Something at the periphery of his vision caught his attention. He sensed a presence as a predator senses prey. A human shadow cut across the desert sand. Christopher heard voices. Were his men coming for him? Were they here?
No! These were foreign voices, not his fellow soldiers.
Christopher spotted an armed man and withdrew into the shadows before the man saw him. He limped toward a small dune hoping to hide, but there wasn’t much place to conceal oneself in a desert with little vegetation.
Three more human shapes moved through the darkness and Christopher made a shambling attempt to run away but was blocked when two other armed men stepped from behind an outcropping of rock. The men wore turbans and dirty, black combat boots. Firelight from the burning Apache glinted off the barrels of AK47’s aimed at him.
Realization dawned frighteningly that he was now a prisoner of war. He raised his hands high overhead in surrender, wincing in pain at the movement.
“Please help me,” Christopher said. “I’m injured.”
“Knees!” one of the men barked in a heavy, Middle Eastern accent. “Knees, Dog!”
The man stepped up and slammed the butt of his gun into Christopher’s chest. Impact snapped his cracked ribs and pushed air from his lungs. Christopher reared back, gasping. Another gun butt smashed into the back of his skull, dropping him in a heap to the sand and nearly knocking him unconscious.
Another man dressed like the others walked from the dark surroundings. He was also carrying an AK47. He said something to the group and then stepped up to Christopher. He shouted in words Christopher had not been in-country long enough to have learned, pointed to the burning Apache, and then toward the sky. He said something else and then butted Christopher in the face with the stock of his gun. Pain was like a bolt of lightning. The man did it a second time, harder. Agony roared through Christopher’s soul.
The men spoke to each other and seemed to be having a discussion. Then the hard steel tip of a boot nailed him in the side like being disemboweled by a sword. He howled as more of his ribs snapped.
The man kicked him in the side again.
And again.
And again.
Hurt was suffocating, consuming, devouring. Christopher’s mind floated free of his body becoming a spectator, not a participant in his own beating. After a few more kicks the assault stopped and he heard the grumble of a diesel engine.
Hands grabbed roughly at his shoulders, pulled him up, and threw him into the back of a jeep. He crumpled against a steel ammunition box and metal container reeking of raw gasoline. The vehicle lurched forward.
“You will die, Dog,” one of the men said, with a heavy accent, and then spit on him. “You will die soon.”
Christopher felt consciousness slipping into a webby fog, slipping away to somewhere else.

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Chapter 4

Benjamin could only stand and stare, mouth agape, eyes feeling as wide as saucers focused on the now blank spot on the wall beside the huge, stained glass window above the Torah case. Terror momentarily froze his brain and paralyzed his body. Finally, he drew a shaky breath, exhaled slowly, and looked around. He was alone in the Temple.
In the back of his mind, his inner voice questioned; Was it a vision? A revelation? A miracle? Or something else?
His heart yoyo’d. His pulse beat in his temples. He had seen something he could not believe. Something that wasn’t even possible. He forced himself to blink and channeled his thoughts to try and make sense of it. One moment, he was staring at the stained glass and the backdrop of sunlight against it and the next…
He stroked his thin beard with the tips of his fingers and then shook his head as if too clear it, as if he could clear it? Impossible! His mind skipped like a stone across water. In his twenty-plus years as representative of God he had never witnessed anything like what he just saw.
He turned away and started toward the back of the synagogue. If he had ever doubted his calling in life and devotion to a higher power, those doubts were now completely erased. Something beyond this world did exist! He was certain of it!
“Are you okay, Rabbi Greenberg?” a male voice asked.
Benjamin was in a near trance-like state of trying to comprehend the vision and hadn’t noticed the young man holding a manila folder standing in front of the exit doors into the parking lot.
“I said hello,” the young man said. “You walked right passed like I was invisible.”
Benjamin stopped and for a long interval stared at the boy.
“Oh, I, uh…” Benjamin stuttered, attempting to compose himself. “I’m sorry, Zachary.”
Zachary was here for a bar mitzvah lesson, Benjamin had almost forgotten.
“I’m ready,” Zachary said. “I’ve been studying my lines all week.”
“That’s good, Zachary, that’s real good.” Benjamin hesitated, grasping at the first excuse he could think of not to teach the boy today. “I’m feeling a bit under the weather. Would it be all right if we rescheduled the lesson? I believe I’m due for a nap.”
Zachary looked at him with a slightly perplexed expression. “Cancel?”
Benjamin nodded grimly. “We’ll catch up on your studies next week.”
“Uh sure, Rabbi,” Zachary replied. “I’ll call my mom and let her know to pick me back up.”
“That would be best.”
The boy withdrew his cell phone and walked toward the doors pausing long enough to say, “Hope you feel better, Rabbi.”
“Thank you, Zachary,” Benjamin replied. “Tell your mother I’m sorry.”
“I will.”
As soon as Zachary stepped through the doors and onto the parking lot, Benjamin hurried into his office and shut the door. His whole body was trembling and he thought about taking a slug off the bottle of brandy he kept under his talus in the top drawer of his desk. Sweat was beginning to make his shirt feel uncomfortably moist. He needed the brandy! Not wanted it. Needed it! The way Stephanie needed her vodka. Everything he’d ever known about reality had just come into question and he was having a hard time sorting it out. Confusion had tendrils buried deep within his brain.
He stepped to his desk, dropped down into the chair, and pulled open the drawer. He pushed aside papers: overdue bills for Stephanie’s stint in rehab, his latest sermon on letting go of past regrets, the divorce form Stephanie didn’t know about and he hadn’t yet filled out; and underneath the talus, withdrew the bottle. He hesitated, thought again about what he had seen in the Temple and then took a swig straight from the neck. Liquid burned as it raced down his throat but the numbing warmth did little to calm his nerves. His soul was in overdrive. What he saw. Was it a glimpse of heaven? A glimpse of Hell? Purgatory?
He splashed brandy into his coffee mug and then stashed the bottle away. He drank a sip and swirled the liquid staring absently at the thin patina left on the mug’s sides.
The vision certainly wasn’t heaven. Whatever it was, he couldn’t shake the scenes or sensations he experienced. He didn’t just witness something surreal he had become a part of it.
He had come aware in another person’s body. Walls around him were cinderblock and the floor was sand. He felt intense heat. A small barred window was the only ventilation. Light came from a single, white bulb hanging from a cord and layered with dust. He was on his stomach with his head to the side, bound in a reverse pretzel position with thick leg irons shackled to his ankles and his wrists tied behind him. Another rope bound his elbows just above the joints. A heavy object, probably a rock, was strapped on his back and pressed heavily on his body causing pain; not immediate burning nerve and severing of skin pain, but a mental, foggy anguish that enduring prolonged physical discomfort caused.
He remembered something else, too, a tarnished silver bowl with a few tablespoons of dirty water positioned just out of reach.
“Am I disturbing you, Rabbi Greenberg?”
The voice jerked Benjamin from his recollection and he looked up to see a middle-age man, short, and balding at the crown, standing in the open doorway of his office. Benjamin slid the mug into his desk drawer, collected himself, and cleared his throat.
“Not at all, Rabbi Goldman,” he said, gesturing him in. “Can I help you with something?”
Rabbi Goldman wandered along the side of the room with his hands in his pockets and then stepped up to the desk. His look of concern sharpened his features.
“Coming in from the parking lot, I met up with the boy you sent away,” Rabbi Goldman said. “He told me you weren’t feeling well.”
“That’s right.” Benjamin replied, with a defensive jut of his chin. He leaned back in his chair as the numbing effects of the brandy swam through his system. “I’ve got a bout of stomach flu or something.”
Rabbi Goldman gave a shaky laugh and made it known that he had smelled the brandy by sniffing loudly. “Or something?”
He stepped beside Benjamin.
“Could this something be Christopher?” he asked.
Benjamin’s guard went up and his defensiveness heightened.
“It’s been seven months,” Benjamin said. He felt a muscle twitch in the corner of his right eye. “I’m fine.”
Rabbi Goldman nodded sympathetically. “I know you are, but it’s not you I’m worried about.”
Benjamin pushed back his chair and stood. “Stephanie’s fine, also! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go home and take a nap!”
He came around from behind the desk and headed toward the door.
“Ben,” Rabbi Goldman called after him in a gentle tone.
Benjamin stopped and turned his head. “Yes.”
“The Lord has reason for everything, even Christopher. Don’t lose faith.”
Benjamin made a gruff noise that could have passed for a laugh and waved his hand dismissively. “Faith got me through Christopher’s death and Stephanie’s grieving, how could I lose it now?”
Rabbi Goldman took a deep breath, seeming ready to say more, and then gave a morose nod of understanding.
Benjamin headed out looking confident, but his shoulders sagged as soon as he was beyond Rabbi Goldman’s sight. It was a little past three o’clock and Benjamin was going home to what felt like a tomb. Stephanie would be drunk when he got there. She always was by mid-day. Ever since those three army officers came to their door late that dreadful Tuesday night and informed them that Christopher was gone. It was her way of coping with his death, he understood that, but it was also ruining the incredible love they once shared.
Benjamin felt a bit dizzy as he walked out to the parking lot. October air was crisp and clean, immersed in the chill of coming winter and the scent of turning leaves. Sky was cobalt blue and the sun shone with an intensity that warmed his face and shoulders. He thought about God and the notion that an all-powerful being was watching over humanity and playing us like chess pieces in some grand game for which we could never comprehend the outcome. If Christopher’s death was a part of God’s plan, then it damn better all be worth it.
Benjamin drew a long, slow breath and tried to change the subject in his mind. If he thought too deeply about the logic of life and death he would begin to question the true meaning of God and religion; did God create humanity or did humanity create God? That wasn’t a good thing considering the tragedies he’s had to endure.
Perhaps, Rabbi Goldman was right? Perhaps, he was losing faith?
It was a chilling thought.
But now the vision.
For what purpose?
Questions bloomed. Was it God’s way of showing him that something beyond this mortality existed? That the Bible, and Torah, and Koran, and all the other religious doctrines out there were true? Although Christopher was gone from this world was there another where he lived? Is there a place where we all go when we die?
Benjamin considered the questions and a chilly horror rippled through him. If his vision was the afterlife it was not a destination he wanted to explore.
He unlocked his car door, slid into the driver’s seat, cranked the engine, and headed out. He glided onto the familiar onramp, drove through the intersection, and cruised down the highway navigating through the ebb and flow of traffic.
Like a dream one remembers vividly upon waking but then slowly disappears as the day’s events unfold, as each second passed the vision faded from the forefront of Benjamin’s priorities and the troubles of his life and marriage oozed back into the moment.
Stephanie’s attempt at alcohol rehab had failed and she thought AA was a joke. She had seemingly given up on hope and life simultaneously, accepting and content to spend the remainder of her days in a vodka-induced haze; an existence Benjamin hated, yet in his own way also contributed too. He was no puritan by any meaning of the term and spent many days after Christopher’s death drinking away the hours alongside his wife. But God’s calling was stronger than the booze and he got control of his out-of-control situation and his path through life, except for a few stumbles off the wagon every now and again, especially after what happened today.
But Stephanie, his dear and treasured Stephanie, had lost the battle with her demons. She and Christopher were very close as siblings and when he joined the army and went off to war his absence caused her many sleepless, worry-filled nights. His sudden loss affected her deeply and possibly irreparably.
Not a week after her thirty-days of rehab were up, Benjamin found her passed out at the kitchen table with her face in a pool of her own vodka-stinking vomit. She promised it was just a misstep, but by the following week she was back to downing a bottle a day. He wanted to divorce her but thought of himself as a selfish heel for desiring an easy way out of an awful situation. Their wedding vows were sacred to him. Through good times and bad, till death do us part, weren’t just a babble of words, they were the mantra which had gotten the two of them through horrible times that just kept coming.
By the time Benjamin turned into his driveway his thoughts were almost entirely on taking care not to upset Stephanie and making sure she got to bed okay. As he parked, his vision of the prison cell faded even more from his mind and by the time he stepped up to the porch it was gone from his mental priorities.
He steeled himself, unlocked the door, and headed inside his emotions thick with dread. The medicinal/sterile odor of vodka spiked the air. Stephanie was in the den, sprawled in her usual chair with a half empty glass of clear liquid on the little coffee table beside her. Noise of him entering must have woken her and she barely acknowledged him as he entered the room.
“Hi, Steph,” he greeted, trying to act cheerful to see her.
“Hey,” she slurred, and yawned, her eyes half-open. “How… how was your day?”
He sighed. The sight of her in this inebriated state depressed him. She was still pretty, still had a nice shape to her body, and had beautiful grapefruit-colored hair like her mother, and he should want her more than anything, but he didn’t. And the guilt of his lack of love weighed heavily upon his shoulders.
He dropped a kiss on the top of her head.
“My day was fine,” he said. “How about yours?”
Stephanie smiled and her heavy lids closed. Her chin dropped to her chest and she let out a snore. He stood a moment staring at her and feeling dispirited, remembering the good times and intimacy. He was a stranger to her now, someone she saw through brief moments of sobriety; a roommate who shared a bed and an occasional meal, nothing more.
He stepped into the kitchen without a backward glance. An empty bottle of vodka was on the counter and another half-empty one was on the stove. It looked like Stephanie had attempted to make dinner and pieces of baked chicken and dirty plates were everywhere. Benjamin opened the fridge and took a plate of two-day old roast beef that he had made himself, heated it in the microwave, and then grabbed a slice of white bread, silverware and a napkin, and headed to the basement to fiddle with his toy trains.
Toy trains were his childhood obsession and now as an adult he had acquired a collection any enthusiast would dream to own. Most every night he tinkered away at this and that, built new track, or painted a miniature building. It was his refuge from the duties of his sanctimonious position and the torture his home life had become since Christopher’s death.
Tonight was especially exciting for him because yesterday Fed Ex had delivered the antique 1920’s steam engine he’d bought off Ebay. Anticipation of an evening with his new toy tickled his insides as he unwrapped the packing. Upstairs, the floor creaked signaling that Stephanie was out of her chair and probably going to slink up to the bedroom. Her new bedtime was most people’s dinner time.
“Goodnight, Steph!” he shouted up the steps.
She mumbled something and he heard the bedroom door shut. Now, he could relax and enjoy.
Toy trains took him to a different time and a different place, when Stephanie was a doting wife and Christopher was alive and living down the street and all that marriage and life was supposed to be was real and happy. A time when friends, relatives, and neighbors gathered at his house every Fourth of July for his annual pool and grill party. When Stephanie talked of having children of their own and raising a big family.
A lump jumped into his throat as he realized those days were gone forever. Since Christopher’s death, his dream had become a nightmare and he saw no way to awaken from it. He didn’t want a divorce. He loved Stephanie, truly cared about her in the deepest, spiritual, soul-connected definition. But her drinking and the mess of her life had become unbearable. She refused further treatment for her alcoholism and refused to change her lifestyle. She believed God took Christopher away on purpose. That the almighty is a vindictive entity and so there was no reason to uphold Its’ values.
Her behavior would have been tough to take in any marriage, but he was a rabbi, a spiritual leader. People looked to him for divine guidance and yet he was partnered with a woman who cursed the divine. As Stephanie’s faith shriveled it sapped moisture from his own, planting heretical ideas into the black, terrible depths of his psyche.
He pushed this ugliness from his brain and concentrated on the new train engine. Carefully, he placed it on the tracks and was delighted when the little red lights on its side brightened. He stepped over to the control panel and slowly pushed the throttle forward. Tiny puffs of white smoke coughed from its chimney as the little engine began to move. Benjamin smiled.
The track rippled.
He blinked several times to adjust his eyes. A small section looked as if a stream of water was running across it. He leaned closer, hesitant with wonder, and squinted to help bring it into sharper focus. There appeared to be a rip in the fabric covering the miniature hills. Only it wasn’t a rip. It was a hole. A small pool of light spilled out.
Temperature rose significantly and his body broke into a sweat. An image of a woman’s face appeared before him. She looked in her early twenties, pretty, with styled blonde hair and large, arctic blue-colored eyes.
“Help!” he heard someone cry out weakly.
The woman faded and he felt himself being pulled into a different scene of the world.
He was back in the small prison cell made of concrete blocks, bound in the reverse pretzel position and panting little puppy gasps. Two bearded men were standing on either side. One held a whip. The tarnished silver bowl with a little bit of water just out of reach.
He heard the sound of leather against flesh and felt hot, searing pain lightning across his back. He screamed in a voice that was not familiar. Another leather against flesh sound and pain rocketed between his shoulder blades. Agony was unearthly.
Stop! Benjamin tried to say but no words would come. His mouth would not move. He was incapable of operating the jaw muscles. He could not control the body he occupied. He could not struggle against the restraints.
A gruff voice said something in a foreign language and another blast of pain tore through him. His thoughts turned to Stephanie and he worried if she was also being tortured and then suddenly the basement appeared around him and he found himself standing beside the miniature tracks. The little engine was still circling but the rip/hole in the fabric was gone.
Benjamin stood as if frozen, his eyes glued open. For a good ten seconds, he was too surprised, stunned, and totally horrified to move. His knees were quaking and his insides felt like a bowling ball had settled. He looked around the basement. Everything appeared normal: laundry piled haphazardly on top of the washer, boxes of old mementos in the corner, crates of toy soldiers and miniature cars that Stephanie kept after they’d gone through Christopher’s personal affects.
Fingers numb, Benjamin shut off power to the new train engine and the little machine slowed to a stop. Final wisps of white smoke drooled from its stack.
Pressing a hand to his racing heart, Benjamin stepped slowly from the room and headed quickly up the stairs. He hurried through the hallway and up the second flight to their bedroom. Stephanie was a snoring lump in the bed. Light from the hallway illuminated her form.
“Stephanie!” he said, trying to rouse her. “Wake up! Something happened! Wake up!”
She groaned, having sunk into deep slumber.
“Come on, Stephanie!” he urged, shaking her shoulder. “This is important! Wake up!”
He pulled the blanket down to her waist and jumped back with surprise. Terror iced every nerve in his body.
“What?” she croaked, coming wide awake. “What is it?”
Blood drained from Benjamin’s head and rushed to his feet. His eyes scanned the room for something he could use as a weapon.
“Who?” he gasped, his breath hard to gather. “Who are you?”
She smothered a yawn with the back of her hand. “What?”
“Where’s Stephanie?”
“Huh?” She blinked into full coherency. “I’m right here. What’s wrong with you?”
“You’re not…”
He back-pedaled slowly, across the room toward the bathroom.
“Why did you wake me?” she asked. “Benjamin, what are you doing?”
He shut the door without answering and felt a blast of hot air.

Chapter 5

Tony felt a blast of hot air and balked it off as nerves. He knew he was going to die someday, everyone does. He just didn’t like being told when it was going to happen. Especially, for a crime he didn’t commit. He could never kill an eight-year-old boy. The jury had it wrong. He had befriended his neighbor Christopher Parker, that’s all. The judge, biased motherfucker, everyone knew he hated blacks, had Tony convicted even before the guilty verdict was pronounced.
Judgment day was upon him. There was nothing he could do to stop the inevitable. All the t’s were crossed and the i’s dotted. He was going to die at the age of forty-six. The state was going to do it.
At the moment, he felt amazingly calm. Almost at peace with what was about to happen. Weird sensation of the comprehension of the finality of his life. There must be meaning to this? Having always been an atheist he now hoped and prayed that there was something beyond this existence. He would meet God or something or somebody who would make him understand why he was taken so young for a crime he didn’t commit. He must have a purpose in the afterlife more than the present moment and that’s why this was happening to him. He was supposed to die for some greater purpose. That’s how he rationalized it.
On his last night before the end, Tony had laid on his thin mattress in the death cell thinking about his life. Born into poverty, he had worked his way from a dishwasher in a truck stop diner to head chef in an expensive fine dining establishment. After a few years, he saved enough money to buy a small rancher in a nice community where he met and married an amazing woman, Valerie. They had just opened a new savings account to eventually open their own restaurant when Christopher Parker went missing and then was discovered shortly thereafter a victim of a grisly murder.
Tony thought back to those courtroom days nearly a decade ago. The prosecution, the pictures, those horrible, horrible pictures, thrust into his face.
The shed where two investigative police had found Christopher Parker’s body was by their own description, a slaughterhouse. Photographs showed a mutilated corpse surrounded by pools of blood splashed onto the walls and soaked into the wood floor.
Authorities accused Tony of beating Christopher and then killing and partially dismembering him. Cell phone records placed Tony at his own home across the street from Christopher’s house at the time. Neighbors saw Tony talking with the boy just hours before Christopher went missing. Tony had been the only suspect in a town mad for vengeance and retribution. Townspeople, some who he’d known for years, called him a monster and the devil. His own family shunned him after the evidence was revealed and the guilty verdict read. Even his beloved Valerie wanted nothing more to do with him. It was heartbreaking.
The whole community breathed a giant sigh of relief the day he was shackled and sent away forever. The only person who believed in his innocence was ma.
Ma’s belief got him through tough days in prison, long days of solitude and reflection during the awful hollowness of isolation. Days when death seemed a more comfortable option than life, only to have reality rear its ugly head and give him a tingly, jolt-to-the-stomach realization that his time was limited. He would go through periods of disbelief, then shock, and then he would yearn for freedom and cry unabashedly at the hand fate had dealt him, paralyzed by fathomless despair.
An innocent man condemned to die.
The last three years since his appeal had been denied was like a nightmare from which he could never awake. Each minute, Hell, each passing second, was like a slow drip toward the inevitable. A maddening wait for the end of his life.
And now that day was upon him.
For his last meal, Tony had chosen fried chicken with corn bread and grits. The smell of the freshly prepared food brought his mind briefly back to his childhood and long, lazy days trawling for crawfish along the Mississippi basin. By prison standards, the entree looked and smelled delicious, but he couldn’t bring himself to take even a single bite. His stomach had been knotted tight with dreadful apprehension.
They had brought him to the holding cell dressed in orange prison garb, but now corrections officers watched as he disrobed and put on a white jumpsuit. They escorted him to another holding cell.
Two stays of execution were phoned in while he waited for his death and for a little while Tony thought the corrections officers might actually lead him back to his cell to continue his purgatory. But eventually the calls stopped and the guards came for him for real.
He heard the turn of a deadbolt and a whispery creak as the steel door opened.
“Mr. Campbell, it’s time,” one said with finality, from outside the cell.
The guard’s voice caused the tiny hairs on the back of Tony’s neck to prickle, detonating the reality of his situation. He’d never feel happiness again. He’d never take another walk outside. He’d never enjoy another good steak. He’d never kiss another girl. He’d never listen to music. He’d never see the moon or feel the sun shine warmly on his face. Everything and all things were going to disappear forever.
In a whirl of panic, Tony’s fingers locked onto the steel bars like leeches and he began a long, shrieking cry.
“I’m innocent!” he sobbed. “Don’t let me die like this!”
With a little effort, the corrections officers pulled him free and he was led wobbly-kneed from the cell down a long, sterile hallway with the warden ahead and a reverend with a somber expression keeping pace beside him. Lights from the fluorescents above seemed extra bright and their electric hum nearly deafening.
“Please don’t make me walk so fast!” Tony pleaded through tears, as he wept into his handcuffed hands. “Don’t make me go so fast!”
Three more guards standing at the end encircled him as the other guards ushered him toward a door. The guard in front took out a set of keys and slid one into the lock. Click echoed loud as a thunderclap and the door opened.
The room was bright and clean, surrounded on three sides by clear glass windows. A single, metal chair, with tubes going in and coming out was at the center. Tony looked through the windows at the small crowd gathered in the witness room adjacent to the execution chamber. He recognized most of the faces from the trial. There were Christopher’s parents, Janet and Dan, his sister Stephanie, and Christopher’s boyhood friend Roger, now all grown up. Under harsh questioning, Roger had attested to seeing Christopher and Tony together that fateful day. Mrs. Wilson from the neighborhood, who had initially called the police on Tony because of her own malicious suspicions, was also present and toward the front. And there was ma, sitting in the back row dabbing at her eyes with a white handkerchief. She looked old and haggard, gray and worn out from the stress his life had brought upon her.
Tony’s throat constricted. Every muscle in his body shook uncontrollably and he fought back the urge to crumple.
One of the corrections officers clasped Tony’s arm tightly and directed him where to go. Severe panic hit. Survival instinct told him to run, to scream, to fight for more time on this planet. His head swung frantically around while his mind conjured any means of escape.
Crushing sadness of the impossibility of freedom hit like a lead wrecking ball. His life was over!
He stumbled and went nearly immobile as the guards maneuvered him into the seat. His hands trembled fiercely as they strapped them down. Mindless instinct caused him to impulsively struggle free, forcing the corrections officers to tie the binds tighter, cutting off circulation to his fingers.
“Don’t fight it,” one prompted him. “It’ll go easier.”
Tremendous shivers rolled over Tony.
“Will it hurt?” he asked, meekly.
“Not as much as what that boy went through,” the guard muttered, through clenched teeth.
The guard looked up at him with an accusatory expression, controlled anger filling his eyes.
Tony’s hope crushed into profound sadness. Presumed guilty until the end. How awful that he would leave this world a reviled, hated man, the flaw in his justice system never to be revealed.
The warden stepped in front of him and unfolded a piece of paper. He looked at the room of spectators, then at Tony, and then at what was written down.
“This court,” he read, with an unwavering gaze and steady determination. “Having sentenced the defendant Tony Campbell on this second day of September, 2017, to be executed by lethal injection, now carries out that sentence. Mr. Campbell, do you have any final words?”
Distraught, Tony’s mind was a thick, toxic sludge of despair.
“I’m innocent!” he cried out, raising his eyes to the ceiling. “I’m innocent, dear God!”
The crowd of onlookers didn’t react. Tony looked at them but wished he hadn’t. They were staring at him. He could see them through the glass; see the loathing in their eyes. Ma got up and headed for the exit.
“Don’t go!” Tony screamed, as they placed a black hood over his head. “Momma! Momma! Don’t leave me!”
Long, silent seconds ticked by and then the feeling of a sharp pinprick as a needle dug an intravenous line into his vein. The effect on his bloodstream was both immediate and soothing as the preliminary narcotic drugs took effect infusing him with peace and calm. Anxiety dissolved. Endorphins flooded his system and his fingers and toes started to tingle. Although the feeling numbed his body his mind remained sharp, clear, and aware of what was occurring.
Artificially induced bliss swelled and his thoughts drifted through the divine moments of his life: playing baseball with his friends on Conner’s field, graduating from the University of Mississippi, his move up east, getting a job at Jack’s Burgers and Fries, the first time he ever saw Valerie and fell instantly in love.
He wondered if he would meet Christopher Parker in the afterlife? Then he could ask him who the killer really was. Who was the bastard who had taken Christopher’s life and then veered his own life so completely out of control?
A tunnel of light appeared in his mind. Blinding, milky white light, and with it came a new feeling of total peace and harmony with the universe. He was dying. This was it.
Weird to feel his breathing shallow and then stop.
His bloodstream still.
His pupils dilate and freeze.
His extremities loosen.
A spot of color appeared at the very core of this tunnel. Tony gazed at it with his inner eye and caught a glimpse of what appeared to be walls made of concrete blocks. Amazingly, he drew a deep breath and in the back of his throat tasted the hot, dry air of a desert. He felt instantly dehydrated.
He came aware in some sort of a prison cell. He was on his stomach bound in a reverse pretzel position with heavy leg irons shackled to his ankles and his wrists restrained behind him. Another rope bound his elbows just above the joints. A heavy rock was strapped to his back and pressed on his shins and feet. Ropes strangled his flesh causing searing pain. He screamed out but it was not his own anguished voice that he heard. It was the voice of someone else, someone in great pain that he was experiencing.
Is this Hell? he thought, through the agony.
On the sandy floor, just out of reach, was a tarnished silver bowl filled with a few tantalizing spoonfuls of dirty water.
“Help me!” his voice cried out, sounding nothing like his own.
Surroundings dimmed into dark and pain subsided. Ground beneath him turned soft and comfortable. Swishing gurgles of a working dishwasher sounded in his ears. Aromas of baked chicken drifted into his nose. He opened his eyes and his vision jumped into focus. He was on a sofa facing a twenty-seven inch, flat screen television. Ping of a microwave oven came from the other room.
Tony bolted up like defibrillator paddles had shocked him out of a heart attack, and nearly leapt off the couch. His head flew from side to side as he took in the interior surroundings and let them fill his field of vision: short corridor leading to a small kitchen with the living room to the left and the dining room to the right; bedrooms in the back. Pictures on the walls showed a much younger he and Valerie at the beach, he and Valerie on their wedding day, Valerie getting her Master’s degree, and one neon print of a giant palm tree jutting out over a cobalt ocean.
He recognized the surroundings but couldn’t believe it. His mouth dropped open. Adrenaline fizzled through his veins. He was at home!
He scrambled from the couch nearly knocking over a lamp and raced to the window. Outside, the world was exactly as he remembered nearly a decade ago: the small tomato garden in the back, the overgrown Azalea bush, Valerie’s red Toyota parked in the driveway.
His breathing increased. He patted himself to feel if he was solid, fearing momentarily that he may have become a ghost. His skin felt warm and soft, his bones hard. He was wearing what was once his favorite blue t-shirt and jeans that fit snug.
“What’s all the commotion?” a voice asked, sending chills of excitement up his spine.
Valerie stepped into the room with a disgusted expression on her face. Even with that look she was still the prettiest thing he’d ever seen, with coco-colored skin, rich brown eyes, and long, artificially straightened black hair.
“Val—” Disbelief caused Tony’s voice to catch in his throat.
“Your ma’s gonna be here in less than an hour and your clothes are still all over the place!” she said, dividing an angry glance between him and the mess on the floor. “Come, now! You said you’d help me clean!”
Tony stood nearly immobile, his jaw moved to speak but shock caused words to freeze in his throat. His mind marveled in disorientation and amazement. The last years of his life were so clear in his head: prison, his trial, existing on death row, three years in solitary confinement, and his execution. Events of his life that appear to have been erased were as real to him as the world he existed in right now. It couldn’t have all been a dream.
Or could it?
“Don’t just stand there,” Valerie said. “Pick up so I can run a vacuum.”
Numb, Tony grabbed his sneakers and the small pile of discarded clothes and headed toward the laundry room. Movement outside caught his attention. He stepped to the window and looked out across the street. His breath halted and his eyelids froze open. His face stiffened with shock. If there had been food in his belly he would have retched. But all he could do was stand there with absolute incredulity and overwhelming relief and disbelief.
Christopher Parker was outside standing on the sidewalk talking with his friend Roger.
Tony reached for the doorknob to go outside. Pain burned through his shoulders. Temperature rose and he started panting for breath. A flash of white light popped in front of his face.

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