I had initially pictured Eternity without all the Vikings. I suppose anyone raised in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood might make the same mistake. Though I've never believed in Heaven or Hell my heart would burn in Eternity forever. I find this bit of cosmic irony so poignant I have no choice but to share the tale.
I had never thought of myself as the type of person to burn. I'd seen it happen to my friends, but somehow I'd always been spared. Inevitably, a member of the opposite sex had been the one to fuel the flames. I had survived any number of relationships, both good and bad, because I'd always remained skeptical as to the purity or purpose of my erstwhile partners. I suppose you could say my inability to fall head over heels was a circumstance I had never regretted.
I was one of the waking dead. The nine-to-fivers. Just another zombie standing on the R train weekday mornings. I had the same love/hate relationship with fast food restaurants as everyone else. I read the same newspapers, watched the same sitcoms. My life was comfortable, though before I wandered into Eternity I'd never realized it.
It had been a day like all my daysboth too long and too short. By 36th Street enough people had disembarked to allow me to sit. Ten minutes later I was on my way back to my apartment on Ridge Boulevard. I always walked down Ovington Court because it was one of the few places in Brooklyn where the street was still paved with cobblestones. Perhaps I liked it because it always looked the same while the rest of the world was busy redecorating. Except on that particular day, change had discovered Ovington Court.
It was an odd street for a bar. Too residential and too inconspicuous. Too Catholic and too respectable. Yet there it was, a bar where none had been before, lit by a bright pink neon sign. I had been that way only a day earlier and hadn't noticed it. I almost walked past, but just this once, curiosity overcame inertia and I stepped inside.
A beautiful blond woman carrying a tray of beer turned to me and smiled. "Welcome to Eternity."
I smiled back and allowed the door to close behind me. It took my eyes a few moments to adjust to the smoke and dim lighting. I wandered further, looking around without making much sense of things. I suppose entering Eternity for the first time would leave even Magellan disoriented. I crossed the room to the bar and turned to watch, trying to wrap my mind about the scene.
It was the Vikings I first noticed, though they called themselves Northmen. An apt name for a people who spent a lot of time burning villages in Europe. They were as they had appeared in movieslarge men with long hair, wild beards and yes, horns on their helmets. Behind them torches burned on the walls providing both the light and smoke. Most of the Vikings were congregated around a fire pit over which roasted what could only be a boar. I turned when one of them looked my way. I had no idea which of us didn't belong here and had no desire to find out.
It was at that moment I decided to make for the door and would have done just that, were it not for the serving wench who blocked my way.
"What may I get thee, Sir?" The rest of this place might have been a hallucination, but her smile was real.
I stuttered briefly, then mumbled something that might have passed for the word beer. Apparently my feeble attempt at communication was successful, for she turned and spoke to the bartender. So silently had he been standing there, I hadn't noticed him.
There was about him an intensity that bordered on disturbing though he was only a boy. He couldn't have been more than fifteen and the scar on his right cheek may have added a couple of years to his appearance. I wanted to look away, but felt compelled to stare. His English bore a hint of his Russian origin.
"You're new here."
"I'm new? How long has this place been in business?"
"Since the beginning of time."
I almost chuckled but thought better of it. "I'm Scott Levitt."
"And what, Mr. Levitt, brings you to Eternity?"
"Fortune, though whether it is good or bad I can't yet say."
The bartender smiled. "My name is Alexei, but you can call me Alex as most of the regulars do."
"Yes. Seems like the same faces congregate here all the time." He placed a beer on the bar in front of me. "We have a lot of repeat customers."
"I walk down this street every night. I've never seen this place."
"Perhaps this is all a dream and you will soon wake from it."
I lifted the mug and took a swallow. I couldn't place the brand. I didn't think I'd be able to. I turned so I wouldn't have to look at him, and my eyes found the barmaid. She was small, but not fragile. Her confident manner and the way she moved lent her an air of strength. Her hair looked slightly darker than it had by the door, her eyes even bluer. She could have been Scandinavian, perhaps Swedish. Her nose was small, her lips full. And her outfit did little to conceal her figure. She wasn't thin, as a model might be, but she curved in and out in all the right places. She noticed me watching and moved in my direction.
"A fine evening, M'lord."
"Please, call me Scott." I almost ran a hand through my hair but stopped myself.
"I am called Charity. Wilt thou return, Sir?"
The odd phrasing of the question made me uncomfortable. "I can do you one better. What time do you get off?"
She laughed then turned at the sound of her name. She looked back toward me, briefly. "Most gracious of thee to ask."
She moved off to take another order. A snicker from further down the bar drew my attention.
"Just wandered in here, did ya?" He was an older man, dressed the way I would expect a man of the dark ages to dressa brown woolen cloak, clasped with silver, and polished leather boots. All he was missing was a sword. As I looked around, it seemed everyone wore clothing from that time period or close to it. By contrast, my own dark gray business suit was an oddity.
I didn't answer. I didn't know what to say.
"Ya might as well forget 'bout Charity. She's not goin' anywhere." He snickered again.
"Is that a fact?"
"She works in Eternity. Ya shouldn't be 'ere, ya know."
"And why is that?"
"Look at yaself. Look at us."
I was going to argue, wanted to, but knew he was right. "It's time for me to go."
"So soon?" Charity was behind me again.
"Yes, I'm afraid so. I have work early tomorrow."
Sorrow filled her eyes and I felt a pang. I didn't know her. She didn't know me. Even women I'd been close to had never reacted that way to my departure. I stood to leave and took a step toward the door.
"I must go."
She didn't say anything. She kept watching, waiting, perhaps even hoping. I wanted to reassure her but didn't know how.
"I'll be back."
"I will. I promise."
The man behind me snickered again. I ignored him. Without another word I crossed the room, sidestepping as I did two sparring Northmen.
Under different circumstances I'd have fled forever, but not this time. I would keep my word. I would return again to Eternity, if for no other reason than to see Charity.
That night I had a brandy before bed. It was a departure from the normal routine though, as I would find out, Eternity has a nasty way of disrupting one's life. I slept deeply. By the time I woke the next morning, I had managed to place all my thoughts on Eternity into a neat little package labeled strange, and thought no more on the subject.
I was a day older but no wiser. At work thoughts of the previous night's events kept trying to infiltrate the normalcy of my existence, but I wouldn't let them. It was just too odd to fit in with the rest of my life. The only memory I was reluctant to relinquish was of Charity's parting gaze. As the end of my day approached, I found myself returning to the image more and more.
I had made a promise. I would keep it. Just once, I would enter Eternity briefly enough to allow her to see me. Then, having fulfilled my obligation I would never return again.
The train ride home seemed different than usual. Longer. More claustrophobic. I thought I would never get back and part of me didn't want to. And I realized Eternity scared me. I didn't want to return to that entirely too odd place and knew I shouldn't; as surely as I knew I had to. By the time the train pulled into Bay Ridge Avenue, I was a wreck. Still, a promise was a promise.
I climbed the stairs to ground level and moved quickly. I wanted to get it over with. I wanted my mundane life back and feared it would never happen. By the time I reached Ovington Court I was almost running. I slowed when I reached it. The nature of the street simply wouldn't tolerate haste.
Halfway down the block I realized something was wrong. The neon sign from the previous night was nowhere in evidence. The small quaint houses that had always been there had returned while I worked. It simply wasn't possible.
That night's visit to the brandy bottle lasted somewhat longer. In spite of the alcohol, or perhaps because of it, I couldn't sleep. I kept thinking of Charity's almost pleading eyes. I kept thinking of my promise. I kept thinking of my fear and hated myself for it.
I dressed and entered the night. I couldn't remember the last time I'd been out this late but didn't care. I returned to Ovington Court. It was the same quiet street I'd known all my life. I walked from one corner to the other and back again, trying to understand what had happened. Had I hallucinated the events of the night before? Was I so desperate for something out of the norm that I'd manufactured a departure from it? I might have thought so were it not for Charity's smile and the look in her eyes.
I should have feared the memory but instead embraced it. It was all I had left of Eternity. Each night that week and the next I awoke in the middle of the night and returned to the scene of my insanity. The brandy bottle that had lasted me so long was soon empty and I replaced it. I found myself thinking strange thoughts at the most inopportune moments. I ceased to wonder what was wrong with me and instead started wondering how I had allowed my life to slip away.
Several mind-numbing months passed. I had all but given up on dreams of keeping my promise when Eternity, once again, intruded upon my life. I was returning from work. I saw the sign as soon as I turned the corner. I raced forward to greet it. At last I would be able to keep my promise and see Charity again. I didn't know which was more important.
I noticed the difference immediately. There was less smoke and more light. In fact, were it not for the sign outside, I'd have thought I had wandered into an entirely different place. The floors and walls glared white and the tables were gray catafalques. I could tell as I made my way through them to the bar, I was not in the past this time. I knew it even before I noticed the occasional alien interspersed with men and women in silver and gray space suits.
I should have been surprised to find Alex behind the bar, but wasn't.
"Good evening," I said.
He was already pouring me a beer. The glass was more ornate and lighter in color, but the beer tasted exactly the same. There are some things technology will never improve upon. I downed the entire glass and pushed it back to him. He spoke as he turned to fill it.
"I must say, I'm surprised to find you back here."
"Is Charity working tonight?"
He looked at me oddly. "No."
I waited for him to say more but he didn't. He just studied me with those too intense eyes.
"I promised her I would come back."
"More fool you. Forget about this place, Scott. Leave and go back to your life before it's too late."
"Isn't it too late already?"
Grief flickered behind his eyes but he hid it admirably. "I sincerely hope not."
I finished my second beer. "A promise is a promise." I rose.
"I will return."
Anger took me then. "What is this place? Why are you so anxious to get rid of me?"
"Get out of here. Don't come back."
"You can't stop me."
"I won't try, but if you know what's good for you, you'll listen."
I dropped my head. "Eternity can't always be reached, can it?"
"Not by you. Not anymore. This was your last chance. That was your last drink. Now get out."
I rose and slowly made my way to the door. I knew he spoke the truth. Knew he understood the nature of this place that was not a place. I left the bar and stood outside for a long time. I didn't start home. I thought about Alex and his odd behavior...about his seeming concern...about Charity's eyes. It had been my last chance.
Eternity was still before me, but for how long? I almost started home but instead opened the door and stepped inside. The darkness was back though the motif was different. I seemed to be in an Asian setting, perhaps ancient China. Most of the patrons looked Asian. Some were dressed in armor. I heard no English spoken, though when I looked across the room Alex was still tending bar.
I backed out, closed the door and opened it. I was greeted by a scene that might have been out of the Arabian Nights.
Again and again I closed and opened the door.
Open... a room full of seafaring folk speaking a Nordic tongue, fishing nets hanging on the walls.
Open... a predominantly black crowd dressed in rags, iron collars about their necks, dancing in the chains from which they'd only recently divested themselves.
Open... a Polynesian people danced, laughed and drank as they honored the volcano god, trying desperately to appease him in their last hours of life.
Open... business men and women in suits and skirts, looking for all the world as if they had just come from a crash of the stock market. It could have been any bar in the Wall Street area on any night.
Open... the revelers were all naked, chanting in a language I'd never know, dancing a haunting rhythm that would stay in my mind through the next several scenes.
I was reminded of flipping television channels too quickly with a remote control. I kept moving, faster and faster, keeping an eye out for the Vikings. I continued long into the night until finally, I found myself back at the Eternity I had once visited, or one damn near it. I entered and crossed the room to the bar. Alex shook his head.
"You couldn't listen to reason."
"You didn't give me a reason."
"Don't you get it? No one is here by choice."
He shook his head. "I tried, I really tried. No one should have to go through what I went through... what we've all gone through."
"What do you mean?"
"Each of us is here because of a terrible tragedy. It's why we stay."
"I don't understand."
His eyes grew distant and his voice dropped. I had to strain to hear his words.
"I watched them kill my whole family. The gunmen came at night. A servant took us downstairs. I was only thirteen. We huddled together in one of the sitting rooms. They shot my parents... my family. They stabbed me several times and carried me out thinking me dead. I would have been too, but I saw the neon sign and managed to crawl to it. It was in Russian, of course."
"I should have died that night. I was barely breathing. I didn't know where I was. I barely knew who I was. The bartender, my predecessor, knelt beside me. He told me I had but one chance to live. I had to replace him."
"You can never leave, can you?"
"No, I can't."
And we were both silent for a long while. Then a familiar voice broke into my thoughts. "Thou hast returned!"
I turned and she was there. "I told you I would."
I couldn't help wondering if she were also a prisoner of Eternity.
Her eyes were moist. "I love that thou didst so, but tis time for thee to depart."
"Please. Thou may not stay."
My eyes grew hard. "Why not?"
"Tis not thy place, M'lord."
"Why isn't it?"
"Because no tragedy clings to thee."
I felt myself grow angry. I didn't want to yell but couldn't help it. "My whole life is a fucking tragedy! I'm empty. Barren."
Alex placed a hand on my shoulder. "But you didn't watch your family get murdered."
"No, I didn't." And I knew he was right. My tragedy was completely self-inflicted. I turned to Charity. "What about you? What is your tale of woe?"
"I do not remember."
"Oh come on."
Her eyes flashed. "I really do not. Why should I lie?"
"Then how do you know you can't leave?" I never took my eyes from her.
"I do not."
"Then come with me. Be with me."
"I am afeared, M'lord."
"Don't be. If you stay here, I'll stay right here with you."
"Thou may not do that. Please."
"I can and I will. Perhaps that is my tragedy."
"I will not permit it."
"How will you stop me?"
"Thus." She leaned forward and brushed her lips against mine.
Before I could react, she turned and fled. I cursed and followed. She reached the door several steps ahead of me.
"Wait!" I shouted.
She paused, hand on the door handle.
"Don't do this."
"Tis the only way M'lord. If I perish, thou willst have no reason to stay."
"Or you'll have given me a reason. Are you willing to become my tragedy?"
Her hand fell to her side. I edged closer.
"Listen to me, I said. You don't know if you can leave. Let's leave together. You and I. Perhaps there are other forces at work here."
"Love." I walked to her and held out my hand. "Come. Be with me."
"And if thou art mistaken?"
"I'm not mistaken."
She nodded, but didn't move.
"You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Let me show you."
All eyes were on us. Even the Vikings had stopped gambling to watch the drama unfold.
She took my hand and I pulled open the door.
Outside, night was beginning to recede. We stepped through at the same moment. She turned toward me and I held her. She began to sob.
"See. I told you."
I wrapped my arms around her and held her tight. I felt her shift in my grasp. I tried to pull away so I could better see what was happening but she was holding me close. Though I couldn't see it, I finally understood. She shifted again, grew smaller.
"Forgive me, M'lord."
I closed my eyes and cried as Charity aged hundreds of years in a few long seconds. Anguish assailed me as she literally slipped through my fingers. She fell to dust at my feet.
As the sun peeked over the houses across the street, the autumn breeze took what was left of her from me. I closed my eyes and fought the tears that would flow forever, for here on Ovington Court, I had fallen in love for the first and last time in my life. I would remember her forever, not by the way she looked at me, but by her last moments in my arms. I hoped those moments were not painful. I hurt enough for both of us.
Down the block, a woman on her way to work emerged from her house and locked the door. I turned and entered Eternity for the last time. Alex was at the bar as he would be for the rest of my days.
"I tried to warn you," he said.
"So you did. It took me this long to realize who you are. The death of your family has been the subject of much speculation."
"My father was an important man."
Alexei Romanov, not for the last time, poured me a beer.
"They say your sister got away."
"Anastasia?" He smiled. "That my friend, is the first bit of good news I've had in a long time."
For the first time, he poured himself a drink and joined me. I dropped my head. I didn't want him to see the look in my eyes.
Alex placed a hand on my shoulder. "You freed her, you know."
"I destroyed her."
"You saved her. You gave her love."
I shook my head. It was all so senseless. I turned toward the door and wondered what would happen if I tried to return to the real world.
I knew then I couldn't. I downed the rest of my beer and slammed the glass down. One of the Vikings came up beside me and patted my arm. I didn't understand his words but knew he was trying to console me.
To both his and my astonishment I embraced him, then sat down for the first time on one of the stools that lined the bar.
I wasn't going to stand for the rest of Eternity.
Steve Lazarowitz is a writer with a singular goal. He tries to make people think. His short fiction has been compared to The Twilight Zone, which very much appeals to him. "We live in a world of wonders, some of which are shrouded in shadow. My job is to remind people of that."
His award winning short stories and innovative articles and essays have appeared in Jackhammer, Exodus, Planet Relish, The Wandering Troll, The Hood, Conflicting Spectrums, Dream Forge, Aphelion, Titan, Twilight Times and many other ezines.
Visit Steve's web site
Published by permission of the author.