To Exist Within Memory
He struggled to breathe.
The room was full of rubble, symbolic detritus of the mess they'd made of their lives—what utter nonsense, he thought. The room has collapsed. Get out already!
He could barely gasp in any air; his lungs ached with the effort, and his chest felt like it was going to collapse any second. But that was difficult, with a steel beam across his legs, and another . . . something, he wasn't sure what, across his arms and chest. He jerked his legs, then his arms, but he couldn't remove the weight no matter how hard he tried.
The next thing he knew, he heard, "We have you, Mr. McKenzie," along with the scream of an ambulance. "We're on the way to the hospital."
"Glad to hear it," he tried to say, but something—an oxygen mask?—was in the way.
"Poor suckers," the voice reflected. McKenzie thought it was a male voice, but who knew anything right now? "They never had a chance."
So long as she stayed in her memories, she was alive. And once she left them, she'd be gone. She knew that much, even if she knew very little else.
She looked at the barren wasteland which surrounded her. Brown earth and grey rocks, with a dull, leaden sky. Nothing on Earth looked this way—but of course, this must be an illusion.
She clung to that belief; if it were illusion, it would make some sort of sense. She was sure that her mind needed to make some sort of image, some place for her to be—something to watch as she lay dying.
Wherever she'd been before she'd landed in this place, it hadn't been here. The real place, whatever it had been, no longer existed. If her memory was accurate, she'd been blown up by a terrorist bomb.
She'd tried to leave this barren realm several times, but she wasn't able to go anywhere. This wasteland must be infinite.
The good news was that she appeared to be safe; the terrorists couldn't get her here. In addition, she did not hunger, did not thirst, and had no other bodily urges. She supposed she should be grateful.
But how could she be human all by herself, feeling nothing but emptiness?
She knew she'd had a mate . . . but she couldn't remember his name.
Did it matter? Had anything she'd done ever mattered?
But if it had mattered, she hoped her mate would remember it for her.
Maybe that way, she would continue to survive, even if she could not get away from this horrible place.
But even if he remembered, would he be able to help her?
Would he even know what to do?
The room rocked with explosions; Marcia knew that as she fell. Slowly, too slowly, she reached out to Kenneth - but as she did so, a steel beam fell across his chest. Her eyes stung; her heart ached. What was wrong with her? She could barely move, and then . . .
She looked up at the plain; she was back, and she'd remembered her name; it was Marcia. What a silly name, she thought. After a television character, that silly girl on the old Brady Bunch TV show. My parents didn't know anything.
And she'd remembered her mate's name. Kenneth. Was he all right? How could she take care of him if he wasn't here?
Was he still alive?
She hoped he was; he should have his life. Even if she couldn't be there with him to help, he should have whatever happiness he could wring from it all.
To have the last sight of Kenneth be in that room—a place they'd both worked—how could any just God let that happen?
There was no way she wanted things to end this way. If she could not leave this place, and Kenneth could not come to her, she'd never be with him again in whatever remained of her blown-to-bits life.
She held her head in her hands as she contemplated what life would mean—whatever this would mean—without Kenneth's steady presence.
She'd never have the richness of his companionship, ever again.
All their joint dreams, visions, aspirations—severed, lost.
Thinking about all that was far worse than this barren, arid wasteland. She had no words for the desolation.
Marcia replayed the same moment again and again; she didn't know if Kenneth had made it out alive, but she thought he probably had; after all, he wasn't here, was he?
She searched her memory avidly. Yes, the beam had fallen first, then Kenneth fell to lay across her. Then, as she'd reached for his face one last time, she'd been thrown . . . here.
Kenneth's actions were the only reason she was still alive to complain—though in this place, could you call it life?
But Kenneth had not come with her, which is why she was terrified for him. She wanted—needed—Kenneth to make it out of that horrible building alive even if she had not.
Please, God, protect my beloved Kenneth. He's a good man; help him get through this, and help him be safe and well.
* * *
Kenneth woke up to tubes, a mask over his face, light, and emptiness.
Where was Marcia? It had been the first question he'd asked of the doctors. And it was the first thing he'd asked his friend Stewart when Stew had finally shown up in the hospital.
After beating around the bush so long that Kenneth wanted to throttle him, Stewart looked directly at Kenneth. His blue eyes were filled with tears.
"She didn't make it out, did she?" Kenneth asked in an empty voice.
"No, my friend. She didn't." Stewart looked as if he wanted to be anywhere else.
"Damn." Kenneth turned his face to the wall; after a while, he heard the snick of the door as Stew quietly left.
* * *
This place, barren as it was, seemed a bit homey, now. Yet Marcia knew this wasn't her home, and she didn't enjoy being here whatsoever.
But she'd continued to exist. And she'd regained a few more of her memories in the process.
She now knew that she was an artist, and that she and Kenneth were—had been—engaged to be married. They'd worked at the same design firm deep in the heart of the city—which one, she still didn't remember.
But at least she could remember Kenneth better. She knew his face—he had dark hair, blue eyes, a nice smile and a ready wit—and she knew his expressions.
She knew that he enjoyed her art as he enjoyed everything about her, just as she appreciated everything about him.
She remembered how he loved to write, draw, and paint, and he was a gifted mimic; he was so good at making her laugh, and they had everything in common.
Theirs had been a truly blessed friendship and love; if only they'd married, yet they'd wanted their wedding to be perfect.
Now, would they even get a wedding?
She threw that thought aside. Wedding or not, Kenneth had been the most important person in her life. He'd been her other half, someone she'd always known she wanted and needed, but had never hoped to find.
And she remembered one other thing that she, definitely, found important. She remembered how he'd told her that he loved her, over and over again. Like it was a promise; more than that, as if it were a privilege, something he was grateful to be able to say. Something he was happy to feel; something he was glad to know.
And it was obvious, from the look in Kenneth's eyes, that he'd never, ever expected anyone like Marcia in his life. He didn't tell her about the women who'd been in his life before, but Marcia knew they had to have treated him shabbily; how could anyone have done that to a good man like Kenneth?
And why, all of a sudden, did she hear a strange, beeping noise in the background? She still saw the featureless plain, but the beeping noise wouldn't go away.
What was that all about?
"Missing Marcia again?" Stewart asked.
Kenneth raised his head; he'd recovered but slowly, piece by piece, and this was his first day back at work. Marcia hadn't been so lucky . . . but he realized he hadn't answered yet.
"Of course I miss her," Kenneth replied. "How couldn't I?" He looked around the busy lunchroom, where new paint hid the scars the terrorist bomb had inflicted. If only he could hide from his own scars as easily.
"You have to go on, somehow," Stewart said.
Kenneth arched an eyebrow.
"Really; she'd want you to go on," Stewart insisted, an implacable look on his face. "What person who loves you wouldn't? And she loved you more than anything."
"I am going on," Kenneth pointed out. He did his best to hold his temper. "I'm here, aren't I? Where she was? Where I can't help but think about her, what she'd be doing, how she looked when I said something to her, about . . . everything!"
"I know it's hard—" Stewart started.
"No, you don't," Kenneth corrected flatly. "It's awful. Every day is the same as the next. I am miserable; I think about her constantly, and I wish she were here with me. I miss her laugh, her jokes, her eyes. Everything." Not a conventional beauty, Marcia still drew the eye with her blonde hair and those vivid eyes. So what if she was overweight?
But Stewart didn't take that tack; Kenneth didn't know whether to be grateful or to throttle him. "How does thinking about her all the time help?" Stewart asked logically. "I know you miss her; I know you love her. How does dwelling on the pain help?"
"It helps me stay sane," Kenneth said grimly. "It helps me remember that once upon a time, I was alive in all senses. I could see, hear, think, feel and love. And she was worthy of my love; she was worthy of everything, and now she's not going to have it."
"I know that," Stewart said gently. "But—"
"But nothing," Kenneth said flatly. "She was worth everything, and being with her meant the world. This job, it doesn't really matter. Being alone forever, it doesn't signify. The only thing that really mattered to me was Marcia, and now she's gone; trying to pretend I don't feel bad is ludicrous."
Stewart tried to say something again; Kenneth would have none of it. "Let's face it; I never will feel the same again without Marcia." He closed his eyes and put his head in his hands before looking up again; his eyes ached from holding back the tears. "All I know is, I don't feel alive anymore. And I don't want to be alive, either." After a long pause, he added: "How could any just God do this to us?"
Stewart looked at him compassionately, but said nothing.
Kenneth nodded, picked up his tray, put things away mechanically, and left.
He dreamed, and saw Marcia.
"Love, you have to go on," she said. She stood on a featureless and dusty plain; it looked lonely. He tried to reach out for her, but couldn't feel her. He ached to kiss her, to hold her in his arms again, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not reach her.
"I can't help you where I am," Marcia said.
Tears streamed down his face; he tried to tell her that he knew he couldn't help her, either, but she apparently couldn't hear him, as she went right on. "Know that I still love you," she said. Her eyes flashed in anger; Kenneth prayed it wasn't anger at him, but rather at their situation. "I wish I could touch you, but that seems denied me, my love."
After a long pause, she went on. "Kenneth, know that I will always love you—and I wish I could help you."
"I love you!" Kenneth cried, but Marcia could not hear. Kenneth wondered if she could see him; he waved, but she did not blink.
She went on: "All I can do is promise you that I'll never forget you; I'll never forget a single thing. What we had together will always be with me. You'll always exist in my memory."
She faded out as he reached for her again; then, he awoke, shivering, to the darkness.
::Let me help,:: a strange voice said inside his head. It appeared to be coming from everywhere at once. ::I can help you.::
"How?" Kenneth asked aloud, wondering why he was talking to a voice inside his own skull.
::Do you see a doorway?:: the voice said.
A light shone on Kenneth's own bedroom door. "I see it."
::Go to the door and see what you find,:: the voice commanded.
Kenneth wasn't sure if he was still dreaming or not, but he got up, and opened the door. He tried to walk through it, but could not; all he could do is watch.
He saw Marcia, his Marcia, lying prostrate in a hospital bed, tubes running here and there, machines regulating her pulse, her breathing, her life.
Speechless, he turned back; this . . . this being . . . would prevent him from going to Marcia? When she needed him? Why?
But he still wasn't able to talk; all he could do was listen.
::That is reality as your species knows it,:: the voice said flatly. ::Your love—::
"Marcia," Kenneth interjected. "Her name is Marcia."
::Yes, your Marcia. She survived; you didn't,:: the voice told him.
"But that's impossible! I'm me; I remember everything! I work! I feel! I'm still me! I am Kenneth McKenzie, who's engaged to the most wonderful woman in the world, Marcia Justice!"
::But you don't have Marcia with you anymore, do you?:: the voice asked softly. ::And you didn't know she was in that hospital bed, either. You believed she was dead. She's not.::
Kenneth had to admit that the voice had him there—if it was telling the truth.
Kenneth wanted Marcia alive more than anything, because thinking about her dead made him crazy; she deserved to go on.
But that brought up another question; why was Kenneth so eager to believe that this disembodied voice, whatever it was, was right?
Yet he did believe it; Marcia existed, and the exultation of that rung throughout his soul.
But why must they be separated? That made no sense at all.
"I don't want to go on without Marcia. I love her and want to be with her forever," Kenneth said firmly.
::You don't get that choice, unfortunately. For a time, you both must go on alone,:: the voice answered. ::But I can answer a few questions, if you'd like.::
"Good," Kenneth said. After a pause, he asked abruptly, "What is Marcia still doing in the hospital? And why can't I go to her?" Then, afraid the voice wouldn't tell him what he needed to know, he added, "I'm very happy she's alive; thank you for showing me that."
::It's only been three days since the explosion—:: the voice started.
"But it's been weeks!" Kenneth exploded. "Even if you're right about Marcia, and I pray that you are, I've recovered, I'm back at work. How could it only have been three days?"
::You don't know that you're dead,:: the voice said compassionately. ::And she doesn't know she's alive.::
"What the Hell does that mean?"
::She believes that you need to remember her, or she can't live—that she's dead,:: the voice said. ::And she won't let go of you, which is why you don't know you're dead. You two have it exactly backward; she can't wake up until you cross over.::
"What the Hell? 'Cross over' to what?"
::The next world; I don't know how to describe it, but you know already that your consciousness has not been interrupted. You'll be the same person there as you are here, except you'll be able to form new memories, and make new associations.::
"What if I don't want to? What if I don't believe you? I don't even know who, or what, you are!"
::Call me Ishmael,:: the voice said dryly.
::It's from one of your famous books—::
"I know where it's from," Kenneth snapped. "Why do you want me to call you 'Ishmael,' of all names?"
::Why not? It's as good a name as any. As to what I am, you can't possibly comprehend it, so why try?::
"Easy answer," he told Ishmael, snickering once at the name.
::It happens to be true. At any rate,:: Ishmael said, ::you aren't alive anymore.::
"How do you know?"
::Would I be here if you were?::
Kenneth rolled his eyes.
::You've already noticed how stagnant your 'life,' if you can call it that, has become. It will never change, never grow -- and here, in your objective reality, Marcia will never wake up.::
"What kind of monster are you to tell me that? I still exist, and I'll prove it to you!" Kenneth pinched his arm; he felt the expected pain. "And I can't believe that Marcia's existence is dependent on me."
::No, Kenneth,:: Ishmael corrected gently. ::Your existence is dependent on Marcia. What she does, how she acts, everything she is, enables you to stay on this plane, where you no longer belong.::
"But—but Stewart and I talked earlier today—" Kenneth floundered.
::Yes, you did,:: Ishmael said. ::And he told you to 'move on,' which is what I asked him to say.::
"You have an answer for everything, don't you?" Kenneth asked angrily. "How am I supposed to believe any of this?"
::Go to work tomorrow; then we'll talk.::
The light died as Kenneth stumbled back to bed. He fell deeply asleep.
Marcia remembered a conversation in the lunchroom they'd had at least a month ago. "How can you miss what isn't there?" Kenneth had asked.
"What do you mean?" Marcia replied. "I miss my grandmother, and she's not here anymore."
"Not people," Kenneth said impatiently. "Things. Ideas."
"You're talking metaphysics," she said sagely. "I don't worry about what I can't change. For example, I don't know the first thing about the question you're asking."
"What if your idea of what is, isn't?" Kenneth countered. "What if what we see isn't the reality?"
"Mystics have always asked that," Marcia said. She sighed. "I still have to rely upon my own judgment; my own senses, my own memories. I may well be wrong, but I still have to deal with what exists. Even if all I have is memory, and isn't quite right."
"What if—" Kenneth's voice cracked, "—what if I'm not who you think I am?"
"I'd love you all the same." She smiled. "You're mine; how could it be otherwise?"
"But what if I had to go away?"
"If you did, I'd deal with it the best I could," she said patiently.
"Even if the pain of separation, of loss, was so deep you could barely go on? Even then?"
"I'd do my best," she repeated. "Why are we having this conversation?"
"Because I'm afraid I can't be who you want; I won't be here long enough." His voice broke. "And after a while, you won't remember the real me; you'll only remember me the way you saw me, and that's not the way I really am."
"But it's all I have," she pointed out. "Isn't that enough?"
"I'm not sure," he said ruefully. "I'd rather be remembered as I am; not a saint, not a demon, simply a human being. One who loved you very much."
"I'd never forget that," she promised. She clasped his hand tightly, then drew back. "And I can assure you that I'll not forget your faults, if you ever have to go away for any reason."
They walked into the hallway. When they thought no one was looking, they kissed quickly, and returned to work.
Kenneth remembered that conversation when he went back to the office; it echoed from the walls, resounding with a sound and clarity that overwhelmed him. Marcia was everywhere, yet she was nowhere. He couldn't figure out if the dream was right, the voice was right, or what he saw and felt was right, but a life without Marcia in it was obviously no life at all.
Working was pointless. After only an hour, he went home sick.
He got under the covers, closed his eyes, and talked to the voice, whatever it was. "You mean I saw this happening beforehand? If so, why didn't I prevent it?"
For a moment, Kenneth heard nothing. He wondered if he'd dreamed it all, Ishmael's disembodied voice, Marcia and her love for him, the terrorist bomb that had claimed her—or him—or them. And if so, what good were his memories?
::Time isn't exactly what you think it is,:: Ishmael said, breaking into his thoughts.
"But I'm not crazy," Kenneth mused.
::No, you're not,:: Ishmael confirmed. ::Upset, grief-stricken, hurt, and confused, yes. But crazy you aren't.::
"Still, if I saw it—"
::You aren't the Creator, my son, which is why you couldn't do more than you did. Even though you couldn't prevent it, you wanted Marcia to know that you wanted to be remembered.::
Put that way, it sounded so shoddy. "I loved her for herself, though. Why wouldn't I be more worried about how she was going to handle life without me rather than her remembering me?"
Ishmael said nothing, but the silence was deafening.
"I am worried about her. Marcia has no family. She does have friends, but—"
::The memories of you will help her,:: Ishmael said quietly. ::They'll help her go on.::
"Will she be able to love again, ever? Especially with me dying because of a bomb?"
::The future is fluid. And the way you died will not matter to her, though you did save her life, and that will matter. Enormously. But you have to let her wake up, and you have to let her go on without you. Still, it's your choice. What do you want to do?::
It pleased Kenneth that he'd saved Marcia's life, but it wasn't enough. He knew that.
After a lot of thought, he said, "I love her so much, but I can't stay if it keeps her from waking up and living the rest of her life. She should have her life." Then, worriedly, he added, "Will she ever be happy again?"
::I don't know that,:: Ishmael answered quietly. ::What would you have, for her?::
"Someone who will love her as much as I do, who will help her . . . who will honor our love and not try to denigrate it. Sounds like I want a saint, doesn't it?"
::No, just a very good and unselfish man. Such men exist. I'll try to put one or two in her path, as it may be awhile before she's ready to love again.::
"Thank you," he breathed. "But this is the end. Isn't it?"
::For you, on this plane, yes,:: Ishmael confirmed. ::But your love matters. Never doubt it::
"Can I at least send her a final message?" Kenneth asked.
::I don't see why not,:: Ishmael replied. ::She'll see it as a dream, though, not as a true memory. Think about her, hold her close in your mind, and speak from the heart. I'll do my best to help.::
"Thanks," Kenneth said. He concentrated, then thought as loudly as he could, I love you, Marcia.
He nearly broke down crying, but he knew he'd only get this one chance. He did his best to suppress the tears, and went on. I'll never forget you, my love. Don't you dare forget me either!
::Time grows short,:: Ishmael commented.
But do, please, try to love again when you're ready, Kenneth implored her. For my sake… You're way too good a woman to be alone the rest of your life. Don't let the terrorists rob you of your ability to love. And God wills, we will be together again, somewhere, sometime…I promise.
Kenneth looked up, though as Ishmael had no form, he wasn't sure why. "Did it work? Will she hear it? Do you think it'll help?"
::I sent your message. She should get it. It may help her.::
"I appreciate that," Kenneth said, as he felt himself taken into someone's—some thing's—arms. "I hope she'll be okay without me."
::She'll always miss you, Kenneth,:: Ishamael said quietly. ::But eventually her life will improve.::
"I hope so," Kenneth said.
As Kenneth lost consciousness, he heard what sounded distinctly like a chuckle. ::Of course it will. You can't keep a good woman down forever.::
I will regret nothing, Marcia vowed fiercely. I will love Kenneth until the end of my life, and then find him, wherever he is in the next world. She smiled. I know he is not dead; only his body is dead.
The memory she'd been resisting—of her beloved Kenneth being carried out, lifeless, by the paramedics before she, too, collapsed—intruded on her brain. I'd rather be dead than be without you, my love, but I don't get that choice . . . so I'll live the best life I can. I will love you forever. And I will never, ever forget.
She felt Kenneth's mouth, impossibly, on her own for just one minute, but before she could lean into it, she was falling through the air, impossibly light. Why didn't it hurt? Shouldn't it hurt, to fall like this?
With a thump, she settled against something warm and cushiony. She opened her eyes, and saw a hospital room. She was lying in a bed, with tubes connected to her arms, and an oxygen monitor on her finger. All of the machines around her seemed to be buzzing, and a nurse had just rushed in, but Marcia had no time for any of that; she shut her eyes, and thought only about her beloved Kenneth.
As she fell asleep, these words echoed again and again in her mind:
I love you. Please, don't forget me. We will be together again.
I believe. I believe.
** End **
Barb Caffrey is a writer, musician, editor, and composer. (She likes to keep busy, y'see.) She has three novels published to date, Changing Faces, An Elfy on the Loose, and A Little Elfy in Big Trouble (all through Twilight Times Books), and a number of short stories (the most recent being "Fiona, Court Clerk in Training" in GIFTS OF DARKOVER) and poems have also found their way to publication.
She is working -- too slowly, alas! -- on a novel featuring Arletta the baseball psychic and her husband Fergus, a werewolf/shifter, along with several projects in the Elfyverse.
She lives in Wisconsin.
Read other works by Barb:
Check out an interview with Barb Caffrey at Blogcritics.
Published by permission of the author.