He awoke from death a little uncertainly. The sun was shining on the dew-damp grass upon which he lay.
He’d died on the pavement.
He cautiously looked around, not moving his head. Grass, trees, not a building in sight.
He’d died in the middle of a city. He had a vivid memory of the pavement covered in a spreading pool of his blood. His shocked face reflected in the shop window, staring back at him with a look of idiotic incomprehension, as he cradled his spilling guts in his hands.
This was unbearably cruel. This hope. He closed his eyes and slowly, reluctantly,moved his hand down to his stomach. Stifling a sob he laid his hand on the gaping hole left by the bullet’s exit. His stomach was whole. Oh god, oh god. He opened his eyes and forced his gaze down. His stomach was undamaged! And he was oddly naked. He sprang to his feet and started patting every inch of himself he could reach. There were no wounds. He checked his pulse. Present.
‘This makes no sense’. It was his voice. The damp grass was still cool on his feet. He had a pulse. He was experiencing sensation. His senses were working. He breathed on his hand. Breath. Surely that means I’m still alive? But I can’t be. As an atheist he was was fighting really hard not to call this the afterlife. I’ve still got a physical body, consciousness, a pulse, breath, all the things you lose in death. He was starting to freak out. Take deep breaths. Be amazed you can take deep breaths. The only thing he could think of was this was the last dying reflex of his brain, a comforting fantasy to ease him into the void.
‘That’s the spirit. Snatch despair from the jaws of miraculous hope’. He pondered the “miraculous”, and thought it best to move on. He wanted to soak up every second of this last experience. Drink in the colours of the sun rising through the trees. Smell the crushed grass beneath his feet. Suck every possible atom of joy and sensation from this moment.
What he really wanted, he realised, was a piss and some clothes. Maybe a fire. Coffee and an internet capable device. And wifi.
He turned around slowly, scanning the grass until it lead into trees on all sides. None of the above. No fences, or cattle, no smoke in the sky. Nothing to indicate he wasn’t the only person in existence.
He relieved himself.
He stood gazing around for a while longer, taking stock. He was fairly sure he wasn’t dead, any suitable rock would refute it thus. But that raised more questions. If he wasn’t dead, let’s go with that, he thought, if he wasn’t dead… well, everything. It was all questions after that premise. How did he get here? Why wasn’t he dead? Where were the wounds? Where were his clothes?
He looked at the short grass around himself for clues. He was from the city and had no tracking skills, all he could tell from the grass was that it was short (who was mowing it?) without anything obvious like footprints or tyre tracks. He reasoned there was nothing further to be learned from staying here. Which meant he should move. In which direction? This was too much to ask of the recently deceased. He thought for a minute. Until he could find any answers or alternative he’d have to think survival. Which meant his first priority would have to be water. He set off at a careful walk downhill.
Water, fire. Oh god, how to make fire? Flint, and tinder? Rubbing sticks together? He’d read about it and seen it on telly. He had never tried himself. Does it have to be flint? What does flint look like? What is tinder? Oh god, oh god. I’m going to die. Again. Then food and clothes. He was fighting a rising panic. He had no training or survival skills. The grass under his feet gave way to roots and twigs as he transitioned from the glade to the trees. Shoes, he added. Shoes are right up there on the to-do list. The land was still falling away in front of him so he gingerly walked on into the trees.
He’d been on walks before. In the country. Through woods. He’d never tried it naked before. Each footfall was uncomfortable, the branches scratched at his naked skin, and above all else he felt vulnerable. As a token gesture he snapped off a branch to carry as a club. He supposed the usual fear of getting lost in the forest was entirely redundant when he was lost in a whole reality.
After a while he realised he was wasn’t cold any more. He looked through the leaf canopy and was surprised at how high the sun had risen. He wasn’t thirsty, but he knew enough to be worried that he would be. It got warmer still. Hot, even, as he cautiously walked on.
The sun had moved from overhead when he first heard it. Suddenly he became aware that there was no sound previously. No engines, no voices, not even the sound of birds in the trees. The only sound was his quiet breathing and the noise of his passage. And now this. He followed the sound. It was a gentle murmur that grew ever so slightly the nearer he got.
It’s water. It’s got to be water. Please let it be water.
The downward slope he’d been following started to rise in front of him. He turned around. One way was was slightly lower, so he went that way.
I’m in a forest. Trees must drink gallons of water. It has to be here.
A few minutes later the trees opened up in front of him and the noise grew to a distinct sound, that of running water. Stepping through the trees he saw water running over stones thirty to feet to his right and splashing into a small lake, directly in front of him. As soon as his feet felt grass again he raced forward and put his face in the water. It was cold and clear, and tasted of hope. He drank fully, relieved to have overcome the first hurdle. He caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and froze. Suddenly he was remembering all the wildlife documentaries where the watering hole was a prime killing ground for predators. Trying to remain as still as possible he slowly reached back for his club. He tilted his head slightly to look in the direction of the movement. He lay still for a full minute, staring at the bank where he’d thought he seen something. Nothing moved. Everything was as still and silent as before. It was a good lesson though, he thought. I’m a naked man with a bit of a stick. I have to remain as stealthy as possible. He tore his gaze away warily, glanced into the now smooth lake from which he’d been drinking, and screamed loudly, leaping back. He looked around frantically, no change. He looked back into the lake. There was a naked man reflected there but it wasn’t him. Or more precisely, it was him, but he wasn’t him. He’d never seen the face looking back at him before. Or maybe he had, there was something sort of familiar about the face, but nothing he could put his finger on, and it certainly was not his own face.
After spending the morning musing on how he’d got here, where here was, and why he wasn’t dead, he’d mentally shelved his questions until he had something to go on. Now he was badly shaken again. He scooped up a hand sized rock from the lake shore, stared at the stranger who’s body he was wearing, shuddered, and set off again.
Keeping to the just inside the treeline he worked his way around the lake. From his initial position on the lake he’s seen something of interest. A golden, beach-like patch of sand amid what was all else trees. The nearer he got to it the less natural it looked. The edges were too well defined, too straight. The trees grew all around it but there were no twigs or leaves on it. He cautiously approached until he was stood a few feet from one of the edges and looked at it. It looked a perfect square. There were no containing walls it was just sand in a perfect square.
It made no sense, but since waking nothing had. He walked to it and placed a foot on it. After the stones and twigs is felt gloriously warm and comfortable. He stepped on with his other foot.
He awoke with a scream, thrashing about in bed. He threw back the covers and patted himself down through his pyjamas. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, but no wounds. He glanced around the room but could make little out in the near dark. He fumbled and found a bedside light, which he flicked on. Most of the room was still indistinct. Next to the light switch he found a pair of glasses. He tried them on and the room snapped into focus. I wear glasses now. Oh. He got out of bed and navigated the unfamiliar room to one of the doors, opened it and went into the bathroom. He looked in the mirror. Neither of his faces looked back.
OK, that just leaves madness. Which is marginally better than death. I can work with madness. He used the toilet, took time to enjoy brushing his teeth and having a shave and then a shower, before even thinking what was going to happen next.
Running water. Civilisation. The likelihood of food. And the distinct possibility of clothes. Hell, pyjamas would do. He studied his new face for a while. Thinning brown hair, possibly balding. Brown eyes. An average nose. Chin, teeth. Slightly too large ears, but they seemed to suit the face. Things could be a lot worse, he concluded. They just have been. Twice.
He noticed the flippant attitude creeping into his thoughts. It was, as Morpheus said to Neo, because he expected to wake up. He stared at the face in the mirror looking for answers. If he was so psychotic that he was having entire episodes surely he would just accept each state and not be questioning and incredulous? And no dream stayed so linear and rational, albeit with jumps from one body to another. Which left him staring at the stranger’s face in the mirror, no wiser than before. “Well?” He asked the reflection.
His eyes widened in alarm in the mirror. He sounded Southern. He had a mental image of himself sat on the toilet, crying helplessly. He dismissed it as not helpful. Besides, he thought, he’d not eaten in two lifetimes, he should be thinking about that. He was turning away from the mirror when something registered on his consciousness.
Two toothbrushes. His head snapped back.
Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. Pyjamas don’t even come close to making up for this level of bad. How could he possibly deal with this? The part of his brain that wasn’t screaming in panic, or possibly a different manifestation of that part, was cursing him for never having paid attention to Quantum Leap. “It wasn’t supposed to be homework!” he hissed, suddenly wary of making a noise again.
He crept back into the bedroom, alert for other clues. A lamp on a bedside table on the other side of the bed. Some pictures, one a landscape, one a seascape with a sailing boat. Neither were to his taste, but he was the first to admit he wasn’t feeling himself at the moment. Perhaps they were to his new self’s taste. Either answer was bad. He walked to a wardrobe and pulled it open. Men’s clothes. And shoes. He picked one up, size 8. Not his then. Ah, but wait a minute. He slipped it on. Oh. He was an 8 now. He found some socks, black trousers, a grey shirt, and some underwear and quickly got changed. Everything fit well so he was assuming it was ‘his’. He pulled a jacket off the hanger and stopped.
Suspended from the hanger was a shoulder holster with a pistol in it. He gingerly reached out and touched it. It was metal, not a plastic toy. He unclipped the flap and lifted it out, taking extreme care not to put his finger anywhere near the trigger. He knew nothing about firearms, but somehow it felt right in his hand. From nowhere muscle memory triggered and he found himself pressing the clip release button, sliding the action back and looking up the barrel to check for obstructions. Laying the empty pistol on the bed he used his thumb to flick out and count the bullets in the magazine. 10. Satisfied he quickly pushed them back into the magazine, pushed the clip into the pistol, released the slider and put the whole thing back into the holster.
He sat down heavily on the bed.
This was too much. On the one hand he was scared stiff of being around a loaded firearm, had no idea what to do with it, and didn’t want to go to jail for carrying it, on the other he had been shot to death not long back, he was somehow very familiar with the weapon, and it was amongst ‘his’ clothes.
What to do? What to do?
He had to get out of here and go somewhere he could think. Instinctively he shrugged the shoulder harness on and fastened it. He sighed, then consciously unfastened and took off the holster. There. He could do it. He wasn’t just a passenger in this body. Now to sneak out where the two toothbrush threat wasn’t a problem and think things through. He reached for his coat and found himself putting the holster back on. It wasn’t worth the effort of fighting it. He fastened his jacket to conceal it, then crept downstairs.
The stairs led into a hall with a doorway. He stopped and listened intently. Hearing nothing he slowly eased the door open a crack and looked in. There was a sofa on the wall nearest the door, some shelving, and an open door into the kitchen. He gently swung the door wider and looked around it. A matching chair, a fire and television. No people. He relaxed, only then realising how tense he’d been. He walked into the room, scanning for clues to who he was or what he was doing with a gun. The room seemed depressingly generic. He walked over to the shelves. Some books of adventure fiction, a turntable and some vinyl records, (oh god I’m a hipster), a beat up looking laptop and a small tray containing some car keys and a wallet. Brilliant! He flicked open the wallet. There was a driving licence with this face on it, and the name Tristan Wells.
There was a credit card, £30 in cash and a little section that held business cards. Tristan Wells. Data Analyst. I.T. Systems, Ltd.
He looked at the old laptop, then again around the room. He didn’t know what a data analyst did, but he was fairly sure they’d have more tech and fewer guns. Tristan Wells. He really didn’t want to be Tristan Wells. He walked into the kitchen; ‘fridge, sink, breakfast bar, coffee machine, washing machine, cooker, another generic room. He walked to a door at the far end opened it and turned on the light. It stayed dark. It was a clutter cupboard. Boxes and a clothes maiden, the vacuum cleaner and a mop. He stepped in, reached over an awkward shelf, and unerringly found a small catch, he flicked it open and pulled a concealed tray free. Taking it into the light he was oddly not surprised to see about half a dozen sealable clear plastic bags. He opened one. A passport, driving licence, business cards, and banks card. The passport and driving licence had his face on, but the name was Charles Carter.
He went through the others. The same contents, with the same face but with the names; James Forrest, David Fox, Robert Hill, William Tennent, and Rupert Smythe.
“So I’m probably not Tristan Wells, either.” That was something.