Silence. All-encompassing silence, darkness and weightlessness. A total darkness that smothered out everything, so thick he could practically feel it choking him. It was as if the blackness were sliding down his throat and filling his chest, cracking his ribs from the inside out. This… this is the darkness that children fear. The darkness you run from even when logic tells you an absence of light cannot, in itself, be harmful. People didn't fear the dark, they feared what was in it. Or so he had believed.
Then he was falling, the weightlessness snatched away so suddenly his heart nearly collided with his brain. The silence was chased away by the air as it whistled pass his ears. Or rather it seemed the silence and high pitched whistling worked in tangent to further his discomfort. He felt like his ears could start bleeding at the shrill noise and yet he couldn't hear his own screams. He knew he was screaming. He could feel the familiar flexing of his diaphragm, the strain on his stomach and chest as his muscles crunched in on themselves, and the roughness in his throat that always accompanied an overworked esophagus. Yes, the silence was indeed still present. It was strong enough to stifle all noises except for that terrible whistling.
His cloths clung to his body, getting closer to him than he'd ever thought possible. In full belly flop position, he was falling, sure to meet a painful landing should it be water, pillows or concrete to greet him.
But nothing did. He was falling and then he wasn't. He had stopped moving completely, frozen suspended in the air, his arms and legs remaining spread and he could feel the wind rush pass him in an attempt to compromise with his sudden halt. He panted, feeling a whine in the back of his throat but the silence still had a strong hold on his vocal cords.
Of course, it was when he began to feel calmer that gravity took hold of him once more, though his decent wasn't far. He met with the hard, cold ground before he even had the chance to suck in a breath in to continue his silent screams.
Panting and sweating heavily he tried to calm his body's uncontrollable shaking. For minutes or hours, he simply laid there, steading his trembling hands and chattering teeth. When he finally decided to move, it was small actions at a time. Just his hands sliding across the perfectly smooth and clean ground and then his eyelids as he timidly peeked at his surroundings. He had expected to find that smothering darkness, but he didn't. It was dark, yes, but not the same as before. It was as if he had entered some kind of grey area where everything was all at once too dark to see but too noticeable to ignore. The ground beneath him was of obsidian, silver and blue specks sparkling and leading ever downward, appearing as if he were settled on the night sky itself. The atmosphere had lost the flat blackness from before instead opting for a grey that faded into that strangling darkness the longer he stared in any direction.
"Not exactly an impressive view, is it?"
The unexpected voice was like an air horn after spending so long in the grasp of complete silence. Reflexively covering his ears and somehow finding his way to his feet, he cringed harshly. After a moment of grinding his teeth, he pulled his hands away from his ears and searched wildly for the source of that voice.
Nothing could have prepared him for what he found.
It was himself. Well, himself but not exactly. The man before him did have the same height, blue eyes, cheek bones, smile, nose, dark hair and he was sure fingerprints if he were to test but…different all the same. This man was dressed cleanly in khaki slacks and brown loafers. His light pink dress shirt looked pressed and was neatly tucked into his pants, a brown leather belt snitching the outfit together.
He, the real him, had worn business casual before, but never so well ironed and creased. His hair rarely combed and presentable. Lately, his typical outfits consisted of sweat pants, tee-shirts, hoodies and off-brand sneakers. On a good day, you might catch him in jeans. Currently he was supporting a stained dark red hoodie, grey sweatpants and dirty socks with holes at the heels and toes. To say he felt underdressed was an understatement.
His other self-smiled at him. "Hello Dan." He greeted.
Dan's heart was hammering in his chest. "How was this possible?" He thought. "How can I be standing in front of myself but…not…myself? Where the hell am I?"
"The answer is in the question."
Dan looked around, and then back at Himself-But-Not-Himself. "Did I say that out loud?"
Himself-But-Not-Himself chuckled. "No you didn't, but you don't have to. Not with me anyway." Himself-But-Not-Himself smiled and began to pace around him in a circle, as if Dan were prey caught in the sight of its predator. "And please, Dan, to make things easier, refer to me as Nad. I am, after all you but almost entirely opposite."
Dan stared wide eyed, only able to get his body to listen enough to his internal commands to nod shortly. He trembled, utterly intimidated by this…this other version of himself. Nad, as he was told to call him, looked like a mirage of himself and yet there was an air of power around him. Nad was confident and well composed, standing straight and smiling as if Dan's shaking form brought him some kind of amusement. Or perhaps it was simply that Nad knew something Dan did not. Dan swallowed pass the lump in his throat, forcing his dry mouth to form words.
"What did you mean the 'answers in the question?'" Speaking felt like sandpaper rubbing against itself.
Nad continued his pacing, forcing Dan to turn in circles in order to face him. "Ah." Nad nodded. "Yes well you asked yourself 'where the hell am I?' and the answer to that is in the question." Nad came to a halt, facing Dan full on and promptly folding his hands behind his back. "Take a wild guess, Dan."
Dan felt his heart flutter in his chest. "Hell?"
Nad leaned forward on the balls of his feet and briefly jabbed a finger in his direction. "Precisely."
"I'm dead?" Dan whispered the question, idiotically hoping that if his other self didn't hear it, then he couldn't answer what he had already guessed, and this would all disappear and he would wake up, as he always did after a nightmare, in his broken recliner with a hangover as his only concern.
"Yes." The answer was blunt. Too short. Too truthful.
Dan's breath suddenly escaped him. He allowed the air to rush out of his body, leaving a fuzzy and foggy feeling in his head. The sort of almost slow motion and distant feeling a vivid dream leaves you with.
"How?" He stuttered out, his hand clutching at his chest and pulling at his cloths as if this would allow his constricted chest more room to breathe.
"One drink to many I dare say you could call it." Nad answered no more casually than if the two were discussing the weather. "Or, perhaps, one too many pills snorted...or some combination of two."
Dan had to agree as he felt the lump in his throat double in size.
"Such a sad, sad way to die Dan." Nad went on, resuming his pacing. "All alone in a run down and unkempt apartment, beer bottles and pills scattered around the place. That's where the buildings manager will find you, face down in your own drool smelling like as septic tank that exploded in a liquor store. But only after two days and only because he's looking for the rent."
Dan shook his head, feeling like his knees would give out. "Where did I go wrong?"
"You know exactly where that happened." Nad said, almost chipper with the way he practically clicked his heels together. Nad gave Dan an all too knowing look. "Back in high school Dan during your senior year, do you remember you had two life altering choices?"
"Yes, you do." Nad corrected, hardly missing a beat. "The one you chose is the path that lead you here. You were granted a scholarship in athletics, went on to a university and became a star pitcher for the baseball team. Your college career went well enough and after graduation you ended up playing with the professionals. Dated around, never fell in love, but you were happy enough." Nad paused, facing Dan once more with his head cocked to the side in a somewhat curious childlike manner. "Everything changed though right after the accident, huh?"
A shiver raced up Dan's spine while a phantom pain hissed at his shoulder.
Nad grinned but it was almost pityingly so. "Racing down the side of a mountain a 70MPH would have gotten most people killed, but you survived." Nad almost looked impressed. "They called it a miracle, and rightfully so, but you didn't see it that way." Nad's expression soured. "All you saw was your career trickling down the drain when your most severe injury took away the use of your pitching arm."
"Why shouldn't that have upset me?" Dan challenged, feeling anger bubbling in his chest. "My career was everything and all that I had, why-"
"Was it Dan?" Nad interrupted, that same spine tingling expression on his face.
Dan clamped his mouth shut.
"Your right shoulder was completely shattered." Nad continued, listing off the events of his life as if they were bulleted items on a grocery list. "You could no longer make full rotations with that arm. In fact, it was a challenge to raise your arm to eye level. The doctors thought it was a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things, such as breathing, but you wished you had died." Nad shook his head, utterly disappointed it seemed with his counterpart. "It was only your career. That was your problem Dan. You saw nothing else but yourself."
"All I had was myself-"
"You and I both know that's not true Dan, but keep telling yourself that if it'll soothe your ego." Nad was pacing again. "Thousands of dollars wasted on corrective surgery, experimental procedures, physical therapy, and travel in search of some miracle healer that could fix you and get you back to your old life because to you there was nothing but that life. There was no future outside of playing with the big leagues. Therein lies you biggest problem Dan and that is you couldn't see any other path beside the one you had chosen." Nad paused, letting his words sink in for a moment. "After every specialist told you what you wanted was impossible and debt took away your house and cars, you ended up in that grungy apartment where you literally wasted away."
Dan felt himself withering. Nad had made his life, everything that he was, seem like a waste of time…and perhaps it had been.
"In life, we often have many choices." Nad piqued up, as if he was starting a lecture. "Rarely are people given a moment with two distinctly different and life altering courses the way that you had been granted."
Dan's heart was thumping in his chest.
"You remember Jenna?"
Everything went cold. Dan could hardly feel his fingertips anymore.
"Of course you do, because how could you forget your high school sweetheart and the mother of your child."
"Stop, please…" Dan begged, covering his ears.
"What?" Nad asked, cocking an eyebrow and pouting his lower lip. "Hard to ignore a responsibility when someone won't stop talking about it, hm?" His face turned stone cold. "Senior year high school Jenna told you she was pregnant."
Dan shook his head and clutched at his hair. Oh my God this isn't happening.
"I'm afraid it really is Dan, and no matter how many times you shake your head and deny, you aren't going to 'wake up' because this isn't a dream." The pair locked eyes. "You left her." Anger seemed to rake down Nad's form. "You loved her, yes, but not enough. Not enough to give up your dream, even for your child."
Dan felt like he was in some kind of horror movie.
"In the life you come from, Jenna went on to raise a baby without you." Nad spat, a sparkle of affection glistening in his eyes at the mention of her name. "Her parents disowned her, their reputation amongst the 1% more important to them than their daughter. She works two jobs and took up house in a one-bedroom apartment. Life isn't easy for her but Henry, her son, makes it worth it." Nad paused. "He's the spitting image of her, if you've ever wondered." His eyes drifted far away, seeing something Dan could not. "Blonde haired, pale skinned, and freckled faced exactly like his mother. Except for his eyes. He has his father's eyes."
Dan could almost see the child. He had tried to envision the child more often than he would ever admit, but could never form a clear image of it. He had never known if it were a boy or a girl or who's features they had gotten. But now, he could almost see Henry. The image was foggy, but clearer than it had ever been before. Dan felt his heart twist.
"Henry is smart." Nad says, pride adorning his features. "He loves and protects his mother the way his father cannot." Dan felt a sharp stab at that. "They only have each other, but that's okay. They are okay without you."
Dan had always wondered how they were doing, or if Jenna had even kept the baby. He had always imagined she had because that's just who she was. When she had told him she was pregnant she never asked him if he would have anything to do with it, she offered. Jenna was strong minded and self-driven. She never asked for help in anything because she could always find a way to figure things out. It was no surprise she was the same in motherhood.
"But what if you had stayed with Jenna?"
Now Dan was positive his body couldn't take this much shock and in such a short amount of time. But it likely didn't matter considering he was dead.
"I represent the version of yourself that is what you could have been should you have taken the better path, Dan." Nad explained. "There were two pinnacle choices in your life, Dan. There are many versions of how each path could go, as roads often have forks and bumps along the way, but I am what you could have ideally been." Nad held his arms outstretched, making a grand gesture at displaying himself.
Dan gulped. "You're what I would've been if I had stayed with Jenna?"
Nad nodded. "And what a life you gave up." Nad smiled sadly, licking his lips before continuing. "It's not a glamorous stadium full of drunken fans or college parties with beautiful girls throwing themselves on you, but it is certainly a life worth leaving the other option far behind."
Dan rubbed his temples. Too much was happening all at once and he had barely had the time to process that he was dead and that no one would mourn his passing. That everything had gone so wrong and he had taken every wrong turn and wasted everything on a chapter of his life that he kept trying to write, but one that had already ended.
"Her parent's would've still disowned her, but mine, or ours, would've taken her in like the daughter they never had." Nad went on, ignoring Dan's discomfort. "My dad gave me a job at the company, starting at the bottom of the barrel. His way of teaching me a lesson I suppose." Nad smiled, his gaze far away again. "Assembling filters at the warehouse for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, making 12 dollars an hour with guaranteed overtime. The work was hot and sweaty, but it wasn't boring or all too challenging. The pay could've been better, but what more could you hope for fresh out of high school? Plus, dear old Mom and Dad rented a little camper very cheap and all the while I learned how to finance and budget." Nad chuckled.
Dan couldn't help but to smile either. This sounded exactly like his parents. When he had gone through his accident, Mom and Dad refused to finance his wild medical expenses. His parents were firm on the idea that nothing was ever just handed to you in life, and only hard work could move you forward and get you where you needed to be. Even though he had been a complete asshole to them over not supporting his affairs in any way, when Christmas and his birthday rolled around, there was an extra zero at the end of his holiday checks. Firm, but kind and fair were his parents.
"Jenna even had a job at a local café." Nad said after a pause which was suspiciously long enough for Dan to finish his internal musings. "She barely made above minimum wage, but she was happy and any amount of income was better than nothing." Nad's face was glowing. "When Henry was born…I couldn't have been happier." The pair locked eyes again and Dan could see tears in Nad's eyes. "To hold your child in your arms and know that their very existence was due in part to you…I cannot describe the feeling, but suddenly it's as if everything makes sense. That every hardship was worth it and every sacrifice was well placed for such a precious gift."
Dan looked down in shame, unable to meet eyes that held far too many emotions than he could understand.
"Life as a family is good." Nad, for the millionth time, begin again. "Henry's first word was 'Dada' and he had me wrapped around his finger from day one. Poor Jenna was always the bad cop." Nad chuckled. "By the time Henry was two, I had become overall manager for the warehouse and when he turned three, we were pregnant again."
Dan's head shot up at that. Never in his dreams would he have imagined another child.
"Yes, Dan." Nad said, grinning like the proud father he was. "Another boy, this one named Will, with pale skin, dark hair like his Dad's and brown eyes like his Mom's. There couldn't have been a better or more thrilled big brother than Henry." Nad crossed his arms and swayed his hips side to side for a moment. "We outgrew the little camper, but found a nice little two-bedroom house in the suburbs for decent sale. Gradually, over a couple years, the house became very lived in. It's not much to speak of with crayon drawings on the walls, holes in half the rooms, and juice stains in the carpets. No, not a mansion or anything, but it's home and I wouldn't trade it for anything."
Dan's heart ached at the bitter sweet story. He never knew he could long for such a mundane life. He looked up at Nad, a question on the tip of his tongue, but his eyes became discs as he watched his counterpart age right in front of him. His waist line gained a few inches, his dark hair greyed in several spots, and his face creased and wrinkled.
Nad laughed. "I know." He said, patting his round belly. "But Jenna can really cook." He winked and stroked his creased face. "And the teenage faze was a little rough, but if it's not then you're probably doing something wrong. Puberty is traumatic for both the parents and the kids."
Both men were laughing at that.
"The boys struggled with girls and acne, they gave me heart attacks learning to drive, and they got into trouble sneaking out once in a while for one party or another. But they're good kids and even better men." Nad was beaming ear to ear. "They went to college, one majoring in engineering and the other becoming a history teacher, got married and started popping out babies of their own. Henry has twin girls and Will has a beautiful little girl and two boys."
Nad's wrinkles began to deepen and his hair turned completely grey as some of it thinned and fell out. He fattened out some more and hunched in, but his smile never dulled.
"Jenna and I were in love until the day her stroke took her away." A tear escaped Nad's eye, and Dan felt his stomach twist. "Her urn sat on my mantle until I followed her into the afterlife seven years later, dying in my sleep."
The ache in Dan's chest was like a knife carving at his insides, slowly trying to work its way out. He had given up a life of happiness and love. A fulfilling life that was about more than just himself.
"Some souls are too immature to really get it, and yours is one of them." Nad continued, absolute grief morphing his features. "Most people glimpse it at the very least and live fulfilling and happy lives, but you never even came close to scraping the surface. What gives life meaning is death. The knowledge that what we do in our physical forms is not everlasting. That everything comes to an end in the grand scheme of things. That flesh and bones wither and die and we are constantly battling time." Nad moved closer, licking his wrinkled lips and speaking in urgency. "That is what makes life precious. Death is inevitable and time goes by quicker than you'd like, but it is what we do with our time that makes life worth living. Life is hard and it is full of pain, but it is also full of love and beauty. Souls are eternal, but it is our mortal flesh that determines where and how we spend the rest of time." Nad placed a hand on Dan's shoulder, tears streaming down his withered face. "Some choose poorly…as you did."
Before Dan could look away, Nad's body began to disintegrate, turning to ash. Dan watched the little flecks fall off Nad's face. He was still crying and smiling all at once as he dissolved into an ashen pile with a soft poof.
Dan's heart was hammering in his chest again, his stomach twisting and turning, all of a sudden cold and trembling once more. As the first tears rolled over his cheeks, Dan's knees hit the floor.
"No." He cried, his lips quivering. "No, no please." He scooped ashes up in his hands, pulling them to his chest. "Please no!" He sobbed. "I know now! Please, please give me a second chance! I'll make things right, please!"
He cried and cried, begging and pleading for what could've been an eternity. But this…this was not a movie. This was the end. The end of life and there were no do-overs outside of cinema. Nad had never been real. Only a mirage of the life Dan could've had. A glimpse of a life that never was. A bitter and painful reminder of how unfair the world really was. Of how wrong he had been.
Dan curled in on himself, rolling up in a ball on top of the ashes. They got into his mouth and clung to his tear streaked face but he paid no mind. He paid no mind to the dry taste and the sting in his eyes for their discomfort was nothing compared to the longing ache ringing in his chest and filling every part of him with a burning fire. Gasping and opening his eyes he looked at the ground. The star-like specks had changed. Each and every one of them was an image of an event that never was. Two little boys, one blonde the other brunette, laughed at something he could not see. Jenna, pregnant and beautiful. Himself with a dark haired newborn in his arms and a blonde toddler laughing at his feet. Thousands of images reflecting a life that had never happened. Dan scrambled around the room, his heart heavy with longing and regret, looking at the never ending reminders of what he had given up. He was surprised he hadn't drowned in his own tears yet.
Hell, he thought, was fire and eternal torture, but he had been wrong. It was a place, empty and silent at first but filled with the knowledge of what you could have been. There were no fires besides the flames inside yourself that ignite alongside regret. It's a torture outside of flesh that burns into your soul a powerful lesson of how the world really works. Arrogance and ego are wasted inflations because life isn't about you but it is what you make it. Tread carefully for there are no second chances.