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 Category:  General Fiction
  Posted: May 5, 2020      Views: 19

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Part 2 of a 2-part story
"A Fear of Falling (Pt.2)" by BlueTiger





It wasn't until he reached the doorway of the house that Jonathan realized what an idiotic thing he had done by walking away. He still hadn't gotten one of his questions answered; he'd only been given more questions.

Like why he couldn't remember one day out of the last week. And the sky...he could remember sunny days, but not any recently. Why hadn't he noticed that before? Wouldn't that be the kind of thing you noticed after a while?

A thick purple twilight was settling over the driveway, and in the shadows of the trees beyond it, the fireflies were twinkling like flickering streetlights. The wooden porch creaked heavily under his feet. This was reality he assured himself; the warm, sinking twilight and the old boards creaking under his shoes; that guy on the park bench, who knew? He was some kind of trippy dream, a figment of an overactive imagination. But that didn't explain...

"Jonny?" he heard Audrey's voice behind him as she stepped through the screen door, "Are you coming inside, or what?"

"Yeah, I'm coming."

"It's so nice out here tonight," she said, joining him on the porch and looking through the trees where the lake was shimmering in the falling light. He put his arm around her, holding her close so he could feel the warmth of her body, the pulse thrumming just under her skin. She was real, he reminded himself, as real as the ground beneath him.

"You alright?" She asked, pulling slightly away.

"Yeah, I'm fine."

"You just got this look on your face for a minute like...I don't know, you looked like someone walked over your grave or something."

"No, I'm feeling alright." He said, and tried to smile to reassure her, but the smile was forced.

Later he lay in bed but couldn't sleep. The light of the almost-full moon was coming through the windows, spilling across the bed sheets. His arms were crossed behind his head as he stared at the ceiling, his mind turning and his body refusing to relax. Audrey rolled over, the silk of her night gown making a slight sound that he could hear clearly in the silence.

"Jonny?" She said, her voice muddled with sleep.

"Yeah?"

"Can you close the window? I'm freezing."

The temperature had dropped as the storm gathered in the night. He got up, crossed the room and shut the window, got back into bed. Audrey was already asleep again, snoring softly. Tomorrow he would find the man again. Tomorrow he would get some answers. Maybe then he could get rid of this feeling that he was about to lose his mind.

*******

He woke up the next morning to the sound of birds chirping and a cool breeze on his face. He had closed that window last night; maybe Audrey had opened it again.

She was in the shower now. The water was pounding against the tiles, and Jonathan closed his eyes, trying to fall asleep to the sound. It wasn't long before the water shut off and he heard her coming out of the bathroom.

"You going to get up today?" She asked. Had she asked the same thing yesterday? The day before? He couldn't remember.

"Maybe," he replied, and after a moment asked, "How does the weather look?"

"A little cloudy," came the reply, "like it might rain."

He sighed deeply into his pillow as he heard her walk away. He had been afraid she might say that.

*******

"Alright, I came back. Talk to me."

The cowboy was right where Jonathan had left him, sitting on the park bench underneath the tree. He looked up at Jonathan and nodded.

"I was waiting for you." He said.

Jonathan sat down. The man wasted no time with pleasantries.

"I'm going to tell you the truth and you aren't going to like it. I can try to break it to you slowly but there's really no way to do that. All I need to know is whether you want to hear it or not. I know that part of you must want to know or else I wouldn't be here in the first place."

"Just tell me," Jonathan said, "I just want to know what's going on. I want to know why the weather never changes and why it's always the weekend, and most of all, I want to know how I haven't noticed until now."

The man was thinking about answering, when Jonathan was hit with a sudden realization.

"I'm dead, aren't I? Am I dead?"

The man laughed. It was strange to see him laugh for the first time, and the lines in his tanned face reminded Jonathan of cracks in worn leather.

"No," he replied, "no, you're not dead. Not yet, anyway. But you're not really living, either."

Jonathan glared at him in frustration.

"And how does that work, exactly?"

The man exhaled, blowing a puff of smoke from his smoldering cigarette.

"What if I told you that nothing you see around you is real?"

"I'd say you're crazy. Of course it's real."

"But it isn't," the man insisted, "your life, your friends, Audrey, this town...none of it."

"It is real," Jonathan countered, slamming his fist on the wooden bench for emphasis, "I can feel it, smell it, taste it-"

"And when you dream, you can hear the monsters chasing you down the hall, maybe feel their breath on the back of your neck. Your heart starts to pound and it's all so very real until you wake up and realize there was no giant green monster and everything you thought you felt was just a figment of your subconscious mind. Just like this."

"You can't convince me of that. My life isn't just some dream."

Without a word the man took Jonathan's hand in his and, very smoothly and swiftly, sunk the burning end of the cigarette into his palm. Jonathan let out a cry and jerked his hand away, starting from the bench and staggering away from the crazy man.

"What in the hell is wrong with you?" He shouted, cradling his injured hand. The man just stared patiently back, glanced down at his cigarette as if checking for damages before he resumed smoking it.

It was then that Jonathan realized that he felt no pain. He examined his hand, but there was no mark, no sting, no sign at all that the cowboy sitting on the bench had just used him as a human ashtray.

"Who are you?" He asked, his voice as shaky as his still-trembling hands. The man took a long, leisurely drag of smoke and waved his arm out dramatically.

"I'm whatever you want me to be," he replied, " I'm your conscious. I'm your hard drive. I'm the something in the back of your head that doesn't want you to die. It doesn't matter who I am, it only matters that you remember who you are."

"What's that supposed to mean?" the other said, so angry he was almost shouting, "You want a history lesson, fine: I'm Jonathan Trent, I was born in Witchita Kansas, I met Audrey as soon as I was out of college and we got married. I can tell you my parent's birthdays and the name of my first dog and my social security number and whatever else you want to know. I know exactly who I am, and I know that this is my life."

"This was your life," the man replied, "or part of your life. But it isn't your life anymore."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"Sit down again." The man said. Jonathan did.

"There was an accident," the man began, his gaze trailing across the park, "The driver was a kid - seventeen, I think. You and Audrey were coming back from Curt's party, and it was late. The kid was going way too fast. Hit you coming around a curve. By the time you saw the headlights it was too late to stop. Audrey was alright, she got out of there fine, but not you, Jonny. You didn't wake up; you haven't woken up for a long time."

The man let out a long breath, like he was relieved to have gotten that taken care of. Johnathan stared at him.

"So I'm in a coma?"

"Yeah. You're in a coma."

"How long?"

"Long enough. Long enough that a lot of people are wondering if you'll ever get out of it, and most of them have given up."

"Why haven't I woken up?" Jonathan asked.

"You haven't wanted to," the cowboy answered, a note of annoyance in voice, "Believe me, I've tried waking you up. I've been hanging around ever since you went under, trying to get your attention. I'm there every time you turn around, you just refused to see me. Until a little while ago, you just pretended I didn't exist."

Until a little while ago, you didn't exist, Jonathan thought, though he knew that wasn't true. He rubbed his hands together, feeling with a new sense of appreciation the strength in his arms.

"Am I a mess?" He asked. The man shrugged.

"Not as bad as some," he answered, "But they won't know for sure until you wake up. You'll probably be able to walk again, but it will take a lotta work. Even if you do get your legs working again, you might never be one hundred percent...you had a nice head injury too, so there will be memory lapses, headaches, trouble concentrating, all the classic symptoms of concussion. Your arm was fractured in half a dozen different places; you'll be able to use it, but the pain will probably never go away."

Johnathan stood and wrapped his arms around himself. The breeze felt colder as he glanced up at the sky, at the rain suspended in the low hanging clouds.

"Your life is perfect here," he heard the man saying, "You grabbed ahold of your most recent happy memory, and you've been living that same day, more or less, over and over again. Here everything's alright, you and Audrey are happy, and you're in the best health of your life. It's a nice place to be, but it's all in your head."

"What if I want to stay here?" Johnathan asked, "What if I don't want to go back?"

"Well, there's the rub," the man explained patiently, "You see, you're dying. That's why you finally saw me. You didn't want to, you had to. You couldn't hide any more. All of this,"

The man waved his cigarette through the air, gesturing around the town,

"All of this is going to start fading, now that you know. It will look the same for a little while longer, but it's going to start losing its color, cracking around the edges. Pretty soon it will all be gone, and it's going to take you with it. Unless you decide to wake up, that is; either you leave or you die."

"But if I leave...what happens?" Jonathan asked.

"I only know what I hear. Snatches of conversation, the things people say around you. I live in your head, remember?"

"How much time do I have? Do you know that much?"

The cowboy's expression was grave again.

"Not long," he answered.

Jonathan stared across the park, at the grass that was rippling like water in the breeze.

"I'll come back tomorrow."

*******

The crickets outside the opened window sounded obnoxious tonight. They were too loud, Jonathan thought; the chirping of their wings crowded the dim space of the bedroom with noise.

"What's the matter?" Audrey asked him. She was watching him closely, her wide eyes lit strangely by the moonlight. Jonathan shifted to face her.

"Tell me something I don't know." He said. She cocked her head and laughed.

"What do you mean?"

"About you. Tell me something I don't know about you. Anything."

She laughed again, playing with the edge of the sheet while she thought about it.

"I don't know...you know practically everything about me already."

"No I don't. Not even close. I could spend a lifetime listening to you talk and I still wouldn't know the beginning of you. There are a million things I don't know. Tell me one. Just one."

Her face darkened and she lay her head down on the pillow.

"I'm really tired tonight, Jonny. I have to get up early tomorrow."

She rolled over, her back to him, taking half of the blankets with her.

*******

"I figured out who you are," Jonathan said.

He had gone to the park again, and once again the man was there reading his newspaper. He gave Jonathan a disinterested shrug as he lit his cigarette.

"Oh, yeah?" He said.

"Yeah. You're the Marlboro man."

The man raised an eyebrow, an amused smile tugging the edge of his mouth.

"The Marlboro man, huh?"

"Yeah. I mean, it's obvious now that I figured it out. No one in my family smokes, so it wasn't really on my mind. But I remember looking at the ads from my dad's handyman magazines, and I thought they were cool because I wanted to be a cowboy."

"Huh."

"Yeah. I thought you were the coolest, with your horse and your hat and your dopey mustache."

"Interesting," the man said, standing up from the bench, "but you know I'm not actually the Marlboro man, right? I could be anyone..."

Suddenly the image of the cowboy flickered like a mirage, and was replaced by a freckled boy of about nine or ten,

"I could be one of your childhood friends, for instance," the boy's voice said, before the image shifted to that of a young, redheaded man,

"...or a college classmate. Or even a first crush..."

Another shimmer and the man was replaced by a nine year old girl who spun childishly on the heels of her shoes, long dark hair twirling around-

"Ok, I get it, now knock it off!" Jonathan shouted, covering his eyes.

The figure shifted, morphing back into the hard-eyed cowboy.

"Man, that was creepy," Jonathan said with a shudder, "please don't ever do that again."

"As you wish," the man said with a lazy wave of his hand, "it uses up too much brainpower anyway."

He sat back on the bench, puffing at the cigarette.

"So, have you made your decision yet?" He asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Stay or go," the man answered, "live or die. Continue drifting through this glorious delusion or finally face reality."

Jonathan crossed his arms against the cool of a passing breeze.

"You're kind of a jerk, you know that?" He said. The other man nodded.

"To be fair, I am you," he said. Jonathan turned away.

"I just can't believe it. This isn't a dream, I know it can't be a dream..."

"The storm's coming, Jonny. Do you feel it?"

"Shut up."

"You're running out of time now. You can't keep running away. Are you listening, Jonny?"

But he was already out of earshot, stalking across the park with his head bent against the chilling wind.

*******

It was a fear of falling more than a fear of heights.

Slipping on ice was, to him, on the same level as leaping off a tall bridge. It was the lack of control, the splaying, dizzy moments before a body hit the ground, the sudden crushing agony of landing. That was what scared him, what kept him from cleaning gutters and hanging Christmas lights because even three feet off of the ground on a step ladder was enough to send a shock of terror through his heart.

Yet somehow, he felt nothing now.

He should have been afraid. He was standing on the edge of Lookout Point, the little cliff that jutted over the far side of the lake. He could see houses and sloping woods below him, see the moon glinting off the surface of the lake in sharp silver fluctuations.

If he fell from that height he would die.

At least, that's what logic dictated. Somehow he knew better. He knew that if he were, at that moment, to fling himself over the edge of cliff and into the moon-silvered waters below, he would be perfectly fine. Perhaps he wouldn't even hit the water. More likely, he would wake on a pleasantly cool morning to a soft bed and an open window.

And soon it will start fading, cracking around the edges --

Though he was pretty sure he would survive, he couldn't bring himself to jump.

*******

"You need to go away," Jonathan said to the man, as he stood on the edge of the lake. The water was gently lapping at the shore, making little dark patterns in the sand. The noon sun was peeking out from behind the clouds, giving the world a strange glow, and glinting off the water.

"I can't go," the man replied, his boots leaving deep prints in the damp sand as walked along, "I can't get out of your head any more than you can."

"I'm not in my head," Jonathan snapped back, "I'm standing on the beach on a nice summer day."

He kicked at a retreating wave for emphasis.

The cowboy nodded, slowly.

"And it's real?" he queried.

"Yes; it's real."

A bird circled above them, its aching cry echoing over the water.

"Fair enough," the man said with a shrug, "but it's nighttime, in case you hadn't noticed."

Jonathan looked over his shoulder; now there were thousands of stars set in the inky blackness of the night, and rather than a shorebird is was a symphony of crickets that he heard.

*******

"I thought of something," Audrey said as they lay in bed that night. So familiar to him now was the feel of this night, the sound of wind outside the window.

"What?"

"What you asked before," she answered, "something you didn't know about me."

"What's that?"

She snuggled closer, wrapping her arms around him. Her breath was warm on the back of his neck.

"I almost died once," she said, "I almost drowned in my uncle's pool. I don't remember it, though. I was three. That's odd, don't you think? Don't you think I'd remember it?"

"It doesn't prove anything," he answered, his voice barely a whisper in the darkness, "I could have just thought that up about you. I wish it changed things, I really wish it did, but it doesn't prove you're real."

"What did you say?

"I used to have a fear of falling..."

*******

Twilight was falling over the lake, casting purple shadows over the forest. The sky was rose and lavender, deepening on the horizon to the color of an old bruise.

Jonathan stood on the edge of the cliff, closing his eyes as the cool breeze ruffled his hair. Far below him the waters lapped softly against the rocks, and somewhere in the woods an owl was hooting eerily.

"I don't think I'm ready," he said into the evening. He knew as soon as he spoke those words that the man in the cowboy hat would be there. He was right.

"Ready to jump, you mean?" He heard the man reply behind him.

"I'm not ready to go back," he answered, "I know that I can't stay here. It's falling apart, like you said. I'll die if I stay here; but I might die if I go back too."

"That's true."

He turned around to face the man, stepping away from the edge.

"And what if it's worse than dying?" he asked, his voice cracking, "what if I can't walk again, or speak, or...what about Audrey? She didn't ask for this. It wouldn't be fair to her, if I can't take care of myself anymore. Who knows if anything will be alright again?"

The man didn't answer. Jonathan noticed now, looking at him through the gloomy twilight, that the man was fading away. The edges of his clothes translucent now, making him appear like a movie ghost.

"You know, I always have this dream," Jonathan said, "I'm on a cliff like this, looking over the water..."

He took a step backwards, towards the cliff's edge.

"...and the ground starts crumbling, falling away. And every time, I turn away and I start running."

He could hear the churning of the water beneath him, the rushing of the wind as it rose through the trees.

"But you know what I've always wondered?" He asked. The Marlboro man was fading, more quickly now. He reminded Jonathan of the Cheshire cat as his legs faded completely to mist and a disembodied hand brought the cigarette to his lips.

"I've always wondered what would happen," Jonathan answered, "if I stopped running."

Jonathan spread his arms out wide, feeling the wind beneath him. He took one last step and his foot met nothing but space. Down he fell, the cool dark night rushing around him, towards the moonlit water and the slick blackness of the rocks, as the stars wheeled above him -

And for a moment, he wasn't afraid of falling.

 
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