They had returned to the Saunders’ home in Sarah’s car. Mrs. Saunders had been riding shotgun, and the poor woman kept glancing back at her son, as though he might vanish if she were to take her eyes off of him. It was understandable given what they had been through, but to Sarah it seemed entirely unnecessary. Mark’s presence was, if anything, abnormally imposing. Even though she had dutifully kept her eyes on the road as she drove, and even though he hadn’t said a word, she could feel that he was there.
She tried to excuse herself when they finally arrived, but Mrs. Saunders wouldn’t hear of it. “I need you there, Sarah,” she pleaded, “I need someone to tell Arthur that I saw what I saw, and I’m not just going completely out of my mind.” Sarah felt awkward about the way that had been put—after all, Mark was right there to defend his mother’s sanity if called upon. Yet she knew that she couldn’t refuse. If she walked away without talking about it, she might begin to doubt her own sanity in time.
In the initial encounter with Mr. Saunders, she was not actually called upon to say anything at all. He was stunned by the altered appearance of his son, and the near-hysterics of his wife. As Mrs. Saunders grew more fretful and lengthy in her explanations, Mr. Saunders grew more overwhelmed and confused. Realizing that she was starting to sound like a crazy person, perhaps fearing that she was a crazy person, she grew more desperate to explain herself. Finally, Mr. Saunders brought an end to this dizzying cycle.
“Why don’t we all go in and sit down for a while,” he suggested. His tone was not sharp, but it was firm, and Mrs. Saunders fell silent. She looked so frightened and ashamed of her own behavior that it was painful for Sarah to see her. The poor woman had just been through too much for one evening.
As they all filed in, Sarah paused at the door. “You too, Sarah,” Mr. Saunders said with authority. Then, as an afterthought, added, “Please.” She sighed and resigned herself to the prolonging of the longest night of her life.
A silent agreement was made to avoid the subject so that people’s nerves might settle a bit. It was then that Sarah found she was called on to speak—but not of what happened. Mr. Saunders asked her about her family, about her studies, about her impending graduation—in short, about everything except what was on her mind. She did her best to answer his questions, but felt suffocated by Mrs. Saunders’ silent suffering, and Mark’s apparent withdrawal.
At her husband’s prompting, Mrs. Saunders made hot cocoa. The mundane and routine nature of this task seemed to bring her some much needed comfort. Mr. Saunders may have been entirely ignorant of the situation, but thirty years of marriage had taught him a great deal about what his wife needed when the pressure upon her had become more than she could bare. This small example of that touched Sarah; she had known them for most of her life and seeing them like this returned to her a sense of reality that had been missing for hours.
Once the cocoa was served, it was Mr. Saunders who introduced the topic. “Now, let’s take this very slowly,” he began, “What happened to you tonight? What happened to Mark?” Sarah looked to Mrs. Saunders, who was glancing back at her with uncertainty in her eyes.
“We were mugged,” Sarah replied, the words seeming small and insignificant as she spoke them, “we were mugged, and they shot Mark.”
“Shot?” he shouted, suddenly on his feet, “Where? Is he bleeding? Why didn’t you take him to a hospital?” Only now was it clear how fragile his calm had been, how desperately he had been fighting to maintain it.
“He was shot in the head, Arthur!” Mrs. Saunders suddenly snapped, “In his head! He’s not bleeding, he’s not wounded at all! But he wasn’t hurt, he was—” but even in this sudden burst of passion, she could not make herself finish that sentence.
A paralysis shot through the room like a bolt of lightening, and everyone froze. Mark had been staring off into space, and had not spoken a word since they had arrived. Despite discussing his condition, they had all but forgotten his presence. “That’s-what are you…this isn’t funny,” Mr. Saunders asserted without conviction, struggling over what exactly to say.
“It may not be funny,” Mark said with grim confidence, “but it is true. I was not wounded. I was not harmed. I was murdered.”
“That’s insane,” Mr. Saunders murmured.
“It’s true,” Sarah told him quietly, “we both saw it happen. They shot him point-blank in the eye.”
“But…he looks, I mean, it wouldn’t—” poor Mr. Saunders had finally lost his composure entirely; he was feeling as lost as the rest of them.
“Let me explain,” Mark said more gently, as if asking their permission. “The three of us have some things that we all know happened tonight. We know that I was killed. We know that I didn’t die, but was…changed. Changed in more than just the way I look. I’m sorry that I haven’t said very much since then…I just…I think you both weren’t sure if you were sane after what you saw. Well, I lived it. I…wasn’t completely sure I hadn’t just lost it, either. I wanted to hear you both say it. I needed to hear you both say it. I’m sorry mom, I didn’t mean to scare you…” As he finished, a familiar warmth came into his voice. His mother turned and embraced him, as she had only hours earlier. He was no longer the stranger in the room. He was Mark again.
Pulling herself back enough to see his face, Mrs. Saunders held her son’s hand tightly as she buried him under a barrage of questions. “What happened? Did you see something? I heard you tell those people—”
“You shouldn’t worry about that,” he interrupted her quickly, “I was kind of…uh, I hate to say it—drunk on the moment, and said a lot of crazy things just because I liked the way they sounded in my head.”
“So you didn’t—”
“But what about—”
“Would someone,” Mr. Saunders asked in a low voice, “please tell me what the hell happened to my son?” Sarah was jarred out of the ongoing exchange. The fleeting lightness in the mood was crushed all at once by the very real presence of his anger.
“I’m sorry…” Mrs. Saunders muttered, her cheeks bright red.
“You don’t have anything to apologize for, mom,” Mark sighed, “I’m the one who’s sorry. A lot of things happened tonight, dad. Most of it I don’t really understand…but I do know a lot more than mom or Sarah do. So I’ll give you what I’ve got…I can’t promise that it’ll explain much, or make any of this feel any more real. I’ll be perfectly honest, but you may feel like sending me to the nuthouse afterwards…”
“We may all need to be put away, afterwards,” his father replied curtly, and gave a long-suffering sigh. In the thoughtful silence that followed, Sarah decided to seize the moment.
“I think I should go,” she said, rising to her feet.
“Sarah…” Mrs. Saunders said softly, as if suddenly remembering that she had been the room all along.
“We’ve talked enough so that I’m pretty sure I’m not crazy,” Sarah explained, “and I’ve done what I could to help you feel the same way about yourselves. If Mark wants to tell me what he’s got to say, I’ll be glad to listen to him, but…right now I think he needs to be with his family.”
“Well, maybe…” Mrs. Saunders said uncertainly.
“Yes, you’re probably right,” Mr. Saunders agreed, emanating a respect that Sarah was not used to receiving from him, “thank you, Sarah. It really means a lot, all you’ve done.”
“Please stay.” Mark begged, and his sudden plea made her go stiff.
“I…shouldn’t,” she told him, “you should talk to your parents first and get a handle on this. You know I’ll be there for you…but right now I’d just get in the way. Family should come first.”
“There are only four people who witnessed my death,” Mark said quietly, avoiding everyone’s eyes, “two of those people don’t deserve to hear what I have to say. But…I want to share it with the other two. I just do. I’m being selfish about this. I’ve always been a selfish person.”
“She’s right Mark, let’s take this one step at a time,” Mr. Saunders piped up, “you can tell her when you are ready.” There was no response at first, and Sarah stood, wondering if she ought just to go. Mark stared at the ground, withdrawing into his own thoughts. The atmosphere of uneasiness, the sense that there was a stranger where Mark had been, once again descended upon the room.
“Mom thinks that Sarah wants to leave because she is afraid of me,” he said suddenly, “and it makes her sad, but she understands it. Understands it and hates it at the same time, because she’s a little afraid herself. Dad doesn’t want to let anyone outside the family in on too much before he’s confident with his own understanding of the situation. He wants to protect me. And Sarah…kind of knows that. She doesn’t want to seem like the kind of person who would take advantage her friend and his family just to satisfy her own curiosity. And she is very curious, but she is also very strong. She wants to do the right thing.” He met her eyes as he finished, and she felt her cheeks warm at his sudden attention and his high opinion of her.
“Can…can you read minds?” Mrs. Saunders asked breathlessly, no longer concerned with how crazy she sounded.
“Nothing as easy as that,” Mark sighed, “but I am…aware. Of something. I don’t understand what it is, but…I know that I shouldn’t know it. If that makes any sense. Anyway, that doesn’t matter. It can’t tell me much about what I just said. I said what I said because I have known all three of you for my entire life, but until just now I’ve been too much of an idiot to really try to understand you. I don’t need any magic power to tell me who you guys are. I know you.”
No one could think of anything to say in response to that. This wasn’t the silent stranger that had frightened them, but it wasn’t the old Mark either. It was the new Mark, the man who had hit rock bottom and come home, and dedicated every day to demonstrating how serious he was about turning his life around. The Mark who hated what he had been but wouldn’t let it make a slave of who he would become. The Mark who had been humbled, and knew it. Even before that fateful night, they had been adjusting to the dramatic changes in their son’s attitude and priorities.
“I want you to stay,” Mark said again, with conviction, “will you? It would mean a lot to me.”
“I just…I don’t know if I should,” Sarah replied lamely, looking to Mr. and Mrs. Saunders for help.
“Oh, sit down Sarah,” Mr. Saunders said lightly, “he’s right, you’re no stranger to our family. You don’t have to prove yourself to us.”
“I don’t know what to say…” she said, feeling out of breath.
“Who asked you to say anything?” Mark teased. His mouth moved into a smirk that was so familiar to her she could have cried. “You’re here to be my own, personal, captive audience, right? You don’t get to talk.”
“…jackass,” she replied by force of habit. She took her seat without another word. She felt much more comfortable resigning herself to her fate for the second time that night.
Mark gathered his thoughts, and they watched him expectantly. “We got a little lost trying to find Sarah’s car after the movie,” he began, “and when these two punks came out and started yelling at us to give them our money, I thought they were nuts. We were on the sidewalk, out in the open. I told them that they didn’t scare us, and then they pulled the guns. One of them stuck it right up in my face, right on my left eye. ‘Do we scare you now, you little shit?’ he said and spat on me. I didn’t really get a chance to say anything. I think he didn’t mean to do it, but the gun went off. It went off right in my face.”
When the gun went off, there was no pain. There wasn’t anything. Not even a feeling like something had changed. Suddenly I thought nothing, I felt nothing, and I was just there, taking up space. Then I heard a voice. “Do you want to feel?”
“Yes.” I just sort of said automatically.
“Even if it means feeling all of the pain?”
“Yes.” I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think.
“I don’t believe you.”
Then…nothing. No explanation.
I said, “What?” I tried to understand what had just happened, but it was like my mind was missing.
“You don’t really want to feel.” Slowly it occurred to me that he might be mocking me.
“Yes I do.”
“You don’t care about anything right now. How could you want something?”
“Look, I told you that I do.” I was starting to feel a little spark of anger against a sea of numbness, “I’m not lying.”
“You don’t know what you want.”
“Yes I do!”
“Yeah? Then tell me what it is. What do you want?” That shut me up. I was having a feeling, it’s true, but my mind still wasn’t really engaged. I had forgotten what we were arguing about—but only because I couldn’t remember anything. “That’s what I thought. You don’t really want anything at all. Have a fun eternity without feeling!”
“Shut up!” I shouted into the void, “Shut up you stupid smarmy prick! I know what I want!”
“Then just tell me what—”
“I WANT TO FEEL!” and then I did. All at once, I got everything back. But what I noticed first was the pain. It was like someone had been trying to cram their entire hand through my eye and into my head. I don’t remember screaming, but I remember finally stopping. The pain began to diminish into a throbbing headache that remained.
“Quite a set of lungs,” said the voice, which now came from a person that I could see standing on thin air a few feet in front of me. It was a man, not much older than me, wearing weird, bronze colored robes. I could tell that he was smaller than me, but he was lean and he was built. If I’d been stupid enough to pick a fight, he probably could have taken my head off.
“What’s going on?”
“Well, you passed the first test,” he told me, grinning with these perfectly white teeth, “congratulations!”
“Most people don’t even get a first test,” he added unhelpfully, “I guess she hasn’t lost her touch entirely.”
“Who hasn’t lost…what…what the hell are you talking about?” I asked, feeling more than a little irritated.
“Easy now, you ought to be thanking me for going to all this trouble!” He told me tartly, “though I have to hand it to you. You managed to break free before too much damage was done. A little damage is of course unavoidable, maybe even preferable.”
“For the love of – what damage? Broke free of what?”
“Don’t worry about that,” he said, “but you’re not too bright, are you? You died, buddy. Remember?” It sounds weird, but I had forgotten. I remembered then, that I had been shot. That mom and Sarah had been left with those two men.
“I’m dead.” I was amazed by the thought.
“No time for nostalgia,” he said abruptly, “time to put all that behind you! You’ve got work to do, boy, if you want to help your old lady and the girl out.”
“Man, you’re slow.” He gave an overly melodramatic sigh, “Lo, mortal, give cheer! The powers that be have decided to give you a chance to walk amongst the living again!”
“The powers that be?”
“Well, more like, some of the powers have stepped in to save you from some other powers that…look, I told you not to worry about all that,” he said, as if chiding a small child, “the point is, you have a chance to go back, but the next test won’t be as easy as the first one.”
I decided to ignore everything that was confusing me about the situation. “When does this test begin?”
I was on a hill. I don’t know if he took me there or if we’d been there the whole time, but I was aware of it for the first time right then. It was a brown, pebbled hill and I was only a few feet from the base of it.
“Climb this hill, and you may live again.” He told me, hovering several feet beyond the bottom of the hill.
“Well, there’s a catch…” he said with a grin, and suddenly I was holding a boulder. Had that been there for the entire time as well? There’s no way to know.
“I have to roll this boulder to the top of the hill to live again?” I asked to be sure I had understood the task.
“Nope. You have to climb the hill. And you can’t let the boulder fall.”
“How is that different from what I just said?”
“Oh, I think you’ll come to appreciate the difference.”
“And if I let the boulder fall, I stay dead.”
“If you let the boulder fall, I’ll take you back to where I found you,” he said with a sudden seriousness, “and you’ll fade into the shadows without ever knowing what became of your mother or the girl.” When he put it like that, it certainly sounded a lot worse than just staying dead.
“Well, I guess I’ll just…get right to it then,” I said, feeling kind of awkward. Isn’t that weird? I got shot in the face, plucked out of nothingness, and told I needed to push a boulder up a random hill, and all I could feel was awkward. I turned around and started rolling the damn thing up. It wasn’t easy, even in the beginning. I wasn’t any stronger than usual, and my head still hurt like a bitch. The boulder was easily half my weight, and about twice my size. It was pretty much a sphere, which meant it was both easy to move and hard to control. I was terrified of it at first, and rolled at an unsteady pace.
I wasn’t very organized about it, but it was better than what came next. See, after enough time had passed, I got it into my head that this wasn’t so bad. A hill? No problem! At the rate I was going, I could be back in the land of the living in no time. This silly test was probably some kind of formality, they’d already decided they wanted to bring me back. They just had to go through the procedures, you know, like a company or something. This was my interview for the law firm of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, or whatever. Piece of cake!
I got some momentum going, and started to pick up the pace. I couldn’t wait to see those asshole’s faces, when I came back after a bullet to the head! I started thinking about what I would do to them, how I would get the jump on them. I started thinking about how startled you guys would be, when I sprung back up. I thought up a bunch of funny routines I could go through, while you all watched with your jaws dropping to the ground. I thought of a lot of things, most of them involving me being the big comedian, or the big hero.
What I didn’t think about was what I was doing at that moment. I slipped on a smooth stone that was partially buried in the hill. I stumbled back a bit, and then my other foot sank into the ground in a particularly soft and muddy spot. I didn’t fall, but I didn’t have to. As I swung backwards, the boulder followed, knocking into me and tearing my foot from the ground. I pushed at it helplessly as it gained speed, and I began to really panic. It suddenly dawned on me that if I fucked this up, this was it. No second chances. Mom and Sarah could be killed, and all because I was too busy daydreaming to push a freaking boulder. I leaned with my shoulder and dug in my heels. I held on for dear life and pushed at the ground, begging the damn thing to stop. It was slowing, but I wasn’t sure that it would stop before we got to the bottom.
By some miracle, it did. Barely. Gasping for breath, my heart pounding in my chest, I suddenly realized that everything hurt. My feet had been horribly abused by the friction, and just about every muscle in my body screamed for mercy. But I didn’t care. I was scared, I was hurt, I was tired, but I was still in the game. “Well that was almost over before it began,” my companion remarked, making his presence known again for the first time since I had started climbing the hill.
“Just…lost my footing,” I said. It was a pretty lame thing to say, now that I think about it.
“Best not do that again, you might not be so lucky next time,” he said.
“Thanks,” I told him in that way that lets a person know they’re not being helpful.
“Well, get back to it, then,” he said with this smug grin on his face, “didn’t I mention that if you stop, I get to knock you off the hill?” I wanted to argue. I wanted to say “can you give me like five freaking minutes”, but I didn’t. It was pointless. I wasn’t setting the rules, and for all this guy cared I could just stay dead. I couldn’t give him an excuse, and I couldn’t screw up again like I just had. I started inching the boulder up, moving slowly because I wanted to be sure of where I was stepping and because I was exhausted. But I kept on moving.
The tracks from where my feet had dragged made me uneasy, so I maneuvered away from them. I inched the boulder forward a bit, tapped my foot down on the spot I intended to step on, and then moved forward. I noticed a lot that I hadn’t before; all the rocks in the ground, the dry dirt and the soft mud, even some patches of dead grass here and there. I took no chances; sometimes I wouldn’t move forward at all until I’d maneuvered to a spot that I felt comfortable walking over.
It felt like this went on for ages. To be honest, I don’t have a clue as to how long I was there or even if time exists in that god forsaken muckhole. Sometimes I felt like I was so close to the top, and then the ground would give and I would be fighting to keep my footing. I was never as reckless as I was during that first push, nor did I ever come as close to the edge. But I would lose a lot of ground on some days. Mostly, the bottom seemed comfortably far but the top seemed impossibly distant.
The guy who put me up to this popped over every once in a while, and he’d prance about easily on the air near me. “This hill isn’t just a random outcropping, you know,” he told me once.
“That’s great.” I really didn’t have much patience for the guy; he was annoying as hell considering what was at stake for me.
“This hill was made by you,” he continued.
“Is this the part where you tell me that the hill represents my life, or something,” I snorted, taking a close look at the ground as I edged forward a little further.
“Maybe,” he said quietly.
“Look, I’m a recovering alcoholic,” I told him, not really thinking that he would care, “I’ve been to about a billion AA meetings. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve been great for me, but…I get really sick of all the metaphors about slippery slopes, and digging your own grave, or getting set in your own grooves, or whatever. So spare me your little…”
Suddenly he was standing on the ground, next to the boulder. “Sick of metaphors, huh?” He said with an intensity he hadn’t shown until that point, “So sorry to inconvenience you, Mr. recovering-alcoholic-who-got-himself-shot, but this isn’t exactly what you’d call an abstraction.” He slammed his hand on the boulder, and it was all I could do to stay in one place.
“Stop it. I’m still going; you don’t have any reason to push me.” I told him angrily. “When you look at the temperature on a thermometer, do you think ‘I’m so sick of this metaphor for how hot it is’?” He demanded, ignoring what I had said, “When someone tells you that the grass is green, do ask them to stop using that metaphor to describe what the color of the grass is? When the nurse tells you what your pulse is, do you think that’s just a metaphor for what’s going on in your veins?”
“What the hell are you getting at?” I demanded. I had had a lot of time to work on my posture; I was more likely to drag my feet than stumble backwards. But I was still nervous about it, and he wasn’t relenting.
“What I’m getting at,” he said curtly, pushing harder and forcing me back a bit, “is that if something reflects a reality, that doesn’t make it a metaphor. That just means that it responds to a situation, based on certain rules.”
“Who knew that death would be such an education for me,” was my snarky comeback.
“This hill is your life, Mark,” He went on, calling me by my name for the first time since I’d met him, “every time you make a mistake, it creates a flaw in it. Every bad habit you’ve ever had has been etched into it. Every failure you’ve ever lived, every time you’ve died a little on the inside because you knew you were too much of a chickenshit to do what you had to do…it altered the shape of this hill. This hill would be here even if I’d never shown it to you. So don’t worry. There’s no metaphor.” He released the boulder, and I stumbled forward a bit before steadying myself. “So you’ve only got every mistake you’ve ever made to hold you back, how hard can the rest of this test be, really?” He broke out into a huge grin again suddenly, “Have fun! Try not to get too nostalgic.” Once more I was alone.
What he had told me felt like the truth. I fond myself looking at the smooth stones the often clustered together and thinking of a particular binge of partying and drinking I had been on, or a girl I’d dated, or something.
He had told me not to get too nostalgic, so naturally that’s exactly what ended up happening. I relived everything. Just barely getting out of High School with a diploma. Moving up to New York with Ken, neither one of us ever holding a job down for long. The constant parties, the blur of faces, and the miles of empty beer bottles. You could probably pile up all the empty cans and bottles I’d ever drunk out of, and make a hill twice as high as the one I was walking up. Sometimes I’d wake up with a bottle in my hands, the drink spilled all over myself and the floor, and I would just feel like shit. But Ken would always talk about how we were going to find jobs and make something of ourselves, and everything would seem alright.
I remembered the accident. I thought about it every single day after it happened, but rolling that boulder up that hill, I relived it. The crash, waking up to find that there was nothing wrong with me other than the usual hangover, but Ken…
I remembered coming home to you guys, how hard that had been. I hadn’t kept in touch much but you knew what I’d been doing. You weren’t blind. I felt so exposed and so stupid. I felt like I’d been born with two eyes but acted like a blind person for my entire life. You were disappointed, so disappointed, but you were there for me. And this time, I would change. It wasn’t a matter of what I wanted anymore. It was a matter of what I would do about it.
I think my little tour down memory lane was what did it. What made me decide I had to finish that test, and that I had to come back to you. If Ken could have come back, maybe he could have turned his life around like I have had to. Maybe he could have gone back to his family, and been the son that they deserved. Ken didn’t get that chance. I did. And I didn’t want to throw it away at that moment, any more than when I first started going to those damned AA meetings, or working that construction job, or taking the handful of classes at the community college downtown. I had a chance to get my life back, just like I’d had a chance to turn it around when I was still alive. I was no longer the kind of loser who let chances like that pass him by. I refused to be.
It didn’t seem so bad after that. I don’t know, before I had been careful because I was terrified of failing. Afterwards, I felt like every step forward I could take would be worth it, because passing the test was worth it. I couldn’t know for sure that that lunatic would keep his word to me, but I had no other choice but to trust him. His word was all I had to go on in that strange world of the dead.
This is going to sound kind of tacky, but to me it stopped feeling like a test and started feeling kind of like a quest. Like, my big adventure to the top of the hill of life! Ok, I know that sounds really lame when you say it out loud, but I took what I could get. I needed to cling to little things like that to keep me going. It felt like years went by, and I would have just gone insane if I hadn’t believed with all my heart that it was worth it. I didn’t eat, I didn’t drink, I was exhausted but I didn’t sleep. All I did was push that damned boulder an inch at a time, knowing that one wrong step could screw everything up at any moment.
In fact, the footing was getting worse the further up I went. The rocks were getting larger, smoother, and more frequent, and the earth around them was getting more consistently muddy and slippery. The higher I went, the slower I had to go…it felt like forever. If I had let myself feel depressed or lost hope, that would have been it. Instead, I focused on the sheer tediousness of it, and it kept me from being able to think about anything else most of the time.
Then one day I was certain I had the top in sight. With the dangerous footing it would take a long time to actually get there, but I was encouraged by how close it seemed.
Then that bastard showed up again. I clenched my teeth as he sat himself atop the boulder. “Move,” I told him without thinking.
“Ok,” he said, and leapt off, landing behind it. It seemed strangely easy, I had expected him to be difficult. “I’m going to knock you off the hill now,” he told me conversationally. I didn’t have time to say anything. I felt the force of his blow from the other side of the boulder; it nearly knocked me clear over. I hugged the sides of it as tight as I could, and controlled the fall as best I could. I began taking successively slower steps backwards, forcing the boulder to slow until I regained control of it. “Very nice,” he said, suddenly next to me, “but not good enough.” This time he hit the boulder sideways so I only had one hand against it as it began its descent. I had to run; I turned my back against it and dug my heels in. Once again, I managed to make it stop.
Now, he was facing me from the other side. “You’ve really got this down,” he complimented me, “too bad it’s all going to be for nothing.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I growled, not moving.
“You seem to have stopped, I told you I could throw you off the hill if you did that,” he pointed out. I turned my back to him and started rolling up the hill again. I waited for his next attack. To my surprise, he began to walk next to me. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll hit you if you turn your back to me?” He asked.
“Of course I am!” I shouted, “But I’m not going to give up. I don’t really understand the game you’re playing, but if I lose it, it will be because you’re an arbitrary asshole, not because I’m a quitter.”
“Life is arbitrary,” he said simply, “or maybe death is. In any case, what makes you think I’ll ever let you reach the top? Or if you do, by some miracle, what makes you think I can even bring you back to life?”
“I…don’t,” I admitted, “I don’t know any of that, really. But I can’t think about that right now. What good will it do me? If I’m dead for good, there’s nothing I can do about it. But if I can do something about it, and you get in my way, then I will just have to go through you.”
“Is that a fact?” He asked with obvious amusement. “I guess she really hasn’t lost her touch, then. But just in case…” and then he sprang into the air, reared back his leg, and kicked the boulder with a force that dwarfed the blows he had landed earlier. He gave me a wink and I was alone. The boulder went a ways. I’m lucky he kicked it to the side rather than downwards, but getting to it in time seemed impossible.
In any case I didn’t have any time to think. I ran, the speed dizzying and unfamiliar after so long a time moving at a snail’s pace. I ran faster than I thought possible. Suddenly it seemed I could do the impossible—I could make it there before the boulder passed me! I could head it off!
That was when I realized how very close to the bottom I already was. I didn’t have time for my little digging in the heels routine, it just wouldn’t be good enough. So I grabbed it, I dug in my heels, and then…I got down on my knees, my chest up against the boulder. I concentrated my whole weight into the ground as best I could, and I just…prayed that it would make the difference. As it came to a stop, the boulder rolled up…pushing me back, going over my knees. It came down on top of me with a crushing force, and suddenly I was falling backwards, gripping the rounded thing awkwardly, feeling like it could all go so wrong so easily.
I stopped. It wasn’t even close to the bottom—well, not as close as the first time, anyway, I had been miles from it a few seconds ago, and then I was only a few feet from it—but it was a big enough margin for me. Only problem was, I was crushed underneath the damn boulder and if I moved even a little bit, it was going to slip.
“Having a little nap?” he asked suddenly.
“You wish,” I shot back. I knew I couldn’t stay still for very long, or he’d use it as an excuse to knock me off the hill. Not that he seemed to need an excuse anymore. But all logic was lost to me; I devoted myself to getting back on my feet with a kind of obsessive fanaticism. Even though I felt the pain of a thousand broken bones, I found that I could move around just fine. Death is funny like that, I guess. I sat up very slowly, so the boulder would move along my body in the direction that I wanted it to. It hurt like hell. Especially as it went over my legs. But I did it. And I stood up, and I started to roll the damn thing all over again. I couldn’t help but turn to give him a bit of a smirk.
And then it was over.
I wasn’t on the hill anymore. He was holding me in the air, high above a pond. “Is this…the top of the hill?” I asked him, starting to feel delirious.
“There is no top of the hill,” he said in a sympathetic tone, “this is your reward. You passed the test, Mark. That makes you one of two people in the history of humanity to ever do that.”
“Oh…” I think I must have gone limp; it was the first time in what seemed like forever that I’d been able to relax.
“Take it easy, you’ve earned it,” he told me sincerely, “but I’m afraid I won’t be able to give you very long. We need to finish this up quickly, before someone notices you’re here.”
“Am I going to get to go back? Is it too late to help them?” I asked.
“You’ll get to go back,” he said, “but I need you to listen to me very closely. The water in this pond heals all earthly wounds. Your body has been at the bottom ever since the moment you were shot. All of the physical damage done by the bullet has been erased, but…”
“You were touched by something, remember?” He said slowly, “it’s the reason you were in the state I found you in. In the shadows, there is no sensation, no emotions, no desire.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to. Just know that you were touched by something, and it left its mark on your body. I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do about it,” he sounded so honestly apologetic about it, but I really didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. “I’m going to drop you now. You’ll fall into your body, and then…well, that’s where things get interesting, isn’t it?” He grinned at me with mischief in his eyes, and let go.
I fell, face-first. I went down much faster than I would have, if I’d been sinking in regular water. I only got a glimpse of my face before I crashed into my body, but it was all I needed. The mark that he had spoken of. It couldn’t have been from the bullet, it was just too…neat. Two thin little scars, more like knife-wounds than anything, making a perfect X over my left eye. The eye itself, without any color or a pupil. Yeah, I could see the physical mark that death had left on my face, but I had no idea just how much I would change.
I was there again, standing before them. I have no idea how this must have looked to you guys; if I fell to the ground and then suddenly was standing up. If I stood up slowly and turned to look at them. All I remember is being there, on my feet, facing them. They had intended to kill you both to make sure you never described them to a cop or something. I knew that, and I didn’t know how I knew it. I could reach out and scrape the knowledge, like a shadow of the truth grinning at me from a wall. I didn’t give them time to be surprised.
I hit the guy who had shot me in the gut, with a strength I had never known before. I didn’t want to take him out yet. I wanted to save him. He was winded, and crumpled over. The other guy pulled a gun, but he was too slow. I grabbed the gun and crushed it. Crushed it. With my hand. That wasn’t the only weapon on him. Something that I guessed was a knife was in his right pocket. I reached in and pulled it out before he could even piss himself. It was a switchblade. I raised up an elbow, and slammed into the side of his head, knocking him to the ground.
“Is this the mark?” I asked no one, “Is this the mark of death, or the reward for passing the test? Is there any end to this power?” The guy who had shot me was recovering, but I was there before he could blink. I pocketed the knife from his friend, and looked down on the man who had been my murderer. He looked up at me, his gun on the ground a few feet from his grasp, and he turned and ran.
I passed him, but went far enough so that he’d have time to build up some momentum. I reared back and hit him with my right, and I’m not ashamed to admit I took satisfaction in the way his body jerked back, and he crashed to the ground. His friend was just pulling himself to his feet. “Don’t you move a muscle. Don’t even crawl,” I told him. I didn’t shout. But he heard me.
“What…what the fuck are you,” said the little thing on the ground that had put a bullet in my brain.
“What am I?” I really didn’t know, to be honest. I was on such a rush at that moment, and so much had happened to me, I just kind of lost it. “Maybe I’m a zombie! Maybe I’m a God!” I laughed a lot at both of those, and I got really carried away. “Or maybe I’m not. Maybe I’m the drunk you happened to run into after he had taken the time to see a movie with his mother and his neighbor. Maybe you killed me dead, little man, and I made a pact with Lucifer himself so that I could come back and take you to him myself. Maybe I sealed the deal with my left eye, hahahahaha!”
There seemed like no end to the power. I realized that that was probably only because I had only had it for about a minute, but I didn’t care. It felt infinite. It felt immense. I could have killed them in an instant, or I could have tortured them for days without even disarming them, and they would never have had the speed or the stopping power to do any damage to me. I could have crushed them like insects.
And all of a sudden, the buzz was gone. I didn’t want to kill anyone. I realized how easy it would be, and it suddenly didn’t seem cool. It seemed terrifying. This power…it’s awful. I can beat anyone, and I know things…I shouldn’t be able to know. But it comes at a price. It’s like…it’s like a drug. If I don’t know what I’m doing, I could lose control. I had pretty much lost control, if only for a moment.
“Listen to me,” I said quietly, “there is nowhere on this earth that you two can hide from me. Especially you,” and I looked down at the one who had murdered me, “so you just march down to the police station and confess everything you’ve done up until now. Ok? Just tell them you’re doing it to change your wicked ways. And be sure to produce plenty of evidence, so they don’t think you’re just high or something. I’ll know if you don’t do this, so don’t even try to scurry and hide. If you haven’t gone by the time I escort these two ladies home, I will find you and I will kill you. And I won’t be quick about it.”
They sat there, without moving, for just a moment. I could see their shadows twitching and fluctuating in the directions they wanted to go. I had already decided that if they made a move against me or against mom and Sarah, I would kill them. I didn’t think they would do that, though. They didn’t. They did exactly what I told them. Maybe they believed my little bit about making a pact with Lucifer and all that. In any case, they weren’t stupid enough to test me.
As they left, I wondered if I would ever be free of that hill. Was that grinning bastard, and whoever sent him, watching me even then? Were they judging every decision that I made? I wondered if I would be stuck like I was, struggling to get by every day of my life without letting this strange power drive me insane. The speed and the strength were one thing, but my eye…it’s true that it’s gone blind, but it sees so much now. A whole world that I didn’t know existed. A terrible world of truth, devoid of any meaning. More than anything I feared this mark left from the icy fingers of death that I had felt trying to worm their way into the back of my head. Was I even human any more?
And then mom was there, and she was hugging me. She was crying, and she was hugging me. Sarah was there too, looking concerned and more than a little scared. And it was over really, finally over.
“So I don’t really know what happened to me tonight,” Mark said as his story came to an end, “it was something terrifying, something impossible. All I know for sure is that I was killed, I came back, and I’m different now. I don’t know how this happened. I don’t even know if I’m human anymore.”
“Don’t say that!” Mrs. Saunders exclaimed in a hushed voice that was almost a whisper, worry plain in her tone and on her face. No one else said anything. Mark had seemed distant as he recounted the events, drawn into the memories of a night that to him had seem to last for years. Though he had finished, he still seemed far away. Mark’s father had a guarded look; Sarah had seen that look on him many times. Mr. Saunders was in general a very private person; Sarah had seen the same expressionless look on his face whenever he had something of significance on his mind, either very good or very bad. She had once told Mark that his father would make a truly formidable poker player, if he were social enough to play it.
The silence that filled the room was oppressive. Again Sarah found herself completely unsure of what to do next. Mark had finished telling his story, but seemed once again to have wtihdrawn inside of himself, unaware of his surroundings. Mrs. Saunders seemed too upset to say anything. Sarah was about to try and excuse herself again when Mr. Saunders finally spoke.
“Mark, how would you like to go back to College?” he asked. All eyes were suddenly on him.
“What?” Mark asked, finally snapping back to reality.
“I know we told you that we wouldn’t foot the bill after you dropped out,” he continued, “but it’s become increasingly clear to me that you really have done a lot of growing up since you came back. What do you say?” All eyes turned to Mark, who seemed completely baffled by the sudden change in topic.
“Well…I mean, how would I do it?” he asked, “I haven’t been in years. Would they accept me?”
“We can figure out the details,” Mr. Saunders replied easily, “you’ll get in somewhere. If you have to go to community college for a couple of semesters and then transfer somewhere, so be it. But do you want to do it?”
A beat. “Yes,” Mark said finally, “yes. Yes. Yes! I do!” A grin spread across his face as his excitement rose. Mr. Saunders stood up, walked over and slapped his son on the shoulder.
“Fantastic,” he said, “why don’t we all get some rest. We can start talking about our first steps tomorrow. For now I think we all could benefit from a little sleep.”
“I hear that,” Sarah said, feeling a smile come on in spite of herself. Mr. Saunders had somehow managed to turn the grim mood in the room completely around. A little sniffle next to her caught her attention, and she suddenly realized that Mrs. Saunders was crying.
“Oh, Helen!” Mr. Saunders said, realizing it himself and embracing her.
“I’m sorry,” she choked out meekly.
“I’m the one who’s sorry, Helen,” Mr. Saunders said, “you’ve been through a lot tonight, we all have.”
“Don’t worry mom,” Mark said, taking her by the hand, “I’m here now, and this whole mess is over, for now.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” she said, wiping away tears and pulling herself together, “I just need a moment.”
“I think I’d better get going for real this time,” Sarah said softly.
“Yes, as Arthur said I think we all had best get to bed,” Mrs. Saunders agreed, “thank you for your support Sarah.”
“Yes, thank you Sarah,” Mr. Saunders said earnestly, “did you drive or do you need a ride home?”
“No, I drove,” she replied. She wished them a good night, and made her way out. Mark shot her a grateful look as she left. So ended what felt like the longest night of her life