By Christopher Malatesta
© 2014 Christopher Malatesta
“Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” wrote Will Mattos, who could do NOTHING to prevent himself from succumbing to the overwhelming sensation of the pull. It was a morning ritual now, only he never found himself able to get past that first line. He felt it more and more each day – the pull, that’s what he called it. It had always been there, only its presence was growing stronger. Like the cosmic expansion of the universe, Will felt his life being pulled forward, toward an imposing end with increasing intensity. It was bad enough every waking moment of his thoughts was being pulled toward it, but now it was ebbing its way into his sleep.
BLEEP – BLEEP – BLEEP
Will leaned over and pressed the snooze button on his alarm clock, banking another hour of sleep before slipping into his suit and out the door.
So strong was the pull that he awoke on his own accord a full ten minutes prior to the second alarm. Before it had a another chance to sound its electronic reveille, Will reached over to shut the alarm off at precisely 4:50 am. He knew he had a ten minute buffer before he needed to be up and in the shower, so he remained nestled under his plaid bed sheets. Running his fingers through the short, salt & pepper bristle on his head down his face, over the stubble of graying whiskers, he pondered the routine. What did it matter? He wondered the same thing each and every morning. Did it really matter if he got up? What was the point? He reached down, picked up the journal he kept at the side of his bed and jotted his morning entry.
He lived with the pull everyday, somehow finding a way to manage it or at least keep it at bay at first. Jumping in and tackling the day always proved the best approach at keeping a safe distance from the pull, at least until the next time it was felt. It would be even stronger the next time.
He stared at the digital display in disbelief, a whole ten minutes had passed since he woke. There was no time left to stay in bed and contemplate the machinations of the universe and whether or not to shave or play the slouch. He talked himself out of bed, just as always. Once his body was in motion, it wasn’t difficult. Getting started each morning was always hard but once he was up, he was up.
The investment in his dreams was so large that waking up felt like a newborn having an umbilical torn from it, forced to face a harsh new terrain. Those first stupor laden steps down the long hallway from his bedroom toward the bathroom each morning made him feel as though he were shaking off a hangover, but also those moments of his life were his most vivid. There was something special in those budding moments just after waking, before his mind was vigilant of the day ahead. Keeping the hall lights off, only allowing the fading moon light to illuminate the apartment, he got on with the show.
As a younger man, Will always saw himself as fit and focused, but now having turned 54 only a few months back, he stared at the stranger in the steam soaked mirror in dismay of his own distracted and disgusting reflection. Several recent health visits pointed him toward a better diet, more exercise, and less stress. The routine was laid out in front of him but he didn’t always adhere to it. His body was thicker and heavier. He had less hair, and his remaining follicles were growing whiter and fewer with every passing season as if choreographed to coincide with each falling winter snow.
Pining for the past, Will mournfully reflected upon lost time. He had hit the ground running right out of college, marrying his sweetheart Cindy, and landing a triple figure job. He had 3 kids, a dog, a 5 bedroom manse in the suburbs, a lake house in the mountains, 3 cars (Cindy’s Benz, a convertible Jag for weekends, and his beloved black BMW 7 series) parked in the garage, a well groomed estate, and a cholesterol count still in its infancy. Will couldn’t have been dealt a better hand. He had everything he dreamed of, come on, Will Mattos was the American Dream.
His career took off like wildfire with a flourishing start. He had graduated top of his class and landed a job as a busy ad exec in the city, commuting an hour to work each day. His proverbial Rolodex was filled with a plethora of profile clients and he was in high demand. Rushing home each night, he would be greeted at the door by his family where his evenings were spent playing with the kids and dog before unwinding with his wife and a glass of wine, celebrating their daily triumphs. Nostalgia was nullified by the suffocating memories which followed.
After years in the business, Will found himself hitting a creative wall and was beginning to lose industry clout. He wasn’t sought after like he once was and pressure was building. His game needed to be elevated if he was going to maintain the enormous nut of a mortgage he was carrying, not to mention the car payments, and the kids private school tuition. Will was beginning to feel the pull. It started slowly, but rapidly became part of his every day. All waking thoughts were geared toward keeping up his production and creativity, managing his home life, and maintaining his sanity. His desire to succeed was there, but his lust for life was languidly dwindling.
Looking over his busy schedule each morning filled him with despair. There was no reprieve, invariably being pulled this way and that by everyone around him. At work, it was one phone call after another attempting to appease clientèle. Deadlines were a death sentence. Constantly trying to deliver the goods, he realized he no longer had the goods to deliver. At home, every minute was spent doing something around the house. There were school meets, sporting events, and always somewhere to be or something to do.
A feeling of detachment crept into his life which he was unable to curb. The stress was becoming too much to bear, and it was really getting to Will. Every detail in his life was becoming a chore. He struggled to compose even 30 seconds of his own thoughts at times because everything and everyone around him was always pulling for his attention. There seemed to always be someone’s face in his, asking him to do something for them. Anxiety rose from the increased fervor of texts and calls targeting him throughout the day. There was never a moment’s peace, and his car became a decompression chamber, since the drive to work and back were the only times of day he was able to breathe. Will was unraveling.
His marriage became estranged due to his continual detachment and gradually ground to a halt after he was laid off by his boss. Will entered a downward spiral. He awoke and hurried out of the house in search of new employment, with the return trip involving a stop at the nearest pub to wash away the day with money he no longer had. He returned home late each night to a family who was watching him fall apart. It went on like this for a while before both he and Cindy realized they couldn’t keep going the way they were. Their bank accounts were being drained. They needed to sell the house. The kids would need to be taken out of private school due to the high tuition costs and they would need to transfer to public school. Cindy didn’t want to be around for Will’s demise so she talked it over with him and decided it best to move back in with her folks closer to the city where she could take a job. Her parents could help in caring for the kids. Divorce didn’t do them in but after a spell they agreed to split up for a while.
Will eventually sold the house and the third car. With some luck, he moved into a small but efficient nearby apartment and was able to continue living in the suburbs. His best friend, Nick, who he went to the gym with a few times a week after work, owned a detached apartment behind his own house. He built it to be used as a guest house but nobody was living in it at the time, so Nick offered to rent it to Will, to help him out. Will couldn’t bring himself to sell his BMW, even though he knew if things didn’t turn around that its keys would eventually find themselves in the hands of a repo man.
After a fairly long rough patch, Will managed to find employment again at a smaller and lesser known firm in the city. Not making nearly the same dough he used to make, he was mostly working on smaller commissions, but it didn’t mean he was working any less, and the deadlines…the deadlines still pulled for his attention. Life still wasn’t like it was and he knew it might never get back to what it used to be. Once a week before driving home from the city, he made time to stop at Cindy’s parents house to take his kids out to eat for supper before retiring for the night, but most other days he felt like he was going through the motions and barely making it through to the end of the day. He lacked the ambition he once had.
Will carried on with his daily routine but he noticed some subtle changes. He was waking earlier each morning because of a change in his circadian rhythm. Instead of just waking up ten minutes prior to his alarm going off, he was now waking up an additional ten minutes earlier each and every day. It got to the point where he almost didn’t need an alarm at all. He would wake up a couple of hours before needing to rise. Typically, he remained resting in bed with thoughts of changes he wanted to make in his life, other times he would slide back into a dream. Often, he found himself catching a glimpse of a mysterious figure at the edge of his dreams. His intuition told him it was related to the pull, but was unable to make the connection.
He frequently found himself waking from a recurring dream where he was sitting at a single slot machine positioned in the center of a vast, circular casino room. He sensed another presence in the room and it was a familiar, vague shadow lingering in a distant doorway. As if hearing a soft voice nudging him on, Will thought he heard a whisper, “give it one more pull.” Then before seeing the outcome of the slot’s spinning wheels, he found himself awake again staring at his alarm.
Everyday started feeling exactly the same to Will again. He woke, went to work, schlepped his way through the day, then miraculously found his way home to crawl back into bed each night. His dreams kept him going and it was when he took those early morning steps down the long hallway that he cherished most each day. Those moments provided a semblance of clarity to him even though he was still half asleep. Emerging from his dreams, he always remembered that ambiguous being who he found himself trying to approach. He wanted more than anything to know who they were and why they were always there at the edge of his dreams. The figure never looked exactly the same, sometimes their clothing appeared to be from different periods in time. He just knew there had to be a reason he saw them there, he just didn’t know why.
His dreams carried him far away from his wake a day slog. There were whole blocks of days on end in which he barely possessed a recollection of being actively participant. Conquering those days with the grace of a zombified slug caught in an obstacle course, he pitied anyone he encountered. He knew he must have looked like a lunatic puttering along on auto-pilot to those whose paths he crossed. There was a fuzzy line marking most days and when he reached that line he found himself unable to judge if it were dream or reality.
He thought it a good idea to start a dream journal, thinking he could make some sense of it all. His dreams became greater than the sum of his waking days and he now felt a pull to get back to who it was there in the dream, to know more about where they came from and what it was all about. The journal never amounted to much, he always ended up writing the same first line at the top of each succeeding day’s page, yet it gave him hope making those daily entries. If he kept it up, he thought he might eventually pull himself up and out of the funk that knocked him so far down from who he once was. The plan was to fill the journal with what he hoped amounted to something significant. If only he paid heed to his own words… But his days ended just as quickly as they started. Time was spinning faster than a twister with a tail breeze. And there it was again – time to get up, put the journal down, and start all over…wash, rinse, repeat. Day time and dream time were blending together.
There was one mid-summer afternoon proving itself to be particularly hectic. Will was finding it harder than usual keeping his mind clear. After a half day at work, he began feeling exhausted in a way he’d never felt before. The stress was too much so he stopped by his secretary’s desk and told her he’d be leaving for the day, asking her to reschedule any afternoon meetings she had booked. He made his way to the car port, buckled himself into the plush upholstery of his Bimmer, and barreled down the freeway, quickly turning the office into a distant image in his rear view mirror. On the way home from work, he decided to take a detour and go for a drive through the countryside to clear his mind, taking unfamiliar roads and intentionally losing himself to the landscape. Winding around tree covered roads, he came upon a clearing around a bend in the road which opened itself up to a gorgeous view of a river on his left. An old railway bridge crossed the river in the distance about a half mile up. Apparently, it hadn’t been used in a long time but he envisioned it must have been bustling in its heyday.
A feeling of pain suddenly washed over him with a tingling that surged up his left arm. Thinking he was holding onto the steering wheel too tightly, he took over driving with his right arm. Will became short of breath. The tingling continued all the way up his arm. It felt as though a python were riding up his limb, leaving a path of constriction in its wake. It was unbearable. As soon as he rounded the bend and reached the bottom of the hill, he pulled the car over toward the right side of the road. There was a parking area at a trail head with a sign leading to the adjacent Running Bear State Forest. No other cars were in sight but he turned in and stopped the car anyway.
There appeared to be nobody around. Looking around for help, he walked diagonally across the road toward the riverbank holding his arm, heading in the direction of the railroad trestle up ahead. The pain began gripping his chest cavity as if it were being squeezed tightly into a straight jacket. Standing there looking around, he didn’t see anyone. He glanced down at his reflection in the water, clutching his arm and chest.
Will felt a spasm and fell forward, plunging headfirst into the blue water below. He lacked the mobility to bring himself back up toward the surface due to the pain he was in. His body fell deeper each second until his body slowed to a point where he stopped falling and it felt as though he was suspended in place. Suddenly, he noticed he didn’t feel any more pain for the moment. Rotating his body upward he was able to catch sight of a few rays of sunlight breaking the surface but they were beginning to fade due to the depth he had sunk. He was still just able to make out the silhouette of the railroad trestle above the surface. In an involuntarily motion as if being controlled remotely, he rolled back over peering downward into the murkier water below.
His eyes acclimated to the darkness of the deeper water. A metal structure was materializing before him. Straining to focus on what it was he was looking at, he began to see it more clearly. It was an old-fashioned railway car turned over on its side. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Who knew how long the car had been down there? He had never heard of an old train wreck in the area, but then again he had driven into unfamiliar territory. He wasn’t even sure where he was anymore.
Upon first glance, he saw that only some of the railway car had rotted away but the majority of it’s structure was intact. The metal had taken on a rusted appearance and he noticed the windows were busted out. He began gasping for breath for the first time since his watery entry. His lungs were nearing their limit. He was just about to kick his way back toward the surface when he noticed a bony skeleton through one of the absent windows. The skeleton appeared to be sitting perfectly in place as though never jostled about when the train must have crashed into the river at one time. As if seeing the skeleton wasn’t eerie enough, peering through the window Will could see the skeleton was holding onto a book of some sort. Ignoring his lungs, he used his arms to pull himself a few strokes closer to the body in the window. He noticed it was a rather old, leather clad book that looked worse for wear from being submerged for so long.
Just as panic was about to set in, he reached in and dislodged the book from the skeleton’s bony, gift giving hand as if plucking it from some long ago time and place. Unsettlingly, Will noticed the skeleton’s head appeared to be staring right at him with its hand in position as if it were handing the book to him. Startled and feeling the need to breathe, he began to paddle backward and upward as fast as possible while clutching the book under his left arm. Still facing the direction he was swimming away from, he was afforded one last look at the train splayed out below. His eyes traveled up to a point above where the car’s windows were and he saw some writing. Once he focused on what it said he was unable to take his eyes off of the letters, they spelled out, PULLMAN. His eyes were fixed on the name while frantically pulling at the water, reaching skyward in great alarm. He knew he had to surface immediately because his lungs were about to explode. Rolling over to get a view of how much further he needed to swim, the surface didn’t look that far off but he knew he might not make it, he was running out of oxygen. He had been under for too long and was frantically gasping for breaths, inhaling the river water around him. This was it, he thought, this might be his last moment. He savored what he feared may be his last glimpse of the sun’s brilliant rays glimmering down on him as he dangled like a fishing lure in the fresh water.
Just as he was about to take what he thought for sure was going to be his last breath, an arm broke the surface of the river grabbing hold of his arm and pulled him up and out of the water. Then there was blackness and silence.
His body was rolled onto its back facing the sky and it lay still there for what seemed like an eternity. When Will finally opened his eyes he saw the familiar figure he had come to know from his dreams hovering over him. All he could make out was a blurry silhouette due to the sun shining down from above blurring out any noticeable features. He turned to his side, coughing up quite a bit of water and fluid, then looked back up to the ghostly vision who had pulled him from the current.
“Who are you?” coughed Will, still sensing a familiarity. The figure leaned toward Will, whispering quietly, “You need to figure it out yourself,” gently placing a finger in front of pursed lips as if to quiet him. Will’s eyelids rolled closed and everything went black again.
He never heard his alarm, but his biological ticker must have gone off. Some activity could be heard in the room around him but he found himself unable to raise an eyelid, so he listened intently to what was happening. It sounded like voices. He filtered out their chatter over the drone of what sounded like a nearby machine.
“So, this is the one they just brought in?” asked a doctor.
“Yes, it is, his best friend called called 9-1-1 this afternoon after finding the patient unresponsive in his bed.” replied a nurse.
The doctor examined Will and looked at his file.
“Doctor, do you have a prognosis?”
“It’s not good. It appears our man suffered from pulmonary edema brought on by heart failure in his sleep. I don’t know how he is still hanging on. He’s not going to pull through this, he’s too far gone.”
“You mean he had a heart attack and drown in his own fluids?
“That’s the extent of it. Life support is barely keeping him breathing. Have his next of kin been notified?”
“Yes, his wife and kids came right away. They made a point to say their good-byes to him already. We see this type of thing everyday but it doesn’t make it any easier when families are involved. His wife gave consent to not resuscitate the patient. She said it was his wish that if anything serious ever happened, to let him go in peace but she couldn’t bear staying in the room and watching him go.”
The doctor commented, “I hope he enjoyed a full life, I guess that’s what we all hope for. Hopefully he didn’t sufferer too long. Nurse, go ahead and pull the plug.”
They watched as Will’s last bit of life slowly crept away. As the doctor checked his watch, he wrote on his chart and pronounced the time of death for Will Mattos at 6:33 pm.
To Will’s surprise, as the nurse disconnected the life support machine and he took his final breath, he felt no different than he did a few moments ago. The doctor and nurse scurried about the room, filling out paperwork at his bed table, when something caught his eye in the doorway. He sat up and looked around the room as if someone might take notice of him and say something to him, then focused on what it was he saw approaching the aperture of the room.
He saw the same apparition who pulled him from the river. This time he recognized them for who they were. He had encountered them many a morning before he awoke from his dreams. Will rose from the bed with conviction, leaving his body behind him laying there bed bound. He walked across the room, directly in front of the doctor and nurse, who had no reaction to his movement in the room. As he approached the spectral form in the doorway, he looked at it with familiarity.
“I know who you are now,” Will exclaimed. “You have been there in my dreams and memories for as long as I can remember. You have always been there. You are life…you are spirit…you are me!” Nodding in recognition, the illusory figure took Will’s hand and led him out of the room, down the long hallway.
The doctor looked back at Will’s body lying on the bed and asked the nurse, “What’s the story with that book he is holding onto?”
The nurse replied, “I’m not sure. With all the commotion today, nobody thought to look at it, but it sure looks like it’s been through a lot!”
After prying it from Will’s grasp, the doctor fingered the antique looking book. The decaying, rawhide cover was barely holding together the frowzy, water stained parchment it contained. He pulled back the blank cover and found the lone journal entry, repeated in multitude throughout its pages for each day. He read aloud, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”
©Copyright 2014 Christopher Malatesta
All Rights Reserved
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.