Jack knew his time was nearly up. The blood-red sky reverberated with a relentless buzzing sound that seemed to approach Jack from all angles. “Can’t win ‘em all, I guess.”, Jack sighed as he watched floating carpets of volcanic ash spew from above and…..”Gasp!”
Jack woke to the sound of his alarm drilling into his ear. 7:30 a.m.,the same as every morning. This was either the highlight of his day or the spectre that hung over it and dampened every part of it. Today would be the latter. He swore silently as he rose bleary-eyed from his sleep, throwing his legs onto the floor, the shagged carpet nestling between his toes. The morning then ran like clockwork; shower without enough hot water, hastily brush and floss teeth, scoff stodgy microwaved oats for breakfast, throw on the first shirt and pair of trousers from the wardrobe, into the car for 8:30, in his classroom for nine o’ clock. An ordinary morning in the ordinary life of Jack Phillips, or, at least, that was his name this time around.
You see, Jack had lived hundreds of times in hundreds of places. He was not a religious man, but through some quirk of fate, the concept of reincarnation had planted itself at the centre of his life. Every night, Jack dreams, and, every night, Jack re-lives part of the lives of his former selves. More specifically, he lives out their final moments prior to their deaths.
When he was a boy, Jack’s parents regularly found him sleepwalking aimlessly during the night. They did not think that it was anything to worry about as sleepwalking is quite a common experience. One night, however, they discovered a sound-sleeping Jack in the kitchen one night having a full conversation with the wall….in perfect French. Many visits to many sleep experts yielded no explanation, although that particular Gallic-themed episode was never to repeat itself.
As he grew older, Jack became more and more conscious of his overactive subconscious. It started with the occasional vivid dream, Jack merely recalling fragments of these after waking. This then developed into full-blown lucid dreaming, with Jack being fully present and aware within his dreams. After one particular nocturnal episode, Jack woke with a tightness gripping his neck, a deep choking cough emanating from his throat. As the coughing dissipated, Jack recalled the words “vive memoir leti '' over and over in his ears. He had just uttered the phrase in his dream before the world went black. In a desperate attempt to catch the phrase before it drifted into the ether, Jack sprang from his sweat-soaked sheets and Googled the mysterious words. After a few moments of searching in vain, Jack came across the following: Vive memor leti were the last words uttered by the Scillitan Martyrs, hanged in July, 180 A.D. for their religious beliefs. It translates to “live remembering death.” Jack felt his heart thudding in his ears as he whispered the last part aloud, his eyes wide. “That was……me.”, he whispered, instinctively pressing his shaking hand to his throat.
Since then, Jack had been numerous men, numerous women, a Prime Minister, a child chess prodigy, and even a large, brown labrador being walked to the vets for the final time by a kind-faced old lady in a purple dress. In each instance, Jack found himself inside the person (or animal’s) body just before they met their end. He had, in a way, resigned himself to the idea that he would be shot, stabbed, hit by buses or euthanised in his dreams forevermore. That was until two years ago when, in full battle uniform in some foliage- full, forested outpost, he accidentally fell into a hole in the ground that had been carefully concealed by copious amounts of flora litter. He had fallen hard on his elbow, a searing pain shooting up his arm into his fingertips when a hail of bullets zipped directly overhead, where he had been standing a moment ago. After a few moments, the firing stopped and all fell eerily silent. Then, as always, the sharp buzzing of Jack’s alarm tore through the dense forestry and jolted him awake. Jack leapt from his bed in a frenzy, his eyes like saucers, a feverish excitement gripping his sweat-damp facial features. “I can save them!”, he shouted at the top of his lungs. From that moment forward, Jack had a mission; to save his past selves from whatever undignified end they might be about to meet.
Jack kept a tally chart on his bedside locker since that fateful night. On one side, there were the “saved” and, on the other, the “lost.” Up to and including his trip to the foot of Mount Vesuvius last night, Jack counted one hundred and forty eight saved and one hundred and forty two lost.
The following day passed like clockwork after Jack headed for work in the morning. He taught lessons, made small talk with Sarah and Ryan in the staffroom, drank far too much jet-black coffee. After work, Jack decided to stay back for a while to correct tests and catch up on paperwork. Sarah popped her head in his classroom door at half past five. “Have you no home to go to??”, she chided playfully. “Some of us don’t do half days!” he responded with a chuckle. Twenty minutes later, Jack decided to call it quits for the day. As he made his way down the long, echoey corridor towards the exit, he became acutely aware of the sound of his footsteps reverberating as his shoes struck the polished floor. He stopped for a moment to listen…..silence. Jack continued warily towards the car park, clicking the unlock button on the key of his blue Toyota Yaris as soon as the school door closed lazily behind him. . A feeling of unease overcame him as he listened again, his ears feeling like they were slowly filling with a trickle of water, the hairs on his neck standing on end as he swallowed heavily. Jack could sense something; a presence. He was being watched. He made a dash for the car, a tingly, moist sweat clinging to his lower back. He fumbled with his keys, turned the ignition on and drove home as quickly as he could, checking the rear-view mirror every few seconds for a prospective pursuer that didn’t materialise.
Jack found it harder than usual to sleep that night. He had grown to look forward to falling asleep in the expectation of “waking” in some far-flung land or historical time-warp. “The trick’s in the timing.”, he would whisper to himself before drifting off. But not tonight. He was restless; twisting, turning, his mind ablaze with thoughts of what had happened after school. Just shy of 3 a.m.,Jack fell into a fitful sleep. He awoke, face down, his ears ringing incessantly and head thumping mercilessly. He lifted his head and spat out a mouthful of sand and, with it, two blood-stained teeth. Jack turned onto his back, levering himself up with two hands supporting him unsteadily. His eyes widened. No words would come. There before him was a scene that would be etched into his memory forever; soldiers lying dead with their pools of blood seeping into the sand, limbs tearing through the air, a hellscape utterly alive with the sound of staccato rifle fire, explosions making moon craters in the sand. “D-day.”, Jack whispered, the words falling from his lips, pushed out by a shallow gasp. “Move it or lose it, soldier!!” Jack shot a glance behind him, utterly paralysed with fear, at a gray-haired man with blood trickling down his wizened, blackened face. Jack knew immediately that this man was in charge. The steady stream of blood from this man’s head was interrupted briefly as it followed the deep lines on his haggard face. In one quick sweep, Jack felt himself being dragged backwards and downwards with great force. He landed with a thud into a great, yawning cavern in the sand- a foxhole. “Son, you’re either going to snap out of it or you’re going to die very quickly”, the older man barked fiercely. Jack at once became more aware of his surroundings. The vile smell assaulted his nostrils before he spotted the two men lying prone on the ground beside him, their eyes wide and transfixed on the ashen sky. All around him, chaos boomed and crashed, and splintered wood and bone in unison, thudding on sand, slicing cleanly through flesh. He had witnessed many battlefields in his dreams, but this was by far the worst. Then he saw it……scrawled in blood on a sandbag beside him. “Jack Phillips, great danger! 21A072122” His mouth fell open as the tremendous buzzing of his impending awakening cut through the destruction around him. “Grenade!!”, and everything faded to black.
Jack sprung up from his pillow with a startled scream. His hair was matted to his forehead with sweat. For the next few minutes, he closed his eyes and mumbled “21A072122” repeatedly, his mind frantic. When he had calmed himself down, a deep frown crept across his face. “One hundred and forty eight saved, one hundred and forty three lost.”
In the week that followed, Jack could not focus on anything in great depth, as his thoughts were besieged by the message he had received in such horrendous circumstances. He called in sick to work on Monday morning and did not return for the week. He spent countless hours each day ruminating on what the message could mean. For the five nights that followed, Jack barely slept. When he did sleep, he purposefully combed his surroundings for more messages or signs from that same provident source, anything to clear the dense fog that enveloped his mind. As a result of his being distracted, Jack gave up on trying to rescue his dream personas. In those five nights of short sleeps, Jack fell from scaffolding, was bitten by a venomous snake in the Australian Outback, ran with the bulls in Pamplona (or rather was run over by them), captained a sinking ship in the Northern Pacific, and struck by a wayward motorist as he licked his orange fur on the footpath of some nondescript suburban estate.
Reluctantly, on the Saturday that followed, Jack decided to go in search of some answers. If they weren’t to be found in his dreams, then perhaps the local library would hold the key. Jack hurriedly dressed himself and brushed his teeth. He caught sight of himself in the mirror, surprised at the dark, black crescents under his eyes and the dirty stubble forming on his chin. He let out a soft chuckle and promised himself an early night.
When Jack reached the library, it was just under two hours until closing time. Dark clouds burgeoning with rain spread out across the November sky. St. Colm’s library was one of the biggest in Europe and, as such, it always seemed quite empty. The kindly librarian flashed Jack a smile as his gaze briefly met hers. The building was completel;y silent, save for the occasional cough or gentle rustle of a newspaper. After a few minutes, Jack came across the “mindfulness, spirituality, other” section. He scoffed despite himself, thinking how ridiculous all of this was. He flicked through a few books based on the topic of lucid dreaming and sat with the ones that he felt might be of use. After what felt like a few moments, the librarian tapped Jack on the shoulder to inform him that she needed to lock up. “It’s six already?!”, Jack exclaimed, surprised at how the past two hours had evaporated. As he left the library, one quote from a book stuck in his head. “Through lucid dreaming, we have the capacity to realise our connection with our inner-self as something more than theoretical.” Although it didn’t seem to shed any immediate light on his current predicament, Jack thought it was quite interesting all the same. He began his twenty minute walk home, cursing his lack of forethought to bring an umbrella as the heavens opened. He pulled his fleeced denim jacket up over his head and walked quickly, his mind chewing and regurgitating what he had read.
Then he heard it. “It can’t be!”, Jack thought, stopping dead for a moment to listen, but it was unmistakable. He had heard it so many times before. The sound of Jack’s alarm clock pulsed through the air. Jack ran for home as the sound assailed his ears, filling his bones with unyielding terror. In his silent frenzy, he had run into the middle of the road at the T-Junction fifty metres from his house. In an instant, Jack turned to see the 21A bus careering towards him, it’s lights flashing wildly and horn blaring. A split second later, Jack was back on the grassy verge by the pavement as the double-decker screamed past. “How did….?” “What just……?”. Jack patted himself down as half-questions sat on his lips. He turned to his left to see a shape casually walking off into the distance, hands in pockets. The dark figure stopped for a moment and called to Jack. “The trick’s in the timing, lad!” Jack sat stunned in the pouring rain for at least half an hour, checking his watch to see that it was the twenty first of July, 2022.
When Jack arrived home, it was just after 7:30. Pools of water formed on the floor beneath him. He made his way to the bedroom to fetch a towel. That night, the chart on his bedside locker read “one hundred and forty nine saved, one hundred and forty eight lost.”
Karl Johnson is an occasional poet and permanent Primary School Teacher from the South West of Ireland. He writes poetry spanning multiple genres, but usually focused on life, love and loss. In 2022, he won the Macra na Feirme creative writing short story section with his story "Convalescence". You can find more of his work on https://allpoetry.com/KJ90 or follow john_karlson_ on Instagram