by Torino Koji
illustrated by chaosraven
It was dark, and the Earth said, “Sorry. Try again.”
It’s the smell that does it. Week-old laundry and possibly old take-out boxes that were left out before going to work and went stale and bad in the still air of the apartment. The mattress is lumpy, the sheets starched, and there’s an underlying smell of blood and earth and motor oil. Which would be fine, except that I’m pretty sure I shut the window. Last time I checked.
Waking up, staring at the water stains on the ceiling—Errol Flynn was still there, staring at me from the dull brown-on-white of his stain—was unsettling. I stare at Errol for a while, until the alarm goes off and the peppy woman on the radio tells me the date and that east 132nd is almost completely shut down.
Huh. That’s funny, because it was almost completely shut down a week ago, and I could have sworn that—
I feel my side, and the bruise there, and stare at Errol. “Oh. Well, that explains a lot.”
She keeps doing things like that, hoping I’ll figure it out, and I wonder if I’ll just regress into past lives before I do. I wonder how She’d deal with un-birth and all.
This time, I was working at the Hot-Line, which wasn’t new. Every time I work at the Hot-Line, but this was about a month into my time there—there is a calendar, and I remembered that, and ticking off the days. The Hot-Line is not my favorite job; in fact, it’s just depressing, and in three months I’d quit it, if I manage to live that long this time. I have this thing about keeping my timelines as straight as I can keep them. Too much differential to deal with otherwise.
The Hot-Line, though. I started working at them when I was twenty, fresh out of a two-year college, and figured it was a sure way to assure some positive karma. And, you know, it is. I worked at my old center for four years, until I got transferred. The first time I died, before I woke up, She told me that this place was one of the chief reasons I’d accomplished so much in this life.
There’s only so much working at a Hot-Line can do when your first life was that of a tax collector. She assures me I was an honest one, though, so it’s not like I had heaps of negative karma to assuage.
And, you know, sometimes it’s hard working at the Hot-Line. I’m sensitive to the feelings of others, have been since my third life, and listening to all these people talk about their thoughts of suicide gets a bit nervewracking. When I was twenty-one, I learned to hear and pick up the key phrases, but not really listen.
The last four times, I woke up and was still working at the Hot-Line, so I figure it must have something to do with the Hot-Line. She’s usually pretty subtle with things, but four times is getting to be less subliminal and more superliminal. I know how to take a hint, despite what my sister always used to say (but what does she know? She’s on her first life, and doesn’t even realize that I keep getting cosmically reset).
But, considering the only vaguely distressed voice of the woman I’m listening to, I have a feeling this is probably just Her way of messing with my head.
Damien—we both think his name is a little ironic—sits in the cubicle across from mine, except for the first two times I came back and had this job; then he had my cubicle and I had one half-way across the building. Anyway, Damien is the one with the call. He’s on script for most of it, but once I’m done with this dry-sounding thirty-something who wanted me to ‘fix’ her son, Damien is so far off the script that I should probably be calling the admin over to fix his sorry butt.
Whoever he’s got, he’s a nutjob. I apologize as soon as the thought occurs to me, and remind myself that I need to go work the soup kitchen next week.
Damien gives me this look, like, Please, please. Addam, please. Save me from the crazy suicidal kid. I can’t make this stop. Giant train wreck going on over here. He gives me those looks every time I pop back up, but this time, this was the real deal.
I get a new call, but watch Damien out of the corner of my eye. We are due for a break in ten minutes, and from the slowly hysterical edge in his voice, we aren’t going to make it. You don’t hang up on these guys; if you go over, tough luck. You don’t get your break. This guy is not getting talked down.
I finish up with my last call, and log out. Damien looks up at me and I walk over, and he covers the mouthpiece of his phone to say, “I need a cigarette.”
“Those things are terrible for your health,” I answer. He uncovers the mouthpiece and tells the crazy that he’s handing them over to a ‘friend’. I take the phone and his seat and he leaves. I smile, and ask quietly, “What’s your name, son?”
“James, what’s wrong?”
James is real quiet. Then, he says, “I want to die.” Duh. I sigh lightly, and my smile slips.
“Why’s that, James?”
But he’s hung up.
The rain isn’t really all that bad, but I still lurk under the awning outside the Hot-Line and wonder whatever happened to my umbrella. Damien, standing next to me, pulls his collar up and grins and mutters, “You know, if you’re going to die in the rain every time, you should really invest in umbrella stock or something.”
“Yeah, you’re real funny.” He grins at me, wraps an arm around my waist and squeezes.
“Think you’ll last a few days this time?” He ruffles his hair, looking around like he’s expecting for somebody to come down on us and accuse us of being crazy or loitering or homos.
“Asking me out on a date?”
“I don’t think it counts as me asking you out if you’re going to end up paying and I’m going to end up bitching,” he points out. I ruffle his hair and tell him I’ll see him in the morning.
It’s not a long walk to the bus stop I take back to my apartment, but the sidewalk is busy, and I can see it coming up the road toward my stop across the street.
Really, I should probably wait. But, you know, it’s a ways back. And I can make it across the street before it gets there, if I just dash right across. It’s only slightly illegal. Totally for the greater good—if I get any wetter, I’m going to be a prick.
Except that the road is slicker than I thought.
And, well, maybe the bus was going a bit faster than I was expecting.
It was dark, and the Earth said, “Sorry. Try again.”
Some times, I work at a soup kitchen. It’s not much, but it’s helpful. And less boring than sitting in forests meditating under Bodhi trees, you know? I’m not saying I’m a Buddha or anything so pretentious, but if I’m going to shatter my ego, I might as well work in jobs with no thanks. It’s cleaner that way. And less boring.
Not that Bodhi trees aren’t awesome, because I went to India one time and saw them and even meditated under them, but all I really got out of the experience was Stairway to Heaven going through my head for three days straight.
Anyway, the soup kitchen. It’s really kinda cool. We’re just supposed to serve the meals and everything, but on Tuesdays we have the Episcopalian pastor come through, and on Thursdays it’s the Rabbi, and on Sundays it’s Father Heinrich. I talk to everybody, and they ask for prayers, and I give them advice on the path. It’s really quite fulfilling.
There are a couple of guys who come only when I’m there, and they ask me questions, and I’ve taught one of them some Chinese and Tibetan prayers.
They’re really the only ones who get the cosmic reset, and the only ones besides Damien who know that I keep getting reset. More stuff I think She does just to mess with my poor head.
It’s raining, and I’m running to catch my bus—this is just asking to be made of epic amounts of irony, I swear—but I know I won’t make it. The sidewalk is packed, and I was listening to Zeppelin (I’m Buddhist, sure, but I have taste, okay? Shut up) and running totally late, when it hits me.
Okay, not it. He. But still, major déjà vu, which I shouldn’t get anymore, since clearly I’ve lived enough to have experienced damn near anything. Seven times, and something like twelve incarnations of this one life? Why am I even surprised any more?
This kid, he’s my age so I shouldn’t call him a kid. He stares at me like I’ve brought down the moon or something. Wide eyes, gape-mouthed. Then I realize this is less of a brought down the moon look and more of an oh my god, you just touched me, now I have germs and my arm is going to fall off one. Which is never a good look to have directed at you.
But he isn’t wearing a coat, and I have two, and I take off one and offer it to him. He stares at it, and then at me, and then at it, and I just say, “Take it.”
“Uh, yeah dude. Thanks.”
James. The kid from the Hot-Line. I smile, and when he takes the coat, I bow to him and hurry away like my heels are on fire, but it’s more like I’ve missed my bus and walking to the soup kitchen is always such a bitch.
Long and drawn out has never been a particular favorite of mine, on the list of ways to go. Most of the long and drawn out ones have been because, you know, I’ve fallen out a tree and busted a rib into my lung or something.
So, I didn’t know that shopping carts could cause massive internal bleeding. Except, apparently, according to whatever the paramedics are saying over me, they can. Or maybe She just really likes to mess with me.
Because that? I’m pretty sure Damien was just kidding. He’s not supposed to actually kill people with otherwise innocent daily objects.
It was dark, and the Earth said, “Sorry. Try again.”
Working at the pound is a new thing. I’d only managed to live past the Hot-Line a couple of times, and most of them didn’t exit into reemployment, so it is nice to wake up and check my calendar and see that I have hours I’m supposed to be working.
It’s a non-euthanasia pound, so I guess it makes a bit of sense, except that it’s really crowded and I feel bad. Why would I ever work at a pound? Clearly She was trying to mess me up again.
But the kittens are really cute, so I guess that makes up for it.
That first day after I wake up, James has a dog, and he comes in looking harassed, and I have to remind myself that this is a week and a half after us bumping shoulders and a month after me asking why he wanted to kill himself. He still has my jacket. She’s never done that before, keeping the continuities the same. Maybe it’s because I keep messing with the differentials this time. Or maybe there are about seven hundred thousand people in the world that own gray-brown old-style bomber jackets with leather elbow patches.
“Hey there, buddy.” I rub the dog’s ears and he wuffles in my face like I’m the god of dogs or something. I look up at James. “What’s his name?” James stares at me like I’m a character stepped straight out of a comic book or something. His knuckles are all white and tight and I can’t think of anything to say that won’t make me him freak out completely (all that comes to my mind is Yeah, sorry I keep showing up where you are. It happens when the Earth wants you to figure out one last thing before She’ll let you pass on to Nirvana).
“Roscoe,” he finally says, and I know he’s lying, and I know it’s not his dog, he just found it or something. He’s working on his karma.
I say that, and he goes all red and I hand him the sheet that you have to fill out when you bring animals in, and say, “You shouldn’t try to make things work so hard, James. Karma isn’t like penance. It’s just doing things in the best way you can.”
His hands shake.
“Who told you my name?” I tell him I used to work at the Hot-Line, and he almost breaks the pen. “Oh.”
Roscoe wuffles at my knees, and I let James fill out the paperwork while I find space for Roscoe.
James comes in with a cat the next time, and Patricia says he didn’t want to hand the damn thing over for an hour, until she told him she wasn’t going to call me in. I don’t see him on my day, but Damien comes in and adopts a kitten because I damn near make the bastard.
While I’m cradling the kitten and he’s filling out paperwork, I tell him, “No satanic rituals.”
“I don’t sacrifice kittens,” Damien says. “I run people off balconies while riding a tricycle.”
“You’re not funny.” I kiss the kitten on the head, and hand her over.
I wish James would come through.
You know what, I’m not going to tell you how it happened that time, and let that be a lesson on how nosy you are.
It was dark, and the Earth said, “Sorry. Try again.”
There’s only so much patience a person possesses before they start to think that it’s just not worth it. Enlightenment is awesome and all, but if you’re going to keep getting hit by buses and shopping carts and dying in various sundry ways, maybe it’s just not worth the hassle.
I don’t actually mean any of that. Enlightenment is totally worth it. Always. Always, always, always.
But the thing about it is that I find him in the park. I have no job, I have no heavy jacket, I have only this one thing left to fix apparently and I don’t even know why, and there he is, in a park, feeding ducks and staring at the ground like it might just open up and swallow him whole.
He looks up at me when I sit down next to him, and doesn’t do that whole j’accuse! thing that other people have done in other lifetimes. He just stares at me, then down at the ground again, and he says, “You must be cold, being bald and all.”
“Beauty is pain,” I tell him. He scoffs and throws a piece of bread directly at a duck’s head. I take the sack of bread from him. “C’mon, James. Let’s have some coffee or something.”
He walks beside me without a word, scuffing his toes on the ground. I rub my hands together and stick them in my pockets and look around at the leaves changing color. We don’t talk or look at each other, but slowly he brings his head up so he’s not staring at his feet. And not before too long, we’re walking together like we’re walking together, instead of just in the same general direction.
We’re just leaving the park when he says, “I think it’s a little creepy that you know my name and I only know that you have an annoying tendency to show up when I least want you to.”
“My name’s Addam. Addam Skye.”
“Well, Addam Skye, is there a particular reason why you have an annoying tendency to show up when I least want you to?”
He looks over at me and stops walking, and when I turn back he’s staring at me like I’m absolutely out of my head. I laugh, and grab his wrist, and tell him, “I’ll explain everything over coffee.”
Explaining turns out to be a great deal harder than I’d expected, because it isn’t like I’m trying to convert James, which he looks like he would have accepted easier.
He stares at me over his coffee.
“So,” he begins. “You want me to believe that you’ve died, several times. And every time, you’ve talked to—what, Mother Earth or whatever. And then you’ve come back. And every time you’ve come back, it’s been to fix something.”
“I’m you away from Nirvana.”
I stir my tea with my pinkie and stare at the little bits of debris floating in the water. “Well, every time I’ve come back recently, it’s been to deal with you. The Hot Line, the coat, the dog. And I don’t know what it is this time. Maybe it’s just coffee this time. But you’re what’s keeping me from Nirvana.” I smile at him. “So. What’s wrong with you?”
“Maybe you’re just a nut case,” he points out, gesturing with his spoon. “I mean, I’m fine. I had a rough patch about a year back, but I’m fine now.” He shakes his head. “I don’t know why I even told you that. It’s none of your business.”
“What kind of rough patch?”
“Bad breakup. Ever have one of those?”
I have to actually think about that one. “No.”
He blinks at me. “You’ve never had a bad break up?”
“Never had a breakup.” I smile at him. “At least, not in this lifetime. After two or three, you get the idea that bending to carnal pleasure isn’t the path to Nirvana. Clouds the judgment, you know, if you get too attached to something so purely corporeal.”
I drink my tea as he just stares at me, blinking like what I’ve said wasn’t even in English, or even a human language of any sort, except for maybe the most ancient of languages that was only spoken and was never written down so nobody can speak it now, oops. Then he kinda grins and leans his elbows on the table and cradles his chin in his hands.
“Wanna come back to my place?”
So, it was probably a really bad idea to go back to his place. Except that when you’re trying to fix that last bit of karma, you don’t think about things being really good or really bad ideas. So I just did it. Which was probably why it was a bad idea.
James smiles when he pushes me down onto the bed.
“Never never,” I tell him, because I can’t come up with anything smart to say, because he’s sitting on my lap and wrapping his arms around me and I can’t see this helping my karma any. But I’m helping him, and that’s what counts, I suppose, except that it’s getting really hard to suppose much of anything.
What with him grinding down on my crotch and all.
“Virgins are cute,” he murmurs, and then he kisses me. And wow. I’ve gotten kisses before—my sister, and my mom, this one girl in grade school. But I haven’t gotten kissed since…
Well, since at least a lifetime back, I think. Long enough that it wasn’t this me getting kissed.
James kisses sort of like he’s drowning and I’m the surface and he’s just trying so hard to get there. I wrap my arms around his waist as he rocks against me and keeps his hand on my face, thumbs brushing the corners of my mouth.
I have this second of trying to feel like I’m out of my own body and just watching it. It’s sort of like watching a movie. Except I’m not anything like an actor, and no actor has anything on what James is doing right now. Or maybe they do, and I’m just watching the wrong movies.
James stops kissing and he grins and his eyes are closed. “Sure you’re new at this?” It’s funny he thinks I still lie. I tighten my arms around his waist and he pushes at my shoulders until I go flat. He leans over, but towers, which is so strange because every other time I’ve seen him, he’s looked so small and broken and here he is, grinning and running his hands down my chest.
He kisses my lips, grabs my jaw and tilts my head and kisses the underside of my chin. Against the skin, he asks, “Is this okay?” I shiver, grip his shoulders, and I know what he’s asking—come on, I’ve been around for a while; just because I haven’t done it doesn’t mean I haven’t done it—and so I card my hands through his hair and manage to jerk my head in a nod without pegging him in the face.
Getting naked after that, despite what any movie with a sex scene has ever taught me, is surprisingly easy and fast, and a little awkward. James doesn’t stare or anything, but I do—which is probably what makes it kind of awkward—and after a second, I just settle back into the pillows and kick my feet until my jeans bunch at the foot of the bed and James, laughing with this open, crazy sort of look in his eyes, pulls the sheet up over us until it drapes on his shoulders. It sits there a second, then skitters down to his waist, white cotton pooling off his hips.
“I don’t normally do this,” he whispers, sudden and drawing my attention away from the shadowed v of his thighs and back up to his face. I smile and touch his neck, trying to push away the slightly uncomfortable flutter in my chest.
“Me neither.” His fingers trip down my sides, brush in over my hips until I squirm. He smiles uncertainly as I smother my laughter. “Tickles.”
And maybe I should have been paying a bit more attention in school during sex-ed, or all those times Damien would start going on about random people he sleeps with, because I’m not entirely sure how the mechanics ended up working out. What I do know is that James gets over that it’s funny that I’m ticklish, and then he’s straddling my hips, and I don’t know if you’ve ever had sex, but there’s this second right when it’s starting out when your brain just goes all narrow and wide at the same time.
It was like the first time I’d had a Revelation, except it was, you know, centered around my dick instead of my soul.
James bites his lip and grips the headboard and I touch his thighs because, well, I didn’t get the memo on what it’s okay to touch when we’re doing this. He looks down at me, hair in his eyes and face brighter than I’d seen it at any point, and I know, I know—this is it, this is what he needs and what I need, and I smile at him.
He stares at me for a second, like he’s not sure what to do about this whole thing—he’s got to feel it too, it’s not exactly a one-way thing—but then he smiles a little himself, and he moves my hands up to his hips.
Sex is—messy. And loud. Not that either of us are being particularly loud, but the bed is pretty loud, and I’m pretty sure I make some highly undignified noises that, you know, most people don’t make, and every once in a while, James will just whisper something I can never quite catch into the air between us. But it’s really messy. What with the sweat, and the—semen.
But the look on James face when it’s all done, just as I’m slipping off to sleep, that look of peace and tranquility and finding something that just makes everything right.
That look makes me feel kind of bad that when I die this time, I’m pretty sure I’m not coming back.
I wake to the scratch of pencil on paper, and blink, and look over at James. He’s rosy and has freckles that I didn’t notice, and his hair hangs into his eyes a little, until he looks up suddenly and his hand stops.
“Good morning.” It’s dark outside, but my internal clock is screwed up from the little nap, so it might be morning for all I know.
“What’re you drawing?” James goes bright and chuckles and curls his legs up a little. He put on some sweatpants while I was sleeping, which is just fine, except that he shifts and I can see the muscle moving over his ribs, but more than that I can see his ribs.
“Uh,” James says, and shakes his head a couple of times, which doesn’t really do anything except make his hair rearrange itself across his forehead. “You, right now. I was drawing the bed originally.”
“Needed something to do,” he murmurs. “While you slept.”
“Do you want me to leave? Have you got plans?”
“Uh, no.” He shakes his head, and taps the pencil against the paper. After a second, he moves from the chair across the room to the bed. “Go back to sleep. You’re easier to draw that way.”
“I cannot believe you, Addam.”
I throw a piece of popcorn at Damien and say, “Watch the damn movie.”
“I’ve already seen it,” Damien tells me, crossing his arms over his chest. “Twice. I want to do Evan Rachel Woods. She’s hot. Teach me how to sing like that British guy.”
“Get reincarnated as a British guy who can sing really well.”
We’re into the music and the movie, and this I know how to deal with—that strange déjà vu that’s actually something in me saying, “Oh, I’ve been there.”—when Damien leans over and asks, “Was it as good for you as it was for him?”
“Shut up, I’m watching the movie.”
Damien proceeds to tell me, in precise detail, the rest of the movie. I flop back in my seat, and grumble, “See, this is why I don’t go to movies with you, Damien. You ruin them.”
“Dude, every plot has already been done.”
“Not to Beatles music.” I stand up, and Damien follows me out. “That was a waste of nine dollars.”
“C’mon, I’ll buy you dinner.”
“You mean I’ll buy you dinner, and then you’ll complain about the service and start a fight, and then I’ll have to apologize to the owners and pay for your damages?”
He leans down, coos, “You know me so well, Addam!” and smacks a loud, wet kiss on my cheek.
Just as James comes around the corner.
He stares at the both of us, then turns and walks the other direction. I turn and glare at Damien.
He doesn’t even look bashful. “Oh. Was that him?”
I knock on the door and lean against it and call, “James, will you open the door, please?” I don’t know why I’m there or why it matters or how long I’ve been there, but I stare at the door and sigh and wish he’d come and answer the door.
Instead, I reach up again and knock while I switch to the other side of the door. “James?”
I look up, and there he is, his keys in hand. He stares and I stare, and then he unlocks his door and he doesn’t invite me in, but he doesn’t shut the door in my face, so I go in after him.
He doesn’t turn the lights on until he’s back in his bedroom, and I’ve followed him all the way there.
“We need to talk?”
“Don’t see why,” James says. He’s taken off his jacket and toed off his shoes and he’s untucking his shirt when he says that. “You looked like you were having fun, and I kinda shoved you into all of that when you were clearly saving yourself or some shit. You tell your boyfriend that we fucked?”
“He’s not my boyfriend.” James looks at me, real solemn and straight, and I smile. He scrunches up his nose and crosses his arms. “Well, he’s a friend and he’s a guy, and we go out and I waste my money on him. But we’re just friends.”
“Uh huh. And I’m married to Gloria Estefan and get blowjobs from random strangers whenever I snap my fingers.”
“You know, cynicism is very bad for your karma.”
I’m not entirely prepared for the pillow getting hurled at me, but it’s a pillow. James glares at me when I just grab it and then drop it on the floor.
“I’ve earned being a cynic.”
“No you haven’t.”
I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter how it happened that time.
It was dark, and the Earth said, “Sorry. Try again.”
James is feeding ducks in the rain, which would have been fine, except that it’s, you know, the rain, and it’s about four days after I’d died, and I’d seen the obit—Damien brought it when I called him to tell him I was feeling like crap. I lurk further down the path, kicking the gravel, until James looks up and looks over and just stares at me for a minute.
Then he throws his head back and cackles.
The smell of the coffee is strong in the little cafe, and I swirl my spoon through my tea while James just stares at me.
“I still say you’re a figment of my imagination.”
“If I were a figment or your imagination, why would other people see me?”
“Maybe we’re collectively insane.” I chuckle a little. James pours some cream into his coffee. “So. Another incarnation? What’d the earth say this time?”
“Same thing she always does: try again.”
He stares at the cream lightening his coffee for a second, then looks up at me. “Try again, huh?”
“Okay.” He takes a sip of his coffee, then sits up straight and extends his hand across the table. “Name’s James Henry. Wanna catch a movie?”
“Addam Skye.” I grab his hand and squeeze it for a second. “And I’ll only go to the movies with you if it’s a movie neither of us have seen.”
Somehow—and I could probably elaborate on the specifics, but those aren’t all that important—we end up at his apartment and on his bed and on top of the sheets. Which, I guess, is better than being between them, because James won’t have to take them to the laundromat, but, you know what, comforter. Comforters get dirty too.
And after all is said and done, James is curled up on my side, head tucked under my chin, and I’m falling asleep, and all he says is, “Thanks, Addam.”
“Yeah, James,” I’m pretty sure I say back. “No problem.”
The silly thing about it this time is that it’s almost a week later, and I’m just messing around when I point out that it’s been over a month and I’m still hanging around. And all it is that James does is he just smiles and says, “It’s okay.”
It was dark, and the Earth said, “Good work.”