It’s dark when I wake. We’re not home, but I experience none of that confusion of waking in a strange bed in a strange place. I feel the lumpy mattress. It’s a dead give-away. The air smells dusty, a bit musty. I can make out a shimmer in the chandelier overhead.
While my consciousness gathers, I listen to the waters of the Grand Canal sloshing outside. It puts me in mind of something asleep, like a giant tentacled sea creature, turning over, waking, wiping the sleep from its many eyes.
Next to me, lies my beloved, breathing lightly.
But not all is well. My heart may be in flight, joyful in this lovely place, but my body feels pretty lousy, banged up. I think I’m hung over. My head feels thick and slow. My limbs seem alien, like I’m sensing them from a distance.
We had dinner near the Palazzo Grassi, I remember. Spaghetti. There was something marvelous about its simplicity. Something elemental and warm. We shared a bottle of Chianti. It tasted like sunshine and soil. It was one of those nights one cannot make, cannot plan, can but embrace when it comes along. A night set in cold gold mist and magic, boats rumbling on shimmering waters, church bells clanging in the whispering air, streetlamps soft and blurred in the fog.
I don’t often drink. It might have been enough to make me feel this way, I suppose. That, and the strangeness and wonder of the new.
I stir, and something in his body changes, tautens. He turns and holds me tightly, like he does when I’ve been away a while. Possessive and hungry.
‘You’re back,’ he says, and starts weeping. He never weeps. It freaks me out. It darkens my mood.
‘What’s wrong?’ I ask. I try to turn over to switch on a bedside lamp, but he holds me, says, ‘Not yet. Don’t get up. Stay a bit longer.’
‘What’s wrong?’ I ask.
‘Nothing,’ he says. ‘Bad dream.’
‘What about?’ I ask.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ he says.
‘What about? Tell me,’ I ask.
‘I dreamed you died,’ he says, his breath stirring in my neck. ‘I dreamed I’d lived long enough so they could keep me alive forever,’ he says. ‘Everyone told me I was lucky. But it didn’t feel lucky. It felt lonely.’
‘Hell,’ I say, trying to lighten the mood. ‘Too much wine, maybe,’ I venture.
‘Maybe,’ he says. But it’s wrong. His mood. His tone. The tension in his body. My gut turns. Like when you know something’s amiss, and that it’s near and easy to find, if you just knew what you’re looking for. And I know he won’t get this upset about a dream. Not even a bad one.
‘It’s because we opted for cryonics,’ I say, because it’s pretty obvious, and I’m surprised I have to point it out. We’ve been talking about it for months before we left home to come here. ‘It’s been on your mind a while, that’s all,’ I say. ‘All the paperwork. The lawyers. Your sleeping mind just threw some shit up in the air to see what’ll land where, and this came out tops,’ I say, hoping to calm him, to bring some perspective.
‘Yeah,’ he says, his breath catching in his throat the way it does when one struggles with emotion. ‘In the dream they made me young again,’ he says. ‘But you were gone already. For a while, I resented that. Being young. Alone. Without you,’ he says.
‘All this,’ I ask, ‘in a dream?’
He puts his hand in the nape of my neck. He knows I love that. I think he’s stopped crying. Which is good. The crying made me think of a million things gone wrong.
‘I know,’ he says. ‘It was an unusual dream.’
‘But they brought me back,’ I say. ‘Eventually. So it wasn’t all bad.’
‘It’s the waiting that made it bad,’ he says. ‘Making a new body was the easy part. Difficult part was figuring out how to infer data from a vitrified brain. It took a long time to get the technology that could that.’
‘So I was like Rip van Winkle,’ I say. ‘Or Sleeping Beauty.’
He laughs. It’s a bit of a precarious laugh, but still, thank God. It’s like a balm, makes me breathe a bit easier. ‘More the latter, I think,’ he says. ‘There’s a good fairy and a bad fairy in Sleeping Beauty,’ he says. ‘You know that. The bad one curses the princess to sleep a hundred years. The good one knows she’ll be scared when she wakes. All alone. Nothing familiar in the world. And so she puts everyone else in the palace to sleep, to wake when the princess does.’
‘I feel like shit,’ I say, sensing we’ve turned a corner, that he’s settling down. ‘I’m never having Chianti again,’ I say.
There’s a pause. It’s like I can feel him think. I listen to the waters outside. It seems distant now. The tide must be receding, I tell myself.
‘I don’t think it’s the wine,’ he says.
Quiet. I was wrong. We didn’t turn a corner. His mind is still elsewhere, struggling with something. ‘I’ve missed doing this,’ he says, stroking the back of my neck. ‘It’s funny what one misses when the other’s not around. It’s not the things one would imagine.’
‘You rubbed my neck last night,’ I say.
‘I thought about it a long time,’ he says, like he hasn’t heard me, ‘when they told me they can bring you back.’ His voice seems off-kilter, fills me with dread. It reminds me of the way he spoke when he had to tell me my mom had died, way back. ‘And this is what I settled on. This fake world. I didn’t know how else to tell you,’ he says. ‘I still don’t. It seems so clumsy now. I thought it was a good idea, setting it up like this. To help you back into the world. But now I don’t know. I just feel stupid.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ I say. But my stomach seems to know. It feels knotted and empty.
‘I thought if I could bring you here,’ he says, ‘if I could make it seem like the morning after the last night you remember, it would help, it would lessen the shock, it would give you a bit of continuity, at least. I thought it would make the transition easier.’ The tears are back. I don’t think he knows it, but his hands have drawn into claws, and his heart is hammering against my back. I know he’s trying not to scare me. Which scares me.
I no longer think he’d woken from a nightmare.
I think I had.
‘I was thinking it would help for you to wake in my arms,’ he says. ‘Not alone in a strange place. I thought it would help to ease you into an acceptance of things–’
‘Stop,’ I say. ‘Stop talking.’ His arms feel like vises. I want to break free, get up, go for a walk. Outside in the freezing cold. Until I’m fully awake from this strangeness.
But something keeps me here.
Fear, I suppose.
‘I was so worried,’ he says, his voice sounding like something shattered. ‘Because you have no recollection of dying. Because it happened quietly in your sleep. When it happened, I didn’t even know. By the time I woke, it was over, and you’ve been gone a while, and your body was getting cold and rigid–’
His emotions break like a levee, sweep through his body, wash away his strength. I get up, stand next to the bed in the deep dark, my head spinning, my fingers trying to find a light switch.
‘You’re scaring me,’ I say.
‘Feel your body,’ he whispers. ‘Then you’ll know. You’ll see you’re young and new.’
I think I say something. I’m not sure what. It feels like I’m shouting over a chasm between disparate worlds.
I don’t think anyone can hear me.
‘You died,’ he says, even though I wish he would stop, wish he would give me a moment. And some space. To breathe. ‘Yesterday,’ he says, ‘you fell asleep. That was eighty-four years ago,’ he says.
I know it’s true. My body proclaims its rawness. I wasn’t listening earlier. Now I hear nothing else.
I am I. But different.
The surrounding blackness collapses, clouds my sight.
I know I’m fainting.
For a while, there’s nothing.
And then I’m back.
Sunshine floods the space. Blinds me. There are no susurrating waters. It’s all gone. No mattress, no bed, no chandelier.
Just white and light, and a window framed grandly from ceiling to floor, wall to wall.
It’s not now, I know. Not my now. It’s some other then, some other where.
He sits there, smiling. I know him instantly. I see him in his eyes. He’s older. Much older. But his body is young.
Through the window, off in the distance, Earth floats bright, like a blue pearl.
BIO: Daniel Burnbridge practices law in Cape Town, South Africa. At night, in his study overlooking the City Bowl, he sits with words, reading and writing. He loves doing that. He was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2014. Daniel dreams of living on Mars, whenever that becomes a real thing.