Authors: Mark Ferguson
Movement caught his eye downstream. He turned fast.
About fifty feet away stood a man. His long hair and bushy black beard obscured everything but his eyes, his nose, and the very tops of his cheeks. The too-big eyes—just as Joan had described them—were fixed on Gabe. He was far away, so it was hard for Gabe to know for sure, but it looked like the man was smiling. He crouched and shook a little, then stood up again and lifted his right foot behind him, held it with his right hand while he bent his left knee. He did the same on the other side, then jogged in place and turned to face Gabe once more.
He was definitely smiling now. He looked familiar. Gabe could see something in the eyes that reminded him of Henry despite the full, graying beard. It wasn’t him, of course—it couldn’t be—but just to be sure Gabe took a step in the man’s direction.
The man turned and bolted. Gabe scrambled down to the gravel and ran after him. He didn’t know why. The man had run. That seemed like reason enough, and each frantic step only strengthened Gabe’s irrational resolve. Up ahead, mounted into a tall cement wall, was a large-gauge pipe that brought the stream into the park from its source on the other side of the highway. When the man reached it he was forced to climb up the side of the ravine to get around it. Gabe took the same incline at a diagonal, using his hands to catch the trunks of trees, which prevented him from falling and whipped him back on course. He reached the top of the hill in time to watch the man leapfrog over the railing separating the park from the highway off-ramp that bordered it. Gabe followed, hurdling over the short railing and its twin on the other side of the road. Whoever this man was, he’d just made a mistake. The chase had now taken them to an asphalt walkway penned in by a twenty-foot palisade on one side and the Raritan River on the other. The only way out was about a mile ahead, up an old iron staircase that led to a pedestrian overpass crossing Route Eighteen and down into town.
Gabe ran until he was nauseous with the effort. The palisade to his right was a favorite spot for graffiti artists, and the bright portraiture and elaborate tags turned to riotous streaks as Gabe sprinted past. By the time he hit the bottom of the staircase at the end of the path, his knees were elastic, his flushed face tingling. He heard footsteps up above him, clanking against the metal, and though Gabe tried to take the stairs two at a time, his legs wouldn’t play along. The change in pace sobered him a bit, as did the cramping pain at the base of his rib cage.
“What am I doing?”
He mounted the next step.
“What the fuck?”
And the next.
By the time he reached the landing before the top, he was sure that the overpass would be empty, and he was glad. The bearded man wasn’t Henry. A glance had been enough to tell that. Any resemblance was just Gabe seeing what he wanted to see, which meant that he’d chased after a homeless man for no real reason. Now that the whim was gone, he felt sad and empty and more than a little scared. There were only a few more steps to the top. Gabe took them slowly. When finally his line of sight extended past the top stair, he saw that the overpass wasn’t empty.
The bearded man leaned against the railing, spitting down onto the road and gasping in an effort to get his wind. Gabe stopped and stared through an oxygen-deprived haze. He felt sick. The cars below were deafening, the sun too bright. Even his own body was too much for him to handle—he thought he could feel his own blood careening through his veins, prickling underneath his skin and pulsing in his temples and toes. He knew he should run in the other direction, but he was too tired.
The man reached his arms above his head and stepped to the center of the bridge. He turned in a full circle, stopped when he was facing Gabe, and closed his eyes.
Gabe became fearfully conscious of the iron staircase behind his back. With even a gentle push the man could send him tumbling down the steps. Gabe gripped the banister in preparation for an advance, but it didn’t come. The man stepped back and marched steadily in place, his knees rising above his waist with each dramatic step. He kept a steady tempo, and then he swirled his arms, pointing above and below him.
Gabe was stunned. He wanted to laugh, but he didn’t have the breath. This man might not be Henry, but he was almost certainly just as crazy as Henry was.
The rushing sound of the cars beneath Gabe’s feet was now painfully loud. He closed his eyes and focused on his breath. In the darkness behind his eyelids, his ears took over. He could hear the tires on the road below hitting a seam in the pavement with a rich, throaty pulse. The honking of a V of geese overhead syncopated itself against that beat, and Gabe’s own heartbeat, loud in his ears after the run, matched the space between goose honks. He opened his eyes and blinked a few times. The small wet noise of his eyelids making and breaking contact with each other was somehow audible, and it fit seamlessly into a complex rhythm, as did the far-off wail of a police siren and the rustle of leaves in the breeze and the distant clacking of an Amtrak express train screaming through New Brunswick station.
Gabe couldn’t separate one sound from any other. He couldn’t isolate even his own breathing. The world was a song, a singular anthem comprised of everything he could see and hear. The man stamped and twirled away, and as his fists curled closed and unfurled Gabe heard the fast percussion of a faraway helicopter timed to each twitch of the man’s fingers. It was that way with every part of the man’s body—each motion was linked to a different part of the music, as though he were the center of it all.
Gabe slid his back down the low concrete wall near the top of the stairs until he was seated. His vision was obscured by a film of tears, but he could still see the man dancing toward the other side of the bridge, twirling so close to the steps that he seemed bound to stumble onto them and fall down to the other side.
And maybe that’s what happened. But what Gabe later remembered wasn’t a stumble.
It was a leap. A rearward leap up and then almost horizontal. The man’s back arched like a high jumper’s, his arms and legs hung loosely from his torso. The hair on his head was suspended beneath him and around him and pushed up to frame his face. It looked to Gabe as if the man had fallen asleep in midair, as if he was descending through water. The music was relentless. The man’s hair and clothing fluttered softly as he fell, and Gabe could hear that, too, as loud as any of the other noises and perfectly harmonized. A solo.
And then the man was gone.
Gabe sucked in as much air as his lungs could hold. His vision was clear again, and the music that had overwhelmed him just seconds before was replaced by the mundane sounds of a highway overpass. He tried to move, but he was too sore, as if he’d been asleep in the same position for hours, so he lay still. But there was no stillness inside him, only panic. The man had jumped from the bridge—backwards and totally prone—to the stairs on the other side. He would have to be severely injured if not dead.
Someone might have seen Gabe chasing him. And when they found the man dead, how would Gabe explain what he’d been doing? He couldn’t even explain it to himself.
He toppled forward and pushed himself up off the concrete. Now on his feet, he hobbled to the other side of the bridge and braced for the gruesome scene he fully expected to see, the scene that would ruin his life forever. But when he glanced down the stairway, it was clear. Nothing on the steps. Nothing on the landing.
Gabe limped to the bottom of the staircase just to make sure, but there was no man. No blood. No sign of anything.
enry followed 41
to the basement. His clothes were waiting for him in an old dryer, and he quickly changed into them. He wanted to feel the warmth from the machine before it dissipated.
41 watched him undress and dress again, and he smiled.
“What?” said Henry.
“It’s just strange. I remember how good it felt to get into those clothes. Made me feel like myself.”
“I guess,” said Henry. He wasn’t sure what it meant to feel like himself.
41 turned to go back upstairs and Henry trailed after him.
His shoes were waiting for him by the door, and 41 watched him put them on before leading Henry outside and down the lawn. Their destination was a mossy boulder that sat near the edge of the clearing in which the house stood. 80 straggled behind.
Questions looped loudly in Henry’s mind, so many that he wasn’t sure where to begin. 41 saved him from having to decide. “In another time,” he said, “we didn’t pick you up. When I was you—the first time I was you—I woke up on the bridge alone.”
As they walked, 41 plucked long yellow foxtails from the ground. Henry reached his own hand down to let the furry stalks pass through his fingers.
“It felt like I’d only been out for a few seconds, but I could tell by the feel of the light that it was late afternoon. There was no pulsing universe of sound, no music formed from the combination of everything on earth.” 41 laughed. “I’ve experienced some crazy shit since then. But compared to that morning on the bridge, it’s all been kind of run-of-the-mill, to tell the truth. I can still feel it. I’m a little in awe of you, frankly. You just survived that.”
“If I’m to believe you, you survived it too,” said Henry. “Are you in awe of yourself?”
“I suppose I am.” 41 laughed again. “The first time I was you, I woke up on the cement, got up, and started walking. I was about as lucid as you are now, but afraid to go back to my mom’s. I’d been looking for deliverance from that green vibration and everything it represented, and the bridge gave me that. I thought I’d really escaped, that it was best to stay away. As for Val, I still wanted to see her, but I knew it was a bad idea. I looked horrible, smelled worse than horrible. So I figured if I could get to New Brunswick and find Gabe, I could hide for a few days while I figured out what to do next. I walked all the way to Penn Station—two and a half hours straight down Broadway. It felt like an eternity.”
They reached the boulder. Henry climbed up and sat down on the edge so he was facing the house. He bounced his heels against the thick pads of moss that clung to the side of the rock.
“I got on a train to New Brunswick without a ticket and locked myself in the bathroom. People started banging on the door after a little while, but I was too scared to move. Somehow I made it all the way to Metuchen before a conductor unlocked the door from the outside and kicked me off. By then I was pretty close to Rutgers so I didn’t fight it. I just followed the train tracks as best I could.”
80 reached the boulder then, breathing hard. “Don’t let me”—he paused to inhale—“don’t let me interrupt.”
“You remember this conversation anyway, don’t you?” said 41.
“I wasn’t picking a fight,” said 80.
41 turned his attention back to Henry, then pulled himself up on the rock so they were sitting shoulder to shoulder. “So I got to New Brunswick. I was tired and I felt like shit, but it felt like a victory to make it there. It felt right in that way that a lot of things just felt right around that time. I found a place to sleep for a bit, an alley by that grocery store downtown, the C-Town. At dawn I walked to the music school.”
“You went to the practice room,” said Henry. He turned to look at himself, his other self, examined the long gray hairs of his beard, the sunken cheekbones.
This should be more strange,
he thought. Maybe this was one of those things that his mental illness was causing him to think
just felt right
despite how obviously wrong it was.
“To you,” said 41, “that first experience in the practice room seemed like a particularly vivid hallucination. It scared you into believing that something was terribly wrong. But to me—as the boy you walked in on, sleep deprived from walking all night and stuck two months in his own past—it didn’t prove that I was crazy. It proved that I wasn’t, that something real was happening, something extraordinary and completely unprecedented. When I saw you I felt
. Do you understand?”
“I think so,” said Henry.
“Say it,” said 41.
Henry chewed his cheek. His vocabulary felt inadequate, his words poorly designed. It was as if he was thinking in the wrong key. “There were two of me,” he said. “Only months apart. They—we were experiencing the same moment. But it meant something completely different to each of us.”
Henry knew there was more to say, but before he could find the words, 80 inhaled deeply and spoke them aloud. “We are all alone,” he said, “even when we are with ourselves.”
Apparently, 41 could think of nothing acerbic to add.
“I didn’t know that when I first showed up in 41’s life,” said 80. “I had forgotten so much about what it meant to be him. I’m sorry for that.”
41 jumped down from the stone and paced with his hands in his pockets and his eyes on the trees. His steps left imprints in the lush grass. Henry watched the blades rise in each depression. In a few minutes it would look as though 41 hadn’t stepped there at all.
“So now we all understand this profound truth about ourselves,” said 41, and he laughed through his nose, a rapid-fire chuckling, completely joyless. “I’m really glad for that, but unfortunately for all of us we’ll be learning that lesson for the rest of our lives.” He started walking. “Follow me. We’re going on a little hike. 80 needs to show you something.”
Henry jumped off the rock and proceeded to the tree line. 80 stepped after them with a sigh.
They walked silently into the woods. 80 moved faster now, spurred along, Henry supposed, by the same nervous tension that Henry felt. It was like a silent current, an undertow pulling them down toward something inevitable. The static sound of rushing water grew louder as they progressed. Henry looked back, but the dense forest had already smothered his view of the clearing and the house. He wondered if they’d ever been there at all, but this walk was lifelike in a way that no other hallucination had been. It was calm, sort of boring. The trees were only trees, the sky only sky. No terrible cosmic import. No high drama.
80 hopped past Henry in an awkward half jog, then slowed when he caught up to 41. They exchanged words, but Henry heard only the
. Some time later, 80 and 41 broke through the trees onto a rocky streambed. Henry watched the sun turn the men a staggering golden white. 80 put a flattened hand on his brow and turned back. 41 did the same, and Henry understood. They couldn’t see him. He imagined sprinting full speed back toward the house, but what then? Where could he go and not be found? If this was all an illusion, escape was impossible. If it was real, his captors would need only to remember where they had gone when they were him. He trudged forward.
When Henry reached the streambed 41 said, “This is the Esopus Creek. We’ve got a while more to go. You need to rest?”
Henry shrugged. “I’m fine.”
They followed the water, usually stepping forward on damp gravel and smooth stones, sometimes dipping back into the woods to follow a parallel trail when the creek was wide enough to hug its banks and leave no room for walking. Henry knew he should be thinking about the deep philosophical implications of his current predicament, but he didn’t care to. It was a beautiful day. He was out on a walk in the woods and he wanted only to think of normal things. Snippets of old songs and half-forgotten memories, internal asides, private jokes. It had been a long time since he’d luxuriated in that sort of prosaic thinking. His thoughts turned to the childhood vacations he’d spent up here in the mountains. Each summer, Henry and his mother had shared a cabin with his aunt and uncle. The first time they came was right after Henry’s dad finally disappeared into the cancer that had defined him for as long as Henry could remember. He never really knew his father in good health, and for the last few months he barely got to see him. His mom later said that his dad hadn’t wanted to be remembered as a sad pile of bones. Instead, Henry remembered his father as a moaning ghost behind a closed bedroom door. It didn’t seem much better.
“19,” said 41.
The voice barely made it through Henry’s haze of deep concentration. He didn’t react.
This time Henry stopped walking and looked up. 41 had turned to face him. 80 was a bit further up.
“I’m going to show you what you’re doing here, but you have to be patient. We can’t explain everything all at once. Some of it you’re going to have to figure out for yourself and some of it you’re going to help us understand.”
41 checked to see that 80 was still walking ahead, then lowered his voice. “Your being here, it’s changed everything for me—for us.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I mean, you’ve set yourself free just by being here. For right now, just open your eyes. Pay attention.” He smiled. “This is the most important thing that’s ever happened to you.”
41 started walking again. Henry felt more confused but more focused, too. Ten minutes later he saw up ahead a sheer wall of rock, seven or eight feet high. The creek bent to the right to get around it. 41, walking faster than before, was well ahead and out of sight. 80 was clearly pained by the hike and had fallen behind. Henry was in the middle, and when finally he made it to the point in the bend where he could see what lay ahead, he stopped. Spanning the water just a little ways downstream was a long wooden suspension bridge. It’s twin towers were composed of two telephone poles each, which had been sunk into the ground on either side of the stream. The towers were connected at their tops by metal cables, and hanging down from those long arcs were thinner cords that were bolted into the surface of the bridge itself.
41 had stopped to allow Henry to catch up, and when Henry reached him he said, “Wait here. 80 will need help up this bank. Just get up into the trees and follow the stream and you’ll see the entrance to the bridge in a minute or two.”
Henry nodded. It didn’t occur to him to ask why 41 wasn’t waiting, why he wouldn’t be helping. 41 stepped ahead and Henry turned around. 80 was only twenty or thirty yards away, but he was moving slowly. Henry kicked a pebble toward the water and it bounced off a larger stone before plunking into the stream. The sound was satisfying. Henry focused on it as it echoed again and again. At first Henry didn’t find that strange, but then it persisted, repeated, returned, and folded in on itself, a series of clicks and splashes that oscillated without diminishing. The sound of the water was louder too, its variegated tones more dynamic and rhythmic in their susurrations. 80 reached Henry, his chest heaving. His skin was damp and sickly yellow, his lips pale blue. “Move,” he said. “We have to get up there.”
“You look like you need a rest.”
80 shook his head and motioned Henry forward with a frantic little wave of his fingers. He looked lost.
“We should stop for a minute,” said Henry.
“We are not stopping,”
said 80, his face curdled with angst and anger. It reminded Henry of 41, and for the first time he could really see them as the same man.
“Do you hear that?” said 80. He stepped past Henry and took a step up the bank before retreating. “That—the everything. That means we have to go.
Henry stepped up onto the bank and grabbed a sapling with one hand. With the other he took hold of 80’s forearm and pulled. From the bridge came the dry, hollow, meaty tone of a wooden wind chime—first one note, then two more. A seductive sound, it seemed to cast a shadow over Henry’s vision. His throat burned and his eyes began to close.
“Help me, damn it!” said 80, and the urgent sound of his plea flung Henry back into his body. He climbed a few feet up, found another tree to hold on to, and reached back for 80. By repeating that process a few more times he was able to inchworm the old man up to level ground. The wind-chime sound had multiplied into a soft, tinkling chorus, and without the physical exertion to distract him, Henry was again overcome. The pitter-patter grew and expanded, like an approaching storm, reaching out and up until it merged with the rushing of water, the swaying of branches, Henry’s own breath and heartbeat, the chattering of birds, the dry shuffling of 80’s steps on the earth as the old man trotted ahead.
Henry stopped walking. He wanted only to be taken in by the all-encompassing music of the forest around him, but 80’s voice again pierced through the symphony, a single word, hoarse and incredibly loud, “Run!”
Henry did, his feet catching on fallen leaves and ropy ferns. When he reached the foot of the bridge, his body failed him and he hit the ground on all fours. His stomach formed a painful fist and pushed fried eggs and the mealy remains of toast into his throat. The crash of his vomit hitting the dirt trail assimilated into the larger song, and he was enveloped. Through half-open eyes he glimpsed 41 dancing ahead of him on the timber walkway, his limbs flailing, reckless and beautiful, but the image gradually melted into wood and water, sky and bile. Henry felt a powerful rise as everything turned to color and sound, all of it pushing toward the uncontrollable climax, an inexorable white din that washed the world away.
Henry’s eyes were open. Amorphous blue, wisps of white, green leaves, and gray swinging branches. He blinked and could have cried at how good it felt. He slowly came to understand that he was lying on his back. He lifted his torso, supporting himself on his elbows. The back of his shirt was wet with something. He recalled the puke. 80 approached him from the base of the bridge. His face was knotted with a peculiar combination of confusion and rage. After every few steps he stopped to look back as if expecting to see 41 materialize in the same spot he’d disappeared from.