On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published four ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.
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It’s a natural human indulgence to imagine other possibilities for yourself, both for the future and also in the past. There are so many points in life where an innocuous decision, or just random chance, ends up profoundly affecting the path of our existence.
Our special curse is that we can wonder endlessly about those other branches of fate. We might even exist in a universe where more than one outcome really does take place; forever hidden from us, but real enough nonetheless. That’s the thought that inspired this brief tale.
It was a Monday morning when I woke up, which I suppose made things even worse. Nothing good happens on Monday mornings.
I even know the exact date: the 17th of October. More than six months ago now. I suppose I should congratulate myself on keeping this deception going for half a year. It was exhausting at first, but you do get used to it.
The first surprise happened as soon as I opened my eyes: the unfamiliar ceiling. A very soft pinkish white, lit by a dramatic slash of sunlight coming from a bay window on the opposite side of the bed. I’d been out at the pub with a few of my friends the night before, and we’d been talking to a group of women at the next table. For a moment, I panicked that maybe I’d done the unthinkable and went home with one of them, but I knew I’d never cheat on my wife.
The second surprise came a moment later, when the blonde next to me turned over and draped her arm across my chest.
“‘Morning,” she mumbled with a smile in her voice, eyes still closed, and there was something so damnably familiar about her, but in a distant way. She was not my wife. Not even close. At least, not in the way you think.
I couldn’t help it. I flinched, rolled straight out of the bed, and fell onto the floor. I was very glad it was thickly carpeted. I heard her spring out of bed and come quickly around to where I lay, then she crouched down beside me. She was wearing underwear and a faded t-shirt with a Van Gogh self-portrait on it, but an early one. Then I saw her face.
It only took me seconds to produce the name from memory: it was Jessica. We’d been at high school together, at least for part of the time until her parents moved away down south, and she disappeared from my life. I’d had such a crush on her; at the time, I thought I was in love. To the best of my knowledge, she wasn’t even aware of my existence. And now, here, all these years later, I was in bed beside her. I think I said her name out loud at that point, and I remember that she looked both worried and amused.
My first piece of luck was that I saw the photos before I spoke again. Thank god.
They were everywhere, and a lot of them were really artful. Jessica and I at a concert. Jessica and I out in the countryside somewhere. Jessica and I in a rowboat. Jessica and I at the Valley of the Kings. Jessica and I in what looked like a church, with me in a kilt and her in a white dress. There were dozens of them, some in frames and many more in collage on a huge board on the wall above a chest of drawers.
But I’d never been to the Valley of the Kings, or any of those other places. I hadn’t seen Jessica since I was fourteen years old, which was almost thirty years earlier. And I had married someone entirely different.
My second piece of luck was that I rattled my head against the bedside table when I fell. It wasn’t much of an injury, but it made a hell of a noise, and that was probably why she ran around the bed to see if I was alright.
That’s what wives do, after all.
In that moment, I decided to lie to her. Just until I could work out what kind of elaborate prank or deception I was being subjected to. So I told her what I’ve told everyone in my life — my new life, at least. I told her I had no memory of the last thirty years. So we went to the hospital, and thus began this strange journey I seem to be on.
In a sense, I wasn’t lying: I don’t remember anything from my life with her. Not a thing. But I do remember the last three decades. I remember them in perfect detail. I remember finishing high school, and going to university, and graduating. I remember my first job, and my second, and my third. I remember going to a friend’s housewarming, and chatting to a pretty and slightly shy brunette while I was waiting in line at the barbecue. I remember getting her number, and calling her, and meeting her for coffee, and I sure as hell remember moving in with her and asking her to marry me. I remember her saying yes, and I remember her making good on that promise a year later.
I remember our kids, and our cat, and I remember our house and our car. I remember my whole life. But now, here, I live hundreds of miles south of there, and social media tells me — and shows me — that my real wife is married to someone else, and has children I’ve never seen before. As far as I can tell, we’ve never even met. Not here, at least.
I still don’t know what to do. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do. I don’t know what happened in the first place.
The doctors still ask to see me every month, but I know that’ll tail off soon. I’ve had a couple of MRIs, and all kinds of blood work. They can’t find anything wrong. I’m not even surprised.
I’ve tried discreetly searching online for any clue about what happened to me, but it’s all sci-fi and lunatics. Nothing that happens in real life, except that it did happen to me. I refuse to believe it’s all a delusion. I remember everything, but just not the way everyone else remembers it.
It was even fun at first, for a while. Jessica loves me, and she’s been constantly supportive. I’d be lying if I said I don’t enjoy sleeping with her, too; god knows I thought about it enough over the decades. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t feel real. I like her, and I’m still attracted to her, but I don’t love her. How could I?
I miss my family. I miss my wife — my first wife, I suppose. My true wife. But she’s not my wife anymore. Even worse, the faces of my kids are becoming blurry in my mind.
I wake up each morning, and I keep my eyes closed for a moment, hoping that everything will be back to normal again. But then I hear her breathing, or I smell her perfume or her hair, or I hear that damned dog that lives two houses down, and I know that I’m still here.
Still in a life that’s not mine. Or maybe in a universe that isn’t.
But what can I do?
That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.
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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.