Contains mature language.
This is Part Five of the story. Part Four can be found here.
That had been the first good birthday Jack had remembered. Oh, he was sure that when he was young, he'd had a few good ones with his mother and father, but even in this place, he couldn't recall them. Oddly enough, though, he seemed to have a nearly perfect recall of damn near everything that had happened since his father died, the memories coming in and crashing on him in waves of nostalgia, regret, and, when he thought of Cassie, streaks of unimaginable happiness mixed with unbearable, soul-wrenching pain.
He stood and began pacing back and forth, his gaze on the floor. After a while he noticed that there was no dampness in front of the chair, where he had shed his tears, and he wondered just how long he had sat there, reminiscing.
It hardly mattered, though, did it?
The Hopeless had grown strong, calloused, through his lack of hope. But he dared let the thought of happiness intrude upon him. If the lack of hope made him strong, then when he allowed his life to become a quest for happiness with the woman he loved, all inspired by a shared hope with her, than it only stands to reason that this would make him weak—and it did.
“Why are you such a good person?” she asked. They were laying in bed, not sleeping, not making love, just resting. She had just gotten off of work a few hours ago, and he would have to go to work before long.
He snorted. “What are you smoking, and where can I get some? I'm not a good person.”
“You have a good heart. I mean, yeah, you overthink sometimes...okay, a lot of times. But you're still a really good person. You always want to help people.”
He thought about it, and was surprised to realize that she was kind of right. He'd become the guy at work that everyone called to see if he could pick up a shift, the kind of person that always stopped to see if he could help someone on the side of the highway, the man that dug deep when he passed a collector for a charity.
“I don't know,” he finally said. “I never really thought of myself as a good person. I mean, for a long time, I wasn't.” He turned his head, and she mirrored him, their eyes staring into each other. She had the most beautiful hazel eyes that he had ever seen, like miniature stars burned within each iris. My God, you're beautiful, he thought, and his heart swelled, the thought that this beautiful, intelligent, amazing woman was in love with him making him feel buoyant, as if he was lighter than air.
“I guess you changed all of that. I never really thought about it before, but...it's kind of your fault.”
“Huh? How is it my fault?”
“You changed me. Made me better. Made me the best me I could be.” He smiled. “I guess that's one of the reasons I love you so much.”
They sat in silence for a few moments, then she sighed. “I think I'm going to take the job offer, Jack. Unless you'd really rather I not.”
A few weeks ago, she had been contacted online. The owner of an art gallery was impressed with some of her work, and after a bit of talking, had offered her a job at the gallery, with the promise of featuring some of her work. The problem was that the art gallery was in New York City. He'd offered to fly her out, and get a studio apartment ready for her, but...it was still half a country away.
Jack ran his hand through his hair, not sure what to say. “Is it what you want?”
She nodded. “I'd really like to be able to just work on my art one day. And waiting tables at Denny's isn't going to make that happen. This is the best chance I've ever had to work towards that.”
Silence filled the room for a few moments. Finally, Jack spoke. “So where would that leave us?”
“I don't want to break up, if that's what you're asking.”
“Well, I don't either.”
“Okay...so we don't. Seems simple enough.”
“So...what. The long distance thing?”
She shrugged. “I guess so. I mean, it's only a six-month job. We can last that long on phone calls. Plus, we could always visit each other. I'd make good enough money to afford plane tickets back every once in a while.”
He nodded. “And at the end, it it becomes a bit more permanent...I suppose moving to New York City would be pretty interesting for me.”
“Yeah,” she said, and she smiled again. “We're going to make this work, aren't we?”
He grabbed her and pulled her small body on top of his, and their lips met and their tongues entwined before he began unbuttoning her shirt. “You're damned right we are,” he said as the kiss broke and she pulled back enough for him to get the last few buttons and pull the offending garment off.
Jack smiled, shaking his head softly. “Cassie,” he said, his voice a croak, as if it had been years since he had spoken last. As timeless as the room he stood in felt, maybe it had been.
God. How he loved that girl. The one that changed him. Made him better. “I love you, Cass,” he said, and his voice was a bit stronger this time, as if these words wouldn't dare come out tainted, because they knew perfectly well how important they were, how powerful they were, how meaningful they were. How much raw emotion and force was carried in their four tiny syllables.
“God, how I do love you, Cass.” It felt good to say it, and he realized that this was perhaps the longest stretch of time he had gone through since he had first met her without telling her how much he cared, how important she was to him, how she completed his very existence.
The Hopeless continued to do the one thing that could truly hurt him—foster hope. The love that he shared with her was too important to them both to simply give up on, and so they stacked opposition against themselves, determined to beat the odds, and let the fact that they were soul mates triumph over any hardship.
Surprisingly enough, he refused to falter. The Hopeless did the one thing that he had never done before, and used his hope to strengthen himself, as his hopelessness had in the past.
“I know, babe,” Jack said. “It sucks being away from you. You have no idea how much I'm craving a cigarette right now.”
“Oh, don't you even joke about that,” she said, a thousand miles away. “You haven't smoked in two years, you don't need to start now.”
“I'm not!” he protested. “I'm just saying, I kind of want one. I'm not going to actually have one.”
“Well, I want a kiss. And I have to say, my addiction seems far less sinister than yours.”
“Yeah, but less cool.”
“You're a dork, dear. And I have to go. I love you.”
“I love you too. More than you know.”
Zeke stretched, yawning, as Jack closed the phone. “She doesn't know at all?”
“Nope.” Jack opened one of his drawers, throwing socks haphazardly in the suitcase.
“I'm gonna miss your ass, dude.”
Jack looked over, at the man who had been his best friend for over a decade. “I'll miss you, too, man. Besides, there's a good chance I'll be back in a couple of months.”
“Yeah...” Zeke glanced at his watch. “Two hours until you need to be at the airport. You have anything else to pack?”
Jack looked around the room, ticking off a mental checklist in his head. “No. I don't think so. You want to head out now and go grab a bite to eat on the way?”
They ate at a steakhouse, and Zeke picked up the tab. “A parting gift,” he called it. Jack laughed and told his friend that he was acting as though they would never see each other again. Then again, Zeke didn't know about the box in Jack's jacket pocket—and didn't know that they never would see each other again.
Airport security was annoying, but the flight was uneventful—the best kind of flight, in Jack's opinion. He landed, got his bags, checked his cell phone. She wouldn't be getting off work for over an hour.
Jack's heart was pounding as he hailed the cab. He hadn't seen Cassie in over four months, far, far longer a period of time than they had ever gone without seeing each other since they first met.
He got into a cab outside the airport, and he had the notion that it was kind of a big first—the first time he had gotten inside a New York City taxi. He gave the address of the gallery Cassie worked at, and was whisked away.
He recognized the used car that she had bought outside, and decided that instead of going in to visit her, he'd play it cool, leaning against the car and waiting. Eventually, he saw her in the distance, and as she approached, she stopped, wondering who was leaning against her car. She strode closer, cautiously, then broke into a run. “Jack!” she shouted, as he ran to meet her and scooper her into his arms.
“Hey, beautiful. I missed you.”
Shock was evident on her face. “What are you doing here?”
“I missed you. So, how about you let me take the most amazing woman in the world out to dinner?”
She was oddly quiet on the drive there, and Jack finally called her on it. “Sorry,” she said. “Really. It's just been a really long day, and I haven't slept a lot, and there's a lot on my mind.” She smiled. “It is good to see you, though.”
There's something wrong, Jack thought.
“Is...there something wrong?”
“No, Jack. I'm sorry. I'm just thinking.”
They finally got to a restaurant, and Jack stopped halfway to the door. “Umm...I don't think I can wait any longer, actually.”
She raised an eyebrow. “To eat? We're right here.”
“No.” He took a deep breath. “Listen, Cassie, these last four months have been torture. I hate living without you, I hate just the idea of it, let alone the reality of it. You're...everything that's ever mattered to me. Everything that I never dared to dream for. There aren't words in the English language to explain how I feel about you...but I promise, if you'll let me, I'll spend every damn day of my life trying.” He knelt on one knee, his hand fishing in his pocket, and he brought out the box, opening it before her. “I know this isn't the most romantic place in the world, but...will you marry me?”
A tear fell from one of her beautiful eyes, and Jack realized that he was holding his breath, waiting for her to say 'yes', waiting for a smile to accompany that tear of joy and—
“I can't,” she said.
Jack swallowed. “What?”
“I'm sorry, Jack. I can't. There's...there's someone else.”
He closed the box, slowly stood to his feet, and put it back in his pocket. “I don't...understand.”
“I didn't...we haven't done anything. I wouldn't cheat on you. But...I love him. I'm sorry.”
Jack stood in silence for a moment, his mind oddly blank, until he finally said, “And...you don't love me anymore?”
“It's...not the same, Jack. I need him. I've been trying to think of a way to tell you...I didn't want you to get hurt. I wish you would have said something before you came.”
He opened his mouth. Shut it. Swallowed again. “Are...Cassie, I love you.”
“I know you do, Jack. And I love you. But...not the way I love him. I need him.”
Jack cleared his throat. More silence passed, and for the first time since they had met, it was very, very uncomfortable. “Pop the trunk, please,” he finally said.
“I need to get my bags.”
“I can drive you. You can still stay at my place.”
“Please just pop the truck, Cassie.”
She did, and he grabbed his suitcase and carry-on bag before heading in the opposite direction, ignoring her calls of his name. He found another cab and got in, asking for the nearest motel. The place was seedy looking, and had the option of renting out rooms by the hour. As Jack entered his room and dropped his bags, he thought that maybe it was the city, that it was just dirty, and corrupted things and people indiscriminately.
No. He couldn't blame a city for her choices. They were hers to make.
Over the next few days, she called several times. He never answered. He never got off the bed, except for when he needed to get a cup of water or use the restroom, or had to go downstairs to pay for another day. He thought a good few times about going to the store and buying some cigarettes, or maybe some liquor, but he didn't particularly feel like going anywhere.
He still loved her.
He lay in bed for the better part of four days, and the entire time, his thoughts were of her. Every time his phone rang, her name appeared on his screen, and he had to grit his teeth. Every time, it was harder not to answer.
Finally, he did answer, right before it would have gone to voicemail. He held the phone to his ear, silently.
“Hello?” she finally asked.
“Yeah.” His voice was hoarse, untested.
“How are you?”
“I'm fine. What's up?”
“I was hoping that...maybe we could talk?”
He coughed. “About?”
“Jack...I don't want things to be this way. I care about you. Can't...we at least try to stay friends?”
He sighed. God help him, he did want that. He couldn't stand the thought of losing her completely. “Yeah. I guess so. Um. I can come over, if you want.”
“Yeah, okay. I'm glad you're still in town. I'll see you soon.”
He showered, then dressed, pulled on jeans and a green tee shirt, before putting his hair into a ponytail. He walked downstairs and paid for another night, before he headed outside to hail a cab. Third cab in the big city, he said. I wonder when it'll stop feeling so weird?
Muggings are common in New York City. On this day, someone had gotten mugged only a block away, and that person was currently chasing after the mugger. As the criminal ran by, he gave Jack a mighty shove, launching him out of the way. Jack landed in the street, saw the bus.
There wasn't time to move.
The door creaked open once more, and again the strange being entered. “Are you ready?” It's voice echoed out once again.
Jack rubbed his head. “What...what happens, exactly?”
“You will be reincarnated. You will live again.”
“But...will I remember?”
“Your past life? No. Once you leave this room, those memories are gone.”
“Then...I can't leave.”
Jack had the idea that if the being was capable of showing a frown, it would be pretty large right about now. “You've spent many, many years in this room, human.”
“Do I have to leave?”
“No. But the pain of your memories won't fade here. A new life can bring about new happiness.”
Jack stared at the being, cold fire in his eyes. “Then you offer me two choices. I can stay here, and be tormented for eternity by my own memories, or I can forget about the woman I love and try to find happiness, maybe with someone else.” He turned to face the clock, ticking away seconds, minutes, hours, years, lives. “Please don't bother coming in to ask again.”
There was a pause. Then, “Very well.”
The robes swished against the floor, and the door clicked shut.