Michael stared into the river watching the water flow and bubble as it traversed its course. He focused on his mirror image in the river. The gun pointed at his head wavered in and out of view as if a mirage. He then pulled the trigger. The only thing he felt next was a freezing cold feeling that engulfed his mind and body and then blackout. This was then followed by a different blackness.
He could feel himself fumbling around with his hands for his body but he could find nothing. It was as if he was swimming in air. His hands passed through his body each time he attempted to grab onto something. He then went into a panic and started to scream and scrambled around as if he was locked in some blacked out room.
Then came a blinding flash of light. And then a huge surge of energy that pushed him back, violently. Next he found himself on the river’s bank drenched from head to toe. Coughing for air. Sunlight invaded his sight and the sounds of dogs barking in the distance pierced his ears. He quickly stood up and stared at the gun. ‘Did he pull the trigger?’ He felt the wetness on his body and clothes as if to confirm that he had indeed fallen in. He noticed spats of blood on his shirt and remembered the bright light and the sudden push but he was confused.
He started to walk away as if nothing had happened. An old woman was beating a carpet outside one of the houses. A dog was yapping at the feet of a passing cyclist. Michael briefly glanced around the broken down Russian town wondering how on earth he had got here. Next he remembered the girl. He stopped. Thought of her body. Tried to block out his guilt and shame. The revulsion. He could see the wooden bridge ahead that he had crossed earlier and decided to head back to where he had buried her.
Michael could see the over-hanging tree where he had buried the girl. The long tail of leaves from the willow tree almost touched the ground, covering the place where she lay, as if complicit in the death. As he approached the mound over which he had placed the extra dirt he placed his hand outright as if he was some super-human character. His hand and arm started to shake. Michael himself was full of fear. It was as if his he was being struck by a bolt of lightning. The earth around the mound started to throw itself up and outwards.
Michael shielded his eyes with his other hand. He could see a hole starting to appear and then the dirt around the hole pile up high until it stopped. Michael walked over to the hole and could see the girl’s body as if she was asleep. It had only been this morning. So much had transpired since then. Michael raised his hand and after a few minutes the girl’s body started to jerk a little and then she gasped. The girl turned over and then reached for the top of the hole. She ran to a nearby tree like a frightened forest creature and then sat down pulling her knees up to her chest for protection. Her whole body was shivering as she started to take in the world around her once again.
Michael was sat on the floor looking at his hands wondering what was happening. He had been given another chance to live, but no soft-being, or bright white light explained things to him. Just a heavy push and a sense of duty to undo certain events. He felt like he was some twisted super-hero but his magic only worked in relation to this event. Deep inside he just wanted to return home. He scratched his head trying to recollect how on earth he got into this mess. He remembered the girl’s father. Her father’s misunderstanding when he saw them both lying there. And the knife he came charging forward with. A further struggle in which Michael used his gun thinking he was back in Afghanistan. Their screams of anguish and her pleas for help as she lay there bleeding and her father unconscious.
He walked over to the girl who by now had lapsed into some kind of catatonic state. He placed his hand on her shoulder for reassurance and she put her arms around him and held him tightly. Their relationship may have been a tentative one. Forged quickly through an online database that connected lost souls and disturbed minds in far flung places. Bringing together strangers desperate to escape poverty and misfortune.
Elga was only eighteen. Michael was forty five. Elga was alone and poor in a small town just outside Russia. There was no work for her father. Her mother had died during child birth and her father had taken to drinking. He would occasionally beat her and then cry with deep remorse afterwards. Her only escape was through the slow broadband link in the café down the road that connected Elga with a world of possibilities and the dating website allowing her to build a new identity and a chance to escape.
Michael was escaping for a different reason. He was trying to escape from the noise and images in his head. Gunshots and wounded terrorists. Nightmares that you couldn’t wake from. A future life of medication and mental uncertainty. He had been struggling since returning from Afghanistan. Diagnosed with PTSD. He had to leave town after being convinced that his friends were against him. He thought love would be able to heal him or offer him some brief respite to his mental misery. Take him back to the land of the innocence before he joined up. Before he fired his first shot.
They had both returned each other’s likes and winks. Then exchanged words. Hers in broken English. His words fired rapidly in desperation. A man in regression. Similar hobbies, and interests in music and food was enough. It was Michael who was willing to travel the distance hoping that the further he went away, the further away from his illness he could get. The part of his mind that would normally moralise the age difference was replaced with the burning excitement of love. A love so strong that it could medicate away his current predicament. Make him believe in a fantasy world that would last forever. Michael snapped back to the girl and the tree.
‘I don’t know what has happened but I should take you home. Your father will be worried.’
Elga was still in a state of shock. Her memories were still being slowly recalled. The recent ones of her embrace with Michael were still fresh in her mind as a positive experience. They both just held each other, eyes closed, not talking. Both believing that each of them were escape routes to better worlds. Michael’s escape from his troubled mind. Hers, a chance to cleanse herself of where she came from. The memories of her father’s struggle with Michael and the accidental gunshot were still buried deep in the psyche. They both stood up and started to walk back to Elga’s home. Michael was no longer bothered by her father. He had just escaped death and was intent on returning home. They approached the village where she had come from and walked towards her house. Elga opened the front door and went inside to find her father slumped down on the dining table. Not dead just drunk. They both stood in the sparse living room with the dust from outside floating in the bright stripes of sunlight that reached through the broken windows. Moscow was rich but most of Russia remained poor.
‘Will you stay?’
‘No. I have to return home.’
‘Will you be online?’
‘Of course I will. I’ll chat when I get back.’
They stood staring at each other wondering how on earth these two different worlds could collide so quickly in such a catastrophic way. But that’s how it went in this newly digitized world where every being was connected and the media turned minds into pharmacies that manufactured dreams as medication. Butterflies flapped their wings while the waves rolled quicker and faster across the internet. Michael grabbed a taxi to the nearest bus station and then took a bus to the nearest airport. After a few hours of waiting for flights he was back in that other world again. He felt as if he had just been transported to another planet for a thousand years and then beamed right back. The shops sold the same sweets. Chocolates near the till were at a reduced price. People queued impatiently checking their phones for unwanted downloaded messages. The boring minutiae of everyday existence.
Michael took the cab back to his house while trying to hold on to what had just occurred. A brief sojourn into madness. And then a gift from God. A chance to do good again. He walked upstairs to his bed room and opened his bedside draw. Inside were his dog tags and prescriptions. The medication that reminded him that all was not good with him and may never be the same again. That sadness he still wore like a dressing gown. The emptiness. But he had been given another chance. And that was a good thing. He turned off his bed-side light and went to sleep. Hoping for a dream to wake up in.