The New York Times bestselling novel that inspired the Oscar-winning movie!
- Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
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A blur of rushing images
"BEGIN AT THE beginning" is the phrase. I cannot do that. I begin at the end--the conclusion of my life on earth. I present it to you as it happened--and what happened afterward.
A note about the text. You have read my writing, Robert. This account may seem unlike it. The reason--I am limited by my transcriber. My thoughts must travel through her mind. I cannot surmount that. All the grains will not pass through the filter. Understand if I appear to oversimplify. Especially at first.
Both of us are doing the best we can.
Thank God I was alone that night. Usually, Ian went to the movies with me. Twice a week--because of my work, you know.
That night he didn't go. He was appearing in a school play. Once again--thank God.
I went to a theatre near a shopping center. Cannot get the name through. A big one which had been divided into two. Ask Ian for the name.
It was after eleven when I left the theatre. I got in my car and drove toward the golf course. The tiny one--for children. Cannot get the word through. All right. Spell it. Slowly now. M-i-n ... i-a ... t-u ... r-e. Good. We have it.
There was traffic on the--street? No, wider. Av ... e-nue? Not exact but good enough. I thought there was an opening and pulled out. Had to stop, a car was speeding toward me. There was room for it to move around me but it didn't. Hit my left front fender, sent me spinning.
I wasshaken but had on my belt. Not belt. H-a-r-n-ess. I would not have been too badly injured. But a van came up and hit the right rear fender of my car, knocking me across the middle line. A truck was coming in the opposite direction. Hit my car straight on. I heard a grinding crash, the shattering of glass. I hit my head and blackness swept across me. For an instant, I believed I saw myself unconscious, bleeding. Then came darkness.
I was conscious again. The pain was dreadful. I could hear my breathing, an awful sound. Slow and shallow with sporadic, liquid sighs. My feet were icy cold. I remember that.
Gradually, I sensed a room around me. People too, I think. Something kept me from being sure. Sidayshin. No, re-do. Spell slowly. S-e-d-a-t ... sedation.
I began to hear a whispering voice. I couldn't make out the words. Briefly, I could see a form nearby. My eyes were closed but I saw it. I couldn't tell if the form was male or female but I knew that it was speaking to me. When I couldn't hear the words, it went away.
Another pain began, this one in my mind, increasing steadily. I seemed to tune it in as though it were a radio station. It was not my pain but Ann's. She was crying, frightened. Because I was hurt. She was afraid for me. I felt her anguish. She was suffering terribly. I tried to will away the shadows but I couldn't. Tried in vain to speak her name. Don't cry, I thought. I'll be all right. Don't be afraid. I love you, Ann. Where are you?
That instant, I was home. It was Sunday evening. All of us were in the family room, talking and laughing. Ann was next to me, Ian beside her. Richard next to Ian, Made on the other end of the sofa. I had my arm around Ann, she was cuddled against me. She was warm and I kissed her cheek. We smiled at each other. It was Sunday evening, peaceful and idyllic, all of us together.
I felt myself begin to rise from darkness. I was lying on a bed. The pain was back again, all through me. I had never known such pain before. I knew that I was slipping. Yes, the word is slipping.
Now I heard a ghastly sound. A rattling in my throat. I prayed that Ann and the children were not around to hear it. It would terrify them. I asked God not to let them hear that horrible noise, protect them from that horrible noise.
The thought came to my mind then: Chris, you're dying. I strained to draw in breath but fluids in my windpipe kept the air from passing through. I felt thick and sluggish, trapped in density.
There was someone by the bed. That form again. "Don't fight it, Chris," it told me. I grew angry at the words. Whoever it was, they wanted me to die. I fought against that. I would not be taken. Ann! I called to her in thought. Hold on to me! Don't let me go!
Still, I slipped. My body is too badly hurt, I thought in sudden dread. I felt the weakness of it. Then a strange sensation. Tickling. Odd, I know. Ridiculous. But that was it. All over me.
Another change. It was not a bed I lay on but a cradle. I could feel it rocking back and forth, back and forth. Slowly, I began to understand. I wasn't in a cradle and the bed was still. My body was rocking back and forth. There were tiny, crackling noises deep inside me. Sounds you hear when pulling off a bandage slowly. Less pain now. The pain was fading.
Afraid, I fought to re-establish pain. In seconds, it was back, worse than ever. Agonized, I clung to it. It meant I was alive. I would not be taken. Ann! My mind cried out, pleading. Hold on to me!
It was no use. I could feel life draining from me, heard the sounds again, much louder now; the tearing of a hundred tiny threads. I had no sense of taste or smell. Sensation left my toes, my feet. Numbness started up my legs. I struggled to recapture feeling but I couldn't. Something cold was drifting through my stomach, through my chest. It stopped and gathered icily around my heart. I felt my heart thump slowly, slowly, like a funeral procession drum.
I knew, abruptly, what was happening in the next room. I could see an aged woman lying there, gray strands of hair across her pillow. Yellow skin and hands like bird claws; cancer of the stomach. Someone sat beside her, speaking softly. Daughter. I don't want to see this, I decided.
Instantly, I left that room and was in mine again. The pain was almost gone now. I could not restore it no matter how I tried. I heard a humming sound--yes, humming. Still, the threads kept tearing. I felt each severed thread end curling in.
The cold "something" moved again. It moved until it centered in my head. Everything else was numb. Please! I called for help. No voice; my tongue lay paralyzed. I felt my being drawing inward, totally collected in my head. Mimbins were compressed--no, try again. M-e-m-b-ranes. Yes. Pushed out and toward the center all at once.
I began to move out through an opening in my head. There was a buzzing noise, a ringing, something rushing very fast like a stream through a narrow gorge. I felt myself begin to rise. I was a bubble, bobbing up and down. I thought I saw a tunnel up above me, dark and endless. I turned over and looked down and was stunned to see my body lying on the bed. Bandaged and immobile. Fed through plastic tubes. I was connected to it by a cord which glistened with a silver light. Thin, it joined my body at the top of my head. The silver cord, I thought; my God, the silver cord. I knew that it was all that kept my body living.
Revulsion came now as I saw my legs and arms begin to twitch. Breath had almost ceased. There was a look of agony on my face. Again, I fought--to go back down and join my body. No, I won't go! I could hear my mind cry out. Ann, help me! Please! We have to be together!
I forced myself down and stared at my face. The lips were purple, there was dewlike sweat across the skin. I saw the neck veins start to swell. The muscles of my body had begun to twitch. I tried with all my will to get back in. Ann! I thought. Please call me back so I can stay with you!
A miracle occurred. Life filled body, healthy color suffusing the skin, a look of peace across my face. I thanked God. Ann and the children wouldn't have to see me as I'd been. I thought that I was coming back, you see.
Not so. I saw my body in a sack of many colors, drawn up by the silver cord. I felt a dropping sensation, heard a snapping noise--as though a giant rubber band had broken--felt myself begin to rise.
A flashback then. Yes, that's correct. A flashback; just as in the movies but much faster. You've read the phrase and heard it many times: "His whole life flashed before him." Robert, it's true. So fast I couldn't follow it--and in reverse. The days before the accident, back through the children's lives, my marriage to Ann, my writing career. College, World War Two, high school, grammar school, my childhood and my infancy. 1974-1927 every second of those years. Each movement, thought, emotion; every spoken word. I saw it all. A blur of rushing images.
To dream of dreaming
I SAT UP on the bed abruptly, laughing. It had only been a dream! I felt alert, all senses magnified. Incredible, I thought, how real a dream can be.
But something was wrong with my vision. Everything was blurred as I looked around. I couldn't see beyond ten feet.
The room was familiar; the walls, the stucco ceiling. Fifteen feet by twelve. The drapes were beige with brown and orange stripes. I saw a color television set hung near the ceiling. To my left, a chair--orange-red upholstery like leather, arms of stainless steel. The carpeting was the same orange-red.
Now I knew why things looked blurred. The room was filled with smoke. There was no odor though; I found that odd. Not smoke; I suddenly changed my mind. The accident. My eyes were damaged. I was not dismayed. The relief of knowing I was still alive transcended such concern.
First things first, I thought. I had to find Ann and tell her I was all right, end her suffering. I dropped my legs across the right side of the mattress and stood. The bedside table was made of metal, painted beige, a top as in our kitchen. Spell. F-o-r-m-i-c-a. I saw an alcove with a sink. The faucets looked like golf-club heads, you know? There was a mirror hung above the sink. My vision was so blurred I couldn't see my reflection.
I started moving closer to the sink, then had to stop. A nurse was coming in. She walked directly toward me and I stepped aside. She didn't even look at me but gasped and hurried toward the bed. I turned. A man was lying on it, slack-jawed, skin a pasty gray. He was heavily bandaged, an array of plastic tubes attached to him.
I turned back in surprise as the nurse ran from the room. I couldn't hear what she was shouting.
I moved in closer on the man and saw that he was probably dead. How come someone else was in my bed though? What kind of hospital would put two patients in the same bed?
Strange. I leaned in close to look at him. His face was just like mine. I shook my head. That was impossible. I looked down at his left hand. He wore a wedding band exactly like the one I wore. How could that be?
I began to feel an aching coldness in my stomach. I tried to draw the sheet back from his body but I couldn't. Somehow, I had lost the sense of touch. I kept on trying until I saw my fingers going through the sheet, then pulled my hand back, sickened. No, it isn't me, I told myself. How could it be when I was still alive? My body even hurt. Proof positive of life.
I whirled as a pair of doctors rushed into the room, stepping back to let them at the body.
One of them began to blow his breath into the man's mouth. The other had a highp--spell. H-y-p-o-dermic; yes. I watched him shove the needle end into the man's flesh. Then a nurse came running in, pushing some machine on wheels. One of the doctors pressed the ends of two thick, metal rods against the man's bare chest and he twitched. Now I knew that there was no relationship between the man and me for I felt nothing.
Their efforts were in vain. The man was dead. Too bad, I thought. His family would be grieved. Which made me think of Ann and the children. I had to find and reassure them. Especially Ann; I knew how terrified she was. My poor, sweet Ann.
I turned and walked toward the doorway. On my right was a bathroom. Glancing in, I saw a toilet, light switch and a button with a red bulb next to it, the word Emergency printed beneath the bulb.
I walked into the hall and recognized it. Yes, of course. The card in my wallet said to take me there in case of accident. The Motion Picture Hospital in Woodland Hills.
I stopped and tried to work things out. There'd been an accident, they'd brought me here. Why wasn't I in bed then? But I had been in bed. The same one the dead man was in. The man who looked like me. There had to be an explanation for all this. I couldn't find it though. I couldn't think with clarity.
The answer finally came. I wasn't sure it was correct--but there was nothing else. I had to accept it; for the moment anyway.
I was under anesthetic, they were operating on me. Everything was happening inside my mind. That had to be the answer. Nothing else made sense.
Now what? I thought. Despite the distress of what was taking place, I had to smile. If everything was happening in my mind, then, being conscious of it, couldn't I control it?
Right, I thought. I'd do exactly what I chose. And what I chose to do was find my Ann.
As I decided that, I saw another doctor running down the hall toward me. Deliberately, I tried to stop him as he hurried past but my outstretched hand passed through his shoulder. Never mind, I told myself. In essence, I was dreaming. Any foolish thing could happen in a dream.
I started walking down the hall. I passed a room and saw a green card with white lettering: NO SMOKING--OXYGEN IN USE. Unusual dream, I thought, I'd never been able to read in dreams; words always ran together when I tried. This was completely legible despite the general blurring which continued.
It's not exactly a dream, of course, I told myself, seeking to explain it. Being under anesthesia isn't like being asleep. I nodded in agreement with the explanation, kept on walking. Ann would be in the waiting room. I set my mind on reaching her and comforting her. I felt her suffering as though it were my own.
I passed the nurses' station and heard them talking. I made no attempt to speak to them. All of this was in my mind. I had to go along with that; accept the rules. All right, it's not a dream persay--per s-e--but it was easier to think of it as one. A dream then; under anesthesia.
Wait, I thought, stopping. Dream or not, I can't walk around in my patient's gown. I glanced down at myself, startled to see the clothes I was wearing when the accident occurred. Where's the blood? I wondered. I recalled an instant vision of myself unconscious in the wreckage. Blood had been spraying.
I felt a sense of eggs--no! Sorry for the impatience. E-x-u-l-t-a-t-i-o-n. Why? Because I'd reasoned something out despite the dullness of my mind. I couldn't possibly be that man in the bed. He was in a patient's gown, bandaged, fed by tubes. I was dressed, unbandaged, mobile. Total difference.
A man in street clothes was approaching me. I expected him to pass me. Instead, to my surprise, he put his hand on my shoulder and stopped me. I could feel the pressure of each separate finger on my flesh.
"Do you know what's happened yet?" he asked.
"Yes." He nodded. "You've died."
I looked at him in disgust. "That's absurd," I said.
"If I were dead, I wouldn't have a brain," I told him, "I couldn't talk to you."
"It doesn't work that way," he persisted.
"The man in that room is dead, not me." I said, "I'm under anesthesia, being operated on. In essence, I'm dreaming." I was pleased by my analysis.
"No, Chris," he said.
I felt a chill. How did he know my name? I peered at him closely. Did I know him? Was that why he'd appeared in my dream?
No; not at all. I felt distaste for him. Anyway, I thought (the idea made me smile despite my irritation) this was my dream and he had no claim to it. "Go find your own dream," I said, gratified by the cleverness of my dismissal.
"If you don't believe me, Chris," he told me, "look in the waiting room. Your wife and children are there. They haven't been told yet that you've died."
"Wait a minute, wait a minute." I pointed my finger at him, jabbing at the air. "You're the one who told me not to fight it, aren't you?"
He started to reply but I was so incensed by that I wouldn't. let him speak. "I'm tired of you and tired of this stupid place," I said. "I'm going home."
Something pulled me from him instantaneously. It was as though my body was encased in metal with a distant magnet drawing me to itself. I hurtled through the air so fast I couldn't see or hear a thing.
It ended as abruptly as it started. I was standing in fog. I looked around but saw nothing in any direction. I began to walk, moving slowly through the mist. Now and then, I thought I caught a fleeting glimpse of people. When I tried to see them clearly, though, they faded off. I almost called to one, then chose not to. I was master of this dream. I wouldn't let it dominate me.
I attempted to distract myself by making believe I was back in London. Remember how I traveled there in 1957 to write a film? It had been November and I'd walked in fogs like this more than once--"pea soup" is a good description. This was even thicker, though; like being underwater. It even felt wet.
Finally, through the fog, I saw our house. That sight relieved me in two ways. One, the very look of it. Two, the way I'd gotten there so quickly. That could only happen in a dream.
Suddenly, an inspiration came to me. I've told you how my body hurt. Even though it was a dream, I still felt pain. Accordingly, I told myself that, since the pain was dream-eng-e-n-dered, it wasn't necessary that I feel it. Robert, with the thought, the pain was gone. Which caused another sense of pleasure and relief. What more vivid, proof could one require that this was dream and not reality?
I remembered, then, how I had sat up on the hospital bed, laughing, because it had all been a dream. That's exactly what it was. Period.
I was in the entry hall without transition. Dream, I thought and nodded, satisfied. I looked around, my vision still blurred. Wait, I thought. I'd been able to dispel the pain, why not the vision?
Nothing happened. Everything beyond ten feet was still obscured by what appeared to be a pall of smoke.
I whirled at the clicking noise of claws across the kitchen floor. Ginger was running into the front hall; you recall, our German Shepherd. She saw me and began her rocking, bouncing run of joy. I spoke her name, delighted by the sight of her. I bent to stroke her head and saw my hand sink deep into her skull. She recoiled with a yelp and scuttled back in terror, bumping hard against the kitchen door jamb, ears pressed tight to her head, hair erected on her back.
"Ginger," I said. I fought away a sense of dread. "Come here." She's acting foolishly, I told myself. I moved after her and saw her slipping frantically on the kitchen floor, trying to run away. "Ginger!" I cried. I wanted to be irritated with her but she looked so frightened that I couldn't be. She ran across the family room and lunged out through the flap of the dog door.
I was going to follow her, then decided not to. I would not be victimized by this dream no matter how insane it got. I turned and called Ann's name.
No answer to my call. I looked around the kitchen, seeing that the coffee maker was on, its pair of red bulbs burning. The glass pot on the heater plate was almost empty. I managed a smile. She's done it again, I thought. In no time, the house would be per--p-e-r-me-at-ed with a reek of burning coffee. I reached out to pull the plug, forgetting. My hand went through the wire and I stiffened, then forced back, amusement. You can't do anything right in dreams, I reminded myself.
I searched the house. Our bedroom and the bathroom. Ian's and Marie's rooms, their connecting bathroom. Richard's room. I ignored the blurring of my vision. That was unimportant, I decided.
What I found myself unable to ignore was an increasing lethargy I felt. Dream or not, my body felt like Stone. I went back inside our bedroom and sat on my side of the bed. I felt a twinge of uneasiness because it didn't shift beneath me; it's a water bed. Forget it, a dream's a dream, I told myself. They're insane, that's all.
I looked at my clock-radio, leaning close to see the hands and numbers. It was six fifty-three. I looked out through the glass door. It wasn't dark outside. Misty but not dark. Yet how could it be morning if the house was empty? At this time, they should all be in their beds.
"Never mind," I said, struggling to get it all together in my mind. You're being operated on. You're dreaming this. Ann and the children are at the hospital waiting for--
A new confusion struck me. Was I really in the hospital? Or had that been part of the dream too? Was I actually asleep on this bed, dreaming everything? Maybe the accident had never occurred. There were so many possibilities, each one affecting the next. If only I could think more clearly. But my mind felt numb. As though I'd been drinking or taken sedation.
I lay down on the bed and closed my eyes. It was the only thing to do; I knew that much. Presently, I'd wake up with the truth: a dream in the hospital while under anesthesia or a dream in my bed while asleep. I hoped it was the latter. Because, in that case, I'd wake up to find Ann lying by my side and could tell her what a crazy dream I'd had. Hold her lovely warmth in my arms and kiss her tenderly and laugh as I told-her how bizarre it is to dream of dreaming.
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