Hologram

It was a dark, rainy night. I was driving along a winding country road on my way home from a late meeting at Imagination, the company where I work as an electrical engineer. I was thinking about the challenging new project we were beginning, rebuilding the electric-power grid to integrate renewable energy and mobile storage. My mind was going through the list of requirements when I entered a sharp turn. Distracted, I didn’t slow down enough and the car’s tires lost traction. I hit the guardrail on the wrong side of the road. I breathed a sigh of relief and started the engine, glad to have survived but not looking forward to explaining the damage to my husband. My effort was thwarted when a pair of headlights appeared suddenly in the gloom, rounding the turn, heading straight at me. I pressed the horn futilely. The semi-truck hit my car and pushed it over the rail, my seatbelt pressing painfully against my shoulder as I was catapulted into space…

I woke up in a cold sweat and sat up in bed, mouth dry, shivering with the realization of imminent death. 

“What’s wrong?” Jake asked.

The clock said it was five-thirty a.m., only a half-hour until the alarm would go off. I swung my feet onto the carpeted floor and stood up before saying, “That was the worst nightmare of my life. I died in a traffic accident. It was so real.”

“What time is it?”

I didn’t answer, instead going to the bathroom to wash off the sensation of death. I smelled coffee brewing by the time I finished my shower. I still ached as if I’d somehow survived the accident when I entered the kitchen, my head throbbing. 

“Feel better?” Jake asked, handing me a cup of coffee. We both drank our coffee black.

“Sure, I guess, but that was unreal. I mean, I was there, as if it really happened. My clothes were still damp from running to the car in the rain. I had been at a meeting on a project we’re planning to put in a bid for. Do you think I’m just anxious about getting such a big job?”

We sat down as the toaster browned the bagel we would share, my half to be covered with avocado, his with peach marmalade. 

“What else could it be? You aren’t about to be fired, are you?”

I shook my head and we kissed briefly, before our mouths would be contaminated with bits of bagel and fruit. Jake and I had been married six years, after living together for two years, after dating for a year. Neither one of us was quick to make personal commitments. But he was growing impatient with my reluctance to have a child, an idea that didn’t frighten me; I simply needed more time to solidify my career. That’s why we gave each other quick pecks instead of passionate kisses. We finished our breakfast, brushed our teeth, got dressed, and went to the parking garage to get in our cars and head to our separate jobs. Before climbing into my Honda, I smiled at him and waved.

“Drive carefully,” was his response.

*

I was lying in a bed, tubes running from my arms, aching from head to toe, my mind dulled, scared and confused. A stranger, an old man, stood next to me with an old woman. 

“How do you feel, Mom?”

I was too frightened to speak. Who were these old people? My left hand raised, shaking uncontrollably as I muttered, “Give me a mirror.”

An oval hand mirror appeared, held in front of my face, revealing a shrunken countenance that couldn’t have been me. My hand fell. I gasped, “This can’t be real…”

Awakened from my nightmare, I jumped from the bed and staggered blindly to the bathroom, swiping at the light switch. Afraid of what would be revealed by the light reflected from the mirror’s surface, I dared to look. I gasped for breath, relieved to see that it had only been another nightmare of my death, then I was overcome with retching. But nothing came out. I was staring into the mirror when I heard Jake’s voice.

“Close the door, Kacey, I’m trying to sleep.”

I slammed the bathroom door and slumped to the floor, struggling to breath. My stomach hurt as if I’d been punched. I could barely move, so I sat a while, glad to be alive despite the pain. 

*

“What the hell is going on?!”

I looked at Jake but didn’t recognize him. After two months of dying in my dreams, I didn’t know myself. I was a stranger in my own mind, whatever had been my life obliterated by my nightly encounters with death. 

“I don’t know. Maybe I’m losing my mind. The pain dissipates within a couple of hours and I feel fine all day, until the next morning. Maybe I should go to the doctor?”

He shook his head. “You aren’t suffering from a brain tumor. I read about it. Your symptoms are all wrong. I think you should talk to Pastor Genoa. You’re probably having a psychosomatic response to the dichotomy of reconciling your career and—”

I held my hand up to stop him. “You have a point, Jake. I do want to have a family. Believe me, I’ve been struggling for years with that. I like Mark Genoa, he’s a good pastor. I’ll talk to him next week.”

*

“Dreams figure prominently in the Bible, as one method God uses to communicate to his people, such as the dreams of Abraham, Joseph, and Daniel; even the adversaries of God’s chosen people were contacted through dreams, the Egyptian Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar for example. Despite the importance of dreams as a means of communicating with God, it’s easy to misinterpret an experience we all have nightly as a message from God. From what you’ve said, these are persistent dreams with a clear message of your death, not calling for action that would advance His work on earth. Do you know what I mean?”

“Sure, Pastor Genoa, I’m not dreaming about the end of the world or even a catastrophe, unless my death is seen as a disaster. I guess I’m the only one with that perspective.”

He smiled knowingly. “Your death would be a great loss to all of us, but probably not the sort of thing God would warn the world of. Also, your dreams are not the same. If you dreamed of the same death every night, you could take precautions to avoid it, and thus live a full life doing God’s work. But there is no central theme to your dreams other than your death in innumerable ways.”

“So, you don’t think God is sending me a message?”

His head shook slightly and he changed the subject. “Do you mind if I ask whether you and Jake are having any marital issues? I’m here to help in any way I can, to help you identify family strife before it becomes a problem.”

There it was again, this time from my pastor. “We want to have a family but I’ve been putting it off, wanting to establish my career. There’s nothing wrong with waiting, is there; after all, I’m only thirty-four.” 

He thought a moment before answering. “In one dream, you died alone on a bleak and dreadful night but in another you died an old woman with grown children at your bedside. Do you think you are conflicted about having a family? Young women in your situation have successful careers as mothers…might you be hiding something even from yourself?”

Just like that, he’d put his finger on it. I had to confess what was the likely source of our marital strife. “Three years ago, I became pregnant but insisted on a medical abortion, which made Jake very unhappy. He saw it as God’s will but I… I wasn’t ready. I think he may resent my decision, made over his strenuous objections. Do you think I’m having nightmares of dying because of guilt?”

He thought a moment before replying. “Your situation is not unique, but your family is, so let’s not be too quick to leap to judgement. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Do you think Jake would agree to a counseling session, an opportunity to talk freely about whatever’s on his mind?”

Pastor Genoa had shifted the topic from my dreams to my marriage in a heartbeat. He was right of course. About Jake’s resentment of my decision, but we hadn’t delved into why I was having those dreams. Maybe his experience told him that I was imagining many different scenarios, like having a family or being an old maid, but I was married. I wouldn’t die alone. Still, it struck me as curious that Jake didn’t appear in any of my dreams. 

*

I convinced Jake to join me for a counseling session with Pastor Genoa, a licensed counselor and therapist. We aired our grievances and the blame landed squarely on my shoulders; I didn’t want to have children, for whatever reason. So, I had to deal with that, one way or the other, before Jake and I could straighten out our marriage, and I could hopefully stop having dreams about dying, whether alone or with others present.

*

Dr. Shera Knight wasn’t as easy to talk to as Pastor Genoa, not because she was a black psychologist, mostly because I didn’t know her and wasn’t as comfortable speaking to her openly as with a spiritual leader. I didn’t even know if she was a Christian. 

“I’m not sure why I’m here, Dr. Knight,” I began.

“Dr. Genoa—you do know that he had a Ph.D. in theology, don’t you?”

“He never talked about that. He isn’t much for boasting.”

“Well, Dr. Genoa suggested that you may be suffering from a mild form of a personality disorder. He didn’t elaborate, leaving that for us to determine, but his summary of your sessions suggests that you are obsessive-compulsive. Mind you, he never said that and it’s only my preliminary diagnosis and—”

I interjected, “He’s—your right about that, but why would my being too organized and controlling make me not want to have children? Wouldn’t I just want to control them too? I mean, isn’t that what a soccer mom does? Why would that make me dream about dying?”

“You have a lot of questions and I don’t have the answers. Let’s start by getting acquainted. First, are you comfortable speaking to me, an African-American woman, about private matters, your thoughts and feelings, baring your soul so to speak?”

I nodded. “Not so much as with Pastor Genoa, but I don’t have a problem with your ethnicity. After all, Pastor—I mean Dr. Genoa—recommended you, so I have no problem with trust. I’m more concerned about being treated as a test subject, if that makes any sense…” I stopped talking, feeling that Dr. Knight wouldn’t understand where I was coming from. 

She smiled knowingly. “You are not a test subject. I admit that every psychologist has an agenda, something we are interested in, but that never takes precedence over helping the patient. Helping you get through this is my highest priority.” She paused and looked at me, her brown eyes peering into my soul, before she added, “Why don’t you tell me the real reason you are here.”

I had been doing some internet research on dreams, neuroscience, quantum biology, and a host of related topics. I shared my conclusions with a skeptical Dr. Knight, ending with a supposition that I was experiencing a quantum leap in consciousness. 

I got a CT Scan at her insistence, which showed no abnormalities. 

Our sessions continued until I grew tired of talking about myself because whatever was driving my dreams wasn’t due to an abnormality in my brain or my upbringing. My personal research had continued and our conversations became more divergent as I obsessed more on quantum biology and its ramifications for my mental state. I didn’t need to speak to a psychologist, a fact she finally admitted.

“You aren’t suffering from any known personality disorders, Kacey. Your brain is functioning normally.” She paused, shook her head as if confused, and added, “I think Dr. Genoa referred you to me because of my interest in paranormal psychology. However, I don’t think you have presented clear signs of paranormal neurological activity; in other words, your case doesn’t fit into existing models of psychology, neither abnormal or paranormal. What I mean is that—”

I leapt from my chair and exclaimed, “You never told me about your interest in parapsychology! You’ve been leading me on, pretending that I had a normal disorder, maybe something from my childhood. I can’t believe you did that. I never should have trusted you!”

She explained the difference between her clinical commitment to her patient and her research interests to my satisfaction. I retook my seat as she elaborated. 

“I think you should speak to a physicist who—”

I was on my feet again. “What is going on? All of a sudden, you think there’s a physical basis for my dreams?!”

She waved me back into my chair. “I have worked with a reputable researcher, who is very interested in a hypothesized phenomenon called quantum noise. The field of quantum biology is progressing very fast and conjectures are flying fast and furious, but Dr. Chris McGuire isn’t a dilettante. He may be able to help you either understand of what may be causing your unremitting dreams of death, or suggest a no-doubt controversial hypothesis of its cause. Either way, I encourage you to contact him. We should also continue our sessions, to help you digest what he may propose. He is not a psychologist and he’s a very difficult person to deal with, but…this is a controversial and unproven treatment for your condition. Let’s not get our hopes up but keep our fingers crossed.”

“How do I contact him?”

*

I checked Dr. Chris McGuire out and found his credentials to be in order so, rather than emailing or calling him, I flew to Miami to attend a conference on quantum biology at which he was presenting a paper about reducing reality to a point. Jake didn’t accompany me because it was a spur of the moment idea; in fact, I was planning to return the next day. I read several of Dr. McGuire’s papers and, although the math wasn’t particularly difficult, I didn’t see why Dr. Knight had suggested I speak to him. A holographic universe seemed light years from what I had decided was a simple case of extrasensory perception of alternate realities. Realizing that I was grabbing at straws—clever ideas I’d found on the internet in this case or seen in movies—I decided to follow my therapist’s advice.

His talk was interesting, delivered in an animated fashion, with the usual typos and oversimplified bullets littering too many slides for his fifteen-minute presentation. There were lots of questions, mostly critical of his mathematical theory, which I found to be the most consistent part of his talk. I was too confused to ask any questions but, fortunately, he would be presenting a poster on a related topic. That’s when I would introduce myself. I remained in the same room for the entire session and noticed that he had plenty of difficult questions for the other presenters. He gave as well as he got. 

They were serving beer and wine during the poster session, so I got a glass of cheap white wine and wandered towards his poster. He was arguing with an older man about the parameters required to encode multi-dimensional information onto fewer dimensions. His poster suggested that the cosmic microwave background recorded the generation of the universe as a hologram. His older adversary was arguing that the cosmological constants had the values they did because that led to the existence of humans; the Anthropic Principle wasn’t an oversimplification of reality but a nod to the fact that we existed, an there were fundamental quantities determining the character of the universe. Dr. McGuire’s position was that they were imaginary parameters, created to fit our observations into our limited mathematical models. The debate ended in an impasse, the old man wandering off muttering to himself.

Before I could introduce myself, Dr. McGuire said, “I’m going to get another beer. I’ll be right back.”

“I’ll join you,” I blurted. I finished my wine and added, “I think I’ll need a fresh drink to understand your poster, even if you explain it yourself.”

I introduced myself while we waited in line at the bar. I skipped the reason for my presence at the conference, which could wait until a better opportunity. 

“So, you’re an electrical engineer. What brings you to a conference filled with loonies?”

We made our way back to his poster as I explained that I worked on the power grid, designing control systems, but that I had a personal interest in his work. I wasn’t ready to admit that I was the biggest looney in attendance.

He explained his ideas to me, with frequent interruptions by others, as I sipped my wine. His basic thesis was that the existence of parameters in all of our equations was irrefutable proof that we were on the wrong track. There was no way to describe physical reality with the constraints imposed by such crude models without them. He became very animated when I mentioned all the parameters required to create an electric current, much less a functioning microchip.

“Just what the hell is permittivity?”

I grimaced and replied, “A parameter.”

“Just because our complicated models produce useful devices doesn’t mean they’re correct,” he retorted. 

I saw an opportunity to steer the conversation to a topic of personal interest. “I see your point. Let me ask you this, if we are living in a holographic universe with no parameters, where does the individual fit in? Are we real or nothing more than an image, projected from the mind of God?”

“That’s one way of putting it, assuming that you’re referring to God as the enervating force behind the universe and not the deity of superstitious religions. We share a perceived reality because we—our essence—is contained within the same…the same bundle of information which determined from the beginning of time how we would develop, I mean how…” He jabbed his finger at an image of the CMB and continued, “For all we know, that speck in the CMB contains everything that has happened within the Milky Way in the last thirteen-billion years, including you and me standing here talking.”

I surprised myself by smiling shyly and saying, “And no parameters.”

A middle-aged woman interrupted us and, while she was talking to Dr. McGuire, I thought about his proposition. It wasn’t inconsistent with how Pastor Genoa presented the Bible. It made more sense to me than the idea of a Big Bang sending all those elementary particles spinning into space, obeying the laws of physics to become matter and energy. But that didn’t help me. I needed to tell him the reason for my attendance at the conference.

“Do you think dreams are real?”

He studied my face for several moments before answering. “Everything is real, including what we imagine. However, we haven’t evolved the neurological ability to grasp reality in its entirety, so we have glimpses, snapshots, bits and pieces of the picture, totally lacking in clarity and consistency. We call these fragments thoughts when we’re awake and dreams when we’re sleeping.”

I felt like a teenager, a groupie, suddenly enthralled by Dr. McGuire’s intellect and energy. I was more sexually aroused than I’d never been in my life and I wasn’t self-conscious about it. I started to respond but we were interrupted by the middle-aged woman, who had been listening to his explanation.

“Why don’t you join us for dinner Kacey and we can discuss Chris’ speculation further.”

I nodded emphatically, wanting nothing more than to be near Dr. McGuire. 

I joined a party that grew until there were more than ten people. I was worried about where we might eat with such a large group. My fears were alleviated when the woman who’d invited me to dinner announced that she’d made a reservation at a restaurant that served an eclectic blend of styles. My relief turned into excitement when Dr. McGuire introduced me to everyone as if I were his date. I forgot about Jake and my marriage, overwhelmed by the atmosphere of camaraderie I felt, always finding Dr. McGuire at my side. He even made a point of seating me next to himself at the stylish restaurant.

*

“Tell us about your dreams,” the woman who was apparently the matron of the group said, facing me as if I were a student. Her name was Sam.

The topic hadn’t been forgotten in the fifteen-minute walk to the restaurant. At first timid to speak about something so personal, I opened up when Chris—it was an informal group—encouraged me to share my data as he called my dreams. My usually reticent personality dulled by wine, I described a few of the deaths I had dreamt, to the angst and awe of my audience, expanding on details when prompted, Chris at my side, touching me gently now and then. No one had heard of anything like my experience although Sam mentioned several studies that reported similar phenomena experienced by shamans in many cultures. 

The analysis of my case proceeded as dinner was served, plates shared between us, and everyone expressed their opinions. Chris and I focused on the shakshuka and chicken pitas. When everyone had had an opportunity to express their opinion, he shared his.

“Kacey is the first datum to support the holographic principle that doesn’t come from an anecdotal story collected in the scientific hinterland. She is an engineer and, despite her Christian beliefs, she has shared her data with us, without disguising the facts within her personal faith. After listening to everyone’s comments, I am convinced that we are entering a new era of human evolution, a time when we will become aware of reality, although we won’t be able to prove this hypothesis for years. Furthermore, her case suggests that holographic noise is more than a conjecture. I propose right now—mark the date and time—that all of reality is contained within each one of our brains, possibly within our DNA, and we have only to find the key to unlock the mysteries of the universe. Her experiences are the result of holographic noise, expressed to her consciousness in dreams. I challenge everyone at this table to find a way to measure this noise and discover who we really are.” 

He had stood up during his monologue, but now he retook his seat, and took my hand, holding it up like a prize. I was overwhelmed. Apparently, Chris was often inspired during roundtable discussions, so his pronouncement was followed by a vigorous conversation. I had come across the idea of holographic noise during my casual research, but he explained the idea while we finished our meal. I had another glass of wine.

When the discussion had settled down, Sam challenged his conjecture. “That is unsupportable speculation Chris, and you know it. You are grandstanding, like you always do.”

He held his hand up in defense. “No, I’m not using hyperbole, Sam. Kacey’s experience is consistent with the anecdotal stories told by spiritual people from around the world and throughout the centuries. We all heard her detailed accounts of death; they were just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine it, she dies every single night! This is bigger than quantum physics. I’ve been inspired to find a way to investigate this phenomenon.”

We had dessert and Chris convinced me to have some warm brandy, before the group broke up for the night. I was standing outside the restaurant, confused, uncertain where I was, planning to call Uber, when his voice brought me back to reality.

“Would you like to spend the night with me?”

Relieved, I nodded emphatically. “Thank god.”

*

I woke in a strange bed in a strange place, lying next to a stranger, but Chris wasn’t a stranger. He was my lifeline to reality, so how could he be strange? I remembered every detail of the previous evening, especially when we’d made our way to his hotel room and…and made love, because that was how I’d felt at the time. It was a necessary act, to finalize my understanding of my place in the cosmos. It had been an unworldly experience.

“Tell me about your dream.”

His blue eyes were hovering expectantly inches above my face.

“Since I’m already an adulteress, can’t we make love again before doing all that science stuff?” 

“You’re married?”

I nodded shyly. “I forgot to tell you, with all the excitement, and hoping to find a solution to my dilemma, I got carried away. Please forgive me and make love to me again. I’m not over you yet.”

He shook his head. “First you tell me how you died last night.”

I sighed with frustration. “It was my twenty-first birthday. I went skiing with friends from a college I never attended—in fact, I never skied in my life—and someone, a guy I was dating named Lenny, convinced me to try a black diamond slope because I’d caught on pretty fast. I was really good after a couple of lessons. Anyway, I did well so we did another slope, the whole gang of strangers, who I knew well in the dream, doing this several times, really hard slopes. I guess we did one too many, maybe I was tired or my luck ran out, but I went over the side and fell…I felt my bones snapping before I died. I lived long enough to feel a lot of pain.” 

I gave him a sarcastic smile and added, “Now, can we get back to what’s foremost on my mind at this moment…in this reality? I have a splitting headache and I hurt everywhere, but I think you can distract me from the aftereffects of another traumatic death.”

*

I didn’t tell Jake about my encounter with Chris, partly because I was unsure what to expect from the dinner I’d shared with a group of people he had described as loonies. I checked my email constantly, hoping for some kind of follow-up, a contact, something. 

My prayers were answered when I received an email from someone called dreamer57, inviting me to a palm reading at their studio in Nashville. This person had been given my name by Dr. Samantha Adams and, after reviewing my case, was willing to meet me in person. I couldn’t believe the news. A contact, someone who didn’t speak in scientific theories, but actually read palms, obviously legitimate if Sam had arranged a meeting. I was elated. I shared my anticipation with Jake.

“So, you’re going to Nashville for a palm reading, is that about it?”

“I certainly am. I’m having regular counseling from Pastor Genoa and Dr. Knight, and they haven’t offered a better course of therapy for whatever is wrong with me. They’ve both expressed support for what I’m doing, and it would be nice if you did the same.”

“This isn’t like you, Kacey, to go galivanting around the country in search of a miracle cure for bad dreams. Next thing I know you could be using opioids and we all know—”

“Narcotics aren’t going to help me, Jake. No one has mentioned them, except you, just now. Desperate times call for desperate measures, not narcotics and addiction. I am going to exhaust every possible treatment to either end my nightly death or learn to deal with it. It would help if I knew I had your support…”

He finally looked at me. “Fine. Go to Nashville to talk to a psychic if that’s what you want to do, but you’d be better off spending more time praying, or maybe having a family…”

*

I parked my rental car on the damp street, and stumbled up the broken sidewalk, slipping on wet leaves, finally climbing a narrow wood staircase that led to a bright blue door. I raised my hand to knock but my act was interrupted when a disembodied voice said, “Come in, Mrs. Aston. I’ve been expecting you.”

I knocked anyway before opening the door to find myself in a small salon, furnished with two armchairs, a coffee table, and end tables adorned with decorative lamps. A map of the world hung on one wall, punctured with thumb tacks. A worn rug partly covered the freshly painted wood floor. I closed the door and stood motionless, feeling as if I were in a holy place, in the presence of God. A short, stout woman who looked Native American appeared in a doorway.

“Good morning, Mrs. Aston, I’m Halona Descheene. I am full-blooded Cherokee, the daughter of a shaman, my lineage goes back too many generations to count, all spiritual leaders of my people.” She stepped into the room and beckoned me to take a seat in one of the chairs.

I sat down and said, “Then, I guess you’re the right person for me to talk to or do whatever it is that you do…in the spiritual realm I mean. This affliction is driving me crazy, destroying my health, my marriage, upending everything I’ve worked so hard for.”

Instead of sitting down, Halona started boiling water on a hotplate I hadn’t noticed before. “Let’s have some tea,” she said, depositing leaves into a glass decanter. I wanted to ask if those were coca leaves but didn’t, afraid of insulting my host.

Still standing, waiting for the pot to boil, she asked, “Do you have something personal that I could examine?”

I started to remove my wedding ring but was stopped by her firm voice. “Something that predates your marriage, maybe a photo?”

I dug in my bag and retrieved my wallet, producing a photograph of me with my parents when I was a baby. I held it out and she took it from my grasp, before examining it closely for several minutes while I waited impatiently. Halona wasn’t in a hurry. When the teapot began to scream, she dropped my precious memorabilia on the table and poured water into the decanter. I scooped up the photo while she was distracted and slipped it back in its proper place. She placed the tea decanter on the table and produced two small teacups without handles, before sitting down.

“I don’t think I can help you, Mrs. Aston. Your spirit is too strong, greater than mine, the most powerful I have ever encountered. I should be asking you for guidance. I’m sorry…”

I hadn’t come to Tennessee to be told how powerful I was. “Let’s have some tea and break down your concerns, point by point, before we make any hasty decisions.” I took it upon myself to fill our cups, before adding, “I may be spiritually powerful, Halona, but I am a ship without a rudder. I need your guidance to keep from running aground in the tempest.” I held my cup up and she reluctantly did the same.

“I will try to give you guidance, but I don’t know…”

We sipped together, then I set my cup down and explained what I’d learned from Chris and his fellow metaphysicists. Halona was familiar with the Holographic Universe hypotheses so she nodded knowingly, occasionally asking for clarification on minor issues. I finished my monologue with, “So, do you think I am somehow manifesting the cosmos in my dreams, through my DNA as Chris—Dr. McGuire—imagines?”

She took my trembling hands in her meaty palms. Fear and anticipation were juxtaposed on her chubby countenance for several minutes, during which I felt nothing, not even a sense of my psyche being invaded. Finally, Halona released my hands and fell back in her chair exhausted. 

I refilled our cups with the strong, aromatic brew.

She sipped from hers before saying, “My earlier sense was correct. You are Nunnehi, one of the Great Fathers of the world. I never dreamed that immortals were still among us…you have forgotten your own origins, probably because of spending so many millennia in a mortal body, witnessing the tragic downfall of the Cherokee despite your efforts to save us. It is difficult to speak of such things in English, Mrs. Aston, but you…you are not bound by space and time.”

This was a big leap for me to grasp. “What does that mean?!”

She refilled our cups and emptied hers before responding, “The Nunnehi—beings like you—were nothing more than myths and legends passed down orally for many millennia by the shamans of the Cherokee. This is the twenty-first century. I know that your race was never meant to save only my people. You are here to save humanity in its direst moment. I just never imagined it would occur during my life…”

After my conversations with Chris and his collaborators, I accepted Halona’s story and my place within it, but I didn’t see myself as a messiah; that was probably her interpretation of something she’d sensed, something scientific instruments couldn’t measure. Maybe she was right and I was simply an immortal imagining a death I would never suffer; or maybe Chris was correct, and I was seeing multiple, divergent realities; maybe I had chosen one and that was the one I was living, bringing him and Halona along for the ride. I wasn’t satisfied with that dichotomy. There was no reason, under either of these scenarios, that I would be aware of my status as one of the Lords of the Universe. The entire situation was ludicrous, and to think I’d let myself be drawn into such a fantasy world, where I was deciding between alternate fantasies; but the dreams were real and both a spiritual leader I trusted, and a psychiatrist who spoke openly, approved of the path I was following. Nevertheless, I doubted they would be so supportive after Halona’s revelation. It was obvious to me that centuries of scientific progress hadn’t improved on an oral tradition of ghosts and goblins.

I had several questions for Chris McGuire, besides asking him to help me forget my dreams for a few hours. For one thing, if I was living in a holographic universe in which my dreams had become a window to other worlds, why hadn’t I found a way to get off the treadmill? Another burning question was: Why was I experiencing these alternate realities now? I hadn’t suffered any brain trauma; nothing unusual preceded the onset of this phenomenon, which didn’t even have a point; no messages and no clues to the meaning of life, nothing. 

I insisted on taking Halona out to dinner, to get to know each other better because, as I explained to her, I would be visiting her regularly in the future unless that would make her uncomfortable. By the time I dropped her off at her studio/apartment, we were friends and she was no longer calling me Mrs. Aston or one of the Great Fathers. I had also learned more about the oral tradition surrounding the Nunnehi, about her culture and how their spiritual beliefs weren’t so different from my own. 

*

I opened my eyes to find Chris’ blue orbs gazing into my soul. Before he could ask about my dream, I volunteered a summary. “It was rather benign, as dying goes. I slipped on some ice at an apartment I didn’t recognize, although I was about seventy, maybe older. It didn’t look like a retirement community, no handrails or anything. I cracked my head on a step and died instantly. Can you make me feel better now?” I pushed the sheets down, baring my body as openly as I’d shared my soul.

Chris and I had become lovers after our encounter at the conference in Miami. I naturally turned to him after my disconcerting visit with Halona in Nashville, skipping returning to work, making excuses about a sudden death in the family; what counted was that I was with Chris, my rock-star science hero. I shared my feelings with him as he did his best to distract me from my rapidly escalating problems.

“Oh god…oh god, I love you Chris, even if you don’t feel the same…oh god, that feels so good, even if you don’t feel it like I do, I don’t care because you are the key, oh god, do that again!”

“Shut up and let me think,” he retorted as he fulfilled my request. 

I was still shivering when his face reappeared between my thighs. He pulled himself up to face me and blurted, “I love you too Kacey, even though you’re a married woman. Goddamnit! I swore I would never have an affair with a married woman, but then you showed up. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a—you tricked me when we first slept together and now, I’m lost, confused…”

I breathed a deep sigh of relief, holding him close, clinging to my lifeline. Emboldened by his ambiguous support, I made a wild conjecture that felt right at that moment. “I think we’re a lot more alike than either you or Halona thinks. I feel something lying here with you that I’ve never felt before. I have a superpower…don’t get me wrong, my talent is loving you, not flying or any of—”

His finger against my lips stopped my foolish rant. “We’re going to talk to Jake and sort this out. I won’t live like this, sneaking around at night, meeting clandestinely. I have to make it right by him, at least not backstab him…”

It was my turn. “We’ll come clean but I’m not letting you go, Chris. You’re the only person who can help me determine if I’m crazy or immortal.” My grin must have given me away.

“You’re immortal all right, but I don’t want to risk your life to prove it because I could be wrong. No experiments with immortality, except maybe as I get older and you remain young and healthy. Deal?”

One thing no longer bothered me. “I wonder what our children will think about that?” 

*

I accompanied Jake to a retirement party for one of his coworkers the day before Chris was going to fly down to settle things. Our affair wasn’t really his fault; after all, I’d forgotten about Jake during that incredible evening in Orlando and subconsciously tricked Chris into falling in love with me. And now, he was so invested in whatever was happening that I felt like a lab rat, devoted to the scientist experimenting on me. Chris and I had had several other meetings with his colleagues for official interviews and even experiments in a sleep center; and now he was coming to Alexandria to announce his feelings for me to my current husband, as if asking my father for my hand in marriage. It was overwhelming. I was sure that Jake suspected our marriage was about to end because I started sleeping in the guest room after my trip to Orlando. I didn’t think Jake and Chris would get in a fist fight or anything, but I was definitely nervous about their meeting. I was going to make this Jake’s and my farewell celebration, a good time we would remember for years to come.

Jake didn’t drink much at the party because he would be driving home later. He always drove because he didn’t trust my driving. He also wasn’t much of a drinker; a glass of wine with dinner and a couple of beers on the weekend sufficing; thus unburdened, I let myself go. I was nervous to say the least. 

People tend to be more judgmental when they’re sober. Jake was like that when the conversation turned to everyone’s plans for retirement. Alvin, the guest of honor, was planning to stay right where he was, but start taking long walks to become familiar with the town he’d lived in for thirty years. The next-oldest person, a thin woman named Maggie, shared her vision of moving to Florida to escape the cold and the endless chores associated with owning a home. Her husband had recently died, so I understood her better position better than Alvin’s. The participants in the game were apparently rank-ordered by age, so it took a while for Jake’s turn to come. I was pretty tipsy, having forgotten how many glasses of wine I’d consumed, not to mention a couple of gin and tonics shared with Maggie and some other women. I was playing my role, our last party together, smiling and holding his arm to keep myself steady as much as to give him spousal support. I was glad I’d drunk too much when Jake started with the past-perfect conditional and imperfect subjunctive tenses in the same sentence. He had some complex issues to resolve.

“If you had asked me how I would spend my retirement six months ago, I would have said we’d be living in the Caribbean, maybe Barbados or Belize, but that was before my wife began having nightmares. Now, I don’t know what to expect, maybe one of her dreams of death will come true and I’ll be spending my retirement alone…always thinking about a trip to the Caribbean with Kacey.”

Determined to have a good time and go with the flow, I smiled nervously, welcoming the interest of the other retirement plan contestants, reminding myself that this wasn’t the time to announce our imminent divorce. The mention of death had aroused a great interest in me personally, so I shared everything that had happened, regaling my audience with stories of horrible deaths as well as quietly passing into oblivion. 

“Did you get some help?” Alvin asked.

“Oh yes,” I replied conversationally, a fresh glass of wine in my hand. “I am currently following a rigorous treatment regimen, including therapy sessions with my pastor, a psychiatrist, a genuine Cherokee Shaman with an impeccable pedigree, and a neuroscientist specializing in paranormal phenomena.”

The room exploded in a hubbub of disparate conversations centered on me. It was a nice feeling, to be the center of attention. That thought made me laugh and then the hiccups appeared. I knew they would pass so I sipped wine. When everyone was assured that my hiccups weren’t a sign of my imminent death, a possibility I hadn’t dreamed of yet, Maggie dared to query me.

“What is the consensus of all these experts?”

I scoffed and waved my hand, spilling a little wine on the carpet. “I’m either losing my mind or—” I laughed, blowing wine out my nose, sneezed a few times to a captivated audience, and finally finished my thought. “I may be immortal.”

The room was silent.

Finally, Jake said, “That would at least explain why you don’t want to have a family.” 

That was uncalled for, but I didn’t lash out, too drunk to care about his fantasy retirement. I nodded and shrugged at the same time, trying to indicate my awareness of a potential problem with having a family, remembering my jest to Chris. I replied in a noncommittal voice, “Probably, because if Halona Descheene—my Cherokee Shaman therapist—is right, I don’t remember my previous lives in detail. I could forget who my children are!” My laughter was joined by others. I was on a roll, enjoying my fifteen minutes of being the life of the party for the first time in my life.

Another guest, a young woman who hadn’t had her turn to fantasize about retirement, spoke up with a concerned expression. “I can see that you’ve done everything possible to diagnose whatever’s happening to you but…well, do you think it’s a supernatural power, like…like God or maybe Satan, who’s trying to tell you something?”

I dismissed her naïve question with the flip of my free hand. “Been there, done that. My pastor, who is a licensed therapist, has assured me that my dreams aren’t a message from God. And they aren’t an enticement to do evil, delivered by Satan. My psychiatrist assures me that my dreams are not symptoms of a behavioral or psychiatric disorder.” I took a drink from my wine glass and threw my free hand in the air as I added, “I’m off the charts!” A little wine spilled and I grimaced, apologizing for my clumsiness.

“Don’t worry about it, Kacey,” I was assured by my hostess. “It’s obvious that you’re a very intelligent young woman, tormented by something neither faith nor science cab explain…this must be terrifying for you.”

My wine glass was taken from my hand by someone and I hugged Willena, catching her off guard in my sudden, emotional embrace. I held her and felt her arms wrap around my shoulders. I cried. My tears turned into a torrent, a flood of fear, pain, anticipation flowing down my cheeks as I clung to this older woman for dear life. She shared my emotional release, squeezing me, her hand caressing my head, telling me it would be okay, as long as I remained true to myself. She was right about that. I finally lifted my head from her shoulder, smiled tearfully, and reluctantly stepped back from her comforting presence. 

“I don’t know what came over me. I’m sorry for spoiling Alvin’s retirement. I just felt so comfortable with all of you, I guess I got carried away…”

I was assaulted by everyone, except Jake. They shared their recurring nightmares, their fears of failure, dissolution, even death, with me as they hugged me, holding me as tightly as I had held Willena. I felt their fear in a way I hadn’t empathized with anyone before in my life. Having admitted my anxieties, I was capable of sharing theirs. I didn’t understand why Jake was staring at me as if I’d shared his deepest secrets to these strangers because I hadn’t mentioned him once during my monologue. I smiled, still trying to make this a great last date, took his hand and kissed his cheek, a kiss goodbye. I wouldn’t be comfortable pretending to be his wife when Chris arrived the next day, but I liked Jake; maybe I had loved him once upon a time, but that time was gone. 

Jake and I were the last to leave. I was drunk but he was as sober as a church mouse. 

I relaxed, knowing I wouldn’t be trying to follow those winding, poorly marked roads back to Reston. I was about to take a nap when Jake’s voice, dripping with sarcasm, jolted me awake. 

“You should get an Oscar for that performance. My coworkers were standing in line to kiss your hand, as if you were Jesus, and I can’t imagine how your crazy story will impact my position within the company. Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” 

Fully aroused by his strong words, I sat up and faced him, blinking to reduce the double vision, which was a waste of time because I was really intoxicated. “Why don’t you explain?” I asked, hoping to nap while he ranted about everything I had just shared at the party. I had revealed my innermost fears to complete strangers, but apparently my action had only been a ruse in Jake’s mind. 

“You have continually undermined me in our dealings with my coworkers. Do you remember last year, at the Christmas party? You maligned my greatest accomplishment of the year, calling it a hack job to cover a technical error that had grown into a marketing problem. Do you know how that felt to me?”

I was drifting in and out of consciousness by this time, unable to formulate a coherent response, so I remembered my vow to myself. “I’m sorry about that, Jake. I guess I got carried away. I’m really sorry…”

I dozed for a few minutes as Jake’s voice rambled through time and space. I was awakened when my seat belt cut painfully into my shoulder. Time slowed to a crawl. Fully conscious, I screamed when the car tumbled off the road as if we were in a dryer. My head was bouncing around, hitting the roof, colliding with Jake’s skull. His eyes were open and dull, his brain unconscious from the beating it was receiving. Probably dead. As if following a script, my hand found the seatback lever and I reclined fully, escaping the collapsing roof as it crushed Jakes head against the steering wheel, spewing a fountain of blood on me. I hung on to my seat but it didn’t help. I was tossed around as much as Jake, sharp metal tearing at my flesh, turning him into sushi, swords plunging into our bodies as if wielded by the devil. I was in hell.

Our tumultuous careening down the steep slope was stopped suddenly by a large tree. It was dark and raining, just as I’d dreamed months before, but reality had continued beyond my death. I hadn’t died. I was alive, trapped in a twisted car with my husband’s lifeless arm draped across my chest, covered in his blood. I was hanging from my seatbelt, the crushed roof inches from my face, the passenger window a slit beckoning to me. I could move my legs, the front of the car having suffered minor damage, a significant deviation from the head-on collision of my dream. 

I smelled gasoline. Motivated, I released my seat belt and winced as I fell onto a sharp piece of the roof, before struggling through the jagged aperture that had once been the passenger window. I felt my flesh tear as I crawled towards freedom, away from the time bomb that ensnared me. I was struggling to get my hips through the window frame when I was plunged into the depths of hell.

My waist was twisted painfully against the door frame by the blast, flames engulfing me, burning my clothes and searing my flesh. I ignored the agony and pulled myself out of the pyre, running then falling, sliding down the slope, cold rain extinguishing the flames behind me as I came to a stop at the edge of a cliff. Pain motivated me to get to my hands and knees in the rain, lean against a tree, struggle to my feet, before I realized that I’d held onto my phone during the entire ordeal. I glanced down and, lit by the dying flames of our car, saw that my pants and shirt—even my underwear—had been burnt by the inferno. A thin ribbon all that remained of my bra, jeans reduced to a few wet and blackened shreds clinging to an elastic strap around my waist. I felt like Eve in the Garden of Eden, covered by a fig leaf, only I was in Hell.

I collapsed on the wet ground, shivering in the cold rain, and called 911. After explaining my situation, I made a point of asking them to bring something for me to wear. That request confused them; I probably shouldn’t have mentioned it, but I was more than a little freaked out and not thinking clearly. 

My second call was to Chris. 

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