This story is by M MacKinnon and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The old man who used to be Jack was dying.
Sweat broke out on his forehead as his heart rate increased. His chest tightened and his throat began to close. Panic and confusion set in; darkness spread and dizziness overwhelmed his senses. The pain was a vise, squeezing.
“Old Man! Get your lazy ass into the garage and start throwing out some of that junk, or I swear I’ll burn the place down and you with it!” Spittle flew from the old woman’s cracked lips as her voice rose to a shriek of rage.
The old man flinched, and the panic attack ebbed as quickly as it had come. Not dying. Not yet. He shambled into the garage. The truth was, he would do almost anything to get away from the old woman. She had taken him in long ago, made him her project, thinking to change him, but what was broken inside could not be fixed. Now she hated him—almost as much as he hated himself.
Once, when he’d been Jack, there had been another woman, one who made his heart sing…and a child. That was before his cowardice had ruined his family…crushed his soul and drowned it in a whiskey bottle. She had left him in the end; he had given her no choice. Whiskey was all he had now—his only friend; it drowned out the shrill voice of the old woman and deadened his memories, but that was enough.
Inside the garage he fumbled under a cabinet and retrieved another bottle of whiskey. Rheumy eyes surveyed the boxes that had collected in this space for years, and focused on an ancient rocking chair in the corner. The old man who had once been Jack reached up and pulled a chain, and a single bulb flickered to life. He picked up a box and sat in the chair, rocking. Time meant nothing anymore, just another step toward welcome oblivion. He opened the bottle and took a long swig. It burned its way down his throat, and he chased it with another gulp. Opening the box he found snapshots, yellowed with age.
He was looking at pictures of a young man. In many he stood next to a pretty woman, and in others there was also a baby. He took another swallow of whiskey. Settling in the rocking chair, he put the bottle down and studied the images. The chair rocked; his head lolled and his eyes closed.
Standing next to a lake, Jack skipped stones into the water. This was the most important day of his life…he was going to ask her to marry him. He was almost positive she would say yes, but his nerves felt like little electric eels swimming through his body. He had just been promoted; the time was right. He watched her approach, her steps light, her blonde hair lifted by the breeze. Her beautiful eyes were shining…for him. He couldn’t remember ever being this happy.
“Old Man!” the old woman’s screech pierced the musty air. “Are you going to stay out there all night?” He jumped, found himself in the rocking chair in the garage, and sighed. Only a dream.
The next day found the old man back in the garage. He sat, picked up the whiskey bottle, and drank for a minute before reaching into the box for another snapshot. Rocking, he stared at a picture of the young couple working in a garden.
He could feel the summer breeze, hear the buzzing of bees around the roses she had planted. The woman kissed him, and suddenly he knew why it all seemed familiar. He was the man in the picture. He was not Old Man, his name was Jack—yes, and the woman’s name was Dorrie! Joy bloomed in his heart at the recognition. He reached out to her…felt the touch of her hand…
The old woman’s voice shrilled, and he awoke to find himself sitting and rocking in the garage. Dorrie was gone. He was not Jack; he was Old Man, and he wept for his loss.
But something drew him to the garage, again and again. He drank, rocked, studied the photographs from his past. And he began to notice things about the dreams. They were chronological. The proposal, the wedding, the vacation where she had told him she was pregnant. The dreams were so vivid…as if he were there, inside them, living his old life all over again…he had felt her touch, much more real than anything in this shadow existence.
Icy fingers clawed their way up his bent spine. If the dreams were true, that day was coming—the day his life had ended, the day his weakness had destroyed it all. For two days the old man did not visit the garage, paralyzed by fear of the whiskey dreams. But he could not stay away.
They were celebrating. A new apartment in the city, a new baby whose name was Teddy. Life was spread before them like a painting, all hope and wonder and joy. But Jack knew that something dark was coming, an evil that he couldn’t explain…and the panic attacks began.
The whiskey bottle was empty. The old man searched the house, frantic, but the old woman had found all his hiding places. Defeated, he slouched into the garage and sat in the rocker. It was over. Without the whiskey, he was nothing. His head drooped in despair; he dozed…and images began to form out of the haze inside his head.
Little Teddy was a toddler. He was into everything, his mother’s sweetheart, his father’s pride. And Jack’s panic attacks increased and intensified as he waited for something that was coming, presaging the destruction of all he held dear.
The old man sat bolt upright in the rocking chair. Without whiskey, the dreams had still come! Were they somehow feeding on his memories? He wondered…were the dreams a connection to his past? Were they giving him another chance? A pathway of some sort? Was it possible for him to change what had happened? The old man realized that he had not had a panic attack since the dreams began; they belonged to Jack now. If he could somehow reach him—reach his younger self…
He waited until night fell and the old woman slept, his excitement a living thing jabbing and goading, driving him to the garage. He sat in the rocking chair and clutched the cardboard box on his lap, although he no longer needed the photographs. He looked at the empty bottle, wishing he had its comfort, knowing it could not help him now. He waited, palsied hands shaking with fear and hope.
Jack sat on the sofa in the living room, notebook braced on his knees. He was supposed to be watching little Teddy, but this proposal was due tomorrow, and it meant change for all of them. Maybe he would buy Dorrie that necklace she’d been eyeing; he grinned at the thought. Teddy waddled over and pulled at his father’s leg.
“Pay wi me, Daddy!” he demanded in his impatient three-year-old voice.
“In a minute, sweetie.” The child frowned and wandered off.
“Daddy, I’m ’tuck!” The voice came from far away. Jack looked up to see Teddy pressed against the big picture window, from the other side, his little face white with terror. How had he gotten out on the ledge? The notebook flew from Jack’s hands as he sprinted for the small open window on the side. He held onto the frame, put his foot out onto the ledge, and then looked down at the street…twenty stories below…and froze.
All he had to do was go out on that ledge and take the three steps to his son, his baby boy. And he couldn’t do it. The bile rose up in his stomach and his heart seized. His throat began to close and tears ran unheeded down his face. Teddy was counting on him…and he could not move. His son was going to die.
He heard a soft voice, papery with age, whispering on the wind that whipped around the corner of the building. “You can do this, Old Man.” Jack felt something shift within himself. He locked onto the ephemeral voice in his mind, reached deep and took hold of his fear, and stepped out onto the ledge. He inched his painful way to where the toddler stood, trusting eyes locked on his. Jack reached out a shaking hand, touched his son’s tiny one, and pulled him close, sobbing with relief. “Thank you,” he whispered.
The old woman shuffled into the garage. “Who’s there?” she called. In the stillness, a shabby chair in the corner creaked as it rocked gently. The old woman stared at an empty whiskey bottle standing next to the chair. Odd, she thought; where had that disgusting thing come from?
As she watched, the rocking slowed, then stopped.