A terrible screeching sounded out from the prototype MRI machine in the Emsie St. Juarez Pediatrics ward. The volume of the discordant squeal rose in both pitch and volume until it was an atrocious shriek, physically painful to hear, before muting with an unsettling pop as the electrical breaker finally blew out. All of the passersby within a several block vicinity of the facility cringed, many with their hands subconsciously rising up in a gesture to protect their ears—and then the power went out across all of Jefferson county.
Thirteen-year-old Tabitha Moore lay silent and completely still within the device when the backup power came online within the MRI room. A wispy blanket of acrid black smoke poured out of the enormous prototype contraption, and immediately choked the now very warm room—the fire alarm went off a moment later. The intense pain of Tabitha’s sudden head trauma had only just begun to subside, and it felt like she’d been staring in a daze at blood droplets dappling the floor of the Williams family lakehouse only moments ago. Staring now in disbelief at her own now too-plump hands, Tabitha Moore sagged beneath an anguished, horrifying sense of loss.
She was back to the beginning all over again.
No—oh no, no, NO! Tabitha sobbed, quaking within the hospital gown she found herself caught in. No. No. No no no. Oh God please, no. You can’t—you can’t take all of that away from me. I can’t do this again. You can’t take all of them away from me. YOU CAN’T.
“Jesus fricking Christ!” The door across the copper-lined wall shielding of the room burst open and a technician rushed in, followed by a furious Mr. Moore. Tabitha’s ears still rung from the otherworldly clamor of the MRI going berserk, but she still heard her father yelling the same exact words as last time. “You get her the frick out of there!”
Every unwelcome sight her teary eyes took in confirmed the worst. The blue orthopedic cast with Alicia’s artwork on it—with her close friends signatures on it—had vanished like it never existed at all, revealing a pudgy but unbroken wrist and hand. Gone too were the lean, graceful muscles she’d honed over the summer, her hard-earned trim physique now once again just soft, doughy fat. It was the least of her worries now, but it still took all the self-control she could muster to not frantically claw and tear at the excess rolls of blubber with her nails.
I-I can’t. I can’t. I-I can’t DO this again!
Several figures pushed through the swirl of smoke and managed to pull the sliding examination table out of the enormous cylindrical aperture of the prototype MRI. It was unbearably hot now, and to her horror, in the waning light of the smoke-filled room Tabitha discovered that her fingers now appeared bloated, looking like stumpy-looking sausage appendages.
In fact, she felt grotesquely swollen all over, her tissues... expanded, like a marshmallow microwaved for too long. Terror took over. Her breath hitched into tiny, useless gasps for air as she began to hyperventilate, and as the people were trying to help sit her up she realized her entire body was now shrunken, misshapen, her center of gravity agreeing that something was terribly wrong with her.
Eyes stinging with tears, Tabitha looked up into the worried face of her father, and quietly began to have a nervous breakdown.
There was little for her to say on the trip back home, and much of it passed by Tabitha in a blur. Her existence had only been rolled back by six months this time, but the significance of each of those lost moments took a heavier toll than losing the forty-seven years had before. She was shell-shocked and completely disconsolate, and none of her father’s increasingly concerned questions or strained assurances could penetrate through the raw trauma of the ordeal. Tabitha shrunk over against the passenger door, curled up her loathsome portly body as much as she was able, and wept quietly into her hands for the entire ride.
After they arrived back in Sunset Estate’s lower park, Mr. Moore parked his truck and then got out, crossing around the vehicle to pull open Tabitha’s door and envelop her in a hug. She discovered she was still just full of more tears to cry, and she did, sobbing and wailing while she hid her face against his shoulder just in front of their mobile home. The sun was setting by the time she calmed down, but she was reluctant to follow him inside.
It was bad.
The interior of the trailer was the same awful mess it had been the last time; the carpet was dark and greasy, dirty dishes were abandoned everywhere, the air was so stagnant and thick with body odor it was stifling, and it was dark. The windows were once again all covered, all offending outside light smothered out with the blankets Mrs. Moore had tacked up over them. Not only did Tabitha have no motivation to clean everything up all over again—the feeling of being trapped in here again nearly worked herself up into another crying fit.
Already trapped in this repulsive fucking body again, Tabitha thought, glaring down her fat arm at the hand with its chubby digits with a scowl. Least my wrist’s not fractured anymore. Just… it’s so hard to even feel positive about that. And... my head is still pounding. Was my head hurting THIS much from the trampoline fall last time?
Mrs. Moore looked fifteen pounds heavier than Tabitha remembered, the first obvious indication she’d seen that the future Shannon Moore had gradually been losing weight up through Halloween. Not that it fucking matters now. Even moreso than a bit heavier and dumpier-looking, her mother looked resigned; defeated. The unattractive frown lines in her face just beginning to droop into jowls, and her eyes were dead and uncaring.
It’s… it’s not fair. The gripping sadness Tabitha felt at seeing her mother back like this again was unbearable, a melancholy so intense that it staggered her, and she forced herself to hurry past Mrs. Moore. Things were so different. Everything was getting so much better. I’m—I’m gonna lose it. I’m losing it. I can’t do this again.
Dinner was baked beans and toasted bread.
“Hope you’ve learned yer lesson ‘bout those trampoline jumpers,” Mrs. Moore shook her head in dismay. “Yer lucky you didn’t break yer neck.”
“Yes, Momma,” Tabitha nodded, not daring to meet her mother’s eyes.
“Hmph,” Mrs. Moore let out a disapproving snort and then continued to noisily fork baked beans into her mouth.
Somewhere, buried deep beneath the fatty tissue of this TRAILER TRASH awful HAG of a woman... is a former model and aspiring actress, Tabitha thought. It was difficult to believe. How did she come TO THIS? Is it like a role she assumed and just kind of lost herself in? Is any of this FEIGNED? Or, is this just the real Shannon Moore, when you’ve stripped away all of her hopes and dreams, when she’s fallen far, far past caring about anything or anyone?
The prospect was a little sickening, and Tabitha tried not to think about what must have happened to Shannon Moore all those years ago on the film set of Lucas. She honestly didn’t ever want to think about that, or think about anything, right now. A migraine was continuing to grip her head in a phantom vice, and she was completely burnt out, emotionally exhausted from all of the recent misery. Rather than thinking or speaking, Tabitha carefully ate her portion of baked beans.
Each forkful she removed from her helping, however, revealed a familiar cream-colored plate with a pink floral motif—the very same one her father had angrily dashed into a wall what felt like some months ago. The recognition brought her nausea back in full force, and she shoved the plate back from her place at the table and made an awkward run down the hallway towards the toilet to throw up.
I—don’t want to do this again, Tabitha thought as she hurled. I REALLY don’t want to do this all again.
“Tabitha sweetie?” Her father called over. “You okay?”
“I threw up,” Tabitha reported in a hoarse voice, stumbling towards the sink with her gaze averted. She refused to see her reflection in the bathroom mirror right now.
“You threw up? Are you okay?”
“...I threw up,” Tabitha repeated in frustration, dabbing water from the faucet across her face and then reaching for her toothbrush. “I’m okay. I just threw up. I don’t feel good.”
“Well… alright, Sweetie,” her father sounded unsure. “You finishing yer dinner?”
Tabitha accidentally looked up into the mirror, and a teary-eyed overweight goblin of a little girl glared back at her. It wasn’t a face she ever wanted to see again, and it took some presence of mind to keep her trembling hands from reaching up and clawing at her fleshy cheeks in dismay. She hated seeing this overweight face again, hated it, HATED IT.
“No,” Tabitha all but snarled out in anger. “I’m not finishing my dinner.”
Rather than beg off attendance like she had the previous time, Tabitha decided to just go to school the day after her MRI. After all, she was certainly in no hurry to bend over backwards cleaning house all over again. Instead she got dressed, disinterestedly chewed her way through a bowl of slightly stale, generic-brand Apple Jacks—without milk, the Moore family didn’t seem to keep milk stocked in the fridge—and then shuffled off to the bus stop in her grotesque, fat little body. When it arrived, she climbed aboard, unnoticed and ignored by the other middle-schoolers.
How many times am I going to go through this… this fucking FARCE? Tabitha wondered. Her mental state was deteriorating to begin with, and her spirit flagged further as she watched the morning scenery crawl by outside the bus window. The first time she’d left a life behind, Tabitha had been sixty years old—she’d had acquaintances rather than actual friends, and she didn’t leave behind anyone she was terribly attached to like a pet or a significant other.
This time, the friendships she’d fostered with Alicia and Elena had been painfully torn away from her, as if those experiences never existed. Losing them made her heart ache in ways she would never be able to put into words. The difficulties and happenstance she’d gone through getting close to her mother weren’t something she thought she could duplicate naturally either, and picking apart their complicated relationship with what she knew now felt… wrong.
I’m... not going to make it, am I? Tabitha thought with a bitter grimace, resting her forehead on the back of the bus seat in front of her. If this THING I’m caught up in is going to repeat itself over and over, if it’s some kind of time loop… I’m not gonna make it. All the foreknowledge and experience in the world won’t spare me from severe clinical depression. Maybe SOMEONE could become hardened enough, jaded or DETACHED enough to cope with all of this—but it won’t be ME. Isn’t all of this mess way, WAY fucking worse than where I started from last time?
Her mood continued to plummet upon arriving at Laurel middle school, and after climbing down off the bus, her unenthusiastic shuffle became totally discouraged plodding. Middle School. Middle school. Tabitha slowly picked her way towards the portable where Mrs. Hodge taught language arts—by first bell, the other students passing by made her feel like a squat stone stuck in the flow of a lively stream. When she stepped up into the classroom this time, however, she recognized several faces.
An eighth-grade Elena Seelbaugh turned a derisive glance away from her when Tabitha looked over. The blonde teen instead leaned over to whisper something to her friend... Carrie.
Tabitha knew it wasn’t rational to expect anything else from the situation, but the raw hurt that dropped on her was a crushing weight upon her psyche, and then the feeling of betrayal all but buried her. Clenching her teeth and blinking back tears, Tabitha waddled the overweight, rotund body she detested more than anything over to her assigned seat and climbed into it, gripping the edge of the desk and trying to reign in her emotions.
It was impossible.
Anger and shame rolled over her like waves, crashing again and again into jagged despair and sending up the tumultuous surf and spray of agony. Tabitha hadn’t quite taken a moment to dwell on the implications of her current situation until now, but she was increasingly sure that she’d been violently murdered by Erica Taylor at the Halloween party. Violently murdered. What felt like yesterday to her. The sheer shock and horror of it all weren’t something she felt equipped to cope with.
Are lives really so… fragile? A really good hit to the temple with a baseball bat, and it’s just… OVER? Just like that? It’s suddenly all over? It certainly seemed logical, but she found herself in disbelief and denial all the same. Hell—I wish it really WAS over. I’d rather it all be over than live through it all a THIRD FUCKING TIME.
“Good morning, everyone,” Mrs. Hodge called out. “After announcements and pledge of allegiance we’re going through the last parts of our review section, and then I’m going to be giving out a language arts practice test. The practice test doesn’t count towards your grade, but it does include all the material that’ll be on the actual final, so I want you to please take it seriously. Some of you boys still have homework you haven’t turned in, so—”
And CARRIE! Tabitha fumed, unable to bring herself to care about eighth grade language arts. Carrie tried to lure me out of the party, to where I’d be alone with Erica! She HAD to have known what Erica was going to do!
The shock of returning back to May of 1998 again had occupied her until now, but when morning announcements came on over the school intercom, Tabitha was playing the Halloween party back over again in her head.
It should have been safe—the party was SUPPOSED to be a safe place to meet Erica, Tabitha scowled. A lot of people were there. Officer Williams was there, there was ADULT PRESENCE at the party, even if they were mostly hanging out over in the kitchen and away from us kids. Erica SHOULDN’T have attacked me.
Frustrated, Tabitha struggled out of her seat to stand for the pledge of allegiance, but she didn’t recite the words along with everyone else, or even glance towards the flag.
But… she DID attack me. Assault me. Physically—with a WEAPON, even, Tabitha frowned. It hadn’t been expected. Erica had been characterized as petty and vindictive, but always clever, always one to kill with a borrowed knife, so to speak. Erica fueled rumors and set others against her, but she never used her own hand, never acted directly.
Wait. That’s not entirely true, Tabitha’s frown deepened. She DID push me off the trampoline. Either her, or her sister did? Damn—wish I could remember more.
After working the events over in her mind for most of Mrs. Hodge’s review session, the only conclusion Tabitha could arrive at... was that there was something serious going on within the Taylor family. Pushing her off the trampoline and threatening her had been done with the intention of separating her from Ashlee—and, they’d been successful at that. In her original life, Tabitha never tried to meet up with or hang out with Ashlee again. By the time of her next iteration, she’d barely even remembered the girl, choosing instead to put the uncomfortable situation completely out of her mind and focus on other tasks.
But, they kept on bullying me at Springton High, and no one could really figure out WHY, Tabitha thought, her splitting headache only further dampening her already foul mood. So, when I point Mrs. Cribb in the Taylor’s direction, they of course find the bruises all over Ashlee. Since no one was keen on keeping me in the loop, I only have Erica’s words to go on—something about me taking Ashlee away from them. But, who actually got involved—who did Mrs. Cribb make that call to?
Did she contact a social worker associated with her Springton school district stuff, or some small-town branch of child protective services? Tabitha wondered. Is there a DIFFERENCE, back here in 1998?
In the future, she’d been on friendly terms with a very put-together woman named Mrs. Bethany at the Springton town hall, who managed those various local programs. Tabitha didn’t know who—if anyone—was assigned to that equivalent role back here in this time period. Just like the specifications of safety harnesses at the production plant, every little protocol and bylaw government offices dealt with changed all the time, in seemingly asinine little bureaucratic ways.
If Mrs. Cribb had called the police, Officer Williams would’ve—or should’ve—probably had an inkling about Erica having this potentially dangerous reaction. Right? Instead, from what Elena mentioned the night before, and from that look Mrs. Williams gave Clarissa... it’s like they were expecting Erica to be… to be cowed, to be eager to apologize, to try and absolve herself of blame before the expulsion hearing.
Which OBVIOUSLY was not the case, Tabitha grimaced. It was getting hard to concentrate with the way her head was pounding. If Erica had—
Drops of blood pitter-pattered down upon the print out of the practice test in front of her. Tabitha froze, staring at them for a long moment, and then touched a hand to her face to discover her nose was bleeding.
What the—? Tabitha stared at her bloody hand in confusion, then cupped it beneath her face to try to catch the flow of red already dripping down her chin. This didn’t happen last time. What did I do differently?
“Uhhh, Mrs. Hodge?” Elena’s hand shot up, interrupting the silence within the classroom. “Tabby’s bleeding!”
“Oh, ew!” Someone nearby exclaimed.
“Tabitha?” Mrs. Hodge hurried down the aisle of desks towards her. “Tabitha—are you alright?”
Tabitha glanced up at Mrs. Hodge’s concerned expression in a daze, and then over to Elena. For a brief, fleeting moment, it felt like Elena spoke up because she’d been watching her— keeping an eye on her because she cared, because that’s what friends did. The blonde didn’t look worried about her at all, however. Instead, Elena wore an incredulous look of disgust, and then turned again to share a smirking grin with Carrie and her other middle school friends.
“Um... no,” Tabitha finally said, feeling her eyes water as blood filled her palm and then began dotting across her shirt. “No. I am not alright.”
“Momma?” Tabitha asked. “Momma, can I talk to you?”
“What do you want, Tabby?” Mrs. Moore asked with an aggravated sigh, not bothering to glance away from the television set.
“I… want to give up,” Tabitha said in a quiet voice.
“Give up?” Mrs. Moore retorted. “Give up on what?”
“I think I want to give up on living,” Tabitha said, feeling her eyes water. “I just. Momma, I just don’t want to live anymore.”
“That’s not something to ever joke about, Tabitha Anne Moore,” Mrs. Moore warned, turning her fat neck to glare towards her daughter. “What on God’s green earth brought this on, all of the sudden? Just what’s happened now?”
“I-I don’t want to be here,” Tabitha cried softly, covering her face. “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to fight you again. I can’t.”
“Fight me?” Her mother said with a deep scowl. “Tabitha, you’re not making a lick of sense “C’mon then, out with it. What did you do?”
“I spoke with proper diction,” Tabitha sniffled. “You said it was awful—that I was talking like a robot. I, I wasn’t pretending to be a robot, though. I was trying to be, um, trying to be a cool Tabitha. One who, who had it all together. I was just... I’m awful at it.”
“Robot… ? What are you talking about?” Mrs. Moore demanded. “Tabby—”
“I exercised like crazy—had it all planned out,” Tabitha sobbed. “It was, it was six hours of exercise, every day. I lost a third of my body weight before high school. I was pretty. Pretty almost like you were. It wasn’t healthy at all—messed up my menstrual cycle, ended up making everything at school worse somehow, and it—and it, it made you think I was trying to become an actress?! Like you were back then. Momma—how does anyone really fucking think I could ever be an actress?! Me, an ACTRESS?! It’s—it’s completely fucking IMPOSSIBLE!”
“Tabitha—?” Mrs. Moore looked completely bewildered.
“I tried. I tried,” Tabitha wailed. “I tried really hard, okay? W-with the shooting, and, and with Alicia and Elena. With school. With you. And you know what happened? I’m pretty sure I got murdered. She—she killed me, I think. Because of… because of Ashlee. I didn’t remember Ashlee. I was, I was just going to try to get by, to um, to improve myself and get by until I could do something about Julie. But—”
A dizzying wave of migraine pain swept through her, and Tabitha put a hand to the side of her head, swaying on her feet, as a trickle of something seeped down out of her nose. Dabbing at her upper lip with her fingertips revealed they were wet with blood again, a lot of blood, and Tabitha’s eyes went wide. Terrified, she looked past her bloody fingers towards her mother to see—
—that Mrs. Moore was facing the other way, looking off towards the TV screen.
“...Mom?” Tabitha asked.
“What do you want, Tabby?” Mrs. Moore asked with an aggravated sigh, not bothering to tear her gaze away from the television set.
“Mom, I’m—d-did you hear anything I just said?” Tabitha asked in disbelief, feeling a foggy sense of deja vu ripple through her so strongly that it was almost disorienting. Something was wrong, but it was hard to put her finger on exactly what it was.
“Hear what, now?” Mrs. Moore grunted, still not looking her way.
Confused, Tabitha stared back down at her fingertips. They were clean. There was no blood on them. Rubbing her eyes with both hands—the edge of her orthopedic cast scraping slightly against her eye socket—Tabitha realized that there were no tears anymore, either. They’d vanished, as if she’d never been crying at all.
Wait a fucking second! Tabitha reeled, staring incredulously at the familiar blue cast that was back on her left hand.
“This—this isn’t real,” Tabitha exclaimed, hunching her shoulders in and whirling to double-check her surroundings.
“What?” Mrs. Moore asked in an absentminded tone.
“This is all—none of this is real,” Tabitha asserted. “Either it’s not real, or I’m dreaming, I’ve gone crazy, or—it doesn’t matter, does it? Am I… what, am I dead?”
“What on God’s green earth are you talking about, all of the sudden?” Mrs. Moore scowled, turning her fat neck to glare towards her daughter. “Tabitha—you’re not making a lick of sense.”
“W-was any of it real?” Tabitha demanded, clutching at her cast. It had split along one side, tufts of bandage were poking out where the rigid fiberglass had broken, and it hurt. “Any of it at all? Where did—”
“Tabitha Anne Moore—”
“Okay. Okay. Um. Mom, you’re not real—you’re probably just... memories?” Tabitha rationalized, clutching at her head again as another wave of pain gripped her skull. Blood ran freely down her face again, and parts of the living room flickered and then went dark. “Jumbled up memories. Or—ow ow fuck this hurts—or something? Impressions, hallucinations? There’s, there’s fucking inconsistencies everywhere! The windows were all blocked off with blankets just a minute ago—now, they’re not.”
Ignoring the dream apparition that looked like her mother, Tabitha paced back and forth in place, struggling to figure out what the hell was going on. It was inordinately difficult to think at all with her head pounding like this. Dreams aren’t this clear, you can’t think this clearly in dreams. Brain damage? From getting hit with the bat?
Tabitha paused, looking around again through the pain. Some of the distant mobile homes outside the window went dark and disappeared, like assets dropping out of render distance in a video game. The longer she tried to stare across the street out the window, the worse her headache got—until her eyes painfully unfocused. It was like trying to peer through one of those magic eye illusion pages to see something with depth pop out, but instead of a hidden image appearing, the blankets were tacked back up and covering the windows again.
Oookay, fuck, Tabitha swore, blinking rapidly. Usually scenery discrepancies happen like, between camera cuts. Or, or at least with a gentle fade effect, or something. Actually catching them just hurts your fucking brain?
“Th-that’s it, then,” Tabitha whimpered in a small voice. “I’m already dead, aren’t I?”
“You’re not dead,” a soft voice chuckled, “but you’re not in a good place, either.”
Where the kitchen counter should have been, Julia now sat across from her in one of the booths of a familiar family restaurant, clutching at a mug of coffee.
“Julie… ?” Tabitha murmured in breathless surprise.
A moment ago, she’d been in the mobile home at Sunset Estates, but locales had shifted and swirled around her in that dreamlike quality, and now she was sitting in the Perkins off one of the Interstate 265 exits. This was a memory; this was where Tabitha met Julia for the last time, having driven out to meet the woman because Julie happened to be passing through Kentucky on her way to Pennsylvania. It was hard to keep from being emotional at the reunion, even if she knew it likely wasn’t real.
“Of course I’m not real,” Julie leaned in with an exasperated smile. “What’d you think, that I was gonna impart some touching words, some wisdom or motivation or something from beyond the grave? What kind of cliche is that?”
“Um,” Tabitha swallowed. “No, I just… Julie—I really miss you.”
“Ah,” Julia gave her a sheepish smile and glanced down at her coffee. “Yeah. I am sorry about that.”
Wearing a stylish black and red motorsports jacket, Julia had a pale, almost sickly complexion, and hair that had been dyed black at some point but now showed several inches of dirty blonde at the roots. The sound of her words always had a unique Julie quality to them, ethereal and a little raspy, high enough in vocal register that her voice always seemed right on the edge of cracking. Julie’s wide, mischievous smile was her most expressive feature, but the smile never seemed to extend all the way up to her pale blue eyes, which only ever seemed to look tired and listless.
“So, this isn’t real,” Tabitha said in disappointment. “You’re not real.”
“Sure seems like a dream to me,” Julia observed, gesturing with her mug towards where the dining area of the Perkins transitioned into the living room of the mobile home. “I mean, hell—it is great to see you again, though!”
“Yeah,” Tabitha nodded slowly. “It’s just… yeah. I-I really wanted to save you.”
“You did save me, Miss Tabby,” Julia playfully admonished her. “C’mon, girl— we talked about this, remember?”
“You know what I mean,” Tabitha slowly shook her head. “You still… took your own life.”
“I did,” Julia admitted with a guilty look. “But, listen—that’s on me, Miss Tabby. You did save me, and because of that, I felt like I had the freedom to… make that choice. You know?”
“You know?!” Tabitha retorted, leaning forward with her elbows on the tabletop and wearily rubbing her eyes. “No, I don’t know, Miss Julie. That’s actually… super fucked up, and I wish I’d never heard you say that. You’re saying I enabled you to commit suicide? Can you like, reassure me again that you’re not real, that the real Julie would never say that, and that this is all some fucked up nightmare? Please?”
“Okay, yeah,” Julia grimaced and took a sip of her coffee. “Let’s go with that.”
“Julie…” Tabitha growled in frustration.
“Hah, okay. Listen,” Julia set the mug down. “You thought of me as some kind of badass chick, because I have cool stories, and ride a motorcycle, and write some really dark, fucked up fantasy shit. Right? But also… I mean, we’ve talked about the fucked up stuff my dad did to me growing up. The shitty relationships I got myself into, the way I just sort of crashed from bad decision to bad decision to bad decision my whole life.
“Miss Tabby—you’re like, my best friend, and you liked me, liked who I was. But, I didn’t like me. I didn’t want to be me. I couldn’t, anymore. You know? I didn’t want to keep living. I didn’t want to keep going, or have to deal with any tomorrows. To me, like, I saw a choice between more of this or just opting out, and I opted out.”
“You’re not real, right?” Tabitha asked in a small voice.
“No, not even a little bit,” Julia laughed. “I’m like, a manifestation of your subconscious and all that shit.”
“Then... I can disregard whatever you say,” Tabitha retorted. “Because—I mean, you’re not real. You’re a phantom of my imagination.”
“Yeah, sure,” Julia shot back. “If you think it’s real healthy neglecting your subconscious, I guess.”
“That... seems exactly like what the real Julie would’ve said,” Tabitha grumbled. “You’re either like, the ghost of the real Julia, or—what, like, my impression of Julia? Why did you say that I’m not dead earlier?”
“Well, if I’m your subconscious, then it means subconsciously, me saying you’re not dead means you think that you’re still alive,” Julia reasoned. “Which is a fairly compelling argument itself, right? I mean, if you’re thinking at all, how can you be dead? I think, therefore I am, and all that.”
“There’s... stories that explore that sort of stuff,” Tabitha sighed. “There was the book The Lovely Bones. And then that Robin Williams movie, What Dreams May Come.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Julia shrugged. “Whatever. But, you don’t really think this is like that, do you?”
“I don’t want it to be like that, no, but—” Tabitha began.
“Then, think of it as something like a lucid dream?” Julia interrupted. “You’ll figure something out. Get out of here, Tabby. Go live a good life. Uh, but listen—your nose is bleeding again, and it’s about to get back to those bad, nightmarey kind of bits.”
“Um…” Tabitha said, touching the blood running down her face again in confusion. “Nightmarey bits?”
“Yeah,” Julia gave her an embarrassed smile. “Like this, for starters—”
Then Julia was gone, leaving Tabitha alone in the booth, and the daylight outside the Perkins windows turned to evening. She remembered this, too, and it was one of her more painful memories—after Julia took her own life, Tabitha always made a point to stop at this Perkins whenever she was traveling down I-275. She would sit there, often in the same exact booth where she’d had that last visit with Julia, and sometimes cry a little bit over one of the dinner specials.
“You’re still my best friend, Miss Julie,” Tabitha whispered, rising up out of her seat. “But, I really can’t fucking stand your sense of humor.”
Looking around, the Perkins didn’t seem to be associating itself with the mobile home in a slapdash blend of locations anymore. She’d lost all inclination to stay, however, and since she hadn’t ordered anything real anyways, Tabitha simply got up and walked over to the exit the diner.
Lucid dream, nightmare—whatever, Tabitha thought, stepping out of the Perkins and looking around the parking lot. How do I GET OUT OF HERE? How do I wake up?
It took her a few minutes of wandering down the rows of vehicles lined up beneath the widely-spaced parking lot lights to even realize something else was amiss. She couldn’t find her Honda Pilot anywhere, sure, but more to the point—the parking lot was gargantuan, unending, something a shopping mall or football stadium would have, not a little roadside Perkins. She slowly recognized it as one of her old college nightmares—other people seemed to have nightmares about being in front of everyone at school naked, or in their underwear, but Tabitha had instead had recurring ones about being lost in an enormous parking lot at night, with panic that would creep in as she realized she couldn’t find her vehicle.
But—this isn’t real, either, Tabitha realized in frustration. I’m not going to find my Honda anywhere here, because I NEVER found my car in these ones. I’d look and look and look, but after a while it was like there were people following me through the parking lot, and then it was like they were chasing me.
She quickly walked the rest of the way over to the next pole of a parking lot light and tried to steady her breathing. On a whim, she tried to pinch herself on the arm—that’s the trope for determining whether one is dreaming or not, isn’t it? She wasn’t able to. Holding her plump arm up in front of herself to stare at it, Tabitha’s blue orthopedic cast swam back into view like a trick of the light.
You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.
“You’re fucking kidding yourself,” Carrie retorted. “You are dead. You even had a second chance, and ya still fuckin’ blew it. Woooow.”
Three teenage girls strode out of the darkness between the rows of cars, and Tabitha’s breath hitched in her throat. They were completely mismatched—on the right, Carrie was wearing the Tommy Hilfigire vest Tabitha had seen her in at school, on the left, an eighth-grade Elena smirked at her, and in the middle—Erica Taylor in her baseball outfit from the Halloween party. Erica was baring her teeth, her shoulders seemed to tremble with barely-constrained violence, and the Louisville Slugger she dragged along seemed slightly oversized, large enough that it scraped along the asphalt of the parking lot in a menacing way.
“I’m... not scared of you,” Tabitha lied, glaring at each of the girls in turn. “You’re not real.”
“Wanna bet?” Elena called in a mocking voice as the girls continued to advance on her. “You know why we’re here. You cheated death—got to do months and months all over again—and now, it’s time to pay it all back. You even got an extra day or two, before the bleed on your brain caught up. Uhh, did you think all that shit was free? That you wouldn’t have to pay the price for it?”
“The... bleed on my brain?” Tabitha echoed in a hollow voice, fighting the urge to backpedal away from them. “I-I didn’t ask for any do-overs, didn’t want them. Not my fault.”
“But, you took them anyways,” Erica Taylor hissed in a low voice. “Didn’t you? Doesn’t matter what you wanted, you took what you didn’t deserve—and you don’t get to take things away from us.”
“So what if I even did?!” Tabitha growled, retreating a step. “You’re not the actual fucking gatekeepers of time and space—you’re not even teenage girls, you’re not real. Memories, shadows. I don’t have to be afraid of you. I know taekwondo, and this is my dream.”
“Yeah?” Erica Taylor snorted, tapping the baseball bat loudly against the pavement. “Taekwondo, huh? How’d that work out for you last time?”
“Oh yeah!” Carrie giggled. “Pretty sure she got her face bashed in?”
“She went down like a little bitch,” eighth-grade Elena agreed, sizing Tabitha up with a smug look. “Like a little bitch.”
“You know all about this nightmare too, don’t you?” Erica teased, swishing her bat through the air. “You remember. You’ll run and run and run, but you can never get away.”
“No,” Tabitha grit her teeth. “No, I’m not going to run.”
“Fine by me!” Erica flashed a smile full of teeth at her. “Don’t run, then—this’ll be even more fun.”
“I’m not going to run,” Tabitha decided. “I’m going to wake up. I’m going to get back to where I was, and I’m going to fix things with Ashlee, and I’m going to save Julie. Going to figure out how to have a good life and be happy.”
“Julie’s dead, retard,” Carrie laughed. “Ashlee? Doesn’t give a flying fuck about you. And you? You’re brain dead and dying. You’re never ever waking up or getting out of here.”
“Getting out of here?” Erica seemed infuriated by her defiance, and she lunged forward, swinging the bat through the air towards Tabitha with all of her might. “With what, your taekwondo?”
“With a goddamn F-22, if I have to!” Tabitha leapt backwards, and the world spun.
The back of her legs tripped implausibly into one of the Williams’ sofas from the lakehouse, and then she tumbled painfully down the stairs of an old apartment’s sun-soaked wooden porch and into the junkyard full of aviation parts behind her mobile home.
Disoriented, Tabitha looked up at the teens standing in the middle of the decrepit porch in surprise. It was daytime here—they were just behind the mobile home, the scrapyard full of machinery from her fever dream was here somehow, and Carrie, Erica, and Elena looked just as confused by the sudden displacement as she was.
“...What the fuck?” Carrie said.
“Tabitha, where the hell do you think you’re going?” Mrs. Moore howled, attempting to heave the bulk of her bloated body off a nearby couch. The woman was morbidly obese now, with streaks of gray through her wispy hair and made for a disturbing sight. “Don’t you dare think about leaving this dream before you’ve done your homework, young lady. You sit your fanny down right this instant before I spank your sorry behind red! I mean it!”
“This isn’t a real place,” Carrie complained, making a face as Elena shot her a sardonic look. “Oh—you know what I fucking mean! It’s not supposed to be here!”
“I-I love you, Mom!” Tabitha called as she scrambled to her feet. “But, I have to go. Somewhere out there—I’m, I’m going to find the real you. The actual you, even if I have to start all over from the beginning. I’m going to save you. I love you. I’m so sorry.”
“No you’re fucking not!” Erica screamed, dashing down the porch steps after her.
“Tabiiiithaaaaghh?!!” The upper part of Mrs. Moore’s bloated face collapsed in on itself as her mouth distorted wide into a toothy maw, the edge of her lopsided lip peeling all the way down one side of her neck to roar in anger at her daughter.
The scattered heaps and piles of surplus aviation pieces shifted and collapsed behind her as Tabitha sprinted past them, replaced with the silent rows of cars of an endless night time parking lot. Cursing and swearing and screaming at her, each encroaching step the teenage girls took chasing after Tabitha seemed to destabilize the shrinking area of the half-forgotten F-22 dream from those weeks ago. In true dream fashion, Tabitha’s run felt impossibly slow, as if she were sloughing through molasses, and she tripped and fell as the dream trembled and wavered like a soap bubble about to pop. Frantically climbing back to her feet, she noticed that her left arm had a frail wrist sporting a bracelet-PC one moment, and a familiar blue cast the next.
No time, no time—I have to get OUT of here, Tabitha shook her broken wrist distractedly, and it flickered and phased between different states of being in an uncomfortable blur.
The junkyard was large but also bleeding off territory quickly, and as she dashed around the last heap towards the mostly-finished F-22 resting in the center, Tabitha realized that the bubble of this dream was almost gone, that the horrors of the jumbled memories and old nightmares were spilling in from every direction in a dark flood. Once again it felt like she was running and running but scarcely seemed to be moving forward at all, and with every moment the scrap piles of machinery were shifting and twisting, sending smaller pieces crashing and tumbling down.
“It’s over—it’s over and you’re dead!” One of the pursuing teens screeched after her.
“Fuck fuck fuck!” Tabitha screamed, refusing to look behind her as she took a running leap for the ladder hanging off the side of the F-22 cockpit.
She made it.
The enormous transparent canopy wasn’t fastened shut, but it was much heavier than she’d imagined—isn’t all of this my imagination anyways?!— and the best she could manage was pushing the fighter jet’s canopy up enough for her to frantically clamber inside. When it dropped down behind her and latched into place, the sight just outside stunned her.
The old dream she’d taken refuge in had dwindled down to barely encompass the size of her F-22. Instead, a horrific hellscape of nightmares had replaced the surroundings. Jeremy Redford stood over the fallen form of Officer Macintire and fired again and again, the policeman’s body rocking in spurts of blood with each shot. With a face transformed into a snarling mask of madness, Erica Taylor stepped over the prone form of a Tabitha to bear down on a costumed Alicia and Elena with the baseball bat, slamming and smashing the girls as they let out shrill, helpless screams. Mrs. Macintire sobbed and Hannah broke down into tears as a faceless officer came to give them the news that Darren Macintire had died in the line of duty. In the chaos of the bus loop, Chris Thompson pinned a Tabitha down after pushing her, straddling her with a sadistic grin and then tearing at her blouse—
Nope. Nope. All of my nope. Noping THE FUCK out of—out of whatever the fuck this is, Tabitha thought in a panic, forcibly turning her eyes away from the cascade of images flashing by outside and frantically starting up the F-22.
Tabitha knew nothing about how to start up a real fighter jet, of course. Here the controls were more a vague impression or facsimile of what controls might be than anything else—deciding to go and throwing the intention to start the aircraft up seemed to handwave away technical details. Blinking back tears, Tabitha was reluctant to glance down at whatever her hands were doing to operate the controls for fear of breaking the spell.
There was no runway. She didn’t know how to fly. From what she dimly recalled, the F-22 in her old fever dream was unfinished and nowhere remotely near flight-worthy, but none of that mattered right now, because she was getting the fuck out of there. With a deafening whine of the F-22’s engines, the fighter rose up in a hover like she imagined a helicopter or a ship from Star Wars might. The last few yards of ground below the aircraft were swallowed up by madness a moment later, and Tabitha was just about to let out a sigh of relief and fire the afterburners to jet away—
When someone grabbed her ankle.
No, no—NO! Tabitha flailed and twisted in disbelief as the whine of the F-22 suddenly became a deafening squeal of scraping metal. Impossibly, she’d been pulled backwards into an prone position within the cockpit, as if the pilot’s seat ceased to exist. When she twisted her body to look behind her, she couldn’t help but stare in complete shock—the pilot’s seat was gone, and she was instead somehow on an examination table. Where the glassy curvature of the fightercraft canopy should have met the fuselage, it instead seamlessly became the cylindrical aperture of the prototype MRI from the University of Louisville Hospital, where medical personnel were already struggling to pull her out of the screeching device.
She was old again, she could feel her entire body riddled with age, withered with age, her muscles had gone frail and she was sagging, joints aching. Blood bubbled from her nose as she tried to breath and dripped down from her face in a mess, creating red spatters all over the interior of the prototype MRI. The machine was making a ballistic noise, scraping and squealing and filling the air with clogging gouts of black smoke.
“Shut it down—shut it down!” A doctor’s voice yelled over the grinding shriek of what sounded like a turbine engine tearing itself to pieces.
No. No no no. I can’t come back here. Not NOW, Tabitha felt her heart sink. Mom, Dad—they’re both dead in 2045. Dead for years and years. I have… I have NOTHING there. No one!
“I-I did shut it down!” The familiar pretty young nurse that had helped Tabitha into the machine what felt like so many months ago cried out. “It’s—it’s fucking unplugged from the wall and it’s still getting power somehow!”
“Yeah—well no shit, the hologram’s still on!”
“I can see that the fucking hologram’s still—”
“Let—let go of me!” Tabitha screamed, kicking in attempt to dislodge the man who’d grabbed her leg. “Let go!”
“Ma’am, Ma’am— we need you to calm down!” An orderly called out over the noise and confusion. “For your own safety, we need you to—”
“I’m not going back!” Tabitha yelled, her frail hands scrabbling for purchase along the interior of the MRI. “Please, just—I can’t, just one more chance! I’m sorry! Just give me one more chance!”
“—hologram’s not responding, magnetic field fried the interface. Every PC in the whole damn wing’s at risk of—”
“Help!” Tabitha gasped out, blood freely flowing down her face from both nostrils. “Someone, please! Help me!”
“Ma’am, we’re trying to help, if you can just—”
“Fucking let go of me! You’re—you’re not—you’re—”
“Pull her out,” The authoritative man’s voice was louder, now. “Fuck, tray-table’s shorted out. Pull her out, she’s gonna hurt herself thrashing around like that—Bill, grab her other ankle!”
“What the hell happened?”
“She’s—hell, I don’t know!” the nurse said. “One second it’s starting up fine, and then the next it’s suddenly making this awful noise! She immediately starts screaming—having, like, these fits, or, or, or some kind of seizure—”
“I’ve got her, I’ve got her,” Someone clamped down on Tabitha’s frantically kicking foot. “Just—”
Her head was splitting with pain, and in discordant flashes, Tabitha could see a patch of dreamlike sky lazily spinning just past the far inner side of the MRI enclosure. It looked like the view through the F-22 canopy, as the fighter jet fell backwards through the air in an out of control tailspin. This last few slivers of dreamworld seemed to be sputtering now, wildly wavering in an unseen wind like a candle flame on the verge of being blown out.
“...bitha?” The faint voice of a little girl called, difficult to hear over the calamitous din of the prototype MRI tearing itself apart and the yelling of the medical personnel as they attempted to remove her from within it. “Tabitha?”
That sounds like—like—!
With her last surge of strength, Tabitha lunged, stretching her aching old muscles forward and desperately reaching for the back of the MRI. Another blood vessel in her brain ruptured, everything went dark all at once, and—
—Tabitha had only just begun to plunge into freefall when a small, delicate hand grasped tightly onto hers. She swung for a moment from her mysterious savior in total bewilderment, legs flailing out and encountering nothing, until she finally hung there in the void, her arm jolting painfully at the weight of her entire body.
Dangling in the darkness from only her one hand, Tabitha looked down past her kicking feet in disbelief to watch the F-22 fall away without her. She caught a last receding glimpse inside the cockpit canopy, of a frail sixty-year-old body going still within the circular window of the MRI—and then it was gone. The falling fighter shrunk into the distance of the churning maelstrom below her until it disappeared completely, swallowed up by nightmare darkness.
“Haahhh, hahh, hwaaah—” Panting with exertion as she hung from someone’s unseen hand in a completely black space of nothingness. “Hello? Well—uh. Fuck?”
Her right arm ached supporting her entire body, but she didn’t have the strength to attempt reaching up with her left. Trying, and failing, to calm herself down at being trapped in whatever surreal purgatory this was, Tabitha nervously stared down past her own kicking feet into what felt like a bottomless, nightmarish abyss far below.
Tabitha had escaped back into the dream—or what was left of it—but she now had the sinking suspicion that her future self that had been left behind in the year 2045 was now very, very dead.
“Mommy—?!” Hannah called over. “Mom! Tabitha’s having a bad dream. You said she wouldn’t have bad dreams. Mommy, you promised.”
“Hannah honey... Tabitha won’t have bad dreams or nightmares,” Mrs. Macintire reassured her with a tired smile. “She’s… she’s just going to sleep peacefully, now.”
“Because she doesn’t have... brain act-tivity?” Hannah frowned as she pronounced the words, looking from where her mother was seated back towards Tabitha on the hospital bed with a look of doubt.
“Yes, honey, because she doesn’t have brain activity. Not having any brain activity means… that she won’t ever wake up anymore,” Mrs. Macintire explained in a weary but patient voice. “But, she won’t have any bad dreams or nightmares, either. The good Mister Doctor Man said she won’t be feeling any pain, or—or any kind of distress at all before she passes on. She’s just... resting, Honey. Resting like Sleeping Beauty.”
“Mommy, no—she’s having a nightmare,” Hannah insisted with a stubborn stamp of her foot. “Come look! Tabitha’s having a nightmare—she grabbed onto my hand.”
“Honey...” Hannah’s mother sighed, lifting herself out of her seat to come take a closer look. “I’m sure that—”
Sandra Macintire froze.
Tabitha Moore had been declared brain dead, and purportedly, there was no chance at all of recovery—she was in a vegetative state and would remain permanently comatose. Tabitha had been the very picture of serenity for several days now, with only the bandages wrapped around her head to indicate anything at all had ever happened. She’d been taken off of life support already, and was receiving her last visitors for a few days while the grief-stricken Moore family waited to see if Tabitha would quietly pass on.
Instead, what should have been a peaceful expression on the teenage girl’s features was now an extraordinarily troubled one—Tabitha was jerking slightly, her brow was furrowed, and her eyes were scrunched shut as if in pain. The sedate rise and fall of her chest was speeding up, and Tabitha’s pale lips trembled.
“—elp,” Tabitha whimpered out in a tiny, barely-audible mumble. “—meone, pl—help m—”
“This is… uh. She’s—um—something’s happened,” Mrs. Macintire exclaimed in a panic, quickly leaning in over Tabitha to closely inspect the girl. “She, she can’t be brain dead, she just—”
“She’s having a nightmare!” Hannah repeated. “What do we do? Will she wake up?”
“J-just hold onto her hand tight Baby, and don’t let go!” Mrs. Macintire dashed towards the door of the private room and peeked out into the hallway. “I’m going to go find somebody!”
“...Tabitha?” Hannah urged, squeezing Tabitha’s hand and gently shaking her. “Tabitha? Can you… can you wake up? Wake up now, please? Tabitha? Please? Please wake up?”
Eyelids fluttering, Tabitha’s body stirred in a restless way on the hospital bed as she fought to pull herself back up to consciousness and return to them.