A kiss exposed the bond that crossed the boundaries of two worlds. And that is how I second met Cassandra. Ours was a kiss in public that we would not have dared in the place where we first met. We were the condemned of the dead in the day that we died. Life stolen to pay a debt not owed, the great judge of all had decreed my life restored to me.
Cassandra had emerged from the void in that place much as she had from the crowd around me. Her thoughts, as we had no mouths to make use of words, had told me that we were amongst the condemned. With her public kiss, we again exchanged thoughts in a crowd. The first time, I had chosen to sacrifice myself to spare all who were like me. Until Cassandra emerged from this crowd, it had only been a dream to me.
Was she wearing the off-white gown in which she had died or was it the gown in which she had been buried? It was the first time that I had seen her. Her long, flowing hair was the same sandy brown as the desert like soil in the place where the condemned waited for their fates to come upon them. But the soil was stony and her hair was as soft to the touch as her pastel skin tone was to my eyes. I almost feared to look at her eyes.
She had the inviting hazel eyes of a puppy. Her ears were obscured by the portion of her hair that ran down each side of her face, only narrowly avoiding her eyes. In her eyes, there were secrets that I hesitate to fathom. We two were one in a way that only the spirit world can understand. Nothing of her was dangerous to me.
The kiss delivered the message that she was sent to give to me. It might be days or longer before I understood the flash she had placed inside of my head. Our physical world is a terrible distraction from all the things that really matter. Maybe the physical prison that held us in the start of our lives was jealous of the truth. She was gone before I thought even that much.
My dream ended with a few words from a familiar voice. "Who was that?"
I had forgotten my friend in those few seconds. He had known me only after my return to life as most people did. My death had come and been overturned better than twenty years earlier. Nobody alive knew about the incident. "You would not believe me, Tim."
He stood beside me when we spoke, always looking in the crowd for someone who would give his life meaning. He'd grown old waiting. "If you want the truth, Nick; I'd believe anything about you."
My eyes descended to see my brown boots on the tile floor. "We have the same date of death."
He turned his well groomed, round face toward me. "I'm not sure that this is a story that I want to hear."
"It is a story that I avoid telling, Tim. I didn't mean to upset you."
"You turned one of the most passionate kisses that the law will allow in public into an opportunity to discuss death. Lighten up, Nick."
"I believe that her name was Cassandra."
Tim placed his hand in the center of my back. "It's really good to see that you've finally got somebody. Where did you two meet?"
"I do not know if that place has a name. We've been apart for a very long time and this all came as a shock to me."
I never really understood how the club drew anywhere near the crowd that it did. The house band wasn't that good and it was a dry bar. It was easier to get a dealing license than it was to get certified to serve alcohol. Things had changed in my time and it made me feel old when I thought of it. There were many doubts in my mind that the life which had been returned to me was worth having back.
Two girls and at least one knife from that crowd broke up the pleasant conversation that Tim and I had been sharing. The pale grey armor that Tim and I wore was much lighter than the stuff in the days when I had joined the corps. That was a good thing because I had to keep up with Tim or my job was at stake. Using the strap that I kept wrapped around my right arm, I was quick to gain control of the knife and the hand holding it.
Talk around the corps was that older guards like me drew trouble. Troublemakers tried us constantly because they felt that they could get away with more. I heard it around the locker rooms on a daily basis now that I had turned 37. It made no difference that the patrons were often older than I was, only acting half of Tim's age. Rejuveniles, we called them.
Tim was 24 and had every bit of the muscular, disciplined military look that our boss liked in his guards. The hair on his head, as was required of all of us, had been trimmed to no more than an inch in length once every two weeks. His teal uniform clung so tightly to the sculpted armor beneath it, that it actually restricted his movement. None of us carried weapons. Intimidation, which Tim had no limit of in his years, was our primary defense.
By contrast, I dressed for performance. I had to keep the look that our contract required, however, I did not have to be decorated beyond usefulness. The teal sweat suits that were our uniforms did not have to make us stiff as tin soldiers. My advantage, my primary defense, was that trouble did not see me coming for it. That had always been my image of myself.
We took our two captives outside, waiting for the authorities, to avoid hurting their self-esteem any further. They had to be held out of the public eye. It was all a formality, really. With what little we had on them, they were sure to be out before I got home that night. The law just wouldn't let us throw them out onto the same streets where the law was going to place them before the night was out.
As the first girl was placed against the waiting wall, well shielded from the curious, a pack of cigarettes fell from her sleeve to the packed dirt on her right side. Tim was excited as the reward for capturing a tobacco smuggler was more than the two of us combined made in a year. A whole pack was distribution weight. Junkies never dared to carry that much tobacco in public. The little yellow box could have made Tim's week for him.
My friend could not wait for his find to be confirmed, so he dove onto the ground to shield the package from recovery. He didn't want the trouble of actually touching the pack. That would have left trace evidence. His goal was only to prevent our prisoners from recovering the prize. Handling them was my problem.
Our quarry said a few choice words to us that I would feel soiled repeating on these pages. There were a few racial slurs, but none of the forbidden ones so I let the incident slip from my mind before entering my memory. They were nothing like the obscenities that Tim let flow when he realized that he was not guarding tobacco cigarettes He recognized them for what they were by sell or some such nonsense.
The incident did keep us out of the stale club air until the end of our shift. In fact, we had to wait fifteen minutes past the end of our shift for the enforcers to arrive and take our captives into official custody. A disk of the incident inside the club was better than any amount of testimony, yet we had to give our statements along with the video. It was all off the clock for us.
Tim and I traded off driving my car back to the complex where we both lived. That night was my turn to drive. I could feel that Tim wanted to talk, however, I never really did. Talking was never my style. People were not something that I was comfortable being around. There was still Cassandra on my mind but, are ghosts really people.
Just more than halfway home, Tim found a way to bring her up. I was busy at the time weighing the probabilities between Cassandra and the arrest coming up first. It was almost uncharacteristic for Tim to wait so long on the trip through the dark, deserted night before trying to start a conversation. His aim was good that night in that he hit something that I had to talk about. The problem was that I had nothing to say that could be encoded in crude words.
"So, Nick. How did Cassandra find you after all this time?"
I was tempted to take my eyes off the road while I came up with an answer, however I maintained my focus. "She didn't say."
"Only two more days to payday. Will you and Cassie be going to the club this weekend?"
"I wasn't thinking about going to the club this weekend."
I could feel him staring at me even though he tried to hide it in the shadows. Subtlety was far from Tim's strong suit. He started to tap his left foot on the dark floorboards on his side of my old car. That was all I needed to know that he was not going to get to the arrest during our ride home.
"You never plan to go to the club, Nick. You never have any fun. I have a date with a friend of a friend this weekend and I'm sure that she would like to meet you and Cassie."
"I thought that dating was about her getting to know you."
He relaxed a bit coming to terms with the fact that he had overshot. I no longer felt his stare burning into my right ear.
"Miriam will have plenty of time to meet me. What do you say that we double up with you and Cassie?"
"That's not a choice that I could make. I've no idea how I would go about finding Cassandra, even if I wanted to."
"I don't think that's a problem, Nick. That was no peck on the cheek that she laid on you tonight."
My ears rang with the truth of those words, although I could not tell Tim just how close he was to the truth. I forced a smile onto my face and it became something more. Maybe Cassandra meant something more to me than I could admit. Our lives had come to an end together. We had come together for comfort in a place without such luxuries as compassion.
Cassandra and I were both condemned.
"Cassandra didn't give me her number or even tell me how long she'd be in town, Tim."
"I wish that I knew your secret. You know how to pick them, Nick."
"Cassandra picked me."
Checking my mirrors for a turn, I saw him glance toward me again. "You still have something that I haven't got."
"What would that be, Tim?"
"Beautiful women don't exactly track me down, years after meeting me, and kiss me out of nowhere."
"You do not love a woman because she is beautiful; She is beautiful because you love her, Tim."
"That's easy for a guy with your luck to say. My last date had more of a beard than I do."
I couldn't help but glance over at him for an instant. "Tim, our contract requires us to remain clean shaven. Any facial hair is more than you have."
I believe that he smiled at my remark, but I didn't look over to see. My eyes kept scanning the empty roadways around us while I drove. It was an oddly calm night. Even the stars did not seem to twinkle where I could see them through the windshield. The night was calm as the grave where Cassandra's body rested outside of time.
Although a poor attempt at humor, my remark was adequate to silence Tim for the last few miles of the trip home. It really wasn't a long trip. We could have walked it in an hour or two if we had wanted to. I could have used the exercise, but chose to drive for the isolation from the world around me. Tim had his own reasons to which I was not privy.
My condo was a single room place on the second floor and Tim lived with three roommates on the fifth floor of the building next to mine. I backed into my reserved parking spot more from experience than from skill. Tim had to walk the remaining few feet to the front door of his building while I stretched out from sitting still during the drive. The car was parked directly across from the front door of my building. Night was my time of day.
I liked the quiet of the night. It meant a great deal for me to stand out in the silence where traffic flowed like a river during the daylight hours. My window of opportunity was small since the night remained still for less than half an hour each night and less on the weekends. And I could only stand, watching the deserted streets from the parking lot, for a few minutes before my neighbors became paranoid with my presence. They didn't trust me.
Security scanners read my palm before the main doors would open for me. They took long enough for me to wonder what they had learned about my future in their examination. Then the heavy bolts slammed back to let the door swing into the stairwell. It was a manual door aside from the security system. Somebody had even broken the spring that was supposed to pull the door shut behind me.
All the time, I thought of Cassandra. What if she had come to tell me that my return to life had been some kind of a clerical error? Maybe I would see her in the stairwell. Would she come into my home to speak to me with words? When would I see her again?
The night had been so calm that I considered that it could all be some kind of a long dream. Part of me was so bored with the way things had been that I didn't want morning to come for me. There had to be so many others who were more deserving of life than I was. Maybe the great judge had made a mistake with me. Like Cassandra, I knew that I deserved to be condemned.
My condo door still used the same keylock that it had when I had moved in a decade earlier. The rest of the building had changed for the better and for the worse. All that was mine remained the same. I walked into the front room, placing my coat on the same chair. Then I dialed up the lights to a same dim glow where I had always been most comfortable.
I could not help that I had come to live in a world which could never again feel like home to me. It was not my return from the dead that had caused this change in me. That had come to pass so long ago that I did not remember it as a real event. There was something that I needed of the world that I could no longer believe in the existence of. The thing that I needed was beyond my skill with words to express.
It had been days since I had last watched television. Nothing in the outside world held my interest for long. My longing for home, a place that I could feel yet did not know, was burning a hole through the depths of my soul. I actually considered taking Tim up on his offer of a double date. That thought passed into the shadows as quickly as Cassandra had.
Hours of the night, giving birth to a fresh, clean day, passed slowly. As with all the nights before it, I fell asleep while reading in bed. Outside of the waking world, time ran by in silent forgetfulness. One day fell into a collection of moments before a new day rose. But Cassandra was with me on that night.
Her riddle had passed into slumber with me, however, it came in without an answer. The riddle was desperate for an answer and stirred, pacing back and forth in my mind throughout the night. Night gave way to the dawn and the query puzzled on. It became upset that I could rest in my slumber while it could not. So it entered my dreams to bring a memory to life.
Cassandra approached me like a shadow racing across the floor. She was silent as the dead. I saw her coming at me but my recollection failed to put a name to her familiar face. It was not her face that I knew and I soon realized that. What I recalled was the feeling in my mind.
My mind focused as it could do in very few dreams. I was almost lucid to the reality of the dream. A shade of my own voice drifted through my head, with the echo of a single, commanding word. "No!"
I awoke into a fit of coughing so bad that I felt like I was going to die again. The first time that I had died, as I recalled, it was also from the lack of breath. My skin turned red from the strain and I felt very hot. Rolling out of bed and onto the floor, I curled up into a ball to catch what little air I could get.
There was only one help that I could hope for. "Please, God. Please, not again. In Jesus' name, please grant me the strength to bear through this."
It was an honest prayer and my prayer was answered before my ears processed the dying sound of my voice. Breath returned to me, yet I had no strength left in me. I returned to my bed as soon as I had that much strength and waited for sleep to reclaim me. The sun had risen and the warmth of the light relaxed me. In the light, I felt the same presence that had pardoned me back into life.
When Cassandra next approached me in the dream of the memory, I did not fight it. If my Lord had willed that I should relive those few moments with Cassandra, then I felt confident in the memory. I surrendered even through my fear. My own strength was never going to be enough to overthrow the message that had been sent to me so I resigned myself to seeing it again. Above all, I was too tired to fight anymore.
Cassandra's eyes were warm and inviting to my gaze. She seemed to draw my stare and was comfortable in it. Her eyes never moved away from my probing watch. I wanted her as close to me as she wanted to be. Our minds merged over the distance, remaining one as the distance faded away.
Her gown seemed mildly ornate. There was lace in the hem, down the bodice, at the cuff of her sleeves and just at the tip of the collar holding gently around her neck. Just above her waist, a belt held her gown to the shape of her body while remaining barely perceptible to the untrained eye. A pearl necklace wrapped her collar, dropping only a few inches down the front of her gown. Aside from Cassandra herself, everything was the same off white to yellow.
I saw all of those things without looking anywhere but into Cassandra's haunting eyes. To my mind, the sheen of the gown's material changed its color as she approached me through the light. In the dream place, Cassandra and I were alone together. Her soft hair was like a shower of fireflies, crowning her head. Aside from being dead, she seemed to be everything that I could ever want.
My lips drifted apart by a fraction of an inch, preparing me to speak, however, she placed her firm, right index finger over them to keep me silent. I knew that she could not speak English. She knew that I lacked the skill to use her native tongue. In the dream, this one time, that actually seemed to matter. The power of a true dream seemed denied to our use for that one exchange.
Her left arm drifted around my back and all the tension in my muscles melted wherever her hand passed. She lowered her right hand, slipping that around me as well. I could not help but embrace her right back. The softness of her flesh was like holding a pillow and she was warm. Whatever she was, she was not a ghost in any use of the word that is known to me.
Our eyes remained locked together. I only had to tilt my head downward a short bit for her to kiss me again. She was welcome to that fraction of my breath which passed from me to her in that contact. Images and feelings flooded my mind from her thoughts. They were confused and that is the source of the riddle.
The transmission was too fast for my mortal mind to grasp. I saw the place where we, the condemned, had stood before our judgement. In Cassandra's mind, I saw the dark form that, from over the distant horizon, was chosen to destroy all who stood in the valley. None of us was visible to any other. Cramped together in the valley, each of us was completely alone.
It did not end the same way for me in the dream because it was not my ending that I saw. Cassandra died and remained dead. In the end, her only light was the feeling in my heart that was had earned my salvation. Salvation that I knew was only a second chance. Grace alone can bring salvation to the condemned.
I found it hard to handle my actions from Cassandra's viewpoint. As I was pulled up from the valley, forced to abandon my stance and return to the land of the living, she was pulled up with me. The judge of all makes no mistakes. When I was chosen, so was she. Justice was served in a different way for us.
All of the world evaporated when Cassandra did. At the boundary where I was thrown back into my body, Cassandra lost all sense of the world behind her. Her body was crushed under a fallen wall in a place that I did not know. It was the place where I had lost contact with her on my first encounter and it was the place where the encounter in the dream also vanished. My arms closed empty in the dream air.
Much that was known only to Cassandra had passed to me, although none if it held the hint of an answer. I did not even know the question that worked so feverishly in my head to not be forgotten. The dream turned black, fading into memory, but the feelings in my whole body did not. My whole body felt so much alive that it felt like I was newly returned from the dead. In fact, I felt better than when I had awoken from the sleep of death.
That night was not to know the resolution of Cassandra's mystery. My awakening, several hours past the dawn, was only the birth of the second day of the puzzle. Something in the night had invigorated me leaving me to want only for purpose. I had the strength even my youth had never known, and was in want of something to do with it. It had no use in the common day of an ordinary man of my years and in my age.
It was almost amusing that the enigma of Cassandra got its revenge in having me pace about one room of my condo in the same way that it had paced the night away within the confines of my skull. I just didn't have a sense of humor. I'm sure that it was somewhere between my ears, laughing itself silly at my expense. If it was not too tired to care after its sleepless night. The night had left me with a tired mind trapped in an overcharged body.
I walked around my room reading what little my mind could take in. Nothing could take my mind away from Cassandra. The chance of meeting her again gave me cause to go through my daily routine. She was the goal at the end of my race. Hope that she would be around when I got to the club for my shift was reason enough to go to work.
My afternoon meal, I ate only once each day, did not change from my pattern. In eating it, I can recall being satisfied in a way that I was not familiar with although I cannot recall what it was that I ate. It was not the food that satisfied or nourished me. The spirit within my stood erect, shaking off the atrophy of its long slumber for no other reason than that my life had purpose. I just didn't know what that meaning was.
Tim was at the car, waiting by the driver's door, when I got to it. I was uncomfortable in the light and always happy when Tim would drive during the day. Having once been dead, I did not fear death, yet I was apprehensive about being reckless behind the wheel. Daylight was home to Tim. He could handle driving in the light better than I could.
Daylight was also the home of traffic. We left half an hour early, every day, so that we could creep out into the river of rubber and steel that the highway was while the sun shone in the sky. It was time to think and time to talk if I ever wanted to. I never did want to. The sunlight had not been comfortable to me since I was Tim's age.
And, Tim always wanted to talk. "You seem lost in thought, Nick."
"I am seeking the meaning of my life."
"That could take awhile. Even with this traffic, I doubt that we'll be on the road that long."
I did not react to his response. "It is something to do."
"Do you think that Cassie will be at the club tonight?"
"I'll know that tomorrow."
He let out a short gasp, not unlike a nervous giggle. Tim liked to use many words, but he liked to get somewhere with them. "Remember this weekend. Miri and I will keep our invitation open."
"As long as you are around, Tim, forgetting is not an option."
"Hey, I mean it Nick. You and Cassie should join us. How long has it been since you've had any fun, Nick?"
"Fun is not an easy word to define."
"I've known you for the past four years and have never seen you actually enjoy anything. Are you a robot or something?"
"Something like that, Tim."
"You know what? I'm going to ask Cassie directly, Nick. This is for your own good."
"Have you ever noticed that anything unpleasant is always done for your own good? Can nothing be good and enjoyable at the same time?"
"That's the spirit, Nick."
I happened to glance down a side street, out my window. A group of about thirty people were walking across the crosswalk and I could have sworn that one of them was Cassandra. One blink of my eyes and she was gone again. When we came to a stop at the light on the next corner, Cassandra seemed to be crossing the street on the driver's side. Dead, she was getting around better than I was.
My eyes refused to obey me. They followed the image of Cassandra as she crossed the street in front of me. I did not blink that time for fear of losing what I needed and could not feel that I wanted. Cassandra was twenty years dead and she would remain that way. The worst part was that did not feel anything inside of me.
The woman noticed my gaze and walked up to my side of the car before the light changed. She tapped on my window, knocking me out of the dream that had owned my eyes while the light remained red. "$125.00 if you're looking for a date, gramps."
Tim didn't notice anything that my eyes had done on their own. The light turned green the moment her sentence reached its end and we pulled away from the curve. Then I saw her reflection in my mirror and she was nothing like Cassandra. It was the first time that I had been glad that Tim had not seen what I appeared to be admiring. Cassandra was my type as far as Tim or even I knew.
"I wish those two thugs from last night had been carrying tobacco, Nick. I could use the money this weekend."
"There are still two nights to go. Maybe God will be on your side tonight."
"Now that you've got Cassie, you are going to need a few extra bucks. Remember that when you do your praying, Nick."
"Somehow, I don't think that Cassandra can be bought, Tim."
"I can see why you haven't had a date in four years, Nick. This Cassie thing is just what you need. It's not going to kill you."
My mind overruled my mouth to keep me from saying that it might. I did not know why Cassandra had been sent back from death's embrace to kiss me. Maybe she was back to tell me that she was supposed to have been the one to return to the domain of the living. She could even have been sent back to take me back to where I belonged. We were condemned by our own actions and each of us knew that he deserved his fate.
"The future is not ours to see, Tim. What is meant to happen will come to pass."
"You know what, Nick? If Cassie comes back to you, then I might even start praying myself. I'd do anything for a foxtrot like that?"
Would Tim have died to have someone like Cassandra? I couldn't help thinking the question that brought a nervous giggle forth from my throat. Tim did not know what I was thinking and probably took it as something else. The truth that I knew further is that I would have to die again to have Cassandra. It was not as pleasant a thought as it sounded in the ears of my inner mind.
"You take a lot for granted, Tim."
"It only makes up for the stuff that you don't take at all, Nick. I wish that I had Cassie and you will not take her. She wants you, man."
"For all things, there is a price. I want to know what this is going to cost me, Tim. That's all that I need."
"You are a man, aren't you? Whatever the price, Nick, this Cassie is worth it."
As I stood amongst the condemned, I was prepared to sacrifice myself for all the others. They had been marked as the least worthy of us all and I was one of them. That was where I belonged. My sacrifice, as even Cassandra had told me, would not have been enough. Only grace can save the rightfully condemned.
Faith is hard to have when you know. I had been to the other side and knew that faith would be the only path to forgiveness. It was a hard path to walk because I felt for my fallen brethren. Knowledge made the grade steeper and the road slipperier because I had to get around what I knew in order to have the depth that split belief from knowledge. Belief changes you as much as knowledge changes the world around you.
Tim's closing challenge bounced off my psychological armor. Cassandra was not simply worth my life. She was worth more than my life and we both knew it. I could not pay the price. It was my place to repay my debt in the book of life while on the clock of life.
And it hurt me deeply that I could save none of the others. I had been given a second chance to pay my debt that Cassandra had been denied. Both of us had been condemned and both of us had been sent back to the Earth. Only I could make a difference because only I was back on the clock where I could score for better or worse. Why had the judge of all chosen me and only me for this undeserved opportunity?
I hoped to see Cassandra when we pulled into the parking lot and was disappointed. She was not in the crowd as we walked across the parking lot, from the employee's lot, to the back door of the club. I'd have even welcomed her into the locker room where I did not see her. My heart sank a little bit with each dashed hope, although I did not feel anything aside from a diminution in strength. Her absence from the dance floor inside the club itself reduced me to my old, heartless, hopeless self.
Tim stood against the wall, on my right side, looking out into the crowd for a presence that would change his life. My encounter with Cassandra had given him another daydream that he could pass the time playing with. He scanned the crowd looking for something more than a single date worth of feeling. At 24, he was still old from watching life go by him in the crowd. In that way, he was just like the crowd that we watched every night of the week.
The weekend would come and another group would take our place for a few days. Tim would have his one date with Miriam and there would be another name for the date next weekend. Ours was the third age of the self. Self is not a good starting place for anything that lasts. It was a poor foundation for anything.
Every hint of sandy brown hair in the crowd was Cassandra to me. That is how I got through the day and into the night. It was Tim's way, yet it was the only way to get through the empty hours between fights and crowd control. Somewhere, there was more to life. Cassandra was more to my life.
I felt bad that I was too numb to feel anything for her. Since nothing lasts, any feeling was an invitation to torture. Even the condemned dead, as Cassandra was always going to be, deserved more. The judge of all had not given me that power. Free will demanded the option of elected condemnation.
Cassandra did not show up all night. I relaxed into my normal routine, drifting back from my imitation of Tim's life. My life had gone back to normal for the six hours remaining in my shift. It wasn't that I was comfortable in my complacent normalcy. That was just where I rested for the remainder of the night.
Our shift ended at the normal time that night. Friday, which had dawned a small collection of hours before our shift ended, was always the hard day of the week. It was the day when all the action that Tim and I would have for the week would come at us all at once. The arrest on the previous night was an anomaly. So was what happened to me next.
I went out to the car while Tim finished changing back into his street clothes. The night air was just more comfortable to me. Something was not right in the cooling air. My mind was too weak from the puzzling in the night before to tell me what it was until it didn't have to say anything for me to know. Somebody else was on the employee parking lot, just out of sight behind a car.
As I walked by, he was laying on the ground as though he had been attacked. I knew that something was up because the car he had chosen belonged to the night manager. The night manager, as I knew, was a woman. She was built like a man and gave no impression of even having a tolerance for women, however, she was a woman. My trained mind scanned the situation without my intervention.
He realized that I wasn't going to come any closer, or he may just have been tired of waiting for me. Jumping to his feet, he came at me from my right side. My attacker knew me and took the strap off of my right arm. It was a bad sign because I was not wearing the armor that was part of my uniform inside of the club. Tim had not yet come out of the club.
The ambush was well planned. I used my agility to make up for the strength that was on his side. He hit me like any three customers I had faced in my years at the club. My reflexes were good enough to roll with the punches so I was not hurt for the most part. When he pulled a knife, I took a defensive stance.
Once being dead, I had no fear of death. There are worse states to be left in. He was excited by the thought of taking a life and I used that against him. I was not thinking with my emotions. Every strike he made gave me a chance to land a well placed blow.
I gained control over his knife hand and delivered a kick to his face. Then I rolled on top of him, taking his breath away. It was not easy to break open his grip on the weapon, so I aborted the attempt and rolled back onto my feet behind him. He streamed profanities that I chose not to hear. That time, he was slower jumping back onto his feet.
My next moves were planned before he was ready to lunge back at me. He knew better than to swing his weapon across my body where I could grab his wrist. His alternative was another lunge at my upper body. I gained control of his knife hand with my left hand and pulled him toward me with the knife passing safely to my left side. Then I delivered a flat-palm impact to his breastplate using his forward momentum to increase my thrust.
His bones cracked loudly and he hit the ground in pain. I think that I broke his arm in my haste. He was still a possible threat to me, so I dropped my knee down on top of him. One impact and he would have ceased to be a danger to anybody else. Just one punch and he would have stood, as I had, amongst the condemned.
It would have saved me a lot of paperwork and I knew it. Letting this attacker get arrested in one piece would open me up to criminal liability and I knew that. There were no cameras recording disks of video on the employee parking lot, which everybody knew. The case would be reduced to my statements against his. Killing him was my only surety.
But, I refused to give him up. "I'm not going to give you over to them."
His words were slurred partially from pain and partially from the fact that I did not care what he had to say. I believe that he asked me what I had said. In any case, that is the question that I chose to answer. He probably thought that I was preparing an insanity defense. His thoughts were not my problem.
"I will not give you over to the children of the darkness. They may be a joke to you, but I have seen them. Please, use your second chance at life wisely."
There was a lot of noise and only part of it was his continued jabbering. Tim and the night manager were both in the parking lot behind me by then. The night manager had called in the assault and Tim stood behind me, displaying his most threatening look. I had the situation completely under control and just held it until the enforcers pulled up.
Tim mentioned that it was my last chance to take care of the situation before things got complicated. I held my ground, so my attacker kept his life a little longer. It was more than either Tim or I could do to save a man from his own nature and we both knew it. My captive was unlikely to use the fair warning that I had given him to improve his score in the book of life. But, it would not be by my hand that he would be delivered to stand amongst the condemned.
I would have given much to see Cassandra at that point. She alone could tell me if I was doing the right thing by the fallen brother whom I had spared. We both needed to feel that the world had been made a better place because of the second chance that the judge of all had awarded to us. However, Cassandra was dead and off the clock. Her fate was already sealed.
It was my choice not to hear the testimony that my attacker gave on the record. Tim would have given any statement that I had asked of him, but my way since Cassandra's return had been the way of truth. Nothing worse than I deserved could happen to me. There was nothing worse than I deserved. I did not deserve to feel so good about letting one unworthy man live for another day.
My testimony, aside from the notice concerning Cassandra and the private thoughts encoded with them, are as I have written them in these pages. They were the true account of things as I knew them and as Tim had seen them. I did not tell the inquisitor what I had said or why because those few things belong to me alone. He had not interviewed the other guy, or Tim for that matter, so he did not know to ask. This is the only record of my words as I testify that they were spoken.
Tim gave his testimony in the way that would make me look best out of loyalty. I would have done the same for him as long as I could be honest in doing so. It was a code of the union to which we both, as well as the enforcers, belonged and everybody knew it even though it was written nowhere. For that reason, I was allowed to remain in earshot while Tim gave witness to my fight with the man who had aimed to take my life. All of that was done for formality alone.
We did not speak as Tim drove us back to the complex after the arrest. He was tired and I was sore from the encounter. Neither of us could have driven if there had been traffic to avoid on the route. Tim took a different, more active at all times of the day and night, route than I did. However, it was clear enough for us to travel safely.
The phone by my bed rang early on in the rising of the sun. I did not answer it. From my half-waking state, I heard the enforcers report that my attacker had been in a fight in the night and had been killed by another inmate. My charity had been in vain. Passing back into sleep for the remainder of my night, I still felt better for having tried.
Cassandra came to me, in my slumber, for only a moment. She placed her hand on my weary head, smiling at me when I turned to face her. Taking two steps forward, she rested her head on my right shoulder. Her voice in my head told me to rest and I made no attempt to resist. Before she vanished, she placed her left arm around my back and grasped my left hand.
Reality faded out as I passed deeper into sleep. I was content with my actions only because they had been approved of by the one other soul who knew my soul. Only the judge of all could have given me a better commendation. My soul feared the great judge of all souls too greatly to face him before he called me back to his sight. The debt that I owed was far from repaid.
Friday dawned to me when the clock told me that time had come for my day to begin. Cassandra's mystery had left me alone although it was the third day of the unanswered question. I was closer to the answer, but I could not see it. Every atom that formed my physical prison could feel what my mind could not identify. It was my second day of feeling alive.
I did not pace around my living space as I had the day before. My books opened my mind to the places that I had never been to and to the things that I had never seen. They made me thirst for life. It was a hunger that cans of soup, aside from two sandwiches, could not satisfy. The largest part of me wanted more out of life.
It was my turn to drive to work on our last day of work for the week. The light still hurt my eyes, yet I made due with sunglasses as I always had. Every sight of sandy-brown hair was still Cassandra to me. Her image did not draw my eyes from my task. Cassandra had remained dead, yet she was mine as whatever she was now.
"Last day to take me and Miri up on our offer, Nick."
"Cassandra seems to have a mind of her own."
"All that I can do is make the offer. You and Cassie have to do the rest."
I chanced a glance in Tim's direction while the street light was red. "And I do appreciate the offer, Tim."
"She should have seen you last night, stud. I'm sure that you two would be there this weekend."
A heavy sigh slipped from my sore lungs into the air where Tim could hear it. "I can only do what Cassandra chooses to allow."
"I was surprised that we didn't see her last night. The night manager reported that Cassie was there, but I didn't see her."
"You were with me all night, except in the parking lot. You know that I didn't see her, Tim."
"I'm sorry about not being there in the lot last night, Nick. You should not go out ahead of me anymore."
"Hey; you know that I can handle myself, Tim. I'm not that old."
"You're getting there, Nick. How long can you remain in this business?"
"I hadn't thought about it, Tim."
"It looks like you're coming around, Nick. A couple more nights of Cassie and you're going to be needing a ring if you know what I mean. You've got to think about these things."
"Cassandra and I are not likely to get that serious, Tim. You can trust me on that."
"But think on it, buddy. The night manager says that Mark has been coming around and looking you over."
"I don't know who that is, Tim."
"Mark Isaac. He's a recruiter for the enforcer investigation squad. They've got a few openings coming up in the next class."
"That's gossip, Tim. It goes through the ranks every so many months. You should know that by now."
"You could be better to Cassie on an investigator's salary, Nick. I know that she's not looking for a few quick dates with you. Even the night manager agrees with me there."
"I expected better from you, Tim. Cassandra and I are a flash in the pan and it's all over now. The investigator slots are all gossip every time that they come around."
"I saw what was in Cassie's eyes when she kissed you, Nick. That girl's all for you."
I could not even tell my friend, Tim, that Cassandra had no choice in the matter. For the matter, I also had no choice. Cassandra had stayed dead and could only be attached to one who had stood with her amongst the condemned of the dead. She had to be for me as a result of choices made when Tim was only a child and I was not much more than one. The part of me that was happy to have Cassandra, in my eyes, was sick.
We arrived at the club before I said another word. I chose not to say another word and would have said nothing more in the matter even if we had miles more to go. What remained to be said was more than I could tell Tim. If Cassandra hadn't already known the conflict within me, then it would have been something that I could not even tell to her. Deep down, she also had a secret like that.
Tim hurried his last remark while I was still a captive audience within my car. "I had the night manager slip an application into your locker for you Nick. You're not getting out of this if I have anything to say about it."
"Do you have a say in this, Tim?"
The last of my words mixed with the sound of the car door closing behind me. I walked in a crowd, even though I was not comfortable in large groups of people, from the employee's lot to the back door of the club. With the extra Friday shift in the locker room with us, Tim could not hope to be heard by anybody. We got ready for our shift in too much noise to speak and would not speak on the floor. Tim's present to me was in the locker, as he had promised.
I had to slip into my undersuit of armor before anybody got close enough to see how bruised the fight had left me. There was chatter all around the locker room about how well I had done in the fight in the parking lot. With the other guy dead, it was safe for us to talk. Just walking from one end of the locker room to the other, the story of my heroics grew into a legend that I was sure would last to see Monday. My job was safe until next week.
There was reason for me to really feel like a hero, if only half of one. I had not delivered one man under my power to the darkness of the abyss. The judge of all had scored one point in my favor and that was one less of an infinite number for me to score while life remained to me. Cassandra had even praised my action. However, Cassandra would remain dead and was unable to score points for herself.
Within the chatter there was the familiar gossip about Mark Isaac. Only Tim knew that I had the application in my locker. Having an application did not mean that a single word of the chat about Mark Isaac was true, although it rang true. I returned the application to my locker without a word even to myself about it. The floor was the place where Tim and I kept our dreams.
I saw many images of Cassandra in the crowd and smiled at each one when she wasn't looking. Tim approached as many as he could and found that none of them was his target. He didn't have to stand against the wall, a few feet to one side of me, looking into the crowd for the one woman who would give him what he believed I had with Cassandra. The next day, he would have his one date with Miriam. This Friday, he could chase my images of Cassandra in my place.
There were a few fights, as there had been every Friday of my tenure. But there would be no conflict in the zone assigned for patrol by Tim and I. My reputation would make sure of one quiet Friday. Tim was disappointed, as one of the combatants who would not fight near us was a tobacco dealer. However, Tim could chase my images of Cassandra and look forward to next Friday's action.
Every other guard who passed by my placement, on his way to a restroom or another place, shook my hand. The news even traveled fast within the civilian crowd, although nobody out there would dare to approach one of us. Customers were not supposed to interact with guards. Even though we were not law enforcement, we were in the same union and represented official authority. Whether from respect or from fear, we were left alone by anybody not looking for trouble.
No image of Cassandra that Tim chased was Cassandra. She had chosen to remain amongst the dead on that specific Friday. If I lived that long, it could have been another twenty years before I saw Cassandra again. Then again, although not an option, not living that long could lead to seeing Cassandra sooner. Fate was the domain of the judge of all.
Cassandra had something else in mind. Her first appearance had introduced me to her riddle. She had been sent to give me the message that I had not understood. There was another step in my journey to understanding. The judge of all would not be denied.
Friday night saw me home and in bed, back on my usual schedule. The next morning, unable to go on the date without Cassandra and not really interested if truth was required, was the day that I always slept late. I allowed myself only one day as I would become lazy otherwise. One day had always been enough for me.
After my shower, I changed into my comfortable, less presentable clothes. Nothing that I did on a Saturday was planned and that was how I always planned it. I ate my one meal for the day and then went for a walk. It had been a long time since I had gone out walking. Walking was seldom a safe thing to do and my heroics would not be enough to keep me safe.
I chose to walk away from the road to the club. Tim did not take my car to the club, he rode with several of his friends, however, I only noted that my car was still there in passing. The community on the far side of the complex where I lived felt like a forest to me. Weekends didn't leave me enough time to actually travel to the rural parts of the state even if I could have afforded to go. Instead, I walked into the community with the most trees.
It was a strange place and did not feel like it ever had before. So much had changed since my last walk that unchanged was a better word for it. The streets were clear and the sidewalks clean. All the laws had been cut to a uniform height around the well trimmed trees. Some of the yards had children playing outside in the fenced in yards. There were even children playing outside of the fenced keeps.
There was trash nowhere in the whole community. I was not watched as I, a complete stranger as strange as any and odder than most, walked along the clear sidewalks looking around. Children on bikes rode freely in the streets, parting only to give passing motorists a chance to use the road. Smaller children rode their tricycles on the sidewalks and took efforts to avoid hitting dogs and people who walked by. The air smelled of freshly cut grass.
A small child on a tricycle bumped against my legs while I was looking at children playing in a sandbox further in their yard.
"Excuse me, sir."
Those three words had not been spoken to me in so long that I had forgotten the proper response. He looked up at me with his big blue eyes and I could feel that I was delaying his game. I stepped aside, waving him past me. "That's okay." It was all that I could come up with.
I must have walked through the strange neighborhood for blocks. If I was ever to marry, it was the place in my state where I would want to live. Everything was calm and safe. Children were polite and disciplined. If I had children, that is how I would want them to be.
The whole place did not seem real to me. All my years were not long enough to reach back to a period of history where places like this existed. I had often been told that I was a fool for believing that they ever existed. Yet again, those same people often called me foolish for believing in the judge of all and I had stood in his presence. Not even death is what they told me it was.
Several blocks into the town, there was a playground near a corner. A small girl, in a long black dress, stood behind a fence between me and the playground. Two older women were sitting on wooden benches at one end of the playground watching over the children at play. The girl was just within the fence and seemed to be watching me approach. She was not in the sandbox, or on the swings like the other children.
Something about here was familiar in the same way as it was completely new to me. Nothing in the community was known to me, but it all felt familiar. It was not a place where I had been, however, it was a place where I belonged. I felt that I belonged in that strange place. As I was with Cassandra, I was one with this place and it was one with me.
As I came close to the girl, I got a clearer look at her. Her hair was darker brown than it was in her older form. She wore sandals on her feet, just barely visible beneath the hem of her long dress. In place of a belt, she had a rope around her waist. Neither her finger nor her toenails had been colored.
Seeing her eyes, I knew her. She was Cassandra as a child should be even if she was not as she had been. I'd say that she was in her early teens which is the age at which she actually died and first met me. Her smile was warm and inviting. Neither of us had a care in the world.
I walked over to her, on the outside of the fence. Her warm, soft hand stretched out through the links of the fence and she held my hand when she reached it. I smiled right back at her. She pulled on my hand so that I would know to follow her and that is what I did. It didn't bother me that I had passed through the fence, which was supposed to be a solid object.
If I was in the company of a ghost, then maybe all of us where ghosts. Reality is such a small part of existence that I had learned never to question the better things in life. Once through the fence, I was again the adolescent boy who had died on the same day as Cassandra. The old ladies looked up at us for a moment, smiling at us as we passed between them. Were these two guardians also amongst the condemned of the dead?
Cassandra and I were children at play. We rode the see-saw together and I can only imagine what a strange site that must have been to outside observers. I had forgotten the joy to be found in such simple distractions. Cold years had taken the fun out of me. My Cassandra remembered it for me.
Wherever Cassandra led, I followed like a loyal puppy. We next went to the slide. In my true younger years, I may not have had much worry for such matters, but I dared not follow Cassandra up the ladder of the slide for fear of compromising her modesty. I fell back a few feet and started my climb only after Cassandra had reached the top. She looked back several times just to make sure that she was not losing me.
It took some time for me to realize that Cassandra still could not speak English. She got across whatever she had to, yet we could not talk. At no time did she even try to utter a word to me in any tongue known to Man. We made no contact between our minds. Child's play did not require idle chatter.
There were no voices at all on the playground. It was the quietest that I had ever heard children playing. None of the games required that a word be spoken. I enjoyed my time with Cassandra too much to ruin it with an attempt to speak to her or anybody else. Maybe it was a rule of the playground.
One of the old ladies looked to the ornate, jeweled watch on her wrist, then picked up a picnic basket from beside her. With a wave of her hand, again not a word was spoken, the children in the playground collected at the table between the elderly ladies. I was confused as to my standing within the crowd, combined with my inability to ask a question that didn't use words. Cassandra grasped my left hand and had no trouble convincing me to go with her. I'd broken enough rules for a hundred lifetimes already.
My place at the table was directly across from Cassandra. We had both been seated in the middle of the benches to either side of the table. One sandwich, a few chips and a cup of iced tea was placed on a napkin in front of each of us. Then, we collectively bowed our heads in silent prayer. I'd never done that before.
The meal didn't have to be much for me to be thankful for it. I was not alone in mind, body or spirit and I wanted to stay that way. All the bodies around me were warm and comfortable to be around. Deep inside, I hoped that this was what it felt like to stand amongst the blessed as opposed to the cursed of the dead. But Cassandra had stayed dead, so being off the clock that she had no option for the grace that would grant her a place at the lamb's table in Heaven.
Cassandra was a work of the creator's art that it was hard to ignore and I did my best not to stare at Cassandra when she ate. I was not sure that she ate considering that she no longer had to eat. If all the sandwiches were the same, then she was not a vegetarian. Hope remained within me that she could enjoy eating. She deserved that gift if any amongst us did.
We cleaned up after ourselves when the meal was finished. The elderly ladies lined us up so that we could deposit our trash in the can and move on to the restrooms. I know that my mother would have made us all wash our hands before eating, although details were not important in the construction of that world. Our monitors also didn't make us brush our teeth after eating. It must have been a much simpler world in which Cassandra had lived.
I waited at the door for Cassandra to emerge before returning to the playground, almost fearing that she would again vanish. This must have been chosen by the great judge of all to be her day with me. She did come out of the bathroom and return to me. Her hands were somewhat wet, yet I liked the feel of them. If only some days did not have to end within the boundaries of limited eternity.
The ending of each day is as assured as the ending of each man's life. From there, there is no middle ground. Cassandra and I could pass back into the pointlessness of material eternity, passing away with it as we had once stood as the condemned of the dead. Or we could move on past eternity to lives that have purpose and a point. It was all whatever was ordained by the great judge of all.
There were two items on the playground that Cassandra, thus I, avoided. The first was the sandbox where the younger kids played. At our age, advanced in years to be children, I should have felt out of place at any part of the playground. We did leave the younger children to their own space in the sandbox and even riding their bikes around the outside of the playground. In return, we were given our own place and a welcome in the playground.
We had less reason to avoid the second item that we left to the other children in the playground. Cassandra did not go near the climbing fort at the far end of the swings, opposite to the sandbox. Maybe it was just that Cassandra wasn't the kind of a girl who enjoyed such amusements. My personal thought was that it may have reminded her of the place where she had died. In neither case would I have blamed her in the least for doing what she had chosen to do for her own enjoyment.
Unlike the belt swings that I remember seeing in my youth, each seat on the swing, was solid like a plank. There were four seats and three of them were unused when Cassandra and I arrived. The other child using the swings at the time, a mid-sized boy with black hair who wore patched jeans and a torn shirt, was at the end of the swings closest to the climbing fort. Cassandra entered the area from the other side, near the sandbox where two toddlers were building sand castles. I sped up a bit, standing in Cassandra's line of sight so that she did not see the fort in the distance.
But, when I was not looking at Cassandra, I did see the fort. It was dark and wooden, standing three levels tall. A ladder of steel pipes ran up the side closest to me and the other three walls of each level were solid wood. Each level had a window on each side, with the top level having only half height walls as a kind of lookout post. I knew that Cassandra had died under a fallen wall, although it was not a wooden wall.
When we reached the chosen swing, at the far sandbox end of the structure, I stayed back behind Cassandra. She smiled at me and I gave her a gentle push from behind. Having been also amongst the dead, I knew that Cassandra would not be a thrill-seeker. It was years after my return to the mortal living realm before I could enjoy such things. Cassandra had not returned from the dead so she had not been given time to overcome her unnecessary apprehension.
At no time, when I was pushing Cassandra on the swings, did she swing far forward from my hands. I placed my hands about the center of her back and pushed by stepping forward. She swung out a few inches, then landed gently back on my hands. One rhythmic step back and another forward completed the motion. Eventually, she decided that I should not be left out of the game.
She motioned with her head toward the vacant swing beside hers. It was not hard to figure out what she wanted. I stepped out of her shadow and took my place on the seat beside her. With a little practice, I came into perfect sync with her motion on the swing. We spent more time on the swing than at any other part of the park.
It was the game that we could play together or just at the same time. Cassandra did not seem to want to hold me to her every whim although it was my decision as much as it was hers. Unless death had reclaimed me, I would have to go back to the land of the living. But, Cassandra had to remain dead. Every day of my life, even when I could not recall the truth of the incident as distinct from a shadowy dream, I had wanted her condemnation to not be true.
Time ticked on and the sun moved in its arc across the blue, clear sky. The younger children had to go home as time passed. Even the old ladies who stood their watch over us did not remain forever in the playground. They left as the older children went home for dinner. In time, Cassandra and I were left alone in the silent park.
Cassandra drifted to a stop and I soon followed her lead. As I looked at her glowing face, she looked deep into my eyes as though she was trying to see into my mind. Our time together was ending as I knew that it had to. That was our day together, not our week or our month. All worlds have rules.
She decided that we should end our allotted time on the merry-go-round at the back of the park. It was a manual ride that contained four wooden horses on a turntable that I had to push. Between the horses, there were handlebars that I could hold onto and push the ride. The device had been well maintained and pushed easily. Once started, it gave a good ride.
That was the first time that I had ever seen a wooden horse ridden sidesaddle. Without the contact that I'd had with Cassandra's mind, I wouldn't even have known the word sidesaddle, much less have seen it. It seemed natural to her in her way of life. She was out of place in my world, but completely contented with herself. To that degree, she had something that I had never had.
My first push of the ride, keeping the force low so that Cassandra was not endangered, I had simply stood aside and watched Cassandra go around. By the third push, I had learned how to jump aboard the ride and mount my horse while it was in motion. I will not discuss the mishap of my second push which was my first attempt. Cassandra got a good laugh at my expense. We had finally used something other than silent gestures to transfer ideas.
We remained on that last ride until the sun began to descend behind the gentle trees at the edge of the park. Even I will admit that I enjoyed the game. It was a shorter diversion than the swings, however, the whole day was a welcomed diversion from the life to which I had long ago been returned. The games were a vacation from the life to which I was again about to be expelled. Again, Cassandra would remain dead while I went home.
In my mind, I tried to word a prayer. Maybe the great judge of all would even hear my pleas and petitions. From his throne over all the worlds, I knew that he had the power which I lacked. I wanted for Cassandra to be the one getting her life back as this day ended. In my fear, I couldn't bring myself to ask.
Cassandra dismounted her bold steed as the day began to grow dark. If she looked, then she would have seen tears in my eyes. Her eyes were clear and pure as the gentle breeze that was beginning to pick up. She turned from me, bowing her head so that I could not see her eyes in the dying light. Then she walked off, leaving me alone.
I saw her open the gate so that she could get out that time. She never looked back at me. It must have been how it was for her when I went back to the mortal world and she had to remain amongst the dead. But I knew that I would never know her feelings. Her compulsive steps were guided along the road in the way toward her home and away from mine.
There were things left unsaid. That one rule was not bent for us in that place which was no more a dream scape than it was reality. The barrier between us, mostly in language, kept us apart. Our great lord did not wish for our time together to be wasted in words when words could not express the great things that the two of us had shared with his blessing. Cassandra's riddle had also been denied its answer.
When it was my turn in my time to open the same gate and head for home, I could easily have chosen to follow in Cassandra's steps. I knew the direction that she had gone in. She had not been given more than four or five minutes lead so I stood a good chance of catching up with her. Her steps were driven by duty, although they were driven only to a walking speed. It was my choice to let her go as it was her choice to go.
People were sitting in folding chairs out on their porches as I walked along the quiet roads. They would wave as they saw me and I felt confident in waving back. More than the polite response, it was the right response for me. It had feeling, thus meaning, for me. The gentle people sitting in garden furniture and swings on their lighted porches were all my neighbors.
I did not look back when I rounded the last corner, returning to the thoroughly modern complex where I lived. My heart could not take the truth that the place I had come from was no longer behind me. Like the last frames of a movie fading as the theater lights came up, the place where I wanted to make my home vanished as the colder, less welcoming reality was realized in its place. It had been decided where I had no say that I could not go back there. But, it was a realization that I could put off for one night to keep my one last day of renewed childhood safe from the contamination.
The bed welcomed me home and cradled me off to slumber as it had the child whom I once was. Sleep without care is the perfect endpoint to a day spent in innocent play. Cassandra's riddle even held to its place while I passed through the night in pleasant and half remembered dreams. My answers could not be given to me. I would have to work as hard as I had played in order to earn them.
Sunlight saw me early from my warm slumber. I had not been able to welcome the young light of day since my childhood and did not understand why I could do it on that Sunday. It was as though the gift that I had shared with Cassandra had faded but not come to an end. That feeling made up my mind to walk back to the place where I had spent the earlier day. The great judge of all has reasons for all things which are known only to him.
My mind was right that the town was not where it had been on Saturday. The town that I found myself in was much darker and in far worse repair. I went on down the dirty streets only because it did not feel like the place where Cassandra and I had stood as the condemned of the dead. It was a good, however dirty, community. Somewhere, a destination known only to my feet and commanded by the writ of destiny, awaited me within the run down community.
When I reached where my feet chose to stop, I looked up to a see small chapel with wooden siding. The white paint was peeling off of the aged, grey wood underneath of it. There was a silent bell left in the tower at the front of the church. Other people were passing, in single file, into the front door of the building so I followed them in. So few people attended the service that the parishioners noticed me as a stranger amongst them.
I chose a seat near the middle of the building, along the aisle on the left side. Most of the people in the building avoided me as I had avoided them. Nobody got close enough to speak to me and that was how I was comfortable at that time. They were also strangers to whom I was a stranger. If the judge of all decreed it, then I would come to know all of those people in time.
The people were dressed reasonably well although not with the vast trappings of great wealth. Several of the children had the mismatched patches on their jeans showing enough for even me to notice them. All of the clothing worn in the building, arrayed only in primary colors and without garish patterns on them, seemed to be clean. No jewelry shined brightly enough from within the small gathering to attract my attention. I was the best dressed of the faithful on that day.
Large stained glass windows lining the sides of the sanctuary provided most of the light. I looked around the room, from the dark wooden pews to the tiled, vaulted ceiling and saw nothing electrical in use within the room. The pastor spoke without the aid of any amplification. He was skilled with his voice and clearly orated every syllable to be heard throughout the large, empty room. Light through the windows seemed to spotlight him from where I sat.
It was an odd feeling to finally pray with others. The great judge of all had only my fear from the time when I had been amongst the condemned of the dead and I was entranced with the preacher's statements that I could have something else. Hymns of praise sung to him whose presence I feared to enter released some of the hurt locked up inside of me. Maybe, if I spent enough time with this faithful flock, I would build up the courage to pray for the other condemned dead. Cassandra deserved more than she was condemned to by the simple fact that she had remained dead.
By the end of the service, I felt uncomfortable being so far from the others. Should the preacher's words prove true, then I needed to be a part of the flock more than I wanted it. And I wanted to be in the chosen fold a great deal. What held me back is the feeling that I was abandoning the other condemned spirits whom I had once acted to save. There had to be a way, at any price to myself, that they could also have the mercy of the great judge of all.
When I walked out of the church, shaking hands with nearly half of the adult congregation, I recognized the streets for the first time. The chapel sat on the same plot of land as the playground where Cassandra had been given a day with me. Only the streets and the corner on the side of the church were the same. All of the houses around the corner were different and some were just missing. It was a place that I promised to return to.
Going home early and alone, I had a long time to think. There were many new thoughts in my head for me to think and maybe one of them was the key to Cassandra's mystery. I walked slowly through the streets and not just because it was a more dangerous place than it had been on the day before. The feel of Cassandra was over everything that I related to her and that meant all of the neighborhood. Maybe she would return to me in the same area where she had been with me earlier.
Cassandra remained dead and silent as the grave in which her body had been placed. She never showed up twice in the same place. Once, she had been in the club with me. Then she had been in the streets of the small town behind my housing complex. It was with those thoughts that I began to question what it was that Cassandra wanted me to find in the club.
In the neighborhood, Cassandra had led me to the church. I had not been led to anything in the club. All that I had from that encounter was the puzzle and my memory restored in status from a faded dream into a concrete reality. There had to be something for me to find in the club. Cassandra was never sent as a messenger without a message to deliver.
Instead of reading, I meditated into the night. My mind was cluttered with useless ideas and worn out thoughts. I had to have my eyes clear if I was to see what Cassandra had been sent to show me in the club. There wasn't much strength left in my mind and I felt at least three times my age. Meditation was a ritual that I should not have abandoned.
From meditation, I slipped directly into sleep. I hadn't had a problem with that when I used to meditate more frequently. It was beyond my ability to accept that I was getting so old that I could not remain awake through the process of meditation. Many things had been lost over the years. A few things had also been gained.
Meditation was not the only thing that I needed to get back into. My flexibility was getting lost since I had ceased my exercise regiment. I had actually lost about five pounds, but the waistband in my pants was getting tight again. The job that I had required me to be in better shape than I was. Lives depended on me being in shape while doing my job.
The next morning, I rolled out of bed onto the floor. I was fresh from reliving the first meeting that Cassandra had planned with me and I had the energy to prove it. Just to see how much I could take, I did nearly a hundred pushups. Then, I did a few sit ups. There was no denying that I needed to work on my physical body.
Sweating felt somehow good to me. I could envision myself as the knight who had faced the dragon bound to consume the condemned of the dead. The fact that I failed, and knew that the job was well beyond my powers, did not have to be included in my noble illusion. Neither did I have to acknowledge that Cassandra was still dead and not the fair damsel in distress whom I set out to save. Cassandra had to play the part of the doomed princess because she was the only damsel in whose interests I had faced danger.
My shower felt better, as though I had somehow earned it. The simple meal that I ate more out of habit than feeling was even better in those few times that I felt like I was alive for a reason. Life had begun to feel like a curse to me on far to often an occasion. It was hard to hold onto that feeling just while driving to work with Tim. This world was not my world.
"Miri and I missed you and Cassie on Saturday."
I could not hold back my smile and I do not believe that I even tried to. "Cassandra had other plans."
"Did you two have a good time, Nick? It's sure good to see you smile."
"Cassandra has a way of knowing how to spend a day, Tim."
"Yeah, well Miri and I shared a few laughs as well."
While driving, I did not look over to see the expression on his face. "That's always good to hear. Are you two on for next Saturday?"
"Don't tell me that you and Cassie have another date set already."
"I have to wait and see what Cassandra has in mind, Tim. You didn't answer the question."
"You know how it goes, Nick. Get your kicks where is and as is. "
"I'll take that as a no then. I'm sorry to hear that."
"The ball's in Miri's court now. She could always change her mind. Maybe she's as free-spirited as Cassie is."
"Cassandra is spirited, to say the least. But, I wouldn't expect it to go anywhere."
"Nick, if it's not too much to ask, try living for a change. What you're throwing away with Cassie is what a great many of us would like to have more than anything. I'll bet anything that Miri's already forgotten my name."
"Maybe she has, Chuck. But, I'm not sure that Cassandra ever knew my name."
"Very funny, Nick."
"I'm trying to develop a sense of humor, Tim. It's not something that I'm good at."
"Have you sent in your application yet?"
"I haven't made any decisions yet. My weekend was full."
"What's to decide, Nick? You don't have long to get that in before the slot is gone and you're on a waiting list. Cassie is not going to want some ancient security guard."
"Ouch, Tim. That stings."
"Punishment that hurts drives evil from the heart. I can quote wise sayings too, Nick."
"I know that you don't want to hear it, Tim, but Cassandra and I are not going to get together like you want us to. It just isn't possible."
"Anything's possible, Nick. Just ask Cassie what she wants. I saw her eyes."
"And what did her eyes have to say?"
"Cassie wants you in a way that nobody will ever want me. You're throwing away a one in a billion. People write books about this kind of thing and nobody believes the books."
"Don't be so hard on yourself, Tim. You try way too hard and you're beating yourself as a result. Be more forward with your feelings and less forward with your advances."
"There is only one Cassie out there and you've got her, Nick. Take this job and marry that girl or I'm going to break your nose."
"How did Miriam respond to that offer, Tim?"
"I'm serious, Nick. I will not let you throw this away. You're my best friend whether you like it or not and I'm going to do what I have to do for you."
"I know that you're serious, Tim. Cassandra is more than you can push into this. There are things that I cannot tell you that will keep us apart for the rest of my life."
"Are you already married or something? I don't know why this is so hard for you to do, Nick. Whatever this is, the girl digs you. You two can work this out."
"If only it was that simple."
"Look, Nick. You don't give me dating tips if you're not going to take mine."
There was a deeper truth behind my words. Cassandra was the closest thing to love that I ever had. Maybe she was the closest thing to a bride that I would ever have. My reluctance was more than just the fact that Cassandra was dead and bound to stay that way. I do not think that I really loved her.
What feelings I had for her and when I was around her were real. They were my feelings, for whatever they were worth. However, I do not know if I had ever or would ever know love. The words had no meaning to me. My feelings had no names that were known to me so I could easily have been wrong on the mater.
"I don't want you to think that I'm ignoring you, Tim. What you're saying makes sense and I'm sorry if I'm hurting you by standing my ground. Cassandra is in a different world than we are. She cannot stay here for long and I cannot go to her at all. I'd likely hurt you more if I told you the truth that I'm keeping for myself."
"You know that I'm going to be here for you, Nick. Even after you get the new job with the investigative unit. I know that you can work through whatever this is if you're willing to give it a try. Cassie's going to get you and there's nothing you can do to avoid it."
"What comes to pass, I will accept. Can we leave it at that?"
"Agreed. But, you still have to send in that application or I'll break your nose."
In my locker, I looked the application over several times. It was a clearly printed government document on recycled paper. There was even an official watermark in the page. The page itself was an oddity in our electronic age with everything done on computer. When I filled in the blocks, the information would still have to be manually entered into the government computer.
My name and address had been typed into the top of the page. It could have been an attempt to prevent somebody else from taking the coveted application from me. I took it as a command from my government overlords to fill in the rest of the page and get the whole thing back to them by the deadline. The conflict within me held me in limbo. Whatever path the great judge of all had assigned to me would come to pass even in the absence of my volition.
Then I closed the door on my locker, sealing the document inside. Whatever Cassandra had come to show me in the club remained to be found and I was wasting my time by not looking for it. She would not have appeared in a place which had no significance to the message that she had given me. It bothered me that I could find nothing in her message to me. My eyes had to be clearer in order to see it.
As I had with the church, I walked to the place where Cassandra had kissed me. I remembered the taste and the feel of the kiss. It held the same confusion for me the second time as it had when she actually came from the crowd and kissed me. The dream would not let me forget the details. My confusion stemmed from the knowledge that the girl who had kissed me was long dead and buried in the ground.
Much of the night was calm. That was not unusual for a Monday. Few people went out on Mondays after their hard weekends. Even Tim seemed to need a rest from his days of rest. I never did anything so I never needed to recover on Monday.
Tim did catch a tobacco dealer that Monday. Actually, I caught him. The smell of use was all over his wool sweater and I was looking the club over very carefully for whatever Cassandra was trying to point out to me. I bumped against him, with the best of timing, and a whole pack fell to the vinyl dance floor. He claimed that the whole pack was for his personal use, but it was what they all claimed. I'd never seen a user carry so much tobacco in public.
To keep looking things over, I gave the bust to Tim. He was more than happy to handle the details and punch the reports into the computers. I didn't ask for any of the reward, yet Tim gave me nearly half of the money. Tim knew me so well that he had the amount directly deposited into my account so that I could not refuse the payment. As long as I got to keep going over the club in search of my clue, I didn't care.
When Tim came back, Cassandra herself chose to show up again. There was less of a crowd, so she walked over from the restrooms. She stopped, about three feet in front of me, and looked deeply into my eyes. I wanted to speak out to her, but she placed her left index finger over my lips to keep them closed. Even when she withdrew her finger, I still could not speak in her presence.
She did not kiss me that time. Her eyes comforted me more than any amount of money from the bust I had given over to Tim. I felt her right hand slip into my right hand and I grasped her hand gently. We did not communicate even with a union of the minds. Something came over me that I chose not to resist and I lifted her hand to my lips, kissing it without taking my eyes off of her face.
Then I realized that Tim was again standing beside me. He moved his lips, as though trying to speak to her, although he made no sounds. It passed through my mind that he may have been right about Cassandra having me and I had no say in the matter. His words may also have been repeating in his head. What mattered was that even he could not speak.
Tim didn't seem to realize that he couldn't speak. He didn't try very hard to get words out. His eyes were fixed on me kissing Cassandra's hand. Taking one step forward, he turned to look at my face. Whatever he saw, he kept to himself.
Cassandra pulled back again, vanishing in the washrooms. Her movements were quiet and graceful. Time didn't seem to touch her for fear of disturbing her otherworldly allure. She had a shine to her hair that rivaled the stars of the heavens. For a dead girl, Cassandra shined with life.
"I told you, Nick."
"Yes, I remember."
Two lines were all that we had to say on the floor all night. Tim vanished for a few minutes near the end of the night to check with his date broker to see who he would be going out with on Saturday. I'm not sure how he found dates, although he always seemed to have one for every weekend. He sure wasn't bothering customers on the dance floor because he still had his job. We didn't speak much while we were on the job.
We were unusually quiet on the drive home. Tim wondered away in thought as I usually did. His glare was fixed on the top of the dashboard on the passenger side of my car. I'd have been worried if I hadn't been the one driving. We had two things that we could have spoken about, although neither of us spoke a word to the other during the entire trip home.
At home, I restarted my aborted workout routine, then read a chapter in a used book that I had started the day before Cassandra returned. The book didn't hold my attention long and I even forgot the title. It took more effort than I had to follow the storyline, so I gave up trying. There were many books in my collection waiting to comfort my eye and enter my mind. Reading was my avocation, not my job.
After reading, I did my meditation. It didn't help me to find whatever Cassandra had wanted me to see so badly that she had appeared twice. The memory replayed as a dream one more time. A bright sun rose before I did and prepared the world before I returned to it. I awoke to the fifth day of the mystery of Cassandra.
On the ride to work, Tim chose to spill one can of beans that had been on his mind from the earlier night. It commonly took him two days to tell me who his date of the week was going to be. The most logical topic of conversation was the arrest that I had handed over to him. However, the choice was his and that was not his choice. I'm not sure why he chose the way that he did.
"Nick, do you remember me saying that there was only one Cassie?"
"That was kind of hard to forget, Tim. Why do you ask?"
"Because my Cassie has come back for me. It looks like that prayer stuff really works, Nick."
"I'm glad to hear it. I'll have you in church before you know it, Tim."
"She is somebody who I had a crush on in middle school and she just got back from college. The funny thing, Nick, is that her name really is Cassie. I didn't know that. We called her Kate."
"It's a small universe, Tim. I hope that this one works out for you."
"What are the odds of that? You're going into investigation, Nick. Look that up and tell me the odds sometime."
At my locker, I pulled out my pen and wrote in the blocks on my application. Pens were becoming uncommon with the advent of portable computers, yet I had one left to my name. The ink was getting low and it was a hard choice to use it even on the application. When I sealed it away again, only my signature remained to be affixed to the form. My choice was still shouting out in my heart trying to drown out a chorus of doubts.
Cassandra's choice for the fifth day of the mystery, as I counted them, was the oddest of them all. She did nothing at all on Tuesday. I saw her nowhere in the crowds and nowhere in the streets. Her image did not even call out to me for recognition is the faces of people who resembled Cassandra. Silence, after a long period of noise, sounds louder than any noise that the ear perceives.
Tim and I took our places on the wall for a night of work that was quieter than Monday had been. There was plenty of noise around us. The house band didn't seem able to play anything aside from noise. Customers chattered their exchanges loud enough to overcome the symphony of pots and pans falling down the stairs. The day would, action wise, have been slow for a Monday.
Something was definitely up. I could feel the anxiety in every hair of my body and in every molecule of my bones. Cassandra was up to something. Her message to me had long gone without understanding on my part and her patience was as finite as the life given to each of us. Although often hard to remember, Cassandra had used up all the life that she had been given.
It was beyond my knowing how much patience past life she had been given. I did not want to find out what would happen when her patience, like the moments of her life, were used up. She was still amongst the condemned of the dead who had stayed dead when I had been given life anew. Like all the others who stood with us in that hour, I owed Cassandra more than I had to give. The great judge of all had given me more than my measure of due mercy such that none remained for the others.
The drive home was also uneventful. We had nothing to talk about and even Tim had no desire to talk about that nothing. His Cassandra held more promise of a life for him than mine did and I do not know why she kept him silent while she remained on his mind. I thought about telling Tim the truth to see what secret he was keeping. It was just not my way to pry.
I got home and into bed early. Cassandra was on my mind. If I could not see her in my waking world, then I could remember her in my dreams. Even the memory of the kiss, spawning the mystery of our second meeting, was a comfort to me. With her, even in the darkest of moments where hope feared the most to even let its shadow fall, I was not alone.
She came to me in the dream, but it was not of my doing. The dream was not the memory of the single moment when I second met Cassandra. Cassandra and I had a new moment together outside of the segregate worlds in which each of us was trapped. Outside of those limited imitations of reality, we were no longer bound by our forced separation. It was a place where we could speak freely.
We stood in a white room with no doors. The room was well lighted, lacking shadows, although it lacked a source of light as we in this lower, material world, understand the idea. Two chairs sat against the wall at one end of the room and a sofa was behind me on the other wall. Our bare feet were warmed to comfort by a pale green carpet on the floor. Overhead, the ceiling had been colored the same blue that was common to a clear spring day.
Cassandra was wearing the same white gown that I had earlier enjoyed the image of her wearing. Her hair was always well kept and flowed gently down her back. It was the warm glow of her eyes that I liked the most. She had a pleasant smile, never showing her teeth in her modesty, however, it was not as warm as her eyes. To me, her soft arms were not as inviting as the openness of the eyes that she never turned from me.
I was wearing a black suit, for which I will forgive her. When the scene was designed for me, Cassandra had shown me the kindness to leave out the necktie. It was odd that neither of us wore shoes in the room. Without a mirror, I knew nothing more of my own appearance. My appearance was only known to Cassandra and I am confident that she had designed it to be pleasing to her.
It almost surprised me when she did the one thing that she had never done before. She spoke to me. "How have you been, Nick?"
"I've been missing you, but I don't suppose that you really had to ask that."
"This is the one place where, in this time, we are permitted to actually speak. Does my voice displease you?"
"You have a very good voice, Cassandra. It suits an angel."
She smiled, taking a few steps toward me. "This may come as a surprise to you, but I was trying to comfort you when I first reached out to you."
"Knowing that you were dead, I was confused. My sins are so numerous that I fear to further displease the judge of all life."
"I meant that I was trying to comfort you when we stood together on the field of the condemned."
"I am so sorry for you, Cassandra, that I wish more than anything that I could make it up to you. You have to know that."
"You could say that between us, I was the realist. I knew that I could not save anybody there. When I sensed your presence, I moved closer to you. I reached out to offer you comfort in the last moments when the word would have any meaning to you. I didn't expect you to act the way that you did, Nick."
"I'd just come to the Lord and no longer had it in me to let any of you perish."
"The odd thing is that, if I had been as irrational as you were, the great judge might have taken pity on me as well."
"Cassandra, you are a better person than I am. Why are you condemned?"
"You have stood amongst us and you know that you do not ask the condemned to give an accounting of our crimes. When you stand before the judge who is himself justice, you know that you deserve the fate that has been issued against you. There is no jury to manipulate with your sob stories and forged emotions. I am condemned because I deserve to be condemned, Nick. Let's leave it at that."
"What would it take to redeem your fate?"
"I'm a wraith, not an angel, Nick. All that I know is that my fate, because of my one good action, is eternally bound to yours. I am eternally bound to you and I need you to succeed."
I gathered the conviction to take a single step toward Cassandra. "Tell me how I can win the grace to set you free from this fate."
She clasped her arms around me without breaking eye contact. "No action of our mortal, fallible lives can save any of us. Salvation is a gift of grace, but you already know that, Nick."
"I would take your place, of my own free will, if the choice was given to me."
"I think that you already have, Nick. As long as you are alive, we are both back on the books and the score is adding up."
"My offer is not just words, Cassandra. Whatever must be done is what I shall do."
"That's not entirely true, Nick. I've been watching you a long time. You're not making a sacrifice to save us because your life has no meaning to you. It wouldn't work that way even in the age of sacrifices. My job is to drive you back to life."
"If I cannot give you the grace that has been given to me and I cannot earn the grace to give you, then how do I save you, Cassandra?"
"You leave that to the great judge of all, Nick. He asked me to watch over you and that is how I show my loyalty to him. It's a hard job, Nick, so please stop giving me so much trouble."
A smile grew into place on my face. "Yes, dear."
"Incidentally, this is not the dress I died in. I wore that one on the playground. This isn't even the dress that I was buried in. This is the gown that my mother was planning to make for my wedding. It seems right that I should wear it around you considering that the two of us have been bound eternally."
"I didn't know that you were getting married when you died."
"I wasn't, Nick. My mother didn't expect me to die that day. She never made this dress for me."
Weariness began to build up in my spiritual bones and I knew that the encounter was ending. "Will I see you again, Cassandra?"
"That is the domain of powers greater than either of us, Nick."
Then she closed in the last foot between us. Within that kiss, she closed her eyes first. But it was not Cassandra kissing me this time and I closed my eyes as well. That was a kiss that sealed the eternal pact between us. As my next part in the eternal bond, I would sign and send in my application as Tim had wanted.
"You were wrong, Cassandra. You are an angel."
She heard me in the last moments before I melted out of existence with her. I know that she heard me because I could still feel her presence within my soul. Each of us went back to his assigned place in the cosmos. But, this time, I did not leave Cassandra behind when I returned to life. She was, after all, my assigned guardian angel.