Years ago when I was in jail, I used to pray every night. When you’re little and you pray, it’s because you want something from the world that you don’t know how to get. When you’re older, it’s because the world wants something from you that you don’t know how to give. The lights would go out at 11 PM and I would pray to be a better man, humiliating myself before the arbitrating silence of my thoughts, begging and pleading and even screaming when the thoughts became too loud to contain.
Then one night an unscheduled cell search interrupted my routine. The inmates all had to wait against the wall while our block was cleared, and it wasn’t until midnight when I was able to begin my prayers. All those years my mother used to drag me down to the church, she never once told me that God isn’t the one who listens to the midnight prayers.
I began as I always do. I kneel on my bed, close my eyes, and with my hands clasped together I’ll ask: “Is anyone listening?”
This was the first night that someone answered: “Yes.”
I didn’t dare open my eyes, terrified that the reality of my cell would be all I saw. The voice was soft, patient, and infinitely sad as though it had seen and heard more than its heart could bear but had such respect for the suffering that it stoically refused to turn away.
“I’m afraid,” I said, because I knew at once that I could not lie to such a voice. “I’m afraid that I’m going to die in here. That the world has decided who I am because of one mistake, and that there’s nothing I’ll ever be able to do to convince them otherwise.”
“You are right to be afraid,” the voice said. “You will die in this cell.”
My whole body went tense. For a moment I thought I was talking to a guard who was trying to screw with me, but the calm certainty of the voice was enough for me to keep my eyes closed and believe. If I couldn’t have faith here and now, what hope did I ever have?
“But that doesn’t mean that this is the end. Your body has been branded and discarded,” the voice continued. “Do not waste any more time trying to save what is already lost.”
“My soul then -”
“Your soul is hungry to keep living, and this is how you must feed it: Find and kill a human, and then take your own life. When these eyes close for the last time, the eyes of your victim will open and you will be the one looking out.”
The strain to look at my savior was excruciating, but some instinctual terror forbade me. Either I would look upon some unspeakable abomination and be forced to abandon my hope of a new life, or I’d see some impostor and know it to be a lie.
“And if I don’t like who I’ve become, I can kill again?” I barely breathed the words. “Will I become a new person each time?”
“As many times as you like,” purred the presence. “When you’re old and tired, taking a child will let dance this mad show again.”
My mind was racing, immediately disgusted but enthralled by the idea. “And if I die by chance — if I’m hit by a car or something — and I haven’t killed anyone yet, where will I go then?”
“That will be up to me to decide.” The voice was smiling now. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew.
I couldn’t take it anymore. If this was some sick joke, then I wanted to know before I betrayed anything more. I opened my eyes and flung myself in a rabid dash against my cell door. There was no-one on the other side. No-one in the corridor which stretched open before me. The voice did not speak to me again.
I have prayed to be a good man, and this is how my prayers were answered. I will become a good man, but I had to find and kill him first.
Killing another inmate would be pointless. Why start life again in another cell? It had to be a guard, someone with access to the outside so I could make my way out and then kill again. It took about a week for me to get a metal shiv that would be up to the job. I took my victim in the yard during the bedlam of a gang squabble. He was innocent of everything but standing next to me when the opportunity arose, and I do not wish to dwell on the incident with any more detail than that. I only had a few seconds before the other guards tackled me, but it was enough to force the shiv into my own heart. As the light bled from me and the pain dissolved into oblivion, I prayed again for forgiveness. No answer came but the welcome darkness…
… and the searing white light which roused me in the hospital. I wasn’t shackled. There was a woman leaning over my bed, shedding tears of joy that I was alright. Her name was Mariah, and she didn’t know that she was a widow now. There was a boy who wouldn’t stop wailing and laughing. He didn’t know that his father had died on that prison yard or that I had taken his place.
Was it a kindness that kept me from telling them the truth? They were so happy that I was alive that they readily accepted my memory loss, although I did seem to maintain some of his muscle memories and habits. It started off as guilt that made me unwilling to leave them, but guilt alone could not endure through the years as I have done. You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you I loved them as strongly as they loved me, but waking up with my new wife and staying strong for my boy, I’ve never been so happy as that.
I lived with them for five years until I suffered a minor heart attack. I felt like a ticking time-bomb after that. The big one could happen any day, and this new life I had worked so hard for would be replaced by some unspeakable unknown. Giving up this new life was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but I couldn’t take the anxious suspense any longer. It was time to kill again.
And again. And again. I wouldn’t let myself get tied down like that again. That one was famous, or another had a better house or a hotter wife. The lives were a blur, fading in and out so quickly that I became everyone and no-one. It turns out killing people is actually quite easy. It’s not getting caught that’s hard, but since I always sacrificed my own life in the same moment, getting caught was never an issue.
I wanted to experience everything that life had to offer. One day I was a schoolgirl, the next I was a professional athlete or a race-car driver. Taking highly skilled people was my favorite because, with a little practice and their muscle memory, I was just as good as they ever were. I spent several years as a number of prominent musicians, leaving a wake of scandals as I inevitably took my own life to move on again.
I don’t know many lifetimes I could have spent this way, but I never had the chance to explore them all. I was using a healthy body to experiment with a variety of drugs when I was ambushed by an undercover cop. I didn’t have the chance to switch bodies again, and before I knew what was happening I was back in jail. It was a minor possession charge and I had plenty of money hidden away for bail, so I didn’t make any fuss. The point is that I saw her again at the station.
Mariah was dating again — I guess she had a thing for a man in uniform. Seeing her sitting and laughing, knowing that she moved on from me so easily, it just made my blood boil. I guess I hadn’t realized until that moment that throughout all the glamorous lives I’ve lived over the last few years, I hadn’t once been as happy as I was when I was with her.
It wasn’t as easy as I thought to slip back in. I killed her new boyfriend without trouble, but she didn’t stay with me long. It was as though she noticed the change right away, dumping me almost as soon as I stepped foot in her house. I took two more bodies, trying to seduce her only to be turned away each time. Frustrated, I consented to bide my time, waiting until she began dating again so that I could replace him and have her.
Three boyfriends later, the same story each time. I killed each of them, only to be rejected the moment I appeared in their body. It seemed as though she could sense my presence somehow, but each time she turned me away I only wanted her more. It didn’t help that she was becoming unstable. I hadn’t counted on how psychologically devastating it must be to continue dating new people and yet sense that they are all the same. She practically stopped going outside altogether, and I was going crazy trying to figure out how to reach her.
You don’t know how much it hurts me to tell you what happened next. This is my confession though, and before God and man and otherwise, I wish my sins be known. There was one person in her life that Mariah would never abandon, and children are always the easiest targets. I caught him leaving school one day (he’s been taking the bus since his mom started locking herself in). I was wearing the body of a policeman he’d grown up around, and he had no reason to suspect my intentions when I offered him a ride.
I didn’t drive him home though. I was taking him out into the woods where there wouldn’t be a scene. Trying to get close to Mariah through her son might seem strange to you, but after living so many lives I wasn’t encumbered with such artificial distinctions as romantic or maternal love. I wanted to be close to her again. I wanted her to love me. And if she was too broken to love another man, then I was willing to make a compromise on her behalf.
“Get out of the car,” I ordered the boy who was once my son.
“Where are we? I thought we were going home?”
“Just get out.”
Those big, almond eyes stared at me for a long time. Then he smiled.
“Okay, I trust you,” he said.
“We’re going to play a game, okay?” I got out of the car with him. My hand was cramping up from flexing beside my gun.
“Close your eyes.”
“Don’t open them. Promise me, okay?”
“Okay dad.” He closed his eyes. My blood froze.
“Why’d you call me that?” I asked.
“Sorry,” his little brow furrowed in deep thought. “I don’t know. It’s just that you smell like him, only I don’t feel it in my nose.”
“Where do you feel it?”
The boy crossed his heart, still clenching his eyes shut. I slid my gun back into its holster.
“The game goes like this. You count to a hundred while I hide. When you open your eyes, you have to find me. Ready?”
When we finished playing, I told him to get back in the car and we drove back to his home. I didn’t go in to see Mariah. I just dropped him off and didn’t look back. No matter what happens from this moment on, I know this life is going to be my last. I know it doesn’t mean much, but for what it’s worth I’m staying on as a cop. I’m going to protect that boy and his mother for the rest of my life. And when chance or old age takes me at last, I’ll deserve whatever happens to me next.
I have prayed to be a good man, and this is how my prayers are answered.