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Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Sci-fi · #222659
What if time were malleable? What if deja vu was real?
It was threatening, this unnamed oppressive presence in the atmosphere. Maybe it was the rumbling of the thunder in the distance, or the dance of lightning bolts on the horizon, or maybe just the unusual quiet of the farm animals. Whatever infected the area in the early morning hours engulfed Zak in its heavy suffocating silence. This thing discouraged breathing, the rhythmic sounds an affront to its presence.

A scrutiny of the immediate area proved a curious absence of insects. Ants, usually busy in their relentless search for food, were keeping underground, out of sight, out of harms way. Not a single worker ventured forth from the safety of the nest.

Bees kept to their hive. Flies and other flying insects apparently were remaining in seclusion under foliage or inside whatever shelter they could find. These were perceptive creatures. Even the chickens, with their eternal clucking, were pecking at the ground in silent, uncertain concentration.
The two heavy warped doors hung ajar, two drunken wooden configurations pushed back against the sides of the faded, brown barn. A heavily loaded wagon filled the wide doorway as a lone, scruffy man laboriously heaved pitchfork mounds of golden feed into the overhead loft. There was a rhythm to his movements as the pitchfork dug into the wagon of hay...one, two into the stack...three, four into the air...five, six into the loft. Over and over again he worked like an automaton. Perspiration ran in zigzag lines down the craggy contours of his leather-tanned face. An automaton couldn’t perspire. Nor could an automaton go on flights of terror. Its mind was rational and clear. It was logical at all times. Quite unlike Zak.

The big, dusty brown horse, still harnessed to the front of the wagon, fidgeted restlessly, his broad sweaty body half in, half out of the barn. Today no flies or gnats flew in front of his eyes or tried to make themselves at home on his rump.

The big horse's head twitched from side to side as he registered the concussion of thunder, trying to locate the sounds as they broke in waves around his broad body. Warily, his enormous brown eyes scanned the sky, watching the small flecks and long streaks of lightning, not too close yet, but still intimidating.

Zak interrupted his labor to lean wearily against a beam, his tall, once heavily muscled frame now almost gaunt. He felt the pitchfork handle begin to slide through his sweaty fingers, more beads of sweat forming on his already wet face. The long, angry scar running from his left temple to his chin stood out menacingly against his leathery tanned face. Large beads of moisture converged to form miniature rivers down his face and back, running cold down his heated body.

Fear! It was stalking him again. Damn the fates for doing this to him, as he cursed the powers that be and ...the Supreme Council, whatever the hell that was. The name had crawled into his mind two days ago and refused to go away, much like a familiar tune you can’t stop humming all day, even inside your head. He sensed there was some significance to this Council, but Zak couldn’t for the life of him remember what it could be.

Zak took a deep breath. He couldn’t lose control. He couldn’t allow that to happen, not now. Not with Sarah in her condition.

He strained to concentrate on something, anything to keep his mind from dwelling on this panic so close to the surface. He focused all his attention on the small brown spider on a beam to his left, just at eye level. The hairy arachnid crept slowly toward its web, took a couple jerky steps, halted to look nowhere in particular but instinctively on the alert. Maybe it too felt the menace in the air, in the very surface beneath its feet.

That was it! Like the spider, Zak felt threatened. But by what? He just didn’t understand and this only increased his fear. But it was ridiculous. There was no one else on the farm but Sarah and him. There was no one in any direction for hundreds of miles. So what in the hell was going on?

Zak was a large man, well over six feet and until a few months ago, over two hundred pounds of rock-hard muscle. Now it would be something if he tipped the scales at one hundred fifty pounds, the weight loss leaving him haggard and gaunt. But he was still strong. He’d never walked away from a fight or danger in his life, and he had the scars to prove it. He’d even killed to survive; would do it again if the need arose.

There were men in his past who had bolted upon seeing the dangerous warning in his dark, almost black eyes, in the bulging muscles that rippled whenever he moved. But he never ran. And he wouldn’t run now. He couldn’t. Not with Sarah as she was today. Besides where would he run?

This was his land. He’d earned every damned inch of it! The dangers and hardships he and Sarah had endured had been the price paid for this land. He’d toiled night and day to build their house, a race against the elements, having settled late in the fall. But it had been a labor of love as Sarah worked by his side, her love beaming up at him when the work was finally completed. Her joy and excitement as he’d moved their meager belongings into the new smelling rooms, made the work a thing of pleasure. Her own feminine touch with homemade curtains turned the house into a real home. Their home.

It had been urgent he finish the house before the first cold, before the freezing winter months laid waste to the warmth of the twin suns. Winter here was a time when feather light snow became a freezing blanket engulfing everything exposed to its frigid whiteness. He’d seen what exposure could do to a vulnerable being without the protection of shelter, and his Sarah would never suffer such a ghastly fate. Not while he was alive.

His body shuddered with remembered cold as he recalled that one experience, high up in the mountains years ago; a memory that still had the power to make his skin crawl whenever he thought about it. Zak had seen plenty of death, but that man with his frozen eyes had been downright eerie. An interplanetary trapper had been the victim of an unexpected blizzard. Those winters in the higher elevations were long and unforgiving, a freezing deathly world without color; a world of white where trees stood in regal splendor, lower shrubs in subservient attendance. All were silent sentinels to nature’s dominance.

Nature had taken no pity on that solitary trapper as he’d sought shelter between two large boulders, a futile attempt at survival. The furs wrapped around his huddled body had been useless against the bitter cold and driving fury of the storm.

Zak had found him, waist deep in snow, his frozen hands clutching his maser, his blue-white face betraying no pain, no fear at his destiny...just sat staring straight ahead as if he were about to speak. A frozen symbol of nature’s wrath.

Whatever had been behind that frozen mask had long departed. But Zak never could forget those lifeless eyes, that icy stare as he’d pried the maser from the man’s brittle fingers. Those lifeless eyes accused, but the trapper had made no attempt to reclaim his property. That damned weapon had failed him when he’d needed it most. A quick examination of the maser showed the frequency transformer, a small two inch coil had been broken, rendering the weapon useless. With it, the trapper could have heated the surrounding boulders and waited out the storm in comfort. Without it, he had been doomed.

The silence of that moment was forever imprinted on Zak’s memory, as was the deathly stillness as small drafts of wind crept in on soundless waves to play with the soft loose snow, picking it up, spraying it into the air before spreading it once again upon the carpet of white. As he’s witnessed this soundless play, Zak had sensed fear, had been acutely aware of being an intruder.

Zak was brought back to the present by a pounding in his ears, like a mighty roar of water rushing over falls as it plunges free to depths veiled in spray. But his mind was deceiving him. This was only the blood surging through his body. Breathing was difficult as he gasped, forcing his lungs to work to keep life giving air pumping into his body.

Zak looked for the spider, but it had disappeared. Unfortunately, his constant companion of late...fear...was still firmly entangled in his mind, slowing eating away at his sanity.

His large callused hands gripped the pitchfork handle, knuckles straining white under the force of his fear. He stabbed at the massive mound of hay with violence meant to rid his body of everything except the weariness of hard labor. Again and again, the sharp pronged tool heaved weighty loads into the loft.

If nature could be cruel and thoughtless in winter, she was just as inequitable in the summer, lashing the land with intolerable heat. This summer there had been days when the air took on an appearance and feel totally unknown before, heavy from its heated burden, relentless in its search into every nook and cranny where even shadows ceased to offer any relief. It was this way today, as it had been for a long time now. Too long it seemed to Zak.

He took another time-out from the punishing labor to lean heavily on the pitchfork handle, wearily running a rolled up sleeve across his wide forehead as sweat battled a path over and through his dark bushy eyebrows, momentarily blinding him, the salty drops stinging his eyes...eyes shadowed from sleepless nights. In a nervous gesture, he raked his fingers through his damp hair, pushing it back from his face. He made a mental note of how long his hair had become, but dismissed it as trivial. Sarah couldn’t trim it anymore. And since she couldn’t see how long and unkempt it had become, he didn’t give a damn how it looked.

As happened countless times during the day, his attention was drawn to the single story house nestled under the huge oak trees. This had been a wise location to build. The tall oaks kept the house fairly comfortable in the summer and offered protection from wind and snow, the ravages of winter. In the seven years they had lived here, Sarah had made many changes around the house, made it into a real home with her personality stamped throughout. Her skill with needle and thread she’d put to use on the inside, while her mastery of plants added beauty to the outside. Her flower garden was normally a rainbow of color, her vegetable garden a cook’s delight.

Zak sighed. He had to check on Sarah. “Damn, why can’t things go back to the way they were before?” he cried in loneliness. But if the gigantic oaks knew of any way to ease Zak’s mind of the formidable burden it had to bear, they remained silent to his plea.

Silence was becoming a way of life, he mused grimly. He’d always been a loner, relying on his own capabilities and survival instincts to keep alive. He’d once believed it much easier to keep on the move with no responsibilities, no ties, material or emotional. This was when the Stellar Patrol had been constantly on the look out for him, monitoring his flights and his business. But then, he had willingly given up that solitary existence when lovely Sarah danced into his life and into his heart.

The compact, taut muscles in his arms strained against the faded brown material as he heaved hay atop the growing stack, golden spikes raining down the sides. Yet, another reminder of Sarah with her long, soft yellow hair. His beautiful, loving Sarah. How warm and soft she felt in his arms, a comfort next to him at night. But now, would he ever hold her in love again, or just in caring?

Zak rapidly finished unloading the wagon as if the constant motion would ward off, relieve the agony tearing at his insides, anything to halt those thoughts and images from invading his mind.

Was it only a month ago his world started to collapse, slowly at first, then with a mounting fury until he was sure he would go mad. So many things happening in this short period of time, things he knew sensed had happened before. And in the exact same way. But this was ridiculous, wasn’t it?

The first few eerie experiences hadn’t concerned him all that much. But this nonchalance had been short lived as the uncanny episodes increased in number, sometimes coming many times a day, every day. And every night.

He’d finally reached the point where he had to confide in Sarah, confess his growing concerns. She’d calmed his fears with just the sound of her musical voice and her astounding common sense. “Everyone has those feelings at some time, Zak. I read about it once. They call it deja vu. I think that’s how you say it. Anyway, it means you just have a feeling of having seen or done something before.”

But that was a whole month ago. And since that quiet evening, the very fabric of Zak’s life had altered, deteriorated into a living nightmare. He’d never felt so alone, so completely isolated from the rest of the world. All because he no longer had Sarah to talk to, to comfort him or to share the long nights. God, he missed her warmth, her laughter.

Only the belief she would come back to share his life kept him moving from one day to the next. Work was a tonic to keep him occupied, a physical discipline needed to maintain strength, while hope kept him from going completely insane.

His large callused hands clenched around the pitchfork handle as another surge of fear ripped through his mind. “Not again! I won’t let it control me. I won’t.” His chest heaved as he gulped air, ready to take on whatever this was, whatever was to come. His long body began to tremble, his vision momentarily blurring. The pitchfork slipped from his fingers as his shaking hands groped for the side of the wagon for support. Even his knees were shaking.

Damn! He’d never trembled like this before. Sure, he’d been in some nightmare situations, but he hadn’t panicked. But then he had been able to see his enemy, recognize his adversary. This was different. The enemy was inside him. He couldn’t see it, couldn’t touch it, and couldn’t come face to face with it. He needed to be able to get his hands on something physical to take action against this thing. But there was nothing to see or touch and it was haunting him relentlessly.

There was no escape for him, not even in sleep as this unseen cancer gnawed its way into his head, giving no warning, no mercy, just leaving him tossing in bed, as night after night he woke, a cold sweat trickling down his neck, abandoning him to the shadows prowling eerily on the ceiling. He was now denied even the calming comfort of turning to Sarah, sleeping quietly next to him. Poor Sarah was completely oblivious to her husband’s inner chaos. Her remote, alien mental world was denied him.

Now, the empty wagon, his broad shoulders stooped, his drawn fatigue lined face upturned. Morosely he noted the strange brightness of the blazing yellow suns, apparently offering no sign of relief from the sweltering heat.

Zak passed a roughened hand across the back of his neck. “It’s so damn not,” he muttered in frustration. The slight breeze blowing from the northeast, which usually offered some measure of comfort from the heat of the blistering summer suns, for some unaccountable reason, only added to the rise in temperature.

Zak glared maliciously at the twin suns. “If I could just spit far enough, maybe I could get rid of one of those damn heat generators.” The thought caused his mouth to fill with saliva.

He noted some clouds building up again, as they did each day, but still brought no relief in the form of rain or cooling temperatures. And there hadn’t been for almost two months. The electrifying dance of lightning as it streaked across the sky only added to Zak’s uneasiness. It didn’t seem quite real. This was the strangest weather he’d ever seen...heat, wind, sun and lightning all intermingled together like vegetables in a stew. Weather shouldn’t behave like this, but it did. And it made Zak feel as if something was going to happen, something strange, out of the ordinary. Alien. He shivered at this thought.

The lightning was closer today, hurtling from the heavens to the ground. Until now, it had been content to leap from cloud to cloud, remaining high above him as it painted the sky with silver and white lines. But today, it appeared threatening! As if it were slowing coiling its way directly towards him.

“My God, man,” he chided himself, “weather ain’t no human. It ain’t alive. And it can’t think or plot against anyone. Weather just happens.”

Zak quickly turned back to the wagon to unhitch the restless horse. “You don’t like that lightning anymore than me, do you Nomar?”

Thoughtfully, he patted the horse, “you’re just about the only thing that hasn’t changed this past month. Or is it me that’s changed? I just don’t know what’s happening anymore.” Despondently, Zak rested his head against Nomar’s side as if seeking strength or an answer...or both.

Seems like everything is working against me, boy. But damnation, that wouldn’t be so bad if I could just understand. Sarah and me, we’ve seen hard times before.” The horse reared as lightning zigzagged directly overhead, thunder shattering the ominous silence surrounding animal and man. Zak quickly led Nomar into the barn, out of the withering heat, watching as he ambled into a stall, content and unafraid now that he was away from those threatening flashes in the sky.

Zak’s hands gripped the top rail. “It’s this other thing that’s happening to me Nomar. All these things that’s happened. They’re so real! Too real, no matter what Sarah said. I just know in my bones they’ve happened before. And that’s what’s scaring the hell out of me.” Zak had never confessed to being afraid to any man. But this was just Nomar, a stupid old workhorse, so he felt no loss of pride.

Unbidden, smoky pictures suddenly filled his mind, a fire that hadn’t been frightening in itself...it was the feelings it aroused, the ones he’d come to dread.

All of a sudden he needed to hear a human voice, even if it was only his own. He mumbled aloud, “today, when we saw lightning hit that old dead tree and watched it burst into flame, something started gnawing at my insides again, boy. I know I’ve seen that same thing happen before, right down to the burn on the cuff of my pants.”

He’d been so busy fighting the flames as they’d danced, skipped across the dry ground, he hadn’t had time to think of anything but stopping a potential disaster. There’d been the normal fear as adrenaline surged through him, but it was fear of what the fire could do if allowed to race through the entire valley.

After the fire had been smothered, he’d noticed the charred cuff on his pants, smelled the sickening odor of burning hair. Rooted to the spot, surrounded by blackened ground, his mind sought to bring another time, another fire into focus. But it stubbornly hung suspended in a fuzzy background, refusing to come forward. It was there, he was sure of it now.

Fear mounted, layer by layer like blocks in a chimney, draining every pore, every atom of his being. A knot formed in his stomach, forced it’s way to his throat as he’d vomited again and again by the side of the road. The smell of smoke-filled air added to his nausea.

Zak was thirty-eight years old and had never experienced anything like this past month. He’d led a pretty violent life before meeting Sarah; had taken what he’d wanted and if anyone got in his way, well...they’d paid the ultimate price. Self-preservation was his motto. If he’d been forced to take other lives to protect his freedom, then it was justified.

But when Sarah came into his life, he’d made drastic changes in his life style. She needed a home and roots, not the nomadic life of a galactic plunderer. He’d never regretted the altered life style, surprisingly found comfort in his possession of good fertile land, strong, healthy animals to help work the land, but most of all, his Sarah, the most beautiful, the gentlest woman a man could ever imagine. No dream could ever surpass the woman, Sarah.

Zak rubbed his hands wearily over his face. Maybe this was all a bad dream. If this was some terrible nightmare, let him wake up, let him return to the familiar world of the past.

The past! There was something about the past. But what? Damn, why couldn’t he remember? It couldn’t be guilt. He’d confessed his sins to Sarah right after their marriage. Well, enough of them to ease his conscience anyway. And she hadn’t cared about his past, only their future.

Standing in the barn’s open doorway, Zak searched the field to the west, his puzzled gaze locating the tallest tree as he concentrated on its towering height, standing tall, soaring above the green oasis, surrounded by a sea of sunburned wheat. It was a month to the day he’d rested for a short time under that very tree, taking a brief time out from the searing heat the made work almost unbearable, especially when there was so little wind; when the air sat on the fields stubborn as a squatting mule.

He’d closed his eyes for just a few minutes. But since that time the course of this life had changed, his life turned into a waking nightmare. It was like he awoke to a world the same, yet different; a hell made to look like home.

The difference was part of the fear. He couldn’t tell you what the change or difference was, other than Sarah. It just existed.

Zak couldn’t tear his eyes from that lofty tree as another tremor of panic tingled along his spine, goose bumps clustering over his arms and back as nausea once again filled his throat. He was on the verge of remembering, but it just wouldn’t come out into the open to be identified. It was important! He knew it was. But that glimmer of memory came like a flash, leaving only a vague impression, nothing long enough for him to identify.

Zak pointed accusingly at the tree, his rumbling voice pleading as he shrieked a haunting torment at the silent colossus outlined against the now weird gray sky. “What is it? What do you want with me?”

There was no answer. He hadn’t expected one. With savage rapidity, Zak slammed his fists against the side of the wagon as he vented frustration, anger at this helplessness, at this unseen thing quickly consuming him.

“I’ll do whatever your want! Just leave me alone!”

At last, drained of energy and emotion, Zak took a dirty rag from his back pocket, wiped away tears and the heat and grime of the morning from his haggard face. “God, Sarah, what’s gonna’ happen to us?”

If anything befell him, who would look after her? She couldn’t do anything for herself. She couldn’t be left alone on the farm. An appalling vision formed in his mind, Sarah with her delicate beauty wasting away, decaying from neglect as she lie helpless in their bedroom. No!..his mind screamed in terror. He had to come to terms with this, this thing.

Zak forced himself to break the tree’s hypnotic hold. Sighing, he noted the suns position directly overhead and to the right. Their radiance burned his eyes for an instant before the layers of purple clouds hid them from view. The clouds were getting darker everyday. Maybe it was a sign of rain? God, he hoped so.

When he looked around at his surroundings, it looked as if the laws of nature had gone crazy. It looked at times almost unearthly. Some layers of clouds seemed to be floating in one direction while another layer appeared to glide in the opposite direction. It resembled a conveyor belt pulling the sky in different directions all at once.

Nature seemed to have lost her sense of color too. Now she painted with a darkness Zak had never seen here or on any other planet. Gone were the white cotton puffs usually dotting the sky, the dazzling blue replaced with a morbid blue-gray. Even the trees appeared faded and worn. All except that big tree in the middle of the field. It still stood tall, green and fresh as if in a world of its own.

Long, powerful strides carried Zak toward the white house nestled peacefully beneath two gigantic oaks. He had to check on Sarah. She was alone in the house. As much as he hated leaving her alone, he had no choice. There was no one else on the farm, no neighbors in this remote area. No one he could ask for help.

Ah, Sarah! They’d been married eight years and just about given up all hope of ever having a child when she’d told him she was pregnant. A small, bitter smile tugged at his lips as he remembered his joy, picking her up, dancing around the room, holding her as if she were the most precious object in the world.

“Now, Sarah. You’ve got to take things easier. I don’t want you lifting anything heavier than your sewing.” The serious expression on his face had made her laugh, the sweet sound filling the house and his heart.

“I feel just fine, Zak. So there’s no call for you to treat me as if I might break.” She’d wrapped her pale, slender arms around his shoulders, pressing her soft lips to the strong column of his neck, her green eyes sparkling with happiness.

“Indulge me, princess. You’re such a little thing. I just want to see you get proper care,” cradling her to him, his arms engulfing her yielding softness.

Zak closed the door behind him, shutting out the oppressive heat as it followed everywhere. Leaning against the heavy door, Zak listened, hoping this would be the day she would call to him from the bedroom. But as usual, all remained silent.

Twenty-eight days ago, Sarah delivered their baby, two months early. Their son was dead. For an agonizing few days, Zak had been afraid he would lose Sarah too. But while physically she recovered, he’d lost her in a way that was even more terrifying.

Her abandonment was a complete emotional, mental withdrawal. And Zak for the life of him didn’t know how to handle it. He could still hold her in his arms, but his strength afforded her no comfort as it had in the past.

Her body was in their big bed. He often wondered where her mind took her. She certainly was not aware of him or her surroundings. She operated like an empty shell, sometimes smiling, but mostly just staring off into space.

The house was two rooms, the largest the living and cooking lounge; the second, facing west, was their bedroom. Zak heaved away from the door, took a deep breath as heavy footfalls led him to Sarah as she lie motionless in bed. The bed was as long as it was wide to accommodate Zak’s large frame. The over-sized dimensions made Sarah appear even smaller, more fragile, almost lost under the bed linen. She was facing the window, her eyes open, but Zak knew she wasn’t aware of her surroundings. She’d escaped to that silent world of her own. Zak gently placed a hand over her breast to reassure himself she was really still breathing.

Her absolute stillness was eerie, especially when he awoke during the night. She would lie there staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, the ghost of a smile on her pale lips.

What are you thinking about, Sarah?” he’d ask. But she wouldn’t answer. Wouldn’t even blink. Come to think of is, she never blinked. Not since the baby.

Each time he returned to the house, he held his breath in anticipation, hoping, praying she would turn her head and smile at him. Really smile at him, her husband. A smile that invariably had the power to turn him from a rough casehardened man into the melting, adoring beau of their courtship. But the days passed with nothing different as he entered the house. His shoulders hunched in hopelessness.

She would always be beautiful to him, but lately he’d sadly noted her hair had lost its shine, even though, faithfully each night as he held her in his arms, lovingly brushing her long, silky tresses. The feel of its softness rekindled memories of happier times, times when he’d hold her close, taking delight in her warmth, the softness of her body.

Now, the springs groaned under his weight as he sat on the side of the bed. Taking both of Sarah’s small hands in one of his much larger ones, he raised them to his lips.

“Sarah?” Anxiously he watched her face for some response, some sign she was aware of his presence. Nothing. She continued to stare at the window, remaining locked in her own world. More and more each day, as she lie staring at that window, a ghost of a smile would come and go on her pale face.

“Princess, please come back to me!” he rasped, beseeching her to look at him. “Yell at me. Scream, cry. Just don’t shut me out like this.” The utter helplessness filled him, a constriction around his throat, threatening to suffocate him. His eyes, his body ached with unshed tears. There was no response. Her eyes never strayed from that lone window facing the west fields.

He was truly scared now. Zak knew the true meaning of terror and loneliness for the first time in his life. Or was it the first time? There was that feeling again. He knew beyond all reason he’d gone through these same agonies before. And not just once. The knowledge slammed through his mind with alarming force.

Zak shook his head, impatient to be rid of this kind of thinking. It would get him nowhere and it only added to his confusion, fear. He had to keep his sanity. If for nothing else, for Sarah. She was all that mattered to him. She was in pain, a pain so deep he couldn’t reach her to share the agony. Yes, she was all that mattered. Not him. Not the farm. Just Sarah.

He kissed her once more before plodding into the next room to fix the midday meal. As usual, he tried to carry on a conversation as he worked in the hope the sound of his voice would help draw her back to this world. The hope that one-day she would respond as he rambled on helped to keep him going from hour to hour, day to day.

Lately, it was getting more and more difficult to find things to say something good that is. And the sound of his own voice was beginning to grate on his already shattered nerves.

“Your tomatoes are coming along real nice, Princess. I’m gonna’ bring some in for supper tonight.” His long, thick fingers deftly kindled a fire in the stove as he prepared to reheat the soup from last night. It was one of the few things he could cook. But Sarah never complained. If only she would!

“Saw some deer tracks today. Guess more and more animals are coming down from the hills hunting for food and water. Sure do need the rain. From the looks of those clouds, we ought to be getting some real soon now. Hopefully, today.”

He’d also seen tracks of a big cat and something had raided her garden. The footprints were large, not like anything he’d ever seen before. But there was no need to worry her about that. So he lapsed into silence.

Sarah made no effort to feed herself, but when Zak put the spoon against her lips, they parted enough to let the nourishing broth enter her mouth. It was a slow, laborious process, but he didn’t care. Every minute he could spend with her was priceless

Carefully, he gathered her into his strong arms, cradling her lovingly against his chest. He buried his face in the soft curve of her slender neck, the sweet, clean fragrance filled him with longing as an unfulfilled ache shuddered through his body. She was so fragile, making him conscious of his own bulk, afraid he might accidentally hurt her. But he never had, never would.

Tears fought their way from his eyes, eyes closed in anguish, against a pain, loneliness so intense, he was once again racked by that damnable fear as he clamped Sarah’s limp body close to his.

“Oh, Sarah. I love you so much,” his voice throbbed with hunger, yearning.

Slowly releasing his powerful, protective hold, he gently placed her back against the pillows, reluctant to break the physical connection. Anxiously he searched her face, silently begging for some sign, anything. But she showed no sign of recognition, no sign she was aware of his being in the room. Nothing.

Slow, weighty steps carried him out of the quiet house, down the road toward the west fields. It was frightening the way Sarah remained so motionless as he’d left the room, motionless except for a faint smile that lifted the corners of her mouth. It was as if she had a secret, something she was keeping all to herself.

The terrifying certainty he’d lived this same nightmare grew stronger with each step down the road, until the chilling sensation was a physical reality.

With this knowledge came an overpowering tower of fear so menacing it dwarfed all other episodes this past month, pushed everything else from his mind. Zak stumbled to a halt in the middle of the dirt road. Wildly, he stared about him in panic. His eyes dilated, nostrils flared as his heart began to hammer in his chest, beating harshly against his ribs. His breath came in short, shallow gasps.

Zak’s rigid body wrenched around to look back at his house as comprehension began to insinuate its way into his muddled mind like a tiny worm gnawing at a barrier until, very slowly, an opening grew. Now a picture formed, enlarged, spread from side to side, grew as seconds ticked by...seconds suspended in time.

Zak’s eyes mirrored his inner horror as he stared at the bedroom window, all color ebbing from his face as his dark tan slowly turned to a sickly yellow.

Sarah stood at the window, watching him with a knowing smile lighting her fragile features.

Had she know all these days and been waiting? Waiting for the inevitable? Did she know where he was going? Was that the reason for her smiles?

Zak felt something touch his mind, something forming more panoramic vistas, entire full color images. So clear, so vivid in their torturous implications, he was now numb with shock.

A fresh surging wave of panic quickly overcame the shock, gave impetus to leaden feet as he began a stumbling run toward that lone tree. It drew him. There was danger, but he had to go. There was no choice. An unseen force compelled him to move forward.

He was running now, running for his life. Running from Sarah and her knowing smile. And in his headlong flight, didn’t recognize the true danger until it was too late. He was committed...once again.

The skin on his back, the hair on his neck and arms began to tingle, bringing him to a staggering halt in the middle of the road. His body felt charged with electricity, hair standing straight up as if each strand were attached to an invisible wire. He became disoriented. Suddenly he lost all sense of time and place.

“I need my real Sarah!” A cry lost in time. Zak spun around to retrace his steps but couldn’t put one foot in front of the other, his legs ignoring the harsh commands shrieking from his mind. His feet turned to lead weights, refusing him forward momentum.

But then, it really didn’t matter anymore. There was no bedroom window. There was no house. No Sarah. Only a wall of fog so dense it might as well have been built of stone.

“Sarah!” his scream echoed in the void. And in those fleeting seconds in the corridor of time, Zak remembered, understood why so many incidents this past month had seemed familiar. He had lived them all before. He had lived this month repeatedly, how many times he had no way of knowing. He remembered and suffered the agony of the damned.

“No, Zak,” a disembodied voice spoke from the fog. “There is no Sarah.”

“That’s not true. There is a Sarah. My wife!” But his voice faded to a whisper as he remembered.

“You know now, don’t you Zak? You know why you cannot have your Sarah?”

Oh, he remembered. Everything. His memories of Sarah were false, memories imprinted on his mind as part of his punishment. The Supreme Council had presided at his trail. Their verdict was that he be punished according to his crimes.

“You can’t do it again! ”Zak fell to his knees, pleading, as tears streaked his dust covered, tormented face. “Enough, please. I can’t stand anymore, damn you!”

“You were tried and found guilty of murder, Zak. Not just once, but countless times you have been the instrument to end the lives of innocent beings. Just one incident, you couldn’t have forgotten that, Zak. Those twelve lives, living beings that were aboard the shuttle Lucan when you chose to destroy her. How much mercy did you offer them, Zak?” The voice of the curator of the corridor, warden of the council, surrounded him.

“I’ve said I was sorry. What more can I do?”

But the curator knew, as Zak did, he was not truly repentant. The pilot of the shuttle had recognized Zak as he’d plundered the ship of her cargo plus the valuables of her passengers. Zak thought he’d had no choice but to blow it out of existence. Unknown to him at the time, the pilot had had just enough seconds before the explosion to make one final transmission. One that ended up sealing Zak’s fate.

Oh, he could remember it all now. Only for a few seconds in the corridor could he remember everything in minute detail. The Supreme Council had abolished killing its violent criminals eons ago.

Now the violent offenders were kept alive on this prison planet. Each prisoner was equipped with special implanted memories as an aid in their punishment. A labyrinth of time dilation corridors crisscrossed the planet, each set on its own time table. Zak’s opened and closed once a month. Others were longer or shorter depending on their distance from the equator.

So, for a few seconds every month Zak could recall his life and know it was all he would ever have. His time was getting shorter as the voice of the curator began to fade, signaling the closing of Zak’s door in the corridor.

"At least you are alive, Zak. What of your victims? Where are they. You gave them no mercy, no choice. You will harm no other beings again, Zak.”

“No!” a vehement denial of his fate.

The curator’s voice had become a mere whisper. “You’ve spent your life taking from others. Now you will spend eternity learning the pain of being robbed of something precious, your mythical Sarah.”

Zak had a past, but no future. He’d lost Sarah not once, but countless times. He was damned to have only the sweet memories of an incredible love, but never the flesh and blood reality of her. His only future was one horrifying month to be lived again and again throughout eternity. His fate was frozen in time. But his was a cursed immortality. Zak would never age, never escape the worldly bonds of the corridor to seek peace, or to learn the secrets, rewards of the universe with her many untold, uncharted realms.

“Someone help me!” But it was already too late. Time and the sentence of the council had prevailed. There was no pain, no more panic, just...

A smiling Sarah hummed as she tended her garden.

The fog disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, leaving the field empty, except for the tall stately tree and the man resting beneath its sheltering branches.

Empty...for another month!

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