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Over the last month, Neal got used to a tiring beginning of the day. This was not the first dream in which he died. He had been decimated by a nuclear apocalypse, blown up by rockets and crushed by broken ceiling many times over. Every time the dream was different but the concept remained the same – he always died.

Neal gazed out the window of a dark kitchen. Six floors below, honking cars and crowded buses crawled in a thick line which after a half kilometer long traffic jam split into three. Tired passengers got out of buses at a bus stop close to Neal's apartment building. Most of them ignored a nearby pedestrian crossing and squeezed through the jammed street.

On the opposite side of the street behind a supermarket, stretched a line of fifteen-story dominoes turned at a slight angle. Behind hundreds of windows, Neal saw people dining, couples quarreling, children doing their homework and lonely people sitting in front of their TVs.

A microwave beeped and a smell of cheese and spiced bacon filled the room. Though Neal's stomach ached and gurgled, it failed to steal his attention away from the window. Through a faint reflection of his pale face and curious dark eyes, Neal observed the outside world with electrifying intensity. A familiar sixth sense warned him that he was about to witness the last moments of his life.

An elongated object with a tail of fire passed in front of the moon and began its descent. As it approached, Neal heard a sound of a humming rocket engine. Less than ten blocks away, it violently slammed into the ground. After a flash of white blinding light, the ground trembled, car alarms played a horrifying symphony and an incoming earth wave moved buildings as if they were matchboxes. From the point of impact at a terrifying speed came a wall of flame that disintegrated all things. Houses shattered. People in the houses and at the bus stop evaporated. Neal took a quick deep breath. The window exploded. The wall of fire slammed into him.

Neal jumped up and gasped for breath. His bedding was drenched in sweat and his muscles hurt as if he had run a marathon. But the inconvenience and pain were overshadowed by the relief of being alive.

Neal placed his feet on the cold floor. Terrified of the never-ending death dreams, he sat in front of a mirror staring at the worn out face and weary body. The image he saw in the mirror felt less real than the things he had experienced in the dream. Every next nightmare was more vivid and terrible than the previous. If this continued, soon he would find it difficult to distinguish reality from dreams.

The day won't get shitty by itself. I need to get my ass up and go to work, he thought and got up.

Neal went to the kitchen where gazing out the window, he turned on a kettle and placed remains of yesterday's supper into the microwave. The view was identical to the one he had seen in the dream. He saw the wide street that forked in the distance, the supermarket and the pattern of identical buildings behind it. Adults on the pavements, cars, and buses moved in the opposite direction than they did in the dream at a slow and sad pace as if being pushed by invisible slave masters.

Though Neal still felt that a wrench was banging on the back of his head and he was being late to work he did not spill the pain and frustration onto people crawling through the pedestrian crossing in front of his car, nor did he honk a horn when a young woman driving in front of him hit brakes pedal for no obvious reason.

When he entered a highway, his eyes began to close. Neal's fingers intuitively pressed a button on his radio which should have turned on a rock music station. What the hell? he thought, hearing a slow children song playing instead. He pushed another button and instead of dance hits, he heard a passionate evangelist speaking, „Do not be afraid of the incoming apocalypse my children! The righteous have nothing to fear when the judgment day comes. We shall—“

„Jesus Christ, —“ Neal said aloud, then smiled at the inappropriateness of the comment. He pushed the scan button and country music started playing. After another push, he heard a boring joke show. Five stations later he gave up searching for a wake-up music and stopped by the morning news.

On the news, a man in a grim voice spoke, „The meeting of Russian, North Korean, Chinese and US presidents tomorrow is the last hope at preserving the world peace. We have been living on the gunpowder barrel for the last five years. The time has come for it to break or to explode. „ The man paused and then spoke in a voice which everyone could trust, „According to our reliable sources, the Chinese stack of five thousand atomic bombs had been armed since the beginning of December and Chinese President's hand is always within the reach of the launch button. This—“

During the last month, Neal heard the radio play the same thing over and over again. It was difficult to focus on listening to the same story for the twentieth time and his thoughts wandered away. After every dream in which he died, Neal noticed small changes around him that made him doubt if he was really awake and the world in which he currently found himself was real.

He was damn sure that his uncle had died from a liver failure due to heavy drinking five years ago but after one of the apocalyptic dreams, he learned from his mother that the uncle was not dead but had severe issues with the liver. There hung a world map on one of the walls of his bedroom. After being killed by a falling ceiling in his bed and waking up he noticed words in the corner of the map written with a black marker, „Neal is a cutie. „ He could swear that they were absent before he had fallen asleep but he also had an odd memory of his ex-girlfriend writing the words a month before they split up. And now, his perfect radio playlist was destroyed.

Neal tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. Maybe today would be different in a good way. Perhaps, a gorgeous secretary would start liking him, perhaps, he would get a promotion or at least a bonus.

But once he got to the office, Neal quickly remembered that every next day of his life was worse than the previous.

On the way to his doorless prison cell, he paused by the secretary and asked, „How was your weekend, Jane? „

Not sparing a glance, she replied, „Fine. „ and made Neal's heart sink into his stomach.

Just like always, the morning was depressive and boring. Today the customers on the phone were angrier than usual and did not hesitate to explain to him how he should do his job.

The lunch break came and Neal decided to escape his trench, to escape everything that reminded of the troublesome office and drove to dine at one of the two of his favorite eateries. He preferred to choose one along the way since they were both located in the vicinity of one another. The first one was crowded McDonald's with relatively slow service and the second was a home food restaurant that served food which never tasted homemade.

Along the way, a blinding light flashed from the direction of the city. Brake lights on all cars lit up. Most of them slid and hit one another violently, others drove off the road, hit a wide ditch and landed into a rough, bumpy field. Neal slowed down and followed an old van into the grass field. Rocking up and down through an uneven ground, hitting hidden obstacles, the car almost flipped over two times before stopping. Neal slammed his head into the steering wheel and passed out.

The sun was setting when he woke up. The first snow of winter fell from the gloomy sky. Upon inspecting his legs and hands and realizing that his only injuries were a few tiny bruises on his forehead, Neal stepped out of the car. He tilted his head back, closed his eyes and extended his palms to feel the falling snow. The sensation was different from what he had ever experienced as the snowflakes felt much warmer than the air.

The feeling of being safe and out of danger quickly turned into the familiar sixth sense telling him that he was about to die. Neal opened his eyes and saw the sky covered in falling pale ashes. He turned towards the city and saw a mushroom cloud losing its shape. A light flashed far behind a forest, from the direction of an ammunition factory.

The tingling in Neal's chest increased. He took a deep breath. His heart beat like a drum. A wall of destruction came from a new mushroom cloud. After laying down the forest, it swept away a giant hangar as if it was made of cardboard and slammed into Neal. His breath exploded out of his mouth. The light turned into darkness and in the darkness, he saw a tiny light which pulled him in with frightening speed and force.

„You might get punished for dozing off like that, „ whispered a soft female voice. A gentle touch of a finger ran down his spine. A cold sweat seeping under his clothes, Neal turned around and saw the beautiful secretary who barely ever spoke to him. Her sparkling eyes emanated deep sympathy.

„I hope you won't turn me in, „ Neal replied. Feeling shivers from the vivid imprint of the last death, he failed to manage even a faint smile.

„We'll see about that. Perhaps I won't if you treat me to a supper. „ She giggled, wavered for a second and walked away gracefully letting Neal enjoy the view.

His conversations with the secretary had always been very one-sided. He spoke in long complex sentences while she replied in one or two words. The way she had just acted felt strange and surreal. Was he alive or still dreaming? Perhaps, he should check it. For a moment, he felt an urge to cut his throat with scissors conveniently lying within his reach. Perhaps he should do it again and again until he got himself a better job or woke up in some mansion in Hawaii? He lifted the scissors up and ran a finger along their sharp edge. They would open the throat just fine.

A phone rang. Neal returned to reality and once again found himself on the modern battlefield trying to survive another day. But perhaps, he hoped, today won't be as terrible as always. Perhaps, Jane was not being cruel by teasing him.

After the working hours, he found Jane sitting at her desk with a lackluster frown. They had a short warm conversation, walked to his car and drove off to the city. She surprised Neal by describing a humble pizzeria in which they had supper as cozy and lovely. Outside of work, she was not some beauty queen as he had imagined her, but an ordinary woman with simple flaws and insecurities. A woman with whom he found it possible to have an intelligent conversation.

As they walked back to the car on an empty sidewalk, it started snowing. For a moment he paused to marvel at the slowly gliding fluffy snowflakes. He watched them pass a dim road light He watched them sacrificially hit the road to form soft foundations for their sisters. He felt a gentle wrap of woman's hand around his waist. He felt a warm forehead gently touching his cheek.

„It's beautiful, „ she said. „Please hold me. „

Neal realized that he must be in a dream because nothing so magical had ever happened to him. But this was a dream in which he wanted to survive at all costs. This time he would dodge death be it brought by a nuclear explosion or any other disaster.

„Let's hurry, „ Neal said. „We need to get away from the city. „ Holding the young woman by her hand, he rushed to the car.

They drove away from the city, away from the center and the ammunition factory, to the direction of an unpopulated country where bombs never dropped.

„Where are we going? „ she asked.

„Someplace safe, „ He replied and a familiar light flashed on the horizon behind them.

„I understand. „ She placed her hand on his and watched him with dreamy eyes.

Her grip on Neal's hand tightened. With an inhuman strength, she crushed his fingers. Neal's eyes grew wide. He screamed. But the scream lasted only a fraction of a second because his face was shoved into the steering wheel. Neal hit the brakes and the car started spinning. A crushing strike from above snapped his back in half. His head jerked backward and touched his bottom. He was dead. Once again he approached the light at the end of the tunnel. Once again he woke up in his bed drenched in sweat.

In Neal's mind, the end of the dream played on loop the whole morning. He had seen something terrible that could not be unseen, could not be forgotten. The beautiful smile, the terrible strength, the sudden change from a princess to the monster: everything felt so real. He felt exhausted both mentally and physically. He needed a rest. Screw the boss, screw the customers, he thought, turned off the phone and dug his head into the wet pillow.

Neal closed his eyes but awareness of the world did not dim. His thought machine did not turn off. He wondered, 'Could it be that it was impossible to fall asleep because he already was dreaming? '

Neal walked into the kitchen wearing only pajama shorts. There, just like every morning, he switched the kettle on and placed leftovers from supper into the microwave. As the two devices emitted their distinct sounds, Neal looked through the window. How would he die today?

The world outside seemed dull in comparison to the vivid worlds in the dreams. The sky was uniform gray and the city lacked light. There was no color in anything and no difference in people, car and bus shapes. It was a mixture of light and dark objects moving in predictable boring patterns.

Neal looked at his fingers. The hand felt as if it was not his own. He placed it on the surface of the heated kettle. The pain felt fake. Everything in this place, including him, it seemed, was lifeless. This was the bleakest dream he had ever had.

He opened the window and stepped on the sill. Winter wind blew at his face and exposed body but he did not feel cold nor did he feel fear to take a step forward. Everything felt just like in a dream. He glided down like a snowflake, with butterflies dancing in his chest and slammed into the ground.

Neal woke up in a silent room with white walls and nauseating smell. With a corner of an eye, he saw father whom he had not seen for two years sitting beside the bed, his grim and worried face directed at a TV hanging in front of the bed.

The quiet news said, „After the meeting, the eastern socialist alliance and NATO decided to sign a disarmament treaty and re-establish diplomatic relations. For too long we have stood on the brink of the third world war. For too long we have lived in fear. It is time to celebrate. It is time–“ Neal heard the news turn to mumble and then to white noise.

Half wrapped in bandages, half covered in plaster, Neal could not move a muscle, not even a finger, nor could he say a single word. A tear rolled down his cheek. He did not feel it.

The previous worlds in which he had died, turned to distant memories shrouded by a fog of amnesia. The last month's experiences felt like dreams, stayed in his memory as dreams and would be forgotten like dreams but Neal was damn sure that not all of them had been dreams.
2018-09-14 12:31
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