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Part I

Jay emerged from the depths of his dreams with no recollection of the events that transpired within them. His mind was empty as the cell in which he lay, until a profound sensation of déjà vu washed over him, along with a familiar yet distant memory—the memory of an antique silver alarm clock upon which the undoubtedly foreign word ricordare was engraved.

Before he could do so much as consider writing it down, the word evanesced from his memory like a snowflake in the palm of his hand.

He knew not why that nebulous thought surfaced in his head each morning. It felt unspeakably important, but for what reason he could not discern. The other day, a fluke of the unconscious mind led him to remember—for once—a fact he had gleaned from his studies long ago, which stated that the feeling of significance and familiarity commonly associated with déjà vu is merely an illusion, a mental error of sorts. He refused to believe it, however, as he clung to the hope that it could be a sign of recovery.

When staring at the blurred ceiling lost its appeal, Jay blindly groped for his spectacles on the nightstand nearby, then languidly fit them over his eyes with the lethargic despondency of one who had been incarcerated for far too long. He then forced himself to rise from his uneven cot and proceeded to carry out his daily regimen of memory retrieval exercises—which entailed such meditative actions as closing his eyes, retracing his steps from birth to present, probing the visceral remnants of broken memories, and other techniques prescribed by his doctor to aid in his quest for remembrance. Of course, these tasks were easier said than done, considering the arrant lack of steps to retrace and the wandering nature of his attention.

Dr. Lowe happened to be one of the few human beings who cared to display even the slightest semblance of kindness toward Jay since the accident that nearly took his life, positively took the lion’s share of his memories, and ultimately left him but a hollow replica of the man he used to be. Indeed, he hadn’t the foggiest notion of what his former self was like; and because he lived such a private life in the past, there were none who could enlighten him. At least, none that he or the state knew of.

But of one thing he was quite sure: he was not a murderer.

Then again, every sane individual involved in his trial seemed to think he was. The preponderance of the evidence—from his well-witnessed and apparently reckless escape, to a literal confession in his own handwriting—pointed to one conclusion: Jay Whittaker killed Skyler Cross, his own fiancée, in cold blood.

The most damning evidence against him was the crumpled wad of notebook paper found in a wastebasket, in the bedroom of his and Skyler’s apartment, that read merely: Killed Skyler in a fit of rage. Felt no remorse.

Farcical was the word Jay thought most appropriate to apply to this element of his own case, for he knew that even the dullest human beings operate with purpose in mind, and he simply couldn’t conceive of a world where divulging one’s criminality so blatantly—with one’s own hand, no less—would benefit the murderer in any way. The prosecution, it seemed, was far more imaginative than he.

“Is one not far more likely to find truth in brevity than in eloquence?” the prosecutor said during the trial. “You all know the answer to that, I trust. And here, I think it’s safe to say we have the very soul of brevity before us, covered in Mr. Whittaker’s own fingerprints, written in his own, dare I say, distinguished handwriting … a confession in every sense of the word. Need I say more, Your Honor?”

The words still rang in Jay’s ears clear as ever, as they sealed his fate of interminable imprisonment for a crime he believed to have never committed. He simply knew he was innocent, but unfortunately could not supply any reasoning to support it—for, a suspiciously short time after the murder occurred, that fateful car collision rendered him incapacitated for three months and imparted the curse of retrograde amnesia upon him. Virtually all memories preceding the accident were obliterated from his consciousness, including a variety of basic understandings that he had to relearn, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Then came Dr. Lowe, a ray of hope in the abyss.

“There is a very real possibility of regaining your memory,” the doctor once said to Jay. “The memories may come back to you in your day-to-day thoughts, or even your dreams.”

“Or not at all,” Jay added grimly.

“Perhaps. But you’d do well not to forget that a single recollection could be enough to set you free.”

And how could Jay forget that statement when it was one of the only positive notions to have met his cognition throughout the entirety of his legal ordeal? It made him particularly worried that the vague mental image of a silver alarm clock he awoke to each morning was something invaluable to his endeavor, like the shallow breath of a key memory that refused to die with the rest of its brethren. And then there was the strange word engraved on the clock. Despite having been cognizant of the word every morning, he never managed to remember it for longer than a handful of seconds after awakening.

Jay paced back and forth along the barred gate of his stark, mind-numbingly featureless cell and struggled to shake an itch from his mind—a similar feeling to the one you might get when you leave the house and know you’ve forgotten something, only you have no clue as to what that something could possibly be.

His most prominent hope was that he would remember where he was driving to prior to the accident that ruined his life. Surely I couldn’t have been fleeing a crime scene, he thought. I must have been rushing to an appointment or an interview or something … and if I only knew where it was I was rushing to, I might have a good excuse on my hands. But that doesn’t solve the issue of my supposed written confession. Was it a forgery? Did I write it for another reason? Did I … no, I didn’t kill her. I would never do such a thing to anyone, let alone my fiancée. I don’t remember how I felt about her, but I couldn’t have possibly been driven to murder no matter how insufferable she was. Never. In fact, she was probably very nice. Why else would I have been involved with her? His thinking stalled for a moment, as was typical in the thin atmosphere of his psyche. Maybe … maybe I was different then? With different standards and different morals and … no. Stop. This is madness. You are innocent, Jay. Innocent!

The dinner bell—which, by all accounts, sounded more like a tyrannical robot than a bell—buzzed loudly and broke his trance. He was ever glad the detestable sound only blared thrice in the daytime hours and thus never had the chance to startle him while he was sleeping.

Before long he was being escorted to the prison cafeteria along with a number of other inmates, and eventually seated himself at one of the stainless steel tables, across from the closest thing he had to a friend other than Dr. Lowe.

“I think I know what it means,” said Dennis through his grizzled beard, throwing a glance at Jay’s left hand.

Jay looked down at the black tattoo of the letter A emblazoned on the back of his hand. Every time one of the inmates asked him what it stood for, he never had an answer to give. “What is it this time?”

“Accursed,” Dennis grumbled. “You haven’t remembered a damn thing since you’ve been here, and it’s looking like you ain’t about to any time soon.”

“I’ve remembered a few things,” corrected Jay. “Do you know what the capital of Tuscany is?”

Dennis sighed. “Jay …”

“It’s Florence.”

“You know what I mean, Jay; none of it’s relevant. Have you been doing the—”

“Yes, I’ve been doing the exercises. I’m beginning to think Dr. Lowe just prescribed them to make me feel like I’m in control, so I don’t go insane while I’m waiting for some magic epiphany to strike.”

“I sometimes wonder if it’s not better to persist in hopeful delusion than confront the darkness in life,” said Dennis earnestly.

“Don’t get all philosophical on me, man. It doesn’t suit you.”

Dennis laughed. “Boy, you sure learn a lot about yourself in prison.”

“I can’t say the same,” Jay said dryly.

Eventually, Jay consumed his last spoonful of … well, he wasn’t sure what it was exactly, only that its utter blandness made him feel dead inside—and made his way back to his cell among a procession of guards and prisoners.

The gate closed behind him with a clatter of shuddering metal. Home sweet home, he thought dolefully, taking a seat on the edge of his cot. 

It always amazed him how quiet the facility became during the late and early hours of the day; even more amazing were the hellish effects such silence had on him, for there was often nothing to distract him from the sheer emptiness of his existence.

After a lengthy period of staring at the selfsame wall in a state of deep, dark rumination, Jay laid himself down and—after much tossing and turning—descended into the realm of dreams.

Part II

Jay trudged through the snow for no reason but that it was the only reasonable option. He did so for so many leagues that he lost all perception of time; and somehow, against the very laws of physics and biology, his stamina never faltered.

He finally came upon a quaint log cottage with plumes of smoke billowing out of its chimney and windows that illuminated the outer darkness with lambent firelight. Eager to be warm again, he rushed toward the wooden door, pushed it inward, and stumbled inside.

Whether the inside was warm or not he did not know, for his consciousness drifted elsewhere—specifically toward the man sitting in the rocking chair which creaked repeatedly in the corner.

The man was Jay—or a near-perfect copy of him, complete with designer specs and an A tattoo on his left hand—only with a more contented and thoughtful countenance, and dressed in a relatively sophisticated manner.

“Good evening,” said the clone. “I’ve been expecting you.”

Jay’s heart skipped a beat as he recognized the similarities between himself and the clone. “Wh-who are you?” he muttered.

“I am you,” replied the clone.

Jay thought about the answer for a moment and realized that it availed him in no way, considering he didn’t even know who he was himself. He cleared his throat and asked hesitantly, “Who am I?”

The clone let a smile broaden upon his face. “You are many things, Jay.”

Jay appeared dissatisfied with the answer and let it show in his expression for an interval of silence.

Folding his hands in his lap, the clone continued. “First of all, you were a practitioner of the lucid arts—one who studies the nature of dreams and uses that knowledge to control his own dreams, just as one might control himself in reality.”

Instantly, Jay found the idea infinitely fascinating and even exciting. Also exciting was the fact that he had finally learned something about his past self.

Before he could speak, the clone spoke again: “Have you ever wondered where the tattoo on your hand came from, and what it means?”

“Indeed I have,” Jay said as he sauntered over to a nearby armchair and fell into its cushy embrace. A fireplace crackled pleasantly nearby.

“Then let it be known: the letter A, in this case, stands for awareness, and the mark you bear is a tool in the dreamer’s arsenal used for attaining control over his dreams. You see, one is usually not aware he is dreaming until reminded, and your tattoo serves as an ever-present reminder that you may be in a dream at any time. With this awareness, it will often occur to you to determine your state of wakefulness, so that—in the event that you’re dreaming—you may proceed to consciously manipulate the dream world.”

What the clone said made perfect sense to Jay as if he had learned it all before. He looked at the A on his hand once more, and—as if by magic—he became aware of the strangeness around him, like the grandfather clock’s seeming inability to decide what time it was, and the way in which the rug below his feet seemed to change colors every time he blinked. “I’m dreaming,” Jay concluded.

“That you are,” confirmed the clone. “And it was in this very cottage that you once practiced lucid dreaming as an escape from the stresses of reality. This mental manifestation of the cottage may not bear perfect resemblance to the real thing; but it exists, I assure you, in one form or another. Few know of it, and the authorities who hold you captive are not among that few.”

Jay’s mind began to reel with questions as his gaze traveled around the rustic cottage of knotted wood and crude masonry. For a moment he couldn’t decide what to ask next, until his curiosity alighted on one inquiry in particular. Afraid of what the answer might be, he asked reluctantly: “Who killed Skyler?”

The clone stopped rocking in his chair and froze. “I am not God, Jay. I’m the embodiment of your subconscious, and thus I only know as much as you ever knew.” He resumed rocking and Jay appeared rather disappointed.

“But I can tell you one thing,” the clone added. “You did not kill Skyler.”

Jay smiled faintly and released a sigh of tremendous relief. Perhaps I was less confident about my innocence than I liked to admit, he thought.

After a span, Jay nearly asked his alter ego if he ever truly loved Skyler, for he could not remember much of anything about her—but he thought better of it as he realized that both possible answers would be equally painful for him to hear. He instead prepared to ask another question, but the clone read his mind and raised the topic before he spoke. “She died very close to the time you rushed away from the apartment in your sedan, am I mistaken?”

“That’s what the authorities tell me. But why did I flee the scene with such urgency?”

“You were late for a flight,” the clone explained with slight amusement.

“A flight? Whatever for?”

“To aid your deranged cousin Andrew in the abatement of his financial mess. He lives in Boston, and—interestingly enough—hasn’t left the reclusion of his own home in nigh on thirty years.”

The name sounded familiar to Jay right away, as did the trip he nearly embarked on. If he recalled correctly, Andrew was one of the only surviving members of his abysmally ill-fated family, and incredibly paranoid when it came to the government and its alleged undue interest in the personal lives of everyday Americans like himself. “So then, Skyler must have been killed after I left the apartment.”

“Of course. You would have contacted emergency services if it were otherwise.”

“It all makes sense,” said Jay with an air of satisfaction. “Well, almost all of it. I still don’t know who wrote the confession note in my own handwriting.”

The clone stood up slowly and smiled wryly, drawing out the tension for as long as he could. “You did.”

“Tell me why,” Jay demanded. “I have to know.”

“I will not only tell you; I will show you. Come with me.”

Jay rose from his chair and followed the clone down a short hallway, eventually arriving at a modest bedroom with a single bed and a wooden nightstand. On that nightstand lay a small notebook, and next to that stood an antique silver alarm clock.

The clone looked Jay right in the eye as he picked up the notebook. “This is your dream journal,” he said, proffering the notebook to Jay. “Another invaluable implement for one who dwells in dreams. Such simple record-keeping empowers you to become acutely aware of your dream patterns, and thus exploit them to seize control of your surroundings.”

Flipping through the notebook, Jay couldn’t make sense of the text on its pages; the letters and symbols shifted too capriciously in the uncertain medium that was Jay’s dream. He did, however, recognize the paper as identical to the kind he ostensibly wrote his confession upon. His throat constricted. “I … I must have had a dream in which I killed Skyler.…”

The clone nodded. “You were at the apartment the night you had the dream—or should I say, nightmare. You wrote it down, the vile thought of it conflicted with your true character, and so you tossed it away in disgust. It’s not uncommon to dream of things you would never do, or feel, or consider in real life.”

“And if I would have destroyed the note rather than toss it in the wastebasket—”

“Then you might have been a free man at this moment.”

Jay cursed his poor judgment, but then relaxed as he realized how much beneficial knowledge he now possessed, and how it could very well set him free. His attention turned to the silver alarm clock, an appealingly simple display of workmanship that bore few extraneous features. Engraved along its bezel was a word strangely familiar to Jay.

Ricordare, Jay whispered, running his incorporeal fingers over the engraving. “What does it mean?”

The clone’s expression at this moment was strangely devious. “’Tis an Italian word,” he said. “It means … remember.”

“And for what reason would that word be associated with my alarm clock?”

“As with the tattoo and the journal, the clock is another tool of your trade. Though not a tool of awareness … but of remembrance.”

Jay’s eyes grew more attentive at the mention of remembrance, the very thing he had been chasing after for a dreadfully long time.

The clone carried on. “Of the things you learned in your oneirological studies, one of the most crucial was this: dreams are a nightly occurrence without exception, provided you’re a diurnal human being; though it is often that we fail to remember them. You see, in order to remember one’s dreams  … one must be abruptly awoken mid-dream.”

As a horrible knot formed in Jay’s stomach, he felt the sensation occur outside of the dream, as if he existed in two worlds at the same time. “No … that can’t be true. Are you telling me—”

“That you will not remember this conversation when you rise from your slumber? Yes, that is precisely what I’m telling you.”

“No!” Jay shouted. He shook his head as though sheer denial would be enough to change the fabric of his reality. “You’re lying!”

If the clone made an attempt to hide his sadistic amusement, it was met with failure. “Is it truly better to persist in hopeful delusion than confront the darkness in life? No matter; you shall have the best of both. Every day you will wake up with a spark of hope, and every night you will experience the dark truth.”

“Silence!” Another shout left Jay, this time laced with equal parts fury and despair. “I can remember this; I know I can.…”

“The laws of nature will not suspend themselves in your favor, Jay. The morning sun rises even now, to ease you into the day … slowly.”

Jay tried to ignore the clone and focus entirely on the critical facts he learned, but the dream grew unstable as he tried to concentrate. He noticed again the sensation of being in two places at once, feeling as if a neural dam between his mind and reality had been compromised; there was no stopping the shift in consciousness, the fading, the influx of light, the resurrection of the physical senses.… There was nothing more he could do.

Jay emerged from the depths of his dreams with no recollection of the events that transpired within them. His mind was empty as the cell in which he lay, until a profound sensation of déjà vu washed over him, along with a familiar yet distant memory—the memory of an antique silver alarm clock upon which the undoubtedly foreign word ricordare was engraved.

Before he could do so much as consider writing it down, the word evanesced from his memory like a snowflake in the palm of his hand.


Written by Matthew Varney

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