We all make mistakes in our lives.
An unkind word spoken in anger, or a lack of judgement concerning financial matters; seemingly simple mistakes can have wide-reaching consequences that we never anticipated. A late rent payment means the landlord doesn’t have the funds to fix the water cylinder at another property and a family of six has to go without showers for a week. The father loses his job, one of the children gets an infection – and the tired and distracted mother encounters some hapless pedestrian who tries to cross a busy road without waiting for the lights; hitting them with her car and killing them.
One small mistake can lead to catastrophic consequences for a completely unrelated party.
Observing the patterns of these events, you begin to see connected threads, and a bigger picture forms. Deliberate choices are the things with the most massive repercussions, each one containing the ability to make or break lives without most of us even knowing.
I suppose you could call me a sort of ‘master’ of predicting the outcomes of choices.
Growing up, reading was one of the few luxuries that I was allowed, since it kept me quiet, still and docile. I would read anything, from Robert Louis Stevenson to Anne McCaffrey, so long as it was fictional. One day I stumbled across a Nicholas Fisk book – science fiction – and in it I found a concept that deeply disturbed me.
What if none of your memories are real?
The book explored the lives of a family, cloned from the graves of long dead people, who had implanted memories of their daily activities outside the house, even though they never actually left the house. Curiously, they began to feel their confinement, even though they remembered running through open fields just hours before. It was as if some primitive part of their brains were still aware what had actually happened, and what was fake.
But the idea of not knowing which memories were real frightened me intensely. What if my entire life up until this point was all fantasy? What if I had been freshly grown from a vat, and this car trip was the first real memory of my life?
It was then that I resolved to burn that memory into my mind, to recall holding that book, on the grey pleather back seat, with houses and trees crawling past as the car drove home. I memorised the smell of the air, the curve of the metal window frame and the pinch of the seatbelt.
Most of all, I sought to capture that moment of feeling everything was real, the feeling that I was aware and knew that this wasn’t an implanted memory.
As the days and weeks passed, my fears about the concept of false memories faded away, replaced by worries about aliens invading Earth and global nuclear war.
But the memory itself did not fade with the fear, and I recalled it often.
If I were to rate, on a scale of one to ten, how good my life was, originally I think I would have said about a three. My father was in prison for sexual assault of a minor by the time I was fourteen, and shortly after that my mother was put into psychiatric care.
As for me? I was too old to adapt to the life of a foster child, and too damaged to be adopted.
Where once I sought surcease from reality in books, I now found that they couldn’t block out the moil of emotions bubbling near the surface at all times.
So I turned first to alcohol, then to drugs.
I coped for a little while like that, trying to at least be a little smart. I got a job at a fast food place and tried to get a degree through correspondence courses. When I fell pregnant, then needed to drive halfway across the country three times to access the convoluted public abortion services, I took too much unauthorised time off work and lost my shitty job.
Unable to pay my drug debts, or afford the final trip to the clinic, I ended up having my first baby at eighteen. Life took a predictably miserable turn from there; two more kids, at nineteen and twenty-one – the second from a rape at the hands of my dealer – then depression, which led to obesity and undiagnosed diabetes. That culminated in the loss of my left foot.
When they took my kids away from me, I almost cried with relief.
At the tender age of twenty-three, pregnant with my fourth child and sleeping on a flea-infested mattress in the back of a garage, I decided to end it all.
This was a hole there was no climbing out of. Short of some stranger putting me through detox, a miracle curing my hepatitis, and the sudden appearance of a functional support network of friends and family, the best years of my life were already gone.
I remember staring into the mirror of a public bathroom, aghast at my reflection. My once-olive skin was pocked and cratered, my eyes pouchy and my cheeks flabby with fatigue and stress. Every part of me wobbled as I limped away from the reflection with the lank, filthy brown hair.
In a toilet cubicle, with a plastic bottle filled with dirty tap water, I choked down the pills I’d stolen from the supermarket.
And so ended my first life.
Trees and houses crawled by as I held a book in my lap.
The curve of the window was as familiar as breath, and the grey pleather under my thighs felt faintly sticky as I shifted under the pinching seatbelt.
Of course I refused to believe that any of it was real at first, thinking it just a drug-addled memory caused by my public-toilet suicide.
But it was real.
The car pulled into our driveway, just as I remembered. My father shouted at me when I closed the car door too hard, my one-eyed cat strolled over and rubbed around my ankles.
It appeared I had been given some kind of a second chance.
I still didn’t know how to avoid my father’s molestations. I still didn’t have the skills, the resources or the education to know what to do.
But this time, when he was found out and sent to prison, I stayed away from alcohol.
Armed with the knowledge of my future fate, I immediately enrolled at a local university and signed up for a student loan to get me through. I worked nights at another fast food place, and met a guy through a co-worker.
Things were hard, but better than before. I could do this; I could avoid the pitfalls of my first time through life.
But you can never account for all the mistakes you might make.
When I was late, I put it down to the hours I’d been working and the stresses of study. But when I started to vomit frothy goo in the mornings, I sat beside the chilly porcelain bowl and cried until I thought my heart was going to sunder.
The abortion process again cost me my job – and I failed my courses for that semester. The termination happened this time though, and blessedly free of the curse of parenthood I went home to my boyfriend. The boyfriend who promptly left me – suddenly deciding I’d ‘murdered his baby’ even after all those heart-felt midnight conversations about how it would be best for both of us.
The drugs came easily – I knew where to find them – and my new life fell back into the familiar patterns of the old one. This time it was HIV instead of hepatitis, and by the time I made the decision to end my shitty, miserable life for the second time, I was a skeletal thing, covered in sores and needle-holes.
I’d been given another chance at life, and I’d blown it; two children this time – a boy and a girl – the girl infected from birth. With a surge of dark humour I reflected that this time at least I wasn’t an obese, uneducated cripple about to chow down on over-the-counter pain meds.
The overdose was blissful and warm, the river of opiates flushing away all the pain and the doubt.
I felt my pulse slow, and within a minute, my heart had once again ceased to beat.
The fake leather was tacky under my thighs and the taped corners of a library book sat atop them.
Out the curve of the window, suburban houses and trees crawled by, familiar, yet faintly terrifying.
I laughed out loud, causing my father to yell at me to ‘shut the fuck up’.
When we got home, I found the phone book and called child protection services.
My mother hated me, but with my father in prison, we got to stay together and I avoided foster care. I finished school with excellent marks and gained a scholarship, going to University to study English Literature. With fewer mental health issues and in a more liberal environment, I let my nascent bisexuality flourish and I got my first girlfriend – a tall, beautiful, art student with a wicked sense of humour. Her name was Bronwyn.
I made it to thirty-five that time around; Bronwyn was killed by a drunk driver and I spiralled into depression, then into prescription drug abuse. This time, I chose suicide quickly, banking on my next return to life; the next revolution of the engine.
Winning the lottery was a natural progression of the repetitive cycle of life and death, but I quickly discovered that neither my psyche, nor my mother’s was built for sudden wealth. I still sought out my lover, Bronwyn, but with each turn of the gears, I grew older and somehow harder - and in turn she became less and less attracted to me each lifetime.
But more than that; no matter how hard I struggled to keep her alive, she always died prematurely.
Eventually I couldn’t watch her die anymore.
Killing my father felt good. Sliding the kitchen knife into his groin, cutting through his femoral artery and his angry, erect genitals, felt better than any of the opiates I’d had in my other lives.
I was forgiven for the crime – after all, I was only ten years old, and I was ‘defending’ myself.
Killing my former drug dealer was much harder, and I failed – but as I died of the gunshot wound to my chest, I cursed him with my bloody lips, vowing to get him in the next life.
And I did. I cut his fucking heart out and held it in my hand.
Finding all the people who had wronged me in all my lives became my reason for existing. I could always ‘reset’ to that point I had created in my past if I fucked up. The book in my lap and the grey pleather became the most familiar thing in the world. Sometimes in my eagerness to start killing I’d reach over the seat in front of me and strangle my father with his seatbelt until my mother screamed and the car swerved into a power-pole, killing them both.
When I failed to kill someone the first time, I’d just make the successful attempt even more brutal than I originally intended. I came to depend on the terror in their eyes to keep me going. Out of all the addictions possible, it became my drug of choice.
Sometimes I had to be patient and wait for people to be born, other times I had to race to find them before they died. I remember seeing the film Groundhog Day in the theatre, and laughing and laughing until my throat hurt and the cinema staff kicked me out.
There is no redemption from this. There is no happy ending of waking up in bed with your true love. Every revolution of the Suicide Engine corrupts you further and further, until there is no hope of salvation, no hope of release.
But at least I can still glean some small satisfaction from this eternal torment I have trapped myself in; every time I go round, there are new people who wrong me, new victims for the next revolution.
Eventually, I think every one of you will cross my path, do me some trivial, but memorable wrong.
You’ll cut me off in traffic, eat with your fucking mouth open at a restaurant, let your brats scream too loud in a film, or cut in line. And I’ll burn your face into my memory, and I will find you.
So you’d better die fast, die afraid and knowing, and die well; because if you don’t, then on the next revolution of the Engine, I’ll make things that much worse for you.
Credited to Cymoril Melnibone