There was nothing. No sound, no light, not even darkness. Nothing. Yet he was aware, if only of himself.
He found himself being shoved into the back of a black 1937 Packard sedan. A large man in a pinstripe, double-breasted suit hopped in on the other side while another man pushed in from behind him. The car sped off as he tried to get his bearings. A skinny, rat-faced man in the front seat turned and regarded him with pale eyes. He had a jagged scar on his forehead, almost hidden by the fedora he kept pulled low. He sucked on a toothpick for a minute, then said, "Johnny, I’m real disappointed in ya’s. Yep, real disappointed. The Boss ain’t gonna like this, you holdin’ out on him."
Johnny ran trembling fingers through his sweaty, dark hair. "But I don’t know nothin’, Fingers. I’m tellin’ ya I don’t know nothin’."
"I believe ya, Johnny, honest I do. I’m just not so sure Crabs and Rocco do. What you guys say? You believe him?"
Each of the big men on either side of Johnny gave him a quick punch to the ribs. Johnny gasped in pain as he struggled to catch his breath. Fingers laughed dryly. "I guess they don’t believe you either, Johnny. That don’t bode well, if you know what I mean. Cuz if they don’t then the Boss probably won’t, and it ain’t a good thing when the Boss don’t believe you." He eyed Johnny one more time then turned to watch raindrops splatter on the windshield. "It ain’t a good thing at all."
The car sped on, driven by a dry, wrinkled old man who looked like he should have been driving a hearse. ‘Maybe he is,’ thought Johnny, ‘and I’m the corpse."
After a few minutes the car pulled off the road and through an open gate set in a high chain link fence. The driver steered toward a huge double door built into the side of a large warehouse, stopped short, and honked the horn. The doors opened and the driver guided the car quickly through. Two men hurriedly closed the doors again. Crabs and Rocco shoved open the ‘suicide’ car doors, yanked Johnny out, and threw him onto the concrete floor. Johnny leapt to his feet and cast a fearful look about the large warehouse. Crates of whiskey and other kinds of alcohol were stacked everywhere.
Standing a few feet away was the Boss, a fat, balding man who always seemed to be squinting. Two men were behind him, one of them carrying a sawed off, double-barreled shotgun in the crook of his arm. The Boss stared impassively at Johnny for a moment then gestured vaguely. "My good friend Fingers tells me you’re keeping secrets. I don’t like secrets, Johnny."
"Boss, I don’t know nothin’. I been trying to tell Fingers that but he won’t listen. You gotta believe me! I don’t know nothin’!"
The Boss nodded his head at Crabs and Rocco. Crabs grabbed Johnny, pulled his arms behind his back, and Rocco began punching him in the face. After several hits the Boss nodded again, and Crabs let Johnny slump to the floor. He spat out a tooth and staggered to his feet. "Boss, if I knew something I’d tell ya. Why would I hide anything from you? You been real good to me."
With a sigh the Boss said, "Still ain’t talking, huh? You know, Johnny, I could do this all night if I had to, but I just don’t have the time. I’m a busy man, so I’m gonna give you one last chance, and then things are gonna get ugly." He half turned his head to one of the men behind him. "Carmine, bring her out."
The man strode across the warehouse floor to a nearby door set in a side wall. He opened it, reached in, and started dragging a chair backwards. Johnny watched in horror as he saw that in the chair was his beloved wife, Mary, bound and gagged.
Carmine set the chair a few feet away and made sure to face Mary toward Johnny so he could see the terror in her eyes. Her hair was disheveled and her eyes were red from crying but to his relief she seemed unharmed.
For the first time Johnny truly felt frightened. He knew he wasn’t a good guy. Life on the streets had been rough and he’d done his share of things he wasn’t proud of. But ever since he’d met Mary things had been different. She somehow made him a better man and helped him rise above the streets. Johnny had been getting his life straightened out. He got an honest job and a decent apartment. Life with Mary had been good and he loved her more than he ever would have thought possible. Now panic clutched at his chest. "Boss! Tell me what you wanna know! Just don’t hurt her, please!"
The Boss stepped forward and backhanded Johnny across the face. "You little rat! You’re supposed to tell me what I wanna know!"
Johnny started crying out of sheer desperation. "But I don’t even know what you want."
The Boss snapped his fingers and pointed at Mary. The man with the shotgun aimed it at her, a look of evil determination on his face. "Last chance, Johnny. You gonna talk?"
Johnny slumped to his knees. "Please, Boss. Please? Just tell me what you want. I’ll tell you everything I know."
With a small, dry laugh the Boss said, "You know what, boys? I believe Johnny’s been tellin’ the truth. He really doesn’t know anything."
With hope in his voice, Johnny replied, "Yeah, Boss. That’s what I been saying."
The Boss shook his head in mock concern and said, "Just one little problem. Now you both have seen too much. I ain’t worried about a cowardly little weasel like you, but your old lady seems like the type who likes to talk."
"No, Boss. We just wanna mind our own business. You can trust us."
"Wish I could, kid." The Boss removed his hat and ran his fingers through his oily, thin hair. "Kill her."
Johnny screamed, "No!" and threw himself in front of Mary as the man with the shotgun fired both barrels. A hail of buckshot ripped through them, knocking the chair over as Johnny landed next to his beloved wife. The last thing he saw was her vacant blue eyes staring at him. With his final breath he managed to say, "I love you, Mary."
There was almost nothing. He was aware of more than himself, now. There was the grayness and the faint outline of unmoving shapes all around him.
The ground shook followed by a deep, ominous rumble. Johnny ran up the stairs and found Mary packing a large suitcase. "No, we don’t have time. Just grab a few bare essentials."
"But Johnny, I can’t leave all these things."
He took her by the hand and said, "We can come back for them when this is over. Everything’s gonna be okay. But the chief says we gotta evacuate for our own good. It’s just a precaution."
"Well, can you carry the suitcase for me, then?"
Johnny grabbed it and said, "Okay, but we have to leave right now. Come on." He led her down the stairs and out to their car. He tossed the suitcase into the back seat as Mary climbed through to the passenger side of their old Buick LeSabre convertible. He gunned the engine and headed down the street past empty houses. He turned right on Main Street and headed for the only bridge that led across the river and out of town. Suddenly there was a massive explosion and the ground shook violently. They both cast a fearful look back and to the right. They could see that the volcano was spewing a huge column of ash and black smoke that darkened the sky. Lightning laced continuously through the billowing clouds of smoke and ash that grew with alarming speed.
"Johnny, I’m scared. Get us out of here."
He squeezed her hand. "It’s going to be okay, Honey." He slammed on the brakes as a stream of molten lava blocked their way. He threw the car in reverse but suddenly a house behind them exploded in flames as a wall of lava poured through. They could feel the searing heat as the lava flow slid past them just a few feet away.
Johnny tried to turn left to get around the stream of lava but got the Buick’s bumper hung up on an abandoned car. He shouted, "Let’s get out of here!" But it was too late. Another wall of lava six feet high and moving faster than a man could run loomed over their car. There was an awful hissing, crackling sound as the leading edge of the lava touched their car. The tires blew out with a bang and burst into flames. As the heat overwhelmed them Mary threw herself into her husband’s arms and shouted, "I love you, Johnny."
He tried to answer but the intense heat burned away the oxygen and incinerated them both in seconds as the lava engulfed their car.
There was something all around him. Gray shapes of people standing everywhere, unmoving. As far as the eye could see were the colorless outlines of men, women and children. But here, next to him, was a lovely young woman, not so gray as the others. She, like eveyone else, stared blankly into the grayness. He managed to move, to touch her hand. It was cold.
They strolled hand in hand next to the railing, allowing the mild sea air to wash over them. Johnny watched as it tossed Mary’s hair and pressed her loose fitting sun dress against her slender body. How beautiful she was, he thought. He never would have believed a woman like her from a wealthy family could fall for a regular Joe like him. They had met barely six months before as his small construction company built a new room on her parent’s already massive home. Now they were here, honeymooning on a luxury ocean liner. He stopped and leaned his back on the railing and pulled her close. "I love you, Mary. I’ll never be able to say that enough."
She kissed him tenderly and replied, "I’ll never be able to hear it enough, Johnny."
He held her tight for a moment, then asked, "Would you care to dance?"
"I’d love to."
Johnny took her by the hand and led her to the ballroom where a band was playing a romantic ballad. They stepped out onto the dance floor and began swaying to the music. Suddenly the ship began to list sharply. It increased dramatically and objects began sliding across the floor. Women were screaming and he heard a male voice shout, "Tidal wave!"
Mary lost her footing and went down. Johnny quickly grabbed her arm and hooked his leg around a solid table leg. He pulled her to him and held her as the entire ship turned upside down with the tortured screech of tearing metal, shattering glass, and repeated small explosions.
They found themselves sitting on the under side of a table that was bolted to the floor. People were screaming in fear and agony all around them. The sound of rushing water could be heard in the distance and getting closer. "Johnny, what are we going to do?"
He squeezed her hand reassuringly and said, "Don’t worry. We’re going to get out of this." Suddenly two of the four bolts that held the table down broke loose, swinging it down at a sharp angle. Mary lost her grip on the table leg and nearly slid off. Johnny held on to her with his right hand and the table with his left.
Mary screamed, "Johnny! Don’t drop me! Please!"
He strained to hold on with all his might. He knew it was a thirty foot drop to the ceiling and it was littered with broken tables and jagged metal that had torn through the ornate tiles. Johnny felt his grip loosening. He refused to let go with his right hand, but his left hand slipped off the table leg. He screamed out in despair as they plummeted downward. They landed hard on the lethal debris below. Johnny had managed to put himself beneath Mary in a desperate attempt to save her but a shattered chair leg had rammed through his torso and was protruding out of her back. Her head was lying limply on his shoulder as if she were sleeping. He heard her murmur, "I love you..."
Johnny’s last sensation before he died was the smell of Mary’s fragrant hair.
Though he was still surrounded by grayness, Johnny could clearly see the multitudes of colorless people all around him. All of them were staring at nothing, wearing blank expressions and gray, nondescript clothing. Standing silently beside him was Mary. She was wearing white shoes, white pants and a white blouse. He looked down and saw that he was wearing white clothing as well. He reached over and took her cold hand. Johnny put it between both his hands and gently massaged it, hoping to warm her skin.
Mary took a deep breath and looked around her. For a moment she seemed confused, then she focused on the man beside her. "Johnny? What’s going on? Where are we?"
"I don’t know. This is so strange, but I think I’ve been here before. In fact, I know I have."
"I feel like I’ve been here before, too. Funny, but I don’t feel afraid."
Johnny, still holding Mary’s hand, began walking. "Why is that funny?"
"I’m not exactly sure, but it seems like I’ve been afraid an awful lot in the past." Mary shrugged and added, "But I’m not right now, especially with you here."
Johnny smiled. He felt so comfortable with this woman. Somehow he knew her well and yet it seemed they had just met. They strolled along, hand in hand, winding their way through the unmoving gray people. Once in a while Johnny or Mary would recognize a face but were never exactly sure where they’d seen it before. They both enjoyed walking together and would have been content doing so for much longer when they saw movement ahead. Mary pointed and said, "Who’s that?"
They stopped in their tracks and watched as an older lady, perhaps in her late sixties, came waking briskly toward them. She wore vivid colors and her hair seemed unnaturally red. As she neared she said, "There you two are. I’ve been looking all over. You had me worried."
Johnny and Mary simply stood and stared. The lady clapped her hands and said with urgency, "Come on, now. Let’s go! I have one last adventure for you."
Mary tentatively asked, "Um, do we know you?"
The lady seemed taken aback. "What? Do you know...? Don’t argue with me, just get moving!"
Johnny stepped protectively in front of Mary and said, "We’re not going anywhere, Ma’am. Just leave us alone." The lady stared incredulously at them for several long seconds. Johnny added, "Who are you?"
The lady burst into laughter. After moment she wiped her eyes and said, "Okay, I get it. I’m having a nervous breakdown. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Worst case of writer’s block I’ve ever had. I’m even arguing with my own characters."
Mary and Johnny exchanged glances. Mary said, "Ma’am, we really have no idea what you’re talking about."
"All righty, let me explain. Who knows, maybe this will be good therapy." She sighed deeply and went on, "My name is Jane Woods. I have written nineteen best selling novels and am working on my twentieth and final one. In each and every one of my novels an attractive young couple, Johnny and Mary, you two, have died. Never in the same way, mind you, but every time nonetheless."
"That’s right. You are characters from my books, figments of my imagination, and you really need to stop traipsing around in my mind. You’re giving me some hellacious writer’s block."
Johnny stepped closer and implored, "Why? Why do you kill us every time?"
Jane gently put her hand on Johnny’s shoulder. "Ah, yes. That’s a good question." She moved between them, hooked her arms in theirs and said, "Walk with me. I see I have some explaining to do."
After a moment of strolling arm in arm Jane said, "I feel like coffee in Paris. How’s that sound?" Before Johnny or Mary could answer they were sitting at a small table in front of a busy cafe. A waiter stepped brisky to their table and poured dark coffee into three small cups. He then nodded politely and moved off to serve other customers.
Jane took a sip and casually lit a cigarette. She took a drag and tipped her head back to watch the smoke float away. "Hmm," she said, "I used to enjoy this." She stubbed the cigarette out in an ashtray. "I haven’t smoked in over twenty five years. No idea why I’d imagine myself doing it now." She pushed the coffee away, "I only drink decaf now, too." With a sigh she added, "It’s no wonder I can’t seem to get anywhere. I can’t even imagine enjoying what I used to."
Mary looked at Johnny and shrugged. He motioned with his head for her to say something. Mary nodded and said, "I believe you were going to do some explaining."
Jane propped her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her fists. "Okay, here it is. I’m dying. The doctors tell me I have maybe three months and I would dearly love to finish my last novel before I... well, I’d love to finish it. You two have been in every novel I’ve ever written and I want you... no, I need you... in this one. So, would you please cooperate just this one last time?"
Mary replied, "Tell us why first. Tell us why you have us killed every time. Tell us or we won’t budge one inch." She folded her arms defiantly against her chest. "We’re not going back until we get some answers."
Jane closed her eyes tightly and slowly shook her head. "I can’t. It’s too painful."
Johnny placed his hand on Jane’s shoulder and gently massaged it. "Please. We have to know."
"This is ridiculous!" Jane gestured with her hands thrown into the air. "You two are just characters from my imagination! I don’t have to tell you anything." She began rubbing her forehead with both hands.
"No," said Johnny. "We’re more than that, I can sense it. We have some meaning for you or we wouldn’t be in all of your novels."
Jane sniffled and they realized she was crying. With a deep, shuddering sigh she said, "You’re right. Damn it all, you’re right." She squeezed her eyes shut and dabbed at them with a napkin. After a long pause she went on, "Okay, here it is." She looked at them with an expression of fondness. "Johnny, you were my big brother and Mary was your wife." She paused briefly. "You both died nearly fifty years ago."
Johnny grasped Mary’s hand and held it firmly. Both had sensed a special bond.
Jane struggled for a moment, finding it difficult to continue while Mary and Johnny waited patiently for her to speak. With another sigh she managed, "It was your third anniversary. You called and asked me if I could come over and... and babysit. I was always glad to go to your house. Mom had died years earlier and Dad was a good for nothing drunk."
Jane buried her face in her hands and began to sob. Mary stood and put her arm around Jane’s shoulder. Between sobs Jane said, "I loved you both so much, Johnny. You were the only one who ever cared about me. And Mary was so good to me, too. And I got you both killed!" After a pause, Jane continued in a meek voice. "I wasn’t home. I wasn’t in the building. Without your permission I went out with the baby. I thought I was so grown up. I wanted to show her off to my friends so I took her to McCreary’s. My friends used to hang out there." She began to softly sob again.
Mary asked, "We had a baby?"
After a while Jane stopped crying. "Yes. Her name was Bitsy. She was such a beautiful baby." Jane took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "There was a fire. You came home that night to find the apartment building engulfed in flames. You both fearlessly ran into that building to save us but you never made it out. But you died for nothing." Jane stopped to blow her nose. "So now I guess you’re wondering why I have you killed in all my novels, right?"
Mary replied, "Well, yes. We don’t understand, to be honest."
"Neither do I." Jane gave a small laugh. "I imagine it’s guilt. I hate using this word, but I suppose it’s cathartic. My own way of penance."
"But we still don’t know exactly what happened." Mary exchanged glances with Johnny. "We still don’t know why you have us killed over and over. Can’t you at least explain that much?"
"I want to, but I’m afraid. The pain of the truth is something I’ve been avoiding for so long now. How can I ever explain what happened?"
Johnny smiled. "I think you know how." He put his arm around Mary and pulled her close. "In the way you know best."
Jane sat staring at the memory of her brother for a long moment before she realized what he meant. She nodded slowly. "Of course... of course. After all these years. Why have I never thought of this before? It’s time for the truth." She leaned forward and squeezed Johnny and Mary’s hands. "Thank you."
The young couple turned as if about to leave, but Mary paused to ask, "Before we go back, Jane, what about our baby? Was she alright?"
Allowing herself a smile, Jane answered, "Yes, yes she was. I raised her as my own daughter. She has three kids of her own now and her first grandchild on the way. She’s a wonderful person, like her parents."
Mary and Johnny smiled and faded to a thin gray mist, then disappeared altogether.
Johnny turned the car down fifth street. Dinner at Chez Henri’s was fantastic. Mary loved that restaurant and it was the perfect place to celebrate their anniversary. She sat close to him with her head on his shoulder, happy and content.
As they drove down the street they saw smoke billowing from the windows of their three story apartment building. Johnny immediately pulled over and jumped out. He came around to Mary’s side of the car and said, "Wait here!"
Mary shoved the car door open with surprising force and shouted, "No! I’m coming with you!" Before Johnny could react she shot past him and ran for the front door as the sound of distant sirens wailed.
They both ran into the building. Johnny shouted, "Mary, we have to make sure everyone gets out. Bang on their doors. I’ll go up and get the baby!"
Mary ran to the first door she saw and pounded on it. Old man Krebs answered in his bathrobe. Before he could say anything Mary shouted "Fire! Get out!" She then ran from door to door, warning as many people as she could.
Johnny bounded up the stairs, pausing to pound on doors and yell at people to get out. He made it to their third story apartment and didn’t bother with the key. He kicked the door open and rushed in. The apartment was empty. He desperately called out, "Janie! Where are you?"
The smoke was getting thicker, making him choke and cough. The crackle of growing flames was becoming a roar. Johnny ran next door and banged as loud as he could. He heard screaming inside. The door was locked so he kicked it open. Mrs. Fantetti was huddled in a corner with her two little boys. All three were terror stricken. Johnny ran over and yelled, "Come on! We gotta get you outa here!" He grabbed both boys and carried them out of the room, followed closely by Mrs. Fantetti. They made their way down the stairs just as the building lost power. They stumbled out the front door into fresh air. Firemen were all over now, already set up and blasting water through shattered windows. Flames could be seen in several of the windows.
Johnny stood and looked around. He didn’t see Mary. He instinctively knew she was still inside, looking for her sister and the baby. Johnny shouldered his way past two firemen and ran back through the front door, ignoring shouts for him to stop. Again he bounded up the stairs. As he cleared the second flight there was an explosion. Flames blew through a wall below him and the flight of stairs fell into the roaring blaze. The smoke burned his lungs and eyes as he made his way to their apartment. The door was still open and as he ran in Mary was coming out. She screamed, "I can’t find the baby!"
"They must have gotten out! Come on, we gotta get out of here!" Johnny led Mary to the stairs that went to the roof. "There’s no way back down! The firemen can get us off the roof!"
The noise and smoke were incredible. Mary's legs gave out half way up the stairs to the roof, unable to walk any further. Johnny carried her the rest of the way. He shoved the door open, staggered out onto the flat roof and fell into an area that seemed clear of smoke.
Mary was coughing and gagging and after a moment vomited violently. Flames suddenly shot through near them. Johnny helped Mary up and they made their way to a corner and began waving their arms frantically. A ladder truck was set up and the firemen immediately started swinging it toward them. A fireman was standing on the small platform. He shouted, "Hang on folks! We’re gonna get you out of there!"
Johnny held Mary tight and pointed down to the ground. There was Janie, standing on the sidewalk. In the light of a street lamp they could see her, holding the baby, staring back at them in obvious horror.
The fireman was only a few feet away when the roof collapsed into a maelstrom of flame and smoke. Then the entire building slowly and noisily caved in on itself. Before the flames consumed them, Mary had just enough time to say "I love you, Johnny." And she knew he loved her, too.
He was surrounded by grayness, an almost colorless nothing. He sensed her beside him. He touched her hand, and it was warm.