One morning in early September I awoke from a most powerful dream, the kind that I want to dive back into but can never quite get there again. I dreamed of a woman from Israeli whose name was Achim. I have never remembered the name of a fictional person in a dream, and yet, it was very clear to me when I awoke. Achim. Our connection was strong, even when we first met. Together, we could see into the future in an attempt to cure humanity of a horrible plague.
The emotions of the dream stayed with me, allowing me to hold the story until I found inspiration to write. Just a few days ago in Squamish, B.C., I met an Israeli woman at the farmers market. We talked for more than an hour beneath an awning to avoid the intermittent rains. Before we parted I asked, “Does ‘ahg-hem’ mean anything in Hebrew?” She responded, “Yes, it means ‘brothers’.” This was significant to the dream, as you will read …
“I am your eyes to the future,” she said, “Take my hand and you will see.”
I entered the 5-n-diner as I had dozens of times before, its interior scarcely changed since the middle of the twentieth century when the silver shell café had been moved to its current location from some other place long ago forgotten, maybe just down the street, or maybe across town.
The wait staff had changed often in recent months, as the quantity of patrons had continually reduced. The plague unchecked had taken more lives than anyone could have imagined, nearly five billion all told.
Some left town, heading to smaller, less populated areas believing they may be safer there despite the statistics which demonstrated no variation of infection rates between population centers or the country side. Some returned home to spend time with family before they were taken too. Others simply didn’t come to work, unable to call in or to ask for time off. Too many passed alone, the onset of the final hours quick to take what it owned–the hope of every person the plague touched. Even those who were carriers without signs did not know for how long they would yet live.
The riots had long ago subsided in those early years when fear drove the masses to react. Now, only small pockets of outbreak occurred in reaction to the media when yet another cure was announced which ultimately failed. In some respects, life carried on, day after day as routine the best cure for the unknown.
The seats were each patched in several places, the stiff vinyl edges caught the pant legs of unwary patrons. The old Formica table tops glistened only from those corners which seldom received contact by a coffee cup or cleaning rag.
I would have sat at my usual spot, my own sense of routine necessary to me, a sense of safety in an unsafe world. But that day another patron was already occupying my space. My space. The words echoed in my mind as I realized how odd they sounded. Ownership no longer carried the same value. If your future is no longer governed by things in your control, then ownership of land, a house, a particular booth at a local café means less. Just the same, I found myself staring at the man wanting to ask him to move. He became uncomfortable, looked repeatedly over his shoulder and then back to me, concerned perhaps that he had done something wrong.
I broke my stare, apologized with a half smile, and moved to a booth on the other side of the isle. I lifted the menu into my hands, determined to try something new instead of the same cup of soup and salty crackers every day.
The waitress walked to the edge of my booth, but I took notice only of her shoes in the periphery of my vision. She stood for a moment, waiting. I remained focused on the menu. When she spoke, my chest heaved, her voice deeply familiar like a song my father had sung to me while I was in my mother’s womb. I nearly dropped the menu and looked up.
I knew her, not in this form, but as a woman who had visited me in my dreams a few times since my work to find a cure for the plague had begun. Take my hand and you will see. Her skin was dark, golden brown, her hair black and long. She smiled but said nothing, she didn’t even take my order. She just turned and walked away, returning in a few minutes with my cup of soup and a small ceramic plate which held a dozen salty crackers, most of them broken.
She extended her hand and said, “I am Achim.”
I don’t know why but I did not respond. I wanted to reach to hold her hand but was afraid I would never let go. She reached into her apron to hand me a soup spoon. Our hands touched and I instantly became dizzy, the spoon clattered to the floor.
Embarrassed, I responded, “Ack- Ackhem?”
She retrieved the first spoon from the floor and placed another on the table next to the soup bowl. She laughed in a world in which the sound of laughter had nearly been lost. Half the patrons in the café turned to look, some annoyed by her unusual outbreak, not unlike clapping in church. She didn’t notice and continued to smile.
“Not quite,” leaning closer until the mysterious space between her breasts hovered in front of my eyes, “Ahh-gh-heem” the back of her throat lightly engaged to give grace to pronunciation which I could not duplicate. She was playing with me, I could tell, holding her position there, smiling.
I smiled back but did not try again. Instead, I asked “What does it mean?”
“Brothers.” And then she stood up and leaned instead on the opposite side of the booth.
“That’s, … that’s odd. I mean,” feeling foolish for my approach, “… well, you were named ‘Brothers’. Why?”
She smiled again, “Our family is very close. When our mother died,” she momentarily lost her smile, “my brothers and father were spared. My father is yet grieving and has not spoken for many years. I took the name to let my brothers know I am here, for them …” her smile returned, “until the end.”
I did not leave the café that day. I did not return to the lab. I remained in the booth, reviewing notes from my research, drinking and eating what Achim brought to me. When she had time, she sat with me and asked about my work. But it didn’t feel as though we were meeting for the first time, rather just catching up.
That night we walked back to my apartment on the upper side of downtown, avoiding the elevated trains and the underground. I reached for her hand a few times but she withdrew. She held my elbow and wrapped her arms around my waist, but she never let her hands come into contact with mine.
Two days later she moved in. She didn’t ask and I did not protest when she showed up at my door, her belongings carried to my front porch by the taxi cab driver. We didn’t talk about it. It just worked. Our lives merged easily, as though we had never lived apart. The plague had taken the joy of conversation away from all but children who talk to themselves in their make believe world. For us, conversation was not needed to convey most of what we shared, cooking, long walks, and making love.
But after a few weeks of our living together, I found the courage to ask why she would not allow my hand to come into contact with hers. We were several blocks from home, her arm woven through mine as I had come to accept as the norm.
She stopped walking, turning me to face her. Her eyes held mine. I was paralyzed by an intensity she had not yet conveyed, “Are you certain you are ready?”
“To see the future.” She held out her left hand, pulled back her sleeve, and waited.
“I don’t understand.”
“You will. Take my hand.”
Suddenly, I was afraid as I no longer recognized the woman in front of me. She had gained a strength of conviction I did not understand. What had she been hiding from me?
I removed my right hand from my jacket pocket, hesitated, and then placed it in hers.
She closed her eyes and bowed her head.
At first I felt dizzy and had to step my right foot to the side to stabilize myself. Then my head was flooded with images of people I knew, my co-workers, Achim, friends I had not seen for many years. I saw people falling to the street, collapsing under their own weight. I saw others embracing, smiling for the first time in years. I saw a ceremony in which I was granted an award for the work I conducted in the lab.
I quickly pulled my hand back from hers, shaking, and looked up, “What just happened? What was that?”
“A potential future.”
“Yours. Mine. Ours. Everyone,” She paused, “the human race.”
“I don’t understand. What? How?”
“It’s just something I was born with, a gift I discovered when I was young.”
“You can see the future?”
“No, not really. I can only experience its emotion. I believe I am a conduit to those who can see. But there are very few. I have met a few others, ” she raised her head again, “and you, who can see what I feel.”
“You mean, I just saw, … saw the future?”
“Yes. It is rare, the connection we share. I have been searching for you for many years.”
Tears filled my eyes, my chest heaved again for I was very scared.
“You lied to me! You, … do you even love me? Or, or am I just part of some experiment?” I was nearly yelling, fear and pain taking over me.
Achim countered, defensive at first, “Yes.” She took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a moment and then opened them again, whispering, “I love you dearly. That is very real for me. B- … but, we have something we need to do together, something even greater than the love we share.”
I took a few steps back, feeling as though my world was suddenly spinning too fast. I could neither remaining standing in one place nor run away. Achim took my elbow again, turned me about to face the direction from where we had come, and we walked toward home. We talked nearly the entire way, saying more than we had for the whole time we had lived together. When the implication of what we discussed became clear, I realized that she needed me to see what she felt, and I needed her to learn which path I should take in my research at the genetics lab.
That night we sat on the floor, wrapped in blankets as the first of what would be many winter storms settled in. We stayed up all night, holding hands, learning to explore together. I verbalized what I saw in my head as she directed the emotion of the future into me. We were exhausted and fell to sleep as the sun rose behind the thickness of low clouds burdened with snow. I called in sick to the lab the next morning in order to stay at home with Achim.
We learned, over time, that we were not seeing a predetermined future, but a potential of what could unfold given all the avenues. Minuscule changes each step of the way gave birth to myriad futures, some of which ended with the extermination of the human race in a matter of months, others in years. The difference between the two extremes grew from subtle nuances in what we did now and in the next few weeks.
I grew afraid to return to the lab, to push in any direction at all. I felt paralyzed by the overwhelming weight of each direction I could take. Too many options to remember, too many to manage in our heads. To compensate, we incorporated my laptop to record the sessions, using interactive diagrams to capture the complex array of future trees. When the calls came in from the lab, concern for my extended absence, I stated I was working from home. I was making progress but needed more time. Achim was fired from the café.
When seldom left our neighborhood, food delivered two or three times a day. We went for walks in the fresh snow, watched movies, took hot baths, and made love when we realized we were not making progress. Yet, there was a sense of limited time that grew in our hearts and heads. The future was approaching the present too quickly.
Sometimes Achim grew frustrated with me as my lack of focus would cause her emotions to spiral out of control. She would curl into the pillows and weep until the strength of what she experienced had passed. Gradually we learned, together, to pause and jump between fragments of her emotions by way of the images in my head. Together, we formed a vehicle which traveled through time, a union more powerful than any I had ever imagined.
Finally, after nearly three weeks, we envisioned a future in which the human race survived. We then went back to the present, fine-tuning the variables of my experiments and the deployment strategy in order to bring the survival rate to a maximum. However, no matter what paths we took, what choices we made, the cure saved most, but not all, for it killed many of those who were carriers that did not show signs.
It was a conundrum that we could not find a way through. We tried, day after day, night after night, to find a solution in which everyone yet alive survived. It seemed impossible.
Toward the end of a late night session both of us seated on the floor. I had just pressed record on the laptop, closed my eyes, and held Achim’s hands. A few seconds later, when the images began to flow, Achim threw back my hands and screamed, “No! Not them! Please, not them!”
“What happened Achim?”
“I, I could see them, my brothers, ” she looked at the floor, “They will die.”
“I thought you only felt emotion? What do you mean you could see them? Are you certain?”
She was standing then, pacing the room, tears falling from her eyes, “My father, he can’t take more loss. Oh no, he will die also. Why? It’s not fair!”
“How do you know it was them? I didn’t see this? Maybe you were mistaken!”
She raised her voice at me for the first time since we had met, “BECAUSE I KNOW!”
She ran to the living room, to the hallway and then outside into the snow without a jacket or proper shoes. I saw her run down the sidewalk from my second story bay window, her footprints receiving fresh white flakes. I quickly put on my boots, coat, and hat and ran after her, my feel sliding with each footfall. I nearly lost my balance a few times but managed to catch her at the end of the block.
“Please, Achim, come back. It’s too cold out here.” I gave her my coat and held her, wrapping my arms around her torso and head. Achim wept, her body shaking. She lost the strength in her legs and I kept her from falling.
“Please, let’s go home.” And we did.
I returned to the lab the next day but was reluctant to go without Achim, fearful of her being alone. I asked if she would come with me, and she did. For the next month we were inseparable, our combined work giving way to incredible progress in my research. I was able to make breakthrough discoveries, learning how the virus disrupted cellular respiration; how it caused the sudden collapse of several major organs at once.
My co-workers were concerned by Achim’s presence at first, but when the speed at which the lab made progress was realized, no one said a word. The world was like that then, we just accepted things for how they were. Achim sat by my side, holding my hand so that I could see if newly developed strains of antigens were the ones that would take us down the best path, each as clear to me as though it were presented on my computer screen. The lab hired two new technicians to keep up with the volume of virtual models I produced, giving them form in the wet lab where they were tested against artificially grown human organs.
Achim was still affected by the vision of her brothers’ deaths, but she never talked about it and I never asked. Inside, I held hope that we would find another way, a different path. It had been four months since Achim first moved in with me. We had worked together in the lab for more than three. She was as much a part of me as I was of her and our work together. The lab had come to accept her as one of them. No one asked what part she played, they only knew that with her at my side, were getting closer to a cure each day.
The lead lab technician came into the lab one late February evening. “We’ve got it,” he said with tears in his eyes, “We’ve got a solid candidate for the cure. It blocks the pathogen’s primary disruptive function and …”
I didn’t hear the rest as Achim stood and ran from the room.
I looked at him and then after her, jumped up and followed her out of my office and down the hall. I caught up with her and grabbed her arm, spinning her around more aggressively than I had intended.
“What?! What’s wrong?”
“My brothers. Now they will die.”
“No, it doesn’t have to be that way,” I tried to pull her close but she pushed me away, “We can keep looking to the future. We can find a path that leads to different end. We have learned so much together.”
“No, it cannot be that way. You know this to be true. If this is the cure, the real cure, the one that saves the humans that remain, then you must deploy it immediately. You cannot risk thousands more dying every day to try to find a potential future in which my brothers and others in the minority live,” she paused to look at her hands which she took from mine and pushed them into her pockets, “I will not allow you.”
The government regulatory agency was quick to process the solution we devised. It would be only a matter of weeks before the anti-viral agent would be deployed world-wide, to every human yet alive. We could not risk the potential of a carrier playing host to a dormant or resistant strain which might mutate after delivery, forcing us back to the lab for another few months, even years.
Achim invited her twin brothers and father to come live with us for what time they had remaining. Those were wonderful, long days filled with laughter, joy, and play. Achim never let on to what she knew about them, that they would die from the same vaccine which would save the majority of the human race. It was not their fault they carried a genetic trait which would we would only later isolate–they would die from the same cure which saved the rest of humanity.
The vaccine was deployed and worked as intended, the pathogen which had reduced the population of our species by nearly eighty percent in less than ten years had been brought to its end. Achim’s brothers were dead. Her father died shortly thereafter, the strain of so much loss too much for him to bear. Achim was alone, all family but me gone.
I left the lab for the public’s attention to my work was international and polarized in a way I had never conceived for I was heralded both as a hero and a murderer. Achim and I moved to a small, seaside town in which we shared no prior memories, starting again in a life which was new. For the longest time, for what must have been more than a year, we did not hold hands. I didn’t ask and she did not offer, the fear of what she might feel and I might see too much for either of us to bear.
When later that year she gave birth to our two boys, she reached out and for the first time since we had developed the cure, held my hand, saying, “It’s ok now, the future is no longer mine. We are free.”
Achim’s story then became the story of our twins.
© Kai Staats 2011