Once, I had travelled with my schoolmates to the Royal Albert Hall in London. It struck me then as cavernous, almost as if the architect had taken a traditional gladiator’s arena, slapped a dome over it, then filled it with a winding domino-string of seats in concentric circles. Four storeys of seats, all tilted slightly to face the stage, easily four, five thousand people sitting enraptured by the musical landscapes evoked by the symphony.
This theatre I was now in, was easily five, six times that size. I couldn’t be sure, actually, because there were no edges which I could perceive without my vision starting to swim.
“Welcome, welcome!” boomed a voice from the stage. The spotlights swivelled to where I was standing, bathing me in golden luminance. “A warm welcome for Gerry Hanley, please! As you all have seen, he lived a long and fruitful life, yielding in the end only to old age! A peaceful end, if you will!”
I didn’t know how to react to the entire audience suddenly rising to their feet, clapping as one for me. I was a schoolteacher in my life. I was used to combative classrooms, and certainly not once had my students ever thought to shower such appreciation for me. I waved weakly in response.
“And now for the results… Gerry Hanley will be going to… Team Blue!”
The groans from half the theatre were drowned out only by the rapturous cheers from the rest. Confetti spilled from the rafters, and I found myself being led down from the stage and along the aisles. Along the way, other apparent team members stretched out their hands, and I high-fived as many as I could. I collapsed into my seat, and finally the spotlights deserted me. I soaked in the relative darkness for a while, glad the attention was off me. Perhaps I could now gain some measure of my bearings.
A single chime rung out through the theatre, deep and sonorous. Some people got up to leave, while others stayed in their seats, chatting with their neighbours. The giant screen on the stage lit up with the words: “Intermission – Five Minutes”.
“You want to grab a drink or something? Next one’s a bit heavy, a soldier in the Russian army, it seems. Might be good to stretch your legs first.”
The speaker was the lady on my right. She wore her dark hair in a tidy bob, and was clad in a sensible evening gown. Habit prodded me to introduce myself and to ask for her name, and we shook hands.
“What are we going to watch?” I asked.
“The life of one Petyr Ivanov,” Beth said. “The same way we just watched your life unfold, from the very first breath to the last.” She laughed at my reaction, then said, “Oh don’t be a prude. There was nothing in your life that we hadn’t seen countless times before.”
“And when… this Petyr has lived out his life, will he come here too? The way I did?”
“Yes,” Beth said. “The same for me, and for everyone else here too. We’ve all been here a long, long time.”
My eyes drifted to the pamphlet I had found in my seat. At the top, I saw Petyr’s name, but it was the subsequent part of the title which intrigued me.
“It says ‘Reincarnation 23,274,899’ here… are we all the same person, just in different lifetimes?” I asked. “So are there other theatres out there, for different people?”
“Not quite,” Beth said. “I mean, you’re right that everyone here is technically the same soul who took turns living on earth, but there are no other theatres. This is it.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” I said. “What’s so special about us that only we get reincarnated? I mean, there are so many other peo-”
“Oh, oh, you misunderstand!” Beth laughed. “There’s only one soul. One human soul. It’s just been split, or copied, I don’t know the term, but it’s the same soul in every living person on earth.”
“… Just different physical vessels then?” I said, turning the possibilities over in my mind. “Different circumstances of birth, different living conditions… but everyone has the exact same soul?”
“Yes,” Beth said. “You catch on quick.”
I was quiet for a while. The seconds ticked off the timer on the screen, and the lights began to dim. People streamed back in, holding little bags of what I assumed to be snacks.
“What’s this Team Blue thing they assigned me to?” I asked.
“Everyone makes choices, see. No one here has ever seen the rules themselves. But we’ve watched enough to, if you will, kind of guess which Team someone will end up in, based on what they did on earth. You’re one of the ‘good’ ones. Morals are hard to pin down, every society’s got their own interpretations, so it always keeps us on our toes.”
“I suppose those people are in Team Red then?” I said, pointing to the other half of the theatre. Beth nodded. “So what’s the point of it all then? What happens when we finally finish watching the lives of everyone on earth? What happens when one Team outnumbers the other?”
Beth smiled. Hidden projectors whirred to life, and the screen flickered with images of a baby boy, being handed over from a midwife to his mother. The audience clapped, and sporadic shouts of “Go Team Blue!” and “Do Team Red proud” emanated from various pockets of the crowd.
“I suppose then there will be a final reckoning,” Beth said.
If I shared anything with my reincarnations, it was in our belief in fate. Though each previous version of me held a very different perspective of it. The me that had died in the Great Depression thought it a terrible thing, wicked and omnipotent. The me that had lived as king in the middle ages thought it a gift presented by God. Me, I believed it a promise.
My next reincarnation was a baby with deep blue eyes and pink skin named George. He started his life alone. George cried so much that they had to put him in a separate room, devoid of the other infants. A nurse checked in on him every few hours. Nobody blamed her. She had more pressing matters to attend to, such as George’s mother, whose heart rate was steadily growing out of control and her breathing stuttered.
When the young lady died, she did so whispering her son’s name. I wasn’t sure if she ever even got a look at him. In that hospital room, with the flat-line beep of a heart rate monitor, the nurse checking on George stood, lips quivering and fists clenched.
In this world, children were supposed to be loved by their parents. If not the mother, who else would? For George, it was nobody, not even himself.
The orphanage boasted posters of smiling blonde-haired boys and girls with deep blue eyes. George could’ve been a literal poster boy if he ever smiled. But no matter how many stuffed animals they threw his way, how many hugs and smiles they offered him, they could never get those lip-locked edges to curve up.
By the time he had hit thirteen, he had already smoked his first cigarette and drank his first beer. Nobody wanted to tell him, but everybody knew. Nobody adopted teenagers. He would be a lifer, an unwanted child turned into an unwanted adult.
And on his seventeenth birthday, he bought a gun.
None of us watching were worried at all for other people. Despite everything that happened, George was a gentle boy and that was his problem. Nobody could reach him through his overpowering politeness. It took a mother’s love to chip away at the boy and all he had was an old photo of a ghost who once loved him.
He snuck out when the moon had hit its apex, left all the money he had in a small package with a letter. It read: *Thanks for taking care of me.* And that was it. He didn’t sign it, didn’t address it to anyone, he wrote it all in a cheap pen and stuffed it inside with twelve-hundred dollars cash.
The spot he chose was out of the way. Nobody was nearby to be disturbed. No runners would come this way to be scared. The only selfishness he allowed himself was that it was by a river, a black canvas of glittering moonlight.
“I was never meant to live,” he told himself and us. “This is fate.”
Some of us nodded with him. Others shook their heads. I stared, my neck stiff, eyes unblinking as he put the gun to his temple.
“No,” I whispered. “Don’t do it.”
Some of us, the more boisterous ones, cheered along, egging the boy to pull the trigger. They had seen a thousand lives and would see a thousand more until all of mankind vanished. A single life in a single point of time meant nothing to them. But for me, this was my first.
“No,” I said and stood from my seat. “Please.”
The screen flickered to the tremble of his finger. Soon, it would go completely black. He would fulfill his fate.
“No!” I screamed. “This isn’t how it should go!”
The boisterous ones were no longer laughing. The others around me turned away their eyes. At one point in time, they had all been me. They had thought that life mattered, that our pain had meaning. But after a thousand shows of a thousand lives, most of them only slept through the show.
I clenched my fists, the words swelling in my lungs. Then, I took the breath to give them life and I prayed, that somehow, I wasn’t just a dead man with a loud mouth.
“Don’t pull,” I yelled, tears pouring down my cheeks and snot from my nose. “Not until you have a chance. Maybe you never will, maybe this will be how it always is, maybe I’m wrong about everything, but there’s meaning in your pain! I can’t tell you if I’m right or if I’m certain.” My voice dropped low. “I can only promise.”
George closed his eyes. He hadn’t heard me, of course he wouldn’t.
I held my breath.
Then, George broke down, the gun still pressed to his head. “So cruel,” he whispered to nobody. “After all this, all I have is a promise. That’s all my fate has to offer.”
My eyes went wide. My jaw dropped. “And that’s enough,” I said, my voice too low even for myself to hear.
There, George stood, the gun rigid in his hand. And when his tears fell, so too did his gun.
Happy Thanksgiving. /r/jraywang.
It had already been explained to me by the closest incarnation to me; I was dead. He told me to keep quiet during the movie, but at first I didn’t understand. I just dumbly ask how I died. I saw him, well me, try to subdue a laugh as it was explained to me how they’d all watched me choke out on the tiny chicken bone I’d managed to get lodged in my throat. Apparently it was amongst the top 5 worst ways some version of me had left the world yet. The strange thought occurred to me to sue the company who packaged the chicken strips, before I realised I’d never be earning any money again whatsoever.
Not just that. I’d never see mom, Eric, anyone. My mind felt numb at the thought; it wasn’t something that I could wrap my head round. I’d never sit in traffic again. Never open my presents at Christmas. Never enjoy the bitter sweet smell of freshly roast coffee. Never see Lara.
Lara. The thought of her exploded in my mind like a firework. I’d left her behind. I’d left her with all those half formed plans for the future that we’d never be able to put into action. She was probably laughing right now at the absurd way I went out, it was just her kind of dark humour. My heart felt heavy thinking of her; it was the first time I’d felt anything but shock since I sat down in this fucking cinema. I’d never see her again. Never watch that stupid little eye twitch she does as she falls asleep, never laugh at her otherwise shitty jokes just because she finds them so funny. Never feel her warmth next to me again as I drift off to sleep.
No, now I got to watch my next incarnation. Part of me wanted to grab a selection of junk food like I’d usually do at the movies, but after I’d got used to the dark I quickly realised there were no doors. Besides, even if there was, who the hell’s gonna want to serve hot dogs in the afterlife? All that remained was me, what must have been hundreds of me, this room, and the next life.
Suddenly the screen came to life. As I watched my newest birth, the me sat next to me made sure I understood these first few years would be boring. Apparently every cycle I’m a bad baby. Always crying, whining. That crying was etched in my brain. The more I listened to it, the more I could hear myself a little in there. It was unmistakable. I watched as this woman who was my mother, but not my mother, cared for me by herself. It was interesting that she was a single mother too; something my old life had in common with my new.
The years dragged by. I went through the motions. I went through school. I made friends. I done slightly better in my grades than I had before. I watched myself make similar awkward mistakes as my teenage years. I watched myself scream the most horrible shit at my new mom, this new woman who raised me. I laughed along with my new self, and all the others watching. I cringed at my embarrassment. I felt disappointment. I felt like I was living again.
Except I wasn’t. Not really. This wasn’t really MY life. It was just a life. One of billions. I was watching someone who was both so familiar and a stranger to me. It was the little things. I didn’t prefer baths to showers. I’d never get caught dead listening to techno music. It was me broadly, but not entirely. The similarities were there though.
I watched as I started college and settled down into a nearby café. Just another day. At this point I was getting just as bored watching my life as this new me was living it. I was sitting sipping on a coffee, doing everything I could to avoid a lecture. I noticed how busy the café was, and while I was trying to study, I could see the noise wouldn’t allow that to happen. The hum of conversation. I saw myself look up at the seat across from me, no doubt seeing everyone else sitting with someone. That was one thing we had in common; a little bit of perpetual loneliness.
I watched myself finish my coffee. I watched myself almost choke on the last drop. For a second I thought I’d be dying the same way again. But I wasn’t choking normally. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Both of me.
I watched as Lara asked me ‘is this seat taken?’, not giving me a chance to answer as she planked herself in the seat across from me. I awkwardly struggled to say something, but all I could get out was a quiet ‘no, you can sit there if you want’. I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. I just watched it unfold dumbly. I watched the awkward silence as I could see myself wondering whether to start a conversation. I watched her look at me with that inquisitive look on her face she always had when she expected something. I had to stop myself shouting at the screen. I couldn’t just let her walk away.
Eventually after what felt like a lifetime it was her that broke the silence. I suppose I should have expected that. She jokingly asked why I was still sitting there when my coffee had been empty the full time. I couldn’t feel it, but I knew my face had went red. I joked about how I was just daydreaming, and that I didn’t want to go to class. She replied simply ‘well if you don’t want to go, don’t go.’
I watched myself spend that afternoon with her. I watched myself awkwardly ask for her number. No doubt I was terrified, but I couldn’t face not seeing her again. Over the next few months I watched, no, I felt myself fall in love with her again. I watched myself come up with new inside jokes that were different yet the same. I watched her do her stupid little eye twitch as she fell asleep. I laughed at her shitty jokes just because of how funny she found them. I watched myself sleep next to her, and sometimes I swear I could feel her warmth, as if she was right there beside me.
I watched myself do what I’d never managed to do before. All those half assed plans we had, while not the exact same, were still there in spirit. We travelled together. I watched us have kids, I watched us grow old together. I was engrossed in every moment. I barely took my eyes off the screen, but when I did and I looked around I saw the same sense of wonder and happiness written across my face countless times. They had to have seen this play out hundreds of times, over centuries and millennia, and it still touched them the same way it did me.
Finally I watched as she passed away first. Not in any funny way this time; just old age. But instead of sadness, the thought that crossed my mind was one of pure joy; she would pass on and enter a cinema somewhere. She would watch her life unfold again. For all the differences across her lifetimes, she too would watch us meet each other. Watch us fall in love again. Hell, she already had. We had together, even if not physically. And we would forever.
I greeted the new me who arrived in the cinema with a smile on my face and told him to enjoy the movie.
I can't believe this, and neither should you, frankly. Does it not to you seem contradictory in any sense that my reincarnations, all of a similar person (myself) yet different, a phenomenon I can only compare somewhat to the various editions of a book, can exist someplace all at once? "Where is this cinema?" I ask. None of me know the answer, but nobody leaves, and nobody but myself comes. There are 78 of me here, myself excluded, henceforth to be known in the grammatically appropriate contexts as *myselves*. The others' appearances I simply cannot describe. They look neither old nor young — they look visibly rejuvenated, glowing with a virtually tangible youthfulness, yet have retained in their bones and their cranium the wisdom that comes solely through old age and maturity. We are all naked, yet feel no shame.
The cinema has 10 rows of eight seats. I take my seat at the front-most row, my head permanently in motion as I observe the people around me. There do, ironically, appear to be cliques, as though 78 versions of myself could not all get along. The large screen looming ahead of us is blank, so I rise from my seat and engage in conversation with myselves, an act I am familiar with, it not being the first time I have spoken to myself. The screen remains blank.
I have not, contrary to the experiences of myselves' many ex-girlfriends, as myselves have been only too pleased to point out, gotten bored of speaking to myselves, but am satisfied anyway with the first visible signs of life. For the first time in what feels like a decade (though I am assured by Myself #23, the official timekeeper, that it is the 293rd day of Myself #80's life), the cinema lights up, rather abruptly. There appears briefly to be a problem with the sound system — which, I should mention, emitted exactly what Myself #80 heard during his time in his mother's womb — but it eventually returns to normal, and the screen is filled with a light so bright that as I turn my head to look around, for the first time since my abrupt materialisation in the dimly-lit cinema I am able to properly see my surroundings. As myselves return to their seats from the circles they had formed with their cliques, I follow suit to observe the birth of Myself #80, Arturo Bennedetto.
Arturo is growing up rather nicely. He's a bright boy, with a wit far sharper than that of his peers, and a passion for reading that most of myselves and I can relate to. Here he is now, waking blissfully to the delicate birdsong, which floats gently through his open window to alight, note by note, on his forehead. He cleans up and hops downstairs, only to see his parents arguing heatedly over the island counter in his kitchen for the seventeenth consecutive day, not that they are aware of his maturity and the fact that he has been keeping count. Not that they care anyway. Bitterly, he pours a cup of water down his throat, and leaves the room.
Arturo has dressed his best. Out the door he strolls in suit and tie, ignoring completely his bickering parents, having already been desensitized, every one of his steps oozing with confidence, the sunny summer weather perfectly reflecting his cheer. Down the pavement he walks, whistling a cheerful air, arriving, inevitably, at Ambra Carino's. Prom is just around the corner, and who better to ask to it? After all, they are best friends, united not only through a love of literature but their troubled pasts and the intricacy of their characters.
With two self-assured knocks at her door, myselves and I eagerly awaiting what surely will be a rare day to celebrate, he announces his arrival. There is no response. He glances at his watch — it is half past 12. Knowing Ambra lives alone and there is no risk of waking another, he knocks again, on this occasion more than twice, and again, till five minutes have passed. His imagination providing several pessimistic reasons for the lack of a response, as is only typical of it, Arturo runs to the backdoor and knocks again. The silence is disquieting. He sheepishly calls her cellphone, only to have nobody pick up, and rereads their texts, only to detect nothing abnormal, nor any announcement of her leaving the house. A tear beginning to well in his eye, more out of the somewhat unreasonable but very real concern and fear his personality naturally generates than anything else, he reaches for the top of the door-frame, clasping with relief the key he knew he would find, and shoving it, with trembling fingers, into the keyhole.
As the door swings open, he runs into the house and up the flight of stairs, arriving first at her bedroom door. Despite managing to calm himself down enough to at least knock at the door again, there is again no response. Arturo takes a step back, runs at the door, and kicks it open with his right foot. As it swings on its hinges, ricocheting off the wall on which it is mounted before once again covering the frame of the door, Arturo glimpses a sight of unimaginably horrifying proportions, much to his shock, and ours too. The bedroom door sways close, hiding Ambra's hanging, lifeless body, and Arturo, his self-confidence depleted, his swagger torn to shreds, simply doesn't know what to do. He presently decides to break down and cry.
"What will happen when the final seat is taken?" I once asked Myself #2.
"Who knows?" he replied. "Perhaps we will all be reincarnated and a new circle will begin. Perhaps some of us will go to heaven and some to hell. Less unrealistically, though, perhaps the cinema will just continue to fill."
As Arturo falls, then, from the top of the building, bracing himself for the impact, yet relatively sanguine, willing the earth to envelope him and to welcome him, I, too, brace myself for the impact, and mourn the loss of Myself #80.
**[Edits: attempts at formatting.]**
"No! No! Don't become a pornstar!"
Me from 4 lives ago began shouting at the screen.
"The male ones don't make any money!" said me from 1 life ahead.
"Who cares? He'll be living the rest of his life banging hot girls!" objected me from 10 lives ago
"But it's like your favorite food or music, when you have it too much you get bored."
"Not to mention the STDs," pointed out me from 7 lives ago.
"We know you were a fucking doctor, shut the fuck up!" The speaker (I honestly can't keep track of the numbers) was a boxer who had anger issues.
"Make me bitch!"
'Hold up, hold up, he's gonna decide!" said one of the younger mes.
The current me started deciding between a full ride to his state college and going with his contact in the industry labeled in his phone as "Slimy Susan".
Eventually, he put down his phone, and started looking up careers for an english major.
"NO!" shouted me from 4 lives ago. "Shit, become a pornstar, become a pornstar!"
A brawl broke out between the mes.
I put my head in my hands. I'd really prefer hell right now.
"What is this?" I asked as I made my way down the aisle.
It was a normal theater, in fact it looked just like the one that I used to visit all the time with my wife, but something was... different. There were five other people in the room, all seated nearly as far apart as possible. Something prickled in the back of my mind, something that connected me to those other people, but I wasn't sure what it was.
"What is this?" I repeated, louder this time.
"Just shut up and take a seat." A man in the top right section of the theater shouted back.
Grumbling, I found a seat in the bottom section of the theater and settled in, watching as the screen changed, showing a video that began with a blast of white light. The peculiar thing was though... as I watched, I recognized every moment of the film. It was my life. *My* life, exactly. From the moment I exited the hospital on my birth date, to the moment I took my final breath. My entire life, summed up in a five minute video.
"What the...?" I began, when someone plopped down in the seat next to me.
"Pretty crazy, huh?" A man said, and when my eyes found his, I gasped.
He looked exactly like me, as if someone had dropped me into a cloning machine. Or was I a clone of him?
"What is this?" I asked for the third time.
My clone motioned around to the theater. "Welcome to the Brady Wells Cinema, my friend. We all wind up here eventually. The Brady in the corner up there? He was the first one of us to show up here."
"That's... nice." I breathed, still awestruck by the man in front of me. "But what is this place?"
Other Brady relaxed back into his chair, letting his arms stretch out behind him. "Call it Heaven, call it Hell, whatever you want, but we've got one job while we're here: to watch."
Other Brady pointed at the screen, which was fading from black to gray, like those scenes where someone is opening their eyes.
"The next Brady. We watch his life and pray that he gets it right. If he doesn't, he'll show up here, just like you did." At the look I gave him, Other Brady grinned. "Aw don't feel bad, Brady, I'm here too, aren't I?"
I nodded, still not quite understanding. The screen faded to white, and then a room came into view. A hospital room, a plethora of doctors, and a very joy-struck man that held his arms out towards New Brady.
"What do you mean we 'pray that he gets it right'? Get what right?" Someone in the upper section directed a loud *shhh!* in our direction.
Other Brady casually flipped them off without ever taking his eyes off me. "Life. If you haven't guessed yet, we're all here because we failed in some way. Brady number 3 up there? One of the richest men alive, but no kids. Not even money buys our way to the Great Beyond. So we watch. And we pray that the latest Brady gets it right, then we can all move on."
"That doesn't make any sense." I said finally, struggling to keep my voice below a whisper.
"What do you mean?"
"You just sit here and watch? That's it? What's the point if you can't help the latest Brady live his life correctly? It could take a millennia to get it right." I glanced around the theater. Only five other versions of myself in the room. How many more until we got it right?
"Look, I'm not saying I like it, or that it's perfect, but it's just how it is. I don't make the rules. That door you came through? It only opens once, and that's when the latest Brady dies, otherwise it's locked. So yeah, we just sit here and watch." Other Brady whispered, keeping his eyes glued to the screen.
The latest Brady was being rocked gently by strong arms. A soft lullaby was being sung by an unseen woman.
"Have you ever tried to go through the door when it is open?" I whispered, and Other Brady spun on me so quickly, it was almost inhuman.
"No," he hissed like a venomous serpent, "and we aren't ever going to. You may not like it, Brady, but this is how it is. We sit and watch. You try to disrupt that and cause trouble? We'll stop you. We've done it before." And with that, Other Brady rose from his seat and relocated himself to across the room.
I sighed, slumping into my seat like a pouting child. My eyes found the screen, watching reluctantly as Brady was passed off to the father. He was crying happily, hugging the baby close to his chest. Was this really all there was in the afterlife? A dim theater with irritated versions of myself? I wanted to believe that this was all some horrible dream, that I would wake up in my bed an old, weary man, but I knew I wouldn't. My time had passed, and now it was this New Brady's turn at life. I would just have to learn to deal with it.
As I watched the film, I adjusted my position in the seat, trying to get comfortable in these budget theater chairs. It was going to be a long movie.
The curtains shrugged, their red cotton billowing as they parted. Behind them, a huge screen began to flicker with grey and white dots: the static of anticipation.
Tracey looked around her; she wasn't scared -- she knew where she was. Or at least *roughly*, she knew where she was. Mainly boys and girls sat on the tall, crimson seats around her -- a few older looking children too, but no adults. Just... freaks whose faces were a twisted abnormality of her own; who wore self-satisfied smiles as the tossed popcorn at each other and giggled stupidly. It was like flicking through a family photo album that had been half melted in a fire. She already hated them and their happiness.
"Hey," said a boy next to her. "You're new here, right?" Tracey was about to tell him to *mind-his-own-damned-business*, when she noticed his smile. The boy's front tooth, on the left side, was chipped almost identically to her own. "My name's Andrew," he said. "Are you a Tracey or an Emily, or..."
He left a gap for Tracey to fill in. She didn't
The boy pushed his popcorn towards her; popped kernels spilled over the edge like a frothing wave.
"Do you want some? We can share -- it's not problem, I can always get more."
"Your tooth," she said, pointing to her own. "How did you?"
He giggled. "Same way the rest of us d-"
"Shh," said someone behind them. "*It's starting.*"
A moving picture appeared on the screen; black and white, like one of those movies she'd never watched fully when they came on television. The image was of a small town Tracey recognised. There were swollen, black clouds lurking menacingly over it, throwing their heavy burden down onto the town as if out of spite. As Tracey watched, the image panned in on the sprawling grey brick of the town's only hospital -- then went closer still, closer to the ground, until it arrived outside the hospital's wide front door. A voice began to speak as the camera rushed down sterile hallways; a voice deep and rich, with a resonance that sent a shiver down Tracey's spine.
"Emily Oates was born in the town of Thicket Springs, on January the first, 2004. As the small, former mining town battled against the worst storm it had witnessed in over fifty years, Julia Oates battled inside Saint Mary's hospital for something else entirely: her life, and that of her baby."
"You might want to look away," whispered Andrew. "Most don't like this part, but personally... I like seeing what she looked like. It's better than the photos." He smiled goofily as he looked back at the screen.
Tracey glanced around the cinema; many of the children were covering their eyes or holding their popcorn bags in front of their faces.
The camera focused on her mother's straining face, as blood vessels inside her burst. On the tears that fell from her beaming face as -- for just a moment -- she heard her baby girl cry.
"This was a battle Julia believed she won," said the deep voice, sounding at least slightly mournful. "Even as her eyes closed, for a final time."
Tracey swallowed hard, determined not to let tears well in her eyes. She never cried. No. It wouldn't happen!
The film moved on: the funeral and the mourners dressed in black, smiling as they hovered over the pram. Her dad always there for her; feeding and changing and singing to her. Then, it showed a side of him she couldn't have known about back then; the manifested depression that he'd suffered on losing his wife. How when she slept in her crib, he never did. When his lullabies sent her to a peaceful sleep, he would take a bottle of whiskey to his room and drink until the sun rose or she cried out.
"I didn't know..." she whispered, not meaning to say it out loud.
"Of course not," said Andrew. "How could we have done?"
"You must have guessed who we all are, right?"
"I...You're... you're other me-s?"
"Yeah. Like I'm the brother you never had. And you're my sister."
Again, Tracey wrestled back a smile. How she'd always longed for a sibling.
The narrator continued and the film moved on.
There was a roar of laughter whenever the baby on the screen giggled; more laughs as she grew older, and a little wiser -- when her dad asked her to eat her apple, and she responded with: *uh-uh, look what it did to snow white.* Even Tracey couldn't stifle a chuckle. There was a roar when the accident on the see-saw came -- and a lot of hands raised to soothe a phantom pain that had made itself known on their chipped front teeth.
But the laughter soon died as she grew older, and as the screen showed her father, sitting in his office with a pile of bills on the table next to him.
The audience in the cinema became hushed.
Her father picked up a coin and flicked it. It landed on heads.
He cried into his hands and fumbled for a bottle of whiskey in the cupboard below.
"What's going on?" asked Tracey.
"It's the day he decided... you know."
"Yeah. That he couldn't go on like this."
Tracey didn't stop the tears this time. The girl -- that sweet baby on the screen -- was going to go down the same road as her. The loss of her father. Living with her uncle and... all that came with him. The school, the bullies -- no one believing. She ran a hand gently over her wrists.
Andrew must have seen her tears because he leaned over and squeezed her hand. "It's okay," he said gently.
"How!" she screamed. "How is it okay?" She flung his hand away and tried to get up -- but she couldn't. She couldn't move.
"Because we get a new friend. Because she gets a new friend, too. People that love her."
"That doesn't make it okay!" she yelled as hot tears and snot streaked her face.
"Maybe not, but it's what happens. And one day, this"--he waved his arms around the cinema--"this all changes. We all move on. Until then, enjoy the moments of happiness, and try to forget the bad."
"I don't want to watch any more! I can't!"
"You're not alone, Tracey. Not any more. It is Tracey, right? We've all been through it. *All of us*. The first time is always so difficult. And honestly, it's never easy. But know this -- you're loved. You always were, you know. He does it because he didn't want you seeing him like that. Because he wanted you to have a better life."
"...that's not what happened."
"It's what he hoped would happen. Your mother would have given her own life a hundred times over for you, too."
Andrew took her hand again. "So would I. So would any of us."
"Will- will this keep happening? Will there be infinite Emilys?"
"No. Eventually something different will happen. Maybe our mom will live, or something, and everything will be different. And when things change, when a Tracey or an Emily -- or whoever -- has a proper shot at life, we all move on. Until then, Tracey, we've at least got each other."
As Tracey looked at Andrew, there was sudden a gasp that filled the huge room -- as if every child had taken in a huge lungful of air all at once. Even Andrew looked in shock.
Tracey looked up at the screen.
"What made him look in Emily's room before going to the attic as intended," said the narrator, "we may never know."
She watched, as her father crept in and kissed Emily on the forehead.
"But whatever his reason, he decided he would change things."
There was an eruption of applause and cheering as the first bottle of whiskey was emptied into the sink.
"And change things he would."
The movie starts.
The screen is dark blue, we're under water. The camera points at the soil below and slowly sinks to the bottom of the ocean floor. We see a goblin shark and angler fish scurrying around. I look around at my other reincarnations and slide a little down in my seat. This can't be good.
The camera pans up to look under a rock. We see an eerie appearance, the narrator tells us this is the Black Swallower. A horrifying potbelly has been found in tropical and temperate waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and can live as deep as 3,000 meters below the surface. We see it spawning eggs. My reincarnations look at me with disgust. Yeah, I fucked up guys. We're starting close to zero.
But the camera pans into the ground. There lies a slug, born just a few hours earlier. We all sense it, this is our next incarnation. Loud sighs all around us. One of the reincarnations gets up and yells "Scheiße!" in loud German. I look closer, it's Adolf Hitler himself. Or myself.
He looks at me. "Ich habe," he starts off in German but realises he needs to speak in the shared language of the Styx delta, namely English. Who would've guessed. He continues. "I have fucked up! I knew I fucked up before. But *you* ruined it even more! People in *your* lifetime hated you even more than they hated *me*! You were the downgrade, you were supposed to *learn* and we would get to be something... something better!"
Adolf sits down again and I remembered. After killing himself during World War 2 he came back to this room and previous incarnations all hated him for ruining it. His karma went below zero, unforgivable. They were watching my life unfold and I had all the opportunities to do it right. I should have learned.
But I didn't, and now we're going to watch the short life of a sea slug being devoured by a Black Swallower. It's deserved, though. People hated me more than they hated Hitler. At least he was a decent painter, and suffered abuse during his life. People could relate to him in some ways.
I look to my left and the sea slug appears. Its brain capacity rivals that of the average peanut, but I feel it's looking at me disapprovingly. Sorry, tiny me, the compound experience we all share will go on for a few hundred generations I expect. Let's see what's next, the score on our Reincarnation Board tells us this is going to be the worst incarnation by a long shot.
Oh! We're human again!
"Congratulations, it's a healthy baby boy," a doctor says.
The camera zooms out to a crying mother and empty chair, noting the absent father. We see a glimpse of the mother's last name. "Have you decided upon a name?" the nurse asks.
"Ah, shit. Ahh, shit."
"No, that's its name. Ajit. I hate people and children in particular, and I hope it'll get its childhood ruined. Maybe in the future it can ruin the lives of millions of other innocent people."
"Ajit Pai? A shit pie? That's just cruel, madam. But it's your child I guess. Sign her off, we're done here."
I sighed. This incarnation was during my own lifetime. Interesting, he is probably as hated as I was, maybe even more. The slug next to me starts to cry and I stand up.
Hitler is still looking at the screen. "Well, ich think that I'm going to hate this guy even more." He looks at me, stroking his moustache. "In your defence, you didn't know what you were doing at all, herr Trump." I frowned. That's true, but I made more victims. My name will last longer in the history books than yours, Adolf.
"GOD DAMMIT! I WAS SO CLOSE TO FINISHING!" My roommate would probably discover my naked hanging body the next day. Of course a piece of trash like me die trying to get off.
What had my life come to? What happened to me? I used to be a straight A student but now I am some naked fuck with a rope around his neck.
"You never tried. That is what happened." The voice came from my right. I turned and could not believe who I saw. Me, but somehow I knew it wasn't me. Because I already knew their name. I knew my name.
"L... Leaf Erickson?" I asked. But I already knew the answer. Even if I looked nothing like the actual man.
"It was pretty bizarre hearing about myself in history class. If I had realized it was a new country, I would have never let those Englishmen get to it."
"But how are you here? And why do you look like me?"
"Looks like I didn't get to go to Valhalla. Were dead, and I am one of your past lives. I am not the only famous one though." Leaf pointed to the front row of the theater.
"That's Marilyn Monroe."
"How can you be my past lives! You all made something of yourselves. I failed despite everything! Why did I fail if I had your spirits to guide me!?"
"Talent doesn't make everything. You have to work for success." Leaf said. "Maybe our next life will understand that."
The screen turned a bright white and we heard ourselves cry.