She fought feebly for a few moments and then her arms went limp. After it was done, a wave of nausea rolled over me. My knees buckled and I collapsed to the ground. It was a long while before I could push myself back to my feet and dig her grave. Afterwards, I went back to the house and had a few drinks to steady myself. Then I took a shower, put on some clean clothes, and got in the car to meet Svetlana.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the way Cheryl looked when I had choked the life out of her. I just kept seeing her the way she was during those last few moments; her eyes wide-open, bulging, her tongue thickening as it pushed its way through blood-red lips. And those wide-open eyes, Jesus, staring at me with nothing but sadness. There was no fear or hatred in those eyes, only sadness. Then the sadness just sort of dried up and there was nothing left in them. After a while it was like looking into empty glass.
I pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car. I had to get that image out of my head. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to concentrate, tried to stop that image from playing through my mind. But I couldn’t. It was like a movie that was wrapped around in a loop, playing over and over again. With a start I realized I had seen it before, maybe hundreds of times, maybe thousands.
The air became still. It was so damn quiet. I couldn’t hear anything, not even my own heartbeat. I realized why the scene of Cheryl being choked to death seemed so damn familiar. It all finally hit me. I wasn’t Graham Winston.
As I sat there I could remember every detail about my life with Cheryl. I could remember us meeting when I was twenty-two and she was twenty-nine. I remembered how beautiful she was then. I remembered how much she loved me almost from the start. I could see the years of us together and all the things she did to care for me and support me. I felt ashamed thinking about the last few years, and about all the little things I had said to her, all the snide comments, the innuendos. There was no wonder Cheryl was always running on her treadmill and doing aerobics. Anything to try to keep her body trim for me—to try to keep me from growing bored with her. I remembered other things. Really horrible things, things that I just wouldn’t want to admit to. The one thing I couldn’t remember, though, was her supporting me through medical school. Because I never went to medical school. And I sure as hell never went to engineering school. I had no memories growing up as Graham Winston.
I remembered that my real name was Bob Coggins. That I had bought a chain of supermarkets in the Denver area with Cheryl’s money. I remembered killing Cheryl at our summer home near Estes Park, not the White Mountains.
As I sat there other memories came rushing forward. They were memories of events that hadn’t happened yet but were going to happen. I remembered the phone call I received from France notifying me about Cheryl’s death. And I remembered how Svetlana and I waited a year after that before getting married. And then how she betrayed me only a few days later. She had called the police, claiming that I had bragged to her about murdering Cheryl. With Svetlana’s help they were able to dig up Cheryl’s body. There wasn’t much I could say or do after that. There was really no evidence to implicate Svetlana. She had been careful to make sure that there was no evidence.
They charged me with first degree murder. The trial was quick and the jury took less than an hour to convict me. Svetlana ended up with the millions that Cheryl had left me, and I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
I remember being taken to prison, or at least what had become prison. It was really nothing but a large warehouse filled with coffin-sized containers. They had me drugged at this point, so I couldn’t really do much of anything but look around. But I remember those containers, one stacked on top of the next. There must have been tens of thousands of them in that room. They placed me in one of them and attached electrodes all over my body. Then they stuck an intravenous feeding tube into me and attached a catheter. And then they drilled those holes in my skull.
I sat in the car with my eyes shut, trying to concentrate, fishing for more memories, but that was all there was. And I realized I was now living a simulation. I guess either because of ego, or because Graham Winston had a hell of a sense of humor, he had developed a simulated script of his own life. So all I was doing now was living his script. Except there was a flaw in the system. Instead of simply reenacting the script, my old memories were bubbling through and changing it. The script had been perverted and merged with my own past.
The image of Cheryl dying was so damn vivid. Probably every simulated life I lived got corrupted with memories of Cheryl and Svetlana. Probably every single one ended with me choking the life out of my wife. And I knew every future one was also going to end that way. I knew there was no escape from it.
I looked down at my hands and watched as I clenched and unclenched my fingers. I didn’t know how much time was left before I’d be switched into a new simulated life, but I hoped I had at least enough time to meet up with Svetlana. I knew it wouldn’t do any good, I knew what I was living now wasn’t real, but I wanted Svetlana to go through once what Cheryl had gone through all those countless number of times.
I started the car up and pulled it back onto the road. Svetlana was waiting down the road for me. With a little bit of luck I’d meet up with her. With just a little bit of luck.