THE MANY DEATHS OF MICHAEL FINCH

Ben Whitfield’s short story follows the life and deaths of Michael Finch, a normal individual with a remarkable gift. Illustration by Zach Meyer.

The first time that I died was on my sixth birthday. I drowned in the pond at the back of my aunt’s home. It was the summer of 1979 and I had decided that I could jump far enough to make it to the other side. Everybody else had gone back inside for wine and small triangular sandwiches. I remember seeing the net over the top of the pond (which I later learned was to stop birds preying on the goldfish) and feeling confident that if I didn’t make the jump I would be perfectly safe.

I leapt as far as my pudgy little legs would carry me. It was nearly far enough. My left foot made it to the other side, my right foot, however, lingered behind me, pushed down against the netting and dipped into the water. I remember registering the wetness in my shoe before noticing the searing pain in my shin that I had cracked off the edge of the pond. I lost my balance and fell backwards.

The rest is broken memories of panic, struggling to get free of the netting and gasping for air any time I found the surface with never enough time to both breathe and scream for help. I remember not knowing whether I was facing up or down, I remember waiting to feel my dad’s strong hands dragging me to safety, and then I remember nothing at all for what might have been an eternity, or maybe just a heartbeat, and then I woke up in my bed with my Spiderman blanket wrapped around me, in a cold sweat. I cried and by the time my dad had staggered to my bedroom I knew it had been a dream.

I managed to get back to sleep that night after my dad’s whiskey-drenched breath had told me there were ‘no monsters’ even though I wasn’t scared of monsters.

I was woken up the next morning by the radio proclaiming that it was a glorious Friday and summer was just around the corner. I switched it off wondering why it had been on at all and went downstairs. Dad was asleep on the couch, the ashtrays were full, and between his fingers was an entire cigarette burned into a perfect cylinder that would crumble like a sunlit vampire if he stirred, though he didn’t. I wasn’t moved by this picture, I had seen it before. I went to the kitchen to see if there was anything to eat.

After a bowl of dry cornflakes I went outside to play and that’s where I was at midday when my dad yelled from the open living room window.

‘What the hell are you still doing here, Michael?’

I let go of my yellow truck and looked at him.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘You’re meant to be in school!’ he said, his eyes narrowed with anger.

‘But it’s summer,’ I replied.

‘You cheeky little shit, get up those stairs and get changed right now!’ he yelled and slammed the window.

I was annoyed because I knew he was wrong but I did what he said.

As he drove me to school in his sun-faded Granada, right hand out of the window with the usual smouldering Richmond glowing in the wind, I began to feel strange. I began to feel as though I recognised this day; the weather, the smell, the advertising billboards outside the newsagents and then when my school came into sight with the gates wide open and kids playing freeze-tag and football, I felt as though I would faint.

‘Get out, tell your teacher you’re sorry you’re late and get the bus back, alright?’ Dad said.

I didn’t answer immediately, I was staring at Colin Burness who had a bandage over his left eye. The same bandage he’d been wearing all year up until about three weeks ago.

‘Alright?’ he repeated, losing his patience.

‘Alright,’ I replied and stepped out of the car.

By the end of that day I had figured out that it was still about five weeks until I turned six. I probably would have come to the conclusion that I had dreamt up the entire build-up to my birthday because I had been so excited but for one thing: I hadn’t been very excited about it. Since my mother had died two years previously, things like Christmas and birthdays had become just ordinary days. For another thing, I had lived those five weeks before, every detail of them. I knew what people were going to say before they said them, I knew who was ringing the doorbell before the door was opened, I could answer questions off game-shows that I couldn’t possibly have known the answer to and then, on my sixth birthday my aunt Meagan arrived at my house to take me and my dad over to her place for cake and cartoons. After I had eaten cake and watched cartoons I found myself once again staring at that pond, except this time I didn’t try to jump over it.

It was only a few months before I’d forgotten all about the incident. Life carried on, my dad managed to keep me alive during his brief bouts of sobriety and we got by.

 

*
 

It was the spring of 1991 when I died again. I was seventeen and I was driving from a party to my one bedroom place eleven miles away. Claire Finnegan was in the passenger seat swaying like a ragdoll and telling me that she loved me although it sounded more like ‘ah fuckin’ luff oo.’ I had my right hand out of the window tapping embers into the blackness. I was watching them dart like fireflies in my side mirror, mesmerised in my drunk and stoned state by the patterns like machine-gun tracers – and then I was upside down feeling the cool night air blowing against my face.

I wasn’t aware that I had been in an accident. I hadn’t heard the truck, I hadn’t felt my body being crushed almost in half just below the sternum. All I knew was that I was now looking out of my destroyed driver’s side window at the road illuminated by the one remaining light that shone on millions of pieces of glass, and Rockin’ in the Free World was playing from somewhere. I turned my head to ask Claire if she was alright but her wide, dead eyes glared at me accusingly as the last pumps of blood spurted from the yellow and white hole where her arm used to be. I tried to breathe but found that I couldn’t get more than a quarter breath in and that’s when I saw the steering wheel, and most of the dashboard, embedded in my midriff. I began to convulse as I felt the last drops of life crawl out of me and then there was nothingness again.

When I woke up this time it was about seven weeks earlier. The Sonic Youth poster that I had torn down and ripped up a month ago was back up on my bedroom wall, and I had two new messages on my answering machine that I had heard before and had deleted before. I paced my room, terrified of the scene that I found myself in. In a daze I drove in my undamaged car to The Vinyl Stop and there was Claire, alive and stocking the Country A-K rack, all limbs intact. Here, on the verge of a panic attack, is when I remembered what had happened when I was six.

I went through a few different states of mind. Shock, disbelief, the sincere conviction that I had lost my mind, but as the days wore on I found that the more things that I could predict were going to happen, the more I knew it was true. I even used my advanced knowledge of the future to get a job I had previously been declined for. I did this by firstly preparing answers to all the questions I knew I’d be asked and then by slashing the tyres of the guy who – in another life – actually got the position. It was a rubbish job working in a late night coffee shop but it meant a steady pay check and an excuse not to go to the party that had been the precursor to my death about seven weeks previously.

That night when I finished my shift, I drove to the back-road between West Midway and Road End and parked my car on the grass at the side of the road. I leaned against the passenger door and waited. At about 2.45am a familiar looking truck rounded the corner. The driver was singing along to Rockin’ in the Free World and seemed surprised to see me.

That night in my bedroom I held a knife to my wrists telling myself it’s not suicide if I don’t die, but ultimately I wasn’t convinced enough that I would be successful. What if I really was crazy? What if it was only those two times and if I tried again I’d die for real?

 

*
 

It wasn’t until twenty years later that I found the courage to kill myself. By then I was 36 and I was an English teacher at Road End High. I was married and had one child, Robert, who was eleven and who, along with his mother, was the reason I had dug myself out of a pit of debt and despair to make something of myself. My wife, Ellie, worked for a health insurance company and was in London that weekend for a conference. Robert was in bed and the phone rang at 9.43pm.

I put down the phone and tried to pour myself a whiskey, but my hands were shaking so much that most of it ended up on the carpet. Now, I said that I found the courage to kill myself but the truth is, when faced with the task of having to look my son in the eye and tell him that his mother was dead, I chose to take a risk and hope that the overactive imagination of the six-year-old version of me and the drug-fuelled memory of the seventeen year old version of me were correct, and that if I died I would awake sometime in the relatively close past and I could convince my wife not to go to London that week. In truth, the decision was motivated more by cowardice than by courage.

Two bottles of pills and the rest of the bottle of whiskey later, I sat on the beach watching the waves thunder against the shore. I had decided that one way or another tomorrow was not going to come. I felt the drowsiness begin to rush over me and took a walk along the beach, heading into the darkness where people don’t go at this time of night. I was staggering now – one of the bottles had been just paracetamol, which on its own probably wouldn’t have done the trick but the sleeping pills with the alcohol would. As I stumbled further and further into the darkness I began to hear voices. I knew there was no one there but I could hear them riding in on the wind, laughing at me as I became disorientated and struggled to breathe. My hands grasped at my throat and I realised I had walked into the surf, my feet were wet and I fell onto my knees, then onto my face, dislocating my jaw on the wet sand. I was vaguely aware of the cold, salty water lapping at my cheek and then I was gone.

And there she was, beautiful and alive and breathing deep, sleeping breaths. My heart was racing. I was some kind of god, indestructible and with the ability to change the past and therefore change the future. I got up, careful not to wake her and snuck downstairs. I turned on the TV and the news channel informed me that it was the 9th of October 2011. Only three weeks earlier this time but that was fine. That was three weeks I had to stop Ellie getting on that plane so that she wouldn’t be on that street, with that man, at that time, and she wouldn’t suffer for an hour before finally letting go.

I couldn’t stop her from going that first time, I couldn’t come up with a good enough reason. I told her I was ill and couldn’t look after Robert so she convinced her mother to look after him. I told her I really didn’t want her to go and that I had a bad feeling and she laughed it off. I told her that I had lived through it all before, that I knew she’d be stabbed for her purse on the second night and that she would die. She got worried about me, told me that I needed to speak to a doctor and that I’d been working too hard, and off she went to London. I hoped that I had done enough to change her pattern of behaviour, that maybe this time she’d be more careful or not go out at all that Sunday. I even called her that night and she answered and we spoke and I felt relieved that it was all going to be OK, but at exactly 9.43pm the phone rang. I answered it and it was the police. I hung up, walked out of my house, drove to Ellie’s parent’s farm and blew my brains out with a shotgun.

I finally managed to stop her from going to London by winning the lottery. I knew what numbers were coming up so I won, quit my job, and we went to New Zealand for two weeks. I imagine someone else was stabbed on the streets of London that night, I didn’t care though, I had my Ellie back and we were happy.

By now you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you all of this. Well, the thing is, I’m now 40 and have died about two hundred times, and every time is exactly the same. You see, I had a massive heart attack very suddenly on the 6th of June 2014 and ever since then it has killed me over and over again on the 6th of June 2014, and each time I wake up between three and ten weeks earlier knowing exactly when I am going to die and I don’t think it will ever end.

I’ve written this document countless times because I’ve had time to think, and I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps every time I die and wake up in the past, I am creating a brand new universe in which I am alive again. Perhaps somewhere there’s a universe where I drowned in a pond on my sixth birthday, and somewhere there’s one where Claire Finnegan and I drove into an oncoming truck as I gazed at burning embers, and somewhere else I overdosed on a beach, and somewhere else I blew my brains out with a shotgun, and there could be hundreds where I died of a heart attack and you, reading this, you are part of only one of those universes – a universe that I will never again experience, one with a beautiful, beautiful future.


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