The cold December air whipped around his head and John Jacobson instinctively pulled the collar of his black petticoat more tightly around his neck. The action was truly reflexive as he didn't feel the cold. The only sign that he was even aware of the cold, either physically or consciously, were his eyes that were tightly squinted against the wind, and his ears that shone a bright, painful red. The wind whipped around him again and again in a whirlwind of Oz proportions. Yet, he didn't deviate in the slightest from his path. Both his pace and speed remained constant. Passers by, had there been any, would not have believed a man capable of such a gait in the inclement conditions. For his part, John's pace spoke of determination. In due course, he arrived at his destination and he stopped, staring for a moment. The events of the last few days of his life played over and over in his heart (his mind seemed to have lost all interest in what was going to happen, and had decided to keep its distance) and he became unerringly convinced that the next moments of his life would be his last, best decision. With a deep breath, he stepped to the edge of the bridge on which he'd stood and looked down. Vertigo gripped him and a small voice that he'd dubbed "survival instinct" spoke to him and he immediately took a step backward.
"What are you doing, son?" came a voice.
"Me?" he asked dumbly, never looking at the source of the voice.
"I don't see no one else walkin' up the edge of the Direwater Ravine bridge and then backin' off like some kinda fool."
"Right," he laughed,
"Son, don't you know you just backpedaled into four lanes of highway traffic?" the voice said again.
He hadn't noticed. In fact, he was standing in the middle of those four lanes, somehow unaware of the cars that sped past him on either side, of their horns blaring in protest of his stupidity. He silently, quickly sped back to the bridge's edge, where an old, grizzled man awaited. A sheen of sweat glistening on his dark skin.
"Thanks," he said numbly, holding out his right hand,
"I'm John. John Jacobson."
"I know," the man said, taking the offered hand.
"I'm Jacob. Jacob Johnson." he matched John's cadence exactly, and John wasn't entirely sure he wasn't being mocked.
"What do you mean, 'you know'?"
"What do you mean, 'what do I mean'? I mean I know. I know who you are and I know what you're doin' here and I know you ain't gonna do it." he punctuated the last four words with a finger poke to John's chest.
"Ain't got time for 'how'. Just come with me, and we'll get you all sorted."
With that, Jacob didn't say another word. He just grabbed John by the arm and put him in the passenger seat of a truck that had appeared as if from nowhere. John knew he should be feeling nervous, or at the very least he should be worried for his safety, traveling to an unknown destination with a man he'd only just met. There was something about the grizzled man, however, that John just couldn't put his finger on. Besides, he must be in his seventies at least; hardly a threat.
"Seventy-five." Jacob said.
"Pardon?' John replied.
"I'm seventy-five years old. You got nothin' to worry about son, I just needed you off that bridge. You're acting like a damn fool."
"Well, yeah, I admit the bridge was a bit stupid, being that I'm scared of heights." John said, his voice betraying none of the seriousness that he felt.
"So is the rope, and so is the poison, or the alcohol, or the pills and we both know you don't have a gun."
John was getting agitated at the way Jacob seemed to be in his head.
"Who do you think you are?" he asked.
"I've been where you are, son." his voice took on a serious quality.
"That place where it seems like your entire life is one big pile of shit that just keeps getting bigger. The place where you start thinking no life is better than bad life. Where alone is better than together and where love can't save you anymore. I've been there."
"Spare me the 'it gets better' speech. I'm too old for fairy tales." John spat, suddenly feeling about Jacob the way he would feel about a televangelist or Jehovah's Witness that came trying to save his soul.
The old man just laughed. He laughed heartily and from his belly, a raspy sound that gave way to a cough.
"That's rich! 'It gets better' he says! Oh my! What a good one!"
John looked out of the corner of his eye, confused.
"Nothing gets better, son! This is exactly the way it's supposed to be! That's what I'm here to tell you!"
"Okay . . . " John said, suddenly confused.
Looking out the window, he idly watched the snow flakes blow in the still whipping wind and wondered exactly where his life had led him this time.
After a ride that seemed longer than it was, the truck came to a stop, and Jacob parked next to a meter in front of a Pawn Shop called "Jacobson's." Jacob got out of the truck without ceremony and came around to John's door and opened it before John had a chance to. John stretched, and this time when he pulled his collar around his coat it was because he felt the sting of the wind after being in the relative warmth of the truck.
"Home sweet home." Jacob said.
"Shouldn't it be called 'Johnson's Pawn Shop'?" John asked.
"Son, you ever tried to run a legitimate business with a name that's a euphemism for your pecker? It ain't possible in this day and age. You try typing 'Johnson' into the Internet. That's saying nothing of the perverts that just wander in thinking it's a front for a whorehouse or some kind of underground sex club. Still, takes all kinds." he said, shaking his head.
"They got the first part right." he said with a wink.
John couldn't resist,
"It's a whorehouse?"
"It's a front." Jacob said, pulling the gate on the front back and motioning John into the shop.
Crossing the threshold, John instinctively began to breathe through his mouth. The air was stale, and the shop was dark and dusty. A cursory glance at the items for sale betrayed the fact that nothing had been bought or sold there in quite some time. He stopped before the jewelry counter, a lump forming in his throat and his breath coming in a sob. Before him was a necklace, made of ivory, with a Celtic pattern carved in its face and the whole thing inlaid into carved onyx. He knew it as well as he knew himself. What he didn't know was what it was doing here.
"Where did you get this?" he asked, only then aware that there were tears streaming down his face.
"Well, let me see, now . . . " Jacob said, moving to his sales register behind the counter.
"Oh yes, now I remember," he began.
"This piece came from a lovely young woman who brought it to me when she realized she hadn't returned it to her young man. She was quite despondent about it as I recall. She simply said 'Sell it to someone who is prepared to love big. As big as he did. That's my wish for him.' You want to buy that necklace, son?"
"It's mine." John said quietly.
"That's where you're confused, son. It's not yours."
"It's mine." John insisted, thumping a fist lightly on the glass case.
"My mother brought it from Ireland and I gave it to her when we fell in love. I never wanted it back. Not because I was being mean but because, I knew she still loved me. I knew she'd want it to remember."
"She wanted to remember, that's for sure. But she didn't need no necklace to do it." Jacob said,
"Come on downstairs, we got to talk, son."
He led the way into a basement, that was only barely dustier than the storefront. John's chest had caved in once again, in a way that he had become all too familiar with throughout his life. He couldn't help but feel like there was a big revelation coming. Something life changing and meaningful. He'd had this feeling several times in his life, and the moment had always been fleeting, followed by emotional upheaval and turmoil.
"Sit down, son. This is gonna take some tellin'." Jacob said.
John blindly sat, and stared blankly at the older man.
"Now, some of what's coming you ain't gonna believe. And some of it you ain't ready to hear. But the plain truth of it is, it's time for you to hear it because this is about more than just you."
"Okay." John said, quietly.
"This pawn shop is just a front like I said. It's something special for sure. I've had it for about fifty years or so and before that it was someone else's. He went by the name of Nicholas and when he found me, I was laying in the street. Literally laying in the street. See, I was tryin' to lay in traffic. Over a woman of course. I was lonesome and heartbroken and she'd just up and decided she didn't like things no more and I didn't see much reason in trying anything at all after that. Not even breathing in and out."
"I know the feeling." John said.
"I know that you do. And see that's just what you're doing here. See, a man came along and explained things to me just like I'm about to do for you. But before I do, how about you tell me why you were standing up there on that bridge?"
John instantly became defensive.
"That's none of your business old man." he spat angrily.
"No, no. I suppose it isn't. But see, the thing is, you got to assume I already know and then I can tell you what you're doing here."
"If you already know then why am I telling you?" John said, still defensive.
"John, let me start at the end. This place is special. That necklace came to me from someone you know but it wasn't the person you think it was. These things in your life, they do happen for a reason, but it ain't the reason you think. And it sure as hell isn't going to stop anytime soon. Now all you got to do, son, is just accept it. Because I promise at the end of it you're going to appreciate things more. We all got our roles to play."
"Roles to play," John spat again.
"You don't know what you're talking about old man. You think I asked for this? You think I asked for mental illness? Depression? You think I asked to be so unsure who I am? You think I wanted to get my heart broken again and again and again? Don't talk to me about roles to play."
"No. I don't suppose you did ask for all that. But what if I was to tell you there was a reason for it all. What if I could make it all okay? What if I could tell you a way to keep your focus?"
"You can tell me anything you want, old man. That doesn't make it true, and it doesn't mean this is some kind of 'It's a Wonderful Life' moment."
"No. No, it's not like that. But, don't you want to know?"
"I want to know how you got my necklace."
"I told you that part. I'll tell you the rest if you tell me why you were up on that bridge."
"I wanted to jump, okay!" John shouted.
"I am so tired of getting my heart broken! Is that what you want to hear? I didn't see the point of living one more day in a world where she didn't love me anymore! Okay! Is that enough?"
"It was more than the heartbreak though, wasn't it?"
The intensity of his emotion spent, John now felt more in control.
"Yeah. It was more about the fact that this is always happening to me. I can't ever seem to catch a break. I was tired of feeling a big hole in my chest where my heart used to be. Like, I just keep trying and trying. I stay positive, do my best and it all still comes down to getting shit on, in a spectacular fashion."
"Did you ever think there was a reason for it?" Jacob asked, suddenly intense.
"Poor choices. Genetics. Bad upbringing. A lack of guidance. That kind of stuff. That's what's always behind these things."
"It's far more than that." Jacob said
"When Nicholas found me laying in the street and he brought me here, I was a lot like you. I thought life was a curse. I thought I was always going to be unhappy."
"But it got better." John interrupted with an eye roll.
"No. It didn't. I'm every bit as miserable now as I was then."
John blinked. This wasn't the response he'd expected.
"You heard me. I understand now. And soon, so will you. See, it's my time John. And now I have to tell you because that's how it works. Shit. I'm getting ahead of myself. Just sit back and listen."
John did as he was told.
"For you, it comes down to the necklace. That is the necklace you remember and it isn't. See this shop here, this is what you call a gateway. A gateway to the fifth dimension."
"The fifth dimension?"
"Yes. The fifth dimension. You already know the first four. Lenght, width, depth, and time. The Fifth dimension is reality itself. And it turns out that there is more than just this reality. See, the original owner of this place knew that and he built his shop here for a very specific purpose."
"What purpose is that?"
"I'll show you." Jacob said, standing.
"What is it?" John asked, standing in front of a wall. A plain brick wall.
"What am I supposed to see?"
Before their eyes, the wall coalesced into a jeweled portal. It shone with an eerie glow that reminded John of a television screen displaying white noise. Before he could ask what was happening an image began to form.
A sob caught in his throat as he saw her there, radiantly beautiful as she's always been. She wore a white dress and flowers in her hair and she gazed at him. Directly at him. He'd seen that look a million times and in this moment it was more than he could bear.
"You know her?"
"That's her. That's Sara." he said dumbly watching the scene play out.
She was standing with him now. They were outside but very clearly at an altar. They were getting married! He'd always wanted to marry her. And once upon a time she'd wanted to marry him too. Before it all had gone south. Before she'd decided she didn't love him anymore.
"What the hell is this?" he asked.
"Some kind of cruel joke?"
"This is no joke. This is what happened. This is her life with you."
John looked again and saw the two of them in their favorite park watching their children play. He sobbed openly as the scene dissolved and it seemed years had passed. The children were older and graduating from school. John could see the two of them there, still in love, and so proud of the young man that stood before them posing for pictures. The scene again dissolved and again it was years later. John saw himself as an older man, laying in his bed with his love next to him, holding his hand. She herself was older but still looked deeply into his eyes, longingly and lovingly. John watched the scene unfold and let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding; as the other version of himself quietly passed away.
"What the hell is this?" he asked.
"It's what makes this place special, son. What you're seeing is the life you and Sara had together."
"That can't be. She left me. We didn't work out. I mean, it was over. Wasn't it?"
"For you, yes. But not for them." Jacob nodded to the portal that had returned to a plain brick wall.
"You're saying that was me and her? In some kind of, what? A parallel world?"
"Now you're getting it."
"You're crazy, old man. I don't have time for this science fiction. I don't now how you did all this, but it's time for me to go."
"John, every choice that's made is played out somewhere in this great multiverse. Dozens upon dozens of versions of you and me that play out every choice ever made. What you just saw was a version of yourself that didn't make the same choices you did."
"Okay, say I believe you. What does this have to do with how my life is such a shithole?"
"That's the easiest and the best part. See, there's a version of all of us that exists just to carry the bad choices. The mistakes. We're the versions that make all the bad choices and live with the consequences. We do it so that they," he nooded at the wall again.
"Won't have to. We carry that burden for the happiness of all of our counterparts."
"So you're saying that I make shit choices and my life sucks because of some sort of cosmic law that keeps things in balance? That there's some version of me out there living the life I always dreamed of living?"
"More than one. There's the you that ended up with Sara. The you that ended up with Christian, the you that ended up with Daniel. You always seem to end up in a happy relationship. Everywhere but here. Here you end up alone, but you can still be happy!"
"But you said you were just as miserable as before."
"That's me, son. I never got over the injustice of it. But you're a young man. You have your whole life to find meaning in something else. Something that those other versions of you will never have."
"Okay, let's pretend I believe you again, why are you telling me all this?"
"Because it's my time, son. And that necklace is what led me to you. Just like Nicholas did with me. Nicholas found me in the road waiting to be run over and he dragged me back here. It was his time, you see, and he needed someone to run this shop and watch over the gate."
"And you're saying that's my task now? To be some kind of gatekeeper for this place?"
"I'm saying that the necklace came here because you've been chosen. It's all about being chosen. You can live here, and when it's your time, you'll be led to someone else."
"To what end?"
"This place is special, son. Nicholas didn't understand and I don't either. All I can tell you is that it chose you. But you're gonna have to decide quick if you want to be chosen. I ain't got much time and I got a lot to teach you."
"You mean I have a choice?"
"That's what this is all about, son. Choices. No matter what you say here, somewhere else there's some version of you doing the opposite."
"Well, that being the case, I guess I'd better go ahead and just hear you out then." John said.
And the story of his heartbreak ended. He learned the secrets of the Universe that night, and the meaning to his own life became far more plain than he would have otherwise believed. He did not live happily ever after, though he lived with purpose until the day a young man with piercing blue eyes smacked a white gold engagement ring on the counter and with tears in his eyes he said,
"Sell it to someone who's ready for a big kind of love. That's my wish for him."
And John suddenly knew the final piece of the puzzle was falling into place.