A New Life – a short story by CJ Ryall
Surfers Paradise, Gold Coast, Australia: 2007
Chris Jeffers was out celebrating on the night of his death. He had won an ‘all-expenses-paid’ overseas trip for two around Europe, and took his wife Madison out dancing. At around 3 A.M. they decided that they had imbibed enough alcohol for the night, could not dance anymore, and that it was time to hail a taxi and head home.
They left the smoky atmosphere of the Gold Coast nightclub and inhaled the fresh night air as they stumbled outside. A couple of young punks almost bumped into them, but Chris was wary enough to steer Madison and himself out of their way. He’d read too many articles in the news lately about early morning attacks by youths, lethal ‘king-hit’ punches and alcohol-fueled violence; he wanted to avoid any trouble if he could.
“Got a light, mate?” somebody behind him asked, and he spun around. He couldn’t see the young man well, due to the poor lighting on that part of the street, but he did detect that there were two more burly looking men behind him. He shook his head.
“Sorry mate, I don’t smoke.” He nudged Madison along and cursed the lack of streetlights. Up ahead it was much brighter and he could see a couple of taxis parked.
“Well how about some money to buy a lighter then?” came the same voice.
“Sorry buddy, I don’t have any money left on me. Goodnight.”
“Like hell you don’t!” the man grumbled. The blow from behind was sudden and hard, and pain exploded in the back of his skull with the impact of the punch. As he fell on to the concrete sidewalk, he saw Madison’s face twist into an expression of horror.
The ten-month-old baby cried in its crib. It appeared more cranky than usual this morning. A woman in her late twenties came into the room and smiled down at it. She knew it was still too early for the baby to speak yet, but she encouraged it anyway.
Recently she had a read a book on encouraging babies to talk, which recommended that parents greet their children, talk to them normally, describe objects around them in words, and leave gaps for the children to respond, so as to mimic real-life conversation. For days now, the baby had tried to say something but couldn’t quite form the words.
“…i m-m,” was how it came out. The baby appeared quite frustrated at its lack of success. The day before, after she had breastfed her baby, it wailed out loud and then closed it eyes and lapsed into a state of unconsciousness! A doctor made an emergency house call and declared the baby fit and well, but advised her to wean the child off breast milk. So early this morning, she woke up and prepared a mixture of formula milk and breast milk. However something inside – maybe a mother’s intuition – told her that the milk wasn’t responsible for yesterday’s incident. The baby had seemed shocked or upset. Today it looked more placid. Then the baby smiled and uttered its first words, but those two words weren’t what the woman was expecting. It was similar to previous efforts, but with more clarity.
"Hi mm," the baby mumbled, still trying to get used to working its mouth muscles.
The mother gasped in stunned disbelief and her eyes widened so as to resemble cue balls.
"Hi mum," the baby said again, exerting much effort to speak more clearly, as if it knew the words it wanted to say, but couldn't quite manage it. The mother fainted.
The baby had woken for the first time in hospital, but it could not see more than fuzzy bright lights and vague movement. A month or so later, it was hard to tell, the lighting had changed, the environment was much quieter and his vision had improved slightly. After what the baby guessed to be a couple of months later, it began to notice that a nurse or at least some woman kept a bedside vigil – but he didn’t know the woman.
For some strange reason the woman kept holding a baby’s toy in front of him, a rattle of some sort, probably to test his hearing and vision, the baby thought. She seemed delighted when he started tracking it, moving his head from left to right. Soon a fluffy stuffed animal replaced the baby toy. What the hell? Then she unbuttoned her blouse, unhooked her bra, and exposed her breast. She did it as nonchalantly as if she had done it many times before. It was a full, plump breast with a hard nipple. This woman was totally uninhibited, he thought. He accepted the nipple eagerly and sucked on it with great delight. He was hungry anyway, so he didn’t mind at all. Had it happened before? He couldn’t recall, but then the last few weeks, or had it been months, had been rather foggy to say the least.
Then the lady started speaking to him, but either she was mentally deranged, or maybe he was, because she appeared to pretend to be his mother. She seemed kind and caring though, and kept on breastfeeding him. She kept calling him baby, which at first he thought was ‘sweet talk’ from a nurse, but then she also referred to herself as ‘Mama’. Too weird. Then a horrible thought occurred to him, and he tried to lift his head up to look down at his body. At first it was really difficult, and he assumed it was due to all the drugs and medicine he was on. Eventually though he managed it. However, when he saw his body, or what was left of it, the room started spinning and the reality of his situation proved too much for him - he blacked out.
Later that night he had a dream, more of a nightmare, but he knew it to be the truth. It was too real to be just a dream. He had all his senses intact. He felt enormous pain in the back of his head, and a sticky wetness there, and he heard boot steps all around him. He could smell an odor like rusting iron, or copper, and he realized that it was his own blood. In his vision he was flat on his back on the pavement outside the nightclub on the Gold Coast. As he looked up, he saw three men standing over him, and he was sure he recognized his drunken assailant from his school days. Jack… what was his last name?
Before he had a chance to speak though, a boot landed with brute force upon his mouth. He felt his teeth crumble under the impact, and the taste of blood made him want to be sick. His attacker’s boots once more came into his field of vision and smashed into his nose and forehead. He heard Madison scream at the same time as he heard his own skull crack, before a final blackness descended upon him.
Then he rose out of his own body, as if her were a ghost or a spirit of himself. He floated up and looked down upon the macabre scene below him. The three men stood over his unconscious body, and his wife was standing nearby, a terrified look on her face.
“Chris!” Madison wailed. “Why did you do that?” she demanded, turning to the group of thugs. Suddenly a police car with its siren on and lights flashing roared down the dark street. Madison turned around and saw one of the taxi drivers waving his hands and pointing to where she stood. The man who kicked her husband looked to his mates.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!” he yelled, and the three of them turned and began to run away from the oncoming patrol car. Jack Halloran! That was his name.
Madison immediately bent down to her husband, and cried out when she saw the dark blood pooling around his misshapen head. She shook Chris’s shoulder and called his name, but there was no response. Before she became a mother, she was a trained nurse, he recalled subconsciously. Putting her fingers on his neck she tried to feel for a pulse, but it seemed there was no sensation at all. She knew not to move him, and while she appeared to be fighting the urge to panic, she stood up and screamed to the taxi driver who was still watching from a distance.
“Call an ambulance! Please,” she said, her voice breaking, “call triple zero.” She heard shouting from the other direction, and looked around to see two police officers chasing after the three men who had attacked her husband. However the horrific image of one of the men stomping violently on her husband’s head was more than she could bear, and as she looked back down at her husband’s lifeless body, she passed out.
He awoke some time later, and lifted his head again. He carefully studied his body. I’m a baby! The thought roared through him and he screamed out in terror. The same nurse or woman appeared and peered down at him with much concern. But if I’m a baby … It dawned on him then exactly what was happening. This woman is my … mother! But how was this possible? Why? What had happened? I had a life, damn it! I have a wife!
Something deep inside his psyche made him want to reject this idea. He fought it, half-realized that he was ‘in denial’ but he did not want to accept the truth. This can’t be happening. I have children of my own. Where are they now? Why isn’t my wife here?
Once again he threw he head back, opened his mouth and wailed as loudly as he could. The next morning he felt slightly calmer, not great, but at least reluctantly willing to accept what seemed to be the truth. He watched the same woman come in again, but this time instead of breastfeeding him, she brought in a baby’s bottle of milk. No beer?
This thought almost made him laugh, and he smiled knowing he still had his sense of humor. How else could he deal with his current predicament? Smile or go insane. Then he tried to speak to her. He focused on moving his mouth to clearly enunciate the words he wanted to say.
“Hi mum,” he tried to say but it came out as “Hi mm.”
“Hi mum,” he said again, and this time he knew he’d got it right. But then the woman looking down at him had collapsed!
“Look, Miriam, he’s smiling at us,” beamed the woman holding the baby bottle. Her daughter, Miriam, had found her mother on the floor after arriving home from elementary school. She had run out and prepared a cool, wet towel to put on her mother’s forehead, not knowing what else to do. Slowly the mother had come to, and then suddenly she jumped up to a standing position and looked at the baby. Unbelievably, the baby was silent, but looked at her with what appeared to be concern. It then tried to talk.
"Sorry," the baby mumbled, trying to make its words clear. The woman swayed, but managed to stay on her feet. She spun to her daughter at her side and blurted,
"Did you hear that?" The daughter nodded dumbly, her mouth open in shock.
"You... can... speak?" asked the mother, turning back to the baby. Then she laughed out loud as if this was the most stupid thing she ever could have said in front of her very 'sensible' daughter, and she felt the blood rush to her face as she blushed with shame. But to her amazement, and initial disbelief, the baby nodded its head. Impossible!
"What…? Why? How can you speak?" asked the mother. The baby struggled to say something, but seemed to be having trouble with moving its mouth and lips.
"Uh... cannot explain," said the baby, but it sounded more like 'canot sprain'.
"Memory," the baby gabbled. The mother looked confused, and then embarrassed.
"Mammary?" the mother asked, gesturing towards her breast self-consciously. The baby giggled at this, shook its head and tried again, bringing its tiny hand up to his head.
"Me-mo-ry," it said clearly. "My memory," said the baby again.
"Oh, my God," the mother breathed. "Oh my God." The daughter was speechless.
The baby grew tired after a few minutes, and fell asleep. The mother monitored its breathing for a while.
That night there was much excitement when her husband came home from work, and his wife and daughter told him all about it. At first he couldn’t accept it, but he could see in their eyes that they truly believed it, and they all talked about what it could possibly mean over dinner.
"Do you believe in re-incarnation, Rueben?" He looked at her very seriously and then nodded slowly. Many Jewish people believed in some kind of reincarnation. The mother seemed to become fearful and tense then, and her husband soothed her.
"Now Malka, don't worry. I'll call the pediatrician - he'll be able to explain." Reuben rang their local 'baby clinic'. At first the pediatrician thought that the couple were trying to be funny, although he didn’t seem amused. ‘He was a very busy man,’ he explained. However, after more persistence on the part of the father, the baby specialist told them that he'd visit their house for a check. He arrived an hour later.
They waited for the baby to wake of its own accord. The baby looked up at the strange face peering down at him, and appeared frightened. The doctor said,
"Now, now. Don't be scared. I just want to help you. Can you hear me?" The baby nodded, stunning the baby specialist. He stepped back and breathed deeply.
"Can you say something for me?" he asked, still using a very soothing voice.
"Yeah," replied the baby boy. The doctor opened his mouth wide in astonishment.
"Who are you?" he asked. Reuben and Malka looked at each other, surprised. Who?
"Kuisu," the baby responded. "Kurisu," it said, trying again. "Kris," the boy blurted.
"Chris?" the doctor asked, and the baby nodded. "Christopher?" he clarified, and again the baby nodded. Behind the doctor, Malka broke into tears and ran out.
The next day, the doctor sat down with Malka and Reuben to explain some things.
"Malka, he is not a stranger. He is still Asher, your son. He is your baby boy."
"No, he's Christopher somebody. Who's that? He is not my son. I don't know..." she blubbered before breaking down and crying again. The doctor persisted with his theory.
"Listen to me, Malka. Imagine you died today in a car accident, and then you were reborn tomorrow as a baby girl to two fine parents, but you remembered everything from this life, meaning your husband Reuben, your daughter Miriam, everything that exists as it does right now. That's how it is for your baby Asher." Malka stopped crying, and sniffled quietly, as the doctor continued. "You would still be the baby daughter of your two new parents, but you would already know so many things. How to speak, how to do math, and so on."
"But he thinks he's not our son, doctor," said Reuben, and Malka nodded.
"Nonsense! He is aware that he is your son, but he was just recalling past life knowledge. This is common in new babies,” he lied, “but the memories are often forgotten before they gain the power of speech. In this case, he simply hasn't forgotten."