I get to live forever…well…for a really long time. That was, after all, the crux of the deal. It’s why I sought Jonas out. And like the fool he knew I would be, I hadn’t asked him what the catch was. Don’t get me wrong – there would have been a catch even if I had asked. I know what happens when you make deals with the devil, ask favors from genies, wish on a Monkey’s Paw. But that’s part of their magic – they make you think you’re the one – the one person in all of history – who could game the system.
“Ugh. Are you thinking about our deal again? Boring!”
I hate him.
Jonas circles around me again. “So, who’s it going to be this time, Shalini?”
“It’s Jennifer!” I snap back.
He chuckles and sings back to me. “Can’t have that one, Shal.”
I bite the inside of my cheek. I won’t let him see me angry. He likes it too much. Quietly I say, “Won’t you call me Jennifer when it’s just the two of us?”
His eyes flash. “You get to be anybody you want, Maria – oops, it’s Shalini this time, isn’t it? You get to be anybody you want, but you don’t get to be her. Can’t go back to the original, chicka! You can call yourself Jennifer until you drive yourself insane, but that name doesn’t belong to you anymore or ever again.”
“But you could send me back into her, right?” I’ve asked one hundred lifetimes before, but still don’t manage to keep the pleading from my voice.
For the 100th time he shoots back an infuriatingly flippant answer, “Sorry babes. Paradox. Universe fracturing. Collapse of the space time continuum. One you submit the paperwork on this kind of thing it’s done.”
I sigh and Jonas grins. I know how this conversation ends, and I don’t feel like nursing a broken hand for my last few moments.
“Who’s it going to be, Shalini? You’ve been Mom, Dad, Sister Erika, Cousin Jeffy. Mrs. Frederick from 3rd grade, your next door neighbor Maria, Doctor Robinson, and…wait…who was Shalini again?”
“The mail lady.”
“The mail lady! Starting to clutch at straws, aren’t we?
I clench my fists and stare at my toes.
“Who’s it going to be this time, Shalini? Who else was there in 1984?” He watches me for a moment. “What? Can’t think of anyone?” Jonas’s voice drops low. “Maybe it’s time. Maybe you’re just tired. I’d be tired.” He looks at me with a kindly, concerned look – the look of a grandpa who’s just watched me fall off my bike. I was Grampa Carl…maybe seven lifetimes ago?
I hadn’t seen him move, but now he’s next to me, taking me in his arms and hugging me gently. I feel like I’m going to shatter. “Oh, Shalini. It’s been a good run. You’ve lived more than any human ever has. You’ve seen everything. Been everywhere. You don’t have go through it all again.” He takes a deep breath. “I could end it for you. I’ll be quick.”
White mist begins to drift from Jonas’s suit, and I smell wet rot. Jonas can never contain his excitement when we get to this part. I pull away from him and push down my weariness.
“No!” I say it a little too strongly. “I’m ready.”
Jonas turns away, but not before I see the hatred in his eyes. He’s hiding it less and less as we get on in years.
“Fine, “ he spits. “Then WHO is it going to be?”
I think back. I think back on all of the names and faces that I’ve memorized over the years. Who haven’t I been? There are some people who I just don’t want to be, some lives I don’t want to live. See, it’s part of the curse – I’m only an observer in these lives. I don’t become the people who Jonas sends me to, I just watch as life happens to them. I can’t change anything – any of the choices that they make! I’ve learned some horrible things about Jennifer’s acquaintances over the years. Maria’s shy smile masked years of physical abuse at the hands of her lover. I had chosen to live Don, even knowing beforehand his love of cocaine, but the leap from the 32nd story of his work building had been a really unpleasant shock. Jennifer hadn’t kept in touch with Don after he moved to New York so I had no way of knowing how that one was going to end. I had come to with Jonas’s cruel laughter ringing in my ears.
“WHO, dammit!?” Jonas is impatient. His jacket has almost completely dissolved into white mist, and the smell is getting stronger. I’m out of time.
“Mark! I’ll be Mark.”
Jonas looks at me for a moment and then bends over, cackling with glee. But his suit reforms and I relax a tiny bit. “Really? Mark? You want to be the asshole who beat you up at recess every day for a month until Mrs. Frederick found out what was going on? That should be fun.”
I jut out my chin and glare at him. “I’ll be Mark.”
He regards me silently for a moment. “You can’t do this forever…Jennifer.”
Hearing my name for the first time in centuries almost undoes me. I sway toward him but manage to say the words. “Rakshasa send me back.”
And then I’m staring at a breast. Mark’s mother is singing a lullaby to me and I’m sucking warm liquid into my mouth. I feel the rocking of the chair and see her eyes droop tiredly.
Across town at Adventist Hinsdale Hospital, a baby girl is being delivered. She is coaxed into the cold air by Dr. Randall Robinson, a young doctor who’s presiding over his first labor as a new resident. After a quick examination the baby is swaddled in soft cloth and set into the arms of the weeping exhausted mother, who chokes out, “Welcome to the world, Jennifer.”