Second Soul
By
Thomas Sullivan
[excerpted first chapter]

I am Waterfall Man.

The sketchy accounts I gave the docs about what happened November 10th, 2000, were true as far as they went, but this is for me. Even though I'll write it to a stranger. Because that's what I'm becoming.

I remember how the magic started. A road smoking with frost, trees trunks like naked thighs in a steam room, the sky just a rumor of light smothered in oily clouds, and the ditches like dirty moats full of melting snow the color of old soap. It was insane to try to ski the narrow band between the road and the creek. Every time I thought about it, the phrase "seriously dumb" ended the urge. But here was the magic all around me on the heavily wooded slopes outside Sheshebans, Minnesota, and magic makes me feel invincible. So I leaned a little. At the top of the mountain I leaned, recalculating the odds. I never did decide to go. My skis just slipped past the point-of-no-return and gravity did the rest. Coming down, the hiss of acceleration rose like applause.

I guess I knew from the start I wouldn't make it, because I kept pushing off the right ski, feeling for the edge of the road, so that if I wiped out, it would be in the shallowness of the ditch. The baskets on the ends of my poles were punching through into sheer nothing. At the least, I was tearing up the bottoms of a new pair of Fischer

cross-country skis, and I didn't care. If it hadn't been the first outing of the season, if I hadn't been intoxicated with the mist and all that crystal magic, I might have cut across the road and leveled off. But what I did was skate blindly into the descent.

Speed focused my field of vision, because trackless skiing through low-slung branches is like a grand slalom where the penalty for missing a gate is decapitation. I lost sight of the road. I lost sight of the creek. As the snow deepened on the lea side of the mountain, I carved my way faster and faster until I seemed to be skiing on light itself. The sound of the waterfall crept up on me too late. By the time I knew where I was headed, there were no more exits. I couldn't wipe out, because boulders were popping up like army helmets out of trenches. If I went down, I would break something. But there was a slim hope that I could skirt whatever lay ahead. And hope is part of the thrill you take to the White Room.

Nanosecond hope bursts over you, then fades. It sprints in your adrenalin, then drowns in your perspiration. And there is that oddly cool moment when you know you've lost control, when the looming tree or the precipice or the glare ice inform you that you have to abandon yourself to fate and faith. I've thought a lot about those odd moments, and I still don't know whether they represent remorse or arrogance. But they measure how close to death you come, and somehow that makes you more alive.

I went over the edge of something into the sanctuary of air. Boulders boiled beneath me. I didn't actually see the water. It was just the filler between the stones, the oily black background that took the place of the snow. My feet pushed as though my skis were levers, searching for a brake. My poles braced like Lilliputian pikes prodding a Gulliver of a mountain. The dance was short. A clatter of graphite and plastic, and a rough pirouette that shattered ice. The applause this time was the water cascading over me. Thinsulate and Gore-Tex, polypropylene and spandex, human flesh - all failed to stop the cold that squeezed me to the core.

My instinct was to scramble forward. I was still breathing, so the waterfall must have been ragged with air, veiling me but not forcing me underwater. That seems important now that I'm struggling to believe I'm really alive. The cold was something else. Those first sharp gulps of air stabbed at a glacier inside me with the ferocity of an ice pick. After that, I was numb. Likewise, the struggle to escape was brief. My left leg was wedged hopelessly in something that seemed to be chewing on it. Call it a maw, because by rights I should still be moldering into that mountain. Mercifully, the leg too went numb.

I was a dead man. Despite what I said about fate and faith and hope, I was a dead man and knew it. Faith has always been my weakness. I don't think I struggled at all after the first few seconds. Whether it was seconds or minutes, time became one more item added to things lost. And eventually in that limbo of lost time and paralyzing cold, a question formed dimly in my brain. Why was I still dying? Why was I still thinking? I didn't believe that this was actually death, that I had crossed over. I could see the world - murkier than before, a grotto of millennia-old boulders and silhouettes, sounds and smells - even with torrents coming down around me.

They tell me there was a bear. I never saw the bear. If it came there for me, it must have been very discreet about it. But I heard the bus whining down the grade, and the bus hit the bear. That's what sent the vehicle hurtling off the road and into the trees. Nineteen of the twenty-two aboard, including the driver, were killed. Unbelievable. Two

life-and-death dramas in one hour in one little patch of mountain. That much, at least, was coincidence.

There was no feeling in me at all when I heard the crash. I don't mean just physically, I mean emotionally. A total contrast to what must have been going on in the bus. The passengers would have had time to react. All those people coming back from an outing at Mille Lacs, the icy descent, the curve, then the bear. They would hear brakes squealing and feel the surge; they would know what was happening; and even after they hit the animal and spun out, they would be flung around like screaming rag dolls until the yellow school bus broadsided against two trees and burst into flame. Then the sudden extinction. The nineteen died at the scene. Ironic that so many were perishing in a fiery holocaust while twenty yards away a man was freezing to death in a waterfall.

It has been suggested to me that I could not have seen the molten glow, that my eyes probably weren't working at that point. So why a memory of reds and yellows? Peter Max rainbows throb in my memory. It must have been the bus. The waterfall may have distorted it, but if I did in fact still exist, it was in a taffy-pull twilight where everything looked like a lava lamp. And there was more. The burning bus isn't what I remember most. What I remember most is a hole in the sky.

I don't know what else to call it. It was an absence of light, and it rushed at me as if it were a figure, as if it had a will. It did have a will. It hung there, and I knew that something extremely perceptive swarmed within it. I stared into its silhouette, which kept changing shape - if that wasn't also a refractory trick of the waterfall - and I sensed a malevolent joy pouring out of it. There are moments when you transcend verbal communication, when you know that five senses and a bunch of grunts can't contain the universe. Such was this moment. A coherent presence faced me, and it was absolutely and utterly commanding. My intelligence withered before its depth and intensity. At the same time, I knew it lacked whole dimensions of the human heart. Whatever it was, it had no compassion. It was feral. It had discovered me in my hour of agony, and it was delighted. My bones were cold enough to shatter, but the chill I felt went even beyond that.

Hallucination, you say? My whole life has been a hallucination since that day when my identity as Michael Bowden Carmichael ebbed close to - and maybe beyond - extinction. Maybe Michael Bowden Carmichael is the hallucination. Maybe what I saw was a glimpse of the true universe beyond the regional physics of a small planet around a hospitable star. Maybe the virtues and vices of Local Planet #1 are just vanity and folly when you put them up against the cosmos. Give Bogart and Casablanca credit for the metaphor: worldly destinies don't amount to a hill of beans in the vastness of the universe.

So what did it want, this thing with no eyes and no substance? Why had it been attracted to me? I wondered, and at the same time I knew. I stood on the brink of an eternal night that crackled with furious things - spirits, urges, demiurges. The lightless specter was master of that domain. It radiated a passion for chaos, a joy over death. Nineteen souls were being dramatically extinguished a few yards away; that was why it was there.

But why this feeling of extraordinary discovery over me?

I wasn't dead. If snuffed out humans are what excited the specter, there was no reason to be exhilarated at finding just one still hanging on. What pierced my dulled awareness, and what still troubles me fifty-one days later, is that the only remarkable thing about me is that, if I wasn't dead, I wasn't really alive either. I was somewhere in between. And in the last stages of consciousness on November 10th, the coherent hole in the sky moved directly between me and the burning bus. Suddenly the translucent waterfall vitrified completely, and I saw straight through the silhouette as if it were a tunnel. For one brief moment, the bus of the dead and my suspended body were connected.

SECOND SOUL is available from Onyx in paperback and can be ordered through Amazon.com