Authors: Robert T. Jeschonek
Robert T. Jeschonek
If I'd known then what I know now, I never would have gone toward the light. Seriously. This Heaven, I could've done without.
My actual life before death was much better. I was a
, for cryin' out loud. I had it all.
As recently as twelve hours ago, I had it all.
"So tell me, Stag, how does it feel to be nominated for your third Academy Award?" That's what the perky blonde morning show host asked during the live interview.
"Unbelievable." I said it with my patented humble-yet-confident grin, letting the bright lights cast a glare on my teeth. Down-to-Earth, salt-of-the-Earth, salt-and-pepper hair parted on the right. "It never gets old."
"What a track record." She, Susan F., was in a New York City studio. For reasons that weren't clear to me, I was in a separate studio across town, watching her on a monitor. Doin' the ol' split-screen tango. "And with two Best Actor wins under your belt, how do you feel about chances for a third?"
"Crossing my fingers, Sue." I flashed my bright whites and showed my crossed fingers to the camera. "It would be an indescribable honor."
"We wish you the best," said Susan with her most endearing smile, as if I were family.
"Thank you, Sue." Nod and a wink. "I hope to see you at the after-party."
"On a cold day in Hell," I added after the red light on the camera went dark.
"Screw you, too, Stag." That's what Susan F.'s voice said in my earpiece. Looks like my mic was still hot.
Not that I cared. "Love and kisses, S.F.," I told her as I unclipped the mic. Reaching under my gray sweater, I pulled the mic down and out by the cord.
As I popped out my earpiece (to the sound of her angry cursing), I saw someone open the studio door and stroll in. It was a guy--six-three, six-four--with broad shoulders, dark business suit, and red tie. High roller maybe?
"Hello?" I was irritated, because the only one walking in on me at that point should have been my manager, Shisha M. "You know I have to be at a film shoot in fifteen minutes, right?"
The guy cleared his throat. He was standing with his hands folded over his lower abdomen. "Hello." I couldn't make out his face in the shadows beyond the studio lights. "Hello, S.L."
I hopped off the stool, squinting for a look at him. "Very funny." More than a little pissed off because he was riffing on my call-people-by-their-initials routine. "What do you want?"
At that instant, somebody switched off the lights, and I saw the guy's face. For a moment, the pissed-off-ness poured right out of me.
My breath caught in my you-know-what. A cold chill rushed up my you-know-where.
"About the film shoot." He shook his head. The hair wasn't salt-and-pepper, it was solid silver. But otherwise...identical.
To me. He could've been my twin.
"What about it?" I said, but my head was tingling. I had a feeling like very strong vertigo, like being stoned.
"Don't go back," said my twin. "Not today. Not ever."
As the initial shock wore off, I started thinking this through. I had no twin, so... "Who sent you, pal?" I straightened my back, squared my shoulders, copped a sneer. "Was it Brad? Was it Morgan? I've gotta say, you're the best Stag Lincoln impersonator I've ever seen."
My twin walked toward me, looking intense. As he got closer, I swear I could smell the ocean. "I'm begging you. Don't go back to the shoot, Willy."
My sneer turned into a frown. How could he possibly know that ancient nickname? The one I paid
(conservatively speaking) to bury forever? "Whatever was remotely funny about this just stopped being funny." I yanked the phone out of my pocket and started punching 9-1-1.
At which point, my twin charged up and smacked the phone from my hand. "Listen to me!" Next, he hauled off and slapped me across the face. "If you go to that shoot, it's all over! Can you get that through your thick
, you arrogant
?" He slapped me again, harder.
Where the hell was Shisha while this was happening? Where the hell was
? "Get your hands
me!" I pushed away from him, planning to plow my fist into the middle of his copycat kisser.
But that was when he started glowing with bright golden light. I thought I could hear a bell chiming somewhere far away.
"Last warning!" His voice was beyond urgent, beyond serious. "I'm telling you...
...stay away from the shoot!" He glowed brighter with each passing second. "And whatever you do, Jerry..."
He flared so bright, it was blinding, and then he was gone.
I stood there, blinking at the spots in my eyes. Wondering what the hell he'd been trying to tell me before he disappeared.
Just as I thought that, he popped back into existence in front of me, still roiling with golden glow. His voice crackled, and the bells I'd heard earlier were louder than before. "Whatever you do...don't...toward..."
I thought I heard screams between the chiming of the bells. The screams of not a few, but a multitude of people.
"Jerry!" Suddenly, his voice grew clear and strong. "Don't go toward the light!"
This time, when his glow flared and his body vanished, he didn't come back. I was left there with the echo of his words, the lingering smell of the ocean, and the tingling in my head, asking the one question that kept circling in my mind again and again.
"Was it Cameron?" I stared into space, my mouth wide open with amazement. "That was some serious 3-D, man. That
to be Cameron."
An hour later, I got out of my limo at--you guessed it--South Street Seaport, the shoot location.
For a moment, I stood and took it all in. A four-masted tall ship, the
, bobbed gently in the water. A vast brick building spanned the pier, filled with shops and restaurants. Bright sunlight flared off the bold orange and red awnings and umbrellas fanned out around it like plumage. The air smelled like the East River, like gasoline (from the water taxi docked at the pier?)--and like the ocean, too.
I wondered briefly if that was important.
Shisha, that redheaded fiftysomething fireplug of a manager, never stopped texting as she slid out of the limo behind me.
Did I feel a little apprehensive after the warning from my twin? Not enough to breach my contract.
Looking back, well
, how dumb could I
? But I'd mostly convinced myself the visitation had been nothing more than an elaborate special effect arranged by a prankster. I
in a TV studio, after all. Ever hear of motion capture? No way
was I going to call off work and give whoever was pranking me the satisfaction.
If I had a hundred bucks for every time some self-proclaimed future me showed up to complicate my life, well...I'd be rollin' in it, these days, actually. But back then, there was just that once, so the odds seemed better that it was B.S.
"Seemed" being the operative word, in retrospect.
"This Distefano character, what a peach pit!" Shisha's upper lip curled as she texted. Unattractive? I didn't hire her for her looks; I needed a bulldog, and she brought plenty of bark
bite to the dogfight. "He won't budge on the backend points."
"Sounds like a deal-breaker, Mom." She's not my mom, but I call her that anyway. I even take her out for Mother's Day because it's good to keep a bulldog happy at all times.
"Only if I minded tearing him a new one." Shisha pulled on her giant sunglasses with the leopard-print frames. "Unzip the body-bag, Larry." (That's what she calls me, though it isn't my name.) "I'm goin' in with the spear gun." She dialed the phone like she was squashing bugs on it.
I almost said something to her about my twin, but it sounded too crazy in my head to sail it out there. Anyway, why bother?
How important could it be?
"Hey, anal probe!" That's what she said to the studio boss on the phone as she waddled away from me. "You better be wearing an adult diaper right now at this moment!"
Her voice quickly faded in the ruckus of the shoot. Members of the film crew shouted from every direction as they scurried around, prepping the camera, lights, talent, and set. Extras milled around one corner of the pier, blabbing to each other and on phones while they waited. A mob of onlookers crowded the street, yelling for attention, yelling at...me. (As usual.) And let's not forget the director, D.X. (That's his full name, FYI, I didn't abbreviate.)
"Yo, Stag!" He waved me over to where he was standing, in an open section of the pier near the tall ship. "There's been a change."
"What kind of change?" I frowned. "Another rewrite?"
D.X. pushed up his black ballcap with the movie's title on the front in white letters--
--and scratched his forehead. I couldn't see his eyes behind his mirrored sunglasses, just the reflection of my own face. "More like an opportunity."
That exact moment was when I first heard the sound of the helicopter coming in from the direction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Twenty minutes later, I was hanging from a cable as the helicopter lifted me up into the air. All part of the "opportunity" D.X. had mentioned.
Now, I'm not afraid of heights, and I was secured by a safety harness wired to the chopper, but still. As I rose high above the pier, then swung out over the glittering surface of the river, I felt a punch of adrenaline. My heart pounded, and the pit of my stomach clenched. My hands, protected by thin leather gloves, clamped tight around the cable.
I was really out there. My feet were perched on a big iron hook at the end of the cable, clipped to stirrups on either side--but it didn't seem like there was much between me and the void. I knew the harness and wire held me fast, but the illusion of imminent danger, of being fractions of an inch from plunging into a vast gulf of space, was powerful.
It was one of those moments when maybe it wasn't so great being Mr. Movie-Star-Who-Does-His-Own-Stunts.
But I still had no inkling whatsoever of what was coming next. It was just another day on the job to me. My twin's warning was the furthest thing from my mind.
So the helicopter kept climbing and heading out over the river. Gazing down at the crew on the pier, I saw sunlight glinting off camera lenses and cell phone screens.
The plan was this: the helicopter would swoop in from the Brooklyn Bridge toward the pier; the whole time, I'd be suspended underneath, swinging back and forth as I tried to get a bead on the pilot with the gun I was carrying. According to the script, the helicopter was packed with explosives and aiming at the pier...but just before it got there, I would appear to get off a shot that appeared to hit the pilot. The helicopter would start to wobble like it was going to crash...
Simple enough, no? All I had to do was hang on and shoot a pretend gun. I'd been in lots of more complicated stunts with more room for disaster.
So I sucked it up, determined to ride this puppy out. Remember the multimillion-dollar contract, remember the multimillion-dollar contract--that was my mantra.
The helicopter cruised toward the bridge, then looped around to face the pier. I swung in a gentle arc under it, buffeted by the downdraft from the rotor.
How far up were we? Three hundred feet, I guessed--higher than the Brooklyn Bridge towers, which I thought were two hundred and fifty. Fear-of-God high, let's say.
We hovered around the same point for what felt like a long moment. My hands sweated inside the gloves as I gripped the cable more tightly than ever.
Then, I heard the signal in my earpiece. "Fill your hand, Stag!" D.X. snapped the words over the radio. I knew he was watching me through his binoculars--one of the glints of light on the distant pier. "Thirty seconds, yo!"
I took a deep breath, steadied myself, and reached into the holster strapped across my chest. I drew out what looked like a perfectly ordinary Smith and Wesson revolver--in this case, a stunt gun loaded with blanks instead of .357 Magnum cartridges.
The helicopter drifted sideways as the seconds ticked away. Hanging there, in those lost beats of time, I took one last look at the view--Brooklyn sprawling to the left of me, the lower tip of Manhattan at my right...the East River flowing ahead of me, running down to the upper bay of New York Harbor. It looked so vast, so alive, so intricate...and yet so distant, so small. From my God's-eye view, suspended at a great height, it looked like a tabletop diorama spread before me, built by a lonely hobbyist to serve as his own little world. A place for him to project his hopes and dreams, to live vicariously in the million million secret nooks and crannies where an unfulfilled heart can dwell. It reminded me of another cold and distant world cobbled together to hold a lonely soul, a bitter, jaded bastard only fit to inhabit imaginary places.
It reminded me of my life, in other words. My career in film. My self. Because that's what I've gotten from twenty-two years in the movies--two Oscars and a portable fortress of solitude that follows me wherever I go. More money than I can count and less happiness than the scabbiest bum in that city out there.
That's what I was thinking as I hung there, waiting for the call. The next scene.
And then the clock ran out.
As the word came over my earpiece, the helicopter surged forward. I swung back on the cable as if I were riding a flying trapeze.
"Okay...okay..." D.X. was watching, timing my next cue. "Aaaand...gun up!"
Gripping the cable tightly with one hand, I raised the Smith and Wesson with the other. As the helicopter zoomed toward the pier, I aimed the barrel at the belly of the aircraft.
Clenching my jaw, I jerked the gun around as if I were fighting to get a bead. For the benefit of the distant cameras, I made the movements bigger than they had to be.
The helicopter charged ahead. We were coming up fast on the pier, on the end of the line.
"Stand by, Stag," D.X. said in my ear. "Just a few more seconds..."
I continued to jerk the gun, trying to aim at the pilot...but I couldn't get a clear line of sight from my angle below and behind the aircraft. Then, the helicopter lunged to one side, swinging me out wide, and I finally had it.
The shot. The gun-sight was lined up with the pilot's helmeted head.
At that exact second, you-know-who barked in my you-know-what. "Fire! Fire! Fire!"
I hesitated for a heartbeat, as if I could sense that this was the tipping point. As if I knew deep down that this would be the last normal second of my life.
And then my finger squeezed the trigger.
The sound of the blast roared in my ears. The recoil spun me around like a pinwheel in a tornado. As I spun, I saw the glass of the cockpit shatter, and the pilot's head buck forward in a blossom of red.
And I knew instantly, without the slightest doubt.
That gun was not firing blanks.
I spun like a stone on a string and pinched my eyes shut against the dizziness. Instantly dropping the gun, I clamped both hands on the cable.
D.X. dropped the F-bomb five times in a row in my earpiece. "Oh my God! What happened up there?"
But his voice didn't matter much to me. I was too busy hanging on as the helicopter lurched out of control. It pitched from side to side, then seemed to stabilize for an instant.
Just before it bolted hard left and plunged toward the water.
"He's going down!" said D.X., as if I needed the running commentary.
Snapping my eyes open, I saw the glittering surface of the East River spinning toward me as the helicopter spiraled out of the sky. It was coming up fast.
Things looked bad for me, but my mind still raced, straining for a plan.
"Get the rescue crew out there!" said D.X. "Hang on, Stag!"
I decided to do the opposite. Maybe I'd stand a better chance if I jumped clear instead of being pulled in with the wreckage.
Reaching under my shirt and into my pants, I released the wires from the safety harness. They sprang away from me like snipped piano wires.
So now only the single cable tethered me to the helicopter as it spiraled downward. And I had only seconds to leap free of the whole mess.
I whipped around on that cord like a tail behind the falling aircraft, waiting for the best moment to move. The lower the better, I thought; the lower I jumped, the less likely I'd be to pancake on the water's surface.
"Goodbye, Stag!" said D.X. "I'm sorry this happened!"
Just before the helicopter hit, I let go of the cable and tried to dive free. But I forgot something.
"Good luck!" said D.X. "Good luck on the other side!"
The stirrups clipped to my feet.
Instead of jumping free, I flipped forward, caught by the stirrups. Hanging upside-down, I saw the chopper break the river's surface below me.
The helicopter dove, but its momentum was cut by the splashdown. The cord leashed to it snapped me forward like a pebble in a slingshot, pitching me at the water.
Time seemed to slow down as I rocketed toward the roiling surface. The helicopter disappeared below, leaving only churning brown waves pierced by the cable.
Here it comes
. That's what I thought. And then I thought of something else.
For the first time in years, I thought of my turning point, the night when I really started my climb to the top. The night when I left A.E. for dead.
"Remember," said D.X. "Go toward the light!"
And then the river parted around me, bitterly cold. And I plunged into darkness and silence.
And the breath I'd meant to hold for as long as I could rushed right out of me, and I was gone.