I’m about to open the front door of the Clark family home and walk into the night, to disappear, to start running, when something inside me asks, What about them? A crippling sadness and guilt accompanies the question, stopping me dead.
The less they know the better, I reply silently, reminding myself to keep focused. It’s only been three days since the harrowing ordeal that was my Flooding, so it’s no surprise I’m feeling so vulnerable and exposed. It will get easier, and I will grow stronger, but I have to be patient. I know because I have run this gauntlet many times before. I also know there is a great deal more pain and suffering to come, but that is a price I am willing to pay for the truth. The side effects of “awakening” include paralyzing headaches and strength-sapping seizures, but it’s the emotional instability I fear the most. After all, there is a hormonal teenage girl fighting for survival inside of me. Until she accepts the inevitable, my behavior and mood swings will be erratic and unpredictable.
While there is so much I remember, I don’t have the complete picture yet. Indeed, I recall nothing of my life before this one – how I died, where I lived, who I was… it’s just a huge black hole, and it’s not the only one. I’m not overly concerned, though, as memory gaps are common during the early stages of transitioning, a phase notable for the intensity and frequency of side effects. Thankfully, it only lasts a few weeks, and eventually answers will come in my dreams. But I can’t sit around waiting for that to happen. And I am nothing if not resourceful. For millennia I have been burying survival kits all over the world, each filled with valuables (precious metals where possible) and information. First and foremost, I try to list the people I have been (those I can recall), the men and women I have loved and the enemies I have made, including those who hunt me now.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, three cycles ago if my calculations are correct, I lived in London. Again, it’s patchy, but there’s one thing I remember clearly: being outside at night during a powerful storm, on my knees, sobbing, digging… thrusting a small container into the ground, covering it with earth. Then being startled by a fork of lightning, seeing a gravestone in the sudden glare, recognizing the name.
Getting my hands on whatever’s inside that box should be all that matters. So why is the voice in my head saying, But it will crush them. You know how much they love you.
They love Rosa, and Rosa is a fantasy.
Rosa lives inside of you; they all do...
“Not if they catch me,” I whisper, but instead of leaving the house I grew up in – that Rosa grew up in, I mean – I put my backpack on the floor, turn to the hallway table and grab the pen beside the notepad, pausing for a moment, thinking what a stupid idea this is, how it won’t make a tiny bit of difference anyway, before writing:
Mum, Dad, Joe, when you read this I will be gone, and you will never see me again. I can’t explain why but wanted you to know I’m alive and okay and there’s nothing you did wrong. I realize you will never understand and that this will cause you pain but there really was no other way. I love you, and I am deeply sorry. Rosa xxx
They will think this has something to do with the fact they adopted me as a one-year-old. Rosa’s birth mother, who was second-generation Chinese, was a drug addict and prostitute. It’s a miracle the Clarks were willing to take me on, but I guess they were desperate, having failed to conceive a child of their own. But a few years later they did exactly that. The result was my little brother Joe.
At least they’ve got him. Their flesh and blood.
I put the pen down and glance up, catching myself in the hallway mirror, annoyed, but not surprised, to see tears streaming down my latest face. My heart is pounding, my chest tightening. I remind myself that this is normal, that I’ve been here many times before. This is just eighteen-year-old Rosa Clark from Exeter desperately trying to work out what the hell is going on.
Half Asian, half white, Rosa has long black hair and a small birthmark on her left cheek (a physical blemish that follows me from life to life). She’s pretty, with hazel eyes showing an epicanthic fold, and a light dusting of freckles.
Right now Rosa is having a panic attack. And who could blame her? She’s slowly realizing she’ll never see her mum, dad or little brother ever again. More terrifying than that, she’s wrestling with the idea she doesn’t really exist, that her whole life was just someone else’s dream.
I want to tell her everything will be okay, that things will get better, but that would be a lie, and she’d know it. The truth is, it’s all downhill from here for Rosa Clark. As with her family, she’ll never see any friends again, including her ex-boyfriend Mike, whom she was thinking about taking back.
I have already thrown away her precious mobile, and soon I will shave her hair off. Clothes, makeup, the food she eats, all of it is going to change. Even her weak, skinny body will be pushed to its limits and transformed so that it can match and handle the skills of my consciousness, skills it has taken four thousand years to amass and hone.
My soul is female, and as such I have always reincarnated as a woman. For the first part of each new life, I am ignorant to the truth. Then one day, without warning, the Flooding comes and I remember so much. Like how deeply I love Ashkai, my master and soul mate of four thousand years. With each new cycle of life, we endeavor to find each other. Sometimes we succeed, but not always.
We have sworn enemies. Flooders who hunt us across the ages. They claim we have broken sacred laws and have sentenced us to annihilation, from which there is no coming back. That’s why I can’t let them find me. That’s why I have to run.
Wherever you are, Ashkai, be safe and know that I am coming.
Across my many lives, I have witnessed civilizations rise and fall, fought in wars and explored every inch of this majestic blue planet. I have been poor and rich, ugly and beautiful, weak and strong. I have died of old age and disease and tragic accidents. I have been physically and sexually abused and even murdered. All of that is but a tiny fraction of what I have seen and experienced, and yet what have I amounted to? A scared, pathetic little girl who can’t stop crying.
The ridiculousness of that makes me laugh, and almost instantly I feel stronger and more focused. Seizing the moment, I grab my backpack, pull my hood up and reach for the door. This time, no voice halts me so I step outside, the cool October breeze sharp against my wet face. After using the sleeves of my jacket to wipe the tears away, I check my watch and immediately break into a jog.
The night bus to London leaves soon.
I need to be on it.
Ten minutes later, at 1:02 am, just three minutes to spare, I arrive at Exeter’s outdoor coach station with my hood down, huffing and puffing because I ran all the way, reflecting on how I need to get this body into shape as quickly as possible. There are some local red buses parked for the night and a few guys wearing fluorescent vests milling around, one of them telling a group of alcoholics to move on but only getting a “Go fuck yourself” as a response.
There are a handful of people at the other end of the depot with bags at their feet. I figure they must be waiting for the bus to London so I head that way. As well as being out of breath, I can feel a dull ache in my head, which could be a seizure brewing, and am considering what I’ll do if that’s the case when I hear, “Oi, you…you over there…hey, lassie, I wanna ask you somethin, lassie, just a quick question, won’t take a second...”
I glance left and see it’s one of the alcoholics, special brew in hand, trying to get my attention. He’s a disheveled, dark-haired Scot with a shaggy beard and hunched shoulders, fortyish. I ignore him and keep going. I even veer right, detouring behind the parked buses, to avoid getting too close. It’s not that I’m scared; I just want to stay out of trouble and blend in as much as possible. That’s easier said than done when you’re a pretty eighteen-year-old girl walking the streets late at night, but you do what you can.
“Hey, missy,” he shouts, even though there are vehicles between us now, venom creeping into his tone. “Hey…oi… you deaf or what…rude bitch, think yer better than me, do yer? All I wanted was ta ask ye a question….”
He gives up after that, and a few seconds later I reach the small group waiting to leave town, my breathing pretty much back to normal. Closest to me is a guy about Rosa’s age with messy dark hair, which he’s running his fingers through, revealing a shaved undercut. His eyes are blue and piercing, and he’s wearing jeans and an old, black jumper that has seen better days. The next thing I notice is the birthmark on his neck. It’s about three inches long and a centimeter thick. Blemishes of this kind are often the physical echoes of a violent death that concluded a previous incarnation. That said, the one on my left cheek, which looks like a dark red flame, has been with me since the beginning, and I have no idea why.
“Do you know what’s happening with the bus?” I ask.
We make eye contact, and for a split second, I feel like we’ve met before. I wonder if he goes to my college as he gestures towards a raised screen, saying, “Running ten minutes late according to that.” He sounds like he went to private school.
“Oh, yeah,” I reply, glancing at the monitor that I’d missed. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” he says, smiling a smile that makes me feel good. “Ten quid a ticket means they don’t care what we think.”
“We haven’t met, have we?” I ask.
After a pause, he says, “I don’t think so.”
“You from Exeter?”
“No, London. Been visiting family.”
“My mistake,” I say, letting go of the notion.
“Guess I have one of those faces.” Saying it with that smile I like.
The ache in my skull is intensifying, so I decide to head for the station toilets, which are down the stairs over to my left. I don’t want anyone to see me freaking out if it comes to that.
“Just gonna use the bathroom,” I say, smiling back, noticing he’s wearing a touch of eyeliner, wondering if that means he’s being himself or still trying to find himself, guessing it’s probably a bit of both. “Will you let me know if the bus arrives?”
He turns to his right as if he heard or saw something unnerving, then looks back at me. “Sure, yeah, no problem.”
I glance where he had to see what distracted him but there’s nothing.
Still carrying my backpack, I hurry to the toilet, which is all white tiles, bright lights and bad smells. After making sure there’s nobody else in here, I position myself over the middle of three chrome sinks and place my bag on the floor. I run the cold tap and splash water on my face. I also close my eyes and breathe deeply. If things go bad, I’ll lock myself in one of the cubicles, bite down on the wooden spoon I packed before leaving the house, and pray the seizure runs its course before the bus leaves.
After another minute or so of meditative breathing, eyes still closed, I start feeling a little better. Relieved, I lean forward for one last splash of water and then straighten, opening my eyes at the same time, facing the mirror. I nearly jump out of my skin when I see a bearded man standing directly behind me, his back to the cubicles. I go to spin, but he’s on me in a flash, his left arm across the top part of my chest and shoulders, pulling me in, his right holding a knife to my throat. The guy’s a few inches taller than me, and says in a gravelly Scottish accent, “Scream ‘n I’ll slit your throat.”
His breath stinks. Halitosis mixed with alcohol and cigarettes. His dirty black beard, thick, matted and coarse, feels like a Brillo pad against my left cheek.
“I was only gonna ask if ye fancied a drink, but ye were too good for that, walkin round me like I was a dog shite or somethin. Well now I’ve got another question for ye; which hole do ye want my cock in first?”
While this situation is not without jeopardy, now that the initial shock has passed I’m relatively calm and focused; after all, in terms of remembered life experience, I’m dealing with a child. This is not the first time I’ve had a knife to my throat or had someone try to rape me. I think about pretending to be scared to give him a false sense of security but then decide on another tactic that will achieve the same effect with a little more cruelty. I get a sexy look going as I say, “You don’t have to be so mean, I was counting on you following me in here...” Slowly reaching for his penis with my right hand as I continue with, “And in answer to your question” – I pause to lick my lips – “definitely mouth.”
He looks at me in the mirror as if I’ve just turned into a mermaid. My eyes are conveying the false message that I want nothing more than to be screwed senseless, giving him what I know deep down he yearns for, to be wanted. Desperate to believe I’m for real, that after years of rejection and self-loathing he might not be totally repellent, his body softens just slightly, the knife edging away from my throat by an inch or two.
That’s when I explode into action, bringing both hands up to grab his knife arm, jerking it away from my throat as I simultaneously roll my upper body left and downwards, my head squeezing under his shoulder, taking his arm with me, twisting it around until he drops the blade. I keep the move going as I manipulate his wrist until I hear a satisfying snapping sound, his hand going floppy as I release my grip. The maneuver has put me behind my attacker, so I kick the back of his right knee out, stepping forward as he falls, using the momentum to smash his head into one of the chrome sinks with an encouraging swing of my left hand, knocking him out cold before he has a chance to make any noise.
This new body I’m wearing may be weak and untested, but combat is principally technique, and I’ve had a lot of practice. I also despise souls who seek to impose themselves on others, whatever their story.
I step over the unconscious Scot and grab my bag. Before leaving, I check in the mirror to make sure I don’t look like I’ve been in a fight. Unsurprisingly, my face is flushed and sweaty, and my hair is a mess. While sorting it all out, I notice my heart is pounding like crazy and realize I must have been more scared than I thought. Then I twig it was more likely Rosa Clark having another of her moments and wonder if that’s the reason my headache is back, in a big way.
I dry off with some paper towels and hurry out, bumping into Eyeliner at the bottom of the stairs. He’s smiling at me, saying, “Hard as it is to believe, our chariot awaits.”
I try my best to look relaxed. “Great,” I say, feeling a sudden and excruciating shooting pain in my right temple as I lead the way back, aware no amount of breathing is going to help this time. I need to get on the bus quick.
Rudely distancing myself from Eyeliner so he doesn’t think he’s got a travel buddy, I show the driver my ticket, which I bought yesterday, and head straight to the back, huddling in the far left corner, relieved there’s nobody within a few rows and that it’s dark. Calmly as possible – my head throbbing, flecks of white light moving in – I unzip my bag and pull out the wooden spoon. Dizzy now, hands trembling, I get on the floor and wedge my knees against the back of the chair in front. Knowing I’ve only got seconds, I place the handle between my teeth, and in that moment, as I bite down, the world goes a searing, blinding white.
I’m lying on my side, leaning on an elbow, totally naked, skin glistening with a mixture of oil, sweat and sex, smiling and happy, wondering how many other slaves are as blessed as I am, knowing the answer is none. The hard stone floor beneath has been made soft and comfortable by thick layers of animal skins and aromatic rushes. The distant ceiling is so far away I can barely make it out in the flickering candlelight.
The balcony doors, ten paces to my left, are wide open, letting in the sounds the night, which as always is dominated by the relentless and strident hum of cicadas. Coming in on the warm breeze are the fragrances of worship, hints of frankincense and myrrh and other offerings to Anuket, goddess of the Nile, and Khonsu, god of the moon, who right now is riding the sky in all his glory, rivaling his brother Aten’s magnificence.
During the day, the veranda offers breathtaking views across the Nile and Thebes, a city owned and ruled by my benevolent and wise master Ashkai, who sits opposite me, his legs crossed in that strange way he favors, back upright but leaning forward slightly. He pours the pungent, blue lotus tea he has been preparing, something usually only imbibed by priests and sorcerers. He is neither, although he is able to do things nobody else can.
Ashkai, like me, is naked, his long locks (dark except for one thick strand of gray starting in the center of his forehead) hanging freely, tickling his broad, muscular, battle-scarred shoulders. My hair has been cut short save for a few long tufts of curls, as is the fashion for Nubian women, especially if they are slaves and their duty is to look beautiful and give pleasure to their owners, as mine is.
My master, who hates it when I call him such, who treats me as an equal, ignoring the protestations of those who serve and advise him, fills a second clay chalice – there is nothing grand or glamorous about this ritual – and asks me to sit upright, which I do, pulling one of the animal skins over my small, delicate shoulders. I’m mimicking his posture now, one he has trained me in during the many hours we have rested in silent contemplation these past months.
I know what’s about to happen. We have been building to this ceremony for a very long time, preparing my mind for the journey ahead. I remember the night when I had absorbed the idea that he would “awaken” me. Unsurprisingly I had a lot of questions.
“How long have I been sleeping?” I asked
“You have been sleeping all of your seventeen years, and many more.” That was exactly a year ago.
“What if I am enjoying the dream?”
“The dream imprisons you.”
“Of all the people in the world, why have you chosen to set me free?”
“Because you are special.”
“But I am just a slave.”
“That is nothing more than a label, don’t identify with it.”
“Who am I then?”
“That is what we will find out.”
Now he picks up one of the cups and offers it to me. I peer down at the brown liquid and realize something.
“I am afraid.”
“Letting you down.”
Ashkai smiles, his kind and perceptive eyes giving me all the reassurance I need.
As I’m readying to drink there’s a bright flash, then darkness, followed by a violent and disorientating propulsion through space, as if I’m attached to a shooting star. And just like that, I am somewhere else, distilled to my very essence now, an ethereal ball of consciousness floating down a long dark hallway, gliding past a door with a number on it: 4320.
What’s in there? I think, but then my attention is drawn to the awe-inspiring beauty in the far distance, knowing where I am now: the world between worlds.
I’m trying to remember how I died and came to be here, in this majestic theater of energy and color, but at the same time, I’m acutely aware of my need to focus and prepare for the ordeal ahead.
Thank you, master, for showing me the true path, I think, but then it dawns on me something is not quite right, and almost immediately I hear a voice say, in a language I don’t recognize but somehow understand, “Hey, time to wake up, we’re almost there…”
Things slow down and I open my eyes. Everything is muggy and dim, and I’m not sure where, or what I am….
“Master, is that you?”
I hear laughter. “I’ve been called a lot of things in my time, but that’s a first.”
I begin to come to my senses, finding myself in a human body…the material realm, then… lying on…ah yes, the back seat of the National Express bus, bunched up on my side, face nuzzled into the corner. I roll over, noticing I have been covered with a blanket, and see Eyeliner looking down on me from the next row of seats.
Did he witness me having a fit?
“Had me worried,” he says. “Thought you were dead at one point, until you started speaking. What language was that?”
“Where are we?” I ask. I look at my watch: 5:53 am. Over four hours since we left Exeter.
“Victoria, close to the station. Thought I’d better wake you, hope that’s okay?”
I sit up and tidy my hair, saying, “Thanks,” following up with, “This yours?” as I lift the blanket. It’s still dark outside, the only light coming from a few weak bulbs above the seats.
“I do this journey a lot, so it comes in handy.”
I give it back. “That was kind of you.”
“It was nothing. Looked like you needed it more than me so glad to be of help.”
“How’d you mean?”
He throws the blanket on top of his bag, which is on the adjacent seat across the aisle.
“I got up to use the toilet about an hour in and saw your feet sticking out on the floor” – he points down – “just there. Thought maybe you’d been drinking. You were really cold as well.”
“How’d I get up here?”
“I lifted you.” He smiles. “You’re heavier than you look.”
“Or you’re not as strong as you think,” I say, and watch as his handsome face lights up. That’s when it occurs to me he’s flirting.
“That’s no way to speak to your master,” he says, which I have to admit is pretty funny. Eyeliner is coming across as a guy who doesn’t take life too seriously. While I know it’s just the top, protective layer of his personality, a mask for the vulnerability below, it’s exactly the kind of energy I need right now.
The bus pulls in to Victoria Station, and as we stand he says, nodding toward the seat beside me, “Not sure if that’s yours, found it on the floor when I picked you up.”
I look down and see my wooden spoon. Out of nowhere the number 4320 flashes in front of my eyes. It reminds me of the hallway and door I saw in my dream, both of which were strangely familiar, although I can’t put my finger on why.
“Thanks,” I say, shoving it in a side pocket of my bag.
“What’s it for?”
Because I don’t have any energy to expend on lies, I say, “For biting on when I have an epileptic fit, stops me chewing my tongue off.”
“You’re messing with me, right?”
I swing my bag over a shoulder. “Mind stepping aside? I’d like to get off this bus before it takes me back to Exeter.”
“Shit, sorry,” he says, grabbing his holdall and blanket, letting me pass. He follows behind, asking if I’m heading to the tube, saying he can carry my bag if I need a hand.
As we step off the bus, I glance at my watch and remember that Rosa’s parents will be up soon, that they’ll start phoning friends and raising the alarm. The thought of how desolate and scared they’ll feel makes me deeply sad and for a moment I’m on the verge of tears. Well, Rosa is. I realize what I need to do can wait a few hours, that the last thing I want is to be alone right now, especially as I’m tired, hungry and cold.
That’s why I turn to Eyeliner and say, “What’s your name?”
His eyes go shifty for a split second. “George.”
I’m about to challenge him, ask why he’d lie about something so silly, but decide against it. “Who cuts your hair?”
After a confused narrowing of the eyes, he says, “I do… obviously, have you seen the state of it?”
I keep a straight face. “What with?”
He sweeps his hair back. “Um… scissors...”
“What about the shaved bit?”
His hand goes to his undercut. “Use clippers for that.”
“Where are they?”
“Archway, north London.”
That’s very close to where I’m heading, and experience has taught me there’s no such thing as coincidence.
“Who d’ya live with?” I ask.
“Have a girlfriend?”
“Not at the moment.”
“What does that mean?”
“Recently split with someone.”
“She live with you?”
“No way, was only seeing her for a couple months. This conversation’s a bit intense for six in the morning, don’t you think?”
Ignoring his question, I say, “The last thing I need is an angry girl screaming at me when we get to yours.”
He raises an eyebrow. “You coming to mine?”
A knowing, goofy smile takes over his face.
“Never gonna happen,” I say, my eyes emphasizing the truth of the statement. “I just want to borrow your clippers, maybe get a bite to eat. You try anything I’m gone, understood?”
He comes over all innocent and jokey. “The same goes for you. It may seem unlikely right now, but the more you get to know me, the more irresistible I get. So when the urge comes, I need you to keep your hands to yourself. Deal?”
I try to suppress my smile but only partially succeed. “Which way we heading?”
“Follow me,” Eyeliner says, already walking when he adds, “What’s your name?”
The answer I give sounds cocky. “I haven’t decided yet.”
But it’s also the truth.
“That’s extreme,” Eyeliner says as I enter his bedroom holding the clippers he lent me when we arrived at his student house half an hour ago. After washing some toast down with a cup of tea, I headed to the bathroom to give myself a very short haircut. I’m wearing just a t-shirt and jeans now. My jacket, hoodie and bag are on the floor by the chest of drawers. Eyeliner continues, “You lose a bet or something?”
Feeling drained and not at all in the mood for this guy’s seemingly never-ending banter, I hold the clippers up and say, “Where do these go?”
Still awed by my new, army-inspired look, he replies, “Just leave them on the desk,” which is easier said than done as it’s a mess of papers, books, empty Red Bull cans, plates, an iMac computer, a scooter helmet, keys, and an I Love London mug. The rest of the room is slightly less shambolic, but that’s only because he did a quick tidy while I was in the bathroom.
Seeing me about to lose patience, he steps across and clears a space, nervously pocketing a container of pills that had previously been concealed behind a stack of books.
What’s he trying to hide? I wonder.
“Had a deadline on an essay,” Eyeliner says, “so haven’t had a chance to tidy up. Grades first and all that.” Then, still captivated by my new appearance, he adds, “I’m not just saying this, but it actually suits you. Don’t get me wrong you looked good with long hair, like really good… but this is… well, sort of crazy, yeah, but I dunno… unique … brings out your freckles, which are super cute by the way. You mind if I touch it – your head, I mean?”
I let out a loud, tired sigh. “George, I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, you’re obviously a nice guy, but could we try coexisting in silence for a while? Actually, I should just go…”
By the time I’ve grabbed my stuff, he’s standing in front of the door, palms raised, saying, “I’m sorry… weird, shaved-head girl…I talk a lot when I’m nervous and make lame jokes, it’s like a tic, that’s why I’m being such an idiot…You look knackered…not in a bad way, you just…” He pauses, obviously getting frustrated with himself. “How about I leave you alone so you can rest. I’ve got stuff I can do downstairs, how’s that sound?”
The truth is I’m too tired to go anywhere and some alone time, without actually being alone, is exactly what I need. Besides, Eyeliner’s not so bad; he’s just struggling with what has been a very strange morning.
Deciding to cut him some slack and stop being a bitch, I relax a little and say, “It’s Sam.”
“My name. It’s Sam. As much as I like ‘weird, shaved-head girl,’ it’s a bit of a mouthful.”
He smiles, and there’s genuine kindness in it. I wonder for a moment about his previous lives and if our paths might have crossed at any point, if that’s why I thought I recognized him at the bus station. I’ve been around a long time, and souls, especially ones with interconnected karmas, often reincarnate together, so it’s possible.
“Good to meet you, Sam. You need anything, more food, a cup of tea, a wooden spoon…?”
I roll my eyes, just messing, though, and he says, “I’m doing it again, aren’t I? Wow, you must think I’m special needs.”
By the time the door closes I’m smiling, and it holds as I put my belongings on the floor, pull my boots off and curl up on the bed, noticing how weightless and textured my head feels against the white cotton sheets and how the pillow smells of Eyeliner. I find both things strangely comforting as I drift off, ready for the dream I know is coming, hoping to find answers in it.
Before long, trails of luminous, pulsating color begin taking shape in my mind’s eye, their paths crossing in the darkness like comets, another glimpse of the world between worlds, the place from which my Flooding came.
Amidst this cosmic spectacle of energy and light, I hear a deep male voice saying, “Samsara, they have found us. We must go.” There’s a white flash, hot as the sun, followed by the familiar and irresistible pull of a human body. I open my eyes, gasping for breath, and see Ashkai standing over me, no longer the ruler of Thebes but instead a broad-shouldered African American wearing shorts and a t-shirt. The only physical constant, as my birthmark is to me, is that thick wedge of gray in the center of his hairline.
The sky is clear save for a few wisps of cloud, and I can feel dry hay-like grass underneath my bare, sweaty arms and legs. I realize where we are now: Central Park, New York. We’ve been staying in my master’s nearby apartment and coming here every morning, pushing our latest bodies to their limits, sharpening senses, honing skills, getting ready.