Seventy-eight years. When he was twenty-seven they met on the bus, and he went six miles past his stop just to keep talking to her. She was the last thing he saw. Fifty-one years together ended with a view of her smiling face, her hand pressing his gently as he drifted slowly into darkness.
He opened his eyes, blinking lazily. Light slowly filled the room, warm but neutral. As it grew brighter, so his surroundings grew more familiar. This was his room. Plain, as they all were, but definitely his. Slowly Hunter sat up in bed. The memory of aching, aged joints was fading, and he stretched a younger body that was growing more familiar by the second. He looked about as he did so, noticing the white notebook and pen sitting on the small table beside the bed.
Twelve years. Polio took him early, but there was something in the eyes of one of the nurses. It was a look that was utterly familiar, though he was too young to understand…
“PLEASE TAKE A FEW MOMENTS TO MAKE ANY NOTES FROM YOUR LAST LIFECYCLE, THEN PROCEED TO THE CANTEEN FOR SUSTENANCE.”
“Thank you, Gideon.” Hunter murmured. He reached for the notebook and opened it to the first blank page, noting that he was over halfway through now. As he thought for a moment, wondering what to write about his last life, his gaze fell on the shelf on the wall opposite him. A row of similar notebooks was lined along the shelf, each one already full. Then inspiration hit, and Hunter pressed his pen against the blank page and began to write.
Fifty years. They passed once in the street when he was thirty years old. She looked at him, smiled… Then turned her eyes to the man whose hand she was holding, and walked on… Those eyes haunted him for the rest of his life, even as the heart attack hit him years later and he slumped to the floor, clutching his chest…
“Hunter! Over here!”
Arcady and Eleanor were waving to him from across the canteen. He grinned and nodded, making his way over to them. As he did so, he looked searchingly at the faces of the other diners, but did not find what he was looking for, as usual. Finally he reached his friends and sat, but before he’d settled on the chair Arcady spoke.
“So? How did you do?”
“Do we have to compare notes immediately? Can’t I eat first?”
“Come on, spill.”
Hunter looked at Eleanor, who just rolled her eyes and shrugged. Relenting, Hunter began to tell them about his latest life.
Twenty-five years. He was a soldier, she was the childhood sweetheart he’d had to leave behind. As the bullets tore through his torso and knocked him to the ground, his hand fumbled for the photo of her he’d kept by his side every day since they parted…
Hunter took a bite of toast and looked about the Canteen, searching each face. He noticed Eleanor and Arcady were watching him, and raised an eyebrow.
“Looking for someone?” Eleanor asked. Hunter gave her a small smile and shrugged.
“You’re sure it was her again?” Hunter nodded, and his friend shook his head. “Hunter, I keep telling you, you must be making a mistake. It’s just not possible. I mean, statistically if nothing else.”
“It’s her. It’s always her.”
Sixty-eight years. They’d met via an online dating website, a measure which neither of them thought would work, but then spent thirty happy years side by side. Then, in his sleep and unaware, he drifted slowly away from her…
Three lifetimes later the trio walked through the Park after eating, taking Eleanor’s favourite path, the one that wound down to and then around the lake. Arcady chatted on about his latest life, but Eleanor and Hunter said little. Hunter would have wondered at Eleanor’s silence, which was unusual, if he hadn’t been caught up in his own thoughts. Finally Arcady fell silent too, looking at both of them.
“Well you two are being cheerful today.”
Ignoring Arcady, Eleanor caught Hunter’s eye.
“Hunter, supposing it is the same person each time…”
“Well… Shouldn’t she be here, then?” Hunter gave her a lopsided smile.
“Who do you think I’m always looking for?”
Forty-five years. They’d met in school, and his heart had been hers ever since. But she’d never wanted it, never felt more than friendship for him. They had remained close, and he had kept his silence, and given her the best friendship he could. Then one day as they crossed a road towards a coffee shop a lorry could not stop in time, and so he pushed her out of its path…
“She’s here somewhere. I just have to find her.”
“And how do you propose to do that?”
Hunter had no answer, and Arcady grinned. Smiling sympathetically, Eleanor spoke quietly.
“You’re sure it’s always the same person?”
“It’s her. Every time, it’s her.”
“Then… Well , even if you don’t find her here, at least you have each other when you’re there. That’s something, right?”
“It’s something,” Hunter said, quietly. “But it’s not enough.”
Thirty-six years. They’d met through friends, and over a few years their friendship had grown, blossoming into a love that they’d each never dared hope for. Then, on the return train from a magical day in a beautiful city, weather and disrepair combined to end it. Time seemed to slow as the carriage shuddered and twisted and rocked, the shattering of glass and grinding of metal made no sound; he heard only the beating of his heart as he reached for her hand one last time…
A few lifetimes later they sat once more in the Canteen, and Hunter was searching each face for a familiar gaze.
“You’ll never find her, Hunter. Stop doing this to yourself.”
“I find her there, every time. Why not here?”
“Well, here’s different, I guess. It’s not meant to be, here.”
“No,” Hunter said. “No.”
And before either of his friends could speak, he stood and walk out of the Canteen, his food untouched.
Eighty-one years. He’d missed her terribly when she passed, leaving him alone. For seven years he’d carried on as before, but his heart wasn’t in it. Even if every step is the same as those you’ve taken before, the path changes when you walk it alone. Then, sixty-three years after she’d stolen his heart, seven after she’d taken it away with her, he sighed one last time and slipped into darkness…
Hunter stayed away from his friends for a few lifetimes. He kept himself to himself; he wrote notes on his lives, he ate, walked in the Park, sometimes laying on the grass and gazing up at the birds gliding high overhead. And he vainly searched every face for the gaze he’d seen over and over, across a thousand lives and more.
Sixty-two years. They’d met at university, fallen so deeply, so immediately for each other that they both knew it had to be something more than just the freedom and exploration of youth. Then one day they’d been crossing the road when an oncoming car could not stop. She had cried out, shoving him as hard as she could. The car had crushed his foot, and though it eventually healed, he had a limp for the rest of his days. But she had taken the full force of the impact, and he was assured she’d been gone before she hit the ground. In time he had found another love, married, had children, lived a happy life. But the young woman who had saved his life never truly left his heart, even as he fell into his final slumber…
Hunter lay on the grass, his eyes closed. He heard the faint whisper of footsteps on grass, then the sounds of two people laying down beside him. Finally Hunter spoke.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Yeah. Me too,” Eleanor said.
“And me,” added Arcady.
“We know you want to find her. We just worry about you.”
The three friends lay together on the grass, reunited.
Seventy years. Their time came together, which their children thought was typical of them. Fifty years side by side, hand in hand, and then they slipped into the dark one night, lying in each other’s arms…
He sat in the Canteen, the memory of his last life slow to leave him, when a voice spoke beside him.
“Do you mind if I sit here?”
“Of course not,” Hunter murmured. “I’m sorry, I was just…”
But his voice trailed off as he looked up at the speaker, and his gaze was met by a pair of eyes he’d seen countless times before, though never in this place.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Ariadne.”