That day, Mark passed Reno, home of the quicky divorce. "Married by Elvis, Divorced by Edna Mae".
Mark and Laura considered themselves soul mates, which was a trifle odd since Mark didn't believe he possessed a soul. However, he did sense the curious resonance between them, and couldn't imagine a life (or death) without her somewhere in the picture.
Was there only one soul mate per person? The doctrine of "One True Love" would lead one to think so. That made it pretty hopeless for people who had found their soul mate, but that person was already committed, or for people who had mates in far distant lands, where they never would meet. No, Mark found it more logical that there were some small percentage of folks who were close enough to soul mate status that it made no difference.
What about people who didn't know themselves? Did they meet their soul mate and get so totally turned off they rejected him or her off-hand? What if you hated yourself? Mark knew that at some points in his life he selected people on their ability to make him miserable, not on their ability to mesh.
For most people, the idea of multiple soul mates would bring great hope. Mark knew enough about probability, however, to know that multiplying soul mates was like buying more than one lottery ticket. It increased your odds, but they were still pretty damned slim.
When Mark and Laura got married, they vowed to stay together "until death do them part" (this was somewhere near the part about muskrats in their vows). Personally, Laura believed in reincarnation of souls, and so didn't feel their union was limited by death. She laughed when they would discuss his lack of belief in the afterlife, and told him "When you get there (since I'll die first), you'll know you were wrong, and I'll laugh like this." She let loose with an "evil" triumphant gloating laugh. "Then we'll snuggle up until we get reincarnated again. And I'll find you in the next life, too!" Mark didn't find this too threatening, as he was sure he was right. And if he were wrong, well, that was OK too.
While pondering this train of thought, Mark threaded his way up the road to Donner Pass.
Truckee, CA 002956
The weather was fair, and warm, down in the valley, but cooled rapidly as Mark and his Fiat climbed into the Sierra Nevadas. There was a thick blanket of clouds in the pass ahead. Mark drove the last few hundred yards at a crawl, through dense fog, and finally stopped. He got out of the car, and walked up the road a bit, trying to find a road sign or mile marker, anything. He found a sign reading "Donner Memorial State Park", and a 22 foot tall monument to the Donner Party.
The fog surrounded him completely, muffling his footsteps, concealing the distance. At one point he got a little too close to the side of the road, and gravel fell rapidly away under his foot. He saw a grey form in the distance and cried out.
"Thank God you're here. I can't see my hand in front of my face in this fog. Any idea when it will lift?"
The figure intoned, in a weary voice, "You'll never be out of the fog, Mark Stratton, at this rate." It turned toward Mark. The face was drawn, the skin tight over the cheekbones, the clothes ragged and torn. It was Natasha.
"Natasha? Is that you? What's going on?"
"My time here is short, Mark Stratton, very short. I dared have hope, when I saw you back in Baltimore, hope that all was not lost. I had hope, and that hope sustained me, even in the depths of Hell. I thought I even had faith. It's all gone, now, leached out of me by the vacuum of scorn and indifference around me."
Mark heard the voice of Nick, whispering in his ear. "It's OK, Mark, she's almost completely mine now. Not your problem. Don't put yourself out. Nothing you can do."
"Come along, Natasha, it's almost time." Nick motioned toward the wraithlike woman and stepped out along the side of the cliff. He strode confidently, his footing sure. She followed unwillingly, and took one last glance back at Mark. "Goodbye forever, Mark Stratton". Nick grabbed her roughly shoving her ahead, to the edge of the cliff. Then he stepped back and struck the rock with his walking stick. The cliff crumbled away around Natasha, leaving her on a platform about eighteen inches across, separated from the firmer ground by a gap of several feet.
"Natasha came to me in her time of need. She was a musician, of moderate skill, who came to San Francisco in the sixties to make it in the music scene. She hung with the Dead, and the Airplane, and made a few people happy or thoughtful with her songs. She watched as Jerry and Bobby and Grace and Paul went on to the international scene, and she was left behind. She became jealous and bitter, didn't you darling? That's when she called on me."
"She offered me her soul, in exchange for fame, and fortune, and the party scene. I set her up, she swept the local circuit and her fans loved her. Or rather, they loved the bittersweet sadness which dominated her songs now, the sound of lost hope and purpose. Most people didn't go to the small clubs any more, though, they went to see stadium rock extravaganzas. She stayed busy, stayed employed, and kept partying, but the clubs got dingier and sadder, and the parties started earlier and earlier in the day.
"She never knew the difference, ultimately, between the club scene she had sunk to and my very own private venues. She slipped over to our little domain completely about ten years ago, though she had been in and out for quite a while before that."
"The sixties?" Mark retorted. "She looked far to young for that. At least until today."
"There are certain benefits to living in my community. And certain costs. When she came under my power, her aging depended on her involvement back in the real world. After a while, she stopped aging at all. Then you entered the picture. She started to care for you, to pay attention to the things she was missing. You sucked the life out of her, Mark."
"I... I'm sorry, Natasha," Mark cried out to the figure behind Nick, now only dimly visible through the fog. "I wish I could help."
"You can't help her now, she's nearly mine!" said Nick, and he laughed triumphantly. "Soon she'll give up, she'll lose her footing, and plunge down the side of this accursed mountain. Then she'll be mine, forever!" The fog swirled, thickening between Mark and Nick, and then thinning again. Nick was gone.
Mark gazed at the increasingly obscured figure, swaying slightly. He thought he heard some quiet sobbing, and his eyes filled with tears in response.
"You've got to save her."
Mark started at the sound of the voice behind him. It was a low, husky female voice, a singer's voice now redolent of years of Wild Turkey and cigarettes. It was a voice he heard in his dreams and sometimes his waking moments, but never expected to hear in reality again. It was Laura's voice. He turned.
Standing their in the fog, not much more substantial, was his whole family. Jeannette waved and smiled shyly. Thom, cool as a cucumber, nodded as if things like this happened to him every day. Then he lost his cool and broke into a wide smile.
"It's us, Mark. We're here. And we're all rooting for you."
"I killed you all. I condemned you to Hell. Oh, Laura..."
"Don't be a schmuck, honey. It was an accident. And we're nowhere near Hell. Nick told you that just to mess with your head. We're in Paradise, and we've never been happier. Jeannette has all the clothes she wants, all the shoes. She spends her days taking calls on the Hotline. She always wanted to help people, and now she can. Thom works for the Galactic Design Department, laying out all those nebulae and spiral galaxies and whatnot. And I... I write. I can write like never before now, ideas and characters flowing out of me. It's terrific, the best high ever. And you know what? Those stories aren't just put on disk somewhere, to be forgotten. My plots become the choices people have, when they exercise free will."
Mark looked around, and confided to Laura, "You know, I could be with you now. I could be dead, too. In fact, I could just walk off the side of this overlook, and be with you in a few minutes. I miss you all so much."
"No, it doesn't work that way, honey. You'll be with me when your time comes. Not before, not after. And it won't come for a long, long, time, unless you screw it up. That would piss me off."
"I can't live without you, I can't. I have no joy, no reason to live. I'm just wasting time until the inevitable. Why not now?"
"No. I absolutely forbid it. I've looked at the synopsis, and you have so much more to do, so much more to live for. And what about Natasha? What will she do without you?"
"Natasha? The demoness? I wish I could help her, but I'm afraid I'll make the wrong choice. I can't reach her, I can't take the heights. I had better just leave well enough alone."
"It's not well enough, you twit. You and Natasha have a life together, if you want it. I know she wants it. And Mark, *we* want it too. We want you to be happy, not tortured by the past."
"I vowed to join with you, Laura. Forever. And I keep my promises." Mark stood resolute, arms crossed in front of his chest.
"You always were self-centered. Look... We're soulmates. I know what you want, what you need, what makes your heart sing and soar. Right?"
"That's what I always thought, and I knew you too, the same way."
"Good, at least we agree on that much. Let me tell you a little history you might not know, though."
Jeanette and Thom took up the storytelling positions, lounging on the ground. Well, it would have been on the ground, except they were floating about six inches above it. They looked as if they were lying comfortably in a large bed made out of fog. A trio of cats suddenly appeared, and curled up one next to each of them. One cat was large and striped, one not quite as large, and grey, and the last was small and calico. Mark choked up a little as he recognized them as Max, Mithandir, and Manny.
"Mark, we're soulmates, but you might not know what that means. Back before the dawn of time, or slightly after, God was the only thing in the universe. It was the sum totality of all, and boy was it bored."
"One epoch it had a brilliant idea. It would divide into parts, none of which would be connected to the other except through the most tenuous of bonds. It yawned, and shattered, and divided into particles and fields and energy. That was what our scientists now call The Big Bang (though you can see it should be called The Big Yawn)."
"That kept it amused for a while, but there was only so much particles and fields and energy could do one-on-one. They could whizz about and bang into each other, shine, and... well, that's about it. The way God broke apart, though, caused an interesting effect. The particles and fields and energy started to collect in groups, to condense. There were planets and suns and galaxies and so forth, but some of the pieces of God collected into intelligent units. That's what we would call gods and angels."
"The moment there were multiple intelligences, there was argument. This was wonderful, very stimulating, and God wasn't bored any longer. However, the arguments turned intense, and there was warfare among the angels. Some were destroyed, broken up into pieces."
"These pieces, too big to be particles and fields and energy, entered the living, non-intelligent animals of the time. All over the universe, self-awareness was born."
"Soulmates aren't two halves of the puzzle, Mark. Soulmates are fragments of a single angel. Some of the angels were broken into a few pieces, some into many. You feel drawn to Natasha, not just because you're hot for her legs, but because she's another piece of our puzzle. She's our soulmate. When you all reach Paradise, we'll all be together again.
"Unless you screw it up. She can't join us if she's in Hell. If she stays too long, she'll never be able to leave. Already, the changes have affected her, and us. Her chance encounter with you in the pool hall is the only thing that has kept her hanging on."
"I'm afraid. I'll f*** it up." said Mark, quietly.
"Maybe. But I have faith in you. I have hope. Mark, I hereby release you from our earthly bonds of matrimony, and rebind you to persue your destiny... whatever that may be. You're free."
Mark felt a tremendous weight, a weight he did not know he was carrying, lift. He closed his eyes, and wept. Then he opened them to say goodbye to his family, but they were gone.