I pressed my face against the window, the cold glass on my skin felt nice. I looked at the patch of fog my breath created and leaned back, startled. I ran my finger along the white cloud, making a swirly pattern. A blue glow among the trees. A dark figure suddenly appeared in the front yard. I squinted at it. It was moving quickly, jerkily. It came to the front door and rang the bell.
How silly. I tapped the glass.
“What do you want?”
The person turned to look at me. It was a boy. He said something, but I couldn’t hear him. I lifted the slide on the window. It was really heavy. He came in front of the window.
“Let me in.”
I shook my head, panting. “Ramona told me not to let strangers come in.”
He smiled. “I’m not a stranger.”
“I’ve never seen you before,” I accused.
“But that doesn’t mean you don’t know me.”
“Come on, let me in, I’ll explain it to you.”
“I’m not allowed to let strangers in.”
He breathed out deeply and put his hand forward through the window. I screamed and moved back from the window. I watched him squeeze through the window opening and moved back further.
He stood up and brushed himself off. “It’s quite cold today,” he said.
He was trying to make polite conversation. I could do that too. Ramona always told me to make polite conversation.
“Yesterday when I was coming back from the campus it was raining and I slipped and got mud on my white shirt. It’s not white anymore,” I said.
He laughed. I could see nothing funny about that.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked.
I thought for a moment. “No.” I looked at him carefully. He had black hair that was fluffed up, and green eyes. He wore a gray sweatshirt and black jeans and a pair of muddy boots. He was very pale.
“I’m not from here, this world. I’m from another universe that exists parallel with this one, an alternate universe.”
My eyes widened. “But there’s no such thing.”
The stranger looked around the living room. “Do you mind if I sit down? It’s a long story.”
When I didn’t say anything, he took a seat on the chair beside the window where I was sitting. “Will you please leave me alone? I’m not supposed to let strangers in. I don’t know you, you’re frightening me.” My voice was shaky and that made it worse.
“Listen to me, please. You’re my favorite book character. I know how it ends and I want to change it.”
I laughed because he was trying to make a joke, and that’s what you’re supposed to do when people make jokes. “I’m not a book character.” I pointed to myself, “See? I’m right here.”
“No, but in the world where I live, you are a story.”
“Why are you making fun of me?”
“You don’t understand –”
That made me angry. “I do understand. This is one of those prank things, you’re supposed to humiliate me, and that’s supposed to be funny.”
“It’s not a prank,” he said forcefully. I cringed at his raised voice. “Let me explain it to you. Outside this universe there are other worlds. Worlds that are quantum leaps away from each other. Parallel universes, where things are the opposite of what it is here.”
I took in a breath.
“Yes. I’m not making fun of you. I can prove it.”
“You have never seen me before but I know everything about you. Your full name is Atlanta Clarke, you love plants and numbers and astrology. You have a mental illness called schizophrenia –”
“I DON’T!” I screamed, anger exploding out of me. I was so tired of that horrible word. Just because I could see things other people couldn’t they would call me crazy.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that,” he amended quickly. “It’s okay, calm down.”
I sat down on the sofa. “I’m not ill.”
“Okay, okay.” He scratched the back of his head.
There was silence for a long time. He cleared his throat. “I came here from my world because I wanted to see you in person.”
I chewed my lower lip, staring at the carpet. “What’s your name?”
“Adrian. Adrian Novak.”
I gasped, covering my hand with my mouth. “My favorite book has a person called Adrian Novak in it. It’s called Mångata. I really like that book.”
He smiled. “I’m sure it does, because I’m him.”
“You – can’t, it’s not possible. You’re made up. This isn’t real.”
“It’s crazy, isn’t it?”
“It doesn’t make sense.”
“I know more about you than you do. In our world, your story is a book called Wake by David Stone. I know you’re a math major, but you have astrophysics, so you have to understand what I’m saying. Scientists in this world have been looking for parallel universes since forever. We have actually discovered them. Even made a machine that allows me to stand before you right today. You’re the first person in existence, probably, to get a visitor from another universe.” He spread his arms, gesturing toward himself.
I didn’t know what to say. “But why me?” I mumbled.
Adrian frowned, getting up and kneeling in front of me. “Why you? Because you’re my favorite character, and I wanted to meet you.” I looked away.
It had been two days since that man called Adrian had come here. Our conversation was quick, he had disappeared before I could ask him anything much. My astrophysics teacher at Caltech, Ms. Fasche believed that alternate universes existed; she had even written her thesis on it. After class, I had gone to the library and read the whole thing. Of course I didn’t agree with all of it, but it was interesting. Technically speaking, they were aliens. There was life among the stars. The whole thing had left me with a buzzing feeling inside me, I didn’t’ know why.
I got up and stretched. My head was starting to ache. I stared down at the mess of papers on my bed. I wanted to push them on the floor and sleep but Ramona would yell at me. I switched on all the lights in the apartment and washed my hands and sang loudly. The buzzing had grown worse. I felt afraid.
I looked into the mirror. My reflection stared back at me blankly. I unscrewed the bottle of face wash and lathered it. It smelled nice. Like flowers. I didn’t like the soap suds, though. They were ticklish. The bubbles heaped on each other. There were some gaps, colored pink and other odd tints. The rest of the bubbles were colorless. I stared at them. I prodded two bubbles against each other. Both of them popped. Smaller bubbles came up in their place. They couldn’t touch each other. I washed my face. What if my reflection was making faces at me while I was washing?
Terrified, I opened my eyes. My reflection was blurry and distorted. Soap stung my eyes. I scrubbed at my eyes, they were burning. Feeling around blindly for a towel, I grabbed something soft and wiped at my face. The soap was gone but my eyes still stung. I tried to wipe the tears away. My reflection leered at me. I left the bathroom quickly, rubbing my eyes. They were red.
I sat down at the kitchen counter and put my head down, trying to calm down. I felt goosebumps on my skin. The doorbell rang, making me jump. I could feel my heart pumping wildly in my ribcage. I put my head down again, hoping it would go away. What if it’s them?
The doorbell rang again. I wanted to cry. I made my way to the door slowly.
“Ramona?” my voice was croaky.
“No,” said somebody. It was a male voice. I shuddered, leaning against the wall. I didn’t want to open the door.
“Go away,” I called.
“It’s me, Adrian. Have you forgotten me already?”
I swallowed. “A-are you sure?”
“Of course I am. I won’t hurt you, I promise.”
Every hair on the back of my neck stood up. That’s what they always said.
“Go away!” I repeated.
There was a tap on the window, I screamed and turned to it. Somebody’s face was pressed against the glass. I couldn’t see it from where I was standing. I backed away.
“Can’t you see? It’s me, Adrian Novak. You know me, Atlanta.”
I moved to the window. I lifted up the catch shakily. Adrian’s face smiled at me.
“Open the door, I don’t fancy going through the window again.”
I unlocked the door and he stepped inside. I shut the door against the cold wind that was already sweeping through the room. Adrian sat down on one of the kitchen stools and looked around, smiling.
“I can’t believe I made it back here again,” he said.
“Are you really from another universe?” I asked.
“Yes. I don’t blame you for not believing me. I’ll tell you all about it don’t worry. But you have to promise not to tell anyone. Okay?”
I felt bitter. “Nobody would believe me anyway.”
Adrian didn’t look at me. He got up and wandered around the kitchen, looking and touching everything, muttering softly to himself. “Everything is exactly as he described it.” He looked up at me. “Even you.”
I scratched the back of my head, feeling the old panic creep back in me. “Have you really read a book about me?”
Adrian nodded. “It’s the best thing ever. You’re skinnier than I imagined, and your hair is a little longer, but I was pretty close. Would you like to see the book?”
I bit my lip.
Adrian reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a book and gave it to me. The cover was white with a pair of gray eyes that had splashes of paint flicked around them. The letters ‘Wake’ were written at the bottom, with the name David Stone under them. I opened the book. The pages felt crackly; I ran my finger along the margin, feeling the rough surface under it. The writing was about a girl who had the exact same name as mine. I laughed, but it wasn’t funny.
I flipped through the pages quickly. “This is so weird.”
Something changed in his face. He tugged the book from my hands.
“No! I’m reading it, let go!” I cried, snatching it back. I went back to reading it. The girl was crazy, and they kept sending her to special hospitals. I scowled. “It’s all wrong.”
“Yes, okay, give it back,” he said, trying to take it again.
I clenched my teeth. “NO!”
“Alright, Atlanta, just calm down, okay?” he placed his hands on my shoulder. I squirmed away, shivering. I hate being touched.
“Don’t you want to hear about my world? The Capitol?”
A surge of excitement went through me. “From Mångata?”
Adrian smiled. “Yes.”
I rubbed my eyes, the burn hadn’t gone away.
“Are you really from another world, from Mångata?” I asked. It was almost impossible.
“I wouldn’t lie to you.”
“I’ll tell you all about it. How about we go to The Nest?”
I really liked The Nest. It was pretty. There was so much sky.
I looked at the city lights below us through the window. I could see the cars running along the highway. On the right, the dark mass of the Connecticut River glowed under the sunset.
“We should probably sit down, a waiter might kick us out,” remarked Adrian.
I followed him to a table nearest to the window. Adrian rubbed his hands over his face. “I can’t believe I get to see this with my own eyes, I’ve only read about it before.”
The Nest, thirty-two floors up was the nicest place in Pasadena because you could see every part of the city from the windows. Most of the walls were windows and in the morning there was too much sunlight but it was nice to come after dark. The air-conditioning was always turned up really high, even in winter and the dull chatter of the other people drowned out the voices creeping in my head. It was like when you tune an old radio so it was exactly between two stations and the buzzing white noise filled your head and made it ache so you didn’t have to think about anything.
“I still don’t believe you,” I said.
“What do you want me to say?”
“You believe me more than you admit, because otherwise you would have never gone out with a person you don’t know.”
“I’m going to get into trouble,” I whispered.
“No you won’t. Ramona won’t ever know I came here. She wouldn’t believe you anyway. Even you don’t believe you.”
I ran my hands through my hair. I could feel sweat at the back of my neck even though it was really cold. “How do you know who Ramona is?”
“I told you,” he said in a soft voice, “I know your whole story. I’ve read it. You have read mine. I thought you of all people would jump at the evidence of parallel universes.”
“Where’s the evidence?” I asked sharply.
“Here.” Adrian indicated himself. “You know Dr. Russo, right? My friend, the astrophysicist?”
“From Mångata?” I felt a little breathless.
“Yes! It was really difficult. Dr. Russo had told me about his machine a long time ago. It took my ages to get him to show me exactly what it was able to do. I was fascinated. I had been aching to meet you for years. Dr. Russo trusts me. I just had to pick a good day. I’ve learned how to use it by myself now. He’s out on a holiday with Penelope today. I took the chance.”
“How does the machine work?”
“You know how alternate universes work, right? Okay, not all physicists in this world believe that parallel universes exist, even fewer believe that they can be contacted. Your technology has not developed far enough to actually prove these things, ours have. Scientists in your world have an idea that there are three types of parallel universes possible.”
“I know,” I said. Now he was making sense. “3 Levels: Hubble volume universes, eternal inflation and Ekpyrotic theory based universes, and the many worlds interpretations, MWI.”
“There is also a Level 4 universe, the mathematical one. Based on the mathematical democracy principle, it would mean that any kind universe that is mathematically possible has equal possibility of actually existing. But I’ll tell you straight off that this one doesn’t exist. So, we have three universe levels to go on. I’m going to narrow down the specifics of the three possible universes and let you figure out which one is the one that actually exists.”
I propped my chin up on my hands and leaned forward a little, licking my lips; they felt dry.
“So, Level 1, the Hubble volume. The idea of Level 1 parallel universes basically says that space is so big that the rules of probability imply that surely, somewhere else out there, there are other planets exactly like Earth. Basically, this means that if space-time continues forever, at some point of time it must start repeating itself since there are a finite number of ways particles can be arranged. In this way, a multiple of universes exist next to each other like a giant patchwork quilt of universes.”
I nodded, hoping he would say more.
“This theory suggests that each universe is static, it is not expanding. Each universe is confined to its own Hubble volume. You cannot see the other universes because cosmic vision is limited by the speed of light — the ultimate speed limit. Light started traveling at the moment of the Big Bang, about 14 billion years ago, and so we can’t see any further than about 14 billion light-years.”
“But that’s not possible because in 1998, the Hubble Space Telescope studied very distant supernovas and found that the universe is actually expanding. And at a faster rate than in previous years. This discovery suggested that an inexplicable force, called dark energy, is driving the accelerating expansion of the universe,” I put in.
Adrian smiled widely, smacking his hands together, almost knocking his cup over. “Right!”
“So patchwork quilt universe is out?” I input.
“It’s bunch of nonsense. So, moving on to Level 2. Our bubble universes. Your researchers have come up with two theories to support this concept,” he continued.
“Eternal inflation and Ekpyrotic theory. Ekpyrotic theory suggests that if the universe is the region that results when two branes collide, then the branes could actually collide in multiple locations. Since there is no certainty that branes collide in only one place, the quantum fluctuation in the early universe’s vacuum energy caused bubble universes to be created all over the place, expanding through their inflation stages at different rates. When inflation has ended, that’s where galaxies and stars have formed –”
I cut myself off with a groan. “We know that the universe is still expanding, so inflation couldn’t have ended here, since we have galaxies and stars.” I groaned again.
“I knew you were good. This gives me so much satisfaction,” he laughed.
“All these people keep contradicting each other.”
“So, stick to the facts,” he replied rationally. “What do you know for sure?”
“We know that the universe is expanding, dark energy is not only expanding the universe, but also pulling apart the cosmos at increasing speeds. In 2011, three scientists won the Nobel Prize for discovering that the universe was expanding. Their work confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity. And, scientists are renewing Einstein’s cosmological constant to explain the strange dark energy that seems to be counteracting gravity itself to drive the acceleration of the universe.”
“Good. Go on.”
I took a deep breath, trying to find my footing. “String theory, it’s closest to figuring out the real type of parallel universes that exist, isn’t it?”
“Yes. The type of parallel universes that actually exist, are a kind of combination of Level 1 and Level 2 universes. The branes exist, but not in bubbles. The space-time is actually flat, but not arranged in a patchwork quilt pattern since that limits the Hubble spaces of each universe.”
“Level 3!” I burst out.
“It’s the closest to being correct.”
“In Level 3 parallel universes, string theory suggests that space-time is actually a braneworld,” I said. “It suggests that there are many more dimensions to the world than the three space for space and one of time. Bosonic string theory says that space-time had twenty six dimensions, but superstring theory suggests it’s ten-dimensional. If so, in addition to our own three-dimensional brane of space, other branes float in a higher-dimensional space.”
“It’s ten dimensions. Length, height, depth, time, possible worlds, a plane of possible worlds with identical start conditions, a plane of possible worlds with different start conditions, a plane of all possible worlds each branching out infinitely, all possible worlds with all possible start conditions and laws of physics and the tenth, a point where anything possible or imaginable is covered. Even our scientists are not sure if the tenth one really exists,” Adrian’s voice had dropped to a whisper.
“So,” I looked at him for a moment, “Which is it?”
“Parallel universes exist above the fourth dimension. It’s a Level 3 parallel universe. Each universe is flat. The shape of the universe is influenced by the struggle between the pull of gravity and the rate of expansion. The critical density of the universe is what shapes it. All existing universes are at exactly the point of critical density. This means they are flat like a sheet of paper. Each universe is stacked on each other like sheets of paper, but separated by a quantum gap: the seventh dimension. That is precisely what Dr. Russo’s machine allowed me to do; access the seventh dimension.”
I felt stupefied.
Adrian gave a soft laugh. “Amazing, isn’t it?”
I turned to him. “What is it like? Travelling through the seventh dimension? Being able to see through the fifth and sixth themselves must be crazy, and you’re telling me you jumped the quantum gap.”
“None of it is my doing, you know. Dr. Russo is the genius. You have no idea how long it took me to make him explain the working of the universe to me.”
We didn’t speak for about thirty seconds.
“How is this fair?” I exclaimed. “Why haven’t our people figured this out yet? I’ve been working with string theory and alternate universes forever and nobody has come up with any conclusive proof, nothing.”
“Remember that our universes are expanding at different rates, like Level 2 suggests. There are worlds out there that are so advanced it would make us go insane just to try and imagine it.”
I closed my eyes, my mind wandering. It was all so sudden. There were actually people out there, outside the perceivable universe, floating in their own worlds at different dimensions from ours. The very laws of physics were different. The possibilities of the tenth dimension made me reel.
“It’s okay, take your time,” Adrian’s voice floated in my thoughts.
I frowned. “Wow.”
He nodded. “Yep.”
“I felt like this too, don’t worry.”
I had been obsessed with concepts like this my entire life, and in one day everything had become frighteningly real. A person who wasn’t even supposed to be real was sitting in front of me, drinking root beer. A person who had been present in my mind ever since I first opened Mångata.
A voice interrupted my thoughts:
“I’ve been listening to you guys, and I think –”
“Who are you?” Adrian shouted, cutting across violently. The stranger looked at us gleefully. I stared at him. He had been hanging around the corner of my vision the entire time. I suddenly realized that he had been glancing at our table all the while we had been here. He was blond, clean-shaven with wide brown eyes. Isaac.
We both stood up simultaneously. Adrian’s face looked twisted, like when people are afraid.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing but –” Isaac put his hands up as Adrian took a step near him.
“Why were you eavesdropping on us?” Adrian asked in a voice that made me cringe.
“I wasn’t eavesdropping, you guys were talking pretty loudly,” replied Isaac. “I’m Isaac. Don’t get mad, Adrian.”
“This is none of your business,” snapped Adrian.
“It is. It’s everyone’s business. Do you think you can just come and talk to her and leave the rest of the world out of this? This is a brilliant discovery, you should be telling us too.”
I was starting to feel frightened. Their voices were too loud.
“I can choose whoever I want to tell it to. The machine isn’t for the commercial use humans always put it to. Now leave us alone before I make you.”
“Selfish. How come you’re the only one who gets to know all this?”
“Because that’s the way the world works,” returned Adrian.
“I’m going to tell the science labs about this. A new phenomenon, alien from another universe visits Atlanta. Why Atlanta? Because she’s a lunatic and nobody will believe her if she tells anyone, and you’ll be able to have contacted this world without letting anyone know. Wonderful plan, isn’t it? Too bad I’ve ruined it.” And he gave an ugly smile.
I looked at Adrian.
“No you haven’t,” he hissed. He grabbed my arm suddenly. I shrieked, but he dragged me towards the door. “Run.”
“You won’t be able to get away!” yelled Isaac’s voice behind us. “You should have co-operated, things are going to get tough–”
And then his voice cut off because we were out of the café. I was bawling, but Adrian wouldn’t stop.
“If you don’t hurry up, Isaac will catch you, come on,” he groaned. We entered the elevator just as the door of The Nest burst open. I was starting to feel scared too. Adrian’s hold on my arm was too tight. I wriggled. The moment the doors opened, Adrian bolted, making me jerk forward. There were loud voices coming from the lobby.
Adrian veered to the left and made for the back door. He was very fast, I felt out of breath. He shoved a security man out of the way, who bumped into my left shoulder very hard. There were voices behind us. We’re being hunted.
My car was parked in my favorite place in the parking lot. I got into the passenger’s seat and Adrian drove. He slammed the gas pedal and skidded out of the parking lot. Bright, flashing lights near the building were coming nearer.
“Which road takes you to the interstate the fastest?” Adrian shouted.
His loud voice hurt my head. “Atlanta?”
I knew Pasadena like a map. I closed my eyes, picturing the city in my head. “We’re on South Atlantic Boulevard.” I thought for a moment. “The next big crossing will meet interstate 10. Number 10 is huge. It’ll go straight through Phoenix and then down into Mexico.”
I-10 was the biggest interstate near Caltech, and if we kept going along it, it would take us directly out of California to Arizona. Pasadena was nearer to the west coast, but crossing California would take around 3 hours if we kept going at the speed he was driving: 42 miles per hour.
Once we were on 10, I was starting to feel uncomfortable. “Where are we going?” I asked.
“We need to get away from them.”
Adrian let out twin whiffs of air through his nose.
“Who’s ‘them’?” I repeated.
“By now, Isaac has gone to the science lab and talked to Dr. Wayne.”
“I know Dr. Wayne, he’s the head of the science department at Caltech.”
“Yes, and if he gets to know somebody from outside this world has come here, he’s going to want to find them. They’re chasing us, Atlanta.”
I felt my eyes grow wide. “I don’t want them to chase us. You haven’t done anything wrong.”
“According to them, I have.”
“They believe that everyone should tell each other about scientific discoveries, to take the world forward. It’s a code. Scientists in our world act like that too. Dr. Russo could be arrested actually if the government found out about some of the things he does in his lab. This is awful, Russo had been so careful all these years and I’ve messed everything up just on my second trip. And not even in my own world. Dr. Wayne isn’t going to leave us alone; he might even get the police to help him.”
I nodded. “He’s not a nice person. He’s always yelling at me. I hate him.”
“I’m sorry about dragging you into all this, I shouldn’t have come.”
I was quiet.
“If I go away now, they’re going to come after you and lock you and up and do bad things to you if you don’t tell them about me.”
I looked down at my lap. It was very dark in the car. I could only see the outline of Adrian’s face, till the occasional streetlight threw a beam of yellow into the car.
“Where are we going?”
Adrian groaned. “I don’t know.”
That made me even more worried. I hated unplanned things. If I didn’t know what was going to happen next and exactly when, it made my head hurt and I felt out of place. “Where are we going?”
“Jesus, Atlanta. We’re going to Arizona first. We’re going as far away from Pasadena as physically possible.”
“Once we’re far enough, I’m going to try to load the Catrax and then…” his voice trailed off. I waited.
“Would you like to come to my world with me?” he asked.
I looked out of the window, not sure what to say. I did want to go, but it was an unknown place and I didn’t know when I would be back, and I didn’t want to miss my math classes.
“When will we be back?”
Adrian sighed. “I don’t know. Everything is really uncertain right now. What do you want?”
“I don’t want to miss my math classes. Mr. Mathews said he would give me a test on Monday and he says that if I do well in it, he’s going to let me skip this year.”
There was silence. I counted three whole minutes. We were out of Pasadena now. A cold feeling was growing in my stomach. I had never been outside Los Angeles. Another four minutes went by. I looked outside for milestones, so I could see if we were really travelling at 46 miles per hour like the speedometer said.
“Do you really want to see the Capitol?”
Adrian’s voice made me start; we had been silent for a long time.
“Yes,” I answered. “When are we going to stop?”
“When it’s safe.”
“When will that be?”
“I don’t know, Atlanta.”
I woke up. It was 11:53 pm when we reached Palm Springs. Adrian swerved into a gas station.
“You can go to the store if you want, just be quick,” he said. He pressed a button on the petrol pump. I went into the small grocery mart. It smelled like air-conditioning, mint and carpet fuzz. I liked the smell. It was warmer here than it was in the car. I took in a deep breath. My head felt light.
The bathrooms were at the back, behind the drinks aisle. I pushed the door open, feeling hot air on my face. The walls had red tiles on them and there was a small mirror above the basin. I used the toilet and then went to wash my hands. There was one dirty cake of soap and a rack with a brown paper roll hung on it. I felt twitchy.
Something pricked the back of my neck. I whipped around. There was nobody there, except me. I rubbed my hands across my eyes because they were wet. That’s better. I splashed my face with cold water. The flow of water from the tap made a swooshing sound. I didn’t like it. I turned it off.
What is wrong with you? Why do you trust him? He’s a stranger. You should have listened to Isaac.
I cringed, moving my hair out of my face. A familiar figure stood in the corner, with bleeding eyes. I turned away and plucked another page of brown paper from the rack. I felt sweat prick my hairline.
You’re an idiot.
“I’m not,” I whispered.
You think I’m not around? I’ve been here all this while. In the car, in the café. Don’t make me angry.
I stumbled back from the sink. The beetle had crawled over the edge of the pipe was walking into the sink. I shivered and reached out to turn on the tap and flush it down the drain. The nasty sound of the running water filled my head. I groaned, my neck hurt. It was cramped.
I could hear distant footsteps. “Go away.”
“You know who’s coming?”
I cupped my hands around my mouth and groaned again. There was a pounding feeling in my head. There was nowhere to sit. The floor was so dirty. Muddy. There was a white face in the mirror. My back to the mirror, I tried turning the doorknob. It wouldn’t open. I screamed, something white had flashed near me.
I banged on the door.
Let me out!
The banging grew louder.
I tried counting squares in my head. “1, 2, 4, 9, 16, 25, 36 –”
I was lying on the ground, I opened my eyes. “676, 729, 784…”
The door flew open, the world went black for a second. Adrian was standing there. He was saying something but I couldn’t understand what. He wrapped his fingers around my arm and pulled me up. My shoulder hit a wall. I didn’t feel anything. I felt dirty. I was on the ground. Everything was happening so slowly.
Told you so.
I was sitting in the car.
“It’s withdrawal. How long has it been since you last had your medicine?”
I don’t know.
There were voices in my head. Goddamn it.
“Here, take this. Do you want to sleep again?”
I tilted my neck, it was cramped.
“I don’t think she’s listening to you.”
“How could I have forgotten? Well it’s not my fault that wacko – Isaac…”
I sat up straight, my eyes were wet. There was a sharp pain in my arm. I screamed again and swatted at it.
“It’s okay, calm down. It’s going to be okay. Just take this.”
I squinted at the dark shapes. Everything was blurry. I’m not mad.
I felt really heavy. I was laying down. There was a jerking movement beneath me.
“Why do they even give you this stuff? It’s horrible.”
There was another flash of black. I screamed and sat up.
Atlanta! They were shouting. I covered my ears and screamed and screamed.
Something hard slammed into my face. Everything was dark. White faces. Red eyes.
A rush of wind slithered down my neck. I was surprised.
“What’s happening?” I blinked.
“Get back down, Atlanta,” said Adrian.
“There’s nothing wrong with me, what are you doing?”
I thought so.
“Why are you still up? It was supposed to have knocked you out by now.”
I sneezed. There was a hard crack on my skull and everything went dark.
“Atlanta? Are you awake?”
I blinked, hazy shapes floated in front of my eyes. My body felt sore. I groaned. I opened my eyes, it was too bright.
“Come here,” said Adrian. I sat up straight, rubbing my eyes. What’s going on?
I was in the backseat of the car. I opened the door with shaking hands. Adrian was standing outside. It was shiny and green everywhere. I touched my head. It ached.
“Look at the sun.”
I fell on grass when I tried to get out of the car. “Ow.”
“So sorry,” he mumbled, hurrying towards me. Adrian helped me up, but I couldn’t feel my legs. I looked at him. His eyes were bruised and worn out.
“What happened? Can you please tell me?”
We sat on the grass. We were on top of some kind of hill. The sun was hovering at the horizon, spreading pink and yellow light everywhere.
“What time do you take your medicine at night?”
I made a face. “I hate medicine. I’m glad I didn’t take it.”
“Did you feel so glad last night?”
I scowled, looking at the grass.
“What time do you take it?” he asked.
“Ramona makes me take it at 12. It’s really awful. I don’t like it.”
Adrian twisted up his mouth. He was angry.
“Are you angry?”
He sighed, running his fingers through his hair. “Not as much as I expected. This is my fault mainly, anyway. I don’t have anybody to blame.”
“What happened last night?”
There was a gap in my memory line like a torn out piece of tape and it was making me nervous. I needed to know what happened.
“Do you remember you had fallen asleep?”
“Yes. Then what?”
“We reached Palm Springs and I woke you up because we stopped at a petrol station.”
My mind searched.
“Then you went to the food mart at the station, and to the bathroom. We heard all these shouts and mumblings coming from inside when I came to look for you. There were some banging noises inside and then the manager helped me ram down the door. You were lying on the ground and muttering nonsense. And shouting too. So we put you in the back of the car and the manager helped me give you a dose.”
A flood of memories. I bit my lip, staring at the car. “I feel better now,” I said.
“Does your head still hurt?”
“A little,” I replied.
“I’m sorry about that,” he said.
“When I was leaving the station, you sat up and started screaming bloody murder, and I braked and you hit your head.”
“The manager was really nice about everything, you know. I guess the news of us hadn’t reached him yet. It probably has now. After I started driving again, I switched on the radio. And they were blasting about me on all the channels.”
“Yeah. They figured out we got away in a car, because Isaac told them that your car was missing. Now they’re looking for a black Chevrolet Aveo.”
“This whole thing is so weird,” I commented.
There was a long pause.
“Are you hungry?”
I wasn’t really. Adrian got up and opened the driver’s door. He pulled out a plastic bag, labeled G-Mart.
“When you were in the bathroom, I did a little shopping.”
“Did you buy any Skittles?”
He smiled and held up a bag. “Two whole packages.”
I cracked a smile and took the bag from him. I tore open the seal and poured a few Skittles on my palm.
“You really like those, don’t you?” Adrian watched me pick them off one by one. I nodded.
“What do we do now?”
“The machine, Catrax only works at night, I have no idea why. He managed to harness some kind of dark energy in it and that’s what it runs on.”
“You still haven’t showed it to me yet,” I pointed out.
Adrian leaned to the side and produced a small black sphere the size of an orange. It had little carvings etched all over the surface.
I got up for a closer look. They were hollow edges. Some lines had a dark blue light running faintly through them. I tapped on a line.
“What are these for?”
“Since it works at night, when the machine is charged, and ready to transport, the whole line will glow. They’re battery indicators basically.”
He tipped the ball into my hands. It was heavier than I had expected, made from some metal I couldn’t identify. There was a circular button on top and several smaller buttons near the base. In different shades of black. It was pretty.
Adrian cleared up the bags while I looked over the Catrax. A wail of sirens hissed in the distance suddenly. Adrian stumbled out of the car to look at the direction of the sound.
“I drove all night! How could they have caught up already?” he groaned.
“I don’t want them to find us,” I said.
“Yes, then we have to get a move on.”
Adrian stuffed the rest of the things into the backseat. I got in behind the wheel this time and Adrian beside me.
“We’re speed demons,” I gasped, wheezing with laughter. Adrian laughed, shaking his head. He wiped at the sweat forming on his eyebrows. The police sirens were getting softer.
“Now where?” I asked.
“We really need to get out of this car,” Adrian said.
“I can’t just abandon my car,” I protested. “What will happen to it?”
“I don’t know,” he replied with a heavy exhale. “If we can get another car – just park it here, we’re passing all these parking lots, nothing will happen to it don’t worry.”
“What are we even trying to do, Adrian?” I suddenly asked. The thrill was seeping away.
He didn’t say anything. He turned to the back and gathered the bags there. The police sirens were getting louder. There was nothing but uncertainty everywhere. I swallowed, trying to keep calm and stay on the road. Adrian stuffed everything into one bag. He held up my phone so I could see the map.
“Good job.” He pocketed my phone and started to fasten the seal on the plastic bag where everything was.
“Wait,” I stopped him. I took the cigarette box and dropped it in too. Adrian shook his head, murmuring something and closed the bag.
“We have to look out for any available car. You’re going to get in shotgun, I’ll be driving,” decided Adrian. I shrugged. About two minutes later we spotted a boy pushing his shopping cart towards the cart stall. He had just unloaded his things, the trunk was still open.
“This is it,” hissed Adrian. I quickly entered the parking lot of Brasque Mall. His back was turned towards us. I pulled up beside the car and turned off the engine. Adrian was already out of the car. He sprinted towards the boy’s car and threw himself into the driver’s seat. I grabbed the plastic bag that had all our things in it and followed him. There was a shout. Before I could even close my door, Adrian had started backing out. The boy was running towards us, cursing and screaming. There were several heavy bumping noises and whatever was in the trunk crashed on the asphalt as Adrian turned sharply around the edge of the mall.
“I feel kind of sorry for him,” Adrian confessed.
I put my car keys in my pocket. They won’t be able to touch it.
“I haven’t slept all night but I feel so awake right now.”
“Crescent moons are the most romanticized in art. Who wants a boring old circle anyway, right?” Adrian lay down beside me. He crossed his arms behind his head. I didn’t move. I could just see the black sky arched above us, and the side of his face in the corner of my vision.
“Do you really think there are even more universes out there?” I asked after some silence.
“Yes. I want to visit them all. They’re all different spin-offs from the same timeline. What if there’s a universe where we’re both there? Related to each other? In each other’s lives?”
I smiled slowly. “Imagine that.”
“Is everything completely opposite in your world?” I had been dying to ask this for a long time; it would help me with a few theories of my own.
“I think so. But since I’m in this world, I can’t really identify anything. You expect that I would feel really weird here, but it feels the exact same as it does back there, except the country and people and things. Maybe our world is completely opposite in reality, but once I come here, I become a part of this universe, so I can’t detect any changes. I think when I go back, I’ll revert to the ways of my universe without realizing. That’s what I think at least. Dr. Russo is usually too frightened to tell me anything.”
I chewed on my lower lip. “Can you imagine it though?”
“I guess I can. I think since you’re my favorite character, and I’m yours, the books that exist in our world are real people in yours, and vice versa.”
I turned over on my side to face him. “Really? Do you have books about Newton and Beethoven and Michelangelo and Gorbachev and Tolstoy and Mozart and Picasso and Einstein and Milton and –”
“Yes, yes we do,” Adrian cut me off with a laugh.
“That means our books are real people in your world,” I mused.
“You’re one of them,” he said.
“But, you have Natasha and Sherlock Holmes and Jean Christopher and Oliver Twist and Shylock and Jane Eyre?”
“Real people, with real lives,” said Adrian.
I frowned. “Including the fantasy books?”
“What do you mean?”
“We have many books on fantasy. About magic and mythical creatures and space wars. Is that real in your world?”
Adrian turned his face back to the sky. “No. I’ve never heard of anything like that.”
A wave of disappointment washed through me.
“Maybe they do, you never know. Maybe we normal people don’t know about it. Anything is possible,” he added.
My thoughts wandered. A world of pixies and dragons and fairies and wands and vampires. It was disturbing. A world where literature walked off the pages.
“Why do you think my character is your favorite?”
I glanced at him, taken aback. This is wasn’t one of the things I had been hoping to talk about. I let out a deep breath. “I don’t – don’t know, it’s hard to explain.”
I swallowed. “It’s one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. And everything you do is so weird, and it’s really addictive, I don’t know. Mångata is just beautiful, I don’t know how to explain it. I want to see the Capitol so badly. And meet Liesel too. And Dr. Russo.”
Adrian didn’t reply. I stared at the moon. A few threads of clouds drifted along its face. Adrian’s world was so far away. I could hear his quiet breathing beside me. But he was so close.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I whispered. Adrian was facing upwards but the corners of his mouth curved upwards, like he was smiling.
“Me too,” he whispered back. “I wish I hadn’t caused so much trouble, though.”
“I don’t understand what they want so much.”
“The world is so materialistic and sickening. There’s some constant urge of people to keep pushing and pushing. It’s maddening, this blind craze to take the civilization forward. It’s always, always about the next step. Nobody appreciates what they already have.”
“What happens when we evolve anyway? Are we any happier?” I plucked the piece of grass that was tickling my cheek. “Were you ever happy with your dances?”
I turned over to lay on my stomach and propped my chin on my palms. The ground felt rough under my elbows. The silhouette of the car loomed in front of the trees. It was a calming place.
He shifted slightly. “It was never enough. No dance was good enough, no audience popular enough, no music great enough. It was horrible.”
Mångata’s Adrian seemed so different from the one in front of me. He wasn’t at all what I had expected. Of course I had spent hours imagining how he would be in real life. But it was nothing like this. I was just starting to realize that.
Book Adrian was a ballet dancer with crippling depression and Mångata had focused on some kind of awakening in him.
“But you love dancing.”
“I did. But then it became a nightmare. I don’t really want to talk about it,” he replied quietly.
But the book had ended with Adrian giving up on dancing. He was a star, but he never got back his passion and that was sad. What if one day I found I didn’t like math and space anymore? I shuddered and got up to walk towards the car. The stolen car. Grass pieces prickled at my skin. What are we even trying to do? He belonged in his world, and I here. There was never supposed to be any interaction. Maybe I liked the paper-and-ink Adrian better. He was obedient. I always knew exactly what was going on in his head.
Mångata’s strong point wasn’t its plot, there wasn’t really one. I was in love with a character because of who he was. A jumble of words on dead paper that I loved. Adrian, the hateful, angry beast who irritated all his fellow dancers and screamed and cursed in fits of rage. I thought about Liesel. She was in love with him. That Adrian. The book Adrian.
Did she love the real Adrian? How is it that there are two different versions of him anyway?
I clenched my teeth, it was all wrong. Mångata. The only book that I liked reading. I liked reading math books too, but Mångata was nice because of Adrian. I knew how he felt. I knew that I was ‘weird’ too. There was something wrong with me. Why else would they drag me to those white rooms and keep me there? And make me take pills and injections?
Why did nobody do this to other children? Even Adrian wasn’t locked up anywhere. Will people in his world try to shut me away too? I looked at the faint glimmer of the Catrax, lying near Adrian’s head. It looked pale.
“When will it finish charging?” I called.
“I have no idea,” came the reply. He was still stretched on the grass, looking at the stars. I traced the outline of his figure. I leaned back against the driver’s seat, exhaling. My limbs felt very heavy.
There was a clicking noise. I looked at the black glass of the window. The trees were rustling outside. His dark figure slipped through the crack under the latch, into my room. Red glowing eyes, that flickered. I think he smiled, but I couldn’t tell.
What do you want? Nothing.
I felt cold. I wrapped the blankets tighter around me. I was sweating. Come out and play.
If I ignore you, you’ll disappear.
The shadows crept against the windows. I was crying, but there was no noise. Hush. Do you want them to hear?
A door slammed somewhere. Laughter. I covered my ears. Blood was rushing through my head. I felt it pounding. Something creaked. I licked my lips, trying to keep quiet. If I made noise Dad would come upstairs and shout. He was working. Nails.
Blood streaked over my arms. How did that happen? Shooting pains in my back. I buried my face in the pillow, scratched and clawed at my back. I’ll suffocate myself.
The sudden jerk in the blackness dissolved the image. I shivered, my back ached. I couldn’t see anything, it was too dark. The moonlight was gone. What if he came back? I stepped out of the car. Adrian was gone.
I looked around in panic. My heart throbbed painfully. “Adrian?” my voice cracked. Screams echoed in the night air. The grass hit my face suddenly. The world flipped around several times. There was something sticky on my face. I scrambled up, rubbing my face. There was a weird smell.
“Adrian?” I tried to call again.
“I’m right here.” Adrian was beside me. “You’re shaking, what’s wrong?”
I shook my head.
“You weren’t,” I insisted. There was something hissing in my ears.
“Calm down. Look at me, just look here, Atlanta.” Adrian took me by the shoulders and turned me towards him. “Everything is fine, okay? There is nothing to worry about. Were you having nightmares?”
“It’s not a nightmare! It happened!” I screamed. I tried to wrench out of his grasp.
“Hush! Do you want people to come here?”
“I f-feel weird,” I gasped.
“Sit down. Do you want water?”
I was sitting on the ground. Adrian sat down next to me, pushing something into my hands. I couldn’t feel my arms.
“What have you done? Why is there blood on your arms?” Adrian’s voice pierced my ears. There was a shrill noise, I winced. Liquid spilled around my mouth. I raked my fingernails up my skin, scratching.
I tilted my head back, letting the water drip into my mouth. It was nice. I felt the ground touch my head. I curled my body up, nothing could touch me now.
A hand patted my hair. I shivered, wriggling away. It was a horrible feeling. “Sorry.”
Other’s people’s touch felt like burns on my skin. Suffocating.
My breath came out all uneven, like it does when you run a race. I hated that. I tried to even my breathing by counting the seconds out carefully.
“There, it’s okay.”
I could feel his warmth near me, not touching, but close. A long time passed. There were black flashes, and silver lights sometimes. And sometimes there was nothing. He kept coming back in my mind. I groaned.
“How many stars are there in the sky?” I asked.
I spit out some grass. It had a strange taste. “Is it really a story?”
“Yes. Life is the most beautiful story. I like to think of existence as a great whirlpool of dreams, souls and memories. You never know which one gets where. And somehow everyone is connected with each other. With every chapter there are new characters and deaths and romance and discoveries.” Adrian shrugged.
“That’s not how math explains it,” I said.
“You’ll only get so far with science.” He smiled sadly. “Mathematics and physics has beauty in the sense of drawing conclusions that relay into values from seemingly inconspicuous nature. But they fail to factor in the existence of a being that’s beyond us, beyond a beating heart or a nerve impulse. It’s life. The magic of life is that it was created out of a strict ‘nonliving system’. Science can tell you exactly how it started, but it’ll never tell you why it started.”
I mumbled in agreement, looking at the treetops. They were touching the stars. He was right.
“You know, that when you look up at the sky, you’re actually looking down into a deep abyss, from the surface of a small ball that holds you to it by its gravitational force?” Adrian said after a while.
There was another long silence. Three whole minutes. “I wonder what it’s like being a book,” I mused.
“You know how when you forget what you were saying? It’s the author backspacing.”
“Really?” I sat up straight, my eyes widened.
“It makes sense, doesn’t it? When you have that sense of déjà vu, it’s the author rewriting the same part of the story, just with better context.”
I tried to grasp this.
“And those days when everything is boring and there is nothing to do, and nothing is satisfying, it’s a writer’s block.”
I frowned. “Ramona always told me that was a sign of anxiety.”
Adrian let out a sniff. “What is anxiety anyway?”
“That was a rhetoric question.”
“Never mind.” I could tell he was smiling. He was smiling.
“I don’t understand. What is the point of all this? Why are we here?”
Adrian sighed. “I wish I knew.”
“What’s the difference between doing something great or not? It won’t matter when you’re dead,” I muttered. “Why doesn’t life mean something more?”
Adrian was quiet for a moment. “But it does. Your existence matters to the people around you, and the kind of effect you have on them.”
“I don’t really like people. And you know, they don’t really like me.”
“I like you.”
I sighed. “You’re not even real. I keep feeling like this is all in my head, and tomorrow I’m going to wake up with Ramona telling me not to talk nonsense.”
“The fact that you think that I’m a part of your imagination shows that I’m not.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“Do you think the shadows are real? The reflections and cracking, and the writings on the walls and the blood? The whispering voices everywhere, which you can’t understa –”
“Stop!” I screamed. The memories were making my head hurt.
I scrunched my eyes, trying to squeeze the images out of my head.
Adrian looked away. I ripped up some blades of the grass, it was too prickly.
“You can’t just let this happen to you,” said Adrian. His voice sounded strange.
“The monster! You can’t let it control you like this!”
I winced at the increased volume of his voice.
“It’s not fair. Why don’t you try to fight it? Why?”
“Them? I c-can’t,” I whispered.
“No, it’s not right. You have to. You’re ruining your own life.”
“My life is fine,” I snapped.
“Is it? One day, they’re going to take you to Rosewood and they’ll never let you back out. I know it.” His voice sounded pained.
My eyes widened. “They can’t. I won’t let them. I won’t let them take me away from my work. It’s not allowed.”
“You won’t have a choice,” he said bitterly. He buried his face in his hands. I stared at him. He looked like he didn’t have a head.
“I used to let my depression control me, you know.” The words came out muffled. “Then one day, I realized I couldn’t let this happen to me. I’m the only one in control of my life. I get to decide how to live it. Not my anxiety, or my fright. You have to take control, Atlanta.”
I shook my head. “I can’t. They don’t let me.” There was a stone in my throat. I swallowed. It wouldn’t go.
“Make them let you!” he shouted, picking his head up. His eyes were red.
I gasped and staggered to my feet, backing away from him, towards the car. I turned around and got into the back and curled into a ball, so no one could hurt me.
Why are there so many colors in this world? I examined the white wall. Everything in the room was nice and white, no other colors. It was so simple, easy to see everything. That was the only nice thing about Rosewood, the rooms were plain and all the crowded colors and shapes of the outside were gone.
I winced a little, feeling the pain in my arm. There was a reddish-purple spot on my upper arm. It looked like a needle scar. I scratched the area, it felt good. I pulled my knees up to my chin and hugged my arms around them. I was freezing.
I wondered what Adrian was doing now. I wished I hadn’t let him go. I clenched my teeth, a migraine was kicking in. We might still have been racing around the country. The Catrax couldn’t charge fast enough. At least I was the only one who had gotten to see him. If he hadn’t left, Dr. Wayne and everyone would have been able to talk to him.
I didn’t want that.
He was going to come back. (Maybe).
I shivered. I wanted to lie against the bed’s rail but my back was still stinging too much. Still. I thought about last night’s stars. I wanted to touch them.
How much longer?
Dr. Wayne had been very rude. He had grabbed me and shaken me and when I screamed and scratched him, they had pointed some sharp electric thing at me. My body felt like it couldn’t move. It was the worst thing ever. I had to lie in a strange car, with people I didn’t know near me.
‘Where is Adrian? Where is the creature?’ Their voices echoed in my head.
I smiled. They would never know. The door slammed open suddenly. I started. It was just another group of people in white coats. There were four of them. They all wore blue gloves. They would creep into my dreams all the time.
“Atlanta, come here, with us,” one of them said.
I’m not going near them. I hated them.
“If you don’t listen to us, we’re going to have to take you. Will that be nice?”
I shook my head.
Somebody took hold of my arm. I shrieked and wriggled away. My arm was hurting. They pushed me out of the room. The hall outside was black and brown. There was only one window. I wouldn’t let them touch me. I won’t tell them anything.
“Atlanta, please listen to me,” Dr. Wayne said. I was pushed down on a chair. The people were too close. It was a small room. Too small.
“I don’t know anything about him,” I said.
“Atlanta, if you don’t tell them who he is, they’re going to hurt you.” That was Isaac speaking. I turned my head. He was standing near the doorway.
“Did he say he was from another universe? What did he say?”
I stared at the floor.
“Why did you let him get away? We’re supposed to be in this together. It’s human for human. Don’t you want what’s best for everyone? How can you be so selfish?”
Dr. Wayne knelt down in front of me. The hair on the back of my neck tingled. I squirmed in my seat. Dr. Wayne looked at Isaac.
“Maybe it’s the doctors.” Isaac flicked his hand at the people surrounding us. “She hates strangers.”
“Dr. Wood, will you please give us a moment?”
The people left the room slowly. Dr. Wayne turned back to me.
“Look at me, Atlanta. I’m not a stranger. We’ve had so many lessons together. I’ve helped you so many times. Don’t you owe me something? Please answer my questions.”
I looked at his shoes. They were black, with soil clinging to the heels. One of the laces trailed on the floor. The lace was white, but it had mud stains under –
“Everyone has co-operated. The police, Rosewood, the doctors, everyone. Won’t you do your part? You let him get away, the least you could do is tell us more about him. Contacting life forms outside our world has been a goal of our scientists for years. Wouldn’t you like to become a famous name associated with communication with aliens? That’s what you’ve always wanted. Fame. Greatness. You want to achieve something in life. This is your golden opportunity. You’ve wanted something like this to happen, everyday of your life. I know you inside out, Atlanta.”
I shut my eyes. I felt like crying. Years spent, feeling like a failure, another insignificant human on the planet. Everything was so pointless. I could remember the dark nights in the apartment, shaking and crying, wishing there was something more for me. Adrian’s face floated in my mind. Mångata’s Adrian. The real Adrian. Adrian who had won the battle. The anxiety, turned to depression, turned to mania, it was endless. But he had made it.
“What could that boy mean to you? You’ve only just met him. Why would you sacrifice your opportunity for an unknown alien?”
I wanted to shrink into myself. I didn’t want it like this. Adrian’s red eyes. Dr. Wayne was wrong. I did know him. I had known him ever since I opened the first page of Mångata. I had grown up with him. Although he had never changed. I hated this.
I was confused. I dragged my nails across my face. It was too hot. I wasn’t going to tell him anything.
“Atlanta!” the sharp voice made me look up quickly. Dr. Wayne’s blue eyes met mine. I couldn’t look at them.
“Come on, Atlanta, just tell us,” Isaac said. My eyes flicked to him. “We’re not going to hurt him.”
I trembled. The same words. It wasn’t right. The moment Dr. Wayne’s hand touched my knee I kicked out.
“Jesus Christ!” he moved back quickly. “The girl is crazy. Isaac, are you completely sure about this? She might be just making this up.”
Isaac groaned. “We’ve been through this so many times. I heard them with my own ears.”
“We’ve spent two days, money and resources trying to chase these two down all over the country. She should have something more to offer. I can’t believe this.”
All they want is money.
Dr. Wayne stood up. “Couldn’t Adrian have just been some boy playing a prank? Hasn’t that occurred to you? He just wanted a laugh out of her, because that would be funny? I mean look at her.”
Isaac replied but I didn’t hear him. I felt like I was falling. Prank? Did he lie to me? My fingers tightened around the edge of my seat. I swallowed with difficulty.
‘He just wanted a laugh out of her, because that would be funny? I mean look at her.’ The words clawed inside me. The headache shot up. I squinted, trying to stay upright.
“…It’s so annoying that he had to pick her. I don’t care if she’s a math genius or something great, she’s completely nuts and it’s affecting my work. God, why are the smart ones always crazy? Why Atlanta of all people?”
He yelled suddenly and kicked at a bin. I put my hands to my ears. Everything felt slow and unreal. And fuzzy. Somebody wrenched my hands away from my ears.
“Listen to me!” He slapped my hand away when I tried to cover my ears again.
“Do you want a shock, Atlanta?”
What was he talking about – something sharp pierced my shoulder, I screamed. There was fire inside me.
“You will tell us what happened.”
The electric sent me reeling. I gasped, my screams were choked. Isaac was facing the wall. I doubled over, shaking.
“Come on, Atlanta. You can’t take many more of these,” said Dr. Wayne. His voice sounded far off.
They’ll hurt Adrian.
I screamed as another shock surged through me. I was on the floor. I curled in a ball. My face was covered with tears but I wasn’t crying. I could taste blood.
“Get up, Atlanta!”
There was a nudge on my back. I cringed. Suddenly somebody yanked me upwards, and pushed me. I gagged. There was a change in the smell. I couldn’t see much. I was lying on something soft. I wiped my mouth on my sleeve. Everything was quiet. It hurt. I stretched my fingers one by one. They felt cramped.
There was a banging noise at the door. I lifted my head to look. My head was too heavy. The door opened with a burst. Adrian came up to me. I tried to say something but my tongue wasn’t listening to me. It came out as a gasping noise.
“We have to hurry,” he hissed. I got off the bed. I couldn’t walk. My legs felt numb.
“Oh my God,” he whispered, pulling at me. “I’ll kill him.”
“I c-can’t –” I attempted to speak.
Adrian half dragged, half carried me to the door. The hall was empty. He broke into a run, pulling me along. We were on the first floor. There were two nurses at the end of the corridor. Adrian pulled harder. I was bruising. There was a crash of glass and splinters flew everywhere.
Adrian pushed me through the window he had just broken. The numbness was melting away. I could hear voices yelling. We were outside. We were covered with blood.
“I’ve already stolen a car,” he panted. “Well prepared.”
I crawled into a dark space and suddenly we were bouncing past the trees. I tried to stop shaking, but I couldn’t.
“It’s going to be okay. You’re coming with me. I won’t let those people near you again.” I didn’t know where Adrian’s voice was coming from.
I tried to raise my head, but there was too much movement. We’re in a car, I realized.
It was a wide open field. There were clumps of white flowers near the trees. It was raining. But not too hard. The sky was streaked gray. Cold wind rushed through the leaves. We stood under a tree. The rain slithered down, touching me randomly.
“You know, Dr. Wayne said that you were playing a prank on me, lying to me because it would be funny?”
Adrian looked at me out of wide eyes. “You don’t believe him, do you?” He took a step towards me. “After all we’ve been through the past few days? Do you really think this is a prank?”
The words struck me, right at the base of my spine. I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
“Look, I’m sorry about everything has happened to you before, but I’m here for you right now. Please come with me.”
Adrian held out the Catrax. The tiny ball was glowing and vibrating, all the indicator tabs had turned blue.
I thought about Dr. Wayne. ‘It’s so annoying that he had to pick her.’
He pressed something near the top of the sphere. Black laser beams angled around us. I ran my finger through them curiously. I couldn’t feel them. They were flat. It was like being in a really tight cage, but you couldn’t feel the bars.
I was in front of him, my back pressed against his chest. He was too warm. He placed his hands on my shoulders. There was too much contact. I gulped. Adrian put his arms under mine, so that he was holding the ball in front of me. His arms linked with mine. I fought the urge to move it away.
“Stop squirming, Atlanta!”
“Hold on to the Catrax. I’ve never travelled with another person before, I don’t want anything to go wrong.”
Adrian moved his finger to the flat circular button on the top. “Ready?”
“Yeah,” I croaked. His finger pressed it down.
I thought I was being torn away from Adrian. There was a rush of force everywhere, blue light blinded me. A loud whip-like crack. I squeezed my arms tightly to my sides, feeling the solid support of his beside them. I was being pulled downwards. There was sharp jerk and one of the beams touched me. I screamed, but there was no noise. My skin was burning.
We were spinning for what seemed like forever. I couldn’t hear anything but white noise. I couldn’t think. Hyperspace? Suddenly we were being squeezed. I heard Adrian’s voice screaming something.
“WHAT?” I shouted, I couldn’t even hear myself.
Everything went quiet. Absolutely quiet. I could feel my heart beating loudly. The quiet was so heavy it was painful. It was just black space. No stars, asteroids, comets, cosmic dust, nothing.
“Atlanta?” Adrian sounded breathless.
“What happened?” I asked. I felt breathless too.
“I don’t know. But this is not it. We couldn’t get through the exit. I don’t know why. Did you feel the squeezing? Something’s gone wrong.”
“What is this place?” I tried not to panic. I clung to him tightly. He was the only solid thing I could feel.
“It looks like hyperspace to me. We’re in between our universes’ domain walls. It’s empty space,” whispered Adrian. His breath tickled my ear.
It was a world of Nothing. It was really hard to speak.
“I don’t want to be here, Adrian.”
“We’re going to go back, don’t worry. I can’t see the reverse button on the Catrax. Your head is blocking it.”
There was moment of squirming and hissing as Adrian tried to look over me to navigate the Catrax. I was burned in several more places. We weren’t floating, but we weren’t standing on anything either. We were just there.
“Is is just me or does the Catrax look really dull?” I said.
“Oh my God,” gasped Adrian, pushing my head to the side. “You’re right.”
“We’re not stuck, right?”
“No, it’s fine,” panted Adrian. He pressed a smaller button. There was an abrupt downwards pull.
“What’s happening?” I screamed.
“We’re being sucked into the vacuum,” Adrian shouted back. “The Catrax’s energy is propelling the wrong way. It’s like a black hole, but worse because we might hit a domain wall of another universe.”
Adrian yanked and tugged at my arms, trying to direct the Catrax upwards. The zooming force grew worse. “Hurry!”
There was a explosion of blue light suddenly something solid hit me hard. I lost contact with Adrian, bouncing away. I was wet. When I stopped rolling, I lay on the ground, choking and spluttering.
After a few seconds, I sat up. We were back in Pasadena. It was still raining. I spat out blood. My lungs were stinging. Like the time I had almost drowned.
Adrian was on his knees a few feet away from me, ragged breathing.
“What happened?” I managed to ask.
“I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this!” he shrieked. He slammed the Catrax on the ground. It bounded lightly into a puddle. I reached out and scooped it up quickly. It was whirring. The lights flashed.
“Will you tell me what happened?”
“We couldn’t get through the brane of my world because of your presence.”
Adrian groaned, clutching his head. I crawled over to him. “It’s okay, tell me what happened.” I pulled him up straight. His face was twisted, like he was angry.
“The Catrax uses dark energy from our universe to travel. I’m from the same universe, so I can travel on its energy. You’re from this world, so the Catrax doesn’t support your energy. I can’t believe this. Of all the kind of energy Russo could have harnessed, he picked one that wouldn’t allow people to travel into ours.” Adrian rubbed his head. “Maybe he did it on purpose.”
I chewed my lower lip. “It felt like a dead world.”
“It was the in-between. Sometimes there’s a gap between two branes, like the foam in soap suds. Soap suds are basically a huge mass of foam, with bubbles here and there.” The face wash. “You know how bubbles pop when they are forced into each other, right? They can’t touch. But, if something very small, and covered with the same filmy soap is pushed into it, it allows it in.”
“I once tried to put my finger into one of the bubbles. The bubble curved inwards for a second before letting my finger in,” I said.
“Yeah, like that. But if you try to put your dry finger in, the bubble pops. Of course the universes don’t pop, but you can’t enter it unless you have the same energy, or covered with soap,” he attempted.
“So, now what?”
Adrian buried his face in his hands. “I don’t know.”
I couldn’t breathe. I was going to die. The water slithered down my throat. I thrashed and wrestled, but the hand wouldn’t move. Bubbles fizzed out of my mouth. Just when my lungs were about to explode, the force shifted. I surfaced, gasping and choking. There was laughter.
“I got a better idea,” laughed Jane. They all walked to the other end of the pool. I sighed in relief. They’re finally going to leave.
My clothes were soaked and heavy. I wanted to get out of the water but they were still hovering near the edge of the ladder. There was a creaking and clanking sound. A heavy clang of metal hit the tiles. They stood up, laughing even harder. I was crying so I didn’t go near them, waiting for them to leave. A few minutes later it was just me.
I swam to the other end of the pool, where the ladder was. Only, it wasn’t there anymore. The pool was deep, with high edges. They had moved the ladder. I treaded water; my clothes were getting heavier. My tears were dirtying the water. It was so cold. My fingers were blue. I scrambled at the edge of the tiles. It was too smooth. I raked my nails over the edge of the pool and tried to swing myself up but I was too heavy. My foot slipped. It was so cold. I screamed.
There was nobody here at night. I could hear laughter in the distance. I screamed again, splashing around desperately.
“Mr. Alan had found me in the morning. I thought I was going to drown.”
“I’m so sorry,” whispered Adrian.
“I thought I was going to drown. But Mr. Alan told me something that night. You know why humans like violence? It’s because it feels good. They like seeing somebody suffer. But if you don’t give them the satisfaction, it becomes hollow. After I had stopped screaming, they had gone away. They were bored.”
Adrian shook his head, picking at the wet grass. The rain had started to slow down, and the only sound was the dripping between the leaves. The burns from the Catrax were still stinging. The side of Adrian’s face had several gashes on it. He had slipped on the black beams too.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to do. I thought I could come here and help you, but it didn’t turn out how I planned. I’ve ruined everything for you, I’m sorry.”
Adrian’s back was facing me. It was the first time I realized how much he had become a part of my life. Not just because of the last few days. I could barely remember life without him. My imagination had never worked enough for me to forge his face, he was a presence in my mind. The counter to the other horrible, suffocating things. The voice at the back of my head in the lonely hours in the hospitals, cold rooms and chloroform stench.
“I thought we would have all the time in the world,” he said quietly. There was a stone in my throat. I didn’t want him to leave. I couldn’t go back to the shadow, I wanted the real person. The one who would talk to me, and try to make jokes and tell me about the days in the studio. I wanted him beside me.
I just looked at him. He looked back. The noise of all that we weren’t saying was deafening.
Then we were talking again, but I didn’t really understand what we were saying. At one point, I looked down to see him holding on to my shirt, just a pinch of my sleeve, like he was making sure I was still here – or that he was. It was raining again. There was thunder. I could only see the part of his face that the light of the Catrax gave.
“You have to back, don’t you?” I asked.
“I don’t want to. I hate it there,” his voice broke. “I can’t live that life anymore. I thought if I could come here and talk to you, it would make it worthwhile. I don’t have anything to live for.”
Adrian was facing down, running his hands through his hair.
“Why did you give it up?”
He shook a little, looking at me with large eyes. “I can’t. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t think about it, without the memories coming back. There’s this monster in my stomach. It won’t let me. It won’t.”
I slipped my hand under his. “Remember you told me how you’re the only one who’s in control of your life? You can’t give up what you love because of what others think.”
Adrian looked up at me. “You don’t understand. It matters. I can’t go back there again. Every time I’m up on that stage, everyone is looking at me. Have you read the reviews? You have, haven’t you? I try my hardest, every time and it’s never good enough. I gave it everything. Now I have nothing left to give. They can tear you apart, newspaper critics.”
Adrian was crying for the first time. He swept the newspapers off of the table. The bottles crashed to the floor, spilling dark liquid everywhere. They stained the papers like blood. The words were so horrible. ‘Not enough.’ Too many times. Hate burned in him. The dwindling crowds. Liesel’s disgust. The first pair of ballet shoes was lying near the doorway. He picked them up.
‘There is no career in a male ballet dancer.’ Adrian flung them against the wall. Everything was crashing and burning. It wasn’t enough. He threw open the window and sent the slippers flying outside. The music scripts. The work. He knelt on the floor, shaking with sobs. What happened?
It used to beautiful. There was so much love in what he did. Where did it go? The twirling skirts, the clicking shoes, the gorgeous girls of the Imperial Russian Ballet floated in front of him. What had he done? What was going wrong? I’ve failed. I am a failure. Didn’t have what it takes. The screams still rang in his ears.
“You care too much. You care about the critics too much. Everything can’t be perfect. It doesn’t matter what they say. The fight is between you and yourself. Self-love is important. Because when you’re alone and it’s 3 in the morning and you’re lying on the floor, shaking and crying and wishing it would all end, who’s going to be there for you? You. You have to pick yourself up and find the strength to carry on. At the end of the day you’re all you’ve got. Sometimes you have to remember that you were the one carried you through the heartache. Not Liesel, not Jade, not Harry, not Dr. Russo. You are the one who sits with the cold body on the shower floor and you’re the one who picks it up and feeds it and tucks it into bed. You should be proud of that. You’re still here, because of yourself. You’re not dancing anymore because of your own self.”
Adrian gave me a wet smile. “You could say the same for yourself.”
I sighed, feeling the rain pour on my face. “You’re better than what they made you. Please, will you go back to dancing?”
Adrian was silent. I felt alarmed. I was trying so hard to say the right things. The lump in my throat wouldn’t go away. He leaned his head against my shoulder. I smiled. I felt happiness. It was strange. There was something warm in my stomach.
“You’re going to go back to your life, and I’ll go back to mine. The past few days have been really nice. Thank you.”
“I’m sorry about this whole thing,” Adrian’s voice cracked. “I have failed. I was supposed to make it better. I can’t do a single thing right. I was supposed to keep you safe. I can’t stop this. I’m sorry I can’t fix this. Please forgive me.”
The tears flooded down my face. “You have fixed it, Adrian. It’s because of you, I’m feeling like this right now. I feel happy.” I hung onto his wrists because I have to hang onto something. I watched the rise and fall of his chest. I would never see him again. The drawn face, the bloodshot eyes, the slack mouth. The strange angles and hollows that I had only come to identify only in the past few days. It was so much harder to believe in someone if you didn’t know what they looked like.
“This is the first time I had somebody. Somebody who would miss me. Will you miss me, Adrian?” My throat was thin. There was something raw in his eyes.
“Till the end of my days, Atlanta.”
There was a tight pain in my chest. “You have to go.”
He was breathing slowly. “I thought I could do this.”
“You can. Don’t cry.” Tears streamed down his face.
“Atlanta, I’m afraid.”
We were near the edge. There was dull horror inside me. I didn’t want to hear any more. I hated the universe. I hated whatever forces controlled it, whether it was fate or randomness or the laws of math. The voices were getting louder.
“I don’t want to leave you.”
“I don’t want you to go.”
“Look at me, Atlanta. Just one last time.”
I had never been able to imagine Adrian crying. I still couldn’t. His arms felt limp around me.
“To the best of times.”
I forced a smile, nodding. There was something breaking inside me. I could feel it. Physically. My throat was made of lead.
The blue glow of the Catrax grew brighter and brighter. “Thank you.”
Suddenly everything was happening too fast.
“Wait!” I screamed, hysteria gripping me. There was rush of wind. I was alone.
I blinked, the light was painful.
“Stop shaking so much,” the doctor snapped. I stared at the floor.
“The burns are not from fire. They’re open in a weird way.”
“Really?” Dr. Wayne’s sounded excited. His voice hurt my ears.
“See the purple edges, blackened?”
“You’re sure they weren’t there before she escaped?”
“Positive. I’ve been examining her since she was in school. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
“Atlanta, did you go somewhere with him? Did he have a big machine? That worked magically?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about.
The doctor stood up. “We’ll talk to her later, she seems a little frazzled now. Maybe you shouldn’t have given her the injection.”
“Don’t worry, we have all the time in the world. She’s not getting out soon,” replied Dr. Wayne with a smile.
“I don’t think she’s strong enough. She might have completely forgotten everything.”
“She’ll have to remember.”
The door closed. I stretched my fingers. There were still red marks on my wrists from the straight waistcoat they had put on me. My head was hurting. Everything was elevated. There were shapes dancing around the edge of my vision.
I hadn’t gotten high in months, why did I feel like this? I couldn’t stand straight. The blanket was too warm. I threw it off. I reeled. The rest of my body was bruised and bloody. There was a needle running through my forearm. I winced as I tugged it out.
My blood felt thick. There were odd flashes, now and then. I felt like I was missing something, something very important.
“Imagine if there was a machine that could bring fictional characters into real life. A lot of people will bring the same character to life but imagine they look like how they did in your mind while reading so different people will imagine it differently and they won’t all look the same. Imagine that.”
I thought about my favorite character, Adrian. I had never imagined his face properly. He was there in the back of my head all the time, but what did he look like? White angular face, small mouth, a dimple, scruffy black hair, graceful. Dancers had to be graceful.
“Why won’t she speak?”
“I don’t know.”
“When they were bringing her back, she hit her head really hard against the roof of the car and knocked herself out. Dr. Wayne injected her, but she’s still just lying there.”
“Is it catatonia?”
“Probably.” I saw him. I saw Adrian.
“Not the first time either.”
The shapes were hazy. Their voices sounded like they were coming from very far away. There was a dull ache inside me. Like I had lost something.
I hadn’t spoken to Adrian for so long. He just wasn’t around anymore. I swallowed. My throat felt thick. Like I had been crying. I was sweating. Calm down.
“I’ll take care of you.”
Why did my body hurt so much? There were more scratches on my arms. I was lying on my stomach.
The audience was in euphoria. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. There were screams and shouts, sobs and clapping noise. It filled his head like a drug. The lights were shining before his eyes, the stage was set. The lights of fame. Of being liked. It was addictive.
“Encore!” the audience screamed. Adrian bowed, smiling. He was blinded by the footlights beamed directly into his face. He couldn’t see anyone from the audience, the stage and fame always had that blinding effect. You forgot. But this was his moment. It was his big moment. He was out of breath, there was a growing stitch, but he smiled, waved at the invisible people who admired him. Attracted to him. Like he was attracted to being loved. Being appreciated. Liesel was laughing beside him. The silver light of the moon trail, Mangata poured over their heads. That faraway land, beyond the surging waters. The moon boat to success. It was made of sacrifice and hate and love and tears and pain and hurdles. The path to glory.
I stared at the wall, the text kept reappearing. It was the most beautiful part of the book.
“Life won’t always be like this. One day life will treat you right, you’re going to get there. One day you’ll fall asleep knowing for sure that you’re loved. One day the thunder clouds will roll away. One day you’ll be excited to be alive. It will get better. Make sure you’re there to see it.”
The words sounded familiar. I squinted through my migraine.
It was one of the worst moments of my life. The room was full of people, all of them were laughing and talking and all of a sudden I felt so sad and alone. There was a physical pain in my chest. They all belong to someone and they all have someone who belonged to them, and I didn’t. I was just there. Never really part of anyone’s life.
I was lying on something soft. Every part of my body ached and cried.
The day Liesel realized he was getting better with his depression was when he was drawing flowers again, the scribbling doodles that grew all over his sheets, scores, scripts, notebooks. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
“He’s singing again.”
Somebody had strapped my wrists down. I screamed, trying to snap them free.
“Let me go!”
“I didn’t do anything!”
A solid object was shoved into my mouth. I tried to spit it out but they shoved it in harder. I choked, my eyes watered. There was a jerk in my body. I squeezed my eyes shut. My body was on fire again. Zapping bolts. It felt like all the oxygen had been taken away.
He was thought he would go mad with the pain. Self-harm was like being in a burning hot shower. The hot water feels good. But after a few seconds it doesn’t feel hot anymore. So you turn up the hot water until you can sense it’s gotten hot again. And you keep doing this…till you run out of water and you step out of the shower and look at yourself in the shower. And your skin is red and melting from the damage. You didn’t notice how hot it was, how much damage it had done because your body had built up a tolerance for it. That’s what the cuts were like. Little at first, then growing and spreading over your skin like a mutilating disease. And until you’re nose-deep in the water, you don’t realize what the blade has done to you. And if you don’t stop, it will end up killing you.
I was exhausted. My head was jarring. I still couldn’t feel my body. The electricity lingered. The memories were surfacing slowly. Inching their way back into my brain, the heartbreak. He had come.
I was sure of it.
The door opened, and Dr. Wayne walked in. “Well hello, Atlanta. It’s good to see that you’ve woken up. Do you think you can share information with us now?”
Dr. Wayne rolled his eyes and sighed. “About your friend Adrian. We know for a fact that you were visited by a creature from outer space, and it is my duty to put that into good use. And it is your duty to share vital information with us.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know anything.”
Dr. Wayne suddenly came close to my bed, his eyes flickering. “Don’t try to play dumb with me, it doesn’t work. I’ve brought some of the top scientists in the country over. Don’t disappoint us.”
Then he introduced the group of people standing behind him. Not a single name registered in my head. I was seething. Rage engulfed me. He was the reason Adrian couldn’t stay.
“You all think I’m some deranged person who doesn’t know anything about life?” I blurted suddenly. “I can see all of you for what you are. All you’re interested in is making money and profit and fame out of everything? It’s so shallow. Why can’t you let a simple person live their life in peace? What right have you over another person’s happiness? None. You don’t get to decide if he wants to be known to this world or not. He does. And I respect his choice. Not everything is about making profits. I don’t care what you want from me, you won’t get it. Leave me alone.” The tears were coming. “You’ve forced him to go back. He was lonely and depressed and he came to help, or for help. It doesn’t matter. You’re no closer to getting him. And now you never will be. I hope you’re happy with yourselves and your miserable shallow lives.”
My voice cracked and gave out. They were saying things, hurtful things but I couldn’t pay attention. I had had enough.
“He’s not a person with feelings. He is an alien, he’s not even a human –” the doctor didn’t get to finish what he was saying because I had lunged at him. I could hear the hollow sound of the alarms going off, but my hands were around his throat.
I saw him that night. The hospital was quiet. “I can’t do this anymore.”
You really did leave, didn’t you?
My head was spinning. I curled up on the bed but the pain wouldn’t go away. There were buzzes in my fingertips, in my hair and the pit of my stomach. I felt twitchy. The more I tried not to cry the harder it became. The pills felt heavy in my pocket. Eventually I surrendered.
I ran my fingers along my arms, touching the new cuts and bruises. I remembered the night under the stars.
“You know what Atlanta means, don’t you? The hunter. The strong one,” said Adrian. “That’s what you are. You’re so much more than what others think of you. You’re strong.”
What was strength? I couldn’t feel it just then. I had never felt it. Self-pity was horrendous. The only thing I could feel was defeat.
You’re doing this for someone else. You’re willing to go through this to keep someone safe. If that isn’t strength, then I don’t know what is.
Three smooth white pills. Stolen from the lab. I rolled them under my thumb. I couldn’t stay here and get abused by Dr. Wayne anymore. I might even crack and tell him. I shuddered. I tried to feel brave, noble.
I picked up the glass and swallowed the pills with a drink. Half an hour. This wasn’t how I had imagined it would go down.
If there was half an hour left of your life what would you do? Would you spend it crying and screaming? Or would you lie there and let it come? Or would you curse and curse life for what was happening to you? Would you make the most of it? Even worse, would you have an epiphany? That was difficult.
I breathed slowly, painfully. It was better to end it than live like that. I tugged the IV needle out of my arm. The thickening medicines were slowing down. Everything was becoming clearer. I let out a sigh of relief. Detach.
Without the drugs, the pain was shooting in faster. I closed my eyes trying picture Adrian’s face. I couldn’t. I buried my face in my hands. One last time.
He gave a laugh, lifting her into the air. The air was warm. The music started again. Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’. The orchestra soared. The dance was beautiful. Deadly. The Sacrificial Dance. The girl danced herself to death. The music swelled and Natasha spun past him. The death march began. The movements grew faster and jerkier. The beauty and surge of Spring soon turned to a tragedy with the sacrifice of the girl to the god of Spring. The air darkened.
I was alone. I didn’t want to hang on. I leaned over the edge of the bed and threw up. My insides were shivering. I traced the cover of the imaginary book in my arms, caressing it. Everything was blurring. I could hear my heart beat jump around my ears.
I wanted to talk to Adrian, say goodbye. But I never knew how to word it.
I remembered my work. At home. Unfinished. Still looking for the brilliant streak. The streak that would never come.
I pulled my arms around myself and hugged me tightly. It was warm. I was sweating. I let out a shaky breath. I didn’t want it to end like this.
I hate them so much. I felt bitter. I was doing this for him.
Just relax. It’ll be over soon. Adrian was saying things, calming things, but I didn’t want to listen. I could see the dark fingers creeping around the edge of the window. They were coming. For me. Nobody would miss me. Adrian would never know. I didn’t have anything to lose. Except a denied future. The girl was screaming.
It didn’t matter. I started sobbing. First softly, then uncontrollably. If I looked down that road which is now closed and see something else down there, it would break me. But this wasn’t about me. It was never about me.
“Why did you do this?”
It’s too late now. My back was aching and cracking.
Would you ever forgive me?
I tried harder to bring his face to my mind. It was fading. From a memory that would never look at it again I closed my eyes. Just one last time.
Of course I do.
“If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t have been here. You would have been at home, doing your math, what you love. You would still be alive.”
I was alive because of him. Nothing I had ever done was as important as the last few days. He was home.
Blood was dripping out of my mouth. The pain was terrible. For a wild moment I imagined it: Fleeing in stolen cars, running through the country. Spending time with a person who was home. Wasn’t that the definition home? Not where you’re from, but where you’re wanted. I was dried up.
So this was why people cried. Because there was something eating you from inside and tearing you up piece by piece. Because there was burn in your heart that wouldn’t go. Because your limbs ached to hold somebody who would never touch them again. Because you were missing someone. This was what missing someone was.
I tried to breathe carefully. It was coming. The edges grew darker.
Stay with me.
But even as I pleaded I didn’t believe. He was among the stars, back to his own orbit. An orbit that would never touch mine again. I tried not to make this about me. I really did. I stumbled off the bed. It was so cold. But I had to do it.
The world swayed. I fell against the window, clinging to the sill. Fear was spreading through me. It’s going to be over. I could see the patches of stars between the trees.
I’m right here.
But so were they.
Even if he knew I was doing this, it would be enough. But he didn’t and I was alone. Like always.
Was the end like this? Did people ever really die alone? I tried to see it like he did. The beating heart, the nerve impulse, brought from non-living world, soon to be returned again. Just like every other heartbeat out there. Every rush of adrenaline that would die down in exhaustion and every flutter of a wing or eyelid would melt into oblivion. The energy trapped in a body that would no longer obey commands, defeated in its own misery.
I tried to exhale, but my breath was caught. The tears had finally come. In a flood, after being held so long. My eyes burned and my body shook, but I held onto to the window sill. I couldn’t lose sight of the stars. Never lose sight of the stars.
It didn’t matter how it turned out. It didn’t matter if it ended like this. For a moment, even a brief, fleeting moment, we had made a connection. One star with another in the lonely sky. I had touched him, he was real, solid warm, even if it was only for so long. He was a part of me and I was a part of him and that was all that mattered.
Even in the last groaning breaths, the blood and sweat, he was there. The world was dimming. But somehow the silver pinpricks in the sky were getting brighter.