Loveless Soulmates by Alison Paige
I live in a world where everyone has a soulmate.
That used to mean the person you were going to marry, even if you didn’t love them. Now we accept that they’re merely just your ‘other half’. Your soulmate could be your spouse, your best friend, a one-night stand, or someone you’ll never see again; they could even be your sibling.
A majority of the world understands that not everyone is going to end up with their soulmate, the two may be connected but that doesn’t mean their lives are tied together.
I was never that interested in following the compass on my wrist, I’m aro/ace so I knew I would never be in a relationship with them and it didn’t really matter if I became friends with them. My family found it interesting how the girl named after the most romantic flower, didn’t experience romantic attraction herself.
There are people whose only goal in life was to find the person fate was pointing them to, who would travel across the world if it meant they might find them. I wasn’t one of those people, but unfortunately, my soulmate was.
work as a barista in a café a few miles from where I grew up. Most of the shifts are pretty copy/paste. You have the regulars who always order the same thing at practically the same time every day, the people who insist you messed up their order and wish to speak with the manager, the ones who want to try everything on the menu, and that one person who claims a free drink with their punch card that you know they punched out at home.
It’s not always in that order but it’s practically guaranteed that one, if not all of them will show up during your shift. We also have our fair share of coffee dates or students coming in to study, but those are hardly as memorable.
I was behind the register taking orders when the door opened; I didn’t look up as the bell was hardly anything new.
A man came up to the counter, a big grin on his face. “Can I buy you a drink?” He asked.
“Excuse me?” It wasn’t the first time a customer had offered to buy us something from the café, most of the time it was because of the holidays or their way of paying it forward. This man was something else, I had never seen someone this excited to place an order, let alone one that wasn’t even for him.
“A drink, I figured I should get you something before I ask you on a date.”
He held up his left arm when I gave him a confused look. His compass was red and pointed at me, sure enough when I looked down my own was no longer black and turned towards him.
This man was my soulmate.
I had gone over in my head multiple times what I would say when I ended up meeting them, however my speech would have to wait as a small line started to form behind him.
“Look, my shift ends in half an hour. If you want we can talk after that,” I said.
He nodded, “sounds great,” a grin still plastered on his face.
I asked him if he wanted anything for himself since he was at the register and punched in his cortado.
“Can I get a name for the order?”
I didn’t need his last name but I didn’t comment on it. “That will be out shortly.”
I couldn’t help but notice how he picked the seat that was the closest to the counter. I had a feeling he wouldn’t like being “just friends” but there was nothing I could do about that.
The next thirty minutes passed by painfully slow, my soulmate seated a few feet away as he scrolled through his phone, occasionally glancing in my direction. My coworker Sarah tapped on my shoulder and I moved aside so she could take over the register. I was now free to clock out and have whatever uncomfortable conversation awaited me.
My purse over my shoulder I made my way over to Chase.
“Hey soulmate,” he greeted.
I sighed, this wouldn’t be an easy conversation. “It’s Rose.”
I don’t know why I introduced myself, I had had a nametag on and I knew he read it. Perhaps I was stalling.
I took a seat across from him, “look Chase, we may be soulmates but there will never be a romantic relationship between us.”
It was blunter than I had prepared but those were the words that ended up coming out.
“I’m sure you’re great and it would be wonderful if we could be friends. But I’m aromantic, I’ll never have type feelings towards you or anyone else that matter,” I added.
I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I expected; denial, maybe yelling, but not the one I got.
“Okay?” I didn’t think it would be that easy.
“But can I ask you one thing?” He said.
“Sure,” I said, I no longer knew where this conversation was headed.
“Can I still take you out on a date? I know you said you don’t get those types of feelings but I figure I should still try.” He gave a nervous chuckle and I noticed how he kept turning his phone on the table.
I suppose there wouldn’t be any harm in one date, he did know this wouldn’t lead anywhere after all. “Why not.”
We agreed on tomorrow night and exchanged numbers. He waved as he walked out the door, the big smile back on his face.
I couldn’t help but wonder what I had gotten myself into.
* * *
“So you finally met them?” asked my cousin Tyler.
I nodded as I hung my coat back in the closet. I wasn’t surprised that he had followed me to my room when I told him; Tyler now laid on my bed with his feet against the wall.
“We’re getting dinner tomorrow night.”
I now had his full attention. “You’re going on a date with him?”
“I guess, technically. He knows I’m aro,” I said.
“You’re going on a date. It doesn’t matter if you have a blinking sign, people are oblivious.”
I rolled my eyes even though he couldn’t see, my back towards him as I grabbed my pajamas. “Well if Chase hasn’t gotten it through his head now, he will by the end of the night.”
Tyler shrugged as much as he could while laying down. “If you say so, let me know if you need me to fake an emergency tomorrow.”
“Thanks but that won’t be necessary.” At least I sincerely hoped it wouldn’t be.
I kicked Tyler out of my room as I left to take a shower and he offered to pick out a movie for us to watch.
I couldn’t help but wonder if he was right, did my soulmate really think he'd be able to win me over? I already knew that wouldn’t happen. It never would, let alone over one dinner. But some people refuse to understand that, especially when it comes to soulmates. I prayed Chase wasn’t the same way.
* * *
We had agreed to meet at the local Italian restaurant, already a bit fancier than I hoped. The destination alone made it feel more like a romantic date than two friends getting together. Tyler helped me pick out an outfit, a nice shirt, and a skirt; he said I didn’t have to completely dress up but he lovingly refused to let me leave the apartment in jeans.
I couldn’t help but stare at my wrist while I waited for Chase to arrive, my leg bouncing on the sidewalk from nerves. I still wasn’t used to the red, the arrow slightly moved from side to side. The mark that let everyone know I had met my “other half”; depending on how tonight goes I might get it covered up. There were no rules against getting tattoos over your compass, it was just generally frowned upon. Most people were proud of theirs, some were not.
Chase waved once he came into view and I stood up from the bench to greet him. He wore a fancy dress shirt and nice black pants, thankfully nothing over the top.
“Shall we head in?” I asked.
It didn’t take too long to get seated, I tried not to immediately look at my menu. I was too antisocial for whatever this “date” was. “Any topics you’d like to discuss?” I said after a minute or two of awkward silence.
“I brought an icebreaker if you'd like to do that,” Chase suggested.
He pulled a set of notecards out of his pocket, one stack in front of me, one in front of him. He flipped over the first card, a small “1” in the corner, and read the question.
Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
I never thought of that before, there were plenty of famous people I would love to meet but for a whole dinner? I wasn’t sure.
I told him my favorite author and he said the president.
Chase gestured for me to flip over the first of my pile. A “2” in the corner of this card; looks like I had the even numbers.
“Would you like to be famous? In what way?” I read.
Chase said he wasn’t sure, he had no desire to be at the moment but wanted it to be for helping people if he ever did become famous. I thought being a well-known artist would be nice.
“What kind of art do you like to do?” He asked; this wasn’t one of the notecards.
“Digital, but it’s more of a hobby.” I pulled up my social media when he asked if he could see something. I averaged about a hundred likes per picture, which certainly wasn’t horrible, it was more than I ever thought I would get, but it was far from famous.
“These are amazing,” Chase said as he scrolled through my page, he left a like on every image he saw.
“Thanks,” I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. Even if the feedback was mostly positive I was always self-conscious when I showed others my work. “Should we continue our icebreaker?”
Another card flipped over. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
I said it depended on who I was calling: if it was important or work, yes. If it was family or friends I rarely did. He said no.
“How many questions are there?”
“Thirty-six,” Chase answered.
I nodded, I knew what he was doing. The thirty-six questions to fall in love. I had heard the first few but never the whole list, I didn’t see the point. You couldn’t make people love each other with a few questions, or maybe you could, I wouldn’t know. I just knew they wouldn’t work on me.
didn’t say anything about it, I did like the already chosen topics. The waitress stopped by to get our drink orders and I waited to flip over the next card till she was gone.
What would constitute a ‘perfect’ day for you?
We looked over our menus while we thought about that one, our server would be back soon anyway and as someone who’s worked at a restaurant, I always hated when people took forever to decide what they wanted. Chase got the seafood fettuccine alfredo, I chose the chicken pasta in white wine sauce.
“So what would be your perfect day?” I asked as I leaned against my elbow.
“I think that would be a nice morning run, followed by a cup of coffee, lunch with my family at my grandparent’s diner, and game night with my friends in the evening.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say they want to start their day with exercise, especially when describing the perfect day,” I laughed.
“What about you?”
“Let’s see, that would include sleeping in for once, the day off of work. I think I would spend the day at the beach with a good book, and end it with a movie with my cousin Tyler.”
Ever since Tyler and I moved in together movie night, practically every night became a sort of tradition.
“What do you consider a ‘good book’?” He asked, which wasn’t one of the icebreaker questions.
“Mystery, a modern Sherlock Holmes perhaps,” I said with a smirk.
He smiled, “I always loved the original stories.”
Chase looked down at the table when he realized he had been staring, “question five: when did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?”
He started to turn his phone on the table like he did at the café; picking it up onto its side and setting it back down over and over again. Maybe it was something he did when he was nervous or uncomfortable, maybe it was just a fidget. I always played with the spinny ring on my right hand.
“By myself would be the car ride over here, I love singing along to the radio. To someone else that would be with my coworker a few days ago before opening.”
Sarah was so excited to show me the latest musical she had found and they were always catchy.
“I also sang to myself today and to someone else that would be at an open mic yesterday,” he explained.
“You should let me know when the next one is, I’d love to hear you sing sometime.”
Our waitress came back with our food and politely let us know that the plates were hot as she set them down.
“If you want I could sing now,” he joked.
I merely laughed and took a bite of food. Thankfully he did so as well so we wouldn’t have the entire restaurant’s gaze on us. It doesn't matter how good your voice is, people don’t start singing in the middle of dinner unless they’re paid to.
We set the notecards aside, and both of us agreed to continue the little icebreaker later. Even if they wouldn’t make me fall in love, I did enjoy the questions. They were deeper than the standard get to know yous but not so personal that I didn’t want to answer.
Over the meal, I learned the basic facts about my soulmate. Chase was twenty-four, two years older than me. He was an apprentice at an electrical company and was taking music lessons from someone he found online. He lived with his best friend and was a Gemini.
I shared the same things about myself if I hadn’t already mentioned it: twenty-two, barista, taking graphic design classes, living with my cousin, and Libra.
We liked most of the same things. Same taste in food, and music, we both even preferred TV shows over movies; movies were something I only watched with Tyler.
Chase was easy to like, he was charismatic and awkward, and kind. He was someone I wanted in my life, to learn hobbies with, or even have over for movie night. But as a friend, it would only ever be as a friend.
The bill came and I insisted that either I paid for all of it or we each paid for our meal; we split the check. Chase was the perfect gentleman and opened the door for me, he didn’t ask about a second date but technically the night wasn’t over.
We walked down a few blocks to a park, we did need to finish those icebreakers after all.
Barely anyone was around as the sun was about to set. I sat down on a swing, my legs slightly pushing me as I rocked back and forth but not enough for them to leave the ground. Chase handed me my stack and followed suit.
It was my turn to read a card, “If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?”
We both agreed on body. While the idea of slowly losing your mind and memories was terrifying, not being able to do anything by yourself for who knows how many years was worse.
“Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?” He asked. “I think I’ll die in a car crash, it’s common enough.”
“I have a feeling I’ll drown in the ocean,” I answered.
“That’s morbid, I’m surprised you still consider going to the beach a part of your perfect day.”
“I’m surprised you still get in a car,” I countered.
Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
We both liked the color blue, we both preferred underrated characters, and we both liked to sing.
We both never planned to go to college, we both loved animals, and we both had horrible sleep schedules.
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
I said family, he said life in general, being alive.
If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
Chase said he wished he were raised in a Christian household; the difference in religions was a bit of a sore spot in his family. I told him my parents should have gotten divorced sooner, they failed at hiding their constant fights throughout my childhood, they thought they were doing the right thing. But if we had those little changes we might be completely different people today.
Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
Chase took out his phone and set a timer, I thought for a moment before I hit start.
When I was little, around eight years old, we went to a family camp a few hours away from here. We got a few hours of free time and we tended to separate from each other as we did our own “age-appropriate” activities. I had managed to disappear from all the staff members and when I didn’t show up for lunch they eventually found me taking a nap in the woods with a baby bunny in my lap. I named him Timmy.
We laughed and joked about the fact that surprisingly they wouldn’t let me take him home.
I reset the timer for Chase. He shared a story from his freshman year in high school. He and his friends had volunteered to run a haunted house for Halloween and they wanted to make it as scary as possible. They had the standard things like vampires, jump scares, and gory props but they wanted to have something more; for the experience to end with a bang. His current roommate suggested adding some small firecrackers, whatever they could get that was legal. They ended up setting off the fire alarm and got suspended for a week.
“At least I didn’t try to burn down my school,” I teased.
“It was an accident,” he laughed.
If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
We both went the supernatural route, he chose the power of flight and I said the ability to shapeshift.
I placed the card I had just read at the back of the pile, from what I remembered about the thirty-six questions there were three “parts”, and we were now a third through the questions. I wanted to keep going, I liked getting to know him, but I didn’t want to give Chase the wrong idea. Was Tyler right? Did he think he had a chance at a romantic relationship even though I told him when we first met that I was aromantic? Did he get false hope with every answer I gave?
He read the next card: If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?
“How I would die, see if my hunch was right.” Chase jokingly shook his head at my response. “What about you?” I asked.
“I’d want to know who I’d end up with.”
I sighed, “Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?”
If he didn’t want to speak to me after tonight, which was understandable, I wanted to enjoy being his friend as long as I could and prayed that I wouldn’t lead him on.
We both said we wanted to try skydiving but made no effort to actually do it.
“Maybe that can be the next thing we do together,” he said with a smile. At least he didn’t say date.
What is the greatest accomplishment in your life?
Mine was when I won an art contest a year or two ago; his was being the person he wanted to be. Chase explained how he used to put everyone else’s needs and wants before his, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but what he did wasn’t healthy. It took him a few years to finally work on his mental health.
I smiled. I knew that wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but we both knew now wasn’t the right time for that deep of a conversation. We continued, answering a little quicker as it got late.
What do you value most in a friendship?
We both said loyalty and trust.
What is your most treasured memory?
Mine was some Christmas from when I was little, there was nothing special about it but it was something I loved to think back on. All of us were in matching pajamas while we sat around the tree with a pile of presents. Some holiday movie on in the background and gingerbread cookies in the oven, they tasted like cardboard but we still ate the whole batch.
Chase said his was when his adoptive sister Kathrin asked him to be her son's godfather. His nephew/godson Jonny was three years old.
What is your most terrible memory?
That one got brushed over with vague answers. It didn’t matter if we were supposed to honestly answer them all, “icebreaker” or not, we weren’t ready to discuss that one yet.
If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
I said I would do all the things I was afraid to do; I would quit my job and live off my savings, and make the most of my borrowed time. He told me something similar, how he would treat every day as if it were his last and do his best to have no regrets.
“What does friendship mean to you?” I read. We were twenty questions in, the stars now visible in the dark, slightly cloudy sky.
Chase said it was one of the things that made life worth living, I said it was everything.
We moved to the playground and sat across from each other on the plastic, hole-filled floor. I pointed out Orion and a few other constellations that were noticeable. I couldn’t help but smile when he recited the Greek myth of Orion and shared the jokes his grandpa would make about Ursa Minor.
Card number twenty-two was flipped over, Chase forgot to write down number twenty-one so we moved on. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
“Kind,” he started.
“Friendly,” I said with a smile.
“Intelligent,” he replied.
“Adventurous,” I finished.
Chase grinned and flipped over the next question: How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
Despite my mom and dad slightly hating each other, they were good parents. Minus their fights I think I had a good, happy childhood.
Chase said his family was very close, he and all of his siblings were adopted. He said he wouldn’t change that for the world.
How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
We both said that we could be closer but it was good.
Number twenty-four answered, we were now in the third set of questions. They were more detailed: Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling…”, Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share …”.
They also got more personal, number twenty-seven: If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
I re-shared that I was aro/ace, a part of me was nervous that he would want to end the night there. He merely smiled and shared that his job didn’t give him a lot of free time. I hoped that was a good sign.
Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
I liked how sweet and carefree he was. From our rushed and unexpected meeting to this moment he had shown me nothing but kindness. Even when I could tell he wasn’t sure what to say it was never uncomfortable. I told him I really hoped we could be close friends after this.
He liked that I was real, that I was kind and honest. That I didn’t push him away from the start, that I gave him a chance. He said he also hoped we could be close friends.
The next one was more lighthearted: Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life. We shared silly school stories and laughed at each other's humiliating stories.
I read number thirty which was similar to one we already had: When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself? Neither of us remembered when that was, each I suppose is a good thing as that means we haven’t cried recently.
Someone came by and asked if we could leave the park, it was already 11:00 PM so this area was technically closed. We apologized and quickly left. Chase read the next card as we walked to our cars. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
“Didn’t we just answer that a few questions ago?” I asked.
“I think we did,” he laughed and gestured for me to flip over number thirty-two.
What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
We both agreed on suicide and other similar topics.
If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
I wasn’t sure, I’d like to think that I tell people everything important. Chase said we can circle back to that one as he also wasn’t sure.
Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
“Probably a box of things I consider irreplaceable, you?”
“My computer,” I answered.
“Your computer?” He said with a small laugh.
“Hey, I paid a lot for that thing.”
Our vehicles were in sight and we had two questions left, this would be the end of our late night.
Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
“My cousin Tyler, I’ve known him my whole life and live with him. I don’t want to think about him dying anytime soon.”
Chase nodded and said his father; he had been there for him for as long as he could remember, he couldn’t imagine what it would be like without him.
I flipped over my last notecard, the last of these thirty-six “icebreaker” questions.
Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you on how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
Maybe it was because we wanted something to come back to, maybe it was because we didn’t want to ask the other for help. Whatever the reason was, we didn’t answer the last of the questions to fall in love.
Chase kissed my cheek and wished me good night. I smiled and waved farewell as I got in my car. That was the end of our “date”.
* * *
I didn’t hear from Chase the next day or the day after that. It hurt but I wasn’t sure if I should say something; if he didn’t want to be friends I didn’t want to push it. Tyler said there was no harm in sending a simple “hello” but I felt like if I sent something I should say more. I wasn’t sure why but that’s how I felt.
I was near the end of my shift at the café, Sarah was in the back making the drinks while I punched them in as normal. The bell rang; I didn’t look up from my task, the bell rings all the time.
“How can I help you?” I asked.
Chase stood on the other side of the counter, “A cortado and a conversation if you’re free,” he said with a shy smile.
I typed it in. “I get off in fifteen,” so similar to the day we met.
He paid for his drink and sat down at the same spot as before. I didn’t know what to expect from this conversation but I tried to stay hopeful.
“Rose,” Sarah said as she tapped my shoulder.
“Is that your soulmate?” She asked with a small gesture towards Chase.
I nodded and took the next person's order.
It was time to clock out when she spoke again. “I don’t mean to pry, but is he also aro?”
I hung my apron up with a sigh, “no.” I didn’t see her reaction and made my way over to Chase. “Can I sit here?”
I took the seat across from him. “I’m sorry I didn’t message you,” he said.
“You don’t have to apologize.”
He shook his head, “it took me too long to accept that I wouldn’t marry my soulmate, you told me from the start that wouldn’t happen.”
I looked away, so that is why he didn’t reach out; because I would never love him that way. Chase continued to speak, “I thought maybe it would be different since I was your soulmate, I was even foolish enough to try those ‘scientifically proven’ questions to fall in love.”
“I knew what they were from the start,” I said. He seemed surprised by my answer. “I’m sorry if I lead you on by wanting to continue the questions, but I liked getting to know you and I didn’t want that to stop.”
There was a moment of silence, a moment too long in my opinion.
“Friends?” He asked.
I smiled, “I would like that.” Part of me couldn’t help but feel relieved. My soulmate and I were on the same page, we were honest with each other, we were friends.
I got a drink of my own and we stayed at the café; we conversed and laughed. Sort of like part two of last night, but this wasn’t a date. There were no questions to fall in love, there was no lying about who we were to get the other to like us. Just two friends hanging out. It was wonderful.
“You know, if you want to be in a relationship I know someone I could set you up with,” I offered.
I smiled and gestured towards the counter, my coworker Sarah at the register.
“What about her soulmate?” Chase asked, her red compass visible from here with her short sleeves.
“He has a boyfriend so there shouldn’t be any problems there,” I answered.
I had a feeling they would get along, and the two of them looked like they would be a cute couple.
We continued our conversation while Chase debated if he should go talk to her, which I eventually convinced him to. And I was right, the two of them hit it off almost immediately.
Our relationship may not have started how either of us expected but no matter what happened, I’m glad my other half is a part of my life.
The Dark Squares
By: Allison Baggott-Rowe, M.A.
My hands shake as I reach for the black, plastic knight in front of me. The heavy, grey blanket droops over my exposed shoulders and pools in my lap as I sit cross-legged on the floor, the chessboard in front of me. The table is so far, even if my legs could push me into a chair. I stare down the white king, his crown coming in and out of focus as I squint at the pieces.
“You won’t beat me,” I whisper, even as the edges of my vision blur with the effort.
The haze that has settled deep in my brain moves its icy tendrils to cover my eyes as I work to commit my surroundings to memory for the moment that inevitable darkness sets in. A barren, carpeted living room my husband and I had liked once-upon-a-time for being open concept to both the kitchen and dining room. Back when he felt like a husband. Back when we still hosted guests. Friends. Guest friends. Pyramus and Thisbe must be happy somewhere.
The floral drapes opened wide to the afternoon sun, the root cause of the clanging in my head. My father’s old, cushioned chairs that I inherited after he died when they cleaned out his office and did not know where to put them with insufficient space in the moving van. The TV in the corner, screen flash-frozen on a scene from what used to be my favorite movie since my teenage years. Amazing that I could watch The Lord of the Rings more than a hundred times and never tire of it until it became a rescue distraction in this detox prison. All it took was 24 hours of dry heaving long after the vomiting was over to ruin the movie forever.
My eyes run along the dusty shelf of our entertainment center, bereft of anything resembling entertainment for at least a month now. The dust motes float around remotes to land on outdated gaming systems and consoles. Orange pill bottles, an old pregnancy test, and a few nickels that will never be used for change adorn the inside of the cubbies.
There is a stack of mail on the far right, creating one singular dust-less rectangle on the wooden counter. It is mostly medical bills, with the odd “We Have a Life Update” kind of mail you get from guest friends. The kind of mail that lets you know you have fallen so far behind there is no point in trying to catch up.
At least the medical bills don’t judge me that way.
The shaking is getting worse as I stick my hands inside my shirt to warm them, still clutching the black knight in my frigid fingers. I let my head fall forward as my knees come up to cradle my forehead. I rock my neck from left to right, massaging my aching forehead with my knees. Cold sweat lines the inside of the blanket and makes the fabric stick to my itchy skin.
Eyes half-closed, I fumble with the small, black pawn. My hands are clammy as I move to place the piece back on his square. It slips and falls horizontally adjacent to the square it started on before I meddled.
This is the distraction today. This is the distraction this moment. Concentrate.
* * *
I remember the first time I gathered my courage to go to the pain clinic three years ago. The woman who had checked me in was all business in getting my information and taking my vitals before instructing me to wait for the doctor and leaving me to the company of animals spelling out each letter of the alphabet on the tri-colored general practice walls in the unfamiliar building. It smelled too clean, as through bleach could purge the room of all the uncomfortable conversations that had happened here. I shifted from one hip to the other, trying to get not-uncomfortable in the plastic office chair and wondered vaguely if the Alpaca or Bear ever had backaches that did not go away for weeks on end. I waited for more than forty-five minutes before the doctor came in and made a show of pushing on all the parts that hurt the worst, including my wrists. Especially my wrists.
When she finally settled herself on the swivel stool and opened my chart, I had to fight back tears that would look like drug-seeking behavior but were inevitable when people handled my hands. I knew it wasn’t believable. I just didn’t know why.
“Well, the good news is that this is manageable,” she had said, implying the bad news was too bad to even say out loud. “We have medications that can help manage the pain from lupus in these flare-ups and we can work on strengthening your muscles with some physical therapy, so you are less likely to need medication in the long run. It will help with being able to do everyday tasks like doing laundry, opening jars, and holding onto things without dropping them.” I could tell she was waiting for me to say something.
“Lupus runs in my family,” I had responded quietly, compression braces cutting into both wrists. She handed me a pamphlet on medication interactions. “Bad lupus.”
She sighed and looked down at her notes before scribbling something unintelligible on the script pad, tearing it off, and holding it out to me.
“This is an aggressive treatment plan, and we will need to monitor you closely while you are on this medication. It can be highly addictive.” The tone was a reprimand in itself even though she was the one writing the prescription.
I nodded numbly.
“Make sure you are getting enough exercise,” she added. “It is important to treat this as a lifestyle change.” Her voice softened ever so slightly around the edges. “Many of my patients find that taking up a new hobby can be helpful with managing pain. This morning I treated a little boy with fibromyalgia who is a youth chess master.”
I swallowed, wondering why she thought Bobby Fischer was at all an appropriate tangent while delivering bad news.
“Check back with me in a month,” Dr. Johnson cautioned, “We can see how things are going and if we can back off that dose at all with the physical therapy. Pain can be your body’s way of warning you; you know.”
I nodded again, reaching for the prescription that fell between my fingers and onto the tiled floor.
* * *
The liquid runs warm and wet over my fingers as I cradle myself next to the toilet seat streaked with red. This isn’t a normal period, I think, but there is no way this is just a lupus-flare period either. The panic is rising in my throat, wants to escape through my lips pressed tightly together. My husband, Elliott, is in the living room hosting our fifth club chess tournament this month and I have already used up my bathroom break. We only get one per game as players and he is new to directing tournaments. I can’t make this hard for him. He’ll kill me if I ruin this. I know I have been away from the table for at least fifteen minutes and my clock is ticking.
I bite back another scream as a wave of pain floods my senses. I count the back and white bathroom tiles, mapping out the 64-square boundaries of a chess grid. I project the game waiting for me outside onto the checkered floor, trying to remember the position of each piece. We were planning the Vienna game, early exchange variation…my hands are crusted with blood and will not stop shaking. I hear the guest friends outside whispering even though regulation tournaments are supposed to be silent affairs. I can’t let them see me like this. I need to get back. It’s hard enough to be a female chess player without extra reminders that your sex is still not welcome at over-the-board matches. No one can know—
The pain reaches a fever pitch and I feel it.
I will never be able to un-feel it.
A short time later I emerge from the solitude of the bathroom, pasting a smile onto my face and forcing myself to sit across from my human opponent. I think he believes that I am invested in this game as I snake my bishop out to fork his rooks.
He will never know what we can lose as women.
* * *
The harsh, fluorescent lighting of the doctor’s office is only overshadowed by the mundane metronome of the clock on the wall. The just-audible tick-tick-tick of my time going down the drain as I wait in yet another examining room.
“You can do anything for thirty seconds,” the woman taking my vitals tells me. Her name is Linda, though she doesn’t know I know it. After three years of seeing the same person at least once a month you’d think someone would have the common courtesy to assume you might not be as memory impaired as she implies I am by reintroducing herself every month when she hands me the patient symptom checklist. I wonder if she treats her non-opioid patients with the same assumptions she treats me.
“And then when those thirty seconds are done, you can start with a new thirty seconds.”
The pressure is let out slowly, tortuously. The beep, beep, beep of the machine measuring something important won’t be quiet. She tells me not to worry about it and begins asking about my symptoms starting with my pain score today.
I consider questioning why she is asking when she obviously doesn’t want to hear the truth about what I am feeling but end up smiling and nodding by accident. Again.
This is not a room for questions.
“All pain stops eventually,” Linda says, looking over the rim of her glasses at the orange pill bottle I am holding as I finish describing the same chronic pain I have detailed seven times this year to her. It is only July. She is waiting for me to agree with her before moving on to the next part of the appointment where she tells me that Dr. Johnson is a little behind, but is on her way and will be right in. Lowering my eyes, I nod again and wait the forty-five minutes before Dr. Johnson comes in, tears off the top sheet of the script pad and sighs.
“You know going down on this is going to be a challenge, yes?”
I nod, tears welling in my eyes.
“It will be an uphill battle, but if you are serious about getting off the painkillers, I believe you can do it. Especially knowing how invested your husband is, too. Most spouses do not come to appointments. It’s clear he cares.”
I nod again, thinking about the Lady Macbeth bathroom scene with a shiver. How fast would that spot have come out if he had just admitted he wanted to be king? Maybe there wouldn’t have even been one…
Elliott, who has been absorbed in a game on his phone until this point, takes the script from her and nods as if taking her seriously.
“I’ll pick this up for you,” he offers. “You won’t even need to drive to get it.”
And here comes Birnam Wood.
* * *
“Do you think I should I wait for my next dose?” I maneuver my knight to the center of the board.
“I don’t think I would, babe,” he responds with his bishop on an open diagonal, a perfect position to snipe unsuspecting pieces off the board.
“I am afraid of backsliding…I can wait.” My pawn advances to connect the chain. “Really, I can wait to take my next dose. I need to be strategic in when I take it to keep from going into full withdrawal on you. I’m doing it in small increments.”
He studies my face for a second before forking my rook and queen, pinning my helpless queen to the king.
“I’m more worried about your health right now. Like, your health in this minute. Let’s go back to your old regimen of medicine. It’s been years since your dose or anything changed and things were fine how they were.”
Scanning the mess of a defense I have left, I debate resigning the chess game now. I remember when our games were more of a back and forth. When I didn’t need the meds every day. But that was two years, a white dress, and one lost pregnancy ago. Not that we were trying to get pregnant at the time, but it happened anyway. And it was devastating all the same.
Pushing the pawn again, I hope that maybe, I can gain tempo and promote it to replace my original queen. Elliott’s grey-blue eyes seem to search my face as I draw in a deep breath. Concern has cut deep lines through his freckled face. His stare holds the command that I once found so attractive. It was maybe protective once, even. The first time I laid eyes on him was when he had held the door for me that first time I showed up on the doorstep of the Monroe Chess Club one year after my first pain appointment. He didn’t need to hold the door, but he did. He didn’t even know me. He didn’t even know how helpful it was for a girl who had no strength in her fingers after a year on opioids. How could he, wearing that pristinely pressed dress shirt. He had insisted I sit at his table. I remember how he introduced me to the impregnable Slav defense he was so taken with before asking me on a date to listen to Slam! Poetry in the Cat in the Cream café. That was who Elliott had been. Before I murdered our baby because I was in pain.
His button-down shirt and khaki pants remind me of my father coming home straight from a shift at the hospital when I was a kid. Something in the stoop of his shoulders had always reminded me of my father; maybe that’s part of what made him feel protective, but he wouldn’t want to hear that. There wasn’t much he wanted to hear these days. But it seemed like this conversation wasn’t something I could say no to anymore.
“I know you want to help me,” I start, “but that can’t overrule my own choices, right? We knew this would be hard on me.”
He rolls his eyes as his bishop cruises down the dark squares to capture my queen.
My shoulders are aching with the weight of half-tensed muscles as I falter for the right words. “This is the way to move us forward.”
I sacrifice the pawn.
He shakes his head a fraction of an inch, almost involuntarily, taking the free piece.
“Not the only way. And mate. There’s nothing strategic about anything you’re doing.”
I stiffen at the abrupt conclusion of the game as well as the implication of his comment. He stands, pinching the bridge of his nose, eyes shut. “You know what I mean. “
His voice softens dangerously as he adds, “The lupus isn’t going anywhere. Just the drugs treating it, babe. You need pain meds for life. And I am with you for life. So, we need the pain meds for life, and I have made my peace with that.”
The metallic taste in my mouth cues me that I am biting into my lower lip to restrain the words that want to fly out at him.
“I didn’t have much of a choice when I was put on this medication, Elliott,” I say, measuring each syllable carefully.
He rolls his eyes.
“Look, the lupus was already bad by the time I tried to get treatment and I would, at the very least, like to have a say in how I try come off the meds now. There are new treatments that could be better for me. Better for us. Better for our future.” My fingers stretch towards him as I take his hand and put it on my too-flat stomach. His hand is limp in mine saying, we are not going there.
He starts shaking his head again, further messing up his stress hair.
“So you’re okay with the fact that both of us— not just me, not just you, both of us—are reeling with the idea of detoxing this fast? You’re okay with that?”
He releases my hand and paces the length of the bedroom while I stare fixedly at my pale reflection in the mirror. The last words are hurled so fast that I am locked out of my own brain even as I search for a response that will calm the situation back down. I come up empty.
“No,” I say quietly, my fists balled up at my sides.
“No, I am not okay with it. But I have to learn to be. It’s about more than just me now.”
I watch my reflection jump as he slams the bedroom door shut and the pieces scatter on the floor.
* * *
I grab a fistful of hair as I rock back and forth on the all too familiar bathroom tile before rolling onto my back in the carpeted hall. The stucco ceiling looks like a light show as I rest my swimming head on ground, getting my bearings after another bout of, well, Elliott called it something pretentious like “worshipping at the shrine of the porcelain goddess.”
Re-experiencing every meal when you are supposed to stay nourished and hydrated is not pretentious, just cruel. Heat is radiating off my face but cannot warm my freezing hands and feet. Sweat collects on goosebump flesh as if I were listening to nails dragging along a chalkboard on loop.
Instead, I hear my own humiliating anguish. I have never been an addict, I remind myself.
This is physical dependency.
So what? my body shoots back. It is so hot, and so cold. Please.
Please, it hurts and it itches, please…
Please, you know we must be dying-
I roll onto my left side, thrusting a shaking hand into the front pocket of my jeans to grab my cell phone. Sweat rolls into my eyes as tears roll out, completing some natural cycle as I hit the speed dial for my doctor. It rings for the span of rolling myself into the fetal position and then I hear Linda’s familiar soprano on the other end.
“Dr. Johnson’s office, Linda speaking, can I have the patient’s last name and date of birth?”
I rattle off the information and the second time she understands what I am trying to say.
“Slow down, what’s going on?” she asks.
“I don’t feel right, Linda. I don’t feel good. Is it going to get better? It has to get better.”
“Hold on there,” she says, “Let’s slow down a second. Where’s your husband, hon?”
“He’s out. He said he had an errand.” The truth is I have not seen him for a few days, but the last time this happened, it was a full weekend before he came home. He had said he was with his parents, but he had smelled like an ashtray and later I found texts from his best friend about all the clubs they had hit. He doesn’t know I know.
“Okay, sure. I’m going have you take a breath there, okay? You know we talked about this with Dr. Johnson. Coming off Vicodin as an outpatient is almost unheard of and it can be dangerous. He needs to stay with you each time we make a cut in your dose. Or someone does. Did Dr. Johnson have you go down again this week?”
I can feel the sweat pooling under my arms and breasts even as I hug the cotton jumper close to my chest for warmth.
“M—hmm, yeah, she did.”
“Okay, so she decreased your dose this week, and how much are you on?”
“I…” I cast my mind back, trying to remember the conversation from three days ago. Four? I am not sure.
“He gives me the pills,” I say hearing the fear in my own trembling voice. “The bottle is so hard for me to open so he helps me.” She sighs.
“You can’t rely on someone else to do this when you are cutting back,” she says as gently as Linda can for being Linda. “There is a fine line between help and control.”
“I know I have been seeing you two for years, but I have to ask. Do you feel safe at home?” she pushes, and I choke on a frightened inhale.
“Yes—yes, I am safe.”
“We have resources if you’d like to switch the plan and do this as an in-patient—"
“No. No, I don’t want to do that. We just want to try to have a family. Be allowed to have a baby, like any normal couple.”
The silence on the other end is worse than anything she could say out loud.
“I’m-I’m sorry,” I stammer, “I will tell him to stop picking up the scripts for me and I’ll find a way to track the pills myself. I can do this.”
I hang up fast and throw my phone down the carpeted hallway as I wait to hear the car pull into our driveway. I don’t know that I will wait on the floor for 38 hours before he gets back, and we both go to sleep like nothing happened between us.
* * *
Sobs wrack my frame, which is so much thinner than it was two months ago when I started the scale-back. Every few days I keep chipping away at the number of white, miracle tablets that separate me from who I used to be before the lupus. Before the pain meds. As I widen the divide, there are two of us inside of me, fighting for control of the next moment. Even though I am so tired, it is a blessing I cannot sleep. My insomnia keeps me in control. My legs always need to be moving, so the living room has become a fitness sanctuary for my soul. If I keep moving, my body stays just satiated enough to keep the existential nausea away.
Yesterday I think I even ate a banana. There was nothing existential about it.
Hours of dance have led to spasming muscles, choking on their own churning lactic acid and protein drinks that I pretend are fueling me. Today I exercised for what—two hours? Closer to three? Dr. Johnson and the physical therapist say that is normal. My brain is starving, and it is my fault, so I need to find other things for it to eat. Endorphins are cheap, costing only muscle fatigue. Fancy receptor-blocking medicine is less so, and so for now, I also worship at the shrine of the Zumba gods. I reflect on now-hollow church hymns while pulling sneakers onto my feet for another round. I suppose I always knew I could never be a monotheist.
* * *
Like a watercolor, hours blur into brushstrokes of days. The agony becomes routinized. The first day of every cycle is not so bad, nor the second, but by day three I am in full withdrawal at each decrease. By day twelve, I can eat whole meals and have moments of respite outside of memory fog that feel almost cogent. It feels like my “normal” when I was on my full dose of meds, but better. Maybe even like days before the lupus diagnosis even though that comes with its own symptoms.
By day fourteen, I steel myself to start at day one of a new cycle again.
I pull the chessboard off the kitchen table and set it up on the floor, playing what I believe are openings, but mostly making it up as I go along. I grow tired of the well-worn DVD occupying the slot in the TV and vow to never watch Lord of the Rings again. I exercise until I need a knee brace, because my body forgot what it felt like to enjoy moving through space for fun and I go too hard too fast.
My fingers massage the knots in my neck as I study the board, careful to look for, and avoid, any pins on my pieces. An unfortunately easy or crippling hard thing to do if you are playing yourself.
* * *
It is either sunrise or sunset when I look up again. Day ten of just two pills a day.
Four days until we decrease it again.
Knight to ‘G3’…
We are getting there,I think.
Blearily, I realize that I have daydreamed the nightmare day away sitting on the couch in front of an oscillating fan wearing my running socks, my ratty old American Gods shirt, and a pair of underwear. I was so hot, but now I am freezing. There is a noise in the open-concept kitchen and my head turns instinctively to see him standing there with his button-down shirt and the sleeves rolled up to his elbows as he stirs a ladle in the pot we used to use when we had guest friends over. He must have been watching me because he is already filling the dinner bowls and walks toward me.
“You hungry at all?” he asks, and I can hear the gruff frustration in his tenor timbre. I nod and he sits down next to me.
“Cold?” I nod again.
He switches the fan off and puts the soup in front of me as I push myself up from the couch into a sitting position.
“Want to play?”
He sets the board up at the kitchen table from scratch and pats the chair in front of him. I climb into my seat and study the lines on his face, noticing the faded scar above his left eye from the time he fell off a skateboard in front of my apartment and needed two stitches in the ER.
* * *
It was like it was yesterday. We had still showed up at chess club together an hour late, after we picked up his painkillers at the pharmacy. When his friends asked him what had happened, he told them they should see the other guy. They all laughed, and we went into the gym that had tables set up for practice. I had sat across from him on the dark side of the board. By then I knew he liked to go first.
“How about a little London system practice?” he had asked, pushing the D pawn forward.
D pawn players were so obnoxious, but he was trying to be edgy and different and what did it really matter to me. We had only been dating a few months at that point. I didn’t need to rock the boat. I responded with D5 and managed to snag a draw when he traded a rook he shouldn’t have. I could have won, but he was a sore loser, and we were planning to go to dinner together later that night. Winning wasn’t everything.
My eyes wandered down to his half-zipped knapsack.
“Did the doctor give you a refill on the pain medicine?” I asked, reaching for one of the three orange bottles nestled next to his “Advanced Endgame Tactics” book.
“None of your damn business!” His fist collided with my nose before I could read the bottle, and I inhaled the sickening smell of blood. I burst into startled tears but stayed where I was until he told me to go back inside. I missed practice at the club for a few weeks while my black eye went away.
He hadn’t meant to hit me that hard, I would tell myself every day until it happened the next time a month after he proposed. It was an accident. Everyone gets mad sometimes. I shouldn’t have looked in the first place. It wasn’t hard to hide the bruises, and next time I would be smart, I promised myself. Maybe if it happened again, I would talk to him about it. Maybe.
Eventually the hitting turned into other things and other things turned into a baby. If I had known about the baby, I would have skipped the pain medicine that week, but it was the fourth time I had “fallen down the stairs” and I couldn’t go to bathroom without passing out and I just needed something to make it all better. That along with the lupus made it all but impossible for me to drive or work, let alone raise a baby.
* * *
Sitting across from Elliott in the kitchen I think back to the many chess games we have played right here over the past two years since we first started dating after I had walked into the Monroe Chess Club. The last game I won was more than a year ago. I can’t remember the last time I beat Elliott. A stark contrast to the last game I played only a few months ago that had ended with a gush of blood between my legs before the rest came out.
I had lain on my side on the cool bathroom tile for so long, sobbing. I had reached up to the counter, fumbled with the medicine cap before pills fell in all directions. I had let out a cry before remembering the Vienna game with its exchange waiting for me outside. I popped two pills in my mouth and tried to scoop the rest into the bottle, praying our guest friends had not heard. I stopped to look at the block text on the side of the bottle:
“DO NOT TAKE IF PREGNANT. IF YOU PLAN ON BECOMING PREGNANT, TELL YOUR DOCTOR.”
He pushes me back into the present with an advancing D pawn forward and I jolt upright. He sighs and tips my king on its side ending it before it can even begin. I lost.
“Let’s watch Lord of the Rings,” he says.
* * *
Linda is there when I come back for my follow-up appointment.
“How are we doing today?” she asks, in that less-than-royal we way that only she can.
Despite wishing that Linda had ever looked me in the eyes like this before, I am genuinely happy to see her. I am excited to share my progress with her.
I smile and I mean it.
“You can do anything for thirty seconds,” I say, stepping onto the scale and sucking my belly in for all the good that will do me. I hope she can see the exercise in the way my weight has gone down, how my shirt fits, the muscle in my forearms where you only build muscle if it is inadvertent.
“The doctor will be in to see you,” she says after directing me to the examining room.
I sit and wait, wondering why there is no pain scale today. No blood pressure. No—
The doctor comes in wearing her white lab coat. I fix a smile back onto my face and turn my arms ever so slightly so maybe she will see the progress in my range of motion. Maybe she will care about more than just titrating off the medicine.
“I hear that there was an issue at the pharmacy,” she says, closing the door but not sitting down on the swivel stool.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Well,” she continues, crossing to the stool and folding her hands in her lap. “I thought we agreed you would be titrating off medication. And you would pick it up yourself.”
A pit opens in the bottom of my stomach. I feel my running legs needing to move. This is the exact opposite of what I expected.
“Then why,” she pulls several white sheets of paper out of a manilla envelope, “have you continued to pick up the maximum number of refills? We talked about this last visit, and I thought you were dedicated to this process.”
“There must be some mistake,” I blurt out, angry tears coming into my eyes. “I have been in the worst withdrawal and done everything you asked and then some. This is a mistake.”
Pursing her lips, the white coat looked at me gently, “Is there anyone who might want to take these medications from you? Maybe without you knowing?”
I think back to getting in my car for the first time in two years. The slow, six-minute drive to the pharmacy drive-thru window. Introducing myself to the pharmacist, waving goodbye. Then I think about the errand. The weekend he was gone and our 38 hours apart.
* * *
He was there when I got home. Smells of dinner prep wafted into the front hall as I took my shoes off and carefully put the paper prescription in the left front pocket of my Levi jeans. I sat at the kitchen table, like I had so many times before.
“Do you want to play?” I asked, my voice strained.
He sat, his button-down stained and untucked from his crinkled khakis. I wondered when he had last showered.
I bit my lip and looked into his faraway eyes.
There are more chess game variations than stars in the universe, he had once told me. I did not believe him when he first said it. The universe is always expanding, then contracting, and expanding again, throwing out variation after variation of its own into the vast endlessness that will never even be seen. Appreciated. Studied. Understood. But as I rotated my knight on the oblong “L” maneuver that trips up so many novice stargazers, I think I see how universes expand, contract, expand again and the possibility of matching possibility becoming reality.
The game did not take long.
I wish that it had.
I would have felt better that perhaps I could have seen this worst betrayal coming. But he played slowly, stupidly, and with a gauzy drug-induced veil over his eyes that made his pieces falter and fall on the board. He blundered his light-square bishop early in the game, removing the possibility of any sharp bisectional attack—a tactic that used to be one of his favorites.
He tried to take my pawn with his straight on.
“The piece doesn’t move that way,” I said quietly. He laughed, tried to play it off as a joke. But it was not funny.
Instead, he cantilevered his other central piece, his dark-square bishop to attack the same, seemingly helpless, pawn. I recaptured with my own pawn, closing in on a central attack and removing his last minor piece. His knights were gone in the first fifteen moves thanks to his prescription-sodden brain. I remembered him coming home late last night, missing one of his shoes with no coat. The ensuing moments when I pretended to be asleep so I would not have to protect myself before falling back into slumber.
He had lost positional advantage; he had lost material advantage.
I felt the hot sting of tears in the corners of my eyes as I witnessed the carnage of the remaining game unfold in front of me. Every mistake he made was an insult to me that my doctor, not I, had realized where my pills had gone. Where my baby had gone. Where my life had gone. Four pawns, a rook, and a king with no high ground to retreat to had few options.
It took all my self-discipline to pick up my intended pieces and glide them over the well-worn terrain to remove what he had left on the board. I caught myself starting to shake my head at the isolated pawn and undefended structure that he could not see. As I threatened mate in two I looked at him to resign the game, like sportsmanship dictated. He snorted and moved a pawn at random. Clenching my jaw, I continued with my intended plan, uninterrupted by the distraction.
“It it, really?” he asked, pushing a hand back through his messy hair.
I licked my lips and waited for the resignation—either an outstretched hand that I could clasp, could reason with or his king rotated horizontally on the square would end the game. The relationship doesn’t have to end, a voice inside my head whispered, any chess game can be ended with a draw by agreement…
“Did you ever even want the baby?” I asked, my voice barely louder than a whisper.
He captured my pawn with his rook.
He had been a shark circling for blood from the beginning. I wondered if he had ever really wanted to date me or just my prescription. He could have Dunsinane. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I pushed my queen to the back rank to finally win. The king was trapped.
* * *
Walking in the front door I hang my keys on the new, singular hook I made for myself on the last rainy Saturday. Today the sun streams in through art deco drapes, spilling golden streaks across the cream-colored carpet. I set my purse down and begin preheating the oven for dinner. I almost set two places out of force of habit, but correct course before laying it all on the dining room table. Sitting down, I am blinded by the reflection off something at the far end. I approach the other end of the table with curiosity and find the object in question is a corner of the chessboard. With a small smile, I reach out to push it from the sun’s rays and hesitate.
Palming the white king, I look at the clean counter that has no indication it ever held mail or heartbreaking tests or nickels with nowhere to go. Now it is just a clean counter.
* * *
In the Tank
By Calvin Henninger
They say your first hour in the tank is the worst.
It’s imperative, they tell me, that I watch the patients closely during their first hour in the tank. Sometimes people wake up - swim through the layers of drug-molasses covering their brains. And when they realize they’re underwater, the panic sets in, and then they tend to claw and tear at anything on their bodies. The mask comes off, the IV goes flying, the frame bends and shakes as they throw themselves all around the tank. It’s a real mess if you’re not there to do something about it.
It’s pretty easy to drain a tank - just push a button and the water flows out the bottom, down a short channel and into the main reservoir, where it’s treated and chlorinated. There’s usually a fifteen-minute waiting period between draining and refilling a tank, as the reservoir churns all the fluid inside, adjusting chlorine, oxygen, lotion levels. But we’ve only got six tanks, so it’s not too much of a hassle. When someone comes out like that, they don’t want to go back in right away.
It’s a very organized system at Pyketech. The body gets hooked up - nodes on the head, IV in the arm, oxygen mask on the face -, the body goes in, the water rises, I watch the body for the first hour or so, then check in a couple times an hour after that. After eight hours, Chris comes in to relieve me. I’ve never had any issues after the first hour.
Two of the tanks have been filled since I started, and the only sign that the two men - Casey and Wong - are still alive is the readout on my screen and the lightest fluttering of their eyelids, if you look closely enough. Every day or two I drain the tanks for them, and they crumple to the floor, naked and asleep. Then I wait for an hour or so, and then I refill the tanks. Early on, Chris said something about the inside of the tanks being climate-controlled, so no breeze or anything wakes them up once the tank drains. He said they even keep the air a little warmer in there, so the water on their skin doesn’t cool off.
I think I almost saw Casey come out of it one time - his eyes slid open underneath his mop of gray hair for a second and then his mouth twitched, like he was almost about to speak. But then he was out again, and I refilled the tanks an hour later.
Inside the tank, their body is suspended from a central frame - it looks a little like a stretcher, but turned vertically. Unlike a stretcher, though, the bodies aren’t strapped in and restrained. There are arm, leg and neck cups which fit snugly around the limbs, but they’re designed for support, not imprisonment. So if someone does start thrashing, it's pretty easy to pull yourself loose. When the tank drains, the central frame gently releases the body and folds up and out of the tank automatically, allowing the body to settle on the tank floor. It’s more comfortable that way, rather than hanging in the air once gravity takes hold.
The other four tanks have a cycling crew of folks who come and go. There are a couple regulars - Anthony Guiseppe, Thomas (I forget his first name), and Trevor Jonas.
I wonder what they think about, these guys in the tank. And why they’re paying so much. I haven’t seen it myself, but Chris says he talked to one of the founders a year or two before I got here. They only had two tanks at that point, with the patent pending on them; the whole thing was set up like an interrogation, just to make sure Chris wouldn’t sell them out before they secured it.
A couple months later they got their patent, and Chris hasn’t seen them since. They didn’t even come in to interview me when I first applied for the job: everything went through Chris and Bobbie Franklin, so I don’t honestly know if they even exist.
I’ve read in books about these opium dens, how people lay in bed and smoke the stuff until they piss their pants, grow beards, get bedsores. But we’ve got that covered with the tanks: we’ve got catheters, waterproof solid waste bags strapped to their asses. Every couple of weeks I’ll do a shave on them when they come out of the tanks - probably my least favorite part of the whole gig, but it’s worth it for the paycheck. I’m making more than low-level accountants, no college degree or anything.
So when I come in and the readout is dead on Wong’s tank, and Bobbie Franklin is nowhere to be seen, I realize how quickly it can all fall apart.
I try calling her phone, but it goes straight to voicemail. I go to check the tank: Wong’s still in the frame, but his eyes have cracked open. And they’re not moving underneath. I punch some buttons on the display. Nothing. I try to see if anything’s moving through the IV, but it’s hard to tell underwater. His mask is still on, but there’s something missing.
The oxygen, I realize. There’s no hum coming from the oxygen tank. Just like that, all the power leaves my legs, and I crumple to the floor for a second. Maybe I will meet the higher-ups after all. I sit like that for a few minutes, thinking empty thoughts, staring at the inside of my fingers. Then I stand up slowly and call Chris.
“What’s up, buddy?”
“Hey, can you come down for a second?”
“You good? I’m about to turn in for the night.”
“Nah, just come down for a second, okay?”
“Alright, sure.” he pauses for a second, until I almost think he’s hung up, “What’s going on?”
“Fuck, man.” I say, because it’s really the best description of the situation. “Fuck. Dude, Wong’s gone.”
This time the pause lasts forever. “What do you mean?”
“The tank shut off, and Bobbie’s not here. She must have split when it happened.”
“Well…” he says, “Fuck, man. What am I gonna do?”
“You’re my supervisor. I dunno, supervise me?”
“This is way above my head, buddy.”
“There’s no one you can call?”
He sighs, “Yeah, I guess there’s one number. Let me try and dig it out. You gotta make the call, though. I’m not touching this shit with a ten-foot stick.”
“Can you come down, at least?”
“Sure, whatever. Are all the other tanks good?”
I almost drop the phone. “Fuck!”
“Alright,” he says, “I’ll be there in a sec.” Then he hangs up.
I go around to all the other tanks, and I guess it’s not as bad as it could have been. Two other tanks are dead - along with the men inside. Both of the others are on the same side of the room as Wong, so maybe the power runs on two separate sources. Maybe some kind of power surge or a blackout? I wonder how it went for those three, whether they even realized they were drowning, or if it all just became part of that long, intoxicating dream. Their eyes were open, so maybe they woke up at the end.
I wonder if I should drain the tanks, or if it’s better to leave them this way. They look like specimens in a lab, and maybe that’s the way they should stay. It’s not so different whether they’re alive or dead, I guess: the catheter and the solid waste bags will catch all the residuals, and they’ll hang there just like before.
Chris gets here fast.
“Where are they?”
“It’s three of them, all over on that side of the room.”
“Three? I thought it was just Wong.”
“I saw him first. Hadn’t checked on the others yet.”
Chris strides across the room, taps on the glass like he’s provoking a shark at the aquarium. Then he comes back. “Yeah, it looks like the breaker blew on this side of the room. They were like this when you got here?”
“Yeah, where’s the breaker at?”
“It’s hard-wired into the bank, so this shouldn’t have happened. And if it did, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“And I wasn’t here.” I say.
“Right. No sign of Bobbie?”
“They’ll find her.” he says, “It’s good that you stuck around. Seriously, it’s gonna be alright for you.”
“You got a number for me?”
“Yeah,” Chris reaches into his pocket, “Here.”
I punch the number into my phone. Stare at it for a second.
“What’re you waiting for?” Chris says, “Go for it.”
“Who am I calling, exactly?”
“How the fuck should I know?” Chris explodes, “They said ‘if something gets fucked up, call this number’. Something got fucked up, wouldn’t you say? Something got majorly fucked up, so now you’re calling the number. And I’m here holding your goddamn hand, so maybe assume that I would have told you who you’re calling if I had any goddamn clue myself.”
I start the call on speaker, but Chris shakes his head. Then he walks over to the other end of the room and starts hitting keys on the main computer bank.
On the line, a recording kicks on.
Hello, administrator. Please enter a facility code.
“Code?” I call to Chris. He shrugs.
Hello, administrator. Please ent-
I hit “0”. The line goes dead for a second, and then it starts to ring.
“Fusioncorp technical support. How may I help you?”
“We’ve got three bodies in tanks. I guess the power shut off, and-”
“Transferring your call. Please hold.”
They start playing one of those terrible songs, cut through with static here and there so it sounds like it’s getting broadcasted from somewhere under the ocean.
Shaka shaka shaka *crackle crackle* shaka shaka shaka
Bwou shaka bwou shaka *crackle* shaka bwou…
...Your clients are safe with us. Please stay on the line while we connect you with one of our customer service representatives.
Shaka shaka shaka *crackle crackle* shaka shaka shaka
Bwou shaka bwou shaka *crackle* shaka bwou…
...Please stay on the line while we connect-
The phone starts to ring again and I jump. This time a woman’s voice answers,
“Fusioncorp retrieval and disposal, what’s your facility number?”
I mouth “number?” at Chris, but he’s turned away, looking at the computer again.
“I’m not sure - uh, we’re the San Luis-Obispo, Pyketech facility…”
“Let me check the register… San Luis, you said? Alright, here we go - Pyketech. Facility Soma 321.” She pauses and I can hear the gentle clatter of her keyboard through the headset. “What is your name?”
“That’s Jasper - J-A-S-P-E-R?”
“Yes, ma’am, and then ‘French’ like the language.”
“Got it. And what’s the nature of your call today, sir?”
My head feels hot. “Three bodies in the tanks. Uh, some sort of power shortage last night, and they’re all gone.”
“Were you on-duty during the shortage?”
“No, that was Bobbie Franklin.”
“And is Mr. Franklin-”
“Pardon. Miss Franklin. Is she there at the moment?”
“She left before I got in. We can’t reach her.”
More keystrokes. “Okay. Is this your first time in one of these situations?”
I almost laugh. “Yes ma’am.”
“Okay, then. Here’s how it works. Your employer - Pyketech, was it? They’ve contracted us for body disposal purposes. So we’ll worry about that end of things. We’re going to send our Los Angeles cleaning team over to your facility, so let them in and show them the bodies you need removed. They’ll take the names and the case numbers, then you’re all set on your end. We’ll handle the rest.”
“What about their relatives?”
There’s a moment of silence on the other end of the line. Across the room I see that Chris is also on the phone, speaking slowly and quietly into the receiver. “Unfortunately, our contracts are very clear. The bodies will be treated with the utmost respect and disposed of in an environmentally-conscious fashion. Do you have any questions?”
“I haven’t been able to get in touch with the facility owners. Do you have their contact information?”
“Unfortunately, sir, we can’t provide that information to you. That would violate our client-contractor agreement.”
“I’m an employee!” A dull ache has begun to creep from my ear up towards my temple.
“I understand, sir. But we take our client’s privacy and security very seriously. If they chose to not give you their number, then it’s not our place to do so. Do you have any other questions?”
“Our team will be there in a couple of hours. Have a good day, sir.”
Across the room, Chris nods, says something, and then hangs up and drops his phone back in his pocket.
“Who was that?”
“Facility owners. Found the number listed in the handbook.”
“We have a handbook?”
“It’s all in the computer, so I guess it’s more for me than for you.” He gestures towards the bodies. “What’d they say?”
“Team’s gonna be here in a couple hours. We’ll just need to drain the tanks once they’re here, then they’ll handle the rest.”
“Okay. Owners are local; they’re fighting traffic to get here right now.”
“Are they pissed?”
“Hard to say. Couldn’t cut through the accent.”
“Chris.” I lock eyes with him. “Seriously, man. How fucked am I?”
He waves me off. “You're fine, man. If anyone’s fucked, it’s Bobbie. You stuck around, made the calls. Cleaned up her goddamn mess. Yeah, she’s dead-fucked once they get ahold of her.”
He heads back to the computer to poke around some more, and I sit back on the floor, tuck my knees up under my chin. Across the room I can see Wong, still hanging in the tank. If it wasn’t for the dead readout, I couldn’t tell the difference. Maybe that’s what happened with Bobbie - she was sitting across the room, got up to check on them and noticed that the readout was dead. Noticed that there were three dead bodies where three living bodies should have been.
Across the room the door slams open and two Indian dudes walk through. They’re talking rapidly to one another in Hindi.
As they get into the room, the taller, skinnier guy makes a beeline for the computers. Chris steps out of the way. The other guy - maybe forty, forty-five and heavyset, acne scars dotting his cheek and his thick black hair close-cropped and short - comes over to me. I stand up and he reaches out his hand.
“Isaac Pratesh - you are Christopher?”
“No, that's-” I gesture towards Chris and Isaac nods. “I’m Jasper.”
“Okay, Jasper. So what happened? Why do I have three dead bodies now?”
“I’m not sure how much Chris told you, but it was like this when I came in.” I check myself, start from the beginning and try to be as thorough as I can. He nods as I speak, and his eyes narrow when I mention Bobbie.
“This Bobbie, where is he?”
“She. I don’t know. Won’t pick up the phone or anything.”
“Yo, Parth!” he calls across the room, and then spits a string of Hindi to the guy at the computer. The guy shrugs, punches a few more keys. Bobbie’s face fills the screen and he leans in close to get a look at her information underneath. Isaac turns back to me. “I’m sorry, please continue.”
I go through the rest of the story, and he watches me the entire time, his eyes cool and clear. When I finally finish he nods three times quickly. “Thank you, my friend. Now I’m gonna make some calls, so please, stay here until I’m done.”
He gets back on the phone and Parth keeps working on the computer. Chris walks over after a few minutes and we head across the room.
“What you think?”
He looks at me, “I dunno, dude. Guys are pretty intense. I think Bobbie is fucked.”
“You’re not kidding.” I sigh, “They told me to stick around, so that’s not a good sign.”
“It’s probably fine.” Chris gazes at the bodies in the tanks. “Kinda wish you were one of them right now, huh?”
He trails off, and then we’re both looking at the bodies again. Casey hangs suspended in the tank, his light mop of hair the only thing moving. And even that’s not moving much.
I say “How long was Wong in there for?”
“Since before I started. He and Casey must’ve gotten some sort of discount. I think they were the first clients - probably helped fund the company.”
“Any idea who they are?”
“Nope. Maybe they’re aliases or something. Tried looking them up before, but I couldn’t find anything.”
Across the room, Parth calls out to Isaac. Isaac speaks rapidly into the phone, then hangs up and makes another call. This time he’s speaking in English.
“Yesterday, I need her yesterday… Okay, three hours is fine. Can you make it two? I got cleaners coming in three - eh, two, I guess. Three is fine, but it’s tight, my friend. Two and a half? Okay, that’s better. Parth sent over the contract - you got it? Okay, okay, this is perfect. Thank you, sir.”
He hangs up and rubs the stubble on his chin, staring absently in our direction. Then he nods decisively and walks over to us. “Okay, lads. We have two hours before anything else, so maybe you have some questions and maybe I have some answers. So let’s talk. Ask anything, and I’ll try to answer.” He looks at us, and the silence stretches. Chris clears his throat. “Okay, I see maybe you don’t know where to begin, so I’ll start telling you, and then you can ask as we go.
“Me and Parth, in our religion we have Vishnu, the endless dreamer. Vishnu breathes in and the universe ceases to exist. Vishnu breathes out and the universe is reborn. All is possible through the dream - creation, destruction, and things in-between. You understand? In a dream you can do anything. This universe, it lives in the interval of Vishnu’s dreaming breath - it is created, kept and destroyed-” he snaps his fingers “-just like that. It is nothing to Vishnu. It is as unconscious as is breathing while he sleeps. To the dreamer, it is nothing.
“But this is an old religion - one of the world’s oldest. And there is a new religion setting my country on fire, Jasper. Do you know what it is?”
I shake my head.
“I think you do, and you’ve felt its strength. Money, Jasper, is the religion of India. It is the religion of America and Europe, too. America and Europe brought it to India, and we’ve taken to it, yes? This capitalist fever dream. The beggars in Mumbai worship it; the businessmen of the high-rises in New Delhi pray for it every day. Cities are built on it, politics is written with it.
“Through money everything is possible. And unlike those religions of old, it is a predictable power, a fountain that never runs dry, a deity that never judges or punishes. A man with no money can be reborn, if only he can get ahold of some. The only thing separating you and me, Jasper, is the money in my bank. Isn’t that beautiful? You win the lottery tomorrow, you’re a bigger man than me. No praying, no fasting, no studying the sacred texts. With enough money, you can get everything you need.
“We used to build temples - towers stretching above the gutters and streets, tall, tall towers that could almost touch the heavens. We built them so we could stand above the beggars and merchants, above the peasants and the rickshaw pullers. So we could feel heaven, stand just beneath the gods of old.
“But then the beggars sneak inside and piss in some marble corner. The tourists come with their polaroids, and then their disposable cameras, and then their digital cameras, and then their mobile phones. Chattering with their mouths open, their devices flashing. The commoners want to be let inside, and so they were let in. The barbarians smashed the gates and spread their bloody footprints across the floors. And the powerful, the godly, they watched all of this, they felt the peasant’s sour breath on the nape of their neck.
“That’s the funny thing: everyone wants it. Everyone wants to stand above someone else - do you see the problem, Chris? When a city tries to stand above a city? Your top-floor view looks less pretty when the fishmonger next door has one as well.
“We saw this, me and Parth. And we married the ideas. What’s something exclusive, some luxury the poor man can taste, but never realize? What’s the transcendence we can give these new holy men? These gurus of the dollar? A place away from the rest - a glimmering palace. What’s something that blows up the imagination, makes the poor man yearn to be rich, makes the rich man happy to be himself? These men have knelt and prayed to the temple of the dollar every hour of every day for decades; now they want to see their faith validated. So we validated it.
“So that’s the tank. A tank where a man becomes Vishnu himself, lost in dreams, creating and destroying universes with a breath. Away, away from the rest of this hard, ugly existence. Away from prying eyes and prying fingers. And all it takes is money. A good deal of it, but what do these men care? Jonny Wong has millions in his bank, hundreds of millions more in stocks and properties scattered across the globe. We take a small part of that every month and he stays in the tank. He has paid for an eternal dream, and we will give him that.
“Which brings us to now, today. Mr. Wong is dead. And ordinarily, that would be the end of the line. He’d be gone on to whatever is next. Perhaps his soul will return as a waxworm. Wouldn’t that be an insult, after putting so much time into the pursuit of a dollar. All men are mortal after all.
“But no, Jasper. We have a contract! And at Pychetech we honor our contracts. We hold them as holy, you understand? And our contract for Mr. Wong says we owe him another twelve years of slumber. How can we do this?’ you ask - ‘Mr. Wong is dead,’ Dead, yes, killed by a technical malfunction and the incompetence of Miss Franklin. The water has shredded his lungs, he’s completely beyond repair. His body will be ground up and fed to the earth - to the waxworms, you might say!
“But what about the contract? Mr. Wong is dead, but his lawyers are not. And a man’s power rests in the hands of his lawyers. What are we to do with all this?
“As usual, it all starts with money. Everything is possible through the power of the dollar, Jasper. Everything, you understand?” he looks at me.
“If we had known that Mr. Wong was dying, this would have been easier. With the right funding, you can build a body. Hell, we had that in Mr. Wong’s contract as well. But this process, it takes a couple months at least - usually five or six - and we don’t have the time. His brain won’t last that long without a house.
“Believe me when I say this has been a headache for us since the beginning. We’re building a contingency (by we I mean Parth) for this sort of thing. Every day we scan Mr. Wong’s brain, we read his brain waves, we download his dream state. We search for patterns, we start to build a hard copy of it all, or so we hope. Parth is working on a computer program, you see, something that will create new dreams for you. You sit down and plug it into your head and you won’t be able to tell the difference from the real thing.
“This program, though, it’s no replacement for the real thing, and we can’t use it for Wong. No, our contract specifies that he needs real, true sleep. The premo stuff. The lawyers would go to town on that one, you understand? If we use the program, he’ll hit a wall. After hours and hours, the program’s creativity will fade and his mind will explore some possibility the program hasn’t run and he’ll feel the boundary of the technology for the first time. And then he will get very bored. And then, what is he even paying for? An infinite lifetime of boredom? To be god of a sandbox?
“So what we have is a healthy brain - this was not damaged by the drowning, thank God! And we have a body that is compromised completely. Maybe we could keep it alive for another two or three months, but never twelve more years. We could try to make another body in the meantime, but with the shipping delays from Panama... So what I need…” he pauses and looks at us, “Is another body.”
Chris and I look at each other. And then we start laughing. After a couple seconds we start to trail off, and then Chris stops completely.
“You’re not laughing,” he says to Isaac.
“You Americans never read the contracts, do you?” Isaac smiles sadly. “We could put a clause in there that says you give your paycheck back to us every week. You would sign away your firstborn without knowing.”
My heart starts pounding. “He’s joking, right?” I look at Chris. But Chris isn’t laughing anymore.
“Yeah, buddy. A real joker. You serious, Isaac?”
Isaac shrugs, “I’m serious enough. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but what can we do? Our hands are tied, as they say. We’ve signed a contract as well, and that brain needs a house. We can keep it alive for a little while, but not twelve years, you know? Probably not even long enough to make a new body.” he pauses, “Wong’s team had us over the barrel for the funding. You don’t want to know what happens to us if we fuck up our contract.”
Chris looks at Isaac. “Better find somebody, then.”
“Well, as you know, we’re looking for Bobbie Franklin. And we’ve found her and she should be over here soon enough. But, eh,” he clears his throat. “Maybe I should have been a little more clear. These old men, they’re chauvinists, you know? Their wives come direct from a Russian school. You know what I’m saying?”
“No.” Chris and I say together.
“Well, suppose Wong wakes up someday. Some time during that twelve years, or maybe he’s still alive at the end of it. He wakes up and he’s got a pair of tits and no dick. Not very happy.”
“So go get a cadaver.” Chris says, “Go get a homeless guy off the street.”
Isaac waves him off, “Cadavers? No, we can’t do that. We’re not Frankenstein here. They’re working on that sort of thing down in Brazil, but that’s still five or six years out. They lost a lot of funding when Tsarnikov died last year.”
“Jesus.” I say.
“You said it! We’re not Jesus, you know? We can’t come back from the dead. Not yet, anyway.” Isaac glances at me and then at Chris. “So cadavers are out. Now, maybe we could find a homeless guy out there on the street. But this is California, man! Maybe it’s a homeless man, maybe it’s the CEO of some tech startup, about to be the next Amazon. Maybe it’s an actor trying to mingle without getting noticed, or some trust fund activist trying to see how the other half lives. Too many chances out here. Besides, we got you on contract already.”
The last words take a minute to sink in. “So what, it's just us?”
“Nope.” says Chris, “Maybe it’s you. Sure as hell ain’t me.”
“Chris,” Isaac pleads, “Be reasonable.”
“I’ll have my lawyer reach out.”
“Jasper,” Isaac turns to me, “Jasper, now, Chris is a little upset, but let me tell you exactly how it works, at least. See, you stuck around, right? You hung around when you could have just run off like Bobbie. And Bobbie’s under contract too, and there’s some really nasty stuff that happens if you leave your post without telling anyone. I’d not like to be her in this situation! We’re not just going to kill you and harvest your body, not a loyal employee like you.”
“Oh, Jesus.” I say. There’s a fly crawling on the white wall. I can just barely see it whenever it moves. It stays still, and it seems to disappear into that infinite whiteness for a moment. And then it moves again, and I can just barely see it. I can’t afford a lawyer “Oh no.”
“Here’s what I can do for you, Jasper.” I can see Chris across the room, hand in his hair phone pressed into his ear. “Your body, it's just a rental, right? It takes four, five months to have a new one made and shipped up here. Five, maybe six months, tops! Then you get yours back again. In the meantime, we give you a rental body - Bobbie Franklin’s, specifically -, and Wong rents yours, and then we get one made for Wong, and then you get yours back. Get it?”
“This is...” I say. The fly is gone, I see. I realize that it’s probably time for Casey’s tank to be drained. “You’re crazy.”
“No, no. The science is actually quite sound on this. Billions of dollars went into testing, and it’s quite airtight. Otherwise we wouldn’t have put it on the contract.” Isaac shrugs. “Now, Chris has lawyered down, so if that’s the route you want to go, I suggest you make that call soon. Otherwise, we’re going to proceed with your contractual obligations.” He smiles at me, “Oh, and you won’t go away empty-handed, either. How much do you want for this rental? How much is your body worth - let’s say on a month-to-month basis, just to make it easier for both of us?”
I snap out of it. “Six million.”
Isaac chuckles. “Come on, now. I‘m Indian. We tip 10% when we like the service. You think I’m gonna shell out six million for this?” he pokes me in the shoulder. “How about… six thousand per month, plus your regular paycheck?”
“Ten thousand.” I say. But now it sounds like I’ve already agreed to it.
“Meet in the middle at seven?”
“That’s not the middle.”
“Fine, fine! You’ve got me over a barrel, here. Eight thousand, but that’s final. We’ve got two vacant tanks, too, so we can stick you in one of them if you want. It’ll probably take us at least six months to find new clients, so it’s yours until we do. You’ll probably be out until you get your body back.” he sticks out his hand. “Chris doesn’t know what he’s missing!”
We shake hands, and across the room the doors bang open. Two paramedics roll a screaming Bobbie Franklin inside, strapped to a gurney.
“Just in time - your new body!” Isaac says, “Isn’t it beautiful?”
The next couple of hours are a blur. The Los Angeles team arrives, and I drain the tank for them, get Mr. Wong’s body out. The paramedics injected Bobbie with something a couple minutes before that, and then she stopped screaming. They’ve even untied her and propped her up against Casey’s tank. She just sits there, her mouth open and her blank eyes slowly scanning the room.
Once we drain the tank, they pick up Wong and get him in the gurney. For the first time I notice that there’s a thick cord, running from the back of his head to a small gray box on the inside of the tank. I remember the box being there, but never the cord. It must be auxiliary power, some sort of failsafe in case there’s a malfunction. Enough electricity to keep Wong’s brain alive.
They wheel the gurney out the front door and into the ambulance. They don’t drive away, but I catch a glimpse inside before they shut the doors, and I see an open room, with an operating table, silver trays, IVs clipped to the walls.
It’s my turn next, and there’s a little smear of blood where my head is resting on the gurney.
“You know they can keep you conscious for the operation.” Isaac says as they wheel me away. “They’ll give you enough anesthetic that you won’t feel a thing.”
“Put me out.” I say.
“As he says.” Isaac calls to the paramedics, and they stick me with a needle and then I’m gone.
I come and I go for what seems like an eternity. Something happens to me partway through - I don’t know if that’s the moment I’m moved to Bobbie Franklin’s body, but it’s cold and it’s open and for a moment I feel very vulnerable. The first hour is the worst: I get that now. The first hour is the first year is the first lifetime. One moment blends into the next, stretching and contracting. And that moment of vulnerability seems to last for days.
I wake up for a dizzying moment after the operation. I think I’m still inside the mobile operating room, but the lights are turned low and I can just barely see. There’s a dim glow coming through a window in the back. Something’s fucked up with my eyes: there’s all sorts of colors that weren’t there before. I can see the different shades of red in the blood on the table - blackish-red crusted globs of it sticking to the side of my face, fresh smears of crimson on my collar - Bobbie Franklin’s collar. And when I scream my voice comes out as a husky contralto. They stick me with something else and I’m out again.
I drift through the sleep, and in my dream they’ve cut off my arm and put on someone else’s. The doctor - it looks like Chris, but with white hair - examines the work. He walks around me to where I’m sitting on the bed, looking at my new arm. “Skin tone’s a little off,” he says, “Guess we better do the other one.” And they haul me back into the room, and then I blink and it’s over, and now it’s Isaac holding up my other arm, turning it over with a clinical eye. “They did a good job with you,” he says, “Plenty of good parts out there if you know where to look.”
“Are they done?” I can hear the fear in my own voice, clouding it, lightening my tones until it doesn’t even sound like me.
Isaac smiles, “It’s your dream,” he says, “You tell me.”
I wake up in a wheelchair. Across the room I can see Parth, whacking away at the keyboard still. My eyes are better - there’s a hundred gray tones and shifted whites across the walls, and everything looks a little sharper. But my body feels like someone’s tied an anchor around my neck and I can barely move my head to take it all in. I feel bloated and light, like I’m going to drift up and bounce against the ceiling. I feel the smoothness of the skin on my throat; the light, light stubble where Bobbie’s razor missed on her - my - face.
“You’re awake!” Isaac says next to me, and I guess I would be surprised if I wasn’t so stoned.
“Uh huh.” I say. My voice, it’s off again. It doesn’t sound like Bobbie’s either, like my brain is trying to compensate, trying to lower the tones so I can recognize it.
“Good. Now, we have one more paper for you to sign. I can go over it with you, if you’d like.”
“Uh.” I say. It’s really all I can say. I look past him - were there really so many shades to this wall earlier? It’s so sharp, so bright.
“Okay.” his voice fades for a moment, “Here it is. Errr, yes - Jasper French. Perfect.” He’s back beside me once more. “So this is your contract. We probably should have had you sign before the operation. No harm no foul, as they say. You did great, by the way - best patient they’ve ever had.
“Payment is seven thousand per month for the duration of your stay; complementary tank usage throughout the duration, or until a new tenant is found. Your regular pay will be deposited monthly, alongside the seven thousand. This new body is your property, as forfeited by Bobbie Franklin through the terms of her contract. It is a gift from us to you, so no taxes necessary and you take complete ownership. By signing this contract, you are agreeing that your old body (Body 2) is now our property up to and exceeding, if necessary, the creation of a new body (Body 3) for Mr. Wong. Upon the creation of a new and compatible body for Mr. Wong, Body 2 will be released from our ownership and returned to you as another charitable gift. By signing this contract you will be releasing us from liability, should any unforeseen circumstances damage Body 2. We will need to hire a replacement while you are gone; however, their contract will expire within six months, and will be extended until you are fit to return for work, whereupon you may return to your former employment. I think that about covers it. Any questions?
“Pen?” I ask.
“Here you are.” he pushes a pen into my fingers, then holds out a clipboard for me to sign.
“Tank.” I say.
“Thank you, Jasper.” he motions to the paramedics and they wheel me over to the tank. They get me undressed and feed my arms and legs into the frame. I start for a moment when I see my own nakedness, and I feel a slow and creeping flush of embarrassment. It all comes through a thick haze, and by the time the embarrassment hits, they’ve already stuck the IV in my arm and a different warm wave rolls across my mind. I sink back into the frame.
So this is what it’s like, I watch the ground move away from me, it’s all so new. The oxygen pumps into my mouth. And then I’m inside the tank, the frame keeping me upright. I don’t have to stand, I don’t have to breathe, and I guess I don’t have to think. But what’s the harm?
It’s all so new. The water begins to flow from the reservoir, cresting my ankles. It’s all so new. I look at my body, at the water flowing up over it. Up to my knees. How many people have a chance like this? Up to my thighs. Those days in the field with Katie; we weren’t so different. The water hovers at my navel. Out in the field, turning over the rocks. Seeing what we could find. Looking at the world turned over, our legs hooked around the branch, the blood pounding in our temples. There’s pressure in my temples now. I open my mouth and it goes away. The water laps at my breasts. What is this; what have I found here? Up to my neck. The oxygen flows through my nose; every breath is a deep one. This is something new. I think, I hope I wake up early.
Then the water is over my head, and everything turns a murky green. I can see Isaac and Parth in conversation through the glass, Parth’s slender form leaned against the computer bank. With the flip of a switch they could turn off my oxygen. Isaac looks at me and waves. Then he shrugs and punches Parth in the shoulder and they walk out. A few minutes later Chris walks over and he watches me through the glass for a second. He bends down and checks the readout, Then he and the paramedics walk over with a wheelchair.
It’s my body in the chair, strapped in and already naked, my head lolling from side to side. The paramedics grab me - Wong, I guess - under the armpits and they strap him into the frame. And then he’s in the tank, too. Right next to me. I watch the water cover him.
Then the soma drugs kick in and I sink deeper. I wake up a couple of times as the dosage adjusts, start for a moment when I feel the water all around me. But then I’m back out and drifting again. And it won’t be bad from here - an hour has passed and nothing bad ever happens after the first hour. I dive down through the folded layers of sleep; I dive down with my new body, strong and sleek. My brain flickers like an airplane light through the fog of the opiates. I hope I wake up early.
Then I breathe in and the universe is destroyed. I breathe out and a new one is born.
A Ripple in Space
by Charles Wilmore
I cannot take this secrecy anymore. Gazing out my window I can feel the pressure of infinite stars pushing down upon me, growing each day. My faculties, once so robust are now failing by the hour, smothered by the walls of eternity closing in around me. Yet the world smiles on, willfully ignorant of its own impotence as it greets my silence with the condescension of misplaced superiority. The fools! If only they knew why I speak not, if only they could comprehend my sacrifice, they would not question me so. They tell me I am crazy, and perhaps they are correct, but I know the truth, that one terrible truth, and can keep it trapped within me no longer.
Thus, I take up my pen, knowing well the doom it may spell for humanity if any but myself were to happen upon these lines. Yet the urge to write has grown too powerful to resist, and so my hand continues down the page, spurred by some unspeakable force far greater than myself. May God forgive me for my weakness.
In the year 2033, I received international acclaim for my work assessing the efficacy of tracking dark matter through spacetime by evaluating the transient light distortions it produces. My young age and relative inexperience led many skeptics to question my findings, with a few even venturing so far as to remark that my declarations were no more than scientific fraud and demand my banishment even from the few academic circles to which I then belonged. Protected not only by the plurality of my compatriots, but also my rigorous adherence to the scientific process, I stood my ground against such slanderous allegations and was soon proven correct, a result that made me both a leading intellect in my field and the poster child for a contemporary scientific movement: the race to discover and define the nature of dark matter.
Until my breakthroughs in the field, dark matter had been only a theory, a consequence of anomalies in the behavior and movements of cosmic bodies. In fact, many academics had begun suggesting its entire existence may simply be a product of intellectual laziness. You couldn’t touch it, see it, or test it, yet it had been one of the most cited sources of experimental error and discrepancy for decades. No respectable scientists would mention it and no desperate one wouldn’t. It had transformed from a promising subject matter worthy of intellectual debate and investigation into a philosophical excuse used by mediocre men to justify the holes in their work.
My discovery, however, changed all that. Dark matter had gone from a vague concept capable only of hiding the inferiority of ideas to a tangible, explorable, and respectable reality overnight. I had rightly returned it to a place of prominence among academic circles, deserving further inquiry and respect. Understandably, such a breakthrough did not go unnoticed by my colleagues and peers, and I soon found myself heralded as one of the brightest minds of my generation. A few publications even went so far as to name me ‘The 21st Century Einstein,’ an honor which I readily admit affected a sizable expansion of my young ego.
Given these plaudits, it seemed only natural that when my colleague and dear friend, Dr. Marius LaPorte, announced his plans to construct a novel, ground-breaking observatory outside of Toulouse, I should be its first resident. In its short life, this building, dubbed the Axion Observatory, was created and filled with the best equipment and materials available and I can confidently say that there has never been an outpost as technologically advanced in the history of mankind. Nor is there likely to be another quite like it as its creator, Dr. LaPorte, died suddenly of a heart attack just a month before its completion without recording its composition for posterity.
So, in the summer of 2036, I packed up my things and left my modest Boston apartment for the French countryside intent on proving my supporters correct in their praise and silencing the growing number of critics portending my downfall as an influential academic. To this end, upon my arrival at the station I swore to myself that I would not leave until I had made a discovery capable of shaking the very core of our understanding of the universe. Oh how I wish I had never made such a declaration or, having done so, had never lived to see such raw ambition realized! But I am getting ahead of myself.
I devoted the first few weeks of my occupancy to acquainting myself with the observatory and its surroundings, the merits of which I found remarkably complementary to my admittedly lofty pursuits. The complex was surrounded on all sides by a vast expanse of rolling hills, blemished only by the distant silhouettes of wind turbines above the eastern horizon that evinced the swaths of civilization abutting an otherwise picturesque landscape. However, as I had no occasion to visit these turbines, they too soon faded into the surrounding scenery and I quickly forgot of their existence entirely, enabling me to embrace the productive solitude of complete wilderness.
The compound itself was dominated by the observatory, with a few additional buildings serving as living quarters and storage spaces, and was designed to accommodate up to a dozen people, including lab technicians, custodial staff, and primary researchers. My needs being few and the compound itself being rather small, I quickly sent the permanent workers home for the duration of my stay with the understanding that they would continue to be paid so long as they visited once per week to provide routine cleaning and maintenance on the grounds. As they were almost all local to the area and had prepared themselves for a 7-day workweek, most accepted their dismissal without objection and I was soon left with the silence and isolation I desired.
As for the equipment, I believe Gatsby himself would have blushed at the extravagance. The basement hosted a supercomputer modeled after the one currently installed in Oakridge National Laboratory and singular in its capacity for processing and storing immense collections of data. The first floor was comprised of a maze of hallways that opened onto dozens of unique areas, including clean rooms and vibration-proof microscopy booths, lined with hundreds of work benches and fume hoods, all of which were fully stocked with state-of-the-art supplies, ventilated with their own reserve of clean air, and perfectly designed to avoid clutter and constriction. This floor also featured a respectable library brimming with books and manuscripts on every aspect of science imaginable, from contemporary quantum physics to classical philosophy, and housed a remarkably high volume of first editions, a fact which I appreciated at the time but now look back upon only with the profoundest regret.
The second floor, dedicated entirely to the observation platform, was filled with all manner of gadgets, controls, and machinery. As I knew little about much of the equipment, I limited myself only to those objects with which I felt the utmost comfort and familiarity and, as such, believed to be of paramount importance to my ultimate success. Consequently, I chose to have the excess hardware placed in the storage buildings and the bed, desk, and table from my living quarters brought in to fill the space. This being done, I had little need to leave my workspace through the entirety of my stay, my meals and laundry being taken care of by the help at regular intervals, and would estimate I left no more than two dozen times during my 12 year residency, on which occasions I almost always departed with the sole intention of visiting the aforementioned library.
The observatory's true claim to fame, however, were its six telescopes. There was no set like them on the planet. Developed by Dr. LaPorte, each one had its own ingenious design and purpose and was mounted onto a domed ceiling, around 130 feet high, that could be rotated to allow for the observation of any point in the sky with any of the six lenses. Of these, my work primarily centered on the Artemis, the lenses of which were arranged in such a way as to magnify the cosmos to a degree greater than any system before it, and the Osiris, a telescope capable of detecting the gravitational waves of objects over 10 billion lightyears away.
As my principal concern was the study of dark matter, which can only be indirectly observed through the gravitational pull it exerts on spacetime, my research was fairly straightforward. I first concerned myself with identifying and mapping large sections of dark matter in various galaxies, which was primarily a replication of my previous work. However, having mapped their figures to the minutest detail, recurrent observations were performed and analyzed to identify any shifts that had occurred. Once movement was identified, the velocity and acceleration of the system’s boundary was noted and surrounding cosmic bodies were visually inspected for any remarkable changes either to themselves, their locations, or their orbits. As would be expected, closer clusters yielded more precise measurements and quickly demonstrated that, on average, dark matter would shift no faster than the objects it surrounded, though it remained in a continual state of flux, suggesting that it may, in fact, be influenced by at least a few of the forces dictating the movement of regular matter.
This had never before been observed and, had I stopped there, I believe I would have been awarded a Nobel Prize for such a discovery. However, it being only 15 months since my arrival, and fearful I may miss out on an even larger revelation, I decided to refrain from publishing my findings immediately and instead remain at the observatory to continue my experiments. Additionally, though I was then confident my conclusions were correct, I had not yet found any justifiable evidence to explain them. If these unseen masses were subject to the same forces as our planets, why did they not clump together or orbit around one another as all visible bodies do? And if they were not being acted upon by outside forces, how could they have come to be in a state of continual flux, expanding and contracting, accelerating and decelerating, in perpetuity? And so I continued, alternating between hypothesis and experiment, for 6 additional years without a single concrete theory emerging.
In fact, I was very close to retiring my studies altogether, having become so frustrated with the lack of progress I was making that I felt myself beginning to tire of science entirely. Luckily for me, no one else had yet observed my initial findings and, if anything, it appeared the scientific community was headed in the opposite direction, with many again questioning whether or not dark matter truly existed and suggesting instead that we revisit our understanding of quantum gravity to explain the light distortions and irregularities previously observed. Ironically, most critics cited my long absence as evidence that dark matter must not exist, as I would surely have stumbled upon some new proof or theory by that point otherwise.
Thus, the decision to prolong my stay had the unintended consequence of putting me in a field quite alone. Upon learning this, I continued on my way, secure in the thought that my day in the spotlight would not be forfeited by further due diligence and hopeful that my commitment may earn me still more acclaim in the future. As such, I continued my work for two more years, during which time, while I filled many journals with my speculations, I found myself no closer to explaining my observations. Then it happened.
After almost ten years of redundancy, confining myself to a life of isolation with no end in sight, forcing myself to look down the same lenses, pouring over the same spreadsheets, and reading the same gibberish, I finally saw it. I was watching a live feed of Osiris’ lens adjusting onto a cluster I’d been tracking for some months when, out of nowhere, a flash lit up the screen. I had at this point modified the settings to make the shifting dark matter easier to see by filtering out the background noise of outer space from its feed. Shifts in large volumes of matter would appear as white specks at their point of origin, with its luminosity and size demonstrating the movement’s velocity and magnitude, respectively. Most shifts appeared only as blips of tiny, greyed specks on the screen. Many more remained invisible to the naked eye and could only be studied after being captured and analyzed by the high-resolution computing software in the basement.
But this was something else completely. The entire screen was filled with a light so intense I felt like I was staring into the sun. In fact, after this event, I found that I could no longer read without glasses, though I had never before had occasion to buy a pair. Then, before my eyes could readjust, the light was gone. The screen looked exactly as it had minutes before, with no sign of the cataclysmic event that must have occurred to deform gravitational waves to such a degree. No orbits had been altered, no planets destroyed, even the nearby asteroids appeared entirely unaffected. So, believing I had simply imagined the entire thing and attributing my temporary psychosis to a lack of sleep, I went to bed and thought nothing more of the flash for some time.
In fact, it was not until I sat down to review the data collected that month that I was reminded anything out of the ordinary had occurred at all. In my first few years at the observatory, I had looked over those files at least once a week hoping they would contain valuable information missed during routine observations. As time wore on, however, I found them consistently unable to shine any light upon my experiences there and began to content myself with spending only a few moments each morning glancing over the data taken the night before while I was away from the monitor. This negligence, it turns out, nearly cost me the biggest discovery of my career, and perhaps the biggest in the history of astrophysics. If only I had been so lucky!
Parsing through the data, I discovered an anomaly with the output that day that I had never seen before. It appeared as though the gravitational readouts, which were taken every few milliseconds, ceased for almost a minute. As best I could tell, the system had spontaneously crashed, self-corrected, and resumed normal operation. However, recalling that such a breakdown had never happened before and suspecting it may be connected to the mysterious light, the memory of which had suddenly returned to the forefront of my mind, I decided to investigate further.
First, I reviewed the footage of the event, which was stored automatically in a central database. Concerned that I may once again find myself blinded, I took great pains to lower the screen's brightness and procur sunglasses from one of the lab techs, having discarded mine the previous year. These steps being taken, I began reviewing the footage and was shocked to discover that the flash, or so I called it, had actually happened.
Finding that I could watch without being blinded, I began to investigate further. Stepping through the event frame by frame, I discovered that it was not one instantaneous flash, as I had initially supposed, but a wave of light that began towards the top right-hand corner of the monitor before filling the screen for approximately 52 seconds and exiting towards the bottom left. This apparent directionality, in my mind, ruled out any possibility of a systemic failure and suggested I was once again on the trail of some novel cosmic mystery.
Abandoning my normal duties at the telescopes, I began to work on determining the origin and meaning of the light. First, by calculating the degree of curvature along the arc, I became convinced that the wave had traveled approximately 1.2 lightyears before being detected by my equipment. Assuming a single point of origin spreading equally in all directions, this meant that, at the moment of observation, a sphere around 1,470 trillion trillion trillion cubic miles, bounded by altered gravitational waves, had been exploding into space.
Next, I determined the velocity of the event horizon, around 225 million meters per second, was too depressed to have been effected by an augmentation of gravitational exertion inherent to the creation or destruction of matter yet too large to have originated from the movement or expansion of celestial bodies, especially as no material shifts were observed either before or after the occurrence. Moreover, a quick estimation of the thickness of the wave, if that was indeed what had been recorded, yielded a width around 7.3 million miles, over 30 times larger than the distance between the Earth and Moon!
In theory, a disturbance of this magnitude should have been impossible. The sheer size of an object needed to create such a wave of gravitational energy should not allow for such rapid expansion, and yet the math was sound. If my assumptions were correct, Physics, as the world had known it, would be changed forever. But I had to be sure.
I became a man obsessed, forgoing all of my other endeavors I opted instead to continuously swivel my telescope around the universe, searching and praying for another sighting of this mysterious force. I spent weeks in front of the monitor, undoubtedly furthering the irreparable damage to my corneas in my quest to relive history and confirm my findings as I allowed only my thoughts to roam from in front of the screen. All my assistants were sent home indefinitely save one, who ventured to the complex only to bring me rations of canned food and coffee once per week. As my hygiene began to decline considerably during this period, I also began to find packets of deodorant in his weekly deliveries, a kindness for which I am retrospectively grateful.
Over a period of approximately 8 months, I observed only two more gravitational waves permeating through space and, while their speeds were remarkably similar to the original occurrence, their magnitudes were notably smaller, suggesting that the originating force was not fixed, like the splitting of an atom, but variable. It was as if some deity were boxing with the universe, sending shockwaves rippling throughout time and space. The assault, moreover, appeared entirely random, with the locations and effects of each event appearing completely isolated and independent of the others. And yet there was no denying that they were simply different instances of a singular event, presumably perpetrated by the same force, the likes of which humanity had not yet witnessed.
Eventually realizing the futility of parsing the cosmos galaxy by galaxy, relying on chance alone to unveil such a rare and seemingly unpredictable phenomenon to me, I began to broaden my scope, forgoing the benefits of high-resolution in the belief that such a massive force would be more readily identified in a larger observational space. This gamble was quickly rewarded by an astounding increase in my rate of observation, with a distinct occurrence recorded at least once every two weeks leading to a rapid expansion of my sample size.
Most instances were only fringe events, with their origin being determined only through mathematical modeling. However, when the telescope was oriented to these points, there appeared to be nothing there. No celestial bodies, no black holes, no bearded man in sandals, just empty space. It made no sense: how could such a force come from nothing? I began to suspect that either my modeling was wrong (I was, after all, not a mathematician by trade) or the event itself either led to or was caused by the destruction of some previously unobserved body. Then, one fateful day, I saw it.
Nothing. The origin of the event was nothing, not only after, but prior to its occurrence! But how could this be? It is a fundamental tenet of science that nothing may come from nothing. Energy and mass may be interchangeable at times, but neither can be created in a vacuum. Such are the laws of the universe, proven a million times over! And yet, there I sat with undeniable proof that something had been created from nothing, that a force of seismic proportions had leapt from empty space! Well, perhaps not entirely empty…
As I sat in my chair, dumbfounded by what I had seen, it occurred to me: this space may not be empty after all, it must be composed to some degree of dark matter. Excited by this sudden epiphany, I began readjusting my instruments to detect the subtle gravitational shifts that signal the presence of dark matter. If the reader will recall, I had diluted the sensitivity of these instruments upon first seeing the flash so as not to blind myself at each occurrence and had failed to reorient them in the following months. Upon doing so, however, I made yet another startling discovery: the origin of the force was indeed composed of dark matter. In fact, judging by the large degree of transient gravitational energy surrounding it, this particular location was made of an especially dense cloud of volatile dark matter. But was this a coincidence or evidence?
As I re-evaluated the previous origins a pattern began to emerge: every location was packed with a similarly unstable cloud of dark matter. The larger and more recent eruptions had the most densely packed formations, while smaller and earlier episodes appeared to have somewhat dissipated the mass surrounding them. Some force was collecting the dark matter into invisible globs of energy suspended in space, allowing them to rest in a highly-pressurized state, and then spontaneously releasing them to collapse back into the universe.
But such behavior was unnatural. Matter cannot simply decide to accumulate on its own, it needs an energy source to collect around or inside of. With dark matter clusters as dense as the ones I observed, this source would have to be both astronomically large and incredibly powerful, orders of magnitude stronger than any black hole yet witnessed by the human race. And yet, these pockets would only appear where there was nothing! Not even space dust! I was nearly driven to madness trying to comprehend the sheer impossibility of it. As it were, I was only saved from such a fate by the complete exhaustion of my faculties. Later they’d say that was the day I went insane, but I know the truth: that was the day I first witnessed the workings of gods.
When they found me I had collapsed in my study, though I have no recollection of how I got there. They say I was rambling, laying on the floor speaking nonsense about beholding the lords of our universe and doors to eternity. Three days had passed since my last recording, three days without food or water. When they tried to move me to a bed I screamed, my skin was hot to the touch and I began shaking violently all over my body. An ambulance was called and I was escorted unconscious to the local hospital where I awoke 2 weeks later having no recollection of my illness or strange behavior, a fact which greatly puzzled the doctors charged with my health. However, finding nothing else wrong with either my mind or my body once I awoke, they diagnosed me with an extreme case of overexertion and recommended I cease my studies at once or risk a second, perhaps more consequential, breakdown.
I told them I would take their advice into consideration and was discharged the following morning. However, it appears my promise was not enough as I later found out they had contacted my superiors regarding the incident. Upon my return to the base, I discovered my funding had been halted, the project terminated, and several technicians awaiting my return with orders to turn over the information I had gathered thus far.
Not wanting my most important work to be co-opted and published by anyone else, I turned over only the documents pertaining to my observations on the general size and makeup of distant galaxies and my reflections on the prevalence of dark matter surrounding various cosmic bodies. These were happily accepted without any further questions, a miracle which I attribute to the complete secrecy with which I had conducted my work and the discomfort they felt in my presence after being informed of my recent spout of neurosis. Regardless, they were gone within the week with a promise to return for me by month’s end, only 12 days away, to escort me from the base, at which point I was never to return again.
Heartbroken, I began packing my things and preparing for my imminent departure. Being a simple man with few possessions, it took me no more than three hours to sort, box, and transfer the entirety of my belongings save the few items I needed to see out my stay. Finding myself with nothing else to do, I soon disregarded my doctors’ orders and resumed my normal station at my beloved monitors.
In a futile attempt at denial, I returned to my old stomping grounds throughout the cosmos, searching for answers to questions I was not yet able to fully articulate. I felt neither the nostalgia of a man reliving his past success nor the desperation of a man fleeing the finality of his impending failure, either of which would have been appropriate given the circumstances. No, I found that, as I gazed mechanically across the universe, I felt only emptiness. Seeing the end of my studies so near had robbed me of the childish notion of infinity that had inspired and motivated me for so many difficult years, and its sudden departure had left nothing to fill the vacancy. I was no longer a conqueror of knowledge or a purveyor of curiosities. The truth, once so clear and indefatigable in my mind now lay murky and feeble at my feet. I had dared to probe the universe for answers and it had taken my soul as recompense. In short, I was utterly broken.
Then, just as before, at my moment of greatest weakness, it happened. The screens in front of me flashed with a brilliant white light, brighter and more pronounced than ever before. Blinding as it was, I could not tear myself away. This one was different! It was longer and more shapely. As tears began forming on my cheeks I began to make out irregular edges and structures and… movement. Yes! There was a definite shift in the center of the mass. Then another. And another. All in quick succession, as if a struggle were occurring at its origin point, like some massive object were vibrating violently at the core. But the core of what? There was nothing there! Vibrations are the result of an energized mass, a way to dissipate large amounts of energy from a body. For them to have occurred in a vacuum like this was extraordinary.
But just as I began grappling with the ramifications of what I was seeing it disappeared, rapidly dissipating across the universe like every instance before it, leaving only residual ripples of gravitational activity as proof it had ever existed in the first place. Undeterred, I ran down to the mainframe to access the records of what I’d just witnessed.
At first those records appeared just like the others. Readings showed a large amount of gravitational activity in an otherwise empty section of space that quickly collapsed back into the cosmos. But the underlying stills told a different story. As I had witnessed in real time, what I had once assumed to be a sphere of energy was actually not a sphere at all. Several frames showed a figure more akin to an irregular pyramid, the top of which appeared to elongate and twist before retracting into its base, at which point it seems to implode, forcing the dark matter surrounding it to ricochet across the galaxy.
I felt my knees weaken and my lungs drain as I gazed over these images. Never had something so apparent been so utterly contrary to every scientific principle. Never had something so tangible been so far outside the realm of reason or, indeed, possibility. Never had nonsensical things made so much sense. And yet, here it was: proof that man, in his infinite hubris, had been completely and utterly incorrect in every law he had ever proposed, every tenet he had ever accepted, and every dream he had dared to pursue.
Perhaps, though, I should clarify these revelations for, while they bombarded my mind the instant I glimpsed the occurrences I have described here, I am painfully aware that to the laymen of my generation the implications will not be so easily grasped. It’s ironic, really. I began this work in an attempt to free my conscience of the burden it has borne for so long by transferring my knowledge onto the page with no intention of ever making the contents public, but now I find myself concerned with its readability for the masses. The mind is truly a mysterious thing. Nevertheless, we must persist, as I cannot bear to stop my story so near to its end.
What I saw on the screen that day, in truth, could have been nothing. Indeed, many casual observers may have written it off as some cosmic phenomenon completely within the bounds of natural law but perhaps slightly ahead of human understanding. This is not a bad opinion to have by any means. It takes a strange occurrence and wraps it up in a neat bow, allowing you to be both humble in your failure to grasp the inner workings of the natural world and remain secure in your faith that such workings are, in fact, in accordance with your beliefs on the subject. However, there exists one flaw in such an assumption: it is incorrect.
What I have witnessed cannot only not be explained by the laws of nature as we currently understand them, but flies in the face of their very foundation. I have seen energy created from nothing, adopt a coherent form in nothing, and collapse into nothing. All three of those feats are not only inexplicable, they are inherently impossible. Unless, of course, we begin to change our view of the universe.
Consider the universe as an enormous fish tank. Specks of particulate matter float beneath the surface, colliding, combining, and breaking apart as they aimlessly list towards an impossible equilibrium. These are the material bodies of the cosmos. Various forms of aquatic life swim around in search of food, shelter, and mates. These are the living organisms that inhabit our worlds. And huge amounts of water ebb and flow across its expanse, holding its contents in an enormous suspension shifting endlessly under the will of the medium’s invisible currents. This medium is dark matter.
Dark matter is what fills the empty spaces of the universe and allows our simple planetary groupings to occur. Without it the world and every other object in the universe would never have existed, we would all just be hydrogen atoms falling through empty space. Interactions, if they somehow did occur, would be random, impermanent, and inconsequential. Like fish, we owe our lives to an invisible substance we cannot see or feel, though we have interacted with it and depended upon it from the very origin of our species. Nay, from the origin of the pebble that would one day grow to become this planet. Thus, while dark matter does not appear to interact directly with our material universe in any tangible way, it is the very reason such a universe may exist in the first place.
But how does this relate to the cosmic phenomena I have devoted so much of my life pursuing and explaining? Well, like water, dark matter must be held in a container to take shape, which suggests the fundamental concepts governing its behavior in the fourth dimension are essentially the same as those for a liquid in the third.
When you place your finger on the surface of a liquid, the molecules interact to form a protective shield by conforming to the shape of your fingertip in a phenomenon known as surface tension. This concept is how certain insects have the capacity to walk on water and how, with enough care, you might actually touch water without getting wet. However, these interactions concentrate a large amount of energy on a single point. This energy is only stable while the pressure is being applied and must be dissipated once it is removed, and a consequence of this dissipation is the propagation of ripples along the water’s surface.
At this point, it is no doubt obvious where my analogy is leading. The universe around us is held in a container: spacetime. Like water in a fish tank, dark matter will distort itself when its container changes, either through expansion or reduction. These processes can happen on a large scale when the container is fundamentally altered or can appear as local phenomena when smaller changes occur. I witnessed the latter, the implications of which may never be fully appreciated. Someone, or something, has begun tapping the glass.
As far as I can tell, the surface has not yet been broken, and may never be. But if it is, there is no telling what may happen. The universe as we know it may simply cease to exist, its contents being sucked into some alternate, uninhabitable domain. Or a crack in spacetime may form that allows humans to travel to a higher dimension or visit parallel universes. Or perhaps the tear would be self-healing and disappear before humanity had even taken note of its existence, leaving us only to speculate on what the universe may have lost or gained in the exchange. A rip could bring the stuff of nightmares, leading to our ultimate destruction, or legends, leading us to our greatest salvation. We simply cannot know, but the speculations alone are enough to drive humanity mad.
This realization was why I burned Axion to the ground. It’s why they found me gleefully singing a mile outside the compound as I watched the world’s most advanced science facility reduced to ash. It’s why the courts determined that I had been driven mad from my extended isolation and sent me to this asylum where I have not spoken a word in almost 11 years.
I knew that my discovery was too much for mankind to endure, so I destroyed every trace of its existence. Except, of course, for my own memories. Though they called me insane and dragged my mind, my name, and my reputation through the mud, I still know the truth. An impossible truth. A dangerous truth. A truth that, at the moment, is known only to myself.
But alas, the strain of keeping such a secret for so many years has had catastrophic consequences on my health and I fear my end is near. Yet I hear that they have begun construction on a new base, Axion 2.0, which will surpass the powers and capabilities even of the compound I once called home. The construction of such a facility cannot be allowed to occur, and while I cannot confess my knowledge unto any of the nurses and doctors who now attend to me for fear I will again be deemed feverishly delusional and sedated to my dying breath, I hope that you, dear reader, whoever you are, will help keep my discoveries in the shadows. The fate of mankind may well depend on it.
Six Feet Under One Mile
by Ariana Dobrostal
She was there because she could burn the world between her fingers. I was there because I was a hero.
I’d never call myself a hero. No real hero would, right? But it’s not that I wouldn’t do it because I was so virtuous that even the slightest diversion from the right path would physically pain me nor so humble I couldn’t utter one word of praise on my behalf. No, I was none of these things.
What separated me from a hero was the lack of the core hero ingredient: good intentions.
I didn’t feel bad for not being a hero. Not many people truly were. I’m fairly sure admitting you’re no hero brings you closer to being one than trying to mask yourself with obnoxious displays of fake goodness. I knew many people like that in my village. They carried groceries for old people and donated bread to the orphanage, but once the real problem presented itself, they presented only cowardice and passivity.
Then from the shadows emerged an unlikely hero: Nacai Nonem, a no-name farmer with nothing to lose and no one to lose him. I was the perfect candidate for this mission: alone and worthless and belonging to the shadows. So, to the shadows, I went.
I went on a search for the wish-granting monster at the end of the cave. Tale as old as time, yet there wasn’t one person in my village that didn’t believe in it wholeheartedly. The challenge was simple: you enter the cave, find the monster at its end, and make a wish. Then you had to climb uphill back to the civilization.
Once you stepped your foot outside the cave, your wish was fulfilled. Just like that. Anything in the world could be yours. You had only one wish, but it could be anything at all. Yet, as long as people lived comfortably, they didn’t reach into darkness for gold. No one dared to risk their lives to reach their dreams. It’s only in times of need we reach for miracles.
“How deep do you think it is?” Izzy asked.
Her name was read as “easy”, but nothing was easy with her. She was the only fire witch left, orphaned since birth and in great debt to the village. She was the opposite of me in both looks and demeanor: fair, cheerful, and bright. The real hero, the fire to my shadow, and the pain in my ass.
“How could I know?” I said.
“I didn’t ask how deep it really is, just how deep you think it is.”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” I said. “I’m not a huge fan of wild guessing.”
“Come on, you have nothing to lose. By the end of this, we’ll either die or become best friends.”
“Or remain perfect strangers.”
She went silent, but I felt her unhappy stare at the back of my neck. I sighed, “I’d say around half a mile deep.”
“Only half?” She sounded even more disappointed than when I ignored her.
“The deepest cave in the world is only around one mile deep.”
I heard her steps grow faster and in a second, she was in front of me, light melting on her face. With the light coming directly from below at such intensity, she looked sinister, her eyes impossibly big and her teeth impossibly bright. She smiled widely like she knew exactly how to make a grown man weep.
“Why do you assume we’re not in the deepest cave right now?”
With that, she turned on her heel and skipped ahead, forcing me to follow her shadow.
She was like a little pixie of the cavern, jumping from stalagmite to stalactite and making shadows dancing on the walls, hunting you till you fall and haunting you when you sleep. I sped up just enough not to lose her, although it was hard to lose the fire in the dark, no matter how fast it flew. I enjoyed some time alone, even if she was just around the corner.
With a moment to think, I realized I wasn’t the biggest fan of caves. The terrain was pointy and damp, making me slip and stumble. It was the most uncomfortable slide in the world, slowly angled and high in friction. Even higher in humidity, dripping drop by drop and missing the value of water that carves its paths.
At least I had to admit that minerals created interesting shadows. If I was still a child, I’d be able to see shapes in it: a huge octopus stretching its tentacles or a tree losing leaves, or maybe a queen living in a different universe even if we breathe the same air. Or even a hero, helping me save the world.
Only, I was a kid a long time ago and couldn’t keep him, so I saw only rock icicles that could fall on me and spikes I could fall onto. I heard Izzy gawking at a statue of a ‘sleeping kitten’ and felt relieved at least one of us was able to keep their spirit, if not their sanity.
We walked down the same trail for what felt like an eternity. There were no splitting paths, no sudden changes in sound or scenery, just the same drops and sharp rocks surrounding one dull straight line. Izzy didn’t try to talk to me again, and enough time passed that I began to question whether I liked it or not.
But nothing could last forever, so at one point the light stopped escaping me. It waited, like the light at the end of the tunnel, only it wasn’t nearly the end. It was a slightly wider area, not bigger than my old cottage, but in comparison to a narrow track, it seemed enormous.
The number of minerals dwindled, leaving the room bare except for a flowstone centerpiece. Izzy sat right under it, letting each droplet fall on her forehead before it evaporates from her warmth. Her palms were hidden under two vibrant flames that did wonders to the glossy surface.
“Took you long enough,” she laughed. “I think this is a fine place for a camp, don’t you?”
I shook my head. “We have to keep moving.”
“You say that, and yet you can’t keep up with me,” she said. She giggled when I frowned. “Oh, come on, don’t be like that. Sit with me. We can eat something, chat a bit. Do you hate fun?”
“Maybe,” I sighed. “Alright, we’ll take a break.”
I sat next to her and opened our tiny supply of dried meat and bread. It might be the last one we’ll have, but the people left in the village had their last meals yesterday.
“Do you think it’s real? The wish-granting monster?” she asked between bites. She stared at me with anticipation, checking if I didn’t speak because of a full mouth. When she realized I didn’t, she continued, “Dumb question, of course. I know you don’t. You probably just did this because of boredom. Or spite. Or both.”
“I do,” I said. “I do believe in it’s real.”
She smiled. “So, you do? Why?”
“Because there had to be some hope left in the world.”
Izzy chuckled. “That doesn’t count. You can’t believe in something because of some pessimistic quote, it’s contradictory.”
“Why do you believe then?” I asked.
“Who said I did?”
“I know you do. The village knows you do. The whole world knows you do.”
She shook her head. “I’m not sure I do. That’s why I’m here – to find out.”
My jaw dropped. Izzy wasn’t as naïve as she seemed. Maybe no orphan was allowed to be.
“What would you do if it’s not?” I had to know. I didn’t know what’d I do if it was not real.
She took a long pause then grinned. “Then I’ll become one.”
I got my hopes up too high. I nodded to her with the notion that our conversation came to a close. I turned my back to her, and we crumpled on the floor next to each other, drifting to very different but equally dangerous dreams.
The reality was even more dangerous. One scream and I was wide awake, on my feet before my mind caught my body in a nerve net. Izzy was on the floor, struggling as a monster held her down. There were flicks of fire between periods of darkness when she attacked, but I couldn’t distinguish what an intruder was. Its shape wasn’t familiar.
Nonetheless, I jumped it, pushing it off her. Its skin was smooth as glass, cold as it too. I shivered as I regained my balance, but the monster had already hidden from me. Izzy jumped on her feet, propelling flames left and right. Fireballs were more intense but shorter than her usual flames. I saw sudden fragments of motion, flashes of the cave rotating around me.
“Please stop, we can talk, please,” I mustered in all the languages I knew. I squeezed my mind till it was dry. Nothing. It occurred to me too late that it might not have a language at all. I noticed it approaching me too late too.
The monster climbed up the walls as easily as we walked down the dusty streets. It flowed over flowstone, gliding like on ice, slowly but gracefully. Its skin merely existed.
I saw it more clearly as it lunged toward me, its antennas and shells moving in sync. It was an oblong bug, with translucent skin and millions of legs, some starting on its belly, not only on the sides. It was a bug the size of a sheep. All its organs wobbled inside it, held together only by the jelly of its flesh. They pulsated from the jump and they’d stop when they crush me.
Izzy summoned the whole underworld. Hellfire. I had to close my eyes to keep them. Blinding light could burn the whole underground and she didn’t care if she’d seal us here forever as long as the creature evaporated into thin air. Each of her fingertips burst a flame that turned into a fireball, flying steadily to its target. Only, it was a moving target.
I found myself on the floor with my vision blurry. My arm stung, my eye twitched and I felt the strong smell of burnt corpses. I wasn’t one of them, and that was enough to calm the buzzing in my mind. I heard all languages screaming in me, cursing me in a union, then priceless silence.
“Are you alive?” I heard Izzy ask. She didn’t seem concerned, maybe because she believed in me, maybe because she didn’t care.
“What happened?” I asked, trying to sit up. My eyes wandered, looking for the monster, but found something much more disturbing. My right arm was in shambles, the whole forearm burnt to the point of resembling cave walls. Seeing my own flesh that rugged and coarse made it hurt more and I fell back, breathing heavily.
“Nacai!” Now she did sound worried. She kneeled beside me and brought water to my mouth. “Drink. Breathe. I’m so sorry.”
I let the fresh water clean my throat, feeling I could drown it in with no regrets. Then I remembered we didn’t have fresh water. Or any, for that matter.
I spitted it out immediately, my sweet heaven becoming hell by the second. “What is that?”
“Monster water,” she said casually.
“Monster water?” I wiped my lips in disgust. “You made me drink from the monster’s corpse? First, you curse me with fire, then with water.”
“I drank it myself,” she said defensively. “It’s good. Better than the water we have left anyway.”
I remembered the water we had when we left – a bottle half empty. For some, it might have been half full, but I was positive no one would call it that by the time of the attack. Izzy saved my life and our water supply in one fell swoop.
“Sorry,” I said. “Thank you for saving me.”
She smiled. “Now we’re talking. I’m glad I saved you for that sentence alone.”
We put our camp back into the backpack and moved on. Even with my wound, we couldn’t rest one bit, I was painfully aware of it now. Every second crushed our odds, and they looked grim in the beginning. I wrapped my arm into a spare shirt, not the best solution, but not the worst either. I tried to block the pain by counting my steps.
The cave became more twisty, making it hard to navigate. Each tunnel split into many more. With every choice to commit to a certain tunnel, we took another risk, pilling up into infinity. Izzy brushed it off, saying that all roads lead to the same destination, but her voice didn’t sound right. She marked each entrance we walked through with a burned handprint, holding her hand patiently on freezing walls till she melted them.
The deeper we went, the less Izzy spoke. Even though we didn’t encounter any more direct dangers, her spirit was broken. She was a wingless pixie, moping beside me. She didn’t deserve to be like that. There was a price for saving my life and I was going to pay it.
“Were you afraid?” I asked gently. She jumped in surprise at my voice. “Of the monster?”
“So, you don’t want our every bonding moment to be by the campfire after all,” she laughed.
“Just answer the question,” I said.
“Not really,” she said. “When you control something that can leave thousands without a home, you are rarely afraid.”
I nodded. “Thought so.”
“Oh, actually, this is interesting,” she said, her spirits climbing the ladder. She opened her arms and her flames stretched, looking like a ribbon between her palms. “Want to hear a story?”
“Make it a good one.”
“Wait!” She grabbed me by my left arm. “You need to pay close attention to this.”
She opened her palms towards me like she was giving something to me. At first, all I could see were flames – magical and majestic and mesmerizing – but nothing new. Then it happened: the first ripple and then the other and another. The fire was alive. It infused with life before my very eyes.
“When I was little, I was always afraid,” Izzy started. The fire recast into a little girl in a simple style, but wild in motion. She ran along her palm, making backflips and cartwheels. “I was left alone. I never knew of security. Families in the village gave me a changing home. I was passed around like a doll everyone liked, but no one liked enough.”
The fire girl stumbled and fell, the cheerfulness from before exorcised. Her body started skipping again, but she didn’t control it anymore. Her small frame moved from side to side against her will, violently. Then subtly, her shape lost its roundness, becoming rougher. It was barely noticeable, but I noticed, and couldn’t notice anything else. Only her pointy features that once were smooth.
“I constantly felt the unease,” she said. “What if they abandon me? I knew only our village. Only they could protect me, but who’d protect me from them? Kids picked fights with me daily. I was an easy target, always polite and sweet, always doing everything so they like me, so they keep me for another day.”
The fire girl stood perfectly still.
“One day, I was playing with a group of girls my age at the park. I was six. One of them brought a new doll and we took turns carrying it. When it was my turn, she wouldn’t let me take it. She said that if my mom didn’t hold me, then I shouldn’t hold a baby either.”
I frowned. I knew where this story was going. It started for me when I was six too.
“I got so mad,” she said shakily, “that I felt my face burning. The flame lit up inside me – and it stayed. I reached out for the doll and the doll went up in flames.”
The fire girl did as well, her hair becoming the flame that consumed her. Fire killed by fire.
“After that, they behaved perfectly around me. After that, I didn’t hear as much as one bad word directed at me. After that,” she smiled, “I wasn’t afraid.”
She brought her palms together, signaling the end of the show, and created a normal flame in its place. I felt a sudden sting as it ended but was grateful I witnessed it. “It was beautiful.”
“Thank you,” Izzy smiled. “You’re getting better by the minute. What happened? I hit your head as well?”
My head hurt. After she shared such a thing with me, I wanted to share something as well. My chest felt hollow. I never thought I’d share my secrets with anyone, but I also never thought I’d end up in a cave with a chatterbox I didn’t hate. After all, after it’s over, we’d never see each other again.
“Want to hear a story too?” I asked and her eyes lit up.
“Mine won’t be as long,” I started. “Actually, it might be very short. But here it goes: when I was little, I was playing in a barn a lot. My father had a cow and having a cow was even rarer back then than it is now. I spend so much time with her, that I started talking to her. And, after some time, she started talking to me.”
“At first I thought I was crazy, then I tested it on multiple animals and travelers from far-off places and… I’m not crazy,” I said. “I’m a witch.”
Her eyes displayed no surprise, no shock, no wonder. They stayed positively happy, but not impressed. I never thought my biggest secret would cause such a weak reaction.
“I know,” she shrugged.
“You do?” I was surprised enough for both of us.
“Yeah, every witch can feel other witches,” she said. “Can’t you?”
I blinked in surprise, trying to feel Izzy’s magical energy, but only feeling the thermal energy she always radiated, the warmth intertwined with the very core of her being.
“No, I’m totally messing with you,” she grinned. “I just heard you screaming nonsense at the top of your lungs, and you don’t seem like the type of guy to scream nonsense, so I assumed they were magic spells.”
I sighed. “They were no spells, they were desperate pleas to the monster.”
“I know that now,” she said. “I know everything now. Except…”
I knew it. She was going to ask me to talk in animal languages and make a fool of myself. I braced myself for the weirdest animals I could think of, deciding on a whim that I’d give her one if she chose it wisely.
“What would you wish for if you had a choice?”
She didn’t choose it wisely.
“What do you mean?” I feigned surprise.
“If you didn’t have to save the village, what would you ask the wish-granting monster for?”
She was still smiling, but her posture got serious, more wooden. Like she turned into a doll. “Be careful with it. It can be anything in the world, so if you choose wrong, you’ll regret it forever.”
“To start my life anew in a big town, to be rich and happy,” I said readily. “It’s what I’d wish for.”
It’s not what I’d wish for. It’s what I will wish for.
“That was fast,” she laughed. “Did you think about it a lot?”
“As much as any other person who heard the story,” I said. “But it doesn’t matter now. Now it’s different.”
We arrived at another crossroad, this one consisting of only two tunnels. As she was marking the right entrance, I asked, “What would you wish for?”
She took a moment to think, then said more confidently than me, “Even if the village wasn’t in danger, I’d still wish for it to prosper.”
She finished the mark and turned to me. “Even if it isn’t perfect, it’s the only place I know. The place I love.”
I nodded. “It’s admirable, to be that selfless.”
She shook her head. “It’s not. It’s as selfish as your wish is, even more so. But it seems innocent.”
We walked in silence some more, with a new skill of mutual understanding. It was as if the rock fell off my chest. Maybe there was some merit in sharing your secrets and desires with other people. Maybe I only needed one language.
With silence, the pain returned. I managed to dig it under countless layers of distractions and words, but now it emerged on the surface, pushing me to the ground. The cloth I wrapped around it got damped from the liquid air, making it less painful, but felt more like a walking infection.
“Izzy, I need to rest,” I said. “My arm is getting worse. I need to inspect it.”
Izzy grabbed my other arm, ignoring my request. “Quiet.”
The silence was the opposite of what I needed. I needed something to save me from the pain, not push me into it.
“Can you hear it?” she smiled. “Tell me you hear it.”
“Hear what?” I heard other words again, words in languages I didn’t like.
“Water!” she exclaimed. “There is water near.”
“So?” My mind was a blank slate, my flesh a stained one.
“It means we’re near the end,” she beamed. “The water digging the cave, it has to end up somewhere. It will end up in the end, right? We’re near the end!”
I smiled. Through the agony, a silver lining found me and dragged me along. Even if my only wish at the time was to go home – to any home – I found the strength to keep moving.
We picked up the pace. I got dizzy as Izzy ran forward, always one step ahead. The ground became wetter. Our hopes became stronger. We were so close we could feel it, on our skin, in our ears, in our nose. Soon we’d see it too, see the great monster everyone knew about, but no one knew.
Izzy tripped on a puddle and fell, but the only thing she did was laugh. She splashed it around like a crazy person. For a fire witch, she really enjoyed the water.
“How long have we been down here? Hours, days?”
I smiled. “How could I know?”
After a few minutes, we were knees deep in water, rippling the floor with every step. My arm got huge, swollen like a soaked sponge. I felt the pain grow along with its source. But if I gave up now, I’d forever be that person who died a step before the finishing line.
“I can see it!” Izzy screamed. She sent more flames to the front, helping me see it too.
The wish-granting monster at the end of the cave turned out to be the wish-granting cave at the end of itself. The fully formed face stood in the wall, smiling blissfully. It was the last wall, the wall at the end. It closed the cave.
The face was pointy like the rest of it, Izzy’s shadows making it even sharper. Big eyebrows and pronounced cheekbones, eyes closed, but lips slightly parted. It would speak any moment. The cave’s lips opened slowly, painfully so, like they wanted to chew on me. Izzy was speechless and I couldn’t allow myself to be.
“Are you the wish-granting cave?” I tried the language I grew to like, but to no avail.
The face froze for a long moment before it proceeded to move. The water beneath it shifted like it was meant to run through its veins, lending it life. Waves splashed our legs, pushing us away and pulling us in. The face struggled to move, the rocks twitching unnaturally. Not that there were many natural things about the living cave that granted wishes.
Finally, something clicked and it was ready to start anew after long years of being forgotten. It picked up the pace and roared into our faces, blowing our hair like a wind. The sound it produced was menacing, mocking even, and I couldn’t understand it.
I brushed away all my fears and focused on sounds alone. Howling blocked my ears, sending shivers down my spine, but I listened. I caught every whisper, every gasp of air, hoping for real words to leave its mouth.
When they did, I wasn’t ready for them. “What do you wish for?”
My throat was impossibly sore. I translated my selfish wish into the ancient language I never heard before as easily as breathing but found talking hard. I breathed in and out, concentrating on the spot on the floor and hoping that the cave would be as patient with me as I was with it.
The flames weren’t as patient. Izzy put the fire out as suddenly as kids blew candles off their birthday cake. One second you saw it and the next you drowned in the darkness. My light left me in shadows.
“Make the right choice,” she said in a cold voice, “and I’ll light it up again.”
The air was freezing. Izzy was boiling. My arm devoured me. The floor was wet and my mouth was dry.
I licked my lips and turned silence into sound.