None of these people are mine any more, none of these streets, or the voice of the city, or this air. In this alternate world, I can never speak to a single distant relative, much less to anyone I care about. These lives all belong to my other self. I cannot even tell a about professional my problems or I would be committed for that as well.
I take a deep breath, knowing this isn’t entirely true. I am only upset. There is still a single person I can be honest with, though I’ve avoided her at all costs. It is all I can do to open my mouth in her presence without upsetting the balance of our relationship, but maybe she can help me if I try to be honest with her. Like me, she is lost from everyone she ever knew or cared about. She has experienced the same things I have and more, though her dementia and rotten attitude makes her life more complicated than necessary.
After a month of loneliness and desperation in this alternate world, I set out to see Edith Shull with high hopes that she will understand the rules of separation I follow. Only the bleakest of situations could have led me to this decision.
“Here are the rules,” Harry said a month ago just after he found and escorted me from the hospital where I had hidden for the first few days in his world. I will refer to him as Harry from this point forward if only because I am no longer him. I no longer have an identity in this alternate world of his.
He took me to a creek I often visited in Donald Right Park though I don’t know why. Maybe he wanted to calm me down, but that’s not what happened. If anything, this familiar, yet backwards, creek confused me more than ever. It was one thing to have the sharp angles of a hospital reversed, but the distortion of nature, the shifting of boulders and curving of trails I knew well took its toll on me.
“Stay away from Sara,” he said. We were only a short walk from the Interstate, but we were far enough away from any path that no one could see us. “I don’t want you anywhere near her.”
“I know,” I admitted, still half expecting him to retrieve a pistol and kill me. I don’t own a gun myself, but maybe I would have bought one if someone had invaded my life. “I can’t see her anyways,” I grunted. “Seeing her without being with her would kill me.”
His posture slackened. “I guess you can’t see anyone else either,” he added, looking to his feet.“
Not without causing questions.” We paused to watch a fish just beyond the bank. It hesitated, fins pointing outwards, gills pulsing. I wondered if it could see us too. Then it continued obliviously on in small circles.
Looking at our reflections together made me aware of a whole new connotation to the word, ‘coexistence’. Frankly, it brought a new meaning to any word attached to that prefix.
“I’m so sorry this has happened to you,” Harry blurted. “I can only imagine. To be so turned around and isolated. God. Those months you spent watching me from the window. I think I always knew. If there’s ever anything I can do—” He retrieved $100 dollars from his wallet. “Here. Take this,” he said. “I’m going to get you a few supplies. Just take your time here and then get a hotel room up the road. Watch a little Fringe or something. Just chill. I’ll be there to visit you this evening.”
Then he left as abruptly as I tend to do in uncomfortable situations.
I sat down on the rocks all alone; even the fish fled as soon as my toes brushed the surface.
Eventually, I got a room and watched television as I was told. Harry arrived just after dark. He pointed to a car in the lot, a Nissan, and told me it was mine. I don’t know how he got it there with his own car as well. Maybe he had someone drop it off earlier. He gave me some leftover fried chicken and a few of his clothes too. I think he cleared out his bathroom toiletries for me. I got his toothbrush in a bag with contact solution, conditioner, a razor—and it didn’t occur to me that using another man’s toothbrush was weird until weeks later. It looked exactly the same, but it wasn’t mine either.
He told me to find a job and do the best I could with what I had. He encouraged me to move a few hours away, but understood how hard that would be for me. Then he drove away.
**** A week later, I threw up on the first day at my new job.
This had nothing to do with my boredom at filling a new entry-level position at a national shipping company called Matto Grosso. My vomiting was actually induced when I paused by a water cooler to think about what I had seen on Fringe the night before. In general, the program dealt with a gateway to an alternate reality containing characters nearly identical to the main cast. However, in one episode a protagonist named Peter deactivated a machine, which sent him to an alternate version of both previous worlds. In other words, there were suddenly four worlds, the two connected worlds Peter was trapped in, and the two he wished to return to. This amused me the first time I saw it because each actor now had four similar characters to play. Unfortunately, it occurred to me at the water cooler that watching the show in a backwards dimension basically made eight worlds instead.
Blat. Let’s not dwell on that.
I cleaned up the mess myself, which my boss, Cole, seemed thrilled about because he hadn’t hired anyone who would do that in a long time.
“You read?” he asked, not knowing I was an English teacher in another life.
“A little,” I said because I could barely read backwards in this world and couldn’t write backwards at all. Yes, I had already thought about learning but decided against it. If anything, I had never expected my writing to create entire dimensions, but after believing that’s what happened for several days, only to have the idea ripped away—somehow writing lost its appeal for me too. I quickly found that I could get by just fine if I avoided written words altogether.
“You’ll be perfect,” Cole said, though the job wasn’t difficult. Matto Grosso always needed more finders to carry objects from one end of the facility to the other. It only took me a few hours to find the place and get myself hired, and even less time than that to master the job.
That evening, I ran into my old neighbor, Kitty Gallup, at the grocery store. “How are you?”she asked. “Have you flown through any more glass doors recently?”
I told her I slipped and fell through the glass on accident, and Harry must have told her the same thing because she didn’t question me. Either way, I never went back to that grocery store again.
I got to work early, a first in that company, I believe. They gave me golden star stickers almost every day. I watched others quit from exhaustion or boredom. I found things, carried things, and placed things in appropriate bins. Weird things, usually. A dildo the size of a lamp. Then a lamp. A copy of Fringe Season 3—the best season, in my opinion. Two hundred of the same poorly written Sci-Fi films. Then another dildo. I learned to find things more quickly than anyone else I worked with.
I moved out of the hotel to an apartment about an hour away. Matto Grosso was 30 minutes from my old home too, so I ran a low risk of being spotted by anyone who had recently seen Harry on the same day. I visited the creek in Donald Right Park three or four times a week on quiet evenings. I didn’t have anyone to talk to, so I sometimes talked to the fish.“
I like this guy,” Cole said whenever I did a good job, but people here were not like the teachers I worked with in the past. Instead, they acted like students. Employees put gum on the walls and came back for it later. Nobody could agree on a radio station, so music was suddenly forbidden. Cole shouted at me about misplaced diamond necklaces of which I never touched to begin with. He felt guilty an hour later and gave me a promotion of 30 cents.
I tried visiting a church only to run into Karen Gallup again, who apparently drives an hour to get there. Just how many times will I have to give up something to avoid her?
After the service, I went to work and called Harry in the break room. I’ve only spoken with him two or three times since that day in the hospital and park. “I saw Karen today,” I told him. “Thought you might need to know.”
“Thanks,” he said. “If she mentions it, I’ll be ready.”
The line remained silent.“I’ve been thinking,” I said. “What if you let me see just one or two people?”
“You know the rules,” he said softly.
“It doesn’t even have to be a person we like. I just want to talk to somebody from before all this.”
“It would catch up to us. You know it would.”
“I haven’t got anybody though. I’m alone.”
“Then maybe it’s time to move away and start over,” he said and hung up.
I returned to my ham sandwich right when a former student of mine—technically, this was Harry’s former student—entered the break room. He looked around in a way that told me I was his first day as a new finder. What grade did I give him? A ‘C’ or a ‘D?’ He now sported a lopsided haircut and a stained glass Jesus tattoo on his arm. “Why aren’t you teaching?” he asked, a little smirk at the edge of his eye.
“I am,” I said, though really my other self was the one teaching. “I just like to make a little extra on the side.”
He grinned and sat down across from me to taunt me, I thought. He rubbed his tattoo, so I could tell it was new. The glass seemed to smudge a little from his touch.
I finished my ham sandwich in silence and left, passing the clock-in machine without entering my code. I always knew this day would come. I told my Cole “I quit” as I walked toward the exit, and he turned a half circle, his face temporarily tightened with disappointment. Then he shrugged and continued away. Finders rarely lasted, and he knew it. He could hire another replacement in an hour.
The brightness of the world outside nearly blinded me.
I soon sat down in my car, not my familiar Grand Am, but a Nissan. My decision to leave Matto Grosso came as quickly as that, not because I was embarrassed to be working with a former student—though, honestly, I was—but because it wouldn’t do to know someone at work from my old life. In only a matter of time, he or someone else would recognize that I was in two places at once, and my game would be up.
None of these people are mine any more, none of these streets, or the voice of the city, or this air. In this alternate world, I can never speak to a single distant relative, much less to anyone I care about. These lives all belong to my other self. I cannot even tell a professional about my problems, or I would be committed for that as well.
In the driver’s seat of my car, I remove my nametag that is covered in stars for being the best at my job. For an instant, I want to crack my forehead against the steering wheel, but that isn’t the answer. I will probably have to start over somewhere else, this time a little farther from the place where I’ve lived all my life. However, I am desperate not to do that. I can’t stand the thought of it, so I reluctantly decide to visit Edith instead, the very last person I can think of who I have met previously but who Harry does not know. Maybe this loon will even have some insightful thing to say, though I can’t imagine what that will be.
The hospital is only 30 minutes away, so I soon stare up at the cold windows, but I can’t see in from this side of the glass. Once inside, I certainly do not expect to find Edith’s room empty and quiet.
I wander around until I finally recognize a nurse and ask, “Where’s Edith?”
She opens her eyes a little wider. She’s thinks I’m Edith’s son—for good reason, because that’s what I told her many times—so she pulls me aside where the doctors won’t see her. “You don’t know?”
That’s all it takes to tell me Edith is dead.
“How?” I ask.
“She choked herself on a piece of glass a few days ago.”
I stagger back against the wall as the nurse looks left and right to decide whether she needs assistance.
I regain my balance, but nothing else. I think about the fragment of glass I left on the counter, the fragment I pulled from my hand. I hurry away without comment as I am often so quick to do. Thought spin through my mind about as I try to put everything together.
How long has it been since I saw her? How could she have hung onto that glass for a month? How could a woman who didn’t remember a heated argument five minutes earlier—
“Oh, Edith,” I gasp.
It occurs to me with certainty that I placed all my hopes in her miraculously recovering her memory when I should have been praying for the opposite. She must have known more than I guessed all along. She must have remembered my shouts at her and she probably never thought I was her son for a second. Everything she said about my kindness was not delusional or forgotten; it was a lie. Then she had waited a month to kill herself. Why? Had she been waiting on me to return and eventually given up? Surely not. I am only her fake son, the one whose name she did not know because I never told her. And yet, how else could she have held onto that fragment of glass so long if she had not known the truth?
I flee the hospital, suddenly wishing to flee so much more than this single building. Instead, I am ready to start over more now than ever before. This is not a coexistence at all. A coexistence is what I had before I knew Harry existed. We were both real then, and yet neither of us knew or cared about the other. What I have now is something less than that.
For a moment, I intend to go home to watch Fringe, but this will not do any good. In Fringe, Peter learned to accept the new dimensions he became trapped in, and then the characters slowly reverted to the way he remembered them all along. Unfortunately, that can never work for me. There is no void for me to fill in this world. I am an extra. Sara already has her Harry and Harry his Sara.
I find my car without difficulty. All my life, I thought I was a man of fiction, one of creation, but no. The only thing I can create is a map or a gateway to wherever I want to go. I am a finder at Matto Grosso as well as at life, and I have been all along. I am good at that. I write about something, I picture it, and then I go there with words. That is where my real talent lies, and I have always found the people and things I wanted, at least always until I got stuck in this terrible world.
I can’t stay another minute. I’m not a man here. I’m a tattoo of a man on a dropout’s arm. I have all the presence of a fish. I’m like Edith, who never created jello out of thin air. She found it just like she found the glass. How long had she prayed for it, I wonder.
How do I go home? How do I make lightning strike my sliding door for real this time?
The answer becomes clear all too quickly. I have avoided the source of my arrival ever since I fell into this world. The jolt of awakening in a backwards reality shook me so hard that I haven’t picked up a pen or even pictured a page in my mind since the day Sara died and I tried to distract myself in my kitchen.