Before the Other Side
by Bradley Cannon
I have now survived 48 hours in an alternate dimension. Mostly, this has been possible by hiding in the hospital room of Edith Shull, a 90 year old suffering from dementia, a repeatedly fractured hip, and hatred.
I am not like Edith. She can take each bite of jello and then forget it exists all over again, but I feel no such confusion. I have no doubt that I’m in a new reality. The evidence is all around me.
This whole adventure in the hospital began two days ago just after a doctor put a small bandage on my forehead. My wound wasn’t as bad as I feared. Mainly, everyone was only worried about my concussion, which I seemed to have gotten over during the ambulance ride.
My other self and I went to this hospital years earlier due to appendicitis, so all my paperwork and payment options were already taken care of. Technically, this wasn’t stealing, unless I thought about it too much.
As I headed for the hospital exit, I was already beginning to pick at a fragment of glass in my hand that the doctors missed. I got almost to the parking lot when my other self hurried inside, and I jumped back behind a corner before he could see me. He sported my favorite dress shirt and pants, the same set I would have chosen for a trip to the hospital. He must have returned home to change before coming here to find me. I would have done that too. He checked both ways at a split and then started toward me.
What would I do if he caught me? What would he do? I already know what I’m capable of—creating entire worlds over the loss of a loved one—how could this man be any different? I backtracked, then cut into the Alzhiemer’s ward, which was open so I did not have to learn how to operate the keypad in this backwards reality, however I then quickly ran myself into a dead-end where my other self would see me all too soon. With no other choice, I opened the nearest door and slipped inside.
From her bed, Edith met me for the first time with a snarl. “Get out!”
A nurse stood beside her.
“But I’m your son,” I gasped, peeking back into the hall at my other self still strolling in my direction. If I was her son, that would make her 50 or 60 when I was born, but I didn’t have time to think about that yet.
“Liar. I ain’t got no sons.”
The nurse started toward me when Edith introduced her. “This is my only daughter.”
The nurse, who clearly wasn’t Edith’s daughter, looked at the woman and shrugged.
I shook my head to indicate Edith’s insanity, stepping to the side at the same time so my alternate self wouldn’t see me as he passed the room from outside. For a moment, I got a bad feeling that he was so identical to me that he would wander in anyways.
The nurse left. She didn’t notice my double leaving just outside, and he didn’t see me either. I shut the door and planted myself in a stiff plastic chair beside Edith, too afraid of being seen to leave.
“I just need to stay here a while,” I said. “Could I keep you company?”
Her eyes narrowed at first as if she was thinking it over. Then she began to fart, squeaking and grunting beneath the sheets so that I nearly choked long before her rumbling subsided. She looked at me as gas eeked from her body, and she smiled in a way that made me sicker than anything the fumes could accomplish alone. I never saw her more in touch with reality than when she broke wind.
I knew I couldn’t leave; I think she knew it too. Surely, my other self was still nearby because I wouldn’t have given up searching so quickly either. Where would I go even if I did leave? A hospital chair was probably the best I could do until I figured out how to proceed.
As the day progressed, Edith told several other nurses that I wasn’t her son. She blamed more farts on me too, but the staff never listened. They couldn’t imagine that anyone who wasn’t Edith’s relative would be willing to put himself through such constant verbal torture.
We watched Judge Judy together, then Dr. Phil, Andy Griffith, and Wheel of Fortune, the last of which was especially difficult with everything backwards in this reality. I picked these programs because I thought she would like them, but she acted as though the television didn’t exist. I couldn’t make her focus on it even when I tried. The whole time, she spoke about piloting airplanes and spitting on people from 20,000 feet. Then she babbled about how the nurses were out to get her blood if she fell asleep and something about quacking pigs in Sri Lanka. I wanted to tell her pigs don’t quack, but then again, I’ve never heard any pigs in this world to know for sure.
“You don’t belong here,” she said that evening. “You don’t have any family. You don’t belong anywhere.”
The truth in her words finally got to me. “Shut up,” I told her, the speed of my speech climbing. “Just close that disgusting mouth. You’re only as wretched as you act.”
She curled her lips to curse me, but then started crying instead. “My son always shouts at me too. He’s never been a good son. Why’s everybody shout at me?”
“Because you ask for it,” I said with less certainty, but then she saw her jello and immediately forgot our conversation. I returned to picking at the piece of glass in my hand. After that, I gave her the cold shoulder whenever she said something rude. Her memory lessened as the sun went down, and she became tired. We watched the Discovery Channel or whatever I wanted from then on. I stayed in the room with her all night.
Starvation drove me out the next day.
“Could you tell me which way to the cafeteria?” I asked a nurse almost exactly 24 hours after I first entered the hospital.
“There’s a sign up the hall. Follow the arrows. Go left, right, second left.”
I walked halfway across the hospital, still in the same t-shirt and sweat pants as yesterday, before I remembered that everything in this reality is backwards. I should have gone right, left, second right. However, I did eventually find the signs that the nurse had mentioned.
I ordered a grilled chicken breast and retrieved my wallet to pay. My cash and driver’s license was all backwards to this world. It’s a good thing I was conscious when the EMTs put me on the ambulance gurney, or someone would have found my ID and been more confused than I was. Fortunately, I soon discovered that I could break my credit card in half along the inner edge of the bar code, because the code should work perfectly if scanned from the opposite side. I left the rest of the card—the part with my name, Harry Miller—hidden in my wallet. Somehow that name never seemed important to this story until it represented another person as well. I pinched the edge of the bar code and swiped it through the reader all too quickly for the attendant to see what I’d done.
“Sign on the screen,” he said, pushing my tray toward me. Few people had probably ever tried to steal this food before.
I did as I was told and pressed ‘OK’, which appeared with the ‘K’ positioned backwards before the ‘O’. It only occurred to me later that I should have signed backwards as well, but the machined accepted my words either way.
When I returned to the room, Edith told me my food looked like her feces and offered to show me. I didn’t respond as usual, so she surprised me and said, “You’re not my son, cause my son always shouts at me and hates me. You never shouted at me once. You’re always quiet and good.”
I know this wasn’t true. I had already told her off like everyone else had at some point, but I guess she’s blocked that out now. Frankly, my silent treatment was meant to punish her, but somehow she thought it was because I cared about her no matter what she said.
It also occured to me that maybe she was speaking in jest. In other words, maybe she really thought her son was finally at her side after all.
“You’re a fart,” Edith says, back to her usual self as I finally remove the glass from my hand once and for all. It is surprisingly long, almost the width of a dime. I place it on the counter beside me, blood dripping from the opened cut, but at least the glass is out for good.
I watch her wheeze and struggle to pick pieces of bread from her hamburger lunch. The sight of the hospital tray doesn’t make me any hungrier, but I know I need to keep my strength up. Edith says I’m ugly and tells me not to come back, but I don’t respond to her.
I slip through the hospital and step into the cafeteria, barely turning the corner toward the register when a shape lunges at me from the dining area.
I know my other self has found me without having to look. “Stop!” he shouts, but I’m already running back through the doors. I charge among startled patients toward the Alzheimer’s ward and my hiding place. One doctor tries to interfere, but I pass him before he can reach me. I start to turn into Edith’s hall, but the door is shut before me to keep confused patients from wandering away. The keypad on the wall must be used to gain entry, but my other self is too close behind me. He moves at the same speed as I do, and I know I would get stuck entering the door’s code because it would take me some extra time to find the 9, 1, and 8 buttons in this backwards reality.
I don’t have time to figure it out, so I keep running instead until he forces me out the main hospital exit like the last drops of toothpaste in a tube.
I breathe hard. I can’t hear his gasps behind me, so I assume we’re in synchrony. Trapped, I streak past most of the cars to the empty, far end of the lot. That’s where he would likely have parked to avoid getting a dent in his door. Sure enough, a Grand Am just like mine awaits ahead.
I remove my own key from my pocket to steal his car for a getaway, but it doesn’t turn. The shape of my key is too complicated on each side to fit in his reversed car slot. The revelation hits me like the surprise of a nightmare. I recently wondered in the ambulance if this world was too wonderful to be real, but I never considered that it might be too terrifying instead.
A hand grabs my shoulder before I can run again, so I swing my elbow back into something solid. My other self groans. I spin around to see that he has a bruise and cut on his forehead just like mine. Is this meant to happen? Are our paths somehow locked together?
I turn to get away again, but I slip on a plastic bag. From the ground, I see other pieces of litter and gum, cracked concrete foundations, messy graffiti painted on the nearest wall. The floor smells like grease and Edith’s feces. Am I not so different from Edith after all—me with my need to pee and her with her farts—lost in more ways than I know?
I get up, prepared to fight him to the death if I have to, but then I find myself reeling to remember his name. How could I have forgotten it? It comes back to me with remarkably slowness even as I grasp the absurdity of such a thing. By his pause, I can tell he forgot me too.
We both giggle at the same time.
“Harry,” he says, adding words I never expected. “Stop running. I’m here to help.”
I put my hands on my knees. This is not fake after all, nor is it fate. We’re probably both just a little too careless when it comes to protecting our faces.
He rubs his head. “I knew you were still in the hospital when the credit card company reported a signature written backwards yesterday. I’m not going to hurt you.”
His words ring true with me, if only because I don’t want to kill him either. His defensiveness seems reasonable—as did his running away after I first invaded his world. However, I haven’t pursued his Sara after I learned she was his. Maybe he’s already realized this, realized that I’m not a monster, and come to help. Isn’t that what I would do?
I look at him, and he looks back at me with the same slack jaw as mine. At the same time, we say, “I’m sorry I created you.” Then both of us pause to think.
Personally, it occurs to me that I must not have created him from my desperation and imagination as I had come to believe. Instead, his world must have existed long before I learned of it. Like the glass in my hand, it was there even when I couldn’t see it.
Meanwhile, my other self most likely thinks back to the day when he sat before his computer screen to stare at the writing prompt about a deceased loved one and a portal to an alternate dimension. His Sara didn’t die that day, but he must have continued to wonder what would happen to him without her in his life. He watched my darkening expression in the glass door for months. If anything, he imagined me, but I know that can’t be true either. We both existed long before the prompt. Like our names, we are both less powerful than we liked to think.
“You’ll help me home?” I ask.
“I can’t,” he admits, and he isn’t the one stuck in an alternate dimension without his Sara, but he must feel debilitated too. “The portal died after you came through. I think we need to get you started in this world instead.”
CONTINUE TO PART 3