She moans against me, and I bite down the need to pull her closer. The sound is so familiar to me that ignoring it feels like ignoring my need to breathe, but I do. I have to.
I’ve traded my soul for this, and I can’t forget that. I traded my soul for twelve hours, and I’ll have to do everything perfectly if I plan to run away with more.
“What is it?” she whispers, pulling away from me. Her eyes glow under the fluorescent streetlight and I have to remind myself that this isn’t high school—isn’t prom night when I walked her home and we snuck through her bedroom window so her parents wouldn’t hear us. This isn’t even Ocala anymore—not really. This isn’t the town where we made our mark on the sidewalk and on each other. This is the reality where the ridicule became too much, and I ran. This is the reality where I drove off into the night and left her behind. This is the reality where I died.
“We should go,” I say. “Your place?”
She shrugs. “Fine, but it’s nothing like you remember.”
She lives in the same house she did in high school. Well, during her high school. Her parents passed away just after graduation. That’s the commonality between her world and mine, but the difference is that in my world, we stayed up all night after the funeral while she cried into my chest and I made up the house we’d live in once we finally got married—and brought the whole thing to life on the Sims. In her world, I was already gone. She spent the night alone.
“Coffee?” she asks.
“It’s nine o’clock,” I say, but I could actually go for a cup. If I’m going to make the most of my time here, I need to stay awake.
She doesn’t say anything else, but she hands me a steaming mug. She passes me the creamer, but no sugar. It’s a small detail to remember from six years ago, but I’m glad she does. It means she still cares.
“So…” she plops down on the couch next to me, a bit of coffee sloshes out of her cup and onto her hands. She sucks the black stain off her pale skin and giggles. “Am I as awkward as you remember?”
I laugh. “You were never awkward,” I say. “I’m the one who was always tripping over my feet.”
“That’s because all your shoes were hand-me-downs from your sister,” she says.
I smile. In my world, Ferrah died when I was twelve. I guess, in this one, she’d actually made it through high school.
We fall quiet, and Mel stares into her cup. She doesn’t have the bangs she had in my world, but her hair is still sleek and dark and straight. She spent two hours trying to curl it for prom so that she would fit in with all the white girls who had their hair in gaudy, unnatural swirls. Then she’d stepped out into the Florida humidity, and the whole thing had crumpled, while mine had poofed up into a disco ball on my head. And we’d laughed because we knew we’d never be like the white girls. We’d spent hours trying to switch hair textures, but we could have spent that time savoring the moments we had together.
“Ollie, why’d you leave?” she asks.
I turn my head away, and I hope she reads it as shame instead of uncertainty. I want to say that I’d never left—that in my world, only death was enough to separate us, but when I turn back to her, her deep, brown eyes are slowly filling with tears and I know that I’m not the girlfriend who was by her side when her parents died, when she got into grad school, and when the cancer finally got her. I’m the girlfriend who left in high school because I was more afraid of homomisic bullies than I was in love with her.
If my other self were still alive, I’d slap her.
“I was scared, I guess.” I don’t know what else to tell her. Even here, trying to occupy my other self’s life, I can’t occupy her mind. I can’t channel the methodology that brewed in her thoughts and convinced her to run off into the night. And sitting here—coffee in our hands, and Mel’s mascara smudged from the tears that ran upon my arrival—I can’t comprehend why anyone would want to. How naïve would someone have to be to think they could ever do better?
Mel shakes her head, and releases a quick chuckle. “Yeah, I know scared.”
And she doesn’t have to say anything else; it’s all loaded into that one line. It was us against my world, the two girls who dared to be different and come out in high school. The black girl with the frizzy hair and the Chinese artist who dared to love her. Together, it felt like the punches only slid off our skin and the words melted away with our sweat.
But in this world, I’d left her. I’d left her.
“I’m so sorry, Mel,” I say. “If I could change anything, I’d make it so we’d never been apart. You should know that.”
She looks up, eyes wide. I worry I’ve said too much. In this world, it’s been so long since she’s seen me. There are a million things she could have gone on to—a million faces that could easily have taken my place. But then she smiles, a soft twitch of her lips that reminds me so much of that day, sophomore year, when I first told her how beautiful she was to me.
“You never forget your first love,” she whispers.
“I don’t think chronology has anything to do with it,” I say. “There are some people you just never forget. Do you believe that?”
“I’ve experienced it.”
I smile then, place my mug on the coffee table, and scoot an inch closer to her. She doesn’t pull away, and I take this as my invitation to reach out to her, to place my hand gently over hers.
“I need to know why you came back,” she says.
I look into her eyes for a moment, searching for the question her words are keeping from me. “I love you, Mel. I never stopped loving you.”
She laughs again and shakes her head. “Your words don’t match your actions. You know. I want to believe you, but I don’t think I can.”
I’m losing her, and I know it. I’m running out of time to take back what we lost, and I can feel her slipping through my fingers.
So I leap.
“What if I told you there was a world where you and I never had to be apart?” I say.
She chuckles, her hand pulling out from beneath mine. “I’d say that other me must be very lucky. And probably much more trusting than I am.”
I don’t know how to respond to this. I watch helplessly as she stands up and takes her mug into the kitchen. I hear her rinse it in the sink and pop open the dishwasher, but I can’t rise to meet her. In all the trouble I went through to get here, it never occurred to me that there was a reality in which Mel wouldn’t trust me. It never occurred to me that a reality could exist in which we weren’t meant to be together.
She steps back into the living room as she ties her hair up into a ponytail. I know that look on her face—that stance. She’s getting ready for bed. She’s going to kick me out.
“It was really great seeing you again, Ollie,” she says. “I’d love to do this again. Maybe dinner next week or something?”
But what she doesn’t understand is that the clock is winding down on us, and I won’t be here next week. Once the riff closes, I have to be somewhere else—somewhere I’m not a corpse rotting ten feet below the ground. And if we’re to be together, we have to start over somewhere that doesn’t recognize us. She has to come with me, and I’m down to ten hours to convince her.
She yawns, as she lets the ponytail fall out of her hands. “Anyway, I should probably—”
“Can I ask you something?” I say. I don’t have anything to ask her, but if I can keep her talking, I’ve got more time. I just need more time.
“Well, I guess so.”
Stalling as I cross the space between us, I ask, “Has there been anyone else for you? Anyone else?”
She pauses, staring at me like she’s not sure she should reveal too much information. Then she gives a quick jerk of her head. “No.”
“Me neither,” I say.
She sighs, taking a quick step back. “Ollie—”
“I know how this sounds,” I say. “I know it seems absolutely absurd, but I need you to hear me out, okay?”
A little bit of wonder still twinkles behind her eyes. Maybe she’s not as distrusting as she thinks.
“I have traveled through every plane of existence to see you again.”
She rolls her eyes.
“I’m serious, Mel. I’m offering you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We can make this right. We can go to any reality you want, and we can be together.”
“Is this some sort of weird threat?” she asks. Her eyes narrow and her hands land on her hips. “Are you threatening me?”
“No,” I say, my head shaking rapidly. She’s not the only thing slipping through my fingers; it feels like the world is coming out from underneath me. I need her to understand. She has to understand. “I can show you what I mean, Mel. Please Give me one last chance.”
She stares at me like she doesn’t recognize me—like high school was a dream and everything I worked so hard to preserve was nothing more than a figment of my imagination. Then slowly but surely, she nods.
The door is more of a portal, which means it’s really just a shimmering swirl of light torn into the air. It’s that flare you see out of the corner of your eye; that lightning strike in the clear night sky. I find it because I know it’s there, but Mel just stares into the open space like I’d told her it was the secret to the universe when it was really just a blade of grass.
I reach out to her and beckon her closer to me. She hesitantly takes a step forward but doesn’t speak.
“I want to show you everything,” I say.
I hold open my palm for her to insert her hand. I want her to come, but I can’t force her. She has to make the choice on her own.
She stares at me as she weighs her options before rolling her eyes and placing her hand in mine. “I trust you, but this better not be some sort of trick.”
“I’m not so sure I’d call that trust,” I say, “but you won’t regret it.”
I lean forward and she follows the motion. Our faces penetrate the light and suddenly we’re no longer standing on the middle of a suburban street in the dead of night. We’re floating timelessly in a swirl of pale blues and purples and greens. Images rush by us like the headlights of late night traffic, and each of them holds a story that we can only glimpse. But I feel her hand tense in mine, and I know she’s seeing what I’m seeing. She’s witnessing the endless possibilities that I had to cross to find her. And somewhere, in all these worlds that jump by us, my world is waiting. And it’ll keep waiting long after the clock runs out.
I pull her back, and we’re out on the street again. I rifle in my pocket for my phone to check the clock: five a.m. We have three hours left.
Her eyes are wide as she stumbles back into the curb. She plops down hard, her skirt splaying out beneath her. “What was that?” she chokes out, her breathing coming hard and fast.
“I told you I crossed every plane of existence for you,” I say. “That’s what that was. It’s a doorway to any reality we desire, but it closes in three hours.”
She’s shaking her head, her mind struggling and failing to process what she’s seen. “How?”
I chuckle. “I made a deal with the devil,” I say. But I don’t elaborate. She doesn’t need the gory details. The promise won’t even matter once we’ve escaped. He never thought I’d refuse to come back. “Come with me.”
She looks up at me like I’ve sprouted a second head.
“Don’t you get it?” I say. “This is our chance to run away together. To really be together. We can escape everything that’s gone wrong.”
She shakes her head. “You ran away from me and now you want me to run away with you?”
I shake my head slowly and sit down next to her. Her palms are clammy as I take them into my own, but I hold on tight as I train my eyes on hers. “I never left you,” I say. “In my world, we were happy together. We were so happy until—” Her eyes widen, and I know that I don’t have to finish my sentence. “That’s why I came here,” I said. “I found the reality where we were separated so we could fill in the gaps. We’re not meant to be apart, Mel.”
The girl she used to be flashes through her eyes—the one who loved Disney movies and RPGs. This is the fantasy she wants to believe in. This is the reality her childhood was reaching for but could never quite grasp.
And now I’m here, handing it to her, and she’s too scared to close her grip.
I don’t know what to do. The door is going to close, and I’m going to lose her forever. I can feel everything I’ve fought so hard for slipping away from me and—
Then she’s kissing me. She’s pulling my body toward her the way I’ve wanted to since I first saw her again. And her hands feel the same—the same as they did in my world and the way I imagine they’d feel in any reality. This is Mel. No, this is us. The one thing that I truly understand in this game of worlds.
And then she pulls away. I’m struggling to catch my breath, but she’s standing, reaching a hand down to me.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
I take her hand and rise to my feet with a quick nod. “You caught me off guard.”
“Strange,” she says. “I’d have thought you’d know me better, considering how much time we had in your world.”
I smile. “I wasn’t even sure you believed me.”
She pulls me toward the portal then stops short. Her eyes widen again as she takes in the rippling color and light. She knows what lies beyond it, yet she’s scared, and really, who can blame her.
I squeeze her hand gently and turn her face toward me. “It’s okay,” I whisper. “We’ll be okay.”
“Where are we going?” she asks.
But really, I don’t know. I haven’t thought things through beyond getting out, but I do know that there are worlds where neither of us has ever existed, and these realms are our canvases. We can paint ourselves as whatever we want without the binds of reality to stop us.
“Does it matter?” I ask.
She shakes her head incredulously, but she’s smirking. She knows what I know. Wherever we go, whatever reality we choose, all that matters is that we’re together.
With a quick smile in my direction, she steps into the light, our entwined hands dragging me forward into my next life.