They were coming that afternoon to shut the project down. Officially, it was already a memory. The funding was cut off, Sophia had received notice that she should collect all personal items and vacate. A six month severance would be provided to transition to the private sector, or academia. An ironclad nondisclosure agreement meant she could never speak about the project or the government’s involvement, only in vague terms that would be verifiable and enough to provide credibility for the next career stage. The intellectual property agreement meant she did not own her own work and could not take it with her. Not the experiments, or equations, or the technology. Nothing.
The letter was clear, a stern and official font marched across the page in six paragraphs on departmental letterhead. A government seal rose up slightly from the acid free paper. Sophia had never met the man behind the signature. He was an appointee, a name known in her circles for fiscal prudence, and ultimate authorization over the research funding. His signature was confirmation the funding had been cut off; the program was dead. They were coming to shut down the building, remove any remnants of an experiment and wipe the slate clean. That’s what the cleaners did, wipe away the traces.
She hacked into the building’s security and changed the key access code on the electronic door. If they arrived early, there would be at least an extra hour for them to figure out why the door wasn’t working and how to correct the change. For extra measure she dragged every box and piece of furniture to the front, desk and shelving, and stacked it all against the door like survivors barricading in from the zombies outside.
Sophia started the accelerator and peeked through the tiny window at the light that bounced off the walls at an unfathomable speed. A shiny blur so fast that the eye interpreted the object as a flickering line drawn chaotically in all sorts of directions.
Directly above, was a sliver of sky in the 30ft high ceiling, a trap door that was used for maintenance. Earlier that morning, Sophia climbed onto the roof and used her key card to engage the sensor on the trap door to open it about six inches.
Back at ground floor, she climbed into what looked like a cockpit of a plane with no roof or windshield, affixed the headset and closed her eyes, taking a deep and full belly breath.
Elliott stared at the ceiling from his bed with tired eyes, immersed in the final thoughts of the day before letting himself sink into slumber, and hopefully find the dream that meant more to him than the wake life. Thinking of the dream, he tried to picture himself in the young man’s body, the body that felt more real than the one he was in, and he tried to picture the young woman. All that would come as the mind sorted through faces was the woman, today – the one he saw on the bench outside that strange building on campus, when his life went from a ghostlike drifting existence, to an utter tailspin. Until that day, part of him accepted that maybe a dissociative disorder or something similar was the cause of it all. That part of him had grown, especially under the treatment of Dr. Chettiar – Arya. A gradual acceptance that others understood the inner most intimate workings of his own personal universe better than he did. That all changed when the woman in his dreams sat on a bench in his reality.
Contributing to the awful feeling of validation, the tailspin, was finding Blue Universe. The discovery was an eye opener in seeing the words of what could be hundreds of people with the exact same experience, down to the profoundness of a recurring dream, the inability to be acknowledged by sensors like doors and restroom sinks, and the eerie commonality of the one same significant date when everything shifted from real to unreal. The discovery could have been a comfort if for not finding Blue Universe too late. By the time Elliott had arrived, there was already a well-formed group, each speaking the same paranoid, conspiracy theory driven language. Then it was gone.
Arya dialed Elliott’s number several times that morning with no answer. He missed the last session two days prior with no notice and hadn’t reported to the campus for work since then. She even drove by his house late at night, which was a complete breech of ethics and wholly a violation of privacy. The car was in the driveway. The lights were off. Elliott was hidden behind a locked door that may as well have been a brick wall.
Being a psychiatrist was part observation, mixed with interpretation and intervention. The role had intentional boundaries by design. Not full proof, psychiatrists couldn’t be completely detached and any level of empathy brought risk of becoming too personal.
Arya’s fascination with uncanny and statistically improbable similarities evolved into fixation, which drew her over the boundaries into the personal, making her unable to make clinical sense of Elliott, and the others. Research had strayed far from credible studies and accepted diagnostics to something that more resembled dogma.
The front door to the filthy basement apartment was wide open. Newspaper and other debris from the sidewalk above that was pushed down by gusts of wind that were trapped by the tall buildings, collected on the stained cement of the narrow vestibule that led to the doorway.
Stains from the outside made tracks through the cheap carpet. It blended with the other filth – pizza boxes stacked on the makeshift coffee table, food crumbs in the couch cushions and on the floor. Grime coated the rest, sticky and filmy. Inside, the only sound, a dripping faucet that popped against the quiet.
Bastian hugged his knees on the linoleum floor in the corner of the bathroom. “NoS,” he said under his breath, barely audible. Faint. Labored. The words expelled on weak puffs of air that dissolved inches from his lips. Only an ear pressed close, right against the pale and trembling lips, could have heard it.
The smell of sedentary toilet water and urine latched onto every air molecule in the tiny closet of a room. Eyes half-closed, eyeballs rolled up to barely show pinpoint pupils in the bloodshot white. His arm stretched out like a stiff board. Red, pinhole scabs formed a constellation in the swollen black and blue.
The wave of euphoria was crashing down as quickly as its crest had reached the peak of a lofty sublime. The plunge was a drowning. A sinking deep into the abyss where air was absent.
Weighty lids, Bastian kept the eye slits from shutting long enough to glance at his fingernails that were turning blue, and he smiled.
‘They see blue,’ he thought.
A tall, thin, lanky woman with long blond pigtails, NoS tattooed on the right forearm in colorful bubble letters like a notebook doodle from the eighties, her eyes behind the blue lensed goggles, stood on a rooftop above a crowded sidewalk. She held a flat head screw driver in her hand. Six cans of blue oil paint were stacked in twos at her feet. A gallon each. Her big, narrow and old Converse All Stars were hanging toe length over the edge. Directly below was the entrance to a high-end boutique that sold fur coats and fur accessories.
She looked out at the luxury sedans parallel parked on the trendy row. Expendable income seemed to spill out onto the street as the driver’s side doors of their expensive cars opened and pampered, manicured toes followed.
The lanky, pigtailed woman took a look at her old converse. She hadn’t worn another brand or style on her feet since she was a teen. Back then, things mattered. A skinny teen in haphazard pigtails and ragged old converse. Then, somehow she became a middle aged woman with haphazard pigtails and ragged old converse. Back then, she drove a rust bucket station wagon passed down from her parents. On the bumper, there was a sticker that said in all capital letters, MEAT IS MURDER.
She knelt at the edge and used the flathead screwdriver to pry open the lids on all six paint cans and waited patiently for the door to open to the fur boutique. When it did, and a middle aged woman carrying a brand new mink stole exited, followed by a teenager with a mink handbag, the woman began to dump paint below, drenching the fur enthusiasts. Then she took the remaining full cans and launched them at the two convertible parked cars closest to the building, and chanted with sheer joy, “meat is murder.”
Sophia heard them at the door just before she engaged the accelerator, and couldn’t help but smirk, because they knocked. The key card access didn’t work, and they actually knocked on the door. Respectfully at first, followed by a more authoritative pounding against steel.
She flipped all 3 switches on the top row of the console at the same time and turned the knob. The low, rhythmic hum began, the bass bumping sound that could be heard throughout the town. Hoping there was enough time to travel and return before they had figured out how to resolve the key card access, or to take a more aggressive measure to circumvent the door. Sophia’s consciousness would make the journey, her body would remain in the device. If they reached her body and tried to revive her, there was no telling what would be the result.
The rhythmic hum had intensified so much that she could feel the vibration in her chest. That was the worst part and it happened whenever she travelled, the vibration like static electricity filling every cell. The feeling made her nauseous to the point of vomiting and just before Sophia couldn’t bear it and was ready to buckle over and start to heave, her consciousness was propelled through the transparent tunnel, through the long and stretched out soap bubble that went into infinity, and yet there was a destination.
Inside the walls of the prison, Christopher was virtually inoculated from the circus that had surrounded the aftermath of his violence. Reporters had packed the bail hearing where Christopher was remanded, deemed a flight risk, and a danger to himself and others.
He was on suicide watch, and after a violent episode on the first day of incarceration, was separated from the other inmates until the trial. He was permitted one hour a day outside and spent that time sitting on a folding chair at the far corner of the yard.
Because of the restrictions put upon Christopher, nearly everything had been taken away from him. Even the plastic utensils for eating were carefully monitored and removed after each meal. All he had to occupy his time was a box of matches that he paid one hundred dollars to a guard to secretly slip into his pocket.
Each day, sitting on the folding chair looking out to a swath of farmland that hugged two sides of the prison, Christopher lit one match from the tiny cardboard box with the tiny drawer. He would slide the drawer of wooden sticks open by gently pushing the other side with his index finger. The actions were methodical, almost ritualistic. The way he selected a match from the tiny drawer, how he rolled it between thumb and index finger several times, and how he struck the abrasive strip on the side of the matchbox in a slow and consistent motion.
Christopher would watch it burn, his eyes up against the yellow orange flame, enamored by the way it licked at the breeze, his hand cupping the tiny fire to keep the air from squashing its life. Then he would blow it out, close his eyes, put the burnt stick to his nose and breath in the sulfur, his smile frozen in a memory like smelling the most alluring perfume.
They sat together on a bench next to the concession stands in a time long gone. Cotton candy sickly sweet and popcorn butter richness wafted in the breezy summer night air. The smells mixed in with the taste of artificial watermelon gum that hung on Sophia’s tongue long after the experience. It was always the same way. Same smells, same tastes. Same thick black eyeliner and fingernail polish. Same glossy fingernails that took her mind’s eye into an infinite void when her teen self needed to escape from nervousness, awkwardness, sadness.
Hair metal carried from the ride’s soundtrack through the summer air and was the backdrop to the festivities, lurking behind the traditional carnival music of the concessions. Hair bands presenting an anthem to an eighties summer with thunderous guitar solos, tough guy blended androgyny with screaming high notes for emphasis, amounting to the most shallow of viewpoints about teenage sex – all in fun.
She was in familiar skin, back again, for one last reliving. That’s how it worked; the fluid mobility of consciousness combined with the pliability of spacetime. Natural states once incomprehensible, now an open door and Sophia new how reckless it was. She violated a natural order like the way a meadow forms and functions, each plant, insect and water drop existing separately and also function collectively. Introduce something that shouldn’t be there, and watch little things become altered, jeopardizing the confined ecosystem. She had no right. Not her, not anyone.
The train cars roared overhead, battering the tracks. The sounds reverberated in the echo chamber of the towering walls that held the train high. Screeching metal on metal. Clacking like a drum beat on the rail joints. The train song was so overpowering that all other sounds fell mute. When it passed, the silence was just as overpowering.
The walls were tag free when Micah had arrived hours earlier with a duffle bag filled with spray paint. Tags of others were cleaned away by authority. Their signatures erased. Their voices deemed criminal. Then one wall went from clean to art resurrected. Criminality in full flowing detail. PaintedMe’s vision – Micah.
Empty spray paint cans filled the duffle bag, clean and neat, discarded. The contents washed over the wall exactly how he pictured it in his mind.
Flashes of the older mural he tried to finish when he was just a teen interrupted the new vision. Memories of the sound of footsteps getting closer as he tried to color in the final section of the mural. Running from the police, a roaring sound from behind that rivaled the passing train. Just before all light vacated his sight and the running felt like falling, he experienced an immense pressure in his back.
The NoS tattoo on Micah’s arm was the bridge between the two murals. Old school graffiti letter spelling out the new pain. NoS. Running from the police. In the new, he finished the art.
The revelation fifteen feet high and ten feet wide staring back in symbiotic familiarity. Worlds colliding in a heap of paint swirls, all in the same color family – blue. Before Micah, a towering other self, a reconciling of past and present, a battle between real and unreal. A giant face staring back in blue monochrome. A Frankenstein of a self portrait, pieces from then and now or real and unreal. The face from his teens, wearing the blue lensed goggles.
“Are you O.K.?” Elliott asked.
His voice was kind, and casually apprehensive, boy meeting girl for the first time and all of the anxiety that was mixed up in figuring it all out. The boy’s face was so different than the other, older Elliott. One beaten down and defeated by the uncertainty of self. The other full of youthful possibility. One stuck in the past. The other excited about what lie ahead in the future and yet wanting to live in the moment and soak up even the smallest things like carnival rides and the taste of watermelon gum on another’s lips.
Sophia looked into his eyes, which was supposed to be the first time she truly saw him for who he was and the first time she understood pure joy. Instead, it was the first time, again and again. Still, the feeling of first was not diluted by the infractions. She was there like it was the first time, because it was. The secret voyages did not have the power to change that.
Sophia called the slips through time secret voyages, because no one else knew of what she was doing. After coming to terms with the implications of changing the past, and falling deeper into guilt, she began to call the slips forbidden voyages.
“Sorry,” she said. “Just a little dizzy from the ride.”
Elliott’s eyes were the darkest brown shyly hidden by the longest eyelashes she had ever seen on a boy. He was tall, lanky, awkward. The bench the two sat on was surrounded by teens with confidence on display. Stoners with faded jean jackets smoking cigarettes like some haphazard James Dean. Jocks with cocky smirks. All of them trying to prove they weren’t as insecure as everyone else. They were blurs behind Elliott’s apologetic smile and the chocolate stain on the side of his mouth that she couldn’t bring herself to tell him about.
The first two times, she went back to that moment just before it happened and she fixed it so he would not sacrifice himself. But it didn’t work.
The final time, considering that maybe she was too close in time to the actual occurrence, Sophia went back to that moment before they met. They were in line to go on the ride and he saw her, and she saw him. They were supposed to get on the ride together, where there was a spark and where the two knew they were meant to be. Instead, she got out of line and walked away.
Now back one final time to correct that mistake.
A man and woman, both in matching overalls and blue lensed goggles entered a hall where the backs of a crowd gazed up at a politician with a hundred dollar haircut on stage explaining the benefits of trickle-down economics. The man and woman stood unnoticed for a few seconds as they listened to the speech, holding their makeshift paint canons that looked like something from a low budget retro sci-fi movie. Decorating their overalls were crudely drawn symbols that represented their lost decade of youthful nonconformity and anger – the anarchy “A,” the Dead Kennedys “DK.” They raised their canons that were filled with blue paint at the crowd just as a police officer in the back corner of the room caught a glimpse of what could have been guns.
“Reagan was a shit, and so are you,” The man shouted at the politician on stage and squeezed the trigger, sending a splatter ball of paint into the middle of the crowd.
The officer opened fire, sending several shots through the starchy fabric of the overalls.
Heavy, dark gray clouds hung low in the dreary and threatening sky for most of the day until the promise of rain was fulfilled in the late afternoon. Leading up to the promise, foot traffic along Main Street gradually decreased as residents and students ran last minute errands and tried to beat the rain.
Four black SUVs and two black tractor trailers rolled through town on the way to the college. There were no insignias or lettering to identify their place of origin, except for the license plates that were U.S. government issued.
They rolled in with a heavy downpour that was a wall of murky camouflage. Rain soaked the streets and sent the few remaining people who had misjudged the timing of the storm scurrying for shelter, while the trucks barreled down Main Street at fifty plus miles an hour and picked up speed as the caravan left town and headed for campus. They were blurs in the murky gray that slipped through in the storm with barely a notice.
The campus police were there to greet the visitors as the caravan pulled into the parking lot. The faculty cars were already cleared out, and the section of path that led passed Sophia’s building was barricaded on the request of some authority figure with a list of government credentials who had phoned the Dean hours earlier. Heavy equipment exited the back of one of the tractor trailers. Men and women with big toolbelts followed. As a cluster of moving parts in an otherwise abandoned parking lot began to show some semblance of organization, two dark blue suits walked toward the building’s security door to greet another blue suit who was having trouble entering.
“Can I be honest?” Elliott asked and didn’t wait for the answer. “I hate those rides.”
Sophia found him cute, and awkwardly charming. There was no hiding vulnerability, guardedness or retreats. He was out there at all costs, feeling scared and alive for every minute. Elliott was a wounded bird who could tell jokes while trying to flap his broken wing and enjoy the sunshine, all in one experience. It amazed her.
“Then why did you go on the ride?
Elliott tried a confident smile, forced, and it came out like a young child trying to cover up eating all of the chocolate chip cookies.
“You will probably think I am lame, but here goes. Because you were getting on the ride.”
“But you don’t even know me.”
And Sophia didn’t know him, the first time they first met.
She knew about the other Elliott’s condition, the older Elliott. The visual impairment, and the disassociation with anything after the fire. She knew about the others too. None of it made sense how the manipulation of events could have caused such manifestations. More reason why such manipulation should never be done in the first place. Whatever the cause, the correlation was clear. The others didn’t belong after the day of the fire either – just like Elliott.
The rest of the night unfolded as it was supposed to. A summer night when chemistry met mathematics. Not destiny or fate because those things did not exist. Their meeting at that spot, at that time was based on probability of randomness, that even the slightest change and they would have never met, like deciding to use the bathroom or stopping to play a carnival game and the ride where the chemistry began between them never happens. Since it did happen, it became real. Try to alter, and her love spends a lifetime with a tortured consciousness, never to feel like a whole person, as if a living ghost.
Sophia went through the motions, holding back the tears until she could forget what was to come and just be. Like reminiscing. Smelling a smell that evoked a memory, or hearing a song that transported one back to that moment, or looking at photographs from a time gone by. Sophia climbed inside the photograph and lived the past.
With the sounds of the carnival amusements and concession stands winding down, end of the night, the crowd dwindling to a few stragglers left slogging through the exit. The smell of the beer garden and the cotton candy stand heavy in the air, they faced each other inches apart with awkward smiles and naïve hands that didn’t know where to be. They both laughed at something they were not prepared for and caught up in summer promises, like those songs said. Elliott and Sophia stood together outside of the carnival entrance, when all of their friends went home and the lights from the games and the rides went black in succession and the two were left eyes locked in the dark. Sophia licked her fingers and wiped away the chocolate smudge on the side of Elliott’s mouth and kissed him. Not the perfect dance that was in the movies, but it was plenty soft and warm, the kiss that drove tunnels of possibilities, that never were. Their lips touched for seconds, in months from that point in time, Elliott would be dead.
Sophia’s consciousness was hurled back through the infinitely long soap bubble of a tunnel. The feeling of return literally felt like her brain crashing into the back of her skull, as if she had stood in the vicinity of a concussive blast that sent a shock wave through her forehead. She immediately popped her eyes open and leaned out of the stationary cockpit to vomit in a bucket. Each return ended the same way, a concussion like feeling so severe that she heaved.
It usually took several minutes for Sophia to recuperate enough to stand without a sick dizziness preventing stability. Those several minutes also gave her time to cry. The physical side effects of the return were so intensely unpleasant to contribute to a strong emotional response that only exacerbated a much more profound feeling. Loss and mourning, all over again.
A sense of urgency expedited the recovery time when Sophia heard the security door lock disengage. She threw herself out of the cockpit and crawled toward the water tank, the room spinning like a carnival ride, the sick dizzy making it almost impossible to crawl straight. When Sophia reached the tank, she grabbed onto a handle and pulled herself up, far enough to slap an emergency button that automatically opened the door of the tank.
The two suits with a platoon of toolbelt technicians entered the building as the light floated from the tank upwards in the direction of the ceiling’s trapdoor completely unobserved. Below, technicians fanned out to the various instruments throughout the room and the suits approached Sophia who had loosened her grip on the handle and was letting herself descend to the floor for a slow and soft landing.
She was the keeper of secrets. About lost loves who never came back from the dead. About time machines that didn’t work. About lights in the sky that were the stuff of imagination. Tiny, insignificant lives. Great, big lies.
She laughed, with giant tears falling over the smile lines, looking up at the suits who looked back with chiseled chins and stoic expressions.
Above, the light shrunk enough to float through the small opening in the ceiling, where it hovered momentarily, then darted into the dark gray clouds.