Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
It had been three months since I’d taken my brother anywhere. The last place we’d gone together was our mother’s funeral. Since then Zack had been difficult, more so than usual, refusing to put on his shoes, shushing me when I asked him to do his chores, even screaming and pounding his fists when it was time to drive him to the recycling facility where he sorted paper as part of a program for developmentally disabled adults.
But he had agreed to visit the county fair, though in the car on the way he had bruised his knuckles knocking on the window glass, an old habit Mom and I thought we’d broken him of.
At the fair, we walked down aisles of blue-and-white striped tents that sold fried Twinkies and Dr. Pepper, Texas turkey legs and popcorn balls. Zack demanded it all; the whole night he’d been signing the first letters of every food item we passed. I remembered why I’d put off an outing. Fun was exhausting, especially with a brother who wanted so much and didn’t understand that he couldn’t have it. Between school and the stack of bills at home, I could barely afford the fair tickets. The income from Zack’s job only paid enough to cover gas to get him to work and back.
The word “no” always sets Zack off, so I didn’t say it when he asked for giant sugar cookies and lemonade and funnel cake. Instead I walked in front of him, leading him through throngs of people, searching out booths with those magical words on display: complimentary, FREE. Thus far I’d found a magnet for a car rental agency, a blue balloon, a plastic water bottle which featured the portrait of a cartoon cowboy, four pens and a dozen flyers, all of which Zack would cherish as much as his photo collection.
In the background, the midway’s steel roller coasters quaked like giants. The musk of barn animals drifted from the livestock pens near the rodeo hall. These were two places I wouldn’t take him. If I did – as he begged me to, his non-signing hand pointed permanently toward them – we would never leave. I also avoided any booths which might remind me of what I could no longer accomplish, with Zack to take care of; the local travel agent’s booth was hardest to avoid, with its posters depicting far off places, monuments and museums I would never visit.
Instead I followed a series of arrowed signposts with a word nearly as good as FREE: $1 Tours, in bold orange marker. They guided us to a circular purple building which seemed to be a modified Starship 2000, a ride that Zack and I had ridden often as children, when I was just his sister and not his caretaker; the UFO-shaped structure contained about two dozen pads, each as tall as a person, which everyone would lie against. The conductor in the middle would fiddle with his levers, start the carnival music, and the ride would spin around his command station. The centrifugal force would push us up to the ceiling and pin us to the walls, pull our grins wide like grotesque masks. The tour building was the same eggplant purple, but the lighted sign that stretched across its roof proclaimed a different name: The Bender. A ramp led to a door which led inside. At the gate stood a woman all in black despite the atrocious heat, one of the handmade signs in her manicured grip. Sweat shone on her bare arms, and the curve of her long fingers folded around the sharp of the sign’s edges made my stomach flutter. Two more women in black leaned against the wall.
“What is this?” I asked, an excuse to hear her speak. Zack waved to the woman. He’d always been a bit of a ladies’ man.
“This is the Super Spectacular Space Bender,” she said. She had a strange accent, unlike any I had ever heard. “The main hub for this Multiverse, designed to take you through space and beyond!”
I smiled. My palms were sweating. It had been a while since I’d spoken to a beautiful girl. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as Zack made his way to one of the other women and stuck out his hand. She shook it.
“Oh really?” I said. “How do you manage that?”
“Tours are only a dollar. Questions will be answered at the end, though we make no guarantee as to truths, or satisfactions, or even that the questions answered will be the questions you requested.”
In my wallet I had exactly five dollar bills. I handed her two – her fingers brushed mine as she took them – and called to Zack. When he wouldn’t come, the woman he’d shaken hands with took his arm. People were always doing that, helping. Sometimes they asked if I needed it first. Always, I wanted to say, I need more help than you can give. Zack followed the woman up the ramp and into the Super Spectacular Space Bender. I could think of nothing else to say, so I followed him.
Inside, the Bender was shaped like a giant donut, a thin hall stretched around what must have once been the circular control room in the middle, now closed off with a wall of its own. I only knew it was still there because of the single arched door to my right. The size of the hall was impossible. It seemed to stretch farther inward than the outside suggested, but I chalked the optical illusion up to the red-and-white striped circus tent wallpaper, which made me dizzy. The pads that lined the Starship 2000 were gone. Instead, rectangular steel doors obscured the wall to my left, no more than two feet between each, the door we’d come through lost in the repetition. The Bender smelled like sugar and sweaty children. I glanced down at the floor. It was transparent, though the only thing visible through it was the concrete platform on which The Bender stood. Kernels of popcorn had been smashed into the glass.
“Look up,” the woman who’d been holding the sign whispered into my ear, her breath hot. I did as she asked. The ceiling too was glass, and through it stars gleamed as if the light pollution of the fair didn’t exist.
“I know, right?” the woman said. She maneuvered her way to the front of the small crowd of five, my brother and I included, and began to shout. “Ladies and gents, welcome! I would like to entreat all of you to wander these halls. Please do look in the windows of any doors you find, for as you see there are many doors, and please feel free to speculate on the nature of what you see, though I can assure you, you will be wrong. But you must not open any door, no matter what you see inside. Many have been lost to the doors.” Her words echoed through the vast hallway.
I didn’t see Zack or the woman he had been talking to; they’d managed to slip away down the hall.
My sneakers squeaked against the glass floor as I searched for them. When I still could see only darkness ahead, no sign of my brother, I leaned over to peer through a round porthole window in one of the doors that should have led back outside. I couldn’t quite believe what was behind it. Men and women in suits stood around with cocktails in their hands. Off to the only corner of the room I could see, ravenous party guests surrounded a table of hors d’oeuvres.
But the room couldn’t exist. There wasn’t enough space for a large party room; there wasn’t space for any room.
“What the?” I said out loud. But before my question could be answered, I spotted Zack walking through the crowd behind the window, holding a plate of cakes. Damn it, I thought. That’s what I get for being distracted. I tried the knob. To my surprise, it turned. I entered the room and shut the door behind me.
I shuffled through the crowd. I thought I saw Zack’s shoulder, but when I touched it, the man who turned to face me wasn’t him. I darted about, searching, but he was nowhere to be found.
“Have you seen my brother?” I asked people. “Have you seen a guy with Down’s Syndrome? Doesn’t talk?”
One woman nodded, pointed. I followed her lead. The room was too big, and I didn’t understand how Zack could move so quickly; normally he was slow, always glancing back as he walked, double- then triple-checking, like a tic. A glitch in the Matrix, our father once called it, before he packed up and left one day, at mom’s request, promising to return once she had changed her mind. We were younger. His leaving didn’t mean I would be saddled with all the responsibility of a parent. We still had Mom back then.
For a moment, and I swear it was brief, I stopped. I didn’t want to find him. I thought about what the woman had said – lost through the doors – and it sounded like a way out. I could save all my money, see the world like I’d always planned.
But then I remembered my brother, how no one here would know his name. I kept on.
Finally I glimpsed what appeared to be the back of his dark mop of hair near the far wall. I hurried to him and placed my hand on his shoulder. As I did I realized it was too high to be Zack’s shoulder, and then the man turned.
It was our father.
Wrinkles bordered his eyes, and his hair was white and grey. We had never gotten to see him that way. The couple he’d been talking to went on talking, so he and I were left staring at one another. My father’s lips pursed tight. In his hand he held a glass of amber liquor.
“What are you doing here, Nikki?” he asked.
“Why are you here?” I said, stumbling over words.
He rolled his eyes. “That’s a stupid question if ever I heard one. I’m not allowed to have a party in my own apartment? Are you the party police now?”
“You’re not gone,” I said.
“Oh, for God’s sake. You really are your mother’s daughter. So dramatic.” He shrugged my hand off his shoulder. “Did you come to apologize?”
Suddenly I didn’t care why or how he was back, or what this life was behind the door. I wrapped my arms around his neck and hugged him tight. The liquor sloshed in the glass and wet a spot on my shirt, cold through the cotton.
“It’s been so long,” I said.
“Don’t cry. Please, don’t cry. You don’t have to say it,” he said.
“Zack!” I said. “Where is he?”
My father scowled. “In his room, I hope. I asked him to stay there. He was getting belligerent, upset at all these people, I suspect.”
“You did? But wasn’t he happy to see you?”
“For God’s sake. If you want to raise him, go right ahead.”
As if it had all been solved – all questions answered, all apologies for invented crimes assuaged – our father stormed into the crowd. I decided to seek out Zack. At least I could judge the situation by Zack’s reaction.
I went down the first hall I reached, trying each door I passed. The first was a bathroom, occupied. The second a closet. Zack’s was the third. I found him on the bed with his plate of cake beside him, though he wasn’t eating. Instead he peered down at the floor, shaking his head, one finger twisting in the air as if he were trying to point but couldn’t quite make the fingers work right. His common expression of anger.
“Hey buddy,” I said as I sat beside him. “How’s that cake?”
He didn’t look up right away, but when he did, I realized that the area around his eye was bruised black. Immediately my hands went to touch it, to make sure it was real, but he jerked away.
“Who did this to you?” I asked.
He grunted. He wouldn’t know how to answer; descriptions of people beyond girl and boy and hat were difficult for him.
“Did you see Dad?” I asked, hoping to calm him. As soon as Dad escaped my mouth, he was off, screaming, shrill and violent, as he slapped his hands against his thighs. At first I chalked this reaction up to Dad’s being back, which was confusing even for me.
Then I remembered that I’d passed beyond the door. The words had been right there, in that woman’s mouth. The main hub for this Multiverse, designed to take you through space and beyond! If that meant what I thought it could mean – I’d read about the multiverse once, freshman year, a time of mind-altering trips down strange ideas lane – then Zack and I might have gone through a door into a place where our father had never disappeared. Or maybe I was crazy. It could also be a dream, but one glance at Zack and his black eye told me it wasn’t. It was too real for that.
“Listen to me, Zack. Did Dad do that to you?” I asked. “Your eye?”
Zack stared at me, but he didn’t respond.
“Yes or no?” I said.
He shook his fist up and down: yes. A cold wave spread through my body.
I grabbed Zack’s hand and tried to pull him from the bed, but he was heavy and unwilling to follow me. “Be right back,” I told him. “I’m going to get help.”
To get him to move, I would need the help of a beautiful woman. I moved through the party, trying to avoid the eyes of guests whose unknown intentions now frightened me. I didn’t trust anyone here.
I ran, searching for the door. When I finally found it, I jerked it open and tumbled back into The Bender’s rank hall.
It was empty, and the circus tent wallpaper seemed to pulse in the light which flickered from elephant-shaped wall sconces. I hadn’t seen them earlier, but they were dust-covered and faded, as if they’d been there for years. I bent down to rest my hands on my knees. The floor no longer revealed the industrial platform it had before. Instead, black went on forever, dotted with stars. Dizziness forced me to press my hand onto the door, which was cool and slick beneath my palm. When I was once more able to stand, I looked again in the door’s window. Our father was clomping toward the hall, a taller, darker drink in his hand.
I ran the length of the hallway until I couldn’t breathe anymore. I wasn’t sure how far I’d come, but one of the many windows to my left showed me another place, a beach in winter, covered with snow. I peered into the window of the command center door, which seemed to have followed me as I ran; it was the same arched door I’d seen before, when I first entered the Bender. As I’d run, I could always see it to my right, in the corner of my eye. Through the window, the three women in black and a man in a purple fedora lounged in chairs shaped like high heels.
I opened the door. None of them stirred. Two of the women were touching heads, giggling. The third woman, the one from before, the whisperer, chewed her nails and peered at a black-rimmed flat-screen television – it even had the SAMSUNG logo below it – on the far wall above a huge wooden wheel like those you’d find on a ship. On the screen a mess of colored dots and arrows and blue lines like the streets on a GPS shifted and changed. I thought for a moment I saw the outline of a fox disappear off the screen. The man in the fedora was speaking too loudly for the size of the room: “Damn it all, the bloody foxbusters! Can you believe we made it out of there, all intact? Or mostly, anyway. Holy key limes, crewsters!”
“Excuse me,” I said. “I need your assistance. My brother went into one of the rooms, and he won’t come out. Please, it’s urgent. I need a woman.”
The man whistled. “I’ll say,” he said. “I would drink to that.”
The three women turned their heads. The one from earlier stood. “I remember you,” she said. “My name is Belinda. Your brother is fine. I led him to the midway myself. I suspected you may have gone through.”
“But I just saw him. He was at my father’s party. He had a black eye. I need to get him out of there.”
“Impossible!” said the man. “You can’t take him out with you.”
“You’re here only because you haven’t chosen,” Belinda said. “Your reality. That brother is not yours for the taking.”
“We have a plan for people like you,” said the man.
“People like me? Who the hell are you?”
“I’m Captain, of course. And I’m telling you, I know you. You’re unhappy with the way things are, back at home. You’re exhausted. You wake up every day on the wrong side of the road and wish you had a choice in it all. I’m here to tell you that you do. You have four choices, in fact.”
“Why won’t anyone help me get my brother?” I said.
Belinda reached out and squeezed my hand. “Please,” she said. “I’ll explain everything.” She turned to the man. “Captain, don’t you have some piloting to do? I’m afraid we’re quite off course.”
Belinda led me from the room so we could speak without distracting Captain, she said. She asked me to sit with her on the glass floor. I did, though I tried my hardest not to glance down.
“Don’t you worry,” she said. “You get used to feeling like you’re falling all the time.”
This is what she told me then: The Bender was indeed the hub for the Multiverse. I was smart, she said, to figure that out, never mind that she had flat out told me; no one ever believed the words of a state fair vendor, though they were often more true than a scientist’s. Each outer door led to a new reality. The brother I’d seen wasn’t mine, not really. Rather he belonged to the Nikki in his own world, a Nikki whose father had not left when she was young.
Then she told me that I was here, in the Primalverse with them, because I had not chosen a future. I had seen a world behind a door, and it had raised a question. I was asking myself if one of these realities might hold a happier me. This was a question she said she could not answer. This was the reason I would be given a choice.
Three doors. I had gone through my first and found it wanting. I could go through two more, experience those realities, see if they held an ideal world. After the third, I would be forced to choose. Any of the three I’d visited, or my own, which waited frozen for me, though it would not wait forever. I had twenty-four hours, and that was all. Already I had used a quarter of that time.
I didn’t say to her what it was flashed through my head; would there be a world where my brother could take of himself, where he could speak? Or where our mother had not left me with a man-sized burden?
I set the timer on my watch.
I searched the windows for a scene that called to me. Vibrant landscapes, dull white rooms I passed on, until I came to a window which revealed my mother’s house as it had appeared that morning. Only here, the light shone through the living room as it no longer did. Rarely did we open the curtains anymore; it would be like a betrayal of our grief.
As soon as I felt the brown shag beneath my feet, I smelled the sugar scent of chocolate chip cookies just browned enough to take from the oven. Mom always burned them; she couldn’t smell them being done as I could. I rushed into the kitchen, slipped the potholders onto my hands, and pulled the sheet from the oven.
“Oh, I forgot about them again,” said my mother’s voice from the hall.
“Thanks, dear. I guess you came just in time.”
Mom wore her ratty blue robe, a staple in her dying days, but she seemed different in it now. Her face glowed with life. Her hair was combed and wet, her cheeks free of the pillow marks that had taken over like wrinkles when she’d been confined to bed for weeks at a time. Her skin was smooth, and when I hugged her, hard, it smelled of soap and powder.
She hugged me just as hard back – always she had understood that sometimes, without explanation, people just need to feel the pressure of love – but she whispered into my ear: “Is everything okay? You seem frazzled.”
“It’s just you, Mom. You’re here. You look so good.”
“Why, thank you.” Mom pulled back, held her arms out to her side. “I gussied up just for you.” I was aware of tears in my eyes. Mom noticed them too, pulled me back into the hug. “Nikki, what happened?”
“You’re okay,” I said. “I had a dream, that you were dead.”
“I’m fine. I’m going to live a long time yet. You don’t have to worry about me.” She kissed the top of my hair like she used to do when I was a little girl. “What we do have to worry about is these cookies sticking to the pan. You want to help me?”
I began slipping the spatula under the cookies and moving them to the cooling rack. “Is Zack still asleep?” I asked. The clock told me it was noon, but he’d been known to sleep all day if we let him.
“Who?” Mom picked up a cookie and blew on it.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Mom popped the cookie in her mouth, held her hand to my forehead.
“I’m fine.” I arranged three cookies on a plate. “I’m going to go wake him up.”
“Wake who up?”
“Zack, Mom. You know, your other child?”
“I don’t get the joke.”
That familiar wave of cold again. Without answering, I walked through the house to the hall, moved down it, checking doors as I went, light-headed. Deja fucking vu, I thought. All the rooms were the same, except for his. Where before his door had led to a dark den with a bed, a shelf of stuffed animals, a CD rack and a Djembe drum abandoned in the corner, now the room was filled with craft supplies: a sewing machine, several boxes of buttons, a few plastic containers full of beads and string. On the table by the far window a pair of pants dangled, empty of a body. Just like the room.
Mom appeared in the doorframe. “What’s going on with you?”
“I don’t have a brother?” I asked.
She shook her head, slowly.
“Sorry,” I said. “I must have dreamt that too. I’m tired. I’m just not feeling like myself is all.”
“You should lie down. I worry about you. Are you sleeping enough? You can’t let school stress you out, okay? You need an outlet. Do you have an outlet?”
My smile broke through. It was nice to have someone who worried. I’d forgotten how much it meant, how much I missed it.
“I do yoga,” I lied. “I’m fine. Stress is in line.”
I couldn’t lie down, not with Mom there, the scene so ordinary with the plate of cookies, her mug of cold coffee. I joined her at the table, closing my eyes as I slid into the seat. Every part of this I wanted to remember completely. We talked about school and romance, and I repeated every word she said in my head, hoping to commit them to memory. I told her I’d been so busy I didn’t have time for love. She said that was okay, that I would make time when I was ready, when I found the right man…or woman, she added. I didn’t say I doubted that was true, that there was no time to make, what with all my responsibilities. I could tell from the way her head tilted far to the side when she spoke to me that in this reality, I didn’t have responsibilities. She mentioned my father in a way that told me he had abandoned us here, too. I tried not to think of the father I’d met earlier.
Despite the warmth my mother radiated, our conversation felt hollow. I couldn’t tell her what I wanted to, couldn’t speak to her about grief, about Zack. I had to edit myself to keep from slipping Zack into the conversation, had to skirt around his existence. Without being able to confide everything in my mother, I felt as if I could confide nothing.
I couldn’t choose her at the expense of Zack.
I asked her for an old picture book I knew it would take a long time to find. Once she left the room, I went through the front door. There are some things you don’t want to have to do twice, and saying goodbye to a mother is one of them.
This time when I reentered The Bender, miniature stuffed animals were suspended from strings attached to the glass ceiling with duct tape. A llama brushed the top of my head as I ducked into the hall. They had been sewn from colored felt, deep reds and blues, beige, none of the usual flashy colors. I lifted my hand and let my fingers brush them: a lion, a bat, an earthworm. I held my breath and stared up at them until I could no longer see them as separate entities, just one colored blur above, blocking out the stars. I felt as if they were mine to see alone, and for a moment the choke in my throat from seeing my mother lessened.
From the control room, I heard music, what sounded like a synthesized polka. Also, voices. When I opened the door, the control room was different. Strips of silver hung from this ceiling and sparkled in the light of paper lanterns. The shoe-shaped chairs in which the crew had previously sat were now the shape of red lips, and I couldn’t see the crew, though I could hear them laughing.
As I crept further into the room, they came gradually into focus. Each of them wore a jumpsuit which matched the decorations so perfectly they had blended in. Captain came toward me, and as he did the colors of his clothes shifted with the objects he passed.
“Back so soon?” he said. “Still haven’t found your bread crumbs, then?”
“Not quite,” I said. “What’s the occasion?”
“For the party? What isn’t the occasion?” Here he leaned in so close I could feel his hot breath. Unlike Belinda’s, his churned my stomach. “I don’t know how you got here, you know. Usually people get stuck in the doors. Once they leave, they don’t ever come back. But you, Ms. Nikki, you found us here in the void. You must be a special kind of woman.”
“I’m not,” I said, backing away. “At least not in the way you would like.”
“If you say so,” he said. “Would you like a wink of wing juice? The bottle says toxic, but we think that just means enjoy in moderation!”
“No thanks,” I said. From the screen against the wall I heard a frantic beeping. A huge red dot was moving toward the smaller green, both of them traveling the length of a blue line. “Shouldn’t you be controlling the ship?”
“He doesn’t,” Belinda said, “control the ship.”
Captain mumbled his way back to one of the chairs.
“Why is he called Captain then?”
Belinda leaned in. “He likes to think he controls things. Really it’s us – me mostly – does the controlling.” She smiled. “He’s more like our entertainment. He likes you, though. We all do.”
“That’s nice,” I said. “Those other two haven’t really talked to me.”
“Those animals,” I said. “Who made them?”
“Do you like them?” She beamed. “I won them for you. I thought they might make you feel more at ease.”
“They did. Thank you.”
“Have you made your decision?”
“No,” I said. “I still have one door to go.”
She placed her hand on my shoulder. It seemed everyone was doing that these days. I’d forgotten how she had first made my stomach jump.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” she said. “Go.”
Choosing the third door was more difficult. No obvious choice presented itself, and so I rushed from door to door and pressed my hand against each, trying to let my skin decide. Most of them were cool, the same temperature as the hall, but then I came to one where the cold of the steel bit into my hand, startling in its variance from the others. I looked through the window and knew my choice had been made.
The other side of the door left me feeling immediately as if my choice had been wrong. I’d felt drawn from the window to its stark whiteness – how boring it seemed – as I used to be drawn to smaller Christmas presents, sure that they would hold the best treasure, as they so often did. But once the smell came at me – bleach and laundry detergent – I felt overwhelmed by the decision I would soon be forced to make. Still, I walked on.
I was in some sort of laundry facility. Washers thumped on one side of the room, dryers on the other. There were no people around. I found another door which led to a hallway that reeked of antiseptic. Down the hall, with closed doors to either side, I found a check-in desk like those at doctor’s offices. Behind the desk sat a woman. Her attention was occupied by a sheet of paper before her.
“Excuse me,” I said.
She looked up. Her eyes brightened. “Ms. Nikki,” she said. “We haven’t seen you in quite some time.”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “I’ve been busy.”
“I know,” she said. “How was the Czech Republic? I’ve seen some of your show.”
“You know, Zack’s very proud of you.” She leaned across the desk, as if she were going to tell me a secret. “Some of the nurses don’t think Zack understands very much, but I think he understands more than he lets on. He sees you on the TV sometimes, and he points, he laughs.” The television caught her eye, and she pointed upwards. “Speak of the devil,” she said.
On the TV, I stood before the backdrop of Prague’s Old Town Square, which was teeming with people and stalls selling colored eggs and beer in plastic cups. A logo in the corner read, TravelTimes with Nikki Nolan. The last name wasn’t mine; I was a Lyle, not a Nolan. Sure enough, as I held a fat soft pretzel up to the camera, a solid silver band glinted on my finger.
I wondered who she or he was, if she traveled with me. If I’d seen all of the world. What was it like out there, an almost infinite number of doors to choose from? Was I in love, with the world and with a someone and with the life I’d been able to live?
“Can I see my brother?” I asked.
“Of course,” said the woman. After I stood there a minute too long, she frowned. “Did you forget? Room 216,” she said.
I found 216, a wood and rough-grained door with a shiny gold knob. Inside Zack slept face down atop the blankets. I’d seen him sleep like that before, and it made me laugh. I said his name. His head jerked up. He looked older, much older than me, which he was – ten years older, in fact – but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized I might be older too. To be out there seeing the world as I was, I must have already completed college.
I gawked at the mirror hung on the backside on his door. I looked the same. Of course, people with Down’s syndrome often age more quickly, but Zack had always seemed so youthful in our reality, like a child. Perhaps, I thought, looking around at his dull white room, he’d matured. Or the home was to blame. I’d read that homes could do that to a person, worsen a condition. Being in a strange place would certainly stress Zack out, make him less comfortable than our own home. He wouldn’t like the bare walls, the absence of faces he had known since childhood.
He didn’t smile when I said hello, but he had never done that. I rushed to his bedside and hugged him close.
“I’ve missed you.” I didn’t know if it meant anything to him, but I had to say it. “How have you been?”
Zack swung his legs over the side of the bed. His eyes were trying to close against the light, still lazy with sleep.
“How have you been, Zack? Good, bad, okay?” I held my thumb up, down, to the side.
He gave me a thumbs up.
“Good? You’ve been good?”
He held two fingers in the center of his palm.
“Hot dog? You want a hot dog? I’m sure we could arrange that.”
I held out my hand, and he took it. I asked him to lead me to the cafeteria, but he kept falling back, so I followed the signs and led him there instead. The cafeteria was located in a large room with a serving line at the front, where a handful of patients moseyed with trays in hand. Round orange tables were scattered across the black-and-white tile, few of them filled. Zack and I waited through the line, and though there were no hot dogs, there were hamburgers, which we both ordered plain with ketchup only. I always used to forget that he didn’t like vegetables on his sandwiches, but it seemed important that I remember, at least this once.
We sat at a table near the back and ate. He repeated the hot dog sign a couple of times, so I had to point at his burger, sweep my hand down in an L – later. Later was another one of the words Zack hated. He shook his head, uttered his guttural no!
“It’s okay, Zack. Be happy, okay?”
And it was true, it was okay. There I was, watching him eat his burger, and it had only been less than twenty-four hours – I glanced at my watch, twenty-two hours, in fact – but it felt like weeks. “How long have I left you here?” I asked, voice shaking.
He didn’t answer, and I didn’t want him to. I knew it had been a long time, regardless that I still looked the same age, and he so much older. But, despite the graying hair, he still had the same tics, the same contempt for words, the same demands for the same foods. It was me who was really different. It was the smallest of changes, but it was significant; I couldn’t live in a world where my life hadn’t included my brother, despite him being happy, despite my own apparent happiness. There had to be some way to see the world and take care of my brother, some way to make it work.
I kissed the top of his hair; it smelled of oil and eucalyptus shampoo, his favorite back at home, too. I couldn’t say I was sorry. That word too was forbidden. Instead I thought it, tried to make him know it from the way my eyes met his. He kept eating his fries.
I backed out of the cafeteria, and once hidden from his view I ran through the halls, back to the laundry room door, slipping on the white tile. I burst through the door back into The Bender.
Belinda was waiting in the hall. Her jumpsuit shone purple in the light. She looked at her watch as I emerged.
“Cutting it close,” she said. “Forty minutes left. Have you decided?”
“Well, hold it in a bit longer. I have a proposition for you.” She took my hand. Together we entered the control room through the arched door. Captain was in a corner of the room, which now displayed the same striped wallpaper as the hall. The other women weren’t around. Without music or Captain blaring, I could make out the intermittent whir of an engine in the walls.
“Does Captain do anything but goof off?”
“He makes a mad orange scone,” Belinda said. “And his party tricks are to die for. He does this thing with an apple and a mouse. Absolutely brilliant. Though it does take some doing to find a suitable rodent.”
She stopped before the screen, pointed upward. Her other hand, soft and sweaty, squeezed mine. I tilted my head, and a giant ball of blue-green pulsated before me, waves of light snaking like tentacles from its center. It was so beautiful my breath left me. I raised my hands to the top of my head.
“I want you,” she said, “to stay with us.”
I looked back to her. She too was beautiful, though I hadn’t really noticed just how beautiful. I had trained myself not to fully notice things like that – too little time to stop and consider faces, lips; hers were right there in front of me, as if she was daring me to notice them, full and pink, curved up at the ends in a mysterious smile. I kissed her because I could.
“Is that a yes?” she asked when we parted. “Wait, don’t answer.” She turned to the screen, keyed in some letters and numbers, hit the red button. “Look at this, first. A complete map of this place, the Primalverse. We can show you so much.”
On the screen new dots winked and rotated. Upon closer inspection, I saw that five of the dots were shaped like ships. They drifted about in the void.
“What are those other ships?” I asked.
“Other hubs, for other universes. Where you don’t exist, where you don’t have to worry at all about family. About any of it. The craziest stuff you’ve ever seen lurks behind the doors in those ships. I can take you there. We can travel them together. I’m due for a vacation, after all.”
“Hundreds. This map is just the edge.”
The desert was nothing compared to this. Belinda’s hand was still in mine, and her lips had left the taste of salt. It made me thirsty. The intersecting colors on the screen resembled a piece of modern art you might see in a famous gallery, obscure and inspiring. Just watching it made my mind race. There is a difference between imagining love from a ring on a finger and feeling it right in front of you, an arm’s reach away. But there was no way to tear myself in two, to be both the people I wanted to be. I shook my head, slowly at first, then faster.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think I can.”
“He’s safe,” Belinda said. “We can make him safe for you. But you can’t ever go back there. You can’t enter any of these doors again, not in this hub.”
“You want me to give up my home?”
“Trade your home, for hundreds of others.”
There was a woman’s hand in mine, the soft warmth of skin I hadn’t felt in two years now, ever since Mom got sick. What would it be like, I wondered, to have someone to hold onto?
I looked down at our clasped hands. The timer blinked on my wrist. Twenty minutes, it read. I felt my heart speed. What if I just stayed here, right until the end? Made my decision at the last minute? Waited until my heart was beating so fast I couldn’t stand it anymore?
But I couldn’t. I would regret even this hesitation. I let go of her hand. I glanced around the control room once more, but I didn’t look at the screen. I didn’t look at the floor or the ceiling. I looked at the dizzying walls, at the sleeping Captain. I didn’t look at Belinda.
As I turned, I felt her hand, for a moment, enter my pocket, like she was trying to hold me back. I jerked myself away and continued through the door. Walked down the hall. All the doors appeared the same, and for a panicked moment I wondered how I would be able to recognize it; there wasn’t time to peer through each and every window.
But then I felt it, the sweltering heat of Texas drifting through the air-conditioned building. I looked through the window at fairgoers paused, frozen, as they pushed toward promises of life-changing visions and best value makeovers. A woman stood before The Bender, brows pinched in confusion, her mouth open, as if she’d been speaking to the invisible space where, an instant before, Belinda had stood. I exited.
Down the ramp I ran, across the paths, kicking dirt up into my mouth, zigzagging through the immobile mob. The bright lights of the midway arched before me, until I stood beneath them. The timer on my watch told me I had five minutes to go. I didn’t want Zack to be without me any longer. I didn’t want to be without him.
I knew where he would have gone: the roller coaster.
The line was long, but I spotted him toward the back. I ducked under the queue rope and stood beside him. His hands straight down by his sides, the fanny pack he always wore loose around his waist, his bright green shoes tied tight. He was half-smiling. That would change once he realized I’d returned. He’d be even angrier when he realized he needed ten tickets to ride the coaster.
But right now, he was the brother he’d been when we were little and we played Uno together or camped in our backyard, pretending our parents were a distant memory. We didn’t have to pretend anymore, and it wasn’t like we’d thought it would be then, endless cookies and late nights.
When we get home, I thought, I’ll make you cookies.
I leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. He would never let me do that. With two minutes left, I put my hands into my pocket, felt something there, and pulled out a sheet of bright red tickets. I recalled the weight of Belinda’s hand. I grinned.
I reached down and slipped the tickets into Zack’s open palm, closed his fist around them. Then I ducked back under the rope, looked him over one more time, and went around to the exit. There I would wait for him, to rouse, to ride, to go home.
About the Author
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s fiction and poetry has appeared in magazines such as The Toast, Clarkesworld, PRISM International, and Lightspeed. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and curates the annual Art & Words Show in Fort Worth, Texas. She lives with her partner and two literarily-named cats: Gimli and Don Quixote.
About the Narrator
Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime.
She runs Escape Artists with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to voice minor characters in podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch.
Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives.
You can follow her adventures across various social media platforms.