These are the first 3 chapters of THE PATHS BETWEEN WORLDS by Paul Antony Jones. These pages are raw and not completely edited, and should not be distributed or shown elsewhere. Thanks so much for your support!
The Paths Between Worlds
This Alien Earth series (Book One)
PAUL ANTONY JONES
The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
~Carl Sagan – Pale Blue Dot
I got the letter kicking me out of Berkeley the same day Oscar Kemple’s Mom called to tell me she had turned off his life support. It’d be easy to blame everything that happened after that on those two coincidental events, but the truth is, I was already on a downward spiral; I just didn’t see how close I was to crashing face first into the ground. I can hear what you’re saying: Meredith, don’t be so hard on yourself. You weren’t to blame. And that’s mostly true, I guess; after all, the asshole driving the Ford F150 is where my life really changed. But here’s the crazy thing, the one thing that surprises me the most; even knowing what I know now, if I could go back and change what happened, I don’t think I would.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with Oscar.
Oscar is, or rather was, my best friend. There had never been anything romantic between us, just a really strong connection that started the moment we bumped into each other in the junior high library. He pulled the book I wanted (the latest Harry Potter, if I remember right) and must have seen the look of disappointment on my face because, without a moment’s hesitation, he smiled and handed it to me. Turns out, we shared a lot in common; we liked all the same stuff; the same music, the same movies, the same books. And, to cap it all off, as we each grew into our teenage years, I liked guys and so did he—so it really was a friendship made in geekdom heaven. We made it through junior high school together, suffering all the associated ignominy of that period of our young lives; me the relentless target of bullying for being a ‘copper top’, ‘little orphan Annie’, or ‘freckle face’, and finally, every school bully’s favorite go-to insult for redheads, a ‘soulless ginger’. Oscar for who he was attracted to.
On my 15th birthday Oscar handed me a small package neatly wrapped in shiny silver wrapping paper with an orange-ribbon bow. Inside was a copy of Anne of Green Gables that he’d picked up from a second-hand bookstore. That night, after the few friends I’d had over to celebrate left, I’d sat in my room and begun to read the book and the adventures of its eponymous red-headed heroine. I finished it in one sitting. The next day at school, I’d rushed up behind Oscar and delivered a quote from the book, “Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”
Oscar had laughed, hugged me, and without even thinking about it, I had kissed him. It wasn’t a romantic thing, not in the boyfriend-girlfriend sense, it was just an expression of my absolute love for my friend, my very best friend. It was...natural. He was my first kiss and I his, and when we pulled back from each other, we were both beaming like the proverbial Cheshire Cat and his doppelgänger. “Well, that was unexpected, Carrots,” he said, calling me by the same nickname Anne’s eventual Green Gabel’s love-interest had given her. And from that day onward, I was officially Carrots, and every time he called me by it, I smiled. That moment, it’s the best memory I have, and I hold on to it like it’s the most precious thing I possess of my old life. Because it is.
After high school, Oscar was quickly accepted to Caltech, and graduated as a Materials Scientist with a job offer from Dow Corning that would have set him up for life. By the time I found myself sitting at my first UC Berkeley Law school class, I’d spent four of the previous six years as a mild-mannered receptionist by day, and five evenings a week at my local community college to earn an Associate Degree. Add to that another two years to earn my Bachelor of Science, and you can pretty much see why I’d stayed single for most of those six years, except for the occasional brief romantic fling. I hadn’t ever really wanted to be a lawyer, but I thought it would be a good foundation for a move into the political arena, which was where I felt my true calling in life really lay. Still, at that moment in time my future looked brighter than I could ever have hoped for...right up until it didn’t.
It was Christmas 2015 and I was one year in at Berkeley Law. Oscar and I hadn’t seen each other in almost six months, so when he called to tell me he was going to be home visiting his parents at the same time I was on winter recess I could barely contain my excitement. We had a lot to catch up on. So that’s how he came to be a passenger in my car as we drove home early from a Christmas party that had turned out to be nowhere near as exciting as it had promised to be. Oscar, never one to let a moment of happiness slip by uncelebrated, sat in the front-passenger seat blasting Beyoncé’s Single Ladies from the car stereo. We were both giving the Queen B a run for her money, singing along at the top of our voices, Oscar moving and grooving to the rhythm as he drummed out the song’s beat on the dashboard with his hands. He’d had a drink or three, and he was happy and relaxed. I’ve always taken everyone else’s safety more seriously than my own, so I’d stuck to diet-Coke. Despite my sobriety, the drive home was turning out to be more fun than the party that evening; an evening that should have become nothing more than a vague memory for the both of us.
That was not to be.
The last memory I have before both our lives took a sharp-right turn was stealing a glance at Oscar as he sang and bopped to the beat of the pounding music. So young. So happy. So full of potential and promise. I can still see his face smiling back at me just as the Ford F150 ran the stop sign, its headlights flooding the car’s interior, creating a momentary halo around Oscar a second before the two-ton truck slammed into us at fifty-five miles-an-hour.
The next thing I remember was waking up in a hospital bed, three days after the crash with a concussion, broken wrist, and a fractured femur that left me with a permanent hitch in my step. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, and a crippling addiction to OxyContin. But it was Oscar who got the grand prize; he spent the final year-and-a-half of his life in a hospital bed hooked up to a bunch of machines, in what the doctors classified as ‘unresponsive wakefulness syndrome.’
The asshole in the F150 walked away without even a scratch. I’ve always thought it was a sign of just how screwed up our existence is when a single second of time can divert your life for better or for worse, depending on what side of a decision it falls. A moment’s delay here or there and your life is suddenly moving down a completely unexpected road. It was only much later that I would truly understand the massive implication of that simple observation, how a simple choice can quite literally save or end a universe.
Again, I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, two surgeries on my leg followed by four months of outpatient treatment and physiotherapy later, I was on my feet again. The Oxycontin my doctor prescribed after I’d been released from hospital took the edge off the residual pain enough for me to get back to my classes at Berkeley. Then my insurer decided they wouldn’t pay for the pain meds anymore and I was suddenly and irrevocably cut off. I wasn’t particularly worried. I had enough pills to last me the rest of the week, and when they were gone I’d do as my doctor suggested and just switch over to Tylenol and leave that period behind me. Done. Over. Deep breath; time to get on with my life.
But a half-a-day after I’d swallowed my last pill, I started feeling the first uncomfortable effects of withdrawal. As the day went on, the discomfort graduated to a pain so intense even my bones hurt. Over-the-counter pain pills had no effect whatsoever, and by that evening I was at the local bar, searching for anyone who could hook me up with something to take away the terrible sensation I had of rotting from the inside-out. It wasn’t hard to find him, and from that day on, my habit was fed mostly by cash transactions in the bathroom at the local Denny’s.
I won’t bore you with too much of the gory details, but as my habit got worse I started missing classes. Just one or two at first but within a matter of months I was spending more time in my apartment getting high, than I was at Berkeley. Then I stopped going to class altogether. I told myself I could always catch up; the faculty would understand. After all, I was traumatized, I needed the down time. Everything would be just fine. Everything felt fine...until reality finally caught up with me.
Which brings me to earlier this afternoon.
With not a dime to my name and out of Oxy, I’d woken around mid-day with the red-hot grip of withdrawal already beginning to melt my insides. My mind refused to focus, constantly slipping from thought to thought as I tried to come up with a way, any way, to scrounge up some money, but my friends wouldn’t loan me another dime; I’d burned those that had stuck around one too many times, already. I’d sold or pawned everything I had of any value. Rent on my apartment was due in two days, but I’d already spent that. I had nothing left. I was twitchy, constantly pacing back and forth from bedroom to living room to bathroom to kitchen, my mind a fog of disjointed thoughts, paranoia, and fear. Finally, unable to deal with the constant feeling of uneasiness, I walked out to the street. There were a couple of fliers in my mailbox...and a letter from the university.
For the attention of Meredith Anne Gale, the envelope read in laser printed letters above my mailing address, Berkeley’s return address in the upper left. I was seized with a sudden sense of hope; there had been a clerical error and inside this crisp white envelope I’d find a nice little check. Just sixty bucks or so would be enough for me to score some Oxy and get my head straight again for a day or two. That’d buy me enough time to sort myself out, get myself back on track. My heart began beating faster, saliva filling my mouth in anticipation. A smile sprang onto my face and I felt a surge of anticipation. Tossing the fliers, I tore open the envelope, pulled out the neatly folded sheet of paper within and began to read it:
Dear Miss Gale,
Despite numerous attempts by our staff to contact you, we hereby notify you that your position within the Criminal Law curriculum has been revoked due to lack of attendance. While we understand that there have been mitigating circumstances...blah, blah, blah...
If you feel this decision has been reached in error you may appeal by... blah, blah, blah...
The air seemed suddenly heavy...abrasive against my skin as a growing pressure pushed against my chest. I let the letter slip from my fingers. It fluttered to the sidewalk, where a gust of wind caught it, and carried it off down the street. I stood motionless, watching the piece of paper as it tumbled away, taking with it the last vestige of my future and everything that I had worked so goddamn hard for since leaving high school.
Above the roof of my apartment building, angry rainclouds scudded across the sky toward me, dark and menacing, bringing with them a promise of chaos. I watched their approach with a growing sense of foreboding as, with each passing second, my chest grew tighter and tighter, as though the storm were attracted to the growing desperation within me, like some kindred force. Unable to look away, I might have stayed like that for eternity if I hadn’t felt my phone vibrating against my thigh. Without taking my eyes from the sky, I slowly reached down with a hand that seemed to be encased in molasses and slipped the phone from my pocket.
“Yeah?” I mumbled.
“Meredith? Is that you?”
I recognized the voice instantly; Oscar’s mom, June.
After the accident, Oscar’s parents had transferred him to a hospital near their home in Studio City, so they could be closer to him. They had never forgotten the friendship their son had with me, which I was thankful for, even though it was always they who called me. It had been a long time since their last update, and I was glad to hear her voice, mainly because they were good Christian people. Generous to a fault. Which was just what I needed right then because I hadn’t ever hit them up for any kind of a loan and I knew they were well-to-do. I took a deep breath, pushed the swelling panic within me down into the darkness and tried to make my voice sound as normal as possible. In the back of my mind I was already concocting a sob story about how I’d been robbed and left penniless with no way to pay my rent or buy food. I felt that warm, nagging glow of anticipation return. I was beginning to feel better already.
“Hi, Mrs. Kemple, how are you?” I said, finally dragging my eyes from the ominous clouds. “How’s Oscar doing?”
There was a long pause before June spoke again and my paranoid mind thought that maybe, just maybe, she had somehow figured out what I was up to. When she did speak, June’s words were like a sledgehammer against my heart, somehow able to batter their way past all the pain and the incessant needling of my addiction.
“Oscar passed this morning, honey,” she said, her voice hushed and slow. “I... I wasn’t sure if anyone had told you yet.”
“Wh... What?” I stuttered. My head swam, and a fog descended over my vision. My legs suddenly unable to hold me up, I crumpled to the sidewalk, my free hand resting on the side of the mailbox to stop me from tipping over completely.
“I’m sorry, Meredith. It was, well...it was just time. We couldn’t let him go on like...like that.”
At the sound of those last two words, the image of Oscar laying in his hospital bed the last time I had visited him, surrounded by machines, tubes coming from his mouth and his sides, flashed into my head. The only sound the constant beep, beep, beep of the electronic monitors. And the smell, that antiseptic, unmistakable hospital scent that barely masks the smell of dying and despair.
June continued, “Richard and I... well, we decided it was for the best.” She paused for what seemed like forever waiting for me to say something, but I found no words to fill the expanding emptiness. The knowledge that they had ended my best friend’s life, my only friend, without even giving me the chance to say goodbye drove an invisible spear through me, skewering me to the spot. “Meredith, are you there?” June eventually whispered. I could hear the barely hidden river of her agony flowing behind the words.
I had tried to blame myself after the accident, but June and Richard refused to allow me to do that, placing the blame squarely on the driver of the F150. But secretly, I knew I was still the one to blame; if I had just taken a different route or stayed and talked to a couple of our friends for just a few seconds longer, everything would have been oh so different. None of this would have happened. Oscar would still be alive, and I would still have been me, not this strung out, drug-addled addict. That one second would have made all the difference and this version of the universe would have never existed. Everything would have been...right.
“I’m sorry,” I managed to whisper, my voice cracking.
“It’s not your fault, sweetheart. You know we don’t blame you. And it’s all for the best,” June’s voice whispered in my ear.
I began to cry. I’m not sure if I was crying because of the news of Oscar’s death or the letter kicking me out of law school or the pain of the withdrawal that was already turning my body and mind into mush. I guess, if I’m honest, I’m going to go with the withdrawal pain because that was symptomatic of what I had become back then; selfish, negligent and, ironically, considering the source of my addiction, in almost constant pain from the residual effects of the accident. But this news about Oscar, well, it was a pretty close second. The combined weight of it all broke me. Somewhere inside, an invisible dam buckled, crumbled, fell. And the reservoir of self-loathing and despair it held back spewed its poison into me.
“Fa...fa...thanks for letting me know,” I sniffled and hung up the phone. I hadn’t offered a single word of comfort to June, and that’s something I’ll never forgive myself for, but at that moment I felt absolutely empty. And that emptiness was a relief, because even the withdrawal pain was gone, replaced by an emotional void, black and bottomless. I felt as though I was just a sack of skin, inflated by the fumes of that toxic, black nothingness. Dead. And if this was what it felt like to be dead, then I welcomed it, because there was no pain, no guilt, no caring, nothing.
It was already late afternoon and the shadows of the trees lining the street stretched across the road, reaching for me like skeletal-fingers. I pushed myself to my feet, stared at my apartment building then staggered off in the opposite direction just as the first plump drops of rain began to splatter on the sidewalk.
I was soaked through within the first minute, but I didn’t care. Couldn’t care, not anymore. So, I kept walking, my eyes cast downward, permanently fixed to the continually unwinding concrete pavement just a few feet ahead of me.
One step. Two steps. Repeat.
I don’t know how long I walked, have no real memory of the journey, but by the time I looked up again, the sun was setting, and my familiar neighborhood was gone. Ahead of me I saw the lights of the Oakland side of the Bay Bridge stretching out into the San Francisco Bay, the city-lights of the bay’s namesake glowing in the darkening sky beyond. What should have been a beautiful ethereal sight was nothing but pain-inducing to my bulging eyes. A walking path extended over the span of the bridge, and I followed it, the oncoming lights from cars heading to Oakland slicing through the gathering darkness just a few feet from where I staggered through the rain that now fell in ice-cold sheets.
The emptiness that had consumed me after I hung up on Oscar’s mom was still within me and, as if the darkness that filled me sensed the approach of night, seemed to be growing as the sun’s last rays vanished from the horizon.
Blackness within. Blackness without, I thought.
I continued walking, the foot path black and shiny with pooling rainwater. When I reached the center of the Oakland span, I stopped. In the distance, the lights of the Golden Gate Bridge sparkled and scintillated. Unlike its sister, the Bay Bridge had no safety nets to catch a jumper who was willing to simply climb over the waist-high metal security fence and step off into the freezing waters of the San Francisco Bay. Until that moment, I hadn’t fully understood why I was here, why my feet had led me to this place. Now it was all perfectly clear; there was nothing for me; no one who cared for me; no reason to stay. The final frayed ties to this life all broken. This was the place. Here was where it would all end. I was about a mile or so out over the bay, almost at the half-way point of the Oakland span. Far enough, I decided. I stopped, but as I laid my hands on the rain-slick metal, I saw a cyclist approaching along the path toward me, his head bowed to keep the rain from his eyes, water spinning off his bike’s wheels.
Somewhere within the blackness that had once been me, a small spark of hope sputtered into life and began to gradually expand; a dim light weakly illuminating the void. This had to be a sign, it told me. A final attempt by a seemingly indifferent universe to grab my attention; to give me a chance.
If he stops it means he cares. It would mean I mattered.
The cyclist rode by without even glancing up at me.
The spark vanished.
Now all I wanted was an end to this torture.
I grasped the cold metal of the safety-barrier with both hands, climbed over and lowered myself down onto the thin lip of concrete extending out just a couple of inches, my back pressed against the railing. Below me was nothing but a black mirror; the only evidence there was anything other than oblivion down there, the refracted light of headlights on the shore-road bouncing off the waves of the bay. If I could peer down through the darkness and the driving rain into the glassy waters of the bay would I see the same gaunt reflection I’d seen this afternoon when I’d found myself staring, for no good reason that I could remember, into the bathroom vanity mirror? Bright red hair pulled back into a bun, unruly tendrils falling around my face. Blue eyes peering back at me, surrounded by darkly shadowed skin, puffy and lined from lack of sleep. I’d lost about twenty pounds over the last couple of months and it showed mostly in my face; I was almost twenty-eight, but I wouldn’t have blamed anyone who thought I was closer to forty.
I waited on the edge, the rain pounding all around me. A numbing wind gusted in from the east, cutting into my soaked and steadily freezing skin. My teeth began to chatter. My fingers were quickly turning numb against the icy metal. I leaned back to take some of the strain from my arms, let go of the barrier and pressed the palms of my hands against my thighs, eyes tightly closed.
“Now,” I whispered.
It was so simple. Just step off. My body refused to obey me.
“Now,” I said, the first tears of frustration beginning to run hot over my freezing lips.
“Now!” I screamed, urging myself to do it. All I had to do was take a step and it would all be over. I began to lean forward...
I reached blindly behind me for the safety of the guardrail as the emptiness within me suddenly vanished as though it had never been there. What replaced it was an explosion of overwhelming panic, then terror at my utter stupidity, and a wild undeniable desire to live.
People loved me.
I could get help.
All I had to do was reach out to someone, anyone. My heart pounded in my chest, adrenaline pushing back the fear and the discomfort and pain. Everything could be fixed, but first I needed to get off this bridge, now!
I began to carefully turn back toward the safety that lay just on the other side of the barrier, shuffling my feet inch by inch while I swiveled my body to face the walking path, my frozen fingers barely responding, the cold eating into my bones, slowing my muscles. I was halfway back over when a violent gust of wind flashed across the bridge, buffeting me from behind. My right foot slipped on the slick concrete lip like it was ice; I tried to keep my balance, over corrected, felt my foot whip out from beneath me...and I slipped. My chin smashed into the railing knocking my head back. I felt teeth and bone crack as my jaws smashed together. Hot blood filled my mouth. Pain exploded through my body. My vision swam...and my fingers slipped from the railing. I felt myself begin to slide off the side of the bridge, stopped from plummeting straight into the bay only by the fact that my body, from my right heel all the way up to my armpit, scraped agonizingly across the lip of concrete I’d been balanced on. As I dropped, my hands smacked against the railings...and the fingers of my right hand locked onto the metal. I would have screamed but the blood in my mouth clogged my throat, choking me. I couldn’t even draw enough air to breathe let alone cry out for help.
I’m going to die. Oh my God, I’m going to die, my mind screamed. This can’t be happening. Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! A fresh wave of panic exploded through my body, taking hold of me and refusing to let go. I whimpered like a baby as the fingers of my right hand began to cramp.
Then I gasped out loud at the sound of someone’s voice.
“Candidate 13, do you wish to be saved? Answer yes or no.”
I couldn’t tell whether the voice belonged to a man or a woman; it was flat, emotionless. It sounded like it was coming from the walkway, about two-feet above where I dangled over the drop into the freezing bay water, suspended by one hand. And for a moment I thought that I was saved. I looked up expecting to see feet or a hand reaching for me...but there was no one there.
Then the disembodied voice spoke again, crackly and with a distinct electronic edge to it, like you hear in a movie when some kidnapper is trying to disguise his identity from the Feds. “Candidate 13. Meredith Anne Gale. In thirty-seconds, your life will end. Do you wish to be saved? Answer yes or no.”
I blinked several times in quick succession. “What?” I managed to slur through lips that felt like they were made of cotton. I felt warm blood spill over my chin with each word. “Help me. Please.”
“Meredith Anne Gale,” the voice continued. “Born August 7th, 1990 to Norman and Doreen Gale. Attended El Camino High School. Your best friend was Oscar Kemple. He expired today, contributing to your advanced state of depression. You lost your virginity to Richard Pollard at age sixteen and seven months, in the rear seat of his Ford Explorer. The color of the walls of your childhood bedroom was purple, a color your mother objected to. This afternoon you received a letter stating that you have been removed from your law course at Berkeley University. Candidate 13, in eight seconds, you will lose your grip and fall. You will break numerous bones upon impact with the water, but you will not die from the fall. You will however drown six minutes and eighteen seconds after impact. The pain during that time will be intolerable. Once you are deceased, high winds and a stronger than normal swell will sweep your body far out to sea. It will never be recovered. I can save you. Answer, yes or no.”
Just how the voice knew all of this, I did not know. “Please, help me,” I whispered, blood clogging my lips. “You have to help—”
“Answer, yes or no,” the voice interrupted in that same cold almost-electronic tone.
I started to answer, but before I could get the words past my shredded lips, my fingers gave way and I slipped from the bridge and I fell.
“Yes!” I screamed, my eyes tightly closed as I dropped toward the waiting abyss. Whether the words were in my mind or whether I actually managed to say them, I don’t know, but a millisecond later, there was a bright flare of orange light and my world ceased to be.
Even with my eyes tightly closed the flash of orange light momentarily seared my retina, leaving behind an afterimage that quickly faded to black. What followed was a strange feeling of, well, nothingness. That sense of non-existence enveloped me as I floated in the silent darkness. I had no idea where I was, but all sensation of falling had vanished. It felt as though time had abruptly paused or at least severely constricted to the point where it was barely passing. Like when you suck in a deep gulp of air and hold it, except I had hardly any perception of time at all; no growing need to exhale, no feeling of being real. Everything was perfectly and absolutely still, as though I was disconnected from my body. I wondered if maybe I had simply died; the strange voice that had spoken to me on the bridge said it could save me, but my grip had given out and I know I fell. So maybe it had been too late to grab me, and this was simply the last spark arcing between fading neurons in my blood-deprived brain. For all I knew, the voice might not have even been real at all, just an artifact of my dying mind...the wishful thinking of a doomed soul.
I stayed that way, suspended in timeless immobility; it could have been seconds, could have been centuries for all I knew, just floating within that sensation-free caress of nothingness. The idea that I was dead or dying or somewhere in-between seemed like the most logical explanation for all of this. I had fallen from the bridge, the impact had knocked me senseless and I had been swallowed by the water, and now I was sinking to the bottom of the bay. There had even been the tunnel of light I’d heard people talk about after a near-death experience, although mine had been more of a flash. Then I remembered I had closed my eyes just before the flash of light had seared my retinas. I opened them again, slowly.
I wasn’t dead...but I was someplace else.
I found myself staring out across the interior of a cavernous...orb. That was the only word I could think of to describe what I saw. I tried to move my head, but it refused to obey my mental command. I could move my eyes, though, not much but just enough to see walls curving out all around me in every direction my limited mobility allowed me to look. This place was obviously man-made but instead of bricks or metal, the wall was constructed of clear, flat window-like octagons, millions upon millions of them, all connected to create a honeycomb effect, like you’d find in a bee hive.
I should have been terrified, but the truth was, I felt nothing; not fear, not awe, not even the beat of my own heart. It was as though my psyche, the distilled essence of who I was, had been yanked from my body and placed in an infinitesimally small slice of time. I tried to move, but my body felt disconnected from my mind. When I tried to speak, to call out, no words came. I tried to move my arms, my feet, my head. My brain was issuing the right commands, but the electrical impulses simply had nowhere to go, nothing to communicate with. I couldn’t even get my toes to wiggle. The panic I had felt as I plunged from the bridge into the darkness should have followed me to wherever this place was. Instead, I felt calmer than I had in my entire life. The only sensation I could feel, if you wanted to call it that, was a burning curiosity.
I moved my eyes as far to the right as I could. If my heart had been pumping, what I now saw would surely have stopped it dead. In each of the octagons that made up the interior wall of the orb was a moment frozen in time; each different from its neighbor, each a vignette of someone else’s life, stopped mid-breath, it seemed. I was surrounded by a kaleidoscope of stranger’s lives, petrified moments spread out in front and all around me. It was like a million TV sets had suddenly hit the pause button at the same time, stopping their individual show mid-scene. Although I could only make out a few octagons clearly, each of them seemed to be a frozen moment of explicit violence or death. The first three octagons to my right were too close to me for me to focus on, but the fourth held the image of a young woman. She was dressed in a plaid-skirt and a canary-yellow blouse, her long blonde hair billowed upward over her head obscuring the features of her face, her arms were thrust directly out in front of her as though grabbing for some unseen savior’s hands. Behind her was what looked like a room, but I couldn’t be certain because there was so much flame and smoke.
Captured in the octagon above the doomed woman was a man in his twenties, his handsome features held in a grimace of pain, dirt and mud splattered across his right cheek and up onto his forehead. I could make out the gray cloth of what was obviously a military uniform. Falling from the fingers of his left hand was a bolt-action rifle. Flashes of light, explosions, lit the nighttime sky behind him illuminating a battleground that was nothing more than fields of glistening mud and broken, burned trees.
In the octagon next to the young soldier was a boy, no more than nine, maybe ten if I had to guess. The boy, like the woman just a few octagons away was also falling, but unlike her I could clearly see his features. His short sandy hair fell across a pair of bright blue eyes, wide with shock. His pale-skinned face, dappled with freckles flushed red with surprise, starkly portraying the terror the kid felt as he fell toward me. Behind him was a flight of stairs, darkened with shadow leading up to an open doorway leaking light for just a few feet into the stairwell. A lamp, one of those old-fashioned oil-types I’ve seen in movies, floated in the air near the boy’s outstretched hand as if he had thrown it. Standing midway up the staircase, his face hidden within the shadow, was the silhouette of a large man, his left hand extended outward as if he was responsible for pushing the poor boy down the stairs.
It would have been easy to dismiss all these frozen scenes as merely pictures or photographs, except...each time I focused on the person held within the octagon I was there...I was right there with them; as though I was standing next to the soldier or falling with the woman.
My eyes moved as quickly as I could from octagon to octagon. Every face I could see seemed to be staring back directly at me with the same frozen mixture of surprise and fear I am sure I had on my own face. I realized then that I too was frozen, unable to move anything other than my eyes and I wondered what those other people saw when they looked at me in my octagon prison cell. Was it my terrified face as I fell from the bridge? Is that what they saw?
I looked away and stared straight ahead, the opposite side of the orb so distant it seemed like it must be miles away. At the center of the orb, where just a few moments ago there had been nothing but an empty cavernous space between me and the opposite wall of octagons, a tiny blue ball of energy had formed and was now growing quite rapidly. As I watched it began to pulse and throb, slowly expanding and contracting in a slow rhythmic inhalation...exhalation. The timing between each period of expansion and contraction began to shrink, even as with each outward expansion, the breadth of the ball of light grew.
It was mesmerizing. Beautiful.
The pace grew quicker, more urgent.
I felt a sense of something shifting around me; like ice breaking beneath my feet. Then, without a sound every octagon shattered, and I, along with every other body contained within the orb spilled out of our containment and plunged silently toward the center of the orb, falling into the ball of energy which seemed to rise up to meet me.
I tried to scream but still no words would come.
I fell...and fell...and fell...
Until the blue light engulfed me.
If we wish to know about a man, we ask 'what is his story--his real, inmost story?'--for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us--through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives--we are each of us unique.”
― Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales
I gasped as air flooded back into my lungs and an avalanche of sensory-information battered my body.
The orb and the blue light along with the people falling toward it had all vanished, only to be replaced by a different, harsher gray illumination that seemed somehow less real.
And I was still falling, I realized, as my senses finally returned, dropping through the air like a stone. I had regained at least some control of my body because my legs were kicking wildly in a vain attempt to halt my fall, arms windmilling as though I might suddenly learn the secret to flight. My mouth opened in a scream of surprise and shock, but the cry never came. I crashed into water. My open mouth swallowed a choking mouthful of it instead of air. Seawater, to be exact; the taste of its salty brininess unmistakable. It flooded down my throat and into my lungs. I immediately felt the urge to vomit, tried to hold it back and failed. I retched just as my head broke the surface of whatever body of water I had just fallen into, spewing out the salt water I had just swallowed.
I began treading water while gasping in huge gulps of air and looking around me.
A thin mist hung just a few inches off the surface of the water, rising high enough that I could see no more than a few feet around me. Something splashed into the surface close to me. It took me a moment to realize it was a piece of the walkway from the bridge. It sank beneath the water and vanished. My cellphone bobbed on the surface a few feet away from me and I made a vain attempt to reach for it but then it too disappeared into the murky water.
Being born and raised in California, I’m a decent swimmer—I should be after the years of childhood summers spent playing on the beaches up and down the West Coast. I knew I wasn’t going to drown, I could tread water like this for hours if I needed. I willed my body to relax, fighting to regain control of it from the panic-induced rush of adrenalin still surging through my veins. Minutes passed, but gradually the panic subsided, and I switched position to float gently on my back, staring upward into a sky choked with leaden clouds. It was raining hard; the downpour pounding the water’s surface and my face as I tried to relax, blinking away fat, stinging raindrops. I began to regulate my breathing to match the gentle bobbing of my body—in through my nose...out through my mouth—gathering my wits, my stomach-acid-raw throat burning with each breath I exhaled.
A few more minutes passed before I felt adequately in control of myself. I flipped upright and began treading water again as I tried to figure out where I was exactly. Gray, foamy water the same color as the slowly dissipating fog surrounded me. The surface was calm, like that of a lake, but the mouthful of water I’d swallowed was salty, which suggested I was floating in an ocean. Gentle waves pushed and pulled at me as I pedaled my feet to stay in place, slowly rotating through 360-degrees, looking for anything familiar, but the fog blocked my view after just a couple of feet and the rain blurred my vision. I looked up. The sun was a barely perceptible ghost, haunting the invisible sky, hidden behind the mask of angry cloud. I could just make out its dull reddish-orange glow through the clouds.
The mist began to fade, gradually revealing more of my surroundings. In the distance I could just make out the hazy outline of a coastline—if I had to guess, I’d say a good six miles away—and rising from it, high into the air was some kind of a structure that reflected the feeble rays of the ghost-sun. Whatever this massive tower was, it was so huge its top was hidden in the cloud base, but like the stem of a wine-glass it tapered downward, narrowing as it drew closer to the distant coast. It was too far away for me to be able to make out any details other than its immensity, but the way the sun reflected off its surface suggested the stem was covered by flat planes that acted like the facets of a diamond to reflect the sunlight. I stared at this unbelievable sight for more time than I can remember as my brain tried to process it, all thought of my predicament gone at the sight of this tremendous far-off mega-structure.
Reality came crashing back as I realized I had been deposited so far off the shore of that distant coast there was very little chance that I would be able to swim the five or six miles to it. I’m a good swimmer, as I mentioned, but I simply wasn’t strong enough to make it that far. I used my arms to start rotating again, the chilly water beginning to make itself known to me as the shock of all that had just happened slowly subsided. I gave a little yip of relief when I saw more land.
Thank you, God! An island, about fifty-feet or so away from where I bobbed gently up and down; an easy swim for me, it’s beach covered for the most part in white shale and gray-and-black pebbles, but with an occasional hint of coarse gray sand beneath. Just beyond the beach was a swath of tall grass. Beyond the grass a line of trees that looked like they could be palm trees or maybe even coconut. And further inland, what looked like a forest of regular old oaks or redwood stretched skyward. In the distance, the rough outline of a mountain jutted high into the air, dominating the horizon like it was the island’s god, its pinnacle hidden within the thick gray clouds that owned the sky.
A sound, like the afterburners of a fighter jet shattered the silence and my head snapped to the sky. A silver cylinder-like object, spouting orange flame from its side roared overhead, corkscrewing erratically through the air several hundred feet above me, leaving a white and black trail of smoke behind it as it ripped across the somber sky in the direction of the distant coast and the tower, gradually losing altitude.
A woman, her voice shrill with panic screamed to my right and I instinctively dropped my eyes to look for her, the fiery object momentarily forgotten. There! I saw the face of a young Asian woman about thirty feet to my left, her long black hair streaming all around her head just before she vanished beneath the surface. She popped up a second or two later, spluttering and spitting water, yelled something in a language I did not understand before sinking again. This time she did not resurface. I swam quickly to where I had last seen her, flipped myself over and dived down beneath the waves, searching blindly, the water so murky I could barely see any further than my hands as I pulled myself deeper into the darkness, feeling for the woman. Nothing. I surfaced, sucked in mouthfuls of air and dove again...but the woman was gone.
By the time I surfaced the third time, the fog had almost completely dissipated except for a few wisps, allowing me to see that I was not alone. There were more people in the water, many more, some splashing frantically, others treading water like me, still others swimming toward the island. There had to be at least a hundred or so people on the surface around me, stretched out in an arc that roughly followed the contour of the beach, as though we had all been deposited here in a line. Other objects floated around them too; baskets, hats, bits of wood, more things that were nothing more than indistinct blobs to my irritated eyes. I saw a couple of horses heading for the safety of the island, one with a rider still seated in the saddle, another riderless and panicked, foam bubbling from its nostrils and mouth as it fought its way up onto the beach and stood there panting.
I caught movement on the beach near to where the riderless horse stood nervously pawing at the ground. Whatever it was, the horse quickly spotted it too, squealed in terror and galloped away in the opposite direction. A figure, nine feet tall, humanoid in shape but definitely not human, rose up from where it had been crouched, sand and stones falling from its body, and strode down the beach toward the shoreline.
It was a machine, I realized as it drew closer...a freaking robot! Its head was little more than a bump protruding above a set of broad flat shoulders. Two small electric-blue eyes sat on either side of a narrow, concave bar that seemed to float unattached from the bump that was its head. A v-shaped torso tapered down to hips protruding almost as far from its body as its broad shoulders. A black triangular latticework or grill sat in the middle of the machine’s protruding convex chest. Two arms, made up of multiple oblong-shaped flat segments, each segment hinged in some unseen way to the next, swung at the machine’s side. The legs were human-like, long with muscular metal thighs and calves, the illusion of humanity only ruined when I saw the thing’s feet; they were claw-like and articulated with six-joints on each of the three elongated ‘toes’. A single fourth spur jutted backward from each heel, kicking up gouts of shale with each step as the robot moved closer. Its body looked to either be painted gold or was actually made of gold, the material reflecting what little light the overcast sky allowed through. It reached the shoreline but did not stop; striding into the water, never faltering for a moment as it continued its walk toward me, leaving a wake behind it as its massive body pushed through the water closer and closer to where I bobbed helplessly. As it drew closer to me I realized that it was speaking, repeating the same words over and over again in English like a stuck record: “Welcome children of Earth. Do not be afraid...Welcome children of Earth. Do not be afraid...”
There was less than ten feet separating us by the time the machine drew parallel to where I floated, gaping in utter shock and amazement and fear at this impossible mechanized creature. Only the robot’s head and shoulders were visible above the surface now as it rolled by me, sending out a wave of displaced ocean water that picked me up then dropped me again. The robot did not slow, but as it came parallel to me its eye-bar swiveled to look blankly in my direction.
“Welcome children of Earth. Do not be afraid,” it repeated, then it’s electronic-eyes moved to face forward again as it pushed further and further out to sea before finally vanishing beneath the surface with only a ripple and a few bubbles to mark that it had ever been there at all.
As if a hidden switch had been thrown somewhere, the people still floating in the ocean around me almost simultaneously began to yell and scream, their words and pleas merging into one voice, incomprehensible to me. Exertion, shock, and the cold water had begun to take their toll on me. My muscles were beginning to stiffen, my head blur. If I didn’t try to get to the beach now, the chances were good that I would end up like the poor unfortunate woman I had just tried to save. I began to take slow methodical strokes toward the beach, trying to conserve my dwindling energy. Others were doing the same and by the time I pulled myself up onto the stony beach, shivering with cold and shock, arm and leg muscles tightening from the effort, there were already twelve people on the beach; eight of them were men, the rest women. They all had the same wide-eyed look of distress in their eyes. There was nothing particularly remarkable about any of these people, other than their clothes. They all looked as though they had come from a costume party. I saw one woman who looked as though she had stepped out of an 18th century period drama, her long dress clinging to her body. Her auburn hair, had been tied in a bow, but now it had come half-undone and flopped over her face. Another, a man this time, was dressed in robes, or maybe it was a toga. Still another man wore what looked like leather armor, complete with a bow strung across his back and a quiver of arrows hanging at his side, water poured from it as he crawled up the beach. There were a few others who looked to be dressed in similar attire to my tee-shirt and jeans, but there was something off about the style that seemed out of date to me, though I couldn’t put my finger on what it was exactly.
While I stood momentarily catching my breath, shivering hard from the cold, two of the men I’d seen pull themselves from the water and who I assumed must know each other, grabbed the woman dressed in the 18th century clothing and dragged her screaming up the beach toward the forest. Another man scrambled hand-over-hand up the beach after them, yelling at them in a language I did not understand.
They disappeared into the trees before I could even find the energy to push myself to my knees. Behind me, people were still yelling and screaming in the water, some thrashing frantically. Reluctantly, I turned my attention back to the sea, allowed myself ten seconds to gather my wits and energy, then forced myself to my feet and waded out into the surf. Grabbing anyone I could find, I pulled them ashore with what strength I still had, depositing them one-by-one on the beach where they collapsed, feeble as half-drowned kittens. Some of them looked at me with obvious terror in their eyes but they were too weak to resist my help and I wasn’t in the mood to take no for an answer. Others seemed grateful; obvious words of thanks spilling from their water-wrinkled lips. I thought I caught what could have been a couple of words in French, mixed with the odd recognizable word or two of Spanish and Italian. But for the most part, their speech was unintelligible to me.
Then someone did yell in English. I looked in the direction of the cry of panic. To my right, about a hundred feet away and twenty feet offshore, I saw a small head bobbing in the water, raised hands waving in an attempt to catch someone, anyone’s attention. Whoever this person was, they were being dragged further out to sea.
Instead of just floating with the current’s pull until they reached its limit, whoever this person was, was trying to fight it and swim to shore. That was a sure way to quickly exhaust yourself and drown. A surge of adrenalin pumped through me and I pushed myself to my feet, stumbled down the beach, pebbles crunching beneath my sneakers, until I was parallel to the person in distress. I considered dumping my clothes but thought better of it, then waded out as far as I could in the hope that I could simply grab their hand and pull this person to shore. By the time I got close enough to them, they were lying face down in the water with ten feet still separating us. I could feel the rip tide tugging greedily at my legs, threatening to suck me out too. Instead of resisting it’s pull I allowed it to take me, relaxing as it sucked me out until I was parallel to the floating body. Then I powered my way through the water until I was within arm’s reach, grabbed the still body by the collar of their jacket, and flipped it over while I trod water.
I gasped in surprise. I recognized the face looking back at me. It was the young boy I had seen frozen mid-fall, just a few octagons away from me in the orb. The boy who I thought had been pushed down the stairs by the shadowy figure silhouetted in the doorway. I pulled him closer to me, leaned in until my ear was against his lips; he was unconscious but still breathing, thank God. I placed myself behind him, rolled onto my back, slipped my hand beneath his chin to keep his head above water and allowed the current of the rip tide to carry us further down the coast. Eventually, I felt the grip of the rip tide slacken and I began to backstroke the two of us toward land. My body ached with fatigue, whatever reserves the burst of adrenalin had found when I saw the boy foundering had been all but consumed. Then my feet felt the shoal of the beach beneath them and I heaved myself and the boy up into the surf as far as my weakened body was able to drag the both of us. I collapsed, unable to move another inch as waves lapped at my elbows, lifting me gently from the ground then depositing me back down again. I rolled over onto my back and lay there gasping like a fish, staring skyward, my vision darkening as exhaustion overcame me. Muscles cramping, I closed my eyes and tried to regulate my breathing, but my mind was racing uncontrollably as it tried to process the impossibility of everything that had just happened.
I heard footsteps crunching across the beach toward me. I opened my eyes and tried to push myself upright but for the second time that day my muscles refused to obey my mind and I simply lay there, unable to do a thing. My eyes closed again.
The footsteps stopped near my head.
I opened my eyes again and looked up into the face of the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.
“Are you an angel?” I croaked, the pain gripping me, squeezing me like an iron fist.
The angel looked at me quizzically, her head canted to one side, her eyes narrowed while she processed what I had just said. Then she laughed, a bubbly melodic laugh, and said something in a language that my addled mind could almost understand; words that were almost but not quite English. Her voice was sweet, intoxicating, like wine.
I didn’t understand a goddamn word.
“Okay,” I said, “sounds good.” Then I closed my eyes again and slipped away into blissful unconsciousness.