With a slam of the door, Dave entered the tiny apartment and slumped down into a chair. Although the sun was still up, the room was dark. The ratty curtains were pulled tight and a threadbare blanket, adding it’s slim weight, was thrown over the only window. Dave wanted to block out the world, afraid of what he might see, afraid of what he might remember.
Hiding the world only went so far. He knew it would catch up to him anyway.
After a few minutes of sitting, the walls, as expected, breathed in and expanded out, as if the world was turning inside out, just like during “The Incident”. As he sat there, it felt as if a part of him was being turned inside out as well, ripped from his skull and flushed down a cosmic toilet, just as it had been on that day. The part that was flushed away that day never returned, and yet there was something that took its place, someone else.
No! Nobody else. No.
Just the thought made him feel sick. He stood and staggered a step, stopping in a corner, leaning heavily on a wall. He put his hand over his ears even though there were no sounds. None on the outside. Her voice, though, reverberated in time through his mind, the scream as she was ripped away.
It was like clockwork. He knew what was coming next, but it still took him by surprise.
The headache returned like a hit out of the blue from a sledgehammer, as it had every afternoon for the last two weeks. But that wasn’t’ quite right, was it? His brains weren’t smashed out, it was that cosmic toilet flush again, for it wasn’t a normal headache, it was an inside-out headache. Dave couldn’t describe it. He thought of his brains being squeezed through his nostrils, turned inside out and put back into his head through his ears.
But not all of it made it back in, once-inside out, part of it that had always been on the inside had drifted away, been flushed away. To the other place. And another part of somebody else got squeezed in, taking the place of the missing part.
No! Nobody. He was fine. It would pass. It always had. And as the days went by it wasn’t quite as bad. It was getting better. Each day the headache was a little milder and lasted a little less time. Really.
But that other voice answered. It tried to fill the void.
He pushed away from the wall. His mind did not want to go there.
What he really wanted was a drink, though he knew it wouldn’t help.
His cell rang and he answered without thinking.
“Please release me,” a female voice said. But there was nobody on the line. The call was from 000-000-0000, as always. And, as always, it came at the same time. And the voice… It was the voice he heard in his head when he let it get through, the voice in his dreams. He didn’t know who owned the voice, though he knew it was Aimee’s voice.
He knew no one by the name of “Aimee”.
Mad at himself, at the Universe, Dave pulled back to throw the phone against the wall, but caught himself. He could not afford a new phone. He didn’t have many good things as it was. The apartment was furnished in the tattered castoffs of people who finally had enough money to buy something merely cheap.
It didn’t matter. Nobody ever came over and nobody ever would. He was totally alone. Kicked out of the house just after high school, he had barely scraped by for those four long years by himself. Four lonely years, years with nobody and no sign that it would ever change, except for the worse. He was different even when in school, years before “The Incident”, and was even more so after it.
He didn’t have to think back to realize that the inside-out headaches began just after “The Incident”. Same with the odd phone calls. Same with all of it, including the paranoid feeling that someone else was there.
“Release me,” Dave said. “What in the hell does that mean?”
The need for a drink won out and he grabbed a thin jacket.
It was cool out on the street, though not cold. Dave kept his head down, afraid of what he’d see. Most of the time it was just the city, but sometimes it was different.
A warm breeze struck him. The wet, broken asphalt and litter flicked out for a moment, replaced by sand.
He would not look, he would not look. His eyes started to raise, but he pulled them down. He would not look.
It was just a second or a fraction of a second before the breeze was gone and old cigarette butts and beer cans covered the decaying street once more.
The odd flashes of the dead city started with “The Incident” too.
Everyone called it that, “The Incident”, it wasn’t his phrase. If it were up to him, he would call it “The Day the Earth Turned Inside Out.” Like his head. “The Incident” sounded too mild for the hell he had been going through. “The Incident” was spilled noodles, not a spilled mind and a world warped in multiple dimensions. “The Incident” was something you looked back on and laughed about, not something that shattered your life and left you inside-out.
But everybody else seemed to have gotten back to normal after those moments of discomfort when everything distorted for a moment. He seemed to be the only one still forced to relive that horror every day.
Dave drew his jacket closer around him and ignored the sand and ash under his feet.
The bar was only a few blocks away and he was soon able to shut out the city, both the living one and the dead one. He wanted a bottle of whiskey, but settled on a bottle of beer. As usual the bartender stared at his ID and at his face for a long time before serving him. He wanted to scream, “Yeah, I’m really 21, OK!” but just stared at the floor. It was easier.
He had only had a few sips when the bartender turned up the TV and turned down the music. Dave looked up, and turned away in disgust.
“Man, they give that guy too much press. I wish he’d just go home.” He really didn’t mean to say it out loud.
“He is a, what are they called, astro-something or other. He had a TV show. He’s the best expert we have for the you-know-what,” the bartender said.
“Physicist, astrophysicist, he’s an astrophysicist, the best. Yeah, he had a show, which was good, but now he is on TV every two minutes with some made up explanation on why I need to get drunk so I no longer feel like someone drunk me,” Dave said. “Really? Some unknown, unexplained ‘thing’ racing through the solar system at some god-awful speed and blotting out the sun for a tiny fraction of a second. Why’d it turn my world inside out?”
A man at the bar put his drink down. “It’s the gubberment, ya-know? They did sometin t’us. This here black feller is just cover’n for ‘em. Mark my word, young feller, it was the gubberment.”
The bartender shook his head. “You’re just full of crap, Stan. You’ve always had these conspiracy theories and this is the worst.”
‘How-n-t-hell do ya ‘splain it, then? And, stop. Listen to ‘im. Didja hear what ‘e just said? ‘Gravtar wave’ or some such. Thar? Hear that? ‘Wrapped up in time’. What?”
“He said, ‘warped space-time’. It’s to do with the gravity waves and Einstein’s Rela… oh, never mind.” Dave was always fascinated with those odd things like black holes and quasars, but “The Incident” had made him study it even more in depth. He went back to his beer and heard the noted scientist give his analysis for the ten-thousandth time. Nothing new. After the two weeks he could practically recite it word for word.
The object was too large and not dense enough to be a neutron star, let alone a black hole, but it was too dense to be anything else known to science. It was dark and didn’t emit or reflect light. Not one photon. And it moved at a small, yet significant, fraction of the speed of light, some outrageous number like 35 million miles per hour. They only saw it in hindsight, by the gravity wake it left through the solar system, by the orbits that were rattled. By the effect it had as it passed close to Earth heading almost directly into the sun before zipping out of the system. Because of the direction, despite its great speed it had eclipsed the sun for more than a hundredth of a second, an eternity when you are talking five percent of the speed of light.
Dave finished the beer in one large chug, and stood up. He still felt a little inside-out, but the worst of the headache was gone. He wasn’t back to “normal”, whatever in hell that meant, but he was better. The beer really didn’t help, except, perhaps, psychologically. The daily anniversary of “The Incident” lasted little more than an hour and the only thing he could do was wait it out.
Out on the street again, he walked down the geometric center. He always did, a quirk. Nobody ever drove on that street, and if they ever did, he’d move. The sun had just sunk down beneath the city in front of him, making the tall buildings stand out in silhouette.
For the first time in two week he allowed his mind to jump back.
Dave had been walking down the street in the geometric center, as he usually did. But, unlike most of the time, someone else was also walking in the middle of the road, walking towards him. A girl. The sun was just beginning to set in the sky behind her so he couldn’t see her well, but her body was silhouetted in the light. She noticed him and began to exaggerate the sway of her hips slightly, not quite a sashay, but enough of a swing to draw his attention in tighter.
He so wanted to stare, yet he wanted to look away. How old was she? 16? 14? Was she even a teen? He couldn’t see her face and couldn’t tell. She did have at least some curves. He let the animal win, stopped and stared. He couldn’t help himself. He so much wanted her to come up to him, to stop, to speak. What would he say?
As she got closer the world seemed to breath in and out. Was it his mind, affected by the girl walking towards him? If she felt it, she didn’t let on.
And then it was different. He was turned inside-out and saw a different place, an inside-out place.
The scene, the place, was seared into his brain, was forever etched in great detail. It didn’t make sense. Something was in front of the sun and then there was the city. It was similar to his city, well, perhaps how it looked 30 years ago since none of the newer buildings were there, but it was dead. Drifts of sand and ash filled the barren streets.
The girl was there. She stopped, as if stuck in fly paper. Her wide eyes called for him as she reached for him. He reached out for her hand.
A very tiny fraction of a second that lasted forever and the turning inside-out to right-side-in finished. The dead city was gone and then the living city, his city, was back.
But the girl wasn’t.
He heard her voice scream in his head. Aimee’s voice. The voice on the phone.
A loud noise intruded on Dave’s thoughts. Not a scream, a horn. A car horn. He turned and was back in the presence. A car was behind him. He stepped aside. The car whizzed past, missing him by inches, the faceless driver flipping him off as it went by.
Only half registering the car, Dave sat down on the dirty curb.
Was it her voice, the one who called every day, the voice called “Aimee”? Was she trapped in the dead city? What did it mean, “release me”?
He stood up, and without thinking walked to the middle of the road again. He stopped exactly where he had stopped before, where he had been during “The Incident”. The sky was still glowing, but now he could see the lights in the distant skyscrapers.
He closed his eyes and saw the dead city. Saw her. She was standing at a wall. On one side of the wall, his side, was the living city he was in, but on the other side of her was the dead city. She was trapped on the wrong side of the wall.
He took a step closer. Her short hair, in its “bob cut”, was messed up, her face scratched and dirty. He took another step. Her over-large sweater was filthy and torn. He stepped again. Her tight leggings were ripped, almost shredded. She reached her hand out to him.
Dave opened his eyes. It was the living city. The girl and the dead city must have been a dream.
He closed his eyes. She was there, but fading along with the other city. She was mouthing something. Help? He took another step closer and grabbed her hand. It was warm flesh, but the pressure of her grip was growing less, as if she were evaporating.
Something was holding him back. He knew if he took one more step that he would go through that wall, would be in the other world and perhaps stuck forever. He inched closer to that threshold.
His eyes met hers and there was a change. His mind turned inside out and he felt that “other” that had been pulled into him.
Aimee was different, always was and always would be different. The kids at school had teased her and her teachers hated her. She had been kicked out of her mother’s house a year earlier, just after she had graduated high school. She was glad, in ways, since her mother’s boyfriend would stare at her. Her mother blamed Aimee for that stare and Aimee knew that someday he would do more than just look.
She had made no friends, not a soul, in that year. Her customers at the coffee house where she worked would ask her why she wasn’t in school. She looked 12, not 19. The people she worked with acted like she had the plague. They laughed at her behind her back, and sometimes in her face.
Walking down the middle of the road after work one day, as she always did, she saw a boy about her age also walking down the middle of the road. He seemed depressed and looked like a kid, too, but she knew he was at least 20. She felt an instant like to him and, for some reason, she flirted with him, swinging her hips, sashaying, smiling, trying to be sexy so he’d like her.
He seemed uncomfortable, and yet she could see in his eyes that he wanted to speak to her, to stop her. What would she do when they met up? He stopped and waited for her.
The world breathed in and out, like space warping or something. Was that what love was like, then?
The warp got worse. But she ignored it, thinking it was just her mind reacting to the boy who was looking longingly at her.
And then the sun blotted out and the world turned inside out.
She was someplace else.
For a moment the boy was with her, but she could feel him slipping away. She reached out, he tried to grab her hand, but he was gone and she was alone in the elsewhere.
Well, not quite. Part of him and stayed with her. And part of her had stayed outside with him. Each day she could feel that connection clearly for a few hours. Every day, at that same time she was pulled to the place where she had seen him. She was frozen, as if there was a wall of flypaper. She could see the living city, her city, as if on the other side of that wall, but she couldn’t move. If only she could take that step into it. It had to be possible. If she couldn’t do it herself, perhaps he could pull her to safety.
But each day the connection between the worlds grew a little less. She could tell that it was fading. Eventually she would be stuck, split in two with the largest part stuck forever in a world that had killed itself.
Part of him would be there too. That was at least a little comforting, but not much.
She tried to call out to him, this Dave guy. She didn’t know if he could hear, but she tried. As she was stuck, glued to her wall, she sometimes saw him walk by. He never looked up, only stared at his feet. If only he would look, perhaps he would see her; perhaps he could pull her back, release her from her torment.
But each day, he didn’t, he just walked on, head down. The time would pass and she would be free to move again, but the window would be gone. Perhaps today would be the day….
Dave felt it in a flash. He knew that he had been split into two parts, that part of him was in that other world. But he also knew that part of her was in his world, in him.
Dave took that last step, the step into that other world.
Her hand became flesh. They connected and she became herself, whole once again, and he to became himself.
He pulled on her and stepped back, pulling on her arm with all of his might.
He opened his eyes.
He was in the living world again, but more importantly, so was she.
Aimee smiled up at him. He smiled back.
“When was the last time you had a real meal?” he asked.
“Two weeks.” She laughed.
“Can I take you out someplace?”
They walked away, hand in hand. They didn’t have to talk, they knew. A small part had stayed behind. They were connected. They were both different, always had been, but since “The Incident” they were even more different in ways they couldn’t comprehend. They knew the world had changed and perhaps they could make it, and themselves, better.
Perhaps most importantly, they had both been released from the prison called “loneliness” that the world had placed them in.
This story was written in response to D. Wallace Peach’s March Speculative Fiction Prompt. The image she used came from pixabay is is by Natan Vance.