So, You’re In an Alternate Universe – Jeremy Packert Burke

Metaphorosis_2016-08So, you’re in an alternate universe. It doesn’t feel alternate. Your mom is still your mom, who smells like fennel, with red-rubbed knuckles. Your dad still has his large tie collection: his wooden tie, his Yellow Submarine tie, his tie that looks like a large fish.

Hitler was still Hitler, and Stalin, Stalin. The sun outside is very yellow—is it too yellow? Is that the difference?

The scar on your knee is still there. Eileen Fulbright dared you to cross the lake when it was iced over and you were both eleven. She stood on the opposite bank and dared you, double dared you, to come kiss her, and when you fell through, the water came up only to your waist, but the sharp hole in the ice cut open your knee, sliced through your jeans, and you had to suffer through seven stitches and an hour-long lecture from your fennel-smelling mother, your fish-tied dad.

Would this have happened in another universe? Would it have gone further? Would the cut have gotten infected and you lost your leg, gotten a prosthesis, won a medal, and/or told an inspiring story in a Vitamin Water commercial? You want to ask Dylan but you don’t. Now doesn’t seem like the right time.

Dylan is from the real universe. It’s not alternate, not like your universe. This is what he’s told you just now, although you’ve known him for years.

He says “There was another me here.”

“…Did you kill him?”

He says “No.”

He says “It’s complicated.”

“Is there another me there?” you ask.

“Yes,” he says. You have a hundred thousand questions. “I have to get back there,” he says.

You’ve spent long hours in Dylan’s attic bedroom, hundreds of hours over the years, shooting CGI aliens and chugging energy drinks and having gum-chewing contests. His mom always made the best pumpkin pancakes. His dad has been gone for a while.

Dylan’s always been honest with you. Told you when you look like shit or do something dumb, but also when something you said was really funny or when you totally nailed “Reptilia” on Guitar Hero.

But he’s also had a weird imagination. He used to tell you stories about escaping his body at night and traveling around the town watching people live and sleep and fight. That was when you were both seven; you’re not sure what his imagination is capable of now.

So you’re lost. You look at this other, same Dylan, this complicated, this real Dylan, and you wonder. You’re both fourteen now. Surely you’re past fairytales.

“How did you get to this universe?”

You think: Deloreans, black holes, wormholes. “My dad built a portal,” he says.

“Like in The Transcendent Mr. Kellogg?” you ask. TTMK is your favorite show, and Dylan’s. The dimension-hopping Mr. Kellogg, his daughter Phillipa, and their talking cat Poppo travel around the multiverse solving crimes and getting into trouble. Dylan’s story is starting to sound more like a game. “Do they have TTMK in, uh, the real universe?”

“Of course,” he says. “It’s not exactly like that, though, more to do with probability distributions, quantum entanglement, order theory. That’s why there’s still only the one Dylan here. I told you it was complicated.”

You’re still stuck: do you keep asking your nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety-nine questions, see what this Dylan does or does not know, see if you can catch him in a lie? Or, if Dylan is just fucking with you, do you give up; if you ask questions it’ll make it seem like you believe him, leading to endless teasing when he reveals that he is, in fact, fucking with you.

“Do you want to play Centaurus?” you ask, hoping to change the subject to CGI aliens and their untimely deaths.

“I can’t,” Dylan says. “I have to work.”

You nod, trying hard to keep your expression skeptical and sympathetic. As you stand, you trail your fingers against the rough stucco wall of his room, and as the sandpapery bumps scrape off skin cells, you wonder what it means if none of this is real.

On the bike ride home, you text Eileen: Dylan’s being weird. You know anything that might be up?

Your phone chirrups and you brake, check it. Weird how??

Long story, you type, tell you when I see you. An excuse to talk to Eileen one-on-one is never a bad thing, even if the circumstances are odd.

#

There are suggestions, omens perhaps, that Dylan might not be full of shit. Once you start looking for them, omens are everywhere, of course: the way someone ties their shoelaces, their choice of soda at the vending machine, the way they look at the silver-gray sky in the morning. But these seem meaningful, genuinely meaningful: he’s suddenly answering questions in class over and over again, almost answering too many, actually, like the kids who know too well how smart they are, questions about King Lear and Edward Lear and Edward Teach and “suum cuique”—they go on. He solves system of equations, titrates hydrochloric acid in fifteen seconds flat, and runs, actually runs instead of walking with you, around the track in gym. He’s a possessed, a genetically engineered, alien version of himself.

Or maybe he’s just coming into his own. God knows all of the metaphors of change—Ugly Duckling, caterpillar to butterfly, blossoming flower—have sunk in by now, by fourteen.

It’s probably nothing, you think.

But you’re not the only one who notices. You catch the befuddled looks of the math teacher, the English teacher, the lunch lady whom Dylan treats with exceptional politeness.
“You takin’ Ritalin or what?” asks Victor Dolphy, another ignorable kid who sits with you both at lunch, usually. Dylan just shrugs. “Maybe I’m just coming into myself,” he says, and looks at you, like he read your fucking mind.

Victor asks you guys if you’re going to the dance, if you’re taking anyone. Dylan looks puzzled, like he’s trying to remember a lie he told a long time ago. You say “Yeah,” and try to subtly look around the cafeteria at all the bobbling, babbling, hungry heads, hoping—in vain—to catch Eileen’s eye. You don’t see her; she doesn’t even have lunch this period.

“You taking anyone?” Victor asks.

“We’ll see. You?”

“I dunno, man,” he says. “Maybe Monika.” You gnaw at your cardboard pizza slice and wonder if school lunch is better in the real universe.

After school you and Dylan bike together, bathed in burnt yellow light, wind flapping through your jacket. “The sun sets sooner here,” Dylan says into the wind, scowling like he’s trying to answer a question he’s never thought of before.

“Yeah,” you say, as if you knew. You both stop your bikes at the top of the hill, looking out over smaller, rolling gold-green hills, the park below with elementary schoolers playing soccer, the edge of a gas station. Dylan presses a piece of paper, folded into a square fat bullet, into your hand. “Can you ask your dad to get these books from the university library?” he asks.

You unfold the list. It’s long, populated with titles like Advanced Bayesian Statistics and Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe. “Ye-e-es,” you say.

“Thanks, Mark, I really appreciate it,” Dylan says. He looks at you like you’re a kid, or an actor in the world’s least scary haunted house, or a person in someone else’s dream. He touches your shoulder and with a whoop and holler he’s off, down the hill, the wheels of his bike snicker-snacking as they turn and turn and turn and turn.

You stay mounted on your bike, holding yourself with one foot on the ground, one on the pedals. You learned to ride a bike later than everyone else. You were eleven. Dylan helped you, so he’d have someone to ride with.

Didn’t see you at school today, you text Eileen. Things ok?

Late night, she texts back. Long story. Dylan?

Still weird.

After school tomorrow? McD’s?

Yeah, for sure

You pocket the phone and push off with your grounded foot, rolling slowly until gravity and angular momentum take over so that you move irresistibly forward, down, the world blisteringly blurring by until the same physics that aided your flight resist it, slow you down with wind and hills and friction and, now graceless, you push your way slowly back up towards home.

#

Eileen, Dylan, and you meet up in the student parking lot. You notice the shadows under her eyes, her coral-pink nails, the way the light and wind catch at strands of her dark hair. She once had a crush on you, too, but she grew out of it. The day on the ice is a hundred years behind. You knock the left pedal of your bike ratcheting backwards so it’s in position to take off, but you just stand there, waiting. Eileen is still freeing her bike, swiveling the U-shaped lock out and back into place, her fingernails like small and quick animals. The McDonald’s across from the high school has been your triumvirate’s hang out spot since the year began; you can get a cup for iced tea for a dollar but fill it with Dr Pepper or Mountain Dew, can sit around the corner from the counter so that no employee can keep track of how long you’ve been there, won’t shoo you out prematurely. You all started hanging out there when it was too cold to bike home, and Eileen had to wait for her dad to get off work and come get her. Her parents were still in the midst of a divorce, and her dad had moved to the outside of town; it was messy.

You kept going when the weather got warm, though. It had its own kind of physics. Eileen pulls up her bike and looks at you, looks at Dylan, like should I invite him or-r-r?

“Well, I’ll see you guys later,” Dylan says, staring anxiously at the western horizon like he can see light slipping away. “I’ve got a bunch of stuff I need to take care of.”

“You?” Eileen asks, surprised in spite of your warnings. None of you three have ever had homework that couldn’t be put off, chores that you couldn’t skip out on, have never had to stay at home instead of playing frisbee by the train tracks, or making pizza, or biking around town.

“Me,” says Dylan. He salutes and rolls away.

“So what’s the deal?” Eileen asks at the McDonald’s. You guys split an order of fries and a thirty-two ounce cup of half Pepsi, half Dr Pepper. Eileen scoops up the viscous, sunset-red ketchup perfectly. You rehearse the ten words you’ve been meaning to ask for three months.

“Well, maybe it’s just freshman year stuff,” you say lamely. “Like, a lot changes?”

“Right but it’s almost April.”

Do you want to go to the dance do you want to go do you want to dance do you want to go to the dance with me do “So, bearing that in mind, and I totally am not saying I believe him, but …”

Eileen’s forehead furrows, broken golden bleeding fry halfway to her mouth. “Well spit it out, dude.”

“He says that, uh, that this is an alternate universe.”

“Alternate to what?”

“The, uh, real universe I guess. His universe.”

“Sounds pretty subjective to me.”

“Well…”

“So wait, is this like The Transcendent Mr. Kellogg? Does he have to get back to keep our universes from colliding and creating a dark energy vortex?”

“No,” you say. “I mean it’s sort of like TTMK but not exactly. Or…I don’t know. Maybe. It’s complicated.”

“What’s wrong with our universe?”

“I don’t know. He said the sun sets sooner here?”

“What a whackadoo,” she says, and chomps down on her fry. “I like it here.” She smiles and wipes ketchup away from her mouth. “Remember in first grade when he tried to convince us about that astral projection shit?”

You laugh half-heartedly. “Yeah, that was dumb.”

“Or sixth grade when he tried to get us to believe he was psionic?”

“You’re saying there’s a precedent.”

“I’m saying Dylan read a lot of Stephen King books at too young an age and I think sometimes, you know…he gets caught up in the fantasy.”

The assonance of the unasked question runs through you like a wire: do, you, to, to.

“And so he plays at universe exceptionalist and wants to suck us into it.”

It would be so easy to speak it, to just say the words.

“But why?” you say. Because that’s the real thing—why would anyone pretend at this? “Do you think he’s okay?”

She called to you from the opposite shore, the perfect identical snowflakes peppering the white-gray slate of the lake, clumps falling off the trees, Eileen’s red mittens cupping her mouth like a beacon, a traffic light, a megaphone.

“Yeah,” she says, assertive. “Of course he’s okay. He’s just being a dick.”

It was so easy to act then. And you can feel how easy it would be to do now. But you recall the roller coaster feeling in your stomach when you heard the guncrack snap of the ice, the cold, the sharp stab against your shin, your ruined jeans. And so you plug your mouth with half Pepsi, half Dr Pepper.

Outside, the goldshot sky wanders towards dark, shadows of lightposts creeping towards the McDonalds across the blacktop.

Eileen looks like she’s about to say something, then is silent.

“Do you want to watch TTMK?” you ask.

And so you sit in your living room, with her, a bowl of popcorn, and your mother. You and she sit at opposite ends of the couch, watching Phillipa and Mr. Kellogg save Poppo from the Fallacious Jergin, Mr. Kellogg’s world-hopping nemesis, who has caught Poppo in a timeless jar made from glass spiderwebs.

In TTMK’s multiverse, falling out of time is the worst thing that can happen to you. You might come back to the space-time continuum to discover that a million years have passed and everything you love has been consumed by the sun; or, you might stay trapped, floating in quiet black limbo for millennia, watchful, unaging, slowly going insane, until you reemerge a shattered and empty husk. “There’s no time—or space!—to lose!” cries Mr. Kellogg. “Pip, pip!”

#

“Did you get the books?” Dylan asks. He shifts his black backpack across his shoulders, and something inside goes clank.

“Yeah,” you say, shifting your own. You can feel the weight of knowledge these new, exotic books contain. It’s almost pornographic, the way they draw this heavy anticipation from Dylan, this hunger. “My dad said ‘Going through a phase, huh?’ and laughed when he handed them to me.”

“You know, some kids get into metal, some kids get into drugs, and some kids get into particle physics,” Dylan says and cracks a grin. It’s the first time he’s sounded like himself. Or like the fake Dylan. Whichever. “Thanks for getting them,” he says, taking the books and hiding them in his clanking backpack, his own timeless jar. “Back home my dad had these, or books like them. Analogs, I guess.”

That word: dad. Like a mourning bird call, falling steeply at the end, disappearing too quickly like the sun. “What were you doing, Dylan?” you ask before you lose your nerve. “Why come here? And why didn’t he?”

He shifts his backpack again, pulling the loose strap over his other shoulder, pulling down on the tabs so it sits firmly against his back, to prevent spinal damage. The clanking, thumping weight of it is too much for a single shoulder. Quietly, then: “We were trying to get Mom back.” Dylan’s mom—tall, witchy, baker of pumpkin pancakes, who took you all to see Metallica last year, who lent you DVDs of every good 80s horror movie, who buys you sweaters at Christmas. “Was it MS,” you say, “for her too?”

Dylan shakes his head at the alternate Earth.

“So why…”

“I came through first,” he says, “but Dad couldn’t. Because he wasn’t in this universe, or something. He would know,” Dylan says, “if he were here.”

“I have to get back,” he says, hiding his face until gravity does its work and the few silent tears slide away, lost against the ground.

#

Dylan is not in school for several days. This seems to calm the teachers, to fit with their expectations of the universe. You wonder if there’s a different Dylan, your Dylan, in some other school, disappointing math and chemistry teachers all of a sudden. They’d take him aside, ask him if everything was okay at home, give him all the time he needed. Who knows what he’d think.

Unless the Real Dylan just wiped him from the face of reality entirely.

You have started to think of him as the Real Dylan, in spite of yourself.

With Dylan out and Eileen in a different lunch, you’re resigned to sitting alone, or sitting with Victor Dolphy which is functionally the same. You Xeroxed a bunch of pages—introductions mostly—to those books before giving them to Dylan, and you try reading them over your cardboard pizza. Conditional probability, superstrings, entanglement, gravitational waves, Einstein-Rosen bridges. Nothing that makes sense to you.

You bike to his house after school and his mom lets you in. You nearly cry with relief that she’s there—terrified, somehow, that you would have slipped into Real Dylan’s reality overnight, in some Edward Bellamy-esque transdimensional slumber party.

“How are you doing, D-Deirdre?” you ask her. Seven years of friendship with Dylan and her request to be called by her first name still feels weird. She’s an anesthesiologist—gets out all her stress baking and doing krav maga—and this role as arbiter of sleep and pain fills you with so much awe you don’t know what to call her.

“Good!” she says. “I haven’t seen you around here for a while. Everything okay at school?”

You nod. “Dylan’s just upstairs,” she says. “He’s been spending so much time…anyway, make sure you come find me before you go, I have some brownies for you to take to your parents.”

She met Dylan’s dad when he was a patient, a long time before he got seriously sick, but she’s only told you that story once.

Upstairs, Dylan is weaving what looks like a large, adamantine dreamcatcher around one of those hoops colonial children chased down hills. He’s unspooling a fat wooden knob of wire across, hooking around the blonde wood, across again, a set of heptagons whose edges and intersections trace the outlines of a massive and sawlike star. Loop, pull, loop, pull. Like some kind of pagan weaving. The wire unspools whispery metallurgical secrets into itself.

Dylan looks up, keeps unspooling. “What,” you say. Not even a question, not even a sentence.

“Is this?” Dylan finishes. He has a lime green book open on his lap, held with an elbow while his hands keep winding. Carefully, slowly.

“Is it…a portal?” you ask. Apparently you have decided to believe, or pretend to believe, Dylan’s story. You’re not sure when that happened. Dylan laughs the way Mr. Kellogg does whenever Poppo asks a silly, feline question.

“No,” he says. “It’s a dowsing ring.”

“Gonna find some water? Dig yourself a well?” You smile to hide your confusion.

“Not that kind of dowsing. Think in more dimensions. Holes between them, kind of like wells.” He finishes wrapping the wire and cuts it off, leaving a shining, lethal tip poking from the rim. He grabs a pair of grimy, yellow-handled needle nose pliers and bends it down, burying the point in the wire net. “Maybe a compass is a better analogy.”

“That’s only in two dimensions, though.”

“Nothing’s perfect”

He swings the hoop under his arm as he stands. It bumps against his shin as he crosses the room, counting unknown units of time, or space. Dylan goes downstairs and you follow, although he doesn’t invite you.

The day is graying, off-white clouds swimming over the blue swaths of sky like a school of bored fish. The grass and trees slouch backward and forward in the wind.

“Where did you even get that hoop? Did you fucking steal it from Thomas Jefferson’s house?”

But Dylan doesn’t answer. He holds the hoop parallel to the ground. With a piece of metal that looks like the handle of cheap silverware, he plucks the wire closest to his where he holds it. His right hand strains with the force of holding the hoop, the many feet of wire, aloft, his left hand suspended over it like a vulture, like a satellite. His left hand descends, feels along the rim, palm tracing the curve, the change, the smooth grain of wood, reaching further and further from himself along its circumference, feeling at tiny, tiny reverberations in the wire and wood. He turns, maybe thirty degrees, south (you’re making that up, you have no idea) and plucks again. The same tap, the palming of the hoop, his eyes half closed, eyes the color of the sky in the shadows.

He turns, moves. You follow.

You leave before he finishes for the night. The sun gets begins settling on the horizon and you bike hurriedly home. You study your parents at the table: your dad, bent over his plate in an undershirt, skewers large slabs of beef on a fork; you mom cuts all of hers into cubes at the start and then eats each slowly. What would you do if suddenly one of them weren’t there anymore? Would you invent a world for yourself where you had them both again? Would it be possible to live in that world, to maintain that illusion, without it breaking? To hold it delicately like a jar of glass spiderwebs, the most fragile container for yourself?

And what would you do if it broke?

You want to talk about Dylan, to warn them about the things he’s described, to ask their advice. But it sounds so silly at the back of your mouth. Like trying to ask Eileen to the dance. Like if you told them you were worried about a monster in your closet.

And of course, there’s the nagging notion at the back of your head that he isn’t making it up.

There’s an episode of TTMK that’s related, in fact, that’s almost certainly adding to your self-doubt. Phillipa goes through a portal alone one night, curious, explorative, and finds herself in an alternate universe where someone—who looks a lot like her—has escaped from a mental hospital. Orderlies kidnap her—Phillipa—and lock her up, and the more desperately she tries to explain that she needs to get back home, the more determinedly they keep her locked up. Mr. Kellogg wakes up with no idea where she is, no way of finding her, and she’s wrapped in a straitjacket lying in the middle of the floor several universes away, slowly coming to wonder if she did make up her uncle, and Poppo, and the Fallacious Jergin. Of course, she finds the crystal necklace that Poppo gave her hidden in the lining of her jacket, cuts her way free, escapes home; all the usual conflict resolution.

But you’ve always wondered: what if that was the show’s one glimpse of truth? What if the whole thing is in her head, like in St. Elsewhere, like season nine of Roseanne? You’ve done research into this, reached no conclusion.

And what if they lock up Dylan, and he doesn’t get out? What if he’s trapped here forever, or disintegrates due to unforeseen spatiotemporal meddlings, coincidences, and jiggery pokery? What if, even, you are a part of his imagination—where does the illusion end? You know this is going too far. But what do you owe this Dylan, this false and distant Dylan whom you’d never met until a month ago? Is he your friend?

You resolve that, for the moment, it is probably best to help Dylan. Within reason.

#

The weather is warming up. There are more birds than a month ago. Some days you can feel the tar of the asphalt, sickeningly soft under your feet like something alive, like the world has been—literally—sleeping for months, like fish under ice, and is just starting to become soft flesh and blood and bone again. The spring dance is looming; you haven’t talked to Eileen about it. You don’t even know if she’s going.

You two watch TTMK at your house again, each of you at opposite ends of the wide burgundy couch, resting on opposite rests, legs canted toward each other so that if you stretched out just a little bit, your feet would touch hers. But you don’t. You wouldn’t, ever.

“Would you do it?” she asks around a handful of popcorn. “Go to another universe?”

“Maybe,” you say. “As long as I knew the way back. It would be like exploring the woods, or a desert. Maybe best to do with a guide, or on carefully-marked trails. Bring lots of water.” You shrug. “I like the idea of adventure, promise, surprise. But I don’t think I’d like them as much in reality. What about you?”

She pauses for a long time. Mr. Kellogg and Phillipa trick the Fallacious Jergin into a pit of frictionless carbon beads and he sinks instantly, unable to surface, the tiny black beads swimming into his mouth like a swarm of beetles. Phillipa and Mr. Kellogg high five, go back to the Versarium, their home, to drink cocoa with Poppo.

“I’ve been going out at night,” she says, “late late late after my mom goes to bed, going out with Victor Dolphy and Trent Pascal and Monika Cixous.”

“Victor Dolphy?” Your heart is sinking—what does this mean? What could she, why could she, what—

She turns down the volume as the credits roll. “They’ve been doing this thing downtown. Exploring, they call it,” she says. “Urban exploring. Sneaking into these old broken down buildings that no one uses anymore. We went into one with a spiral staircase rising up into the ceiling, or what was left of a staircase, it was just supports really. So we climbed up this spindly thing and there were rooms with rusty bed frames and an old, old locked safe and some kid’s notebook. It was a little water-stained but some kid had been practicing cursive in this graph-ruled notebook, I don’t know, maybe forty or fifty years ago. And it was just sitting there, in this dark building with holes in the roof so you could see the stars, with holes in the floor so we had to shine our lights at our feet.”

You almost repeat, Victor Dolphy? But you don’t want to appear as obsessive as you, in fact, are. “There are already whole other worlds in this one,” Eileen says. “Pockets of space and time that are totally stuck in some alternative, some past or future or some other present, that are nothing like what we have.”

“I would want to go,” she says. “But not until I’d spent a lot of time figuring out the world we’re already in.”

“That sounds wild,” you say.

“It is!” she says. “It’s incredible. You should come sometime.”

“I don’t…”

“Let me be your guide, your carefully-marked path,” she says, and laughs, and throws three or four popcorn puffs at you, and you fail to swat them away, and you laugh too. “We’re going back next Wednesday.”

You’ve never snuck out of your house in your life. But surely if Dylan can hop between literal universes, you can at least muster a metaphorical one. You pull a breath, hold it, and release it around the word “Okay.” And it almost keeps the anxious, horrible, buzzing out of your chest.

Days pass unremarked. Wednesday comes. You and Eileen bike together, alone, along the winding mica streets, shimmering shining in the aftermath of afternoon rain. You keep your voices down, you barely talk at all, racing along beside one another, little invisible droplets spattering against your heels. The others will meet you both there, Eileen explained, after you crept by your parents’ room, came down the stairs pressing the sides of your feet to the wall, clumsily cat-walking downstairs to minimize creaking, leaving through the basement so they wouldn’t hear the door. You were out. Eileen waited before you immobile like an equestrian statue, and she said “They’ll meet us there,” and you were off on your squeaky bikes, coasting down the hill, downtown, towards the vast and empty shells of otherworldly homes.

You hide your bikes beneath a bridge, locking them together like some artistic parody of marriage that you wouldn’t understand in a museum, but here makes sense.

You’re terrified, of course, of the gaping black holes in the floor, the non-existent staircase winding upwards, the shadows that collect like cobwebs in the corners. And further, you’re not sure you see it, this other world that Eileen discovered. You see scuffed floors and a broken chair and a hole in the sky for the rain and light to come through. You see holes in the floor like dark weak patches of ice. But in the darkness, when her flashlight turns upwards and illuminates only her face, her short dark hair, her ears, when you escape from everything else into this pool of light marred only by the shine of a broken moon outside, and you ask her to the dance and she says yes and hugs you, in this moment of grace, and hope, and focus you believe that, perhaps, there are other worlds than this. You feel that you’ve stepped into one, if only for a second before the careless blustery whoops and hollers of Victor and Trent and Monika rend the night.

#

You do not sleep in any meaningful way. You leave your house early and unfed and race to Dylan’s house, as instinct demands you must, even if you don’t know how to interact with this new, alternate, improved Dylan who talks about statistics and dowsing rings. You leave your bike in his yard like a discarded piece of gym equipment, taking the stairs to his hot attic bedroom two at a time.

“She said yes, motherfucker! She said she’d go to the dance with me!”

Dylan is reading a book in bed before school, something massive and hard and bound in brick red. “Yes?”

“Yes! She said yes!”

“Who?”

“For fuck’s…Eileen!”

“To?”

“The dance! Jesus, Dyl, I just said that…”

“Ahh,” he says. The noise hangs like condensed hesitation. “I’d prefer it if you…didn’t do that.”

“What the actual fuck,” you say. “The actual fuck, man, you can’t just come waltzing in here, populate my best friend’s body like a fucking pod person, spend a month acting weird as shit and then smash all my dreams in one fell swoop.”

“No, Mark, sorry, it’s not that.” He stands, sets the book carefully face-down on his wide blue bedspread. He touches your shoulder. “I’m really happy about that. I wish you and Eileen the best of all worlds.”

“But?”

“The dowsing ring worked,” Dylan says, rubbing his eyes. He looks pale, almost hungover. You probably look the same. “But it’s not going to be pretty.”

“Where did it lead you?”

“The gym,” he says. “The wormhole is going to be in the gym, on the night of the dance.”

“So you’re gonna like disappear in a puff of light and smoke and freak people out? You’re gonna crash your Delorean through the door and mangle us all?”

“Not exactly.” He keeps rubbing his eyes like he’s allergic to something. “There are a lot of confounding variables of course, but simply put I need to…make sure I achieve sufficient velocity to break through the, erm…”

He says: “I’m going to have to jump. From the balcony onto the ground. About thirty feet. Six hundred twenty-seven Newtons of force oughta do it.”

“Um.”

“Messy, isn’t it?”

You can picture it all so vividly it’s like a kind of time travel; you wonder, almost, if it is a kind of time travel, if this is part of the adventure story you’ve been tossed into, a walk-on role in an 80s movie. You can see the dimmed lights, the shuffling half-clad teenaged bodies in pastel pinks and whites and greens, half-full bowl of punch on the table, snacks picked over, Chex Mix with all the pretzel sticks pulled out; on the speakers something poppy that you don’t know is playing, everyone seems to know a dance that goes along with it. And overhead, crouching on the balcony railing, like a fateful caped avenger, is Dylan. He swan dives, his jacket floating around him like a shitty parachute, like a weak angel failing to pluck him from the air.

#

The dance is still over a week away. Surely there is, there must be, some way to stop him from jumping. You could of course tell his mother—but why would she, anyone, believe you?

And more importantly, you think you believe Dylan, believe that anything you do to interfere is going to keep him from getting back home, from getting back to a dad who misses him, from another you, another Eileen to be friends with.

You feel eleven again, treading quickly but carefully across that snow-peppered ice, circling around dark patches that glare up at you like hunters’ traps, like holes in a floor. You waddle quick as you can—a tween penguin—so you don’t slip and slam ass-first into the hardened ice. You are in a constant state of balancing, dodging holes, but moving, too, inexorably forward toward something wonderful. And will you get there, or will you go home with nothing more than seven stitches and an hour’s scolding?

Eileen sits on your couch. You watch Poppo load himself into a cannon that will fire him at above light speed so that he can travel back in time and stop the Fallacious Jergin from conquering the Earth with his Sphere of Chronomancy. But when Poppo stops him, the Sphere ends up in Mr. Kellogg’s hands and obsesses him, possesses and enthralls him, so that he goes cacklingly mad and takes over the Earth himself. So Poppo goes further back in time, to try to destroy the Sphere at Dr. Hallock’s Clock and Time Shop, but then Phillipa gets a rare auto-chronologic disease, her timeline eating itself, and Poppo has to keep going further back and further back trying to set things right. You forgot about this episode, which ends with Poppo going back as far as the cannon can possibly take him, whizzing hastily into the past just as the credits roll. They never resolved the episode, just came back to the regular show the next time.

When you close your eyes for too long, you imagine how it will go, again and again: the black tuxedo jacket spread behind Dylan like broken crow’s wings, flapping in slow motion. A collision between Newtonian mechanics and some deeper, purer science that you’ll never understand, a kind of physics you’ll never learn to use, that Dylan could never teach you; the thud at the end of flight. What can you do?

Eileen’s hand rests by her yellow-toed sock, palm up like a palmister’s model. All the lines on her hand are perfect and clear, dark slashes like weak spots in the ice; but warm. You think about what that hand might look like in another universe: a threat, a welcome, a suggestion. You trace the scar on your knee and wonder about all the small changes that become bigger over time, all the coincidences, the classes you’re in or shows you discover, the conversations you have and hands you hold that lead you forward to a place of comfort, or loneliness, or confusion. You wonder which of these coincidences coincide in other worlds, and decide you don’t care. You take Eileen by the hand.

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One Comment

  1. This is an extremely ambitious story. I look forward to reading more from Jeremy Packert Burke!

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