I open my eyes and do the first thing I always do after running the gravitational field generator: remember my name. “My name is Jon, I’m a physicist,” I say. Nothing comes after that. Thoughts begin to form and rise, and just as quickly sink back down; I feel like I’m struggling to stay afloat in a river that’s slowly dragging me under, trapped in its constantly shifting currents. But I fight it. I know I have to fight it because… because that’s what I always do.
“My name is Jon,” I say again. The words are familiar and comforting and I grab onto them as if they can somehow pull me out of the river’s rushing eddies and free of the haze I’m swimming in. I look around and see that I’m sitting on a bed in a room I don’t recognize. I need to though, I need to… find out where… and when? Where and when… the generator shifted me? It’s always… somewhere I have a connection to…
“I live in an apartment on Central Park West,” I say, and my thoughts snap into focus and the river seems to suddenly stop, and then disappear.
Of course, this is my bedroom. I get off my bed and look around: my phone is unplugged on the nightstand, the screen still on and telling me it’s seven in the morning; my clothes are thrown haphazardly over my desk, and as I walk past my dresser I see stacks of books with titles like “Buddhism A-Z” and “You are Here”. Mom keeps sending them and I keep promising but never having the time to read them.
I walk out of the bedroom and into a living room as messy and chaotic as my life must be even in this reality: empty take-out boxes cover my small dinner table, dozens of unopened packages from Amazon litter the floor, and piles of mail lean against stacks of paper. Next to my TV, and covered with the same fine layer of dust, the hand-carved wooden Buddha Mom gave me for my birthday sits silently contemplating the disorder. I really haven’t been a good son.
But everything seems right so far, though I know that doesn’t mean anything until I get to the lab and run the calculations. I smile anyway, glad to feel some memories I’m sure are real coming back. I make my way through the mess of my living room to the large windows and look outside. Across the street I see the red-orange leaves of the trees that mark the edge of Central Park.
My smile slips. This isn’t right. This was a big shift—a change this large hasn’t happened in a while.
I feel the memory come to me then the same way they always do: washing over me in a tingling wave of déjà vu. I remember standing here, looking across the street at the bright green leaves of the trees that mark the edge of Central Park. Then and now, I turn and see something I hadn’t noticed before.
“It’s a lotus flower,” she says. “It should bloom by the end of summer if you manage not to kill it first. I think even you’ll be okay with this one though—it’s super easy to take care of. You just need to keep the water level right, and then just let it grow.” She gently brushes her fingers across the bulb of the flower before drawing her hand away.
The memory fades and I see the flower in the smooth white bowl by the window: a bright red teardrop on the face of a gray winter sky. Its familiarity tugs at me, but I know I’ve never seen it before. I’ve always been bad with plants—I even managed to kill my parents’ lawn once by over-watering it.
I push it aside. It’s a minor change and as long as I’m careful to keep my real memories separate from the fake ones from this shift, I’ll be okay. Or at least I won’t get any worse.
But I know that while this may be my apartment, I’m not home. I know that because the trees in Central Park are still standing and New York isn’t flooded.
I call a car to take me to the lab at 50 Hudson Yards, where the generator always is. For some reason it’s always there. The gravitational fields it generates are strong enough to warp space-time to such an extent that it can send me into another life and reality, but it never moves itself.
It’d probably be faster to take the train, but I want to keep a door between me and the city’s rush hour madness. The time right after a test is the most dangerous. Anything—the faintest smell, the most innocuous sound—could trigger a flash of déjà vu and I would lose a bit more of my real self—of home—buried under the memories of lives I never lived.
So as the car takes me downtown and past the signs of damage that must have been from Superstorm Tammy—shuttered stores, missing trees and power lines, and construction around a damaged Javits Center that tells me I must be at least a few months removed from the storm this time—I imagine it even worse, I remember it even worse. I see rain pouring down in endless sheets between the steel and glass buildings. Trees and signs bend and creak and I feel water soaking into me as I slowly push against the howling wind. I hear an angry roar and look up to see water rushing down the street, swallowing up cars and people, their mouths open in screams I can’t hear over the storm. Thunder fills my ears, my heart jumps into my throat, and the car stops.
“You have arrived at 50 Hudson Yards,” it tells me.
I’ve been the only one in the main lab on the 40th floor for hours now, alone with rows of messy tables and computers. I’m in front of a digital board, scrawling down the last set of my equations. These are the equations that, once completed with data from this reality’s generator to determine how space-time was warped and shifted, will calculate the coordinates that will send me another step towards home. I rush through them, not really thinking, just transcribing from memory as quickly as possible the numbers and symbols that, after countless shifts through different permutations of my life, still burn clearly in my mind: my compass, my north star, the map charting my way home.
“Jon! You’re in early today.”
I turn and see Saniya, my co-director of the project, walking towards me. She is, as always, impeccably dressed, her smart outfit a stark contrast to my wrinkled clothes. I don’t know why but I’m strangely relieved to see her. She’s my oldest friend and the most important person on the project after me (and the one who isn’t trapped in a cycle of gravitationally generated distortions of reality), so I’m probably just glad to know she’ll be here to help me with the calculations.
“Did you see the news?” She holds her tablet to my face and I see the front page of the New York Times: MAYOR CALLS FOR CITY TO REFUSE REFUGEES. “I still can’t believe we re-elected this asshole,” she says. Her words grab onto me with their familiarity and I feel my skin prickle with déjà vu.
“I can’t believe we re-elected this asshole,” Saniya says, slamming her empty drink back onto the bar. “It feels like a nightmare. He’s lucky we barely stumbled through Tammy in one piece. I swear, I’d almost rather the city be flooded—”
I push the fake memory away and try to focus on what Saniya is saying, but hazy images of other lives flash through my mind: water rushing down 10th Avenue; the new mayor crying in the ruins of Battery Park as she promises never again; Saniya crying and the old mayor grinning in a sun-swept Battery Park as he promises to send her people away; smoke and fire and screams and people marching and then running through the streets. It used to be easy to tell the real memories from the fake, but after so long they’ve started to mix and run together in my mind like paint splashed against a wall, and now it’s all I can do to make out the tattered ribbons of color that are the real me. It’s scary slowly losing myself like this, but if I can just get the calculations right and go home…
“Jon, are you even listening to me? Sorry, is the death of democracy boring you?”
The sarcastic edge in Saniya’s voice is something I do remember and I know I’d better pay attention now. “Sorry, yeah he’s terrible,” I say quickly.
She gives me an odd look and I know she’s surprised by my listlessness. The truth is, I’ve forgotten how I feel about the mayor. I mean, I know how I’m supposed to feel—the man was an anti-science crypto-racist long before the first generator test—but the emotion of it faded away a long time ago. I don’t even remember if he’s supposed to win his re-election or if New York is supposed to have its first woman mayor anymore. It’s another reminder of how much I’ve lost from home.
“Can you take a look at something?” I ask, changing the subject. I run my hand across the board and bring up the first page of my equations.
Saniya gives me a lingering look before shrugging and turning to the board. As she reads, her eyes widen slightly, and after several pages she turns towards me and half-states, half-asks, “These are new solutions to the field equations?”
I nod. She means Einstein’s gravitational field equations—the foundations of our quantum modeling program. They’re notoriously difficult to solve and our work formulating new solutions and applications for them is one of the cornerstones of the Gravitational Field Generator Project. What I’m showing her are the results of my further work using results from the project and tests across more lives and realities than I can remember.
“You did all of this by yourself?”
“I had some inspiration and ran with it. I think we should build these into the modeling program. It’ll improve our wave models of the shifts and—”
Saniya raises a hand and cuts me off. “Jon, if you think this is worth it, then I’m with you. You should have told me sooner, though. We got here as a team, remember?”
“I know, I’m sorry.” I’m not, but as long as she’s on board, it doesn’t matter.
“Alright, walk me through this before we talk to the rest of the team.” I nod and turn back to the board to walk Saniya through my equations for what feels like the thousandth time.
I hear my phone vibrate and glance at the screen: a call from Mom in California. I hesitate for a second and then silence it. There’s too much work to do.
Most of the team, including Saniya, is working on building my equations into the quantum modeling program, but I’m alone in my office because I have to do this part—using the equations and data from the generator’s sensor array in this shift to calculate a way home—by myself. It’s much easier to explain the need to update the quantum software than the need to configure the generator to use gravity to selectively warp the fabric of space-time (sometimes I still try, but Saniya is always a pain about it). I can’t finish until the rest of the team finishes its part, because until the quantum software is updated I can’t analyze and determine with enough precision exactly how the gravitational fields generated in the last test distorted space-time; but fortunately, the project here is pretty advanced. We’ve—no, they’ve—already run a few tests of the generator and are scheduled for a full systems test next month. I’ll be ready by then.
The team is excited by my new equations, of course, and some people drop by my office to talk about them. I try to be patient when they just need some clarification on the equations, but it’s hard to not be curt when the conversation strays into something more theoretical. When the shifts first began what feels like a lifetime ago—in a way was many lifetimes—I was scared, confused, and even in wonder of it all; but those emotions have long since faded. I’ve stopped trying to understand it, stopped wondering if I’m actually traveling to new time-lines or realities or just somehow altering my own. All I really know or care about now is that after what feels like an eternity of running the generator over and over again using different coil configurations and “shifting” through an endless parade of similar but different lives, I’m finally close to getting home.
My phone vibrates again and I reach out to silence it, thinking Mom is very persistent today. As I do, I see the screen and freeze as a tingling wave washes over me. It’s a message from Ely saying: “Fundraiser’s going great! Guess you’re not going to make it?” I instinctively start typing the reply, my fingers seeming to move on their own. I’m nearly done when I stop myself. I stare at the message I typed telling her I’ll be there soon, a tingling feeling of familiarity lingering in my fingertips.
I don’t know an Ely.
I can almost see her in my mind: the flash of a smile, moonlight glinting in her eyes—she laughs warmly, her eyes sparkling and seeming to change colors—but I push the images away and put my phone down. Memories of strangers are the most dangerous.
I turn back to the equations.
I only manage a few more hours of work before Saniya barges into my office (she never knocks) and makes me stop. Apparently, Mom asked her to make sure I was okay, which she took to mean that it was time to stop working and share a car home. I’m a little annoyed at being ordered around like a five-year old, but I’m also pretty tired and hungry, and I can’t work with her harassing me like this anyway… so I agree and she calls a car for us (which I somehow end up paying for).
I’m in my kitchen a half hour later, rooting through my refrigerator for something to eat. Its contents change after each shift and I still find it vaguely interesting to wonder why. Part of it is probably from different choices I made in a particular reality—going to the Safeway around the corner rather than making the trek down to Chinatown for groceries—and part of it where in time each shift sends me, which means more or less food’s been eaten relative to my “home” refrigerator. The changes are minor enough that I never experience false memories from them—no vision of me inexplicably buying that questionable-looking jar of pickles, for example (I hate pickles, so I have no idea how it got in here)—but in a way, the state of my refrigerator is a perfect microcosm of my endless shifts. Maybe, I sometimes muse, hidden somewhere in my quantum refrigerator is the key to unifying General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics and the secret to finding my way home.
After about another minute of fruitless searching I sigh. Honestly, I’d take some decent food over the secrets to physics at this point. I’ve just about given up and am picking up the jar of pickles when the doorbell rings. I start at the sudden sound and hit my head. Rubbing my head and cursing, I extricate myself from the refrigerator and walk to the door, wondering who it could be this late.
When I open the door, the first things I see are her eyes. They sparkle warmly in the cool light of the hallway, their color seeming to shift and change like ripples in a river. They’re familiar, like I’ve seen them before; no, not just seen them, but know them. Know how they’ll shimmer, how their color will flicker now from soft brown to bright green and sparkling blue.
“They’re hazel,” she says. “I loved them growing up. I couldn’t decide which color I liked more. Whenever I had to write my eye color down, I always put brown-green-blue. I only stopped when the DMV refused to put three colors on my driver’s license.” She laughs and her eyes shimmer, flickering from soft brown to bright green and sparkling blue.
“Hi, sorry for coming by so late,” she says.
Her eyes release me then and I see a young woman, a light coat over her cocktail dress and a large paper bag in one hand. A tingling sense of déjà vu lingers over me, and I say the thing—a feeling more than a word—still echoing in my mind: “Ely.”
“Jon,” she says with a smile.
“The doorman didn’t tell me you were coming up,” I say slowly, still feeling dazed.
“He recognized me—didn’t even have to sign in. I guess I’m one step closer to completing my nefarious plan to break into your apartment and rob you.” She winks and then lifts up her paper bag. “I brought you food from the fundraiser. I know how much you love free stuff.”
I start to think of an excuse to send her away, remembering that every moment I’m with her I risk forgetting a little more of myself, when my stomach growls hungrily. I do love free food, I can’t stop myself from thinking.
“Well, are you going to let me in or just stand there starving?” she asks amusedly. Her words are playful, but the blue of her eyes pierces me with their familiarity. They grab onto me and I feel them pulling me in like a river.
I should stay away. She’s not real, she’s dangerous…
I open my eyes and I’m sitting at my dinner table. Small boxes of food are spread out in front of me and I watch as Ely searches for plates in the kitchen. “I can’t believe this is what happens when I leave you alone for a bit,” she calls out. “This place is a mess!” My skin prickles and I have a feeling like I’ve sat here watching her open drawers and cabinets, listening to the clinking sound of plates and silverware, just like this, before. Memories bubble forward and images flash through my mind: her leaning against the kitchen counter laughing, sitting on my couch with the sun in her hair, eyes shimmering as she leans across the table towards me.
They disappear with the clink of a plate and Ely is leaning across the table, pushing a plate of large steamed buns and a pair of chopsticks towards me. “Try these,” she says. “They’re also vegetarian. Well, everything’s vegetarian, but that’s the price you pay when you put me in charge of an event.”
“Chopsticks, really?” I ask, the words coming on their own. “I’m supposed to eat these with chopsticks?”
“Oh, but that’s what you taught me,” she replies coyly as she carefully picks up a bun with her chopsticks. “At least that’s what I told the mayor. I really hope somebody got a picture of him trying.” Her eyes sparkle blue with mischief as she takes a bite, and I can’t help but laugh.
I stab a bun with my chopsticks and lift it to my mouth. “That’s what you should have done,” I say before taking a bite. The bun tastes like home, and when she bursts out laughing it makes me happy.
“So the mayor came to the fundraiser?” I ask, feeling like I already know the answer.
“Oh yes, he was shameless. Gave a big speech about always believing in the Dry Line and being there to show his continued support. After all that funding he cut…”
Her words spark something inside of me and images flash through my mind: water crashing over me as Saniya grabs onto my arm; Saniya running through a street, people and bodies and signs and smoke and chaos all around her; the world twisting and shifting through my tears as the generator’s roar floods my ears. Everything’s wrong and everywhere is suffering. Except home.
I need to get home.
Ely is leaning towards the flower by my window now. She gently brushes her fingers across the large round leaves and the bulb of the flower and then draws her hand away. “This is beautiful. Where did you get it?”
I look at her and remember her standing there, the sun dancing in her hair as she runs her hands across the flower, and her question feels wrong. “My mom sent it,” I say hesitantly, my words also feeling off. “I don’t even remember what it is, honestly.”
“Is she Buddhist?”
“Yes, how did you know?” I know it doesn’t make sense because I’ve never been here before—never known this girl before tonight—but I can’t shake the feeling that this is all wrong: like I’m watching a movie that’s not playing out the way it’s supposed to.
“This is a lotus,” she says as she traces a finger along the edge of the ceramic pot. “It’s symbolic in Buddhism.” I see her standing by the window with the sunlight streaming around us as she adjusts the flower pot.
“Buddhism teaches that humans are born and reborn into an endless cycle of suffering, rooted in our attachment to the illusion of the permanence of ourselves and the world around us,” she says and I’m standing in front of her, her eyes pulling me in again. “A lotus grows out of the mud into a flower. When it opens, it’s the promise of escape from the cycle.”
The color of her eyes seem to shift and change under the dim light of my apartment, and as they pull me in, it suddenly seems like they are sparkling in sunlight. Like it’s a warm summer day and the bright green leaves of Central Park are rustling behind her. “It’ll be beautiful when it blooms.”
The part of me that isn’t me feels guilty, but after that night I tell my doorman to not let Ely up anymore and I reply to all her messages that I’m busy. The danger of fake memories alone was enough to want me to keep her away; but there was also something about that night, something about the way my skin tingled and my mind drifted—almost as if I had just run the generator and shifted—that unsettled me.
So I focus on work, and the days pass by in an indistinct blur. Mornings roll into nights into mornings again with only the familiar scrawl of the equations really standing out. I’m vaguely aware of a flurry of events unfolding outside the lab, mostly through Saniya’s reports on the mayor’s latest outrages: the cuts to education, the “tough on crime” initiatives in the outer boroughs, the feud with Washington over refugee resettlement. Some I half-remember from other shifts and others I’m hearing for the first time. All of them, I ignore. All I need to focus on are my equations. The world might shift and change like a storm-swept river, but the equations are my rock and as long as I hold onto them I’ll find my way home.
“So there’s a protest planned for the mayor’s speech next week.”
I look up at Saniya, her words catching my attention in a way they hadn’t previously. “You’re not thinking of going, are you?”
She sighs. “I know, I know. Scientists shouldn’t get involved in politics, it erodes public trust in us. But how can I keep sitting here with my hands under my ass when he’s attacking everything we care about?”
“Saniya, no! Please don’t.” The words burst out of my mouth by themselves, and even I’m surprised at the urgency in them. I don’t know why, but I’m overcome by the feeling that I have to stop her.
Saniya seems taken aback as well, and looks at me quietly. “Don’t worry,” she says after a while. “I’ve got too much to do right now with your damn equations anyway.”
I don’t understand the sense of relief that fills me, but my skin continues tingling long after.
I’m walking with Saniya through one of the tree-lined, cobblestone paths of the “Square”, the small park that connects the malls, museums, and offices that make up the Hudson Yards development. It’s a clear, sunny day, but the air is crisp and cool. It’s been a long time since I’ve walked outside like this, and it feels nice.
I stop, feeling like something is wrong. My skin is prickling, as if a cold wave had just washed over me. Saniya looks at me questioningly. “Jon?”
I look back uncertainly. What am I doing here? I feel something in my hand and look down at the paper bag I’m holding. Did we get lunch? There’s so much work to do, why would I leave the lab? My mind is buzzing and it almost feels like I’ve shifted, but…
“Jon!” a familiar voice calls out. It’s like the chime of a bell and scatters the questions roiling through my mind. I look up and see Ely ahead of us. Sunlight streams through the trees around her, and when she smiles my skin tingles and it feels like… I struggle to remember the word.
“I thought it was you,” she says as she walks up.
“Ely,” I say, shifting uneasily. I can feel the fake memories seeping into me, in the way her smile puts me at ease and my mind tells me she’s a friend. “What are you doing here?” I ask curtly, pushing all those feelings aside.
Her eyes widen slightly and I know she’s taken aback by my coldness. I fight down the feeling of guilt I tell myself isn’t real. “Sorry, am I not supposed to be? We did meet here, if you remember.”
She’s sitting on one of the stone seating walls, the rays of sunlight streaming between the trees seeming to somehow all end with her. She laughs and tries to hold her hair away from her face as it dances in the sudden breeze.
The image fades away and I’m looking into Ely’s eyes again. “I was showing some donors the riverfront,” she says, breaking the silence I didn’t realize had passed. “Helps to give a visual of something before you start begging people for money to fund it. Going to need a lot of that now that the mayor has officially ‘completed’ the public part of the Dry Line public-private partnership.” She rolls her eyes but smiles, and I know she’s trying to ease the tension. A part of me wants that too, but another just wants to run away.
Saniya clears her throat loudly and I realize that we’ve fallen into another awkward silence. “Hi, I’m Saniya,” she says, shooting me an annoyed glance before stepping up and offering her hand to Ely.
“I’m Ely,” Ely replies as she quickly shakes Saniya’s hand. I can sense her relief at Saniya’s intervention, and feel another pang of guilt. “Are you friends with Jon?”
“On the good days,” Saniya says with a shrug. “Usually I just work with him.”
“Oh!” Ely’s eyes light up. “Jon’s told me about you. You’ve been friends since college, right?”
Saniya raises an eyebrow and shoots me another glance. “Yes…”
“Well, Jon never told me how gorgeous you are—I love your outfit! You know, we laypeople always imagine scientists running around in white lab coats, but you’re just so stylish.”
Saniya’s face breaks out in a grin and the tension melts away. She’s a sucker for compliments. Did I tell Ely that? “Oh, this? It’s nothing, I just threw it on this morning. I mean, we actually do wear lab coats at the lab…”
“I mean it. Jon, you’re lucky you’ve had Saniya as a friend all this time. You probably wouldn’t have seemed as creepy if she had been with you when we met.” She gives me a quick, teasing wink.
“Ohh… I like you!” Saniya gushes. She looks at me, points at Ely a few times and stage whispers loudly, “I really like her!”
Ely laughs and takes Saniya’s arm. “Come on, you’re at 50 Hudson, right? I’ll walk you back.”
“It’s okay, we can head back ourselves.” Even as I say them, the words feel wrong, as if I’ve lived this moment before and that just wasn’t what I was supposed to say.
“Oh shush, you!” Saniya snaps. “Yes Ely, you absolutely must walk us back.” She pulls Ely and they start walking together towards the lab.
“It’s fine,” Ely says to me. “It’s close, and besides, I want to hear from Saniya what you were like in college.”
Saniya grins. “Oh, you would’ve hardly recognized him. He was this geeky little kid who didn’t have a clue how to talk to real people.”
Ely bursts out laughing. “Really? No way!”
“Yes! His sense of humor was the same though, his one redeeming quality…”
I feel my resistance crumbling, as if seeing them meet was the last piece of some puzzle that had been haunting me. I hesitate for a few moments as they walk ahead, and then follow. When I take the first step, it feels like a weight’s been lifted; as if I’ve been swimming against the current of a river and finally decided to let go and drift with it.
As we walk, Ely and Saniya become engrossed in their conversation and seem to forget me. They’re relaxed and comfortable, like they’ve known each other for years, and it feels… right. We walk past a bed of flowers and as a gust of wind picks up, I catch their fragrance in the air. It’s soft and delicate, like it would disappear if I breathe too deeply; but it’s so familiar, like I’ve smelled this exact same smell somewhere before. As I breathe in, my skin tingles and a familiar wave washes over me.
The smell comes on a cool summer breeze, soft and delicate like the flowers they come from. I smile, the fragrance lingering in my nose as I watch Ely and Saniya joking and laughing together. I’m glad they’re getting along: it’s important to me. The wind picks up again and the smell of the flowers drifts away with it.
The scent fades away and the memory with it. I blink a few times, feeling disoriented, like I’ve just woken up from a dream I’m quickly forgetting; but a part of me is telling me that there’s something important about it. Isn’t this the first time they’ve met?
“You know, Jon hasn’t said anything about you,” Saniya’s voice cuts in, scattering my thoughts. “I can’t believe he’s been hiding you.”
Ely laughs. “Well, we haven’t known each other that long. What’s it been Jon, a few months?”
I hesitate. “I think so…”
Ely stops and purses her lips thoughtfully. “No, longer than that I think.” She looks at me, and suddenly all I see are her eyes, pulling me in as they shimmer between green and blue under the bright summer sun. “Come on, Jon, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten already?”
I’m reviewing calculations from the sensor physics team when I suddenly think of Ely. I don’t know why, but one moment I’m cross-checking an equation and the next I remember her eyes sparkling under the sun the day she met Saniya. Didn’t I realize something important that day? When was it?
At that moment, Saniya opens my door and walks in (she never knocks).
“Hey, what’s up?” I ask.
“I missed your face. Seeing it every few hours, 12 hours a day, every day, hasn’t been enough for me, so I came here to look at it again.” She’s impeccably dressed and looks as sharp as always. I would be hard-pressed to tell that she’s been in the office every day for the past two weeks working tirelessly.
“Well, look away, take a picture. When you’re done, I have work to do.” I, on the other hand am particularly feeling the weight of my endless labors today, and probably look like a disheveled mess.
Saniya makes a show of looking me over and then says gravely, “On second thought, this was a bad idea: you look like crap.”
I roll my eyes, but she smiles and leans against my table. “Ely and I are going to get lunch at that new Thai place at the Kitchens. Want to come?”
“You’ve been talking to Ely?” I’m surprised—haven’t they just met?
Saniya looks at me strangely. “Um, yes? She’s going to become my new best friend, if you don’t get your act together. I swear, you care more about this test than me.”
“That’s not true.” I’m doing this for her too. My memories of home are hazy and confused, but I know everything is better there for her too. I struggle to find a memory of her, and a tiny feeling of doubt begins gnawing at me.
“Jon, are you okay?” Saniya’s voice cuts through my thoughts. I look up at her worried frown and realize I’ve been quiet for too long. “You know, you’ve been really… serious ever since we started working with these new equations.”
“I’m fine,” I say quickly. “I just want to make sure we’re ready for the test.” What she said is still bothering me—I know I’m doing this for her too, but I can’t seem to remember why.
“Come get lunch with me and Ely.”
“You go ahead, I’m in the middle of something.” Was it the mayor? Maybe the mayor didn’t get re-elected at home?
“Jon, the test will be fine—don’t let it take over your life. That was the whole point of us agreeing to work here and building this team, remember?”
“I know, and you know I know that, but this is important. Everything will be fine after the test, I promise.” Yes, that must be it. She’d be happy in a world where the mayor was somebody else.
Saniya gives me a long, doubtful look. After a while, she sighs and shrugs. “Okay, fine. I guess you were always either too smart or too lazy to really screw yourself over by overworking.”
“Of course, trust me.” I force a smile and my words sound more certain than I feel. Water crashes through the doors, flooding the room, and Saniya screams.
It’s quiet as I walk through the park that runs uptown from the Square past the lab. I follow the soft yellow glow of street-lamps that seem to lead to nowhere, and as the cool night air wraps around me I’m glad I agreed to make this small escape from the lab. I can’t remember the last time I’ve just taken a walk like this.
“Jon?” Her voice drifts to me on the back of a quiet breeze and I look up, not sure if I heard a memory or something real. I see her walking towards me then, hair rustling quietly in the wind. The moonlight seems to guide her way, and gives her eyes a faint brown-green sparkle. I have a feeling like I’m seeing something from a dream.
“It is you,” Ely says as she steps in front of me. “What are you doing out here?”
“I was… going for a walk,” I say slowly, feeling like I’ve just woken up from a dream—or a memory.
“This late? Did you come from the lab?”
I nod. “I was working and…” Why did I come here? Images flash through my mind. “My mom…” I trail off uncertainly.
“She what? Sent you to your room for being bad?” Ely says with a slight smile.
I relax. That’s right actually. Mom had been talking to Saniya again and sent me a flood of messages telling me to stop working so hard before I had a heart attack like Dad. I don’t know why I forgot that for a moment, but Ely reminding me is reassuring. I begin lowering the guard I didn’t realize I had put up. “Something like that,” I say. “She told me to go for a walk first and get connected to nature.”
“She sounds great. We’d probably get along—you know me and nature.”
I’m not sure I do but nod anyway. “Well, I guess this is about as close to nature as you get in Manhattan,” I say as I look around for what feels like the first time. The park feels smaller now and I’m conscious of the buildings rising up around us.
Ely’s eyes light up. “Hey, you want to see something amazing?”
I hesitate, but before I can reply she grabs my hand and pulls me with her. “Come on, it’s not far. I promise it’s worth it.”
Her hand feels soft and warm in mine and I instinctively squeeze it to keep it from slipping away. My eyes trace the line of my hand into hers and along her arm to the curve of her shoulder. Moonlight streams down around her and seems to light a path ahead of us. She looks back at me, her eyes a deep ocean blue, and smiles and squeezes my hand back.
She leads us out of the park and we walk quickly through the near-empty streets of West Side Manhattan, talking about nothing and everything: fleeting words quickly forgotten that put me more at ease than I’ve felt in a long time. We reach the West Side Highway and run across the empty road like kids, her laughter lingering in the night air. She holds my hand the entire way and as I watch the curve of her shoulders rise and fall and the moonlight dance in her hair, my skin tingles and I feel like I’m being pulled into a dream, or perhaps the memory of one.
On the other side of the highway we reach a long metal fence and Ely finally lets go. My empty hand feels cold, and I clench it as I watch her type into a keypad and open a door in the fence. She takes us through into a long park that stretches along the Hudson. I follow her over the grass past scattered trees and up a gentle slope. We sit down at the top and I look down another slope at the Hudson, bathed in moonlight.
“Welcome to the Dry Line,” Ely says with a sweeping flourish of her hand. “I can’t believe we’ve known each other this long and I haven’t taken you before.”
I shift at the reminder that she doesn’t really belong in my life, but look around. In a way, the success or failure of the Dry Line determines whether I’m home, but I’ve never paid it much attention. I see that there’s still a lot of work being done: piles of dirt, construction equipment, half-assembled structures, and unplanted trees cover the area. “Where are the flood barriers?” I ask.
“You’re sitting on them. The idea was to build something natural that blends into the environment, so you wouldn’t notice even if you’re right on top of it.”
“Like me just now?”
“Exactly.” She flashes a satisfied smile. “There are metal locks on the East Side under the FDR, but here we were able to get along with nature a little more. Pretty awesome, right?”
I look down the slope of what I now realize is a long series of hills running along the length of the Hudson. Under the dim glow of the moon, the quietly rustling grass shifts seamlessly into the softly rippling waters of the river. “Yes, it is,” I say.
“You know, it barely survived the storm. It wasn’t nearly this complete then. So much water got through…” she trails off quietly.
Images flash through my mind: water swallowing up people and bodies floating quietly down flooded avenues. “How bad would it have been?”
“It’s hard to say, there are so many variables. The storm weakening, the funding you helped us get… Honestly, I try not to think of it.”
I helped her? I’m both surprised and not, and ignore both feelings. “Not at all?” I ask instead.
She laughs softly. “You’re just like Saniya—she loves talking about this. She says it’s our fault the mayor was re-elected, because he got all the credit for saving the city.”
“Maybe it would’ve been okay.” I think of home again. I’ve taken for granted for so long that everything’s better there, but I can’t really remember why. It’s like an old equation I’ve forgotten the steps to solving and now all I have is the answer: go home. “Maybe the damage wouldn’t have been too bad, and the mayor wouldn’t have been re-elected and…” I stop as I realize how obsessive I must sound.
Ely regards me thoughtfully though. After several long moments, she asks, “Have you ever been to a forest, Jon?”
“Does Central Park count?” I feel like I want to see her smile again and somehow know she’ll like this joke.
She rolls her eyes but smiles slightly and I relax. “You’re such a city boy—I’ll have to take you to a real forest sometime. The Catskills are nice. We should go there, if you really want to get connected to nature.”
My skin tingles but no images flash through my mind. It’s just a feeling like I’ve lived this moment before.
“Sometimes when I’m there I just sit and listen to the wind and the birds, and it feels like… everything is connected. Like even though I’m trying to stay still, the world keeps moving and I’m not supposed to fight it.” She looks at me and her eyes glimmer a deep brown under the pale moonlight. “Nothing is permanent, Jon. Not what’s happening now and certainly not what might have been. The world is always moving. The only way we can really stay still is to live in each moment and move with it.”
She turns back towards the river and looks into it quietly. I follow her gaze and begin to barely make out the ripples of the waters’ ebbs and flows under the dim glow of the moon. I think I can almost see myself in them.
As I get closer to completing the calculations, the days begin to feel strangely disjointed. I don’t know why, but each one feels somehow disconnected from the next, as if every morning I’m stepping from one life into another. It’s a feeling that possesses me more and more every day: a hazy, lingering, uncertainty that leaves my skin tingling. I know I have a word for it, but it keeps slipping my mind. The only things that feel clear are my equations, and I throw myself into them, taking comfort in their familiarity. I’m being tossed around in a constantly shifting river, the currents pulling me under, and they’re my rock. One day I begin to lose even that.
“This isn’t right!” I shout again, slamming my hands on the table in frustration.
The team leaders around me in the main lab flinch. They’re not used to seeing me like this, and are uncomfortable, but I don’t care. I just glare at the rows of equations and calculations on the digital board that I know are wrong.
Saniya also doesn’t care. She spins me around by my shoulder and pins me with a cold stare. “Dammit, Jon, get a grip of yourself. We’ve been going over this all day. They’re right and they’re based on your equations.”
I understand logically what she’s saying. The math makes sense and we went through the work logs all the way back to the beginning to make sure. But I also know, as surely as I know my name, that it can’t be right—the team must have messed up somewhere—because when I combine our work to calculate the coil configuration for the next test, I get the exact same one I used for my last shift. It was, in effect, telling me I’m already home.
“Jon,” Saniya says, more gently this time. “Are you alright?”
“It doesn’t make sense…” I sigh. If it was just close, maybe I could explain it, but the exact same configuration? It’s impossible…
“Alright, everybody take the rest of the day off!” Saniya says suddenly. An uneasy murmur starts that she quickly cuts off. “You heard me! Life is short, get out of here and do something meaningful with it.”
The others clear the lab quietly after that, though I catch a few sidelong glances. Saniya waits until they’re all gone, and then looks at me worriedly. “Seriously Jon, what’s going on? You know the calculations are right. Since when did you start trusting your math over mine, anyway?”
I look back at the board. She’s right, and yet… “I’m sorry Saniya, just… give me some time.” To convince myself that I’m wrong and not the world? It goes against everything I’ve learned from countless shifts.
“Why don’t you take the day off too? Give Ely a call, take her to dinner.”
“Ely? Why?” I don’t even remember the last time I saw her, much less how she could help.
“Don’t be an asshole to her too, okay? At least I know when you’re not being yourself.” Saniya gives me a look like she’s scolding a child. “Anyway, if you’re really going to spend all day confirming my work’s better than yours, then I’m going to go see the mayor’s speech with some non-crazy friends.”
I feel a surge of fear. “You’re going to a protest?”
“Protest? Why would I protest New York’s first female mayor? We’re going to celebrate!”
I stare at where Saniya had been for a while after she leaves. What she said feels wrong too, but for the life of me I can’t remember why.
The elevator doors open and I step wearily out into the lobby. I worked all afternoon and feel more tired and less sure of myself than when I started. Saniya was right—everything made sense: her math, the equations, everything—and I still know that isn’t possible. I hesitate as a thought I’ve been avoiding sneaks up on me again: Could I be remembering something wrong?
A loud alarm screeches from my phone and I pull it out of my pocket in annoyance. As I look at the message on the screen, my skin tingles with electricity and a familiar wave pulls me in.
I read the message on my phone: “EMERGENCY ALERT. Mandatory evacuation in effect in Manhattan. Go to nearest evacuation point immediately.”
I hear a loud splash and look up to see Saniya stumble out of the emergency stairwell into the knee-deep water that’s flooded the lobby. I’m so relieved to see her that I forget for a moment the storm raging just outside. “Saniya!” I shout.
She looks at me in surprise. “Jon? What the hell are you doing here?”
“Looking for you, you idiot! What are you still doing here—we have to get out of the city now!”
I step forward and my feet sinks into the cold water with a splash. I look around the suddenly dark and empty lobby in confusion; outside I hear the angry howling of a storm. I look down at the phone still in my hand and read the message: “EMERGENCY ALERT. FLOODING IMMINENT. SEEK HIGH GROUND IMMEDIATELY.”
Where am I? Wasn’t I just in the elevator?
“Jon!” Someone grabs me by my shoulder and I turn to see Saniya. “You saw the message, get back upstairs!” She pushes me towards the stairwell and starts wading through the water towards the entrance.
“Where are you going?” I shout after her.
“To get my grandmother! She lives in a walk-up and still writes me letters!”
I wrap one arm around the pole as the water crashes angrily over us. My other hand clings desperately to Saniya’s, trying to pull her closer to me even as the water tears us apart. I want to look back at her, to find her face and tell her to hold on, but the water blinds me and I feel her fingers slowly slip out of mine. “Jon!” she shouts, though I barely hear her over the storm and water. “Just let—”
“Saniya, no!” I start to rush after her, and am blinded by smoke. I fall to my knees on what feels like rough asphalt, coughing and suddenly aware of the screaming and shouting surrounding me. Shadowy figures, half-hidden in the smoke, run all around me. Shots ring out and I hear sirens echoing in the distance. My skin is tingling and my mind feels heavy, almost as if I had just shifted.
“Jon…” a voice rasps out. I feel a hand brush weakly against mine and instinctively take it. This… this is… The smoke clears slightly, and I see Saniya lying on the ground, a jagged flower of blood blooming across her chest.
“Saniya, no, no…” I mutter, a numbing fear rising up inside me. This happened before… It doesn’t make sense, but some part of me is telling me that this happened before and I’ll make it okay, I’ll fix it and we’ll go home. “I’ll fix it, don’t worry I’ll fix it. It’s all in the equations. I’ll fix it and we’re going to go home…” I repeat the words desperately. I don’t know what they mean, only that they have to be right.
Saniya smiles faintly up at me. “It’s okay, Jon…” she murmurs. “It’s okay… just let go…” I can’t see her anymore through the smoke and the tears stinging my eyes, and the generator’s roar floods my ears.
I open my eyes, feeling confused and disoriented. What am I doing? There’s something I’m supposed to do… “My name is Jon, I’m a physicist,” I say, becoming aware now that I’m sitting by a table. The words are familiar and comforting, and I cling onto them as I try to shake off the disorientation that always comes after a test.
No, that’s not right… “My name is Jon,” I say again. There hasn’t been a test yet. I’ve… what have I been doing? “My name is Jon, I’m—”
“Did you forget your name, Jonathan S. Lee?”
The voice—light, playful, and familiar—cuts through my daze and I turn towards it. I see Ely leaning towards a window. Sunlight streams through it, falling all around her, bathing my apartment with a soft, white glow.
Jonathan. That’s right. I can’t remember the last time somebody called me that, but that’s me and I’m with Ely in my apartment. I’m sitting by my dinner table, and there’s an open jar of pickles near my hand. Everything seems to be in its place, and Mom’s Buddha statue contemplates me nearby. Slowly, the fog around my mind begins to drift away.
Ely is adjusting a white ceramic bowl by the window. Long green stems shoot up out of it, most of them ending in large roundish leaves; the tallest stem though thrusts above the leaves and ends in the slender red bulb of a flower. After a few moments, Ely stops and nods. She turns to look at me, her eyes shimmering green in the sunlight and the bright green leaves of Central Park rustling behind her.
“It’s a lotus flower,” she says. “It should bloom by the end of summer if you manage not to kill it first. I think even you’ll be okay with this one though—it’s super easy to take care of. You just need to keep the water level right, and then just let it grow.” She gently brushes her fingers across the large round leaves and the bulb of the flower before drawing her hand away.
“You got this for me?” I ask. The question feels important.
“Well, it was your mom’s idea, but I’ll take some credit too. She ordered me around and I listened to her.” She laughs softly and walks over to me. As she looks at me her eyes draw me in with the way they seem to shimmer and shift between all their colors. “I think it’s going to bloom soon,” she says as she sits down and takes my hands in hers. They’re warm and familiar and I squeeze them instinctively. “It’ll be beautiful when it does.”
Her words are the first things that feel right to me in a long time.
I’m staring through the reinforced glass windows at the end of the generator control room. A steady electric hum emanates from the chamber on the other side and I watch as the eight cavorite columns inside shift and rotate into the positions I calculated: the configuration that would…
I blink a few times, feeling disoriented. I look around and see Saniya next to me in front of the main control panel and the rest of the team positioned at the various monitoring stations. What am I doing here?
“Test configuration set,” Saniya says as the coils lock into place with loud, hissing snaps. She shakes her head. “You’re going to have to explain to me again later why we’re using this completely random configuration for our first test.”
That’s right, I finally figured out what was wrong with the calculations… right?
“Beginning warm-up cycle,” Saniya says. She taps on the screen of her panel and the coils inside the chamber light up and the electric hum grows louder.
I can’t help but feel like I’m missing something, but I’m not sure what. The flashes have cone more frequently lately: real and fake memories swirling confusingly together, so vivid they often seem to spill into reality. They make sense and they don’t and sometimes I wonder if they ever really ended or if I’m still stumbling through a memory now… This should terrify me, but…
Nothing is permanent, Jon. Not what’s happening now and certainly not what might have been.
Who had said that? Somebody I knew? Somebody important to me…
A loud beep scatters my thoughts and I see the chamber again. “Warm-up cycle complete,” Saniya announces. “All stations confirm systems green.” She turns and looks at me expectantly. “Are you ready, Jon?”
I hesitate, not sure what I’m supposed to do. After a few moments, I nod. “Start the generator.”
Home. I’m supposed to go home.
“Activating the generator,” Saniya says as she taps her screen. The hum of electricity grows louder as power courses through the coils. The laser sensor array blankets the generator chamber in angry red beams and a murmur of excitement ripples through the team.
Not much longer now. My thoughts are still scattered, and I press my hands against the cold metal of the control panel, focusing on how it feels.
Her hand feels soft and warm in mine and I instinctively squeeze it to keep it from slipping away. My eyes follow the line of my hand into hers and along her arm to the curve of her shoulder. Sunlight dances in her hair and I breathe in the fresh scent of pine and early morning dew. Rays of sunlight burst between the leaves of the trees, piercing the forest canopy with lances of light, and seeming to light a path ahead of us. She looks back at me, her eyes a brilliant sky blue, and smiles and squeezes my hand back.
The electric hum of the coils is louder now. I reach for her hand and feel only cold metal. Everything seems distant and I’m not sure where I am, but the scent of pine lingers in the air. A forest… didn’t she say she’d take me to one? But she didn’t—not yet. None of this makes sense…
“Huh, I just had the weirdest feeling…” Saniya says, and her voice draws me back to the room, to the generator. Yes, the generator, that’s where I am.
“What… did you say?” I stammer, feeling like I’ve just woken up.
“I just had a feeling like we’ve done this before. Like I was standing right here with you watching this happen before. It feels like…”
Déjà vu. That was the word. That was the word I’d forgotten.
The room seems to spin around me and a thousand images from a thousand lives flash before me. Saniya: lying in the street, dying in the street; slipping into the water, pulling me from it; laying her grandmother down; sobbing at Battery Park, tears of joy running down her cheeks. Ely: a park, a forest, a roof, my room, my arms around her, her arms around me, and her eyes—always shifting, never changing: her eyes. And me: in the lab, in my apartment, the city flooding outside and covered in smoke and fire, pouring over the equations—always shifting, never changing: the equations.
I see them as they really are: memories of pasts yet to be, futures already come, and everything in between—all connected. I’m sitting with Ely on the unfinished banks of a river and see my life and all those moments rushing by in the water: ebbs and flows, ripples and whirls that split and mingle and change each other, moving forwards and backwards all at once before finally joining together again.
The world is always moving. The only way we can really stay still is to live in each moment and move with it. All this time I thought the generator—I thought I—was the only one shifting the world; but I finally realize now what all the flashes and disjointed memories I’ve been experiencing mean. Perhaps it was the generator and the endless shifts it sent me through that allowed me to finally see it, but the world is always shifting and changing too, and when it does… if it touches you, it feels like déjà vu.
I see the generator now, hear its electric hum echoing loudly through the room. I know where I am and what to do: I have to escape the cycle. I have to stop fighting and surrender myself to the river. I have to accept where the world wants me to go.
“Saniya, stop the test.”
“What did you say?”
“Stop the test!”
“Are you crazy?! Why?” she looks at me eyes wide in disbelief.
“Saniya please just trust me, we have to stop the test now!” I summon every bit of pleading, urgency, desperation, sincerity, and truth I can muster—across a thousand lifetimes of friendship—as I look into her eyes.
She hesitates for only a few moments longer before turning to the control panel. “God damn men…” she says loudly as she taps the screen. Minutes pass and her tapping continues, becoming gradually more urgent; but the hum of the generator seems to only get louder. Finally, she stops and looks up, a panicked look on her face. “It’s not stopping!”
“What do you mean? Did you manually cut the power?”
“Of course I did! But the coils are still active! Gravitational distortions are getting stronger!” Saniya begins shouting orders at the team and I feel fear rippling through the room. The humming of the coils turns into a roar, and I can barely hear myself think. As the sound grows even louder, I see the red beams of the sensor array begin to distort, slowly twisting like they’re caught in a whirlpool.
“Jon! Do you see this?” Saniya exclaims.
The sound of the generator becomes thunderous and everything around me begins to twist and warp. I begin to feel like all I’m really seeing is a faint impression of some forgotten memory. The coils, the chamber, my hands on the panel—they all seem so indistinct, like they aren’t really there.
A hand grabs onto mine and I turn to see Saniya, eyes wide and fear etched across her slowly twisting face. I remember her lying on the street, blood spreading across her chest like a red flower and fear rising in mine.
“It’s okay, Saniya.” I squeeze her hand back. “It’s okay, just let—”
I feel then like I’m twisting, my body being pulled in all directions and back again at once. And then the noise is gone and everything is dark. I can’t feel Saniya’s hand or my own and the only thing I hear is the echo of a familiar voice, telling me things I wanted to say.
I walk through the Square, hugging the large brown take-out bag in my arms. I asked Saniya to get lunch with me, but she’s been wanting to spend most of her time in the lab lately; so I offered to pick something up for her, which quickly escalated into buying burritos for the rest of the team. Ah, the duties of a co-director…
Well, if that means Saniya’s stuck in the lab checking my calculations while I enjoy this lovely summer day, who am I to complain?
Something catches my eyes and I stop. I’m not sure what it is but I turn and look to my side. I see her then, sitting on one of the stone seating walls, the rays of sunlight streaming between the trees seeming to somehow all end with her.
She’s reading a book, and something draws me to her. I’m not the type of person to approach strangers in a park (that’s more Saniya’s thing) but I lower my bag of burritos and walk up to her. “Hello,” I try.
She looks up at me and I’m struck by the way her eyes seem to shimmer and shift colors as she moves. “Hi,” she says, giving me a not-unfriendly smile.
I hesitate, not sure what I’m doing or what to say, when it suddenly comes to me. “Do you work at the Dry Line?”
She glances down at the folders by her side, held down against the wind by a small jar of pickles and marked in large block letters: DRY LINE WEST SIDE COASTAL RESILIENCY PROJECT. “How did you guess that?” she asks, her lips quirking slightly.
I shift uncomfortably. “Ah, I mean…” This is not going how I expected. What had I expected? “Do you need help with it?” I blurt out.
She purses her lips and gives me a curious look. “You know, that actually might be one of the better pick-up lines I’ve heard. Not that that’s saying much—they’re all pretty bad.”
I feel my face heating up. “That’s not what I’m doing! It’s a really important project and I want to help…”
She laughs and lifts a hand up to hold her hair away from her face as it dances in a sudden gust of wind. “I’m sorry,” she says, seeming embarrassed herself now. “That’s really nice of you.”
“I really do want to help,” I say again lamely.
Her face becomes thoughtful and she regards me quietly. As she looks at me, her eyes draw me in. They sparkle warmly in the light of the summer sun, their color seeming to shift and change like ripples in a river. They’re so familiar, like I’ve seen them before; no, not just seen them, but know them. Know how they’ll shimmer, how their color will flicker now from soft brown to bright green and sparkling blue.
“Sorry,” she says after what feels like a long time. “I just had the strangest feeling that we’ve met before.”
I continue looking at her quietly for a few moments more and then hold out my hand. “I’m Jonathan.”
She puts her book down and shakes my hand. There’s something warm and familiar about her touch.
“I’m Elysia,” she says. “But my friends call me Ely.”
“Elysia?” I feel like I’ve just remembered something I’d forgotten.
“It means home.” She smiles and her eyes seem to settle onto a light blue that reflects the sky. I see myself in them.
damn good story