Adrian receives a USB drive in the mail that has footage of a cabin, nothing else. His wife, Candice, thinking it a game, encourages him to solve the mystery. It’s apparent that Adrian and Candice’s relationship is strained, especially since Candice’s mother died.
Adrian stumbles across the location of the cabin and agrees to explore it with Candice. Inside, they find a television, a recliner, a book. The television switches on and reveals a man that looks like Adrian. Other Adrian. The television shuts down before Candice notices. But Candice discovers something else. The book—Infinite Possibilities: Navigating the Multiverse—is apparently written by Adrian.
He reads at his work bench in the garage. His tools are neatly packed away, and he’s wiped the surface down, but it carries the familiar scent of oil and grease. That scent comforts him, grounds him, as he tries to make sense of the book from the cabin. The book with his name on the front.
The multiverse gives life to all possibilities simultaneously. Within it we find infinite, parallel worlds. The fundamentals of these worlds may differ markedly from our own, barely at all, or in some cases, replicate our own world almost exactly.
As I write these words, there is another version of me doing the same thing in their world. And another version of me doing something different, perhaps mowing the lawn while the weather remains warm. There also exist versions of me profoundly different: someone that communicates telepathically, someone that exists in a non-physical state, someone with abilities I can’t even fathom. In yet other worlds, I do not exist at all.
Adrian stops, closes his eyes and rubs them with his knuckles. The pressure brings flashes of light into the darkness behind his lids, like lightning streaking across a clouded night sky. Something about the writing, the certainty of it is jarring.
He opens his eyes, turns a couple of pages, picks a passage at random.
Identification and observation has shown us much, but to truly advance discovery, we need to make contact with other worlds, and then determine the means to traverse them. While some in my profession have argued that this latter step cannot be supported by the laws of physics and mathematics, I would remind them that the multiverse contains all possibilities, including that other worlds are governed by laws different to our own. These worlds may already possess the technology to move from one world to the next. It may be as simple as opening a door and stepping through.
As such, I would posit that discovering the means to move between worlds is not a question of how, but when. In the meantime, while we wait for the people with the means to find us, we must focus on advances within our power to make. We must meet them halfway.
The garage door begins to rise, breaking Adrian’s focus. He stretches his neck, turns to find Candice ducking under the door. Her car is parked out front, as usual. She’s carrying a plastic bag.
“You want to take a break for lunch?” she says, raising the bags. He can see the outline of takeaway containers through the plastic. He suddenly realises how hungry he is.
“Lunch?” he says. “Already?” She glides toward him like she’s floating across the garage. She stops next to Adrian, places a hand on his shoulder. A casual gesture. A gesture Adrian is beginning to enjoy again.
“Yes, it’s after one and I’m starving. I thought you might be too, so I grabbed some Thai. You interested?”
He glances at the open book, then back at Candice. Nods. “Sure,” he says. “That sounds nice.”
“So, anything interesting? Any clues about what we do next?”
He shakes his head. “No, not yet.”
“May I?” she asks, motioning to the book.
He shrugs, and she takes that as agreement. She starts to turn pages with her free hand, rifling them roughly. It makes him wince, but he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t like the idea of pages tearing, which he keeps expecting as she flips them so quickly. He can see she’s not really reading, just searching for something to stand out. A signpost that says: ‘go here next’. But he’s less and less convinced that that is what this is. What it is instead, he doesn’t know.
He jumps when Candice slaps the book with her open hand. The sound reverberates around the garage. She grins. “What about this?”
He looks at the pages she’s found. Schematics. A plan for some kind of electronic device. He hunches closer, studies it. He turns the page and finds further instructions. He goes back, looks at the materials required.
“Well?” she says.
“You build things. The book has your name on it. Seems like the next step in the game, doesn’t it?”
He builds things, he repeats to himself. It suddenly seems hot in the garage. He can feel the blood pulsing in his temples. The next step for someone like him. He studies the diagram again and what strikes him as odd is its relative simplicity. Surely, in a book about complex physics, schematics should also be complex. They shouldn’t be understood by bus drivers who like to tinker with lawn mowers. And yet he does understand. Or enough of it to think he could start building, and perhaps fill in any gaps in his knowledge with YouTube. Candice is right, this appears to be made for him.
“Maybe,” he says. He closes the book abruptly, stands. His eyes dart to Candice who frowns, but she doesn’t say anything. Not yet anyway.
“We don’t want to let the food get cold, do we?” he says, forcing a smile. Her frown deepens. “I’ll come back to this later,” he tries.
She pauses a beat. “Okay,” she says. She gives him one last uncertain look, then turns and makes her way into the house.
He doesn’t follow straight away. He casts an eye toward the book again. Just seeing it lying on his bench is unsettling. The book, the USB, the cabin, what he may or may not have seen on that TV screen—together they create a cocktail of uneasiness that he suspects might go away if he just let it all be. Yet, as he stares, he realises he’ll come back to it, and construct whatever it is he’s meant to construct.
He tells himself it’s because Candice won’t let up. But the truth is something else. It’s him. He needs to know where this leads.
Not long after he proposed, Candice told him she wanted to elope.
They were in a public park, lying on a picnic blanket, the sky clear and bright overhead. They’d brought a bottle of wine and some cheese in a picnic basket. The park was mostly green lawns dotted with a few large trees. It was sparsely populated—only a few families chasing kids or giving the dogs a run. From a playground in the distance came the sounds of childish laughter and squeals of delight.
“Why?” he asked.
She shrugged, rolled onto her back, stared up at the sky. He smiled as he watched her. She was beautiful. He found everything about her confident, nonchalant attitude striking.
“You love me, I love you. I couldn’t give a shit about all of the phony hangers-on.”
She made a dismissive ‘psst’ sound, glanced at him sideways. “As bad as the rest. They’re not in it for us. It’s about them. Status with their friends, or plain old pride. I don’t want to do something for others. I want to do it for us.”
“I don’t know. Fiji, maybe? Hawaii? God, we could go to the middle of Australia for all I care, if it’s just us.”
She rolled back onto her side, faced him, reached out and cupped his jaw in her hand. “This is about us, right?
He leaned toward her, kissed her. Her lips were soft. He pulled away, exhaled a long time.
“Of course,” he said. “Yes, of course. I’ll marry you wherever you want. Alone on a beach, in a small country pub, wherever. I love you.”
She smiled. Kissed him again. “I knew my adventurous Adrian was still in there somewhere.”
“Always,” he whispered.
She smiled like she didn’t believe him. He felt a pang of hurt but didn’t say anything. Part of him knew she was right. He wasn’t the same as he had been. And yet who was? People grew up, right? One of them had to level out. And if he hadn’t, he and Candice would likely have fed off each other, added rocket fuel to rocket fuel, exploded.
They married twelve months later, in a church, in front of family and friends. It was a cliché, but it was the happiest day of his life. He knew Candice had only just tolerated it. Had done it for him, which he’d appreciated at the time.
Yet after, he noticed a subtle change in her. Like she’d realised that he wasn’t who he purported to be. Like he’d broken a promise. Not just about the wedding, but about who he was.
Adrian shuts the welder off, flips his visor up. His work is rough, but he can see the joins will hold.
He’s created a metal cube: one foot, by one foot, by one foot. The top plate is set with hinges so he can access the interior. There are two holes in the casing: one for the antenna, one for the control panel, both to be attached later. The instructions tell him that the machine will be powered by an internal battery. Convenient, he thinks, for operation anywhere, including at the cabin. He’s not sure why that thought pops into his head. He has no reason to think he needs to return there again. Yet that is what he thinks.
He’s hot in his coveralls. There’re large sweat patches under each arm, and sweat is beaded in his hairline where the welding helmet sits. The garage door is wide open, and a gentle breeze pushes hot air around. The scent of ozone and heated metal permeates the air. He removes his helmet and tosses it onto the bench with a thud.
He found the materials for the casing at his local hardware store, but he ordered the electronic components online. Most should arrive in a week or so, although the motherboard and power supply unit are coming from overseas, so they’ll take longer.
He wonders what this thing is for, and what it will do if it works. The book is not at all clear on the machine’s purpose. It descends into indecipherable jargon that, no matter how many times Adrian has read it, obscures clear meaning and insight. Perhaps it will do nothing. Perhaps something confounding. Adrian has the unrealistic expectation that he will discover its purpose as he continues to piece it together.
The next step is to create the internal frame for the electronics. He has everything ready, and it shouldn’t take long for him to construct, yet his eyes feel sore, gritty. When he holds a hand up level with his face, he sees a slight tremor. He’s been at this longer than he can recall. He removes a welding glove, checks his watch, and is not entirely surprised to find it’s nearly four.
He doesn’t want to stop, but he knows he must. Candice doesn’t know he skipped work to do this. Even though she wants him to build the machine, he knows she won’t approve of him giving up another shift.
He takes one last look at his work, then begins to tidy his materials away.
Even after they were married, he continued the fantasy that bus driving was temporary, because that seemed important to Candice. To her vision of him, and what he could be. Like most secrets bottled up, it came out at the wrong time, hurt them both.
They were having drinks with a couple from Candice’s accounting firm—Dan and Gillian. It was a Friday night, and Candice had booked a table at a new bar in the city. They were tucked away at the back of the venue, but they still had to raise their voices to hear each other over the thrum of the music and the crowd.
Gillian seemed pleasant enough, but Dan rubbed Adrian the wrong way. Dan’s eyes lingered on Candice, only to slide away when an attractive woman passed their table on the way to the bar. Dan didn’t even try to hide his lurid gaze from Gillian, who seemed happy to ignore it.
“What do you do, Adrian?” Dan directed at him, before his gaze moved back to the crowd. It was an inevitable question, but when Dan asked it, Adrian felt Candice bristle beside him.
“I drive buses,” he answered, took a sip from his beer, placed it back on the table with a clink. Dan looked back, cocked an eyebrow, and at the corners of his mouth, a smirk.
“Really. How fascinating. Good honest job, eh?” It was said with condescension, but Adrian chose to ignore it.
“Suits me fine.”
Which should have been the end of it, except Candice jumped in. “He’s going back to university next semester. He’s going to study law, right, Adrian? Tell him.”
Adrian grimaced, tried not to show his annoyance. Candice didn’t seem to notice. She stared at Dan as Dan watched Adrian. Before he could say anything, Dan spoke.
“The law. Now that’s an interesting field of study. Plenty of good jobs in law when you’re done, and not just as a lawyer. We have a bunch of good people with a law background in our firm, believe it or not.”
Candice agreed, started offering a few of her own thoughts on the benefits of a law degree. Adrian had heard it all before. It shouldn’t have irked him as much as it did. But it did. In part it was Dan. The guy was a jerk. But he hated that Candice was so eager to please that arsehole. And perhaps worse, that she seemed ashamed of Adrian.
The words spilled out before he could stop them.
“I hate lawyers. And I fucking hate the way people with a degree look down on those without one, like the feudal system still exists and they’ve just been made a Lord,” he said. His outburst brought an abrupt end to Dan and Candice’s discussion. Gillian and Dan both turned to look at him strangely, Candice’s face frozen in shock.
“I’m sorry, babe. But I like my job. I don’t want,” he motioned toward Dan, “to be like that.” Dan straightened in his seat, glared at Adrian through narrowed eyes. He looked like he was about to say something spiteful, but Gillian took his arm and squeezed gently. He closed his mouth, remained quiet.
“Let’s not do this here,” Candice said, and shot an awkward smile across the table toward Dan and Gillian. Adrian ignored her.
“Look, I haven’t enrolled in university. I know I said I would, but…” he sighed. “I’ve made up my mind. I just hadn’t got around to telling you.”
“You what?” she hissed at him, her mouth a thin, angry line.
“Didn’t seem to me it really affected you. Unless you can only love me if I become a corporate crony.”
“Oh, fuck you,” she said.
Gillian coughed, suggested to Dan that they go get another drink from the bar.
“No need,” Adrian said as he pushed his chair back and stood. “Time for me to get to bed. I have a big day tomorrow. You know, driving the bus.”
He walked out before anyone could stop him.
The truth was he was pissed at Candice. And himself.
He had enjoyed physics when they first met, had done a few undergraduate courses in astrophysics, was thinking seriously about majoring in it. Candice had thought that too niche, too likely to end with a career in academia. Something Adrian had thought sounded okay, but Candice had grander plans. She convinced him he needed to pursue study that led to a job that paid well. That had options for career advancement. At that time, all he wanted to do was impress her, so he tried it her way.
But nothing stuck. He enrolled in the courses she suggested. Tried them and failed them. Hated them. Instead of leading to a career with money at the end, it led to the accumulation of student debt.
He took the bus driving job mostly to avoid studying. He found he liked it. The familiar routes, the resonant drone of the engine, it put him in a relaxed state, helped him think. What he thought was that if he’d done things his way, he might have been happier.
So, without telling Candice, he re enrolled in physics. He was excited when he walked into his first class, but from that first day he realised something was wrong. Something had passed him by. Like his brain had changed with age. He found the lectures incredibly difficult. Yet the kids that surrounded him didn’t seem to share his confusion. He felt old, stupid. He wasn’t. He understood machines, could pull apart an engine with his eyes closed. That was something, at least. Not the same, but something.
When he dropped out, he knew with a gut punch finality that university was no longer an option. He felt a failure. And he knew he would cop Candice’s judgement when he told her. Perhaps that’s why he told Candice the way he did. Maybe her anger was better than her pity.
They fought when Candice got home. Fought as hard as they had since they’d married. They made up a few days later anyway, but things changed. Candice talked less and less about her job, about office politics, about annoying clients. She still invited Adrian to drinks with friends and colleagues from time to-time, but Adrian declined more readily, and Candice seemed happy to accept that.
He initially thought the confrontation had been good for them. Helped set some boundaries. But in time he found that being separated from such a large part of Candice’s life began to feel as if he were floating in one bubble, and Candice another.
“Oh,” Candice says with a start when she walks into the kitchen. She raises a hand to her chest, stops.
Adrian’s sitting at the bench, drinking a glass of water. He feels fresh, clean, his hair still wet from his shower.
“I thought you’d still be at work?” she says, appraising him with curiosity.
“Just a short shift today,” he lies, keeps his face neutral. She used the front door for once, so he knows she hasn’t seen the machine casing. He’s both pleased and disappointed.
Candice finally moves again, tosses the mail onto the bench.
“How was your day?” he asks, perfunctorily. He picks up the envelopes, rifles through them.
“Busy.” She drops her handbag onto the floor near the fridge, sighs. “But it’s good to be finished, and not have to think about work for a couple of days.”
He looks at her confused, then realises it’s Friday. He forgets sometimes, working shifts. The days tend to blur.
“I was going to head out with Jenny and the girls tonight. I think some of the husbands are coming along. Do you want to join us?”
He shakes his head. “No, I’m good.”
She doesn’t look surprised, or disappointed. “Next time,” she says, moving toward the back of the house.
He refocusses on the mail. Mostly bills. But then… another plain white envelope, his name typed in capital letters, a small bulge. He swallows.
“There’s leftover quiche in the fridge,” Candice calls out from their bedroom.
“Yeah, thanks,” he says, distracted. He tears open the letter, upends it in his hand. Another USB.
His laptop is still where he left it on the bench. He grabs it, powers it up. From down the hall he hears a sliding door open, close. The shower starts to run. He can hear Candice humming over the patter of water.
He plugs in the USB, this time doesn’t bother with antivirus or turning off the wifi; he just opens it and plays the video file.
At first it’s just the hut again, standing alone amongst the canola, another sunny day. He knows it’s not the same sunny day because there’s a trail cut through the crop. It runs from the road up to the chain link fence, then around the perimeter toward the padlocked gate. The trail that he and Candice made.
The shot changes. It zooms out, slowly, until the hut appears to be a very long way away. It zooms until the road is prevalent. This is being filmed from the verge, he thinks. Maybe from someone’s yard even, from one of the new houses. There’s a distant drone, which rises in volume, like a symphony reaching a crescendo. A blur of white fills the screen. A blur that the camera follows until it resolves into the image of a bus. The number thirty-three. His bus. He wonders if he’s driving it.
The bus doesn’t slow. It eases around the gentle bend without braking, the sound changing pitch as it disappears from view.
The shot ends abruptly, is replaced with an image of an apartment building. It’s about eight stories high, not new, but not old. Grey, unexciting architecture. An entrance at street level, glass doors, rows of silver mailboxes just inside, an elevator. The shot holds steady on that entrance. On the street, random people walk into shot, walk past the building entrance, walk out of shot. They crisscross like ants at work. Focussed.
Then Candice steps into frame. He recognises her instantly. She wears a navy pant suit, large beige handbag over her shoulder. Walking with her is a man he doesn’t know. Tall, with dark curly hair. They walk in unison, not too close, not too far apart.
They veer toward the entrance of the apartment building, stop. He opens the door, holds it for her as she steps inside. They approach the elevators, she presses a button, they wait. When the doors open, they slip inside, turn, stand close at the back of the elevator. He thinks he sees a smile on her face as the doors close, but he can’t be sure.
Then she’s gone.
Adrian’s stomach is a hard, tight knot. It feels uncomfortably full, like he’s been chewing paper, swallowing it down until it’s formed a wet, pulpy mass.
The video returns to the hut. An overcast day now. It looks like it could rain at any moment. It’s a message, he thinks. An invitation to return.
“What’s that, another video for your game?” Candice asks. He jerks upright, turns and sees her walking across the family room. Her head’s cocked, her hands at her right ear fixing an earring.
He closes the laptop guiltily. Doesn’t know why he should feel guilty. Nods. “Yep. Another USB.”
“Can I look?” she says, finishing with her earring.
“No,” he says more loudly than he intended. “There’s nothing new. Just the hut again. The same video, really.”
She stops by the dining table. “Really? That’s odd.”
“Maybe an error. I think the book’s the thing to focus on.”
She nods slowly. “Yeah. Sure. Well, let me know how you go? I won’t be too late, okay?”
“Okay,” he repeats.
She moves toward him, feathers his forehead with a fleeting kiss, grabs her handbag in a sweeping movement, then disappears toward the front of the house.
When he’s certain she’s gone, he opens the laptop and plays the video again.
They’d been married three years when he asked her about that night in Thailand.
They were renting at the time, an apartment in the city, close to her work. It was too expensive, and very small. The furniture was cheap—Ikea, gumtree seconds, that sort of thing. He was sitting on the couch rubbing his fingertips over the velvety material of the arm. He didn’t recall buying the couch, or going with Candice to pick it up from someone’s garage. So how did she get this back to the building, let alone up the three flights of stairs to their apartment?
She sat next to him, feet curled under her, watching a movie he recognised, but couldn’t place. One with Tom Hanks in it. Something earnest. Weren’t they all?
“Do you ever think about Mike?” he’d blurted out.
She turned slowly, looked at him in a way that suggested she’d just woken from a deep sleep. She cocked her head to the left. “Who?”
“Mike. That guy from Thailand. The couple we met and…” Like a car spluttering on an empty tank of fuel, he ran out of words.
She watched him for a moment, bemused. Then she smiled. Or was it a smirk? “Mike,” she said, like she was tasting the word on her lips. “Mike. I must admit, I’d forgotten that was even his name.”
She returned her attentions to the movie. For a second, he thought that might be it.
“I thought we agreed never to talk about it. That it was a one time thing?” she said, still staring ahead.
“It was,” he jumped in quickly. “I mean, we did. I’m sorry. I don’t know why I was thinking about it, it just… popped into my head.
“Do you think about her?” she asked, glancing at him. “What was her name again? I can’t remember.”
He grimaced. “Me neither.”
And she laughed. A genuine laugh that rolled through her whole body. She grabbed the cushion from behind her back and hit him playfully with it. “You liar, it was Taylor.”
He couldn’t help but laugh too. He nodded. “Ah, yes. Now I remember.”
She picked up the remote, muted the television, slid across the couch and wiggled her way under his arm. “What’s up? Why are you asking about this after all this time?”
“I don’t know,” he said, as she rested her head on his chest.
“Do you regret it?” she asked.
“I don’t feel that strongly. It was something that happened.”
“Oh,” he said, squeezing her shoulder. “So… it was okay?”
She stifled a laugh. “Is that what’s bugging you. How it was?” She placed her hand on his thigh. He swallowed, felt something stir. “Well, Mister, truth is, he was rubbish.”
“Really,” he said, his voice a rasp as she began to rub his leg, moving in circles, moving higher.
“Really,” she whispered into his chest. “He had no idea what he was doing. So if I regret anything, it was that I wasted myself on him when I could have had the good stuff next door with you.”
He smiled at that.
“What about you and Taylor. Was that okay?”
“Nah,” he said quickly. “It was awkward as hell. I didn’t feel comfortable at all. It was more like a chore then something to enjoy.” Which was a lie, but he couldn’t tell her the truth now. He wondered if she was lying as well.
“Good,” she said. She undid the button on his pants, slipped her hand inside. “I don’t know about you, but I think I’ve seen this movie. What about we go to bed, erase bad memories?”
As they made love, his thoughts strayed to his night with Taylor. When he came, the power of his orgasm surprised him. Just like back then.
He rolled aside, breathing heavily, wracked with guilt. Candice snuggled up close to him and he lay there, unable to say anything or move, still hoping Candice had lied to him earlier. But he had the feeling she hadn’t. Which left him where, exactly?
The canola has a kind of bioluminescence under the waning moon. It’s like wading through jellyfish. Adrian reaches the chain link fence, hooks his fingers through, squints, but the features of the cabin are unclear in the dark.
When he left the house, he initially decided to go to the city to find Candice. But he quickly realised he didn’t know where to look for her. And what would he do if he did find her? Confront her? Probably not. Yet he didn’t want to be stuck at home where he could watch that awful video over and over until he drove himself mad.
Instead, he caught a bus, then another, and another. He rode around thinking until he eventually wound up on the thirty three headed back toward the Sunder Estates.
He pulls his phone from his pocket, flicks on the torch, holds it aloft. The light is meagre, and cuts only a thin path through the gloom, but it’s enough to give a little solidity to the wooden walls, the heavy door.
It looks uninviting. Maybe he should just go? There’d be no shame in that, he thinks. Yet he moves anyway, around the perimeter of the fence toward the gate.
It’s an effort to squeeze through the gap on his own, but he does. When he steps up onto the deck, he raises a fist as if to knock at the cabin door, but he catches himself, lowers his hand slowly.
He has the feeling again that he’s not alone. A sense that someone is on the other side of the door, waiting, watching.
The night is quiet. He has to listen hard to pick up the swish of canola plants in the breeze, a few insects buzzing, the soft drone of traffic far away.
He shakes off the jitters. Forces them down so his conscious brain can take control. He places a hand on the door handle, turns and pushes.
The cabin is dark. He raises his phone, shines it inside, first right to reveal the old bed frame and the kitchenette, then left where he finds the recliner, the odd television with the tumorous electronics. He realises he’s holding his breath, exhales.
His first step inside feels awkward, heavy. It’s like he’s wading through something thick, viscous. Not night air, but oil. The second step is a little easier. As is the third.
He runs a hand along the arm of the recliner. The material is softer than he remembers. Well worn, but in a way that is comforting. It reminds him of his grandmother’s house growing up, of the velvet bedspread in the spare room that covered the bed he’d stay in when he visited. He eases himself into the chair. The material caresses his back, his neck.
The television screen illuminates. A blue glow that grows steadily brighter.
His heart jumps in his chest, his muscles tense. His instincts tell him this is all too weird. They tell him to get up, run, but he doesn’t. Because why else did he come here tonight? If not for this, then what?
The image on the television clarifies into that of the man that resembles Adrian very closely. The man he saw the other day. He’s wearing glasses, has a little more grey at the temples than Adrian, and his neck is thickset, jowly. But otherwise, they could be twins.
The camera is jammed in tight on his face. It nearly fills the screen, but Adrian senses a hint of something odd behind him. The image is grainy, so it’s hard to make out clearly, but it looks like flesh. Mounds of it, expanding and contracting like the body of a large, panting animal.
The man’s voice—Other Adrian’s voice—draws his attention. “Good,” he says. “You’re alone.” His voice is gruffer than Adrian’s, and his words are clipped. This is a man who has little time to waste on idle conversation and slow-witted people. Adrian swallows. He’s not really sure what to say or what to ask. The words that spill from his mouth surprise him. “How did you get the video of my wife?”
Other Adrian frowns. Perhaps he expected Adrian to ask the who’s, the what’s, the why’s.
“You are the three thousand, four hundred and twenty-third viable variant we have identified. But my agent tells me you are unusual. You do not possess a strong understanding of physics and mathematics.”
It isn’t phrased as a question, so Adrian doesn’t answer. Odd words from the non-question ring loud in his head like the reverberation from a gong. Viable variant? Agent? He licks dry lips.
“I don’t… don’t understand what my education has to do with Candice?”
Other Adrian stares—a cold gaze. It is a foreign expression conveyed through Adrian’s own eyes.
“Nevertheless, she indicated you have sufficient skills to build the receiver,” he continues as if Adrian had not spoken. “How is your work progressing?”
“I haven’t started,” Adrian lies.
He sees a smirk at the corner of Other Adrian’s lips. His image disappears from the screen, and is replaced with a shot of Adrian’s open garage. From inside there comes a bright, pulsating light, the hiss and spit of the welder, the outline of Adrian in his protective coveralls, his welding helmet.
Adrian suspects the person who took this video is the same that took the video of Candice, and the hut. The agent. He glances toward the open door of the cabin as if he might find this agent standing there filming him now, but there’s no one there. When he turns back, Other Adrian is on screen again, glaring, as if he is the one that has been slighted, not Adrian who is being tailed, filmed, shown videos of his wife.
“If you already knew, why even ask?” Adrian spits, angry.
His other self grins. An ugly expression that makes Adrian wonder what he looks like when he feels superior. Does he let it show like this man?
“I know what you’re feeling. Or close enough. You’re feeling lost, devoid of drive, stuck halfway between a decision made, and a decision to make. You’re feeling like there’s something more to all of this that you’re missing. Something important. I’m here to tell you that there is. I can offer it to you.”
Adrian licks his lips. Sweat beads on his forehead. “What are you offering exactly?”
“Knowledge and purpose. I’m offering a fractured piece of the picture its rightful place in the jigsaw puzzle. But this is conditional on you building that machine.”
“The machine from your book,” Adrian says.
“No, not my book. Another Adrian.”
“There are as many versions of us as you can imagine. Some, like me, have made it our life’s work to track them down.”
A snort of laughter. “It’s easier to show you, but I sense you are a stubborn one.” He sighs. “Do you understand that in a single string of DNA lies all of the code to you? Everything you need to create a replica of yourself, Adrian?”
“I’ve heard something like that, yes.”
“In the beginning, the universe was one. Then came the big bang. In that moment, everything changed. Not only was your universe formed, your stars, your planets, the seeds to human life on Earth, but so was my universe formed, and the universe of the man who wrote that book, and many, many more. The big bang did not just create, it divided. It split the singular into infinite realms. Only by drawing it all back together can we create the code, the DNA if you will, to what this all means.”
“Life, the universe, and everything,” Adrian says, smiling at his own joke.
Other Adrian frowns. Behind him, the flesh shudders.
“Mock if you wish, but we’ve already discovered much.”
“Of the viable variants I have located, six hundred and ninety-four have already joined me here, adding their knowledge to mine. This has given us some staggering insights. Our findings have been shared in my world, and developed into new medicines and treatments, which have allowed us to lengthen natural human lives. In my world, the average person is expected to live well beyond two hundred years.”
“Two hundred,” Adrian repeats, eyes wide. That seems ludicrous. And yet isn’t talking to himself on a television ludicrous?
“That is just one of the discoveries we have made. A modest beginning. There is much more to do.”
“But I don’t understand how I can help you. You said it yourself, I have no knowledge of physics and mathematics,” he says, a hint of sarcasm in his tone.
“Every Adrian is unique. Your experiences will help build our collective knowledge. I can show you how special you are.”
Adrian licks his lips, processing. “All I have to do is build the machine?”
Other Adrian nods, tight lipped. Adrian senses something not said. That there is more to it than just a machine. But he doesn’t probe.
“And what if I don’t want to go further?
Other Adrian sighs. “I can only make an offer. It is up to you whether to accept or not. But I would ask you this: While you think about what I have said, continue to build. When you are done, return with your questions. If you are satisfied with my answers, then we will use your machine to bring you across to my world.”
“And if I’m not, I stay here?”
The man gives a curt nod.
Ordinarily, Adrian doesn’t think he’d be tempted by such uncertainty. But one thing Other Adrian says is right. He feels lost, stuck between places. And that video of Candice has set him spinning.
“Okay. I’ll keep an open mind. I’ll continue to build.”
“Excellent. My agent will be in touch.”
About four years after Adrian married Candice, he started to worry he’d run out of words. At least the meaningful words. He and Candice still talked about shopping lists, chores, how each other’s day had been. They talked about renovations, and work colleagues. But none of that was real.
Then Candice surprised him with something that was.
Adrian had been asleep, early morning. It was Candice’s perfume that woke him. He was somewhere in that place between light and dark, between dreams and reality, when her scent invaded—spring flowers, musk. Drowsy eyes opened and there she was, close, hair hanging half over her eyes. She was smiling when she kissed his neck, whispered: “What would you think if I stopped taking my pill?”
He swallowed hard, nearly choked on the saliva. Candice, thinking he was shocked, kept talking. “I mean we don’t have to. I know we’ve never really… And things have been…”
Strained, he’d thought.
“Busy at work,” she’d said. “But I guess I’m getting to that age and was thinking—”
“You read my mind,” he interrupted, grinning. He rolled back so he could look at her more clearly. “Yes. I really want that. I don’t know how to explain it, I just—”
“Want to bring something better into the world,” Candice finished. He nodded. He felt tears welling, and he blinked rapidly to hold them back.
She made a strange noise in the back of her throat, leant close, kissed him. He apologised for his morning breath. She said she didn’t care. They started trying that morning.
Candice told him it would take a few months to get the pill out of her system. Unfortunately, Candice’s mother Alexia was diagnosed with cancer before that happened.
They kept trying intermittently, but without luck. And when they did, Adrian couldn’t help but notice the change in Candice. The way she took control, rode him hard, aggressively, like she was angry, bitter. When he did ejaculate, which wasn’t all the time, it felt weak and apologetic.
When Alexia died, they stopped having sex.
A month after the funeral, he found the new prescription in the medicine cabinet.
As Adrian finishes installing the battery in the machine, he hears Candice’s car. He looks up to see it turn into the drive. He takes a deep breath, exhales loudly. He doesn’t know what to feel around her at the moment.
The silence when she cuts the engine is deafening. The door groans as it opens, her high heels click on the cement. When she slams the door, it echoes around their suburban cul de-sac. Adrian flinches.
She walks toward him, and he feels himself shrinking, hoping she won’t notice him at his bench. He turns and pretends to engross himself in his work. He hears the tenor of her footsteps change as she moves under the cover of the garage. Then she stops. He imagines her looking at the door to the house, then his back. The tension builds until he can’t help but break it, like waves on a beach.
“Going out again?” he says. He hears the accusation in his voice, but hopes she doesn’t. He doesn’t want to start something.
“Yes. How are you going with the build?” He notices she doesn’t invite him to join her. He wonders if she’s visiting the man from the video. He doesn’t even know how recent that was. She could have moved on. She may have multiple lovers. His hands are shaking. He lowers his tools, places them on the bench either side of the machine.
“It’s going okay,” he says.
“Do you know what it does? Or how it fits in with your game?”
He forgets sometimes that she still thinks he’s solving a puzzle. But then again, isn’t he?
“I’m not sure,” he says, wondering how much he should say. He’s been thinking about this a lot. He clears his throat. “I’m starting to wonder if it might be like a homing beacon. Something that identifies my location.”
“Oh. So you turn it on, and if it works they know you’ve finished, and they come find you and give you a prize?”
His face contracts into a frown. Tension in his jaw, his cheeks. “Perhaps. Or they use my signal to contact me, and then they show me how to find them,” he says, the thought concrete for the first time. He rises from his stool, steps back from the work bench, takes a couple of deep breaths and turns to face his wife.
She’s looking away from him, back at her car. She’s backlit by the afternoon sun, and strands of auburn hair drape across her right eye. In profile, she looks hauntingly beautiful. Adrian’s heart jolts to see her. He wants to tell her everything.
She turns, smiles to find him looking at her. He feels connected to her in that moment. “Okay then. Well, I won’t hold you up. I’m just going to change into some jeans and then I’ll get out of your hair,” she says, before moving again. He watches her walk toward the door, then she disappears inside. He wants to call after her, but can’t. He wants to share his burden with her, but can’t.
He follows her inside, hesitates by the kitchen. He can see the hall, but can’t will his legs to move him there. He collapses more than sits at the kitchen bench, puts his head in his shaking hands, waits.
When she returns five minutes later, she doesn’t really notice his state. She calls out a brusque farewell, and then is gone.
Before he hears her car start, his phone dings. He lifts his head from his hands. It feels heavy, like a bowling ball. His phone is where he left it, just by the box of tissues on the bench. It might be Candice, texting, “I love you”. She does that sometimes.
But it’s not. It’s an email from an address he doesn’t recognise. Redhead22@gmail.com. He normally wouldn’t open it, but the subject line grabs his attention. “I can give you answers about the cabin.”
He reads the email once, twice, then responds.