mulberry down!!

So a while back I got kind of annoyed at certain ubiquitous portal fantasy tropes—why do they always want to go back to where they came from? why do they always discard the other place at the total exclusion of going “home” and why do they always find such easy stopgaps for the hole their elsewhere leaves in their hearts? and why the hell, for that matter, are they always, always kids?

And because this is how I handle things that make me angry, I decided to story about it.

Here it is.

(NOTE: I publish most of my books and stories traditionally, but I made a very deliberate decision not to monetize this one in any way. When I discussed that with some people a while back, they very reasonably said no you should publish it traditionally; people love portal fantasy stuff and would buy it! I don’t care. Not this one. So they said hey at least put a tip jar on it! Which, unbeknownst to them, is a funny little parallel with a detail in the actual story. It’s a fine idea, and I respectfully decline. If you want to support me generally, you can check out my other books, join my Patreon, or buy me a coffee. That’s totally fine and I deeply appreciate it! <3 But I will not monetize this story. I realize that’s weird and kind of at odds with [gestures at the publishing industry, capitalism, etc]. Sorry.)

***

mulberry down!!

for the homesick, and the seeking, and the sought

*

Once upon a time there was

                Once upon a time there was a child, who

                Once upon a time there was a door, which

                Once upon a time there might have been, but isn’t now,

Once upon a time there wasn’t, and never was

                Once upon a time there had always been, despite

                Once upon a time there was this absolute fuckup, who

                Once upon a time there were

Once upon a time there was a pair of friends enemies soulmates frenemies

Once upon a time there was this pair of absolute fuckups. They weren’t twins, or siblings, or blood relatives at all; they weren’t lovers; they weren’t always even friends, at least not in any way that makes sense to tell. They were a whole, halved badly; their broken edges cut each other in the fitting.

They were smart, but not smart enough for the place where they found themselves. They were clever, but not clever enough. Brave, but not brave enough. Powerful, but not powerful enough. But together they were dangerous, because no matter what the place threw at them, they protected each other always. Together they were dangerous enough, or powerful enough, or brave enough, or clever enough, or smart enough, or flat-out annoying enough, that the place where they found themselves had to do something about it.

So it split them up. One it kept—the better to keep an eye on. One it exiled—the better to reassure itself that the separation was real, and lasting, and left no loose ends or loopholes or hope of tricking, end running, or otherwise outmaneuvering their way free of it. And it slammed its door between them, and brushed its hands off, satisfied, and that was that.

We know they are fuckups because, despite their best efforts, this is how the situation remains to this day.

Should a traveler run across one in their wanderings, and recognize them, they needn’t bother asking them the missing one’s name. Neither one remembers. What they remember is the shadow of perfect wholeness: the way their jaggednesses, once dovetailed, no longer snagged against the world. It is what they wake grasping after. What they essay to run to earth, to flush from hiding, to call out in challenge, until their dying breath, and perhaps beyond. It is what they carry, and what burns them in the carrying, and what they would not put down for the world.

At least all of this is true for one of them.

You know this because it—the exiled one—is you.

You’d always been, if you’re honest, a pretty mundane child. Nothing special or even terribly interesting about you at all. You learned to read early, but your love of stories never really translated into any kind of proclivity for imaginative play. It just made teachers adore you, because reading was never an activity you had to be convinced or coerced to do.

In your spare time, you didn’t play pretend. You had a big bin of dress-up clothes (your mom’s thrift-shop finds) and would put them on, from time to time, but never seemed to achieve the mental leap from I’ve put on this fancy dress to I’m a princess now or from I’ve got a sword to today I’m a knight. You didn’t make up stories, you didn’t have imaginary friends, you didn’t believe in the paranormal or the unexplained or the weird. Those books you loved—the adventures in them—were nothing you pined after or even really related to. They never quite consumed you in the way you yearned for them to do. Some of them approach it, even now, but never strike quite true; for as long as you can remember, and for the rest of your life to come, they will glance off of you at angles. You will not have those refuges, not really, not ever. At best they will leave you with a greasy film on your mind, an uncanny valley creeping unease. Almost, you’ll think, this is almost— and then be unable to finish that sentence, unsure as to why.

What you did have, what you’ve always had, what you will die strapped to, is a tendency to be ambushed out of nowhere by a swift, sudden, piercing sense of what you will only much later identify as homesickness, the triggers of which are rare and thus difficult, even all these years down the line, to predict or even classify. The quality of light in a picture-book illustration. A photo on a greeting card. A very specific selection of colors, very specifically combined. A smell carried on the wind. Your tiny, unformed mind crawled (crawls, will crawl forever) after these, mewling.

It’s not that they’re evocative. Evocative is vague, one-size-fits-all. The sound of a train in the night is evocative. Yellow-lit house windows, viewed from a distance. A lone house on a hillside, nested in trees. The suggestion of lives you will never so much as brush against. The vast untapped potential of what is impossible to know.

This other thing, these other things—are different. It’s not that they’re evocative, these things. It’s that they’re reminiscent. Reminiscent is not one-size-fits-all. Reminiscent is perfectly, exquisitely bespoke. Tooled and tailored to precisely trip the tumblers of your heart. These things remind you. Specifically. Of something you can’t quite pinpoint, like a memory you once clung to, but which, at some point when you dropped your guard, ran like so much water through your clenched fists.

Around the age of ten, the dreams begin. They ambush you out of nowhere. You have one, and then another, and then another. Previous to this: virtually no history of recurring dreams at all. Looking back, there’ll be a grand total of one that you recall from early childhood: you’re three, maybe four, and you’re looking out your bedroom window and it’s summer and there’s a red car. It idles for a moment at the top of your driveway. Then it goes away. That’s it. You had this dream a handful of times before it stopped.

These, though. These are…something different. In them, the distance between you and that unreachable place is spanned. You’re there (again, your brain immediately supplies, though when have you been before?) and not only are you there but you’re there in the sense of a missing puzzle-piece being found under the table and being slotted firmly into place. In the sense of: it reaches through you, strikes a note on your bones, sets your blood ringing. In the sense of: every step you have ever taken has been down a path that led you here, even if you didn’t see it at the time. In the sense of: homecoming.

You don’t recognize this place, where you now find yourself. Not in any rational way. It’s not a setting from any book or movie that you know; it’s not your imaginary world because you don’t have one. Wherever it is—whatever it is—feels like something that has existed long before you, and will keep existing long after you are dust. You are a speck in the landscape, a breath on the air, a microbe in the dirt. But you and this place belong to each other. You and the person that you meet here belong to each other.

Later, much later, you’ll read an internet forum thread about dreams. It will say: usually your dreams will have some repeating pattern or theme in common, which eventually you can learn to recognize. Give some thought to what yours might be and without thinking you’ll immediately answer: I’m not sad there.

Throughout your late childhood these dreams will continue. They’ll be the compass by which you navigate all the years of your preteens, teens, and on into your early twenties. Like a directive or distress beacon or password or siren song you’re hearing, faintly, in the distance, in a language you don’t understand, but are compelled, on an atomic level, to answer.

For decades, they’ll be the only dreams you have in which you never, not even once, realize you’re dreaming. There will never be any randomness there, any incongruity, any dream-logic that waking retrospect dissolves. It will never be the setting for any kind of you’re-being-chased-in-slow-motion nightmare or any your-teeth-are-all-falling-out anxiety dream, though you will come to have both. Just not here.

When your inner cynic wins whatever current round of tug-of-war that would disbalance you from the razor’s edge of belief/disbelief to which your feet are welded, with the end result that you lean a little further in that direction for a while but do not, cannot fall, you think: this place is a reflection or refraction of yourself, full stop. As such it ought to breathe with you, the frame and fabric of it warping around the freight of whatever flotsam of your day, your life, is currently floating in the ditchwater of your mind.

If it did, if ever even once it did—if walking that place you ran into a prop from a movie you’d watched the previous night, or someone there referred to a conversation you’d had with a friend earlier that day; anything—this place might’ve been easier to dismiss.

Pro: whatever else it is, it is a compass. A lodestar. You’ll never draw an aimless breath in your life.

Con: what the compass points toward, what every cell of you yearns for, is fundamentally unreachable. Meanwhile, the world you were born into will never feel like anything more than a waypoint, a rest stop, a layover. A frictionless surface across which you can only glide.

The idea that this elsewhere is a place you will someday be able to claw your way back to—if only you can be smart enough, or clever enough, or brave enough, or powerful enough—is a conviction, else a treachery, that lodges in your mind like a tumor, sinking its roots through your whole self. It will inform every decision you make going forward.

But, of course, you’re none of these things. Not smart enough, or clever, brave, or powerful. Not anymore. Not alone. At best you are half of these things; you are something broken, casting the shadow of something whole. And it never was that sort of place, not really. Yours is never going to be the kind of story that ends with the kind of door that you can open, literally, with the strength of your hands or your will or your mind or your heart or a key that you find lying at your feet when you are at the absolute end of your tether. You’re not going to wander despairing down a misty path, lose your way, and come out in another world. Where you’re going can’t be reached on foot, entered by force or cunning, or vanished into entirely, leaving no trace (except, perhaps, a single discarded shoe, abandoned in the dead middle of nothing, beyond which they will look for footprints and find none). No matter how many fantasy stories you shove into your brain, hoping—not for answers, you know better—but simply to find one that resonates, that transcends the uncanny valley sense of not-quite-rightness, that suggests that this experience is not yours alone—you come up empty.

Your exile is never explained to you, not in that place, not anywhere. Its nature, the fact of its existence, is self-evident. You wear its fallout like a brand that none can see but you.

Still, in a fair world—the sort in which you’re still young enough to believe that you should reside—exile can be undone. But it might help if you could understand something of its nature.

You’ve always been, as mentioned, a fairly stolid child. Infertile ground for the germination of this caliber of mystery. Your relationship with the Weird is parasocial. You’re more of an admirer than an acquaintance. You’re the kind of kid who tries to explain the unexplainable away. That wasn’t a ghost flickering the lights, just faulty wiring. That’s a satellite malfunctioning, not a UFO. Deep down you Want To Believe™ that there’s more to the world than your crappy human senses can perceive. Deep down you recognize your inability to quite tip yourself headlong into credulity for the defense mechanism that it is. To open the can of worms marked possibility, for a child born pinioned to such a secret yearning as you are, feels bound to spell disaster. A bottomless pit beckons directly in front of your feet, always. Skepticism holds your ankles at the edge.

You have to, have to, make this make sense. Before it breaks you. Or worse: before it loses patience with you, and the door slams shut, and you’re out of time.

Hypothesis: you are remembering a past life. The door that’s shut between yourself and it is nothing more, and nothing less, than your failure to bring it fully into mind. The you in those dreams is a ghost. It thinks like you, and reasons like you, and talks like you, and acts like you, because it is. The current you is a crayon etching of its gravestone.

Pro: it seems simple enough, as theories go. However, in it, you and the other shared that vanished life. Which begs the question: where are they now? Where will they go when you die? Where will you?

Con: you don’t have a time machine, and even if you did, you’re pretty sure they don’t work that way. In default of one, your door is at best a window, and not the kind you can pitch a brick through. What it looks onto is a museum, a mausoleum. A place so full of ghosts that you could cup the air of it in your heart like a mouthful of water in the desert, and be, if nothing else, sustained.

Hypothesis: you and the other have both lived many lives previously. You are meant to reincarnate together. For better or for worse, you’re bound together: two sides of the coin, part and parcel, hand in glove. A package deal. But the mechanism of that reincarnation has gotten fucked up somewhere along the way; your lives, your deaths, are staggered. You live now; the other does not. They find you in the only place where your guard has dropped enough that they can slip inside your skepticism’s reach. There they wait, patient as the sea, tossing pebbles at your window while you worry with your bloody fingers at the latch.

Pro: your door is death.

Con: their door is life.

Hypothesis: you ate your twin in the womb. Something of their mind (their soul? their self?) exists in you. Your blood remembers what your brain forgot.

Pro: it would mean that they are always with you, integrated inseparably. Every step you take, on a molecular level you carry them. What looks out from your eyes is both of you. What forms shape your shadow: likewise. To rip one free of the other would leave you with nothing recognizable. Nothing you could live with. As. Whatever.

Con: while that explains away the person, it does nothing for the place. Which is like nothing you’ve ever seen. Not in waking life, not in movies, not in video games, not in book illustrations, not in paintings, not anywhere. Which does zero to prevent it from being burned into the back inside wall of your skull in high relief, like a painting whose eyes track you across every room you’ll ever enter.

Hypothesis: aliens. They abducted and returned you at some point in your early childhood, and the place in your dreams does exist in meatspace, just not on Earth. Or you did actually, at some point in your childhood, blunder through a door or portal or fairy ring somehow, were flushed away Elsewhere, then spat back out stamped with this wordless hunger, an itch you will go to your grave trying to figure out how to reach with your hands.

Pro: you would literally kill for one (1) atom of proof that any of this exists in an objective reality, whether or not it’s your own.

Con: while this explains away the place, it does nothing for the person. Unless they and it (and you?) are links in the same chain, and the removal of one dissolves the integrity of the whole, at least insofar as you fit into its narrative. Maybe you were abducted together, kept a foot in the door for each other, stepped into that fairy ring hand in hand. Maybe the place stalks your sleep because the person is still there, trying to drag you by main force out from your amnesia, laboring to force the water of it from your lungs.

Hypothesis: you have some kind of mental illness. Certainly that’s the explanation pretty much universally handed to you in stories, which makes it more or less the only one you’ve seen. Being consecrated to an Elsewhere, especially at an age decidedly beyond childhood as you are, is seen as a deficit, an aberration, a symptom to throw pills at. Rather than the white-hot unspeakable gift that it is, which sears you, which you will die holding, melded by its own heat to your hands.

Pro: in the movies, they’re always so happy to be cured.

Con: you don’t live in a fucking movie.

Hypothesis: the other is some kind of ghost, haunting you. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Certainly you don’t feel all that tangible, most of the time: the space and weight and mass of you is incidental, a kind of ballast you tie to your belt that holds your soles to the ground. It wouldn’t really surprise you to learn that you’re some kind of placeholder hologram, some kind of ransomed echo, some kind of IOU note written in blood long-dried.

Pro: it would go some way toward explaining your relationship to the world in which you’ve been marooned. Namely: the chair to which you tie yourself to ride it out when the grip you have on the collective reality, and it on you, begins, periodically, to slip.

Con: you’re demonstrably alive enough, which rules out some things. But perhaps there’s more than one kind of ghost. You’ve read theories that a haunting is just a memory scratched into spacetime, the etching on the glass. Sometimes it feels like your memories, your un-memories, will tear their way out of your chest and stand before you, fully-formed as Athena, and you’ll look down at the wound their passage has left in you, and it’ll look a little like a door. Many horror movies are lost on you because you can’t figure out how to view a haunting with anything other than envy. Your friends won’t watch them with you as you are a noted killjoy on this matter. You haven’t even told them how sometimes you stand in the bathroom at night, lights off, opening and closing your medicine cabinet, waiting for the jumpscare in the mirror. Whispering to the dark: come out. I double fucking dare you.

You get through your teens, your twenties, and into your thirties without a single one of these hypotheses proven, disproven, or actionably tested.

Then, at some point, just like in the books and movies where this trope has always so enraged you, you’ll find that Adult Rationality, despite all your defenses, has seeped in, insidious as groundwater. They’re just dreams, you’ll somehow manage to half-convince yourself. No meaning to them at all. It’s your brain making fart sounds for the eight (six, more realistically, or four, or three) hours when the world of phone screens and shopping malls and social media trends isn’t around to distract it  from existential misery.

Because they’re just dreams, you won’t notice when you stop having them. Or at least, you won’t care. You’ll get over it. Move on. You can only reopen a wound so many times before it scars.

A NON-EXHAUSTIVE LIST OF POPULAR TROPES YOU FUCKING HATE, PART ONE:

  1. “and then they woke up & it was all okay because the door & everything behind it was just a dream”
  2. “and then they woke up & it was all okay because beside them (in the bed/on the nightstand/on their person) was some manner of tangible object which demonstrates that the dream & everything within it existed in the collective reality just as much as the bed, the nightstand, the person on which the proof appeared”
  3. “and then they died & it was all okay because it turned out their whole life of Questing had been wasted since death was the key to the door all along”
  4. “and then they grew up & it was all okay because they were so busy paying their bills and wrangling their children that they forgot there was a door to open in the first place”
  5. “and then they fell in love & it was all okay because they learned that the door was actually a barricade, standing between them & a slot in society labeled Normal Human Relationships, in which, all their jagged edges sanded off, they now find they fit perfectly”
  6. and then they went to the doctor & it was all okay because they learned the door was actually depression, which there are pills for”
  7. (“they swallow their pills to the faint background sound, so faint that the movie-viewers can only hear it with their volume up and the characters themselves can’t make it out at all, of a lock clicking softly & irrevocably shut”)

For years—decades!— you make a real go of it. A real true serious go of being a person, a human adult person with both feet in one world because they’ve outgrown or denied or been refused their place in any other. The merits of something like a career are pretty definitively lost on you, but until you figure out how to phase through the veil into the place you can’t fully convince yourself isn’t whispering softly beyond, and this place won’t provide you with universal basic income, you still need to buy groceries, so you make small amounts of money in small ways that add up to be just about enough that, most months, your rent (shoebox studio, dorm fridge, water damage, one window) goes in on time. You babysit kids, walk dogs, sell yard-sale clothes online for miniscule profit, take copyediting gigs, sell blood plasma, bring beer-can litter in for nickels, clip coupons, walk everywhere. It keeps peanut butter in your cabinet, leaves the lights on, splits your focus from the improbable just enough to keep you grounded sufficiently to show up in your person costume the next day, and the next, and the next.

By this point the dreams will have fallen back. Shifted out of focus. Either by the force of your resolve or by virtue of the fact your elsewhere, and your other, are doing you the courtesy of giving you space. Either way: a tide being held at bay, precariously, tenuously, while you scramble to fortify the stopgap sandcastle of your life. You still wake crying on occasion, but you never quite remember why.

Your parents call you sometimes, disapproving. It’s understandable. You were good at school, after all, and by that metric they expected the investment of your time and theirs to have yielded better returns. Don’t you want to make something of yourself? they ask, meaning a person with a Real Job and a Nice House or at least maybe a driver’s license and an apartment with a washing machine. Yes, you think, more than breath, but the something you want to make of yourself is a conduit, a beacon, a vessel, a portal, a path. Don’t you think there should be more to life than this? they ask, meaning people in their thirties go to college all the time, and yes, of course you do think there should, in a fair world there absolutely would, and in that world you wouldn’t be here coaxing toddlers to eat anything but goldfish crackers for $8/hour, because you’d probably be a cautionary tale on a rain-sodden MISSING poster nailed to a utility pole somewhere, long gone beyond where dogs will ever track your scent.

Eventually, you are assured, you will die broke and alone, leaving nothing for posterity. No kids. No body of work. No awards or accolades or pile of money to start a foundation, or whatever it is they expect you to desire. Not so much as a cat to eat the corpse you leave behind.

Broke is fine. And you don’t fear death. Best you can tell, it’ll either mean progress or peace, which feels like a different kind of progress, most days. Posterity isn’t even a speck on your periphery. The idea of stamping yourself on this world, burning your image into it somehow by the force of its own brilliance, or at least persistence, lacks all appeal. You’re looking to raise anchors if anything, not sink them deeper in the silt.

And alone? Alone is a foreign concept. Alone is your baseline. The idea that your level of alone-ness could shift appreciably or even measurably by the addition of something like a spouse and children, or regular coworkers, or a book club or board game group, is so bizarre that you can’t even engage with it enough to argue. It just floats there like something drowned.

Sometimes, against your better judgment, usually after a couple drinks, your anger tempered down to something that looks a bit more maudlin, you commit the tactical error of Letting People In. So this is going to sound weird, you nervous-laugh, because it will. I have these dreams. Or, I mean. I used to.

Even tipsy, you’ll wade into this having pre-measured a few careful crumbs of intel to disclose. Not much. This is half because your friends will think you’re crazy, half because to put this thing into words is to kill it a little. Or—it could be. You don’t really know, but you’re not about to take those odds either. It’s bad enough you’re here, with your 0.09% BAC and your thousand-yard stare, not looking so much for someone to take this burden from you as for someone to prop you up a little in the long slog of its carrying.

Maybe your friend is scrunching their face down sympathetically, going oh man, me too. I have this super weird one where I— Or maybe they’re just looking at you expectantly, swirling the ice in their drink. You’ve spent your whole life feeling like you’re standing at the foot of an unassailable cliff, staring up into your destiny or doom, and there’s no telling what shape that first handhold will take.

They’re not like normal dreams, you hear yourself say. None of the normal dream stuff happens there. I don’t have anxiety dreams in that place, or dreams that are recycled bits of my day, or dream conversations that don’t make any sense after I wake up. And all of the things you’re not supposed to be able to do in dreams—smell, taste, read, feel pain—I can. But only in these ones. It’s like a whole…other place. That I go. Sometimes. It’s hard to explain. It’s like I visit, and when I’m gone, the place goes on without me. But when I’m there, it—

—it—

Your friend is a good friend, and passes you a napkin, and waits for you to blow your nose and maybe stop being such a fucking buzzkill and let them enjoy their Friday night.

Sorry, you say. It’s stupid. I just—I’ll just—

Your friend is shaking their head, wide-eyed. Honestly, I’d love to hear about it. But if you’re not comfy with that, that’s cool too.

It feels realer than here, you blurt. It feels—it felt—like home. Which is stupid, because I’ve never been there, because there’s isn’t any there to be, but I can’t—I can’t—

Another napkin. Another pause. To think: you hadn’t even said: and I think I closed the door to that place a long time ago, because somewhere along the way I became convinced that Growing Up means doing that, and it’s the single greatest regret of my life.

Nor did you say: and there’s a person there. I don’t know what they look like, what gender they are, what age they are, if they’re human, even. An…entity, I guess. The key whose lock is me. The lock whose key is me. The thing that has ruined me for all actual real-life human relationships. (No offense.) The thing I will die with my arms outstretched toward. The best and truest friend I ever had. And I abandoned them.

Because all of that would be absolutely unhinged to say. You’re already walking a wire here. Alienating someone who for whatever arcane reason is happy to spend some of their limited free time in your questionable company is probably not, all things considered, your best play.

It squirms there, though, in your mind. But you’re used to that.

Listen, your friend says, once your napkin is a sodden mess and your glass is abruptly empty. All but for the drops you clandestinely flicked to the ground with two fingers when your drink arrived (as you do with all your drinks forever; it’s easier when it’s outdoor seating; you don’t want to make a mess for someone else to clean; you’re an asshole but you try not to be that kind of asshole), the rest of it’s merrily journeying toward your liver, and it’s not your first, and you’re dimly aware that you are radiating pure weapons-grade inexplicable sentimentality like fever.

Did I ever tell you, your friend continues, how I almost went into astrophysics?

You blink, uncomprehending. This is taken, accurately, as a response.

In the end I couldn’t do it. The idea that I’d be dedicating myself to pursuing the unanswerable, or at least the probably-unanswerable-within-my-lifetime? I don’t know, man. It freaked me out too much.

You nod, because this makes sense. It makes a lot of sense. The sense it makes is measured by the sudden icepick in your chest. The way the backs of your hands go pins-and-needles, fight-or-flight. The way the room is smaller now, ratcheting down on you as silent seconds tick by.

Sometimes I think about what would happen if everyone else had ducked out of that field for the same reason. We wouldn’t know anything about black holes, or dark matter, or—or fucking quasars. You know? They throw their hands up in a helpless gesture that culminates with them pounding the back half of their drink. I guess what I’m saying is: maybe what a leap of faith is, what it really is, right down at the core of it, is just…standing on the edge of an abyss, throwing a handful of pebbles to the bottom. You won’t live to see the bridge. But if enough people stand there when you’re gone, and each one brings their pocketful of pebbles, someday somebody’s gonna walk across and stand on the other side.

This isn’t the reassurance they mean it as, not really. You’re less astrophysicist than anchorite. You don’t have colleagues to commiserate with. You’re not walking so some unknown posterity can run. You’re swimming so you don’t sink. There’s a fundamental difference.

In a fair world, your friend is mistaking the horrified face you won’t live to see the bridge inspires in you for, like, being shaken by their wisdom or something. It’s fine advice for an astrophysicist, you reckon, or a saint. But you’re on a motherfucking Quest, okay, and you’d kind of like to be around for the last chapter.

It’s a few days before you figure out how to render this annoyance into something actionable. Well, technically it’s a few days while you wait to come to your senses and talk yourself down from the peak of this fresh hell upon which you’ve for whatever godforsaken reason alighted. On the fourth day you realize that not only have you comprehensively failed at that, but furthermore that the idea of doing something a couple degrees more proactive than impotently wallowing in your own homesick grief sounds kind of…nice, really. Refreshing. A pleasant change of pace.

But what to do? You sit with that one for a while, what-ifs rolling around your mind like a mouthful of shrapnel you can’t decide whether to spit out. Picture exorcisms and summonings, recognize this next crossroads for what it is. Whatever form it takes, this anvil against which you beat your will into a serviceable blade, it can end two ways. Either you will have caused something to happen internally, or else externally.

Option 1. You’ll cut this clear of you, stand free of it, and begin, at last, to heal.

Or.

Option 2. You’ll spiral, which, if you’re honest, was where you were headed anyway.

Or.

Option 3. Something else will happen.

If the sheer force of your wanting were enough to wear a hole into the fabric of the world, it would’ve done so already. You don’t have a magic knife or magic chalk or a magic wand, no means to make, buy, steal, or discover one, and any door you cut or drew into whatever wall would just bloody your knuckles and your face. Still, the idea that the Door Was Within You All Along™ and your job has always been just to dig it out of yourself like an infected splinter, is freighted with a certain angry poetry you find you viscerally relish.

Dreams. Whatever it is, all of this, it comes to you in dreams. That’s your only constant, your only clarity, your only clue.

It’s as good a place to start as any.

The librarian doesn’t say anything as he unburdens the holds shelf of fourteen books on dreams, each with your name on its receipt-paper bookmark. He doesn’t need to. His carefully-neutral face says plenty. Or so you imagine. Later you’ll realize you’re just being paranoid. He’s a librarian. He will have seen weirder shit than you most days before breakfast.

So you take your armload of books home, and you read them. The Freudian dream-interpretation guides are as useless to you as they were back in high school when you went nosing around the edges of this thing, seeing if the sinkhole would hold your weight. You don’t care what some dead white guy says it means when you dream about money, or flying, or your house falling down, or your teeth crumbling out of your gums.

The ones about the cultural significance of dreams throughout world history are interesting, but nothing in them looks familiar. Unexpectedly, the parts about out-of-body experiences in the new-agey books hit closer to home than the dream stuff. It’s the first thing you’ve read that takes the idea of going somewhere else seriously. But they all talk about going to places that exist on Earth, which you’re almost definitely sure yours does not. The sky is the wrong color, for one. If anything, yours is some kind of looking-glass or under-hill or fairy-ring Earth analogue, which is delightful and not frustrating at all because it leaves you with no chance of proving anything to yourself. You flip through anecdotes of people leaving their bodies, flying across town to visit a friend, seeing what the friend is cooking for dinner/reading before bed/writing in their diary, and then calling the friend up and freaking them the fuck out thinking (rightly) they’re being spied on. Not really the tone you’re going for. Later, in the same books, you run into astral travel, which is maybe the best lead you have yet, but you’re halted, hard, by the brick wall of your own skepticism, reading about a guy who allegedly astral-traveled to Jupiter and stood in awe as moon after moon swung through his field of vision. If they’re claiming to go somewhere other than Earth, you think, they could make up anything they wanted and put it in a book.

The books about lucid dreaming give you pause. Technically, you learn, any dream in which you know you’re dreaming is lucid by definition. The cool stuff you’ve heard of—flying, shooting lasers from your eyes, changing the setting of the dream on command—is extra.

You’ve always had, it turns out, an absolute ton of lucid dreams. When you were a kid, your nightmares would literally pause when shit started getting really really real, and give you a little computer-game pop-up screen: You’re dreaming! And two buttons underneath: STAY HERE / WAKE UP. And because these would generally find you up to your eyeballs in axe-murderers, you’d lean on that WAKE UP button for all you’re worth.

Not cool sexy glamorous lucid, but still. Lucid. And these are the first of many. Looking back, you have a history of nightmares that tend to have the courtesy of telling you you’re asleep and can wake up if you like, even if the mode of that conveyance changes as the years go by. You’ve always just used that knowledge to wake yourself up, but what if you could do more?

An image takes root in your head of you drawing a door in some dream-wall with a finger and then kicking that motherfucker in.

So over the course of a week you cram your head full of lucid dreaming instructions. Go to bed intending to have a certain type of dream. Go to bed telling yourself you’ll have a lucid dream. Go to bed just telling yourself you’ll remember your dreams. Write your dreams down. All of them. In a journal. In detail. Do reality checks throughout the day so you hardwire it into your muscle memory to do it in your sleep, realize you’re dreaming, and lucid it up. Wake up partway through the night, stay awake for half an hour, and then go back to sleep, tricking your brain into immediate REM cycles and boom: you’re summoning yourself a dream jetpack and blasting off to the moon, because it’s a dream space jetpack. Your house, your rules.

You buy a composition book from the dollar store. You start going to bed early. You keep reading. You do your reality checks, you disrupt your sleep schedule to within an inch of its life, you jot down barely intelligible dream-scraps in the dark. Sometimes you change the smaller and more mundane of your dreams in small, mundane, yet helpful ways. Too dark to see? Conjure a flashlight! Forgot your car keys? No you didn’t, they’ve been in your pocket all along! Take that, dream!

It’s proactive, it feels like you’re doing something, finally you’re doing something, you’re getting somewhere—but the more you read, and the more you try, the less your heart is in it. It’s another week before you come to terms with why.

None of the superpowers the lucid dream books advertise mean a solitary goddamn thing to you. You don’t care about invisibility and water-breathing and riding dragons and anti-gravity orgies and shooting fireballs from your hands. You came here for answers. To figure out why your brain is like this. Why you have memories you can’t possibly have. Who it is that lives in them, the shadow of some shadow, nearer to you than the sound of your pulse in your ears. You’re going to tear a hole in this place with your fucking teeth and climb through. And back. And to.

Dream doors are magical, your library books say. You can use them to go anywhere. Just stand before a door you find, any door at all, and tell it where to take you. It could be anywhere. A fantasy world. A spaceship. A different time period on Earth. Many dreamers use this technique to visit with deceased relatives, or visit eras outside of their own lifespan. Hold the image of your destination in your mind—the late Jurassic, your grandmother’s kitchen, the heat death of the universe—and open the door.

That’s it? you say aloud, one eyebrow raised.

The book stares back, impassive. That’s it.

It takes you a solid two months of trying, but eventually you find yourself in a dream, looking at a door. It’s not reminiscent or even evocative. It’s not even particularly interesting. It’s one of those you have to pee; where’s the toilet? dreams. You’re in the house you grew up in, standing in the hallway in the humid summer dark. The bathroom door is shut, but the light’s on inside, showing through the crack at the bottom. You’re standing before it, a bar of light across your toes, reaching for the doorknob, when you pause.

I’m dreaming, you think. This is a dream. This is a door in a dream.

The holy shit of it almost jars you awake, but you grab on with all your nails. You’ll leave grooves on that doorframe as reality drags you away. Breathe a ten-count and settle. The hallway, ominously migraine-aura-y, slowly stills: ripples fading as the stone sinks.

I am dreaming. You think it louder this time, screwing your heels into the floor one word at a time. I am dreaming and I will open this door and it will lead where I want it to.

But where is that, exactly? You’d thought about this while you were falling asleep, but retaining that much information, for your dreaming mind, is a bridge a bit too far. You’d made a decision? Maybe? Or else you fell asleep still undecided. Probably that.

Either way, you grip the doorknob, square your shoulders like you’re challenging the bathroom door to single combat to the death, and revisit possible destinations in your mind. Even in this dream you can see the other place so clearly. Which leaves you with a lot of options. The fallen city, where once you found a rusty sword beneath a shattered stair and wielded it alongside the other to help defend the gates from an invading army; where once you sat on the highest roof together, feet dangling into a hundred stories of empty air; where once you walked the dark streets, passing a bottle between you, propping each other up as the moon painted you silverblue; where you have solved a thousand puzzles, passed a thousand tests, survived a thousand challenges, died a thousand deaths, side-by-side. The forest and the meadow between, where you have been sent on adventures, hunted monsters, quested, been assassinated, killed each other, brought each other back to life, wandered aimlessly; where you have trusted each other with your lives, and your deaths, so many times you couldn’t begin to count.

You and the other go way way back, well over two decades by this point, and across all the dreams in that timespan you can’t think of one specific place where they seem statistically more likely to appear. Not for the first time, not for the last, you wish you’d ever tried to draw a map of your elsewhere. It would have done nothing to convey the color of that place’s sky, which ranges from amethyst to week-old bruise, or the smell of the air, which you have spent a small fortune falling short of accurately replicating by way of custom candles, perfumes, et cetera. But it would’ve given you something to stick pins into, note dates and times, begin to constellate some kind of pattern.

The door favors you with one slow, ominous get-it-together shimmer. You receive the message loud and clear.

Well, overthinking never got you anywhere. And all it’s going to achieve right now is the dream losing patience with your waffling and dumping you out on your ass.

So you cast about in the dark and latch onto the first image that bobs up. There’s a garden you used to go to, sometimes, in these dreams—more of an orchard, maybe?—nobody’s apparently tended it in years, and the whole thing’s run riot, branches knocking down the stonework of the surrounding walls, roots bulging veinlike beneath the fallen leaves that mulch the soil. You sat, once, on a low wall that time had lowered further, spitting its stones to the ground like a mouthful of teeth. You sat there, and the other sat beside you. Both of you covered in blood and exhausted from some misadventure, yet against all odds, alive. Some monster hunt, some attempt on your lives. It happens. You slumped against each other in a chill breeze, shoulder-to-shoulder, wordless. Like most of what you could be papering the purity of that silence over with had been already said a thousand times a long long while ago. You sat there on this punched mouth of a wall and absorbed the other’s presence like you were filling your lungs with air before a deep dive. Like injecting an antidote that might let you walk the poisoned earth a little longer. While overhead the snapped rib of some archway curved, a parenthesis that cupped the two of you, unclosing.

Here, now, in this nonexistent hallway, you hold all this in your mind as you pull open the door.

Onto:

A bathroom, the little voice in the back of your head pipes up, the one that thrives on slashing the tires of every getaway vehicle your heart has ever managed to build, buy, borrow, conjure, or steal.

But it’s wrong.

There, in that muggy late-summer wet-sponge gloom, you open the door and are slapped in the face with October. November, maybe. Later than the stretch of autumn that brings tourists to gawk at leaves; earlier than snow. The interstice between.

Squinting into the sudden light, you make out: a meadow. Tall grass, silvery, unkempt. Distant trees, a thumb-smudge of dark in the middle distance. Crumbled buildings loom to three sides, more distant even than the forest, making you wonder all over again if this field is some kind of massive courtyard, some kind of mirror-universe Central Park, which it does not in any way resemble. Sky the precise tarnished-wisteria shade of an incredibly expensive herbal tea you bought once, hated the taste of, drank anyway, because it made some tiny molecule of something a little bit like logic to some back-alley fold of your brain that in so doing you could internalize something of, could add ballast to the anchors sunk into, could reinforce the sutures between your sorry fucking soul and, that same sky you’re staring up into right now.

And before you: no path at all. Just that sea of grass, which you’re stepping out into, you’re pushing through, it’s sharper than it looks, it’s slashing at your wrists and legs and you don’t care, because—

—because—

—you know that stone archway, the stomped-in ribcage of its ruins. You know the clawed hands of those trees. You know the smell that blows back through the latticework of branch and masonry and ancientness to reach you: fallen apples, dry rot, cold stone, dilute sunlight on leaf-rich dirt. The layered decay of untouched years. This place is haunted to shit and always has been. It’s a tang on the air, tastes like an old penny you tried to swallow and which lodged in the back of your throat, half-choking you, forever. Like a key that’s stuck behind your sternum and your purgatory is to pull it out and live.

You’re running now, scrambling over fallen walls, tearing full-tilt and leaving blood on the grass, smearing handprints on the maze beyond the arch, it never really was much of a labyrinth to speak of, really, no puzzle to it at all, more of a—

And then you’re in the center, the place where walls once enclosed an orchard, staring up into the gnarled branches, setting your hands to the nearest tree to see if it dissolves. You’re crushing windfalls to applesauce beneath your feet. Drunk wasps veer among them, careening into your ankles. This place has never seemed less real than anywhere. You press your face against the scabby bark of the nearest tree, inhale neat autumn. Wait for this whole place to come down around your ears, spin away into the dark. It doesn’t.

Still, doubt creeps in. One of the definitional characteristics of this place is that you have never, never once in your life, known within it that you were dreaming. So are you there now or is this just some kind of off-brand replicated analogue, some house of cards you’ve built up out of wishful thinking and sheer fucking desperation? And if it were, why haven’t you ever done that before?

And then it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter at all, because there’s a feeling behind your eyes like the air pressure dropping, like migraine aura edging in, like every molecule of you is trying to snap you into an about-face, a needle seeking north. And you turn, you couldn’t not turn if you wanted to, and you know what’s there, of course you know, but the breath rips from you like a fistful of fishhooks anyway when you catch sight of who’s coming toward you through the grass, the weird broken stop-motion grace of their stride devouring distance far faster than it looks as though it should.

You can’t make out their face, their clothes, their anything. That’s of no consequence. You’d know them if you were black-bagged in a closet with the lights shot out. You’d know them with your eyes gouged from your head. Years of absence have done nothing to dull the edge of the knife this knowledge twists in you.

The other comes to within earshot, then a stone’s throw, then range of your right hook, but you stand there in silence with your strings cut, and then they’re there, right there, and whatever they’ve been up to, whatever errand or mission you’ve caught them returning from, they look like hell, muddy and bloody and fraught and frayed to snapping, and the smell they bring with them on their hair and clothes is nothing that exists on earth but that you’d recognize the way a shark can sense a drop of blood in a swimming pool, and you can’t tell if any of that blood is theirs but if you were a betting sort of person you’d give them longer than you’d give yourself regardless, the way your heart is battering itself against the bars of your ribs simply to exist here in their presence. And then they’re cupping the back of your head with one hand, they’re bending their neck to clasp your forehead against theirs, you’re standing there like a couple of warriors reunited against all odds across a battlefield, and you could no more move from that spot than if your bones had been staked there on tines of lightning.

When you don’t wake, or faint, and your heart doesn’t slam to a stop in your chest, and the blown-glass bubble of the moment doesn’t implode around you, you gather yourself. Force a few breaths around the kicked ache in your chest. Dig out the strength to speak.

Hi, you say, or try to. No sound comes out. The smell of the other—copper and ozone and moss and petrichor and burning, all of this and none of it, nothing you could ever get words to stick to—fills you until you brim and overflow. The touch of their head against yours will be your death. Is that red clay matting their hair together like that, or bloodied mud? Inanely you wonder if it smeared on you, if it will be on your pillow when you wake.

They pull away, look down at you, and you realize you’ve seen this costume or aspect or face of them before. Not that the actual features of it will stick in your head, even here in the dream. Just the impression it leaves on your mind, fading even as you look at it, a portrait scratched in wet sand as the tide comes in. Like the haunting that it is.

Sharp features, not delicate but precisely cut. Mouth quirked in faint amusement, but the eyes somehow sorrowing. Like they’d just asked you a riddle and were waiting for the answer, and the answer is the end of the world.

Hello, they say, and their voice is something your brain can barely register as sound, something that removes all your blood all at once and replaces it with honey and venom and light. You’d preserve them there with you forever if you could, in amber, on ice. But you don’t know how.

I can’t stay, you whisper, because your voice has cracked to nothing.

They’re just looking at you in that way they have, not side-eye but three-quarters, appraising, which you once took as tricksterish but have since learned is reticent: not won’t so much as can’t. There are rules here, clad in steel or something stronger, followed on pain of death or something worse.

If you say so.

This sets you back a little. True, you’ve been lugging around a sizeable mental block ever since squaring up to that library counter. Are they saying what they’re saying because you’re making them say it? Are they giving you that vaguely pitying look because they’re just your regret reflected? How would you know? Maybe that’s all it’s ever been: your hand up their back, your words in their mouth, some kind of therapy ragdoll that can show you where your problems are, because your problems, and their solutions, and the dream and the place and the other and all of it, were only ever yourself.

Still. You’re here now. Even if you’re not. It’s something. It has to be something.

I came here to find you. You say this like it’s your life savings being dumped out on a gambling table with hopeless odds. Because it is. That is precisely what it is.

It earns you no response at all, beyond a look of: and?

This is wrong. This is all wrong. You’d expected—you’re not even sure what. Sentimentality? Congratulations? Some proof of a test passed?

When did you start crying? I—

Their eyes narrow at you: faint concern.

I’ve been trying so hard to get back here. Back to— A person shouldn’t be able to ugly sob in a dream. There should be some kind of law. I always—I never—

The concern deepens. No: it’s confusion, which is worse. Somewhere in the pit of your stomach, a void irises open. They’ve forgotten you. You’ve been gone too long, pushed all this away too long, sewed your person costume on too convincingly and now they can’t recognize you through it and you can’t figure out how to take it off. I didn’t choose that, you want to say, but grief clogs your throat like wax. Not really. I didn’t want—I thought I wanted but I didn’t—I never—I’m so fucking sorry—

This is it. You’ve been forgotten. Or replaced. They’ve got a new partner in crime, or best friend, or comrade-in-arms, or foil, or nemesis, or soulmate, or whatever it was that you are. Were. Never was.

They’re saying something. You can’t make it out. You can’t possibly have made it out. There’s too much shit in your sinuses. You snerk it back, compounding the comprehensive loss of your dignity, and sleeve-smear at your face a little. What?

You come here all the time, they say again. You leave and come back. Again and again and again.

And there are hands on your shoulders, and they’re not like hands at all, not really, and the other is staring into your face, and their eyes aren’t like eyes at all, not really, and it occurs to you for the four millionth time that perhaps whoever (whatever) this is, they are something worth fearing, and for the four millionth time you realize you don’t even a little bit care.

You don’t remember, they say, so softly, and it’s not a question, and you stare, helpless, commanding yourself to have misheard. But you haven’t, you never have, and no matter how many times you replay this conversation in your head in all the long march of your days going forward, you never will.

A NON-EXHAUSTIVE LIST OF POPULAR TROPES YOU FUCKING HATE, PART TWO:

  1. The monster is a metaphor for mental illness, end of.
  2. The monster is a symptom of mental illness, end of.
  3. The monster is a metaphor or symptom of a childhood out of which you have for whatever tragic reason failed to metamorphose, and which you should probably get on doing, like, yesterday.
  4. The monster is a thing to be cured, outgrown, abandoned, fled, defeated, or denied. End of.
  5. The monster will always & can only be the worst thing that ever happened to you.

That conversation, non-conversation, empty puzzlebox of a nothing of a conversation, gives you something to beat your head against for a good long while indeed.

You don’t remember becomes the tempo of your steps, the miles per day you cover walking the same back-and-forth circuit, like if you just wear though one more pair of shoes, you might have earned your passage. Like a Door is a thing you can ladder into the fabric of reality by sheer force of repetition, scratching at prison walls with a fingernail until sunlight slivers through.

You don’t remember becomes the rhythm of the weights you push overhead, lying on the floor between the fridge and the couch because even if you had a snowball’s chance in hell of affording a bench, your apartment wouldn’t fit both it and a bed. It’s not that you think yours will be the kind of Door that you can physically muscle open, shoulder to the jamb and screaming rage up from your toes as your future tears out of you like a birth, but you reckon it can’t hurt to be prepared.

You don’t remember becomes the sound of the breath in your lungs, the beat of your pulse in your ears, the surging of blood through the white-knuckle fist of your heart. Unless it’s always been that, and you’re only now able to decode it: half-blessing half-curse, like everything.

None of the questions you ask yourself over the days, the weeks, the months to come are anything you can answer, even though you march back to the library with your biggest tote bag and lug it home with the full weight of every lucid dream book in the interlibrary system digging those skinny handles directly into the mother of all muscle knots in your shoulder. Even though you spend what even you’re aware is an objectively embarrassing amount of your free time pitching yourself down internet rabbit-holes looking for anything that could begin to make this make the teensiest scrap of something bordering on sense.

Characters in lucid dreams almost always behave in one of two ways, your library haul and your internet deep-dives unanimously inform you. Either they react blankly to anything you say to them, or they tell you things you already know. Generally, when told that they exist in your dreaming mind, they won’t engage with you further, though some dream characters have been known to react with panic or even hostility. Don’t worry! Whatever they do—argue, deny, even attack—you’ll wake up safe in your bed.

 Apparently this is meant to reassure you.

Nowhere—nowhere—can you find so much as one solitary anecdote of anything like what you’ve just experienced. It’s like you’ve had the rug pulled out from under you and you were standing over a bottomless pit all along, and now you’re falling and there’s nothing to grab hold of. Except the rug also hasn’t been pulled out, you’re not falling, you’ve been where you wanted to be all along.

You don’t remember.

If you were making it all up—if the other was your therapy puppet, as you’ve spent two solid decades trying to convince yourself—what benefit to you could it possibly be for them to say that? If it’s all in your head, if dreams exist solely (as many, many, many books and online articles and forum posts confidently posit) to help you Find Your Inner Self and Reconnect With Your Subconscious, why wouldn’t you have simply made the other engage in some kind of comforting call-and-response, or reveal themselves to be just a long-buried part of you, or not show up at all?

Option two is: it’s just a dream. It doesn’t mean anything. Brain fart sounds, etc. But the other has told you truth before. Mentioned things you’ve later looked up and verified. Used words that you don’t know, but your dictionary, in the morning, did. And it’s almost definite that you’re dreaming more than you recall. You’ve read about how the average number of dreams each person experiences per night is five. You’re lucky if, any given morning, you can bring one of yours to mind.

That’s a lot of hours multiplied by a lot of years of just straight-up missing time.

It’s amnesia, you try to explain to your friend, a few drinks in.

Amnesia, they say back at you, like they’ve misheard. In…dreams.

I meant I had a dream where I had amnesia, you lie through clenched teeth, because it’s either walk it back or out yourself as an unhinged person, and you’ve been reminding yourself ever since you set foot out your front door this evening that a functional social life with living breathing human people is a thing you should possibly work more on desiring.

Like in the movies?

Yeah. Big sip. Like in the movies.

You know what else happens in movies? People try not to be haunted.

Fuck movies.

Were you, like, a spy or something?

Sometimes, you don’t say. Sometimes I’m all kinds of things. A spy. A warrior. A monster-hunter. A monster. A prisoner of war. An adventurer lost in the woods. A wanderer caught in a snowstorm, curled up in a drift of dead leaves, just trying not to freeze. Something captured, something ransomed, something killed. Something rescuing, something rescued, avenging and avenged, lost and found, back and forth, on repeat, forever.

And then you realize that all of this is rather more accurate in past tense, that right now the only thing you are is fucked, is an idiot who ran over their fairy ring with a lawnmower because it was getting in the way of the yardwork, and there’s a bigger sip, and then your drink is gone, and your friend is signaling for another, which is either the best idea in the whole world or the worst.

Perhaps you’re dreaming now. Perhaps you’ve been dreaming all your life. You’ve been held hostage in enough of them to know the signs. Maybe when you wake up it’s really that you’re falling asleep, and this—you wading deeper into the quicksand of this conversation, you walking home later to enjoy a night of staring at the ceiling pining for some has-been never-was once-upon-a-time, you waking up to do it all again—is the recurring nightmare you need to outsmart to escape.

Did you get your memories back?

Now you’re making a show of how there’s an eyelash in your eye. Nevermind that both are watering.

 No.

Your friend winces in sympathy. You have weird nightmares.

No argument here.

Most of mine are just, like, showing up to work naked. That sort of thing. Sometimes I’m in a dark field with something chasing me, but thank god, I always wake up before I die.

Many of your dreams you do die in, but you don’t know how to explain that those ones aren’t nightmares, not really. How it feels more than anything like a time loop narrative arc broken up and scattered from a great height across the dark third of a life. How in time loop movies, the thing is to always find the one other person stuck in the reset purgatory with you, and figure your shit out together. But you’ve never seen a time loop movie where they found each other and worked together for years and then one of those people got out and left the other one there to die alone, over and over and over. Probably a pretty solid reason for that. Nobody likes a comprehensive dick of a protagonist.

Your silence is growing obvious. You fill it with some kind of noncommittal sound. Then you remember: this is a person who for some reason known only to them and their gods cares a lot more than they should about a fuckup like you, and you, fuckup though you are, owe them better.

I get chased sometimes too. Not in this one though.

Here’s your new drink. Sipping which provides a socially-acceptable excuse to stop talking before one of four equally likely things happens: your mouth does an end-run around your brain and starts saying things you have zero intention of allowing; you flee into the night with your tail between your legs; you throw every glass object in the establishment against a fucking wall; you put your head down on the table and weep.

Well, says the saint across the field of empties. Sounds like it sucked anyway.

It takes a moment for this life preserver to make its way across the waves to where you’re treading water, losing strength, going down.

Yeah, you say, grabbing on, both hands and all your teeth. It does. It will forever. It did.

When eventually you retreat home, you’ve already filed all this away in the overstuffed box of things never to speak of again. Anyway it’s fine. You’re overreacting. You’ll just dream your way back in. Find another door and go through. You did it once.  You can do it again.

And over the days and weeks and months of dreams to come, you’ll find a lot of doors. Go through a lot of doors. None of them will lead you back. None of them will lead you home.

You’ll keep trying though, lighting the candles in the windows of the once-haunted house of your heart. The sound of the breath in your lungs, the pulse in your ears, the blood in your veins, the footprints by which you reduce by microns the thickness of the earth beneath them, etc. becomes: Come back. Or else: Let me back in.

But because it’s either be proactive or put your head through a fucking wall, you start a list of stupid questions you’ll ask the other, as soon as you find your way back in. Which you will do. Or else die trying.

Step 1 of Amnesia Movie Protagonist Recovery, after all: get someone trusted to remind and/or convince you of who you are. And your list of potential someones-trusted stops at one.

  1. How long have I been coming here? Because twenty years is a lot of nights. A lot of lost time. Storybook curses spring to mind. Werewolves. Selkies. To walk in a different skin, unremembering. The true self fading, step by step, like bloody footprints given sufficient distance.
  2. What do I do when I’m around? Because you have zero idea, honestly. Way back when, it was adventures. Puzzles. Tests. Back-to-back against a sea of enemies, two vs. the world, rather die together than survive alone, etc. You’d wake up feeling like you’d been run over by a bus. It was absolutely wonderful.
  3. What are we supposed to be accomplishing in this place? Because you’ve spent a lot of nights by now failing those tests, being bested by those puzzles, dying in the course of those adventures, way back when. But their purpose was never clear, and the only way to win is not to play looks a lot like watching a clock run down.
  4. I’m really here all the time? Because it would explain a hell of a lot, not least the way you spend all sixty seconds of every minute and every sixty minutes of every hour and every twenty-four hours of every day feeling like a magnet stuck to another magnet with an impenetrable wall in between.
  5. Can you help me remember? This feels like a pretty bold ask of someone you more or less fucking betrayed, or at least thought you did, which is probably just as bad, but you don’t have a lot of solid plays up your sleeve.
  6. Can you forgive me? Which is all it comes down to in the end, really. And always did, and always only ever will.

Time passes. You’re not sure how much. By this point the soundtrack of your whole miserable rejected-organ-transplant tenure on this earth has boiled down to please.

A NON-EXHAUSTIVE LIST OF POPULAR TROPES YOU FUCKING HATE, PART THREE:

  1. That a haunting can only, by definition, ever be hostile. Adversarial. Unwanted. The spectrum ranges, exclusively, from minor nuisance to mind-melting catastrophe. As a literary plot device, it’d be man vs. Weird. The vs. is the salient point.
  2. That a haunting and its host can only, by definition, be at odds with one another. There’s a parasite and there’s a victim. One feeds off the other. It gives nothing back. Occasionally, perhaps, a bargain or temporary symbiosis may be reached, in which the haunting enters into a kind of time-share with its desperate, often-hapless vessel; this remains parasitic in nature, and is in any case an extreme last resort, often regretted.
  3. That there will always be a clear delineation between the two. Monster and innocent. Disease and patient. Good and evil.
  4. That the one may appear to the side of or behind or above the other, as a general aura, etc. but in every way that matters, stands only ever truly in their way.
  5. That the happily ever after to every haunting is an exorcism.

The first dream you had of the other is one of the clearest memories you have, for all that it dates back to when you were in fourth grade, and for all that there’s not really that much to it, especially not in comparison with what came later. In it, you were sitting on your bed—your actual bed, in your actual house—and there was someone sitting there beside you, a kid around your age you didn’t recognize.

Usually the people who showed up in your dreams were familiar: people you knew from school, usually, or actors you’d seen in a movie recently. Your family. The occasional neighbor. Sometimes your dreaming mind might cobble a character together out of bits of these—a patchwork NPC with a TV character’s clothes, your cousin’s voice, your teacher’s hair, etc.

This was not that either. This was, as was immediately apparent, something else. You didn’t know this person from anywhere. Not as a whole, not in pieces.

And yet you did. More than you knew your neighbors, or your cousins, or your teacher, or your parents, or anyone. More than you knew the feel of your own teeth in your mouth, the sound of your own voice in your ears, the taste of your own secrets whispered to your own empty bedroom in the dark.

Usually, also: you were not sociable. You had friends, but what you also had was a bubble of personal space, of which you were fiercely protective. Those friends never came over much, and when they did you were always vaguely guilty about how relieved you felt when the sleepover was done and they hopped in their mom’s car the next morning and left you in peace.

This wasn’t like that either, for all that it was distinctly a visit, a visitation. What you were sitting in, there on your bed, was the companionable silence you’d encountered in books and always dismissed as mythical fiction-stuff, like talking animals and Chosen One prophecies.

Hey there, ——————, you said. How’ve you been? I haven’t seen you in a while.

This won’t be their real name. Even then you knew that. It’s a placeholder, the way their face and body are placeholders. A railing for your mind to reach out toward, grab hold of, gain balance.

But this won’t matter now. For now: just two old friends, sitting on a bed. Syrupy late afternoon light. Dust motes in the air. All the time in the world.

And they gave you a smile that over the following months and years you’d come to recognize, regardless what face it was in. Like they were happy about something, but sad about something too. I know, they said, in this happy-sad voice that made no sense, that made all the sense in the world. It’s been too long.

You didn’t have anything intelligent to reply to this. You just sat there in the quiet, the two of you, a perfectly calibrated unit, like you could uptake warmth from each other’s presence. Like being plugged in to recharge.

And then you woke up crying, full-on snotting-all-over-yourself sobbing, with very little idea as to why. It would be some years and a stack of folklore books under your belt before you had the words to describe the fairy treasure you are nightly handed, only to have it turn to dead leaves in your pockets in the light.

Did you have a nightmare? your mom asked you over breakfast. The sudden violence of your head-shake probably didn’t do much to clarify the situation. Especially combined with how that haunted stare she was inquiring about was now, all at once, brimming over.

It shouldn’t have disturbed you like this, gotten under your skin and itched there like this. Hey there, ——————. How’ve you been? Like this was a person you had so much as laid eyes on before at any point in your completely uneventful, unvisited, untouched-by-weirdness decade of life previous.

Don’t worry, honey, your mom said, not understanding why this only made you cry harder. It was just a dream.

Which did nothing to prevent you from feeling the way you felt when you had to go back to school after summer vacation was over. The way you felt when you reached the end of a favorite book and there was no more story. The way you felt when your guinea pig died. All of these, multiplied by a million, all at once.

Which did nothing to keep you from stewing in the juices of it for ages, tilting it around in your mind like a puzzle that would decrypt itself if you just got some important crack or angle of it into direct light. The lack of closure was fingernails down a chalkboard on the inside back wall of your skull. And it was only just beginning.

And which, strangest of all, did nothing to ward off the dream from returning. Except now it was different. You slept and opened your eyes and were in a city: tall, old, and in a state of bright decay that will be brought to mind, years later, upon seeing colorful fungus devouring the corpse of a tree. It was unfamiliar and almost scary—the wrong-color sky, the rotting buildings, the general lurking sinisterness. The feeling of being watched, observed, assessed by something unseen, something not antagonistic so much as impassive, something that in the dream and in all the dreams to follow you know to your core is testing you in some way and almost definitely finding you—both of you—terribly wanting.

There was a Test you had to pass here, but not a test like you’d get in school. There were people you had to help get somewhere, through a series of traps and perils. (Later you’d be reminded of this when doing escort quests in video games, but you wouldn’t encounter those in your waking life for years.)

The other was there with you, also being Tested. A presence at your shoulder you drew strength from and sent strength to simultaneously, a complete circuit that powered you both. You may not have known the rules of the Test, the parameters of the Challenge, but did know absolutely that you would pass or fail together.

Whichever happened, you woke up before it did. Exhausted, not rested for shit, aching like flu, as if you’d sleepwalked for miles over hard country. Your eyes were dry, felt windburned almost. Like you’d actually spent the past eight hours squinting down those darkened side-streets, alert for whatever looming danger to surge toward you out of the gloom.

(It won’t be until a few dreams later that you realize that in them, when the other is with you, your own well-being isn’t what you fear for, but theirs. You know without asking that this is mutual. Where you go, you go together, and within the sphere—such as it is—of each other’s protection. You draw the faith of this like breath.)

(From this point on, you will exclusively see the other in the various environs of this Place, which you will explore over the years of nights to come. Never in dreams of your house, or your school, or the local mall. Only here. That first visit will begin to feel a lot like an invitation, or else a reminder of an appointment you made a long long time ago and forgot to keep.)

A long time passed before you gathered your courage, or else your derangement, and asked your mom (out of the blue, while she was making dinner, because there’s no real way to frame this that makes sense, so you may as well dive right in) what she knows about the concept of the inner child (because at this point in your life this is the only phrasing you’ve ever heard for having a whole-ass person in your tiny head who isn’t you, even if you already know that it isn’t meant literally, and that what you’re asking about isn’t any kind of child or probably any kind of human at all). You’d seen it mentioned in a book, you said, which was true. You were curious what it meant, which was true. She got about ten words in before you knew this conversation was headed the wrong way down a one-way street but you nodded along anyway like anything she was saying was answering the question under the question, not that she or anyone could in fairness be expected to.

What you really wanted to ask about was hauntings, because if you’re honest, that’s what it felt like, feels like, will continue to feel like forever. Some kind of ghost walking through all the world’s walls to reach you. Some kind of string drawn taut. Some kind of mutual orbit, nearing and receding, altering your tides. Some kind of collision course, rewinding and repeating, inexorably, forever.

THE TROUBLE WITH PORTAL FANTASY STORIES, AS YOU SEE IT:

  1. They tend to assume that the world the protagonist is born into is the one they belong to. That the other is at best a distraction, an impediment, a speed bump between their present social ineptitude and their best self (two-point-five kids, mortgage, excellent credit score, picket fence) gleaming in the distance, the only improbable fairy castle worth pursuing.
  2. They tend to present easy, clean solutions, when solutions they present at all. The protagonist will find a Door, for instance, nearly invariably, and either open it or no. If yes, they’ll walk through on their earthly feet, easy as anything. There they hang out a while before returning to the world of their birth to bury a magic cloak in the back of a closet, hide a magic ring in a jewelry box, hang a magic sword over a mantel, and go off to have a life. Invariably, this is viewed as a happy ending.
  3. They are reserved, exclusively, for children. Maybe that’s your problem. Maybe this is something you were meant to discard. A threadbare security blanket, a pair of outgrown shoes you’re still out of pure mindless stubbornness trying to cram your unworthy adult feet into. An old key for a lock that’s since been changed, because you chose to sell the house whose door it opened.
  4. That the knowledge of an Elsewhere is a burden one would choose to put down for anything.

Decades later, here you are again, standing in front of a door in a dream. This time it’s the back door of your apartment, the one that makes no sense because the entire apartment is one room, the one that in waking life has your desk in front of it because it wouldn’t fit anywhere else. The fact that your path to it is clear of fire hazards is how you know you’re dreaming.

If there’s some kind of incantation that will make this or any door obey your commands, you haven’t found it yet. Since you don’t know what else to do, you fall back, as you usually fall back, on what worked that one time in the hallway, standing before the bathroom door in the house you lived in when you first met the other. Mentally, you grab onto that stone orchard with both fists. And you pull open the door.

It’s—the bathroom from the house you grew up in.

Fuck.

You’re standing in front of a door. You’d have to bend double to crouch through it, but this hits you as a fair trade-off for the fact that it’s carved directly into the trunk of a spreading oak in the middle of a field dotted with thousands of flowers in piercing cobalt, blackish red, the acid green of fireflies. You have no idea how you got here, but you’re here now, and while you accept that your dream could probably have disgorged a door more freighted with raw aesthetic potential, you’d be hard pressed to picture it.

Ruined garden, you whisper to it. Stone maze. Dead trees. Brambles. Rotting windfalls. Wind.

And pull open the door.

Behind it is another door. Behind that one, another. Another. Another. And so on until you wake. Your bad mood takes some hours to shift.

You’re standing in front of a door. This one’s some kind of dark industrial spaceship airlock-looking deal, some movie-trope detritus stuck to your subconscious’s shoe. You outran some kind of mechanized insect things to get here; you can hear their too many legs skittering down some not-so-distant hall as they triangulate your presence by the scent of your heaving breath. Hurriedly, you draw the smell of that garden to you, incongruous with the gunmetal stench of the air, and remember the pressure of the stones of that wall against the base of your spine, the give of the soil beneath your feet. The feel of those hands on your shoulders, from which in a movie you would’ve woken up with visible proof of that touch. Frostbite. Bruises. Burns. Scars. In a movie you’d be latticed with these marks: relics of your journeying, your many deaths, your many near misses. The way that every time the other so much as brushes up against you, it feels like touching a live wire. A dental pick on a raw nerve. A broken bone being forcibly and without anesthesia reset.

In a movie you’d open this door and everything would finally make sense.

You, not living in a movie, open the door onto a tunnel, just as the wave of your pursuers crests around a side-passage and zeroes in, shrieking. You fling yourself into the tunnel, pelt down it and down it and down it until eventually your alarm goes off.

You’re standing in front of a door. It’s locked. You haul on it with all your strength, lose your grip, fall backward into some sort of pit, which is deeper than it should be. You wake as your skull cracks like a raw egg against the bottom.

You’re standing in front of a door. You pull it open and it detaches from the wall like a sticker peeling back. Behind it is a mirror in which you cast no reflection.

You’re standing in front of a door. It’s bleeding. No, the blood’s coming from your hands. Your nails are gone. Upon closer inspection you’ve left them embedded in the grain of the door. The door itself remains unmoved.

You’re standing in front of a door which you drew on a blank brick wall with the blood leaking from the beds of your fingernails, which you bent back clawing at a million doors before this. Try to focus on a destination, but your dreaming mind won’t comply. All it gives you is you don’t remember, you don’t remember, you don’t remember.

I know, you say. Your voice falls flat and dead, no echoes here. Just you and the wall, and your blood dripping down. But I’d like to, if I can.

It’s the understatement of your life, but you don’t amend it. Instead, you crook the pulp of your fingers in front of the wall and close your hands on two fistfuls of empty air.

The door comes open.

On the other side, light flickers, unseen fluorescent overheads stuttering on. Dark woods march off to the vanishing point, flanking a path that starts at the disintegrating toes of your sneakers.

You take a step forward, about to set your foot across the threshold, when you see what you’re about to step on and nearly fall over backward again.

It’s not a path. It’s a chasm. It’s a rift. It’s nothing. The trees sink their roots through the void of it; they bunch and hang like viscera, dripping light.

Behind you, your friend’s voice: just…standing on the edge of an abyss, throwing a handful of pebbles to the bottom.               

You whip around. There’s no one there.

Pebbles. Okay.

You dip your bloody fingers into a pocket, fully expecting to come out with this handful of pebbles. Intention, you remind yourself, channeling your dream books. Intention.

What you pull out is—buttons. Sure. Close enough.

You pitch them into straight nothing, to predictable effect. Not so much as a clatter when they hit bottom.

This is stupid. Your alarm is going to go off soon anyway. May as well wake up and get it over with. End this on your own terms anyway.

First, though, you lean way out into the doorway, stare down into the dark. From the tree roots, white light falls forever, thick and molten. You wonder what that plunge feels like. Whether you’d wake before smashing to slurry on the bottom.

Fuck it.

You jump through, both feet, ready for the roller-coaster plummet and the splat. Take that, you stupid goddamn useless dream.

It holds.

You’re nearly shocked awake but you cling on, dropping your center of gravity like you can make yourself too heavy to remove. Awkwardly half-crouched, you shuffle forward a little, waiting for the trick.

No trick. You can’t figure it out. It’s not a glass floor—when you tap it with a toe, your toe passes through. There’s nothing beneath you.

You shouldn’t have looked down. You’ve seen enough cartoons in your day to know what happens when you look down. But here you are, squinting doubtfully down into a flat black emptiness into which light drips like cold fire, an apparent infinity which somehow takes your weight.

As you start inching toward that vanishing point, the light shudders on and stays. The sky and void are vantablack, impossibly dark on impossibly darker; the trees glow phosphorescent. In the road-flare light of them, your skin and clothes glow blue as ice.

Are you being watched? Is this a test? Any moon, star, satellite, could be an eye. You put your head back, look up into the ceiling of that empty dark. There’s nothing. Nothing you can perceive anyway. Certainly this whole place feels like a held breath. Like it’s waiting to see what you’ll do.

Is the other in here too? For a moment you think to try to conjure them, you have your hands cupped to your mouth to call out into the trees, you’re drawing breath to project your voice across the dark—and catch it. Lower your hands. They’re not your butler to be summoned, you tell yourself. Your dog to be whistled up from the woods. After all these years. You have no right.

But that’s bullshit and you know it. If you were lost in a dark forest in waking life, and you thought a friend was in there with you, you’d call out. Find the way back together. Anyone would. Anyone but your dumb ass, apparently.

And all at once you know why.

Until you try, after all, it’s literally impossible to fail.

In silence, you follow the path where it winds. After what might have been miles, the light dies. You walk on into unending dark. Eventually, you think, you’ll hit the map’s edge and bounce off. Press your face into the black. Draw another door. That might be interesting. But no edge, no wall, no boundary of this pocket universe, appears.

Should your feet be so sore in a dream? Should you feel your shoe rubbing like that? If you wake up and there’s an actual blister on your heel, you’re going to lose your shit in such a way that it might be some time returning.

A glint catches your eye. You glance down. Around your neck is a pendant, silvery, somehow visible in the perfect dark. Hard to pick up without smearing, but you do your best. The shape of it is familiar, but your dreaming mind is having a hard time placing it. A teardrop?

No: it’s one of those friendship necklaces kids used to wear, way back in elementary school. A little metal half-heart, jagged edges. You wipe the blood-smudges off on the leg of your pants, bring it to eye level.

The ones they wore in school said BEST on one half, FRIENDS on the other. You bought one at the mall once, age twelve or so, and got good at changing the subject when the kids in your class conferred amongst themselves and deduced that whoever was wearing the other half of your necklace wasn’t any of them. (The answer to the mystery being: you brought it with you on vacation; you took it to the highest cliff; you kissed it once for luck and threw it in the sea.) (Later you’d learn about ocean pollution, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, etc. and be spiked with guilt, but in the moment you’d been thinking about messages in bottles, not that you thought there was a shore on this earth where your gift could wash up that wasn’t wrong. If you had it to do over, maybe you would’ve learned to climb trees, hang it on a dangerously high branch, give a bird a bit of gleaming for their nest. Or get rich and have it launched into space.)

Here, now, you only have the half of this one. It says LOOK. You turn it over. The other side says DOWN.

You look down.

At your feet is a drop of blood. As you stare at it, another falls from your fingers, lands as a solid object as if flash-frozen with contact with the ground. Like the necklace, these drops glow with their own light. Drawing your eyes to another a few feet away, and another, and another.

You follow the path of them back with your eyes, back through the suggestion of the vanished trees. A nonsense constellation, vast and winding, red on black. A landing strip. A beacon.

A breadcrumb trail, you think, and at that moment, way way off in the distance, the farthest red dot vanishes, returns. Then another. Another. They’re blinking off and on in a rolling wave, coming in from the distance.

No. Not blinking. Being eclipsed as something passes over them on its way out of the dark along the path you’ve made. And then you’re calling out, you’re jumping up and down and waving your arms like an idiot, you’re wringing your hands together, squeezing blood from the mess of your fingers, throwing it away into the night, and it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt at all.

The thought reaches you that this, what is happening right now, this invisible thing reeling itself in along the path of your blood to discover the rest of you standing there chumming the waters like Horror Movie Extra #4, makes this, definitionally, a nightmare. Except the only thing your heart has room for, at this moment, there in the dark, is triumph.

Because you may have forgotten a lot of things, but you remember dreams like this. One of you lost, one of you seeking. Both of you doing everything in your power to close that distance, no matter what stands in the way, or the cost of that closing.

So no. You’re not afraid. Your dreams have always been full of monsters, after all. The other not least of them. You yourself not least of them.

But then again, so’s the world you’ll wake into.

Before whatever it is reaches you, you do.

Processing this one takes a while. It’s a good thing you don’t have anywhere you have to be. You lie there, taking inventory. Your fingers hurt, but that’s because you woke up clenching them, little half-moons on your palm where you’ve bloodied your nails. Your feet hurt, but that’s because your clearance-rack shoes are half a size too small, and the blisters never do quite heal. Your chest hurts, but that’s just sadness, which has been your baseline standard operating procedure for longer than the college kids upstairs have been alive.

You know how a plot arc is supposed to play out, and that the deepest most rock-bottom pit of your desperation is the moment you’re most likely to rage-punch a wall and see some otherworldly light shine through. But it wouldn’t be the first fist you’ve put through your drywall trying, or the first fracture you’d sustained.

Instead, for about an hour you replay the dream, wondering what you missed, what you did wrong. Should you have called out earlier to the thing in the dark? Would the dream have ended differently if you had?

Would’ve gotten eaten, you mutter to yourself, but halfheartedly. Whatever kind of thing they are under that human-shaped glamour, the other has never, ever harmed you. The other has in fact singlehandedly atomized fields of enemies into fine red mist to protect you. As you would do for them. As you have in fact been doing for each other since you were ten. Apparently.

You don’t remember.

You are that exact moment years old when it hits you like a cartoon piano that you are at a crossroads where you can either spiral or uncurl. Drill down and down until you’re a bottomless pit, falling into the singularity of yourself forever; or aim your will upward, outward, an arrow loosed. For all you know, the other also wakes somewhere with their hands clenched on nothing, dreams turning to dead leaves in their pockets, in a rage of loss. Perhaps they’re the one who’s been trapped all along, waiting for you to get your shit together, and the main thing among all the things you’ve forgotten is that it’s your turn to be rescuing them. Failing that, the least you could do is try to get a message out in the meantime: I’m here, I haven’t given up, I’m trying.

What carries a flame could burn itself to the ground, all too easily. Or be a lighthouse. A beacon in the dark. Even if nothing ever, in the long night of your vigil, signals back.

Your shitty studio apartment can’t contain you right now, not with this thing in your head. You need open air. Space. Perhaps a nice snowbank to roll in if this is the day you finally spontaneously combust, the full force of a lifetime of frustrated longing surging out of you all at once and nuking everything within a ten-foot radius of your heart. But it’s June, and there are no snowbanks to hand. You carry yourself outside anyway, barefoot and not nearly mindful enough of whatever bottles have been smashed against the sidewalk in the night, even odds whether a.) you walk back in and make some coffee and have yourself a day, or b.) the sky just opens up and fucking swallows you.

Nobody’s around, so you pace a little  along the little stretch of sidewalk that fronts your building, which you know from long experience measures thirty-two steps and turn. Bracketing this circuit are: the front bumper of your third-floor neighbor’s beater and the lone spindly sidewalk tree on your side of the block.

You stop beneath the tree, gaze up through the branches. The sky’s too blue here. The air smells wrong. It’s not that it’s never summer where you’ve been, just not summer of this car-exhaust-and-ninety-eight-percent-humidity varietal. Someone’s doing laundry nearby, some kind of dryer sheets with a paint-swatch name like windswept meadow or eternal twilight or friendship stronger than death. You’re a radio dial caught between stations, playing static. You’re a piece of wet tracing paper pressed against the pane of the world, sliding down in slow motion like a cartoon villain hurled into a wall, coming desynced from the pavement against your bare soles, the sun on your skin, the very breath you nock, draw, release into that wrong-color sky. You’re mixing too many metaphors, which is how you know it’s bad. Something—your heart, your sanity, the curvature of spacetime around you—has got to go.

When none of these draw the short straw, you turn—and something’s under your heel. Some wetness. Blood. You’ve stepped on the remnants of someone’s drunken ramble from bar to convenience store to walk-up. But it doesn’t hurt, and you’re not dreaming. Probably.

One hand on the tree guard for balance, you lift your right instep to your left knee. There, on your heel, in the exact spot your foot began to blister in the dream, the exact color of the blood drops you scattered there, is a mulberry, smashed flat against a patch of callus.

Mulberry down! you murmur at it, faintly unhinged on coincidence and lack of morning caffeine. Thinking of, you don’t know, war movies probably, that dynamic that has always felt so terribly, painfully familiar, even if you have to ignore all the military-industrial complex American nationalism fuckery that attends it. Once you manage that, though, memories bob to the surface uninvited and by the end credits you look like someone’s been standing behind your couch slicing onions at you invisibly. But you’ve gone to battle with the other, stood back-to-back with them amidst a sea of enemies, died in their arms, had them die in yours, carried and been carried from the field, etc. too many times for depictions of similar not to slide all too easily between your ribs, a dagger if not quite a key.

Mulberry down, you find you are whispering again, absently, as you smudge at the stain with a thumb. Thinking back to the time when the other was crushed like this, stomped into paste by a monster you’d been tasked to hunt together, the pair-bonded unit of you stalking the drag trail of its bulk across the dawnward side of a moraine. They’d shoved you sideways, taken a killing swipe with your name on it—tail, claw, pseudopod, you can’t remember, the thing was morphing as you fought it, shimmering like mirage from form to form—stood stunned, rocked hard by the blow, managed to turn just enough to verify that you were safe, and were summarily pulped into the scree. Their blood on your hands had been so dark red as to verge on black, shot through with threads of silver. The thin air of the morning so cold your tears froze in your lashes and never fell. You’d screamed at the monster to come back and finish what it started. Smash your bones into the other’s until future archaeologists, coming upon this place, would be hard pressed to differentiate the shards of them. Let your blood and theirs swirl together, the bright red and the blackish, and run as one stream into the earth. But it had lumbered off into the day, even once you’d surged to your feet and followed, not so much as pausing amid the rain of rocks you were hurling at its retreating mass to assess your worth as enemy or even annoyance.

That thumb’s smudging on autopilot now, though your foot’s as clean as it’s going to get, and the irony of your persistent rubbing creating a sore spot exactly where that dream-blister was is not lost on you. Time to remove yourself from the situation. Go inside and be a person. This sidewalk is filthy anyway. You’re going to step on a broken bottle for real and get a hideous infection you can’t afford. March yourself inside and take a shower. No. Put some coffee on to brew while you take a shower. That’s better.

Mulberry down! turns out to be an earworm with real sticking power. It rattles around in there all through the shower, the coffee, the couple of handfuls of dry half-price cornflakes you force down your throat. It’s still there later, the comet-tail of it streaming behind you as you pace the long wall of your studio (eleven steps and turn), an order of magnitude too keyed up to read or game or lie in bed waiting for the ceiling to iris open and admit you, three of your chiefest pastimes. By the time the sun drops behind the house across the street, darkening your lone window and casting your path in shadow, you’re still pacing, mulberry down! has pointblank refused to vacate your brain, and you have no idea why beyond that it is Reminiscent, if obliquely, and sometimes (often) (always) that’s enough.

That night, you dream you’re back on the moraine, frostbit and sun-blinded, and the blood is old on the ground, though the corpse of the other has despawned, been borne away, or gotten up and left. What remains is glossy black as tar, and the silver threads have all coagulated or condensed or something, each spiraling in on itself, so that when you peer down into that improbable glimmering stain, it’s lousy with miniature galaxies the color of lightning, the color of trees in a dream.

When you wake, the first thing you do is just enough work that you can cross today out on the calendar in green pen instead of red. The next thing you do is stop at the art store on your way home and splurge on a sketchbook so big they don’t have a bag that’ll fit it, you have to carry it under your arm. The thing you do after that is sit down at your desk with your new sketchbook and your coffee and an actual goddamn sandwich this time.

And that’s when the real work begins.

You haven’t drawn anything more elaborate than a stick figure since high school art, haven’t written anything more creative than a social media post since high school English. The idea of trying to put any of this onto paper, pin it down like some kind of specimen against the board of this world, feels like trying to puke up something bigger than your whole self. But the idea of not trying feels more or less the same, and you’ve been doing that for the most part of your life. A new approach, then. A new ingress. Crowbar if not key. It’s time.

A path, you think, remembering the blood drops you scattered. A door, you think, remembering the one you cut into the wall with the blood on your fingers. A friend, you think, remembering how remembering everything you’ve ever done in the service of this possibility is itself impossible, because to do that would be to itemize and inventory every squeeze of your heart, every rise and fall of your chest, every step you have ever paced, every tear you have ever wept, every star and candle and dandelion fluff on which you’ve ever wished, every object you have ever struck out at in impotent rage and gone unanswered.

 You have no idea what the finished object will look like, if you ever produce any finished object to look like anything. What’s got its teeth in you right now is idea/compulsion in an easy 20/80 split, some kind of misplaced adrenaline dump that has you snapping pencils in half by accident because your force output is keyed up to somewhere less arts and crafts and more lifting red-hot girders off a fallen loved one in a burning warehouse but if your loved one’s trapped in a burning warehouse somewhere you can’t see it, you don’t know about it, which is the entire fucking problem.

Okay. Take a breath. A title. Surely you can manage that much.

mulberry down!! (a memoir)

mulberry down!! (an autobiography)

mulberry down!! (an instruction manual) (a cautionary tale) (an epitaph) (a eulogy)

mulberry down!! (an anthem) (a breadcrumb trail) (a love letter)

mulberry down!! (not one single fucking word of this is a metaphor)

mulberry down!! (a true story)

mulberry down!! (an argument) (an offering)

mulberry down!! (an apology)

Six hours of increasingly caffeinated eleven-steps-and-turn later, what starts to come out of you first is a drawing. It looks like ass, but that’s to be expected. Part of it is due to how you should’ve sprung for actual sketching pencils and a good eraser, instead of using some previous resident’s mechanical pencil you found under the baseboard a few months back because you just broke all the old yellow #2s that have been traveling with you from apartment to apartment since high school for some reason, but most of it is you.

Its title, lettered in at the top of the page, is Hypothesis: You Are Remembering a Past Life. It’s a reliquary, and what it contains is fragments of the bones of dreams: each represented by a scene, a still frame from a scene, even a single image. The idea is for the relics to be recognizable. This hypothesis has always posited that the other and yourself are a braid that’s come unraveled, a movie running on an audio delay, an echo before the call, and that if you put these images out there, some kind of message in a bottle, some kind of distress beacon, then maybe once you’re dead they’ll find them, they’ll know that whatever grief and anger and bereavement they tread like water, no matter how intolerable their exhaustion, you’ve left a light burning on the horizon, and you’ll keep it lit across a thousand thousand lives if that’s what it takes to guide them home.

So you sketch the walled orchard, the fallen maze, the monster on the moraine. The path of blood among the trees. The shards of the distant city, gleaming like a stomped bottle in a streetlight, unreachable til you arrive. All of this takes forever, a kind of draw-erase-google for references-rinse-repeat situation, and by the time you get those five lousy things on paper, vaguely rendered and much-blurred with eraser scrubbing as they are, it’s morning and the only reason your bladder hasn’t quite exploded yet is that you haven’t had any water since what you poured into the coffee pot at lunchtime, which probably doesn’t in good conscience really count. You get up, stretch your back so that your spine goes off like a string of firecrackers, top to bottom. Then you pee, splash your face in the sink, drink two consecutive glasses of actual water, put on more coffee, go back to work.

Over the next three weeks you sketch:

—the bridge that you and the other were once tasked to hold against a band of assassins attempting to enter the city along the high road through the woods, and nearly succeeded

—the stained-glass knife of a building on the edge of whose roof you stood, hand in hand, your head on the other’s shoulder, their cheek against your hair, and waited for the sun to break the horizon, at which point you’d be pushed

—the beach of smooth stones you paced together, gathering flotsam, wreckage, driftwood, and over the course of a twenty-minute dream that lasted months, built yourselves a house whose stilts were higher than the tide, whose walls were stronger than the wind, whose locks were cleverer than whatever hunted you across the hills, keening in its scratched-plate voice every time you glanced away

—the other house, this one ancient and ramshackle, at the edge of a still black disc of pond, where you arranged some old bones in a dusty bed and then set the place on fire to fake your deaths and ran

—the cave where you took refuge from a storm and discovered, buried in the snow, a cache of treasure which might buy your freedom, but there was not enough for both of you, so instead you curled into each other and froze to death amid an arrangement of gold coins, a final fuck-you to your enemies

—the meadow full of fireflies where you lay staring up into the night and were at peace

—the stand of trees amid which you buried their corpse. The pyre on which you burned it. The well down which you hid it from their enemies. The crows to which you fed it, once, so that the other would be borne off one morsel at a time in every conceivable direction and never again reassembled and turned against you

—the pair of boots you scavenged from a roadside corpse and split between you, for the road was long before you and behind, and you were each other’s crutches as you limped bloodfoot down it, endlessly

—the locket they gave you. The sword they gave you. The helmet of greengold beads they gave you, stained with old gore, which looked too small, yet fit you perfectly

—the knife you gave them. The throat you gave them. The cut they could have made to save themselves, and refused.

The image is a chaos, a jumble that reaches every edge of the page, even as tinily as you’ve penciled all its elements. They overlap each other, palimpsest over each other, are hazy with your smudgy hand and your shitty eraser and the odd fallen tear.

When every square millimeter of your 24 x 36 page is filled and more than filled, you sit back and look at it. Then you stand up and look at it. Then you prop the sketchbook up against the wall and take a few steps back and look at it. Only when you start having a hard time catching your breath do you realize how tight your arms are folded, like your heart is a runaway detonation you’re trying to contain.

Neither of you appears on the page anywhere. Rather, it’s a series of landmarks. A breadcrumb trail. A map. The labyrinth and the guttering lamp you carry through it, both. And at the same time it’s a declaration, a flag planted, a line drawn. Also a celebration of the best thing that ever happened to you, the monument you erect over its ashes, the incantation with which you coax it through the dark toward resurrection.

Still, across the years you can still hear your high school art teacher telling you your picture lacks a focal point. And once, across more years, your message in a bottle fetches up on whatever far shore, clinking gently against the other’s foot, they might have an easier time picturing you if they had any idea what you looked like. So all at once, before you have a chance to think better of it, you cross the room. Flatten the sketchbook on the desk. In the center of the page, overlapping everything that confluences there, you draw. Darker and less careful than the rest, pencil held like you’d hold a pocketknife carving initials into a tree, bearing down like you could cut a door in it by main force if nothing else, you draw.

Problem is, you’re not any better at it than you have been for the past half-month or so. And there’s nothing really all that distinctive about you physically. If this were a movie, you’d have some kind of improbable birthmark or mole or spray of freckles that would pick you out of a lineup at a glance. A symbol of arcane significance, baked into your own skin, with your own skin’s pigmentation, there for all eyes to see from the moment that skin touched air, would flag you as Chosen One material to anyone who’s so much as breathed near a book in their life.

Instead, here’s you: height just north of average; build a bit weird but nothing you’re capable of capturing with your pencil; DIY haircut; chewed nails; could really do with some moisturizer. And here’s the other: all heights, all builds, none of either. Brown eyes, gray eyes, hazel, blue, green. Set into a face that never repeats. Nothing that distinguishes them is artable, at least not at your skill level, at least not in this medium. You don’t even know how you’d begin to presume to capture the feel of them at your shoulder, the smell they carry on their clothes, the way their presence suffuses your blood and breath, the way their shadow lies palpably against yours. The licked-socket jolt of their touch.

Hence this haste. You’re trying to tap into some kind of stream-of-consciousness miracle that bypasses or outruns the gatekeeper in your head, capture the two of you on this page with an accuracy that transcends your actual capabilities.

When after either a few seconds or forever you wince down at what you’ve done, what’s staring back at you is the exact jumbled mess you honestly should’ve expected. There’s the scribbled insinuation of two figures, rendered with all the artistic nuance of a toddler crayoning a wall. You’d meant to pose these figures back-to-back, representing your unified front against all the trials arrayed around you, but at some point your pencil disobeyed: they’re facing each other, the taller figure has the shorter one’s shoulders in its hands, the shorter one is just standing there like it’s taken a shot from a bolt gun to the frontal lobe and is being held bodily upright, and their foreheads are pressed together and the shorter one is crying, or else you’ve just scribbled some extra marks on its face, and you can’t really see which one it is so great right now because you can remember the feel of those hands on your shoulders, that skull pressed against yours, the forcefield of calm that this proximity activates and which the whole fucking world bounces off of, and where the absence of those things touches you, you burn.

It shouldn’t hurt, you declare out loud, like the situation might be defused by sheer insistence. There’s nothing there. You cross your arms to set your own hands on your shoulders, where this stupid pain persists beyond all reason, and you know. It’s because there’s nothing there that it hurts. It’s the aftermath of an amputation. Sometimes you’re the body, sometimes the limb, sometimes the blade. Each agonizes equally.

A NON-EXHAUSTIVE LIST OF POPULAR TROPES YOU FUCKING HATE, PART FOUR:

  1. The one that posits that an Elsewhere is a stopgap for a normal life, rather than the other way around
  2. The one that posits that a haunting is a stopgap for a normal relationship, rather than the other way around
  3. The one that posits that belonging is a state that can be negotiated in the shadow of a locked door; that fitting in, that passing among, is any kind of adequate replacement for returning
  4. The one that posits that the above are simply symptoms of depression, rather than its cause
  5. The one that posits that the only viable solution is to come to terms with the thing lost, to make one’s peace with the writing-off of it, to drop the rusted relic of it and walk on blissfully unburdened, shallower footsteps in the mud of this world

All next week you work extra, and the next, and the next. You find a $20 yard sale printer/scanner combo thing, which you hook up to your laptop and use to print out an art store coupon. Armed with that you buy some decent pencils, the smallest set of extremely pricey art markers in the store, an actual goddamn functioning eraser. You do some more googling and make yourself an extremely janky-looking website. You watch art tutorials deep into the night until you fall asleep at your desk, where you do not dream. The chop-wood-carry-water of this routine is attended by a sense of progression if not peace. If asked and answered honestly, you’d say that with each passing day you feel less like a person and more like a shot fired. A series of snapshots tracing a trajectory. A sword sworn in service to an improbability. A rock jammed in a closing door.

On this path you wear through months like shoes. Slowly, slowly, you learn.

This looks like you.

It’s drinks night with your friend again. It’s early autumn now, almost too cold for outdoor seating, and what you flick your first drops to is an overlay of fallen leaves, already damp from a light rain that moved off to the south a couple hours ago, rendering the evening light syrupy and strange in its wake. You’re wiping your fingers on the leg of your jeans when your friend holds their phone out at you. Wait. You’re telling me you made this?

You’re the one who showed it to them, and yet here’s your idiot heart pounding. Obediently, you look at the seventh issue or volume or page or installment or whatever (seeing as you barely interact with anyone, you haven’t yet been forced to land on quite what to call these) of mulberry down!! It’s the one about the phase you went through in your teens, which maybe 88% of the time you can convince yourself you’ve outgrown at some point since, which probably looked (then, and looks now) a great deal like ideation but was, if anything, its opposite. The one where you asked—dared, really—your situation to put its money where its mouth was, giving ultimatums to nothing with any capacity—probably—to respond.

What you’re looking at on your friend’s phone is a tiny you, standing in front of a crosswalk during rush hour (the cars were a bitch to draw, but the implied speed of them gave you a nice excuse to blur the hell out of the outlines). Tiny you is standing there, eyes shut, one foot raised, about to walk forward into forever. The caption is Sometimes you wonder just how far the scope of their protection extends. Your friend swipes to the next panel, and the yellow diamond roadside NO SHOULDER sign shimmers and changes and some letters fade out and some new letters come in and suddenly it’s YOU SHOULD. Swipe again and here’s tiny you, silent and serene before thirty onrushing tons of semi truck, as something just behind your right shoulder flickers. Next panels—swipe, swipe, swipe—and, three feet from rendering you into paste, instead of doing that the semi is bouncing off of flat nothing, sailing through the air, embedding its cab in the tenth story of a high-rise. Tiny you, shimmering a little around the edges, walks on.

Your friend is eyeing you with more concern than you’d like, less concern than you deserve. Are you okay?

Are you okay. You haven’t been okay since you were ten.

You go extremely still, so that your friend might not perceive the burning weight this question lays upon your head. You balance it in careful silence, smiling.

This little guy should be a smear on the road right now, you say lightly. This is optimism. You watch TV way the fuck grimmer than this. This is puppies and rainbows compared to—

The scope of whose protection?

The sip you take is stalling. So’s the next one. Should’ve upped your deflection game. Or made less shrewd drinking pals. Thwarted in your weaseling, you sigh.

This person’s, kind of, long-lost best friend.

Kind of?

It’s hard to explain. Like best friend, but…more so.

Like a soulmate?

I mean. Another sip. Not in that sense, but—

What sense?

You know. The romantic movie, happily-ever-after sense. They’re friends, but they’re not “just friends,” actual airquotes, they’re way more than friends, and… You trail off. You are bombing this. You are bombing this hard. I don’t think there’s a word for what they are.

Where even is the other one in this? It’s invisible? Some kind of forcefield that protects this one?

Another sip, while your friend and their single raised eyebrow wait you out. These interrogations are great for your liver. Character-building. What doesn’t kill you, etc.

They protect each other. They have for a long, long time. This one’s not invisible, not really. They just live…somewhere else.

They visit to watch out for this one? Like a…helpful ghost?

It changes in each story. But yeah. They watch out for each other. That’s their whole thing. It’s just hard for them to do that when they’re far apart. They can visit each other’s worlds, sort of? But it’s hard. It’s like, okay. It’s like…if you used to be a mermaid? And you could breathe water? But then you were kicked out of the ocean onto land?

Yeah, your friend says, mouth quirked. I’ve seen that movie.

Right. But in this story you’re kicked out. You don’t choose to leave. At least you don’t think you do. Honestly you don’t remember.

They’re just watching you. At some point at the last five minutes you’ve gone sailing past the point of no return here. Your window of opportunity for you-should-see-your-face! brushing it off has not only slammed shut but been shattered, the shards swept together, doused in accelerant, and had a lit match tossed on.

Still, your friend isn’t laughing at you. Nor have they done whatever phone-poking would summon men with giant nets to bear you away. That’s something. Perhaps, against all odds, you’re successfully passing as a Creative Eccentric. This ought to buy you some leeway.

So, you say, here you are on land, having to figure out how to make a life there, but you still remember how to swim and breathe water, you try for a long time to forget how to do those, to learn how to walk on land and breathe air, and after a while you figure it out but it never comes naturally, you’re limping and wheezing and nothing goes right. But you’ve spent too long trying, you can’t find your way back to the ocean, at least not usually and not for long, and the person you care about most in all the world is still down there, and they can’t find their way out to you on land, at least not usually and not for long, but sometimes—sometimes—

Your friend is looking at you in some discomfort. To think you hadn’t even gotten into the part where it might look like this hypothetical has-been mermaid spends a lot of time facedown in a bathtub playing chicken with death, but it’s not what it looks like, because­—

Here’s the thing. I did read the other ones. That’s why I’m here asking. I don’t want to find out someday that.

You watch your friend try on and discard various ends to that sentence, all of which are simply nuanced variations on that you’ve stepped into the path of a semi just to see if it would bounce.

That I could have helped you, they say. And didn’t know.

You try to laugh this off. It is laughable, though not in any way that reflects on them or anyone but yourself. Not like it’s their fault that your heart is a tumor made of gnashing teeth, and any human person life you might have had is food for it, full stop. All innocence, you say: Helped me with what?

You tell me. Because I’ve read every page of this, and this character who looks suspiciously like you is always in some kind of really horrible fucking danger, usually because you’re throwing yourself headfirst into it. Deliberately.

You find you have very little to say to that, so you say nothing. Pointing out how your friend’s description of the character is changing mid-accusation from “this character” to “you” probably won’t get you far. There’s some poking at the phone and then another picture in your face.

Here, where this person is having this nightmare where they’re being tortured, literally strapped to a chair next to this faceless person and tortured, and then they realize they’re just dreaming, and you almost wake up to escape it but you choose to stay and get your whole face fucked up. What the hell.

You’re changing it from “this person” to “you” again, you do not say. It’s just a story, you do not say. I couldn’t leave them there to face it alone, you do not say. Not again.

You also don’t mention how staying in that dream was one of the hardest, bravest, most painful things you’ve ever done. You don’t describe what it felt like to bend your nails backward holding yourself to that chair while your whole mind tried to drag you out of it. To spit your teeth in the face of everyone who tried to harm the only thing you’ve ever truly loved. To reach across to the chair beside you and take the other’s hand and try to project across that gap, with every inadequate molecule of your being, that whatever you face, now and always, you face together.

They weren’t “just” dreaming, you do not say. The curvature of their life around the dreaming is the “just.”

Across the table, your friend is saying something.

What I need you to know is. To understand is. No matter what. That I’m here for you. I can’t bounce a fucking truck out of your path, but if you have a street you need to cross, I will stand with you and we will wait for the light to change and we will walk across together. Okay?

There’s a beat of silence, during which you ponder the unlikelihood of your having collected friends to you, here on the wrong side of the veil, and how your having them will never solve anything, not even a little bit, because yours is not that kind of story, but how the ill-fitting cozy sweater of their love is no less warm for not being quite your size. The least—the barest sorriest upfucked minimum of least you can do is not insult it by treating it like the stopgap or bandage that it cannot help but be.

I just started learning how to draw back in the summer, you make yourself say, because anything else that comes out of your mouth right now will sound a lot more assholish than you mean it to. This is truth, at least, if not a complete one. As is: I use myself as a reference because I have no idea what I’m doing.

And you smile. It’s a very specific, very bright, very practiced smile, and your friend’s seen it before, even if they didn’t recognize it for what it was, don’t now for what it is. It’s your I’m okay, really! smile, and what it is at its essence is a broom which you use to sweep the whole truth of your heart under the proverbial rug, where it makes a shape that people take for trauma: difficult to discover, easy as hell to categorize. But nothing’s ever happened to you to make you what you are. Nothing like what they expect to find upon scratching the surface of your weird. Whatever this is that ails and abets you—memory and haunting, buoy and ballast, blessing and curse—it fell on you all at once, an anvil out of a clear blue sky. It’s not a symptom or a red flag or a coping mechanism. It doesn’t point toward a tragic backstory. It’s the inciting fucking event.

Your friend doesn’t buy the smile, almost definitely, but you can practically hear the wheels turning. They’ve seen it countless times by now, after all, and you’re still here in one piece. They eye you with deep misgivings but put the phone away. You should put a tip jar on the site, they say, instead of everything they both clearly and understandably want to. You put a lot of work into this. Get some of that webcomics money. Hell, put some merch together. I can help you with the shop.

Now, you’re not exactly an expert, but you’re not sure to what extent that webcomics money is really a thing that exists in a collective reality (the irony of which thought is not lost on you). And even if it was, the concept of putting some merch together is making you break out in hives. Not that you’re going to say anything to draw attention away from their objectively totally valid suggestion and toward, perhaps, the fact that your friend just finished showing you the seventh update, which strongly implies that they’ve also seen all six before it, including but not limited to:

Runaway, in which a child, age twelve or so, is found by concerned parents with flashlights in the scraggle of woods behind their suburban home one midnight, having slipped out a bedroom window in their pajamas one summer evening after lights-out; they are discovered with bloodied feet but otherwise uninjured; they’ve obviously been crying but they’re tightlipped as to why. This panel mirrors its obverse, in which the child is older, perhaps sixteen, standing before that same bedroom window in the same dark, minus pajamas this time, plus shoes and jeans, plus backpack and bus ticket, like they lived in the kind of movie where they could simply wash up somewhere and snap into the landscape, seamlessly, as foretold in some kind of Act One prophecy. Like there’s a bus on earth that can get them one nanometer closer to where they need to go

Bury a Friend, in which the same character, a little older still, twentyish maybe? is tossing a sequence of objects into a backyard trashcan fire. Whatever’s in the can is obscured by flames (which turned out looking pretty damn nice actually, surprising no-one more thoroughly than yourself), but there’s still a bunch of stuff scattered in the grass around the figure’s feet, and among what you can make out are: a stack of books, each labeled DREAM JOURNAL in handwriting that gets progressively less childish as the stack ascends; a smattering of junkshop-looking relics (a stained helmet or crown woven of greengold beads; a rotten-looking backpack; a dented compass and a much-worn map, with holes at all the creases; a coat more patched than whole; a tarnished old dagger, etched with symbols too grimy to make out, and which will by no means burn; a ring of rusty keys, which ditto); one half of a best-friends necklace, the other half of which is nowhere in evidence. In the character’s hands is a framed image. If you zoom in to the picture and tilt your head a little you can just about make out how it’s a drawing of two figures standing under an ancient tree covered in heavy fruits that might be wrong-colored apples, and the taller one is holding the shorter one by the shoulders, gazing at them in some concern, and if you squint at the branches of the tree just right, uncomfortable-looking and slightly wrong as they are, like broken fingers that didn’t heal quite clean, they start to look like letters and then words and then you don’t remember, nested among the maybe-apples like some kind of even wronger fruit. The figure is laying this drawing—tree, fruit, figures, maybe-words, and all—into the fire with a kind of reverence, though their eyes are shut and their tearstained face is in quarter-view, mostly turned away

All You Want for Your Birthday Is a Medically Induced Coma, which is a page split into eight panels, across which an increasingly aged character lies unmoving in a hospital bed, from childhood through teens and adulthood into advanced old age. Character and bed are rendered in grayscale, tinily, together taking up the bottom maybe sixth of each panel. Above them, around them, in full color, as a background spanning all eight panels and binding them together the way mycelium binds a rotten log, the figure dreams of a broken city, a distant thundercloud of forest, a sky the color of a fresh hematoma forming under pale skin, a black river and the rocky shore of a silver sea. From either end of that landscape, two figures walk toward each other. The lay of the land suggests that they can’t yet make each other out across the distance, but that very soon, they will.

That’s a good idea, you hear yourself say, and it’s probably true. I never would have thought of it, definitely true. I’ll give it a try. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen.

Now it’s your friend’s turn to smile, and their smile is infinitely both different from yours and more than you probably deserve. There’s more poking at the phone. They’ve got a sudden conspiracy-of-one aura about them that raises every hair on your arms.

What are you doing?

Linking this to my followers.

What.

No, listen—stop grabbing my phone and listen. Obviously if you genuinely want to keep it private, tell me and I won’t show anyone. It’s your project and I respect your intent. But honestly I see two outcomes here. One. Some people read this thing, and some of them like it, and some of those maybe toss a couple bucks your way so you can buy the fancy ramen on occasion. Maybe even put some actual vegetables in it. Stave off scurvy another day.

You open your mouth to protest that that’s what multivitamins are for, and then you remember you ran out of those six months ago at a deeply conservative estimate. Under the weight of both raised eyebrows now, you shut up.

Two. I’m not going to insult you by saying that your comic reads like a cry for help, exactly, but it does genuinely feel like you’re trying to—hm.

A pause, which you fill with a sip, to fortify yourself against whatever’s coming. Like I’m finally trying to learn a new skill? Look, mom, I’m doing art! you say, but they don’t take the bait.

Like you’re looking for a very specific type of audience, they say at last. Someone who understands what you’re saying in the way you intend it. This clearly means something to you on a level I’m not picking up on. It feels like you’re broadcasting some kind of code I can’t decrypt at a frequency I can’t hear. So option two: it goes out into the world and it finds people who can hear it, and maybe to some of them it doesn’t look like code at all. And maybe that gets you some kind of result that I can’t give you and you can’t achieve on your own. I don’t know. But what have you got to lose? Worst case, nobody sees it, you go about your life, get better at your new skill. Make a thing that pleases you to make. And that’s not so bad at all. You clearly didn’t get into this looking for fame and fortune. I mean. It took you how long to even show me.

 Whatever argument you’d expected to have miraculously sprung ready-made to the tip of your tongue when you open your mouth, it takes its sweet time arriving. Eventually you give up. You don’t know how to explain in any reasonable way that this thing they are about to blithely lay before the gaze of total strangers is the thorn around which the pearl of your entire life has formed.

Except—reviewing their speech in your head—they’ve probably figured that out already. And their desire to help seems to exist independent of any need to pry for details. And maybe they’re right. Maybe there are people out there, other exiles from other elsewheres, treading the water of a stopgap life, awaiting the signal flare or beacon of someone who understands.

Maybe that someone could be you.

It’s not what you set out to do, but as side quests go, you could do worse.

Okay, you say.

Your friend sits up a little straighter. Okay?

Okay. It’s pushed out fast, before you can bite it back. Once it’s been said, you think you might feel different. But you don’t. You’re still a shot fired, a homing missile, a dowsing rod, a key. But whatever this new chapter makes of you, maybe there’s room in you to be that too.

Meantime, you walk out into the night and the stars look like pills in the fabric of the universe, like perforations along which a gap might conceivably be torn. By sheer force of will you’ve kept your face together for the past hour, a facade so watertight you almost had yourself convinced, but you’re alone now so here’s the grief right on schedule, blindsiding you out of nowhere, out of everywhere, backhanding you into a wall and mantling your slumped carcass like a crow. Congrats, you’re crying again.

Smeared, the stars look less like anything. You pause there, staring up, and you’re a sinkhole and the person standing on it and the abyss beneath, and if you don’t remember everything, you by all that’s fucking holy remember just enough to twist the blade. The same of any life.

That night you dream a dream that you’ve revisited and had revisited upon you for over two decades. You are walking down a road so straight and long its vanishing point looks like eternity. Less a road than a path, really: a trail carving a narrow gash through forest so deep that to turn to the side is to stare into a blackness that might’ve been painted on, if it weren’t for the distant glints that could be eyes. So you walk, eyes forward, and nothing leaps for your throat out of the dark.

You’ve just appeared there, but exhaustion crushes you like a can in a fist. Your shoes are wrecked; your feet are blisters upon blisters; you walk on, as you have walked for countless miles before this. This dream, this place, is a thing you carry: a burden or a flame. Waking, you will not put it down. Some part of you walks there, has walked there, always. An arrow loosed, caught midflight, frame by frame, into oblivion.

 Far off, past that vanishing point and out of sight, so far off you’re not sure you’re hearing it at all, something’s calling you, faintly and by name.

Your shoes will disintegrate to nothing by the time you reach it. Your feet will wear to slips of bloodied bone. A lifetime may not be enough. Perhaps several have already proven insufficient. Perhaps the place you think you’re headed toward can’t be reached this way, on your poor ruined feet, at all.

For the first time in the half-minute of this dream, the first time in the twenty-plus years of this dream, you—

—stop.

The noise of your trudging subtracted, it’s like the forest’s volume dial’s been turned up. You put your head back and listen. Somewhere in the distance, crows chat and squabble. Wind thrashes the treetops but either fails or does not deign to touch the ground. You close your eyes, trying to pick out the calling voice from the ambient noise. It wisps by on the breeze, leaving you unsure which direction it’s carrying from. It’s behind you. No: beside?

Chilling your mind as it crosses is the notion that maybe you’ve been going the wrong way this whole time. Accidentally outpacing what you thought you were walking toward.

Panicked, you open your eyes—and night’s fallen. Ahead your path, bleached to bone by moonlight, unspools forever. Behind—

—it’s flecked in blood.

Your feet. Of course. This again.

You slip out of the sad tatters of your shoes and kick them aside. Bare earth hurts less than they did on your battered feet, somehow. Something’s tickling your soles. You hike an ankle to a knee to peek.

Hairs—no, tiny filaments—protrude from your foot, toes to heel. As you stare, they lengthen, swaying and twisting gently in what would absolutely be the breeze if there had been one. You lift your other foot to check for more. Weird resistance accompanies this. A sense of tugging. You tilt your arch into the light and the filaments are wreathed in fresh dirt, like pulled-up wildflower roots.

You lose some moments blinking at this. When you go to switch feet again, the resistance is stronger now, and the filaments look even more like roots than before.

You take a breath. It smells like any summer night. It smells like potential. Like the way the air pressure falls back before the prow of a storm.

Okay, you whisper to nothing and everything. Okay.

Something catches your eye. You glance over. Leaning against the trunk of a tree at the edge of the woods, there’s an axe. It’s heavy, but no heavier than regret, and so you swing it easily.

Your waking self doesn’t know how to fell a tree, how to split logs, how to frame the bases of four walls and build them up, but that’s okay because your waking self ain’t here. When your axe strikes the trunk what flies out isn’t woodchips but finished pages of paper. Each one of them is a sketch you’ve drawn, or a page of caption ideas, or a storyboard. Finished pages, aborted attempts, margin thumbnails: they drift like leaves around you to the height of your knees, so that when you gather them in a double armload they’re still deep enough that you must wade back to the path. The tree, to all appearances, is unharmed.

Further, you realize there’s no resistance from your feet now. A glance confirms: the filaments are gone. There’s still blood on your feet, you’ve been walking too long for there not to be, but those wounds will heal in time.

So you lay your pages out, end to end, in the shape of the footprint of a cabin. It’s not large. It doesn’t have to be. Just big enough for two.

Above where the pages lie, shimmering like a glitchy hologram, like heat mirage, are the ghosts of the images drawn on them. The words written. When you stack the next round of pages on top of them, their words and images project also, and after a few more layers they’ve overlapped to opacity. Experimentally, you rap the projection with your knuckles. It feels like solid wood.

Still, it’ll take a long time to stack them high enough for walls. Windows. A roof. A garden. A couple of rocking chairs for the porch, a couch to set before the fireplace.

But that’s okay. You’ve been here before. You’ll find your way again. You’ll return with glass for the windows, candles for the sills. You’ll build a door for the doorway, weave a welcome mat, paint the threshold crimson with a thousand thousand footprints. Every time you come, you’ll go to the woods and emerge with a new armload of pages. Everything you’ve posted, everything that didn’t make the cut. Every sketch and page of notes toward future updates. Every email and instant message you’ll ever reply to from every fan your work will somehow gather.

Far, far in the future, when the walls are high enough, you’ll climb up on the roof, pull the gun from your pocket, point it into the darkness and send the flare up screaming. Then you’ll climb back down, insert more pages into the walls. These will push the roof up, infinitesimally, into the dark. Next time you come, there’ll be more. Your roof will be a fraction of a millimeter higher then, your flare will arc a fraction of a fraction of a degree farther. You’ll watch each one until it fizzles out among the stars. Then you’ll climb back down, go inside, leave the door unlatched. Pour some whiskey, or maybe make some tea. Settle into your couch by the fire—one drink in your hands, one on the table—and listen, as every night you listen, as many nights as it takes, for the knock.

None of that will be an ending.

Neither will this.

***