2 + 1 = 2
by Miriam Oudin
After a year of this, Zip was only just learning how to predict when Isidore would collapse. But since Isidore was never present at the time, she could neither warn him nor ask him for advice on how best to deal with his body.
She sensed it coming now—the distant scent of ozone, a staticky buzzing in the pads of her fingers. Since she couldn’t warn Isidore himself, she tried to warn Marc.
“Incoming,” she grunted, reaching for her knapsack. She’d need either a pistol or a syringe when it happened, and she wouldn’t know which until exactly one second too late.
“Wub?” Marc’s mouth was full.
It had been a rough day, and Zip didn’t have the patience to translate things into the word-salad that was the only language Marc spoke with any fluency. “I said—”
But Zip never got the chance to repeat what she’d said, since that was the moment when Isidore crumpled face-first into Marc’s bowl of oatmeal.
A syringe, then. Zip sighed. “Hold still, you flatlining asshole.”
Zip tore the wrapper off the dispenser with her teeth as she strode to the spot immediately behind Isidore at the corrugated metal table where they gathered for meals. He had a nosebleed or something, which was slowly staining Marc’s breakfast red. Zip wrapped his sandy brown ponytail around the knuckles of her free hand and yanked his head up and out of the bowl. She left it to loll against the crook of her elbow while she reached down across his chest to pull up his sleeve. They all wore loose sleeves, these days.
“When will it ever end?” she asked Marc. But of course Marc wasn’t there any more, and he wouldn’t have been able to offer a useful answer even if he had been.
Bracing her knees against the bench, Zip rested the test-groove of the syringe against Isidore’s upper arm. The guide hummed for a moment then turned green with a cheerful double beep. She clapped her hand over the whole device, too twitchy to use her thumbnail to search for the tiny dispense button.
A click, no louder than an auntie’s disapproving tsk, and the syringe emptied itself. Isidore gasped, then started coughing convulsively. Zip took a step backward, feeling an urgent need to put some space between them while he recovered. She leaned heavily against the cinderblock wall of their claustrophobic little kitchen, which doubled as their claustrophobic little living room, and their claustrophobic little study, and their claustrophobic little infirmary. The maximum occupancy of the apartment they’d been assigned was officially four people, but it was hard to make space even for two.
Isidore, still coughing, wiped his face with his sleeve, then stared incredulously at the rust-coloured sludge that the blood and oatmeal left on the cloth. “I guess I fucked up,” he croaked. “Sorry.”
“Idiot.” She wanted her voice to register righteous outrage, but it was a little too high-pitched and shaky for that.
Isidore planted his hands on the table and hauled himself to a stand. Gingerly he lifted one leg, then the other, to free himself from the bench. He leaned there crookedly for a few long moments, catching his breath.
“It wasn’t a total loss,” he said at last, turning to face her. “I made some progress on the—”
“For God’s sake, get a towel,” she said. “Your face is a trash heap.”
Slowly he ran his tongue along his upper lip, then his lower one. “It so happens,” he announced, “it tastes worse than it looks.”
Zip laughed despite herself. That sound, too, came out shakier than she had hoped. She really wished she could learn to maintain lofty control over situations like this, which were happening more and more often lately. But she felt sobs fluttering against the inside of her chest, and the space behind her eyes was burning. “It cannot possibly taste worse than you look,” she said, enunciating absurdly carefully. “It can not.”
Isidore scowled at the table. “What the fuck was Marc eating, anyway?”
“He’s started making gruel out of I don’t even know what. Gravel and brake fluid? And your blood, now, I guess. For flavour.”
“Flattering, but I really don’t need anyone else hungering for my blood right now.” Isidore grabbed a rag from the rusty bar above the sink. He sniffed it experimentally before running it under the faucet and making a couple of inefficient passes across his face with it. It helped a little, and now Zip could see that he wasn’t quite as beat up as she’d thought; just a bloodied nose, along with a bruised jaw and a thin gash across his forehead that must have been the source of most of the alarming flood of crimson. She felt bad about yanking his hair earlier.
“Not that anything is worth the shit you put us through,” she said, “but you might as well tell me what you learned.”
“I said I was sorry,” he muttered. “But yes, I found a path. It looks promising.”
“I’ll get the map.” She made a move to go but stopped when he cleared his throat.
“Mind if I get a shower first? This may come as a surprise to you, given my rosy cheeks and glowing complexion, but I don’t feel so great.”
She tensed. “We don’t know how long we’ve got.”
The breezy irony in Isidore’s expression instantly disappeared. “You think I don’t know that?” he snarled. “You think I don’t fucking measure the value of every minute I spend out of your field of vision to see if it’s worth it before even raising it as a possibility?”
“Sorry.” She really was sorry: she’d had to perform exactly the same calculus every time she needed to leave line of sight too, and she knew just how exhausting it was. “I’m a little on edge, I guess. It’s not so easy around here while you’re gone.”
“It’s nice to know that I’m so indispensable to you that I’m not even allowed to bathe.” Isidore was rarely angry; even after a dozen or a hundred or a thousand forced trips back to these shithole quarters, he tended to stay wryly detached, observing the trio’s increasingly preposterous situation as if he didn’t have to live in it. But his sarcasm had no lightness in it now, and his comically grimy face suddenly seemed grotesque and menacing. “I mean, any minute Marc might turn up, and God forbid he comes for me and gets his clothes soggy, so it’s probably best that I stay out here and let all my wounds get infected just in case he—”
“You’re sorry, I’m sorry, everybody’s sorry. Except Marc, that gruel-eating fuck.”
She was surprised by the sound of her own laughter. It had been exactly the right thing to say. Turning on Marc always relieved a bit of pressure when Zip and Isidore started to suffocate each other, no matter how little Marc actually deserved it. It only now occurred to Zip that Marc and Isidore probably turned on her while she was—
—but she couldn’t let herself think about that, not now. She tried to drown out thoughts of Else by laughing harder, but the sobs she’d been smothering pushed their way to the surface instead. She covered her face with her hands.
“Hey, hey, none of that,” Isidore said, crossing the room so he could pull her into his arms. She didn’t resist, even though he stank of blood and somebody else’s breakfast. “Shit, I’m really sorry. Look. Zipporah. I’m glad you’re here. I… I don’t think I thanked you for the boost before.”
“You’re right,” she gulped. “You didn’t.”
“You’re good to me. Even though I’m kind of a tool sometimes.”
“It’s okay. You’d’ve done the same.”
“And I’m kind of a tool too. So we’re even.”
The kiss he planted on her temple was a chaste one, but his wet skin made it feel slobbery. “I’m going to take a shower,” he said quietly.
She nodded. “Take your time.”
He smiled for the first time since he’d arrived, acknowledging how much it had cost her to say that. “I’ll be right back. Don’t, uh, don’t go anywhere.”
She shuddered at his gallows humour, but managed a little smile of her own.
The shower was running. For the moment, everything seemed cruelly normal: they could have been a couple of roommates, sharing a cheap apartment as they waited for their luck to turn around. Zip swept the garbage off the kitchen table—Marc’s tin bowl, its contents swiftly hardening, along with the used syringe and its crumpled wrapper—and unrolled the map across its surface.
The map was made of several newspaper broadsheets masking-taped together, with multiple layers of charcoal drawings superimposed. The news printed on the central pages was months old, with newer articles added around the periphery as the map was expanded. (The content of the printed pages never changed much: it was mostly just assurances that the police had everything under control, and that each fire or riot was a shocking anomaly.) Isidore’s drawings were loose and lovely, with expressive lines gesturing toward the landscape of Else. Zip’s sketches were more matter-of-fact and boxy, with important information marked on text labels rather than in pictures. Marc didn’t contribute directly, though both Zip and Isidore would sometimes try to add the things he described to the map in their own hand, like a police artist trying to capture the essence of a criminal from his victim’s frazzled description.
Zip couldn’t concentrate. Even being five yards away from Isidore brought back that sick combination of resentment and hypervigilance that characterized their lives together. She wasn’t very good at predicting Marc’s returns, and they were accompanied by a very different set of problems from Isidore’s. Marc was usually conscious, at least, meaning that she probably wouldn’t have to haul his soaking carcass out of the bathtub with a syringe clenched in her teeth. But Marc was easily confused and prone to paranoia; if he was surprised to find himself in a tiny, echoing shower stall, dark behind the curtain, scalding water striking his flesh, he would almost certainly panic. Zip was getting better at calming him down in those situations, but it took a long time and a lot of energy that she didn’t have to spare.
She had even less energy to spare than usual today, since she and Marc had had to make a supply run while Isidore was gone. As tired as Zip was of the sight of the concrete walls and metal furniture, leaving the apartment brought about even more excruciating levels of anxiety. Everything had turned out more or less all right this time; they’d scored some food and fuel, and Marc was excited about finding some weird gritty grain to make oatmeal out of. No police officers or gang members (more or less the same thing, these days) had accosted them, and Isidore did not embarrass anyone with an inconveniently timed return. But not all the adrenaline of the night before had been flushed out of Zip’s system even now.
The faucet was turned off, and Zip heard the hummy squeak of the bathroom mirror as Isidore wiped the steam off it. Marc hadn’t interrupted him in the shower, then. A tiny victory. Zip took a deep breath and tried to focus on the map so that she would have something intelligent to say about it by the time Isidore returned to the kitchen. But she couldn’t make much sense of what she was looking at; every time she recognized a landmark, it reminded her so painfully of Else that her head started to swim.
“Hey.” Isidore was wrapped in a towel that was grey from too many sink-washings. The tawny thatch of hair on his chest was interrupted by a pattern of small scars, to which a few new cuts had been added today. A greenish bruise was starting to spread across his upper arm, where Zip had slammed the syringe earlier; another one was lurking at the edge of his freshly shaven jaw. But he looked healthy enough for all that, and he was smiling. The way his loose wet hair framed his now-clean face reminded Zip how handsome he was: with his sharp features and impossibly dark eyes, he was the sort of person she would have been attracted to even if he weren’t practically the only man left in the world. They’d slept together, once, before things had gotten really bad with the sudden switches. There was no way they could do it now, what with the threat of Marc turning up at any time. (She had nightmares about that, which weren’t even the worst nightmares she had.) But she still thought about fucking Isidore, sometimes. Like now.
“Feel better?” Zip tried a smile of her own, but it betrayed her and she had to look down.
“A lot better, thanks.” He reached behind him to grab the bathrobe they all shared, which was hanging on the back of the bedroom door. “Are we okay? Are you… ready to talk about this?”
She nodded. “We’re okay, Isidore. I’m sorr—”
He shushed her before she could start another round of apologies. So she just said again, “We’re okay.”
“Good.” He wrapped himself in the bathrobe, which was a little too big for him (and much too big for her, and much too small for Marc) and joined her on the bench.
Zip inhaled, then exhaled. “I’m ready.”
“Okay.” He slid his palm across the map. “Do you remember this?”
“I remember,” she said, with effort.
She remembered. Sunshine. Ankle-deep grass, softer than fur, blindingly, hallucinatorily green. Trees whose braided trunks soared out of sight, reaching into an extravagantly blue sky. Ornate buildings of polished wood or fitted stone, their doorways inset with jewels, carved in a dozen curlicued languages she wished she knew. Rivers of clear water, crossed by swaying rope bridges, across which glittering fish occasionally leapt. Flowers as big as people, whose velvety scooped petals rewarded a lingering touch. Doors of gold or polished brass or pewter, three storeys high and as heavy as a train car, controlled by ancient systems of gears and pulleys. Rainbows blurred by mist. Faceted butterflies and shard-winged dragonflies: dammit, she even missed the insects in that place.
Isidore was watching her carefully. Sometimes, when she came back from Else and had to give him an update, his face took on the look that she must have now: haunted, starving. One nice thing about being with Marc was that he never seemed to get caught up in the loss of Else when he was here. Like a dog, he found a way to be happy wherever he was. Neither she nor Isidore had that gift.
“Are you sure you’re all—”
“Please,” she said hoarsely. “Tell me.”
He nodded, then licked his finger so that he could rub one of the charcoal smudges off the map. “Here,” he said. “We thought this wall was solid but it’s not.”
She remembered the wall with a vividness that made her reel. It was inside a massive hollowed-out tree, whose interior alone was larger than any surviving building in this ruin of a city. She remembered pressing her hands against wood and moss, breathing that heady organic smell of rot and soil. She had not spent much time inside the trees: Zip, to her immense surprise, had discovered a talent for climbing while she was in Else, and preferred to step lightly across branches high above the forest floor, or even swing from vine to vine like a monkey, to get around. It was Isidore who preferred travelling underground and inside these mysterious hypernatural structures, since seeing in the dark came naturally to him and it turned out he had a knack for finding shortcuts and hidden passages. Marc, they assumed, just stomped across Else’s surface, hacking through anything in his way—though perhaps he too had been granted surprising gifts while he was there.
Isidore was sketching a new branch of the map, which forked off from the wall that he had just erased. “Unfortunately it goes straight down. I couldn’t find a ladder and the only platforms that could support my weight were spaced pretty far apart. I tried to be careful, but I guess I must have slipped and banged my head.” His hand instinctively rose to rub his darkening jaw. “There was something waiting for me at the bottom. Actually, I think it was throwing rocks at me even before I hit the bottom.”
“Idiot,” she said, but with better humour this time.
“You’re the idiot,” he retorted mildly. But when he looked up, it wasn’t Zip he’d just insulted.
“I’m not an idiot,” said Marc, indignantly.
Let me make absolutely clear that Marc is no idiot. In fact, I sometimes wonder if he’s the wisest of all of us. I know it probably sounds like I’m trying to cover for how impossible he is with some mystical savant bullshit. But I’m telling you, he can effortlessly solve any problem that Zip and I can’t. It’s just hard to figure out what his answers are, because of let’s call it the language barrier.
“Sorry, buddy,” I said. Today was going to be a day for constant apologies, it seemed. Wouldn’t be the first. “I didn’t mean you. Welcome back.”
Unlike Zip (sometimes) and me (pretty much all the time), Marc didn’t look at all the worse for wear after his journey. Zip’s theory is that he’s the only one of us who can choose when to come back. But if that’s true, he’s never seen fit to inform us when he’s planning to do it. Or why he ever would, given the beauty of Else and the shittiness of this place. I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong. Literally the only thing worse than what we have now is what we would have if Marc were to move into Else and lock us out of it.
He extricated his massive body from the bench and began to prowl around the kitchen. I was still wearing only a bathrobe after my hard-won shower, and when Marc took his body heat to the other side of the room I suddenly became very cold.
“Where’s my soup?” he said.
I enjoyed about five seconds of blessed ignorance before realizing that he was referring to the revolting breakfast into which I had unceremoniously bled earlier today. “I, uh, finished it,” I tried to lie, but in the time it took me to work out my answer he had found the bowl and was now running his finger along its caked edge. I couldn’t look. I turned toward the cinderblock wall and rested my forehead against it, which did nothing to increase my feeling of warmth.
“Underwater,” he said, apropos of nothing. “All machinery filled with litter. I reached mostly useless out. Someone had ginger soda bottles throwing in what gave me stove knife and refrigerator door. Almost lay by the globe white stone but then I saw a square sun. Square!”
“You don’t say.” I mustn’t tune Marc out lest I miss something important about Else. But listening to him is hard, almost physical work, and my body had not quite recovered from its earlier labours.
“Spikes! Sky tables. I stained your blood, there and here. Your tunnel sliced you torn, Izzy?”
“My tunnel?” I said, perking up as I finally found a foothold in this conversation. “The one I hit my chin on earlier today?”
He dropped the bowl noisily in the sink, and its endless round-and-round clattering drowned out the first half of his answer. “… could walk along the chains dressed like this probably, but tightrope can’t suit on me. So I left it.”
“So you left it.”
“There!” he said triumphantly. He pounded the table with his fist, causing the cheap metal to echo intolerably in the tiny room. I couldn’t help but turn around to see what he was on about. He was now standing across from me, looming over the map. He started ramming his knuckles against the remains of the charcoal wall I had erased earlier today. “Down, down, down,” he chanted in time with his percussion. “Under cog, under shore, chains under shore and chains and cog under shore.”
First the metal bowl in the metal sink, and now his fist on the table: all this noise was making me jittery, so I reached out to still his hand. I forgot a millisecond too late how little he likes being touched without warning. The two-out-of-three-of-us who are here at any given time have to share a bed, and Marc’s really fucking huge, so touching him is a regular and very particular negotiation; it’s one that Zip and I have both gotten better at, but I still forget to telegraph my intentions sometimes.
He yanked his hand back as if I’d burned it, blinking hard. Even though I was mostly expecting it, his frightened expression broke my heart. And yet, another lame “Sorry” was all I could muster.
“It’s okay.” He smiled weakly, which made me feel even worse.
“I just wanted to hear what you were saying a bit better.”
“Can you tell me what you saw?”
“I told you already.”
I’d hurt Zip earlier this morning, and I was hurting Marc now; pretty stupid, given that they may well be the only people I will ever see again. I remembered how irritated I got when Zip told me she’d been having a “not so easy” day—as if that were an excuse for getting pissed off at me for getting almost killed in a fucking magic fairyland that is more beautiful than any of us can even fathom and that seems to want us all dead for some reason and that we couldn’t stay out of even if we wanted to. But were she to come back right now, wounded, God forbid, like I was this morning, well, I’d be short with her too; and were she to express her disappointment in me for being so impatient with her in her time of need, I’d probably tell her that my day was “not so easy” without her around and then I’d expect her to make allowances, and I wouldn’t even do it as gently as she did.
Jesus, I missed her. And she hadn’t even been gone fifteen minutes.
“I miss her too,” Marc said.
Wait. Had I been talking out loud?
“Sometimes I come back just because I miss you guys so much,” Marc said.
I couldn’t answer.
“Aw, don’t cry,” Marc said. And with the very same hand he’d just pulled away from me, he reached out to touch my shoulder.
And suddenly she was spooning Marc in the narrow bed they all had to share. Spooning Marc was not something she generally felt inclined to do, and by all accounts he didn’t usually like it much either. But it felt nice just at the moment—apparently for both of them, since he didn’t flinch when she arrived. It seemed sort of sweet that Isidore had been here, in this position, doing this. Had he reached for Marc deliberately? Or was he just drawn to the warm wall of Marc’s back, a familiar shape that he sought out unconsciously after a bad day?
Marc grunted softly and shifted against her. “Hi, Zip,” he murmured, before sinking again into his dreams of Else.
Marc was gone before sunrise. It was getting rarer and rarer that they could spend even one day in the same configuration without any interruptions. But Zip had managed to get a few hours’ sleep, and nobody had any nightmares, which was about as good a night as any of them could hope for.
Zip sipped some scalding brownish slurry as she stared down at the map, which nobody had bothered to remove from the kitchen table last night. She was still staring at it when Isidore came in. He was fully dressed, in a once-cream-now-grey T-shirt with a faded picture of some sort of toothy carnivore on it, and once-black-now-grey pants cinched with a belt that she suspected was once hers. They were all getting thinner, weren’t they. Their rations were getting scantier—each package lighter than the last, all still printed with “serves 4”—and their edgemarket runs were less consistently successful than they used to be. If it weren’t for the sticky purple fruits that littered the landscape in Else, they would hardly eat at all.
“Morning,” he said, padding toward the pitted aluminum saucepan in which they boiled their coffee. His voice was pitched unusually low, and his eyes were downcast.
She watched him pour. “Are you okay?”
“Are any of us?”
He walked over to stand next to her, cup in hand, and the two of them watched the map together.
“We have got to talk about this,” he finally said.
“About us?” she answered, maybe a little too quickly.
He chuckled, and for the briefest instant some of that familiar wickedness lit his eyes. “Maybe later,” he said. “But no, I meant about… that.” He gestured with his chin toward the map.
“I can’t stand it,” she confessed.
“I can’t even think about it.”
“I would rather think about anything else. Literally anything. This apartment. The war. That disgusting shit Marc’s eating.”
“Whenever I have to look at the map, I try to cross my eyes so that I can’t see the drawing. Because I’d rather reread the stupid repetitive headlines, admire the fucking photos of the heroic fucking police, than think about… anywhere else.”
Before it was a name, it was a series of questions: Have you seen something else? What if I have to go someplace else? Is he back from elsewhere yet? Even now, they couldn’t refer to it directly. “Anywhere else,” she’d said, as if there were a thousand possible places they could be talking about. Vacation destinations. Plane tickets.
“You’d even rather talk about ‘us’,” Isidore said, but the teasing was not unkind.
“I guess I would,” she said, sheepish. “But not by much.”
“You started the map, though.” It was true. The central panels were filled with her hesitant drawings and her squarish handwriting, surrounded by arrows and question marks.
“So you’re more courageous than I am. If it had been up to me, I would’ve spent the rest of forever assuming it must be totally normal for me to find myself in paradise for a while, only to turn up back here, days later, covered in blood and drunk on a memory.”
Compliments from Isidore were rare, and she permitted herself a lengthy, silent moment to bask in this one.
“And I would have spent the rest of forever also assuming,” he continued, “that it must be a giant coincidence that exactly one of my roommates would also disappear for days at a time, before returning covered in blood and drunk on a memory.”
“You’re the only one who comes back covered in blood.”
“If you say so. My point is I would never have brought it up on my own. I was sure I had lost my mind, and I wasn’t about to let you two confirm it.”
“I really think you’re the expert around here at coming back covered in blood.” She pulled up her sleeve to reveal a more or less intact upper arm; she hadn’t needed a syringe in nearly a week.
“Zip, seriously,” Isidore said, desperation roughening his voice. “We have to talk about this.”
“I’m trying.” She rolled her sleeve back down. “This… this is as close as I’ve come in months. Even in my head, I mean.”
“I’m trying to say I’m not great at it either. But we need to start.”
“I know. You’re right.”
“Have you ever tried talking to Marc about it?”
She barked a laugh. “Can anyone talk to Marc about anything?”
“I sometimes do. It’s like talking to myself, but without all the second-guessing. I can work out all the things I’m thinking, and I know he won’t ever judge me.”
She glanced at him sidelong.
“Shit. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“I know what you meant.”
He sighed and looked down into the opaque surface of his coffee. “Anyway, it seems your theory about Marc was right.”
“That he can choose when to come back.”
“Then why the fuck does he come back at all?”
“You won’t believe me if I tell you.”
She snorted. “I have to believe a thousand impossible things every day. Try me.”
“He said he comes back because he misses us.”
She burst into laughter, which lasted for quite a while before she realized that Isidore wasn’t laughing along with her. She drifted off, then wiped her eyes, then frowned. “You’re… you’re serious?”
“It’s what he said.”
“He’d rather be with us than… be… there?”
“It’s what he said,” Isidore repeated dully.
“Yeah.” Then he ventured, “I… I think I kind of know what he means, though.”
“Yeah,” she said, exhaling. “I think I kind of do too.”
I heard the bedsprings groan in a way that meant either that Marc had returned or that Zip had instantly gained about eighty pounds. Marc could usually take care of himself, but occasionally he came back hurt, so I had to go check on him. Besides, I always feared that something would follow one of us home. Nothing ever had before, but the possibility haunted my nightmares. Zip dealt with the fear by keeping a pistol within arm’s reach at all times. Marc, ironically, wasn’t afraid of even the most ferocious foreign monsters, even though he could be reduced to gasping sobs by a strange noise or sudden darkness here at home. I, for my part, was afraid of everything, including the gun that Zip insisted I could use to protect myself.
I grabbed a fresh syringe from the top of the fridge just in case, and went into the bedroom.
“The sun was a map inside a box,” Marc said without any preamble. He was sitting up on the bed, hugging his knees, wrapped in our rattiest blanket. His face was half-lit by the hazard lights strobing through the window, but it was still too dark for me to read his expression. “I mean the one under the shore, then over again.”
“You okay, buddy?” I said, joining him on the bed. Are any of us?
“It’s like ours but with colours and none of the words on it.”
“You found a map?”
“I tried to tell Zip yesterday, but then she closed up and I couldn’t open her again.”
“It’s hard for her, Marc.”
“Because it’s so beautiful over there.”
“That should make it nice to talk about.”
“I think she misses it so much that it hurts her to think about it when she can’t go.” This was much easier to explain when I could pretend that it was only Zip who felt this way.
“I like thinking about it.”
“That’s good. That’s good because we have to think about it, in order to fix it.”
“If we fix it, will you guys leave me?” The question was posed matter-of-factly.
“No! What? No. No! Of course not.” That would have been a lie, or maybe more like four lies in a row, not so long ago. But something about the blow to the head I took the other day made the prospect of life without Marc and Zip seem much less appealing than it once did. “But, you know, if we fix it, we might be stuck here. I don’t— I, uh, don’t think that Zip likes the idea of being stuck here very much.”
“I’d rather have you guys all the time than there only alone sometimes.”
“I… like you too,” I managed. “But the thought of never visiting that other place again… doesn’t that make you even a little bit sad?”
“A little bit,” he said with a shrug.
“Can’t you find a way to make it so that we can all live there rather than here?” I hated how petulant the question sounded.
We didn’t always understand what Marc said, but he always meant what he said, and his answer was depressingly unambiguous. Overcome, I rose from the bed and walked to the window. The remains of the city spread before me, intermittently lit by racks of emergency lights and police beacons. Broken glass on the concrete created a sick parody of the dewdrops and jewels in Else; oily puddles looked like a nightmarish reflection of rainbows and fish scales.
Everything went blurry. I rubbed my eyes. Did I even want to be “free” in this hellhole? Or would I rather stay chained to these two? Unable even to pick up our allotment of groceries without panicking about the possibility that an officer might witness a switch? Unable to have sex with Zip (which I wanted so much lately, so much) for fear that she wouldn’t stay herself, or me myself? Unable to enter the shower or to climb onto a chair to reach something without worrying about swapping out and breaking one of our necks? Unable to make any other friend for the rest of my life for fear of having to… explain this? Would I be willing to give up every single one of those pleasures, just for the chance to go to Else for a few hours every day or two, and maybe still get poisoned or drowned or pelted with stones? I rubbed my jaw, which had started to throb.
“We can visit each of one,” Marc said, “or we can be in all three metal house here three of us. Or nothing else.”
“Can you… can you at least teach us to go and come back whenever we want?”
“But… sometimes when we want?”
I turned to face him, leaning back against the windowsill. He was rocking softly on the bed, his broad forehead creased in thought. A memory bubbled up: holding on to him last night, curling against his giant’s back, babbling something embarrassing. What was happening to me? How long could we live like this?
Maybe writing letters will be easier. I know it’s hard to say these things out loud, but paper is more like whispering. Or thinking. Like when you made the first map, before telling us. Can we try that a while?
M seems to think we might be able to learn to control it better, but we can’t really count on him to give clear instructions. So for the next little while, instead of spending all my time searching for answers to “why it happened” or “how to fix it” by studying the ancient prophecies (or whatever it is real magicians do), what I’m going to do is I’m going to listen more carefully to the landscape & what it feels like to travel. You told me something once about knowing I was about to return because of a feeling in your fingertips (?). Let’s try paying more attention to that kind of thing.
Maybe M’s psychic or gifted in ways we’ll never understand, but I have to believe that we can do at least some of the things he can.
If reading this is weird for you, just pretend it never happened, I won’t mind.
P.S. Tell me one thing you love about Else. Here is mine: morning fog.
Smart of you to put that note in with my box of pads. I guess there really isn’t anything else in this damned apartment we don’t all share. Anyway, sorry to make you wait for an answer, I only had reason to look for this today, ha ha.
Marc seems to know how to plan his own returns, at least sometimes, but he’s not so good at telling when one of us is on our way. I think we usually surprise him just as much as we surprise each other, which might be why he gets so spooked. So even if he’s psychic it’s not like he knows EVERYTHING.
I have a theory about why I’m better at knowing with you than with him, but it’s sort of embarrassing to write it down.
P.S. water wheels
I really really really hope I’m not reading your last line wrong, but: are you saying that maybe we’ve been going about this the wrong way all along, & that instead of trying harder to separate, we should try harder to get closer? Shit, that sounds like some kind of tawdry pickup line. I swear I don’t mean it that way. I’m just thinking out loud.
This sounds mean, but while I’m there I don’t think about you two very much. I’m usually too busy trying to smell as many amazing flowers as possible, or swim in the clean!! rivers, or just do anything at all that’s not this fucking city. Next time I will try to remember to think about you more. Holy shit this letter is turning out so creepy. What I am trying to say is, if staying connected to each other will help us switch more smoothly, & if we can make it so the switches are natural rather than jerking us around all the time, well, I think I can live with that & I won’t feel as much of a burning need for a permanent solution.
P.S. Rubies? Is that what the red ones are called?
You didn’t read my last line wrong. You’re probably right that I’ve been trying too hard to keep here and there separate. I know I get a little hysterical when you ask me questions about that place. But you’re right, writing it instead of saying it helps a bit.
The idea that we need to be more connected than we already are sounds sort of insane, I mean how much more fucking connected can we get after 1000 syringes and hauling each other’s corpses off the toilet and out of the tub and sharing that gross bathrobe and the bed. But I think I know what you mean. I haven’t been listening to you guys as much as I should, not just about this but about everything. I’m going to try to be closer to you both, not nec. in “that way” but by paying attention like you said.
Speaking of closeness, I don’t feel right leaving Marc out of this. I think we’re on the brink of something really important here. You’re better at talking to him than me. Can you maybe tell him some of what we’ve been trying to work out? And then translate for me what he says? I honestly believe we can figure out a way to maybe make this suck less.
oh and P.S. butterflies, before I went to Else I hadn’t seen a butterfly in like 12 yrs
I’ll talk to Marc. And then maybe we can try talking face to face. I’m ready if you are.
There’s so much we don’t know. Like, we don’t even know which of us is going to be switched next. Why don’t we know that?! We don’t know if time passes there the same as here (I think it does?). There has to be a pattern, and if we can’t find it by walking further and making maps, then maybe we can find it some other way.
This is big but we can do it.
P.S. Speaking of the bathrobe, if there was ONE THING I could bring back it would be what they let me wear while I’m there. It always fits me perfectly and it’s such beautiful colours, at least when I’m not bleeding and puking all over it.
When Zip and Isidore were next together, they coolly pretended that the letters never existed, and acted as if the idea to design some tests had been totally spontaneous. But setting up experiments without knowing who was going to follow whom, or for how long, did not do any great favours for the scientific method.
They had long understood that the boundaries between the city and Else were impermeable: no matter what they did, no physical object ever travelled with them in either direction. So they needed to conduct research with only the tools available to them upon their arrival. They stomped in the mud to leave coded footprints for each other, they cross-hatched tree trunks, they left fetishes hanging from branches. Once, Zip spent nearly an hour fashioning a chain out of flower stems, just like she had when she was a girl, back when there were still dandelions.
Progress was slow. The difficulties were manifold. Everything they were trying to keep track of was in the future, which meant they had to remember every single thing they did, just in case it caused a switch to happen immediately afterward… or hours afterward. (From time to time they tried to get a minority report from Marc, but their success in this endeavour was erratic.) Meanwhile, the hostile inhabitants of Else would destroy their flimsy constructions, or chase the intruders away before they could gather their results. Sometimes Marc would take whoever followed him miles distant from their starting point, whether it was because he was foraging for food or running from a predator or chasing an enemy, they were never really sure. Sometimes he would leave them gifts—once, Zip encountered a brightly-coloured pile of fruit that he had meticulously stacked into a perfect pyramid—but they were never certain whether it was intended as a contribution to their study or just as a gesture of affection.
And finally, trying to mark all these details while overwhelmed by the beauty of Else (which was impossible to get used to, even after all this time), and then holding on to their answers, like the memory of a dream in the morning, was much more difficult than they had anticipated. More than once, Zip would spend several uninterrupted hours in Else without ever remembering to note the position of the moon or of Isidore’s footprints; or Isidore would get so transfixed by a single seashell that he would never get around to collecting enough to make the diagram he had promised.
They did not expand their newspaper map much in these weeks, preferring instead to deepen their knowledge of the places they already knew. But notes began to cluster in the margins of their broadsheets, and soon Zip needed to stack pages on top of each other to make room for three dimensions of observations.
When the insights finally began to trickle in, they did not seem directly connected to the work they were doing. But insights did come. Zip felt it first. One muggy afternoon, next to a bubbling swamp whose water (Isidore had learned the hard way) was poisonous, an urgency began to rise in her chest; it was like having to urinate, but airy rather than liquid, and higher up in her body. She was in the process of trying to find a word for this feeling when suddenly she found herself back in the apartment kitchen. She was so excited about this breakthrough that she squealed and threw her arms around Marc, who had been munching his gruel by the sink—the map had not been removed from the table for weeks now, and they all ate standing up.
To her surprise, Marc readily returned her embrace, and she gathered from their ensuing conversation that he’d known she was on her way. It was the happiest she’d been in years: for the first time in her life, including her life before Else, she could believe that maybe, just maybe, she might be able to influence the future a little bit after all. Or, if not influence it, at least perhaps understand it.
She followed Marc around like a kitten for the rest of the day, sniffing him, eagerly asking for permission to touch his flank or to stroke the dark scruff on his chin, constantly searching for the signs of change that she was only now beginning to recognize. When Isidore finally returned, five or six hours later, Zip launched into an extended retelling of the events of the day, which concluded, yet another hour later, with a breathless request to fuck. Which Isidore, laughing, granted.
The next phase of their work took a turn for the mystical: they would sit cross-legged across from each other on the bed, taking interior inventories of breathing rates and eye-tics and itches. Marc liked this part too, and was able to contribute to it in his own way, announcing with a sudden yelp every time something in his body changed. He added a whole slew of new words to their vocabulary: triggly, sween, quidful. Zip and Isidore knew they were getting somewhere when they, too, could identify the meffic feeling in their necks, or the aplash behind their ears, without needing to ask Marc to explain. Their bodies were smoothly synchronizing. They still couldn’t control their travel, but they could see it on the horizon, and that alone was worth celebrating.
“Do you ever wonder…”
“Wonder what?” he prompted gently.
“Do you ever wonder whether we would have been friends if we didn’t have to be?”
He was silent a while. She looked at the profile of his face, backlit by the red lights flashing in the bedroom window as he lay beside her.
At last he said, “I think I might have fallen in love with you sooner.”
She wasn’t sure she’d heard him right. “S-sooner?”
“If I’d felt like I was free to choose, it wouldn’t have bothered me so much that it was happening.”
“I think I see.”
“So, yes. I think about it a lot.”
She kissed his arm, feeling the subtle scars of so many hurriedly applied syringes beneath her lips. “And Marc?”
“I wouldn’t have given him a chance.”
“Me neither. But I’m glad we were forced to.”
He chuckled. “I never thought I’d be glad to have been forced into anything.”
“Are you worried about Marc switching with me? When we’re here like this? Is it weird?”
“No you’re not worried, or no it’s not weird?”
“It is a little weird. But I’m not worried.”
“Have you ever… ?”
“There was one time I… I came back where you were and… wondered.”
“I think I know the time you mean. But it wasn’t like that.”
“It’d be okay, you know.”
“I know. It’ll probably happen by accident one of these days.”
She flinched. “Please don’t joke like that.”
“Who’s joking?” he said sleepily. “Look at us.”
“I know. I just… I used to be so scared of that happening. I had such awful dreams.”
“Used to? You’re not scared any more?”
“Maybe a little. I don’t mind… the idea, so much. I’d just rather know ahead of time. And of course he deserves to know. I mean, I’d rather we all know.”
“We’re getting better at knowing ahead of time.”
“And then we can decide that that’s what we want to do. With that person.”
“Right now, this is what I would have picked. I want you to know that. Even if I had all the choices in the world.”
“You’d pick this over Else?”
“What I was going to say is, if I had my way I’d have you in Else.”
Isidore let out a long, theatrical sigh. “That would be good, wouldn’t it?”
“But this is next best.”
“I’ll take it.”
When they finally remembered to consult the newspapers—rather than just scavenging them from behind the building to use for more map-paper—they realized that more than four months had passed since the day Isidore landed in Marc’s oatmeal. In that time they had learned to detect with some precision when one of the others was about to return from Else, and all three of them could usually tell who was going next. Marc was still the only one who could choose exactly when to come back, and that still only sometimes, but the inability to do so was not as galling as it used to be. Nobody had needed a syringe in weeks.
It was a smoky, reeking, overhot spring afternoon, and Marc and Zip were making sketches of one of the carved languages they frequently encountered on the doorways in Else. Zip had come to wonder whether it might be possible to translate the signs they found there, and she had put her mind to reconstructing the commonest word-shapes upon her return. Sometimes she painted them on her skin in berry juice; the juice itself didn’t last the trip, but the very act of painting helped her remember.
Zip had never been good at understanding Marc’s talk, which had originally led her to believe that she and Marc were not good at communicating at all. But it turned out that they understood each other perfectly well in silence, which is how they worked now. Bent over the table, they compared the swirly shapes they’d made on the day’s newspaper, trying to find patterns and guess at referents.
Zip’s head snapped up. She sniffed the air. “Incoming,” she said. It was the first word she’d spoken aloud in hours.
Marc nodded, but then his face clouded. He frowned. “Which?” he said.
“Wait. I… I don’t know.”
They looked at each other, then around the room, then back at each other, eyes widening.
“Which?” Marc repeated, his voice growing frantic in a way it hadn’t in a very long time.
“I don’t know. I can’t tell. I don’t know.”
And then Isidore was there, leaning sloppily against the kitchen wall. His face was covered in tiny scratches, as if he’d been running through brambles, but he was wearing a familiar languid smile. “Hey, Marc,” he said lightly. But then his smile froze. “Zip?”
“What the fuck?”
“Three!” Marc said.
“I was hoping you’d be happier to see me,” Isidore said, but the joke was delivered unsteadily, and his eyes were bright with alarm.
“Of… of course I’m happy to see you,” Zip stammered. “But what does this mean? Did you just take the last trip? Ever?”
“I don’t know! I didn’t hear any doors slam behind me, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Instinctively all three of them scanned their bodies for the traces that Else habitually left on their muscles and their skin. They all held out their hands at the same time, studying their extended fingers for clues. But no explanation was forthcoming.
“Three!” Marc said again.
“Did you do this?” Isidore tried to ask the question casually, but Zip could see him trembling, his hands closing into fists.
Marc shook his head. “Three home ready,” he spluttered. “Change travel changing.”
“Marc, buddy, today of all days we need you to make sense.”
The room felt unbelievably crowded. Zip found herself uncertain how to stand, and spent a few uncomfortable seconds self-consciously adjusting her posture. She carried herself very differently depending on who was with her, she now realized. The presence of two other people in the room made her feel both divided and exposed.
“Is it over?” she asked weakly. “Is Else gone?”
“Motherfucker,” said Isidore.
“Next one wanting whither of you?” Marc said.
The other two turned on him in unison. “What?”
Marc swallowed a couple of times, uneasy under the doubled attention. He squeezed his eyes shut, choosing his words carefully. “Izzy came back, but not for anyone. Not for anyone.”
For once, Zip was the one who had more patience for his tortured syntax. “Go on, honey. We’re listening.”
“So anyone goes?” Marc suggested cautiously. “One. Next. Any one. Even Izzy again, if you want.”
“Really?” said Isidore. Zip could see how hard he was trying to make his questions seem like genuine requests for information rather than angry challenges, and how badly he was failing. “But you told us it was either all of us here, or one of us visiting at a time. No other way. That’s what you said.”
“Marc’s allowed to make mistakes, Isidore.”
Marc’s eyes flew open. “No mistake!”
“Shut the fuck up and think.” Zip pursed her lips as she tried to work out the logic. “All of us here. Or one of us there. That doesn’t have to mean those instant switches are the only way. If no more than one of us can go, it’s still possible that we can all be here for a while. Without being locked out.”
Isidore’s beautiful face, so often coolly closed, so rarely fragile, now nearly cracked under the weight of his hope. He turned away. “Is that right?” he asked the wall. “Is it true, Marc?”
“Go. Whichever who.”
Easy for him to say: Zip was rattled enough that her body-map was totally scrambled. And besides, she’d never just gone before; she was always taken. They’d been flattening the grass on the path to Else for months now, but she didn’t know how to follow Marc’s instruction.
“Go,” Marc growled, “or I go.”
They all stayed tensely silent for such a long time that finally Marc made good on his threat. And went.
He was gone for nine days. Served us right. He’s not a passive-aggressive sort, and he wouldn’t punish us deliberately. But of course that’s what it felt like.
I’m not proud of the things we said about him. The things we did as… taunts, to bring him back.
Zip started worrying about him before I did. I assumed that, given all the changes we’d gone through together, we’d know if he was hurt. But she pointed out that my last return had changed everything, that we couldn’t count on anything we knew any more. Maybe, since the switch was no longer automatic (she said), being wounded in Else would just leave you there. Then what? Then whoever was left behind would be locked out forever, just as we’d feared from the beginning.
We rolled up the map and put it away. We packed up Zip’s language work too. We went on what must have been a dozen supply runs, hoarding more food than we’d ever had before. We lined up syringes neatly atop the fridge. Zip got more of that grain Marc liked. Neither of us ate any of it, of course; superstitiously we arranged it in piles in the cupboard instead.
Things were changing in the city. The police didn’t bother us any more, and we noticed that they were starting to look like they were just walking, rather than prowling. A couple of the streetlamps were fixed, so at night there were sometimes clear, steady white lights as well as flashing red ones shining through the bedroom window. We didn’t talk to anyone, but it felt like maybe we could have, if we’d wanted.
It turns out we needn’t have been concerned about losing touch with Marc. Early on the afternoon of the tenth day I felt a familiar crackling through my scalp. Simultaneously Zip’s whole body jerked, causing the legs of the bench to scrape noisily across the floor.
“Oh, thank God,” she breathed, but her relief was contaminated with apprehension. She reached for her pistol; I snatched a syringe from the fridge.
“Hi, guys,” said Marc. He looked… he looked great, actually, tanned and fit, smiling broadly. The beard he was growing really suited him. He’d always filled any room he was in, but the joy rolling off him now was much bigger than his big body.
“We were so worried about you,” Zip said, her voice cracking. She put the gun down and barrelled into his arms. Marc held her calmly, stroking her hair.
“I’m sorry for so much time,” he said. “I need extra for learning. New knowledge happens to me not very fast.”
“What did you learn?” I asked, realizing a moment too late that I probably should have greeted him before demanding information.
But he didn’t seem to mind. “Presents,” he said. Gently he pushed Zip away so that he could rummage through his pockets. The pockets of frayed city pants, clothing he could not have been wearing in Else.
“I tried to catch a butterfly for Zip but they all ran away. So I found give instead this one.” He pressed something heavy and circular into Zip’s palm.
“It’s… oh God, there’s writing all over it.” It was a brass cog from one of the ubiquitous door contraptions in Else, finely engraved with the lettering that Zip had been working so hard to decipher.
“Marc, I just— I can’t believe—”
But he had already walked over to where I was standing. He took my hand and peeled my fingers away from the syringe, which I was still clutching. Carefully he placed the package on the table, then stroked my palm as if flattening a piece of paper.
“Izzy, you said you liked the red ones,” he said as he gave me his gift.
The presence of a ruby here, so vivid in our colourless city apartment, was so wildly incongruous that I became lightheaded. Just as I began to wonder if I might faint, I felt Marc’s enormous arm hook under my own and steer me to the bench. He guided me down into a sitting position, sat down beside me. I heard the metal creak under his weight, but I could see nothing except for the jewel I was holding.
A tremour of doubt entered his voice. “Do you… do you like it?”
“I love it,” I blurted. “I love you. I love you both.”
It caused me almost physical pain to look away from the ruby, but the smile on Marc’s face made it worth it.
“One of you go now,” he said. “I had enough Else today.”
“In a minute,” Zip said, still mesmerized by her own gift.
“I’ll go later,” I said.
“Fine,” said Marc. “I’m going to make some soup.”