When I woke up that morning, the glass of the window in my room was gone. I completely overlooked the absence at first, instead relaxing for a bit and enjoying the unusual freshness of the air. Feeling well-rested and energized, I leapt from my bed after another moment or two and flung open the window’s curtains to greet the day head-on. I wasn’t expecting the day to greet me back, however, and the gust of cold air from outside sent me stumbling backwards in surprise.
The window wasn’t shattered. At least, I checked the floor of my room on my hands and knees for shards and didn’t find anything. I even stuck my head through the newfound opening in the wall to check the yard outside my room for good measure. Nothing. It wasn’t like the window had been taken out of the wall by hand, either, since the frame and dividers were all still in place. The glass simply wasn’t there anymore.
So I stood there, staring dumbly out of the not-window for several minutes, my brain scrambling to think up some reasonable explanation for it all. I might’ve stood there all day had I not been distracted by something else unusual. Other than the occasional whooshing of wind, it was absolutely silent both inside and out.
On an average weekend, as soon as the sun was up, Mom would be up along with it, busying herself with all manner of chores and housework. Cooking breakfast for the two of us, weeding her vegetable garden, repainting a room, swatting a spider with her prized corn-bristle broom; no matter what the job, she’d always be tackling it with gusto, her sleeves rolled up above her elbows, right at the crack of dawn. I don’t know where she got the energy for it all, since it felt like she worked late every single night during the week.
Regardless, after a few more tense moments of silence, a mixture of anxiety and dread began to creep into my mind. I tried to reassure myself: there had been times in the past where she’d slept in late, lazing about in bed for so long that it put even my typical morning sluggishness to shame. Her exhaustion from work probably just got the better of her like it had those times. I remembered as well her saying something about her job being really hectic last week.
The anxiety faded somewhat, but I couldn’t shake that feeling of dread, especially since I was still clueless about why the glass in my window had disappeared. How long had it been gone? What if someone had broken into the house by removing the glass somehow and climbing through the opening? The stories I’d seen on the news about the serial break-ins and murders in the surrounding area poured into my mind all at once. I sprinted down the hall to Mom’s room.
“Mom! Are you….”
My voice trailed off as I saw her bed, empty. In a panic, I dashed all over the house, throwing open the doors to every room, every closet, every last place where she could possibly be, searching for a sign of her. Only when I was stooped over, straining my eyes peering into the cabinets beneath the kitchen sink for the second time, did I realize that she could be out running an errand.
Giggling nervously, I turned the idea over in my head as I walked with a forced calm to the garage. Yes, that had to be it. Something like this had happened before, hadn’t it? Of course it had; I just couldn’t remember right now because I’d gotten so freaked out. This was probably the reason why my window didn’t have glass in it, too. Maybe she’d just taken it out and left me asleep because she didn’t want to bother me about it. She was most likely on her way home right now with a replacement.
I stepped out into the garage.
Her car was still there.
Not only that, the car’s windows and windshield were missing.
My palms slickened with sweat in what felt like an instant. The room began to spin. I tried to think, my eyes shut in vain against the vertigo. Had she gone out on a walk? Perhaps she was simply chatting the morning away with our neighbors. An image of the kind old woman who lived next door popped into my head. I bolted outside through the garage door and gazed across the yard, half-expecting and half-hoping to see the two of them together on our neighbor’s porch.
My anxiety began to blaze. My heart pounded in my ears. Nausea poured into my stomach, threatening to make me empty it. I sat down and closed my eyes again, pulling my knees against my chest. With as much energy as I could muster, I tried to distract myself--to think about something, anything other than how my home had been so cruelly stolen away from me.
A uniform sheet of leaden, low-hanging clouds blanketed the sky. Though the occasional breeze cut at my exposed arms with an unseasonable chill, the air stood mostly still. The usual sound of the kids up the street playing outside was missing, as was the soft hissing of the sprinkler across the street and the steady murmur of traffic in the distance.
The air suddenly felt thick and gooey, as though I were sitting at the bottom of a gigantic bowl of honey. At first I thought it was some trick of my senses, an unwelcome by-product of my mind tying itself in knots while trying to handle this eerie silence on top of Mom’s disappearance. When I took another breath, however, it felt like I’d gotten two lungfuls of syrup. I sputtered, my chest beginning to ache. I forced the viscous air in and out of my lungs with some effort, but the subdued pain in my chest didn’t fade.
“Well well, what have we here?”
I shot to my feet and spun around toward the source of the muffled voice, only to find the empty street behind me. A sharp sense of unease bled into my thoughts, blending too well with the anxiety.
“Oho, not too shabby with the reflexes there!”
I whirled again, found nothing again. My legs trembled. I noticed distantly that I was chewing through my fingernails. My breathing, now heavy and ragged, did nothing to extinguish the growing fire in my chest.
“I-is someone there?” The words seemed to ooze out of my mouth, sluggish and bloated in the quicksand-like atmosphere. At the sound of a low chuckle right behind me, my unease blossomed into outright terror.
There was an impression of a humanoid figure. Its outline was blurred, and it swam in my vision like an object beneath the surface of a turbulent pool. As I backed away from it, squinting in wary confusion, the figure appeared to make a gesture with its arms. There was a tremendous pop, and the figure came into much greater focus all at once. The air also turned back to normal in that same instant. I gasped in relief, though I didn’t dare look away from the person now standing in front of me.
Or was it a person? It looked like a girl maybe a couple of years older than me with only the slightest hint of curves to its figure, but its skin was a dark, featureless ashy gray. Its mop of jet black hair hid its eyes, and it wore a huge, toothy grin on its face. It looked more solid overall than before, but it still had a ghostly shimmer at its edges. It glanced around at the dead neighborhood for a second, then turned its attention back on me.
“Alright, kiddo, I’m gonna make this easy for the both of us. I’ve got some real important questions for you, so you and I are gonna have a quick little chat. I’m sure you have questions, too, and that’s fine; I’ll answer ‘em soon enough.” It waved a hand dismissively. “Judging from your scent, though, something’s rattled your cage pretty bad, so I’ll spare you the hassle of having to talk. I’ll keep it simple, so you can just nod if the answer’s yes and shake if it’s no, mmkay?”
I wanted to turn and run, run away from this thing as fast and as far away as I could go, not stopping until it was at least on the opposite side of the planet from me. The thought, however, of leaving without knowing what happened to Mom kept me anchored there. What if she was lost somewhere in this nightmare version of our neighborhood? What if she was hurt? This thing seemed to know what was going on, and on top of that it said it’d answer my questions. For Mom’s sake, I resolved to do what I could to cooperate with it.
I tried and failed to swallow the lump in my throat, then nodded.
“Atta girl. Now, if I had to guess, you probably don’t know the slightest bit about what the hell’s going on here, do you?”
I shook my head.
“That figures. Well, I’m pretty shocked that you’re here at all, really--most critters like you get wiped out instead of getting caught up inside these things in the first place--but I’ve gotta say, it’s quite the lucky break.” Its grin widened further. My blood froze as the implications of what it’d said hit me.
“Yep, wiped out. You see, right now we’re basically stuck in a giant invisible bubble. Think of it like the bubbles that form in lava or boiling water--they sorta just happen when stuff heats up or gets agitated. Now, when these things show up, they’ve got this nasty little side effect of obliterating certain kinds of materials and living things inside of ‘em. Living things like you, specifically.”
I locked up.
“No… no, that can’t be right. That doesn’t make any sense. She probably just went out on an early morning walk, that’s all. I’m sure she’ll be back any minute.”
“Really now?” The thing held out its arms wide, gesturing at our surroundings. “Have you looked around? Other than you, there’s nothing here! I dunno who or what you’re talking about, but if they’re anything like you, they’re gone.”
For a few seconds, I couldn’t move, or think, or do anything at all. Then, I fell down on all fours and vomited. I threw up again and again, until my stomach was only dry heaving. Even after I’d finished, I couldn’t bring myself to stand back up; my limbs felt weak and shaky, as though they’d buckle under me if I put any weight on them. My head throbbed in sync with my heartbeat.
“Well, aren’t you a mess? Lemme guess: someone important to you got rubbed out?”
I gave a weak nod, not looking up.
“How about this, then? You scratch my back by helping me break out of this bubble, and I’ll scratch yours by helping you bring back whatever it is that’s got you so worked up. Yay, nay?”
Feeling the faintest glimmer of hope, I lifted my gaze and stared intently at the tangle of hair masking the thing’s eyes.
“You... can do that?”
“Hah! I wish I had the mojo for a stunt like that. I can’t do it, but I know a guy who can, and lucky for you he owes me a favor. I’ll fill you in on all the gory details in a bit, but first let’s get the hell out of here.” It offered a hand down to me. “Deal?”
I moved to take its hand until a new question stopped me.
“Wait, but, I’m still confused about where I even am, and how I got here in the first place. How in the world am I supposed to help you get out of this bubble thing?”
“An excellent question. I’ve got this hunch, you see, and if it’s right--and my hunches pretty much always are--it’d also explain why you’re here puking your guts out instead of being gone like all the other suckers who were here. Get this: you might just be a fairy princess.”
It kept a straight face for barely a second before bursting into a cackle.
“For real though, you smell like you’ve got enough juice in you that you could pop this bubble on your own if you knew how. But obviously you don’t, so that’s where I come in--and boy will I be coming in.” It chuckled again.
“What do you mean?” My voice shook, the back of my throat still burning with bile.
“If I’m gonna channel your power to break us outta here, I’ll need to get inside your head. Literally.” It held up its hands placatingly at my confused, terrified expression. “Hey, it’s not permanent! I’d hate to be trapped in your fleshy water-sack, anyway. Look, I know a lot more about your kind of potential than you do, and I’m not just gonna tell you what to do--you’d screw it up and blow yourself to pieces, and that’d suck royally for the both of us. So if you’ll just take my hand, I’ll deal with all that dirty business myself and then we’ll be off. You do wanna save your… whoever they are, don’t you?”
The impulse to run away reasserted itself, far stronger than before. I struggled against the idea, remembering my resolution to cooperate, and I tried to make myself grab the thing’s outstretched hand. The most I could manage was an internal stalemate, an uneasy wavering that kept me both from turning back and from going ahead. At my hesitation, the figure stopped smiling, swapping its grin for a phony frown.
“Or, if you’re too scared, you can stay here and be all alone, and your poor little Whosis will suffer all the more for it--not that they’ll actually be suffering, since, y’know, they’re dead, but you get the idea.”
“No!” With all of my strength, I inched my trembling hand forward. “…I’ll do it.”
The thing clasped my hand, its grip red-hot against my skin. My entire body churned violently in protest at the contact, and a single glance at the thing’s twisted smile, now wider than ever, was all it took to cement in my mind how awful a decision I’d made.
Before I could react, a number of wire-thin tendrils grew out of the figure’s palm and dug into my hand. With a ferocious hunger, they burrowed deeper inside me, writhing along the bones of my arm and curling like vines around them. The pain they left in their wake was unimaginable. Every bump on the head, every stubbed toe, every finger slammed in a door, even the time I’d broken my arm in two places; they were all jokes by comparison, a spark of static against a lightning bolt, the glow of a firefly against the noonday sun.
The tendrils wriggled their way into my backbone and snaked up into my brain. Once inside, they began to split, branching apart again and again and again, taking to the inside of my skull like a plant to an undersized flowerpot. During all this, in some secluded corner of my mind, I was aware of a ghastly, piercing scream, like the anguished cries of an injured cat. Only much later on did I realize that that’d been my own voice.
Suddenly, the tendrils vanished all at once, the pain vanishing with them. An immense wave of relief washed over me, followed by a smaller wave of confusion. What was all that just now? Had any of that actually happened? Was I dreaming? I noticed that the figure was no longer hovering in front of me. The stubborn feeling of dread from earlier flooded back in.
What remained of my watered-down relief evaporated entirely when my body clambered to its feet by itself. I tried to move, but my limbs ignored me, casually stretching and flexing as though mocking my attempts to control them. Then, I felt a huge smile spread across my face, and the full understanding of what had happened to me crashed down on my mind like a ton of bricks.
“Ugh, talk about a crappy body. It’s so stiff and confining. I can’t believe your limbs are actually stuck at this measly length. You know what, I almost feel sorry for you.”
My mouth hadn’t moved, but I could hear the thing’s voice in my head as though it’d spoken aloud. Unable to say anything physically, I tried thinking back at it.
“What… what did you do to me!?”
“Like I told you, I got inside your head. It’s pretty cozy now with the both of us up in here, eh?” It laughed, my body giggling along with it. “But seriously, you’re working yourself into a tizzy over nothing. I told you this won’t be permanent, and I meant it--especially now that I’m actually having to deal with this wooden doll you ride around in. Bleh.”
I remembered the many times I’d been told I was the spitting image of Mom. My irritation, already smoldering from being tricked into becoming a puppet, flared into anger.
“There is nothing wrong with my body! If you hate it so much, get out!”
“Ohoho, someone’s feeling sassy! That’s good. Hold on to that. You’re gonna need a little moxie for the places we’re going, all the more so if you’ve never exited before.”
It snapped my fingers. Out of nowhere, a stick of chalk appeared in my hand. There wasn’t a sound when it appeared, or a flash of light, or anything at all. It was just suddenly there, as though it’d always been there. The thing squatted down and began drawing on the pavement. I boggled, my dread and frustration subsiding a little.
“How did you do that?”
“Oh, what, this?” It stopped and held up the chalk. “I made it. Or, really, you made it--all I did was borrow some of your power.”
“I can make chalk out of thin air?” I paused. “Am I a witch?”
“Yeah, sure, something like that. Of course, that’s just a parlor trick compared to what we’re fixing to do.” It started drawing again, intently tracing out a hopeless tangle of curves and squiggles around a central circle. I couldn’t make any sense out of it, though here and there I saw what looked like parts of a bigger pattern.
“Wait, what’re we fixing to do?”
It drew a last few curlicues, then pocketed the chalk and stood upright in the middle circle. It clenched and unclenched my hands excitedly. I felt the grin on my face stretch as wide as it’d go.
“You’re about to find out, kiddo!”
It bellowed at the top of my lungs a strange, harsh-sounding word I’d never heard before. The world around us started to flicker and waver chaotically, like the image of the thing had when it first showed up. The distorted view of the neighborhood gradually darkened to an inky black, the sounds of the wind in the distance tapering into perfect silence, the cold against my skin fading away to nothing. Instinctively, I tried to turn my head to look around; instead of the disconnected feeling I’d gotten earlier when my body didn’t respond to me, however, I didn’t feel anything at all.
My body was gone.
My shock quickly gave way to panic. Had the thing somehow kicked me out of my body and taken it for itself? Was I going to be stuck in this nothingness forever? I tried to kick, to scream, to struggle against the numbing darkness in any and every way I knew of. Nothing. A despair as murky as my surroundings extinguished my panic. I was stuck here after all. Whatever spell the thing had cast must’ve been to eject me into this void so it could steal my body and the powers it apparently had. Still, perhaps it was for the best that things ended like this. I couldn’t have gone on living with Mom being dead. My life was nothing without her.
Just then, the blackness slowly transitioned to another blurry, wavy view, this time looking in on some sort of small room. With a pop that left my ears ringing, the blurriness abruptly went away, and I was back inside my disobedient body.
Without a word, the thing marched us in long, fluid strides to one corner of the chamber. There was something lying in the corner, propped up against the blueish white walls. As we approached it, I quickly discovered that that something was a body. My mind recoiled with confused disgust as the thing grabbed one of its hands.
The thing leaving me was a completely different experience than its entrance had been. A sensation like cool water flowing over my skin ran down out of my brain and along my extended arm, exiting out of my palm. In a matter of seconds, it was over, and the most powerful sense of relief I’d ever felt filled me from head to toe.
I sat back on the hard floor, a goofy look of contentment on my face. Not only was the thing out of me and control of my body returned to me, but now I still had a chance to bring Mom back. I smiled and hugged myself. Hang in there, Mom!
I was so preoccupied that I barely noticed when the body stood up from the corner and dusted itself off. It stood at about my height and had the same unhealthy gray skin tone and eye-covering mess of black hair as the original figure.
Oddly enough, its arms and legs didn’t have any joints anywhere on them; they looked smooth and continuous for their whole length. As I watched, the thing stretched them out, which would’ve been a normal enough gesture if they hadn’t actually stretched. Like a rubbed band, its arms and torso elongated until its hands brushed against the ceiling far above us. Then, they snapped back into place, and the thing grinned an impossibly wide grin at me, its mouth full of razor-sharp teeth.
“Oh hell yeah, that’s much better.”
It stepped over to where I was sitting in a single bound, an arm extended toward me.
“Need a hand up?”
The thing cackled as I scrambled away from it on all fours. After a moment, I got to my feet and glanced around the room.
“Where are we? What’s this place?”
The thing held out its arms as though gesturing toward everything at once.
“My own little bachelor pad. I made it myself. How d’ya like it?”
The place was a closed-off box about twice the size of a house, the ceiling slightly domed. All of the surfaces were completely smooth and made out of some hard, blue-white material that felt like metal. I couldn’t find any light sources, but the room was brightly lit nonetheless. The total stillness of the stale-smelling air made my ears ring. I started to feel claustrophobic.
“I guess it’s nice, but where exactly is this place? Are we out in space or something?”
It tilted its head in confusion. Its smile dropped away for a second, then sprung back up in sudden realization.
“Ohhhh, right, you’ve never left the planes before, have you?” It chuckled. “How cute.”
“Yeah, y’know, those huge empty voids with the occasional speck of mud in them, like the one where I found you. We’re nowhere near any of those, champ.”
“Wait, you mean we’re outside of the Universe?”
“Pretty much, yeah.” It nodded, grinning.
“But if we’re not in the Universe, then where are we?”
“But where is here?”
“This place is here. There’s nowhere else here but here. Do you catch my drift?”
I stared blankly at the thing. It sighed and gave an exaggerated shrug, shaking its head.
“You’re hopeless, you know that? Here, I’ll draw you a diagram.”
It stretched an arm and fished the chalk out of my pocket before I could even flinch. With a wave of its hand, a section of the wall changed from bluish-white to black. It drew a big circle on the black splotch, completely filling it in with a bunch of smaller, non-overlapping circles.
“Alright, so, here’s the plane system.” It pointed at the mass of circles. “Each one of these tiny circles is a plane--or a Universe or whatever you want to call it, if that helps you understand it better--and the big circle around them is the boundary between Existence and Nonexistence. When I ran into you a little earlier, we were in one of those planes, and we’ll be headed to another one in just a second now that we’ve picked up my vessel.”
“Wait, there’s more than one Universe?”
“Yep. Don’t tell me you thought that dust mote you lived on was all there was to Existence.”
“Er, maybe?” I fidgeted, embarrassed.
“I asked you not to tell me.”
“Well, even if you say it’s puny, my home didn’t feel small to me at all. Mom always told me that the world is a big place, and that I could spend my whole life traveling it and never run out of new things to see. She would’ve been so happy to find out there are whole other Universes to see….”
My heart ached horribly as I remembered her disappearance. I struggled against the urge to cry.
“I-I mean, she will be happy when we bring her back and I tell her all about it. You’ll still help me bring her back like you said you would, won’t you?”
“If I weren’t gonna help you, I woulda eaten you the second I got into my body. As much as I hate to admit it, I owe you one now, so I’m gonna keep my end of the bargain to square us off.”
“E-eaten me?” I shrank away, my fear jumping back into focus.
“What? Don’t look at me like that! Just because I draw my energy from Nonexistence doesn’t mean I don’t get a quick boost from eating a raw lump of power like you. Oh, that reminds me; I haven’t finished my exposition yet.”
It drew a small box outside of the big circle and pointed to it.
“We’re here. This lovely little vacation spot of mine is its own thing, a complete system separate from the planes.”
My claustrophobia grew stronger.
“Then, what’s on the other side of these walls?”
“Strictly speaking, nothing, but since I make the rules around here, it can be anything I want. Allow me to demonstrate.”
It pointed at one of the walls. Abruptly, there was an empty doorway in the wall, along with another doorway on the opposite wall. The thing stretched an arm through one doorway, and its hand and arm immediately came out of the opposite door. In an astonished daze, I drifted toward the opening, curious to peer through. The thing caught me around the waist as it retracted its arm, pulling me away.
“Easy there, shortstop. Your brain’d cook itself if you tried to look through, and we’ve got unfinished business.” It waved a hand and the openings vanished soundlessly. Then, as it began to draw the same elaborate cursive pattern from earlier on the ground, its arm coiled around me several more times, its hand clamping the top of my head. I recoiled in revulsion, for a moment fearing the thing was about to intrude into me and steal my body again, but it was wholly focused on writing out the chalk pattern. My fear subsided into a dull apprehension.
“If you need a word to refer to me, just use Ashley.”
“Oh, OK. My name is Paula, by the way. You said you made this place, right?”
“Then, who made my Universe and all the other ones?”
Ashley finished the sigil and stepped in the middle, lifting me off the ground and setting me down right beside her. She turned to me, her grin as wide as ever.
“Why, God, of course.”