On the drive home after dinner out with his family, Jesse Sonat reflected that the hobby–obsession, his wife said–of the Jesse Sonat of this world was one of the best he’d encountered: buying rusted classic cars at auction, fixing them up, and selling them at a significant profit after enjoying them himself for a while. He drove the beautifully-restored ’66 Porsche Leverett under the moonlit sky, his wife in the passenger bucket seat, head resting on her arm as her reddish-brown hair waved in the wind from the open window, their daughter in the back seat singing along to the Raffi songs incongruously playing out of the booming bass speakers of this mechanical wonder.
He drove slowly, given the road conditions, but infuriating the pick-up truck that repeatedly sped up to within kissing distance of his bumper before backing off again.
Staring in the rearview, he began to say something to Leslie about the truck, when the tires slipped out from under his control, the car spun, and the headlights of the F-150 made him shield his eyes reflexively just before the two cars slammed into each other.
He tried to scream out–No! Not with them! –but he’d already slipped away from that world.
About a year earlier–the way he calculated time–he stood just outside the kitchen in the house that was apparently his home and listened to his “wife” talk on the phone about him to her mother in quiet tones. Strange, distant, forgetful, she said; like another man entirely.
He listened for a while, then crept up the narrow wooden stairs where the four-year-old daughter he’d met that morning waited for him at the top, wearing those awfully cute soft cotton pajamas that made him want to pick her up and cuddle her; he resisted the urge because in many ways Sarah was a stranger to him, although he could see himself in her.
“Where’s mama?” she said.
He told her that mama would be up soon. “Did you finish brushing your teeth?”
She nodded and he helped her back to her room, whose walls were painted pink and purple, her two favorite colors as he found out later.
“All right, into bed,” he said.
“You’re not going to read me a story?”
“Can I tell you a secret?” she said, crawling under her covers.
“I love you.”
Thrown off by the unexpected sentiment, the kind words in that adorable voice still touched him deeply. “That’s very nice,” he said. “Thank you.” And then he added, “I love you too.”
Sarah’s reaction baffled him. The smile on the little face crumbled; her big brown eyes searched him for an explanation to something, and her forehead became creased with confusion. He retreated to the door and turned off the light and said, again, that mama would be up soon.
And now, a year later but entire worlds away, he’d do anything to get back to the wife he loved so much and to that little girl.
The shift was always disorienting. One minute he’d been bracing for a head-on collision, his precious family held prisoner in the car’s steel frame; the next minute he sat up in a sweat-soaked bed, as if the inevitable accident–the enlarging dual halogen lights, the sound of ceramic shrieking under the strain of gripping iron rotors–was nothing more than a nightmare.
Waking up in bed, alone, was one of the easiest ways to end a shift. One of the worst was the last one, a year ago–he’d shifted into the middle of a casual conversation with a beautiful stranger, while a four-year-old tried to get his attention so he could help her eat the scrambled eggs that apparently he’d made them for breakfast minutes before.
No, he thought, allowing himself to fall back into bed and staring up at the dark ceiling. That wasn’t the worst at all–it was the best.
Usually after a shift, Jesse would rest as soon as possible, sleep if he could. But now, although he was already in a dark room and lying in bed, he swung his tired feet onto the ground, forced his exhausted body to stand. He felt weak and his eyelids seemed heavier than his power to hold them open. He glanced around for something to tell the time–there was no nightstand, let alone an alarm clock, and no phone that he could see. Then he realized he wore a watch on his left wrist–10:46PM.
His treasonous mind whispered that it wasn’t safe to go out in the dark, that he could begin his search by the light of day.
Instead of succumbing, Jesse forced himself to stumble toward a wall switch and flick on the overhead lights. Then he found the kitchen, which was just down the hallway from the single bedroom, and found the switch to turn on the lights in there as well. There wasn’t much counter space, and the Jesse of this world seemed to keep things pretty neat and minimalist, so he began opening and closing cupboards, searching for coffee.
Leslie had been waiting for him in their bedroom. He walked past the room, to head back downstairs, when he heard her softly call out his name.
She sat at the edge of their large bed, which took up most of the room, one leg crossed over the other. “That’s not a secret,” she said.
He did as she asked.
“It’s a game you have with her. One of you asks, ‘Do you want to hear a secret?’ Then that person says ‘I love you’ and the other person says–”
“That’s not a secret.”
“Tell me what’s going on, Jesse,” she said, placing a warm hand on his knee.
He’d never breathed a word of his condition to anyone, ever. And yet, in that moment, he almost blurted everything out. He pulled himself together and said that it was nothing.
Leslie withdrew her hand. “When Sarah was born,” she said, “you turned into a hypochondriac. I talk you out of going to the hospital at least once a month. But this morning, you could hardly keep your eyes open. You tried to sleep on the couch, and when I told you to go upstairs, you looked around the living room like you were looking for the staircase.”
Jesse stared at her, refusing to give anything away. He’d become good at convincing people that he fit in, but he’d never been married before. How much harder would it be to convince a spouse?
“Do you remember that?” Leslie said.
“It was just this morning.” His voice came out like a croak, betraying the tension he felt but was desperate to mask.
“But you don’t remember a game you’ve been playing with your daughter for months.”
“What do you want from me?” Jesse said.
“Did something happen? Did you fall?”
Jesse shook his head.
“Can I take you to the hospital?”
He shook his head more forcefully.
“My mother can come by to watch Sarah.”
“I don’t need a doctor,” he said.
“No, you don’t,” Leslie said after a short pause. “You know exactly what’s going on, don’t you?”
She reached out her hands to place them around his face, then turned his head so he could no longer avoid making contact with those penetrating dark eyes. “Honey, tell me. Whatever it is.”
And then–impossibly, insanely–he told her everything.
She let him speak uninterrupted. At one point he’d fallen back into the bed, stared up at the white stippled ceiling, and she’d laid down beside him, resting her head on his chest. And the more he said–had he intended from the beginning to say so much? He felt sure he’d planned to only say enough to dispel her suspicions–but the more he said, the more he wanted to explain and clarify.
He’d started by telling her he wasn’t of this world, and she hadn’t laughed. So he’d explained: this isn’t the only world that exists. It’s a thin slice of true reality, which is a billion times a billion times a billion realities, with more born every second. Any time something can happen, the universe splits in two, like an amoeba replicating itself but with this minor difference: in one universe the thing happened and in the other it didn’t, the universe replicating and splitting endlessly to encompass all the possibilities.
And he–well, he had a special, uncontrollable ability. Whenever his life met its end, his mind shifted to another reality. But it was almost never to the sister-universe, the one that had just broken off. Otherwise he may never have realized what was happening. When he shifted, he was flung to another reality, sometimes skipping over entire branches of the cosmic tree.
“When did you first discover this–ability?” Leslie asked in a neutral tone.
“I was nine,” he said. “We had a tree in our backyard, a big oak with lots of thick branches. I wasn’t allowed to climb it, but my cousin Wayne was visiting. We were playing tag and he went up the tree, so I followed.”
“We were laughing and yelling at each other, then I had him by the ankle. And he shook me off. I remember hearing his loud guffaw turn into a scream of horror as I fell away from the tree. Then, before I could hit the ground, I was in my dad’s station wagon, feeling so sleepy I clonked out right in the back seat. When he shook me awake to bring me inside the house, I told my dad I was sorry for climbing the tree–I was trying to catch Wayne–and he told me, laughing, that I’d been having a nightmare. Wayne’s family had had to delay their visit by a week.
“I know it all sounds crazy,” he said, trying to rise to a seated position again. “I wouldn’t believe me if our roles were reversed.”
Leslie took the hint and sat up. “You’re so much like him,” she said, without smiling. “But just different enough. The way you speak is different. The words you use, the way you talk to me. Even the way you’re holding your head now, tilted to the side. The way you look at me, of course. Jesse–my Jesse–liked to scratch my back whenever we spoke, especially if I was lying on him. He liked to play with my hair. He couldn’t resist tucking my hair behind my ears.” She reached up and tucked away the two strands of hair herself.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry I’ve taken him away from you. You believe me?”
“You spoke of possibilities,” she said. “Possible worlds. I grant that your explanation is one possibility. Can you accept that maybe something else is going on?”
“Like what? Hitting my head sometime between making scrambled eggs and sitting down at the breakfast table?”
“It could be something more serious, Jesse. Sometimes things happen in–in someone’s brain, and it can cause . . . anyway, it’s worth getting checked out.” She tried to make the request sound casual, but although he’d only known this woman for less than a day, he saw how much his story had affected her: the concern was drawn in lines of worry across her forehead and around her tense eyes.
He deflected the request that night, as he would the next few times Leslie raised the issue, until the night they reached their agreement.
As he sipped terrible coffee–the beans had long since reached their best-before date; obviously this Jesse wasn’t a coffee-drinker and kept the machine around for guests–from a mug that said “World’s Best Teacher,” Jesse did what he always tried when he arrived in a new world: he would turn on the radio or TV, if there was one–which in this Jessie’s house, it seemed, there wasn’t–and let it play in the background, allowing his mind to soak in the news, the vocabulary, the preoccupations of this people; look at books on shelves, if there were any, glancing through ones that caught his eye. He would study framed pictures hanging on the walls and resting on side tables. Mostly he was looking for divergence, on a global and personal scale. How far away was this world from the last world he’d visited? How far away from any of the other worlds? How different was this Jesse from himself?
Email, and then smartphones, had been wonderful inventions. It was much easier to blend in after some time scanning through contacts, finding out who was in this Jesse’s circle, reading emails and text messages and social media. But where was this Jesse’s phone?
With a sudden realization, he returned to the bedroom and looked on the opposite side of the bed. A floating shelf was hung halfway up the wall. He walked around the bed and opened the drawer under the shelf; there was something very small inside, plugged into a cable that snaked into the wall. Jessie unplugged the small black square, which looked like a matchbook of polished black glass, and held it up to his face. He could almost always guess the password, given enough time, but face-scanning technology had saved him that trouble and he prayed this world had developed it. The object didn’t respond. He squeezed the square, shook it, tapped on it, turned it over and tapped again, asked it to let him in–that was it! Voice activation.
“Can you show me a map of where I am, please?”
In an instant the square shot up a three-dimensional projection, a view of the northern hemisphere that quickly zoomed in to a city that was recognizably Ottawa–good start, he thought.
“Show me how far to 6801 Terry Drive.”
The view zoomed out a little, indicated his location, then highlighted a path to his destination. “By car,” a hidden speaker said, “the journey will take approximately forty-five minutes.”
“Do I have a car?”
“Your car is parked on level P3, in stall 75.”
You’re going to be very useful, he thought. Then he realized how the little black square could be even more helpful. “Who lives at 6801 Terry Drive?”
The square said a name that wasn’t familiar to him. Of course; it would be too good to be true.
“Can you tell me where Leslie Porter lives?”
“There are seven Leslie Porters in Ottawa, forty-three in Ontario–”
“Leslie Anne Porter. She’s thirty-two. Her parents are Rick and Sue Porter.”
The little black glass found her and knew where she lived, and it wasn’t in Ottawa, or Ontario, or Canada. The Leslie Anne Porter of this world lived with her husband and two children–twins–in Glasgow, Scotland.
Jesse stared at the projected pictures of her family floating up from the square like a reverse waterfall.
“What time is it in Glasgow?”
“Four twelve in the morning.”
“Okay,” he said. “Call her.”
He and Leslie had a standing date every Saturday evening, when Leslie’s mom drove an hour to their house to watch Sarah. They’d go out to a different restaurant every week and, he discovered quickly, the only rule was that they weren’t allowed to talk about work or family, which dominated their conversations the rest of the week.
On one of those nights, several months after he’d arrived in that world, he decided that it was finally time to bring up the idea that had been gnawing at him for weeks.
On that occasion they’d chosen a fancier restaurant, which served his purposes well because the tables were set apart, the lighting was dim, and people spoke in hushed tones.
He waited for the next natural break in the conversation before he said, “Honey, I need you to do something for me–when I die.”
“Is your chest hurting you?” Leslie said, leaning forward.
“No, my heart’s fine. I’m fine. I mean–the other thing.”
Leslie tried to keep her expression neutral, but her face tightened.
“I wasn’t going to bring this up ever again,” he said. “But I need your help.” He reached his hand out for hers, and she allowed him to take it. “I know you have a hard time believing me. You make me doubt myself even. But I feel like I’ve been through this thing a thousand times before, maybe more, and that you’re my first chance to do something different. Will you help me?”
She took her hand back. “Jesse–”
“Just hear me out. If I’m wrong, it’ll never come to this. Okay?” She nodded for him to go on. “Do you remember the last time we talked about this? You said that I could consider myself lucky, that I’d lived so many lives. I brushed you off, because I didn’t want to talk about that–I wanted to talk about how guilty I felt for booting your Jessie out of his life, for robbing you and Sarah of him.” (And, he didn’t add, for sooner or later robbing them even of the poor substitute he made, since death always pursued him, to grab hold of him in its rotting teeth and fling him away to another universe). “But what I would’ve said if I’d wanted to get into it,” he continued, “is that you’re wrong. I didn’t feel like I’d lived a single day, until I met you and Sarah. But even with the two of you–and you two are the best thing that’s ever happened to me–even with you two, I still . . . can’t.”
“Enjoy what I have. Not only because you’re not rightly mine. It’s because I don’t feel I belong in this world. Something always feels out of place–and I know it’s me.”
He’d been leaning across the small table, and absentmindedly he reached up and brushed a strand of hair behind Leslie’s ear.
The waiter approached at that moment, and they were quiet while he set their plates in front of them. When he left, Leslie said, “So what do you want me to do?”
“Allow me to contact you when I die in this world.”
Leslie shook her head slowly, trying to understand him. She looked especially beautiful in the soft lighting and the flickering glow of the candle set to one side of the table. “Why?”
“Because then I’ll know. If all of this is real or if I’m crazy. More importantly, you’ll know.” He paused, his voice catching in his throat. Until he’d said the words, he hadn’t realized that that was a large part of the purpose of this experiment–to prove to this woman he loved that he wasn’t insane.
“And how will you contact me?” she said.
He smiled to try to ease the tension. “That’s the easy part. Convincing you to do it–you and the other you–is the hard part. And making sure I have enough time in both worlds to train you.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Yes,” she said. “On one condition.”
“I’ll go see someone,” he said instantly. He had no real intention of doing so and felt that Leslie wouldn’t hold him to it, once she’d seen what he’d seen.
Every day for weeks and then months he taught her what he’d spent years across lifetimes perfecting: how, through progressive meditation techniques, to reach a point of near-stillness of body and mind, and of total mental openness.
Then, when he felt she was sufficiently advanced, he whispered in her ear that she stood at the end of a narrow hall, a hall that stretched out endlessly, a hall of wooden doors on each side, and that behind each door was an entire world.
A thrill of excitement like he’d never known before went through him when she said she saw it.
“Was that–real?” she said, when he brought her back.
“I think so,” he said. “It’s what I saw when I went looking for other versions of myself. We’re obviously connected in some way–that was the idea that propelled me on my search. Otherwise I wouldn’t transfer into their bodies, right? I’d transfer into different people, random people.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in that hall. I can feel their presence behind the doors–all locked–but they don’t seem aware of mine, no matter what I say or do.”
Leslie looked uncertain so he said, “I’m grateful we’ve been given this time together.”
“Me too,” she said, and he helped her to her feet. “Now you’ll hold up your end of the bargain, yes?”
“You don’t believe me?” he said. “After what you’ve seen?”
She cupped his face in her hands. “You made a deal.”
He started seeing a therapist, but underplayed his condition–revealing only that he seemed aware of other realities and versions of himself, especially when he meditated. Leslie and he continued to practice together and she became as good as him, able to put herself into that state of stillness within minutes.
“If I die, Leslie,” he said to her one night after a session, “I need you to remember your promise. Every Saturday night for at least two years, yes?”
“Yes,” she said, and less than a month later he died in that world, desperately wondering if she’d been killed too.
The Leslie who lived in Scotland with her husband and twin boys refused to answer his calls, the one he’d stupidly made at a far too early hour for her, and the several he tried at more reasonable times. To explain why he was calling her repeatedly, he sent a message explaining how urgent the situation was, a matter of life and death, and that she needed to call him back as soon as she could. He’d waited a few days (as long as his willpower could hold out) and tried to call her again, to discover she’d blocked him from all forms of communication.
He’d messed it up with her–in this world.
Jesse’s apartment complex had a covered rooftop pool. He spent a night finding the bottom of a bottle of whiskey, then strapped on the heavy ankle weights he’d bought that morning, took the elevator up, and let himself sink into the warm water.
After a while, he felt someone wrap their large arms around him, bring him up. But it was too late–he’d already started slipping away from this world and he was gone before his head broke the surface of the water.
There was no Leslie in the next world, at least not one he could find; the Leslie of the world after that allowed him to take her out for a cup of coffee but wanted nothing to do with him when he insisted he needed to teach her meditation so she could find out if he’d been responsible for her death in another world. After a while, he accepted that he’d lost her forever, every version of her, but he continued to try and find the Leslie Anne Porter of every world he found himself in.
Then, one day, a familiar face appeared on his handheld screen when he’d clicked on her name in the searchable directory.
She seemed surprised to see him, her pink-dyed eyebrows lifting up in an expression he’d never seen her face make before. “Jesse Sonat, as I live and breathe,” she said, smiling.
Her smile dropped at his nonplussed reaction. “Are you okay?”
“You know me?” he said.
She stared hard at the screen, looking over his shoulder. “Jesse, are you home?”
“Stay there,” the woman who was once his wife, and had been a cold to tepid stranger ever since, said in the warmest tone of concern and intimacy. “I’m coming over.”
When he opened the door, there she was. She entered his apartment without being asked, like someone so used to visiting that permission was implied.
“I’ll make us some tea?” she said, taking off her windbreaker and hanging it in the closet near the front door.
“Sure,” he said, and watched her go into the kitchen and fill the kettle with water, flip it on, and almost subconsciously pull out two mugs and the box of teas from the cupboard. He sat on one of the high-backed stools by the dark marble countertop that separated his kitchen from his living room.
She stole uncertain glances at him as she worked, placing a tea bag and a drop of honey in each mug. “You still drink green tea with honey, right?”
“Of course,” he said.
It had been–how long?–six months, maybe seven, since Leslie had looked at him as if he were anything but a very strange and far-too-eager stranger.
This Leslie’s auburn hair was streaked with purple highlights, and underneath her pink eyebrows were black-rimmed glasses (the Leslie he still thought of as his wife had had laser-eye surgery before they met), but otherwise he could’ve been back in that same world. He could almost imagine they were together again; they’d just moved into an apartment from their house, and he could go into the second bedroom (which was an office with bookshelves, a desk, a computer, and lots of random unpacked boxes) and find it was actually a little girl’s room, with walls painted pink and purple like this Leslie’s hair and eyebrows, and find his little girl sitting cross-legged on the wooden ground, with a Barbie in each hand and carrying on an animated and in many ways sophisticated three-way conversation.
“Why are you looking at me like that? Is everything okay?” She handed him his mug of sweetened, steeping green tea. She had wrapped the string from the teabag around the handle of the mug.
“I missed you,” he said, without thinking, the sentiment pulled out of him by the sheer joy he felt at having this woman back in his life.
She returned his smile, though hers was sadder. “I missed you too, Jesse.”
He took a sip of the hot tea, burning the top of his lip. “Will you do me a favor?” he said. “Will you tell me how we first met?”
“You don’t remember?” The sad smile was almost too much for him to bear. Her searching gaze danced over his face, looking for–what? A sign that he wasn’t all there?
“If you tell me how we first met,” he said, “I’ll tell you what’s going on with me.”
She shook her head slightly, trying to understand him, but said, “We met at a coffee shop–”
“–on Bank Street. I picked up your order by accident.”
“Tell me more,” he said.
For the first year, their lives had followed the same path as the one from the world where he and Leslie were married and had Sarah. In that world, he’d proposed after that first year of dating; in this world, it seemed, he’d decided against it. They’d kept dating for the next few years until Leslie had proposed to him and he’d said no. No! It seemed that he (he!) had decided to break things off a few months earlier.
“What an idiot,” he said.
The conversation had been strange. Leslie regarded him with a mixture of concern, for obvious reasons, and suspicion, as if worried he was putting her on. They’d moved with their mugs of tea to the living room, and sat with legs touching, in what seemed their usual spots, on the black leather couch facing the large window overlooking downtown Ottawa. He felt a thrill about being so close to her, especially when at one point she had put down her empty mug and curled into his arms. They spoke with so much of their old familiarity that finally he let down his guard.
“I’m not of this world,” he said.
She pulled away to stare at him.
“I’d like to explain that to you, if you’ll let me.”
She straightened out and pulled up her legs, hugging them to her body. “Oh, I’m listening. You have my full attention.”
He told her everything, the way he had the night his wife Leslie had forced him to explain what was going on. He told her about finding himself in a world where they were married, and the beautiful little child they had (he liked the way her face lit up with delight at the thought). He told her about the car accident, the worlds he’d visited since then, how desperate he was to reach out to that Leslie, not just for what he wanted to learn from her, but to make sure that she and Sarah were okay. The death of the Jesses whose lives he took weighed heavily enough on his conscience–but he had no choice in the matter. He’d never before caused the death of others . . . and to cause the death of these two people–
“It’s okay.” Leslie placed a hand on his knee. “Teach me, then. Like you taught her.”
He didn’t know if she believed him or was humoring him. But he started right away, teaching her how to breathe properly, how to still her mind, to fill her consciousness with a tiny light that she willed to be bigger and brighter until it filled the universe. At first she seemed to be enjoying the lessons–he flattered himself that she seemed happy that they were spending so much time together again–but he was anxious and pushed her, to keep going when she wanted to take a break, to practice when she wanted to watch a movie instead. Finally, one night, she stormed out of his apartment.
He ran after her. “I’m sorry.”
They stood in the hallway, facing the unblinking eyes of the elevator doors.
“You’re using me,” she said.
“I need to know that she’s okay. And I don’t know how much time I have left in this world. You–you’re–” He grabbed her by the shoulders in his excitement, his desire to convince her. “You’re a gift. You’re such a gift. But I’m afraid that if I can’t get you to contact her, I’ll never get this chance again.”
It took another two months of work to get Leslie to the point where, one night, she could visualize the hall of infinite doors.
“I see it,” she whispered with wonder.
“We’ll take it slow,” he said, using the words to try and contain his own excitement. “I’m going to pull you back. I–”
Leslie screamed in terror, a short, sharp yell like that of someone who has walked into a dark empty room and felt the touch of a cold hand on their chest.
“Leslie, come back,” he said, trying to keep the panic out of his voice. “I want you to–”
“It’s okay,” she whispered. “It’s her.”
He didn’t breathe for a moment; his body froze over, then he shivered and thawed. “She’s alive?”
“She startled me. She says she’s been searching for me for a year now–over a year. Checking every night, not just Saturdays. She got a little excited to see me, she says. Jesse, this is a bit trippy. I’m not sure I want to do this.”
He could hardly believe his ears, but he tried to keep his voice level. “It’s all right,” he said. “You’re doing great. You’re safe.”
After a long pause, she said, “She says she’s alive and fine, and Sarah is too. The accident wasn’t too bad. Sarah wasn’t hurt at all, and she–Leslie–just a broken arm.”
Now Jesse’s heart was pounding in his ears so loudly he could almost not make out the whispered words he’d been waiting so long to hear.
He saw Leslie freeze over then, as he had done just a few moments before.
“What is it? Leslie, please.”
“She said you’re alive too. You didn’t die. You hit your head against the steering wheel and had a concussion, but otherwise you were–she says you were back to your old self.”
She was quiet for a few moments, but despite the thousand questions he wanted to yell at her, he knew it was a mistake to interrupt. Leslie smiled gently, then seemed to be responding, and then listening again when she turned her head to one side. He watched her go through the cycle a few times. Then whatever she was hearing became unpleasant; her face creased and she seemed almost physically in pain. He hesitated, wondering if he should say something. Finally, before he could decide, her breathing became a little deeper and her voice a little steadier, and she said, “Jesse, I’m coming back.”
But it was too late. She opened her eyes slowly, looked up at him, crouching down beside her, and he knew that she now saw him in a completely different light.
He’d assumed that the consciousnesses of the other Jessess ceased when he invaded their minds. Apparently that wasn’t true.
“He’s alive,” she said, absentmindedly waving away his attempt to help her up, getting to her feet on her own.
“That’s good news,” he said. “I’ve been carrying around all this guilt. But I’m just displacing them for a little while. So maybe I can do what I’ve never allowed myself to do. Maybe I can just enjoy–” He stopped. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“She said that if you want to visit her and Sarah, you can–her world’s Jesse will let you into his mind.”
The idea that he could hold that little girl’s hand in his–though she’d be a year older now!–made him feel lighter and happier than he had in all the time since the car accident.
“So what’s wrong with that?” he said. “You’re worried I won’t come back to you?”
Leslie shook her head, then went into the kitchen to pour herself a glass of water.
He followed and waited for her to turn off the faucet before he said, “Leslie, tell me.”
“She wants you to visit because she has something she needs to say to you. She tried to hide it from me–but I know her almost as well as I know myself.”
He sat on the stool. “What is it?”
She took a deep breath, then slid the glass of water toward him and waited for him to take a sip. “The Jesse in her world is terrified of you. At first he said he couldn’t remember much from the previous year, which the doctors blamed on the concussion. But Leslie–his Leslie–persisted and more came back to him. He knew you were there, inside his mind; and it felt like he’d been locked away. Like in a coffin, where it was hard to breathe.”
Jesse’s gaze searched the veins of the black marble countertop. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s not on purpose.”
“She thinks it is.”
He looked up. Leslie stared back, her jaw set and her eyes unblinking. Leslie (both of them, maybe all the others too) had a way of getting through anything, once they’d set their mind to it. Leslie had set her mind to tell him everything she’d found out, no matter how much pain it caused him, like a field surgeon having to operate in an emergency without the luxury of anesthetic.
“She thinks you were supposed to die when you fell out of that tree. But fear propelled you into another Jesse’s body, and then another after that. She says the two of you should’ve figured it out. Who has that many near-death experiences?
“She said that you think death is haunting you, but that that isn’t true. You are death; a ghost, haunting versions of yourself.”
He tried to smile, then settled on another sip of water. “You’re being very cold. I pushed you too far.”
She didn’t stop staring at him. “It’s not just that. Somewhere in your head, the Jesse I love is being suffocated. By you.”
Nothing she’d said before hurt as much as that revelation. “If I had a choice, I’d leave,” he said quietly.
“You don’t belong in this world, like you told me the first time we met. And you don’t belong in her world, either.”
“I know that,” Jesse said, pushing himself to his feet, feeling like he’d heard enough for one night.
“I’m sorry.” She came around the countertop that had been dividing them, and held his face in her hands. “I don’t blame you for what’s come before–you didn’t know. But now you do, and so do I. I can’t let you go on like this. I can’t allow you to do this to him.”
“I can’t leave,” he said. “Not without hurting him.”
“She knows a way. You go into the hall, and you close the door behind you.”
He closed his eyes, enjoying the way her hand felt against his skin. He pressed his own hand against hers for a moment.
“Okay,” he said, opening his eyes. “But I need to do two things first.”
“Sure,” she said. “Whatever you need.”
He stood, went around to the other side of the kitchen, and retrieved a pen and pad of paper. He wrote out a short note, then folded it and handed it to her.
She stared at it.
“It’s not for you,” he said. “It’s telling him to stop being an idiot.”
Her furrowed brow cleared as the words registered. “Okay,” she said. “Thanks.” She put the folded piece of paper down on the countertop and looked back at him. “You said there was another thing.”
He looked at the part of the living room they’d dubbed their meditation corner. “Just don’t rush me, okay? Give me the time I need.”
He walked over to the corner where the two empty off-white walls met, and sat down cross-legged.
“Should I say goodbye?” he heard her say hesitantly.
He opened his eyes to look up at her. He gave her one last smile and shook his head gently.
Then he closed his eyes again, and began to block out all sounds except that of his own, ever-slowing breathing.
“Honey?” he heard Leslie’s voice. But it wasn’t the Leslie he’d just been speaking with; despite all the similarities, somehow there was enough difference in the voice that he could tell them apart, even if he hadn’t known that he was entering this Leslie’s world.
“It’s me,” he said, opening his eyes with difficulty.
They were sitting next to each other at the kitchen table, the chairs turned to face each other, and suddenly he noticed they were holding hands. He squeezed hers in his.
“I’m glad you came,” she said.
“Me too,” he said, yawning, fighting back the feelings of exhaustion that threatened to tempt him into asking if he could have a quick nap before they spoke any more. But he’d promised the Jesse he’d met in the hallway, who’d let him into his mind, that he’d be as quick as possible.
“I know. She told me everything.”
Leslie dropped into the back of her chair, pulling her hand away from him in the process. “She promised–” she began, almost to herself. Then she met his gaze again. “Was she kind?”
“Very kind,” he said, smiling. “I came to say goodbye.”
Leslie’s eyes welled up and she used the back of her hand to wipe the tears away.
“Is Sarah still awake? Can I go see her?”
As he stood, Leslie reached out to grab his arm. “Please don’t confuse her, okay?”
“I won’t.” He went up the familiar wooden stairs, running his fingers along the walls and the picture frames.
Sarah was in her bed, but her eyes were half-closed. Even in the dark, she looked so much more grown-up than he remembered.
“Daddy,” she said, softly, sleepily. “You already said goodnight.”
“Hi, darling.” He crouched by her bed. “I needed to say one more thing.”
“What?” she said.
“Do you want to hear a secret?”
“I love you, too,” she said, lazily reaching out her hands to hug his neck.
He squeezed her, then let her sleep, standing up and giving her one last, long look before turning around.
Leslie watched him from the doorway. He took her by the hand and brought her back downstairs.
“Is it okay to give you a hug?” he said.
“You’re my husband,” she said. “It’s okay.”
They hugged, and while her head was resting on his chest, she said, “You don’t have to leave right away, you know.”
With deep reluctance, he pulled away from her. “I do,” he said. “And I feel like if I don’t leave right now, I’m going to pass out and sleep until morning.” He kissed the top of her head. “Thank you.”
“Jesse–” she said.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been stealing other people’s lives for as long as I can remember. It’ll be nice . . . not to be, for once.”
“What if it isn’t the end?” she said. “Isn’t it possible that your consciousness continues to exist into a life after this one? And since all possibilities must exist–you taught me that–then that possibility must exist too, right?”
“Well, that would be a nice surprise,” he said, leading her back to the kitchen table. “Though I’d have to spend a lot of time apologizing to many different versions of myself. But if it means that one day I’ll get to see you and Sarah again . . . well, that’s a wonderful thought. I’m going to carry that thought with me.”
They sat across from each other, then impulsively she leaned across and placed her soft lips on his. When she pulled away, he smiled at her one last time, closed his eyes, and slowed his breathing.
He found himself back in the hall of infinite doors, the door behind him still open. Beyond that door lay Leslie and Sarah and a beautiful life. But it wasn’t his life. He reached back and swung the door shut. It closed with a click, the hallway disappeared, and–
Karl El-Koura lives with his family in Canada’s capital city, holds a second-degree black belt in Okinawan Goju Ryu karate, and works for the Canadian Federal Public Service. To find out more about Karl, visit his website at www.ootersplace.com.