In Another Life
by Kelly Sandoval
Waking after a night spent slipping, I reach for Louisa automatically, rolling into the empty space where she belongs. I lick the memory of her from my lips, languid with sex. The alarm shrieks from my bedside table but I’ve gotten good at ignoring it.
We went skating. Louisa wore a purple sweater and, giggling and unsteady, clung to my arm. We kissed on the ice and she pressed herself against me, her frozen fingers sneaking under my coat to stroke my back. It’s her laughter I cling to. These days, I only hear her low, honeyed laugh when I’m slipping. I miss the warmth of it.
But it fades. Even the taste of her fades.
I tell myself it’s all right. That it’s necessary. I’ve got an appointment with my therapist at noon. If I’m still clinging to the night’s slip, he’ll know I haven’t been taking my medication.
No help for it. I drag myself out of bed and hit the alarm. My head pounds and the world blurs along the edges. I’ve slipped for three nights straight and ice skating with Louisa is nothing like sleeping. If I don’t take a day off soon, it’ll start to get dangerous.
My therapist would say it’s already dangerous. But he doesn’t understand what I’ve lost.
I’ve got four houses to show before my appointment, and a lot of coffee to drink to be ready for them. He’ll make a thing of it, if I’m late. He always does.
The hours dribble past, hazy and distant. It’s like I left a shard of myself in my alter and can’t quite get back in step with my timeline. When the charming young couple at house two asks me about financing I try to answer, only to be distracted by the ghost of a red-headed boy rushing past in pursuit of a large gray bunny. The woman selling the house wears her red curls pulled back in a tight bun. She’s childless, though abandoned rabbit hutches sit moldering in the back yard, lowering her property values.
Does she slip, stealing moments with this laughing, clumsy boy?
She must. Slipping repeatedly in one place weakens the barrier between timelines. Of course, slipping too frequently makes one more likely to stumble across echoes like the boy. Best not to think about that.
It’s been a month since I last took my medication.
I’m five minutes late to my appointment. I am always five minutes late to my appointment. I could leave my place at six in the morning and still arrive at David’s office at 12:05.
His office has the same generic welcome of a staged house: bland watercolors, off-white walls, a shelf of unread books.
“Clara,” he says, stepping out from behind his desk to sit in one of two identically unremarkable armchairs. “We’ve discussed this.”
“It’s not my fault.” I perch at the very edge of the other chair. Staging furniture is never comfortable. “You don’t have a parking lot. I’ve been circling the block.”
“Your issues stem from your inability to cope with time appropriately.” He takes off his glasses and cleans them with a cloth from his shirt pocket. I wonder if he needs them or if they’re just another prop. “Keeping your appointments would be a positive step.”
My issues wear a purple sweater and ice skates. They smell like cinnamon and cry on rainy days.
My issues left me two years ago and don’t take my phone calls.
My issues were in my bed last night, their teeth bruising my skin.
“Clara?” He’s frowning now. I should have said something while I had the chance. “Have there been any incidents you’d like to discuss?”
A week ago, Louisa’s sister went into labor in the middle of the night. We drove her to the hospital and by sunrise Carlos was being weighed and measured. He gripped my finger in one fat brown fist while Louisa stroked his dark curls. She said she wanted a baby of her own.
By the time I let go, slipping back into myself, I’d missed my first meeting. But I could still feel those tiny fingers wrapped around mine and my heart ached with new dreams.
“No,” I say. “No incidents.”
I’m impressed by how dismissive I sound. David isn’t. He keeps frowning.
“Have you been taking your medication?” he asks.
I consider lying, but he can order a drug test. “Not today,” I admit. “It was sort of a hectic morning.”
“Clara.” He leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees, the picture of eager concern. “Why are you here?”
Court order, actually. If you slip while driving, the resultant crash tends to lead to legal proceedings, a revoked license, and a choice between therapy and jail time. It took six months of good behavior before they let me have my license back.
“I was reckless,” I say. “I need to learn better control.”
“No,” he says. “Slipping isn’t reckless. It’s suicidal. Your alter isn’t you.”
Maybe not. But I’m there too. I can remember what Louisa smells like. You can’t remember the smell of someone if you weren’t really there.
“I remember who I am,” I say. And I do. He just doesn’t understand that I also remember who I should be.
“You may think you do. But losing track of yourself, even once, means brain death.”
“I know.” I’ve seen the tube fed husks of people lost to slipping. Louisa’s mother, for one. “I’ll stop. Just as soon as things are right here, I’ll stop.”
“There is no right, Clara.” He locks his gaze with mine, enunciating each word with care. “There’s only what is. And you need to learn to face that.”
“No,” I say. “She changed her number. She got a restraining order. That isn’t right. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.”
“Clara–” he sounds like he’s going to be reasonable again.
“She loves me.” The words catch in my throat and I choke on tears. “She told me last night. She said she loved me. That she needed me.”
“Clara, I know it can feel real.” He hands me a box of tissues as if that will fix anything. As if I’ll dab my eyes and thank him for his warm, rational patience. “But the Louisa you knew isn’t the woman you slip to, just as you aren’t the alter you ride.”
“But we’re close,” I argue. “I made a mistake. My alter didn’t. We want the same things. And Louisa, both of her, they want the same things, too.”
They want me. I know truths about her that no one else knows. Truths even she doesn’t know.
“Maybe they did once,” he says. “But once a timeline splits, a person and their alter grow apart. Different experiences create different people.”
No. Her laugh is the same laugh I remember, her touch just as electric. David is silent, for a time, waiting for me to agree with him. I glance at my watch. It’s not the response he’s looking for.
“Clara, I’m going to have to insist you take your medication. Here, in my office. Otherwise, I’ll have no choice but to report you for non-compliance.” “I don’t have it on me.”
He stands, going back to his desk and returning with a prescription bottle of familiar pink pills. Just the sight of them makes my stomach roil. “Please,” he says. “I need you to work with me. You have to want to get better.”
I take the bottle, shake out two pills, and dry swallow them before he can offer me water. I even open my mouth and stick out my tongue, proving I’ve been a good girl.
The rest of the appointment doesn’t go well. He keeps talking about coping methods but all I can think about is the poison he’s given me dissolving in my stomach. He insists we move our next appointment up to next week and I nod obediently, ready to agree to anything if it gets me away from him.
“You’ll feel better soon,” he says, as I’m walking out. “A few days without slipping and everything will be clear again.”
Rushing would be suspicious, so I walk through the waiting room at an even pace, counting my steps. It’s not until I’m out the door and past his windows that I break into a run. The nearest alleyway is half a block away. I duck between the buildings and breathe deeply, inhaling the rotten stench of the dumpster to my left. While a group of uptown types in business suits pass on the sidewalk, talking about lunch, I force my fingers down my throat. Tears run down my cheeks as I gag, choke, and finally vomit onto the filthy asphalt. The puddle at my feet is a thin soup of energy drinks, power bars and, yes, the half-dissolved remains of two pink pills.
I won’t let him take her away from me.
Louisa lives near the center of town, in the sort of neighborhood I’d never show my clients. Seventies track houses with peeling paint sit moldering behind stretches of brown grass. My condo, the condo we’re meant to be sharing, is smaller than her place but it’s in a desirable neighborhood on the north side of town. It’s a safe neighborhood, the sort of neighborhood people want to raise their kids in. She should appreciate that.
Her car, a rust-bitten Ford, is parked in the open garage and there’s no sign of her girlfriend’s obnoxious hybrid. It’ll be just the two of us. Like it should be.
And sure, there’s the restraining order. I know I’m not supposed to be around. But that was all Hybrid’s idea. Louisa never would have done that to me. She knows I’d never really hurt her.
After all, she answers the door.
She always answers the door.
“Clara.” Her low voice is breathy with sadness. I can hear how she’s missed me. “Hey.”
No accusations or threats. Not from my Louisa. She doesn’t smile, but I understand that. She feels bad for pushing me away.
“We went ice-skating last night,” I tell her. “At the place on Sunset.”
She shakes her head, lowering her eyes so strands of dark hair fall into her face. When I reach to tuck them back behind her ear, she flinches away. “I was here last night. With Joanne.”
“Only part of you.” I reach for her again and she lets me take her hand. Her fingers are warm and rough and familiar. “I wish you would let me show you. Come with me, just once. We’re so happy, there.”
She squeezes, just for a second, then pulls her hand back. “I’m happy here. You know that.”
“Louisa, just once. Your sister, she had a baby. Don’t you want to meet your nephew?”
“I have. I was at the hospital yesterday.” She locks her fingers together and I catch her fidgeting with a slim circle of gold. “Joanne and I are talking about adopting.”
“What’s this?” I grab for her hand and she jerks backwards, putting the door between us. “Louisa, what have you done?”
“We’re getting married,” she says. “I asked Joanne to marry me.”
“No.” The word tears itself from my throat, the leading edge of a sob. “No. We’re together. I bought you turquoise earrings for our anniversary. We’re planning a trip to Peru. You just told me you wanted a baby.”
She touches the engagement ring and shakes her head. “You have to go now.” Her voice is hard and cold, a wall like I’ve never heard in her before.
“You have to stop coming here. The stuff you’re talking about, it’s not real. It’s not me.”
“No.” She starts to shut the door. “I’m sorry, Clara. But we’re done. We’ve been done.”
The door slams. I try the handle and press the bell over and over again. She doesn’t come. Not for the bell, not for my fists against the door, not even for my voice screaming her name.
I just need her to listen. We’re not over. We’ll never be over. Since the breakup I’ve run with her through city streets, shouted alongside her to our favorite bands, kissed her in the rain.
She loves me; she could never love anyone else. I can’t be happy without her.
She still isn’t answering. My fists ache and my eyes blur with tears. The door fades as the world doubles: a busy street, a steering-wheel, rock music. My alter is driving somewhere, and I’m catching the echo.
In another life, I didn’t mess up. I didn’t lose her. I reach for that should-have-been and feel the hooking tug at my soul as a better time tries to find me.
Usually, slipping is like diving into cold water: a moment of shock and it’s over. But I didn’t get rid of David’s drugs in time. A thread of venom pulses through my blood, trying to hold me back. I have to tear myself free of it.
It’s like jumping into a pool of broken glass. The world reddens, grays, threatens to go black.
Somewhere, Louisa calls my name and it’s still the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard. I press my thoughts forward, embracing the agony, anything to get to my alter. To get to Louisa.
The world clicks, agony receding. I settle into my alter’s mind, disoriented by pain. She’s driving toward the south side of town, alone. Her memories rise, crashing against my hastily erected barriers. This is the dangerous part. David isn’t wrong, not totally. Slipping can kill, in every way that matters. An alter’s mind can overwhelm a rider, memories of the dominant timeline overtaking those that don’t belong. Either you stay apart or you disappear.
In the past, I’ve been careful. I’ve watched Louisa through my alter’s eyes, felt her through my alter’s fingers. And I’ve kept my mind my own.
I thought I had a reason. I thought my alter’s life was a promise, waiting to be kept.
I thought things would be right again.
Louisa is wearing that bitch’s ring.
Nothing will ever be right again.
Memories lap against the edges of my protections. My alter is thinking about Louisa with her sister’s baby in her arms. She’s hearing Louisa whisper about being a mother. I’m hearing Louisa whisper about being a mother.
The solution is so simple. Forget drugs, forget therapy, forget begging at Louisa’s door. I already have her.
All I have to do is let go. Forget.
As I park outside David’s office the world twists and lurches. The sensation is so like slipping that I twitch and clip the curb. Things settle back into place. Not a slip, just a second of nerves. I sit in the car a minute, waiting to calm down. If he sees me upset, he’ll know I haven’t been taking my medication. By the time I get inside, it’s 3:10 and he’s frowning.
“Clara,” he says. “We’ve discussed this.”
“It’s not my fault,” I say. The words feel strange, as if I’ve said them before. I have, of course. I’m usually late. I close my eyes and shake my head, chasing away the feeling of déjà vu.
“What is it?” he asks. “Have you been remembering your medication?”
I nod a lie. “Yes. Just coming down with a cold. I’m a little lightheaded.”
He’s not buying it. “Clara, you have a wonderful wife, a beautiful home, and an excellent career. And you’re risking it all to slip away into a fantasy.”
I think of Louisa and my stomach twists. Ever since her nephew was born, all she’s wanted to talk about is being a mother. I’ve never wanted kids. Just one more sign of how wrong we are for each other.
“That woman you slip to–”
“Michelle,” I say. It feels so good to say her name out loud.
“The Michelle you slip to, she isn’t real. Not here. Not to us.”
Of course she’s real. Just yesterday, we ate sushi in the park. We took the dogs and spent hours watching them dash after tennis balls.
I’ve always liked dogs. Louisa is allergic or claims to be.
“She’s real,” I say. “What we have is real. I love her.”
“You haven’t even met her,” he says, still trying to sound reasonable. “Not in this timeline.”
Not yet. But I will. And when I do, I’ll finally be happy.
About the Author
Kelly Sandoval is a speculative fiction author, Seattleite, and Clarion West graduate. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Asimov’s, Shimmer, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015. She also one of the senior editors/publishers of Liminal Stories.
About the Narrator
Carla Doak talks for a living, and pushes buttons – some literal, some metaphorical. She get to play music (and for the most part, chooses what she gets to play!), talk to folks from all walks of life, give away awesome things and generally make people smile.
She searches the world (often via the internet) for strange, wonderful, thought-provoking, conversation-invoking things and relay that information to hundreds and thousands, with her voice and with written word.