by Steen Comer
Woke up again. Checked the news feeds. Everything seems to be about the same, though there is news of a presidential candidate who I don’t remember dropping out of the race. It’s really hard for someone in my position to take an interest in politics, so that’s not really a strong indication. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.
I went to work and the office was still there. My memory tells me I’ve had this job for a few months now, which is helpful. One of the most traumatic shifts I had, because it was one of the first, was showing up at my office job and finding that it was an auto body shop. Luckily I had a faint memory of another location and was able to get there only half an hour late. My boss didn’t even notice.
That was when I first started really thinking about the shifts. I had been seeing the small ones for a long time, but that was the first incontrovertible one, the first that I couldn’t explain away as an error of memory. I thought I was going crazy, of course. Spent a while like that. And, in a case like this, it’s impossible to be sure that I’m not crazy. But I’ve found a Practical Operational Paradigm, as Jonas was fond of saying.
Oh Jonas. First shifter other than myself I ever met. Last one I ever saw. I should get back to work. I don’t know why today I need to write this down again. Maybe it’s the sky. It’s a flat grey that could be anywhere. It’s the color of Claire’s eyes.
Writing earlier today got me thinking about things again. I feel a need to get more of this out.
It just got frustrating, after a while, you know? Never knowing what to expect on any given day. I’d go for months, most of the time, without anything happening. I’d work my job, whatever it was, I’d go to my house, whatever that was, pretend to have friends, whatever those are. I mean, they’d care for me, until they didn’t, until I was someone else. I’d start to get used to things, and think maybe I’ll make something else happen. Maybe I’ll try to move on to a more interesting job, or maybe I’ll try to date someone. And then I’d get hit again. Like a car crash to my life, sideswiped out of nowhere, sent spinning into another lane, pointing in some new direction, but always moving just as fast.
Sometimes it’s small, almost like a warning shot. A famous sports team plays hockey instead of basketball. A brand of candy is blue instead of orange. Nothing that couldn’t be explained by a failure of memory, just enough to keep me on edge. In a way, those are worse than the big ones, because the uncertainty is torture. When I wake up in another bedroom, or in another city, or in the middle of a war zone, it’s easier. At least then I’m more certain that it’s not just me.
Funny thing, I’m just now realizing I’ve never had a particularly different body. I’m slightly skinnier or slightly shorter, but there’s some residual body image thing going on. I’ve never woken up as another sex, or particularly fat, or significantly older. I’m always me, more or less. I don’t want to lean toward body essentialism here, but maybe there is something to be said about the body as an anchor for a sense of self. Nothing else seems to make sense.
Jonas never changes much either. He’s generally a man in his 40s, hair so pale it could either be blonde or white. The first time I met him, he was a homeless tramp asking me for change. That must have been San Francisco, or maybe Baltimore, or maybe New Elizabethtown. I tried to dig out some money, but it wasn’t in the right pocket, and I wound up standing there fumbling while he went on about “bless you and thank you,” in that Jonas way, but then he said, “I just want to get some breakfast and a Columbine Cup.”
I stopped, one hand stupidly half out of my pocket. “What did you say?”
He looked guilty and tried to ramble in a crazy old man way, but now that I was paying attention, the cunning, the trying to escape, became obvious. See, I had just that morning walked past the place where my local Columbine Cup had been, and it was now a Starbucks. I hadn’t thought much of it at the time. It was one detail, the kind that resonates in an unnerving background way, but I’d never liked eating there anyway.
I don’t know, I guess I felt like if I was going to be crazy then it was ok to be crazy to a guy in a trench coat sprawled in a doorway. He was outside the world, so I didn’t care if he knew I was too. I squatted down next to him and, pretty calmly under the circumstances, said, “Columbine Cup doesn’t exist here. They never did. I searched it.”
He stopped doing the crazy old man routine then. His dark eyes snapped onto me, and for a moment I thought he was going to stab me. Then he grinned toothily, and said, “Well, guess I’ll have to settle for breakfast elsewhere. Does this place have Starbucks?”
“Yeah,” I said, like it was reasonable, “but they don’t have the coconut milk here.”
He grunted. “Who’s the president?”
For some reason, we both thought that was hilarious, and his chuckle became my full fledged howls of laughter. Passers by must have thought I was as mad as the dirty old man on the sidewalk, and I did not care. Because I’d found someone like me.
I skipped work that day and took him to lunch. It was a world where I had an office gig that paid pretty well, so I could afford it. He seemed comfortable sitting in the booth, a king in rags, not at all ashamed of his condition. He ate his minestrone with enjoyment but not the unrestrained abandon of the desperately hungry.
“How long have you been homeless?” I asked.
“Memory says a few months. Apparently I had a girlfriend, she left me, I took to drink. Really though? Maybe a week. I’ll be out soon.”
“You know how long between shifts?” I asked, amazed that this was possible.
He shrugged and kept sipping his soup. “You get an instinct for it after a while.”
“How long’s a while?”
He looked up at me from under bushy eyebrows and said, “What does ‘how long’ mean?”
“Good point,” I said, and settled back in the booth. I didn’t know why it was suddenly okay to talk about these things, and a nagging feeling in the back of my head was screaming that eventually I was going to have to stop playing crazies with the old man and go back to real life. But then I took another sip of the coffee, missed when it was made with chicory here, and fell right back into the role.
“It’s the little things,” he said, as if I had said it aloud, “The tiny details that make up a life. That’s what’s yours, not all this…” he waved his spoon, encompassing the restaurant, the city, the hairstyles and fashions and presidents and books and movies of the world “…this window dressing.”
“When I was little,” he continued, “I had a bear. Not a live one, a stuffed guy. Red, he was, and button eyed and sweet. Smelled of warm grass and cool sheets.”
“Was that real?” I asked, and immediately felt like an asshole.
“No idea,” he said. “But, you know, I want it to be. Maybe in this world, I had the bear, maybe in this world I was an orphan. But,” he tapped his forehead, “in here, it’s real. Who cares what these fuckers say.”
Something about his phrasing caught my ear. “Which fuckers? You think this is a conspiracy of some sort?”
Another shrug, but slower and more ambiguous. “Does it matter?”
“Of course it matters,” I said. “If someone is doing this… whatever to us, we can figure out how to…” and before I said “end it,” I realized the flaw in my logic.
“And what are you going to do? Let’s assume it is some conspiracy,” he said. “So, you find the CEO, or the King in Yellow, or the whatever, and say ‘Ok, look you’”–here he pointed his soup spoon at me accusingly–“‘you best give me back my life. Whatever life was mine. Wherever that was. Whoever I am.’ And then what?”
I stared glumly into my coffee. “Yeah I guess you’re right.”
“What you gotta do,” he said, “is get yourself a good Practical Operational Paradigm.” He said it with capital letters, but I couldn’t tell if that was emphasis or sarcasm. “You get evidence, you make a model for what’s happening. You keep with that model until you get evidence that contradicts it.”
“You sound like a scientist,” I said.
“I will be soon,” he said, and dove back into his soup.
I saw Jonas off and on for a while after that. When we parted company, he didn’t have a phone or address, but a few months later I saw him on the street wearing a cream colored suit. I couldn’t tell if he had changed physically or just lost some of the patina of homelessness. I was afraid he wouldn’t recognize me, or, rather, I was afraid that I was being crazy in thinking it was him. After a life of so many strangers thinking they’re your friends, it’s hard to guess if it’s true from the other side.
But he recognized me and reached to shake my hand. I looked at his outstretched hand with fear. In that moment, I saw a way out. If I ignored him, pretended I didn’t recognize him, and walked away, I could tell myself that it had just been a trick of my mind, that everything was fine, that I lived a normal life like everyone else. But if I accepted that contact, from someone else who lived in the same madness as me, it was no longer madness. It was real. I was terrified.
I took his hand. I didn’t really have a choice, in the end.
We went to lunch again, at the same restaurant.
“For continuity’s sake,” he said, laughing.
This time I had the minestrone. It was bland and watery and the beans were undercooked, and the waitress who worked there was the same one from last time but about 40 pounds heavier and with an easy smile she hadn’t had before. But it was good to see Jonas again. I don’t know what he was doing for work, but this time he paid the check, and when he pulled his wallet out of his coat, it came with a bundle of receipts and a couple of photographs. The only one I saw clearly was, for some reason, a picture of an empty chair.
We talked with the same strange ease we had before. It wasn’t, as I dreamed it would be before I met someone else like me, an excited gush of reconnecting lost souls alone in a world that made no sense. It was just two people who had something in common. It was like seeing an uncle who only shows up to weddings and funerals. You know nothing about him, but you don’t need to because he’s family. Besides, what was there to know that wouldn’t shift underfoot the moment we said it? We were both adrift in a sea that did not allow for small talk. The details of our lives were meaningless to ourselves. How could they be meaningful to someone else?
But then I mentioned one particular detail, and it shattered that peace.
Claire was a girl who worked in the cafe by my office. I would always get a coffee from her before work, and she would always smile when she saw me come in. Medium length brown hair pulled up in bun that always stuck out in all directions like a halo. Glasses, most of the time, a superbly adorable upturned nose, and a mean hand on the cappuccino machine. We would make small talk, and it felt like she wanted to continue the conversation, but I couldn’t be sure. I suppose in one way I was preemptively giving up, because no matter how much she liked me, I didn’t want to risk getting involved with anyone under my circumstances.
One day as she handed me my coffee, she said, “You know, when you first came in, I thought you looked familiar. But I can’t for the life of me figure out who you are.”
I swallowed my first several responses and finally said, glibly I hoped, “Well, maybe you’re remembering the future.”
As soon as I said it I realized how much it sounded like a cheesy pickup line, but she laughed and said, “Only one way to find out. Do you have plans for dinner?”
And then I woke up one day, opened my eyes, and saw her sleeping peacefully beside me.
I tried to remember how long we had been doing this. The bedroom was the one I remembered as mine, but there were photos of her everywhere. Pictures of us on a beach, pictures of us in a cheesy photo booth. A picture of her sitting in a beam of sunlight, reading, oblivious to the camera. I found myself desperately hoping I had taken that picture. I remembered none of it. Also, I kept being distracted by the way the morning light played on her hair. Seeing it loose was like a signal that I had entered a sacred place. In the end I just gave up and happily kissed her when she snuggled into my arms.
This had all happened before I saw Jonas the second time, and he must have seen something in my manner that was different. When he asked how I was doing, I had to mention Claire, because at the time she was expanding to fill my entire world.
His eyes grew hard, and for the first time, his easy manner fell away. “This is a bad idea,” he said.
I was, of course, incensed. Who was he to take away this shot at happiness, no matter how doomed? I said something to that effect, probably less coherently, and he just said, “You know what’s going to happen. You know you’re going to lose her. And you won’t even know why, and that’s what will torture you.”
I must have stared angrily off into space for some time, because the waitress’s easy smile was strained when she came over and asked if I needed a refill on my coffee. I said no thanks, and somewhat stiffly told Jonas I had to go. He didn’t say anything as I stood up, but as I passed, he said my name in a way that it stopped me as surely as if he’d grabbed my arm.
“You know what’s going to happen,” he said again. “Don’t do this to yourself.”
I walked out without saying a word.
Claire and I continued happily for some time. We laughed and loved, and she got fired or quit from the cafe and got a job elsewhere in the city, so I no longer saw her when I went to work, and it became imperative that I saw her when I came home. We spent…a while like that. It’s difficult to say how long, from here, and now. But at the time it was enough. And in that time, I believe I never had a major shift. Little things would change, but nothing that couldn’t be a failure of memory. I don’t know if…
Goddamn it’s difficult to type this.
I was going to write, “I don’t know if being in love caused the world to stabilize, or if it was the other way around,” and even now I can’t type “being in love” without quotes because it hurts too much to admit. We were in love. There, I said it. I loved. I was capable of loving. I was capable of being loved. For a while.
One day I came into the bedroom, getting ready for work, and I saw her standing by the dresser. She had picked up the photo of herself, and was holding it, looking at it strangely. I asked her what was wrong, while struggling with my tie in the mirror.
She frowned, and after a long while said, “It’s just. I’m sitting in this chair, in this photo, over there.” She waved toward a corner of the room. “But I don’t remember having this chair.”
My hands froze in mid-knot. I made a leap of hope. “Well, it was a while ago when I took it.”
She smiled again, the warmth of it unfreezing my hands. “Of course, you took it. I’m just being silly.” She laughed and put the photo back on the dresser, where it remained through many changes.
I still saw Jonas every once in a while. The next time we met, he greeted me as warmly as he had the second time, and I wasn’t sure if he was trying to be nice or if he had shifted in such a way that he didn’t remember about Claire. I didn’t bring her up in conversation.
We would talk amiably, catching each other up on discrepancies we had noted in the world. We built up a little database over time, comparing notes, and it became apparent that we were not passing through the same universes. He lamented the loss of an Italian restaurant, which apparently had amazing pesto, at a location that had been a bank for as long as I could remember. I tried a beer he had never heard of. He had seen the rise and fall of a separatist death cult in Ohio that had demanded nation state status from the US and then died messily before the FBI could kill them. Apparently it was all over the news for the duration of the three week standoff, but I had never heard about it.
And yet he and I, falling through layers and layers of reality, somehow remained cotangent. Conjoined twins, entangled, intertwined. Lunch dates at the edge of a crumbling universe.
One day I woke up and saw a bottle of whiskey on the bedside table, and it was a brand I had never heard of. Claire was not there. I sat bolt upright in bed and called her immediately. The faint relief that she was still in my phone was not enough to keep my heart from pounding as I listened to the ring: once, twice, three times. She picked up on the fourth ring and addressed me by the pet name she used for me, so I knew she still loved me. I had a hard time explaining why I had called her, but she accepted it with grace. She did that a lot with me.
“What’s wrong, love?” she said.
Still half-asleep, I mumbled, “I just… I was afraid I had left you.”
She laughed. “I’m pretty sure you’d know if you left me. And if you mean you were afraid I’d left you, I did. It was for this delicious sandwich mmmm,” she said, and then made loud eating noises until I started laughing too.
I considered then, and many other times, telling her everything. And the thing that stopped me wasn’t the fear that she’d think I was crazy. It was the fear that in bringing it up, I would somehow burst this bubble that had formed around us.
The next time I saw Jacob, he had glasses and a pocket protector.
“I told you I would be a scientist soon,” he said.
I laughed and said that that was just a statistical question of time. “Hell,” I said, “eventually I’ll wind up a scientist.”
Jacob. Jonas. I just scrolled up and his name is Jonas. But I remember it being Jacob.
It’s starting to slip. I have to write this quickly.
He was excited. Apparently the type of scientist he had become was the sort who was into cosmological theories, and he had access to memories of research relevant to our circumstances. He started talking frantically about Riemann functions and multiple world theories, and while I was familiar with the latter, I had no idea why the former was relevant, and then he was off on something about Gödel and finally I held up a hand and said, “Look. What does all this mean to us?”
His grin didn’t diminish as he said, “It means I think we can stop it.”
I must have seemed even more idiotic when I said, “Stop what?”
“Stop shifting,” he said. “We can stabilize our worlds.”
I have said that it was a leap of faith to acknowledge that this was actually happening, that it wasn’t all in my mind. Having him around had convinced me of that, and I had gained some clarity. And now, he was proposing to take it all away again. All of the pain, and the doubt, and the constant fear of madness and unreality, the waking up not knowing where or who you were. The instability had become for me a sort of metastability. I wasn’t sure if I wanted it to stop.
I tried to express this to him, and he didn’t get it, until I finally said “Okay, look. Let’s say we stop this. How do I know this is the best of all possible worlds for me? How do I know that I won’t wake up in a better place tomorrow?”
He looked at me and said, “You have Claire.”
It was the first time he had mentioned her since we had argued about it, and my blood went cold. And I knew he was right. I don’t know how he knew we were still together, though I suppose it must have been apparent from the fact that I hadn’t brought her up to prove him right. But I knew that I had a chance, and he knew I would take it. His trying to convince me was a formality after that.
I woke up next to Claire and did not open my eyes for a long time. I listened to her breathing, listened to the sounds of the world outside, tried to detect any differences. The city sounded like every city, so I couldn’t tell. But I could hear her breathing, and that was all that mattered. I opened my eyes and looked at her for a long long time. Then I kissed her, and left her sleeping, as I went to my appointment with J.
I went to the office address he had given me and waited in a carpeted lobby with a bored receptionist. There was a TV on, showing the news, and I scanned for names I didn’t recognize. I knew all the politicians making busy sounds; I knew the names of all the countries we were bombing. I knew Claire was still sleeping, or waking up and heading to her class. I knew this world, and I became more and more convinced I wanted to stay in it.
J came out to the lobby and greeted me. I noticed that his hair had never really changed in the time we had known one another, always unruly and about the same length. We walked through a door, through a cubicle farm retrofitted into a research facility. It occurred to me to wonder how he had set this up outside of academia, but for all I know, he just dropped into a startup founder and pivoted hard into multidimensional mathematics. It wasn’t the strangest thing I had seen.
He led me to an office, and sat me in a chair. He didn’t even try to explain the procedure to me. It felt somewhere between knowing that I wouldn’t understand it anyway, and our easy amicability with notions of truth. The chair was like a dentist’s chair, but instead of an overhanging lamp, the headrest snugged up inside of an enormous torus that emerged from one wall, as though a giant insect was shoving its backside into the room. There was a sense of some vast mechanism behind it, terminating in this thing that I put my head inside. The room was filled with a low hum.
He sat in a chair opposite me and started doing things to a computer that I couldn’t see. He said, “Just try to relax, and remember who you are.”
The hum got louder, and harmonized with several layers of higher whines, as if something was powering up. The air was filled with the smell of ozone and petrichor, and then, with no warning or fanfare, the universe turned inside out.
I lost my body, though I could sense it off somewhere I can only describe as behind me. I was aware of the entire universe. I know that sounds trite, but there really is no other way of describing it. It was as if all of my life, I had been one thing in a world filled with everything that wasn’t me, and suddenly I was everything except me. Stars, supernovas, black holes, puppies, ladybugs, architecture, pipes and beer and tears and plazas and galaxies. All of it. And all of it folding over itself in infinite iterations, shifting in a timeless all-time. Not so much multiple universes, more of a single universe constantly evolving, regardless of our petty laws of physics that say it can’t do so.
And at the center of it – me. Well, not at the center, actually, because it had no center. I was a point that looked like the center because of my orientation. This could have easily given way to God-like delusions of grandeur, except that I knew that I wasn’t the only one. There was me, and, next to me but infinitely distant, there was J. I somehow recognized him, I don’t know how, except to say that I saw all the things that were not J around him. So there was me, and there was him.
And there was Claire.
She was also a constant. I knew, in that moment, that our meeting had not been an arbitrary shift of the universe, and could not be undone by it. We had been two people, meeting as usual, not knowing that we were falling together through infinite worlds. Two astronauts reaching out to each other on a space station, one of them seeing only the interior of the station, the other insanely aware that they are barely missing earth at thousands of miles an hour. I had been wrong to fear losing her to a folding universe, because she traveled with me in the folds. I couldn’t lose her to some act of God, some cosmic excuse that I could hold myself blameless for. I could only lose her by making the same mistakes anyone in the multiverse might.
Except now, the multiverse was becoming singular. And taking her with it.
I saw all of the probabilities collapsing into a single monolithic universe, beholden to a single set of laws, and I saw the waves of probability carrying J and Claire farther away from me. I knew that J was no longer in the room with me, wherever my body was, and that he was living some other life, where he had never had reason to consider the multiple universe theory. I didn’t know if I was actually changing the entire universe, or if I was settling in to one and it was my perception that was changing, but it didn’t matter, because all I could think about was seeing the iterations of Claire as she moved laterally through probabilities. Claire as a schoolteacher, single for the rest of her life. Claire happily married, not to me. Claire in a terrible car accident years before I would have met her. Claire as a soldier, fighting in some desert war. Claire spiraling in toward a final probability, a certainty, somewhere far away from me.
I must have screamed.
The entire universe shook with my screaming. Things loosened as I fought the process, then immediately began to coagulate. I screamed again, pushed, and flailed, and the multiverse tumbled through a thousand million variations. I was briefly aware of J in the same room with me, only the room was an open field, and we were just standing there screaming at the sky. I was in Bosnia, in a building as the rocket struck it. I was in a swamp somewhere staring into the terrifying blackness between the trees. I was an infinite series of myselves, remembering every trauma and every hope, and I wanted nothing more than to go back to the one where I could see her hair in the soft morning light again.
I pushed, hard, in a direction that did not exist. There was a flash of utter silence, and then I ceased to be, and with me, everything else.
And you’re going to ask: what happened next? Honestly, I don’t know. I woke up, like I always do. I was in my room again. On the bedside table was a photo I recognized of an empty chair, bathed in sunlight, with a book splayed unread. Some things were the same. Some things had changed.
I knew I was going to lose her, but I thought it would be due to some kind of error on my part. I didn’t realize that I would lose her by becoming the person who warned me I would lose her. If what happens is a collapse into a singular reality, then I have a lot to do before I reach that point. I still have to meet myself in that doorway, and come up with the theory, and warn myself off from loving Claire, because I know me, and I know that will just make me love her more. Plenty of time in that to try again.
I look over at the stuffed red bear on my dresser. It’s faded with age, and it’s almost certainly not the one I had as a child. But it reminds me of who I really am. And that’s what matters.
The cafe where Claire worked is a bookstore. Falling through different universes, like we said.
So maybe I messed up the fabric of the universe. Or maybe I just unstuck myself in spacetime. I don’t know. But now I’m writing this, and it’s been a few months, and I’ve been hitting the bottle pretty regularly. In my lucid moments I’m pretty sure I’m going to be fired soon. But I know of a doorway where I can sleep it off.
At least now I have a Practical Operational Paradigm. And maybe I can try again as someone else.
I still look for her, every day.
by Mur Lafferty
During this story I kept thinking about the Berenstain Bears. There was a time in the early 2010’s that people of my Generation (X, that is) all sort of looked up and said “Wait, they spelled it stain like the stain on a shirt? It wasn’t an ‘ein’ all the time?” So many people were confused that some tongue in cheek conspiracy theories came up about how the world changed and only a few of us recognized the little things our new lords and masters got wrong. Through this confusion, I learned about the Mandela Effect, which is a shared false memory. It was named for Nelson Mandela, who many people remember having died in the 1980s, when he was still alive at the time.
The funny thing about all this is the feeling of relieved gratification you find when you discover that someone else also has this memory, because if it’s only you, and we hear time and again that memories can’t fully be trusted, what’s wrong with you? But if two people remember a different coffee, or a different colored candy, or a different spelling of a beloved childhood fictional family.
If you try to understand the multiverse, you could go mad. Which is why it’s nice to have a moment of perfection, an experience you never forget, to ground you. Hell, it’s nice to have that in a singular universe. I’m writing this now in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, sheltering in place with my family, confusing the hell out of my dogs. And while we’re afraid of the virus, and what recession or depression will follow this halting of our economy, some of the hardest things are the real loss of the small moments in our lives that bring us not just happiness, but a foundation to hold onto. I didn’t know how much I treasured my weekly lunch with some local freelancers until I was denied that connection. But we move along, washing our hands, listening to podcasts, and waiting for the all clear from the health professionals.
We here at Escape Pod do wish health to you and your loved ones.
About the Author
Steen Comer is a writer of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and other forms of the absurd, such as the author bio. He is a graduate of the Viable Paradise writing workshop, and has received glowing personal rejections from several prestigious publications. He is currently at work on his second novel, after which he hopes to repair his first.
About the Narrator
After years of performing in theatre and online radio productions, Roderick Aust is applying his talents to the realm of audio books.
He started his journey in voice work in the US Air Force where he was a popular military broadcaster for American Forces Network in Europe. During the five years he served his country he wrote, edited, and voiced several radio commercials, news reports, and television segments. After that time he came home to Houston, Texas and continued to work in many areas of radio, TV, film, and stage. He has performed in plays across Houston, voiced characters, and also directed several old radio plays for irlonestar.com. Currently he can be found online reciting Shakespearean quotations with his friends on Zoom Shakespeare!
He loves this work and looks forward to any chance he gets to record a new story.