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Traveler

1. Anne

The rubbery squeak of snow under sole, the bite of frigid air in the lungs. Tires crunching, cars gliding on packed ice like drunen skaters. The city crystallized by a freak winter squall, by a dozen or so inches of powder. Anne brings her mittens to her face, blows warm air through their woven wool palms to defrost her fingers. Her breath swirls back onto her face, soothing her frosty cheeks and nose. It’s stale and sour, tinged with coffee and the sharp scent of a dozen geriatric prescription drugs drifting lazily through her system. Some wine, too. Always the faint aroma of box wine, like sour grapes mixed with bathroom cleaner. She looks through clear gray eyes at the snow-drenched Hollywood, Portland.

Far cry from its glitzy, sunbathed namesake a million miles away down in California. A mishmash of modern buildings huddled around the 1920s Hollywood Theater, a gilded and neoned monument to the silver screen, built when movie theaters were more like churches and less like amusement parks. She catches a glimpse of the theater through a gap between a newer luxury condo and the low-slung ‘60s roofline of the Rite Aid. Behind her it’s Beverly Cleary’s Portland, mostly Craftsman-style homes on narrow tree-lined streets. Today everything is a muffled white, which is a rare sight for Portland. Especially this much snow. More than a foot and the city is not prepared. No plows, no salt, no shovels, no chains. None of the bare municipal essentials that keep Middle America operational half the year.

Seems like everyone stayed home from work this morning. Most huddled inside, but some built snowmen or sled down hills in city parks. Earlier in the morning, Anne watched a man wrapped in reflective spandex glide confidently by her kitchen window on a pair of cross-country skis. She had been cooped up inside, warming herself in front of the flatscreen, for three days. It wasn’t much of a change for William. The man spends most days inside, squinting at pages in dusty books, complaining about his lumbago. A few days of that without fresh air and she had to get out. “Do you need anything from the store?” she asked.

William grumbled from his easy chair. “Huh, what? No, no. Nothing.”

She pulled a sheet from a notepad, a free winter-themed pad from the mortgage company with her name on it. Pale blue pages and white stylized snowflakes. The act triggered a sort of innate task-listing instinct and she found herself starting a to-do list. First task: Cancel PT appointment.

She stopped. No more to-dos, not today. She called out to William, “Will, call and cancel my PT appointment. Too much snow.” He growled an affirmative from his easy chair, but she doubted he’d make the phone call. She marked a big, furious checkmark next to the one and only task on her list, then thought of things to get from the store. Her pen hovered over the paper, poised. She looked up across the kitchen table to the mass of motionless flesh in the easy chair.

William: Life partner, brilliant professor, and lately albatross around her neck. Since retirement, he put on weight, both physical and metaphorical. His depression has dragged her down into murky depths. Anything he needed from the store, she thinks.

Pen touched paper: Tootpaste. His breath was never rosey, but lately it reeked of stale coffee and mothballs. She snickered, enjoying the exercise. Next item: Men’s vitamins. This triggered an audible cackle that went unnoticed by the sedentary man-lounger hybrid in the next room. As if any vitamin could salvage the man’s sunken mood. Next item: Beer. She really wanted a beer. Or two, as a treat. She smiled and started to rise from the chair, then stopped short. Final item: Newspaper.

She looked down at the last item. Newspaper. She hadn’t read a newspaper for years, not sense their daughter Julie got her a laptop, and then a tablet. She wondered if they even still printed newspapers and had a sad thought about unemployed pressmen and delivery boys. Odd, then, that this last item was added to the list. She searched for reason in the action, shuffled thoughts and memories around to make sense of it, but only found a strange need to get a newspaper. Like another voice insisting, pleading. The feeling gave her shivers and she put the pen down on the winter-themed tablecloth. She rose, shoved the list into the pocket of her heavy winter coat. She wrapped a scarf around her neck, pulled a fuzzy winter hat over her head, and headed out into the chilly day.

Now Anne crunches, slips, and slides her way down the unshoveled sidewalk toward the market, breathing raspily. It all hurts, but it feels good. Good to be moving and out again. It clears her head of half thoughts and grainy memories. Hazy questions like, “What was his name, again?” “Where were we when we took that picture?” “Didn’t William order the fish that night?” and so on. She is lost in her own head, and afraid of losing her way completely. This simple task of trudging to the grocery store gives her momentary focus and purpose. The freezing air makes her more wakeful and alive. She comes to an intersection, pauses briefly to plot a path across the packed ice in the road, breathes a sigh of relief at the sight of a shoveled sidewalk on the other side, people rushing into the warmth of a glowing coffee shop...

2. Sylvie

They say it’s like jumping headfirst into a mineshaft. A deep, dark mineshaft lined with glittering white jewels. The horrifying feeling of being untethered from reality, no sense of body or physical place in space. Sylvie once heard a professor describe people who had lost their sense of proprioception, their sense of physical being in space. They floated and bobbed through life, bumping into things, awkwardly commanding limbs they couldn’t really be sure were there. Injection was supposed to be something like that, but much, much worse. Teams had recovered crumbling manuscripts written by the first explorers who had been sent back too far. Their descriptions were profound and poetic, heart-stopping prose written by people who had a lifetime to ponder the experience with minds that were half modern, half ancient. Later, when the physicists got the coordinate system dialed in, living explorers described the journey with clinical precision. No humanity.

That’s how they wanted it. You’re supposed to detach from your own humanity to make the journey, and merging of minds, bearable. Sylvie had managed to convince herself that she had mastered this sort of clinical inhumanity. Now, strapped into the chair at the center of wildly whirling magnetic bands and blinding light, she knows she has been lying. She knows they all are lying. On the inside, everyone is a screaming, quivering mass of emotions that just wants to be held.

A loud bang, a flash, and then the plunge. She feels every square centimeter of rough gray jumpsuit on her skin in ultimate, blazing hyper fidelity. God-like, precise proprioception of space-time. Then the tether is cut.

3. Sylvie-Anne

Sometimes when you bump into someone on the train, you catch a whiff of them. Not just the way they smell, but who they are. You get close enough to them, and spend just enough time next to them, to come to some sort of conclusion, to feel just a little bit like you stood in their shoes. You’ve been standing there, elbow-to-elbow, for the whole trip, soaking up data. The way they move, caught in your peripheral vision. The smell of their breakfast on a heavy sigh. The way they react to a homeless man talking to himself loudly and incoherently. All bits of data collected by your conscious and subconscious minds. Then the train shifts and—BAM. That one touch brings it all together and you feel like you are that person, just for fraction of a fraction of a second. Or, sometimes it feels that way.

Sylvie smashes into Anne in an electrifying instant, quantum entanglement of mind and spirit over time and space. She feels her young, strong body, like a lingering afterimage in a bright camera flash. Then it melts away, dissolves into swollen and achy joints, weak muscles and papery skin. Cloudy thoughts and hazy memories mash with the bright, precise thoughts of a highly trained mind.

Anne feels the surge of youth and vitality, a clarity she hasn’t felt in years. Strength and power and alertness. And then it’s gone, a fading memory in a swirling vortex.

The two women merge, or more accurately, Sylvie is shoved into the same space and time as Anne. Their memories and personalities combine, bits and pieces winking out of existence, others fusing into perplexing riddles and mangled thoughts. Minds combining based on some inexplicable quantum law of chance, an unpredictable mishmash that can, and does, drive explorers mad. Sylvie has trained for this, hardened her mind against dissociative states with sanity-shattering drug trips and sensory deprivation. She knows how to bundle herself up into a tiny package and retreat to the safe havens of the mind, how to retain a sense of self when shoved through a cheesegrater and dumped into a bowl of pure insanity.

Sylvie-Anne is at once a woman bred and raised to be funneled through a hole in space-time and a woman who studied American Literature at a liberal arts college in Santa Barbara. She remembers strolling along the worn brick paths of the campus, deep within the bunker tunnels, fluorescent lights shining through the leaves of of old maples. The tangy smell of industrial lubricant and ozone mingled with the perfume of the fresh roses that grew next to the campus library. She remembers Professor Whitney, and pondering the work of Faulkner and quantum entanglement. She can taste the thin pale nutritional gruel she remembers as a burrito while she discusses Third Lieutenant Marcus, the cute sophomore from New Mexico who attends the engineering school across the way, and who is a crack shot with a TP-9 assault rifle. Memories like entwined fingers melting into each other.

She staggers, gropes for sanity and momentarily emerges on the icy Portland street opposite a cozy coffee shop. Disoriented, reeling. Familiar, comforting, and simultaneously terrifying sunlight—real sunlight—bouncing off blinding-white snow. Sylvie-Anne rummages through the wreckage of her mind, shoving surreal, dream-like memories into neat compartments for later study. She stumbles across a bit of hardened information, something so deeply ingrained that it survived the trip from—wherever it is she’s from… The need to re-orient, to confirm her location in space and time. She grasps for the word, the thing she needs to glean knowledge from this universe. A newspaper. She needs to get a newspaper. That’s what they’ll be using, a sort of broadsheet with news from around the world. That, along with whatever memories remain in the maelstrom of her mind will help her get her bearings.

The thought strikes her as odd. Newspaper. It’s not right. And the odd feeling of recursion, of deja vu, of the world skipping a beat. Another mangled memory: The note! A note, with instructions for—things to do? The memory is hazy, a sheet of paper or perhaps orders on a glowing green screen. Then she feels something burning in her pocket and her hand involuntarily reaches down to grasp the note. She pulls it out, reads words written in strong, confident script.

Cancel PT appt. (check mark)
Men’s vitamins.
beer
newspaper

Direction, yes, an imperative from someone called William. The Director? Yes, the Director. She looks up across dirty packed ice and knows, instinctively, that there’s a store—yes, a store—where she can purchase a newspaper. And beer, she really wants a beer, whatever that is. She can taste it, yeasty and cool and effervescent on her tongue. Feel the helium effect of alcohol on her mind. The thought is soothing, calming, comforting. She recognizes the addiction and takes note. Anne’s alcoholism wasn’t in the historical record, and is unexpected. But, also, she’s been drinking for years and wait is it really a problem? Cognitive dissonance rattles her brain, two different minds with fused/confused memories. She shakes it off and focuses on the task at hand. The store, this newspaper. Sylvie-Anne fixes her clear grey eyes on the curb across the street and steps carefully down onto the grubby ice-packed street.

She hears the rough scrape of tires sliding on ice, then feels an explosion of pain in her left arm as the cargo van smashes into her. The scene reels, sky smashing down to fill her vision, clear blue with faint wisps of cloud. Sylvie-Anne twirls in the air once, twice, before slamming into the glittering gray snowpack. The note flitters from her fingers, landing on a mound of snow on the side of the road. She hears shouts and a car door slamming before the world goes black.

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