The words run through my mind, lodged somewhere between wake and sleep.
And the pillars. I remember the pillars this time.
I let the sweat drip from my brow freely, opening my eyes to the bedroom ceiling. Already hating its shell-colored, rough texture. The white keeps the pillars in mind though. Their dark, elegant shadows and scaling frames. Their crisp ivory, so soft against the black sharpness of night. Ivy had wound its around the few broken trunks, perhaps felled by cannon fire.
I scan the room without moving, remembering my surroundings calmly. No need to panic over that carpeted floor anymore, or the plastic blinds, or the… what’s that word? Flatscreen- yes, flatscreen TV that hangs from the wall. My inhuman reflection stares back at me from inside the black surface. Light streams from under the bathroom door; the shower runs hot enough to send steam into the already-warm bedroom.
Wiping my face down, I roll over in bed. Stella’s side is empty, giving me a clear view of the digital clock that occupies her nightstand. Its hellish red glow informs me that it is 8:37am. I just grimace, knowing the morning sun could tell me the exact thing. If that woman would leave open the curtains like I asked.
But then she’s not Stella. Not my Stella.
The last piece.
I keep the words fresh as I slid from the covers, moving for the closet as quickly and quietly as possible. I reach for the topmost shelf, around old loafers and golfing accessories I don’t recall owning, and pull free my shoe box. I can scarcely keep my hands from shaking as I seat myself on the floor. I turn an ear to the bathroom, pleased to hear the shower is still running. I put the cover aside, retrieving my notepad and pencil. I find the nearest empty page and begin to write:
Contact Dream #1,123
Date: January 22nd, 476 A.R. (Otherworld Date: 2000 and 8, A.D.)
Memory Retrieved: Masonry pillars of town’s square. Color: ivory. Damaged (perhaps in recent war?)
Memory Traded: Otherworld memories of a year in ‘kindergarten.’
I wrinkle my nose as I think back for those same kindergarten days, false though they are. I smile when I cannot retrieve them- even the word seems to be fading. A very small price to pay.
I flip through my notepad quickly, scanning my entries from this past year. My trades flash before my eyes: my favorite song from 1997, my first job, the third date with this Stella, the color of my mother’s hair…
I return to the new entry. I am careful as jot down the ever-present words of the Weaver.
The last piece.
Could it be?
If this is truly the final memory of Home, it’s a somewhat anticlimactic one.
I close the notepad, placing it back and covering the other three books I have filled. Every detail of Home’s dream from the past three Otherworld years. Every thought I have traded to keep those details in my mind.
Fallacies, every traded memory. Lies.
“Hey, babe? You up?” The bathroom room clicks open, wet feet connecting with the carpet.
“Shit…” The curse leaves me in a whisper. I grimace over how comfortable it feels, but hustle the shoe box back into the far end of the closet. I’m so sick of sounding like my prison wardens.
Stella slides into the room, wrapped in a simple towel. Her black hair falls short of her shoulders, water plastering it to her neck as it sends droplets down her bronze skin. She ruffles it out as she stands over the bed. A red gem pierces through the side of her nose and ink mars her left shoulder with an Otherworld peace sign. Its three bars are filled with the ever-familiar words, “Hope. Love. Faith.”
“Michael?” Her eyes narrow further when she spots me across the room, shuffling my bare feet. She shrugs. “Oh, good. Thought I’d have to drag you out of bed again.”
The comment is barbed, but I chuckle. “Still not a morning person. Getting better at it though.”
Stella smirks back and undoes her towel, letting it drop as she opens her dresser drawers after her clothes.
I try not to avert my eyes from her naked skin, because I shouldn’t. Because I have seen Stella, this one and mine, a thousand times before. She is my wife; we have four children.
Or in this Stella’s case, she is my live-in girlfriend and fiancée. We have a cat named Toffy, who hisses whenever I’m home alone. Even he knows I’m not part of this world.
I retreat into the bathroom and busy myself by brushing my teeth.
“You remembered today’s appointment, right?” Stella’s back is turned to me when I peek out of the door again. Her hair has been wrapped in the towel as she has retrieves lacy underwear and a neon orange dress. She reaches over to her mirror to detach her bra from its corner.
“With Martin?” I say, a mouthful of toothpaste muffling the name. “Yeah, I’m going at noon. After some more job hunting.”
Stella hooks herself into her bra before looking back at me, a smile etching her angled face. “Awesome. I’ll leave you to that- brunch with Shelly and the girls today.”
No surprise. This Stella goes out with her friends on every day off she gets. She really does hate more than a few hours of my presence. The feeling is mutual.
“Aw,” I say. “Not gonna stay and cheer me up after the therapy session?”
Stella just grunts, her back still turned. “It’s your last one. That should make you happy enough. I know I’m glad this is over.”
Dr. Martin brushes back a loose strand of hair while she reads over my file, her clipboard giving me very little view of her face. That’s fine by me; I find her expressions grating usually.
“Michael.” She lowers the file, revealing her horned glasses and stark eyes. “I must say I have seen a dramatic amount of improvement since we first started.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“These past sessions have been especially encouraging. Now, you said you were feeling more yourself since we started testing the sleeping pills? Fewer visions and issues with the insomnia?”
“Definitely.” It’s a lie, as usual. “I have slept more soundly and productively than I have in months.”
“A good sign, considering the accident’s effects.” Martin jots something onto the clipboard file, its horrid etch cutting into her words.
The accident. The term for my entry point into Otherworld. This place often claims to me that I, this world’s Michael Cross, was driving with Stella on an unusually snowy day about four years ago. Michael Cross’ car then struck a patch of black ice, which sent his vehicle careening into the back end of an eighteen-wheeler.
Such terrible things this prison can conjure.
This world’s Stella had broken bones and repairable injuries. I returned to consciousness diagnosed with retrograde amnesia. After several lengthy months of testing, recovery, and therapists, my diagnosis was relabeled as false memory syndrome. I have “created a false world in the wake of losing my own.”
But my memories were returning.
Martin finishes her scribbling in silence, pleasant-looking as she no doubt fills my last prescription to treat the insomnia. To stop the listless nightmares and focus my thoughts. This story has become very useful, especially when I keep a log of my traded thoughts to bring to my sessions. Fresh stories for me to tell. She is far from the first doctor I have dealt with, but she is the first psychiatrist that has taken me since I have entered Otherworld. I think I unnerved the others too much. She is usually agreeable and willing to medicate issues when they fill her with concerns.
“Right.” Martin drops her clipboard and rips the bottom half of the paper, freeing my final prescription. “This should cover you for the next month. The pills’ effects will probably take a couple months to wear off after that, but if you have any more trouble with… anything, feel free to give me a call.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” I take the prescription. “Thank you so much.”
“You’re welcome, Michael,” she replies.
Arriving home, I find the lights are still off. Stella has not returned from lunch with her friends; it is nearly three in the afternoon. Toffy growls in my direction when I enter the kitchen, his brown-and-white shape vanishing into hall. I take a bottled water from the fridge, throw away the white paper of the pharmacy bag, and bring my pills to the bedroom.
This is the last piece.
I open the closet, fishing my memory box free once more. I kick off one- then both of my sneakers before crossing my legs and settling to the floor. I open the box, reviewing the memories over. And over, and over, and over…
The last piece.
The last piece.
The last piece.
The Weaver calls.
I crack open the orange container and place the top to my lips. Dry, rounded shapes fill my mouth, passing into my throat. I down half of the water bottle’s contents before their taste can make me sick. I send the sleeping pills into my stomach.
Thirty Otherworld minutes, and the pillars return to me through the smog. Brief obstructions before I settle into the dream, like a ripple calming in water. Home comes into view exactly where I left it. The great, winding pillars of the fallen capital are as gray as I recalled them, ivy consuming their every angle and grime covering their neglected angles. Gravel crunches under my bare feet, softer and kinder than I expected. I cross through the courtyard in breathless steps. It is only after passing the yard’s decorative pond do I realize that I am still wearing my jeans and button-down shirt. My socks are already filthy. I press on.
The recollections of my last trip are vague as usual, but I know my way. I always know my way; the walled city only has so many exits and entrances to mind. I have mastered them since childhood, despite their shifting paths. I know the way to my home. To my Stella.
Will I see Stella this time? How long has it been? How old are the children?
The last piece…
Overseer of my return. I feel his presence through the street’s air, moving down my spine and rustling through my air. His voice is a nothing- an everything. The beginning and ending of my home is the Weaver, of The Unseen. The elders only whisper of him under their breath, and fewer of them will utter his name in public. A presence of mystery; a creature of privacy.
Oh, my fortune that he has chosen to save me from my prison.
I cross through the roads, and somehow they, in turn, shape for me, easing my way.
I see home.
Home. Actual home. I’ve never gotten so close! Its tattered old walls and the roof I had promised to repair. The grass is dead with winter and the children have dug ruts into the dirt; Stella has hung the laundry to dry in the crisp air, and- oh, Stella! I see her in the window. A vague shadow that can only be hers.
Stella’s scream enters my mind; my vision blurs and clears.
I see Otherworld. My gaze is locked on that ugly, speckled ceiling of the bedroom. The other Stella kneels at my side, shrieking and tearful and cursing. The bottle of sleeping pills are perched in her hand. The blinds are open, so sunlight catches onto her nose ring. My inhuman reflection stares at me from the TV screen.
This is the last piece, Michael.
I breathe as the Weaver enters my ear, easing away my fears.
I am real.
I am home.
I feel myself empty of Otherworld as I pass the vision along to the Weaver, its dark images fading from my mind as I walk to my front door.