by Stephen Measure
Natasha sat patiently in the waiting room. The seats were soft, padded in black faux leather, and quite comfortable. She imagined some day she might sit in a seat just like this while waiting with a child at the dentist, or while waiting for a job interview, or while waiting for her car’s oil to be changed. But that would only happen if the writer gave her a child, or a job, or a car. Right now she had none of those things. Right now she was just a young woman in a brown leather jacket, white shirt, and jeans, sitting in a waiting room chair inside the writer’s head. She had a small backstory, something about her father sacrificing his life to carry her out of a burning building, but that was it. Nothing else would be decided until the day the writer gave her a story.
The walls of the waiting room were white, bare of any decoration save for a strip that ran across the middle of each wall, filled with constantly changing thoughts and images that swirled and twisted as they passed from one side of the room to the other: the writer’s creativity. And the evidence of that creativity sat in seat after seat, with more characters being added regularly. Each time was the same. The swirls of creativity would twist across the wall, and then a new character would appear in the room, where they would take their seat and wait for their story, just like everyone else.
A few characters had already left. Simon had been first. That had been hard for Natasha. She hadn’t had the chance to speak much with Simon—how could she, with beautiful Dana always hovering around him?—but she had wanted to. There was something about Simon, something that drew Natasha to him, a strength, an inner will to do right despite the odds stacked against him. He seemed to radiate those qualities like a quiet, brooding paladin—a paladin with an inner demon so dark you could see it lurking behind his eyes. But his demon was contained, locked away behind Simon's great strength, so the darkness provided a contrast, highlighting his honor. Natasha had never dared ask Simon what his demon was. She didn’t think she wanted to know.
And then one day Simon had left. That was the day the story shepherd first walked into the room. She had never been there before; the door she entered had never been opened. Natasha wasn’t sure if it had even existed before the story shepherd walked through it. But then it had opened, and the story shepherd had walked in with her white robe, her brown skin, and her white eyes that looked blind but clearly weren’t. She had looked straight at Simon and then beckoned him, never saying a word. Simon stood and walked to her. She touched his hand with one finger and a walking stick appeared, ornately carved yet somehow marred. Then she led him out of the room, Simon leaning on his walking stick, Dana on his other arm, with young Alice on Dana's other side, holding her hand. As Natasha watched Simon go, it seemed as if part of her left with him. Things had never been quite the same since he left. She didn't think they ever would be again.
Other characters had followed in their time: a farmer with a black sword; a simple-minded sheriff and his deputy, neither quite ready for the adventure that awaited them; an anti-social dentist; an old gentleman, who tipped his top hat to Natasha as he left; a schoolboy clad in gray, who danced with flowers in his hair.
Yet the more who left, the more who seemed to come, the writer's imagination far outpacing his actual writing, leaving the room full of characters, some old, some new: a treant, tall and majestic, his branches full of leaves, with a dragon sitting beside him; a baker with white, feathery wings; a vampire, his eyes pools of regret; an acolyte, wearing the robes of a scientific priesthood; a mad scientist in a wheelchair; a wild mage, the image of a noose tattooed around his neck; a smug-looking young man wearing, of all things, a colander on his head; and more, so many more. The room seemed to get more crowded by the day, and Natasha worried. The writer wrote so slowly. If so many characters entered and so few left, would she ever make it into a story? Or would she be waiting there forever, until the writer died and the waiting room died with him?
“But here’s the real question, Natasha. Who invented two-ply, absorbent toilet paper, and why isn't there an annual holiday dedicated to celebrate his greatness?”
Natasha looked at her friend Steve, who was sitting next to her. “I’m sorry, what?”
“You were daydreaming again,” Steve said.
“Yes. Here I am, pouring out my heart to you, and you’re daydreaming like always.”
“You were pouring out your heart about toilet paper?”
“No, I just said that to break you out of your daydream. You didn’t hear a word before that, did you?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But don’t you ever wonder what kind of story you’ll be in? That’s what I want to know. Will my story be a thriller? Science fiction? Romance?”
“That’s what I was just saying to you,” Steve said. “I can’t shake the feeling that I’m going to end up being some minor throw-away character, you know? Some nobody that gets offed at the beginning of the story and then completely forgotten.”
“Oh, Steve, you're just being paranoid.”
“Am I? Think about it, Natasha. What is there to my character? Nothing. Just a name. There's nothing significant about me at all. At least you have that thing about your father.”
“Just that he carried me out of a burning building.”
“And sacrificed himself doing it. That’s pretty cool.”
Natasha shook her head. She didn’t think it was pretty cool. It made her feel guilty. Who was she to have someone sacrifice himself for her, especially someone as important to her as her father? But this was something she and Steve and discussed many times before.
“Oh, stop blaming yourself,” Steve said. “He did it because he loves you, and that’s pretty cool. And what am I? Nothing. Just a throw-away character. Used, then discarded and forgotten.”
“That's not true. You have lots of good qualities.”
“Oh, yeah?” Steve looked at Natasha with challenge in his eyes. “Name one.”
“Well … you're curious.”
“Oh,” Steve said, struck by the thought. He sat back in his chair and considered it for a moment. “I guess you're right. I am pretty curious all the time, aren't I?” Then he swung his head back toward her. “Speaking of which, did you ever wonder what was up with Simon? You know what I'm talking about—his deep secret. The big dark thing that was always bugging him?”
Natasha thought of Simon and the demon that lurked behind his eyes. She didn't want to know.
“Well,” Steve said. “I was talking to the dragon, and she told me … ” Then Steve stopped and pointed at the far corner of the room. “Wait a minute, what’s that?”
Surprised at the sudden change of topic, Natasha looked where he was pointing, but the treant, towering high even over the dragon beside him, blocked the way. “I don’t see ...” Then she stopped, catching a glimpse through the treant's branches. “What in the world is that?” she said.
Steve, ever curious, was already walking toward it, and Natasha stood and followed him. All the other characters in the room watched the two of them go, a hush settling over the crowd as everyone sensed a conflict was forthcoming.
“It's like there's nothing there,” Steve said, standing next to the corner of the room. And there was. Nothing. Nothing, where there should have been something, a void in the corner, perhaps two feet in diameter. Nothing. Not spreading, just sitting there. Nothing.
“What do you think it is?” Steve asked. He reached out a hand toward it.
“Don’t touch it!” a voice yelled from the crowd, but it was too late. Natasha watched as Steve touched the nothingness with one finger; then she jumped back when it shot up his arm, which immediately began to fade as the nothingness spread. Steve screamed.
“Steve!” Natasha yelled, grabbing his arm where the nothingness was erasing it. Too late she realized her mistake. Her hand was struck with intense cold, followed by numbness. She fell to her back on the ground. Raising her hand, she stared at the veins of nothingness growing rapidly within it. Then the treant was towering over her, his branches shaking violently. Leaves fell all around, covering her in darkness as she lost consciousness.
* * *
Voices murmured above her.
“Is she going to be okay?”
“Don’t touch her. It spreads on contact.”
“He must have gotten the worst of it. She just got it second hand.”
“The leaves stopped it from spreading, but it’s still on her.”
“He just vanished. Vanished!”
“Look, she’s waking up.”
Natasha opened her eyes, expecting to find her body covered in leaves but surprised to find only shriveled stems. She sat up. The other characters all took a step away from her.
A bundle of clothes lay next to her on the floor.
“Oh, no,” she said. “What happened to … what happened to ...” Her eyes widened. “Why can’t I remember his name?”
“He’s gone,” the wild mage said, the tattooed noose around his neck providing an odd contrast to the compassion in his eyes. “He vanished.”
“Dementia,” someone else replied, pointing at the corner where the nothingness waited. “The writer must be getting it. It makes everything fade away. Memories, stories … us.”
Natasha looked at her hand and saw thin veins of nothingness on her skin. She instinctively rubbed at it with her other hand, as if she could rub the nothingness away, but the nothingness just spread to her other hand.
“Don’t touch it!” someone yelled, and the treant leaned over her again, his trunk groaning, his branches swaying as a mass of leaves dropped onto her hands. The leaves shriveled instantly as they absorbed the nothingness, yet they left thin veins of nothingness in both her hands. And as she watched, it seemed as if the veins were slowly growing.
“It spreads to anything living,” the wild mage said. Then he turned to the crowd. “Does someone have gloves?”
A pair of black gloves were found and given to Natasha. She put them on, hiding the dementia safely beneath them. But even hidden away she thought she could feel it growing. Maybe it was just her imagination, but it seemed to her as if her hands were slowly becoming more numb. “It’s still spreading,” she told the others.
The dragon crowded her way forward. “You’ve got to get out of here,” she said. “You must get into a story before the dementia makes you fade away; otherwise you’ll be forgotten forever.”
“The story shepherd is here!” an excited voice called from the back of the crowd, and Natasha couldn't believe her good luck. She needed to get into a story, and the only person that could do that for her was the story shepherd. And now the story shepherd was here, right when Natasha needed her. If she could just get to the story shepherd, if she could just convince the story shepherd to guide her into a story, then she might have a chance.
Still feeling weak, Natasha turned over onto her stomach and then raised herself up on shaking arms, conscious of her gloved hands and the numbness she could feel as she pushed her way up onto her feet. She looked past the crowd of characters, trying to catch a glimpse of the story shepherd.
The story shepherd was leaving.
“Wait!” Natasha called. She pushed her way through the crowd, which parted immediately around her, no one wanted to be too close to the dementia she was infected with. “Wait!” Natasha repeated. But the story shepherd ignored her. She opened the door and led a faceless character out of the room.
“Wait!” Natasha said once more, but the door had already closed. The story shepherd was gone.
“Who'd she take?” someone asked.
“The second-person protagonist,” came the reply.
Natasha ran to the doorway. She grabbed the door knob and tried to turn it. It wouldn’t budge. “Come back!” she shouted at the door. She banged on it with gloved fists. “Come back!” She leaned against the door, feeling the numbness slowly spreading up her hands. Her earlier thoughts of good luck had reversed themselves. Natasha needed the story shepherd, and the story shepherd had been here, but then she had left, leaving Natasha with the dementia spreading over her. “I’m going to fade away,” she whispered to herself. The story shepherd wouldn’t be back, not for days or weeks, maybe even months. The writer wrote too slowly! Natasha didn’t have that much time. She had hours at best. “I’m going to fade away.”
Natasha turned to face the characters who had gathered behind her, expressions of worry and concern showing on every face. At least no one else will be infected by the dementia, Natasha said to herself. They saw what happened to me. They won’t try to touch the nothingness too.
And that brought a small feeling of peace. She might fade away, but at least it would mean something. She would miss her friends, her fellow characters. She would miss the common wish they all shared, the common hope and dream of making it into a story. She didn’t have that hope for herself any longer, but at least she could feel that hope for the rest of them.
The dragon whispered something into the treant's ear.
“That’s never been done before,” the treant said.
“It's her only chance,” the dragon said.
The treant pondered this for a moment, Natasha wondering what the two were talking about.
“Yes, you’re right,” the treant said, “absolutely right.” He laid a tall branch upon the dragon’s shoulder and gave her a warm nod. She nodded in return, and the treant turned to face Natasha. “My young friend, please step away from the door.”
Natasha was confused, but she moved to the side as the treant had asked, still keeping her distance from the rest of the characters. The treant stepped forward until he stood before the doorway. Then he leaned back, his trunk creaking and groaning with the enormous weight of the branches. He twisted forward, slamming a massive limb at the door. The whole room shook with the impact. Natasha covered her ears against the noise. The treant leaned back again, then twisted forward, hitting the door again, then again, and again. The door was beginning to cave in. Blow by blow, it leaned outward more and more until finally, after a thunderous blow from the treant, the door flew off its hinges, exposing a white hallway through the open doorway.
All the characters were silent for a moment. None had seen the outside of the room before, and here it was, a bright white hallway of painted brick. This was where the story shepherd had taken so many characters before. Hope returned to Natasha. She could follow the story shepherd. She could find the story shepherd and ask to be put into a story. Maybe she wouldn’t fade away after all.
The door, resting against the far wall of the hallway, began to quiver. It scooted an inch back toward them, then another inch. It was returning to its doorframe.
“Move!” the treant said as the door righted itself and began to glide back toward them. He wrapped a branch around her jacket sleeve and pushed her out of the room, the door whooshing past her as it returned to its place on the wall. Natasha turned back immediately, but the door was already back in place, the sign above it reading, “Character Waiting Room.” She tried the door knob but it wouldn’t budge. She raised her hand to knock, instinctively wanting to ask her friends for help, but seeing the glove on her hand, she remembered why she had been pushed out into the hallway in the first place. It was best that her friends were safe behind that door. That way they were safe from her, safe from the nothingness she carried within her and threatened to spread to whoever she touched. She refused to let someone else she cared about be hurt because of her.
Taking a step back, she surveyed her surroundings. She was in a hallway that extended from side to side, white painted brick on the walls and ceiling, pale white tile on the ground below. Looking up and down the hallway, she could see other doors—although those appeared to have no signs—and openings where other hallways joined the one she was in now, which extended in both directions as far as she could see. The place seemed immense. It was utterly silent.
“Hello?” she called down the hallway, but there was no reply other than a slight echo. She turned in the other direction. “Hello?” she called. But once again there was no reply.
Where had the story shepherd gone? There was no hint. She thought again of asking her friends for help, but quickly rejected the idea, remembering the dementia she was infected with. It felt colder, and she worried it had spread further. Removing her right glove, she saw that it had. The veins of nothingness were starting to spread up her arm. She flexed her fingers. They moved, but she was losing feeling, and the lines of numbness in her hand were widening.
I’ve got to get moving, she said to herself. I’ve got to find the story shepherd before it’s too late. She picked a direction and began walking, her footsteps echoing as she hurried down the hallway. The silence was strange, almost eerie, so different from the crowded waiting room, where someone seemed to always be talking with someone else.
She tried the door knob of the first door she came to, but it didn’t open, so she continued walking, her footsteps loud. Then she came to an intersection. She looked up and down the connecting hallway but everything looked the same. Brown wooden doors in white painted brick walls, white tile on the floor beneath, the hallway going on forever in both directions with other intersections visible here and there.
It’s a maze, she said to herself, feeling a sliver of panic at the thought of wandering forever, of being trapped here alone in the silence, passing doorway after doorway, alone forever. Of course forever for her was a short time away, she reminded herself, feeling the numbness slowly spreading further up her arm. She jogged forward, trying to outpace her panic, passing door after door until she came to the next hallway intersection. Everything was the same in all directions.
She began to run. She turned right. She turned left. The same. Doorway after doorway. Hallway after hallway. She turned. She turned again.
Eventually she had to stop and catch her breath, leaning over, her hands on her knees. “Hello!” she called. “Hello!” But the hallway was silent, her heavy breathing the only sound. Her panic grew. She had never been alone before. She had never been lost before. She was going to wander here forever, wander here until she faded away, and no one was going to know what happened to her. No one was going to mourn her. No one was going to even remember her.
She couldn’t take it any longer. These white walls, this white floor, these doorways and hallways, this on and on and on and on. She ran to the nearest door and yanked at the door knob, surprised to feel it turn. But then she paused, feeling a slight resistance, as if something was holding her back. But her panic pushed her past the resistance; and, taking a deep breath, she pulled the door open and gasped at the landscape the open doorway revealed.
She was looking out at a vast forest. Giant pine trees filled her vision, a mixture of dark and light green, flowing out in front of her like the sea. The sky was a clear, beautiful blue. There was a mountain straight ahead, trees flowing up its base; and off to the side stood an immense tower, stacked level upon level, the construction haphazard, seeming to have no other intent than to reach as high as possible. The tower was far away, yet she thought she saw small green men at the very top, building one more level on their tower up to the sky.
A soft breeze blew through the doorway and ruffled her hair, carrying with it the strong scent of pine. She heard birds, their calls so welcome after the silence of the hallway. It seemed so peaceful, so perfect. She wanted nothing more than to step through the doorway, to step through and to close the door behind her. Clearly this was a setting for a story. An unfinished one, perhaps, maybe one that only existed in fragments so far, but it was a setting for a story nonetheless, and a story was exactly what she needed, a story was the only thing that would keep her from vanishing away.
But something held her back. The feeling of wrongness, of not belonging, was overwhelming. This was someone else’s story. Perhaps it belonged to a character she already knew. And if she went in, if she polluted it with her unexpected presence, perhaps she would ruin it for them, leaving them to wait forever in that waiting room as they watched other characters come and go. Natasha needed to get into a story, but she couldn’t steal that story from one of her friends. She took one last look at the clear blue sky, the giant pines slightly swaying in the breeze then she closed the door.
Her panic had lessened. The glimpse of a world beyond pulling her out of the fear of walking forever. She would find the story shepherd, she promised herself. She would find the story shepherd, and she would get into a story, and it would be just as beautiful as the world behind that door.
Then she noticed something strange at the base of the wall. Down low, a few feet away from the door was a small patch of nothingness—dementia. So, it’s out here too, she said to herself, bending over to examine it, careful to not get too close.
It didn’t seem threatening just sitting there, but the numbness in her hands, now moving up her arm, was testimony of the destructive power it possessed. She wondered how far it had spread in this area of the writer’s mind. Were there settings that were being affected? She imagined what it would be like when it spread even further, a mind covered with this stuff, everything slowly vanishing away. She shuddered and stood. Eager to put the patch of nothingness behind her, she continued on her way.
This time she was more conscientious, paying more attention to where she was going. She noticed the distance between the doorways, the length of the halls between intersections. There were differences, she was excited to realize, and if there were differences, then it wasn’t all the same, and she didn’t run the risk of walking in circles forever. She could find her way.
Turning to the right at the next intersection, she stopped in surprise as she saw the hallway end in the distance, and where it ended, a white door. It was far ahead, with doors and hallway intersections between her and the end, but the difference filled her with excitement. Was that where the story shepherd had gone? She walked briskly toward it, hope returning to her, filling her with her old imagination of what story she might have.
There was a squishy, slithering noise from up ahead. Natasha froze, surprised to hear anything besides her own footsteps.
No voice replied, but the sliding, slithering noise grew louder, closer. It seemed to be coming from the intersection up ahead.
The white doorway loomed ahead of her, hope seeming to draw her toward it, yet the other sound was too close.
A black tentacle whipped around the hallway, grasping the corner. It was followed by another, then another, and then a black blob of swirling tentacles twisted into the hallway and raced toward her. Natasha screamed and ran in the opposite direction.
She turned down the first intersection, ignoring the voice in the head that called after her.
Natasha, you left them!
She ran from the voice, the slithering blob just behind her.
You left them, Natasha. The dementia is still there. You left them with it. The dementia will get them, and you left them behind.
And Natasha realized what the voice was talking about: all her friends in the waiting room. The treant, the dragon, the wild mage. The dementia would get them eventually, and they would be forgotten. Why hadn't she taken them with her? Why hadn’t she thought about saving them too?
All you cared about was yourself, Natasha. All you cared about was escaping the dementia, not fighting it. You just cared about yourself … about yourself … about yourself.
She felt her legs slowing, shame threatening to overpower her. Something touched her left foot, a tentacle grasping at her, and she screamed again. She increased her speed and turned another corner, the tentacle blob right behind her, gaining with every step.
There was a door on her left. She raced to it and grabbed the door knob, praying it wouldn’t be locked. The knob turned in her hand and she yanked it open. She ran inside and slammed the door behind her.
Leaning against the door, she gasped for air, her heart overflowing with fear and adrenaline, her lungs burning. Would the blob be able to follow her? She turned to examine the door. It looked sturdy. The blob of shame, whatever it was, appeared to be trapped outside.
Then she noticed the inside of the door wasn’t wooden as it had been in the hallway. It was shiny and smooth, like a mixture of plastic and chrome. She turned to examine the rest of the room and found it matched the doorway: shiny, smooth, made from some futuristic material she didn’t recognize. Light filled the room as if the ceiling were one giant light. The wall to her right was covered almost entirely with a brightly colored display, objects, words, and numbers quickly changing on its surface, moving side to side or up and down, gauges or measurements of some kind. Next to the panel was a small window that revealed a canvas of black filled with glimmering stars. The stars were too crisp, too near for this window to be on Earth. Where am I? Natasha wondered, a spaceship?
She turned her attention to the rest of the room. On the far side of the left wall there was a giant screen, showing—she was surprised to see—what appeared to be a soccer game. A large couch faced the screen, and there was a man standing in front of the couch, a plastic popcorn bowl lying on the ground at his feet, popcorn spilled all around him.
“What? Who?” the man said. He was wearing a strange one-piece jumpsuit, which actually made sense if this was in fact a spaceship. His hair was buzzed short, his face clean-shaven, and there was something familiar about his face, something she had seen before. Then she looked into his eyes and recognized what she saw there, the strength … and the demon trapped behind.
The man narrowed his eyes in surprise. “Do I know you?”
But it was him. Natasha could never forget those eyes. “Simon!” she said, almost clapping her hands at the relief she felt to see a familiar face, especially his. She stepped toward him but stopped when he shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” he told her, “but you’ve mistaken me for someone else. Yes, my name is Simon, but I’ve never met you before. You must be thinking of the real Simon, not me.”
“What do you mean the real—” Natasha began but stopped when she noticed the guarded expression on his face. He might be familiar to her, but she was a stranger to him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Natasha.”
The man nodded but said nothing else. Natasha realized how strange it must be for him to have a woman he’d never met show up suddenly in his spaceship acting like she knew him. “I’m sorry for barging in like this,” she said. “but there was this … this thing … chasing me in the hallway.”
“Ah”, the man said, and his expression changed, as if her need for help gave him a reason to have her here. “The storage halls can be a dangerous place. Here, why don’t you sit down,” he said, gesturing at the couch.
Natasha did as she was told, surprised as she sat to realize how tired she was. And shaking too. The memory of being chased was returning now that her initial shock at seeing Simon was wearing away.
“What did you mean when you said you aren’t the real Simon? Aren’t you Simon?” she asked.
The man bent over and began scooping fallen popcorn back into his bowl. “I am, after a fashion” he said. “But I’m just an early draft.” He gestured around the room. “Did you know Simon’s story was originally going to be science fiction? That’s kind of different, right? But then the writer went in a different direction, leaving me here, an alternate version of Simon in an old, discarded version of his story.”
He stood and set the bowl of popcorn on the couch. Then he brushed off his hands on the legs of his jumpsuit and extended a hand to her. “You can call me Alter-Simon.”
Natasha shook his hand but let go quickly, alarmed at how little she could feel of his grip with the growing numbness in her hand. She rubbed her gloved hands together and examined the room once more while Alter-Simon took the popcorn bowl through a door at the back of the room that appeared to lead into a kitchen. Behind the couch on the other wall was a small table made of transparent material, a computer terminal and keyboard lying upon it. Next to the terminal was a well-worn book, the title large enough for her to read from where she sat, “The Screwtape Letters.” She saw no evidence of anyone else living in the ship.
“Where's Dana?” she asked after Alter-Simon returned to the room.
Alter-Simon frowned. “She’s not here,” he said. “Being blasted into space tends to end one's place in a story.”
“I’m sorry,” Natasha said. “I know how close you two were.” But at the same time, she was ashamed to admit, there was a little part of her that wasn't very sorry at all.
Alter-Simon sat down on the opposite side of the couch and leaned forward toward the screen, his hands clasped together. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “My story never really happened, so my Dana never really existed.” Then he shrugged. “Besides, I think I was destined for a life of loneliness, so it’s fitting that I ended up like this. Just me and a small fragment of my spaceship.”
“So this is a spaceship then,” Natasha said. “That’s what I thought it was.”
“Oh, not just any spaceship. This, Natasha, is the spaceship Hoy. That’s Spanish. It means ‘Today’.”
“I didn’t know you knew Spanish.”
“Of course I know Spanish,” Alter-Simon said. “I’m from Argentina. My last name's Piedra. Where was the real Simon from? Didn’t he speak Spanish?”
“I don’t know.”
“Huh,” Alter-Simon said. Then they sat in silence for a while, watching the soccer players run back and forth across the green field, the ball passed strategically from one to another before being stolen and taken in the opposite direction, back and forth, back and forth. Natasha never understood the appeal of soccer.
“So, tell me about this … thing … you said was chasing you,” Alter-Simon said.
Natasha shuddered, thinking of how it had reached out to her and of how quickly it had chased her down the hallway. “I don’t even know how to describe it,” she said.
“Let me guess,” Alter-Simon said. “Like a mixture between a blob and a swirling mess of tentacles, black as midnight and constantly feeling your mind with shame?”
“Yes!” Natasha told him. “Have you see it too? What is it?”
Alter-Simon nodded, “Oh, I’ve run into Guilt once or twice, nasty thing. Still, it could have been worse. You might not have been able to outrun Worry.”
“Worry? You mean there’s another one of those tentacle blobs roaming the hallways?”
“Oh, no. Worry is much worse than that. There’s rumors of a third too, but I’ve never seen it.”
Natasha shuddered again. She didn’t want to even imagine what could be worse than what she had seen. “Why does the writer have these monsters running around in his head?”
“Everyone has their monsters,” Alter-Simon said. “Besides, it could certainly be worse.”
Natasha thought of the demon that lurked behind Alter-Simon’s eyes and decided it was time to change the subject. “What is this place anyway?” she asked.
“This is my story fragment,” Alter-Simon said. “It’s not a story, not a real one, just a little bit of what Simon’s story could have been. All I have in this ship is this room, a kitchen, a bedroom, and a bathroom. You see the window outside?” Alter-Simon asked. Natasha nodded. “The stars never move,” Alter-Simon said. “They never move because the ship never moves. And as for this game ...” Alter-Simon stood up and turned his back to the screen.
“And Rodriguez has the ball. Passing it up the field to Gomez.”
Natasha listened as Alter-Simon narrated the match, his words exactly matching what was happening on the screen. She could hear the turned-down speech of the announcer, the announcer’s words following Alter-Simon’s a second later—the exact same words.
“... back to Alvarez. He takes a shot. Goal!” Alter-Simon threw his arms up in the air as he shouted in celebration. Then he sat back down.
“That’s the only game there is to watch,” he said. “You don’t want to know how many times I’ve seen it.”
“I never took you for a soccer fan,” Natasha said.
“Soccer? Soccer?” Alter-Simon looked at her with a mock expression of horror. “Don't pollute the most beautiful sport in the world with such American vulgarities. This, Natasha, is futbol!”
“Sorry,” Natasha said, raising her hands in feigned apology. She imagined how boring it must be to see the same game time and time again, to live in a world that consisted of only a handful of rooms. “It must be lonely.”
Alter-Simon waved off her comment. “Like I said, I was destined for loneliness. It feels natural. It’s how I was written.”
“But if you live in just part of this ship, with no one else here, then how do you know about Guilt?”
“I get bored and go for a walk sometimes. I peek in a door now and then. Sometimes I explore the writer’s memories. Nothing too exciting—it’s not like he’s a spy or something—but at least it gives me a break from this,” Alter-Simon said, gesturing at the room. “And actually, while the writer’s life might be fairly normal, his mind definitely isn’t. You should see some of the stories he has cooking up. There’s this one setting, a coffee shop, just a normal coffee shop, right? At least that’s what you think, but there’s a strange mist coming out from underneath the bathroom door and an axe sitting next to the front door. What’s the axe there for? I don’t even want to guess. It’s not some wimpy hatchet either. It’s a full-blown lumberjack, longer than my arm, axe. And then there’s this tavern—weird, weird place—like it’s straight out of hell. Weirdest of all is the chairs are different sizes at different times. Sometimes when I peek in the room, they’re human size. Other times they’re giant size. It’s like the writer can’t make up his mind and keeps switching the size of the characters.”
“I looked in one room,” Natasha said. “There was a large forest. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, all full of pine trees, dark green, light green. And there was a large mountain, full of trees as well.”
“Did you notice the tower being built by goblins up to the sky?”
“Yeah,” Natasha said, remembering the scene. “But I didn’t know they were goblins.”
“Nasty little things,” Alter-Simon said. “Always bitter. Always focusing on what’s wrong. Never appreciating what’s right. I don’t think they’re even capable of comprehending happiness let alone feeling it.”
That sounded like a miserable existence to Natasha, even worse than being alone in a discarded spaceship fragment. Then she had a thought. “With all your exploring, and all the stories you’ve looked in on,” she said, “do you ever think about just staying somewhere?”
“No,” Alter-Simon said. “Because it wouldn’t be right. It always feels like—”
“Like you don’t belong,” Natasha said, finishing his sentence.
“Right,” he said, and they shared a glance, before quickly looking away from each other. Yet, despite her self-consciousness, Natasha realized that here in this room, in this little part of a discarded story, she didn’t feel like she didn’t belong. She actually felt fine, other than the numbness creeping up her arm. She wondered if it was because this was just a discarded fragment and therefore she wasn’t intruding on an actual story meant for someone else. Was that why she felt so comfortable? Or was it something else?
Alter-Simon cleared his throat and continued talking. “So, I just explore now and then. Peek in on settings, meet some of the other characters—the doors I can open, that is.”
“I noticed some are locked.”
Alter-Simon nodded. “Don’t ask me why. But, anyway, then I come back here and watch the game yet again; or I read my book.” Alter-Simon pointed back at “The Screwtape Letters,” and as he pointed, Natasha noticed a strange metal ring on his finger. She couldn’t remember seeing Simon with a ring in the character waiting room.
“What’s that?” she asked, noting with a sense of relief that the ring was on his right index finger, not his left ring finger.
Alter-Simon glanced at his ring then looked back up at her. “Didn’t the real Simon have one?”
“No,” Natasha said. “Not that I saw. Does it mean something?”
“Interesting,” Alter-Simon said. “If he has no ring, then how is he supposed to stop himself if he …” Then Alter-Simon paused. “How much do you know about the real Simon anyway?” he asked.
“A little,” she said. “But not everything, not even all the important things.” She thought of the demon that lurked behind his eyes, the same demon she saw behind Alter-Simon's eyes.
“Ah,” Alter-Simon said. He seemed relieved. “Perhaps that’s for the best.” He held the ring up for her to get a better look. “It’s not so much what it means,” he told her. “It’s more what it does.” He twisted the ring sharply with his other hand, and a short needle popped out of the ring’s flat top.
“What’s that for?” Natasha asked.
“Poison? Why do you have a poison needle in your ring?”
“So I can poison myself if I have to.”
Natasha's eyes widened. She looked from Alter-Simon to the ring and back again. “But why would you want to poison yourself?”
Alter-Simon didn’t respond right away, seeming to be choosing his words carefully before speaking them. “A good man,” he said, “or a man who wants to be a good man, but who is capable of committing a great wrong, needs to do whatever it takes to ensure he never does that wrong—and I want to be a good man.”
Natasha stared at the needle, imagining what kind of poison it contained. This was a science fiction story, so it could be anything. Some exotic new toxin that hadn’t even been dreamed up yet. Was it quick acting? Would his mind shut off before his body even fell to the floor? Or was it slow and painful? It seemed so dark to Natasha, so depressingly dreary. She reminded herself that she really, really didn’t want to know what demon lurked beneath either Simon’s self-control.
“It was supposed to be a great scene,” Alter-Simon said. “At a tense point in the story, when it seems as if the bad guys were about to hurt the girl, I was supposed to pop out this needle, the same needle the reader knew the whole time was meant for me, and I was supposed to poke it into the bad guy instead, killing him and saving the girl.”
“Very dramatic,” Natasha said.
“It's all about the foreshadowing.”
Natasha laughed, but she was happy when Alter-Simon twisted the ring again, hiding the needle inside once more. “And what about this ship?” she asked. “This is a science fiction story, right? Why are you in a spaceship?”
“Believe it or not, I’m actually the captain, or at least I was supposed to be. Hoy was going to be a ferry, a space ferry, used to transport people back and forth from an asteroid mining colony to Earth. That was the premise of the story: me giving Dana and Alice a ride back to Earth, drama and conflict and loss occurring along the way. But then the writer thought of a different way to do things and so here I am, just a discarded old idea, stuck on a fragment of a spaceship, watching reruns of the same futbol game forever.”
And with this they turned their attention back to the game for a few moments, watching the players kick the ball back and forth, back and forth, until Alter-Simon spoke again. “So you’ve heard about me. But what about you? I know you were being chased by Guilt. And, based on the fact that you knew the real Simon, I assume you were originally in the character waiting room. So what brought you from there to here? That door is supposed to be locked. The writer doesn’t want main characters like you wandering around his mind and getting lost.”
To answer, Natasha removed her glove and held her hand up for Alter-Simon to see. The veins of nothingness had grown larger, wider across and deeper into her hand, which she could almost see through now. “It’s the writer’s dementia,” she told Alter-Simon. “There was a bit of it in the corner of the character’s waiting room, and I’ve been infected. As it spreads I get numb and slowly fade away. If I don’t find my way into a story soon, I’ll vanish forever.”
Alter-Simon leaned forward, getting a closer look at the dementia on her hand.
“Don’t touch it,” she said. “It spreads on contact.”
Alter-Simon nodded and settled back onto the couch. “I’ve seen that before, but only in the writer’s memories. So it’s spread into the character waiting room now? That’s not good.”
“No it’s not,” Natasha said, putting the glove back onto her hand.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Alter-Simon said, rising to his feet. “Sounds like you don’t have much time. We better get going.”
Natasha was taken back by his sudden unspoken offer of help. “But I don’t even know where to go,” she said. “I’m supposed to find the story shepherd somehow, but I don’t know where to look.”
“I do,” Alter-Simon said, extending his hand to Natasha and helping her rise to her feet. “I followed her once through the storage hallways, through the writer’s memories, and into the chamber of conscious thought. There was a doorway there, a shining portal in the middle of the room, and then the character she was leading, the Statue of Liberty, walked through and the portal vanished.”
“The Statue of Liberty? I miss her!” Natasha said. “What kind of story was she put in?”
“Not sure, but I think it was a satire,” Alter-Simon said. “From what I could see, it looked like she was walking into a fast food restaurant.”
Natasha raised her eyebrows. “The Statue of Liberty at a fast food restaurant?”
Alter-Simon shrugged. “Like I said, the writer’s mind isn’t exactly normal, and it’s not just because of the dementia. But that’s not important. What matters is that I know where to go, so let’s get going.”
Once again Natasha felt hope. She had been so lost in the hallways. So many twists and turns, so many doorways, but if Alter-Simon had seen where the story shepherd went, and if he was really willing to take her, then maybe, just maybe, she had a chance. “Thank you,” she said.
“Don’t thank me until you’re on your way into a story,” Alter-Simon said, leading her to the door.
Then Natasha remembered what might be waiting for them in the hallway. “But what about Guilt?” she asked.
“Let’s take a look, shall we?” Alter-Simon said. Natasha braced herself for him to open the door, but instead of turning the door knob, he placed his hand flat on the door, and the top half turned transparent.
“Neat,” Natasha said, looking through at the empty hallway beyond.
“Hey, it’s a spaceship,” Alter-Simon said. “It has its perks.”
They both examined the hallway, and neither caught any glimpse of the tentacle blob.
“Looks clear to me,” Alter-Simon said.
Natasha nodded, but as Alter-Simon opened the door, exposing the white brick hallway, a brief flash of fear returned to her, and she grabbed Alter-Simon’s other hand. They stepped out into the hallway together, Natasha scanning the hallway in both directions, seeking any sign of the darkness that indicated the presence of Guilt, but saw nothing.
Alter-Simon dropped her hand. “It’s this way,” he said, leading her down the hall to the left of the door. Natasha looked down at her hand. She couldn’t feel much anymore—the numbness was spreading further up her arms, almost reaching her shoulders now—but she had felt something when Alter-Simon had held her hand, even if only briefly. Calmer. Even knowing that Guilt was lurking in the hallway somewhere, it had made her feel calmer. Alter-Simon stopped and looked over his shoulder at her. Natasha dropped her hand and hurried to his side.
They walked briskly through the hallways. Alter-Simon turning this way and that, obviously knowing exactly where he was going. Natasha wondered how often he had wandered these halls. How long had he been in that discarded story fragment? How long had he been alone?
She had worried at first that Guilt would sneak up on them, but Alter-Simon seemed experienced in avoiding it. They’d pause before each intersection, allowing Alter-Simon to do a quick peek in both directions, and he was constantly checking behind them and looking far ahead. He also stopped every now and then, silencing Natasha with a raised finger to his lips as he listened. It made her feel more comfortable. If anything were lurking out there, Alter-Simon would give them plenty of warning to run.
Natasha thanked her good fortune for having met him. As he led her through the corridors, turning this way and that, she realized she could never have found her way in time. She would have been hopelessly lost. She stole a quick look at him walking beside her. He really was handsome, just like the real Simon. His jumpsuit looked ridiculous, but that was just what she, meant for a different time period, thought of it. He clearly had no problem with it, which made him appear confident, or perhaps oblivious.
“See that room?” Alter-Simon said, pointing at a door as they passed. “It’s a laboratory with some sort of memory transfer equipment. I think a scientist wants to transfer people’s memories into computers or robots or something.”
“Why would he want to do that?”
“Because he thinks it’ll make everyone immortal. Problem is, it won’t. You can transfer memories all you want, but our soul is our soul, and that can’t be sent through a wire.”
Natasha nodded, and they continued with their brisk walk, pausing at each intersection, looking behind at times, waiting in silence for any sound of pursuit. At one crossing she thought she might have seen something dark far in the distance, but they passed the intersection so quickly she couldn’t be sure, and Alter-Simon said nothing about it, so she assumed it must have been her imagination.
The truth is, she felt comfortable, more comfortable than she had in a long time. She hadn’t felt this comfortable since Simon, the real Simon, had left the waiting room with Dana and Alice, led away by the story shepherd. Ever since he had gone, she had felt a vague sense of unease, of instability. She hadn’t recognized it at the time, but being with Simon again, or at least with a different version of him, she understood it now. Simon, Alter-Simon, both of them seemed to radiate an aura of stability, of firmness. She felt as if the entire world could be shaking and falling apart, yet if she were standing next to Alter-Simon, the ground would be steady, and everything would be okay.
It made her feel protected, but that made her feel worried. Her father had protected her as well, and what had happened to him? She didn’t want to expose Alter-Simon to a similar harm. Yet she knew she couldn’t get to a story without him. She needed him. She needed him yet having him here put him at risk. She was torn. Go onward with him now and risk his safety, or send him away and know he would be safer.
Part of her thought the latter would be the right thing, but she couldn’t do it. Not only because of her fear of being lost, but also because she simply didn’t want him to leave. Still, she promised herself she would ask him to go as soon as she could. She needed him for now, but as soon as the need was less, his safety needed to come first.
Alter-Simon stopped as they came to a door on the left. “Okay, you’ve got to see this one real quick.”
The door itself looked the same as the others, but this one had a sign above it that said “Cryptomnesic Characters.”
“Cryptomnesic?” Natasha asked.
“It’s where you unknowingly copy something you saw a long time ago. Writers dread it because it means that what they thought was original was actually just a rehash of something they read or saw earlier in their life.” Alter-Simon gave a knock on the door as if announcing their presence and then opened it.
Natasha didn’t know what she expected. A waiting room with chairs and characters sitting around like the waiting room she had come from? But that isn’t what she saw. There were no chairs here, no white walls with a line of creativity running all around. These characters weren’t waiting to be put in a story. They had been filed away here, never to be used after the writer figured out they weren’t his to begin with. There was no light in the room, the only light coming from the doorway itself, and so Natasha could only see the four characters that stood nearest the doorway. Each of them opened their eyes when the door opened, as if awakening from sleep.
“Hey, guys,” Alter-Simon said. “This is Natasha.”
The four stepped forward to introduce themselves.
“I am Zidz the Dark Gnome,” said a pint-sized man, who reminded Natasha of a garden gnome. Two hilts stood up from behind his back. “I fight evil with my twin scimitars of justice,” he said. He grabbed a hilt in each hand and pulled them out of their scabbards, engaging in a whirling display of swordsmanship that would have been even more impressive if his scimitars weren’t the size of pocket knives.
“And I am Terrific Man!” boomed a man in red spandex who was floating a foot in the air. There was a large T upon his shirt, and his blue cape twirled behind him in an unfelt wind. His hair was parted, like he was straight out of the 50’s. Smiling at Natasha, he displayed a set of perfect white teeth.
A woman stepped forward, clad all in leather, a bow strapped to her back. “I’m Huntress,” she said. “I’m good with a bow, and I make every major male character fall in love with me, yet my beauty is only incidental to my strong female character.”
Not liking the way Huntress was looking at Alter-Simon, Natasha grabbed his hand possessedly.
The fourth character was a boy in glasses wearing what must be a wizard’s robe and holding a wand in one hand. His robe was parted slightly in the middle, and Natasha could see he was wearing a swimming suit underneath. “I’m Leroy,” said the wizard boy. “I go on lots of adventures at my Wizard Summer Camp.”
“No you don’t,” Zidz said. He sheathed his scimitars and folded his tiny arms across his chest.
Leroy shrugged. “Yeah, that’s true. I don’t,” he said. “I am pretty good at lying though.”
“Great to see you all again,” Alter-Simon said, “but we actually have to run. I’ll drop by for a longer chat another time.”
“Always a pleasure,” Terrific Man said, turning around and floating back into the darkness.
“Yes, you should do that,” the Huntress said, her eyes lingering on Alter-Simon for longer than Natasha liked.
The four returned to their spot in the darkness, and Alter-Simon shut the door, letting go of Natasha’s hand as he did so. He turned and faced her. “I know you don’t know everything about Simon, but you know enough to know I’m damaged goods, right?”
Natasha’s face turned red and she looked away. “Maybe I’m damaged goods, too,” she said. “Did you ever think of that?” She wondered how Dana had convinced the real Simon to let her in. Whatever Dana had done, maybe Natasha could do something similar? Their stories might be different, Simon and Alter-Simon, but their character, their strength, was the same, and she wanted that strength. If only she could see how to get past the walls he had built between himself and others. Then again, what was the point? Either she would vanish in the next hour, or she would be in a story all by herself. She changed the subject. “I had no idea there were other character rooms. I thought there was only the character waiting room.”
“No, those are where the main characters go. The writer has other rooms for other kinds of characters. There’s even a Mary Sue room.”
“There’s a room just for characters who are named Mary Sue?”
“No, no,” Alter-Simon laughed. “A Mary Sue character is where the writer writes himself into the story. It’s basically wish fulfillment for the writer.”
“Is that room around here?”
“Yeah, but there’s no point looking inside. Those characters are all tedious and boring. Besides, we’ve almost reached the writer’s memories.”
They walking for a few more minutes, turned a couple corners, and reached a wall that wasn’t white brick. Actually, it wasn’t a wall at all. It appeared almost like a television screen, but Natasha knew it couldn’t be. She saw children running around a concrete play area, the school building extending over the entire area, leaving the play area in shadow, large concrete columns spaced here and there, holding the building up, one more obstacle for the young children to play around. It looked like they were at recess.
“What is this?” Natasha asked.
“The writer’s memories. We need to walk through them to get to his conscious thoughts.”
“Yes, but what is this one?” Natasha said, pointing at the children running back and forth.
“Looks like an elementary school memory to me. Probably kindergarten.”
Natasha walked up to the wall of memory. She lifted her right hand to touch the image, but she felt nothing as she did so. She could see the hand move, but felt nothing of the movement. She let it drop and raised her left hand instead, which still had a little bit of feeling. She held it up against the edge of the image. There was nothing hard there, no wall, no glass, nothing separating them from the memory.
“How do we get through the memories?” she asked.
“We walk through them. You can take portals from one memory to another. You’ll see once we’re inside.”
“But how do we know which way to go? There must be thousands of memories in the writer’s head, millions.”
“The writer knows which way we should go,” Alter-Simon said. “We’re part of him, after all. I don’t know how it works, but the portals that show up always lead in the right direction.”
“And if they didn’t?”
“They always do.”
Natasha felt uneasy about the idea. It seemed so easy to get lost inside there. But she had no time to be picky. If she didn’t get into a story soon, she would fade away. And she might as well fade away inside memories as inside these white brick hallways.
“Ready?” Alter-Simon asked.
Natasha nodded and they walked through together, Natasha closing her eyes as they crossed the threshold. The transition was sensationless. One minute they were in the quiet hallway, the next they were in the middle of a play area, children’s voices all around them.
Natasha opened her eyes. Dozens of children ran in all directions, laughing, playing tag or jump rope or who knows what. The children’s faces were blurry, which in some situations might have seemed terrifying but in this case felt more like she had bad eyesight. She knew they had normal faces. She just couldn’t focus on them well enough to see.
Beyond the covered playground, Natasha could see sunlight. Other children were out on the blacktop, playing four square or other unrecognizable games.
“So we’re supposed to look for a portal?” Natasha asked, scanning the memory for a glimpse of something that looked similar to what they had just walked through.
“Yes, but sometimes they are tricky to see,” Alter-Simon said. “Wait, see that there, along the far wall, past the atrium?
There was a small area where an opening in the building allowed sunlight to trickle down. Small trees and undistinguished bushes grew in the small space. Beyond it, she saw a line of light against the far wall. It almost could have been a trick of the sunlight, yet the colors were changing, like they were being given a small glimpse of a TV screen. “Yeah, I see it,” she said.
“That’s our doorway.”
A group of children came screaming in delight around the bend, a straggler running straight up to Natasha and then through her, the child not even noticing. Natasha gave a yelp, too surprised to have moved out of the way and surprised at not being knocked over. “They’re not real?” she asked Alter-Simon.
“They’re just memories,” Alter-Simon said. “They can’t see us. They can’t touch us. We’re just passing through.”
Curious, Natasha reached out and touched the concrete column next to her. Her left hand had almost lost all sensation, but she felt the hardness of the column when she pressed against it. Clearly there were rules here she didn’t understand. She was careful to avoid any of the children as they walked to the portal, but Alter-Simon just plowed straight through.
The portal had only been a couple inches wide when viewed from across the covered playground, but when they stood before it, it opened up, revealing the next memory. This memory was clearly inside a house. There were young children sitting at a table, a little older than the ones running around in the covered playground behind her, but still young. The children were talking and laughing, excited about the birthday cake that lay on the table.
Natasha and Alter-Simon stepped through, the transition once again sensationless other than the change in sound and now the change in smell, as Natasha could smell the cake as soon as they stepped into the memory.
Natasha turned around and saw that the portal to the prior memory had narrowed to a slit. The party scene was going on all around her, the children now starting to sing as the mother lit a handful of candles on top of the cake. Around the table, through the connected kitchen, Natasha saw the thin slit of light that indicated the next portal. Alter-Simon nodded at it and started walking toward it, but Natasha paused, looking down at the boy who sat at the head of the table, his face as blurry as the rest.
“That’s him, isn’t it?” she said. “That’s the writer.”
“As a young boy.”
“Not much to look at.”
“Few boys are.”
“I suppose not.”
She followed Alter-Simon toward the portal, but he had stopped halfway and was looking down at a large patch of nothingness that lay on the floor, right in their way.
“So it really is in some of his memories,” Natasha said.
Alter-Simon nodded. “I’ve been in memories that are covered in it. Most though just have a little, like this one.”
Seeing the nothingness made Natasha conscious of the limpness of her right arm, which was just hanging at her side, all feeling and control having left it. She grasped her right wrist with her left hand, holding her right arm in front of her so it wouldn’t swing back and forth. What would she do when she lost control of her left hand?
“We’re going to have to jump over it,” Alter-Simon said. “It’s only a few feet wide. Do you think you can make it?”
“I think so.”
Alter-Simon went first, jumping over the chasm with ease. Then he turned and extended a hand, ready to assist Natasha should she need it.
Natasha walked right up to the edge, still holding her right arm in her left. She braced herself, leaning back slightly before moving forward onto her toes and pushing off with all her strength. It was an awkward jump but she made it. Alter-Simon grabbed her right shoulder when she landed, which she couldn’t feel any more, and he steadied her on the other side.
Natasha looked back at the patch of nothingness. “How much of these are in the writer’s memories?”
It might have been her imagination, but Natasha had the impression the nothingness was growing, which reminded her of her own predicament and how little time she had left. She looked back at the writer, now just a child, eating cake at the table. She wondered what was going on inside his head. Might she already be there in some form? Just a hint of her, just the bare essence of a bare essence of an idea? If so, by now, surely he wouldn’t remember. She turned back with Alter-Simon and together they walked through the portal, stepping out onto an afternoon street.
They were in what appeared to be an older suburb, some of the homes showing their age worse then others, most of the yards well maintained, but a few in dire need of attention, some with more dirt than grass. An odd medley of cars were parked in the driveways and the street. Many were rust buckets, but some parked in the driveways appeared far nicer than one would expect judging on the quality of the homes.
She heard cars passing on nearby streets, and the sound of spinning bicycle tires as two men wearing white shirts and ties passed them on bikes. One of the men raised a hand and waved in their direction as they passed.
“I thought they couldn’t see us?” Natasha said. She looked behind her and saw a woman standing on her porch, the woman’s hand also raised in a wave. “Never mind,” Natasha said, feeling like a ghost in a world of ghosts.
“Do you see the portal?” Alter-Simon asked.
Natasha looked up and down the street. “No.” But then she caught a sliver of a room in the middle of a green yard down the street. “There,” she said. She pointed with her left hand, letting go of her right, which dropped like a rock to her side and struck her leg. She didn’t feel it hit.
Alarmed, Natasha pulled up her jacket and shirt to look at her side, where streaks of nothingness now reached up and down. She let her jacket drop and cover her skin.
“Is something wrong?” Alter-Simon asked.
“Nothing. Let’s just get going,” Natasha said. She grasped her right arm in her left hand again and started walking toward the portal. Not wanting to think about how little time she had left, she tried to lose herself in the memory, to feel what it must have felt like to have been here, wherever and whenever here had been. The sun felt pleasant on her face, warming it, a contrast to the cool breeze, and she realized she had never really felt the sun before. All her life she had been in the character waiting room. She had had one glimpse into the room full of forest and mountain, but this was the first time she had truly felt the sun. And she was only here as a ghost, an intruder in a memory of what had once been. She wondered how the sun felt when it actually reached your skin. It must be glorious. She looked up at the clear blue sky, small pockets of white cloud visible above the roof tops on one side of the street. Somewhere, someone was cooking a barbecue. Natasha had never tasted a hamburger. She’d never tasted food at all (characters in the waiting room didn’t have to eat), but her mouth watered at the smell, a mixture of charcoal and cooking meat.
And in that brief glimpse of contentment, her mind returned to her earlier dreams of what kind of story she would be in. She wondered what it would be like. She hoped there would be a bright sun there, and blue sky. She hoped there would be green grass and the tempting smell of barbecue drifting from some unidentified backyard.
When they were halfway to the portal, Natasha’s steps started to slow. She looked down at her legs, willing them to continue moving as before, but her right was not stepping as far as her left.
There was a grating noise behind them, like metal grinding on metal, and a harsh, alien voice boomed, “Simon!”
“Oh, no,” Alter-Simon said.
Natasha turned and almost collapsed when she saw the giant spider that had just emerged from the backyard two houses away from them. It was as tall as Natasha, standing on eight black legs as thick as her own, the hairs on the legs appearing as sharp as metal. Two large eyes stared hungrily, six small eyes surrounding them. Two arm-thick fangs rubbed together in its mouth, the source of the metallic sound. Natasha didn’t want to imagine how easily those fangs could rip her apart.
“Simon … Simon … Simon,” the spider said. “You’ve found yourself a woman.” It laughed, a horrifying sound, like skin and bones going through a wood chipper.
“Leave her alone,” Alter-Simon said. He grabbed Natasha’s arm and started walking backwards away from the spider. The spider continued to laugh and stepped toward them, maintaining the same distance.
“What is it?” Natasha whispered as they continued to walk backwards toward the portal.
“Worry,” Alter-Simon said. “Whatever you do, don’t let it get inside your head.”
Natasha glanced over her shoulder at the portal, still three front yards away. Then she looked back at Worry, who continued to match their movements. With its massive legs, it could catch them easily. It seemed to be toying with them.
“Does she know, Simon?” Worry said. “Did you tell her?”
“Don’t listen to it,” Alter-Simon said. “It’s just a monster.”
“A monster?” Worry laughed. “You would certainly know a monster, wouldn’t you, Simon? She’s going to find out! You can’t hide your secret from her. She’s going to find out, and when she does, who will she call a monster then?”
Worry rubbed its fangs together, its eyes dark orbs of hate. It started to move faster, closing the distance toward them.
“Can you run?” Alter-Simon asked Natasha. The portal was still two front yards away.
“I’m not sure,” Natasha said. Her right leg was dragging even when walking, her right arm a dead weight held by her left. “I can try.”
“You won’t be able to control it,” Worry said. “Your ring? It won’t help. Why would a monster stop himself from being a monster? And that’s what you are, Simon, just a monster. You want what you want, whether you want to want it or not.”
“When I say go, turn around and sprint for the portal,” Alter-Simon said. They continued walking backward a few more steps, Worry slowly closing in on them, then Alter-Simon shouted, “Now!” He pulled on Natasha’s arm to turn her, and they ran toward the portal, Alter-Simon yanking her along, her right foot dragging.
Worry shrieked behind them, eight massive legs pounding the ground in pursuit. The portal was still a front yard away, and they weren’t running fast enough. Natasha’s right leg wouldn’t cooperate. She was slowing Alter-Simon down. Natasha heard Worry’s fangs grinding together. She felt Worry’s eagerness to rend their flesh, to rip them limb from limb. They weren’t going to make it. But Alter-Simon could. He could if she wasn’t slowing him down. Natasha was about to shake his hand loose and let him escape when a streak of nothingness opened up on the ground right in front of them. They tripped going over it, and fell on the ground, rolling forward away from the chasm.
Natasha twisted her head, terrified that their fall had let Worry overtake them and was surprised to see Worry stopped and slowly backing away from a chasm of nothingness that was already a dozen feet across and growing toward it a foot a second. It shrieked in fury and scurried off to the side, seeking a path around the nothingness to reach them.
“Let’s get out of here,” Alter-Simon said. He helped Natasha to her feet, and they hurried to the portal, where they stepped through and entered an office. There was a young man with a goatee sitting in one chair, a middle-aged man in a cardigan in the other. Neither was talking, the air filled with a sense of awkwardness. An animated fish swam across the computer screen on the man’s desk, and next to the desk, a narrow slit, only feet away. They ran through and found themselves in a high school hallway, lockers on each wall, teenagers walking in every direction, their faces blurry like in the kindergarten playground. Dementia lurked along the walls and floors. Careful to avoid it, they ran down the hallway until they saw the next portal, which hovered in the air in front of a window. They ran through and found themselves in the desert, a large stone arch to their left. Natasha saw the next portal and they hurried toward it, Natasha’s leg starting to really drag by this point. Alter-Simon held onto her arm, pulling her toward the portal.
But this wasn’t a narrow slit like the rest. It was a full-size doorway into a corridor. Natasha turned to look back at the scene and saw a young couple walking up the rock hill toward the arch. She held her breath and walked through the wall and into a long hallway, the walls and floors shiny and bright, as if coated with silver. Natasha leaned her back against the wall, gulping air as she tried to catch her breath. Alter-Simon rested against the opposite wall. They both looked back at the desert scene, worried that Worry might appear any second.
“Can it find us?” Natasha asked.
“I don't know,” Alter-Simon said. “Memories are all jumbled up. The portals take you where you want to go eventually. At least, that’s how it works for us. But I don’t know about the monsters. Either way, we better get moving. We’re almost there.”
Natasha shuffled after Alter-Simon, cradling her right arm in a left hand that was growing increasingly numb. Her right foot wouldn’t lift off the ground. She dragged it behind her.
Thankfully the hallway was short with no side passages. After a couple minutes of walking they came into a large circular room, the walls hundreds of feet apart, the ceiling dozens of feet in the air. The ceiling itself appeared to be a giant screen, with images and words flashing across it, apparently demonstrating the writer’s current senses, communicating not only sight but sound, smell, and touch in a way that Natasha couldn’t explain even to herself.
So this is the conscious mind, Natasha said to herself. This is where the story shepherd leads characters to take them into their story. This is where I can walk through a doorway myself and get into my story.
Excited, she looked for the shining doorway Alter-Simon had told her about. But there was nothing there. Nothing but a silent black obelisk standing off-center in the middle of the chamber.
“I don't understand,” Alter-Simon said. “The doorway was here before. It was right here! The story shepherd led the Statue of Liberty here, and she walked through into her story. But where is the doorway?”
They walked into the middle of the room, Natasha dragging behind Alter-Simon, who kept mumbling to himself, “I don't understand it.”
Natasha’s right leg was about to give out, her left hand almost losing the ability to grip her right. Not wanting to fall, she sat down on the ground.
“Maybe it's somewhere in the edge of the room,” Alter-Simon said, and he spun around in all directions scanning the room.
The numbness continued to spread. She couldn’t feel her right leg at all and her left was growing weak as well. Her right hand lay on her lap like a lump of clay, her left barely movable. So this is it, she thought. This is the end. It was strange. She would have thought she would be panicking, but instead she sat quietly, musing at what was and what might have been.
“I wonder if I would have been in a science fiction story too,” she said. “Wouldn’t that have been interesting? Maybe I could have been a detective on a space station. Or maybe just a normal detective in a normal story. It’s interesting to think … what could have been.”
“Don't talk like that,” Alter-Simon said. “We'll figure something out.”
Natasha looked up at the ceiling. Words and thoughts flashed across the large screen, and somehow she could tell the writer was talking to himself. Wasn’t that a sign of mental instability? Oh well, what did it matter now anyway?
“It's okay,” Natasha said. “You won't even remember that I’m gone. I'll vanish like I was never here. I don't think even I will remember. I'll just be gone.”
“No!” Alter-Simon said, pacing around the center of the room. “Don’t talk like that. We’ll figure something else. We will. We have to.”
A solid bar of light opened a few feet above Alter-Simon’s head and he halted his pacing, looking up in surprise. The light vanished and a wooden staff floated in the air in its place. “What in the world is that doing here?” Alter-Simon said. Then the staff fell and hit him on the head. “Ouch!” he said, rubbing his head where he had been struck. He bent over and picked the large stick up off the ground.
Natasha tried to stand, wanting to get a closer look, but her left leg wasn’t strong enough to lift her anymore. She crawled over to Alter-Simon instead.
“What is it?” she asked.
Alter-Simon didn’t answer for a moment as he stared at the wooden staff, dark gray and covered in ornate carvings. There was a burn mark on it, running from top to bottom, as if someone had charred it for some unknown reason. “It’s Simon’s walking stick,” Alter-Simon said. “The real Simon, I mean.”
And Natasha remembered. It was the staff the story shepherd had handed to the real Simon right before he left the character waiting room. She didn't remember it being so scratched then. “What is it doing here?”
“I don't know,” Alter-Simon said, staring at it with a confused look on his face. “It shouldn't be here.” He looked at his hands. “It's wet.” Then he thought for a moment. “This must have been when the real Simon lost it in his story,” he said. “His walking stick I mean. In his story, he lost his walking stick in a landslide that came roaring down the mountain into the river canyon, Dana right in its path, leaving Simon alone with … ” Alter-Simon looked at Natasha and then quickly turned away. “Let's just say that's when his story starts to get dark.”
There was a loud groaning sound that instinctively made Natasha turn toward the hallway, expecting to see Worry there, grinding its fangs together and ready to pounce, but this wasn’t the metallic noise they had heard in the memory. This sounded like stone on stone. The hallway was empty, and Natasha realized the sound was coming from something much closer. She turned to the black obelisk that stood nearby and scooted back in surprise when she saw that the top had rotated upward, revealing a face of stone. Two cold eyes regarded them above a silent mouth.
“And who are you supposed to be?” Alter-Simon asked. He took a step to the side, placing himself between the obelisk and Natasha, the walking stick held in both hands as a weapon.
The stone face observed them silently for a moment. Then its harsh lips moved. “I am Obsession.”
“Guilt, Worry, now Obsession? I think our writer needs counseling,” Natasha said.
“Already done. Didn’t you pay attention to the memories we passed through? “Alter-Simon said. “Well, at least this monster isn’t mobile.”
But no sooner had he said that than the obelisk’s base split into two legs.
“Still,” Alter-Simon said. “What’s it going to do, kick us?”
The obelisk shivered, stone groaning as its middle mass shifted, and two arms extended from each side, each holding a long curved blade of black stone.
Alter-Simon took a step back. “Oh,” he said.
Two more arms extended out of the obelisk below the first two, four curved blades pointed toward them.
“Stop talking!” Natasha said. “You're just making it worse!”
Stone groaned as Obsession raised a massive foot and took a step toward them. It raised the other foot and stepped closer, faster this time, as if it only needed time to warm up. The next step was faster still.
“Get back!” Alter-Simon said to Natasha, who tried to scoot away.
Then Obsession struck, giving Alter-Simon barely enough time to raise the walking stick to block, and the whole room was filled by the clang of stone on metal. Alter-Simon and Obsession looked at the wooden walking stick in surprise. Then Obsession growled and struck with another sword. Then another. Each attack coming faster, more coordinated. Alter-Simon whirled the walking stick up and down, left and right, blocking each sword thrust, but he was losing ground, backing toward Natasha, who was trying vainly to scoot away from them, her right leg and right arm dragging on the ground.
“There's no need for this,” Alter-Simon said, blocking one black blade before twisting the walking stick to block a blow from the opposite side. “We're just looking for a story doorway. We’ll leave as soon as we find it.”
Obsession laughed and struck with all four blades at the same time. Alter-Simon jumped back, barely clearing the blades as they sliced through the air. He bumped into Natasha and almost lost his footing.
“Fool!” Obsession said. “Those doorways can only be opened by the story shepherd, and the story shepherd is not here!”
“Then where is she?”
Obsession laughed again. “Why would I tell you?” It advanced, four blades raised high to strike.
“The white door,” Natasha said, remembering her journey through the storage hallways.
“What?” Alter-Simon said, bracing himself for the next onslaught.
“There was a white door. I remember seeing it,” Natasha said. A look of frustration crossed Obsession’s stone face, and Natasha knew she had guessed correctly.
“I know where that is,” Alter-Simon said. “But it’s always lock—” He raised the walking stick horizontal above his head just in time to block the four swords that swung downward, the weight of the stone blades driving him down to one knee. He looked up at the walking stick, seeming to notice the intricate carvings on it for the first time. “Now that’s what I call obsession.”
Obsession growled and kicked a massive stone foot, sending Alter-Simon tumbling over Natasha, the walking stick falling from his hand and rolling away across the floor.
Natasha looked up at the stone monster, at the coldness in its eyes and the sharpness of the four blades that carved the air as they descended toward her. Then Alter-Simon was above her, jumping between the four cutting blades and slamming his body into Obsession’s mid-section, the two of them toppling backward onto the floor. Obsession screamed in rage and pulled back one of its swords, ready to strike, but Alter-Simon was already moving. He grabbed one of Obsession’s arms, and slammed it with the back of his other hand. Then he jumped back as Obsession immediately began convulsing on the ground, the four blades scratching the floor as Obsession’s arms spasmed. Natasha looked at the hand Alter-Simon had hit Obsession with and saw the metal needle protruding from his ring. He had gotten a chance to use it to save the day after all.
Alter-Simon bent down and helped Natasha rise to her feet, putting one of her arms over his shoulder and helping her up, her right leg uselessly dragging on the ground. “We’ve got to go,” he said. “I don’t know how long the poison will hold it.”
All the way back to the storage area. All the way back through memories. Natasha didn’t know if she could make it. Her entire body was growing numb, and she had the impression that her eyesight was getting weaker, everything starting to get fuzzy around the edges. She leaned heavily upon Alter-Simon as they hurried out of the chamber and down the silver hallway. They stepped into memory but not the desert scene they had last left. This time they were in the hallway with teenagers all around. But it wasn’t a school, at least it didn’t look like one to Natasha. Some of the teenagers were shoeless, and each of the shoeless teenagers had a second teenager walking behind them with a finger entwined in their belt loop as if they were trying to keep them from running. Then Natasha and Alter-Simon stepped through the portal and were on a soccer field, a large group of boys playing football at recess. Natasha and Alter-Simon saw the portal up ahead by a goalpost and they were starting toward it when a shadow struck from behind, flinging them apart. Natasha hit the ground painfully on her left side. She turned her head and saw Alter-Simon lying dazed on his stomach a few feet away, four massive hairy spider legs separating the two of them, the leg’s edges fuzzy in Natasha’s failing sight. Worry’s great bulk towered over Alter-Simon. It made a grotesque sound of triumph as it dipped its head toward Alter-Simon, metallic fangs grinding together eagerly.
“Alter-Simon,” Natasha yelled, dragging her body toward him. She thought of how Alter-Simon had defeated Obsession with his ring, and for a brief moment she wished she too carried some burden that could be unleashed to save her friend, and then she realized that she did. Twisting her right arm out from underneath her, Natasha removed her glove. Then she raised her right hand with her left and slammed it onto Worry’s nearest leg.
The spider’s fangs were only inches from Alter-Simon’s back, but it froze as soon as Natasha’s hand touched it. Then it fell backward, rolling onto its back, its eight legs curling inward as it trembled and shook. Natasha looked at her right hand, now so faded she could only see its outline. She let it fall to the ground and then dragged her way to Alter-Simon, who was finally raising himself up onto his feet.
He grabbed her by the shoulders and raised her to her feet, throwing her arm over him as before. They looked back at Worry, who now lay on its side, eight hungry eyes staring eagerly toward them. The leg Natasha had struck had crumbled into countless black pieces.
Worry laughed, a more malevolent sound than Natasha had ever heard. “Dementia doesn’t kill worries,” it said, metal scratching on metal. “Dementia multiplies worries!”
And even in Natasha’s fading eyesight, it was clear the countless pieces of black leg were all beginning to grow, tiny legs shooting out from each of them, bodies, heads, fangs.
“Run!” Alter-Simon said, and they hobbled toward the portal, which they stepped through, not paying attention to the scene they were in, their eyes just focused on the next portal, then the next, then the next. They stepped out of memory and back into the familiar hallway of white brick.
Natasha was growing weaker. She could barely feel her left hand now, and she wasn’t sure if her left foot was moving or if Alter-Simon was just dragging her. They turned corner after corner. Somewhere behind her, she heard the sound of countless scratching feet.
“Keep moving!” Alter-Simon said.
They turned another corner, and there, past one more intersection, they saw the white doorway. We’re almost there, Natasha thought, too weak to form the words in lips now growing numb. We’re almost there …
A black tentacle reached around the corner ahead of them, and Guilt surged into the hallway, its tentacles twisting and turning as its blob raced toward them.
“Back!” Alter-Simon said, dragging her down the hallway past another intersection. Guilt was surging toward them and Natasha heard the countless Worries scurrying somewhere far behind. It wasn’t fair. They stood no chance. She turned her head to one side and saw a doorway on her left, a sign above it, something about “Characters.” She thought of the four copycat heroes she had met earlier and how much they needed them now. With the last of her strength, she pushed away from Alter-Simon and grabbed at the door knob, turning and opening the door as she fell to the ground. But she didn’t see the four characters she expected when she looked in the dark room. She only saw an unfamiliar teenager looking back at her, his eyes full of curious intelligence yet tinted with arrogance.
Alter-Simon ticked the door shut. “That's the Mary Sue room!”
But it didn’t matter. It was too late. Natasha could feel herself fading. Her arms were useless as were her legs. She could still hear. She could hear the awful, slurping of Guilt’s body as it twisted and grasped its way toward them. She could hear the terrifying clicking of spider feet on tile and wall as the Worries hunted after them. But her eyes were failing. Alter-Simon was just a blur now. Actually, two blurs, and the second appeared older and looked like he had a goatee. That couldn’t be right, unless ...
“Hi!” the man standing next to Alter-Simon said. “I'm a computer geek who is absolutely brilliant yet completely unappreciated, dashingly handsome yet modest and socially awkward, and ...”
One of the Mary Sues—one of the characters who served as a stand-in for the writer, who served as an expression of the writer’s wish fulfillment for himself—one of them had made it out of the room.
The Mary Sue stared down the hallway toward Guilt and sighed. “Well, I guess I have to do the noble thing, now don’t I?” He clapped a hand on Alter-Simon’s shoulder and then ran toward the intersection that lay between them and Guilt, where he turned the corner and taunted the monster, “You call that shame? You don’t know the meaning of shame!”
Guilt paused when it reached the intersection, but then it turned after the Mary Sue, its black blob of tentacles disappearing from view.
And that was the last thing Natasha saw. Her eyes succumbed to the nothingness, and the world became a complete blur of fading light. She heard Alter-Simon above her, telling her they had to go, but it was too late, too late.
“It’s okay,” she whispered. “It’s okay. Leave me and save yourself. It’s okay.”
Then, with her last strength, she smiled up at Alter-Simon, and everything went dark.
* * *
Alter-Simon looked down at Natasha, who lay so peacefully on the ground, her eyes closed, her lips turned up in a final smile, thin streaks of nothingness spreading across her face. He knew he should leave her. She was fading away, and Worry—all of them—were gaining fast. He could hear their fangs grinding together as hundreds of feet pounded toward him. He should leave her and save himself. That’s what he should do.
“But I wasn’t written that way.”
Alter-Simon bent down and picked up Natasha. Carrying her in his arms, he ran toward the white doorway. He passed the intersection where the Mary Sue had led Guilt away, but he was too slow. He could hear Worry behind, and when he looked over his shoulder, he saw them, the whole hallway full, Worries running on the ground, the walls, the ceiling, stumbling over one another in their haste to reach him, countless legs, countless fangs, countless eyes staring at him hungrily. He wasn’t going to make it. There was still one more intersection to pass, still hundreds of feet to go. The Worries were too fast. He couldn’t outrun them, not while he was carrying Natasha, and there was no way he was going to leave her behind.
Then he noticed the sign above the door coming up on his left, “Cryptomnesic Characters.” Whispering a silent prayer of thanks, he turned to the doorway and yanked it open. “Help!” he yelled before turning again toward the white doorway and running from the approaching Worries. He wasn’t sure if his plea for help would work, and he didn’t dare look behind to check, but a few seconds later he had his answer as the Worries shrieked in rage, the sound of the running feet halting as the hallway behind Alter-Simon exploded in commotion, Huntress yelling a war cry, the twang of her bow constantly loosing arrows, Zidz’s tiny yet manly voice describing his scimitars of justice as he slashed, Leroy casting spell after spell in ancient Greek, and Terrific Man singing about saving the day. No amount of worry stood a chance against such heroes.
Alter-Simon passed the final intersection and reached the white doorway. He looked down at Natasha, whose face was starting to completely fade. She felt lighter in his arms than she had before.
“No,” he said. “You’ve got to hold on. Just a little longer. We’re almost there.”
He grasped the door knob. It had never opened for him before. He said a little prayer and turned it and the door opened inward. Alter-Simon stumbled inside, slamming the door behind him. The room was bright and white, but Alter-Simon had no time to look, for there in the center of the room was the story shepherd, watching his entrance as if she had been expecting him. Alter-Simon laid Natasha gently at her feet.
“You’ve got to open a story doorway for her,” Alter-Simon said. “She’s got to get out of here before the dementia erases her.” He looked down at Natasha, the ground clearly visible through her beautiful, peaceful face.
“I’m sorry,” the story shepherd said, her voice sounding like a far-away song. “But it’s too late for that.”
“But you’re the story shepherd! Opening story doorways is what you do!”
“Yes, but I can’t send her into a story like this. She’s too far gone.”
Natasha was fading more and more. Alter-Simon couldn’t let her vanish. “Can’t you change things?” he begged. “You’re the story shepherd! Don’t you have some control? Can’t you make it go away?”
The story shepherd shook her head sadly. “I’m sorry, Alter-Simon, but I can’t interfere. The dementia was touched. It has to affect someone.”
“Then have it affect me! Take it away from her and give it to me!”
“You would sacrifice yourself for her?”
Alter-Simon needed no time to consider his response. “Of course I would! Without her, what do I have anyway? A life of loneliness, forever fighting against a monster I can’t ever escape. Let her have her life. Let her have her happiness.”
Natasha’s face was almost gone, just an outline now.
“As you wish,” the story shepherd said. She laid a hand softly on Natasha’s face and then she looked up at Alter-Simon. “Let me see now,” she said. “Where would that be?”
Natasha was almost completely gone, even the outline of her face disappearing, any second Alter-Simon expected her clothing to fall empty onto the ground. “Hurry!” he said. “Hurry!”
“Ah!” the story shepherd said, her far-away song full of triumph. “I found you!” She reached up a hand and placed a finger lightly between Alter-Simon’s eyes, and color immediately rushed back into Natasha’s face. But right as the color and life returned to Natasha, Alter-Simon was blasted off his feet onto his back, pain—unimaginable pain—filling his mind, as if something had just been cut out of him.
He rolled on the ground in agony, hands on his head, but the pain stopped as swiftly as it had come, and he lay there, panting. I must be vanishing now, he thought. My nerves must have gone. And he was grateful for the peace that brought. Except the rest of him would follow shortly, he knew. And he wondered for the first time if characters actually had an after-life. And if they did, what about erased characters? Would they go there too, or were they simply gone? Either way, he decided, it was worth it.
He opened his eyes and turned his head toward Natasha, wanting to see her one last time. Her color was fully restored and she was breathing normally, her eyes still closed. It would have been wonderful to have been able to say goodbye, but maybe it was better this way.
He raised a hand and held it in front of his face, expecting to see growing veins of nothingness. He was shocked to see it perfectly whole. He raised the other hand, no dementia there either. And he realized for the first time that he didn’t actually feel numb at all. He looked up at the story shepherd, who was looking down at him with a smile on her face as if she were hiding an inside joke.
“I don’t get it,” he said, rising to his feet, his legs not weak at all. “Why aren't I vanishing?”
The story shepherd tilted her head, still smiling, and said. “But something vanished, didn't it?”
Alter-Simon didn’t know what she meant. He counted all his fingers. He wiggled his toes. He felt his ears, his nose, his eyes, his hair. Nothing was gone. So what was she talking about?
He looked down at Natasha, perfectly whole, and felt an unexpected flood of hope. If neither of them were infected with the dementia, did that mean they might have a future together? But that hope was quickly dashed by cold reason. Of course not. He could never be with someone, not when he constantly had to fight against … against … but then he stopped. How could that be? He searched his mind. It wasn’t there. He looked up at the story shepherd, wonder in his eyes. “What did you do to me?”
“The dementia had to erase something, Alter-Simon. I decided to make it erase something you should never have learned in the first place.”
Alter-Simon wanted to laugh. He wanted to sing. He felt so weightless, so free. “I thought you weren't supposed to interfere?” he said.
“Perhaps you weren't destined for a life of loneliness after all.”
* * *
Natasha opened her eyes to see Alter-Simon standing above her, the story shepherd next to him. They had made it. She hadn’t thought it was possible, but they had made it. Then she realized she didn’t feel numb anymore. Surprised, she moved her hands and her feet. Everything worked.
Alter-Simon knelt down beside her, and she raised a hand, happy to finally be able to touch his cheek. She looked up into his eyes. The strength was there, the strength she had found so attractive in both Simons, but something in his eyes was different.
The demon was gone.
“Alter-Simon,” she said, but then she stopped, unsure what to say, unsure what to even ask.
“It’s gone,” he said, a giant smile on his face. “It’s gone and I don’t even remember what it was.” He took off his ring and dropped it to the ground. “I won’t be needing that anymore.” Then he offered his hand to Natasha and helped her to her feet. They stood holding hands before the story shepherd, a shining story doorway open beside her.
“Are you two ready?” the story shepherd asked.
“What do you think it will be?” Natasha asked Alter-Simon. “Science fiction? Mystery? Romance?”
Alter-Simon squeezed Natasha’s hand in response, and they walked through the doorway, entering their story together.