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Strong Feeling

Karmel Writing Prizes

“What’ve you gotten me into?” I asked her, again and again. “You’d better have a good answer when I find you.” Winner of the King Prize for Science Fiction.

“Strong Feeling” received first place for the King Prize for Science Fiction.

We met up in the odd little break room of our office around 11am. Nothing organized. Somehow, that just seemed like the earliest time that could count as a “lunch break.” The trial had already started, about 9ish. That didn’t matter. We had all been there, and knew the smoking details.

None of us looked at each other, exactly. We were struggling to keep our faces in check—or at least I was—and did not want to do another the discourtesy of witnessing an anxiety or distress. We acted as though we were all focused on our outerwear, trying to slot the plastic zippers into place without shredding bits of the cheap synthetic fabric on the side. The coffee machine on the wall kept beeping out a reminder to order fresh J-mug cartridges. It was brimful, of course but when Anton burned down the office some part of the savy circuitry had fried, and there wasn’t any option on the charred glass touch screen to inform the machine of its dementia.

We waited for stragglers for another fifteen minutes. Just a circle of office-workers on break, in an ordinary, everyday circle. Wait, wait, wait—the time beeped slow. After exhausting the coats, we tapped at our phones for fresh emails (I had 27 work-related, 2 other, and a text from Peg), and coughing into scarves and mittens. I started looking around the room, listless-like. Trying to guess what parts of the peeling grey wallpaper in the rhombus of a room were that way because they were burnt, which parts just hadn’t been cleaned, and which, worst of all, had been designed that way.

“What do you think they’ll give him?” Kevin asked, the words spilling over each other with little domino snaps.

Acne spots flared amid the fine black stubble on his Adam’s apple, and he rubbed the tapered corner of one eye until it was red, swollen. Pop, rub, swell. He was normally Mediocre, but I imagined that any smart Mage who examined my co-worker would find that he had actuated an allergic response. So we all found new things to adjust in our coats. The faux- feathers of my hood were tickling my neck, for example. My curls had spilled out of my hat, and needed tucking. And the earbuds were kind of dangling from my pocket.

“Maybe paralyze a limb.”

The voice was Xavi. I looked over, but she was teasing a glittery red thread from the back of her fingerless gloves, with precisely manicured nails, as if the thread were all that mattered in the world. Her shaped eyebrows knotted together in one sharp line, and all the warm tones seemed to have emptied from her dark brown skin, so that it looked stony, halfway like a statue. It did not seem to be a joke. I knew that sort of verdict happened, but this was the first time I had really known someone who went to court, and a painful image of Anton limping to his desk on permanent elbow-crutches, or finger-pecking at a keyboard for the next fifty years swam to mind. (Though, no, not his desk. He had been fired. Some other desk. Some other where.

But who would hire him? No one now…)

“Paralyze, like forever?” I asked, as soon as I could trust my voicebox to emit a level sound. “Or do you think he’d get something temporary, I don’t know.”

No one answered for a minute.

“Depends on the Sensitives. A good Mage could do temporary—if they feel that that is what the situation demands.”

It was about an equal walk and bus-ride from the Ad-Ed building to the courthouse, given the traffic on Mass Ave. About ten of us filed down the high-ceilinged hall and through the claustrophobic elevator together. Furtive even though it was our lunch break to begin with, so we were not breaking any rules. We left the Ad-Ed building through its ten-foot revolving doors, and stole out across the News Plaza square. We split up in that wide, open space. Anjali, Xavi, and Kevin took the bus, and the rest of us walked.

A minute into the walk, and I wished I had chosen the bus-route. It was twenty or so on the thermometer, but with a wind that would have picked the thermometer off the wall and smashed it. The seven us seemed very diminished from ten. As the shortest of the pack, I felt small, and exposed, rather than protected. Sucked into the wind, and tossed inside my head.

We walked in single-file down sidewalks with bad bricks and worse streetlights. Snow salt crunched under my flats, blue and toxic. They weren’t good walking shoes, and I nearly turned an ankle on a tree root. My ears went numb. And I kept on thinking about Anton. About how our coffee breaks had been getting longer and longer the last few weeks. About that day, which I kept telling myself I must have imagined, when he looked at me with gooey chocolate eyes, brushed caramel hair back from his temples with two nervous-shaky hands, and said You’re a friend, right? And I said Yes, with my chest going all tingly inside as if it were full of gem-pop candy, because I thought he might finally ask me out. Oh, then the way my insides slowed with shock when, instead of anything like that, he showed me the Publication he’d been putting out.

Asked if I would help him, now and then. Begged me to keep it a secret. I remembered the warm flush run through my hands, whenever he would pull me aside at work to fine-tune a description—I melted the esc key on his desktop by mistake, but if he noticed the actuation, he did not breath a word.

I had been meaning to talk to Peg about it, somehow, but the words kept sticking in my throat. Little wishbones. It was as though everything that I had neatly folded in my insides had become rumpled and weightless. Breaking the Mages’ law, it wasn’t frightening, it was seductive.

We reached the Mages’ Square, and shoved down to the courtroom in the center. It was daytime, but they still had sorts of neon lightbulbs hovering in the air, because they could.

Discomfiting. When we got to the trial, it was almost over. A crowd of Mediocre observers stood half a block deep, half hiding the plain grey brick side of the one-story enclosure. Some of the closer ones had headphones plugged into audio jacks on the courtroom wall. A couple grainy speakers carried the voice outside of the courtroom, to where the rest of us stood listening. We tugged the zippers on our jackets all close up to our throats, like an instinct. Trying not to let dread bubble up all nebulous.

“And so, the defendant Anton Angelovski, in full knowledge that he was borderline- Sensitive, and quite sane, allowed himself to be placed in a situation which could engender destructive anger. By his own admission, he did not seek re-evaluation upon minor infringements. Such demonstrations of Sensitivity, including but not necessarily limited to the conflagration of the defendant’s personal tax documents, resulting in delayed refunds, the repeated jamming of his office supervisor’s door, resulting in a contusion of said supervisor’s meniscus, and—as he has admitted on the record—Wishes for Interpersonal Harm which, as reported by Congressman Morais, and confirmed by his secretary and senior Mages—manifested in a persistent twinge of the left elbow…”

Even I felt disgust as the words Wishes for Interpersonal Harm squeaked through the speakers, disgust so green that the snow on my mittens were like nasty flakes of lime zest from a week-old Holiday Pie. Even I felt that—I, who had been with Anton in the office just two minutes before the blaze, there with him when he broke down on his way to the bathroom, holding already-crumpled wads of notepad in his hands. Teardrops landing on the pages, cutting the words to muck—Anton’s sharp chin landing on his bony chest, all defeated. He never— couldn’t—have meant to mean badly. They have to see that, I tell myself. They’re Sensitives, they’ll feel his pain—whatever some people—they have to…

“…the prosecution rests,” finished the Mediocre lawyer, her tone trained empty of emotion.

I hung back, at first, with the little penguin patch of people from the office. We could feel the heat of each other’s bodies through the coats. We took comfort in that. Snow fell: down, down, down. Everyday flakes.

I elbowed a Mediocre boy out of the way, to get myself a better slot up against the window glass. It was a cold and smudgy patch, but it let in enough of the plain little courtroom to get a general idea. A newspaper reporter rested her camera on top of my head to get a better look, and the weight pressed down, down, down.

The Sensitive jury looked at Anton, who was pallid, and shivered like a winter-starved squirrel. He dripped scared sweat onto the carpeted floor of the trial room. He kept his head down, and his face neutral, admirably so—I knotted my fingers at my chest, something welling—pride? The jurors considered, and considered. They looked from Anton to Exhibits A, B, and C. Exhibit A was a photograph of the office, smoke swirling up from Anton’s cubicle.

As clear as a help-flare. Exhibit B was a livestream of Brittany, from her hospital bed, recovering from the shrapnel she’d taken when his computer blew. Asthmatic, too, and coughing up silicon fumes. Exhibit C was our boss’s grieving family, bits of black lace over their Mediocre but honest faces, quivering with emotions that shaped a steady stream of tears. Of wails. Of indictment, with their pent-up glares and suchlike. Even I, just an actuation mark or two below a Sensitive, had to restrain myself from Wishing Interpersonal Harm on Anton, when I saw those Exhibits A, B, and C. But that wasn’t my job—it was theirs. So, nose pressed to window, wanting to hurt and hug Anton, all at once. Waiting for judgement, which, finally came.

Anton saw it coming, too. He snapped, then, and tried to will himself out of there—to somehow summon a force which would have left him catatonic if it worked, without stabilizers. Useless, with a jury like that. He had too much of a calm soul, as a general rule, to make much of anything happen. He was not fast enough.

One Sensitive sad old man clenched his fist, and one little Sensitive girl started scuffing the edge of her blue jeans with her ankle, and a Sensitive teen cried angry tears into his angry elbow.

It was the teen, I think, who did it.

Intestines exploded out of Anton’s stomach, and slapped onto the pavement like sausage. Around me, faces detached from the window, with a collective, disgusted jerk.

For a moment, I saw nothing at all. Purple migraine sparks made a merciful haze in front of my eyes, hiding the punishers and the mess who, seconds ago, had been Anton. A cottony something clotted my ears, so I do not know if any of my co-workers called me. When my senses cleared, I could tell the whole square was emptied out behind me. I kept my face pressed up to the window, my eyes raining pain down panes—the uselessness of the feeling compounding, adding to this fresh new grief.

I looked at the Sensitive jury, at the clean, clean tears running down, down their cheeks. The way they shook with exhaustion, and hugged each other tighter than death, till the stabilizers arrived with their pillkits and calmwords and scraped out souls. The teen was a mess; it would probably cost more than a college degree and take more than a month to get him right and ready to wreak more havoc on the rest of us.

“I wish it never happened,” I said, my heart stretching and wrapping around the words.

Anton, who had never meant to mean badly. Like myself, the Mages had chalked him up as almost pre-Sensitive, but not worth the time or money to train. So it was a surprise to everyone, especially Anton, when a bit of rage went off like a fuse. If the boss hadn’t suffocated, setting fire to our office wouldn’t have held such pathos, and Anton would have come out of the room drained, shivering, sorry, and alive.

“If it had never happened,” I repeat, my chest aching from the need for it not to be this way. Stupid. Even a trained Sensitive couldn’t set time backwards for a whole world; maybe a battalion of them could delay a second. Crude, physical action was easier—maybe, if I poured my heart and soul out now, with the sight of my friend’s intestines pouring out like a terrible birth from his ruptured tummy, if I prayed, and risked catatonia—I could sort of bruise the arm of the little Sensitive juror, who probably, already, would scoff at mere physical pain.

My forehead pressed harder, and harder against the glass of the window, where paramedics were scooping bits of Anton into a bag. I had to be anywhere, anywhere but here, because the feeling was settling on me like snow and smoke, thick and suffocating, and overly gray.

“Let me be somewhere else,” I said, and my chest swelled and my face melted through the glass. The pane half melted, half shattered under the pressure, like butter, but butter with splinters worked in.

I was not enough to save Anton, but I managed to disappear from the moment, from that blood and those guts, from the need to call everyone at the office who hadn’t come, or face my family, walk past that courthouse, or accept the Mages’ justice.

I landed in another world. One where the very wish that had sent me wouldn’t have worked under any circumstance where “Sensitive” was just a personality trait. You might recognize the place. Feelings matter, but indirectly. Murder requires human hands. And—

“Salima,” Peg said, as I slipped through the front door of a place that looked almost like my apartment. “You alright? You look like a mess.”

Physical pain hit first—layers of agony—a slicing feeling as if someone had driven an axe into my forehead. A crunch, as if someone had fired a cannon ball into my stomach. And— worst of all, a ripping feeling in my chest, as if someone had knotted their fingers into my heart and were tearing it apart like a bread roll.

I shut my eyes, let it slice, crunch and rip. Maybe a trained Sensitive would scoff at it, but I am not so stoic. I bit the carpet, and the sleeve of my jacket, and felt my head spin, wondering whether any of the Sensitives had noticed, and whether they would bring me to trial, and whether I cared—that first moment, I thought I had teleported—I had a friend who had, once, from his mother’s house to his father’s, just a city-block apart. Teleported? Maybe. All topsy-turvy—everything went—brain over ankle and such—

“Peg,” I asked—exactly as soon as I could trust myself to speak without hurt tainting my voice. “Help.”

I knew I shouldn’t have spoken. The effort it cost me drained too much self-control. A bit of sadness came up and choked, leapt into the tail end of “Help” bled out. Vomit rose, and nearly spilled from my mouth.

For half a minute, I lay there, choking down bile. Too weak to stand, splayed out like so many intestines. I could barely move my eyeballs to see our green tamped-down carpet and the wooly snow outside our apartment, but finally I mustered up strength to look at Peg. That hadn’t changed a bit. I was home—Peg was here—but, no. Not quite.

The face was the same, of course. The same sturdy, almost mannish features sized down to fit a five-foot frame. The familiar, gentle, light blue eyes, still framed with those flat blond bangs that did her face no favors, but which she grew to look different from her sisters. All the same as always.

It was her expression that gave it away, certainly. Peg, my best friend since high school, my roommate, my unofficial therapist—she would have understood. Wonderful Peg, my peg, would have turned on the calmest music in an instant, broken her legs running to the kitchen for tea, hushed and hugged, pulled down the window blinds. Would have offered up both our hoards of pillkits. Peg, my Peg, would never have seen the tears start to leak with a sort of sanctimonious expression and just watched as I let my feelings rise, choking, through the burning pain.

Calm, I told myself. Calm, calm, calm. I was being rude.

Peg who was not-quite Peg gave me a hand up, after a few quiet, awkward seconds of her staring, brought me to the couch by the window, and put some something that smelled ramen-y in the microwave.

Smells came my way, all familiar. Like the way that the spice packet tore, the soft whir of the beams inside the microwave as it spun the soup round and round within. Small, comforting noises. They were okay. Calm, I told myself. Calm, calm, calm. Little noises.

Think of leaves—snowflakes—no, not that.

Not-Peg sighed under breath, audibly. She handed me a box of “Kleenex,” which, she said, were used for drying eyes, or something.

“Ha ha?” She said, and then, in a voice filthy with grumpiness, “Alright, don’t laugh.” I threw the Kleenex box at the wall, with all the petty strength in my unathletic arms.

Dent, drop. I bit holes in the sleeve of my sweater. Screamed, and cried, and felt tendrils of hatred curl up around my heart. A cracking hatred, slipping out of control with an intensity that shocked me—was this what it felt like for Anton, when he got sick of filing reports, and started smoking at the ears? Clumped up anger that I didn’t know was stored in me rushed out, like the nasty green snot at the end of a cold. Nothing at all happened, as a lifetime of self-control began disgorging. No catatonia. No death. No crash-landing somewhere else. The floors of the courtroom did not split, gurgle up sewage, or burst in flames, and leave me treasonous, and broken, but vindicated. I wasn’t an almost-Sensitive Mediocre here, you see, and was already wrapping my head around that. My whole frame shook, as the cracking, snapping, crackling wrath amounted to nothing, and I was sick all over the carpet.

“Sal,” Peg said, jerking backwards. “Shit, shit. Tell me what’s happening, talk to me.” There was pain in her words, naked as the sun, and I retched again, all over her shoes.

Was she a Sensitive in this place? I caught myself thinking.

It’s not that no-one had told me about wormholes. It isn’t as if I’d fallen asleep during Elementary Multiverses. It’s that I hadn’t expected it to happen to me.

“Do you need—I can call a doctor–?”

Not-Peg nodded, eyes wide. I could only cry, loudly, rudely. No hole in the ground opened up under me, not even a single crack. My tears did not so much as burn holes in my cheeks. No blue haze washed over my eyes. Was this what the fully Mediocre experienced, every day, behind closed doors? This helplessness, and this—relief?

Dimly, I saw Not-Peg lift her hand, holding a cellphone. She cupped it to her ear—there was a ringing noise. Was she calling a Mage—

“No,” I shouted, and shuddered at the volume of the sound. Somehow, I yanked myself up to standing, and grabbed at it. The phone clattered to the ground, and I fell back on the sofa. Face controlled, adrenaline pumping, heart stilted in pain.

This new world seemed to freeze, for the space of a breath.

Not-Peg, bless her, didn’t ask me anything more then, but she wrapped her arms around me in a hug.

“I’m here if you need to talk,” she said. “Let me know if you need anything at all.” I picked up the thin little napkin, and wiped away my tears as if they were food stains.

“Sit with me,” I said.

Not-Peg did.

We sat in silence together. I watched the snow fall down, down, down, outside the window, and pressed my forehead to the pane. Empty to the core, as if someone had pulled out my own guts and dashed them to the ground not—Anton’s—Anton—. Anton, mild, tiny Anton—who only hated the Mages by accident—only hurt anyone on accident—I never understood but—they killed him—it was an accident. It wasn’t—it wasn’t—fair.

“My friend died,” I told her, in a quavering voice that fell of my tongue like drool. “And I am sad.”

Not-Peg nodded her head, and said “I’m so sorry,” a few times. I took one look at her face, and then turned my head away, because the expression was concerned, and concerned for me, which, in my world, is a feeling far too private to show casually. It would be worse than stripping off your clothing and dancing in the town square.

“Is there anything I can get you?” she asked me, “Is there anything you need?” “I’m not there,” I heard myself say. “I’m really—here.”

She wrapped an arm around my shoulder, and I felt the warmth through my jacket, comforting. After a while, she traded her arm for a blanket and left the room. The sun went down outside the window, and the ramen noodles got cold in the microwave. I returned my face to calmness, and thought about Anton in increments. Tried to picture first a snapshot, then a moment, then a smile, without changing my expression or Losing My Shit. In between, I took in the apartment. The wallpaper was different, kind of an obscene bright turquoise, stretching too high up in the air. The posters were the same—I guess the Other Me here also liked Metallica.

We used a different air freshener in the parallel universe, but had similar stains on the sofa. It made sense, I told myself. Upset as I’d been, I was still only an almost-Sensitive, and any universe that I’d launched myself into would be a next-door neighbor of our own.

That made it harder to believe, even as I counted the differences and added them up. As best as I could, I pushed away questions like, would my parents still be themselves? or what are the Mages here like? I trimmed my thoughts like an Ad-Ed piece, and I fell into a dreamless sleep on the not-my sofa.

It’s not that I’d never heard of the concept of wormholes. It isn’t that I had never wondered if there was a multiverse. It’s that I hadn’t ever thought anything like that would happen to me.

One minute I was on my way home from my first date in who-knows-how-long, still feeling the wine buzz in my cheeks. I hoped he would ask me out again, but I was enjoying that walk back even more than the little ping of a text. I felt alive, you know? I stepped over tree roots with my knees bouncing high, basically dancing. Tore off my hat, and tucked it into my pocket, let the cold run my hair like a comb. Little flakes of snow, just cold enough to tingle, melted if they hit the ground and clumped if they touched down on a snow patch. Some settled on my head, froze into my curls—they would be a pain to tease out tomorrow, but tonight I didn’t care.

I sighed when I reached my apartment, nearly turned around with some excuse to head back to the CVS and pick up…well, anything. I probably needed everything from toilet paper to toothpaste. I had been lazy, wallowing, I thought, watching tufts of snow build up like an old man’s eyebrows. I hadn’t felt good, in days—better catch it now, then, use it, burn it up. If there was anything I had learned, recently, it was that you can’t store the good moments or look too closely to figure out their formula. Might as well try and catch snowflakes in your palm.

But Peggy was waiting for me, so I squeezed the last moment in the bright cold of the evening, and slotted my key in home’s lock. Peggy was trying to be nice. Knew I’d been down, so we were going to cook something impressive. A recipe off the internet. Probably healthy enough that my stomach would be gurgling by breakfast, but it was the thought that counted. I turned the key, leaned into the door—and, just like that fell into another universe.

I landed in a pile of broken glass—and what I hoped was tomato sauce—or— ketchup. Corn syrup. Something kitchen-y.

“She teleported,” someone said. “I tried, she got away.” “Wait—here she is.”

Someone, a girl who looked like she was nine, with pigtails, lunged towards me. She collided with my chest, and pinned me to the ground in the muck. Up close, I could see her face twisted in some sort of agony, eyes blind with furious tears.

“Who are you?” I screamed. “Where am I.”

“Shit, the Mediocre wormholed. Keep the copy calm.”

“Stop showing confused,” the pigtail girl spat, and then lunged for my face with both hands.

I don’t remember the next few hours.

I came to in a truck, feeling like I’d chugged vodka. My head hurt with every thought that crossed it, let alone try to lift it up for a better view. My cheeks burned, and my hand came away damp when I touched them. My stomach hovered in some hybrid state of wanting to hold onto and expel its contents. Great.

For a while, all I could process was the headache. Slowly, it began to dim to a manageable level, and then my location settled around me like a cold damp hand. I had been kidnapped. I was in the passenger seat of a pick-up truck, with dirty windows, skidding on a highway slick with snow. My knees curled in in fear, a bit, and I didn’t have the guts yet to turn and look at the driver. I didn’t want to see his face—for him to know I was awake—where were, they taking me—what were they going to do? What had they already—

“Hey there!” The voice was low and somewhat musical. “Wakey-wakey.” I did not answer. I heard a sigh, of the not this again variety.

“I’m Marty, Marty Vaughn. You are Salima. You don’t know where you are, but you came to in this truck, and probably have assumed, by now—quite inaccurately, I might add—that I’ve kidnapped you. Well, nope. You’re in a parallel world. You—well, not you, the other Salima, broke quite a serious regulation and teleported to another universe, leaving you in the lurch.”

“Try again,” I growled. I began to feel for my keys in my pocket—I had never shanked anybody, but I’d seen it done on several TV shows, so I hoped I would get it right my first try. Not on the highway—but maybe he would have to pull over at a rest stop before we got wherever we were going.

“You went into shock,” Marty said. I looked at him finally—a middle aged bearded red-head, balding and obese, who would have looked almost like a normal trucker if it weren’t for the violet eyes. And the outfit. He sported an odd sort of turtleneck grey uniform with a high-fashion look, almost feminine in its round shoulders and the scalloping of the neckline. He gave a condescending sort of nod, as if I should be proud of myself for having gone into shock or something. “Yup. Took it worse than most Alien Mediocres, and I’ve seen a few. In fact, you made quite a scene”

“Let’s start with who are you and why do you know my name?” I asked, really not sure I wanted to hear the answer. But, anything he might tell me would be valuable. I let my head rest against the window pane for a minute, which was comfortingly chill, but the thump of the tires renewed the pounding in my skull, so I leaned back again on the head rest. Outside, a “Welcome to New Hampshire” sign flashed by. Snow hung rich on chubby evergreens on the roadside next to wiry wood saplings. Orange-brown leaves hurled their husks against the window, and dimly painted cars rushed by. All had one-way windows—I rubbed by eyes, hoping it was a figment of the headache. No such luck.

“But we aren’t going to charge you for property damages. Or for the other Salima’s crime, even though you’ve gotta come from a close enough world that, honestly, I wouldn’t trust you not to have committed it given the chance.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, giving up. It made no sense, what he was saying, and even less sense that he would come up with a story like this if I was being stolen away to some terrible hidden brothel, or held hostage from some secret, rich relative. In either of those scenarios—the likely ones? It wouldn’t have seemed so a day ago—

“Nope. The Mages aren’t charging for medical bills either, under the circumstances—and my taxes go to cover this ride, you know, and your whole stay at Adjustment Academy. The public even pays for your food, as long as you’re there— you’ve got a killer deal, kiddo.”

“Medical bills?”

“You bumped your head nicely when you teleported through the window. Yup.”

I looked at Marty. His voice was friendly, but there wasn’t the shadow of a smile on his face.

“Seems like it,” I said, and shivered.

Head jarring with each pulse of the breaks and gas, I fell back asleep for a blissful few hours, and it was not until my triage at the Academy that I had to deal with the truth of all Marty’s mystifying words.

Marty insisted on keeping me company in the lobby of a two-story brick building, bordered by a McBeth’s Burger fast food place on the left and a sad attempted at a garden on the right. It was grey both inside and out—that seemed to be, like, the color of choice in this world. As we entered the room, he congratulated me on my good luck for having been teleported so near to the Academy, and then left. There was just a reception desk, and a couple of chairs in the room. The ceiling was bizarrely low—the car had been shorter than normal too, now that I thought about it. I hadn’t noticed at the time.

A receptionist, also grey-turtlenecked, took over. She clicked away at a computer.

“Salima Riahi?” “Yes. Where am I?” “Date of birth?”

“June 6th, 19—where am I?”

“Good. Glad you are asking, the medics said you sustained a mild concussion.” “WHERE—”

“Falling through the window, during the teleportation event.”

I sat down on the floor, too frustrated to speak. As a proofer for Anette’s Fashion, I wanted to circle the whole scene in red ink, and send it back to the designers for some editing. Did your Photoshop break or something? I would write in the margin.

This is grimy, not grungy. It says “Despair now, and never buy our product.” I started laughing to myself, despite everything, imagining that the whole place here was the set for some sort of concept piece. We call our collection, Cold and Creepy, speaks to our, you know, heartlessness or existential dread, designer says in an interview—

“Would you mind,” the receptionist asked, cheek pulsing like she was about to have a stroke.


“Yes. Thank you.”

The pulsing stopped—I puzzled over the interaction for a minute or two, and then noticed that I had stopped laughing.

An hour or two later, the receptionist seemed to have gotten some sort of clearance, and took me to a room upstairs. The staircase was weird—it had too many steps, which were not far enough separated by height, so it felt more like shuffling up them than climbing. Then, we entered a hallway that wound and turned around not- quite-square angles but didn’t have any doorway I could see along the way. This place was grey too, of course, but I had started to pick up slight distinctions between the greys. It was a sort of yellowish grey here. The receptionist’s sweater, by comparison, had a definite greenish tint, at least along the neckline. At least, I reflected, they were trying.

Aside from the architecture, new questions had formed in my mind—not just where am I in a universal sense, but what is this building, who runs it, and why, how long am I here for, etcetera. Did I have a family here? A job? Health insurance? Was anyone coming to get me out of this place?

I was shown to a room that seemed suspiciously cell-like, and told that the official Adjustment would begin in a few short days. The receptionist seemed to wear many hats—jailor and servant, cleaning lady and administrator—in the day to day life of the place. She never offered a name. I could not tell if the she hated me, or was simply the chilly type; she rarely met my eyes, and spoke with such an exaggerated evenness that I took half her comments for sarcasm at first blush. Like when she told me I was lucky to have gotten here right now.

“Oh?” I asked.

“Several Alien Mediocres have been in the building for quite a bit longer than you have. You will meet them once class begins, but we discourage interaction before that, it creates confused emotions.”

“Oh, because I certainly am not confused now?” “I am glad to hear it.”

“How long is long. How long am I going to be here?”

“Some people get stuck on a waiting list for months, if they land somewhere really out of the way, or during an extreme lull in accidental teleportations. After all, it is an uncommon event, statistically speaking.”

Not an answer to my second question, though I had almost expected as much.

Not comforting words. Nothing about that place was comforting. Neither was my experience of this world outside of the Academy. I did not exactly derive any calming effect from the pile of my alternate-self’s colleague’s intestines, which were still warm, and drooling dark brown liquid in the few lucid moments of my crash land entry.

Strangely enough, those intestines saved my sanity during the week leading up till now, as I sat in a grey-ceilinged room with a low ceiling, ever tasted, and going crazier with every hour.

It was like an odd chimera of prison, dorm, and mental institution. There was no lock on my door, but the receptionist would show up without fail if I left the room, and suggest that I return to it, before I had found my way out of the winding hallway. There was a many-drawered desk, grey, a three-legged, high-backed chair, grey, and a twin bed, grey with a sort of purplish character. I took to sleeping on the chair, since it was the most comfortable item in the place. The closet-sized bathroom was mine, and had a working toilet and a hot shower with okay water-pressure, but there was little information, and less to occupy my time. There was no mirror on the wall, and I kept feeling the need to look for one, and see what kind of a wreck I’d become. I found my reflection in the shower drain, and the x-shaped sink handles; in those distortions, I seemed to have lost color in my face, from what Anette’s Fashion would have called “buffed leather” to a sad grey beige. My eyes had puffed out in purplish bags from sleeping badly on a bed which made dorm furniture look lux, and my hair had frizzed in the absence of any product but the sad grey liquid which came from an unlabeled dispenser in the shower. In short, my face was a big round blob of despair. I looked like I’d been dumped, mugged, and had my dog run over in a day.

It has always been bad for me to watch myself go downhill. Once I sense I’m slipping, I stop seeing why I should bother getting up, getting out, getting around.

Seeing how I’d transformed in just a few days was a kick in the gut. It scared me, so I fought it.

I did little things, like spelling phone numbers I knew out of bread crumbs, and then flicking them out the window. Or, filing my nails down on the wall by scratching. Or shouting until the receptionist came, and told me that the noise was highly inappropriate. I tried to do push-ups a couple times, but didn’t have the arm tone to pull it off without dropping my knees, so that left me lower than before. Mostly, I watched the television set on the wall. The music stations were odd—I recognized many of the bands, but the sound seemed flattened, as if the best notes were pulled out of each and every chord. Pink Floyd grew monotonous, like some electo-dance music; Taylor Swift sounded like she had anticipated her break-ups and made her peace with them. There didn’t seem to be any normal shows so to speak, besides that, just informational ads read by actors as inspired-sounding as a GPS. When I asked for a book, the receptionist did not seem to understand, at first, but eventually shrugged, and returned with a dictionary. When I asked for a novel, she covered her mouth, turned away, and slammed the door behind her. Apologizing, I asked about puzzles—or Sudoku— anything, and, neutral again, she returned with those clipped from newspapers several hours later. When I asked for the rest of the papers, she refused. And that was when it clanked in my heart like a key against its tumblers—I had to do more than figure this place out. I had to get out too, because I had landed in a world that was terribly, horribly wrong.

What is wrong with you, Salima, I asked myself, throwing Sudoku clippings around the room, and watching them die downward like giant moths. I had been ready to stab the crook who kidnapped me when I woke up in the truck—but now I was waiting for them to Adjust my mind, like some novice at a cult meeting. No thank you.

Turned back to the first memory, sharper and clearer than anything which had passed throughout that blood-draw of a week in the grey building. I tried to figure out for myself what had happened, since apparently no one was going to tell me. The carpet in the courtroom was eggshell-beige, the walls too, the snow outside a dim difference, and if it weren’t for the intestines I might have thought it was the end, and drifted towards the brightness outside, the sparks flying through my bruised and slivered skull, and the end.

My thoughts had already started to calcify by the time the adjustment began. Views settling, not as they would have intended, like a bone left too long after being broken.

When I looked in the mirror in the bathroom, I imagined the reflection was the Salima who had teleported out of here.

“What’ve you gotten me into?” I asked her, again and again. “You’d better have a good answer when I find you.”

My own face drooped back. But I would smile, sometimes, to reassure me.

Interdimensional stuckness happens, one of the Mages told me, this morning, after we were brought into the Academy schooling. On rare occasions, people get caught between the worlds. More often than not, though, our parallel selves come through. Which is why they set up a training program, just for us.

If I were telling the story, I would call it funny in a way. Yes I would laugh, if I hadn’t seen those intestines, which were gluey and spewing and wrong.

So, I am sitting in a room now, with three other New Entries, adjusting. One of them comes from a world where age is, like, a personality trait, so, he says, stroking a flowing white beard, we’re practically the same age. One of them is from The Universe, she says, and we’re all heathen spirits conjured by The Lucifer of Nazareth to tempt her from The Way. One small, androgynous person with face-swallowing glasses sits on the edge of her seat, looking this way and that, raptly, like s/he’s on a field trip to the world’s most fascinating museum. It makes me uncomfortable when that one looks my way, as if I’m getting scanned and recorded. The last just sits quietly, catching his teardrops in a stoppered bottle like we’re told to, till the little vessel grows taut on its necklace chain and hunches him forward, forward and down, down, down.

We sit like students, in a room of the Adjustment complex. The space here seems to have been built according to the same architect’s nightmare which inspired my Elementary-Middle school complex. Chairs with desks fused into the arm, and a whiteboard all freckled with old marker juice. No dry erase marker in sight, just a sad eraser and a bottle that’s labeled “tears—70%.”

They offer us a pen and paper, but I am too slow to reach out my hand. Once it’s passed, I don’t want to draw attention to myself by calling out. Instead I take notes on the back of my hand with the lipstick that’s still in my pocket. Not letters—there’s not enough space, plus my hands are on the shaky side of normal—but in little dots, placed map-like on the contours of my knuckles and my palms. Placeholders, each mark I make tied to a memory of the moment. There, on my thumb, is the splotch I made when Mage Stivner explained Sensitivity.

Our Other Selves all had traces of that Sensitivity they seem to prize here. But, according to Mage S, they must not have known how to use it (I let the lipstick trail down the side of my hand, leaving messy dots as it skids). He is grown, but shorter than me, maybe 5’3, and he’s got a childish face, which makes the monotone voice all the chillier.

“Sensitivity is often hereditary,” Mage S explains, turning coral colored eyes from one of us to the next with each word. As if daring anyone not to understand. (Or to ask why his eyes are that way—does it have to do with his magic?) “Not to say that no one else feels things, just not in a way which can be actuated.”

“Oh, so then why would they call it ‘Sensitivity’?” Lucifer girl interrupts, jabbing a finger towards Mage S. She has a pouf of bright blue hair, and bares a set of pearly whites in victory. “You have assumed this, this, demonic power, and now you have the, the audacity to pin one of His own virtues to the word?”

“It is partially trained, partially innate,” Mage S continues, as if he hadn’t heard. “On a biological level, our senior Mages believe that the Sensitivity trait is an evolutionary adaptation to the Planetary Organism.”

With the messiest handwriting I’ve seen out of a doctor’s office, he writes “SYMBIOSIS” on the whiteboard. Then, he underlines it, to make the all-caps clearer. I look closely at his hand—which trembles, totally out of sync with the stony tone.

He’s angry? Or ill?

I have my answer when I next peek at Lucifer girl. She is pawing at her mouth, but her lips aren’t coming unstuck.

“Sensitivity is partly trained, partly innate, but also symbiotic. That’s Sim-bee-oh- tick, for those of you coming from worlds which,” he looks at the Lucifer girl, “have less advanced sciences.”

A gluey bit of foam appears at the edges of Lucifer girl’s mouth, and then, with a spitting pah her lips popped apart. But the lesson had done its trick. She muttered something under the death about Satan will rain justice on our heads, but didn’t talk- back to the Mage’s condescension. I felt my lip curl in disgust. Beaten, that easily?

Age-fluid dude’s forehead is knotting now, and he scratches the back of his hands. “Why amen’t I un-wrinkling?” he said. “It’s all brand new here, but I still look like a grandpa.”

Crying boy draws a breath in pieces, a little hic-hic-ahh sound, and all of us stop to listen. He opens his mouth as if to speak, and then shuts it again. He points at the tear bottle, which is full, and, with his nose very slightly wrinkled, Mage gestures for one of his Mediocre assistants to come replace it. I feel myself shift away from crying boy in my seat—and then stop. Is that what they are trying to do here? Let us watch each other’s fault lines so that we can feel the grossness of…a breakdown? Of showing the feelings, or the feelings themselves? And did they want us to feel guilty by association, or superior to each other? I try and picture the scene like a snapshot, circled in red, on my desk back at Anette’s Fashion. What were the designers thinking—what is the vibe of their vision, the message, what’s the—

Mage S raps on the board, to get our attentions.

“More on that tomorrow,” he says. “We are behind schedule. Moving on.”

It does not matter how Sensitive or Mediocre our previous selves were, Mage S explains, because we are Aliens here (I poked a dotted line of lipstick down the back of my hand, dividing it in two). More mediocre than the Mediocre. We would be given work, and a decent home, Mage Stivner tells us, because the people here are good and the rulers just. It is not our fault that our parallel selves (two lines, non-intersecting on my pinkie) are treasonous.

I smile up at him and nod, and then start to underscore my middle finger in Cherry Classic under the desk.

It is little gestures I’ll have to cling to, I think. At least for now. I am as confused as old dude, angry as Lucifer girl, and sad as crying boy, but also smart enough not to show it. They can keep us in here as long as they want, try and figure us out and crack us, but I will beat them at the game if I think of it as one. From what angle can you make blood and guts look good—and the person they were torn from, guilty? I don’t know the person they came from, but I know that Not-me wished herself into a parallel universe to escape those things, and I’m going to figure out why. Then, somehow—not so sure of the “how” part, I’m going to get out.

To be continued…

Notes on the larger structure of this story

  • Salima who landed in the Sensitive world does have some of the Sensitivity ability (that had been just below the threshold for training someone when children are evaluated in that world).
    • She ends up having to face the choice of using it to try and get out, and using it to try and change that world from
    • She decides to try and change the place, because she feels like most of the people there are too socialized to the problems of their world to be equipped to deal with it—but she finds the stoic, impersonal interpersonal interactions incredibly isolating, and hates the place aesthetically, emotionally, and morally.
    • As she and the situation develop, Salima sees both the good and the bad of the Sensitive/Mediocre world in greater relief. She has to struggle to maintain an internal compass that discerns what is “different and bad” versus simply “different.”
    • Good vs. evil struggle in which Salima and co. take on the apparently insurmountable foe of the Sensitive Mages’ rule (at tremendous odds, great risk and great cost, etc.).
    • This Salima ends up very close with Peg, who is highly perceptive to even small signals, and helps her adjust. She also ends up friends with the androgynous person from episode with Mage Stivner, who is a physicist (with an unpronounceable name that Salima nicknames to “Glasses”). Glasses is more concerned with understanding the world and the situation, the science behind the wormholes, and the way that transporting from the Sensitive affects interdimensional causality, Glasses is less concerned with passing under the radar, which often puts her in danger for her questions, and Glasses is also less concerned with changing the world. Salima has to convince Glasses, and herself, that it is worthwhile doing something about the world they’ve been launched into instead of simply understanding it, but eventually Glasses ends up dedicating her formidable brain to the task, helping the cause greatly, and dying or suffering a grievous injury in the processes.
    • At least one of the mages, possibly even Stivner, will come around and be a double agent for her side.
    • Salima and co. will win in the end (if that happens before the end, they will have to deal with the challenge of putting the world back together, and figuring out a way to make sure that a world where feelings can actuate does not descend into a chaos of enemies wishing each other dead. That’s what the Mages’ system initially/purportedly was designed to prevent. Even with their official power structure gone, Sensitive people can still shape the world to a pretty large extent— and, although there are problems with the Mages’ instruction, in that it was laced with dogma, knowing how to control the innate power is important in order to avoid, say, setting fires in the boss’s office)
  • And, in the world that is more like our (the reader’s world):
    • Anette in the our-world universe turns out to be Anton from the other world, and the boss killed by Anton’s fire is the person that the our-world Salima just went on a date with. Salima in the more our-world universe not only has to come to terms with her friend’s death, and really feel/process it in a way that she wouldn’t have been willing or able to in her home world, but also to understand and feel the cost of Anton’s actions. Anton/Annette is not interested in Salima, though she still has feelings for him/her, and she feels vicariously guilty on Anton’s behalf around the Sensitive-world boss/our-world first-date-person who has feelings for her in the our- world.
    • Our-world Salima had been dealing with depression, lately, and the Peg in that world (who is well intentioned, but a bit self-centered and a try-hard) treats this Salima’s emotional reticence as a symptom of that, and keeps trying to “help.” Meanwhile, although there isn’t the Sensitive/Mediocre divide that has characterized so much of this Salima’s life in the previous world, there are all sorts of -isms and forms of division and discrimination in this world which aren’t nearly as large and problematic (if present at all) in her initial world.
    • At the same time as she’s trying to understand what it means to have feelings that don’t change anything directly, she has to take in and take on a world in which the way that people feel informs their actions, and shapes the world, sometimes as powerfully as if magically
    • The rest of that timeline is TBD
    • Also, regarding Anton and his Publication, and the Ad-Ed office—in the Sensitive world, Salima is working in an office where they edit advertisements to make sure they are safe for general consumption, i.e., not designed to inspire illicit feeling. (It has to be a rational defense of the product’s qualities, otherwise, it’s indecent, and also Sensitives who crave a product and actuate a transportation do not want to have to pay for it afterwards, claiming that the craving as unfair, and the newspaper was to blame, etc., etc.) Anton is working on a food magazine, which he prints and sells on the side—purple prose, sentimental kind of silly by the standards of our world, but subversive and pornographic by theirs. His language connects feeling and sensory information—referring foods to memories, smells and textures and tastes and emotions in a synesthetic way. He thinks there is a dangerous slippage from not showing feeling, out of etiquette-mandated courtesy to the Sensitives, and not having feelings, where the Mages are taught how to feel excessively and others learn to suppress those feelings. It is his main outlet from the soul-crushing job, and from increasingly strict laws from the Mages, which makes life very difficult and dangerous for someone who was never trained and struggles to avoid small public emotional actuations. He gets caught writing one of these by the boss, who does not turn him in (not seeing that this is part of an actual distributed publication) but makes him promise to stop. Deprived of his outlet, all of that anger comes out in the blaze (and, shocked at the violence he caused, he doubts his previously clear world-view at the very end).
Written by
Melanie Abrams
Avatar Written by Melanie Abrams