The door flew open without warning, but the child only barely flinched; her mother had been doing that quite often over the past few months, and she’d grown used to it as those too young to have any control over their environment are sometimes forced to. “Danielle, who were you talking to just now?”
“Don’t tell me ‘nobody’, I heard you.”
The deep brown eyes looked calmly up at her, and the little voice patiently explained, “Nobody real, Mommy. Just Barbie.” She held up the doll, dressed incongruously in an evening gown, as if to illustrate the truth of her statement.
“You were not talking to Barbie!”
“But Mommy, who else would I be talking to?” she asked sagely. “There’s nobody else here.”
Anyone could have seen the child was telling the truth; the room contained neither window nor phone, the closet door was open, and the underside of the bed was occupied by drawers. Even if another child had somehow slipped into the apartment without Erica seeing, where would she be hiding? Besides, it had not sounded like Danielle was speaking to another child, but rather responding to an adult. “I don’t know what you’re up to…”
“But Mommy, I’m not up…”
“SHUT UP! You’re not to close this door any more, do you understand?”
“Yes, Mommy.” She stood there staring for a few minutes as though unsure of what else to say, and then stormed off as quickly as she had appeared.
By the time Danielle was four, she had realized that she was the only one who could see her strange visitors, and it didn’t take many uncomfortable incidents to teach her that adults never reacted well to her conversations with them. The most benign response she could expect was some loud, mocking comment about her “imaginary friends”; others talked about her in hushed tones while sending worried glances in her direction; her Daddy seemed to think he should immediately interrupt and monopolize her attention for a while, and her kindergarten teacher insisted on lecturing her about the “proper time for make-believe” every time she caught her answering one of the visitors’ all-too-frequent questions. Had it been up to Dani, she would’ve saved the visits for times when no other humans were around; unfortunately, it wasn’t up to her. In their way, the visitors were just as rude and unreasonable as the adults in her life were; they might appear at any time of the day or night, seemingly oblivious to her circumstances or the presence of others, and would generally pepper her with all sorts of incomprehensible questions. Though she did her best to answer, she rarely even understood what was being asked; at first she reckoned the best solution to that was to ask a nearby adult for the meaning of any unknown words, but after unpleasant reactions ranging from laughter to slaps and scolding, she decided it was better to just figure it out on her own (a course of action eventually simplified by her discovery of the dictionary).
For a while, she tried simply ignoring the visitors when there were other people around, but that was even worse than talking to them; their usual response to her silence was to keep repeating the initial question more loudly and excitedly, and if she still ignored them they became increasingly upset and repeatedly asked her if she were OK until she finally responded. It all seemed quite absurd; couldn’t they see her situation for themselves? It’s true that they had no visible eyes, but then they had no visible features of any kind, and that didn’t stop them from speaking and hearing. They appeared to her as lightless black humanoid forms, essentially three-dimensional shadows; like shadows their size and exact shape varied from one manifestation to another, and might even shift during the course of a visit. Eventually, she reasoned that they must see her as a black shape as well, which accounted for their seeming ignorance of her condition at any given time; after all, darkness impairs only vision, not speech. Usually only one of them appeared at a time, but there could be as many as three; she eventually learned to distinguish them from one another by voice and manner. Some visited her far more often than others, and as the years went by their numbers dwindled until nearly every visit was from the same individual, a patient and reassuring presence who said her name was Zoe. With familiarity came trust, and by the time Dani was nine they had worked out a signal by which she could let Zoe know when it wasn’t a good time to talk.
“So who is Zoe?”
“Why, I’m surprised at you, Doctor Lang; she’s my imaginary friend. You know that.”
“That would’ve barely been an acceptable answer when you were ten, much less fourteen.”
“OK, then, let’s call her my spirit guide. Is that a more palatable response?”
“I’m not your enemy, Dani. I’m trying to help you.”
“Oh, please. You’re trying to earn a living, same as everybody else. You wouldn’t give a damn about me if my dad’s insurance weren’t reimbursing you.”
“It’s true that helping professionals need to earn a living just like everyone else, but that doesn’t mean I don’t genuinely care. You might think of my income as a subsidy which allows me to do the work I find rewarding, which is helping young people with their difficulties.”
Dani rolled her darkly-lined eyes and sighed theatrically. “And you’ll still kick me out at the 50-minute mark.”
“Good job trying to make this about me. Look, I understand why you’re upset; your mom had no right to read your diary, and if I were in your place I’d be angry too. She didn’t tell me she was going to do it, and I would’ve discouraged her from doing it if she had. And I really am on your side, so if you’d rather not talk about Zoe we don’t have to.”
“I’d rather not. Let’s just call her my Jungian shadow and leave it at that, OK?”
“Fair enough. Do you want to talk about how your mother’s violating your privacy made you feel instead?”
And so they did, and many other topics over the next couple of years. But Zoe never came up again, because Danielle had learned it was absolutely never a good idea to mention anything about her to anyone else, no matter what their age and relationship to her. As she had aged the visits had become less frequent but longer, and more likely to occur when she was alone; she was also much better able to answer her shadowy visitor’s questions, and she began to understand that the reason for her confusion in the past was that Zoe and the others had never adapted their questioning to a child’s intellectual level, almost as though they hadn’t understood that she was a child. But as that aspect of their interaction grew steadily less frustrating, another grew steadily more so: Zoe absolutely refused to discuss anything about herself and the others, or to answer any of Dani’s questions. All she ever said in response was, “I’m afraid you’ll just have to trust me.”
As the years went by, Erica slowly grew used to her daughter’s strangeness; Danielle had learned to hide the more obvious signs, and draped the rest in the black lace and stylized manners of the Goth subculture. As Dani had calculated she would, Erica began to write off her weird ways as affected Goth behavior and typical adolescent rebelliousness, and when she got a scholarship to a prestigious art school her mother retroactively explained everything as the early signs of an artistic temperament. Eventually, her lesbianism became a bigger bone of contention than her “acting like a refugee from an Anne Rice novel” as her father put it, and by the turn of the century they’d gotten over that as well, partly due to changes in the culture and partly because Dani was starting to make a very comfortable living from her outre artwork for the covers of horror novels and heavy metal CDs. By the time she turned thirty she caught less grief from them than she did from pouty girlfriends offended by her insistence upon living alone, but she had learned that lesson in the first third of her life: when Zoe came calling, she didn’t want anyone else around to hear the conversation. Though these days, “argument” was probably a better word; now that she could be alone as much as she wanted to, Zoe didn’t come around nearly as often. And when she did, she still totally avoided any discussion of her nature, knowledge or motives, responding instead with the now-familiar plea that Dani trust her.
It went on like that for most of her thirties; she painted, experimented with psychedelics, enjoyed casual sex, listened to music and read a great deal. Her work brought in a steady enough income and a steady stream of short-term girlfriends; if it weren’t for shows and other professional contacts she’d have had barely any social life at all, because she had learned at an early age not to share too much with others. Zoe’s visits had decreased to a few times a year, and she remained as unwilling as ever to discuss herself; Dani read widely on occult subjects, both in books and on the internet, but never found anything that seemed to put her on the right track for explaining what her strange, lifelong companion might be. Oh, there was plenty about spirit guides and familiars and guardian angels and tulpas and the like, but nothing that seemed quite the same as Zoe and her fellows. But though the research didn’t give her what she was really looking for, it did help her in other ways; for one thing, it inspired her art, and that produced both practical and emotional rewards. It also made her sensitive to phenomena that she had never noticed before.
At first it was little things: flashes of precognition or clairvoyance. Strings of odd coincidences. Objects turning up in places she hadn’t put them. People claiming that events had happened a little differently from the way she remembered them. Weird computer glitches. Then slowly, over a period of years, they grew gradually worse and more frequent: memory lapses. Paintings in progress having hours of work added while she was asleep, or some of the colors changing. Small objects disappearing, appearing or changing into other things. The city demanding payment for parking tickets when she didn’t even own a car, then denying they’d sent the letter. Appliances burning out. The balance in her bank account fluctuating from day to day.
And then Zoe started visiting a lot more often again. And Dani decided it was time for some answers.
One grey December afternoon she returned from the grocery to find that virtually none of the things she had purchased were in her shopping bag. The apples had become oranges; the sirloin had been replaced with pork chops; the deodorant had somehow transformed into three packages of light bulbs; the potato chips had reverted into raw potatoes; the cinnamon had been switched for a jar of mayonnaise (and she hated mayonnaise). And while the yogurt was still yogurt, it was of a brand she had never even heard of before, much less bought. As she stood there dumbfounded, she realized Zoe was across the kitchen island from her.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on, or just tell me to trust you for the thousandth time?”
“Danielle, I don’t actually know what’s going on. Or rather, I do know, but I don’t know what it looks like to you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I know that what you perceive as reality is in flux, and it’s probably beginning to get creepy. But I don’t know what that actually looks like to you. Would you mind telling me?”
“Oh, I can give you an exact catalog of what it looks like!” she snapped, turning to pick up a steno book from the counter, and then reading off a long list of odd happenings, complete with dates and times, and ending with today’s grocery incident. “And that’s just the past two years; it was going on for some time before I finally decided to start logging it.”
Zoe had listened patiently to the long, long list, and when Dani was done she said, “I have some good news and some bad news for you.”
“The good news being?”
“This will all be over in a relatively short time.”
“And the bad news?”
“It’s going to get a lot worse before that.”
Danielle had never been a crier; she was always too afraid of how others might react to her truth, so she expressed her emotions on canvas. But this was too much; she broke down and started weeping, not in fear or sorrow but in anger. “What is this all about? And why is it happening to me?”
“Because you don’t belong here.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just what I said. You don’t belong in this world; you belong in mine. That’s why only you can see and hear us, Dani; you aren’t one of these beings. You’re one of us.”
“A black shapeshifting shadow thing?”
“No. Actually, that’s what you look like right now to me, too. It’s just that your senses can’t properly interpret conditions on my side of the veil, and vice-versa.”
“So how did I get here?”
“It was an accident.”
“An accident? Are you fucking kidding me? All this was a goddamned accident?”
“And how is that different from anyone else’s life? A great deal of what goes on in the universe is due to random chance; sometimes the accidents are fortunate, and sometimes unfortunate. This is a bit of both.”
“So why couldn’t you tell me this before? And why tell me now?”
“Because your situation here is very delicate. As I said, you don’t belong here, but we don’t have the power to just reach in and pull you out; we need to wait until you ‘come out of the other side of the pipe’, as it were. And that time is coming. Your being here is a violation of the natural order of things, and this continuum is starting to reject you.”
“Like an allergic reaction?”
“Something like that. This incarnation is beginning to disintegrate, and when it does we’ll be ready to pull you out.”
“So why can’t you just do it now?”
“Because the forces of reality are still too strong right now; if we tried we’d rip you to shreds.”
There was a long silence, finally broken by Dani. “And why couldn’t you tell me all this before?”
“Because if you had known, you might have tried to leave this incarnation by brute force.”
“In other words, kill myself.”
“Right, And if you had, you’d have been lost to us forever. We couldn’t risk it.”
“I thought about it lots of times, you know.”
“Why do you think we got so frantic whenever you wouldn’t answer us? Until we learned how you would react while in that body, we had to keep you under nearly-constant supervision. Or as constant as the timelines allow.”
“Time moves differently for you than for me?”
“Slower for me, of course.”
“There’s a human legend that there are other beings living alongside humans, and if a person stumbles into their world and stays what he thinks is a few hours or overnight, he might return home to find decades or even centuries had passed.”
“There’s often a grain of truth in legends. Sometimes more than just a grain.”
Dani sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. “So what do you need me to do now?”
“I think you already know the answer.”
“I’m afraid so. It won’t be much longer now. A few years at most.”
“A few years?”
“I’m sorry, Dani. I’m sure it must be agonizing for you, but there’s no other way. On this side, it’s going to be so soon we’re already scrambling to be ready.”
She nodded. “I get it.” And then, more softly: “Zoe?”
“When I’m safely on your side, will I be able to touch you?”
“Yes, dear, absolutely. As much and as often as you want to.”
For a while, Dani found comfort in Zoe’s words, but then she began to outsmart herself. Children, especially unhappy or maltreated children, often fantasize that they’re adopted and their “real” parents would someday come and rescue them; how was this different? What if this was simply the manifestation of some deep narcissism, a belief that she must be “better” than other people, a magical princess lost in a barbarian land? But Zoe hadn’t claimed their people were “better” or “higher”, just different, and if this were a delusion, it was a remarkably persistent one: four decades without substantially altering until recently. Even if she felt she couldn’t trust her memories, there were the journals; she’d been keeping them since she was about 12, and Zoe was in them over and over from the beginning. No, she had no choice but to believe what her guardian – as she now recognized Zoe to be – told her. If it were false and she believed it, how was that different from the rest of her life? But if it were true and she disbelieved it…what was it Zoe had said? “You’d have been lost to us forever.” Not worth the risk.
And so she persevered while things grew steadily worse. Names of people and things changed back and forth. She’d go to bed with a slender redhead and wake up next to a busty brunette, or on one notable occasion a man. One day she came home to find an aquarium full of tropical fish; the next morning it had become two gerbils in a cage, and a few days later it was a miniature schnauzer for a few hours before turning into a one-eyed Himalayan cat which soon disappeared while she was out of town, litterbox and all. She might go for hours without being able to read anything because it was all written in some strange foreign tongue using an alphabet she’d never seen. The date began to change unexpectedly, then the season, and she seemed to have skipped the majority of 2015 because mid-February was followed by late October, with no memory of anything in between and a number of bank deposits for artworks she couldn’t remember painting. Twice she woke up in different apartments, and then the same apartment building moved overnight to a different city. And still Zoe asked her to be patient, and to trust.
After that lost year the changes became more rapid, radical and confusing; Dani had to stop taking recreational drugs entirely because she wanted to be absolutely sure that the phenomena she was experiencing were “real” and undistorted…and because she was afraid one substance might turn into a very different one without her noticing. She had come this far without checking out, and now that she was so close to the end she didn’t want to risk doing so by accident. The only constants in her world now were Zoe and herself; everything else was subject to unpredictable and increasingly-horrifying change. And then one day she noticed a different name on a piece of mail…and soon realized that same name was on every document she had. Even she was in flux now, and that had to be a sign of approaching the end. She was being rejected by this universe. It was forming a cyst around her, in preparation for expelling her entirely. She lost track of time as days and nights of wildly-variable length followed one another in no particular order, and the weather changed chaotically; there seemed no rhyme or reason to the date display on her shapeshifting cell phone. She found herself in places without knowing how she got there, doing things she could no longer understand, while the lights flickered and things changed color and the ground itself shifted under a sky that had torn open and was bleeding profusely. The people around her changed their shapes, and she could no longer tell them apart; they turned into three-dimensional shadows, but of a dingy grey rather than an impenetrable black. The buildings rotted, and the ground began to bubble, and the air reverberated with titanic cracking sounds that dwarfed thunder as that does the sound of an egg breaking. She began to scream as her own body began to melt, as objects began to disperse like powder in the wind, as the sky itself began to disintegrate.
“Dani. It’s time.”
In the center of her vision was a humanoid shape, a dingy grey shadow like all the others, but for two differences: it was stable while the others ran like water, and from it came the familiar voice of Zoe, the one unchanging factor across the entirety of her life. The one thing she absolutely knew she could trust, the one totally dependable chain connecting the shards of her existence. Zoe. I love you, Zoe.
“I love you too, Dani. Are you ready?”
“I know, darling. Me too.”
The ground had completely vanished from beneath Zoe, and Dani had the urge to run lest she fall into the abyss yawning before her.
“But the ground, I’ll fall!”
“You have to. Trust me, Dani. I’ll catch you. Promise.”
Dani was confused and terrified and wanted to flee, but…how could she not trust Zoe, after all this time? She surrendered to the force of gravity, and let herself fall headlong into the abyss.
She awoke in a quiet, peaceful place with gentle fingers stroking her head, but when she opened her eyes what she saw seemed a confused jumble of color. “Zoe?”
“I’m here, love. Close your eyes, it’s going to take you a while to adjust.”
“But I’m safe?”
She could hear the smile in Zoe’s voice, even though she couldn’t see it. “Oh yes, dear one, you’re safe at last!”
“I want to see what you look like!”
“Your mind doesn’t yet know how to interpret the visual images in our world, but it won’t take long to learn.”
“I don’t know, a few years maybe?”
“Years?” but the she heard Zoe’s laughter and caught on: “Ah, you mean Earthly years; time passes more quickly here!”
“Yes. I hope you’ll forgive the joke.”
“I’d forgive you anything.” She disobediently opened her eyes again, taking in as much of the jumble of shapes and colors as she could before she was forced to close them. “It’s so bright and colorful here, colors I don’t even have names for! I thought this world would be dark and eerie, like the worlds in my paintings.”
“No, darling; this is your true world. Those pictures were how your soul perceived the world you were in. It’s not that their world is so much worse than ours; it’s just that you didn’t belong, and could therefore never completely understand it or feel comfortable there. But now you’re home, and while it’s far from perfect it’s where you belong.”
“It’s a bit frightening to think I have to start all over again, like a baby.”
“Well, not quite a baby. But you are very young yet. You’ll catch on quickly, and I’ll be here to help you.”
“I know you will. Who are you, Zoe? I mean, why do you care about me? Are you just a helping professional, like Dr. Lang? Or is it more than that?”
“Well, things here aren’t quite the same as in the world you’re used to, but I think ‘sister’ is probably the closest approximation.” Dani suddenly clung tightly to her, as though she were about to fall again. “Oh, sweet child, you needn’t fret; I’m here and everything’s going to be all right from now on. You can trust me on that.”
Dani smiled and relaxed in Zoe’s arms, because she knew at last with absolute certainty that she could.