The story so far:
It’s been a long day. Worn out and heartbroken, Riley tries to find a quiet moment.
I pressed my earbuds in and pulled up a lecture that I’d missed while I was at Tillie’s. Finals started in a few days, and they didn’t care if my nerves were shot. I’d made the water too hot, so I took my time easing into the bathtub. When I was finally settled my toes were pink but the heat was working its magic on my muscles.
I didn’t remember falling asleep. I was powered on one minute, and then everything was dark. My body was on auto-pilot as I walked through the abyss.
Ms. Tillie appeared beside me, her long, paisley scarf dragging the floor. “Don’t hate me for all that jazz today, dear.”
“I don’t,” I lied. Well, it wasn’t a lie, was it? It wasn’t her fault that her goofy plan went pear shaped. She took my hand and rattled on about her crystals and books, and I was grateful for the easy conversation.
We saw Louis in the distance, tending the abyss with his lawn mower. She waved him over with a loud “Daaaarling!”
“Eh?” he groaned. Even in my dreams he was a cantankerous old fart. That made me grin a little. “Oh shush, you old hippy. I’m busy.” But he killed the engine once we got close, and then he held out his hand for me to shake. I couldn’t not do it – that would have been rude. “You’re coming back tomorrow to clean, right? I paid for it, so you better.”
“She’s helping me with the bookshelf! She’ll be over when she’s done.”
He pulled on the hand he was still shaking, and Tillie pulled on hers. I felt something wrong, and then some of the stress subsided. I looked between them and realized that another person was there, staring at me in shock. It was… me.
“What’s going on?” she asked, her face contorted with worry. “What was that?”
“I … don’t know. But there’s two of us now…”
“… so they don’t have to fight anymore.” She considered that for a moment. It was odd to watch myself act like myself, and have no idea what was going on in her mind. The long silence pressed on. I wondered if this was what other people felt when I talked to them.
“Works for me,” I finally decided. I’d have gone grey waiting for that one to say anything.
“What was that?” I whispered, feeling uneasy.
“What was what?” my copy asked through a yawn.
Ethan appeared behind the other me. His eyes locked on mine as he wrapped his arms around her waist. His head leaned against hers, and I watched as her lips parted in a content sigh. Louis tugged on her hand, and this time I watched as she was split into two. Each half was identical. A little shorter, perhaps. It was hard to tell.
“I’m hungry now,” Louis declared suddenly. “Let’s go to dinner.”
“Oh!” Tillie laughed, pulling me along behind them. “What a wonderful idea!”
Five of my professors surrounded us. “You can’t have all of her,” one declared with an air of authority, and they all grabbed a handful of whatever they could.
“I surely well can,” Tillie argued as she yanked me away from them. And it hurt, much more than a dream should have.
The other copies of me stopped what they were doing and turned to glare at me. “It’s the right thing to do, Riley,” they recited, their voices echoing over each other menacingly. Rose and Connor appeared, and each tore a copy for themselves. “You want them to be proud of us, don’t you?”
I spun around, looking for an escape. Instead I watched as Ethan kissed his Riley’s neck, and she turned to respond in a way that I hadn’t been able to. Over her shoulder, she asked with a piercing stare, “You want them to like us, don’t you?” And while I watched them, entranced and mortified, I felt myself crack into pieces that fell to the floor and shattered into even more copies. Tillie picked one up and cooed over how cute and tiny it was. Mini Riley waved to me from the palm of the older woman’s hand. “You want them to want us, don’t you?”
“This is insane,” I breathed, my heart racing. “I have to get out of here.”
Pockets of Rileys began to laugh. “You can’t leave,” some said. Others picked up the thread with: “you have to cook dinner.” It echoed, and each bounce changed the message a little. “Set dinner, serve dinner, clean …”
“Stop it!” I screamed over all of them, but I was only one voice among many. I started to run. Where to didn’t matter. The ground was cloth beneath my feet, shifting under the pressure of my shoes, making wrinkles. It was a tablecloth, and all of my various masters were seated around me, as large as giants. They wielded silverware as big as airplanes, and each one had a demand on its tongue.
“Could I have some chicken?” No sooner was the command delivered than a herd of my copies stampeded toward that dish, standing on each other’s shoulders to move huge utensils and dole out portions onto plates that were, in turn, carried on the shoulders of more copies.
“Goodness, I’m a vegetarian.”
“Faster, Riley. Sign this, please!” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a tower of Rileys trying to balance a pen. One caught my full attention when it launched itself from the top to click the ink barrel out, falling to the paper with a sick crack beside the title: Connor’s Last Will and Testament. I winced at it, and turned my attention elsewhere.
Back and forth they ran, finishing one task in time to gain three others. I was too split up, too small to do the job, but I couldn’t stop myself from trying anyway.
A gigantic cup of tea towered nearby, with a stack of biscuits at its side. I ran there and jumped onto the lowest one, pulling myself higher and higher until I could reach the lip of the cup. From there I climbed onto the spoon and inched myself further up until I could look out over the table. It was like being on a mountain. The table stretched infinitely to my left and right, while giants placed orders onto ants that looked like me.
“Save who?!” I screamed, my arms back and my face pointed heavenward. “Get me out of here!”
The giant in front of me reached for his tea, and I fell.
Dark water swallowed me up. I floated, dragged down by the thickness of the sugar in the water. Finally, it was quiet.
Shadows danced around me as the light above cast my reflection deeper into the water. Bubbles rose around me, and in each one I saw a tiny world, full of tiny people. Still, I sank. I drifted past a huge statue of ice, its hair frozen into spikes. As I drifted past its face, I looked away. It wore a pain so raw that I couldn’t bear to look at it, so I looked down. A grey rubber duckie peered out between the buttons on the front of its shirt. Below that, the statue’s massive hand formed a platform that I landed on gratefully.
Under my feet, the statue became flesh. Its grey skin melted away, becoming softer. The fingers closed around me, and lifted me back to that tortured face. Its eyes twitched, shedding huge chunks of ice. And then they opened. Blinked. Stared directly at me.
Save her, it commanded me.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about!” I shouted back.
Then save me.
“I just want out of here!”
We can’t escape. This is the aether.
“Like hell,” I growled, and stomped my foot into the palm of its hand. “I’d rather be back in my shitty life than this heroin trip!” Beneath me, a reflective light exploded from the statue’s hand, and I took my chances. Without thinking, I dove in.
The water was cold. I could feel myself shivering.
My eyes fluttered open. The steam was long gone. The bath water was as cold as ice. I gasped and jerked back to life, sending water onto the floor beside me.
“Riley?” Grandpa called from the living room. I could hear the TV playing in the background. It seemed so … normal.
“Sorry! I’m … fine!” I called back, gasping around the words. I pulled myself from the bathtub and drained it. The water couldn’t disappear fast enough.