Across the Multiverse by Christopher Green
If pressed to name the most astonishing of all my various deeds, I would not, in fact, cite the prototyping of the chamber. That’s not to say that I’m not proud of it; technically speaking it is the crowning achievement of my career, of very nearly anyone’s career. But if I’ve learned one thing from the relentless march of scientific progress, it’s that impossibility is a mirage, dissipating as we crest each new and more magnificent dune. To reach in and pull from the realm of the abstract has such a long line of precedent as to be rendered nearly banal—connect some circuits, convert some energy, wear goggles. You can change reality as we know it with what you learned in college and a little bit of luck.
Sooner or later someone would have invented it, and probably for reasons similar to my own. By itself, stripped of its novelty, it is no large thing; in two hundred years it will be the horse and buggy of its time. No, when I look back on what I’ve done, I recognize that my accomplishment wasn’t one of engineering, but of emotion, the only frontier with no effective cartographical system. Raising the dead, even figuratively, is a miracle.
It began with the pain in Anise’s lower back. Then her loss of interest in our Tuesday sushi binges. And then with the blood in her urine. The rest was a textbook catastrophe: tests performed, the slow migration from the living room to the hospital room to, at last, the bedroom, with me and our shetland Boris and (as she insisted, as I will forever picture in the eerie haze of daguerreotype) two angels who laid a hand each on the sides of her face twenty minutes before she stopped breathing. I don’t believe in angels and neither did she, but I suppose I like to think she left me happily.
You hear about death the way you hear about a rival’s ongoing research. Significant, but of no concern to you, not really. You have your own race against time to fret over, never mind everyone else’s. But then death comes for someone you love, and at that point the analogy breaks down, because, for all my extensive vocabulary, I do not have the words to fully describe what it is to watch the person you are alive for cease to exist. It’s… evaporative. For the deceased, but also for you.
It took seven months, twenty-eight days, and two hours from Anise’s time of death for me to construct, iterate, and finally run an initial trial for the chamber. I speculated for the length of that period on which version of her I would be able to extract. Would she come from a place where it was I who had died young? Or perhaps from a place where we were both destined to live out our lives in relative peace, to shuffle off in tandem, entwined in our large bed with Boris the Fourth at our ankles? No way to know. The algorithm would determine a match somewhat at random, since I had no way of perusing the cosmic menu of Anises available.
The chamber was no more than a dozen feet long, with a three-foot table at its center. At this table I sat one morning, with my catalytic trigger in hand. In front of me were two cups of coffee, one with sugar, one with half-and-half. I made some last-minute adjustments, dialed in to the resonance. Then, like any good mad scientist, I pushed a button. I waited.
A door at the other end of the chamber opened, and Anise walked in. Looking as I had known her, before the cancer, and perhaps even better than that. Maybe she had come from a place where the two of us took up pilates and finally started cutting out the bread and whiskey like we always said we would.
“Hello, Anise,” I told her. “I know that this is confusing, but if you would just—”
“Gil?” she asked, incredulous. “Gil Halstead?”
At the sound of my full name I gave a small, involuntary gasp. “Yeah. Yeah, Anise, it’s—”
“Jesus,” she interrupted again. “Gil. I thought I’d never see you again.” She crossed the short distance to our table, extended a hand to greet me. “How have you been?”
It was a certain kind of transcendent selfishness, I see now, to assume that we would be great loves throughout every knowable universe. What is probability if not the likelihood that God will taketh away at each possible juncture? I shook her hand. The other one, the one not shaking, had a wedding ring.
Back home Anise had dated me in college, as I remembered. But she had moved away after graduation, and we had drifted apart with great reluctance but marginally greater resignation. She had met a man named Piotr in Springfield, Massachusetts, where she now lived, and they had been married for seven years. She did not know what had become of me.
It took significantly less time to explain what I had done than I anticipated. Anise was always a pragmatist, and she remembered the fire of curiosity that burned in me at nineteen. She was impressed, even amazed, but not shocked. “Why me, of all people?” she asked, and I tossed off an excuse I no longer remember.
To be with her again was surreal, as one expects, but not for any of the right reasons. I had assumed that she would be ecstatic, had in fact needed her to be ecstatic. Some deep part of me, the part that eschews science in favor of a sentimental and all-encompassing spirituality, had thought that she just might sense the chasm between us that had been closed by my tireless invention. Instead, it was as though we were meeting for coffee. Because, in fact, we were. “Is this half-and-half?” she asked, sipping. “How did you know? I never drank coffee in college.”
This was one of many small moments that caused my chest to rupture like a silent bomb.
One of the drawbacks of the chamber, in addition to its singularly poor choice of Anises to draw, was that it could not sustain a prolonged visitation. Within half an hour she began to feel light-headed, and I rose and escorted her to the door at the chamber’s far end. There I asked her if she would like to come back again. “Sure,” she said simply, with a shrug. “You seem like you could use the company. Maybe next time you can tell me why you look so much more glum than the Gil I knew.”
“Maybe,” I told her, even though, at the time, that conversation felt impossible. But this is the way of impossibility—always in retreat.
I drew her back once a week, each time for thirty minutes, each time with a mug of coffee (I tried sushi once, and she told me she couldn’t stand the stuff). With every new entrance I hoped that she would be changed, that she would ponder our reconnection in the periods of her absence and realize, with a flash of inter-existential insight, the profound rightness of it. I imagined her effusive on her return, cartwheeling through the chamber door with a giddy smile to tell me that she had finally come around. Instead she sat, sipped her coffee, and asked me about all our mutual college friends, what had become of them where I was from.
Back at my apartment I sat amongst the framed photos of her, of my Anise, and suffered a different sort of visitation. Anise, twenty-four, long untamed hair and a baby Boris in her arms; Anise, twenty-eight, green wool cap and steaming breath under the light of a faux-gas lamp; Anise, thirty-one, weeks before she first complained of a stitch in her side, reaching toward the camera lens with both arms. An embrace from the other end of a beyond that I had not yet learned to breach. Boris was staying with a friend. I didn’t have time to care for him anymore, not with all my research to complete.
One week she came to me, this new and strange Anise, and I had set the table with a bottle of Basil Hayden’s and two glasses. I was two drinks deep already. I had picked the middle photo of her, an intimate moment in midwinter, when college had long since dipped beneath the horizon; it sat resting on its one leg in the middle of the table.
Anise stopped a foot inside the chamber. She surveyed the scene. She had always been perceptive in a way that I didn’t know how to be; it was, naturally, so much of what I loved about her. When she started walking again, her gait was knowing. She sat and took the picture, traced a finger over herself. She looked up, observed the ring I wore, as though for the first time. “What happened to me?” she asked.
I wrapped one hand around the neck of the bottle, as though for support. I looked at her, both of her.
She put the photo back on the table, face down. “Pour me a drink and tell me.”
So I told her. About the night of the photo, how in the moment it was taken the ring still lurked in my coat pocket, to be revealed to her an hour later, in the studio we shared on North Fremont. About Boris. About her decline and, finally, her departure. About my research, fueled by a quiet insanity I had hidden from the few remaining people who were close to me. I think I wanted her to sympathize, to feel bad for me, and (of course) to find in herself some as yet unlit feeling to spark. But she only listened patiently, nodding. When I was finished she poured a drink, her third, and asked, “What did you want, bringing me here?”
I shook my head. “I believed in the beginning that you would bear more resemblance to the Anise I’ve always known.”
“Now?” The two of us stared at each other—me, pleading, and her, kind but firm. “Now I don’t know. I don’t know what the end of this looks like. I just know that I don’t want to get there.”
The glass rotated between her fingers. She nodded, squinting. “I love my husband,” she told me. “I guess that’s a harsh thing to say, considering, but I need to put it out there.”
“Of course,” I told her, throwing up both hands. “Of course, I know. It’s not my intention to change that.”
“Not that I don’t enjoy being here, with you. I spent several years missing you, when I was young. Having you back, even like this, it’s… it’s nice. Maybe it’s even nice in ways that it shouldn’t be.” I barely had time to take in a breath before she added, “But that’s never going to change the rules of the place I come from. You don’t exist there. And I guess I don’t exist here.”
“But—and to be clear, I’m mostly nitpicking for the sake of scientific accuracy—where we are right now isn’t there or here. It has no rules at all but the ones we choose.”
She tilted her head at me, like a disappointed professor. “Are you sure about that?”
“Yes. I built it, I’m fairly certain of its paramete—”
“Do you love your wife? Still?”
I quieted. I wanted to hang on to the bottle again, but she had taken it. “Of course I do.”
“Then we don’t get to choose the rules. Not even here.”
The truth of this, the way that it so deftly maneuvered its way through all my certainty in my own brilliance, it was just the same as it had always been, and for the first moment since I had drawn her here, I knew that whatever it was that I had loved about my Anise was carried around inside of every Anise there was. And I knew that I loved this one as much as I would any other.
“Can I ask you something?” I began again after a long silence.
Anise shrugged, lifted one corner of her mouth as if to say, what difference does it make now. “Shoot.”
“Do you believe in angels?”
I could see that she was taken aback by this, against her better judgment. “W—” she started, then took a moment to recover. “Well, I mean. My mother believed in angels. I don’t know if we ever talked about that. She said she and my grandmother had seen them a couple times. I always thought she was making it up, for attention or… I don’t know, whatever it was my mom wanted.”
“What about you, though?”
She looked at me, unsure, maybe—maybe—a little bit frightened. “Some rules I don’t feel qualified to comment on anymore,” she replied.
What followed then was a sequence of visits that were not what either one of us had thought they would be in the beginning. I always brought whiskey now. She was reserved with it at first, then indulgent, then, after maybe three months or so, irresponsible. We got up from our chairs and danced the tango, which we had each, somehow, learned in our separate lives. We sang together, old songs we used to belt out in her dorm room with her Discman and computer speakers. I told her more stories about the two of us as we had been in adulthood, and she told me stories about us in college, stories which were strangely dissimilar to the ones I knew but which retained a breathtaking familiarity nevertheless. Most everything about what we shared, in fact, took on a quality of nostalgia, even the things that were wholly new, like the times that we played guessing games about the historical events of our respective timelines (mostly the same, but strikingly different in places; when very drunk I liked to speculate about the causal chains that might have worked their way down all the way from presidential elections and natural disasters to little old us).
I didn’t tell her that I loved her, but I searched her eyes for the love I felt as though I were interpreting a series of instrumental readings. Some days I thought I might see it there, and I chided myself afterward for my delusions. Other days I saw nothing but a sweet sort of affection, the way one feels for a character in a favorite television show. She rarely frowned in our time together, rarely expressed disapproval or melancholy. Neither did I, now that I think about it. But a faint magnetism bloomed in the space between us, and the stronger it grew the more our laughter and our enthusiasm felt shot through with uncertainty. I began to suspect that there really was an inherent connection that spanned the vast playing-card deck of existence—but also to dread it and what it portended.
So, apparently, did Anise.
“I need you to stop bringing me here,” she told me one day, as we sat together on the chamber’s floor, leaned against the wall. She had her head on my shoulder, and I was staring at the backs of my eyelids, trying to focus on the way her hair felt against my cheek.
“I know,” I told her.
“I love my husband,” she said.
“But I—” she started to go on. I waited for what was probably a few seconds but still felt long enough to build a bridge between universes. “I think we’ve seen as much of each other as we should,” she finished.
She raised her head. The air against my naked face felt colder than it had a few minutes ago. “Do you?” she asked.
“More keenly than I wish I did.”
“I’m never going to be her. I’m like a book you’re borrowing from the library. You need to go home. Take Boris with you.”
“I kn—” My voice broke. I lay my head back against the wall, staring up. I took in a long breath. I felt that all worlds were meeting in a single point in space, and that the place of convergence was the birthplace of grief.
“I know why she loved you,” Anise told me. “I’m proud of her for doing what I would have done. Does that make you feel better or worse?”
“Neither. But I guess it qualifies the experiment as a success.”
“Hey.” She placed a hand on each side of my face to turn me toward her. I thought about angels. “Come back. We still have a few more minutes. Be with me here. Wherever here is.”
I nodded. She leaned forward until her forehead touched mine. “Somewhere out there you turned out wonderful,” she whispered. “I’m glad I know.”
We stayed that way until she left. When she grew light-headed I pulled her up and led her to the door. We said goodbye, and she hugged me, for a few long minutes, until she became unsteady on her feet, and I waved to her as she passed through the chamber door on her side. In the instant that it closed, I felt myself cut off from all probability, pinned down once more into a single causal line. For reasons that defy all scientific knowledge and intuition, I was indescribably happy.
I went home. I scratched Boris around his neck and fed him his favorite wet food. I stood, in the center of our empty apartment, and pictured its many iterations: Anise at the microwave, humming; Anise beside the nightstand, screaming at me; Anise sitting on the arm of the sofa, drinking straight from a bottle of wine; Anise, standing right in front of where I stood now, also alone, wondering why she felt so near to me in that moment, as though we were close enough to reach out and touch.
© Christopher Green 2018
Christopher is currently a Special Education teacher in a Bronx public high school. His work has appeared in print and online journals such as The Baltimore Review, The Ampersand Review, The MacGuffin, and of course Liars' League NYC. He is the erstwhile co-host of The Prose Bowl and co-founder of the currently running Rally Reading Series in Brooklyn. He has still not sold that one book he wrote about vampires, but hey—someday.
Across the Multiverse was read by Matt Alford on 1st August 2018 for Pleasure & Pain