By Katy Stringer
The sun shone down, bright and hot. Laughter flitted through the warm air like so many dragonflies. A burst of cold, sticky sweetness on my tongue… popsicles. My brother Aaron and I were slurping red popsicles in the heat of a summer day. We watched the other kids frolic among the playground equipment, but felt no need to join in their games. Aaron and I had always been closer than most siblings- closer, indeed, than most best friends— and were content to simply sit in silence, at peace in each other’s company. I was ten, and Aaron… Aaron was eight. Could it really have happened just seven years ago? Lifetimes have passed since.
Abruptly we were no longer in a playground. We were nowhere I had ever seen… or even could have imagined in my wildest daydreams. Golden grasses waved as far as the eye could see- golden as in dense and metallic, but supple as silk— and the sky stretching above us was such a deep, swirling cyan that it seemed an almost tangible entity. We should have been shocked, afraid- but we found that the alien landscape had instilled in us a sense of utter tranquility, bordering on bliss. By unspoken agreement we lay down amongst the grasses; two young children lost in a sea of gold. My life changed that day. Something I saw in the vast expanse of blue into which I gazed for minutes unknown touched me deep inside, and I caught a glimpse of something bigger, something… true.
It was this experience upon which I drew whenever my ability seemed too frightening; too much for one human to handle without losing themselves, or losing the ones they loved. A power that could transport me to such a place could not be a curse… could it?
I fling myself down on my bed and stretch expansively, shedding the long week like a second skin. I don’t believe I have ever felt a time more appropriate for a TGIF. One more day in that cramped school, unable to let my guard down for a second, and I would have lost it. Usually restraining myself is not too difficult, now that I’ve learned to control my ability… for the most part. But I just had to go and sign up for all the AP classes at the beginning of the year, and the stress of testing week was getting to me. You may be wondering what I’m talking about. To be honest, I often wonder myself. The gist of it is this: I am the bearer of an unlikely affliction that enables me to travel to strange places… strange as in otherworldly. Sometimes these places are similar to Earth— sometimes they aren’t. The catch: this only happens when I touch someone.
The first time I “jumped,” as I like to call it, was seven years ago. Aaron and I had just brushed fingers reaching for the same blade of grass to pluck; though we hadn’t known that this was the reason for our leap through space at the time. At least I assume we moved through space- perhaps my ability simply takes us to another time, or a parallel dimension. Anyway, after enjoying our new landscape for a while, a place I have since christened the Golden Country, we decided that we should probably try to figure out how to return. It’s far-fetched, I know (though really, how much more so than instant transportation to another land?), but I believe that our surroundings helped us find the way home. It’s difficult to explain- that first environment seemed almost alive. Both Aaron and I found strange thoughts and impressions drifting though our minds, almost as though the land was… not communicating with us, exactly— more exploring us, gently acclimatizing itself to our presence. That’s ridiculous, you say. The fantasies of a ten-year-old girl and her eight-year-old brother. But it was in that same gentle, drifting way that it simultaneously occurred to both Aaron and me to take each other’s hands and envision our previous surrounding. Closing my eyes and holding the image of the playground firmly in my ten-year-old mind, I groped for Aaron’s fingers. After a few seconds, we hesitantly blinked our eyes open- and sure enough, found ourselves back on the dusty edge of the village playground. Oddly, though, we were no longer standing or holding hands; instead we were in the exact same position we had been in before we had jumped. No time had passed.
It took several more such experiments with my brother before we worked out the nuances of my new ability— and the difficulties. Without him, I probably would have ended up an insane asylum, or lost in some parallel universe. As it was, I learned how to control my ability somewhat, until I could safely touch another being lightly without fear of jumping, as long as I was concentrating.
Seven years later and I’m still here. But Aaron is not. He died at the age of eleven, struck down by a drunk driver. I have not used my power since.
The roar of my neighbor’s lawnmower wakes me from my reverie. I sit up and brush away the few stinging tears that cling tenaciously to my lashes. Sometimes I am able to forget both my strange ability and my lost brother— but never for long. Taking a few deep breaths to compose myself, I glance at the clock. Is it six o’ clock already? I leap from my bed and yank a light jacket off of the back of my chair as I head out of the room. I promised to meet my best friend Simon at the basketball game in the school tonight. I grin slightly, picturing his dark hair flopping in his eyes as he rockets out of the stands in enthusiasm, waving a homemade banner and shouting. Who needs cheerleaders?
Lost in my thoughts I forget to avoid the creaky second-to-last step, and freeze as the wood under my foot shrieks in protest. My brief moment of good humor dissipates like clouds before a stiff breeze. Silently I pad forward and risk a look into the darkening living room— no, he’s still soundly asleep in front of the TV. A bottle is nestled in one relaxed hand, and his face is dark with a few days’ worth of stubble. I look away quickly. My father changed after my brother’s death. Sometimes I fear he is descending down a path I won’t be able to follow. Will I lose my father as well as my mother? She left when I was barely four. To this day I don’t know why.
I consider writing a note to my father, explaining where I’ve gone. I glance at my watch. I’m already late. Biting my lip, I turn and hurry out the door, casting one last look over my shoulder as I go. That bottle was empty. Surely he’ll still be asleep when I return.
“It’s okay, Sarah, you can tell me that you secretly dream of being a ballerina,” Simon laughs as we pass under a flickering streetlamp. Though our friends had offered us a ride, Simon had insisted on walking me home through the warm summer evening— I had thought the gesture a sweet one, though now was almost regretting it. Almost… but not quite.
“I told you, I tripped!” I protest in vain as he continued to roar with laughter. I had tripped- there was just a tad more to the story that Simon didn’t need to know. Truth was, there had been a panicky moment in the basketball game: caught up in the excitement, I hadn’t been focusing on my surroundings, and had nearly been caught up by Scott Winfrey in an overly-exuberant bear hug. In order to avoid accidentally sweeping us both off to some far away land, I had executed a perfectly ridiculous pirouette, tripped over my own feet, and landed on my back on the completely sanitary floor of the stands. Picking the gum out of my hair had been no fun, let me tell you.
“Alright, alright, keep your hair on!” Simon grins infuriatingly. “That is, whatever hair you have left after that vicious gum attack.”
I roll my eyes. “You’re going to experience a vicious girl attack in a minute if you’re not careful.” Simon laughs and skips out of reach of my good-natured swing.
Suddenly I realize we’re almost to my house. I pull my jacket a little bit closer, imagining the cold, dark home into which I’m headed. What I wouldn’t give to enjoy this perfect summer night, with Simon at my side, for just a little while longer- protected from my painful past and uncertain future.
“Are you cold?” Simon’s come up behind me. I am suddenly struck by how much longer his legs are than mine— one of his lanky strides covers more distance than two of my own. Sometimes I still think of him the way that I met him: a wiry little middle schooler, at that wonderful age where all the girls are still taller.
“No, I’m good…” We’ve reached my front yard. Desperate to stretch time a bit longer, I tilt my head back and gaze into the inky blackness. “The sky’s pretty clear tonight. Look at all the stars.”
“They’re beautiful,” says Simon softly. I glance down, surprised— it’s uncharacteristic for Simon to wax poetic about nature’s beauty— and find that he’s not looking at the stars at all. Instead his dark eyes are searching mine with a vulnerable intensity I’ve never seen before.
“Simon….?” My question is abruptly cut off as, in one fluid movement, Simon steps forward, encircles the back of my neck with one hand and the small of my back with another, hesitates for a fraction of a second, then presses his lips to mine.
My mind goes into overdrive.
I know I should tear away, back away, anything but let Simon touch me right now. How can I suppress this surge of emotion? How can I remain calm, cool and collected in the face of such an onslaught? I’m going to lose it. But a voice inside of me shouts not to ruin this moment- and I don’t want to. All of this dodging and lying; I’m sick of it. I don’t want to hide anymore.
Having lost the battle against my baser instincts, my eyes drift closed. Seemingly of their own accord, my hands slide from where they had braced anxiously against Simon’s shoulders to loop themselves around his neck. I lose myself in his arms, in his dark hair, and press forward into the curve of his body—
— only to feel the pressure released as Simon steps away. It feels as though something essential has been torn out of me, leaving a dull ache behind. I stumble a bit and wrench my eyes open.
My worst fears are realized. Simon and I seem to be standing on a cloud. Or at least, the thick white fog swirling around our ankles is dense enough to give that impression. My blood has turned to ice. Simon will never want to see me after this. He’ll think I’m some sort of freak. My secret is out. When we return— if I can even persuade Simon to touch me once more— I’ll be shipped off to a laboratory, the rest of my life to be lived as a lab rat. And Simon— poor Simon— will he be traumatized? Distraught?
“…Sarah? Are you there?” Simon’s voice drifts over to me, strangely muted by the mists. “Sarah?”
“I’m- I’m right here,” I choke out. “Simon, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I should have warned you—“
“Sarah, what are you talking about? What’s going on?” Simon stands warily before me, haloed by the shafts of bluish light that filter through the fog. Confusion, suspicion, and a hint of fear battle for a place in his gaze. I can’t bear to see him like this.
“It’s me,” I manage, barely holding back tears. “Something I can do— something about me— when I touch people, I— we—”
“Slow down, Sarah.” Simon takes a step closer. “Start from the top. It’s going to be okay.”
I am startled by how well my friend seems to be taking this— or perhaps he’s just in shock? Either way, his calm is infectious; I take a breath and quickly drag a sleeve across my face. I can’t panic now— that would only freak him out further. I attempt an explanation.
“…Well… I guess it all started when I was ten. One day I just touched my brother by accident, and suddenly we were …transported, I guess you could call it… to some other place. Like this. I mean, not just like this, but…”
“I get the idea.” Was that truly the hint of a smile on his face?
“I realized that anytime I touched anyone, we would be brought to another … place, or time, or whatever. I’ve learned to control it since then, but sometimes— when emotions are running high—” I feel my cheeks get hot. “— I lose it a little bit, I suppose.”
Simon considers this.
“… So you’re telling me that you can… travel… between worlds?”
“… and this only happens when you touch someone.”
Another nod. I still don’t quite trust myself to speak.
“And my kissing you was so captivating that you lost control of your ability?”
Yes, that was definitely a full-blown grin on his face now.
“So… you’re not afraid of me?” I manage, torn between laughing at his self-satisfied expression and fearing that none of this could last.
“Afraid of you? Sarah, do you realize how fantastic this is? All my life I’ve dreamed that there was something out there, something more. And here you stand, with the key to every door! Why on earth— or wherever we are now- would I be afraid of you?” He tosses a crooked grin my way. “Unless you just brought me out here because I awoke some primal instinct with my fabulous kissing, and you plan on unleashing your wild passions on me?”
I scoop up a particularly dense clod of fog and hurl it at him, laughing. I am almost giddy with relief. More relaxed now, I have a chance to examine this new world more closely. The entire landscape seems to be comprised of alien mists- looming out of the lighter stuff swirling near the ground are colossal shapes made of the thick, foam-like material I had thrown at Simon. A muted, bluish light pervades the area- there is no one point from which it originates, and it takes me a while before I realize that it is the clouds of fog themselves that are glowing softly. I should really take notes on these places, I think to myself.
“So how often do you travel?” asks Simon, now reclining on a bed of solid fog.
“I like to call it jumping. And I actually haven’t for a long time…” I swallow. “Not since my brother died.”
Simon sits up, a look of concern appearing on his face. “I’m sorry. I should have realized that Aaron— and you, being ten years old, he would have still been…” He runs a hand through his hair distractedly. “Oh Sarah, I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”
I nod. “I’m fine. I think he would have wanted me to… to keep exploring. He always called it my ‘gift’— he would be disappointed if he knew how I’ve wasted it.” A wave of remorse suddenly washes over me. All these years, I’ve been hiding from myself.
Simon stands and puts a hand on my shoulder. “Well, now you’ve got someone to travel— to ‘jump’ with.” I smile at him, touched, just as he yanks his hand away like I was on fire.
“What?” I say indignantly.
“Sorry. I thought we might go launching off again.”
“No, any contact is fine after I’ve jumped. The only time it matters is when we need to get home— then we just touch each other and picture the place we left. We’ll end up right where we started; no time will have passed.”
Simon nods. “Convenient, that.”
As if on cue, a low rumble suddenly rips through the land, scaring us both out of our skins. A chorus of snapping sounds begins issuing from the ever-present clouds, accompanied by intermittent flashes of light. As the air around us darkens ominously, we decide it’s probably time to cut the chit-chat and head out. Fighting the thickening fog, I make my way over to Simon.
“So all we need to do is touch and think of home?” he shouts over the alien symphony.
“Yes!” I cry, extending my hand. He eyes it for a moment, grins, then pushes past and sweeps me up in another kiss, more confidently this time. It takes me a moment to focus enough to even remember what my house looks like- this is only my second kiss, after all— and then the chorus of noise fades, leaving nothing but the occasionally cricket chirp. Toto, we are back in Kansas.
I reluctantly step away from Simon, letting my hand drop slowly from his shoulder. Raising my gaze to meet his, I just have time to see him smiling at me before an ear-splitting CRACK rents the warm night air. We both whip toward the source of the sound— to see my father standing in yawning doorway, having thrown the flimsy screen door open so forcefully that it left dents in the front of the house. He had clearly seen us kissing.
I fight the urge to quail before the look on his face and force myself to stand tall. We had done nothing wrong. He was drunk, he was overreacting— I would not let myself or Simon be pushed around. I raise a hand in greeting.
He ignores me and steps out into the night, letting the screen door bang shut behind him.
“You didn’t tell me you were going out.” Sheesh, was that what all this was about?
“I’m sorry. You were asleep, and—”
“You wait until my back is turned, and you sneak out with this punk.” With this he gestures with disgust at Simon, who stands uncertainly between father and daughter.
“Look, Mr. Martin, Sarah just went to the basketball game at the school, and I was—” Simon begins valiantly, but my father cuts him off. He is shouting now.
“I know what you were doing! Both of you! I see how you look at me, like I’m garbage! Well, I know what you’re up to, and I won’t let you leave like your mother, I won’t watch you become a little slut like her—”
It is as though the breath has been forced from my lungs. This has to be a bad dream.
“How can you say that?” I manage. “Why are you doing this?”
He takes a few unsteady steps towards us, shaking his hand wildly at Simon as though he can’t hear me.
“You think the world revolves around this kid, this thug— he’s probably a rotten drunk like the kid who ran over Aaron! Ran him over and left him there, on the road!”
That is too much. Storming up to him, my face hot, I shout “Aaron deserved better than you!”
I have no time to react before his hand is cracking across my cheek.
The world is darkness and flame. A lurid sky the color of blood pulses and throbs like an open wound. Icy heat licks at my skin and a hot, ashen wind worms its way into my eyes and nose. Discordant strains of unearthly howling sluice through the air, clawing at my ears and forming a tangled web of sound from which I can’t escape. My power has dropped us into the pit of Hell.
A vague shape looms out of the swirling blackness and I cringe away, falling on the shifting, rocky landscape. I feel my hand slice open on a shard of stone. I can just make out the outline of my father before he turns and wanders off into the smoke.
“Sarah!” he bellows, his voice immediately swallowed up by the screaming winds. “Sarah!”
I pull in a breath to answer, but a gust of burning ash fills my mouth and I cough and retch, feeling like my throat must be bleeding. I struggle to my feet, cradling my hand to my chest, and strain to see through the smoke and fire. Any argument is forgotten in my panic to reunite and escape this horrific place. I can’t lose sight of him, we have to get out of here now –
Suddenly the swirling smoke parts for a heartbeat, and I see my father, still calling my name, wildly rubbing at his streaming eyes and backing blindly towards… a cliff. He is barely a foot away from the edge of a craggy drop off.
“No!” I scream, tearing the sound out of my throat. “Dad, NO!”
He pauses, teetering on the edge of the abyss; he takes a step toward the sound of my voice, towards safety –
– and the rock beneath his foot gives way, dropping my father into nothingness.
I spare no energy to scream. Launching into action, I sprint across the uneven terrain toward the cliff, the sinews in my legs tearing with the effort. Reaching the edge, I fling myself out after my father.
My stomach flies into my chest as I accelerate downward, burning winds clawing at my face. I peel my eyes open against the pain, searching— there! I see him beneath me, limbs splayed, fingers tearing at the air as though it will slow his descent. Angling my body, I shoot toward him like an arrow; we collide mid-air, my momentum sending us spinning. His mouth is open— is he screaming? I can’t seem to hear him above the thudding of my own heart.
Gripping his shoulders, I shout, “Think of home!” He stares at me, uncomprehending. I shake him, causing us to spin even more crazily out of control. “Think of HOME, DAMNIT!” I can see the ground fast approaching, bristling with jagged obsidian spires— closing my eyes, I summon up a memory of home, and pray my father is doing the same—
—then feel my head snap to one side as my father’s hand completes its trajectory across my face. I put a numb hand to my cheek, and discover that wounds acquired while jumping do cross back into my world: my palm is slippery with blood, which oozes from a ragged gash. My father staggers back, staring at me and then at his hand; then his knees buckle and he falls to the ground, where he clutches at fistfuls of grass as though they are the only thing keeping him anchored to the earth.
My own legs are weak, and my head is spinning— weaving perceptibly, I throw an arm out instinctively before I collapse into the dirt. Instead I find myself wrapped in a soft, warm material and supported by strong arms. Oh, Simon, you brilliant boy— demonstrating remarkable foresight and quick thinking, he has pulled off his own jacket and swaddled me in it, where it serves as a protective layer between him and my own traitorous flesh. I want to kiss him again, though I know that would kind of defeat the purpose of his gesture. Instead, utterly drained, I nuzzle my face into the sweet-smelling fabric and let him hold me up while I regain my senses. I feel the vibrations of his chest on my cheek as he says firmly: “You touch her again, sir, and I’m calling the police.”
My father barely seems to hear him. I feel his eyes bore into my back as he asks, in a voice drained of all emotion, “Jesus, Sarah; what the hell was that?”