by Helen Sumpter
At the point at which our protagonist, let’s call him AC, enters this story, a giant purple mushroom cloud is obscuring the world in a thick blanket of pink. The cause is an unexplained fusion of energy, resulting in the birth of an alternative universe which now sits on top of the old one. The world which had previously existed is not lost but it can no longer be experienced or remembered. What this means for AC is that there is no longer a ‘Before.’ There is only ‘Afterwards.’
When the thick dust settles, AC can make out the faint outline of an opening. He hammers against it and a door opens.
As he peers through this portal AC doesn’t recognise the world he now sees in front of him and cannot access his past. His only option is to enter this unknown future.
A blinding silver snowstorm covers this new landscape in a carpet of chrome crystals, through which AC now walks. He looks to the sun to give direction but finds only misdirection. The sun’s light cannot penetrate the metallic storm. AC glimpses only an occasional mirrored ash of orange; stray rays reflected in the falling needles, which glint like golden lightning and then are gone.
After some time the glittering storm subsides and AC is aware of the shift in the atmosphere. The initial charge has been exhausted and a soft stillness descends. AC wants to sink into it. He is tired from the effort he has made to get this far. “Ahhh, what I really need to do right now is to lie down”, he thinks, “and have a nice long sleep.” But AC mustn’t sleep, he must stay awake. To continue his journey AC must know what his reason is for carrying on. He feels his body begin to drop but decides to fight the fatigue. He forces his mind to stay present and focus on what he must do next.
Decide his aim.
AC searches his deepest thoughts for something meaningful to strive towards. It’s something of a surprise to AC that what eventually emerges from the darkness of his mind is a picture, or rather a map, of himself.
AC is not seeing his mirror image but something that resembles the combined experiences of all his past, present and future selves; the places he has been and yet to be in, the people he has met and yet to meet, the knowledge he has gained and has yet to gain. Contained within this vision is not only who AC is now and what has formed him, but all the possibilities of whom he might become. AC doesn’t know how he knows this but he realises that to achieve his aim he must navigate this map of selves.
This new purpose energises AC but also leaves him feeling apprehensive. “What if,” he wonders, “I come face to face with one of these selves and discover that I don’t recognise or even don’t like who I see?”
AC is aware that he is now standing above a great abyss. He can continue on the narrow path running above it, or he can take a risk and find out what’s below. AC lets himself fall.
In choosing to fall AC has in fact stayed on the path. He does not know this yet because at this moment AC is experiencing his body moving fast through empty, grey space. And he is feeling extremely alarmed. An approximation of the sound he emits is “Whoaaaaaaaaah!” In this moment his eyes are squeezed shut. In the following moment, when he opens his eyes, AC stops falling and finds himself suspended in space. He sees a female figure hovering over him. “Haaaaaaaaaohw did you get here?” he asks.
“You summoned me,” the figure, we shall call her AA, tells him. “What do you mean?” AC replies, becoming increasingly alarmed. “You know, all that stuff a few paragraphs back – past, present and future, decide your aim, other selves – don’t tell me you’ve forgotten already?” “No, but…” “Well, then…” A A pauses, realising that she might need to take this a bit more slowly. “I’m here to help.”
Taking in the terrified look on AC’s face, largely caused by the experience of dangling in mid-air, AA sees that he is having difficulty processing this information. “Okay,” she says, trying to be more reassuring, “let’s find somewhere to talk.” And taking AC’s hand, she whisks him off.
AA and AC set down on a rocky coastal outcrop where they sit, side by side. AC is relieved to feel solid ground beneath him again.
“Now, ” AA begins, “given everything that’s just happened to you I thought you might have grasped this already but basically I’m one of you. You can’t remember this so you’re just going to have to trust me but where you’ve come from your life was a bit rubbish and you weren’t heading where you really wanted to go. So my job, if you like, is to point you in a better direction and make your life a bit less rubbish.” Tact isn’t AA’s strong point.
“So, you’re telling me that I’ve asked you, who’s somehow also one of me, to come here, wherever here is, to sort my rubbish life out, a life which I can’t even remember?” “Yes,” AA replies, aware that trying to rationalise this too much might not be helpful. “And the reason you didn’t meet me in the other world was because you should have been looking for me in this one.”
At this moment AC isn’t feeling any better at all but AA hasn’t finished. “And of course there are others,” she tells AC, perhaps rather casually, given the circumstances. “What do you mean?” AC exclaims. “How many others?”
“We’ll find that out when we meet them, ” AA replies.
The pair sit in silence for a while staring out to sea, until AC says, “Well, if we’re literally in this together, I think that before we go any further, I should at least know what to call you.”
“I’ve been given the name AA, so you can call me that too.”
At this AA leaps up and begins to lead the way down a steep mountain path to… well, at this point only AA knows where. As AC finds himself watching how nimbly she picks her way through the rocks ahead of him, he not only finds himself admiring her agility, but also her beauty and he feels the weight of a powerful desire bearing down on him.
In that instant AC perceives AA as the most alluring and beguiling woman he can imagine. When AA turns round and smiles, AC feels his heart melting into warm, chocolaty clichés of adoration. “Blimey!” he thinks to himself, shocked by such sudden and overwhelming feelings.
“Are you okay?” AA asks, “you’re looking flustered.” “Yes, yes, I’m fine,” AC blurts out, a little too emphatically. “Hey, I know what we need,” she says. “A drink – and I know just the place.”
Having reached the bottom of the path, AA and AC face a hilly desert terrain which stretches towards a horizon line that ripples in a hot pink haze.
As AA strides off purposefully across the scrubby landscape, the now besotted AC hurries behind her, only after some time thinking to ask, “Err – where exactly are we going?” “Frank’s,” she shouts back, “over there.” Following AA’s pointing finger, AC sees a wooden shack rising into view.
On the porch a male bartender is standing behind a counter, drying glasses. “Hey Frank,” says AA chummily as they approach. “Afternoon,” Frank replies nonchalantly, as if he had been expecting her. AA and AC sit on stools while Frank pours six glasses of beer. He looks at AC and nods towards the drinks. As AC downs three beers in quick succession, AA is doing likewise.
AC hasn’t eaten for well over a thousand words and the alcohol takes immediate effect. He feels both dozy and dizzyingly light-headed. In this soporific and still love-struck state he stares adoringly at AA sitting next to him, while she, seemingly unaffected by the beer, engages in easy banter across the bar with Frank. In this fuzzy-headed condition AC is unable to follow the conversation clearly but is aware that a good-natured negotiation is in progress and it looks to be going in AA’s favour.
“You drive a hard bargain,” Frank says, as he places a covered basket of provisions on the bar. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” AA replies with a smile, placing the basket on the floor beside her. AC, his fuzzy head now morphing into a mildly aching one, is beginning to see that AA may be as wily and resourceful as she is beautiful. AC is uncertain how becoming a quality this is but before he can ponder that point any further AA has grabbed his hand and pulled him up from his stool. “Time we got going,” she says. “Where to now?” “Why, the Emerald City of course!”