Fiction: The Next Place Along
By Gaby Brogan
In the desert, time takes off its mask. I see the slow stretch of existence for what it is. The shadow of a cactus inches along the dirt. A lizard scuttles over a rock.
My beat-up red car is a flash of anger in a dreamscape of bleached blue and beige. I lean against the hood, waiting in the sweltering sun.
Will she come? Perhaps she was only joking when she said to meet here at noon. The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems. A picnic in the desert with a woman I’d met yesterday. So stupid.
I push myself off the hood and walk to the driver’s side. I check my reflection in the wing mirror. Mascara smudged with sweat. Brown hairs escaping my bun. Green polo shirt creased, embroidered with ‘John’s Liquor Basket.’
Well, I’ll be back with plenty of time before my shift. Then, after work, Tom and I will curl up on our little couch and watch Love is Blind while scrolling absentmindedly. I’ll send reactions to my mom’s Instagram stories – our main form of communication now she’s moved back to her childhood home in Thailand. Tom and I will show each other a few memes and then we’ll go to bed.
As I pull open the car door, I strain to hear the grumbling crunch of tires on gravelly dirt. Nothing.
Instead, she walks over the crest of the little hill and down the dirt road. She wears men’s clothes and a wild grin. Her black hair bounces with her unselfconscious gait.
My heart beats faster and I close the car door. She waves big and enthusiastic, like a kid.
“Hey,” I say. “You came.”
“Right back at you.” When she smiles, her skin crinkles around a scar that crests her nose like a sand dune. “Come on then, we’re heading out.”
“Into the desert?”
“And far beyond,” she says, wriggling her ring-laden fingers toward my face.
She strides off into the wilderness, adjusting the straps of her overstuffed backpack. I brush off my cargo pants and hurry along after her.
We walk under the lemon sun.
Or rather, she walks ahead of me, not talking. She strides purposefully, like a woman with a deadline to meet. And what’s in that backpack? A parasol for shade, a picnic blanket, and food? It doesn’t look likely. Her black hair falls over the backpack, the curls glossy.
This is weird. This is super weird. I walk after her, overthinking. The high of not being stood up wears off. I open my mouth to say something and then close it. At what point do I just turn around and walk away?
I’m about to tell her I’m heading home. But instead, we clamber over a rock, and she points straight ahead. My mind goes blank.
A few paces from us, in the middle of the desert, someone has cut a hole out of the air. Through it, I can see another place – a moonlit forest caught in a storm. Raindrops come through the window to our side, landing fat and heavy in the red dust.
“What the hell is that thing?”
“The way home.”
“What… are you an alien?”
“No,” she snorts. “I’m from the next place along.”
I didn’t even notice when she came into John’s Liquor Basket yesterday. The little bell on the door jingled but I didn’t look up.
Vaguely, I hoped it wasn’t Gary, the middle-aged cop who came in regularly to stock up on vodka and brag about his arrests. His wet lips would always worm their way into an eager smile as he looked me over in my frumpy green uniform. I must’ve mentioned a million times that I’m married to the son of the liquor store owner – yes, the very liquor store in which we stood. No impact.
Instead of confirming whether it was indeed Gary, I opened Instagram. Only 14 likes on my last picture of Tom about to tuck into a big plate of spaghetti at Trattoria Notte. I should post more on TikTok. But who would I make them with? It wasn’t really Tom’s thing. And the girls I’d gone to high school with were either busy with their new-born babies or graduating college and heading into fancy jobs in Silicon Valley. I sighed.
A bottle of wine thumped down on the counter. I looked up and saw a girl around my age, with ochre skin, a constellation of freckles and curly black hair. She wore black cargo pants and a baggy green-t shirt, with an overstuffed black backpack.
“I just got into town last night,” she said. “What’s there to do around here?”
“Uh, nothing much. A strip mall. A strip club. A Tex-Mex place.”
“That’s what I thought! But then I said myself, that’s not possible, right? Everywhere has something. I’ve been traveling for years now, and everywhere has something.”
Traveling for years? She didn’t look rich. Maybe she jumped trains. Something about her looked windswept, or like she was about to leap.
“It’s pretty quiet around here,” I said.
“Then what are you doing here?”
“I like quiet, I guess.”
“Huh. Quiet never did it for me.”
Okay, condescending. “Well… my husband, Tom, and I were both born and raised here. After high school, we figured it was a nice enough place to settle down. Plus, this is my father-in-law’s store. We’re saving for community college.” I didn’t know why I added this last part. It was hardly true, anymore. A dream from long ago that we both seemed to have conveniently forgotten, allowing mortgage repayments to take over instead.
I feel my cheeks flush and pride bite. “Well, we can’t all be traveling day in, day out. You’re not better than me.”
“No,” she said, eagerly. “I know I’m not better than you.” She said it with such sincerity that I scanned her face. Maybe I once beat her in a school spelling bee or something. But no, I didn’t know her. She had the kind of face you didn’t forget.
I grabbed her wine and scanned it.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just… jetlagged. I was being a dick. My name’s Cara.”
I sigh. “I’m Mel.”
“Well, if there’s nothing to do in town, I guess I’ll camp in the desert tonight. That’s something.”
“Watch out for coyotes.”
“Nice. Any other cool wildlife?”
“Yeah, actually there’s loads!” If I really were going to college, I’d study zoology or veterinary science. “Roadrunners, jackrabbits, prairie dogs, among many others.”
Her face lit up. “I love dogs.”
“They’re not actually dogs. They’re rodents.” I smiled. How had she never heard of prairie dogs?
“That’s dumb,” she said, but she grinned like she liked the idea.
“Isn’t it?” I laughed. “Anyway, most of all, you’ll spot stars. I used to drive out there when I was a teenager and just stargaze hours away.”
She picked up an origami swan off the counter. I’d made it from a receipt. “Good tip, Mel the liquor store girl. You want to come?” Her fingers delicately traced the line of the wing.
She wriggled her eyebrows. “To the desert with me. I’d love a tour guide, in case I run into any rodents that are actually dogs.”
“I can’t tonight. I’m busy.” I thought about scrolling on the couch with Tom. Tracking my Amazon package. Doing my ab workout.
“Suit yourself,” she grinned, wolf-like. “Wine under the stars for one it is, then.” She patted the wine bottle and I put it in a bag for her.
She walked out with a cheery wave. A hot flush of shame threatened to overwhelm me. Why? I didn’t do anything wrong. I quickly opened Instagram again.
Raised voices tore my eyes away from my phone to the front window. My stomach dropped. Gary the cop had appeared for his regular vodka haul. He had that smarmy look on his face and was looking Cara up and down. He said something to her. She crossed her arms and said something back. He got up close in her face and she laughed, defiant. He swayed like he was drunk, and his hand hovered over his holster. Shit.
I dropped my phone and rushed outside into the dense heat. The air chirped. A bead of sweat ran down Gary’s face. Cara’s fists were clenched.
“Is everything OK?” I asked Gary.
“Did this girl cause problems for you in the store?” he asked me.
“Uh, no. She was fine.”
“Me, cause problems?” said Cara. “I’m not the creep who –”
“Ma’am,” said Gary. “I asked to see some ID and you had none on you. You became irate. Do you see how that is an issue?”
“You’re an asshole and that’s not what you asked me.”
“Well, look at that. Contempt of a cop,” he said.
Cara opened her mouth to protest.
“Cara, please. Gary, she’s just visiting. Don’t worry about it. Guy like you’s got bigger fish to fry.” He hefted himself up to his full height. I continued, “and guess what? We had a sale on your favorite vodka yesterday. Nearly sold out, but I hid some behind the counter for you.” There was no sale, but I’d just give him a discount on his usual. I smiled. “My favorite client.”
Slowly, he nodded. “That’s a good girl,” he said.
“Let me just give my friend here some directions to her hotel and then I’ll come in and ring up your vodka.”
“Alright then,” he said, and walked inside.
When the door closed, Cara spun to me and grabbed my wrist. “That was so cool! You played him. Thank you!”
“Uh, it’s ok.” Her hand was warm on my skin.
“Look, I know you’re busy tonight, but I’m leaving tomorrow afternoon – go for a picnic with me before I do? I want to thank my knight in shining armor.”
“Yeah, just like a picnic in the desert tomorrow. It’s nice around there.”
“That’s… such a weird plan.” I couldn’t stop the smile creeping on to my face. “Sure.”
“Great, let’s do it then. Just two gal pals hanging out in the desert.”
She pulled up Google Maps on her phone and showed me some spot that she’d seen and liked. I took a picture of it and agreed to meet her there tomorrow at noon. She hugged me goodbye and her hair smelled of pine needles. Why did my stomach twist with guilt? I was allowed to have friends.
The rest of my shift passed slowly.
The window in the desert is a slice of emerald, glittering and wet. We walk right up to it.
“So basically,” Cara says, “I’m your dimensional neighbor.”
“Like an alternate reality?”
I can smell the pine-fresh rain, feel the breeze of another reality on my skin. I want to cry and laugh at the same time. This is the truth. The answer to a question I’d never dared to ask. Life is far vaster and far more intricately beautiful than I had believed possible.
“I… it’s stunning.”
“And it’s barely the beginning. There are parallels out there so different that you wouldn’t believe. In my reality, we invented Cutters and can just slice through. My people travel and then we come back to the hub and share stories, food and wine.”
“There’s only a few thousand of us humans, in my parallel. The hub is our base when we’re not traveling.”
It’s too much to wrap my head around. “Why did you bring me here?”
She gestures at the hole in space and time. “To see if you want to go through!”
“To see if I… why would I want to go through there?” But we both know exactly why I’d want to go through. I am enraptured.
“I’m going on a trip a few parallels away and this window is closing in a few hours. Come with me.”
She reaches out her hand. My fingers twitch towards hers, wedding ring glinting in the light. I drop my hand.
“As a thank you for saving me!”
I think of the way she looked at me, back in the liquor store. Like she knew me. “Don’t bullshit me.”
She shifts some dust around with her boot-clad toe. “Ok, fine, confession.”
“Go on.” My heart rate speeds up.
“It’s a bit creepy… but I’ve met an alternate version of you. Like, super briefly.”
“I met you, the other you, ages ago. It was at a space station a bunch of parallel worlds away. And you were this supernova. You literally stole every scrap of attention in the room and you deserved it, too. Badass captain, coming in to barter for spare parts. Anyway, I came to this version of reality and spotted you through the window of the liquor store. I couldn’t believe it. I thought across every reality, you’d be off doing something insane. But here, you looked…. wilted.”
“Wilted.” That stung.
“Well, in this world it’s hardly your fault. You’re just following the rules, right? You said you married some guy and got a house. That’s like the goal of this reality. I bet I’m wilted too, if I exist here.”
I press my fingers against my temples.
“Normally,” she continues, “it’s good etiquette to leave people’s alternates alone but I just… the difference was insane.”
“So, you took pity on me.”
“No. I was curious, and I came in to find out more about you. Then, I was going to leave you be, but you saved me from the cop, and I knew I owed you this. A chance to do something you’d love.” She looked down, and then met my eyes, confident. Her freckles were brilliant in the sunlight. “Plus I liked talking with you yesterday. I didn’t really have that same spark with the other you. I just sold her some spare parts.”
My stomach jumps and I push the feeling away, letting anger take over instead. “That… is so rude. I have a life here.”
“I have…” I splutter. “The dignity of a small life well lived.” I bat away thoughts of the monotony of my regular Starbucks order. Driving to the gym and then back home. Once-a-month date night to the roadside Italian place. “Thanks for your pity party, but I’m good. And you may think your life is so amazing, but you’re clearly lonely. Picking up random girls in liquor stores like some creep. Judging their choices.”
“That’s not what this is.” Now her scar pulls taught as she frowns. “But suit yourself.”
I turn and walk away.
Our bungalow is cozy. Tom sits on the couch in his grey tracksuit bottoms and hardly looks up from his phone as I slam the front door shut.
“You heading to work soon, babe?” he calls.
I take a deep breath. Let the morning go. “Yes,” I say.
“Dad’s coming over for dinner tonight after work. I’ll pick up a few of those oven lasagnas from Target. Love those,” he says.
“Sounds great, babe.” I join him on the couch, slotting into the spot where the pillows have molded around my body. He’s watching Storage Wars.
Sweet, kind Tom. When my mom moved back to Thailand, his family took me in like I was their own. My mom always said he was like a Labrador in human form.
“Hey, we should drive to California this weekend,” I say.
“Uh, what?” He doesn’t take his eyes off the TV.
“Yeah! I mean we always talk about it, right? Let’s go see the sea.”
“Gas is expensive, hon.”
“Well, what have we been saving for if not stuff like this?”
He pauses the TV and looks at me, confused. I’d built this groove with him, why was I trying to break it?
“I’m watching the game with the boys on Saturday. Maybe the weekend after.”
“It’s your mom’s birthday the weekend after.”
“Some other time, then.”
“OK,” I say and settle back. “Some other time.”
We finish the rest of the episode and I kiss him goodbye, grab my purse, and walk to the front door.
“I’m heading to work.”
I drive past John’s Liquor Basket. The road leads me out of town and I accelerate to the desert like a woman possessed. Tears stream down my face. Screeching the car to halt, I leap out and run into the silent sunset desert. Sweat and tears, hope and fear mingle and curdle in my body.
I sprint and pray she’s gone so I can be done with this. Then, I pray she’s still there. Scrambling over the rock, I breathe heavily, gasping for air.
The window is still open. Cara is nowhere to be seen. The vivid green of the forest fills my vision. Dawn is just beginning to break and this new world calls like a siren song.
Running my hands through my hair, I pull out my phone. One bar of signal. I pull up my iMessage with Tom and type out a text that is not enough. It will never be enough, but it’s all I can do. I tell him we’re holding each other back and that I’m leaving. And that I’m sorry. I press send.
I launch myself through the window without even looking around for Cara. Stumbling, I fall on the mossy grass. It leeches water through my pants.
A forest of evergreens surrounds me – feathery not-quite-pines that are larger than any trees I’ve ever seen. Overhead, the pale full moon hangs in the dawn-bleached sky. The air smells tangy, like herbs and honey. I breathe deeply. What must have happened to create a forest where there once could have been desert?
Behind me, I hear a disbelieving laugh.
Cara stands next to a silver pod – a tent? A spaceship? Questions push and shove at my lips, beaten out by my heavy breathing.
“Aaand she does it again!” Cara says.
“Bravery! You leaped through that window without a second thought.”
“You left it open.”
“Well, I was hoping…” She walks over to me. “It’s good to see you.”
“I’ve just done something awful,” I say.
“We all do awful things.” She looks cautious, serious now. “Sometimes, it’s for the best.”
“Is this world… better? Is it good?”
“There’s an entire universe out here.” She shrugs. “A badass like you is going to find what’s good, I’m sure.”
I smile. She does too, finally, her eyes crinkling and warm. Around us, silver furred creatures stir in their trees, leaping from branch to branch. Trilling birdsong fills the air.
A badass like me.
I step forward and kiss her. Time takes off its mask.
Gaby Brogan is a 28-year-old freelance copywriter from the UK. She’s an aspiring fiction author who enjoys scribbling poetry, short stories and flash fiction. She’s also been working on a science fiction novel for the last few years. Her degree is in Psychology and she previously worked in the world of Management Consulting in London. Now, she enjoys travelling whenever possible and working from the road.