Act3: Exit Stage Left
My apartment was even shabbier than I remembered. The wall was bare white and the ceiling was covered in cracks. Some spots also had stains from water damage, all ill-lit by the single light bulb in the apartment. It was still daytime, but the tiny windows barely let any sun in, and the mosquito netting that covered the open window did not help. Overall my apartment could be described as dim, dusty and, if one was feeling generous, ‘cozy’.
“Small, isn’t it?” Said the woman in yellow, playing with a dirty knot in her hair. “Are you starting to regret leaving that fancy apartment behind?”
I rubbed my eyes, trying to understand what had just happened. One moment we were in her creepy fake city in the dark, and then… “How did you know to go to my apartment?”
“If I can transport you across the vast infinitude of space and create a city of my own, I think finding out your address is not that hard,” she scoffed. “The police could accomplish that, and they’re not even beings from another dimension. Mostly.”
I ignored her, looking at the clutter on the desk. I wasn’t the kind to have a photo of my girlfriend on display, but one or two things were significant in their absence. I glanced around quickly, confirming they were gone.
“I used to have a pez dispenser shaped like an alien on this desk. It was a gift from… From my girlfriend.” I muttered. “Also a participation medal from a dance contest we did once. But they’re gone now.”
“When she was subsumed by me, all traces of her existence were erased. There’s no one that remembers her anymore, and any traces of the life she led are now gone,” replied the Queen in Yellow, no trace of sorrow on her voice.
The pain hit my chest again, the dreadful sensation of loss and yearning, literal pain, almost enough to make me curl up on the floor. I struggled for breath as my heart thundered in my chest. I missed her.
“Nobody remembers her?” I muttered, not even looking at the King in Yellow.
“As if she was never there,” she answered. “Is that so bad? No grieving families or friends left behind. No sorrow, no pain. A peaceful end.”
“I remember her.” I spoke quietly, more to myself than to the other woman.
“Well, you were restless with the gap she left behind in your memories. I had to cobble together a substitute to keep you calm. It was the best I could do, giving the circumstances.”
Her easy, casual tone contrasted with the violent lurch I felt in my stomach as I processed what she had just said. “Cobbled together? You mean… My memories of my girlfriend are fake?”
“I made them from her memories, they are similar to what yours would be if they had not been taken away,,” she handwaved it.
“I still can’t remember her face. Or her name,” I said, looking up angrily at the Queen in Yellow. She leaned against the wall and looked unperturbed, hands firmly in her hoodie.
“Does that make such a difference?” She asked, looking down at me skeptically. “Whether her name was Amy or Clair or Ying Yue, will that really change the way you see her?”
“You took her from me.” Refusing to relent, I got up and closed in on her, pointing my finger accusingly at her chest. “You ripped her from my memory. She was the greatest person in my life and you chewed her up and spit her back into my mind and I will never see her again! Because of YOU! You. Don’t. Get to decide what matters.”
I spoke firmly, jabbing my finger accusingly at her. She did not even flinch, and her face was unreadable and her eyes fixed on mine without any emotion. She studied me like a new specimen through a microscope. “Regina Blaine,” she said at last.
“That was her name, Regina Blaine,” said the Queen in Yellow,
Whatever I was hoping for when she spoke that name, whatever recognition or recollection I expected, it did not happen. Nothing but vague disappointment as I said out loud, “Regina. Regina Blaine.” Tasting her name, trying it out, but I still could not remember anything. There was no revelation, it was a name like any other. And all that linked that name to my girlfriend were the words of the King in Yellow, who now smiled at me.
“You did not just make that up? That was really her name?” I asked.
“There’s no way you could tell either way, so you’ll have to trust me,” she said, still smiling, unperturbed. “Anything else you want to know about her?”
I turned my eyes away from her smug expression. “At least I have something to write on her grave, I guess...” I muttered bitterly.
“She’s not dead,” she pointed out.
“She’s GONE,” I snapped back. “And I am never seeing her again. And I don’t know about you, but to us shitty human beings mourning and saying goodbye are important things. They… Saying goodbye matters.”’
The outburst left me out of breath for a moment, and I realized her smug grin was gone. She looked at me with a different expression, distant and yet kind.
“Those things are important to me as well” she said, her voice quiet.
“Oh really?” I scoffed, but she remained dead serious.
“When humanity is destroyed, when your sun turns into a red giant and swallows this planet whole, when everything that you and your kind have made is turned to cosmic dust, I will still carry their memories, and their names.” She closed her eyes and recited. “Margaret Teller. William Teller. Jonas Luis Arturo. Adeleine Carthier. Alex Gavril Maximovitch. Regina Blaine. And all the others. I will carry a part of them long after you have died. In a way, I am a living memorial of who they were.”
The silence that followed was due to my surprise. I had not yet seen her speak so confidently and passionately about anything; there were no flippant jokes or cheeky grins there. She was staring me down intently, not even blinking.
“Yeah, well… That’s great and all, but you still killed them. Erased their existence. Whatever. Their families don’t even remember them.” I pointed out.
“In a year’s time their families will be dead. Whether they remember those I subsumed or not, in the end a corpse has no memories. It is utter oblivion,” she spoke. “The acting troupe you mourn… Do you think it would be kinder to let them suffer the same fate?”
I had no reply to that, and the memories of the end of the world brought shivers down my spine, which I ignored. Instead I asked, “about our plan to save the world… You never got to tell me what’s the next step. Write to our representatives?”
“We’ll travel to another galaxy and meet some nice aliens,” she replied, stifling a yawn. I started blankly at her, but there was no sign that she was joking. “We’ll follow our options from there.”
“Ugh, fine. Ok. I’ll worry about that bridge once I cross it, just give me some time first.”
After an awkward moment, I sighed and focused on gathering my things. A backpack with spare clothes, some paperwork, money. All in complete silence. You could hear the sound of traffic coming from outside, and the distant murmur of conversation.
“Hey, King. Or, uh… Queen? Erm… What should I call you?” I asked her, suddenly. She frowned.
“Whatever you want,” she replied dismissively.
“So can I call you Mongo the Terrible?” I asked sarcastically.
“I have as many names as there are minds within me,” she replied primly, ignoring my jab, “and names are overrated anyway.”
I snorted impatiently. “Ok, I’ll call you Suzy from now on.”
“Very well,” replied Suzy.
Her reply was untroubled as always, but I hesitated, wondering if I would regret giving such a girly name to a monstrous abomination. But calling her Azathoth, or something suitably scary also felt ridiculous. In the end, Suzy was as good a name as any.
“So, Suzy. Umm, this end of the world thing...” my voice trailed off, uncertain.
“Yes?” She leaned in, encouraging me.
“You said everyone would die and be forgotten in a year, but… We can prevent that, right? It’s not certain.”
“There are a few ways,‘ she replied.
“You keep being vague about it!‘ I exploded, getting up again and pacing nervously. “A few ways? What CAN we do after you take us on this… Alien space adventure? What are we going to actually do? Give me something here, come on! I’ve had enough of hearing about how we’re all going to die!”
My energy spent, I took a deep breath and sat on the bed. She looked at me with a mixture of amusement and irritation.
“It’s not my intention to be cryptic or to piss you off. When I say there are ‘ways’, plural, I mean it. But one constant remains in all these plans,” she said, tapping the windowpane for emphasis as she looked outside. “Things will not stay the same as before. The world you’re looking out from this window? One way or the other, you’ll have to say goodbye to it.”
My eyes glanced at what little I could see of the street outside. A trash bin next to a grey apartment entrance, with an interphone to contact the tenants from outside. A car sped quickly by and its roar faded into the city noise. A microcosm of boring everyday life.
“If you’re talking about absorbing them into your little hivemind then...” I started, but she stopped me before I could finish.
“There are other ways. But you specifically wished me to not overreach my boundaries, so I will have to teach you in detail what are the different methods,” she said. “Then you need to make an informed decision, out of your own free will. It’s part of our agreement.”
“I see… I guess that makes sense,” I muttered, focusing back on packing my backpack. After working on that in silence, I asked. “And are we ready to start looking for a method right now?”
“Ready when you are, Cody. I can take us there in the blink of an eye” she replied, tilting her head slightly as she looked at me. The unanswered question hung in the air.
“We can leave in a day or two. I just need to do some things around here before we begin our quest to save the world,” I mumbled. “Won’t take long.”
“Oh?” She raised a hand to her cheek in mock surprise. “My, whatever is it you have to do that could be more important than saving the earth?”
I zipped up my backpack and swung it over my shoulder before finally looking back at her.
“Saying goodbye,” I said. All preparations were finished. I was ready to leave.
The campus was large and and it was a weekday, so the students thronged the halls and outskirts of the college. They clustered on hallways, sitting down or standing in small groups and chattering about different classes, popular culture and idle gossip. Both students and faculty went outside occasionally for a quick smoke, and classes proceeded as normal.
I realized I should have been in one of those classes right now.
Instead I had gone to some pains to find my course coordinator and arranged a meeting with her, after patient waiting, some negotiation, and finally declaring it was an urgent matter.
“You’re leaving?” Asked Mrs Milton, who I had only met once before today. I was not making a good second impression. I had a backpack slung over my back, my appearance was disheveled and my eyes were red from crying. I was one greasy winter coat from looking like a hobo.
“Yeah, sorry,” I said, not even bothering to feign sorrow. All I felt now was tired. “Something came up.”
She looked at me, then at my companion sitting beside me, Suzy the abomination, who grinned back wordlessly. She looked even more dishevelled than I was. This did not improve Mrs. Milton’s mood.
“This is very irregular… The date for a refund has already passed, so I’m afraid that your tuition...”
“Oh, that’s ok,” I handwaved it away. “You can keep the tuition. All of it.”
“I see...” Her eyes darted back and forth between the two of us again, while the rest of her face was still frozen in a confused frown. “So, what made you decide to abandon your Anthropology degree?”
“Huh? Oh...” Shit. I had completely forgotten to make up a plausible excuse. Looking at Suzy, I briefly considered telling the truth, before dismissing it outright. That was a quick way to get me locked up in a mental asylum.
“He doesn’t need to, like, work anymore? Cuz he’s my new boytoy now,” Suzy supplied instead, imitating perfectly a valley girl accent as she shrugged. “And I told him my family’s, like, loaded. So what’s the point of studying that stuff, right?”
I stared daggers at Suzy, who grinned back at me silently. Any attempt to backtrack and give a better explanation would now seem like a flimsy excuse. The silence that followed was so perfectly awkward I had to politely cough to get Mrs. Milton to stare back at me. Her frown had only deepened now.
“Mr. Melo, I really wish you would re-consider,” she rallied, without showing much enthusiasm. “You are already halfway through your course and your, ah... Alternate plan? Well...” she looked at the woman in yellow once more, who was now playing with her dirty hair and creating a gentle cloud of hair flakes to snow on her own lap. “... It lacks stability,” finished the horrified professor.
“Thanks for worrying,” I said. “But it’s already decided. I am not coming back, and this is my last visit before I, uhh… Go on a long trip.”
“A long trip,” repeated Mrs. Milton. “To where, and for what purpose, can I ask?”
I choked on my reply again, and again The King in Yellow came to my rescue. “We’re going to Vegas to, like, get married and play the slots? I read online about this weird trick that lets you get money guaranteed. We’re totally gonna make our retirement money in a couple of nights!” She smiled confidently and waggled her eyebrows at the woman on the desk as I quietly covered my face with my palms.
Mrs.Milton, however, was far from amused. “Is this a practical joke? Or did you really decide to come here and quit the course in the most flippant and insolent fashion possible?”
“No, no...” I protested, straightening up and facing her. “Look, I have nothing but good things to say about this course. I mean, it was tough and I didn’t like or agree with some of the classes, but… In the end? This course has been very good for me. I mean it.” Her expression softened as I continued. “I learned a lot so far and would really like to go on, but… Well, I have to do something important and can’t put it off.” I awkwardly finished.
“Mr Melo,” tried the coordinator once more, with an earnest expression. “I know that in your stage of life there are many, many opportunities opening and it’s so tempting to change course, especially when things get difficult in your current path. The grass always looks greener than where you are. But at these times it’s important to think of your future. Five years or ten years from now, how will you see this decision?”
In five years we would all be dead..
This made both of our expressions darken. Suzy glanced at me, but did not intervene this time, her stare now fixed on Mrs. Milton, who took our sour silence to mean she had affected us. “Yes, sobering isn’t it?” She said, “it’s easy to think that it’s far away, but trust me. Ten years from now you’ll be looking back and wondering where did the time go. And you don’t want to waste any of that time meandering or choosing something you’ll come to regret.”
“What about the opposite?” I finally asked, my voice quiet. “If you somehow found out you were going to die soon, would you have any regrets?”
The professor looked taken aback by my reply, and looked at Suzy in confusion, but got nothing but a blank shrug from her. “I’m sorry?” She asked, looking back at me.
“Hypothetically, if the world was going to end, or you were going to… Well, if the future was no longer a consideration. Would you be free from regrets? Would you change the way you are living now?”
As she considered my words her face suddenly crumpled into a sorrowful gaze and her eyes moistened as she asked me, “Cody, do you mean to say that… That you are… Terminally ill?”
“No, no, it’s purely hypothetical!” I brushed off quickly. She clearly got the wrong impression from my question. “I’m asking about you, specifically. If you had one thing you always wanted to do but never did, what would it be?”
“I, well...” She hesitated, uncertain at this turn of events. “I suppose I always wanted to travel to Costa Rica.”
“Costa Rica, really?” I asked, and she nodded.
“I am planning on traveling there once I retire, maybe even...” she continued, before being interrupted by me.
“Don’t wait,” I said. “Go now.”
“What?” She seemed even more confused.
“Don’t wait,” I pleaded to her, desperately trying to convey how I felt without telling her the truth. Putting as much urgency into my voice as I could. “You don’t know what will happen in the future. Trust me. So go now, while you still can.”
Our eyes met. Her confusion and my desperation made for a bleak tableau, which she broke with a nervous chuckle. “I appreciate the advice, but I have things I need to do here. I can’t just abandon my responsabilites now.”
I sighed, trying to hide my disappointment as I muttered, “I see.” I looked away, unable to bear thinking about what would happen in a year from now.
“I can see I’m not changing your opinion on this, Mr. Melo,” she ventured, after a pause. “Very well. The college might send some paperwork your way in the next few weeks, but if you change your mind, our doors will be open for you to return in the following year, so long as you pay the tuition.”
I nodded and got up. Suzy followed me and we were both walking out the door when Mrs. Milton called out to me.
“I don’t know what made you decide this all of a sudden, but… I suspect there’s a good reason behind it.” She said, and when looking back I was surprised to see her dabbing the corner of her eyes with a kleenex. “Good luck, Mr Melo, wherever you go next.”