Two Years Ago
The door to our apartment had jammed again. The key didn’t quite fit in the knob unless I jiggled it in just the right way, jabbing with the thin metal while balancing two armfuls of groceries between my elbows and one knee. The key finally clicked and the door gave, but the sudden give caught me by such surprise that I lost my balance and dropped one of the paper grocery bags. An assortment of tomatoes, peppers, avocados, lettuce and other fresh vegetables spilled across the dim hallway of the complex. The variety of assorted fruit rolling across the floor of the dilapidated corridor was almost an enhancement, the bright colors making it look slightly less depressing.
Cursing, I shoved open the door to the tiny apartment. The overhead light was flickering like a strobe light again, even though Malcolm had promised to replace it days ago.
My husband was sitting on the couch, still in the stained T-shirt and sweatpants that he had worn to bed the night before. The guitar I had bought for him as a present two Christmases ago was strapped to his chest and resting on his thighs; teaching himself to play had become his latest project. His laptop was open on the coffee table, broadcasting the ‘How-To-Play Guitar’ tutorial channel that Malcolm had been using for the last month. Before that, his last hobby had been making his own home brew beer: at least this one didn’t leave the entire apartment smelling like yeast, although it did tend to get more complaints from the neighbors.
When I entered, his head snapped up from the laptop and he smiled back at me.
“Hey Babe,” he said. He strummed the guitar with a pick hidden in his right hand. “At long last, my muse has returned.”
I scanned the room. I could see the soggy remains of his cereal resting in a bowl on the coffee table. By the looks of it, he hadn’t moved from his spot on the couch all day.
“Had a productive day, did we?” I walked over to the kitchen, which was only a couple of paces away from the door, even though it was on the far side of the apartment, and set down the groceries that were not currently decorating the outer corridor. “How’s that job search coming?”
“No bites yet,” -he paused to make sure I could see his grin- “but on the bright side, today was not a complete waste. The good news is that I did teach myself two new David Bowie songs.” He drummed the hollow wood of the guitar with his fingers. “Looks like this wasn’t the most useless present you got me after all, nope, that distinction now goes to the self-heating socks that nearly lit my feet on fire.”
“That’s nice,” I said. “So then when were you planning on-”
“Whaddya want to hear me play first? ‘Heroes’, or ‘The Man Who Sold the World’?”
“Oh, I don’t know if-”
“I’ll do ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ first. I really like that song.”
“Okay, Maybe later but first we should talk-”
“You know, not many people our age know that David Bowie wrote this one, it never got that big during his time. It wasn’t until Nirvana covered the song many years later that it became popular within our generation.”
“That’s great babe, but-”
“See, I always assumed that they had written it; never even bothered to go back and check if was an original or a cover. Had I done so, I would have found that it had already been written by Mr. Bowie himself, more than twenty years earlier.”
His skull might have been thick, but my tone was sharp enough to cut through it. Immediately, he ducked out of the guitar strap and set it carefully on the spotted wooden floor next to the couch. “Sorry,” he said. “Got a little carried away. What’s wrong?”
I tried to choose my words carefully but keeping my composure was becoming a strain. “What’s wrong? What’s wrong? Look around you, that’s what’s wrong.” I took a deep breath to try to slow myself down, but the words were coming faster. “I’m tired of living here Malcolm. I don’t make enough to pay the bills by myself. We need to be moving forward with our lives, yet here you are, spending entire days teaching yourself rock history and guitar solos instead of trying to find a new job.”
He stood up and began to walk towards me but I backed away from him. “Hey, we’ll figure this out,” Malcolm said. “Don’t worry, we have time. I’ll find a job that works for both of us, I promise.”
“When? It’s been three months now, and we have less and less time every day. Do you ever want to move out of this dump?” I paused. “Do you ever want to start a family with me?”
“Of course I do babe,” he said. “You know that. But don’t you feel like we have more to accomplish first before that happens? I still feel like I have so much growing up to do, so much of the world to see. We’re still young and full of potential…come on, don’t you feel the same?”
I put a hand on his shoulder. “Malcolm. Honey. Babe. We’re both more than halfway through our twenties now. At some point, we both have to grow up. So please, can we agree to stop living in the past?”
“Those are your mom’s words, not yours,” he said. “Remember when we first met in college? How it was just the two of us, a pair of crazy kids out to conquer the world? In the spring, you would drive over to my dorm and pick me up on a weekday, never telling me where we were going, and we would just drive off into the country, until we hit a lake, or the mountains, or just somewhere else nice to sit until it got dark, so we could watch the stars and talk about our dreams together. I remember the old Jill, she used to tell me that her biggest fear was living the exact same life as her parents. Whatever happened to that Jill?”
“Maybe,” I said, “the old Jill was a bit naive. Maybe that was before this Jill caught a glimpse of a life much worse than anything her parents ever lived.” Before he had a chance to argue, I walked into the bedroom and slammed the door.
Later that night, as I lay in bed, I felt him sidle up next to me, his body warm and smelling like scented deodorant.
“It’s done,” he said.
“The job search. I found one.”
“Called up an old physics professor. He works for a research company now and was looking for an extra lab assistant for one of his projects. It’s only part-time but he hinted it might extend it into a full-time offer if he sees it a good fit.”
“Is that…are you sure? You want to do this?”
“Yeah, always liked that class. Sounds like some cool stuff he’s working on too.” He winked. “I’ll be fine.”
I reached over to kiss him.
“I did some thinking,” he continued. “You’re right about everything. I guess I’m not being realistic; I mean I’ll do it. Let’s get out of here and find a place to start a family.”
“You’re okay with that?”
“Yeah,” he said. “We’ve made it this far. Besides, this world would be robbed of a great mind if I didn’t give it a Malcolm Jr.”
“Malcolm Jr.?” I asked. “What if it’s a girl?”
“Doesn’t matter. First born gets named Malcolm Jr., no matter what.”
“You’re an idiot,” I said, and whacked him with a pillow.
He has a daughter, I thought. A family.
The craziness of the scenario was too surreal to be believable, yet it was happening, somehow. My husband claimed to live in this place for one-thousand years, I realized. To him, his life in this dimension could have become more real than anything I had experienced with him. Our marriage of five years would have barely been a blip in the time-line of his life. Even the late queen had been married to him longer.
When you get the sense that your life is crumbling before your eyes, the first thought is to run, to go find somewhere dark and secluded to cry and mourn the loss of the future you had been promised. So that’s what I did. I turned my back on the palace and began to push back through the crowd, no destination in mind, my only goal to get as far away as possible from the King and his daughter.
I could hear Ko’sa calling after me, but her voice was distant. Moving became more difficult; I was fighting against a flow of foot traffic moving towards the palace, tears blurring my vision. People began to jostle against me, and someone’s elbow caught me square in the chest. As I doubled over, another blow hit me on the shoulder, and I fell to the ground.
For one terrifying second I thought I might be trampled, but someone was already pulling me to my feet.
“Come on Miss Jill.”
She led me sideways against the moving traffic, towards the pool in the center of the lawn. There was a small clearing around the perimeter, and we sat down at the water’s edge. I caught a glimpse of my reflection. My eyes were red and puffy, my hair a mess of knots caked with dirt.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely concerned about my well-being, or just worried that her ticket out of this place was losing her wits. I suspected it might have been a mix of both.
I sniveled and wiped my eyes with a dirty sleeve. “It’s nothing,” I said. “Or hard to explain. It’s just the King. It has to do with the fact he has a daughter. It just…caught me by surprise.”
Ko’sa laughed. “Who, Raelyn? She ain’t no daughter of the King. Her father was Prince Janis.”
I looked up. “What?”
“Yeah, so Prince Janis was originally betrothed to the Queen before Malstrom swooped in and destroyed that plan. Dalton told me they kept seeing each other secretly for years after the marriage with the new King, it was common knowledge amongst the guards who remained loyal to the Prince. She got pregnant and tried to pass it off as the King’s heir, but that didn’t fool many people, apparently the two didn’t even sleep in the same room or nuthin. Then one day she got angry and told the King the child wasn’t even his. He got pissed and tried to have Janis killed, but he escaped somehow. People say the King was never the same after that.”
I sat there, feeling numb. So Raelyn wasn’t Malcolm’s kid.
I still didn’t know how to feel. Knowing the child was not my husband’s was a small comfort, but did little to change the other grim realities of the situation.
I took a deep breath. I would have to talk to him. It would not be a pleasant talk, but it needed to happen.
“I’m okay Ko’sa,” I said. “Alright, let’s head back.”
I stood up to face the palace again. The wind had picked up, the massive black banners draped over the palace gates whipping faster behind the key figures addressing the crowd.
Malcolm and the High Pontiff were now standing in the back near the coffin, the priest named Caollin now front and center at the altar, leading the crowd in a prayer. I watched the scene for a moment, mesmerized, when something on the banner behind Malcolm caught my eye.
At first it looked like nothing, a small, bright speck against a rolling sea of black, but then it began to grow. Large orange lines were beginning to grow from the center of the banner, twisting and turning into different paths. After a few more seconds I realized the lines were fire, as they began to eat at the black banner as they expanded down different paths. It hit me that the flames were spelling out words, becoming thicker and more defined with each passing second. A hush fell over the crowd as others noticed the fire too. I could read the message clearly now, burning red against the midnight backdrop.
DIE FALSE KING
Caollin continued to talk, unaware of the spectacle behind him. The banner was beginning to curl in the fire, and suddenly guards were rushing up the palace steps, yelling indistinguishable orders at Malcolm. A tendril of flame was now expanding beyond the banner, shooting out across the stone and zig-zagging down the steps as if following a path of gasoline. Malcolm seemed to realize that the fire was heading straight for him and began to bolt from his spot, towards the crowd. The flame continued on its path, although it was now it clear it was heading towards the coffin of the queen. It found its mark and began to climb to the center of the black box.
For a moment all was silent, and then the coffin erupted into a massive explosion, engulfing the palace steps in flames.