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Fantasticoe 1995

The Other Side
Joe A. White

     Dave froze in midstride, staring into the mirrored tiles in the wall. Then he turned and began frantically searching the crowd, looking for that fiery red hair, that face he knew so well. Saw nothing, no one. He looked back into the mirrors, trying to catch another glimpse there, but of course she would have moved out of his view by now; the mirrored section was only a couple of feet wide.

     He turned back and scanned the sparse crowd again, and again had no luck. He shrugged to himself and continued on his way, but a faint frown remained on his face.

     Could have sworn I saw her...

****

     He asked her about it that night.

     She seemed a bit startled at first, then smiled slightly and shook her head. "You know that's impossible."

     He shook his head, then flipped back the shock of dark hair that had fallen into his rugged face. "I don't know what I saw, then. When I looked around, there was nobody there that looked even a little bit like you. There wasn't even anybody standing near where I thought I saw you in the reflection."

     Her smile faltered slightly, but then she shook her head again and gave him one of her really dazzling smiles. "We see each other every night... isn't that enough for you?" she asked teasingly, her bright green eyes playful and mischievous.

     He looked at her for a moment, smiling faintly at the look in her eyes. He knew what she was getting at, and he had to admit, the prospect was attractive. Her hair seemed aflame in the moonlight, and the contrast with her eyes was striking. She looked so beautiful, so desirable. But no, he thought: he had something to say first. He wanted to answer her question.

     Quietly, he said, "No."

     She smacked him playfully. "Hey, come on. Aren't I enough for you?"

     He reached out slowly and took her hand. She looked back at him with sudden apprehension, realizing he was serious. "It's not a question of you; it's a question of this. Is this," he gestured with his free hand to indicate their surroundings, "is this enough." He paused for a few moments, staring at the twilit landscape around them. Rolling hills and shadowed fields, a few stands of trees from which night birds sang quietly, a brook in the distance sparkling in the soft moonlight. It was a paradise, and they were the only two people in it. But it wasn't real.

     He stared down at their clasped hands for a minute. "And the answer," he said softly, as their eyes locked, "is no." He took a deep breath, glanced away, then looked back at her. "Truth is, Ellen, I'm in love with you."

     She blinked, then shook her head. "I... no. What? How can..." She freed her hand from his, looked away for a moment, then continued. "I mean... how can you be in love with me? I'm not even a part of your life! I'm only..." She trailed off, not wanting to say the words. Not wanting, he thought, to admit that she wasn't real.

     He looked away. Softly, he said, "I know that. I know that you only exist here. But that doesn't change the way I feel."

     She sank back from her half-seated position, came to rest leaning on one arm. Studied the grass growing on the hillside as if it might hold some answer. Saw no answers there. "I never meant for anything like this to happen," she said, still staring at the ground, not wanting to look at him. Not wanting to meet the quiet intensity of his clear blue eyes and admit the way she really felt. "I liked the looks of you, liked what I felt from you. So... I came. I met you, and... But I didn't know you'd get so attached to me... I'm sorry."

     He was looking at her quizzically. "What do you mean, you came? What... I mean, I just thought..."

     She looked back up at him, a faint, wry smile tugging at her lips. "That I was just a figment of your imagination? Just another character in your dreams? Dave, tell me. When have you ever had any series of dreams with this much continuity? When could you ever remember your dreams so well? Why do you think you can remember these? Because of me. Most of your dreams, before, were just random thoughts. But now I'm here."

     "But..." He was looking at her warily now. "Who... what are you, then?"

     She looked away. "I just... got a little too close to the Other Side. And somehow I got caught."

     "What do you mean?" His gaze was intense.

     "I mean..." She exhaled. Hesitated. Finally continued, not looking at him. "I was depressed. Suicidal. I was on drugs, I was in way over my head, and I could only see that one way out. But... I... I couldn't. I didn't have the guts to do it." She took a deep breath, thinking I've gotten this far, I can tell the rest of it if I could tell him this much. "Not while I was awake. So... I did it while I was asleep. You know that old wive's tale, that if you die in a dream..."

     "You die in real life," he said, understanding dawning in his voice. "Oh, God." Then he saw the pain in her face and added, "I'm sorry. I didn't know... I mean, I didn't mean to make you relive that. I'm sorry..."

     "No," she said, standing up. "I've been forgetting it for too long. I was too weak to try and work out my problems, to go on living. So I gave up. I quit. I've regretted that ever since." She looked back at him, saw him looking up at her. "How can you even look at me, knowing what a waste I am."

     "Hey," he said, standing up and moving closer to her. "I don't think that. I don't know what you may have been like then, or ever, for that matter. And I don't care. Because I do know what you're like now." He put his arms around her, drew her close. She resisted for a moment, but then she looked into his eyes and knew it was true. He loved her, and he didn't care what she'd done, what she'd been. He only cared what she was now. And that he loved her.

     And that... "I love you," she whispered.

     Then their lips met, and neither said anything else.

****

     I wonder if other people have died in their dreams before, he thought, lying in bed the next morning. He didn't have to get up but he couldn't get back to sleep. If it's possible, then I'm sure some have. But she's the only one over there. The only one, I guess, that didn't die altogether. Almost like some fluke made her soul get caught over there, with no way back...

     He rubbed his chin, wondering at the implications of that. Yeah, that kinda works. Her body died, so her soul lost its link to this world. But if that's it, then how could she come back, to my dreams? He pondered that for a few moments before the obvious hit him. Of course. She's living in the dreamscape; that's where she got stuck, after all... and I partially exist there, whenever I dream, or even daydream. Part of my soul goes over there. Or maybe it's always partly there; maybe you have to have a link to both sides to be able to move back and forth. That'd explain why she can't come out...

     He shook his head, a faint smile on his face. He could think about this for months and never be sure of what parts of it really did make sense. There were just too many things that could be, and so many possible rationalizations; and there was no way to know which were right and which weren't--even if he accepted the premise in the first place. After all, if he was going to believe in much of this, he'd have to pretty much overhaul his view of reality.

     Sighing and wondering how he'd gotten into this craziness, he got out of bed and went into the bathroom to splash some cold water on his face. He stared vacantly into the mirror while he waited for his body to realize he had gotten up.

     Suddenly, he thought he caught a glimpse of red hair out of the corner of his eye. Then he blinked and it was gone.

     He blinked again and rubbed the sleep from his eyes, then peered intently into the mirror. Moved around a little, to see from different angles. And suddenly there she was. In a ghost reflection, from the front of the glass instead of the silvered back surface, so the image was faint, but her likeness was unmistakable. She apparently didn't see him; but hard as he tried to convince himself that he wasn't seeing her, he knew damn well that she was there.

     He looked wildly around the room, but she wasn't there. Not even the faintest glimmer of an image could be seen. Even so, there she was... in the mirror.

     "Ellen!" he shouted, not expecting her to hear.

     The sound reverberated through the small room for a few seconds. And somewhere underneath it he could hear Ellen's voice. But her voice faded along with the echoes. And her reflection did not turn, did not even notice him there.

     He reached for her, but his hand was stopped by the mirror. It almost looked as if it was his reflection, moving to the exact same place, that was blocking his movement, and he suddenly recalled some of his childhood speculation on mirrors. If my reflection wasn't there, maybe I could go through. If my reflection wasn't there. And if she can have a reflection but not a body, why couldn't there be some way for me to have a body and no reflection?

     Feeling slightly dazed, he stumbled out of the bathroom to look for some breakfast. Hoping it would make more sense than this. His mind was racing.

****

     Several weeks later.

     She was waiting for him, as always, but this time he told her to wait a minute. He looked around, looked up, as if praying silently for something. Then he reached into his jacket pocket. His hands closed on something, and his face went blank.

     "What are you doing?" she asked, curious and a little worried. Wondering why he hadn't come to her as he always did.

     But his face was slowly lighting up. It had to be slow; there was no other way to express the way he was feeling. He almost seemed to be glowing as he turned back and knelt before her. She could see that his hands were shaking as he pulled a small object from his pocket, handling it as carefully as if it contained his soul itself.

     "What is--?" she started to ask, but then he opened his fingers and she saw a small velvet box. She stared at it for a moment, then back up at him. Then back at the box as he opened it, to reveal a diamond ring.

     She was speechless for a moment, then looked back up at him and said, "No. I can't. I can't be a part of your life, not that much."

     He cut her off by placing his free hand on one of hers. "There's something you're missing. Something you don't realize." He paused for a long moment, his eyes shining. "This ring came from my side."

     She shook her head, not understanding.

     "My world," he said softly. "I've been thinking about this whole thing a lot. Remember how I told you, a few weeks ago, that I saw you in a mirror? Well, what I haven't mentioned to you is that I saw you again, since then, several times. In the mirror, in the TV, in photographs. I could hear your voice in echoes, in recorded music, in the radio. In everything that isn't completely real. In everything that's on the Other Side. Because that's where this is. That's where you are."

     "I don't understand what you mean," she said slowly.

     "Think about it. The image in a mirror. That's not really quite there, is it? You can't reach out and touch it. It seems to be there, but it's not really. What you're seeing is the Other Side. What's behind the mirror. It's not completely real, but it's still there. Same thing with a picture, or with the TV. There seem to be people behind the TV screen, but that world isn't quite real, isn't quite there, and yet it is. And echoes, echoes are just like the mirror. They seem to be coming from somewhere else, from the Other Side of the wall or the mountains or whatever. And music, the radio. When you were little, did you ever wonder how they got all those people inside that little box? I did. It seems like that's what's happening, it seems like the music is coming from the Other Side of the speakers or something." His eyes had locked with hers, and she couldn't look away. "And dreams. They seem real, sometimes. It seems like you're really there. On the Other Side." He paused for a long moment, then continued, "All of those places, I've seen you, heard you. Everyplace that connects to the Other Side. And I knew that there had to be some way to get through."

     "But..." She shook her head slowly. "How can there be a way through? How do you go through a mirror, or into a radio?"

     "That's where this comes in," he said, nodding at the box. "I left this sitting in front of my mirror tonight. And when I got here, it was here too." His eyes sparkled with excitement. "There's hope. There's a way through, don't you see? There's got to be a way through! We can both be on the same side of the mirror!"

     Her eyes widened slightly. "But... but wait, this place, where we are, is just a dream of yours, right? We know that... so couldn't you have just, you know, dreamed that in?"

     "But you said it yourself," he breathed. "You bring continuity to my dreams. Reality. They're more than dreams now, they don't act like dreams do. Last night, I tried to dream something in. I thought that if I tried hard enough, if I believed hard enough, I could do it. But it didn't happen, any more than I could dream something into my real life. This is real, Ellen. There is a way through. There's hope. We can be together, all the time. If you want to." He drew the ring from its place and slipped it onto her trembling hand. He looked into her eyes for a long moment, then whispered, "Will you marry me?"

     Her mind was spinning with everything he'd just told her, but when her eyes met his, all her thoughts faded except one.

****

     He woke the next morning feeling happier than he had since... well, since forever. He lay still for a few moments, then swung out of bed, smiling so widely he thought half his face was going to fall off.

     Then he stopped, his smile fading.

     He walked slowly over to the bathroom counter, thinking, oh no, it didn't work, it didn't really go through. He picked up the box, opened it, pulled the ring out, stared at it. It was still here.

     He closed his eyes and slowly shook his head, thinking no, no, over and over. The box and ring both slipped from his hands and fell onto the counter.

     He opened his eyes and stared blankly into the mirror, all hope gone.

     Then something clicked.

     He frowned as he realized that something wasn't quite right. He looked more closely, and suddenly he saw it.

     The ring no longer cast a reflection.

****

     "But that's fantastic," she said. "There is a way through. I mean, sort of. You gave me the reflection of the ring, but that's okay." She smiled ruefully. "I only have a reflection, anyway."

     "But that's the problem." He folded his hands under his chin. "Nothing went through. I took the reflection of the ring, yes, and gave it to you. But nothing actually crossed over! And crossing is what I was hoping for. What I needed." He sighed. "Maybe I've got this whole idea wrong. Maybe nothing can cross."

     "You can."

     He looked up at her, frowned. "Well, sort of. I don't know." He thought for a moment, then shook his head. "No. I can't cross over completely. My body stays on the other side. It's only my 'reflection' that makes it here." He shook his head hopelessly. "There's no way. I don't think it can happen."

     "Don't talk like that," she said sharply. "You wouldn't let me talk like that, remember?" Her voice softened as she put her hand on his arm. "Please. I..." Her voice cracked, and she was silent for a few seconds. He looked up at her, and saw that her eyes were bright with tears. She hesitated a moment longer, then continued softly, almost pleading. "I've dropped all my defenses. Last night. I opened myself up all the way, opened to you, because I was so sure. I was sure because you were. And now it'll hurt, so much, to have to give up..."

     He looked up at her, hesitated for a long moment, then slipped his hand over hers. "Okay," he said quietly, tightening his fingers. "I'll do what I can. I won't give up. I don't know if we'll find any way, but I won't give up."

     They were silent for a moment. Then she suggested, "Maybe if you left a mirror next to your bed..."

     He shook his head. "I don't think that would work. It's my reflection that comes here anyway."

     She nodded slowly. "I don't know. I don't know what to think about these things. All I know is I want to be with you."

     He put his arms around her. "There's so much we don't know. There has to be a way, somehow. But... until we find it, let's just think about the time we do have together."

     They kissed.

****

     Dave was awakened the next morning by the sound of breaking glass. He blinked and tried to focus his eyes, struggling to drag himself to alertness.

     "Jesus," he heard a slightly slurred voice say. He was confused for a second, and more than a little uneasy at the thought of someone else being in his apartment, but then he remembered. He'd been depressed about realizing that his idea with the ring was a dead end, and had been at a bar drinking with Tom, one of his old friends. Tom had been too drunk to drive home, and Dave's apartment was just a couple of blocks away, so Dave had let him crash on the couch.

     He craned his neck and saw Tom standing in the bathroom, staring into the mirror. The other man's hand was poised as though it were holding a glass, but the shattered remains on the floor told otherwise. His eyes were wide and staring at Dave through his reflection in the mirror. He looked as if he had seen a ghost.

     "What?" he said, wincing from the headache that was pouncing on him. He was vaguely interested to note that his having fallen asleep drunk hadn't affected the way he'd acted and felt in the dream.

     "Oh, hey, sorry to wake you up, man," Tom mumbled from the bathroom. "I was just getting some water, to wash this shit taste out of my mouth, y'know, and I looked in the mirror and saw your bed, and you weren't there. But you'd just been there a second ago, I saw you. But in the mirror you weren't there."

     Dave grinned a little. "Sounds like you got a little bit more to sleep off, guy."

     But he wondered.

****

     Later that day, after Tom had left, Dave opened his dresser and pulled out the box with the ring. He took the ring from its place and went into the bathroom. Stood for a moment, regarding his reflection, whose hand appeared to be gripping something where nothing was visible. Just a crazy idea, he thought as he tossed the ring toward the mirror.

     His eyes went wide as the ring passed through the mirror and clattered to a stop on the reflected countertop. He impulsively reached out to grab it, but his hand was again stopped by his reflection.

     His eyes widened as the ring started to move of its own accord, rising through the air. Moving toward the ring on Ellen's reflection, and fading as it went. He realized, suddenly, that the ring he had given to Ellen was more visible than the rest of her reflection. Her ring, in fact, was almost as visible as his own reflection.

     It's because she's more real, he thought. He had nothing to base this conclusion on but it seemed to fit, seemed to make everything make sense. She's real, even though she's on the Other Side. The mirror isn't used to showing things that are real. It just shows the reflections, the shadows of substance. As he watched, the real ring passed through Ellen's finger, merged with its reflection. Then both faded until they were just as faint as she was.

     There is a way to cross over, he realized. A way to cross completely. Get your reflection over, and then yourself. The two parts of--your soul?--combine into one, and you're across, all the way across. Just walk through the mirror. As long as your reflection isn't there to stop you.

****

     "You wouldn't believe the kind of crazy customers we get in here once in a while," the surplus-store clerk said when his replacement showed up.

     "What do you mean?"

     "Guy came in here this morning, looking for a mirror. Bought that big one, remember, that one that was four feet wide and maybe seven high? I was curious, you know, wondering what he'd want it for, so I asked him. And he sorta grinned and told me his bed was too soft. Like that explained it all. So there I was, wondering, well what the hell's he gonna do, sleep on the mirror?"

****

Epilogue

16 years later.

     Deborah brushed her hair back over her shoulder and scanned the room. The dance was going strong, with or without her. She wasn't sure why she'd come; guys didn't tend to notice her much, and she was too shy to approach them herself.

     A slight movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. She turned and saw a redheaded boy standing off to one side. Odd; she hadn't noticed him there before. Kinda cute, too, she thought wistfully. Wonder why I haven't noticed him before.

     Then he looked up, and his clear blue gaze met hers. She felt somehow drawn by the look in his eyes; there was something there that intrigued her. She didn't even realize she was walking toward him until she was there. He ducked his head shyly and gave her a really dazzling smile...

     Deborah slept on, a faint smile on her face.
 

Special thanks to:     Suggestions- Daryl Aretz, Jon J. White, A. Michael Peters, Joe E. White, Rachel Bartol. Interesting speculation- Manuel Lara, Jamie Pilgrim, Joi Bergman


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