Russell Bradbury-Carlin is a part-time writer living in Western, MA. His stories have appeared in Pseudopod, Midnight Screaming, and Bewildering Stories, amongst others. You can find him at Russellbradburycarlin.com.
The Other World
This time it was the oval dining table that passed through the wall of Em’s apartment. It started as a blurry outline – the mere hint of a table. But as it passed through the yellowing wallpaper, it became more and more solid. Em had decided that the table was large enough to sit about twelve people. It was very elegant, at least by Em’s tag-sale-and-Salvation-Army-store tastes. The piece of furniture glided across the room as if it was on a huge invisible lazy Susan.
The table-top began to pass over his raggedy old footstool. Em was lying nearby on the couch. He sat-up so he could see what was going to happen. The table, or any other object that passed through his living room, started by appearing more granular – like a pointilist painting – then was filled-in until it became as solid as anything else in Em’s apartment – but only for a mere fraction of a second. Then the process reversed itself as the object disappeared through the opposite wall. The table, today, became completely solid as it passed by the footstool. One of the table-legs bumped the footstool and pushed it against the edge of the couch. The only sound was the rough hiss of the stool’s legs rubbing over the carpet.
It wasn’t always the table from the Other World – what the press had come to call this place – that passed through his apartment. Sometimes it was the edge of a king-sized bed covered with fine white lacy sheets. Other times it was an elegant red high-backed chair or a doorway that appeared to be made of mahogany. Those were the only three objects that passed through. And it was random which one would enter when (Em had calculated that the table came through at least three times as much as the bed. And the doorway was pretty rare. He was very comfortable with that balance of regularity and randomness).
There was something different this time, though. It was small, but because it was something different from what had been monotonously the same, it was jarringly noticeable. A cloth napkin lay on the corner of the table. It was smeared with what looked like blood. Em stood up as the table began to disappear and it made its way to the opposite wall of his apartment. The napkin was neatly folded. The bright crimson blot looked fresh and had soaked deep into the fabric. Em had seen small blots of blood on towels and pieces of toilet paper many times before. This, it seemed, came from a larger wound.
Em imagined that the part of the Other World that passed through his apartment was an immaculate old mansion. But he had never seen evidence of anyone or anything living in it – no one had ever seen any life in the Other World when it passed through ours. The napkin with the blood grabbed his attention though – like finding a spot of red paint splashed on the hood of your white car.
Em would never reveal this to anyone, since he had declared himself as not caring two wits about the Other World, but he had become so familiar with the three pieces of the expensive-looking home that he had come to feel some ownership of it. The blood-stained napkin changed things, though. Did this mean that something lived in the Other World? That someone else lived in his mansion?
Em jumped off the couch and stepped toward the fading table. He reached out and swiped his hand at the napkin. It was already too late. His hand passed right through it. The table faded into the wall just as it had entered on the other side.
Em ran into the kitchen and plucked the calendar from the refrigerator. Two blue magnets that held it up dropped to the tile floor with a plastic-y clatter. Em counted out eleven days. He grabbed a pen from the counter and placed a big X on that date – the next time the Other World would pass through this one.
There was a knock at Em’s door. He knew it was his neighbor, Tyler. He always came by after a Passing. Em waited a few moments before getting up. He was going to finish the newspaper article about the influx of new Thai restaurants on the east side of the city. Em didn’t really care about Thai restaurants, or the east side of the city. But he certainly wasn’t going to just jump up at Tyler’s arrival.
Tyler knocked again, harder this time. Em sighed. He got up and opened the door.
“Hey, Em,” Tyler said as he walked in and plunked himself down on the couch. “I’m pretty sure I caught the scent of Heaven on today’s Passing, he narrowed his eyes as he stared at Em’s face. “Oh, you nicked yourself on the chin. Anyway, I swear I smelled pine trees. And I could have sworn I heard a bell.”
Em stepped into the half-bath near his front door and checked his face in the mirror. A small drop of blood sat on top of a pimple. The terrain of his face was like the surface of some flesh-colored moon – pocked with acne scars and pimples. He had long-ago become an adult, but his skin remained in adolescence. He patted his chin with a piece of toilet paper and dropped it into the waste basket.
Tyler was thumbing through the newspaper. Em dropped himself onto the easy chair beside the couch.
“I’m on my way to the church and thought I’d check in on you,” Tyler said. He placed the newspaper on the coffee table.
Tyler was one of the many who believed that the Other World was Heaven. Literally.
“You could join me,” Tyler offered.
“Are we going to do this, again? You can just leave if you push it. You push. You leave. That’s it.” Em stared hard at Tyler as if he was trying to emblazon his words into Tyler’s brain.
“I know. I know. I just don’t get it.”
“Don’t get what? I am and have been very clear. Do you just come here to try and convert me?”
“It seems so obvious. Its visits are an invitation.”
Em resisted the urge to stand-up and force Tyler out. He was sick and tired of his attempts to evangelize. Em took a deep breath instead.
Tyler opened his mouth to say something, but then shut it.
“Drop it,” Em said. “Let it go, Tyler.”
They sat in silence. Tyler leaned back on the couch, which gave out a loud squeak from its springs.
Em stared at the strange little man opposite him. He wanted to say aloud, “why do I pretend that you’re my friend, Tyler?” He swallowed the words instead.
“Hey, after I get back from church, why don’t I stop by and we can go grab a burger,” Tyler suggested.
“Sure,” said Em. But he had already decided that he would be out for a long walk when Tyler stopped by.
Em’s days revolved around three activities: going out for the occasional job interview, sitting on his couch reading, and, if the weather was amenable, going for a walk.
His pile of reading material was mostly made-up of seafaring novels featuring hard grizzled men searching for something (resources, riches, new continents); then the daily newspaper which he read faithfully, but felt that the content was acidic and was giving him an ulcer; and an obscure magazine called Pen and Sword that he had a long-standing subscription to. Pen and Sword was a collection of opinion pieces on current world politics. Em had written several pieces and submitted them, only to have them rejected after waiting for months.
Em’s walking path was similar to his reading pile. It had its requisite stops – the small park a few blocks away, the cigar store a few blocks from that where he’d pick up a bottled water, and a brief walk down the busy store-fronted merchandise center of the city. It was often packed with people – especially on the weekends. Em’s walks followed the same path so that they touch-on each of these spots, except when he reached the people-packed center. Here, he would let himself get swept up in the crowd and be carried a block or more in whatever direction the swarm of people seemed to be headed toward. He walked with deliberation, but let the shove of an elbow, the push of a swelled shopping bag dangling at hip-height send him in different directions. Never too far though. He would allow himself to wander a bit off course, but then step out of the current onto a quieter street only to return to his usual path. Em called this his “inoculation of humanity”.
Something, though, had interrupted the sameness of his days. Other than his monthly visit to the unemployment office, the last two years had since he was laid off, had developed into this comfortable, predictable rut.
The interruption was the cloth napkin.
It had seeped into Em’s thoughts like a virus. He couldn’t stop wondering about its origin. Whose blood was it? And why hadn’t he – or anyone else – seen this person, or creature?
What also plagued Em’s thoughts was his concern for why he really cared at all. Why was he thinking so much about the napkin and its origin, when he was a self-proclaimed Other World ignorer?
Em wondered to himself – could I bring it over here? A rare occurrence, but still possible. Then he scoffed at himself – was this object in the Other World cursed or something? How else could it have bored into his mind, someone who had often publicly declared his total lack of caring for this odd phenomenon – in fact, even a downright hatred for even bringing it up?
Eleven days later, Em stood poised at the edge of his couch. He had been unable to get the idea of the napkin out of his thoughts. Why not try and grab it? Since he wouldn’t be successful, perhaps that would release it from his thoughts.
The table materialized near the same place in the wall of his apartment. He tracked it carefully as it became solid. Em moved a half-step forward to where he anticipated the right spot to be. As the wood grain of the table began to appear clear and crisp, he reached out and grabbed at the napkin. Em expected to end up with a handful of air, so he was surprised when the sensation of soft cool cloth appeared on his finger tips and his palm banged on the hardness of the table under it. He pulled his hand away. The table began to disappear. But there it was. He had the napkin in his hand.
People had pulled things from the Other World into this one before. There was a single extremely brief moment when the Other World was solid enough to be able to touch it. Many tried to bring things over. Some made a ritual of it – always poised on that day, that moment when the worlds fractured one another. They almost always missed. When someone was able to bring something to this side it was only a small object: a leaf, an empty glass, a rock. There were those that declared that you needed to “want” it enough in order to be able to pull something over. Em didn’t know how that had anything to do with anything – until now. Perhaps.
All of the objects that had been pulled from the Other World, at least the ones that had been declared publicly, had been seized and examined carefully. The conclusion: they were no different than objects in our world.
But here, Em had something different. He had an object that contained proof of some kind of life-form on the other side – something that had DNA.
Em shoved the cloth napkin into his pants pocket as if the government were pounding on his door at that very moment.
“The Apocalypse is nigh! The Rapture will come when Heaven opens enough for all good Christians to enter His Kingdom. It is He who will choose to let us enter. And woe to those who are left behind! ” Tyler coughed from making his voice raspy. “The minister was on fire today. Something’s in the air.”
Em took a big bite of his burger and stared out through the front window behind Tyler’s head. He was trying to ignore the fact that he felt pathetic. He hadn’t intended to grab a bite with Tyler. He should be out pounding the pavement for a job. And yet, here he was. Em tried to align the situation in his mind. “I use Tyler so I can spend more time alone”, he told himself. “like taking a pill to defeat depression. Tyler keeps any sense of loneliness at bay. He is useful to me.”
Tyler gave a moment-by-moment description of church. He even threw in details like noticing that Mrs. Parker got up to go to the bathroom eight or nine times. And that some “asshole” with a cold sat behind him. “He coughed so loud that I felt the hair on the back of my head blow in the breeze.”
Em sat back in the cushioned bench he was in. He wondered if he were to replace himself with a cardboard cut-out, if Tyler would even notice.
“I’d like you to meet a woman.” Tyler’s words broke through Em’s train of thought.
“What woman?” Em responded.
“Well, you haven’t dated anyone in a long-time – or, at all, from what I can tell. There is a woman who goes to my church. I think she’d like you.”
Em sat forward. “Listen, I can tell you my dating history. It goes like this: I’ve dated. I’ve had a few girlfriends. And in the end, no one wants to go out with the Elephant Man.” Em pointed to his craggy face.
“Ellie won’t care about that. She’s really sweet. She’s attractive. I mentioned you to her. She’s interested. I think she’s dated a lot of crazy guys – you know, drunks, maybe abusive guys. She’s looking for someone who’s steady – which, my friend, is the definition of you. You’re life is nothing but steady and routine. Besides, most girls don’t care about looks anyway. They love personality.”
“And you think that my personality is more attractive than my face? I think you may have sold her a bag of horseshit, Tyler. Also, in my world, girls are no different than guys. They may act different on the outside. But in the end they care as much about looks as they do about anything else. I don’t know about your world.”
“There’s no harm in meeting her,” Tyler said.
“No, Tyler, that’s where all the harm is.”
“Why are you so bitter? You can’t always have been this way.”
Em chose not to respond. He leaned forward to take a bite of his burger. He was surprised to find, though, that somehow, without his being aware of it, that he had removed the Other World napkin from his pocket and was clenching it in his hand under the table. Em stuffed it back in his pocket and grabbed the burger. He could feel his face flush with embarrassment. Tyler had launched into more details about church, and was completely oblivious. Em wasn’t paying attention to Tyler either. He was thinking about the napkin and the blood. Who was over there — over there in his mansion? He needed to know.
Em never thought he would enter a church again. He was brought up in a house where the word “religion” was never mentioned as far as he could remember. And as an adult, he didn’t change that. Em had only been in churches as a child when his friends would invite him to come with them – to help lessen their boredom, he thought.
Religion had found a new revival since the Passings had begun. Most people started out frightened and confused. And, since science had no clear explanation of what was happening, many churches declared this was proof-positive of Heaven — of an After-Life and of God.
Em had been frightened and confused, too. But, he decided that the best way to deal with this new reality was to ignore it as much as possible and pretend that everything was pretty much as it had been before.
“Today’s Prayer Group just finished up. Everyone, including Ellie, should be in the back room having coffee,” said Tyler as he pointed to a small door.
“You better not be dangling a pretty woman in front of my face in order to try and convert me,” Em declared.
“Stop being so paranoid.”
Em had decided, against his better judgment, that he would go ahead and give this Ellie a chance. He knew pretty much how things would end, though. But, he told himself that if he was prepared for her to reject him, he wouldn’t get hurt. And if it worked out…well, it would be the one situation in which it would be fine to be proved wrong.
They walked through the door and into a brightly lit room that was filled with the murmur of quiet conversation. Twenty or so people stood around in small groups, mostly around a long table against the wall. Everyone seemed to have a Styrofoam cup in one hand and a danish in the other.
“There she is.” Tyler pointed at a woman with her back to them pouring a cup of coffee. She was rather small, petite even, with long brown hair. Em was encouraged.
“Ellie? This is Em,” said Tyler as they walked up behind her.
Ellie turned around. Tyler had been right, she was attractive. Not model-attractive, but she had a kind pleasant face. Her eyes were brown with long eyelashes. She had a small mouth, but with the beginning of creases that invoked years of smiling. She did seem sweet.
“Hello.” Em reached out to shake her hand.
Ellie looked right at Em and shook his hand.
And there it was. Em caught it like one might catch a slight movement out of the corner of their eye. Something fleeting that you can’t find when you stop and look closely – the look of slight revulsion. Her eyes widened a bit. Her smile drooped to a slight degree. Em knew that if he mentioned it to Tyler later, he would say he never saw it at all. But there it was. That look. Ellie did a great job of pulling it back and returned to a look that evoked pleasantness and interest. But the crack was revealed. Em could see exactly how things would go. Perhaps she would like Em initially. Maybe they would go out and even begin to date a bit. They could possibly sleep together. Hell, she might even move in with him. Get engaged? Married? Sure, all possible. But that look was revealed and it would fester. She would try to see beyond the deep scars and crags. Maybe she would even tell him that it brought character to his face –- made him more “interesting-looking” than other men. He’d heard it before. But that look, and what it implied, what it revealed about how she really saw him – it would return. And one day, probably earlier than later, that look would come back and become a more permanent expression. Then things would end. No matter how good someone was, how well intentioned, they couldn’t hide that feeling forever. It was inevitable.
Tyler was in the middle of saying how he and Em had met. He talked about how great Em was.
Em put his hand in his pocket and fingered the napkin. He could feel his blood pressure rising. What the hell had he gotten himself into? Here he was in one of the places he least wanted to be, with someone he really didn’t like to be with, and about to get involved in a situation that would end up crushing him.
Em looked over at Tyler. “Fuck it,” he said and turned around. Then he walked out of the room with his hand thrust deeply in his pocket clenching the object from the Other World.
Em glanced, again, up at the clock over the unused fireplace in his living room. Ten more minutes until The Passing. He was standing on his couch. He leaned forward and waited. He twirled and twisted the cloth from the Other World in his hands.
There was a soft knock at this door.
“Em?” It was Tyler. “I know you’re in there. Come on, open up. You can’t hide away forever.”
Em didn’t move. Tyler had stopped by at least once a day, it seemed, in the several weeks since he walked out of the church. Each time, Tyler tried to coax him out of his apartment. And when Em refused to even make a noise that indicated he was home, Tyler would begin to talk to him through the door. In a way, it wasn’t any different than the conversations they had had when they were in the same room together.
“I saw Ellie again yesterday,” Tyler said. “She’s still interested in meeting you. Even though you acted so weird. And, hey, even if you aren’t interested in her, you can at least face me.”
“It isn’t her,” Em wanted to yell back through the door. “It’s what she – or that expression of hers – reminded me of. Thank her for me, Tyler. I know now what I need to do.” Em didn’t say anything though. He certainly didn’t want to start a conversation right now. He didn’t like the idea that Tyler would think he did what he was about to do because of one girl, but Em had other fish to fry right now.
Em stared at the wall where the Other World made its appearance. He was looking for something that might precede its appearance. Some indication that the two worlds were going to rupture each other – like a sudden gust of wind before a thunderstorm.
“I’m going back to my apartment for The Passing,” Tyler called through the door. “But I’ll be back after. Please open the door, then.”
Em didn’t even try to hear Tyler’s footsteps walk away. He didn’t care if Tyler was still waiting behind the door or had gone for good. He was too focused on the wall.
Em was searching for some other indication that someone had visited or was living in his mansion. In his weeks of virtual seclusion, Em had hoped that some other object would be displayed on the table. Perhaps the person on the other side would try to signal him, confirm his or her existence over there.
Something began to dissolve through the wall. Right on time.
Everything seemed to happen in slow-motion. The wall blurred a little before the Other World began to pass through it. At first, Em was confused. He was prepared for the table. Today, though, it was the mahogany doorway – something he rarely saw.
The wood work was a rich dark color with intricately carved details –- curled lines and rounded edges like little waves rolling along the long sides of the entrance.
Immediately, though, he noticed something different from the very few times he had seen the doorway – a splash of blood dripped from the edge of the doorway near the floor. It was fresh. Em could see a tendril roll down.
“What the fuck?” Em said aloud.
Em didn’t really think. He reacted. Someone was in his mansion. He stepped off the couch and held his hands out, like he was about to dive side-ways into a pool.
The doorway became clearer – like a view adjusted in a pair of binoculars. He leaned forward and when he judged the moment to be right, he grabbed the edge of the doorway and swung himself, like gripping a sideways trapeze, into the Other World.
Em imagined in the seconds it took for him to leap forward and land that he would land, hard, on his living room floor. He immediately began to feel a sense of defeat – what he was doing was silly.
He was surprised when he landed, hard, in the Other World lying on a wood floor. He barely had a moment to grasp what he had just done, when a sharp pain gripped the index finger of his left hand. He turned his head around in time to see that his finger was caught between the leg of his couch and the doorway.
There was a momentary tight pinch. Then, Em’s old world faded from view like a boat drifting away into the fog.
Em sat up. He grabbed his finger, half-expecting it to be gone. Blood dripped down over his hand. When he examined it, he saw that a small slice of the tip was gone, as if a knife had lopped it off.
Em stood up and looked around. It was a mansion. He was in a long room lined with windows – a kind of dining hall. And at the far end was what appeared to be his oval table. Beside him was a cabinet with a large mirror over it. The mirror was tinged brown and faded at its edges.
He looked back at the doorway and saw the same splash of blood on the corner. Only it was just starting to drip, as if he was watching it in rewind. And it was in the same place that had sliced the tip of his finger. Was that blood he had seen before jumping his own blood?
More blood spilled out between his fingers. Em scooted over to the cabinet and opened up the drawers. He found one that was filled with cloth napkins – the same kind of napkins that he had pulled from the table. He grabbed one and held it tightly over his finger.
Bright sunshine gleamed in dusty arcs of light through the windows. The room smelled old, maybe even a bit moldy, as if it had sat empty for a long time. Outside, Em could see a huge unkempt lawn and a pine forest beyond.
Em gathered himself for a bit, just taking everything in. He stared over at the table. It was amazing to see the whole thing motionless and real.
Em looked at his finger. The bleeding was beginning to slow. He took the napkin off and stared down at it. He wasn’t surprised, now, to see that the blot of blood was in the exact same spot as the napkin he had pulled from the table.
There was no other person here. The blood was his own, as if the Other World was inviting him to come. And he had wanted it bad enough – to make this empty world his own.
Em grinned. Then he laughed. It was a sound he hadn’t heard in a long time. It choed flatly in the long hall as if the air was being disturbed after centuries of complete stillness. Em took in a deep breath of the stale air. “Hello!” he called out. The sound filled the room. And, as his own voice came back and filled his ears, he knew that it filled his ears, alone.
He sat on the floor staring around at his new world for a few moments. Then he glanced back at the mahogany doorway – the boundary he had just crossed – his gaze scanning for any evidence of the world he had left behind.