UNPARALLELED - Chapter Two
Ted, just Ted, is about as normal as you get. Until one day he's not. After a traumatic near-death experience, he wakes up the next morning without—of all things—his reflection. Little does he know, that's not even the weirdest thing that will happen to him that day. (No, he's not a vampire, calm down.)
Campus police are the first to arrive.
They start by asking me a battery of standard questions. What happened, exactly? Do you know the suspect? How many shots were fired? Did it seem like the suspect had any particular motive or target? I reply mindlessly, though I have no idea if my answers are right. They might as well be asking the questions to someone who was on the other side of the world at the time of the incident.
A reporter tries interviewing me, leading me on by asking questions that drip with heroic undertones. I say something about not feeling well and leave the scene once the cops and medics clear me to depart.
It isn’t a lie. My stomach has twisted into knots. I haven’t eaten anything for almost seven hours now, and I have no desire to do so anytime soon.
I pull my phone out of my pocket and slowly pull up my mother’s number. She and my dad and sister have all tried calling about forty times, each. I’m sure the whole thing is all over the news by now. They’re probably as anxious to hear from me as I am to hear from them. I could use a little stability right now.
But something feels off. I don’t know what it is, but something pokes at my mind, unsettling me. A sinking feeling in my gut beyond my upset stomach.
I press the call button and begin walking towards my dorm building, hoping that the feeling will rub off, but it follows me, trailing my every step.
My mom picks up in one ring. Before I manage to say a single word, I get chastised for about ten minutes, after which my mother tearfully exclaims how grateful they all are to hear my voice (keep in mind that by this point they haven’t yet heard any such thing). This continues for another half hour while the phone gets passed around to the rest of the family.
By the time I get the opportunity to talk, I’m already at my dorm. I let them know that I’m fine, but that I’ve been through a lot today and really do need some rest, and that I’ll be sure to call them again tomorrow. They regretfully accept my terms and let me go.
I take the elevator up to the fourth floor and step out into the lobby. To my surprise, Ella is waiting there, seated on one of the sofas beside a large mirror hanging on the wall. She lives in this building, but in another wing a way off. I wonder how long she’s been waiting.
“Hey,” she says, standing to greet me. Her eyes are red and her brow is furrowed. She must have been crying.
It takes me a moment to find my words, despite everything that has just happened. “Hi, Ella,” I croak, suddenly wishing I had taken just one more moment to ensure that my throat was clear.
She then comes forward and pulls me into a tight hug. I return it, still somewhat shell-shocked. Her hair brushes against my cheek and nose. It smells fruity, like peach and orange.
“How are you?” I ask. It’s more of a gesture of concern than a question. I know the answer.
She releases me after another moment or so and folds her arms.
“Not great. I didn’t know where else to go. My parents haven’t been picking up their phone. They’re in Rio right now, so they’re probably already asleep.”
“I’m sorry. No one else has called to check up on you?”
“My grandma did, but I didn’t pick up. I don’t really want to talk to anyone else right now. I mean, except you of course. I don’t know why…”
“Yeah, I get it.”
We stand there for a bit, both of us studying each other. Before this afternoon, the two of us were nothing more than friendly acquaintances, at best, never sharing more than pleasant greetings and academic insight during study groups. Formal. Detached.
But something has changed. The distance between us that has lingered since middle school is smaller now. I think back to all our brief exchanges, all our shared experiences before this afternoon, and they all seem insignificant and silly. Childish, even. Like nothing mattered before the gunman entered that dining hall.
My eyes are drawn to the mirror hanging on the wall. I stare at Ella’s reflection, at the ash-blonde waves hanging loose down her back.
And there it is again. The same uneasy feeling I had back in the dining hall. It’s so strong this time that I start to feel physically sick again. Is this an anxiety attack? I’ve heard they can feel like heart attacks.
“How about you? Are you okay? That was insane what you did back there,” Ella asks, shaking me from my alarm. “Here, let’s sit.”
I silently gasp, not realizing that I’ve been holding my breath, and follow her to the sofa.
“Yeah,” I lie. “I’m alright.”
She falls into the spot beside me, and my cheeks go rosy. I’m acutely aware of her skin lightly brushing against my own, of the heat radiating from her body.
“You saved my life, Ted.”
I shake my head. Normally, I’m incredibly awkward whenever people give me praise of any kind, and I frequently deny any kind of accolades out of habit. But in this case, I genuinely feel undeserving.
Even though every lingering fourteen-year-old bone in my body wants to revel in this moment, to bask in the glorious light of having finally accomplished my every fantasy, something doesn’t let me. I truly don’t feel like it was me back there saving Ella. Looking back on it, it all just seems like some kind of shared trauma, equally experienced by the two of us. Like we were both actors in a play, only filling different roles.
I say something dismissive, then quickly turn the conversation in another direction, a tactic that visibly disappoints Ella. But then we move on to other topics. Something. Anything else to distract us from the gravity of this afternoon. And soon we’re talking like we’ve been close friends for as long as either of us can remember.
We talk for another hour or two, maybe. It’s easy to talk with Ella, and as pleasant as I could have ever dreamed. People come and go, entering and exiting the elevator, mostly content to ignore us. They don’t seem to recognize either of us, and for that I’m eternally grateful. The last thing I want is to be interrupted and questioned again, or thrown more hollow praise or platitudes.
Finally, we both agree that it’s getting late and decide to return to our separate dorms. I’m torn between my desire to catch up on years of missed conversations and the reality of my drooping eyelids. I make a silent determination to text her tomorrow morning and see if she wants to hang out again. They’ve canceled classes; at least, that’s what I’ve gathered from passing conversations in the halls.
After another hug, Ella and I part ways, and I walk the short distance to my dormitory door. My roommate is mercifully over at his girlfriend's place tonight, so I undress and slip into bed.
It takes another few hours for my mind to settle down, during which time I stare mindlessly at the campus buildings out the window, but then I finally drift off to sleep.