UNPARALLELED - Chapter Four
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.)
The internet was the first place I went, naturally. Funny, though, the only things that pop up when you search “I have no reflection” are some articles about vampire mythology and some emo rock song. Nothing rational or scientific.
Every time I pass a window or a reflective metal surface, I give it a sideways glance. I don’t know why. It’s the same every time I look. I guess I keep hoping that somehow everything will be back to normal one of these times.
I reach the ground floor and exit the building, then wander over to the benches where Ella and I agreed to meet up. The commons are just down the way. Yellow police tape blocks off the entire area, and a news crew has set up shop for their morning report.
The campus is actually surprisingly quiet and serene this morning, considering everything that happened here yesterday. My guess is the whole scene would have looked a lot different had anyone actually been hurt. Thankfully, we’ve been spared the impromptu flower memorials, the army of investigators, the morbidly curious passersby.
Because of you, a small voice whispers inside my head.
I shudder, still uncertain of the reality of yesterday afternoon’s events, still convinced it was someone entirely different who jumped at that gunman.
I don my sweatshirt’s hood and turn away. I doubt the press would recognize me on sight, but I still don’t want to risk it.
Ella comes out the door about ten minutes later dressed in an off-white skirt and a UCLA tank top with a thin green jacket over it. I hold my breath—partly because she’s stunning, partly because I’m waiting to see if she can see me still.
After descending the stairs to street level, she looks up and locks eyes with me, giving me a wide grin. I silently exhale out of relief.
“Hey,” she says, skipping over to me. “How’d you sleep?”
I shrug. “Fine, I guess. Took me a while, though.”
“Yeah, no kidding. Me too. I think I ended up falling asleep around three. I was up watching shows to cheer myself up.”
“Wow. You’re pretty chipper for only four or five hours of sleep.”
She laughs, something that makes my stomach go warm with glee. “Yeah, I guess I never sleep that much anyways,” she says, giving me a sideways grin. “So, you just said a bagel place. Where we headed?”
“Yeah, I actually don’t know what it’s called. All I know is it has a big red BAGELS sign above it, and their chives cream cheese is killer.”
“Sounds awesome! I’ll drive. I’m just down here.” She gestures up the road to the parking lot a few buildings away.
We both stare at the commons as we pass, watching as the correspondent begins his prepared report.
“Feels kinda weird, doesn’t it?” Ella says with a distant expression.
I nod. “Yeah, definitely.”
Little does she know just how weird things have gotten. Even now, I watch as the distant image of Ella walking by herself presents itself in the windows of the commons, though I doubt she’d notice that little fact from this distance. And even when we reach her truck, I stand as close to her as I can—albeit with ulterior motives in mind—in the hopes that she might pick something up, but she just moves straight to the driver’s side door and gets in. I resolve to place ourselves in front of some obvious reflective surface as soon as reasonable. Maybe at the bagel shop.
My stomach grumbles, as if reminding me that I still haven’t eaten since yesterday afternoon. But rather than poking at the front of my mind, as my hunger usually does, it presents itself as more of a side thought, a quiet suggestion making way for the more pressing matters demanding my attention.
It only takes us about fifteen minutes to get to the bagel place, but it feels like an hour because my heart is racing, and I keep looking to see if Ella will notice anything abnormal in her rearview mirror. When we enter the store, our reflection in the large window-wall is as clear as it’s ever going to get, and for a moment, I think I see the faintest hesitation in her eyes, but then it passes, and we walk inside.
Maybe it is all just in my head. I should probably drop by the student health center to get checked out. The first responders did advise me to receive counseling at some point, but I brushed them off, thinking I was fine.
We both grab our orders and find an open table; I purposely lead us towards one by the window, still not giving up hope. Once we're seated, our conversation from last night picks up right where we left it, flowing just as easily as it did before. I'm surprised by how natural it feels talking with her. I guess I always just assumed that we were so different, that she was at some social level far above my own, and that we would never get along so well in any context outside my imagination.
But we do. And for several blissful minutes, I even forget about everything that's been weighing me down. All I can focus on is the mellow alto of her voice and the debilitating pull of her eyes—one a rich hazel, the other more auburn. I place a hand on the table at one point and am nearly thrown into shock when Ella does the same.
I throw furtive glances at her hand, wondering if perhaps it's a signal. The temptation to reach out and take it is considerable, but something like that could be catastrophic if unwarranted, especially seeing as we've only really shared one other real conversation. I still don’t even feel like we’re anywhere near the same league—hell, even playing the same sport—so there’s no way our exchanges have been anything more than the resolution of shared trauma. At least on her end.
Then again. What’s the harm in trying? If I’m wrong, if there really could be something more, don’t I owe it to myself to—
My train of thought is interrupted when I notice Ella has donned a concerned expression. Almost agitated, or insulted? Panic flares up inside my chest, and I’m about to ask what’s wrong when I notice that she’s looking beyond me, a little above my head. She squints, and I realize that she’s not agitated, she’s concentrating.
I throw a quick glance over my shoulder and see a television screen, angled just right so that we can see our own reflections. Rather, so that we can see Ella’s reflection, seemingly sitting by herself, enjoying an asiago and americano across from a toasted sesame with orange juice.
I don’t know whether to be ecstatic or mortified. On the one hand, if she’s seeing what I’m seeing, I’ve been vindicated, and I’m not in fact losing my mind or being affected by some severe mental trauma. On the other hand, it also means I have no reflection. In which case, I’m at a complete loss of what to do, or think.
“What’s up?” I probe, hoping to draw it out of her.
“Nothing, I just…”
Here it comes. Come on.
“It’s just weird, the angle of the light makes it look like…nothing, never mind.”
“No, wait!” I say, probably a bit louder than I intend. Ella jumps a little. But I can’t let it slip away now. “Like, what?”
She gives me a suspicious sideways stare. “I mean, it’s like you’re not…here—”
“—like I don’t have a reflection, right?”
“Yes! Wait, what?”
“Okay, so it’s not just me?”
“No! What the hell?”
She begins whispering her last exclamation, like she’s trying to keep some kind of secret. No one else in the shop seems to give us a second thought, though. Except maybe one guy a couple tables down.
In any case, I’m too charged to trust myself to speak softly, so I suggest we grab our food and head somewhere else. Ella impatiently agrees, and we head out into the parking lot, pausing only briefly so that she can marvel at the image being reflected by the glass door.
There’s a park about a block away from the bagel shop. It’s pretty popular most days, but it’s still pretty early in the day, so there are only a few people out walking their dogs, some bikers here and there.
I explain to Ella my revelations from this morning, about the strange feelings I’ve been having since the incident yesterday and the mirror in the shower room. When I mention the part about looking at my phone’s dark screen, she asks if I show up in photos or on camera displays, something I’ve honestly not thought of yet. We try it out. She smooshes her face against mine and holds her phone out with the self-facing camera on. Turns out I do show up, pink cheeks and all.
“Okay, so there’s got to be some kind of science behind this, right?” Ella says as we take a seat on a nearby bench.
I just shrug my shoulders. “At this point your guess is as good as mine.”
“No reflection, but shows up on camera. Clearly here in physical form,” she runs her hand across my arm. I fight to control the electricity running through me as she does so. “I mean, not to wander too deeply into myth and pseudoscience, but, like, you weren’t…bit or anything recently, were you?”
I laugh. “What? No, of course not!”
“So, no to the vampire theory?”
“Oh my gosh.”
“I’m just saying, it’s okay if you are. Wouldn’t mind if you wooed me, sparkle skin.”
We both laugh, but a flurry of passionate shyness swirls around inside me.
She holds up her darkened phone again to confirm, once again, that I’m really not there. I’ve been doing the same thing all morning, but it’s still new and strange to her.
I scan our surroundings. We’re seated near the far corner of the park by a large grove of carob trees, just alongside a baseball field. A trail winds its way along the other side of the field, cutting in between workout stations and a playground. Though a few families have trickled in since we arrived, the rest of the park is still mostly deserted, especially in our little nook. Except one guy playing catch with his dog. Actually, same guy from the bagel shop, I think.
"So, what do we do about it?" Ella asks, drawing my attention back to her.
"About you, sparkle skin."
"Oh gosh, is that a thing now?"
I laugh, but then shrug my shoulders. Honestly, I was kind of hoping someone else had that answer for me. I haven't really thought that far ahead yet. "Nothing, I guess," I finally say, at a loss for something better.
"You're not even going to get checked out or anything? By, like, a doctor?"
She sounds unsure, even as the words come out of her mouth.
"What are they going to do?"
Ella finishes the last bite of her bagel and crumples up the wrapper. "I dunno," she mumbles with her mouth still full. "Something…sciencey?"
I shake my head. "I'd rather just forget about it and spend some time with you.”
My eyes widen a bit, and I immediately try inhaling my words, worried that I might be too forward. But Ella just smiles and bumps my shoulder with her own.
“I’d love that,” she says genuinely. “Have you ever been surfing around Bluff Cove?”
“Ah,” I rub my neck awkwardly, “I’ve actually never been surfing before.”
Ella’s jaw drops. I just watch, listless, as her coolness rocket soars to an even higher altitude, one I could never dream of reaching myself. “You’re serious?” she gasps dramatically. “We grew up in the same place, right? This is still LA?”
“Yeah,” I chuckle.
“Okay.” She nods and gives me a determinate look. “I’m teaching you, today. I’ve got a couple of longboards at home that we can grab. Bluff Cove is a great place to learn, too. You’ll love it.”
I’m split between a paralyzing fear of looking like an absolute fool in the water and an alluring desire to see Ella on a board, paddling out to the open sea and slicing across the waves. The two thoughts clash, producing juxtaposing scenes in my mind, one of me falling into the ocean with the board landing on my head, the other of us cruising the surf together and ending the day by lighting a bonfire on Dockweiler Beach, watching the sun go down.
The latter eventually wins out. So, I agree, and we start heading back towards the truck.
We cut across the field, walking side by side. We’re close enough that our arms brush against each other every now and then, something that makes me wonder just how bad it would be if I actually reached out and grabbed her hand. I consider it for a moment, working up the courage to overcome the mental barriers standing in my way.
But then I’m once again distracted by the guy from the bagel shop, the one playing with his dog. He’s just picked up the tennis ball, and I don’t know if it’s the way he glances passively in our direction, or some other unseen factor, but I start to get that same uneasy feeling from yesterday, from before.
I try to dismiss it, chalking it up to a heightened sensitivity and an entirely justified suspicion of anything remotely out of the ordinary. But when I discreetly nudge us towards an alternate path, the man quietly changes course, almost imperceptibly.
My heart begins beating faster, and I try to console myself, making any number of excuses to explain the situation. Ella must sense something, because she turns to look at me, a subtle question written on her face. I force a smile as best I can, trying to convince her as well as myself that all is well.
And that’s when I notice a lady and her son in front of us playing catch.
Her teenage son, at the park, in the morning on a school day.
She, too, shoots a careful, indirect glance our way. Then, she picks up her bag, catches the ball, and packs it away. Both she and her son begin walking towards us at this point. I look over at Ella, wondering if she’s picking up on any of this, but she’s just on her phone, looking at places to eat lunch around Palos Verdes.
I’ve just managed to fool my brain into accepting a complex matrix of plausible explanations, when the woman pulls out a pistol from her bag and aims it in our direction.
I grab her hand and pull her out of the way (apparently you have to put a gun to my head to get me to commit to hand-holding). Moments later, a startling blast rips the air, dragging memories of yesterday to the forefront of my mind. I swing around to run away, but then I notice the bagel man with his own firearm in hand, also aimed at us.
Ella tackles me to the ground just as another round of gunfire begins. I feel her full weight pressing on me, forcing me into the turf. Her left arm seizes me tightly, wrapping around my torso, while she uses her right arm to cover her ears. Each crack of a pistol sends contractions pulsing through her muscles, spasms that ripple from her body to mine.
Nearly two dozen rounds are exchanged, and after each one I fully expect to feel the sting of a bullet bite my skin, or to feel Ella go limp on top of me, lifeless. But I soon realize that the two gunners aren’t actually firing at us. They’re firing at each other.
I’m instantly thrown back into the deep end of the confusion pool, but at this point, I’m starting to accept anything off the beaten path of my reality.
Shots continue to ring out from both sides. I wonder how much ammunition they have. Enough to keep this going as long as it has already. But surely they have to run out at some point.
I’ve just gained the courage to open my eyes the slightest bit when I feel a firm hand grab me by the collar and pull me upright alongside Ella. Before I understand what’s happening, I'm dragged away from the baseball field, over towards a parking lot where two cars are parked—a sleek, dark blue sedan and a forest green minivan that's leaning ever so slightly to one side. I look to see who's got a hold of me and find the woman running by my side, with Ella and the boy not far behind.
My initial instinct is to break free and run away, but logic reminds me that they're armed and I wouldn't make it that far if they truly wanted to hurt me. Besides, maybe it's their appearance or some imperceptible cues that I'm picking up on, but something makes me want to trust them.
Not that I have much of a choice at this point. The other man has emerged from cover and is running towards us a good hundred and fifty yards from our position. And I’m definitely not getting any warm fuzzies from him.
I don’t know why I expect us to head towards the minivan, but we make a beeline for the sedan instead. A smooth, German-made model, no more than a year old, at most. The doors open automatically, and the woman urges me inside before moving to the driver’s side. Ella slides in next to me as the engine starts up, giving the boy just enough time to hop into the passenger seat before we peel out.
As we leave the parking lot, we turn so sharply that Ella slides all the way over to my side of the car, smashing me against the door. I grab the door grip with one hand and Ella’s arm with the other as the engine revs, accelerating us to speeds I never thought I’d reach on a two-lane road. She latches onto my leg, and we cling to each other like barnacles on a pier.
Once we’re a good distance away from the park, the woman slows us down, and my breathing gradually returns to normal. Though, Ella and I still hold each other tight.
“Who are you?” I finally ask, too rattled to say anything else.
The woman turns her head slightly, but keeps her eyes on the road. “A friend,” she replies. “Don’t worry, Ted. You’re in good hands.”
I swallow my response and return to silence. The fact that she knows my name is hardly the strangest thing to happen to me these past couple days, so my mind barely registers the fact as out of the ordinary.
“Why?” I add a few minutes later after gaining the courage to do so. I haven’t quite developed the question in my mind beyond that single word, so I can only hope that it makes sense, that the flood of confusion swirling around inside me somehow makes it into the subliminal lines recorded in my tone, in my expression.
Thankfully, the woman seems capable of translating my simple query into something understandable.
“I’m sure you’ve noticed it, right? In the mirror?”
“Yes,” I answer hesitantly. “But how—”
“It’s not random. It’s not some accident of nature. This was done to you. By the same people who tried to kill you just now.”
My cheeks go cold as the blood drains from my face. Though I try my best to follow, I feel like things are just getting harder to comprehend.
“Kill me?” I croak. “Personally? Why do they want to kill me? Who wants to kill me?”
“I don’t know. That’s what we’re trying to find out.”
“Who are you, though? Really?” Ella butts in. She’s more assertive than I was, more pressing. “Like, are you the police?”
Both the woman and boy chuckle, something that seems unwarranted given our current situation.
“No, not exactly,” the woman responds.
I’m beginning to wonder if my instinct to trust these two was completely off base, and now we’re stuck in some random car with people who are armed and clearly willing and capable of using their weapons.
But then I notice something, something to which I wouldn’t have even given a second thought before yesterday.
The woman doesn’t have a reflection.
I’m looking at the rear-view mirror, and all I see is the driver’s-side seat with no one in it. I lean slightly to my left, just enough to verify that the passenger seat seems vacant as well.
My trust is restored, at least provisionally, and my curiosity piqued even more strongly. The dread that’s been building up inside of me the past few days instantly drains away. The fear of the unknown, the fear that something might be seriously wrong with me, something incurable and repellant.
But here are two people like me, and for unknown reasons, that seems to create a kind of unseen connection between us. I feel a need to cling to them like a life preserver. Like they’re the only ones in the world that can resolve the lingering chaos in my chest.
“Why is this happening to me?” I ask, this time without the accusation in my tone. “What’s going on?”
The woman peers over her shoulder, checking traffic, then cuts across three lanes of freeway, eliciting a number of agitated honks from the cars behind us.
“That’s a simple question with a very complicated answer,” she replies, her attention clearly drawn in another direction.
“Try,” Ella demands, coming to my aid.
The woman holds up a hand in passive surrender. “Alright,” she says, seemingly unmoved by Ella’s belligerence, though she does take a moment to collect her thoughts and organize what she says next.
Without realizing it, I've moved to the edge of my seat, silently attentive.
“The first thing you need to realize is that all science sounds like fantasy before you understand the mechanisms behind phenomena," she begins, as if trying to ease me into ice water. “Keep that in mind. Also, you need to understand that science is just a best guess, our best effort to explain those phenomena, perpetually subject to change at any moment.”
The US Bank tower grows larger in the distance. We’re heading towards downtown Los Angeles.
“Mirrors are more than just reflections of reality,” she continues. “They reflect any number of realities. They are, in fact, points in our universe where parallel realities touch our own. When you look in the mirror, you see someone who is you. And yet, not quite you. That person lives a life much like your own, differing ever so slightly in some way. Sometimes more. But at that point, at that exact position in time and space, your realities converge. They are the same, identical.”
She pauses for a moment, allowing me to absorb what she’s just told me. It sounds like fiction. If I hadn’t seen it all with my own eyes, I’d think she’s crazy, or pranking me in some sick way. I look over at Ella. She seems as bewildered as I do. Perhaps more.
After working through my thoughts, a number of questions arise. Though, for the first time, I begin to sense resolutions trickling in as well.
“If that’s the case,” I say, “then what about me? What about my parallel…selves?”
“They no longer exist. Or, rather, you no longer exist. In this reality, that is. At least, not the you that you know. You’ve deviated so severely from the paths that your alternate selves walk that you are no longer you.”
“What do you mean I’m not me? Of course I’m me! Who else would I be?”
My agitation resurfaces, though it’s mainly directed at my lack of understanding rather than at this woman. I believe her. I’m just angry that I believe her.
She sighs and changes lanes again, moving around a semi cruising along in the left lane.
“There’s a lot to know, Ted. And it will all seem like a myth. Like superstition and fantasy. Just, suffice it to say you were attacked.”
“Well, yeah. Yesterday. But no one was hurt?”
“Not like that.”
I can tell that she wants to explain more, that she’s fully aware her cryptic responses are, at most, a Band-Aid on a broken arm. But she falls silent, instead placing her attention on the road. And the boy seems entirely content playing some game on his phone.
We exchange freeways, passing the sports arena and convention center along the way. At one point, traffic slows to a near stop, so the woman pulls onto the shoulder and zips past the sluggish column of cars. A few people try drifting to the right to get in her way, everyday vigilantes out to protect the just flow of traffic, but they quickly move back in place when they realize she has no intention of slowing down. I find myself gripping Ella again, and her hold on my leg has returned after a brief hiatus, both of us having mistakenly thought we could let our guards down.
After several heart-stopping moments, we exit the freeway and arrive in front of Union Station. The woman shuts off the engine, gets out, and tosses the keys to a gentleman who seems to have been waiting specifically for us.
“Where are we going?” I ask as she opens the door for me.
She looks at our surroundings impatiently. “Look, I know I have no right to ask for your trust at this point. But if you want to live beyond tomorrow, you have to come with me now. I’ll explain more on the way, but time is running out.”
Maybe it’s the look in her eyes. Maybe it’s the fact that she also lacks a reflection, that she shares some small bit of my new reality. And maybe it’s just pure curiosity that drives me out of the car. But I want to trust her. And to some small degree, maybe I do. If she really wanted me dead, she could have killed me, and Ella, in any number of ways by now. And if she doesn’t want to kill me, I have absolutely no idea what else she would want from me. I’m probably the least interesting person on the planet.
Ella exits the vehicle behind me and holds onto my arm. The woman looks at the two of us and pauses for a moment, turning her mouth in concentrated contemplation.
“Ella, you’re welcome to come with us or not,” she offers. “They’re not looking for you. You’ll be safe. As far as you and your realities are concerned, I have to say there probably aren’t many of them left. Just the side effects of associating with people like us. You can leave now before it’s too late. Finish college. Live a normal life.”
I notice the woman shoot a quick glance at her son. And in that moment, something silent and regretful crosses her expression. It passes as quickly as it comes.
I guess I expect Ella to consider the decision, to waffle back and forth, or even to accept the woman’s offer flat out and leave. So, it comes as a shock when she hardly hesitates to reply.
“I’m coming too,” she says, drawing me closer to her.
The surge of butterflies in my stomach is so sudden that I almost laugh out loud. Thankfully, I manage to swallow my outburst. My face must be radiating what I feel on the inside, however, because the woman just smiles knowingly.
“Alright, let’s go. We’ve got a train to catch.”