UNPARALLELED - Chapter Six
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.)
We've reached Arizona by the time it gets dark. They've turned off the cabin lights, and some people have donned their pajamas for the night. The skies here are impeccably clear. I don't think I've ever seen this many stars in my life, definitely not in Los Angeles.
Laura and Orion are over at the dining car for an evening snack, leaving Ella and I alone at our table. There's a lot on my mind, so when she asks if I want to join her on a walk, I hastily agree. We end up in the observation car and take a couple seats in front of the glass wall that stretches all the way up to the ceiling.
The moon has already set, leaving nothing but rich rivers of stars stretching across the dark sky. I’ve never cared much for Arizona, but this view is captivating.
“Thanks for coming with me,” I say once we’ve had a moment to settle in. “It’s really nice having someone familiar with me with all this craziness going on.
Ella turns and smiles at me. My heart flutters a little bit at the way her eyes lock onto mine, and I feel something warm bubbling in my chest.
“Totally. How many people get to say they followed a couple strangers on a mythological adventure across the country?”
“And across time and space. Don’t forget that.”
“Of course, of course.”
I smile and lean my head back. I’m reminded again by just how easy it is talking to Ella. It’s actually kind of frustrating. I wonder what things could have been like if I just had the guts to talk to her and be friends with her in middle school? Would we have been best friends back then? Hung out on the weekends and after school? I imagine an alternate universe with the two of us inseparable from the other. Who knows, maybe that universe actually does exist somewhere out there.
Still, at least we have this now. Here, on this crazy journey. It seems too good to be true. I don’t feel deserving of Ella’s attention, and certainly not of her impromptu company on our trip to Chicago, perhaps beyond.
“Aren’t you worried about everything back home? School, friends, family? What are you going to tell them?”
A shadow passes Ella’s face. For a paralyzing moment, I worry that I’ve actually brought up something that she hasn’t yet considered, and that maybe she’ll want to get off the train now. I mean, of course it was too good to be true. How could I think otherwise?
But then Ella shakes her head, and her mouth twists into a qualifier smile.
"No, not really. I’m not really on the best terms with my parents right now. It’s a long story. And my siblings are all off living their own lives, so it's really just me."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to pry," I say in apology. I suddenly feel embarrassed, wishing I hadn't said anything at all.
She shakes her head, dismissing me. "No, it's fine. It's no secret. Just makes for some fun Thanksgivings. And as far as school goes, doesn't that all seem so insignificant after all this? I mean, it would feel so silly going back to marine biology when there's a multidimensional, existential war being fought between ancient, secretive organizations for control of weapons that determine the fate of all humankind."
I nod in agreement, though the words seem like they're spoken in a foreign language, coming out of Ella's mouth. School, insignificant? It's like da Vinci saying art is insignificant. No one from our old high school would believe she said it.
"Well, in any case. I'm glad you're here. I like you."
My heart stops. What I meant to say was I like talking with you, or I like being around you, but I couldn't decide what the middle part would be before I opened my mouth, so that's what came out. But it's too late to reel it back in now, even if it wasn't the truth.
I watch for her reaction from the corner of my eye, somehow more nervous about this than about the gunman yesterday.
After a horrifyingly long second or two, she turns to me, mercifully with a warm smile, and takes my hand, boring right through me with those ambiguously brown eyes.
"I like you too, Ted," she says, and her words are like warm honey over crisp toast. I want her to say more, just so I can listen to her speak, but I content myself with the memory of those five words. Most especially with the sound of my name on her lips.
We sit in silence, probably for another twenty minutes or so, holding hands and watching the northern Arizona woodlands pass by beneath the light of the cosmos. Then, without saying anything, Ella releases my hand, stands up, and gives me a quick kiss on the cheek.
My skin instantly flares up red hot on the spot where her lips were, and it takes my every effort to keep from melting off the chair into a puddle on the ground. I’m caught so off guard that I don't know how to react.
Ella must sense my shock, even in the darkened room, because she just gives me a playful wink and walks away.
"Goodnight, sparkle skin."