Elli’s name was Elli E. Edelstein. Three whole E’s for his initials, resembling a small section of a spinal cord when written out. He never told me what his middle name was, and I guessed that Elli was a nickname as well. He was from Germany, and died some time in 2009. He had been traveling through the Threshold for a very long time, and seemed to have more thoughts kaleidoscoping through his head than his cheery exterior let on.
My name was Samantha Roy-Worrell, a name with no particular artistic direction behind it. I went by Sam for short. I tended to a Dollhouse made out of glass, in a small chapel of a building made out of concrete. In it, small miracles happened, but they weren’t the miracles I was looking to perform. I needed… more seasoned artificers to help me, but they were unreachable, like a secret society. Not ‘like’-- they were.
We lived in a world that was not a world. Elli and I had spent months on boundless road trips through our portion of limbo. Nothing new or surprising happened, but it was a past-time, and past-times didn’t need to have ‘results’ at a ‘quarterly evaluation’ or anything of that sort. There couldn’t be an air of futility about it, because futility implied a mission, and if we never declared a mission, then we spared ourselves from despair. Our maps grew heavier with impartial notes. We circled like hawks around a nameless thing.
Alana and our neighbor Yasmin saw less and less of us as we saw more of the world. We trailed along like ants whose whole world was a lawn. The tissue of the Threshold grew thin when we approached places like ‘the Interstate’ or ‘the Ocean’, but we never quite entered these places. Those roads were reserved for people with iron-clad storm chasing vans, and ships that could take flight.
At some point, I felt a presence at the door, but it receded shyly.
The weather above us always held. The roads were always navigable. Our health never declined. Our conversations were confetti-coated but mild. I had a vision of Elli handling a lamb, or a rabbit, or a dove, ever so gently. I had a vision of myself as a cricket with a whole, boundless field to myself, a field green like me. A larger version of myself peered down at this cricket-self, and plotted forwards with rubber boots and hazmat gear and geiger counters, set on reaching a forest beyond.
What would it take for me to see the snowglobe not just for the snowglobe it was, not just for the fake snow and the wintertime scene and the pre-programmed melody, but for its mechanisms, its incredible weight, and even the store it came from?
My thoughts were my own until they weren’t. The hallway I now walked down was not a hallway at all, but an infinitely long line, and even this was not right: it was not a geometrical object. It was more like I had slipped sideways into the arrowpath of time, scanning along an endless string of information.
I had been here before, but I returned to it without the grace of formlessness and abstraction. I returned to this place as a human, and would need to escape it as a human, and the thought of tackling infinity as such a small, warm, and irregular form made me let out a horrible scream.
I felt the endless blue sky. I felt the chasms underneath the sea. I felt the dark of night.
As I forced the properties of volume into this undefinable place, I saw it expand, and glow. I saw a set of ruby red teeth behind a copper-green mask fill up the sky. I saw this mask unhinge its jaw, and from a blood red tongue, a miniature version of it walked down, hastily donning a coat and growing out blonde hair.
The creature was weightless, and grew in size as it approached me.
“I’ve been waiting for you!” it said as it walked straight past me. I swiveled around to watch it continue down the hall, with a bravado and posture that began to decline. I noticed that the bright sky beyond began to swirl, like currents in the sun.
“Where are you? Have you left already?” The creature called out, and I tried to answer, but the words were silent. Was I only capable of screaming? I didn’t want to try it again.
“This isn’t right,” it said, frustrated. “Come to me if you’re still there. I can’t see you.”
I began to doubt that I was the person meant to be here. If I was, then a secondary mechanic kicked in: Fear. The thing skittered around like a prokaryote under a microscope, fast and jutting and sticky. Its body was made out of something warm and wriggling, barely concealed by the coat and mask. Its arms peeked out of the coat and one of them ended in a spongy, airy collection of fibers.
I had the irrational thought that if we came in contact, I would become entangled with it, and all of the ribbons of muscle in my body would tear from their anchor points with an explosive force, as if reacting to a chemical agent. The thought grew and grew until it too became a force primed to rupture my container.
I felt the gravity of the place change, as if someone had turned a test tube to empty it. I saw the creature grow like a tower of light in an aurora, stretched across the hallway, ethereal like a spectre. I felt myself sliding down as the creature extended upwards. I scrabbled uselessly, caught in a deathfall, headed straight into its hands. I passed by a long streak of eyes, and they were red-- red like the rubies of its teeth, red like tail lights in a car chase, red like the ventricles of a heart, and red like bodily cognition, which was blood-hot and familiar.
I fell into its hands, and then through them as if they were mist. I never saw the lip of the hall-tube. My fear crescendoed in the most human way-- at the apex of any nightmare, the mind snaps itself awake, and the threads of conscience lay frayed but loose again.
I awoke with an unfortunate feeling-- I forgot what had happened until it rolled back to me in little maritime waves, and even then, I saw it at a distance. My heart thrummed in a distant, evidential way, but eventually that passed too. I looked outside from the small window in my room, and it was brighter, but not quite sunny. In fact, it was quite stormy.
So, the night had passed, and I had dreamt. I recognized the dream as not only obtusely symbolic, but also as a re-feeding of smaller elements from the day. I doubled down on this theory by recalling the vertigo of crossing into the desert road, and Elli’s red room, and my own thoughts before entering the dream. I triple-doubled down on my theory by confirming that I was alive, and here, and had the fortune of experiencing such a strange dream and coming out unscathed. I would quadruple-double down on this by exiting the room, finding Elli somewhere in the house, and having breakfast with him before we left for wherever the road took us.
I found him by the large window in the kitchen. I saw lightning cross the sky. The storm was tempestuous. Elli held a letter in his hands.
“Crazy weather, huh?” he said.
“Mhm.” It’s the kind they say only occurs on the Interstate. It’s the kind that capital-S Stormchasers would loop down like cowboys wrangling cattle. It’s the kind that canopies the earth in a turquoise-green, and other colors.
“Who sent you mail?” I asked him. A light flashed across the sky, with no corresponding thunder.
“Alana,” he said, and a little crow pecked at the window. The carrier, no doubt. Elli cracked open the window, and fed it a bit of his trail mix. The crow flew off.
Elli handed me the letter. “She needs help with something-- or, well, someone she knows needs help.”
This note is for Sam and Elli.
An old acquaintance has gone missing. His name is Victor. An investigator is already looking for him, but he could use your help.
To Sam: This would be a good chance to get in contact with the Stormchasers. The investigator has connections.
The letter was incredibly terse. It was hard to tell if it was an invitation, or a command, and what to do if we agreed or not. The details were scant, too. Who was Victor? What could his loss mean, considering how distant people were to each other here? What help did the investigator need? How did Alana know I had wanted to get in contact with the Stormchasers? Had I mentioned it, and forgotten? Had Alana visited the Dollhouse? Had Elli told her something? Was I keeping a half-secret in an open plan house again?
The questions spun around my head like a zoetrope, returning again and again and again in an animated cycle. Still, there was the intrigue, the delight at being given something that you could dig your nails into, and it would have some resistance before giving way.
“What do you think?” I fielded, not wanting to influence Elli’s opinion.
“It sounds exciting!” He smiled. Something about him reminded me of a large and cheery dog. “I think it would be a good opportunity for you, too.”
I resisted the urge to frown. The letter being addressed to the both of us, but only containing incentive for me, seemed… unfair.
“...Would you like to meet with Alana to ask her more?”
Elli made an open-handed gesture. “That sounds like a good idea. I mean… I don’t know what else we’d do.”
So, it was agreed. We ate breakfast in a kind of tight-coiled silence, not a bad one, just processing the new trajectory of our lives. Too caught up in our minds to yet share any excitement, or fear. Invisible shapes lurked beneath Alana’s letter.
On the doorstep, I remembered to ask Elli about something.
“Where did you get that drafting desk?”
Elli made a strange face at me. “The... desk with the incline? It came with the house.”
Hmm. So it had always been there. Maybe the previous owner had been an artist. Maybe it had just grown out of the house.
We set forth in the tempest, back to Alana’s cabin.