She would be out of the country for weeks, possibly months, in a hospital in Europe. She’d never been away from home before. She’d never travelled. She’d never gone to sleepovers when she was a kid. She’d led an isolated life, and so much of it was inexplicable. She lived on another plane of existence than others.
The bump was real It wasn’t just some figment from another plane of existence.
She lifted her arm and ran a finger over the spot where the bump had been.
Bullshit, mom. Forgetting something like this is not a survival mechanism. It’s a dangerous condition that could get me killed because I don’t remember what happened…and I might do it again. And get more than just a bump on the head.
She walked to the window and looked out over the park. It was late afternoon and the traffic on the streets and in the park was beginning to pick up. It had always seemed strange that, even when the traffic was at its peak around the park, it was never noisy to the point of being annoying or distracting.
She decided to go for a walk.
C’mon, Jackie, get off your ass and cross the street. The park beckons you.
She sat on the top step of the stairway staring at the entrance to the park. It was only a matter of a few dozen feet but it might as well have been a thousand miles across desert and ocean.
It’s right there. Just get up and walk across the street.
She couldn’t understand it. She’d been out of her flat before. She’d gone places. She’d been to theaters and had dinner with theater people in some of the best restaurants in the city. But she’d never crossed the street for a walk in the park. It had never occurred to her to do it. She’d stared down at the park countless times and drawn characters for her plays from regulars she’d seen in the park, using their physical appearances and guessing from what little interaction she saw them have with other people, their personalities. She’d manipulated the lives of so many of those people in the park, even killed some of them off.
But she’d never been in the park. She’d never sat on any of the benches or strolled past the gardens. She’d always just watched. An outsider. An observer. These were the people of her neighborhood but she might as well as been a foreigner from some distant land.
Get off your ass and cross the street.
It was like she was cemented to the step, paralyzed by some psychic force that weighed down on her, splaying her will to the stone. She tried to move her legs but they wouldn’t budge. She tried shifting her weight but it stayed in place. She was suddenly pissed off at herself.
What the fuck is wrong with you? Get up for crying out loud. What is wrong with you?
Across the street, an old man dressed in oversized corduroy pants and a thick white turtleneck sweater with a vest over it looked lost. He walked erratically bending over, inspecting the sidewalk, muttering something to himself. Something was obviously wrong. Jackie had seen this man many times. He walked with a bit of a hunch and was never in a hurry. He must have been somewhere in his late seventies or dipping into his eighties. There was something different about him today besides the fact that he looked confused and distressed.
What is it? And what’s wrong with him?
It was as though he were having difficulty seeing.
His glasses. He doesn’t have his glasses. That’s what he’s looking for.
She watched as he walked dangerously close to the curb as a car was approaching. She wasn’t sure what she yelled but she yelled something out to him that stopped him dead just a step or two from the curb. She didn’t notice that, as she yelled, she stood up and walked quickly to the curb, glanced both ways and crossed the street to where he stood facing her but jutting his head forward as though he were trying to make her out.
“Hello,” she said. “Sorry to yell at you like that, but it looked like you were just about to step in front of a car.” He was a couple of inches taller than her and heavily built. He looked like he kept himself in shape. He had a healthy reddish complexion and the lines around his mouth suggested someone who liked a good laugh. She immediately liked him and hoped that she had never killed him off in one of her plays. “Have you lost your glasses?”
He smiled. It was a natural seeming movement of his mouth and eyes, a well-coordinated placement of humor and good will. She really liked this old guy. “I’m afraid so. I went to swipe a bug off my head. Can’t understand why there would still be bugs out this time of the season but I had one on my head. Went to swipe it off and hit my glasses instead. Knocked them clean off.” He laughed loudly. “Must be getting on when my aim is so bad I knock my own glasses off. And the damn bug got away.”
Jackie laughed along with him. “How well can you see without them?
“Can’t see worth a damn without them. If not for you, I would have walked right out in front of that car. A random sequence of events leading to me being squashed like a bug after trying to kill a bug.”
“I think it has more to do with your aim than with the bug.” She chuckled and put her arm under his. “Let’s take a look around and see if we can find your glasses.”
“Thank you. I appreciate this very much.”
They walked about twenty feet before Jackie saw the glasses at the edge of the sidewalk beside a metal grill that had once held a sapling and was now a microcosm of wild grass and weeds.
“I see them!”
She walked over to the glasses and picked them up. The man put them on and looked at Jackie with a big smile on his face. The smile turned to a look of surprise and he said, “Oh, you’re a man.”
Jackie thought about the old man’s surprise on seeing her. Without the a clear picture of her, all he had to go on was her words and some generalized sense of who she was, something about the energy she emanated, the psyche she projected. And that was a female psyche. There was no doubt about it, she was a woman trapped in a man’s body.
She wasn’t sure how long she’d been walking. She was finally in the park. After all this time, she was in the park, taking in the gardens, the sun, the trees, the cool fresh air, the blue sky. She was part of the traffic of people, the joggers and walkers and strollers. The old man’s name was Bernie. She liked that name and she liked Bernie. He was a retired actuary who’d spent his life using the mathematics of probability to set insurance premiums high enough that the insurance company he worked for would always be on the winning end of those probabilities.
After she accompanied Bernie to the bus stop, she decided, since she was already almost in the park, that it was time to actually go inside the park and take a look around.
It was so much more than what she’d ever imagined just by looking down on it from her window.
He thought I was a woman.
Natalie leaned forward, blinked, stared unbelieving at the monitor.
No. This is impossible.
But the tracking log was there on the monitor, staring right back at her. There was no denying the records.
A chill descended like a thick heavy stage curtain falling and unfolding through her body. It didn’t make any sense to her at first. According to the log, Jax had signed into Jac’s account. They all used the same computer but it was divided into seven different partitions, each accessed by its own unique username and passwords, and each of those so complex that an accidental breach by any of them would be astronomically impossible. She’d given them all just the one computer to make it easier for her to monitor them.
This can’t possibly have happened.
But it had. The log couldn’t lie. Suddenly, Natalie was faced with something that had never happened before. One of the personalities had spilled over into one of the others. Jac had allowed Jax to access his partition on the laptop.
But why? He was trying to find him so that he could kill him.
It unfolded step-by-step.
But Jax would never be able to kill Jac. They never existed at the same time. He would have to kill himself in order to kill Jac. Or was something beyond the seven of them happening here?
The chill spread through her body.