The first time I saw her I was freshly 16; my birthday is in September, so it was the first week of school and I was completely drained.
I was having some banal dream about being a volunteer at a shelter, but the shelter was full of unicorns or whatever. I don’t remember what task I was doing in this random fantasy, but I remember I saw her on the other side of the yard. She was wearing a blue shirt and her hair was in a ponytail. She looked distressed and out of place. And she was in color.
It’s hard to verbalize, but I almost always dream in muted shades. Not in black and white or even gray, but just in a duller world, like a painting that’s been left in the sun. She was practically neon, so vibrant she looked saturated. It was disorienting, to say the least, and I woke up in a cold sweat. I felt unsettled yet strangely comforted. Something inside me recognized her, something I wasn’t yet in tune with. This part of me, however hidden and however irrelevant, cracked open and screamed at me viciously. It screamed in a way that I could not hear myself think, I could not try to read, and I could absolutely could not go back to sleep.
After that night I didn’t sleep for more than 4 hours at a time. I was terrified to see her again so I avoided dreaming altogether, but I couldn’t maintain this state of living for more than a week. Eventually I passed out on the couch from sheer exhaustion and fell into a 12-hour sleep paralysis. It was then that she reappeared.
Even her voice is colorful. I’m in a white void, but everytime she speaks rainbows oscillate above in patterns like the Northern lights.
I’m scared absolutely shitless, but I’m also paralyzed so I decide to act confident. It’s not like I can fight back anyways.
“They said I should look for you?”
The rainbow glimmers with more intensity.
“What? Who are you?”
“I’m Steph? From The Department?”
“Department? Department of what?”
“Yes, The Department of What. Exactly.”
The rainbow seems to sigh with satisfaction.
“Yes, what. Also when, why, and how. Not who though. That’s the OtherSide.”
“Are you the lady from the shelter? With the blue shirt?”
“Yes! Yes, that’s me! Oh, I’m so glad you remember. Sometimes people forget.”
“And your name is Steph?”
“Well...sure. I’m sorry, I just realized I never solidified. How rude.”
And just like that, in both an instant and an eternity, the rainbow caves into itself and forms a human female. She looks exactly like the shelter woman, but minus the ponytail and she’s wearing a floral dress. An ugly floral dress. God, it’s hideous.
“Okay. Hi, Steph.” I reach out my hand for her to shake.
“Hi, Andy. It’s a pleasure.” She has a lovely smile and a firm handshake, but I can’t stop looking at the dress. It looks like my grandma’s curtain.
“Can you explain please?”
I was no longer panicking, for some reason. It was like touching her hand has infused me with heroin; I’m totally at peace.
“Oh, of course, dear. So like I said, I’m from The Department of What, When, Why, and How. I’m our customer service rep.” She smiles.
“I understand you’re confused. However, all of your questions will be answered shortly. Just follow me, please.”
She starts to walk along the whiteness and I realize we are in a box. She’s walking towards a small door at the edge, but it’s not really a door, actually. It’s just a translucent curtain.
“Right through here, please.” She smiles again and touches my shoulder, and the heroin feeling comes back.
Suddenly I’m in a conference room at a...a Hilton hotel, yes. It has grey chairs and a rectangular desk and harshly dim lighting that gives me a headache.
“You guys normally seem comfortable here.” Steph has changed into a sleek power suit with a slicked-back bun. She matches the vibe perfectly, and it does make me feel strangely at peace. I guess we humans do crave comfort.
“Please, have a seat. We haven’t got much time.”
I pull up a chair and realize I”m wearing a suit too, but mine is much less crisp. I glance at the surrounding glass and see that I look exhausted.
“Why do I look so crappy?”
“I don’t know, dear, it’s based on your aura. I think you need to relax. Anyways, let’s begin.”
A whiteboard appears in front of her, along with a girl my age in pink pajamas. The girl is upright, sleeping, and quite beautiful. I think she looks like that girl from Bring It On, the leader of the Clovers.
“Okay. This is Bella.” The name Bella appears on the whiteboard behind Steph in pink cursive, and I somehow know that it’s in Bella’s handwriting.
“Bella is your soulmate, so to speak. I hate how you humans have gentrified that word. It has an actual meaning beyond physical life.”
“She’s my soulmate?” I glance back at the stunning girl in the pink pajamas and can’t refrain from smiling.
“Yes. She is, and I’ll let you get acquainted in a little bit.”
Steph shifts uncomfortably, which makes all the chairs change colors. She’s talking too fast, and I get a bad feeling.
“Well, I’m here because...well, this is just so difficult to explain. There are some people with souls, essences, spirits, whatever you want to call it that just mesh. Like they’re meant to be together. But…”
My heart sinks. Bella twitches.
“Well, you just can’t be together in the physical realm.”
“Your corporal forms and cognitive minds and all that junk don’t mesh well. Based on our calculations, you’d probably marry, be miserable, and have a brutal divorce that would haunt your two kids forever. There’s also a statistically significant chance you’d murder each other.” A bunch of numbers and images appear on the board behind her, but I don’t really notice.
“It’s extremely rare this happens, Andy. Less than one in a billion. But when it does, The Department tries to give you an opportunity to be together in some way. So here’s our offer: you two can dream together, 8 hours a day but no more, and do whatever you want. Other than that, you may not attempt to contact each other, speak to each other, or anything of the sort.”
I think about what the consequences would be if I did.
“They will be grave.” Obviously she can fucking read minds. I pause and try to make my mind go blank.
“Bella agreed a couple weeks ago. We’ve been waiting for you. I tried to contact you before, but your dreams move very rapidly. It makes it hard to travel.”
“Can I meet her?”
“Andy, I have to warn you that once you meet her, you will fall madly in love with her. She will consume your every moment for the eight hours a day that you sleep, but after that, you will have no memory of her. She’ll fade into your mind just like every other dream. Are you sure that’s what you want?”
And I can’t explain it, but in that moment I know that it is exactly what I want. 8 hours a day is a third of my life, and looking at Bella I know she is worth it.
“Yes. It’s what I want.”
“Okay. Here you go.”
The room dissipates into air along with Steph, and me and Bella are left standing in the white void. She’s awake now, and I see that her eyes are honey colored.
“Hi.” Her voice is like music.
“Call me Belly.”
She grabs my hand and walks towards the edge of the void, moving towards something I can’t quite see. Yet somehow, just like her, I know it’s there.
My wife and I are in a diner celebrating my 52nd birthday. It’s close to our house, and with the kids off at college we have plenty of time to go out now. I don’t love breakfast for dinner, but it’s her favorite thing, so I’ll go with it. She’s devouring a plate of chocolate chip waffles like it’s her last meal, but my omelet is kind of gross so I leave it alone.
“Anyways, Deborah was saying that Sally and Ron are considering divorce. But, you know, they’re old parents. Like, their kid is still only eight, Andy. Imagine what a divorce would do to an eight year old.”
“Yeah, I can’t imagine it doing any good.”
I’m not paying much attention, but she doesn’t seem to notice.
“So anyways, they’re fighting all the time, and their kid told the teacher, who call..”
Everything trails off. The world goes blank and all I see is a beautiful woman walking by the window.
She looks like she’s about my age, maybe a bit younger. She’s talking on the phone with someone, and I can tell by her face that it’s a pleasant conversation. She’s wearing a winter jacket even though it’s 70 degrees. Her face is kind. She has a mole by her lower lip. I can just tell she knows I’m staring at her, but she doesn’t seem to mind.
Like she’s done it a million times, she looks at me. Not past me or through me, but at me.
I look back.
Her eyes are honey-colored.
Something inside me clicks.
I turn towards my wife and watch the world come back, and when I look back at the window she’s gone.
“Honey, where did you go?” She has syrup all over her chin.
“Oh, I just thought I saw someone I knew.”
I’m unsure of how to answer that question, so I take a bite of my omelette and stare at the spot where my perfect woman just was.