“Annie!” Fawn cried out to me in fear.
Sparkling, aching blurs of clouds and night cut her face from my sight in swirling darkness.
“Do not worry,” Kemper’s rough and hated Russian voice whispered. “She is not dead. Just trapped.” His whisper stung like a viper’s bite as he’d forgotten I could still hear in the overwhelming blackness.
“Trapped?” Fawn questioned angrily, shooting lightning and thunder down on Kemper’s head in the one word. “She’s in the Rift! How is her being trapped there supposed to make me feel better that she’s not dead? Trapping her there is her death!”
Trapping her there is her death. Our death.
The words rang heavily in our mind with the ring of my hammer on the steel in our hand. Those words had terrified Annie the day we arrived in the Rift. Every crash of thunder and every flashing scene in the walls brought her terror and left us prostrate on the glassy dirt with our hands hugging our neck, or in the fetal position, hugging our knees to our chest and rocking in fear when each flash and boom left. The lightning and scenes were entirely encased within the walls, however, bringing no harm to us in any way, allowing Annie’s fear to dissipate and dissolve into nothing within the first days of our imprisonment. When she was terrified, though, she was too paralyzed, even for me to take over, to make use of the gray plants that the transparent dirt provided or of the little animals that the Rift caught and killed upon entry, and when her fear finally fled, our stomach clenched tightly to our bones in hunger, urging us to eat.
With another stroke of my hammer and another pock removed from the steel in our hand, I recalled Annie’s failed trials of trying to cook the dead rabbit or dead pigeon that the Rift provided for us as we tried, at first, to just survive. From previous experience outside the Rift, we knew that meat would stave our twisting hunger better than the gray, unpalatable-looking plants that we couldn’t identify. So, Annie had tried to build a fire with the more woody plants, using her ability to control darkness to gather and dissipate the darkness of the Rift, pinpointing what little light was available onto the gray sticks. Her trick had failed, however, so I had taken over, much to her worry, and had pushed our way through the storm cloud walls to absorb the impact of some lightning and transfer the surging heat of our body to the sticks in touching them. How Annie had screamed at me in our mind when the lightning struck us! But my trick had worked, and she had thanked me in the end, despite how much I’d sensed her dislike of it. The cooking of the meat itself, however, took many more trials from both of us before we figured out how to not turn it into charcoal or leave it undercooked, giving us a tummy ache.
Turning the steel over on the bench and pounding away more impurities as I held it in our hand, I remembered how we had learned just how wrong our estimation of the gray plants was when we’d gotten our first tummy ache and were eager for reprieve. Annie had had the idea first, but my stubbornness and abhorrence for trying unknown plants had kept her, for a while, from actually breaking off a sprig or leaf and stuffing it in our mouth. But soon, our desire for the stomachache to leave had weakened my stubborn resolve against the plants and had strengthened her desire to try a plant, her will overcoming mine. She had taken a heart-shaped leaf from an almost-black stubby stalk that she had said reminded her of the heart-shaped herb in Black Panther when we’d seen the movie in our spare time in Fawn’s reality. I had laughed at Annie then, but her instinct had been correct. Within minutes of eating several of the leaves, which had no taste, our tummy ache was gone, and we were feeling completely better.
I turned the steel in our hand around on the bench, examining its points and edges, found some imperfections, and hammered them out. Each pound or tap of the hammer brought back the highs and lows of our time in the Rift as time passed us by, bringing out grays in Annie’s auburn bob and graying my black curls. In a few weeks, we mastered the making of fires and the cooking of the meat with a few of the plants, using leaves, stalks, flowers, fruits, and even roots to help our stomach if it decided to ache again. Annie had the idea to keep the rabbit pelts, pigeon feathers, and wolverine skins to make a pillow and blanket, and eventually a more padded bed pallet, for us to sleep in on the ground instead of the rough and sometimes sharp dirt. She figured out how to whittle the wolverine claws on each other to make needles, and used the wool of a baby llama to make the thread, however coarse and rough it was, that she needed to sew the pelts and skins together for each piece of bedding, stuffing the feathers into the pillow and pallet. It took several tries to figure out how to sew, but she soon got it – without any help from me, I might mention, since I hate sewing – and our pillow, blanket, and pallet stopped falling apart when we slept, waking us up from a sudden temperature dive in the Rift or from the sharp prick of a loose feather. And, when we realized we were running low on the plants, we learned, extremely slowly, how to cultivate the plants so that we would have a steady supply. Unfortunately, the previously available plants were used up before the first harvest, which itself was very meager, so we ended up getting quite a few tummy aches from even the well-cooked meat before we could recognize a good dead rabbit from a bad one. When the first harvest came, though there were many plants, only a few were good to eat and use to reseed while the others we used for kindling. Every harvest afterward was better than the last, however, as we learned through much trial and error, as well as many rumbly and achy stomachs, how to farm.
I examined the steel in our hand again and matched it with the diamond hilt and iron star, but they didn’t fit together. I thrust the steel back into the forge, grazing one of the coals and pulling our hand back in pain, the memory of other, sharper pain returning.
Don’t go there, Dinah, Annie said in our mind. I could feel her dislike of the memory as I sat down near the forge and overlaid a cold heart-shaped leaf on our welting burn.
“I know you hate that memory, Annie,” I said aloud. “I hate it, too.” I heard her sigh in relief in our mind. It was a horrible memory – actually, it was several memories. They began about a decade after we arrived in the Rift – at least, we think it was a decade, but it is hard to tell large amounts of time in the Rift – and we had already learned how to survive comfortably with cooking, resting, harvesting, avoiding sickness, and even entertaining our self. But the Rift had one more thing to throw at us – just because it could.
The flashing scenes in the storm cloud walls, at first a terror to Annie, became a form of entertainment, and even a form of learning the history of our reality or Fawn’s or any other, though most of them we couldn’t identify. They portrayed scenes of the American Revolution, Watergate, the Battle of the Bulge, D-Day, VE-Day, the Flood, and even the nuking of the U.S. in our reality among many other well-known events of history. But other scenes were depicted that we didn’t recognize: a young African girl dancing with an English lord in a cottage; a gray alien with a lion-like tail sitting next to a fire and writing in a notebook, stopping right before a spaceship appeared in the night sky; and a young, bald Latina girl sitting in a hospital bed watching her adult sister leave. The first scene that we recognized as being actually related to us, in a way, was a scene of a very old man shining light from his hand in the dark as he gave a little girl a locket made with an ivory cameo.
I touched the same ivory cameo laid in silver as it rested on our chest. It held the same face, but here in the Rift, it was incapable of moving like it had in that flashed scene. Fawn had given it to us for safekeeping to make sure it stayed out of Kemper’s hands before he’d thrust us into the Rift. The first of the painful memories came surging back through our mind, Annie groaning as if she was trying to close her eyes and ears to it within her half of our mind. It had come almost directly after the scene of the ancient man and little girl, and it was a flashing scene itself, but it was in our past, something we remembered: the words Fawn said to us when she gave us the locket, her locket. The Rift had flashed the scene in its walls, but had also surged it through our mind as if the lightning in the walls was striking the neurons of our brain. Even though we knew the searing heat and exhilarating rush of a real lightning bolt, that heat and rush I could absorb into our body, alleviating any pain that we might have otherwise felt. The strike of the flash in our mind, on the other hand, could not be absorbed in any way because it wasn’t a material blast on our body like the lightning. The pain that that had brought us was, well… more than words can describe.
I returned to the bench and the forge and pulled the steel out of the coals with the metal tongs, the memory of the fierce protection in Fawn’s green eyes lingering in our mind from when she charged us with the locket’s safety. Keep this away from Kemper, she had said, placing the silver and ivory necklace in our hands.
Pressing the now scalding steel into the diamond hilt and black iron star to make sure they fit into each other, I let all the other similar memories flow into our mind, much to Annie’s chagrin. There were so many that had happened in the last twenty years – another approximation – since the first memory flash that I could never recount them all in the space of Earth’s circumference. There were flashes of some of our most painful memories, bringing back the pain of losing our parents to Kemper when we were thirteen, of watching members of E Pluribus Unum get mutilated on heists and missions against the soviets all over England, and even the childish impulse of fear that we both felt as our parents resisted Kemper before he named himself Emperor. But despite the pain of the flashes piercing our mind, some memories were pleasant and even enjoyable. Some were memories of Annie with our parents playing games or riding piggyback before they learned that I was a part of Annie as she was of me. Some were memories of when we and Fawn had bonded the first few times she had visited E Pluribus Unum by way of her locket. And others were of American Independence Days, including the day I met Dror, spent remembering and honoring the freedom so many good people had died for so their children could experience it.
Hammering the steel in our hand as it took its proper form and shape to connect to the iron and diamond, I recalled the last flash that had us in it, the one flashing scene that had repeated itself for the past five-ish years: the scene responsible for getting me to make this star-like dagger I now hold completed in our hand. It was first of a girl who looked exactly like Fawn with soft brown skin, emerald green eyes, curly brown hair, and everything, but we could tell we had never seen her before in our life. This girl was in a fight that she was losing, but who she was fighting was entirely obscured. The Rift had portrayed how the girl could enter it and that she would rescue us. But it also, in a way, spoke to us, telling us to make the girl a weapon she could use to win against anyone who attacked her and that she could use to protect. This flash didn’t leave us alone until I began to build the forge, the bench, the tongs and hammer, and everything else I learned I needed as I made mistakes, rebuilt, and tried again. The Rift itself caught the diamond, iron, and steel and I worked through every detail and trial and error to put it together. And now here it was, finished.
I held the dagger in our hand, the lightning from the walls glinting off the diamond and steel, highlighting the darkness of the black iron in the center as it formed a sixteen-point star, the longest point running along the central ridge of the steel blade. One last thing remained to complete this star-like blade. I laid the dagger back on the bench.
“You ready, Annie?” I asked.
Yes, she answered. Are you? I nodded and placed one hand on the iron star and the other on the steel of the blade. Closing our eyes, I let flow the energy of three of my powers. My control over luck coursed through our veins, my ability to absorb blasts softened our skin as it flowed away, and my power to phase through organic matter left my molecules solidified as it pulled itself away. The powers fused themselves into the fibers of the iron and steel, making them gleam as my strength left us.
You want to let me take over now? Annie asked, kindness warming her words. I nodded once, too exhausted to nod more, and fell weakly to the back of our mind as she took the wheel. I watched through our eyes as she pulled on her own abilities of controlling darkness and sound frequencies and placed them inside the dagger, too. It was strange being the one in the back of our mind as her powers flowed like waves of electricity into our hands and into the iron and steel. It felt like gusts of wind were trying to twirl me around in a frenzy, depleting my energy as well as Annie’s, but by the time I realized Annie’s energy was gone, too, she was already falling to the ground and there was nothing I could do in my exhausted state. For one small second, I saw the storm cloud walls swirl into the stone and red coals of the forge as an inner darkness arose, chilling me into unconsciousness.
--- ^ ---
She may not… through the night, sweetie.
…know, but I hope… does.
I’ll… her medi–…
The soft, broken words were swirling in our head as I came to. I could still feel Dinah breathing heavily in weak rest on the floor of our mind as something unusually bright blinded me to our new surroundings.
She’s waking up, Mom.
A dark figure penetrated the searing light and came close, taking a seat next to us and making me realize we were lying under the soft, smooth, and fuzzy covers of a very comfortable bed. How I had missed such beds.
“How are you feeling?” a young girl’s voice emanated from the dark figure. I blinked away the blinding light and saw the look-alike of Fawn gazing at us in genuine concern.
“You saved us, didn’t you? From the Rift?” I asked breathlessly. She opened her mouth to answer, closed it and furrowed her brows in confusion, and then said, hesitantly,
“Yes, I-I did… but I only got you. Did I miss someone?” she asked, concerned and ready to jump back into the Rift if she had missed someone.
“No,” I said, laughing. “I have a multi-personality disorder. I meant the other half of myself when I said ‘us’.” The girl relaxed back into her seat, blinking in surprise. I watched her surprise and smiled, a rush of joy overwhelming me in finally seeing another human being – and outside of the Rift, too!
A glint caught our eye behind the girl, and she, seeing me look, turned to look, too.
“Those were with you when I found you,” she said. “Are they yours?” she asked, turning back to us. I looked at the star-blade propped up against a desk with the locket hanging from the hilt, the ivory cameo’s face coming back to life and nodding at us.
“No,” I responded as Dinah came to in our mind and watched silently in raucous excitement. “No. They’re yours.”