It was a lonely three nights. Which seems a rather obvious thing to say, until it became clear that it was not Her absence which made his heart feel cold and drifting, though at first even he supposed that this must be the answer. Not for the first time, Johnathan Vale stared gloomily at the black expanse behind his window, unsure of the legitimacy of his pain.
He was certain of two things. Firstly, he was alone. Whether this had made him happier was a matter of lingering debate, since at one point he'd also been utterly convinced that strong whiskey would bless him with an cool and rational head. The second thing he was sure of, was he'd run into a wall.
Hesitating, he took a short drag on the cigarette he held between two fingers, wincing at the guilty flavor of the smoke. She'd hated when he smoked. But, said a more rebellious voice, sneering in a corner of his mind, She wasn't here now. He took another drag, then forced himself to look back at the empty sheet.
He'd had an idea to draw the stars. It was four in the morning, and scudding clouds blinded the heavens, but he sat before his desk at the window, looking above, and wondered if something could hear him if he screamed. With that thought in mind, he let his mind run loose with the pen, and blinked.
There was a mass of lines upon the purity of the paper, and not one of them made the least bit of sense. With a sigh, he connected a few of the parallels, angled the intersections, and made a few halfhearted attempts at cross-hatch shading between the fractal shards. Then he crumpled the entire thing, threw it into the bin, and made the mistake of drawing a face.
She looked at him from the dead plain that was the paper, and he spent the next thirty minutes in shameful tears.
When that was over, he resolved to sit in silence. Clouds still covered the moon, and made invisible her many courtesans.
The unnatural thing was, he realized, that there really was no one around. A sleepless world was sleeping now, and there was not a noise in all the frigid air. He drummed the hand not holding the cigarette across the surface of the desk, and sighed.
Stars . . .
Later, he picked himself up off the chair, and grimaced at the pain in his back, his shoulder, his hip.
It wouldn't have been so terrible, if he could just forget a few convenient details. The problem with crying was that it didn't comfort nor heal. No -- the tears would fall, they'd stop, and you'd come to realize that all they'd done was leave a little hole where the pain had been, ready for something else to fill it. He never reached the cigarettes fast enough. He'd stagger towards them, fumble the matches, and then something would remind him of the feeling of Her hair, the blooming light of Her eyes, the way She would hold him when the night was too loud or the day was too bright or the weight of the world grew cold. That name She used to call him, what had it been? The world did not turn, he realized, so much as it did roll, and he'd made the mistake of falling too far behind; it had crushed his feeble bones.
He stretched loudly, relishing the small cracks of rigid bone and aging muscle. He walked to the bathroom, and stopped before the door, his hand hovering over the knob as a grimace twisted his face. He knew what was inside. That was the worst part: not even having the fear of the unknown to motivate his curiosity. He knew.
He threw open the door. In the center of the room, surrounded by a mist of sparkling blue, stood a pillar of translucent white stone. Johnathan glared at the golden threads which formed letters in the air, and the spinning madness at the structure's center.
"This is your fault," he muttered. No response came. The light pulsed gently against his eyes. He closed the door, then opened it again, but twisted the knob to the right instead of the left. The door opened on a normal, albeit grimy, apartment bathroom. Above the sink was a mirror, and above the toilet was a motivational phrase written in unintelligible cursive.
Johnathan sighed, and stepped inside to take care of his business. He tossed the cigarette into the waste bin, and sat on the toilet with a ruminative scowl. He'd promised Her; He'd promised himself he'd never Travel again. Not because of some stupid moral compass, or the risk of delving into the Unknown, or any other trace moral fibers which might take a liking to his better senses, but instead because . . . well. He frowned. Some things didn't bear thinking about.
When last had he Traveled? Had it been three years? Four? Still, She'd left him. He'd given up the Travel, and still She had left. What did that say about him? About the Road? The problem with people like Johnathan is that they have an acute sense of who they actually are, which makes convenient little lies a lot harder. He had the heart of a moping romantic and the head of a drunken philosopher, and if he didn't stay vigilant they had a tendency to scuffle. As they did now.
One moment he was frowning at the mirror above the sink, tracing with his eyes the long crack that her shoe, flung wildly at his face, had left along the glass . . . and in the next, he was once again outside the door, and the knob was turning to the left.
He blinked, unsure. Because of course . . . but then again, he thought. What had he got to lose? He stepped in, and felt the tugging of all time and space upon him.
Now he remembered. You didn't go places in this universe without a price, for there is a good reason that Earth alone stands isolated from the grand scheme of the cosmos. With the pillar, Johnathan became the befuddled actor who gives the climactic soliloquy before the initial curtain call, to the displeased murmurs of his now dispersing audience. Defying the bolt of destiny was only difficult until someone gave you a wrench, but the problem was that destiny fought back. Already, he felt small particles of his existence being thrust away by the gale forces of the room, which had not the familiar tile and sink and shower but instead was a vast rotunda in which silhouettes moved outside the center of the circle. Silhouettes whose identity he never confirmed, for they were either those poor souls who were lost in the byways, or, and he shuddered to think it, slices of his own existence, made thin and fleeting and hateful by the Travel. He'd never seen them on his early trips, but that might simply have been because he hadn't thought to look.
The pillar spun with light. He sighed at it, and the sound was lost in the wind. This was the dilemma, wasn't it? It had been three nights since she had left, four years since last he'd stepped in the rotunda, and in all that time he had never felt so alive as he did in this moment. He breathed, and the air felt rich with something more significant than Life. There had been a time when he had feared for his place in the universe, in which he worried that one day he would become so lost in the mires of Travel that he would not even know that he was, in fact, a wanderer . . . A moment in which the waking life became the dream, and the dream became a lifetime. But now, said the evil, wretched corners of his heart, now he had nothing to lose. The thought was both liberating and sad.
He stared at the pillar, and the pillar stared back. His hand was on the knob, which now pulsed twice in response to the rhythm of his heart. He turned to it, squinted, and examined the concentric ring of letters. How had it gone? He turned the lock first three ticks, then two, then all the way around until it stopped against what looked like an astrologist's crab. A golden light appeared beneath what should've been the crack beneath the door. Johnathan did not smile. There was nothing now in his mind but the cold shivering of his nerves.
"I've missed you," he said aloud, and was surprised to find he meant it. His hand was on the knob, and now there was no desire in him to turn it whichever way at all. First a centimeter to the left, then the right, then a torn sensation which seemed to divide him in two. "I mean to draw the stars," he murmured. "But I've forgotten how they laugh." He stared at the door, as if expecting it to answer. He said quietly, "I'd rather like to see them."
He remembered that She used to love the stars. He never told Her their names. She'd found his journal, the strange names and the stranger numbers, and pictures of faces that he could not by rights explain. He missed those faces, but then again . . .
Did he not miss Her more?
For there was something that had become ever so clear to him, as he held the knob of the Travel. There would be no second trip. It had been too long, he was too old; this would be the last step in a life of adventure.
"To think!" he said, turning his head to face the looming pillar. "I never thought you'd leave." He smiled wryly, sadly. He was thinking of the first Trip. The one he'd made to leave behind a drinking father who was pounding on the other door . . . there had been a land of fairies. Light and fairies and a vast city which sat on the dawn. He could go there again. Or he could visit the stars. Or . . .
There was more than one way to Travel. He saw Her eyes in his head, the deep and sparkling eyes . . . He'd done it before, though not to this extent. But She would love him. He could change the things that had happened, and as he thought it, the mists reminded him of the flowing curves of Her lips, the curling ecstasy of Her smile.
A sudden sadness struck him. He realized: it was not that he loved Her more than the stars, or even the other way around. There were different loves. In any choice, he would leave a dozen behind for the fulfillment of one. He looked up slowly, at a more dazzling sky than ever he had seen, then back at the pillar, again the pillar, which now he would never again behold. What had he got to lose, he had asked. The answer was all of eternity.
With a grimace, he clutched the knob, and turned it so gently to the left. And the golden light flowed outwards. And a new day, an old day, shone bright on eyes of Baltic green.