Parallel

by Eliza Victoria

“Parallel” first appeared in Philippine Speculative Fiction IV (2009).

Christopher had officially run out of words to describe the day. Hot, scorching, blazing, sweltering—he had gotten tired of running through his mental thesaurus, the sun getting to his head, blinding him, the sky spotless, cloudless, except for that one merciless orb, the streets unusually bright, as though lit from underneath, the streets absorbing the heat and reflecting. Well fuck, Christopher thought. It was as if the pavement were glaring at him, staring him down, as if it knew who he was, knew he wasn’t supposed to be there.

Ben arrived with a car Christopher didn’t recognize.

“Now where the hell did you get this?” Christopher asked.

“My own garage.”

Christopher did a double take. It felt as if his head were moving underwater, the air as thick as mud. He could hardly breathe. He closed the door of the car and set the air conditioning to maximum.

“You’re crazy,” Christopher said.

“Don’t worry, I left a note.”

“You’re crazy.”

He didn’t see me.”

You didn’t see you.”

“He didn’t see me,” Ben insisted. “And besides, I left a note. Wormholes do work! High five Einstein!

“You’re—“ Christopher began, then gave up.

“He’d love it, trust me.”

“And if you called the police?”

He wouldn’t,” Ben said, and clucked his tongue, annoyed. “Jesus, Chris. Why do you keep referring to them like that?”

Christopher didn’t say anything.

Ben had picked him up on Krus na Ligas, in front of the girls’ boarding house there, the best landmark to meet since the building was painted bright pink and it was the tallest establishment in the area. Ben changed gears and drove into Teacher’s Village. Ben knew the turns and the streets; Christopher didn’t have to tell him.  It was 2 p.m., siesta time. The streets were silent, empty.

“Everything looks the same,” Christopher said softly, watching the houses go by outside the car window.

“Maybe they have a different president.”

Christopher stared outside the window.

“You want me to turn on the radio?”

“No.” Christopher said.

They drove in silence for a while.

“Have you erased the message?”

“What?” Christopher said violently, turning on his seat, jolting Ben.

“The message,” Ben said after a moment. “On your answering machine?”

Christopher sighed. The shrink had told him to erase it. Belinda wanted him to erase it, said it would help him “move on.”

“I will never,” Christopher replied, but found he couldn’t finish the sentence.

“No, I mean, it’s cool,” Ben said. Damage control mode. “You know? If I were in your position, I thought I’d—“

Now Christopher looked at him curiously.

Ben refused to meet his gaze. “I thought I’d do the same thing.”

“I haven’t touched her room either,” Christopher said. “It still looks the same, since that night.”

Ben made a noncommittal sound.

“My shrink says it’s not helping me any,” Christopher continued. “I said, ‘Right back at ya.’”

Ben didn’t laugh.

“You know what really got Olivia into Einstein and all these time theories?” Christopher asked. Ben barely reacted to the sound of Olivia’s name, but Christopher felt him shrink away, heard a sharp intake of breath, and Christopher felt sorry for Olivia again, sorry for himself, his whole life. Suddenly the discussion didn’t feel worth pursuing.

But Ben said, “What,” and of course he had to answer.

“Christopher Pike,” Christopher said.

“Fuck!” Ben said gleefully, disgustedly. “Christopher Pike?

“We were in the Young Adult section of a bookstore and suddenly she says, ‘Hey, he has the same name as you!’”

Ben smiled.

“I can’t remember the book’s title,” Christopher said. “Anyway there’s a character there who somehow was able to travel beyond the speed of light, and time slowed so much for her that she was able to watch the universe pass by, until the Second Big Bang. She saw the universe disappear and begin again, right before her very eyes.”

Ben snorted. “This is Christopher Pike.”

“It is, it is,” Christopher said, happy now. “Anyway, for her eleventh birthday I got her Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.”

“Hawking,” Ben said with awe, like they were talking about a basketball player.

“She wasn’t able to finish it, though.”

“Got bored?”

Christopher looked out at the windshield, watched the hood steam like a furnace.

“Oh,” Ben said. “Sorry.”

“You remember her jokes, Ben?” Christopher said.

“’Welcome to Insult Comics: Brains Edition.’”

Christopher smiled. “’I’m gonna hit your momma so hard, your momma in a parallel universe’s gonna feel it.’”

“’I’m gonna hit your momma so hard,’” said Ben, “’the event horizon of the nearest black hole’s gonna shrink.’”

They laughed, Christopher rapping his fingers against the car window.

“’We ain’t got no more milk, Chris,’” Ben said. “’Really, Olivia? But that’s mathematically impossible.’” Ben slapped the steering wheel. “And that one time? That one time I asked her how old she was when your paper got published? She said, ‘Oh, Kuya Ben, I would be…let’s see…two and half…figments of my parents’ imaginations?’ Apparently she wasn’t born yet.”

Christopher laughed.

“Well, I didn’t know,” said Ben.

“Yeah, I remember that one,” Christopher said. “Oh, Olive.” A second later he was crying.

“Hey,” Ben said.

“I’m sorry.” Christopher tugged at his shirt sleeve and wiped his eyes.

“We’re here, right? We’re here already.”

“I know,” Christopher said. “I know that.”

They reached the end of the street and turned left, the final turn, and Christopher sat up and saw the same depressing pile of garbage on the empty lot two blocks down from their house, set atop yesterday’s pile now reduced to ash, the same unused garbage cans buckling beneath an orange sheet of rust. It amazed him how everything looked the same, so normal, like he and Ben didn’t just break several Institute laws just to drive on that very street.

Ben inched the car a little bit more forward and shifted to park. From their seats they had a clear view of Christopher’s own front yard.

They waited. Christopher chewed on his lips, then brought his hand up and chewed on his thumbnail.

Ben glanced at him and grimaced. “Will you stop it, Chris? You’re making me more nervous.”

“I’m sorry, it’s just,” Christopher said. “I mean, what if they didn’t—“

But they did. The front door opened, and out came Olivia in a white dress, music sheets tucked under an arm, bare feet barely touching the grass as she ran. She looked back and laughed. The door banged open again and out came Christopher, the Christopher that belonged to that time and place, hefting Olivia’s cello. He laughed, too.

They had a nipa hut on the front yard. Olivia climbed into the miniature house, reached out her hands for her instrument. Christopher handed it to her with a grunt written all over his face. He slung his arms over the window and kissed his sister heartily on the cheek.

Christopher, in the car, ached for that kiss. After the crash he would sit inside that nipa hut, imagining Olivia and that gigantic instrument that he never learned how to play sitting beside him, and stare at the sky until it changed color, until it gave up on him, too.

“White shirt, blue jeans, flip-flops,” Ben announced. “He might be painting; there are stains on the shirt.”

White shirt, check. Blue jeans, check. Christopher’s wearing sneakers, and nothing could be done about the paint stains.

“Maybe you can take off your shoes,” Ben said.

“And burn my feet on the pavement?” Christopher said.

Ben shrugged.

“I paint on the second floor.”

“I know. He does, too.”

Christopher didn’t comment. Olivia’s tuning her cello.

“He’s not you, Chris.”

Suddenly, the Christopher on the front yard looked at their car. Christopher jerked on his seat, ducked his head.

“Oh, shit!”

“The windows are tinted, you moron,” Ben said.

“It’s like he saw us,” Christopher said, still refusing to sit up.

The Christopher outside gave Olivia another kiss, then ran inside. The front door closed.

“You’re being paranoid,” said Ben.

Maybe he was. Christopher sat up, removed his seat belt.

“You know what to do,” he said.

“You spread plastic on the floor when you paint, right?”

Christopher nodded.

Ben took out his gun, checked the silencer. “That’ll make things easier, then.”

“You don’t shoot him,” Christopher said.

“Chris, I’m the one holding the gun anyway. If things get out of hand—“

“I want to shoot him.”

Ben shrugged. “Your call. Ready?”

They both got out of the car. Ben walked on ahead—he would enter through the kitchen door at the back of the house. Christopher approached the nipa hut. Olivia loved playing there. Even on the most merciless summers the bamboo floor remained cold to the touch.

Christopher slowed down his steps even if the heat’s starting to get to his head and his eyes. The music swelled. Olivia had her back to the street, her arms rising and falling in front of her like a conductor’s.

Christopher touched her hair, and it was like that was enough to get him through the days. He itched to call Ben, call the whole thing off. This, he thought, touching his sister’s hair, this is enough. Let’s go.

The music stopped abruptly. Olivia glanced over her left shoulder.

“How did you do that?” she said.

Christopher took a deep breath, smiled at his sister’s eyes.

“What?”

“You just went into the house,” she said, “and now you’re back here. How’d you do that?”

Christopher looked at his sister’s eyes, said nothing.

Kuya, are you all right?”

“You should play facing the street,” Christopher said. “Somebody could grab you and—“

“And run away with my cello?” Olivia laughed. “You can’t even walk with it.”

Olivia was speaking to him. They were talking. Ben, Christopher screamed in his head, Ben, this is enough. Let us go.

“Please face the street, Olive.”

Olivia sighed comically, but eventually complied. Christopher helped her move the instrument. “Why can’t you just learn the violin?” Christopher said.

“Shut up.” This was an old argument. “Hey, you’re wearing shoes now, too?”

“The sun’s burning my skin.”

“Yeah,” Olivia wiped the sweat from her face. “The summers are getting hotter. Oh, guess what, I’ve finished reading Hawking!”

“You have?”

Christopher sat beside her. At this point, Ben would be on the second floor, chatting with the other Christopher: Hey Ben how you been, glad to see you, would you like to have dinner with us, Olive’s downstairs practicing again, nice to see you. Nice to see you.

He saw the long line of scar tissue on his sister’s right arm, where the glass of the shattered bus window cut her. Maybe on one of her legs he’d find the same line of brown stitches, like clay, like pasted-on worms.

She survived the crash. She was in the bus, but she survived it.

Christopher touched the scar on Olivia’s arm. Should he and Ben find the other Olivia, the one who never got on the bus? The one who waited in Baguio for Ben and Belinda, who were in Session Road, just twenty minutes away, ready to bring her home safe and sound? The one who didn’t have these scars, these memories?

Christopher put his arms around his sister, touched her cheek, kissed her hair. He burst into tears. Burst, like a dam. Olivia looked up at him in alarm.

Kuya?” she said, very quietly.

Christopher sniffed, smiled.

Olivia’s eyes and eyebrows questioned, What is it?

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I just missed you.”

“You gave me a kiss just a minute ago!” Olivia said.

Christopher laughed.

“You’re,” Olivia said, giggling, shaking her head. “You’re weird.”

I’d like to take a picture of this, Christopher said. I’d like to make a recording of this. This moment.

“I’m not going to the next music fest, if that’s what’s getting you worked up,” Olivia said.

“Where’s it going to be?”

“Chicago,” Olivia said.

Wow, Christopher mouthed.

“Yes. Wow. But I’m not going,” Olivia said. “I’m staying here.”

Christopher tucked a stray wisp of her hair behind her ear, touched her earlobe affectionately.

“Were you mad at me,” Olivia said, “for not following your instructions? I mean, I knew Kuya Ben was just a ride away but I got tired of waiting.”

“You didn’t know what’s going to happen,” Christopher said.

“I should have just waited for them to come get me.”

The bus hit another vehicle on its way back to Manila. A truck of vegetables, the reports said. Three students died—two violinists and a cellist—and a young teacher. The rest got imprisoned in broken glass and twisted metal, smelling like cabbages. A promising child pianist broke three of her fingers.

Christopher fell to his knees and clutched one end of Olivia’s bedspread when he heard the news. The bedspread smelled like lavender powder; he washed away the smell with his tears. There’s one way to make this right, Ben said, on the third day he refused to move from that spot, refused to eat, refused to drink, refused to talk to anyone. Belinda went berserk when she heard of their plan, but she never told anyone in the Institute. This is wrong, were her first and last words about it before they left.

(And what of the soul, Belinda would say after the laws were written, after the concept of parallel universes was accepted by the Institute. She was still an undergrad then, Ben’s kid sister, driving him crazy.

And what of the afterlife, she would say.

That’s the afterlife, Christopher would say in his classes. You die in a car crash, but in a parallel universe you survive. In another, you may have not gotten on that car at all. That’s your afterlife. Lives. It’s a multiple-choice heaven.

Or, he would add, it can be a chance for a god to redeem itself. With so many worlds, one world is bound to be perfect. In one world, a god with so many choices is bound to get it right.

Belinda said, “The religious will go ballistic over this.”

“Oh, yeah?” Christopher said. “I think it’s beautiful. I think it gives you hope.”)

Olivia was studying his face. “What are you thinking?” she said.

“Play something for me, Olive,” he said, and brushed her hair with his fingers.

Christopher did not recognize the music. When she was through he smiled and said, “I’ll go in for a sec.”

“Okay.”

“I love you,” Christopher said. “You are everything to me.”

Ben was on the second floor, feet planted by the doorway. “Is your sister going to be a pain in the ass?” the Christopher inside the room was saying. “Because if she is I’m not going to play.”

“Just give Belinda some red wine and she’d even play strip poker for you,” Ben said.

Laughter. Christopher stood beside Ben. “Let’s go,” he said.

Ben, who already had his hand inside his light coat, turned his head. “What?”

“Who’re you talking to?” the other Christopher said.

Kuya?

Olivia. She was standing downstairs, by the door.

“Yes, bunny?” the other Christopher said from inside the room.

Olivia was staring right at Christopher, and her mouth hung open when she heard the other voice.

“Let’s go,” Christopher said.

They ran down the stairs. Olivia had her hands on her mouth. They banged past the door, past the nipa hut, into the car. Ben quickly shifted gears. They shot out of the street.

“I can’t,” Christopher said, his hands on the dashboard, heaving with sobs. “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”

“All right,” Ben said, touching his shoulder. “All right. I’ll take you home, okay? I’ll take you home.”

*

Home was a humid April evening in 2028, Christopher staring blankly at the windows in his sister’s room, Ben and Belinda arguing downstairs, the argument climbing over the banisters.

“You need to speak to him, damn it!” Belinda was saying. “Call his doctor. He could be in shock, for God’s sake.”

“He wants to be alone, Belinda.”

“But he—“

He wants to be alone.

The argument ended. The front door opened, closed, opened again: “Hey, Chris, pal, we’re leaving, okay? You’ll call if there’s any problem, right?”

Christopher wanted to answer but he had no energy left.

“Okay,” Ben said. The door closed. A car started, left the street.

Christopher reached a hand toward the answering machine, pushed a button. “Hello, kuya, are you there?” Olivia’s voice said.

“I’m here, baby,” Christopher said, in tears again, clutching her teddy bear to his chest. But Olivia didn’t hear him. Why didn’t he answer the phone that night? Where was he, what was he doing?

“So anyway, I’m already here,” she was saying. It was already dark, she was saying. She was talking about lights, fireflies, tiny specks flitting in the distance. Somewhere a piano came to life, a violin, Olivia surrounded with music, and all the while she talked about the lights, kuya, the lights were so beautiful.

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