Intersections

by Eliza Victoria

Wormhole illustration by Allen McCloud.

There was no storm but when Jacob woke up it was raining again. It had been raining for five days now. Every now and then the skies would take a break, but since the clouds were too thick to let the sun shine through, these rainless episodes did nothing else but surprise him with the sudden silence. He would be checking papers or re-reading the story he would be discussing with his sophomore class later in the day, and he would look up, suddenly filled with dread. Isaac? he would begin to call, and then he’d realize it was just the rain, the absence of it, and he’d catch himself just in time, before the name could leave his mouth. Once he almost fell asleep re-reading The Pied Piper of Hamelin for what felt like the hundredth time (Just how many years had he been teaching this class?) when the rain stopped, and he sat up and shouted, “Isaac?” Jacob was in the kitchen eating pandesal, surrounded by photocopied pages and notes, and somewhere inside the apartment unit a blanket was thrown back, followed by an irate growl. “Fuck it, Jacob,” Isaac’s voice called. “It’s six in the morning. What is your problem?”

Jacob remembered feeling embarrassed, feeling like a small child.

*

Jacob looked out of the window in the living room, then down, dismayed at the sight of the flood in front of the building. Travel was going to be a bitch. The wind was making the droplets of water fall at a slant, and Jacob was reminded of how Isaac hated the rain. He said weather disturbances interfered with his calculations.

Jacob wasn’t like Isaac. If he felt a project was hopeless he’d admit failure. After the collapse of the August portal, for example, he bought gin, got absurdly drunk, and just agreed to accept his life, this life that for so long he had embraced because he thought it was just a temporary arrangement, because he thought he was just trying to humor the universe. Okay, I’m here, might as well wing it. Isaac took it hard, but being Isaac he refused to talk about it.

But really, he was alive, Isaac was alive – must they still care about where they were, must they still care about going home? But when the disappearances began he found that he couldn’t wing it any longer. Isaac, hunched once again over his formulae, became more irritable as the days passed. Especially after Adalina disappeared. The girl’s aunt thought Isaac’s reaction when she broke the news stemmed from despair. Isaac, who often stayed home, allowed Addie to watch television inside their unit and seemed to be quite fond of her, the aunt said, smiling that sad smile of hers, but Jacob knew better. Isaac despaired, sure, but only because he was envious. Jacob knew that Isaac wanted what he believed Addie had found—a way out of this place.

*

Jacob ate breakfast in the living room, in front of the television. He ate slowly, savoring a second cup of coffee as the newscasters talked about the “slow-moving storm” causing the days and days of rain.

“We do believe it’s connected to the portal,” a voice said, and Jacob looked up. Onscreen was some expert, some guy in glasses and a crisp suit. The news shows had a segment about what happened in August almost every other day. At first the experts were all frightened and excited, but now only the fear remained. What if the portal wasn’t an entryway, but a vortex? What if it was now eating the world, piece by piece?

They flashed the names onscreen. Twenty-four people living in the surrounding areas, more than half of them children.

“An affinity? Based on age, you mean?” said the expert, echoing the question. “We really cannot say.”

*

A quick shower. Laptop picked up, books swiped into a bag. He was just about to close the door behind him when Jacob turned back and decided to check on Isaac. Isaac’s room was unlocked, the curtains drawn. The open PC threw a square of light on the sheets. The bed was empty. Jacob found that he couldn’t breathe, his mind clutching at the first thought that arrived. He found it. He found it, and he left me here alone.

“Jacob?”

Jacob jumped. Isaac was coming from the kitchen, carrying a bowl. “You’re still here?” Isaac said, and brought the spoon to his lips. A crunch of cereal. “You’re already late.”

Jacob by then had calmed down enough to say, “You’re still working on it?”

“Now? No.” Isaac sighed. “I’m working on an ad copy. But maybe later.” He entered his room and drew back the curtains. “It’s still raining,” Isaac said, mostly to himself. He sounded weary. He sounded as though he had been betrayed.

*

Jacob wasn’t in a hurry to get to the school because he knew, with the weather, only a handful of students would come to his class. So he was surprised when he found more than ten students waiting for him, bundled in jackets and sweaters and looking either stupefied or sleepy. Ten, nearly half the number of his total students. They must continue with the session then. “You losers!” he said when he banged in, startling the kids out of their stupor. “What in the world are you doing here?”

They laughed. He was the Literature professor, the teacher with the subject genuinely loved by at most five people in any class, but he was young, he was everybody’s buddy.

Jacob leaned against his table and crossed his arms. “Do you really want to have class today?”

The students just smiled at him.

“I’ll do you a favor,” Jacob said. “Let’s turn this into a review session for the next big exam, then we’ll call it a day. Also: an automatic five points for every one of you.”

The kids cheered. Out in the hall, in an area that Jacob had earlier avoided, tiny spotlights were trained on the pictures on the corkboard. Addie smiled in one of them. HAVE YOU SEEN THEM? the board asked, the words pasted above the illuminated faces.

*

According to the legend, the Pied Piper of Hamelin lured the rats away from the wretched town with his music. When he didn’t get his payment for his services, he lured the children away.

The numbers vary, but usually the stories say the Pied Piper left the town of Hamelin with 130 children. The stories say he sealed the children in a cave.

“He made them enter a doorway in a cave?”

“He made them enter a portal in a cave,” Jacob said. “That’s how I see it.” He was so in love with this theory he actually used this in an introduction to the first paper they presented to the Institute.

The stories say at most two children survived: a blind child, who tripped and was not able to follow; and a deaf child, who didn’t hear the music and was simply dragged along and later was left behind.

If only he were blind and Isaac deaf.

“Where do you think he took them?” Jacob asked.

“He drowned them,” Isaac said. “He drowned them in the Weser River, like what he did with the rats.”

*

Jacob still remembered the list:

One. The prisoner in Russia, known only as C. Gress, who disappeared into thin air in front of his own captors.

Two. A young couple in Cebu, a Mr. and Mrs. Adlawan, who ordered take-out from a restaurant, but wasn’t there when the delivery guy came. There were two mugs of hot coffee on the dinner table, but the house was empty. Nothing was missing, there was no sign of a break-in. The call to the restaurant was made just twenty-eight minutes earlier; twenty-eight minutes later, the man and the woman simply ceased to exist.

Three. An unnamed boy in Jersey who left the house to fetch water and was never heard from again. The boy’s sister and father looked for him, and they saw the boy’s footprints in the snow. Except that the tracks stopped halfway through their yard.

There were more.

*

The portals were phenomena that could not be predicted, until Isaac and Jacob came up with an equation and a program that could pinpoint the location and the date of appearance of a doorway. Just like the weather forecasts, the program predictions were never perfect, but it was a start.

The first item that was thrown through the first portal that they found – the Institute had to fly them all the way to the United Kingdom just to test if the coordinates their program had coughed up were correct – was a copy of Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, in the original Spanish. The portals were invisible. That was what got to Jacob. They had the coordinates, they could throw the book and watch it disappear, but they couldn’t see the door at all.

The coordinates led them to a small town thirteen miles outside of London, and Jacob remembered freezing in the cold and goofing around with Isaac, saying that the people on the other side might just throw the book back at them. “We should have given them the Filipino translation,” Isaac said.

“Or Derbyshire’s,” Jacob said.

“Heck, we should have given them food,” Isaac said.

But they wondered: they found the portals, there were records of people and objects disappearing, but nothing ever came out of the doorways into their world. Nothing was thrown back. As though the doors were one-way, swinging shut and locking themselves, and you were never given the key.

*

The ultimate goal of course was to create their own portals, carve out their own doorways whenever and wherever they wished. For what? Exploration? Invasion? Who knew.

If this did happen, Isaac and Jacob were no longer around to see this.

*

They disappeared on Institute grounds.

It was to be their third discovered portal, and became quite an Institute event (there were at most only eight people who knew about the project, but it was an event nonetheless) because it was the first portal predicted to appear on Philippine soil.

The coordinates pointed to the tennis court, and all eight of them – Jacob and Isaac the only ones in their twenties – crowded around the invisible door, predicted by the equation to appear between 11:30 to 11:45 pm, for at most fourteen seconds.

They must have stood right next to the portal and went through by accident. On the other side, they landed not on pavement, but on grass, and it was still the Institute but the buildings looked wrong. The night janitor thought they were college brats high on some drug and took pity on them. “I’m pretty sure that department doesn’t exist, son,” he told Jacob, and led them out.

They sat under a waiting shed outside the campus and couldn’t move. “Shit,” they said almost every half hour, looking around, touching the stone bench, looking up at the sky. “Shit.” It was Isaac who finally took charge, dragging Jacob, who could only say “This cannot be happening” over and over.

But it was happening. They had cash on them, plenty, but of course their credit cards were useless. They checked into a cheap hotel, with papery sheets and unyielding pillows, and Jacob remembered feeling too shocked to cry that first night. He remembered even falling asleep.

*

“If we got back, we could write a paper about this,” Jacob pronounced the next morning over a breakfast of coffee and fast-food eggs and longganisa, the television in their hotel room blaring news sounding both alien and familiar. It was the word if that got to Isaac, the word if that swung him toward desperation and the dusty phonebook on the bedside table. Jacob watched Isaac whip through the pages, searching for a name. The equation was in their heads, they knew. They could do the calculations again. What they needed was money, and time, and basic hardware, a roof over their heads. The security of an identity. How long would it take? A month, a year? Several years? What Isaac needed was hope, an equation answer that would turn that if into a when.

Isaac pushed the page to his face. Isaac’s name was in the phonebook. Jacob’s name was not.

*

When Jacob said it was ringing Isaac stood up and began walking in a tight circle between their beds. Jacob watched Isaac, the movement of his feet, his worried expression.

“Hello?”

Jacob tried hard not to scream. “Uh, hi,” he said into the receiver. “Can I speak with Isaac Buena, please?”

“Yep, speaking.”

All the endless permutations, and here another young man ended up with the same name. There had been cases of twins separated at birth who found, thirty years later, that they had given the same name to their first daughters, but could the same connection span worlds, jump through the holes between universes?

“Hi, Isaac,” Jacob said. In front of him, Isaac paced and paced and paced. “This is Jacob.”

Silence, then a short laugh. “Now you’ll think I’m an ass, but I’m very bad with names,” Isaac said. “Have we met somewhere before? Were you at that seminar?”

Isaac Buena’s address was in the phonebook, anyway, and Jacob was too shaken now to lie. He hung up. Isaac stopped pacing and sat on his bed. “Well?” he said.

“He doesn’t know who I am,” Jacob said in a small voice.

*

A simple online search yielded several networking accounts for Isaac Buena, his status messages, unrestricted, every now and then betraying his location. Here at SM looking for a Wi-Fi router. Because the Institute did not exist, Isaac Buena did not belong to the Institute. He worked for an ad company, and oftentimes worked from home in an apartment unit in the city.

A search for Jacob’s full name yielded nothing. No birth records, no obituaries. Nothing. While Isaac searched for a reliable city map online, Jacob sat on his bed, listening to the noise of the busy streets below. I am not, he thought, looking at the pale sky outside the window, at the traffic, at his face reflected on the TV screen. I am not. All the endless permutations, all the pathways that could have been taken, and yet he did not come to be.

*

They went to the apartment building at around nine p.m. the next night with a rental car and a plan so general and so vague it allowed room for improvisation. And failure, too, but Jacob didn’t want to think of that as he climbed up the stairs with Isaac. They were able to easily pick the door’s lock. Inside, Isaac examined the furniture, the books and DVDs on display. “I cannot imagine living here,” he said. Jacob didn’t comment.

The Isaac of that time and place had the habit of locking the door first before turning on the lights, so he practically flattened himself against the wall when the lights came on and Jacob was standing there with –

“What the hell?” said that Isaac of that universe.

It was Jacob who did the talking. He talked as though he were running out of time.

“We just need to stay here,” Jacob said, “until we can find another portal and leave.”

All three of them were still standing as Jacob finished. “No,” Isaac Two said. “This can’t be happening.”

“Believe me, that’s exactly what I said when we ended up here,” Jacob said.

Isaac Two entered a room without a word. He came back carrying a baseball bat.

“Get out,” Isaac Two said. The bat was still lowered but Jacob raised his arms and moved toward the door. Isaac stayed put. “I want the two of you to get out.”

Jacob’s face fell. “Don’t tell me you don’t believe me.” He pointed at Isaac. “Look at him! Unless you have a twin you have no way of explaining his existence.”

“Get out!” Isaac Two looked terrified. He raised the bat. His hands were shaking. Jacob silently thanked him for not having a gun. “Get out. Now!”

“We tried, Jacob,” Isaac whispered, and Jacob could only nod.

Isaac turned and tackled Isaac Two to wrench the bat from his hand. It took a minute of struggle. It took three blows. Jacob was so repulsed by the sight of a second Isaac lying bleeding on the floor that he thought he would throw up.

They bundled him up in several sheets, both Jacob and Isaac not saying anything. As they lumbered down the staircase they both wondered (but didn’t say) why they even bothered to disguise the body – there was no one else standing in the hallways. They put the body in the trunk along with the shovels and drove away.

They could also burn him, but they chose the other option. As far as they knew there was no one else with them, no one else who saw them. They considered this lack of witnesses as the universe granting permission. Isaac was the designated driver, but his hands, covered now with dirt and scrapes, were shaking too hard when they got back into the car, so Jacob took over. On the drive back to the apartment unit that now belonged to them, Isaac stared at his hands and burst into tears.

*

They spent the first week alternatively fighting and psyching each other up. This is temporary, this is temporary, this is temporary. Isaac hacked into the other Isaac’s email account and sent a message to his boss saying that he was not feeling well and would like to go on vacation for at least a week, and could he be given an update on the projects that he should be working on? They worked on the equation again, coding the program from scratch. As Isaac fed calculations to the program, Jacob took a walk around the neighborhood, thinking of a job he could take. He ended up in a park and sat down, resting his legs. Beside him sat a girl watching his father buy fish balls from a stand.

“Hello,” the girl said. Jacob turned to her, surprised, and then smiled.

“You live in the apartment.” It was not a question.

“How did you know that?” Jacob said.

“I’ve seen you,” the girl said. “You’re friends with Isaac?”

Jacob felt slightly cold. This girl knew the Isaac they had – “That’s right.”

“Isaac’s nice.”

Jacob wondered about that. The Isaac he knew didn’t like children very much.

“I’m Adalina,” the girl said. “Addie for short.”

“I’m Jacob,” Jacob said. Then he added, “I like being called ‘Jacob’ just fine.”

Addie laughed. Later on Jacob was introduced to Addie’s father, who tipped him off about the faculty vacancy in the nearby high school.

*

And so Jacob sprang into existence as the high school Literature professor. He was an English major before he joined the Institute in his other life, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch. At first he was worried about the (fake) documents he had passed to the school, but after nearly half a year with no incident, he began to relax. He wouldn’t say he loved this new life, but he thought it wasn’t so bad.

Only when Isaac received calls from his parents (the same parents, it turned out, as the ones he had in the world on the other side of the portal) did Jacob feel desolate. He didn’t exist here; he had no one to call and no one to call him. Back home, both his parents were alive and well, and he had a sister and a brother. He wanted to see them again. This is temporary, Isaac would say, and he would nod and try to believe him.

*

There was, however, nothing temporary in the way the streets twisted and turned in what was supposed to be his hometown, nothing temporary in the way the garments factory stood on the lot where his house was supposed to be. He asked around, the first and last time he decided to explore the place, but not a single face looked familiar to him. He tried to track down his parents, using the phonebook and the Internet, but he couldn’t find them anywhere. Where they simply not born? Where they given different names? He found names of friends, but every time he called he would remember the other Isaac, how clueless he was and how open (Were you at that seminar?), and he would hang up before he could hear a voice respond.

What else could he do? An entire universe stood in his way.

*

Isaac told him about a positive reading around late July, seven months after they went through, and Jacob felt a rush of joy, strong enough to make him keel over. Around August, Isaac said, and pointed out the intersection on the map. Jacob checked the variables himself and could hardly believe his eyes. The portal would appear around August. They didn’t care if it appeared in a marketplace, or a mall. They would go through, even in front of several hundred people. They would go home.

It turned out that the intersection was a street. Jacob at once knew that this portal was different because when it appeared in the midst of midday traffic that August it had a distinct shimmer to it. Jacob shouted at Isaac to run, now, run but the jeepney driver saw the shimmer too and was so surprised he turned and headed toward the sidewalk and couldn’t stop. Jacob yanked Isaac away and hit his head and lost consciousness. Somewhere in the pile-up that resulted were Addie’s parents, injured upon impact. They later died.

The portal remained open for twenty minutes – a record in itself. Police tape was rolled out. Guards with shields came, shooing away the street children who threw rocks at the shimmering wall, whooping as the rocks magically disappeared. The media set up their cameras, interviewing the experts who came over. What is this?

Isaac could have run to the portal alone if he had wanted to, and Jacob did ask him this later, at the hospital. “I’d feel too guilty if I left you here,” Isaac said. That’s true, Jacob thought, but there was also the pile-up and the screaming victims, there were the guards and their guns. Too many obstacles. If they were not there, could Isaac have –

But Jacob did not want to ask that question.

“That’s it, then,” Jacob said. “We’re stuck here for all of eternity.”

“Of course not,” Isaac said. “There’ll be another portal, soon enough.”

*

The first person who disappeared after the August portal collapsed was a male college student renting a room in a house along that street. His landlady said the boy came down to apologize for the late payment and said he would go get his money now. The college student went up the stairs and into his room. The landlady said she waited for “almost an hour”, watching the TV, and when she couldn’t wait anymore she went up to look for him, and couldn’t find him.

“There was no other way for him to get out of the house other than the front door, or the windows in his room,” the landlady said, “but the windows were locked from the inside when I checked on his room, and all his clothes were there, his bag, his money.”

*

After the third disappearance Jacob knew that somewhere, in an office, the Institute was being formed. Probably not the exact same Institute that he and Isaac knew, but the Institute nonetheless.

*

It was possible that the portals were now appearing at such a frequency and at so short a time that Isaac couldn’t keep up, couldn’t pin down their locations.

Maybe one day Isaac would walk into his room or the kitchen, and there would be silence, and Jacob wouldn’t be at all surprised.

*

This was what he was thinking when he got home and found that the apartment unit was empty.

Jacob tried calling Isaac’s phone, but it wouldn’t even ring.

He set down his books and his bag and made his own dinner, drank his coffee. He turned on the TV and watched whatever was on. He waited for three hours.

This is it, then, he thought to himself. If the collapse of the August portal would indeed lead to the creation of the Institute in this particular universe, then he had better find a way to contact its members, to present his case. Help me, he imagined himself saying to them. Please help me.

And if there was no Institute, if the portals had disappeared forever – what then? What’s next?

When Isaac finally burst through the door, arms full of stuff from the grocery, his keys between his teeth, Jacob couldn’t quite explain his sudden tears, his feelings of mingled relief and remorse. Isaac set down his bags and sat in front of him, open-mouthed and confused, and tried to find the words to console him.

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