Your name is Dirk Strider, and you are standing strong and unafraid.
You spend your middle age feeling life seeping between your fingers no matter how tightly you grip it. It’s alright. You’re satisfied, and it isn’t all that scary.
You tinker and tweak robots quietly, and make a living as a handy-man, helping people with all kinds of electronics or mechanical issues -- from large corporations to middle-class locals. You are a jack of all trades and perhaps tread the line beyond which lies classification as master, and you suppose it’s something to be proud of. To you, it is a fact of life. It is who you are.
But your days, despite your renown for your uncanny abilities and steel trap mind, are numbered, and you feel that so much more clearly as you sit alone in the back room of your little suburban home. (It is nothing like what anyone expected of you. They expected ambition, moving up, up, beyond what anyone could dream -- you feel your indomitable heart thud in your chest and you think maybe you expected that, too.) Your creations keep you company as they always did in your youth, and you are satisfied.
(Your stomach twists and you bury a haggard face in worn, calloused hands.)
“Dear, I’m home!” The voice has a strongly lilting accent and you feel warmth.
“I’m back here,” you respond at less of a yell, and you know she can hear you -- the door is open, the washer stopped ten minutes ago, the TV volume is way down. There is a clacking of heels (not high ones -- she’s never liked them and you don’t blame her), and a kiss on your cheek that is sweet and affectionate. You inhale shakily but wrap a hand over the one that settles on your shoulder, loosely gripping the screwdriver you’d been working with in the other. Her free hand rubs your cheek experimentally. You flinch behind your ever-present shades. (You think you won’t be able to wear them constantly, soon. You’re getting older and your eyes aren’t how they used to be.)
“You haven’t shaved,” she remarks sternly, like a mother hen. You smile a little.
“It’s only been the weekend. I wasn’t going anywhere.”
“You never go anywhere,” she laughs, but it’s almost incredulous, like it was silly for him to say that. It was, and you know it.
“How do you know I’m not a secret agent? That I don’t travel to the far east to do spy work when you’re on business trips?” You keep a stern, straight face.
She laughs but doesn’t banter. (She never does, anymore. You feel a sigh swell in your throat and let it out softly through your nose.) “I’m going to order take-out since it’s getting late. What do you want to have?” You glance at the clock and are surprised to find it’s nearly eight in the evening. The subtle orange of sunset playing softly on the metal parts spread before you suddenly becomes more apparent. It glints and glows -- like rapid orange daylight flashing across the screen urgently, bright sky in the burning afternoon and green fields under a blazing twilight and the most subtle of pink clinging as day rises and retreats flaring back, red of bloodied dusk ever-present -- the color of the sky, of the horizon at dawn and sunset.
You feel quite vaguely that there is not breath in your lungs, and refrain from gasping. Instead you draw in softly, calm, never panicking. It’s a trained instinct. You could never afford to panic, to simply react. Control. You are unfailing, unbreaking, unwavering as ever, as you always had to be.
She is still waiting.
You mull over the question thoughtfully, and answer on a whim, “Papa John’s.” She hums an acknowledgment and clicks away.
(You sit until the pizza arrives -- within 30 minutes, as they always promise -- and remember. The entire world around you feels surreal, wrong. You hate it.)
“Dad, I think you’re beginning to bald,” your son remarks to you somberly at lunch a week later. You raise an eyebrow.
“My perfect hair thought it was time to show off my perfect scalp. Shines like the damn sun.” Verdant green flickers in your vision, somewhere, and your breath catches for a split moment. It’s gone before you can think, but your instincts cry out. “I’ve considered just shaving it off to help it along.” Your son snorts. He’s never been one to hold a straight face. It doesn’t entirely suit him, you think. Deep red brushes your mind and you think it doesn’t suit anyone, really, but you.
“I don’t think I could get behind that. I’m not sure I want to have to introduce my boyfriend to a skinny white guy who thinks he can pull off a shaved head.”
“Richard Melville Hall does alright.”
“Moby?” your son gawks incredulously. “First of all, you don’t really look like him or have his body type at all. Second of all, Moby looks old.”
“Not that old,” you dismiss. “He looks fine.”
“Dad, is there something you never told me?” your son plays lightly. You smile a cool smile and do not respond, though your silence is a morbidly thoughtful one. After a few minutes of comfortable quiet, you sigh a content sigh and close your eyes.
An hour later, after more joking and a little seriousness and some undercurrents and sometimes simply companionable silence (you enjoy this time with your only child -- he loves you, and you love him, and everything is okay), you sit in your car and grip the steering wheel, evening orange giving a warmer cast to pale, calloused hands.
You feel hollowness in your chest -- not an ache, but an emptiness, a simple lack that leaves you listless, drifting with nothing to hold to or even to pine for. It does not long to be filled. It is a chasm, and you try to remember a time when you didn’t --
There. Cyan text, bright-sky words, verdant meadows spreading unending into a pink-touched sunset. You wonder when you started thinking in such imagery. Perhaps your age has mellowed you. A softer shade of sunlight, you muse.
You start your car, shift out of park, and leave the parking lot silently. Halfway home, you flip the radio on.
The following week, you are alone.
Your wife is working, away on a business trip. Your son is busy with college and his boyfriend and his father is far from his mind. You love your family.
The chasm gapes like a painless wound, and you are listless.
It is Tuesday afternoon, only the day after your wife left, and the robotic feline you made long ago for your son stares up at you curiously. It tilts its head at you as you sit at your worktable, flipping a coin between your fingers. You’ve never been one for nervous habits, and you don’t think of this as one. It’s how you entertained yourself -- something to focus on. The cat has been watching since you sat down there that morning with a bowl of oatmeal that’s only half-eaten now (you remember times when it was pidgeon meat for breakfast each day with the hard, half-burnt bread you made because you were so young and cooking wasn’t something you could do, but you’d never known anything better).
When the clock strikes two, the metal feline leaps into your lap and purrs -- a staticky hum. You inhale and, when you exhale, you smile slightly. Unbidden, you recall the tender companionship you experienced once -- Huggy Bear, silent and noble and sweet, and bright-sky warmth with him.
You don’t know where things went wrong.
The game was beaten and you were all free, memories intact and nightmares ever-present, but free and in a new world with new lives ahead. And you’d grown, you’d gotten closer -- all four of you (all eight of you, all twenty of you but all of you felt the sense of discomfort when it’s not just your respective groups, as it ought to have been). You’d learned what it was to have a life that didn’t fixate on chaos and salvation -- a life that didn’t fixate on indomitable heart, unfailing life, unending hope, and your own personal void to hide yourselves away together. It felt like a dream to look to the future and see the colors Jake so easily saw -- bright warmth, so many opportunities. What could be?
You had dived in eagerly and absorbed this world nervously. It took years of therapy to overcome inexplicable speech problems (you’d never learned to speak in your first life -- that part of your brain was written over), fear of touch, separation anxiety, and all the monumental disorders and complexes that each of you faced. It was a mar on your childhoods but none of you let it stop you. You had faced much worse than the horrors of your minds. So much worse.
You stepped into the world -- brave, undefeatable, together, but somewhere you’d slipped apart.
Jake was the first to leave, though he never truly left. He was as present in his pesterlogs as he’d been when he was at your side on your first date, your socially inept wingman (you wouldn’t have it any other way). But he was busy; he was making a name for himself, becoming what he could never have hoped to be. There was no pressure to save the world (no pressure to raise a little girl to do so, either); there was no volcano to singe his nose hairs with every breath when he trekked up the mountain sometimes. He was becoming who he’d always dreamed of being.
Roxy became a scientist after some years of schooling -- she worked for a company on all kinds of things that she once would babble incessantly in your ear about, unabashed and unhindered by the miles of ocean (by the indomitable daughter who never trusted her, who could never trust her if the girl was to stand on her own two feet when the time came). She moved onward, upward, and did everything to the betterment of people, and you, her friends, could not have loved her more for it.
Jane did exactly as everyone always knew she would and opened a little bakery that would quickly become a growing chain. She never became a CEO of the company -- or, she did, but in name only. She baked and worked daily in the kitchens of the first bakery she’d opened, and she loved it. You used to visit her every week because neither of you left the city, unlike Roxy and Jake.
You pet the cat softly and stare at the ticking clock.
You had begun making robots immediately, and made your living just as you do now. Jane told you every day as you sat on the stainless steel counters of the back kitchen of her bakery while she prepared whatever food was next on the list that you could soar -- you could be so much more than any of them if you merely poured yourself into it. She could never understand that you were soaring. Your friends were happy, you were happy. You had everything.
Jane was the first to marry, and it was only at 32 that you started thinking about that aspect of your life.
Romance seemed like a distant anomaly. You had loved Jake, for a while -- a lifetime ago -- but there was no time, there was never any time, and this life was a new one, a fresh start, with opportunities you’d never had, and you supposed at the time that you’d simply been more invested in exploring a world you’d never thought you could have, nevermind the twisted longing for a doomed relationship with your best friend in a dying world.
You said as much to Jane, after announcement of her engagement.
”All this hype got me thinking,” you mused.
”Dare I ask what hype you’re referring to?” she replied wryly.
”Only the fact that you’ve just recently doomed yourself to the rest of your life or his with a completely lame guy.”
“He is not lame,” she protested but you could always tell when she was laughing on the inside.
”Sure, Crocker. Anyway, I was thinking about myself, despite your troubling situation. I’ll bail you out later when you’re desperate to get away from the most boring man in the world. Do you think I should settle down? Grow old in a little countryside rancher, raise a couple kids, watch sunsets from a pair of rockers on the porch -- you know.”
“A dilemma indeed. You only have this lifetime to experience things like that, Dirk.” You sometimes forgot how philosophical she could be -- how special her philosophy was, because so often she missed those kinds of things but when she caught them she understood it in a way that you couldn’t. She’d learned that from Jake (you’d always told her -- she needed to be more like Jake) -- one couldn’t always examine the evidence, search for a definite answer, because sometimes there wasn’t one. Sometimes it was merely take a step and find out and she always saw more than you could that you were more machine than man.
It took only those words to remind you that this was your only chance -- you couldn’t live another life. Not this time.
You met a girl. Fell in love -- it was terrifying to feel and you hated it and you wanted to run but instead you kissed her, married her, made a classic love story (chick flick) out of your life, and you thought it’d be fair for the world, this world that took away so many chances the first time (that still stole so many maybes, what ifs, that wouldn’t let you be the father you needed to be the first time, that wouldn’t let you have the father you needed the second), to let you have this one thing. This normalcy, this quietus, these final days with your friends -- your son, your wife -- your heart.
Jane got married while you and your future wife were still dating.
You didn’t shed a tear at the wedding, but four months later, when she and her husband move because his work demanded it, you felt a little lonely. But you invested yourself in the simple life you were leading and proposed a few months after.
Jane attended the wedding, and it was alright.
You could never tell, after a while, just when it was that you lost track of them. Roxy was so invested in her work, and Jake was always moving around, and slowly, so slowly, you all drifted. You never felt it until Jane failed to answer on Pesterchum one rare evening. Never in any life had you felt so alone.
You have not spoken to any of them in over ten years -- since just after your forty-third birthday -- and you feel the time slipping away.
It is Thursday and you have not shaved, nor have you eaten much more than hard, overdone bread (you never did get the hang of it) and oatmeal.
When you open Pesterchum, it is on a whim, and you sit at your workbench staring at the screen for a long moment. You remove your shades because it’s gotten far too hard to decipher things on the screen through them, and using them as your computer burns your eyes, these days. You examine the familiar old program. It has not changed since you used it last, four years ago. You look at your contacts list.
You nearly flinch at how short it is, and you consider each handle thoughtfully. Before you can think to click one, a window pops up.
TG: so its been a while
TG: like five years
TG: whys that
TG: did you decide to disown me in favor of your less paradoxically related son
TG: im hurt
TG: im just as much your offspring as he is
You blink, caught off-guard, and after a brief hesitation, type a reply.
TT: First of all.
TT: You’re not really my son, considering we’re basically the same age. I don’t think you’re even biologically related to me this time.
TT: Second of all, I’m sorry.
TT: Didn’t mean to pull that on you. It was pretty bad of me.
You’re too tired to ramble, you suppose. Maybe you’ve grown sick of it. You’re fifty-three years old and you just don’t have the heart to pour into it like you used to. You have little left of your Heart at all.
There’s a pause.
TG: yeah youre fuckin awful
TG: so whyre you getting on now
Dave has aged. You feel it in his words.
TT: Paradox Space is more cruel than any of us ever gave it credit for.
TT: And has a fondness for irony, I suppose, though it’s a bit too bitter for my taste.
He says nothing so you carry on.
TT: I thought it giving us this kindness to balance for everything it took.
TT: The opportunity to live normal lives. Or at least live lives resembling those of families from B-rated sitcoms.
TT: Got married, expected fucking Full House. Hell, I’d rock Bob Saget’s do if that’s what it takes.
TT: Don’t know what I was thinking.
TT: It fucking played us all one last time. We fell right into it and fell apart, and we’re old, Dave.
TT: Older than anyone else on this planet and we’ve still never managed to scrounge together happiness.
TT: We were never meant to live normal lives and we never could’ve fucking known until we were trapped there.
TT: How many of us are married with kids? In our fifties and three lifetimes past our time.
You pause and he immediately begins typing.
TG: i know
TG: times shitty like that
TG: it only happens to you once
TG: and then by the time you know youre nowhere near where you wanted to be its too late
TG: half your lifes wasted on something you werent even meant to do
You flinch and remember that he’d know better than anyone. He’s aged so much.
Neither of you say anything further. The clock strikes eleven and you log off. You’re far too old to be up so late.
You don’t wait -- don’t hesitate -- the next day.
It’s a few minutes before you get a reply -- ten years too late.
GG: It’s been so long!
GG: You haven’t been online at all for much of that time, in fact. Did something happen?
TT: Nah, I’m alright.
You briefly think this was a bad idea. You don’t know what to say. It’s been ten years. Of course Jane would realize. She wouldn’t just forget. She’s sharp as a tac and knows you as well as you know yourself. That’s exactly what makes her so easy to talk to.
TT: Where are you?
There’s a brief pause, and you wonder if it was the wrong question to ask.
GG: In your city, actually! :B
GG: If you’re still in the same area, that is.
GG: I just arrived home this morning.
TT: You moved back?
You pause and wonder -- but then dismiss it. You’ll see her soon enough. A meeting is arranged and, when you close your computer after a few minutes of very brief catching up, you think briefly about the fact that it has been fourteen years since you last saw her. The chasm twists and, for the first time, hurts.
Jane has aged gracefully and you think she might have cracked one of your ribs with the hug she gave you. She seems surprised when you return it in full. You have never been entirely comfortable with touching -- not even with your dearest friends. You will never forget the past life spent in isolation, but you will never forget the past fourteen years spent in isolation, either.
The pair of you sit in your home as she bakes you dinner and you watch, kicking your feet from your perch on the granite countertop just like you did all those years ago.
You banter like no time has passed at all and, just like you did all those years ago, you are soaring. All feels as it was meant to be, nevermind the lurking sense that it was not.
When the homecooked meal of oven macaroni is being cooked by your fancy oven, she leans on the countertop beside you, closer than you would allow for nearly anyone else.
“So, Dirk Strider,” she says, and you regard her with an almost playful coolness. “We have spent the entire evening hedging.”
“And I feel more secure than ever,” you answer with more heart than you’ve had in a long, long time -- though your tone was no less deadpan. She gives you a look but you see laughter in her face (in the wrinkles around her eyes, you see that she has not laughed like that in a long time).
“Mister Strider, I will not let you change the subject this time.” Her voice is firm and nearly laughing still, but honest. She isn’t letting you off. Her face softens with sobriety. “I’ve never quite understood how this all happened,” she admits. “How we all got so separated, I mean.” Her brow furrows and she stares past you. You sigh.
“It was a chance at lives dangled in front of our faces for two lifetimes -- and finally it was offered to us all on a silver platter in china teacups with saucers made of gold. We took it.” You inhale, and the chasm gapes, stings. She is looking at you with the ache of age and loss and concern written in her face, and you look back wearily. “We weren’t meant for these kinds of lives, Jane. We’re always going to be the pieces that don’t really fit, except with each other.” You think you’d be okay if you could only find your heart again. You think you could resign yourself to these final days without needing to wonder what might have been.
She smiles and hugs you and you think you have it.
Your wife and son will never understand it, nor will anyone else’s families.
You think they’re a little scared that you’ll leave them. You don’t know what to do about that. But after two weeks of daily visiting this little, old bakery not too far away, and coming home sometimes with an old friend to cook dinner, you think they’ve relaxed a little. That’s good. You still don’t quite know how to deal with things like that. You’re still more machine than man.
For Jane’s part, her husband doesn’t seem to question it. He joins the two of you (and your wife) for dinner sometimes, but he is a businessman and isn’t always there. That’s always been the case, Jane tells you one evening as the dusky orange offsetting pink-touched clouds stretches across the horizon. The two of you are sitting in rockers on the porch and your wife is out with her friends.
You reach out without a thought and she takes your hand. It’s too late for anything to come of it, you both know -- it’s too late, and you’ll never quite have your heart as you could have, but you think you’ll be alright with this.