Four months later
Maps and drawings of different buildings and natural rock features paper the walls of Hamid’s flat, covering nearly every available surface save for the windows. Each drawing is at least slightly different; some focus on different buildings - there’s a church steeple that can be found in many of the drawings, always from different angles. The desk is littered with markers and sheets, strewn haphazardly across the dark wood.
Hamid’s doodling again. He does this a lot in his free time, nowadays - and, since it’s the winter holidays, that means he has a lot. It’s all something that’s been on his mind for a while, some weird fixation he has for this town he can barely remember. He remembers it being Zolf’s town, and he wants to find Zolf again, figure out why the switches stopped, figure out why his phone has been disconnected. But he can’t even recall the name of the town, just some information about the layout and geography that he hopes will help as he tries to find it.
He remembers it being in the south, somewhere near Bristol, but that’s the extent of it.
He remembers the school; running there with Sasha and Brock for a picnic near the hill, laying on the grass in the sun as the kids played on the playground. He remembers the town square, Feryn playfully wrestling with him as they headed over to the mines. The lake in the middle of the town, that they would look over while they sat up on the ridge at golden hour.
Golden hour .
There was some sort of significance there, Hamid knew there was, but it was like it was locked away in his head, inaccessible. He’d tried to remember what it meant, tried to think what Feryn had told him about it, but it was like static had covered everything. It was more than a little frustrating.
This is why he was drawing the town from all different angles, trying to recreate the best picture from his memory as he could, in hopes that someone would recognize it and tell him where he could start looking.
There’s a gentle knock on his door and Hamid pauses, setting the pencil down and calling out a, “Come in!” as he continues surveying the other drawings on the wall. He’s close, he knows. All he needs to do is put everything together and then he can leave, can go search for Zolf and this mysterious town and figure out what the hell
“Hamid?” he hears the door creak open, and turns. Liliana and Gideon are standing there in the doorway, looking around at all the photos on the wall with confusion and concern warring on their faces. Hamid gets up and throws his arms around both of them, feeling them slightly relax.
“When did you get back from your trip abroad?” he asks, squeezing them tightly.
“Just this morning. Stopped by Liliana’s place to grab some things and feed Hubert, then came over here,” Gideon says, clapping Hamid on the back. “Missed you, mate.”
He lets them go and retreats back to his desk chair to sit, pulling one knee up and wrapping his arm around it.
“So, how was the trip?” he asks, grinning at the two of them. Liliana smiles back and sits on the couch, cheeks red.
“It was lovely!” she says, and then glances up at Gideon.
“Hamid, we have something we want to tell you,” Gideon says, sitting down on the same couch as Liliana and giving him a nervous look. Hamid glances between the two, taking in Liliana’s nervous flush and Gideon’s weak smile.
“Oh! Oh. Oh, my god, Lili, are you pregnant?” Hamid nearly yells, clapping his hands over his mouth.
“What? No, absolutely not, that’s - no, Hamid, what the hell?” Liliana says in return, face scrunching up in disgust. Gideon looks equally horrified at her side, face gone white as a sheet. “Why is that where - never mind, don’t want to know. No, Hamid, just. We’re… seeing each other.”
Hamid blinks at them both for a moment. “Uh… yes? I already know that.”
Gideon and Liliana both look surprised - well, Gideon more so than Liliana, who holds out a hand that Gideon slips a tenner into.
“Told you he’d figured it out,” Liliana says, holding Gideon’s hand in her own.
Hamid gives Gideon a faux-betrayed look. “Gideon, you both literally went on a three-week vacation together. I’m not stupid .”
Gideon opens his mouth and Hamid just holds up a hand. “Low-hanging fruit, Gideon, please,” and Gideon grins over at him, while Hamid rolls his eyes fondly.
They keep chatting, talking about their trip to Vienna and how beautiful everything was, and throughout all of it Gideon is looking at Liliana like she hung the moon and the stars.
He’s excited for his friends; really, he is. They seem so happy, even if it is quite ironic that Gideon used to tease him for being into Liliana (he wasn’t, thank you.) and now he’s the one who’s seeing her.
He’s excited for his friends. That doesn’t mean his chest doesn’t twinge every time he sees them smile at each other, doesn’t mean he doesn’t think of Zolf and wish he could have that too. But he’s so happy for them, and tells them so, even if he does stare down at the drawings after they leave the room as his hands shake.
I have to find you.
Gideon and Liliana are almost disgustingly domestic, which would probably be an annoyance if Hamid wasn’t a romantic at heart. Still, it’s hard not to think about holding a hand in his own, being able to cuddle next to someone he loves, so Hamid keeps researching with a renewed vigor. He checks out encyclopedias from the library, looks through magazines and maps to see if there’s anywhere that matches this place, but can never find any clues.
Gideon has all but moved out of the apartment a few weeks after they get back, so Hamid has a lot of time on his own to keep looking. University will be starting up again soon, and his free time will slowly be dwindling down when he has classes and assignments and a new student teaching position to fill, so he works harder, trying to chip away at this mystery. He wants to find Zolf, wants to be able to talk to him, just once, even, and tell him that he loves him.
You could call him obsessed, but Hamid likes to think he’s dedicated.
He’s surprised a few days before classes start by the buzzing sound coming from the doorbell. He glances at the video screen next to the doorbell and grins widely.
“Saira? Aziza?” Hamid exclaims, seeing his two older sisters standing down below his flat and waving at the camera. “Come up, come up, please!”
He can see them both giggle as the door unlocks, and they head over to the lift to get to his and Gideon’s floor. There’s a knock at the door moments later and Hamid throws it open, grinning up at the both of them.
“Hamid!” they exclaim in tandem, and pull him into a tight hug. He squeezes back with all he’s got, laughing into their shoulders. It’s been a few months since he’s been able to see either of them, after electing to stay at his flat instead of heading home for the holidays.
“What are you two doing here?” he asks, letting go of them but reaching down to hold their hands. Saira laughs, reaching out to poke him in the cheek. Hamid bats her hand away, giggling.
“Don’t you pay attention? Aziza’s company is here for a show starting next week. She wanted to come early and surprise you, and I had some vacation time left that Mr. Apophis told me to use up, so we decided to show up together.”
“Really?” he asks, turning toward Aziza. She nods, grinning. “That’s wonderful! How are mum and dad? Saleh? The twins?”
Aziza is the one to respond this time. “The twins are terrors. Mother told me that they broke the expensive Ming vase in the hallway while playing around, and apparently Ishaak has broken his arm again. He won’t tell anyone who did it, so it was probably an accident involving Ismail.”
“Saleh is doing well,” Saira chimes in. “He’s in rehab again, but it really feels like it’s taking this time. I think it’s going to work out for him. Honestly.”
“That’s wonderful!” Hamid says, clapping. “I’ll have to send my love. And mum and dad?”
Aziza and Saira share a look, and Hamid’s stomach sinks. “The bank is doing well, so dad is doing fine. Mum is struggling, with Saleh in rehab again, but I think she’ll get used to it soon. Plus, the twins are going away to boarding school soon, so she’s trying to come to terms with the fact that the house will be quieter than normal. Dad is planning vacations for them all the time so that she doesn’t have to be in an empty house.”
Hamid looks down, guilty. “I should go visit.”
Aziza nods. “You should. And if you don’t, I’ll drag mum and dad here, and you know I will.”
Hamid shudders; he loves his parents, he does, but he always feels like he has to be the immaculate host when they come to visit. He’d much rather go to see them. Plus, then he can visit some of his childhood friends as well.
“Well?” Saira says. “Show us around! We haven’t been to visit since you’d moved out of your old place, we want to see the entire flat!”
Hamid graciously bows to the both of them as he affects a nasally real estate agent tone, escorting them around the apartment. Saira and Aziza seem to love it, chattering on about the furniture and the color scheme, both of which Hamid had input on, and he preens.
He pauses in front of the door to his room, hand on the knob. “It’s, ah - it’s very messy, we can just skip it.”
“And miss teasing our immaculate little brother? I think not,” Saira says. “I’m sure it’s not that bad, you always were incredibly organized.”
Hamid gives her a weak smile. “We’ll see.” He pushes the door open and lets them both go in front, lingering behind as they each let out a little gasp.
“What on earth are you working on, Hamid?” Aziza asks, spinning slowly around the room as she takes in the drawings. She looks concerned and impressed as she pulls one of the drawings off of the desk to examine it more closely. “I knew you were good at drawing but this is exceptional .”
“Oh, just an interest of mine. It’s nothing special, really,” Hamid says, laughing to try to cover up the lie. “I find it relaxing.”
“It may have been a while, but I still know when you’re lying to us, Hamid,” Aziza says reproachfully, raising an eyebrow at him. “What is this for?”
“It’s… a weird story?” Hamid says, speaking slowly as he tries to figure out what his sisters will actually believe. They’ve always given him the benefit of the doubt before, but that wasn’t about switching bodies with a stranger in a random British town. And he’s not going to be able to brush this off, either. He takes a deep breath.
“I met someone.. online? A few months ago. Well, nearly a year, now. They were - he , uh, lives somewhere in the south, and I lost contact with him. But I miss him, a lot, and I want to tell him - well, a lot of things, but mainly that I - I just, um.
“I really care about him,” he says quietly, looking up from his interlocked hands and seeing both of his sisters standing there with twin looks of sympathy on their faces.
“Oh, Hamid ,” Saira says quietly, leaning in to give him a hug. Aziza joins her and Hamid sniffles, wrapping his own arms around his sisters. He wipes at his eyes as they pull back, glancing at the drawings on the wall.
“These are - I dunno, a way to try and find him again? I don’t, um. Don’t remember where he said he was from, really. I just know it was near Bristol, but it’s such a small town, I don’t know how I’ll find it again.” He grabs the largest drawing from the pile, a panoramic view of everything he remembers, and smiles down at it. “Maybe I can find him, though.”
Saira and Aziza are quiet for a moment, and then Aziza wraps her arm around his shoulders. “You love him, don’t you?” she says, a soft and sad smile on her face.
Hamid can feel the tears slip down his cheeks as he nods. “I never got to tell him.”
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Saira says, locking eyes with Aziza, who nods and stands up, pulling Hamid with her.
“Let’s go, then!” Aziza says, joining her elbow with Hamid’s, while Saira does the same on the other side, and together they start to march Hamid out of the apartment. “Let’s find him!”
“Wait, wait wait wait - I need the drawings, and my keys , and my wallet, and a change of clothes!” Hamid exclaims, digging his heels in. Saira and Aziza share a glance over the top of his head and, really, it’s unfair that they’re taller than him.
“Fine,” Saira says, and lets him go. “Get a bag together, and grab everything you need. We have a train to catch!”
They don’t really know exactly where to go, but Saira and Aziza’s enthusiasm doesn’t dim as Hamid scrutinizes a map of Britain, trying to decide which station to go to that will get them closest to where they need to be. Neither of them have a car, so they’re either going to need to prepare for a lot of walking or get cabs to drive them around.
After some discussion, they decide to get on at Paddington and disembark at Bristol Temple Meads. They can catch a cab from there and drive around, pop into some shops to see if anyone can help as they make their way southwest along the coast.
Aziza sleeps on the train, head lolling to the side to rest on Hamid’s shoulder. Across the aisle from them, Saira is dozing as well, curled up in her seat and leaning against the window. Hamid watches the countryside pass as the train slowly chugs along, waiting as the morning glow slowly turns to afternoon. He buys snacks for all of them from the trolley, stashing them away in his bag for when they inevitably get hungry later on.
His stomach won’t stop turning, and it’s not the movement of the train, either. It’s a particularly unfun mix of stress and worry, and Hamid keeps trying to pull it back. It’s only been four months since he last heard from Zolf, and he still doesn’t know why he cut all contact with Hamid. It might have been a wrong number, but that doesn’t explain why the switches stopped. He’s trying to remain positive, either way. Zolf… doesn’t have to return his feelings, or anything, Hamid just wants him to know , and to know why Zolf left him stranded, without any contact.
He’d really thought they were at the very least friends, but maybe Zolf didn’t feel the same. Maybe he just… felt saddled with Hamid, and once the switches stopped, moved on.
These thoughts aren’t helping anyone; Hamid shakes his head and tries not to think about it. Worrying before he even gets to talk to Zolf just means he’ll worry twice, and maybe it was just an innocent loss of communication, maybe Zolf misses him as much as Hamid does.
The train ride lasts for about two hours, and Hamid gently wakes Saira and Aziza up as it pulls into the station.
They catch a cab outside, Hamid asking the driver to go along the coast until they reach a smaller town. She seems confused and more than a little dubious, until Saira leans in with a winning smile (and two crisp £50 notes) and the driver shrugs and heads off down the coast, making light conversation with all of them along the way.
Their first stop is a small beach town, a one-street town with a single spotlight. Hamid thanks the driver, who agrees to wait outside while they duck inside a few shops,
“Good morning, sir!” Hamid says cheerily, heading up to the counter of a small bakery. “I had a few questions if you don’t mind?”
The man behind the counter gives Hamid a slightly confused look, but nods. “Sure, how can I help?”
He pulls out the panoramic map from
his rucksack and lays it out on the counter, flattening it out. “Do you have any idea where this is? I know this is, well, a little weird, but we’re trying to find this little town.”
The man at the counter peers over the map, rubbing at his forehead. “Might recognize that lake, there, but no names are coming to mind. Doesn’t look familiar to me otherwise, sorry.”
Hamid frowns, looking down at the map as well. “Nothing does?” he asks, and he must sound as forlorn as he feels, considering the man gives him a sympathetic smile.
“We’ve a lot of travelers around these parts, I’m sure you’ll find someone who can point you in the right direction.”
“Thank you, sir,” Hamid says, and tucks the map back into his bag. Aziza and Saira are sitting outside on a bench waiting patiently for him, chatting about Aziza’s upcoming show, though they quiet down and look at Hamid expectantly. He shakes his head and they wilt, but Aziza pops back up first, a determined look on her face.
“Maybe we’ll have luck with the next one, Hamid,” Aziza says, resting a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Buck up, we’ll get it figured out.”
Luck doesn’t seem to be on their side today , Hamid thinks sadly as they hit another dead end. No one has recognized the picture so far, and with each confused shake of the head or quiet ‘sorry, lad’, his heart and hopes begin to sink a little bit lower.
They’ve been going into shops along the main street of the town they’re in, having done this already in a few others, and it’s becoming a race against the clock as afternoon turns to early evening. Soon, they’ll have to find someplace to settle up for the night, or catch a train back to London.
“Your classes don’t start for a few days, yes?” Aziza asks, and Hamid nods. “Then we’re staying. Until we find him.”
Hamid’s throat feels tight as Saira agrees, hand holding Hamid’s. He leans in and gives both of his sisters a big hug.
“Thanks,” he mumbles, squeezing them tightly. They hug him back, and then they continue on their way down the road.
They go into a few more shops along the way, until Saira’s stomach rumbles and she drags them into a nearby café.
Hamid collapses into a booth with Saira next to him as Aziza sits across from them, picking up the menu and scanning through the options.
“Can I get you anything else to drink, loves?” a waitress, who’s name tag says Cleo, asks, coming over to their table. She has a lovely smile, and sets down glasses of cold water for all of them. Hamid and Saira ask for coffee, Aziza asks for a hot chocolate, and the waitress winks at them as she heads off, leaving the list of specials on the table for them to glance through.
In the end, they all order something different and share their meals. The conversation turns from Zolf to Hamid’s classes to Aziza’s show to Saira’s government work to how the twins are preparing for boarding school, before turning back to Zolf.
“I can’t believe you never told us about him, Hamid,” Aziza says reproachfully. “It’s been a year, I didn’t realize you could keep secrets this long.”
“I - it - I didn’t want to say anything, I wasn’t sure about any of it anyway, kind of thought it was all a dream for a while!” Hamid squeaks out, sinking down into his seat.
“Well, we’ll have to find him, and then me and Aziza can make sure he’s good to you. I don’t appreciate that he cut contact,” Saira says, slipping another piece of the pork and beans pie she ordered into her mouth.
“It - it may have been unintentional, I’m not sure,” Hamid says. “I still want to find him. He’s… he’s sweet, and kind.”
“I’m sure he’ll pass muster,” Saira responds. “But we are going to interrogate him first.”
“Maybe wait until after I tell him that I love him?” Hamid says, smiling weakly. Saira and Aziza share a look, which has been happening way too much on this little trip already, and in perfect synchronicity, chime in with a, “No promises!”
Hamid groans, head dropping into his hands. Aziza and Saira don’t even have a speck of regret on their faces, happily eating the rest of their and Hamid’s food. He sighs and leans back in his chair, looking up at the ceiling of the café.
“I just… don’t know what else to do,” Hamid says, pulling the sketch out of his bag. “We’ve been to so many towns, and no one seems to recognize this. What if - what if it was all fake? What if it was just a dream?” It isn’t something he’s been wanting to say out loud, as though putting it into the universe will make it come true. The only things that make him remember that he isn’t crazy are the barely-there memories of Zolf’s life and the notes that he left Hamid, tucked into a special folder on his phone. He - he couldn’t have made all of it up, he just couldn’t have, and maybe this would be his chance to finally find him again.
He lays the drawing down on the table. “I just… have no clue where it is, or if he’s even still there, I -“ have to find him , he thinks, and Saira and Aziza each give him a small grin.
“We will,” Saira promises, pulling Hamid in for a quick squeeze.
He really doesn’t deserve them, but he’s so glad they’re here for him.
“Oh, is that a sketch of Countisbury?” the waitress says, leaning over the table and examining the map. Hamid resists the urge to put it away and pastes on a friendly-enough smile. “My wife grew up there. That’s a gorgeous map, she’ll love to see it!”
Hamid’s mouth nearly drops open as the waitress calls for her wife, a woman named Betty, to come over to their table.
“See, my love?” Cleo says, gesturing to the map. “Isn’t it incredible?”
Betty’s hands fly to her mouth as she glances over the page. “Oh my word,” she says, reaching out a hand to brush against the paper. “It’s the old church, and the schoolhouse. And the docks down by the water… the town square, everything is here.
“Did you draw this?” she asks, turning to Hamid, smiling. “It’s amazing.”
He clears his throat, awkward all of a sudden. “Y - yes, I did, thank you. We’re looking for it, I’m trying to find an old friend, and this is everything I remember about the town. Cleo said you grew up there?”
Betty nods. “She’s right. It’s been a long time since I’ve visited Countisbury. Hard to do, now.”
“Wait… Countisbury?” Aziza asks, sharing a shocked looked with Saira. “Are you sure?”
“Grew up there, love,” Betty said. “I’d know that lake anywhere.” She smiles, a little fond, a little sad. “Miss it, sometimes.”
“Could you take us there? Or let us know where it is?” Hamid asks, nearly rising out of his seat with excitement. Finally, he could find Zolf, he could tell him how he felt, this could finally have a happy ending, maybe if he hopes hard enough -
“Oh, love,” Betty says, cutting through his thoughts and giving him a sad look. “We can take you there if you want, but there isn’t much to see.”
“Countisbury. The comet,” Saira says, at the same time Aziza covers her mouth with a hand.
“Oh,” she breathes, looking stricken.
“Can someone please explain what’s going on here ?” Hamid exclaims, looking around at the four of them. Aziza and Saira look shell-shocked, gazing over at him with their mouths open, while Cleo and Betty have nothing but pity and sympathy in their eyes.
“Hamid, Countisbury was...” Aziza starts, sharing a look with Saira.
“What?” Hamid whispers, as a single tear falls down his cheek.
The car ride is long, and silent. Hamid is anxious in the backseat, drumming his fingers along the car’s armrest as his leg shakes. Saira reaches over and gently rests her hand on his, giving him a sympathetic smile. Cleo is the one driving them; Betty had given her a kiss on the cheek back at the café before declining to come with them. Too many painful memories, she’d said.
The sun is setting on the horizon when Cleo finally pulls into an abandoned parking lot; Hamid glances off to the side and sees the schoolhouse standing there, taken over by nature as moss and ivy peek through the cracks in the stone. He’s out of the car the second Cleo throws it into park, hearing her yell a, “Be careful!” after him.
Hamid is running faster than he ever has before, shouting for Aziza and Saira to hurry up as his feet pound against the ground. He sees the mountain ridge up ahead and tries to go faster, begging, praying to whatever god that existed that Zolf was fine, that this was all a - a horrible nightmare, that Betty had been wrong about the location, that everything was okay, that the one person Hamid has never been able to completely forget and never truly remember wasn’t long dead, wasn’t torn away from him in a devastating meteor shower that decimated the entire town -
He stops short at the edge of the town, nearly falling to his knees as he sees that Betty was right.
It’s… gone. Everything is destroyed, trees blackened and sooty among the wreckage of a thousand homes, strewn about the land and cordoned off with long-since forgotten about caution tape. Hamid takes a step forward and stops, wary of where the ground would drop away under his feet. The schoolyard is a wasteland, desks and chairs strewn about the lawn. It’s the only part of the town that isn’t completely destroyed, the only part of town that is still standing.
The beach is covered in debris, wood and stone covering it to make it look almost black; the town square is nearly indistinguishable, buildings and supports smashed to smithereens as a lone, torn flag blows gently in the wind. It looks like a war zone, completely demolished and being retaken by nature. And, still, the lake stands in the middle of the town.
“Zolf?” he whispers, and takes an unconscious step forward, tear slipping down his face as he gazes out over the destruction. It’s an eerie sort of peace, Hamid realizes, as a flock of birds fly above. It’s the quiet of tragedy, of absolute desolation, of years gone.
Zolf - if Zolf was here, when this happened, there’s no way he survived it, and it’s that thought that breaks Hamid. He falls to his knees in the dirt, tears streaming from his eyes as he screams incoherently, fists clenching and unclenching ineffectually. Saira and Aziza are calling his name from far away as grief streams out of him.
He feels both their arms wrap around him as he screams, begging for it to be wrong, begging someone to tell him he was wrong, this wasn’t the place he knew, it had to be somewhere else, Zolf has to still be - he has to be able to talk to him, this can’t be how their story ends…
His sisters hold him as he rails against the universe, fists clenched on the dirt as his grief fills the quiet of the air around him, and he’s hiccoughing and nauseous and if he thinks, hopes hard enough maybe it won’t be true, and Zolf will still be here.
And then it stops, and he’s just kneeling in the dirt, elbows and arms and knees and forehead covered in it, and he doesn’t even care, because Zolf is gone, and somehow he died three years ago and Hamid fell in love with a ghost.
It’s over, he realizes, and it comes with a sense of calm. He gently untangles himself from Saira and Aziza’s grip, only just realizing now that they’ve been whispering words of comfort to him while he broke down. He stands on the edge of the town and sniffles, again, feeling the way his heart is cracked, straight down the middle.
“Hamid, this - you have to be remembering wrong, this can’t be the place,” Saira finally says, looking ahead at the completely destroyed shell of the town. “This - this isn’t possible.”
Hamid turns to look at her, finally, and tries to speak, voice coming out hoarse and quiet. “No, he - he left me messages, he talked to me,” Hamid says, pulling out his phone and pressing the calendar app, muttering ‘please’ over and over and over again until it barely means anything, until it’s just a quiet hum. The notes are all there and he pulls one up, desperate to prove that this was real , that Zolf existed , that this couldn’t all be a dream, couldn’t just be something that he made up inside his head.
And then, it all starts disappearing before his eyes. The letters shift and move, turning to binary and unreadable code before beginning to delete themselves.
“No, no no no no ,” Hamid says, desperately scrolling through his notes, looking for any sign of Zolf’s writing, Zolf’s messages to him. Each day, every single day that they switched, has been completely wiped away, even the extra notes they’d shared over the course of a few switches. It’s all - all gone, and Hamid feels the phone slip from his fingers and crash into the dirt as he too falls to his knees, staring blankly ahead.
“They’re disappearing,” he murmurs, before falling into all fours and letting his tears drip into the dirt.
The library is dark, when they arrive. Cleo had been kind enough to drive them, dropping them off with an offer to come back to the restaurant and stay with herself and Betty for the night. Hamid is barely moving, following along soundlessly behind Aziza and Saira as they keep casting him worried looks and muttering between themselves.
Hamid is sure it’s about him.
Hamid is sure he doesn’t care.
There’s no one else there, thankfully, as Cleo lets them in, pushing the door open and giving Hamid a quick hug.
“I’ll wait outside, for you all?” she says, looking between the three of them. Aziza nods with a quick ‘thank you’ and ushers Hamid inside.
The door shuts behind them and they’re left in darkness; Saira reaches out and flicks on the lights, which blink rapidly and then shower the room in a dim orange glow. They wordlessly decide to split up, Saira looking through old news articles and Aziza looking through history books, while Hamid gets on the computer and starts to search for any sort of information on Countisbury. Hamid… almost doesn’t want to find anything, doesn’t want to have to face the fact that it’s true.
Saira is the first person to find something; it’s an old newspaper piece covering the tragedy, from some local paper.
“The comet struck Countisbury three years ago,” Saira says, scanning the news article. “No one thought the comet would split. It seems like it was a freak accident.” She flips the page and blanches. “Over 500 people died that night. Everyone was gathered in the square for the town festival, no one had any time to get out.”
Hamid sees another news article and pulls it toward himself, reading it aloud. “Seeing the comet was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as it passed above Earth’s atmosphere three years ago at the peak of the autumn festival of the small town of Countisbury. A single piece of the comet fractured off, and hurtled down toward the Earth, burning up as it entered the atmosphere and breaking into smaller pieces. It struck the town right after the sun had set. It was pure destruction.”
He stops reading, pushing the newspaper away and digging the heels of his palms into his eyes. He felt sick, lost. The comet had hit three years ago, how was he even talking to Zolf, much less walking around the town, four months ago? All of the memories are becoming more hazy, but Zolf’s face, the town square, Feryn, Sasha, Brock… they’re all burned into his skull, it can’t have only been a dream. It can’t be.
“Hamid…” Aziza’s voice cuts through his thoughts. Her face is pale as she walks back to the table, looking through the book in her hand. She hands it over to Hamid and he can read the cover: In Memoriam: The Town of Countisbury. His heart sinks in his chest and he takes it with shaking hands, flipping the book open to see names and photos listed, of all those who lost their lives that night.
He flips open the book and turns almost to the end, looking desperately for the ‘S’ names as his eyes flick through the photos, begging a god that he doesn’t believe in to have protected the people he cares about.
He sees two names he recognizes, first, and they’re not the names he’s looking for but he starts to cry anyway.
Sasha Rackett. Brock Rackett.
God, Sasha, no, not her , not when she was already trying to escape. Not Brock, please - He blinks, and tears run down his cheek as he turns the page again with a shaking hand, terrified of what he’ll see on the next page.
And then, in stark black ink, he sees their names.
God, no -
The entire world freezes as Hamid stares at his name.
No. No, no no no no no, no anything but this, please no -
A teardrop falls onto the page as Hamid takes a shuddering breath. His hand shakes when he reaches out and touches the picture next to Zolf’s name, looking younger than he had the last time Hamid had seen him, a bit less worn out, a bit more of a smile.
“Hamid, is that him?” Aziza asks, and the worry in her voice comes through loud and clear. “It can’t be, you have to be mistaken. The comet hit three years ago.”
“Four months ago, he convinced me to go on a date with Liliana,” Hamid says softly. “He - he bought me paracetamol when my knee hurt, he told off Gideon, he did everything, I spoke to him four months ago, this can’t be happening.”
Saira leans into him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. “How can it be? If this is correct, he died three years ago, Hamid.”
Hamid shakes his head, heart slowly falling to pieces as he stares down at Zolf’s picture on the page. “The last time we spoke, the last time I had a note from him, he mentioned being able to watch the comet, I didn’t pay attention, I -“ he cuts himself off as his words feel as though they’ve been swallowed, and he breathes heavily as he looks up from the book, staring blankly ahead of himself.
“I - what was I-“ Hamid says, squeezing his eyes shut as his head starts to throb, an ache that comes out of nowhere, and Aziza and Saira reach out to him as he curls up in the chair, arms wrapping over his head as he tries not to scream.
You’re dreaming, Hamid hears, an echo from a forgotten place, a voice he doesn’t remember, and as he looks up at the mirror in front of him, he hears it again.