The first time Neal discovers his ability, he is six years old and has literally been caught (or not so caught) with his hand in the cookie jar. He had climbed up onto the kitchen counter using the carved edge of the cabinet door to hoist himself up and stuck his hand into the bin of cookies on the corner of the small counter in their apartment’s galley kitchen. His mother walked in just as he pulled the cookies out and tucked them in his jeans’ pockets. Her hands were full of grocery bags and he’s stopped, frozen as she dumped the paper bags on the table.
She looked right at him.
She never saw him. She turned around and went back out to the car. She was talking to him as if he’d gone to the store with her and, for a moment, he thought maybe he had. He thought maybe he saw a shade of himself, like a ripple in time or an echo of an image of himself following her around. So he must have gone with her. She wouldn’t have left him alone, right? He was only six years old.
It hadn’t made any sense then, but he didn’t care he had his stolen loot in his pocket and scurried away to his room to munch on the chocolate chip cookies.
By the time he was fifteen years old, Neal knows his ability is spotty at best. He can’t really control it or judge it at all. He really isn’t sure what the hell it is. He tries to force it to come on, but nothing works. He slips into the girl’s restroom at school only to have a backpack slung at him and a bruised shoulder to show for it. Yet, when a school bully decides that a young and very naïve girl named Kimberly would be his object of ridicule, Neal slips and slides into his new skin. He walks up to the bully and punches him – hard – across the face, breaking his nose. His fist stings for a week. Kimberly cannot explain what happened though she was standing right next to him when he struck the idiot.
His art teacher tells him he did great work during third period; the period when the school bully had been summarily taught his lesson. Neal only shrugs his shoulders as he looks at the reproduction of the Rembrandt he worked on during the time frame. He remembers painting it; he recalls the pain of the collision of his fist against bone and flesh.
He calls it projecting, but has no clue what it all means. Is there someone using his flesh? Is there someone wearing his face? Does he have a strange unknown cousin who is an identical twin like that weird Patty Duke show? Or is it something worse? Perhaps, he is just crazy.
When he enters the National Art Gallery on the Washington D.C. mall and switches out Dali’s Last Supper with his own forgery during peak museum hours, Neal still cannot explain how it all works. All he knows is that the damned painting was placed in a freaking stairwell instead of in its own room. It needed a place of honor not an ignored corner of the gallery.
He realizes something that day as he makes the switch. The piece is huge and it takes time, but he has all the time in the world since no one can actually see him. He wonders what he is really doing, or pretending to do. He isn’t sure which is truth and which is fiction.
His realization is simple and confined. His fission of self takes place during emotional trauma or fear or indignation. When he was six years old, his mother had left him home alone. He wasn’t sure how it happened or how she worked it out in her head that suddenly he was in the car with her when she left for the grocery store, but she accepted it. The fact remained – he had been left alone while she had gone out. He thinks someone during her trip might have said something to her and this might have split and opened up the world for him. Her lie that he was with her drove the realities apart.
Of course, it’s all a theory. He doesn’t know for sure, even Mozzie can’t figure it the hell out. There are times Mozzie figures it must be due to some government conspiracy and quizzes Neal about his childhood and the possibility that he was experimented on. Neal only frowns and sometimes he scowls at Mozzie. There is a limit to his tolerance of paranoia. Mozzie, reading him, drops the subject.
During the time Neal spends in prison, his ability to project and glide into and out of reality serves him well. He lifts extra cigarettes and sometimes treats and changes files in the computer for other inmates. It protects him enough to keep him safe for nearly four years. He never attempts to escape, he promised to do the time – well until the end, until Kate. Once while he projects the prison warden’s wife visits her husband and Neal finds himself in possession of her credit card just days after Kate left him. A plan formulates in his head. He smiles for the first time in days.
Working with Peter, Neal uses his ability to assist in cases but he’s able to keep it secret. Mozzie supports this idea; sure the Man might want to start the experiments again. Neal only rolls his eyes at Mozzie’s statement. After years of projecting, his ability is slightly more predictable though not always reliable.
When Peter and Neal go undercover to seek information on a ring of forgers currently selling their wares up and down the eastern seaboard, Neal tingles with anticipation. The numbness in his fingertips telegraphs to him that he has access to the little tears in reality, that a shade of himself waits in the wings. Their strategy is supposed to be brilliant and throw off the small gang of young elite from the upper crust of society. In the white collar unit, they call them the young Royals. They are arrogant, brilliant, and brutal in their forgery ring. No one crosses them.
The plan for Peter to go in as a buyer with Neal as a counterpoint to him, as a buyer who doubts the authenticity of the pieces was put in to place to knock them off their haughty asses. They are trying to get the gang to show their hand, give up the originals that the gang is rumored to have stolen. Both Peter and Neal know the gang can be violent and it causes an edginess to their discussions. Their negotiations proceed in fits and starts until one whispers in the ear of the leader, pointing at Peter. The leader’s eyes are cruel and lifeless.
In seconds, Peter is dragged off into the bowels of the building while Neal is left to face them. As Peter disappears down the stairwell, Neal feels the split as the tear in the fabric of time opens up for him. Neal knows he follows Peter as his shade stays behind and talks with the gang about the possibilities of purchasing the real deal. The voices and conversation resonance in his ears but he ignores it and concentrates on the task at hand.
Two of the burly gang members shove Peter in a janitor’s closet in the basement and lock it. They disappear up the stairs, walking directly past Neal. His shoes make no noise as he goes to the door and checks the lock. Simple and easy to pick; it only takes seconds to do it. He looks inside to find Peter and calls to him.
It is the first time he ever speaks while he is concealed in the inner weavings of time and reality. Peter looks up from the dark corner of the room; he blinks a few times.
“What?” A lump forms on Peter’s forehead and down the one side of his face. He looks like he took a good swift elbow to the one side of his head while the other collided with a pipe or corner of a wall.
“Peter, can you see me? Can you hear me?” Neal says as he crosses the room and reaches out. He can touch anything but he’s never actually spoken to anyone while he’s under the cover of the continuum’s veil.
Peter stumbles around as if he’s a blind man searching and he paws the air a few times. “Neal?”
“Come on, Peter, see me.” Neal grasps Peter’s groping hand and squeezes it. He knows the bully in high school felt the punch, so Peter must be capable of acknowledging his physicality.
It takes a moment. As he gazes at Peter the world smears in colors like it has always been a watercolor painting. The trigger of his voice washes the paints into one and uncovers him to Peter.
“Neal? How the hell did you get here?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Neal says and then asks, “Are you okay? Can you stand?”
Peter nods and starts to climb to his feet. He sways and grabs hold of his head with one hand and the wall with the other. “On second thought maybe not.”
“Okay, okay,” Neal says and dunks under Peter’s arm to support him. “I’ll help you. We don’t have much time.” He isn’t sure how long the shade of himself can keep the gang busy, how long the phantom echo of his image will last.
He eases Peter to a standing position, waits while Peter sways. It takes a second and then Peter swallows reflectively a few times.
“Don’t puke on me,” Neal warns.
“So good to see you care,” Peter says but his words are grumbled as if he eats gravel.
The air in the basement is thick and heavy with moisture from the old boiler as it cooks and heats the atmosphere. He holds onto Peter, knowing that his friend is his life line to this reality – the reality he’s chosen to be the right one, the real one. He doesn’t think of the implications, how he’s manipulating time, space, and life for those around him. He cannot think of it now, what he needs to do is concentrate on escape.
After a quick look around, Neal knows the only way out of the basement is the stairwell. Slipping Peter to the first step, Neal leans against the wall and listens. The gang hashes out what they should do with Peter. At first, Neal isn’t sure what their issue is, why they don’t trust Peter. It becomes increasing evident that the dead-eyed leader has taken a distinct disliking of Peter. In the end it just doesn’t matter what the hell they know and what they don’t know. Neal has to get them out, has to disappear. Even as he plans his strategy to get upstairs and out the back door, the conversation catches his attention again.
They’ve decided what they’ll do to Peter.
It isn’t nice.
It isn’t good.
Peter has to die.
Sitting at his feet, Peter grips Neal’s calf, near the missing anklet. Neal wears the watch transmitting information and signals to the van parked a half street away. He has no idea what dialogue they actually hear, if the transmission picks up both Neal’s or not. Maybe it is enough to alert Diana and Jones something is wrong, off. It will have to be because part of the deal was they couldn’t bring their cell phones to the meeting.
Peter whispers, “What the hell?” He touches the swollen lump on the side of his face and blinks twice as if to clear away the voice reverberating above them.
Neal shakes his head and presses a finger to his mouth. His shade, his other self, is talking and for the first time Peter realizes the gang is having a discussion with Neal, the other Neal.
His shade tries to convince the gang that Peter isn’t worth the trouble, just take him and dump him somewhere. Neal holds his breath as the gang starts to argue, as the words escalate. Peter glares up at him, his face a puzzle of questions. Neal only shakes his head again. He moves off the step, glances around the basement and notices a small space under the stairwell they might be able to squeeze into in order to hide. It’s dark, it’ll do. He swings around the railing just as the fight deteriorates and he holds his breath as a scuffle breaks out.
“No,” he murmurs to no one.
“What?” Peter asks.
A quantified explosion splinters the world about him as a ripple of light and dark encompass him. He hears someone scream, not in fright but rather anger.
Someone is saying, “You stupid fuck, you stupid fuck. You killed him. God damn it, he was our mark, you stupid fuck. How the hell are we going to move the crap now?”
Peter frowns and opens his mouth as if he might question Neal, might ask – who did they kill? Instead he gasps a breath and reaches up to Neal. As the words and reality filters down like sand shifting through fingers, Neal staggers back. The room narrows, shrinks as if constricting with the pain burning in his chest. He looks down and blossoming over the brilliant sky blue shirt, the navy silk tie crimson bleeds out in a vast expansion of color.
He reaches up and touches it. It feels foreign; it isn’t part of his body. It’s part of someone else’s; he looks up to the light shaft from the stairs then back to Peter. He stumbles and his knees lock, and then fail. He grabs hold of the railing, trying to steady himself.
Somehow Peter climbs to his feet and leans over him. “Damn it, Neal, tell me what the hell is going on.”
There isn’t much time now, Neal realizes. His shade is dying, he’s dying. His gaze focuses on Peter and he says, “Reality, I slip between reality. Can’t explain, just can. Sometimes, not all the time.”
“There are two-.” Neal starts and stops. He descends and only Peter’s arm around his shoulders keeps him from plummeting to the floor in a heap. He coughs and clasps Peter’s hand. Peter guides him to the floor. “Two of me. People can’t see both- don’t know how. Damn.” He kicks his foot out trying to relieve the pressure burning a hole in his chest. “You have to get out, reality slips.” He doesn’t know what other word to use other than ‘slips’. He doesn’t know how to explain the unexplainable.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Peter says. “Who was up there? Who shot you?” Neal can’t tell if the hard look in his eyes is because of the pain from the concussion or the confusion about how false reality is.
“Hide, Peter, hide.” Neal says. He garners the strength to motion toward the small cubby under the stairs.
Peter understands immediately and puts his hands under Neal’s arms to drag him into the small space. They curl around one another in the tiny hide-out. The pain grows, spreading from Neal’s chest to his limbs, even his toes throb. His mouth dries out, his eyes hurt. He shivers as the air in his lungs becomes too heavy to breathe.
The gang bickers about what to do with Peter as his shade suffers on the floor above them. He feels the cold creep into his other self. When he closes his eyes, Neal can almost see and feel him. It scares him because the life is leaking out of his shade, he’s almost dead.
Turning to Peter, Neal licks his lips and tries to explain. “Since I was little – I could do it. Thought it was invisibility, first- but not. Two different places – same time.” He suppresses a cough that threatens to shred him and he grasps Peter’s shoulder. “Peter?”
The concussion steals Peter from him. With trembling hands, he checks on Peter to see if he’s still alive. He lets out a breath; it aches in his chest. Unconsciousness robs him of Peter during these last hours. The numb tingle in his fingertips from the tears in the fabric of space-time disappears and only the cold tile floor under him, the rough planes of the staircase above him and the sounds of his own labored breathing are there to keep him company.
He clutches Peter’s collar in the dark corner of the building. As the gang searches for them, Neal begs Peter to wake up. He doesn’t want to do this alone, he doesn’t want the last thing he knows is isolation. He’s been alone most of his life, had to rely on his own talents, his own wit and intelligence to survive. He always hoped he wouldn’t die alone.
In seconds, he will die.
He lies in the cornered shadowed place, the dark pit of the world as reality drains away around him. He takes Peter’s limp hand in his own and grasps it. He holds onto it as if it is the last thing he will know, because it is.
Instead, he dies alone.
He closes his eyes, wishes for something more, but only the void of space answers.
He chooses reality every day; he knows everyone does. Little moments in life switch the paths whether they’re pre-destine or not. He shudders against the cold pit he’s in. There is little light, less hope, and no life here. It hurts and rips away at his existence. He screams as the pain cascades over him in violent blows.
“Hey, hey,” Diana says as she leans over him. “Caffrey, calm down or I’ll get the nurse again. You do not want to see that nurse again.”
Neal screws up his face and the pain heightens. “Di-.” His mouth won’t form the rest of her name. His tongue is like putty, an unformed, unless thing.
“Press the button to release the pain meds, like the nurse told you,” Diana says. “Come on now show me a little of the Caffrey charm.”
He stares up at the ceiling. It comes to him then that he isn’t hiding in the stairwell, that he isn’t dead, that the shade – he cannot feel it anymore. Where the hell is it? Where the hell is he? The sense of loss or floating without anchor comes over him and he claws at the bed.
“Whoa, Caffrey, calm down,” Diana says and she orders him to look at her. “You’re in the hospital. We found you and Peter in the basement of the building. The Royals have been charged with attempted murder. Calm down.”
Her hand presses on his shoulder tugging at bandages he realizes that are plastered over his chest. He glares at her, thinking only of the emptiness, the open space in his chest. He manages a small ‘what’ as he struggles to make his heart slow, to stop the tremors from tearing away at the stitches across his chest.
“We haven’t finished investigating everything, but it looks like they hit Peter pretty hard, and then did something to you with a sharp instrument.” She stands up so that she is barely in his line of sight. “Doesn’t make any sense at all. Your injury is consistent with a bullet wound, but there was no exit wound and no bullet to be found anywhere. I think you should be glowing with the number of scans they’ve done to find the damned thing.”
He wants to ask about the other Neal, the body, but knows it wouldn’t make sense. The other Neal is no more in every sense of the word. Neal gropes at the bandages and notices both of his hands are free, then the weight on his ankle tells him he’s linked to the bed rail with irons. He heaves in a breath and pain throbs behind his eyes. She pats his shoulder but it is awkward and broken.
“Peter?” His words are barely formed, barely voiced.
“He’s doing good. They’ll release him today.”
“You’ve been out of it for nearly a week, Caffrey.” She nods her head and he sighs.
His body betrays him before he’s allowed to inquire about the circumstances he relents to the pain and washes away with the tide.
Sitting on the edge of the hospital bed, Neal pulls on the black turtle neck. Though the Spring flowers bow to the light winds outside his hospital window, the cold of winter eats at his bones. Part of him is dead. He knows this but no one else understands. Well, maybe Mozzie does, but the paranoia still exhausts Neal.
Peter shows up at his hospital room door. It has been weeks since the takedown of the Royals, since Peter succumbed to a severe concussion, since Neal was shot without a bullet. His doctor released him today.
“Good to go?” Peter asks.
Neal tucks the shirt into his jeans and combs a hand through his hair. He needs a haircut.
Peter lifts a bag and sneaks a smile at Neal. “I brought your favorite coffee.”
Neal cannot help but return the smile, even though the slight motion causes tightness in his chest. Shifting off of the bed, Neal holds onto the side as he toes on his shoes. Peter stands by his side as if to offer assistance, a crutch, Neal isn’t sure. When Neal finishes Peter places the bag on the side tray and kneels at Neal’s feet. He takes out the tracking anklet and clasps it around Neal’s ankle. He stays there, staring at the anklet, grasping it to anchor, to secure Neal in this place, this reality.
Glancing up at Neal, Peter falls back on his haunches and says, “What I remember makes no sense to me, Neal. But that’s what’s happened, isn’t it?”
“But it actually happened, didn’t it? You were in two places at once, we were-.”
“Somewhere between realities,” Neal finishes for him. It has always been part of Neal’s make up, his magic as a theft and con-man.
“But the other you?”
Neal grips the side of the bed and topples a bit until Peter slides an arm around him and steadies him. “Gone, dead, I don’t know.”
Peter considers him for a moment, but doesn’t reply. It feels like Peter is calculating, figuring out the possibilities and the impossibilities. Neal wonders when Peter went from being an accountant to an agent to a physicist.
“Let’s get you home,” Peter says and grabs for Neal’s coat. “You’ll need this, it’s a bit brisk today and if I bring you home without a coat El will kill me.”
“You’re driving?” Neal asks.
“Doctor cleared me yesterday,” Peter smiles and offers the coat again.
Neal frowns; he’s not sure he wants to be the guinea pig after Peter suffered a mild traumatic brain injury, but he really doesn’t have a choice. It isn’t like he can take a different path anymore. He’s firmly stuck here, in this place and this reality.
There will be no more walking into the world famous art museums in the middle of the day and walking out with portraits or landscapes created by the masters. There will be no more bank heists where he simply slips into and out of vaults without detection because he is not really there.
A nurse brings in a wheelchair and he lowers himself into the seat. The anklet bangs against the foot rest and he peers at it, and then looks up at Peter.
He is anchored, here, with Peter. The weight of the anklet captures him, ties him, and holds him. It is his tether to this reality, to this now, to this place.
For some where or some when, it feels right to him.
Peter rests a hand on his shoulder and it gives him the strength to face the singularity of his new world.