Mrs. Corum sat for a long time while G-ma happily air knitted. Finally she’d had enough.
“You know, I would have taken a nap to escape this, by now”, she said.
G-ma looked up from her knitting. “Funny how we realize that a lot of the time we spent napping, or eating, or any other mundane thing before wasn’t because of our need to do those things, but rather our need to not do them – to find anything else to occupy us”.
“Do you think we’re dead?”, Mrs. Corum asked.
It was the first time the thought had crossed her mind, and she mentally chastised herself for not thinking of it earlier. G-ma, however, appeared to have already thought it out.
“No matter what spirituality someone has, they imagine the afterlife to be different than this, honey”, G-ma started, “At the very least, there should be some torment or joy, purpose or interaction with some part of the Universe. Best I can tell, we’re not dead, although the thought crossed my mind that we might be stuck somewhere in-between life and death. In the end though, it’s those weird feelings we have when we’re near a spot we’ve been to before, or my emotional warmth, that lead me to think we’re still very much alive. I also had concluded that if I were dead, I’d meet someone at some point. You kinda destroyed that argument when you arrived”, G-ma ended with a smile.
“I don’t know why I didn’t wonder about being dead earlier”, Mrs. Corum mused, “Now that it crosses my mind, it seems like one of the first things I should have considered.”
“I didn’t think of it for at least a year”, G-ma replied. “It’s almost as if this place actively fights that thought away from you”.
“Speaking of actively fighting, that’s all I feel like I’ve been doing for the last few hours – fighting to remember a time before this place”, Mrs. Corum said softly.
“Damnedest thing, isn’t it?”, said G-ma.
“I kept coming back to one thought – if you and I are the only two here, is it because we’re somehow linked?”, Mrs. Corum asked.
G-ma paused for a moment, as if this time she was the one to have the revelation late to the game.
“I suppose it’s possible”, G-ma conceded. For someone who seemed to know a lot of this world, she appeared shaky in her convictions for the first time in Mrs. Corum’s presence.
“Maybe we should talk about our past, as much of it as we can remember”, Mrs. Corum suggested.
The women sat and spoke at length for several hours, each recalling their own personal history. G-ma had been born about 5 years earlier than Mrs. Corum, and they found they were both from the same part of the country – even being born in the same hospital. Aside from that link, though, most things were different. Mrs. Corum had worked all her life, never married, never had children, and socialized mostly with her students in the classroom, living a solitary life outside of it. G-ma married young to the love of her life, Edgar, had one child, John, and socialized almost exclusively with her husband and child until Edgar died. G-ma hadn’t ever held a job (well, a real job anyway, she’d worked as a teenager at a hamburger stand), and the only children she saw on a regular basis were Julie and Jamie.
Mrs. Corum was still having trouble recalling names of her students, so she began describing them. There was the little boy who was preoccupied with peeling glue from the top of glue bottles, cleaning the whole classes supply out of some sort of prepubescent OCD need. There was the little girl who couldn’t pronounce the word bird correctly, despite loving the creatures. And so on. G-ma humored Mrs. Corum as she told her stories, pushing back the urge to relate each one to an experience with her grandchildren.
“And this year, I’ve got one with one heck of an imagination”, Mrs. Corum started, “She tells the most fantastical stories, with such detail. It’s almost as if she plans them all out and rigorously rehearses them before hand”.
G-ma couldn’t resist this time.
“Oh, that reminds me of Julie so much”, G-ma started, “She would come over to my place when she was just learning to put together full sentences, and I’d listen to these broken stories that she’d tell.”, G-ma smiled while recalling the memory.
“Kids do that so well”, Mrs. Corum said, “Often they take what they see on TV and reinterpret it, re-telling it so that it scarcely resembles the original”.
“If that’s what Julie was doing, then she was mighty good at it”, G-ma replied, “I could never quite figure out where she got these ideas from. Her father wasn’t the most creative person, so I doubt it was from him. And her mom didn’t have time for such things either – too busy working. Such a shame when families break up and the woman must work”
Mrs. Corum wasn’t exactly a diehard feminist, but the last line tweaked her just a bit. She might have wanted to have had a life like G-ma’s, but she was happy in hers. By the time she re-focused herself on what G-ma was rambling on about, she was surprised to hear that G-ma had refocused her story back on little Julie.
Suddenly, as if a bolt of lightning had struck her, Mrs. Corum broke the story.
“My student’s name is… Julie”, she said.
G-ma didn’t waste any time “An interesting coincidence, dear, maybe all Julies are inherently creative?”.
“What is your last name”, Mrs. Corum asked.
“You don’t think that’s really possible”, G-ma said as she realized what Mrs. Corum was insinuating.
“Is this world supposed to be possible?”, Mrs. Corum retorted.
“Alright… McKay. My last name is McKay, as is John’s, as is Julie and Jamie’s”
The look in Mrs. Corum’s eye told the whole story. The women, who up until that point had been walking absentmindedly while talking, stopped, sat down, and looked at each other in disbelief.
G-ma hadn’t felt so free since before she came to this place. It was as if the weight of the world she’d been carrying for so many years was lifted.
They talked for hours, filling in each other’s memory. Verifying it was the same Julie McKay was first up, and everything checked out. From there it went to how Julie was doing, and by extension, Jamie. Mrs. Corum didn’t know Jamie, other than to know that Julie had a little sister a grade behind. G-ma was ecstatic to hear that Julie was alive, well, and a good student in Mrs. Corum’s class. They were so caught up in the discussion of Julie that they didn’t think about what their connection meant to each other, until finally Mrs. Corum remembered a small detail.
“Last Halloween, all of the children dressed up as usual, but Julie said something I didn’t even think about until now”.
“What was that?”, G-ma asked, intently. She waited to hear the answer, as she had waited on edge during the entire conversation. She craved more knowledge about her granddaughters, and badgered Mrs. Corum with her eyes to spill the beans as quickly as possible.
“Well, Julie dressed up as a witch, and when I asked her about her costume, she mentioned that her grandmother had helped her make it.”
“Wow, I only met her mom’s mom once, but she didn’t seem like the kind who had the skills or desire to help out with a halloween costume”, G-ma replied.
“That’s just it”, Mrs. Corum replied, “I think she was talking about you”
“How could she? She probably barely remembers me – I’ve been gone so long”
“What if you weren’t gone?”
“What do you mean? Of course I’m gone, I’m here with you”
“It sounds crazy”, Mrs. Corum conceded, “But what if, somehow, we were copied.”
“You on about aliens again? You can’t copy someone!”, G-ma replied harshly.
“But there isn’t any other way this makes sense. Think about it. If you had disappeared when she was 5, don’t you think that would have made news and a bit impact on a little girl? But she never mentioned it, and I never saw a news story about a local woman missing”
“You wouldn’t remember a news story about me from 7 years back! And kids are resilient, she probably made up a story in which I went away”, G-ma said in return.
“I don’t know”, Mrs. Corum mused, “I think there is something way stranger going on here than we know already”.
The ludicrous nature of the statement caused both of them to smile and laugh. It seemed way stranger than a world that existed in tones of gray, where you couldn’t feel pain except in your emotions, where you didn’t need to breathe or eat, where you didn’t sleep… How could something be even stranger than that?
After several minutes, G-ma spoke.
“I guess anything is possible, since this place even exists… and if you’re right, than I’m even more relieved than I was when I heard Julie was OK. I’m relieved because apparently, somewhere, I might exist… OK… maybe I might even get back there some day”
“Let’s not run too far with it”, Mrs. Corum replied, “It was just a thought, and as you said, it’s a bit unlikely that I’d even remember those things from years ago”.
“Yes, but I believe sometimes that you need to choose what you want to believe in, or else you’re going to go mad”, G-ma said quietly. “And I might just choose to believe that a world exists where everyone is OK, with the exception of clones of you and I, which are stuck here”.
“Well, it seems as reasonable an explanation as any”, Mrs. Corum said.
The rest of that day was filled with more discussion of Julie, Jamie, and some shared connections both ladies had. Mrs. Corum had met Julie’s mom and dad, knew they were divorced and had even met the man Julie’s mom was dating. G-ma, despite feeling that her own son wasn’t the best parent in the world, scoffed at the idea that the girls might have a stepfather at some point.
They had begun walking again, and eventually Mrs. Corum realized they had gone all the way back to where she had arrived in this world, days ago. Their mental map of the space they inhabited had begun to form a bit, and while they had no idea how big the space was, they at least found they could recognize the subtle changes in ground gradation, and tones of gray in the sky. What a crazy situation – this world that was so foreign was beginning to have some orderliness to it. Upon arriving at Mrs. Corum’s old spot, the two decided to turn sharply 90 degrees and head in a new direction. They even joked about spending the rest of their days just devoted to mapping this place out, like an intrepid and cursed modern-day Lewis and Clark expedition. That is if Lewis and Clark were female… and didn’t need to stop to rest.
The journey of the intrepid explorers could best be described as monotonous. Day in, day out, they wandered. Occasionally they’d decide to switch directions, and sometimes they’d quiz each other about the mental map they were building in their head. They became experts at the subtle differences in terrain they found. A 2% grade drop was exciting, and splotches in the sky that resembled something were named accordingly. An equivalent of naming passing clouds, yet those clouds remained the same whenever one returned to that spot.
Mrs. Corum did, however, begin to notice some of the same things G-ma had spoken about earlier. Sometimes the ground did seem to shake slightly. Sometimes Mrs. Corum could easily dismiss this as her own stumble, but other times her and G-ma would both stop and look to each other, acknowledging what they both had just felt.
The two also noticed that the dimming seemed in some cases to be darker, and in other cases, it seemed to occur too early, or last for just a short amount of time. G-ma swore it had always been pretty predictable, so this was exciting news, if for nothing other than it indicated something different than the norm.
“Do you think there is an edge, somewhere”, Mrs. Corum asked G-ma one day.
“You know, sometimes I think there has to be”, G-ma replied. “And then I think about how the Earth wouldn’t have an edge if there wasn’t so much water… one could just keep walking around it, eternally”.
“True, although I think we’re still quite away from walking around the Earth, distance wise”, Mrs. Corum replied.
“Especially since we like to double back sometimes”, G-ma said with a laugh.
As they shared the moment, they both saw something quite unexpected – the sky, normally tones of ashy gray, began to take on a more coppery tone to it. They both stood, in awe, as colors they hadn’t seen began to wash over the area above their heads.
“Did this ever happen…”, Mrs. Corum asked.
“No… nothing like this…”, G-ma replied.
“Did you feel that…”, Mrs. Corum asked.
“Yes”, G-ma replied.
The feeling Mrs. Corum spoke of was a minor ache in her soul. The sort of way you feel when something is wrong but you just can’t put your finger on it.
“Same way I felt the day John called me to tell me the marriage was over”, G-ma began. “Just knew something was off that day. People would tell me I was crazy if I’d told it to them, but I knew a phone call was coming. I also knew it wasn’t going to be as bad as it could be, but it was bad – what’s the word for that kind of thing?”
“Foreboding”, Mrs. Corum replied, “Its one of the challenge words my 6th graders learn during their weekly spelling lesson. I always put it around the end of the year, and make an example of final examinations giving one a foreboding sense”. She tried to force a laugh, however the very real sense of foreboding she felt prevented that from happening.
Suddenly, the ground began to move. It moved faster and harder than both women had expected, and they lost their balance and tumbled to it.
“That would have broken a hip, if we were back home”, G-ma said as they both righted themselves and sat on the still shaking ground.
“How far out are we from where we both started?”, Mrs. Corum asked. G-ma always had the slightly better mental map. G-ma thought for a moment.
“About 2 days journey from my old spot, about 3 days from where you began”, she replied as she gestured toward each of the locations she mentioned.
“I wonder if we would have felt this there”, Mrs. Corum mused.
“Good question… this is pretty far out for us, maybe this area just gets that sky color regularly and these… tremors”, G-ma conceded.
And then, something neither of them had dreamed was possible occurred. It began to rain.
The rain came slowly at first, before it gradually increased to a moderate downpour. The women had nothing they could hide under, and thus just sat there, as the water washed over them. The ground seemed to soak it up, ending all fear they might have had of swimming back to their original spots.
“Why now”, G-ma said.
“Why not now?”, Mrs. Corum replied.
“I suppose – but for 8 years this place has been dry as a bone. Maybe once or twice the ground felt a bit soggy, but I always thought I was imagining that”.
“Perhaps it never rained where you used to stay”, Mrs. Corum offered.
Gradually the rain let up, and the two women stood to take stock of the situation.
It was then they noticed that neither was water logged in anyway. Sure, they’d felt the rain, but their clothing was dry to the touch. Their hair was the same it had always been. They didn’t feel particularly cold, despite the normally comfortable temperature not going up.
“I’d expected it to be like coming into an air conditioned building after a storm”, Mrs. Corum said as they began walking again.
“Yeah, that cold feeling you get, even though the temperature inside is just fine”, G-ma replied.
“Do you think we should keep exploring, or should we head back to one of our spots?”, Mrs. Corum asked.
“Why would we head back?”
Mrs. Corum didn’t have an answer. It had been a crazy few days. First they’d found they had a mutual connection in Julie, then they’d seen colors in the sky, and finally they’d been rained on. Perhaps heading back to her original spot was a way of seeking safety.
“I don’t know”, Mrs. Corum finally replied, “I really don’t know”
“It’s starting to get to you, isn’t it, dear?”, G-ma asked with a knowing smile.
“I suppose it is. Is this what happens before a mental breakdown here?”, Mrs. Corum asked.
“Well, I’ve had my share of them, but they never included hallucinated weather events”, G-ma replied.
“Maybe there is a first time for everything”, Mrs. Corum said.
It would be the last words she audibly spoke for several hours, perhaps even days. She felt the frustration mounting and it wasn’t going to go away by returning to her original spot. It just needed to be dealt with over time. G-ma gave her space, both metaphorically and physically, trailing her as they continued to explore the world.