Snapshots of Alternatives

Jason’s roommate Jonathan nudged him awake. Looking around, Jason saw that he had fallen asleep on the couch holding a video game controller, again. He looked at his phone and saw it was 5 pm. “Great. I lost almost another full day of job searching.”

“Which reminds me, the rent’s due, and I can’t afford another month of not getting your half.”

Jason rubbed his head. “I should’ve stayed in grad school. Could’ve gotten a little job at the college… sublet that apartment with Isabelle… She wouldn’t let me sleep my life away.”

While Jason was bemoaning his choices, Isabelle was in a history museum running between the exhibits. “Madre, check out these Mardi Gras queen’s trains. This one’s from the 1800s. Vaya! Can you imagine how strong the stitching must be to hold all those diamonds in place for this long?”

Celia put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder. “It looks muy pesado to me. Do you think being a queen is worth wearing that, Niña?”

“I think they only wear the trains for the parade, and then they drape them over the float, so it’s less like wearing one and more just pretending to wear one.”

“Well in that case I hope I get to see you pretend to wear one some day.”

Isabelle instantly started imagining a royal blue cape with a big golden eagle broach at the top and ribbons flowing all the way to the bottom over an embroidered map of the world, with gears and a clock face in the middle. She was pulled from her fantasy when her eyes turned to the next exhibit. “Madre! Madre! Madre! There’s an exhibit on the Titanic!” She started to run towards the cutout of the ship, but after a few steps she and Jason both ceased to exist as their real selves broke from their fantasies.

***

Nesrin rode a giant dog made of fire, leading her army into the apartment complex. Waves of hidden ones led by Ceylan flew overhead while the human ranks marched beneath them with guns loaded. The snipers and ninjas had gone ahead of them on the rooftops, and tanks were left in the streets waiting. Mithal the Failure Caliph was chained to Nesrin’s dog, carrying the Bottle of Samira.

Nesrin smiled at the lack of resistance. “My day has finally dawned. Soon she will learn that no one opposes Nesrin the Half Fire, not even her alternate self.” At last earth’s moon and Venus appeared in the sunlit sky. Now she was ready. She teleported into the apartment with Ceylan by her side.

Ceylan scoffed at their surroundings. “Forgive me, Khanum, but I fail to see how even a hypothetical version of you could live here.”

“This version was weak.” Her eyes glowed black and a dagger of black water appeared in her hand. “History broke her, but she is only a wraith of a might-have-been.”

They found the other Nesrin in her bedroom writing in her journal about impersonating her mother and her new reconnaissance task. The experience had revived suppressed, panicked memories of a human war she’d been involved in. The tortured fantasies it provoked gave the darker Nesrin strength as she lifted the dagger.

The other Nesrin slammed the journal shut and closed her eyes. “No.”

The Khanum dropped her dagger and stumbled.

The other Nesrin clenched her fists on her desk. “Let the thoughts go. Just hand them over.”

The Khanum and her sister faded like smoke in the wind, sending out ripples that erased their army like a tsunami. Once they were gone, the real Nesrin collapsed into her chair, able to relax a little.

Wraiths of Might-Have-Beens

On Fridays Isabelle and Jason both had night class from 6 to 8:30. Their classes were in separate buildings and fairly far apart, so they didn’t actually see each other until Jason picked Isabelle up for the drive home. Considering they lived together, this short break from each other wasn’t a hardship for either sibling.

Jason’s multivariate analysis class was the usual snooze-fest, and as soon as the ten minute break arrived at 7:15 he shot out of the room to the snack kiosk for some coffee and a muffin. He was just opening his muffin when a voice said “Hey Jason.”

He jumped when he saw Nesrin standing beside him, causing him to toss his muffin into the air for her to catch.

“Surprise,” she said as she handed it back.

“Don’t you have to work on Fridays?”

“Ceylan’s filling in for me. I wanted to keep an eye on you and Isabelle, make sure you’re not feeling any adverse effects form prolonged exposure to the hidden realm.”

“Um, should we be?”

“Possibly. Once you have the scent of magic on you it tends to follow you. Problem is that means different things for different people. You haven’t felt or seen anything strange, have you?”

Jason patted his torso and looked at his legs. “Not that I noticed.”

“Good, then maybe you’re okay for now. I’m gonna go check on Isabelle. Let me know if you do notice anything.”

“Oh I will.”

He had a hard time settling down after Nesrin left. He ended up going for a walk down one of the halls he didn’t have class in. Usually he stayed in the section of the building dedicated to business, but now he was in the section dedicated to accounting. Accounting was what he’d almost majored in as an undergrad, before he chose business management.

Just for a distraction he stopped to look at the pictures a professor had taped to their office door. He was reading a comic about accounting when he heard someone walk up beside him and check the professor’s schedule. At first he ignored it, but then he happened to turn and gasped.

The other person was exactly Jason’s hight, had exactly his hair and eye color, and had exactly the same face. The only difference was that the newcomer was wearing a t-shirt with a lot of numbers on it. The other Jason nodded in the original’s direction, then scampered to a classroom at the end of the hall. The original Jason was frozen in place until the new one disappeared at the door of the classroom. He dug his phone out of his pocket and dialed Nesrin’s number.

Meanwhile, Nesrin had found Isabelle outside with her headphones on, practicing her Taekwondo.

Isabelle jumped when she saw Nesrin, but smiled and took her headphones out. “Hey.”

“Hey. You make that look so easy. I’ve never understood how people can lift there legs so high with such ease.”

“You mean in three thousand years you never learned any martial arts?”

“I never had any reason to. We hidden ones can defend ourselves perfectly well without them. Maybe you could show me a few motions?”

“Sure. You stand there and I’ll show you one of the head kicks.” Isabelle started to raise her leg, then stopped. “Your body is physical and solid, right?”

“By now you should know it is. All half human hidden ones have physical bodies.”

Isabelle nodded. She raised her leg to Nesrin’s shoulder, only to have it pass through and send her spiraling forward. She latched onto Nesrin in a scramble to rebalance.

Nesrin smirked. “Of course I can still turn into smoke when I want to.”

Before Isabelle could respond, she heard a voice almost exactly like hers say “Taekwondo only dates back to the 1940’s, but the tradition of what we call martial arts began roughly four thousand years ago.” Isabelle turned in the direction of the voice and found a copy of herself in her Taekwondo robe, with a group of students in front of her. The sight only lasted a second before it vanished like a sandcastle in a wave.

Isabelle tried to look at Nesrin but couldn’t turn her head. “Did… you see that?”

“I saw.” Music erupted from Nesrin’s phone. She saw the caller was Jason and put him on speaker.

“Nesrin? I think I just noticed something. It was like meeting my own reflection.”

“I’m glad you called. I was just about to explain this same thing to Isabelle. What you’re seeing are flashes of alternate timelines. You, Jason, almost majored in accounting, and you, Isabelle, thought about teaching Taekwondo. When you perform actions that reflect those other options, you briefly experience what you could have had. For just a second, the hypothetical comes closer to reality and you can glimpse another life, but it doesn’t last long enough to become real. Most humans can’t actually see their’s, but the more you interact with my world…”

Jason was the first to speak. “So we’re gonna see more of these things?

“Most likely, yes.”

Isabelle shook her head. “Do you have ghost like this following you?”

“Yes, I have them too. The last time we were at the Flee Market I saw a version where I wasn’t released from my lamp until 2018, when an old lady sold it to you and you released me by accident.” She stared into the distance. “Another two thousand years in the lamp. Still, it’s better than some of the other alternatives. You were lucky that your first sightings were neither drastically better nor drastically worse than reality.”

“I see it again!” Jason was watching another copy of himself, dressed in dark pants and a pull-over shirt, walking down the hall with a briefcase.

“Yes,” Nesrin said. “In that version you got an internship at an accounting firm that works for the college. Financially, you’re not totally independent, but you’re not doing bad.” She heard quick footsteps over the phone.

Jason said “Can we talk to these things? Maybe get a few tips?”

“I suggest you don’t try. Any success or failure your alternatives had were based on a different set of circumstances than you’ve created for yourself. What works in one reality might destroy another.”

Isabelle noticed a version of herself sleeping on a bench beside them.

Nesrin saw her move towards the image. “When these appear you have to focus on the real, move forward as if you hadn’t seen them. If you don’t feed the connection they fade away. If you do the result is variable but seldom desirable .”

Isabelle turned away and her other self evaporated.

Jason’s footsteps stopped.

Nesrin smiled. “This will take practice for both of you, but I’ll help you adjust. In time you may find they aren’t so noticeable.”

Jason and Isabelle both murmured agreement, but really that was hard to imagine when they were both looking around for more shadows of different lives.