Mirage

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Richelle wandered up and down Sunset Boulevard, purse swinging by her side, holding up a hand every so often to shield her eyes from the afternoon sun. Everything seemed perfectly ordinary, and yet…

Something wasn’t right. There was nothing wrong with her surroundings as far as she could tell, nothing wrong with herself. But at the same time, everything was wrong.

A shimmer caught Richelle’s eye and she turned.

A towering skyscraper stood to the west, gleaming beneath the sun like a world-sized diamond. It snagged her gaze and refused to let go. As she stared, something inside of her snapped into focus.

She had to get to that building.

She was walking faster now, high heels clip-clopping like horseshoes on the hot cement. People continued about their business, yet she thought she caught them eyeing her askance. She could hear voices now, as if from far away, a low, vibrating hum almost too low for her to hear.

What were they saying? She thought if she listened carefully…

Someone bumped into her, shoving her to the ground.

“Sorry, lady,” said a man in a white polo. “Didn’t see you.” But somewhere beneath his voice, she thought she’d heard another: “It’s her!”

Rattled, she picked herself up, stammered, “that’s all right,” and brushed past him.

In the distance, that crystalline edifice called to her, shimmering like a mirage. Only she thought that wasn’t quite right.

The world is the mirage. That building is the only real thing here.

The thought was earth shattering in its clarity. There came another.

Have to get to that building.

But no sooner did she continue walking than another man in a white polo bumped into her.

“Pardon me,” he said, scurrying off. And somewhere beyond, in another layer of reality: “Stop her!”

Reeling now, Richelle broke into a sprint.

Have to get to that building!

Smack. Another man in a white polo.

“So sorry!”

Smack. Another man in a white polo.

“Excuse me.”

Smack.

Smack.

Smack.

Richelle was surrounded now, drowning in an ocean of men in white polos. Her breath came in increasingly shallow gasps.

What is this?

All around her, beyond the absent minded apologies, clamored a chorus of darker voices.

“Can’t allow her to reach the building.”

“Can’t you see her?”

“She’s over there.”

“Stop her!”

They were not men, she decided, nor was this a real city. Moreover, they knew she knew and they were trying to keep her from discovering the truth. Richelle was angry now.

Planting her feet to the ground, she hefted her purse in both hands and swung it in a wide arc.

It whistled through the air before smashing into a target.

“Ouch! What’d you do that for?” The man clutched a bleeding nose and stared at her as if she’d gone insane. Beneath his voice was another: “Kill her!”

The ocean of bodies pressed tighter, became a swarm of flesh-eating flies. All the while she swung her purse, slowly pushing on, inching her way toward the building.

She couldn’t remember how long she’d been fighting, but when she looked up again the sun was a bloated red ball hovering close to the horizon, and directly before her was the building, only yards away now, a wildfire of reflected light that seared her retinas whenever she looked directly at it.

Richelle screamed, a feral cry that seemed to resonate with the city and its malicious inhabitants. The men clutched at their ears as if enduring  an unbearable agony, and Richelle continued shrieking until her lungs were depleted and her throat was raw.

When she could no longer sustain the sound, she made a beeline for those last few yards, ignoring the arms that reached for her, trying to grab fragments of clothing and hair, trying to pull her back into the crowd.

Richelle stopped just short of that magnificent structure and was suddenly dwarfed by its size. She squinted up at the fiery light reflected from its surface, and for a moment it seemed to capture a different light, scattering it across the city in an otherworldly spectrum.

On the surface, it appeared transparent and made of glass, yet it was opaque to her in some way she didn’t understand. Her eyes fixed on a simple door, set into the foundation, the only part of it she could see clearly.

“Stop her!” those voices commanded again, but it was too late. Her hand was already on the door.

She turned. Pulled.

The door opened.

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Through the Flame

 

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Anita threw more wood onto what was already a blazing fire. Glowing embers popped and cracked, leaping into the air like fireworks. That should be enough, she thought. She sat on the smooth white sand to watch the flames. So far, the beach was barren save for herself. But that wouldn’t be the case for very long.

A few hundred yards ahead, where land met water, the ocean smacked into a pile of rocks, sending up a jet of misty white spray.

She was sure she’d been followed. She’d taken precautions, but the soldiers who pursued her were seasoned trackers, and she was certain they were at most a few hours behind.

Before her, bright orange flames reached for the sky like earthbound spirits, flickering in the confines of a crude stone ring. She stared at where the air shimmered from the heat, a flame-induced mirage, and concentrated. She could feel it, drawn to her through the fire like iron toward a magnet. The mirror world, which like her own would die without her help.

The mirage flickered. Dimmed. She pushed through the partition with her mind, picked at the boundary between worlds. She gave a relieved sigh when the dimness subsided, resolving into a beach very much like her own.

There, in the mirror world, was an identical fire, and beside it an alternate Anita, seated before the flames with her eyes closed.

Suddenly breathless and eager to be done, she reached into a small leather satchel, retrieving a faded parchment rolled and sealed with her family crest. She reached toward her alter ego, who had opened her eyes and was now simultaneously reaching out with her own hand. She pushed through the partition, feeling like her hand had been submerged in gel. They exchanged notes, pulled away, and just like that the bridge between their worlds evaporated.

Just as Anita came back to herself she heard horse’s hooves, pounding against the sand like distant thunder. It seemed her enemies were closer than she’d thought. No matter. The deed was done. She’d saved mirror-Anita’s world, and in so doing had saved her own.

She opened the scroll, read her alter ego’s note and smiled. Let them come. She would be ready.

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