And then I woke up.
I felt as though I’d forgotten something important.
I unstuck my face from the Parcheesi board and looked around. Imogen was still asleep. She’d found a blanket from somewhere and wrapped it around herself. Her position was less undignified than mine had been; she was leaning backwards onto the sofa.
She’d gotten that blanket from the closet, hadn’t she?
Oh, well. Can’t hide clutter forever.
I stood and stretched, every joint in my body cracking and popping like an all-percussion symphony. “Crouching Dog” is not my usual sleeping posture. They say how you sleep is based on your personality. I’m not sure I believe that; I just sleep in whatever way allows me to breathe. Breathing is an important part of the sleeping process.
That and water. Water sounded pretty good, actually.
The water in the pitcher was warm from being left out all night, so I walked around to the kitchen and filled a glass from the sink.
I glanced into the living room as I drank, and—
Alan was in there, standing over Imogen.
“So?” he asked. “Was I right? Feel any different, man?”
Alan shook his head.
He looked me directly in the eyes. And my entire…
…came rushing back.
Senses, form, meaning.
I went back into the living room and shook Imogen’s shoulder. Alan knocked my hand away.
“Man, you gotta give it to her now.”
“Give her what?”
He pointed to my hand. The hand that had just been empty. But now it was holding the vial. I didn’t remember taking it out of my pocket.
“She’s conked, man. She won’t even know what hit her.”
I put the vial down on the coffee table and gently shook Imogen again. She only mumbled sleepily.
“I don’t wanna be the mayor… Somebody else check in…”
I shook her a little harder.
She yawned and opened her eyes. And I think she smiled when she saw me.
“Oh. Good morning. Did you talk to my demons?”
“Yes. But, I mean, no. It’s… not what you believed.”
She blinked hard to focus. “What do you mean?”
“I think you should start listening to the voices—not do the opposite of what they say anymore.”
Alan knelt down next to me. He looked directly at Imogen as he spoke.
“I think she should keep it up. Things were going well, so far.”
I braced myself for a lot of questions. Ones that would be difficult to answer.
But Imogen didn’t turn her head. She didn’t acknowledge Alan. She just kept looking at me.
As though he wasn’t there at all.
As though he’d never existed in the first place.
“I don’t understand,” she said to me.
“I mean that it’s the opposite. It’s more like… angelic possession.”
Alan laughed sharply. “Never heard of it! You must be making it all up. Tell her you’re joking. Or maybe you’re the crazy one? Did you ever think of that?”
I helped Imogen to her feet and started guiding her to the door. A little forcefully. She and Alan seemed to be mutually exclusive for now, but I couldn’t count on it staying that way. Also, it felt a little awkward to juggle a conversation between two people who couldn’t interact with each other.
We got across the living room, and Imogen stopped me.
“Wait. I trust you. You’ve helped me, even when I opened myself up to you and risked sounding… crazy. And now you say that I’m not crazy, but I have to leave? If I’m not supposed to do the opposite anymore, then… It doesn’t answer the question. Why do the voices, the demons, the angels, whatever they are—Why do they want me to stay away from you?”
Alan started shouting for me to tell her to stay, but I was trying to ignore him.
She asked again, more emphatically.
“Why am I supposed to stay away from you?”
I glanced back at Alan, then sighed.
“I guess you’re just… way out of my league.”
It was a dodge, and we both knew it. She looked sad, and the floor held her fascination once again.
She started to say something, but I interrupted her.
“Go on. There’s something here I need to take care of.”
Slowly, reluctantly, she stepped outside.
Was this goodbye? Was that the last thing I wanted to say to her?
“Hey. I’ll be fine. More importantly, you’ll be fine.”
Her eyes sparkled with restrained tears.
After a moment of silence, she nodded once. Then she started walking down the stairs.
I closed the door.
Alan laid a hand on my shoulder.
“Hey, one out of two ain’t bad. Look at it this way, man: You kept the older friend. Not the one you met… oh, yesterday.”
As he spoke, I crossed back to the coffee table. I picked up the vial and shoved it in his face.
“This isn’t what I thought it was, is it?”
“That depends on what you thought it was, doesn’t it, man? But, nah, you probably had no idea. Would’ve made her just like anyone else.”
I pried the top off the vial and drank it in a single gulp.
Alan’s eyes blazed infernally for a split second—no longer than it takes to blink—but then he settled back to his usual self. He must have known, by then, that I knew.
“Wow. Uh, almost anyone else, then. All it’ll do for you is stave off death by dehydration. Slightly.”
“Well, it was worth a shot.”
I threw the vial into the kitchen, and it smashed against the far wall.
“So, what’s next?” I asked. “Why is she important? Important to you, I mean.”
“What makes you think I’d know? I might be in the Light Brigade, man. Mine not to reason why.”
“Yours but to do and die, huh? Except I’m pretty sure that you can’t die. So that just leaves do.”
Alan screwed up his face in thought. Then he settled onto the sofa and put his feet up on the coffee table.
“All right. Well, she’s gonna get a little bit famous. With that cello of hers, y’know? Get some acclaim. She’ll start spreading a message of peace, and love, and tolerance… All that crap. And then, one day, she’s going to get on a plane for a concert. There are a lot of rogue nuclear states out there, did you know that? And a lot of people think it’s a good idea to keep them from getting angry at one another. Otherwise, well…”
He chuckled before continuing.
“And that plane is going to crash. In a gigantic fireball. And it won’t be terrorism. Mechanical fault, wind shear, just one of those things. Still, everyone on board will die. The wreckage and the carnage will be… beyond what you can imagine. But because she was on board, and because she inspired so many, diplomats from other, more level-headed nations will step in and keep a lid on things. And a lotta good’ll be done in her name for decades to come, blah, blah, blah. It just didn’t seem like our kind of outcome.”
He paused, seeming to wait for a reply.
But what could I say in response to that?
“You could have stopped it, man. You could have saved her life by being more selfish, but not taking the long view. By acting how humans are supposed to act. There’s irony for you.”
“Is that it?”
“I’d say it’s quite a lot! Enough for one lifetime, at least. What, you want her to stop two wars? Requiscat in pace, man.”
“No, I mean… Is that how you’re doing it? You’re trying to get me to run out after her—to change my mind about what the right thing to do here is. You really haven’t been paying attention to who I am. That or you don’t care. But either one is a big mistake. You tipped your hand too far. Hell, to stop a nuclear war? I’d run downstairs and stab her myself.”
I thought for a moment about what I’d just said.
“But don’t get any ideas,” I added hastily. “And don’t think that she means nothing to me. When the day comes that I hear about her, I’m sure I’ll be sad. Even if I can’t tell anyone else exactly why. But I’m not about to let my id run roughshod over my superego like that.”
Alan held up a single finger.
“I could have been lying.”
“Could have. But given what you think of me, you’d have tried to appeal to me personally, not to humanity as a whole.” I pointed to my head. “These chemicals are good for some things, you know.”
“Not for much.”
Then a strange moment passed. For the first time, I felt as though I had the upper hand in our relationship. But friendship shouldn’t be a competition; it’s meant to be a cooperation.
Was he even my friend, really?
It was hard to tell anymore.
“Am I done? Now that this has passed, now that she’s gone?”
“Not a chance. No one’s ever gone until they’re gone. You can say no a thousand times, but say yes once, and you’re mine forever, man.”
“Then I’ll just have to say no forever, demon.”
I’d been dancing around addressing the issue directly—for fear of a dangerous reaction—but Alan took it in stride.
“Forever’s a long time. And no is hard.”
With the last remaining problem confronted, I sat on the sofa next to him and relaxed. Taking deep breaths for the first time in what felt like a very long time.
“You know, someone once told me that solutions are hard. And then, not long after that, someone else did, too. And those people were very different from one another. Almost as different as can be. But since they agreed on that, I choose to believe that it’s true.”
“You can’t just choose what to believe.”
“Oh, sure I can! For example, I choose to believe that you’re the same person—well, ‘person’—I’ve always thought you were. Terrible, impulsive, immoral… but saveable.”
“I bet I can if I try. What were you? I mean, before. One of the seraphim, cherubim, thrones…?”
“Thrones? Is that really your word for it? Geez, show me some respect; I was one of the ophanim.”
His proud tone made me smile. It was a side of my friend that I’d never seen before.
“Now we’re getting somewhere.”