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Charlotte says, “That’s just it, Em. There wasn’t any pain. I didn’t feel anything much at all.” She sips her coffee and stares out the kitchen window, squinting at the bright Monday morning sunlight. The sun melts like butter across her face. It catches in the strands of her brown hair, like a late summer afternoon tangling itself in dead cornstalks. It deepens the lines around her eyes and at the corners of her mouth. She takes another sip of coffee, then sets her cup down on the table. I’ve never once seen her use a saucer.

And the next minute seems to last longer than it ought to last, longer than the mere sum of the sixty seconds that compose it, the way time stretches out to fill in awkward pauses. She smiles for me, and so I smile back. I don’t want to smile, but isn’t that what you do? The person you love is frightened, but she smiles anyway. So you have to smile back, despite your own fear. I tell myself it isn’t so much an act of reciprocation as an acknowledgement. I could be more honest with myself and say I only smiled back out of guilt.

“I wish it had hurt,” she says, finally, on the other side of all that long, long moment. I don’t have to ask what she means, though I wish that I did. I wish I didn’t already know. She says the same words over again, but more quietly than before, and there’s a subtle shift in emphasis. “I wish it had hurt.”

I apologize and say I shouldn’t have brought it up again, and she shrugs.

“No, don’t be sorry, Em. Don’t let’s be sorry for anything.”

I’m stacking days, building a house of cards made from nothing but days. Monday is the Ace of Hearts. Saturday is the Four of Spades. Wednesday is the Seven of Clubs. Thursday night is, I suspect, the Seven of Diamonds, and it might be heavy enough to bring the whole precarious thing tumbling down around my ears. I would spend an entire hour watching cards fall, because time would stretch, the same way it stretches out to fill in awkward pauses, the way time is stretched thin in that thundering moment of a car crash. Or at the edges of a wound.

If it’s Monday morning, I can lean across the breakfast table and kiss her, as if nothing has happened. And if we’re lucky, that might be the moment that endures almost indefinitely. I can kiss her, taste her, savor her, drawing the moment out like a card drawn from a deck. But no, now it’s Thursday night, instead of Monday morning. There’s something playing on the television in the bedroom, but the sound is turned all the way down, so that whatever the something may be proceeds like a silent movie filmed in color and without intertitles. A movie for lip readers. There’s no other light but the light from the television. She’s lying next to me, almost undressed, asking me questions about the book I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to finish. I understand she’s not asking them because she needs to know the answers, which is the only reason I haven’t tried to change the subject.

“The Age of Exploration was already long over with,” I say. “For all intents and purposes, it ended early in the Seventeenth Century. Everything after that—reaching the north and south poles, for instance—is only a series of footnotes. There were no great blank spaces left for men to fill in. No more ‘Here be monsters.’”

She’s lying on top of the sheets. It’s the middle of July and too hot for anything more than sheets. Clean white sheets and underwear. In the glow from the television, Charlotte looks less pale and less fragile than she would if the bedside lamp were on, and I’m grateful for the illusion. I want to stop talking, because it all sounds absurd, pedantic, all these unfinished, half-formed ideas that add up to nothing much at all. I want to stop talking and just lie here beside her.

“So writers made up stories about lost worlds,” she says, having heard all this before and pretty much knowing it by heart. “But those made-up worlds weren’t really lost. They just weren’t found yet. They’d not yet been imagined.”

“That’s the point,” I reply. “The value of those stories rests in their insistence that blank spaces still do exist on the map. They have to exist, even if it’s necessary to twist and distort the map to make room for them. All those overlooked islands, inaccessible plateaus in South American jungles, the sunken continents and the entrances to a hollow Earth, they were important psychological buffers against progress and certainty. It’s no coincidence that they’re usually places where time has stood still, to one degree or another.”

“But not really so much time,” she says, “as the processes of evolution, which require time.”

“See? You understand this stuff better than I do,” and I tell her she should write the book. I’m only half joking. That’s something else Charlotte knows. I lay my hand on her exposed belly, just below the navel, and she flinches and pulls away.

“Don’t do that,” she says.

“All right. I won’t. I wasn’t thinking.” I was thinking, but it’s easier if I tell her that I wasn’t.

Monday morning. Thursday night. This day or that. My own private house of cards, held together by nothing more substantial than balance and friction. And the loops I’d rather make than admit to the present. Connecting dot-to-dot, from here to there, from there to here. Here being half an hour before dawn on a Saturday, the sky growing lighter by slow degrees. Here, where I’m on my knees, and Charlotte is standing naked in front of me. Here, now, when the perfectly round hole above her left hip and below her ribcage has grown from a pinprick to the size of the saucers she never uses for her coffee cups.

“I don’t think it will hurt,” she tells me. And I can’t see any point in asking whether she means, I don’t think it will hurt me, or I don’t think it will hurt you.

“Now?” I ask her, and she says, “No. Not yet. Wait.”

So, handed that reprieve, I withdraw again to the relative safety of the Ace of Hearts—or Monday morning, call it what you will. In my mind’s eye, I run back to the kitchen washed in warm yellow sunlight. Charlotte is telling me about the time, when she was ten years old, that she was shot with a BB gun, her brother’s Red Ryder BB gun.

“It wasn’t an accident,” she’s telling me. “He meant to do it. I still have the scar from where my mother had to dig the BB out of my ankle with tweezers and a sewing needle. It’s very small, but it’s a scar all the same.”

“Is that what it felt like, like being hit with a BB?”

“No,” she says, shaking her head and gazing down into her coffee cup. “It didn’t. But when I think about the two things, it seems like there’s a link between them, all these years apart. Like, somehow, this thing was an echo of the day he shot me with the BB gun.”

“A meaningful coincidence,” I suggest. “A sort of synchronicity.”

“Maybe,” Charlotte says. “But maybe not.” She looks out the window again. From the kitchen, you can see the three oaks and her flower bed and the land running down to the rocks and the churning sea. “It’s been an awfully long time since I read Jung. My memory’s rusty. And, anyway, maybe it’s not a coincidence. It could be something else. Just an echo.”

“I don’t understand, Charlotte. I really don’t think I know what you mean.”

“Never mind,” she says, not taking her eyes off the window. “Whatever I do or don’t mean, it isn’t important.”

The warm yellow light from the sun, the colorless light from a color television. A purplish sky fading towards the light of false dawn. The complete absence of light from the hole punched into her body by something that wasn’t a BB. Something that also wasn’t a shadow.

“What scares me most,” she says (and I could draw this particular card from anywhere in the deck), “is that it didn’t come back out the other side. So, it must still be lodged in there, in me.”

I was watching when she was hit. I saw when she fell. I’m coming to that.

“Writers made up stories about lost worlds” she says again, after she’s flinched, after I’ve pulled my hand back from the brink. “They did it because we were afraid of having found all there was to find. Accurate maps became more disturbing, at least unconsciously, than the idea of sailing off the edge of a flat world.”

“I don’t want to talk about the book.”

“Maybe that’s why you can’t finish it.”

“Maybe you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Probably,” she says, without the least bit of anger or impatience in her voice.

I roll over, turning my back on Charlotte and the silent television. Turning my back on what cannot be heard and doesn’t want to be acknowledged. The sheets are damp with sweat, and there’s the stink of ozone that’s not quite the stink of ozone. The acrid smell that always follows her now, wherever she goes. No. That isn’t true. The smell doesn’t follow her, it comes from her. She radiates the stink that is almost, but not quite, the stink of ozone.

“Does Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland count?” she asks me, even though I’ve said I don’t want to talk about the goddamned book. I’m sure that she heard me, and I don’t answer her.

Better not to linger too long on Thursday night.

Better if I return, instead, to Monday morning. Only Monday morning. Which I have carelessly, randomly, designated here as the Ace of Hearts, and hearts are cups, so Monday morning is the Ace of Cups. In four days more, Charlotte will ask me about Alice, and though I won’t respond to the question (at least not aloud), I will recall that Lewis Carroll considered the Queen of Hearts—who rules over the Ace and is also the Queen of Cups—I will recollect that Lewis Carroll considered her the embodiment of a certain type of passion. That passion, he said, which is ungovernable, but which exists as an aimless, unseeing, furious thing. And he said, also, that the Queen of Cups, the Queen of Hearts, is not to be confused with the Red Queen, whom he named another brand of passion altogether.

Monday morning in the kitchen.

“My brother always claimed he was shooting at a blue jay and missed. He said he was aiming for the bird, and hit me. He said the sun was in his eyes.”

“Did he make a habit of shooting songbirds?”

“Birds and squirrels,” she says. “Once he shot a neighbor’s cat, right between the eyes.” And Charlotte presses the tip of an index finger to the spot between her brows. “The cat had to betaken to a vet to get the BB out, and my mom had to pay the bill. Of course, he said he wasn’t shooting at the cat. He was shooting at a sparrow and missed.”

“What a little bastard,” I say.

“He was just a kid, only a year older than I was. Kids don’t mean to be cruel, Em, they just are sometimes. From our perspectives, they appear cruel. They exist outside the boundaries of adult conceits of morality. Anyway, after the cat, my dad took the BB gun away from him. So, after that, he always kind of hated cats.”

But here I am neglecting Wednesday, overlooking Wednesday, even though I went to the trouble of drawing a card for it. And it occurs to me now I didn’t even draw one for Tuesday. Or Friday, for that matter. It occurs to me that I’m becoming lost in this ungainly metaphor, that the tail is wagging the dog. But Wednesday was of consequence. More so than was Thursday night, with its mute TV and the Seven of Diamonds and Charlotte shying away from my touch.

The Seven of Clubs. Wednesday, or the Seven of Pentacles, seen another way round. Charlotte, wrapped in her bathrobe, comes downstairs after taking a hot shower, and she finds me reading Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps, the book lying lewdly open in my lap.

I quickly close it, feeling like I’m a teenager again, and my mother’s just barged into my room to find me masturbating to the Hustler centerfold. Yes, your daughter is a lesbian, and yes, your girlfriend is reading quantum theory behind your back.

Charlotte stares at me awhile, staring silently, and then she stares at the thick volume lying on the coffee table, Principles of Physical Cosmology. She sits down on the floor, not far from the sofa. Her hair is dripping, spattering the hardwood.

“I don’t believe you’re going to find anything in there,” she says, meaning the books.

“I just thought…” I begin, but let the sentence die unfinished, because I’m not at all sure what I was thinking. Only that I’ve always turned to books for solace.

And here, on the afternoon of the Seven of Pentacles, this Wednesday weighted with those seven visionary chalices, she tells me what happened in the shower. How she stood in the steaming spray watching the water rolling down her breasts and across her stomach and up her buttocks before falling into the hole in her side. Not in defiance of gravity, but in perfect accord with gravity. She hardly speaks above a whisper. I sit quietly listening, wishing that I could suppose she’d only lost her mind. Recourse to wishful thinking, the seven visionary chalices of the Seven of Pentacles, of the Seven of Clubs, or Wednesday. Running away to hide in the comfort of insanity, or the authority of books, or the delusion of lost worlds.

“I’m sorry, but what the fuck do I say to that?” I ask her, and she laughs. It’s a terrible sound, that laugh, a harrowing, forsaken sound. And then she stops laughing, and I feel relief spill over me, because now she’s crying, instead. There’s shame at the relief, of course, but even the shame is welcome. I couldn’t have stood that terrible laughter much longer. I go to her and put my arms around her and hold her, as if holding her will make it all better. The sun’s almost down by the time she finally stops crying.

I have a quote from Albert Einstein, from sometime in 1912, which I found in the book by Kip Thorne, the book Charlotte caught me reading on Wednesday: “Henceforth, space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.”

Space, time, shadows.

As I’ve said, I was watching when she was hit. I saw when she fell. That was Saturday last, two days before the yellow morning in the kitchen, and not to be confused with the next Saturday, which is the Four of Spades. I was sitting on the porch, and had been watching two noisy grey-white gulls wheeling far up against the blue summer sky. Charlotte had been working in her garden, pulling weeds. She called out to me, and I looked away from the birds. She was pointing towards the ocean, and at first I wasn’t sure what it was she wanted me to see. I stared at the breakers shattering themselves against the granite boulders, and past that, to the horizon where the water was busy with its all but eternal task of shouldering the burden of the heavens. I was about to tell her that I didn’t see anything. This wasn’t true, of course. I just didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, nothing special, nothing that ought not occupy that time and that space.

I saw nothing to give me pause.

But then I did.

Space, time, shadows.

I’ll call it a shadow, because I’m at a loss for any more appropriate word. It was spread out like a shadow rushing across the waves, though, at first, I thought I was seeing something dark moving beneath the waves. A very big fish, perhaps. Possibly a large shark or a small whale. We’ve seen whales in the bay before. Or it might have been caused by a cloud passing in front of the sun, though there were no clouds that day. The truth is I knew it was none of these things. I can sit here all night long, composing a list of what it wasn’t, and I’ll never come any nearer to what it might have been.

“Emily,” she shouted. “Do you see it?” And I called back that I did. Having noticed it, it was impossible not to see that grimy, indefinite smear sliding swiftly towards the shore. In a few seconds more, I realized, it would reach the boulders, and if it wasn’t something beneath the water, the rocks wouldn’t stop it. Part of my mind still insisted it was only a shadow, a freakish trick of the light, a mirage. Nothing substantial, certainly nothing malign, nothing that could do us any mischief or injury. No need to be alarmed, and yet I don’t ever remember being as afraid I was then. I couldn’t move, but I yelled for Charlotte to run. I don’t think she heard me. Or if she heard me, she was also too mesmerized by the sight of the thing to move.

I was safe, there on the porch. It came no nearer to me than ten or twenty yards. But Charlotte, standing alone at the garden gate, was well within its circumference. It swept over her, and she screamed, and fell to the ground. It swept over her, and then was gone, vanishing into the tangle of green briars and poison ivy and wind-stunted evergreens behind our house. I stood there, smelling something that almost smelled like ozone. And maybe it’s an awful cliché to put to paper, but my mind reeled. My heart raced, and my mind reeled. For a fraction of an instant I was seized by something that was neither déjà vu or vertigo, and I thought I might vomit.

But the sensation passed, like the shadow had, or the shadow of a shadow, and I dashed down the steps and across the grass to the place where Charlotte sat stunned among the clover and the dandelions. Her clothes and skin looked as though they’d been misted with the thinnest sheen of…what? Oil? No, no, no, not oil at all. But it’s the closest I can come to describing that sticky brownish iridescence clinging to her dress and her face, her arms and the pickets of the garden fence and to every single blade of grass.

“It knocked me down,” she said, sounding more amazed than hurt or frightened. Her eyes were filled with startled disbelief. “It wasn’t anything, Em. It wasn’t anything at all, but it knocked me right off my feet.”

“Are you hurt?” I asked, and she shook her head.

I didn’t ask her anything else, and she didn’t say anything more. I helped her up and inside the house. I got her clothes off and led her into the downstairs shower. But the oily residue that the shadow had left behind had already begun to evaporate—and again, that’s not the right word, but it’s the best I can manage—before we began trying to scrub it away with soap and scalding clean water. By the next morning, there would be no sign of the stuff anywhere, inside the house or out of doors. Not so much as a stain.

“It knocked me down. It was just a shadow, but it knocked me down.” I can’t recall how many times she must have said that. She repeated it over and over again, as though repetition would render it less implausible, less inherently ludicrous. “A shadow knocked me down, Em. A shadow knocked me down.”

But it wasn’t until we were in the bedroom, and she was dressing, that I noticed the red welt above her left hip, just below her ribs. It almost looked like an insect bite, except the center was…well, when I bent down and examined it closely, I saw there was no center. There was only a hole. As I’ve said, a pinprick, but a hole all the same. There wasn’t so much as a drop of blood, and she swore to me that it didn’t hurt, that she was fine, and it was nothing to get excited about. She went to the medicine cabinet and found a Band-Aid to cover the welt. And I didn’t see it again until the next day, which as yet has no playing card, the Sunday before the warm yellow Monday morning in the kitchen.

I’ll call that Sunday by the Two of Spades.

It rains on the Two of Spades. It rains cats and dogs all the damn day long. I spend the afternoon sitting in my study, parked there in front of my computer, trying to find the end to Chapter Nine of the book I can’t seem to finish. The rain beats at the windows, all rhythm and no melody. I write a line, then delete it. One step forward, two steps back. Zeno’s “Achilles and the Tortoise” paradox played out at my keyboard—“That which is in locomotion must arrive at the halfway stage before it arrives at the goal,” and each halfway stage has its own halfway stage, ad infinitum. These are the sorts of rationalizations that comfort me as I only pretend to be working. This is the true reward of my twelve years of college, these erudite excuses for not getting the job done. In the days to come, I will set the same apologetics and exculpations to work on the problem of how a shadow can possibly knock a woman down, and how a hole can be explained away as no more than a wound.

Sometime after seven o’clock, Charlotte raps on the door to ask me how it’s going, and what I’d like for dinner. I haven’t got a ready answer for either question, and she comes in and sits down on the futon near my desk. She has to move a stack of books to make a place to sit. We talk about the weather, which she tells me is supposed to improve after sunset, that the meteorologists are saying Monday will be sunny and hot. We talk about the book—my exploration of the phenomenon of the literary Terrae Anachronismorum, from 1714 and Simon Tyssot de Patot’s Voyages et Aventures de Jacques Massé to 1918 and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Out of Time’s Abyss (and beyond; see Aristotle on Zeno, above). I close Microsoft Word, accepting that nothing more will be written until at least tomorrow.

“I took off the Band-Aid,” she says, reminding me of what I’ve spent the day trying to forget.

“When you fell, you probably jabbed yourself on a stick or something,” I tell her, which doesn’t explain why she fell, but seeks to dismiss the result of the fall.

“I don’t think it was a stick.”

“Well, whatever it was, you hardly got more than a scratch.”

And that’s when she asks me to look. I would have said no, if saying no were an option.

She stands and pulls up her t-shirt, just on the left side, and points at the hole, though there’s no way I could ever miss it. On the rainy Two of Spades, hardly twenty-four hours after Charlotte was knocked off her feet by a shadow, it’s already grown to the diameter of a dime. I’ve never seen anything so black in all my life, a black so complete I’m almost certain I would go blind if I stared into it too long. I don’t say these things. I don’t remember what I say, so maybe I say nothing at all. At first, I think the skin at the edges of the hole is puckered, drawn tight like the skin at the edges of a scab. Then I see that’s not the case at all. The skin around the periphery of the hole in her flesh is moving, rotating, swirling about that preposterous and undeniable blackness.

“I’m scared,” she whispers. “I mean, I’m really fucking scared, Emily.”

I start to touch the wound, and she stops me. She grabs hold of my hand and stops me.

“Don’t,” she says, and so I don’t.

“You know that it can’t be what it looks like,” I tell her, and I think maybe I even laugh.

“Em, I don’t know anything at all.”

“You damn well know that much, Charlotte. It’s some sort of infection, that’s all, and—”

She releases my hand, only to cover my mouth before I can finish. Three fingers to still my lips, and she asks me if we can go upstairs, if I’ll please make love to her.

“Right now, that’s all I want,” she says. “In all the world, there’s nothing I want more.”

I almost make her promise that she’ll see our doctor the next day, but already some part of me has admitted to myself this is nothing a physician can diagnose or treat. We have moved out beyond medicine. We have been pushed out into these nether regions by the shadow of a shadow. I have stared directly into that hole, and already I understand it’s not merely a hole in Charlotte’s skin, but a hole in the cosmos. I could parade her before any number of physicians and physicists, psychologists and priests, and not a one would have the means to seal that breach. In fact, I suspect they would deny the evidence, even if it meant denying all their science and technology and faith. There are things worse than blank spaces on maps. There are moments when certitude becomes the greatest enemy of sanity. Denial becomes an antidote.

Unlike those other days and those other cards, I haven’t chosen the Two of Spades at random. I’ve chosen it because on Thursday she asks me if Alice counts. And I have begun to assume that everything counts, just as everything is claimed by that infinitely small, infinitely dense point beyond the event horizon.

“Would you tell me, please,” said Alice, a little timidly, “why you are painting those roses?”

Five and Seven said nothing, but looked at Two. Two began, in a low voice, “Why, the fact is, you see, Miss, this here ought to have been a red rose-tree, and we put a white one in by mistake…”

On that rainy Saturday, that Two of Spades with an incriminating red brush concealed behind its back, I do as she asks. I cannot do otherwise. I bed her. I fuck her. I am tender and violent by turns, as is she. On that stormy evening, that Two of Pentacles, that Two of Coins (a dime, in this case), we both futilely turn to sex looking for surcease from dread. We try to go back to our lives before she fell, and this is not so very different from all those “lost worlds” I’ve belabored in my unfinished manuscript: Maple White Land, Caprona, Skull Island, Symzonia, Pellucidar, the Mines of King Solomon. In our bed, we struggle to fashion a refuge from the present, populated by the reassuring, dependable past. And I am talking in circles within circles within circles, spiraling inward or out, it doesn’t matter which.

I am arriving, very soon now, at the end of it, at the Saturday night— or more precisely, just before dawn on the Saturday morning—when the story I am writing here ends. And begins. I’ve taken too long to get to the point, if I assume the validity of a linear narrative. If I assume any one moment can take precedence over any other or assume the generally assumed (but unproven) inequity of relevance.

A large rose-tree stood near the entrance of the garden; the roses growing on it were white, but there were three gardeners at it, busily painting them red.

We are as intimate in those moments as two women can be, when one is forbidden to touch a dime-sized hole in the other’s body. At some point, after dark, the rain stops falling, and we lie naked and still, listening to owls and whippoorwills beyond the bedroom walls.

On Wednesday, she comes downstairs and catches me reading the dry pornography of mathematics and relativity. Wednesday is the Seven of Clubs. She tells me there’s nothing to be found in those books, nothing that will change what has happened, what may happen.

She says, “I don’t know what will be left of me when it’s done. I don’t even know if I’ll be enough to satisfy it, or if it will just keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger. I think it might be insatiable.”

On Monday morning, she sips her coffee. We talk about eleven-year-old boys and BB guns.

But here, at last, it is shortly before sunup on a Saturday. Saturday, the Four of Spades. It’s been an hour since Charlotte woke screaming, and I’ve sat and listened while she tried to make sense of the nightmare. The hole in her side is as wide as a softball (and, were this more obviously a comedy, I would list the objects that, by accident, have fallen into it the last few days). Besides the not-quite-ozone smell, there’s now a faint but constant whistling sound, which is air being pulled into the hole. In the dream, she tells me, she knew exactly what was on the other side of the hole, but then she forgot most of it as soon as she awoke. In the dream, she says, she wasn’t afraid, and that we were sitting out on the porch watching the sea while she explained it all to me. We were drinking Cokes, she said, and it was hot, and the air smelled like dog roses.

“You know I don’t like Coke,” I say.

“In the dream you did.”

She says we were sitting on the porch, and that awful shadow came across the sea again, only this time it didn’t frighten her. This time I saw it first and pointed it out to her, and we watched together as it moved rapidly towards the shore. This time, when it swept over the garden, she wasn’t standing there to be knocked down.

“But you said you saw what was on the other side.”

“That was later on. And I would tell you what I saw, if I could remember. But there was the sound of pipes, or a flute,” she says. “I can recall that much of it, and I knew, in the dream, that the hole runs all the way to the middle, to the very center.”

“The very center of what?” I ask, and she looks at me like she thinks I’m intentionally being slow-witted.

“The center of everything that ever was and is and ever will be, Em. The center. Only, somehow the center is both empty and filled with…” She trails off and stares at the floor.

“Filled with what?”

“I can’t say. I don’t know. But whatever it is, it’s been there since before there was time. It’s been there alone since before the universe was born.”

I look up, catching our reflections in the mirror on the dressing table across the room. We’re sitting on the edge of the bed, both of us naked, and I look a decade older than I am. Charlotte, though, she looks so young, younger than when we met. Never mind that yawning black mouth in her abdomen. In the half light before dawn, she seems to shine, a preface to the coming day, and I’m reminded of what I read about Hawking radiation and the quasar jet streams that escape some singularities. But this isn’t the place or time for theories and equations. Here, there are only the two of us, and morning coming on, and what Charlotte can and cannot remember about her dream.

“Eons ago,” she says, “it lost its mind. Though I don’t think it ever really had a mind, not like a human mind. But still, it went insane, from the knowledge of what it is and what it can’t ever stop being.”

“You said you’d forgotten what was on the other side.”

“I have. Almost all of it. This is nothing. If I went on a trip to Antarctica and came back and all I could tell you about my trip was that it was very white, that would be like what I’m telling you now about the dream.”

The Four of Spades. The Four of Swords, which cartomancers read as stillness, peace, withdrawal, the act of turning sight back upon itself. They say nothing of the attendant perils of introspection or the damnation that would be visited upon an intelligence that could never look away.

“It’s blind,” she says. “It’s blind, and insane, and the music from the pipes never ends.”

This is when I ask her to stand up, and she only stares at me a moment or two before doing as I’ve asked. This is when I kneel in front of her, and I’m dimly aware that I’m kneeling before the inadvertent avatar of a god, or God, or a pantheon, or something so immeasurably ancient and pervasive that it may as well be divine. Divine or infernal; there’s really no difference, I think.

“What are you doing?” she wants to know.

“I’m losing you,” I reply, “that’s what I’m doing. Some-where, some-when, I’ve already lost you. And that means I have nothing left to lose.”

Charlotte takes a quick step back from me, retreating towards the bedroom door, and I’m wondering if she runs, will I chase her? Having made this decision, to what lengths will I go to see it through? Would I force her? Would it be rape?

“I know what you’re going to do,” she says. “Only you’re not going to do it, because I won’t let you.”

“You’re being devoured—”

“It was a dream, Em. It was only a stupid, crazy dream, and I’m not even sure what I actually remember and what I’m just making up.”

“Please,” I say, “please let me try.” And I watch as whatever resolve she might have had breaks apart. She wants as badly as I do to hope, even though we both know there’s no hope left. I watch that hideous black gyre above her hip, below her left breast. She takes two steps back towards me.

“I don’t think it will hurt,” she tells me. And I can’t see any point in asking whether she means, I don’t think it will hurt me, or I don’t think it will hurt you. “I don’t think there will be any pain.”

“I can’t see how it possibly matters anymore,” I tell her. I don’t say anything else. With my right hand, I reach into the hole, and my arm vanishes almost up to my shoulder. There’s cold beyond any comprehension of cold. I glance up, and she’s watching me. I think she’s going to scream, but she doesn’t. Her lips part, but she doesn’t scream. I feel my arm be tugged so violently I’m sure that it’s about to be torn from its socket, the humerus ripped from the glenoid fossa of the scapula, cartilage and ligaments snapped, the subclavian artery severed before I tumble back to the floor and bleed to death. I’m almost certain that’s what will happen, and I grit my teeth against that impending amputation.

“I can’t feel you,” Charlotte whispers. “You’re inside me now, but I can’t feel you anywhere.”

The hole is closing. We both watch as that clockwise spiral stops spinning, then begins to turn widdershins. My freezing hand clutches at the void, my fingers straining for any purchase. Something’s changed; I understand that perfectly well. Out of desperation, I’ve chanced upon some remedy, entirely by instinct or luck, the solution to an insoluble puzzle. I also understand that I need to pull my arm back out again, before the edges of the hole reach my bicep. I imagine the collapsing rim of curved spacetime slicing cleanly through sinew and bone, and then I imagine myself fused at the shoulder to that point just above Charlotte’s hip. Horror vies with cartoon absurdities in an instant that seems so swollen it could accommodate an age.

Charlotte’s hands are on my shoulders, gripping me tightly, pushing me away, shoving me as hard as she’s able. She’s saying something, too, words I can’t quite hear over the roar at the edges of that cataract created by the implosion of the quantum foam.

Oh, Kitty, how nice it would be if we could only get through into Look-ing-glass House! I’m sure it’s got oh! such beautiful things in it! Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty. Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft as gauze, so that we can get through…

I’m watching a shadow race across the sea.

Warm sun fills the kitchen.

I draw another card.

Charlotte is only ten years old, and a BB fired by her brother strikes her ankle. Twenty-three years later, she falls at the edge of our flower garden.

Time. Space. Shadows. Gravity and velocity. Past, present, and future. All smeared, every distinction lost, and nothing remaining that can possibly be quantified.

I shut my eyes and feel her hands on my shoulders.

And across the space within her, as my arm bridges countless light years, something brushes against my hand. Something wet, and soft, something indescribably abhorrent. Charlotte pushed me, and I was falling backwards, and now I’m not. It has seized my hand in its own—or wrapped some celestial tendril about my wrist—and for a single heartbeat it holds me before letting go.

…whatever it is, it’s been there since before there was time. It’s been there alone since before the universe was born.

There’s pain when my head hits the bedroom floor. There’s pain and stars and twittering birds. I taste blood and realize that I’ve bitten my lip. I open my eyes, and Charlotte’s bending over me. I think there are galaxies trapped within her eyes. I glance down at that spot above her left hip, and the skin is smooth and whole. She’s starting to cry, and that makes it harder to see the constellations in her eyes. I move my fingers, surprised that my arm and hand are both still there.

“I’m sorry,” I say, even if I’m not sure what I’m apologizing for.

“No,” she says, “don’t be sorry, Em. Don’t let’s be sorry for anything. Not now. Not ever again.”

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