I don’t look like I thought I would.
I don’t mean that in the same trite, cliché way that everyone does when they meet their alternate selves. No, I’ve been traveling between universes since my first summer internship. I’ve met countless versions of myself, and I know what my face looks like when it’s not just a reflection or an image on a screen.
What I mean is that in every picture of her that I’ve seen, she looks fat, happy, and unworried. But “Lucky-Me”—as I call her—has a downward pull to her mouth. Frown lines and wrinkles. What possible reason could Lucky-Me, with her infuriatingly perfect life, have for frowning? Well, if she can’t appreciate what she has, that’s another sign that she doesn’t deserve it.
“Your house is amazing!” I tell her, all smiles. I take in the tall vaulted ceilings and the lavish decor. “I should have gone into the private sector.”
Lucky-Me chuckles. She sips from her champagne flute. She went into no business in particular, except for money, the care and feeding thereof. She keeps money in cozy high-interest accounts and takes it for walks in high-yield investments so that it breeds more money.
“This is the piece you wanted to see,” she says. “Van Gogh painted this on his sixty-third birthday. He always has been an underrated artist if you ask me.”
The two of us are standing in the richly-appointed study of her mansion. Conversation and laughter from a charity gala drifts up through the floor. Beneath our feet, esteemed guests from our two parallel universes are mingling with strategic intent. They’re networking and making handshake deals that will be inked into contracts come Monday morning.
I inspect the work of what is called Van Gogh’s “mature style” in this universe. “He’s always been a favorite of mine,” I tell her. “Of course, he’s crazy popular in my universe. I can’t believe all this is yours.”
“Sometimes I can’t believe it either,” she says and laughs.
I cast around the room. My mouth is dry, but my champagne glass is empty. My heart is pounding. I’m waiting for an opportunity. Then—with exaggerated awe—I point at a towering shelf of leather-bound books in varying states of wear. “Are those first editions? Are you a collector?”
She turns. While she’s distracted, my hand drifts over her champagne flute and I let a pinch of powder fall into her drink. —
Really, what I’m doing isn’t that bad. It’s only what everyone on any given Earth wants to do. For the past two generations, we’ve been in contact with an infinite number of parallel universes, infinite infinities branching off at every moment. There are so many things strange and lovely in these other worlds: the surprising machinations of altered histories, the continued works of visionary artists who died too young in your own universe, and the sciences that were never stumbled upon. But nobody cares about that.
The technical term for it is “the Google Maps Effect”: if given the ability to see the breathtaking sights of the world, people choose to look at their own house from space instead.
People do, however, care about Myself&I, the inter-universe social media website. Everyone wants to see what their other selves are up to. Everyone wants to know they’ve got it best. And if they don’t, they all think that should have been me.
Lucky-Me dallies as she guides me to her rare book shelf, telling me unabridged stories about this painting and that. As we walk, Lucky-Me’s eyelids begin to drop. She yawns into a gloved hand. Her words start to drift farther and farther apart. The powder is fast-acting. I know because I tested it on myself to get the dosage right. I have no intent to harm her.
“Whoa. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I feel…”
“It’s okay.” I offer her my arm.
She shakes her head. Her brow furrows. She takes a small sip of her champagne and presses her lips together, as if feeling the gritty powder.
She meets my eyes, searching my face for an admission of guilt. In that crucial moment, I can’t school my features into benign innocence. My expression is a kind of dead-eyed resignation.
“You!” she hisses.
The glass falls from her hands. It shatters. Her nails dig into my upper arms.
I shove her. She stumbles in her heels. While she’s still off-balance, I twist my fingers into her elegant updo and pull. She’s heavier than I expected. We both go sprawling on the floor behind a royal purple velvet settee.
She takes a big breath. Her mouth stretches wide. She’s going to scream. I clamp a hand over her mouth. She yells into my palm, muffled. She watches me with a bug-eyed and enraged glare.
And then, finally, she goes limp. I let her go at once. I fall back on my heels. Her skirt is stretched wide across the floor, red fabric on cream carpet. Unconscious, her wrinkles are even more pronounced.
She fought back. I didn’t plan for this.
My hands are shaking and my heart is pounding fit to break my ribs.
How did I get here? Me, who graduated college at seventeen years old with congratulatory Latin on my degree. Me, who spent my summers volunteering with humanitarian efforts that looked good on my resume. Me, who every morning pressed myself into a dress-suit, pinned a flag to my lapel, and promised my good constituents that I’d make life better for them, and the funny thing—the funny thing—is that I actually meant it.
I hear a voice on the other side of the door. “Hello?”
I’m on my feet. A shattered champagne glass crunches underfoot. Lucky-Me is mostly screened by the settee, but her feet stick out. The door handle begins to twist open.
“Hello? I thought I heard a crash.”
I know that voice. I used to work for that voice, back in my own universe. Dammit, I should have known Alexander would be here.
Three weeks ago, on a Wednesday afternoon, my boss, Alexander Tombs, called me into a meeting. The Department of Multiverse Affairs, where I worked, was swarming like a kicked anthill. We had allowed—inadvertently, we claimed, inadvertently—big pharma from our universe to charge other universes outrageous prices for medical technology that was commonplace to us. The public was furious. We were frantically spinning the story. I walked into the meeting without even looking up from my papers.
Then Alexander’s hand landed on my shoulder. He took my hand with his other. “Thanks for being a team player,” he said softly. “We appreciate it. We won’t forget what you did for us.”
I looked up. At the table, I saw three of our keenest lawyers. Our press liaison sat with a crisply drafted statement, missing only my signature.
I was being scapegoated. The public wanted blood, and they would get mine.
I looked at my boss. He had a sheen of perspiration on his upper lip. I remembered the papers he’d had me sign—it had seemed pointless at the time, but now I understood. Blaming me had always been his contingency plan.
Oh, that rat-bastard.
I sat down. I couldn’t believe that he was doing this to me—me! I was set to have his job in five years’ time. How dare he.
I took a deep breath. I could hear my mother telling me, Composure, Helen. I would conduct myself with dignity, and hopefully the administration would remember my discretion. I resolved to remain optimistic. It wouldn’t be so bad. I could get another job. Besides, I could use the well-deserved time off to plan my wedding. —
As the door swings in, I hurriedly kick the hem of Lucky-Me’s dress behind the settee and step in front of her feet.
“It’s lovely to see you, Alexander,” I trill. “I’m afraid I dropped a book.” I grin innocently.
“Helen? Helen! I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Well, they didn’t send back my check, so I didn’t send back their invitation. Diabetes research is an issue dear to my heart.”
“Actually, it’s a literacy initiative.”
The silence stretches out. “So, why aren’t you down at the party?” he asks.
“Our hostess said I could look at her art. You?”
“I’m looking for the restroom.”
I lied better.
“Where do you expect to find this restroom?” I ask him.
He points over his shoulder then to the left.
“Yes, I imagine you’ll find quite a few bathrooms in the guest bedrooms.”
He gives me a look.
I smile. “Go on,” I say, waving graciously.
Understanding passes between us. I don’t know what unscrupulous venture he has planned, but it’s taking him to the other side of the mansion so I don’t care. And so we pass each other like two ships in the night… if both ships were smuggling contraband.
“Have a lovely evening,” he says.
“And you as well,” I coo.
After I got fired, I spent my days curled on the sofa in the sumptuous high-rise apartment that my fiancé and I shared, listening to my name being mentioned on national television more times than it ever had been before. Only it wasn’t how I dreamed it would be.
Greedy, heartless, sell-out, monster, pitiful.
They brought out weeping mothers who’d had to mortgage their homes to buy medicine for their children, and they cursed my name. Everyone was in agreement: I was the villain of the piece.
After two weeks of this, my fiancé sat me down at our mahogany dining table to explain. He was sure that if he could just explain it to me, then I wouldn’t be mad.
“You’re moving out?” I asked dully.
“We talked about it, and we think it’s for the best,” he said.
“We?” I asked, but I didn’t press him on it. I knew who he was talking about. In a way, it would have been better if he had been cheating on me. The only thing worse than getting dumped is getting dumped because your fiancé’s blue-blood mommy told him to do it.
Before this, I hadn’t minded that there had always been three of us in the relationship. His mother was a formidable matriarch, and she had been my ticket to more wealth and power than I would know what to do with.
“And it’s okay, don’t worry.” He took my hands. “Mom said you can stay here through the month.”
“Through the month? It’s the seventeenth!” Not my apartment. I loved that apartment at least as much as I loved him.
“Well, she does own the building.”
I gave a little yell, and I threw a crystal tumbler at the vintage wallpaper behind his head. He jumped.
Not my proudest moment.
“Just go,” I said.
I looked away. In a way, it made sense for us to break up now. It wasn’t that our engagement was arranged, per se. It’s just that one of the things I loved most about him was that he was wealthy and he had a good family name, and one of the things he loved most about me was that I had connections and I wasn’t going to get him cut out of the will.
Before he walked out the door, he turned around.
“Yes?” I said. I thought he was going to tell me that he loved me even though I had nothing, like the hero in an Austen novel.
Instead he said, “Your fish… Charybdis died.”
As it turned out, he had lied. Charybdis wasn’t dead. Scylla was. He never could tell them apart.
That night, I leaned back in my desk chair. Scylla’s empty bowl glared at me like an angry, accusatory eye. I knew that fish died. Frequently, in fact. I was already on Scylla III and Charybdis V. But my bettas were my tiny, vicious darlings. Their bowls sat above my antique desk, on the same horizontal level as each other but separated by a shelf support. Late at night, I would watch them swim while I drafted my speeches.
I had no job, no fiancé, no apartment, and no fish. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me—me!
And it was just too much today.
Too much. Not today.
After Alexander leaves, I steady my shaking hands on the back of the settee and take several deep breaths. Now all I have to do is stash Lucky-Me away and wait for the gala to end.
I know that Lucky-Me’s mansion has a panic room somewhere off the study—that’s why I asked to see the painting. I’ll be able to keep her there in relative comfort. But I don’t see any doors other than the one I came in through.
Given how hard she tried to keep me from her rare book shelf, however, I think I can hazard a guess where it is. I always did have a weakness for secret entrances and old spy movies.
I gather Lucky-Me’s wrists and drag her from behind the settee. With her shoulders limp and her head lolling, she looks so pathetic that I actually feel a twinge of sympathy.
But I’m not ruining her life, I remind myself, I’m just borrowing it. Just a few months, I think. Just until I feel guiltier about having stolen her life than I feel happy about living it. I’ll set her up with some television, some books. It’ll be like a vacation for her. Yes, a vacation—and it looks like she could use one.
And really, I’m just balancing the scales. I deserve what she has. I worked so hard all the time—it really should be me in a mansion. In fact, if I hadn’t swerved to avoid that squirrel, I wouldn’t have gone into that ditch and missed my own interview at Hugh Everett Investments, and I’d have all this for myself. One stupid furry-tailed rat ruined my life.
I did everything right. I deserve this. Me.
With Lucky-Me prone by my feet, I start pulling on the book spines, one by one. When I get to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I hear a click.
The bookshelf swings open.
It takes me a quarter of a second to realize that the room on the other side is brightly lit, and it shouldn’t be. Another fraction of a second, and I see movement.
There are bars installed behind the door like a prison. A familiar face is staring out at me from within the room, eyebrow arched in derision. She’s shuffling a deck of cards. I look at her, and then I look down at Lucky-Me. I think about what infinity actually means.
“You’re late to the party,” the version of me in the room says.
“I take it that you’re the original resident of this universe?” I ask.
She clicks her tongue and tilts her head.
A third version of me leans around the edge of a bookcase. And there—that’s the face I expected. Pampered and soft like a makeup puff. “Hi!” she says, smiling our best sardonic smile.
Well, dammit. I’ve been thinking in dichotomies, and that’s dangerous when you’re working with infinity. I glance between the three of them.
Me, me, me.