We squeal as the lights cut out. We should be used to all this by now—the train car that flies a little too quickly under the city, the rails that screech a little too loudly around every bend, the odd odors emanating from the seats, the even odder straphangers glued to their phones, and of course the lights, which cut out whenever the mood strikes. But we’re not. We’re subway riding amateurs.
The lights are only out for a brief moment and Leah sitting next to me giggles at our foolishness. Three young women, returning from martial arts practice in uptown Manhattan, and we’re spooked by flickering lights. I’m honestly embarrassed for us. But in our defense, we’re also still in high school, and until our instructor recently moved his classes to a converted warehouse in Washington Heights, our parents generally frowned on us crossing the river into New York on our own. But the way I see it, every little bird has to leave her nest sometime.
“Why do the lights do that, you reckon?” Parvathy asks. She’s the third member of our little gang, and always the most serious.
“Probably happens every time we run over a rat,” I tell her.
Leah and I both laugh at the face she makes.
Leah changes the subject. “So are you two coming tonight?”
She turns first to me. I think this is because she believes I’m the most likely to bail. Not because I don’t like parties, but I can be glum when I let myself down. And this has been a week of defeats, nothing short of a disaster, really. First my crew team lost our annual competition, and being out on the water is one of my only true loves—well that and photography and martial arts and a million other things. Then I got word that I didn’t make it into the academic program in Providence that I had applied for.
That lab program, scheduled for two weeks over winter break, was supposed to be the cherry on top of my college application, guaranteeing me a spot at a top university, which in turn would pave my way on to becoming the next great American optometrist. Or civil rights lawyer. Or international diplomat. Or some amazing thing. I haven’t quite worked out all the specifics of my life plan just yet. But at the very least the program was going to get me out of my house for a few weeks.
And now? Without the program crowning my resume? What is my future to be? Not to sound dramatic, but I think it’s pretty clear—I’m ending up stuck in New Jersey forever. That’s a fate worse than death. Oh, what would not I give for a do-over, dear universe! A chance to turn back the hands of time, to repeal this improbable fiction, undo this outrageous fortune, a chance to replay my life as the better version of myself.
But, seriously, Isabel, how silly a wish is that?
Leah must sense my frustration. She takes me hand and holds it tightly. She’s always been such a good friend. Which surprises me sometimes. We’re sort of opposites. She’s so tall and elegant, with straight red hair and piercing blue eyes and a smile as wide as the Hudson River. She’s one of those people who will be both prom queen and valedictorian, the sort you’d think you should be jealous of because the universe obviously plays favorites, but who is so kind and caring, so genuine in her demeanor, that any thought of envy is quickly washed away.
I could be described as a bit more rough around the edges. I am kind of tall, but not like her. And I doubt I glow like she does. Let’s call mine more of a glower than a glow. And my hair is definitely not straight—as much as I’ve always wished otherwise. What I have is a black tangle of long unruly curls, kind of like a mop, one entirely too big for my head. Sometimes I think my nose is too big for my head as well, but these days I just pretend that it gives my face meaningful character. My nose freckles are cute though. And my eyes are a nice, uncommon shade of green. Those have gotten a few compliments over the years. You work with what you’ve got.
“Yeah, I’m going,” I finally tell my friend.
She smiles and Parvathy clasps her hands in joy. Apparently they were both worried that I’d sulk at home tonight. Am I really that bad? I don’t think so.
“But I’m not heading home with you guys right now,” I inform them. “I want to ride the train for awhile, maybe walk around. Clear my head. But I will be there at your sister’s apartment tonight. I promise.”
“Fair enough,” Leah tells me.
The lights flicker off and on again.
Parvathy looks around.
“Those poor rats,” she whispers.
We all have a chuckle. Finally it’s time to transfer to the PATH, that tireless train joining the city of New York, the very center of the universe by some accounts, with the state of New Jersey, literally the most boring place in the cosmos. Sometimes I think I could see myself living here on this side of the Hudson River, the New York side, perhaps going to NYU next year. My parents would be thrilled, their little girl, and incidentally only child, sticking around close to home for a bit longer. But the sad truth is it’s just too close to home. I want to get away. I need to get away. I’m seriously considering applying to schools in Seattle. Or Tokyo.
The other day my mom did suggest that I apply to her alma mater, Middlebury College, which is in Vermont. We vacation in Vermont every year, and have been doing so since I was little—so I’m on solid ground when I say that I’m something of a Vermont expert. Which is how I've come to know that Vermont is literally the second most boring place in the cosmos.
Tokyo it is.
Leah and Parvathy stand as our subway train pulls into the station. Leah asks, “Do you want us to take your bag back with us?”
How is this girl so nice?
“Yeah, that would be great,” I tell her.
My two friends take my gym bag, with all my jujitsu gear, and exit the train, leaving me to myself and my moody thoughts. Just before the doors close, Leah turns and blows me a kiss, yelling, “See you tonight, JCVD!”
I take it all back. I hate her. Nicknames drive me up the wall. I yell back in protest, “I only did that splits punch once, and I was nine!”
They both wink as the doors finally separate us and I’m carted off underground, to where I don’t know. Where do New York subway trains ultimately go? To the underworld maybe? To purgatory? Is this train’s final destination to the edges of the astral void, that arcane land found on no map, unknown but remembered in every heart, the place that lies, for each of us, at the end of all our exploring? My question is finally answered when an announcement is made over the intercom—we’re headed for Brooklyn actually.
Fair enough. My cousin Shira lives in Brooklyn. Maybe I’ll stop by her place. She’s two years older than me and opted for the NYU route, though I have to give her some credit, her apartment in Brooklyn is two rivers removed from Jersey.
Now technically, I’m not supposed to wonder around the city by myself. My parent’s still have flashbacks from when they used to live here, which was, I don’t know, eighty years ago or something, and the city was lot more dangerous back then. So it’s a pretty strict rule of theirs. But today there’s a Starbucks on every corner and people pay tons of rent just to live in tiny closets, so I really think their concern is overblown. Still, I’ll be a good girl and make a beeline for Shira’s place. Then I can at least say that I have a chaperon.
Oddly, once we depart the Jay Street station, I look around and notice I’m alone on the train car. Is that normal? I suppose it might be. After all, this early in the day the flow of traffic is still heading into Manhattan, not away. The city is like a heart, it beats.
Speaking of which, my pulse quickens a little as we speed up under the city and the lights flicker. My whole life I’ve had this fear of falling to my death. I don’t know why. As a child I’d wake from horrible dreams—me, reaching for something, anything, while plummeting into darkness. As I’m left here alone on this noisy train car, screeching and shaking as it goes, I’m reminded of those nightmares.
I try to think of something else.
Fortunately, I’m distracted when the sliding doors connecting to the adjacent car open up beside me. One is not supposed to travel between cars while the train is in motion, but people do it all the time. I expect to see a transient emerge, asking for change. But instead it’s a frumpy old woman. She’s wearing a long cream-colored overcoat, sort of quilted, kind of folksy, with big pockets. It really doesn’t match her flower-printed capri pants.
This lady’s hair is mostly grey and haphazardly pulled together with a cheap scrunchy. Taking it all in, I can’t tell if she’s a hobo about to hit me up for a dollar or an eccentric socialite on her way to some new Brooklyn gallery show. I’ve put on my imaginary detective hat, but the hint of whiskey on her breath is a clue that does little to settle the question either way.
She’s about to pass me on her way down the train car and onto the next, but she stops and turns. Her accent might be British. “Have you got the time, deary?”
I check my watch. “Yeah, it’s one-o-eight.”
I always give the precise time.
I consider it rude to do otherwise.
The old lady leans in close to look at my watch, a little too close for my comfort. And she’s definitely drunk.
“Excuse me, lady!” I shout.
“Sorry, sorry,” she says. “That wee device of yours, shows the time, does it?”
I roll my eyes like any good teenager.
“Yeah, obviously. It’s a watch.”
“Shows the year too?”
“No. It’s one of those expensive ones.”
“Bollocks,” she curses.
“You don’t know the year?” I ask.
“No, why, do you?”
I inform her of the year.
She looks surprised. “Forkballs! I best be going.”
I’m genuinely curious now.
“You have somewhere to be?” I ask.
“Well, not so much that, no,” she says. “You see, it’s just I’m being followed by a very superficial, ignorant, and unweighing fellow. And I’d rather not be around when he pops by, if you know what I mean.”
“Men are trouble,” I tell her, thinking of my ex.
“You got that right, Freckles. But you can’t kill them, yeah? Wish you could. Actually you can, forget I ever said that. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” She looks around, as if it’s only at this moment that she’s realized she’s on a moving subway train. “By the way, where in the bloody hell am I?”
“You’re on the A train,” I tell her.
“The A train? That’s Lunar City, yeah?”
“Um, no, Brooklyn, actually.”
This unfortunate news has truly upset her. “Brooklyn! Fork me! Of all the terrible places in the universe, of course I end up in Brooklyn.”
“Could be worse,” I tell her. “You could of ended up in Jersey.”
She ponders this for a second before asking, “What’s Jersey?”
“You know, lady, you’re a little strange.”
I get a finger wagged at me. “No, no, no. Hedgehogs are strange, deary. You ever seen one? I have. Just a stuffed one, though. In some history museum somewhere. They’re like little hamsters with spikes. Can you believe that? Downright unnatural, if you ask me.”
With that bit of cryptic wisdom, the woman continues down the train car, vanishing into the next.
A few moments later, the sliding doors between cars open again, only this time it’s a man, and he’s not nearly as whimsical or quirky as the old lady. He’s dressed in black, with a strange dark vest over his hoodie. It looks like something a weightlifter might wear at the gym. His face is a shadowy scowl under his hood. All I can see of him is a triangular chin beard that’s sharp as a knife.
He glances down at me with eyes blue and cold. He’s caught me staring. I immediately look down at my feet, afraid to even breathe, all the while pretending the meeting of our eyes has never occurred, hoping that I can will him away, much like the monsters living in my closet as a child could be willed away simply by closing my eyes tightly enough. But this man is no imaginary beast. And he certainly doesn’t vanish. I hear his breathing. Time seems to have slowed.
My skin crawls.
Thankfully, I’m not the one he’s after. As quickly as he came, he leaves, continuing down the train car and into the next. I let out a sigh of relief once he’s gone. I will say this, though, that kooky old lady was sure right about one thing—he was indeed a very unpleasant fellow.
A few minutes later, I reach my destination. And coming up from the subway station, miraculously I even remember which building is my cousin Shira’s. When she doesn’t answer her buzzer, I use the key she gave me a few months ago to let myself into the building. As to why she gave me a key, I’m not entirely sure. She’s a bit of an odd duck. But we’re close, and even though I told her that I didn’t actually need a key to her place, that I doubted I could even find her place without her guiding me through the wilds of Brooklyn, she merely placed a hand on my shoulder, mustered her most sagely voice, and said that yes, one day I would need the key.
I suppose she wasn’t wrong.
I head up the stairs of her building to her apartment. The inside of her place smells like cheap, apple-scented aerosol spray and weed. A few candles have blackened the paint where they’ve been left too close to the walls, creating these odd, impressionist shapes that are clearly going to cost that nutty girl her deposit. There’s a note on the table, addressed to whom it may concern, which makes me wonder just how many keys she’s been giving out lately. According to the note, she’s in Prague for the next two weeks to visit her boyfriend.
Both these developments, Europe and mysterious foreign boyfriend, are news to me. But if you knew Shira, the suddenness of their arrival, and the fact that they are scribbled on the back of a takeout menu, would not surprise you.
At least she lives alone, so I have some privacy. And I do like her Brooklyn neighborhood. It’s a collection of worn row houses, neat and orderly, most with simple stoops, filled at all hours with children playing and the grandparents who watch over them. There’s a real community here, a vibrancy, something that is sorely lacking in the sterile, middle-class suburbs of America.
Don’t get me wrong. Brooklyn has its own quirks. Juxtaposed against the row houses are districts of low-rise factory buildings. Some are still humming along with industry, but most have been converted to other uses as the neighborhood, for better or for worse, gentrifies. There’s now everything from yoga studios to art galleries to boutique cafes, all sitting alongside dollar stores and international remittance shops.
Some of the old factories have even been transformed into fancy loft apartments. Shira’s is one of them, though you’d never know it from the simple, beat-up exterior of the building. But I suppose that’s part of the aesthetic. Shira says you have to pay extra for that.
Needing some fresh air, I throw my purse on Shira’s sofa, leave her apartment, and head up the staircase to the roof, which, being an old factory, is no more than a large flat landing. There are graffiti tags everywhere and long ago some industrious resident dragged a filthy couch up the stairwell, leaving it out to weather the elements, something that it’s done rather poorly. I’d sit, but I’m pretty sure I’d catch an STI.
The rooftop does have one redeeming quality, however. Stretched out before me like a painting is the entirety of the Manhattan skyline, filling nearly all the western horizon. It’s a city of glass and steel skyscrapers, of great stone and concrete towers, of buildings that sparkle in the afternoon light like quartz and crystal. It truly is an enchanted metropolis, one that both grants and plunders dreams, often in equal measure.
I walk over to the edge of the roof. I climb up on the tiny brick ledge to look down five stories. It’s a foolish thing to do, I know, but my body craves a hit of anxiety, a dose of fear, anything that can ebb the pain away from all my self-inflicted defeats this week. Even my parents tell me I’m too hard on myself, that I pursue too many things, from jujitsu, to crew, to debate team, to photography. But they don’t understand. My dad is an urban planner and my mom a geneticist. They’ve already made a mark on the world, they’ve already succeeded. My future is much less certain.
Looking down works. The vertigo makes my stomach turn. An ill-timed gust of wind and I’d be gone. Just like in my dreams, I realize with a start. People might even think I did it on purpose. That bothers me a little. I may be glum today, but I’m certainly not suicidal.
Still, I can’t look away from the sidewalk below.
“That there’s a quick way to dusty death, Freckles.”
I nearly jump out of my skin.
It’s a miracle that I don’t actually fall off the side of the damned building. I turn and see that the crazy old woman from the subway train is standing next to the battered couch. How is that possible? Did she follow me? She’s still dressed in that frumpy quilted overcoat and the tacky flower-print pants from earlier.
I climb down off the ledge. “I thought I was alone up here,” I tell her with a touch of embarrassment. “Do you live here? How did you get in the building?”
The woman holds up her hand. “I’ve a magic ring, yeah. Does tricks for me. Sometimes, anyway.”
“You know, lady, I’ll say it again. You really are nuts.”
“Better to be a witty nut than a nutty wit,” is all she says.
I wipe the brick dust from the ledge off my knees. “I don’t know what that means. But really, why are you following me?”
“Ah, yes, about that. Well, I had a bit of trouble on the metro now that you mention it.”
“You mean with that man who was following you?”
The old lady nods her head. “Aye, bit of a tosspot, that one.”
“So, what happened?”
“We had a proper go at it.”
“What? Like a fistfight?”
“Not quite. I blew his head off with Old Bessie.”
“Stupid forkface was quick on the draw, though.”
At first, I don’t follow—it doesn’t help that she’s using some odd words, not all of which are even British, but then I see the wound under her overcoat.
I yell. “Oy! You’ve been shot!”
The woman collapses, falling toward the couch, missing it by a few inches, and ending up on her bottom.
I run to her.
She huffs and makes an introduction. “Careena J. Smith, at your service.”
“Don’t talk.” I pull back the long coat only to find a wound unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, not that I’ve seen a lot of gunshot wounds in my day—I don’t really live in that part of Jersey. But this one is more like a fist-sized crater, black and charred, the edges of which glow red like rice paper burning into embers. I can’t be sure, but I think it may be growing.
“What did this?” I ask.
She doesn’t answer. She can’t. First there are the whites of her eyes. Then she’s gone completely. I panic.
“Hey, crazy lady! Don’t pass out. My phone’s downstairs. I’ll be right back.”
I turn for the stairwell door, which earlier I had propped open with a brick, but inexplicably there’s a voice speaking from behind me—and it’s not the old woman. “Don’t,” the voice says. “You can’t make any calls.”
I scream. I jump. I clutch my chest. Turning, I’m faced with a slim woman, with handsome features, dark skin, and short, neatly cropped hair. She’s not even three feet from me, but how she got up here on the roof all the sudden, I have no idea. The old lady and I were alone just a moment ago.
This new woman is only a little older than me and dressed in what I can best describe as a naval officer’s uniform, dark blue with handsome silver trim.
“Who the hell are you?” I ask reflexively. “And how do you people keep getting up here?” The young officer has a kind but serious face. “That’s not important right now. I’m a friend. We have to get Agent Smith somewhere safe.”
I point to the old lady’s wound. “She needs a hospital. I have to call an ambulance.”
“They could be monitoring the hospitals.”
“Whoever did this.” The officer steps closer to the old lady Careena. “Can you pull back the coat? So I may see the wound?”
I do as asked, though I’m not entirely sure if I should be trusting either of these two strangers. Careena is completely out, slumped against that disgusting rooftop couch. Her breathing is faint.
“Damn,” the officer whispers. “I’ve never seen mercenaries with this level of sophistication.”
“Mercenaries? You mean, like, someone put a hit out on this old lady?”
The officer’s expression is unironic. “Yes. And not just her. Several of our field agents. I don’t know who they are, but we can’t let them find her here.”
I argue again, “She needs medical attention.”
“Agreed, but there’s nothing your hospitals will be able to do for her. Her QDD should have sent her back to us automatically. I can only assume their weapons used some sort of jammer that prevented the jump. Whoever attacked her knew what they were doing. And that scares me. Can you turn over her hand, so I may see her ring?”
I hesitate a moment, but again do as asked.
On the old lady’s hand is a simple bronze ring.
“That’s her QDD,” the officer explains.
“She told me it was magic.”
“Agent Smith is prone to hyperbole.”
“You don’t say.”
“It appears undamaged,” she tells me. “We may be in luck. By now it should have respun. I need you to take off the ring and put it on your finger.”
At this point, I decide I have to put my foot down. “Look, soldier girl, I don’t mind helping, but you seem a lot more qualified to do all this than me. To be honest, I’m not even supposed to be up here. Can’t you do this?”
“No? Why not?”
“I can’t touch her,” the young officer says matter-of-factly.
I’m confused. “Why not?”
“I can’t touch anything. I’m not actually here.”
“That’s ridiculous. This is a prank.”
“It’s not a prank.”
Instinctively, I reach out. My hand passes through the young officer without resistance. If there are moments in life that completely alter how we understand the universe, that force us to question our assumptions of reality, well, as far as I’m concerned, such a moment has just whacked me upside the head.
“You’re a ghost,” I whisper.
“No. But she will be if you don’t do exactly as I say.”
I swallow hard. “All right. What do you need?”
“Take the ring and place it on your finger.”
I do as told, first sliding off the ring before placing it on my finger. I can already tell it’s going to be much too large. To be generous, the old woman didn’t seem very concerned about her waistline. Yet the ring ends up fitting snugly. “This is no ordinary ring,” I realize.
“No,” the officer says. “Agent Smith calls her Hecate, but I find it wise not to personally identify with inanimate objects.”
“Fair enough. What now?”
“We need to get her back to our facilities on Tegana. That’s where I am now. Unfortunately, after these attacks, the entire planet has been placed on lockdown. The Defense Force is not allowing me to drop the tachyonic shields, even for a moment. Which means I can’t bring back Smith directly here. I’m looking for alternatives. I just need a moment.”
The young officer starts typing on a pad.
I’m trying to process what I’ve just been told. “Did you say planet? Like another planet?”
“I’m sorry to involve you in all this. I know it’s a lot to take.”
I’d really love to question her credibility, after all, this is insane—but the truth is she’s a hologram and the old lady’s kidney looks like the wrong end of a Cuban cigar. Sometimes in life you just have to roll with the punches. It also occurs to me that my parents are not as clueless as they often act. I mention this to the officer lady. “This is exactly the reason my mom tells me I’m not allowed to come to Brooklyn alone.”
For a moment, I think I may have detected a smile.
“My name is Story Beckett,” she offers.
“I’m Isabel.” “Yes, I know. Isabel Tzofiya Mendelssohn, seventeen years old, of Oradell, New Jersey.”
“How the hell do you know all that?”
“A background check. I had to be sure I could trust you.”
“You might want to check it again,” I tell her. “I’ve not been very trustworthy lately.”
“That’s not what I’ve seen so far, Miss Mendelssohn.”
I suppose I appreciate the vote of confidence. “Please, call me Isabel.”
“Very well. But now I must warn you, Isabel. It’s only going to get stranger from here. Believe me, however, saving Agent Smith is very important. She may be our last line of defense against very dark forces to come.”
I give a forced laugh. “If this kooky lady is supposed to protect anybody from anything, I think you’re screwed.”
“She’ll grow on you, I promise. All right, I found the alternative I was looking for. Take Agent Smith’s hand. You’ll be traveling together. Until you’ve had some practice with the QDD, it’s best if you’re in physical contact.”
I take the old woman’s hand. “Now what?”
“The QDD isn’t magic, but it may seem so to you.”
“I watch a lot of sci-fi with my dad,” I tell her. “Don’t worry about me.”
Story nods. “Good. Then this will be easy. The ring can read your thoughts. To make it work, you simply think of the place you would like to go, and it will take you there.”
“All right. So where do I want to go?”
She looks down at her pad. “Room 1701 aboard the NMS Stellar Pearl. It’s a luxury cruise liner just a few days out from Tegana. They’ll have the facilities aboard to stabilize Agent Smith until she’s home with us.”
For a moment, I can’t bring myself to believe what’s happening. Spaceships and other worlds? Could they all really be out there? Imagine the look on my dad’s face, the Star Trek nerd that he is, when I tell him where I spent my day. Oh, you know, dad, just another Saturday. On a fricken starship!
It occurs to me that I’m taking everything I’m told rather calmly. This is likely just my mind choosing to ignore the actual gravity of my situation. At some point, all of this is going to catch up with me. Shake a can of soda and it seems fine. Until it’s opened. That’s me right now. And I’m not looking forward to the moment when my lid gets popped.
“What about you?” I ask.
“I’ll be there when you arrive. I’ll still be a projection, though. So you’ll need to use the room’s callbox to ring a medical team. But don’t worry, I’ll walk you through it. Oh, and one more thing. Reach into Agent Smith’s pocket and take out her pistol. She’d kill me if the medics confiscated Old Bessie.”
I reach into one of the large overcoat pockets and find an antique-looking derringer pistol, small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, probably capable of only a single shot. I place it in the pocket of my own autumn jacket. “Anything else?”
“Yes. It’s not enough to tell the QDD where you want to go. You’ll also need to tell it when you want to go.”
“Well, now, I guess.”
Story gives me a very professional smile.
“No, I mean to which year,” she says.
My jaw drops. “What? You’re kidding, right?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“This whole time I thought you two were aliens.”
“No, Isabel. We’re from the future.”
That does it.
That really does it.
This is the last time I’m ever visiting Brooklyn.
“All right,” I say. “So when do I want to go?”
“That part is easy. Just tell the QDD you want to return to the present.”
I look around. “Isn’t this the present?”
“Technically, no,” she explains. “You’re just perceiving it that way. The real present, what we call the cosmological present, has already come and gone for you. Think of this now like a frame in a movie that’s already passed. The audience is off watching the rest of the movie, but we’re here in the backroom making edits. Those edits, however, will affect the outcome of the movie later. Anyway, that’s all an oversimplification, and it’s not important. Just think of it as the ring’s present.”
“All right, but I feel awful silly talking to a ring.”
“Don’t talk. Just think.”
I nod. I close my eyes and focus on the destination this young officer from the future has given me. I imagine a ship in a present that is not my own. At first, nothing happens. But then there’s a tinge of confirmation coming from the ring, as if it has somehow invaded my thoughts. The sensation is not unlike the dialog box on a computer, wishing to confirm whether I really want to delete a selected file. Only this dialog box is inside my mind.
Yes, I tell the ring.
Yes, I want to go to the present.
And like that, without the fancy swirl of effects one would expect, I, Isabel Tzofiya Mendelssohn, and the old woman, Careena J. Smith, vanish from the Brooklyn rooftop. Silence returns to the world. A few moments later—an unusually strong gust of wind passes by.