7.02 / February 2012

Blue Alyssa and the Sad Gray Crab

listen to this story

“Thursday’s child has far to go…”

We called it the Cape of Flowers, but for every bug-eaten bloom there were forty thorns and twice that number of saw-toothed weeds, and a grit-patch mined with sandspurs made the only path to the sea. The sun was ceaseless. The birds did not sing but scream. The fish that swam beyond the shore were known for their teeth, not their meat.

We sold the strip as Paradise Regained! with pictures of happy couples on the shore. We based the pictures on Renaissance paintings of Adam and Eve, before the Fall. Customers were usually not as interested in the thirty-foot Hansen-Larsen particle accelerator that took them to the cape, so we hid it behind sheets of drywall.

* * *

The day of the end of my wait was called “Thursday,” and I tried to pretend that’s all she was, a Thursday in black sweater, a Thursday in short red skirt, her brown hair bobbed and banged, her face a heart-shaped canvas the color of tropical dusk, curved lips like a bird on the horizon, two lidded eyes like the tops of clouds or a trick of the light in the sun: Thursday. “I’m interested,” she said. “But I want to know more. Basically, I’m dealing with the world’s shittiest break up. Maybe I should do this. Maybe I should shoot myself. Maybe I should shoot him.”

“I recommend this,” I said, “more than shooting. Anyone.”

“When I get back, will things be different?”

“You’ll be different. For you, so much time will have passed, you won’t remember his name.”

She smiled and took the brochure.

* * *

Most people don’t read them, they just sign. But Alyssa walked outside and read the release forms in the sun, stood still as the press of pedestrians washed past her, a golden boulder in an icy stream. I watched from beneath the slogan arched across the window: Accelerations! Eternity: Today! The cheesy salespitch cheapened the place, but in truth there was beauty on the Cape of Flowers, just not the sort of beauty that sells. It was the beauty of sun-bleached heaps of bones, of small silvery parasites blind and lost and biting, of mineral-stained stone walls left to crumble under weeds. Or so the old man told me.

A woman struggled into the shop. She had short-cropped gray hair and trouble catching her breath. “Pancreatic cancer,” she finally said. Sales often start this way. People think the cape is too dangerous. They come when the illusion of a safe and continuing life is finally taken away.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and helped her to a chair.

“Can I sign up and go right now?”

“Of course,” I said. Her eyes were cloudy, so I just asked the questions and wrote in the answers myself – a formality with customers like this one. “What makes you want to go to the cape?”

“Pretty soon I’ll be dead. It’s something to see.”

“You are aware of the distortions in time and space?”

“That I’ll be gone a second here, but there it’ll feel like eternity? Yeah. That’s what I’m looking for. I get your angle, it’s a good one, but I’m not religious. This is the only eternity I expect to see.”

I helped her put her clothes and belongings in a locker, and walked her down the chute, the hallway that narrows into the field. Arm-in-arm we stepped to the sound of the machine, a mad whirring that gets into your skull and shakes your brain. I felt like a child giving away his grandmother-bride.

Halfway there, she balked. “It’s safe, right?”

“Yes. There is a 99% chance you will immediately reappear.”

“What happens to the 1% who don’t?”

“Most reemerge an hour or a day or two later. Once a man traveled 60 years back in time, but that only happened once. The rest, well, people who’ve been say they probably like it so much they don’t want to leave.”

“They choose eternity, huh?”

“Everyone comes back pleased.”  A lie. But it is necessary, sometimes.

“I know, I know, you don’t got all day.” She tried to sound angry, but it came out sad. I was just another jerk with a job to do, shuffling her along.

Towards the end of the chute the ceiling lowers and the floor rises and the walls crowd in. “You just take those last few steps into the energy field,” I said, and I helped her out of her robe. She stood nude as the day she was born, but she didn’t care. She was ignoring me now, walking towards eternity. I turned away. I don’t like to watch. Without so much as a sound or a flicker of light she was back, and I turned to help her into the robe again.

Her face was scrunched like a newborn child’s but then she focused on me, and pointed a shaking finger: “You. You’re still here.”

“On this side, you were only gone a moment.”

“A moment. Ha!” She laughed loud and long through her shivers as I wrapped her. “I was there for ever.” She enunciated the word to make me understand.

I nodded. “Yes ma’am.”

“No, I mean, for ever. Always. From the beginning to the end of time. Now I’m just once. So solitary. I had some kind of cancer right?”

“Pancreatic. Let’s get your clothes, and I’ll brief you.”

“Yes. Let’s do that. Now. Ha! It’s amazing how things happen one after the other, so orderly. Hardly seems necessary…”  We went over her forms. She relearned where she lived and how to find her doctors, but she said she wouldn’t bother with the doctors. She had people to say goodbye to.

“You know,” she said, as I walked her to the door, “there’s someone there just like you. But he’s not you.”

“I know,” I said.

“It’s too bad.”

“I know,” I said.

“You’re a good kid,” she said, and she patted my cheek and left to die.

* * *

I am an old man on the Cape of Flowers. I step naked over the hot sands, wondering at my hairless body so light it seems to hover. There are no mirrors on the cape, but the sand blowing in the air is reflective, and I raise my arms to the light and squint my eyes and see a clean and glassy version of myself, round-faced with black dots for eyes, gray and small and innocent, featureless as a child.

I sit within the endless day of the timeless cape, unamused by this world without hunger or pain or anything worthwhile. I think about leaving and right away see the saltstone archway under which passes a slow stream of light, rippling like water. I march forward, planning to barrel through and complain, and there stands Alyssa. She appears to me a woman of about forty, much older than the bitter Thursday girl who came complaining of her break up. At the cape this older Alyssa is naked and translucent, and blue snakes seem to shimmer beneath the surface of her skin.

There on the cape, I forever think: she is so lovely! There, forever, I wonder: she seems so sad! There, forever, I am puzzled: why is she laughing? And there I shake from her laughter, each sound a wave of pleasure pushing through my body. And I watch her lift her knees from the ground and turn her body upside down and she dances on the currents of sand that blow in the air above us. She raises her hand and the rays of the sun divide into colors. She showers me in green light, and I feel love and happiness for the first time in my life.

I have known this story since I was ten years old.

There, forever, on the Cape of Flowers, I say, “I’m Marco.”

There, forever, she says, “I’m Alyssa.” And when she says “Alyssa,” the word crawls into my ear and builds a nest in my brain made of memories of Alyssa, who I had never known but now know fully, the truest person in the universe, more complete to me than me.

* * *

I was ten when they told me about him, the other Marco Cruz. My father spent months preparing me, making me watch science specials about particle physics and the fifth dimension and time travel. He kept suggesting to me that, “this means the same person could exist twice at the same time! You could run into yourself! Imagine that!” And I’d smile and nod and wonder why he was so hung up on this subject, but I wasn’t going to say anything: he’d broken up with the girlfriend who wouldn’t let me eat sugar or watch grown up TV, who took up all of his time and made him grumpy, and now he was mine. And even if he did spend too much of our time together talking about physics, it seemed like a great deal.

Then one day he sat me down. “You know how we’ve been talking a lot about physics and time travel and all that? Well, Marco, in the future, when you’re an old man, about grandpa’s age, you’re going to take a vacation in the fifth dimension-you know the company: Accelerations!”

I nodded. I’d seen their ads. It seemed like very boring adult stuff to me then.

“Well, every once in a while a person leaves our dimension at one point and re-enters at another. That’s what you’re going to do.”

I remember saying “Okay,” and thinking that I was hungry and wondering what it would feel like to catch your hand in a cartoon mousetrap.

“So the thing is, Marco, you’re here, and the future you is here too, in New York, and we’re going to go visit him, because he’s very old, and he’s dying, and he wants to talk to you.”

“Okay,” I said. I remember the sinking feeling beginning then, a vague unsettled sensation in my stomach as my father smiled and petted my head and went to call someone and tell them it went okay. But it didn’t fully develop until that night, when I was in bed, thinking and thinking, my head spinning, my mind slowly realizing that my dad had said that I was dying! In New York! and that my future self, the me that was dying, wanted to talk to me! What for? And why is he dying? Why am I dying! I got out of bed and wandered around the house in a manic haze, not quite panicking, but unable to stop moving or thinking faster than I could understand. I went from room to room, feeling everywhere like I didn’t belong. Strange objects, like signs too terrible to read, threatened me from every shadow and every glint of light. My heart was pounding, but I didn’t run. My ears were screaming, but I didn’t say a word. The house spun. My father found me in the morning lying on the kitchen floor, where I’d collapsed from the horror of not just my own imminent death-though that was part of it-but from the horror of time itself.

Whatever life I would have lived, it ended there, that night. And this life began.

* * *

Alyssa signed the papers and watched me. “I feel like there’s something you’re not telling me,” she said.

“Me? No,” I said. But for eternity on the Cape of Flowers Alyssa’s thoughts and mine have been, are, and will be, one. In just moments she would step through and reappear having known me, completely, intimately, for eternity. It was difficult to meet her gaze.

“No? There isn’t some fine-print clause that’s going to screw me over, or something? That’s the way these things usually work, right…?” She glanced at her phone. “Sorry, I guess I’m just used to dealing with jerks.”

“There are some jerky people.”

“It’s humanity’s defining characteristic. Tell the truth, I’m doing this because this is, I figure, the farthest I can possibly get from my fellow man.”

“You won’t be disappointed,” I told her.

“How can you be so sure?” she said, then tapped something into her phone.

Her face was closed to me, her eyes two tiny shut doors. I wanted to open them, just for a peek, and so I lied: “I’ve been there.”

“Oh, of course.” She pushed the phone back down. “So tell me-what was your name?”

“Marco.”

“So tell me, Marco, if it’s so great, why did you come back?”

* * *

Alyssa leaves me on the Cape of Flowers. She leaves me to return to the linear world. I color the sea black with the ink of my grief. I make the air soup. Hot rain falls upon us and through us. Forever on the Cape of Flowers I beg her to stay.

“We’ll always have this,” she says. “Everything we do here exists always.”

“Not if you leave,” I say, hideous with need. “You have to stay.”

“You’re so young, Marco,” she says. Her face glows electric pink, her hair hovers around her head in perfect blue spirals.

I tell her, “I’m sixty-seven!” and she laughs. “I was sixty-seven when I came here. Old and failing and nothing to lose, that’s why I’m here.”

She takes my hand, which is hard and seized as a claw, but when a woman holds your hand on the Cape of Flowers, she is both upon your skin and within you. It is ecstatic. “Marco, you don’t remember me, but I was a girl you led through the door to the cape many years ago.”

I will remember her saying this, but I am profoundly confused.

“I’m going to return to you in the world of time, and we will be together there, and you will not become the creature you are today. We’ll make a life in a place with beginnings and endings, where things matter.”

“Things matter here!” my words blow the ragged grass to its knees, knock birds screaming with biting parasites from their perches. The sea boils. I see a shadow spread across the sand like oil: insects climbing over one another in a swarm. Alyssa moves towards them, is hidden within them, is gone.

* * *

When Alyssa leaves me on the cape, I am a sickened shell of a man. The cape is windchapped raw and barren, and so am I. I tear at the flowers, growl at the birds. I wade out beyond the breakers and swim as far as I can, just to endure the punishment of sea creatures, to feel myself drown again and again, to release my will to the current and let it carry me back to shore.

I still feel her presence, I even feel other versions of me, versions that are still and always with her. They are oblivious and happy. I can almost hear them laughing. I can almost see them move. I have nothing but contempt for them. I do not want them.  They do not want me.

To them I am a jagged rock on the shore of paradise one needs merely to step over and past to continue reveling in glorious eternity. The happier ones know that there is also this me full of agony, but they are willfully blind. I am nothing to him, who is happy.

I can endure no more. I enter the swarm. I am standing on the threshold of the long-forgotten departure gate.

Some nights I re-watch the video.

The old man Marco Cruz emerges from nothing and sits on the floor. He’s alone for less than a minute before a young-looking Gary walks into the frame. “Hello,” Gary says, as he removes his own cardigan. “I’m afraid I don’t remember you.” He wraps the naked old man in his sweater.

The old man’s body is shriveled and ravaged by hunger and gravity. He cringes within Gary’s sweater like it’s made of sandpaper. “Do you want to go back in? There’s a good chance you’ll end up at the right time, if you go back in,” Gary says. But the old man will not hear it. He shakes his head and is already standing, walking. Gary leads him to a recovery room, where it’s dark and cool and quiet. As soon as he’s alone, old Marco stands up and turns on the light. He stands in front of the full-length mirror, naked except for Gary’s unbuttoned cardigan falling by his sides. He’s thinking: look at me. Old and hideous. Sixty-seven and riddled with illness. Just as I’d left. Gary comes back with a tall glass of cold water and a plate with crackers and grapes. He asks the old man if there is anything else he can bring.

“I want to know the date.”

When he hears, he stares long into space, then says, “my father is still alive.”

“Is today’s date earlier than you departed?” Gary says.

The old man nods slowly as he drinks. Then he starts eating: grape, cracker, grape, cracker.

“This does happen sometimes,” Gary says. “There’s a very good chance that if you go back in and out again, you’ll get to the right time.”

But then the old man remembered what Alyssa said before she left: “I was a girl you led through the door to the cape when you were a young man.” Such a strange thing to say, since he had never even seen the door to the cape until the day he’d walked through it.

“No thank you,” he tells Gary. “I like it here. Thank you.”

“You’re sure?”

“Very sure yes. Just one more thing though…”

“Yes?”

“Are you hiring?”

* * *

I helped Alyssa prepare for her trip: gave her a locker to keep her things, then escorted her down the chute. She had all the normal questions, and I had all the normal answers: “How long will I be gone?” she asked.

“On this end, you’ll be gone for just a second” I said. But this is a lie: there is no second. They re-emerge as they go, as though their faces pass through their brains and rise from the backs of their heads. It is a profoundly disturbing thing to view.

She asked: “Is there anything I should bring?”

“It is part of the nature of the Cape of Flowers that you will not need or want,” I said. But even if it weren’t, you couldn’t bring anything. The field repels inorganic matter, drops it dead to the floor.

“What if something goes wrong and I need help?”

“It is part of the nature of the Cape of Flowers that you cannot be in danger.” On the cape we do not live, we exist, for all time and everywhere. Everything you do is another physical aspect of you, a bud in the endless blooming of decisions. You are whole, entire. There is no danger. There is no death.

“You mean, if I never come back I can never die?”

“That’s right.”

“Why does anyone come back at all?”

“Some miss their families, their friends,” I said, “some say they miss the order of time.” But I thought: you will leave to be with me, and you will break the old man’s heart. I tried to smile. We were nearing the door now.

She watched that buzzing empty space for moment. “I guess that’s what I need: something to make me not hate life anymore.” She dropped her robe, and I did not look away.

And she stepped through.

And she was gone.

*   *   *

I’d worked for Accelerations! for a month when I received my first time-traveler. We treat them gently as possible, then suggest they return to the cape, then contact Dr. Larsen-in that order. It’s good to collect some data, but Larsen says he’d rather send them home happy and lose the data. We’re selling vacations, not running an experiment.

The sensor at the end of the hallway went off: an unscheduled arrival. It was my turn, so I went to meet him. The time-traveler’s face was contorted by the shocks and pains, the routine discomforts of corporeal life which he, having been free of them for eternity, was no longer used to. Almost everyone returns with the same shocked expression. The only thing unusual was that I hadn’t led him down the chute a moment before.

And so I said to him, “I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve met.”

And he said, “where’s Lexi?”

And I said, “I don’t know, but perhaps if you return to the cape you’ll find her there.”

“She left,” he said, his body shaking. “She went back through the door.”

“They’ll tell her the same thing: to go back in and she’ll find you.”

He nodded, though it was hard to tell, because he was shaking and his head and neck were clenched to his body. I turned him around and he took a few shuffling steps and was gone.

“Try to remember to ask their names,” Gary told me after. “You got lucky he mentioned a Lexi. We’ve only got a few Lexis on file and only one that went with her husband-his name was Brayden Howe.”

I looked onto his computer screen: Lexi and Brayden Howe, great-grandparents who’d had a normal trip three years ago. Ross walked them in and they walked right back out, tired, achy, overwhelmed, and pleased. Neither of them mentioned a problem. They only said they wanted to head right off and see their family, according to Ross. We didn’t have a record of Lexi emerging without Brayden, but it will happen eventually, and we will tell her to go back in to find her husband, and she will, we know, because she did.

*   *   *

So I’d received a time-traveler, but no one before Alyssa had disappeared on me. These things do not feel the same. Catching a time-traveler and sending him back feels like getting the train back on the rails. Losing someone feels like you might have accidentally driven it into a mountain. In two years at Accelerations! I’d received one wayward time traveler and sent hundreds on happy, uneventful trips beyond the limits of ordinary space-time. But never had I seen someone walk through that gate and disappear.

And it was Alyssa: if there was anyone I was sure would see reverse and re-emerge through the back of her own body it was Alyssa. And I was ready to tell her, with the passion that had been building since I was ten years old: “never leave me again!” I was ready to hold her in this world of time and consequence and make her love me.

But she escaped me, just as she’d escaped the old Marco before me: somewhere in ordinary space-time, Alyssa is always re-emerging, always being told what date, what year, when? Always someone (me? Gary? Ross? or are we all dead by then?) is telling her the news. Always she decides to renege on her promise to return to this time and love me. Always she decides not to re-enter the accelerator. Always she decides to stay where she is. I know this, now I know.

I stepped away from the threshold and called to Gary through the com: “Gary, she didn’t come back.” My voice was weak, my throat dry and hoarse from the shock.

“Okay,” he replied. “It isn’t your fault. Come back to the office and I’ll show you how to make the report.”

The hall stretched long before me. My legs were leaking sacks of sand. I remembered visiting my older self in New York at the age of ten, how the hospital walls closed in, how every time someone spoke, their words sounded warped and rearranged. I turned into the doorway and found myself in a room too brightly lighted, too white, a room of glare and too many people talking. An old, shriveled hand reached out to me, a skeleton’s hand covered in a floppy glove of wrinkled human leather. “I’m you,” the old man said, and I took his hand without thinking.

“I’ve been writing for you,” he said. “Everything that happened, everything I felt. I want you to read it, and remember.” He pulled me closer and I tried to pull away, but even a weak and dying old man was stronger than my fear-shaken little body. “Remember, she’s come back to change things, change your life. Let her. Let her come back to you, and don’t ever become the person I was, the one who goes in there, me. I lived your life once. That means you don’t have to.” He slipped a small portable drive into my hand and squeezed my fingers around it.

After that he faded quickly. Dr. Larsen said he’d been resting and waiting, saving his strength to speak to me. He fell asleep, and my father led me away. Days later Dad sat me down and told me the old man was dead.

* * *

I stood and watched the void in the world where Thursday had slipped out. Alyssa, my destiny. So pretty and so ordinary.

On the cape, I thought, she becomes something different, something rare and perfect. It’s that woman I want: the Alyssa who returns, not the Alyssa who departs.

I will her to return. I imagine her returning. But the doorway stands empty. When Gary says, “Marco?” over the com, I realize what I’m about to do.

I want the Alyssa who wants me, who chooses me over him. Knowing that, how could I face him?

But I must face him. Because she is there. She is also out here, somewhere in time, betraying me. But before that one betrayal, she is forever choosing to love me. I have lived since I was ten years old to find her. I would rather die, I would rather face the other me, than give her up.

I step closer, and gate looks different, distorted, like the air is reaching forward to touch me. Never before have I really heard the sound the accelerator makes: it’s not just whirring, it’s cracking and snapping so frequently the sound blurs, but now I hear every pop and every silence between. The line between me and the me I will be when I return becomes very false and forced, and with a thought I am him, and with a thought I am not, and with a thought I am both of us at once.

And the old man Marco exists in me as he never has before. And I notice with great detachment and just a little amusement that I am angry with him for still existing.

Is this what they see, all of them, as they walk towards the door? Is this why they all become so quiet? Do they feel, as I do-with the combined desire of the multitudes I am-the inescapable draw of the world beyond the door?

And before I am even there, I know her: the Alyssa of the Cape of Flowers. Not the Alyssa who departs, not the one who returns, but the Alyssa who is there, the perfect Platonic Alyssa, the form of whom all other Alyssas are mere shadows. She is gallows humor, needful wonder, sorrowful delight. She is the glowing green tones of sunset, a soft song sung in D sharp major, a honeybee lost down your throat, every day of the week.

I pass through the doorway. I am mostly space, permeable to light and matter: matter is on me and within me, I am everywhere and nowhere, undefined by a sure limit, and I push forward. In my highest reasoning centers I know, because I have studied the equations, built the models, that as I step forward I am passing simultaneously back into normal space-time where everything is linear and measured and discrete, but it doesn’t matter, because I’ll arrive when I choose to, because a second and a century are just things that I can opt to think of or not, treats I may sample if I choose.

And now the Cape of Flowers is all around me. I hear the surf and the sound of light bouncing off the waves, a high song like crystal shattering into clouds of gas. This world is writhing with screeching birds, biting pests, octopi pulling themselves apart limb by limb, howling fish who make the sound of sharpening knives when they slash their teeth.

It is just as the old Marco described. What feels like wind runs with molecules forming and unforming and combining and reforming. I touch them and change them. The endless sea that surrounds us is made of ideas slowed to sound. I touch it with my toe, it is cold and I can taste its thoughts running through my body.

I think of Alyssa and we are together, we are the heart of a shifting machine of sand stretching into glass and sifting back to sand again. She is older here, but more beautiful. She is unique in the universe, and she is the universe and so am I.

“Where is he?” I ask her.

She shakes her head. “You’ve always known, but you didn’t want to believe.”

“He’s here, he has to always be here,” I say.

“He’s here,” she says. “They’re all here.” And she points to the shore where the wretched creatures scuttle back and forth, snapping their claws at the surf. And the screams of birds are human complaints. And the gnashing of sea creatures are rush hour shouts. I recognize my customers: the old woman with pancreatic cancer is a blind eel twisting to bite off strips of her own slimy skin; two birds tearing out each other’s feathers are Brayden and Lexi Howe. And there among the crabs, moving blindly over his brothers as though they were rocks in his way, there is a sad gray crab that, there is no doubt at all, is me. At the motion of Alyssa’s hand, it falls over in ecstasy.

“He saved you,” she says. “He got to you young enough, with his stories. But no one can save him. He will always be that.”

I watch the births and deaths of galaxies, and say, “I could crush him.”

“He doesn’t even know you’re here.”

There beyond time on the Cape of Flowers, siblings and spouses and parents of Earth crawl through a boiling sea of bile, biting and fighting and protecting small lumps of tar, their only love and treasure.

Alyssa and I are in the world now. I have seen the video: Alyssa disappears. I stand there a moment. I call Gary on the com. I stand a moment longer. And then I step forward. My clothes fall to the floor as my body passes through itself, and Alyssa emerges beside me, her hand in my hand. In the video, I look like a hero. I look like I’ve saved her from a fire.

In those first heady days I quit Accelerations! and she and I set out to see the world. We traveled two time zones before we stopped: we couldn’t remember why we were tiring ourselves. We decided to make the best we could of one small snowy square of the material world. I envy those who go to the cape just before death. After the cape, life is small and hungry.

And now I wake and walk and sleep knowing they are there, forever there upon the sand. The little crab chasing and snapping. Alyssa petting it, promising her leaving will save it, another part of it, someday-but it doesn’t understand. It is hissing and striking the sand with its claws. All is pain and abandonment. It doesn’t know about me, or care. Forever they are there, blue Alyssa and the sad gray crab, gesturing through that chaos of sand, more real than this snowy square, more real than me.


Amy Letter is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in journals including Quarterly West, Louisiana Literature, and Fringe, as well as in gallery spaces like the Jaffe Center for Book Arts and the 18 Rabbit Gallery. Amy Letter teaches Fiction and New Media at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
7.02 / February 2012

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