Erin moved herself gracefully to the corner of the sofa where she sat and rested her head on a cushion.
“I don’t remember much about when it started. I was kidnapped, I think. For ransom, perhaps. I remember some people came and took me from my house and locked me in a dark room. One night there was this storm and… suddenly the room was filled with light. I walked into the light and, well, I found myself on a green field in a medieval village. I was too young to be anything but terrified. I wanted my parents. I wanted to get back… but there was no way back.”
Then she spoke of the strange worlds she had visited. Of kingdoms of light and cities of darkness, of how she had grown up never spending more than a small amount of time in one world before it was ripped away from her. Sometimes she was glad of the jump, but other times she had been adopted by good families and had begun to find her feet again.
Ray lay back and let her speak. He thought this was the most elaborate pick up or con job ever, but his curiosity won out. His burned hand didn’t hurt anymore – he guessed that they had gotten ice on it in time. And she was fascinating. As she spoke of some worlds her eyes lit up as if she was really speaking about an experience she had had. Other worlds got the opposite treatment and she skimmed over what might have been disturbing details. Every so often he would ask a question, humouring her. Humouring her… but also entertained, enthralled.
She was a marvelous storyteller and a part of him wanted to believe that she truly had visited other universes. In each universe he had been there. He had played many roles, but like a character from a Dungeons & Dragons game, he had always had the same attributes: someone who was brave, strong and caring. Even though it made him slightly uncomfortable hearing himself described as such, Ray couldn’t help but enjoy it. And who wouldn’t? As the hours wore on, she did not tire. Instead she seemed to grow more animated. In contrast, Ray’s eyes grew heavy.
Bright light, shining directly onto his face, stirred Ray to wakefulness. He was just stretching out, enjoying the warm sunshine, when he realised that he was not alone.
Erin was curled up next to him, in nothing but that tiny brown tunic.
He sat up so fast he knocked a pile of clean laundry off the side of the sofa. Erin’s eyes shot open and Ed laughed.
Ed was sitting in the armchair near the sofa, rolling a joint and watching Ray. His blonde hair was mushed from sleep and his loose patterned shirt – which may or may not have been the same one he’d been wearing at the party the night before – was hanging open.
“Great night, Bro?” he asked gesturing to Erin, who was now sitting up, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
“It’s not what it looks like…” Ray began, but he trailed off, realising both how clichéd he sounded and that Ed would never believe him.
“No worries, Bro.” Ed was smiling knowingly. “I’m not gonna judge you.”
And then Gina swooped down on them.
Gina was good at swooping. She considered it her specialty. She was a small woman with blonde dreadlocks and a lip ring. She was a hippy who enjoyed the fine things in life… like fashion, a fancy car and her father’s money. Anyone who hinted that there might be a contradiction somewhere there was putting themselves in line for trouble.
“And who is this?” She neatly maneuvered herself in front of the sofa, handing Ed a plate of scrambled egg.
“Her name’s Erin,” Ray said. He wanted to explain further, but found he couldn’t.
Gina dropped to her knees to bring herself level with Erin and gawked at her as if she was some strange specimen. “I don’t remember you from the party? Are you one of Natasha’s friends?”
“No. She’s not,” Ray stated firmly.
“I was wondering why you bailed so early.” Gina grinned at Ray. “I guess you had other places to be…”
The words were loaded with meaning, meaning Ray didn’t particularly like. “Listen. It’s not… Erin just needed somewhere to stay.”
“And you offered her the couch?” Gina asked.
“And then offered to keep her safe and warm on the couch?” Ed added.
“No… I…” he was floundering. He struggled to express his thoughts at the best of times. Explaining this was quite beyond him.
It was Erin who came to his rescue. “I met Ray on the way home last night. I was a little worse for wear so he brought me here ’til I recovered. I guess we both fell asleep.” She shrugged as if this was the most natural occurrence in the world.
If there was one thing both Ed and Gina could identify with, it was being ‘worse for wear’, so they turned their attention away from interrogating Ray and on to her.
“I’m sorry,” said Gina. “How do you do. I’m Gina.” She offered her hand and then pointed out Ed, explaining that Ed was her boyfriend who shared this flat with Ray. Ray was content to sit and let Gina control the situation.
She looked Erin over with a sweep of her eyes. “Were you at some kind of Amazonian party? What is that you’re wearing?” Erin, obviously not knowing what an Amazonian was, seemed to decide it was easier to agree than to make up another plausible story. She nodded.
“Where do you live?” Ed asked, trying to drive his girlfriend’s attention away from Erin’s state of dress.
She opened her mouth to reply but Ray cut her off, afraid she might merrily reply that she was from another universe. “She’s from out of town.” He scanned her quickly before adding, “and she was mugged and all her things were stolen except the strange costume she’s wearing.”
“Oh how terrible!” Gina exclaimed.
Ed looked up noncommittally over his joint.
Gina’s attention was focused purely on Erin. “You mean you don’t have anything to wear but that?”
Erin shook her head.
In one swift movement Gina had pulled her up off the sofa and was swooping to Ed’s room – where she kept a small wardrobe of clothes – twittering about the crime rate.
Alone in the lounge Ed and Ray looked at each other.
”I think she’s mad,” Ray said.
Ed nodded slowly, “I know… but she’s so good in bed…”
Ray blinked, then realised the mistake. “No, no, I mean Erin.”
Ed cocked his head, “She’s also good in bed?”
“No. I think she’s crazy.”
Ed nodded slowly again, “I see.”
Hopeless as he seemed, Ed had a certain understanding of the universe beyond even that of the lecturers at the university. He majored in philosophy and physics and said that he took them because they sounded similar and he couldn’t remember which was the one with the explosions. Yet somehow, he managed to get firsts for both…seemingly without trying.
“Where did you find her?”
“In a dark alley.”
“Ah.” Ed continued nodding. “Yes those are always the strange ones.”
“She’s not a whore,” Ray stated, realising what Ed meant. “I mean… I don’t think she is.” In truth the thought hadn’t crossed his mind. She seemed too soft-spoken and… delicate.
“What is she then?” Ed asked.
“I’m not sure,” Ray said honestly, “but she says she’s from another universe.”
Ed’s face lit up, “Awesome. Out of this world. Literally.” He laughed and then leaned forward and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “You may want to go see Hannah about that, though.”
“Ray, man, you’ve been wanting to see her for ages. Take the girl to her, have her checked out. Maybe she was just kidding with you, maybe she’s conning you or maybe she’s really wrong in the head, man. Either way you get to see Hannah.” He winked.
Ed had not given up hope that Ray and Hannah – who worked as a psychologist for the university’s counselling centre – would get back together. Ray had. He shook his head and affirmed verbally, “This girl isn’t my responsibility.”
As he said it she stepped into the room.
Dressed in a pink and white two-tone top and jeans, Erin did not look at all extraordinary. Pretty, beautiful maybe, but certainly not exotic or alien.
“We’ve agreed she’s going to stay here for a few days,” Gina declared.
The two actual residents of the apartment looked at each other.
“Hannah,” Ed said under his breath. “For both our sake’s, Bro.”
It is a well-known fact on any university campus that weeknights are for partying and weekend nights are for sleeping.
Professor Hins, while aware of this fact, believed that firstly, since he got up at 4 am for morning prayer, 07:45 was not at all to be considered early and, secondly, young minds were nice and fresh early in the day. Twice a week his Economics lecture fell during first period – the time slot known as the “dawnie” – and it was on these days that he chose to delve into the most complex aspects of his subject.
He expected his students to be bright-eyed and attentive, but in reality they were bleary-eyed and a few brave souls even lay their heads down on their desks as they tried to focus on the projections on the wall explaining income tax. Occasionally someone would snore, only to be jabbed in the ribs by a neighbour.
There was one student in the class, this particular Thursday morning, who stood out from the rest. Her eyes were shining, her back was erect and she stared at the lecturer with fascination.
The boy next to her slid her a look. “Could you quit being so enthusiastic? You’re making the rest of us look bad.”
Erin’s expression didn’t change, but she slid down in her seat so it appeared she’d lost a few inches height. “I’m sorry, I find the economics of different universes fascinating.”
Ray wished she’d drop the act. It was getting old. She had what he assumed she’d been after – somewhere to stay for a while until she’d sorted her life out. Gina had insisted that Erin had been through some trauma and was on the run. Gina also insisted that the twin towers had been destroyed by the CIA. Gina liked jumping to exciting conclusions.
He scribbled down some notes in a scrawl that he probably wouldn’t be able to read later.
Erin peered at them with curiosity. “How come you’re doing Economics in this universe?”
Ray crossed something out and tried to concentrate on what Professor Hins was saying. “BComm is the only way to ensure a job in the future.” His words came straight out of his father’s mouth, but at that moment he didn’t care.
Erin looked at her feet, which were enclosed in white trainers. When Gina had given them to her, she’d acted like she’d never seen trainers before. She remained fascinated by their shape. “Oh. In the last universe where you were at university you studied Physics.”
Ray stopped writing and stared at her. Okay, now that was creepy. He had always wanted to study Physics. Physics and Astronomy. Be a rocket scientist. But his parents had insisted that he’d only end up being a teacher and getting paid next to nothing. How could Erin have known that?
She followed him around from class to class. He had three more lectures before a tutorial and lunch. Just before the tutorial he turned to her and said, “listen you don’t have to follow me to my classes. Go out and explore. You know where the apartment is.”
She beamed at him. “I’d rather go to lectures with you, if that’s okay?”
What could he say? Well… there was one thing. “I have a tut now. You aren’t allowed to follow me to tuts.”
Like a puppy that had just been scolded, she seemed to droop, “Oh, okay.”
Guilt pooled in his chest. “Er… listen. I’ll take you to the Bean. You can sit and have some coffee and something to eat and then I’ll meet you there after the tut, okay?”
The Lucky Bean was a café situated in the middle of a leafy courtyard, in the middle of the campus. And it served coffee. That made it the standard meeting place and hangout. It was always busy. In winter, students would crowd together behind its steamed-up windows, taking shelter from the cold between lectures. In summer, the shaded wooden tables outside would be packed with people scrambling to get assignments completed or cramming for exams.
Ray sat Erin down at one of these tables with a cup of hot chocolate and a newspaper (“You can catch up on what’s happening in this universe,” he told her) and then went off merrily to his class.
Blessed freedom. He wasn’t accustomed to having someone trailing behind him. It felt a bit like having gum stuck to the bottom of his shoe. Now he’d scraped her off, however, he couldn’t get her out of his mind. He spent the whole tut worrying about her, glancing out of the second-storey window, hoping to be able to see the Bean and check she was alright. He scolded himself. Why was he worried? If she wondered off or disappeared it wasn’t his problem. She knew where their apartment was. And Ed would probably be there. He saw all lectures as optional.
As it turned out, Ed wasn’t at home. Ray saw this as soon as he approached the table where he’d left Erin. Ed was sitting there with a bunch of friends. They were all laughing. Erin was nowhere in sight. His stomach did a strange flip-flop. And then he saw her. She was sitting in the middle of Ed’s friends and talking. As he drew nearer, Ray realised that she was telling them about other universes, apparently answering their questions. “No,” she was saying, “Firstly the Vengori aren’t aliens. They’re just another culture. Secondly, I didn’t have sex with any of them.” More laughter.
Ray pushed to the front of the crowd. “Hey!”
They all stared at him.
He knew them all – at some stage or another they had all visited his apartment – but they knew him only as Ed’s rather quiet roomie. This, him standing up to them, was new. He who was more shocked, them or him. “She’s…” he stuttered. Good start. He swallowed, tried again. “She’s not a clown here for your entertainment.”
There were a few snickers. Then Erin said quietly, “It’s okay, Ray. Really I don’t mi…”
He turned on her. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you don’t mind. It’s wrong. They aren’t listening because they believe you. They’re listening because they think you’re crazy.”
“Ray, really. It’s okay.”
Ed cleared his throat, “So… are you saying you don’t think she’s crazy?”
Ray felt colour rising to his cheeks. “It doesn’t matter,” he said quickly. “I’m not the one humiliating her in the middle of a crowd of people.”
“Aren’t you?” Ed asked, serenely.
Ray realised with sudden clarity that Ed was right. He was standing in the middle of this cloister of people, in the middle of the campus, singling her out and getting curious looks from passers-by. Exasperated, he hauled Erin to her feet and dragged her away from the group.
After they had marched a few blocks, he let go of her arm and she fell into step beside him. He didn’t say anything. Blood was roaring in his ears and his chest still felt tight.
“You know,” she said at length, “I’m used to it. No one ever believes me.”
He didn’t answer.
“When I was much younger I used to try to convince people. Then, when I was a teenager, I used to try and hide it from them. Now I don’t bother. I know the only one who will believe me is you.”
When he still didn’t say anything, she continued, “That’s why I’m so happy I found you so soon after I jumped this time. That means that there’s more chance of finding an answer.”
“Finding an answer?”
“Yes. Since you’re in all the universes… the answer to getting back home… or at least stopping jumping… must lie in you.”