An ochre-coloured mist hung in the air that, the further ahead you looked, gradually turned a shade of moss green. She did not know what kind of chemicals made the air moss green. Most of the time the ochre was the only fog hanging low over her town. She breathed laboriously through her mask, the mechanical filter rattling in her ear.
A look at one of the big screens in her vicinity showed her that it was still too dangerous to take it off. The bar on the brightly lid screen ran from deep crimson, practically jet black, to green. The moment the gauge was in the green, the mask could be taken off. Not only could it be taken off at that point, it was mandatory to do so. Wearing an oxygen mask when signals pointed to green was illegal, and discussing it was a criminal offence. No one dared to acknowledge the poor air quality, its cause, or its impact.
She felt their presence everywhere. The eyes and ears of what they called the ’Curmudgerly’, sitting behind screens, watching her every move, or so she thought. They never fully disclosed what they did, what happened behind their closed doors. The only thing she knew was that it would be her place too, when she would turn 66 years old. She would be taken off the street, or from her couch or even from her bed if she was napping at the moment they decided it was her time. They would come and take her, give her a room of her own with all the things she needed: screens, listening devices and of course the possibility to report all that she noticed. She hoped she could make it a cosy room, with some flowers and a blanket but she wasn’t sure, she never spoke to someone older than 65. No one ever did. You were only spoken to. When a group of Curmudgerly roamed the streets it was better to just stay inside or out of their way. But most of the time they weren’t seen at all, they were only felt as an ominous presence, waiting for your next mistake. You were just a screenshot away from oblivion.
She raised her head towards the saturated sky, while her neck and shoulders protested in agony, and screamed into her mask. She took a deep breath, began to walk and that’s when she saw her. Sitting on a decaying bench, staring at her. Realising what the woman just witnessed, she smiled cautiously into her mask, hoping her smile would come across. A quick peek at the screens told her it was almost safe to remove the mask. The woman on the bench patted next to her, signalling for her to join her.
She was afraid she was missing something. No one in their right mind would make contact with a stranger. Who was this person? Did something change in the last few days while she was out? Maybe the woman was 66 and this would be the first Curmudgerly she would encounter in person? Could she figure out a reason not to sit next to her?
She did not know what to do as she felt the eyes of the woman piercing right through her. So she obeyed, it was the best thing she could do in most situations anyway.
The woman had eyes in a shade she had never seen before. It was not green, it was not blue. It most resembled copper, oxidised through time. Every time she looked at it she saw a new blaze of colour. The woman looked at the screen and quickly took off her mask. The air had cleared and was back to its normal state of soft yellow mist. She put away her mask and wiggled awkwardly on the crumbling bench. At her right side there were trees, infected with disease and with fungi all over them. She did not know what to do with the situation. Should she start a conversation? A quick glance at the woman to her left taught her that although the woman was older, she was not much older than herself. Nothing near to the age of a Curmudgerly, that she was sure of.
“Sneden. My name. What is yours?”
Surprised by the sudden sound of the high pitched voice of the woman she put her hand above her breast and introduced herself.
Cayrel was surprised the woman had invited her to sit down next to her. Sneden was one of the oldest names in the universe and was only to be used by a selected bloodline. Most of the time a person with the name Sneden would not talk to some stranger like her. Come to think of it, a Sneden would not even sit outside, let alone on a rotten bench like the one she felt slowly crumbling underneath her. Something strange was happening here.
Sneden fumbled in her pockets until she found what she was looking for. A meticulously folded newspaper was being carefully unwrapped by her. Cayrel could see it was a foreign newspaper and the news items were written in a language she did not recognise. The only thing she managed to decipher was the date; the newspaper was from 1927. Cayrel kept sitting still, quietly, waiting for what was to come. Sneden sighed, took a deep breath and with a strong voice she started her story.
“It is over. It must be done, otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting on this bench right now. Everything has led me to this, everything has prepared me for this.” She looked around. Was there a Curmudgerly over there or was it only the branches swaying. She stopped talking abruptly when she saw that it was indeed a group of Curmudgerly that approached them. Quickly Sneden put her newspaper back in her pocket, not so neatly folded this time.
“Identification!” barked the tallest of the group. Cayrel watched as Sneden turned pale. She fumbled in her pockets as if she was searching for her identification. “I don’t know where I put it,” she muttered. “With my age, you sometimes tend to forget things.” The man seemed to thaw a bit. “Name?” “Chertan.” She said in a firm tone of voice. Cayrel looked up in surprise. Chertan was a common name, no one would expect anything from a Chertan. Most of the time Chertans were invisible and it was quite possible, Cayrel thought, that somebody with that name was outside today, sitting on a rotten bench. There was nothing weird about that. “And you.” It was not a question. She told him her name and watched his eyebrows skyrocket. It had slipped her mind that it was indeed weird for her to be outside, today. That it may have been her, wandering about, screaming in her mask that had tipped off the sluggish watchers of the Curmudgerly. She was so focused on Sneden and all that was happening since meeting her that she had forgotten why she left home in the first place. She thought about her screaming in her mask on the curb, thinking she was all alone.
“Cayrel you say? Why are you here.” He was not one for asking politely. “Why are you with Chertan?” He spitted as he formed the first letters of Snedens’ made up name. Cayrel tried thinking of reasons to be here. Of excuses, anything not to tell him the truth, to not tell him why she screamed at the top of her lungs. A hot flush of panic came over her, firing through her body. It did not stop there, it was as if her skin burned too. In the corner of her eye Cayrel saw the bar on the nearest screen turn orange. Sneden and the man realised it at the same time and they promptly put on their masks. The man had had enough. He pointed at them, then at his eyes making it clear he would be watching them and walked away with the rest of the Curmudgerly .
A scream bubbled up from Cayrels toes to her throat where it got stuck. She swallowed it away. She felt as if she could single-handedly attack the group of men if she ran after them. She had enough anger and adrenaline to win.
Unaware of Cayrel’s inner doubts, Sneden began to unfold the newspaper. Raindrops touched her but they never touched the paper. Sneden unfolded it in complete silence. Everything she had wanted to say had faded with the arrival of the group of Curmudgerly. Cayrel looked at the paper. The date still struck her as peculiar. The fabric of the newspaper did not even seem tattered, the ink still clearly readable as if it had just rolled off of the press this morning. If only she could actually read the language, Cayrel thought. Sneden gently shook what was folded in the newspaper on the palm of her hand. It was a shiny black oval. An insect without legs, a critter without life. “This.” Sneden said and for a moment her thoughts seemed miles away. “This, this is my life.” Sneden started to giggle. She took a deep breath and handed the dark shiny oval to Cayrel. “It’s edible.” Cayrel looked at her in disbelief. “Trust me, it’s candy. And you have to try it. Once in your life you should have tasted a Tyrkisk peber.”
“A Tyrkisk peber, a Danish candy I once brought back from Copenhagen. This is an original. Try it.” She said, as she nodded encouragingly. “It tastes pretty much like salmiac lollipops, you must have had those back in the day.” Cayrel nodded. Salmiac lollies used to be her favourite. This candy was really huge though, she wouldn’t be able to say anything until the thing had melted.
As if Sneden could read her mind, she started talking. “It is a big one,” she said with a smile that held the knowledge of what was to come. She looked at Cayrel with candour in her eyes and continued: “When you swallow the last bit of the candy I’ll be dead.” A shock went through Cayrel and she wanted to say something but Sneden was right, the candy was too big to say anything. She wanted to spit the thing out but something prevented her from doing so. “It is ok,” Sneden continued, “I am used to the idea. My family prepared me for this. Even sheltered me from society. They knew the time would come, that one of their children would be The One. The numbers don’t lie. I know all of them will go out with a bang, the rest of the world merely with a whimper. But I will not be one of them, I will fade away until I am almost not visible anymore and then all that is left of me will implode. It is useless for me to fight my collapse, nothing can fight against this darkness.
And now we come to the crux of the matter. The reason I am sitting on this bench, rather than conforming to the age-old family tradition in which I pass away in a hallowed chamber designed only for death. You know, most of my family will just go supernova like the stars they think they are.
For centuries, the descendants of my family have been renowned for their arrogance. They believed that their legacy would stand the test of time. When they eventually passed away, their essence would remain on earth and they believed that their grandiose legacy would continue to be spread, to the minds and gaze of future generations. Their story would live on in the annals of history and forever be remembered. And when The One would eventually implode, they believed that their core would get absorbed into the centre of it all and live on.”
Sneden sighed. “The one thing I will leave behind when I die is a black hole.”
It was still not possible for Cayrel to talk. The candy was a little smaller but still way too big to use her mouth for words.
“Black holes”, Sneden continued “are what my legacy is all about. My family thinks that they have mastered them. They’ve learned from the centuries full of philosophising about them and they are convinced that when I turn into a black hole, I will be a gateway to a realm beyond ours. A world entangled to ours, a world where all our negatives are positive.”
Sneden quivered as she told her this.
Cayrel’s eyes got bigger. A world beyond this one. She couldn’t imagine it. “What could be out there”, she asked Sneden. “It is generally believed that if you step inside a black hole a portal is formed where time and space are identical. That black hole will be me, in my dying moments”, Sneden explained patiently. “In the black hole you can be frozen or, on the contrary, eternally rushing forward, you won’t know. All that you will notice is the racing of your heart merging with the racing of the pulse of the black hole. At the end, nothing is left but a whirr. At this moment you are gradually merging with my life which should ensure that you come out of this nothingness and see a new world in front of you. This world will be everything you don’t know. Everything you see is the opposite of everything you ever saw. Everything you hear you have never heard before. And if you were to go left here you go right, there. It is believed that absolutely everything is the opposite of this world and it is all entangled.
No one has done this ever before. My family’s haughtiness caused them to make bad decisions every time they had the opportunity in the past centuries. They tried to capture the hole, they tossed stuff into it and once they even tried to enter the space with a group of people at the same time. Never did they get the idea that the Peber was the key. Never did they get the idea that whoever left the world had to agree with whoever entered the new world. There is no assurance but you have to trust me, it is no coincidence that we meet today in this fringe corner of our society.”
Cayrel felt the candy in her mouth. It occasionally had a sweet hint but most of the time she felt the salt biting against her cheek and the sharpness of the outer layer across her tongue.
Sneden pressed the newspaper into her hands. “It will happen suddenly and fast.” She said in a voice that had lost its strength. “It will be unexpected for the both of us. When you are in the new world, try to remember what your thoughts were in this world and challenge them. Challenge everything you think and test it against all the realities you can imagine.” It was the last thing Sneden said. The candy was almost gone. Only a sliver remained on her tongue.
Cayrel was afraid. If everything was the negative of this world and all things were entangled wouldn’t that mean that if this world imploded the new world would explode? “It is the magic of the candy” She heard Sneden say in her head. Her voice was as clear as if she sat just next to her. “You’re different. Trust. Just trust.” And while Snedens body slowly transformed into a black deepness right in front of her, and the world around her tumbled and twirled, Cayrel stepped into the deep with Sneden in her head.
There was strangeness going on, from the sliver in her mouth to the way she felt when she finally stepped into the great blackness. It felt like she was spinning around in a tunnel of warm fuzzy blankets, every so often bumping into a wall of what oughta be a vast nothingness.
The candy seemed to grow big again and melt at the same time. Going in a rhythm that took no time at all and all the time there was. Everything changed while she was in transition but one thing stayed the same, she had Sneden in her head.
The warmth of the blankets grew more intense. And when the temperature got almost too hot to bear Cayrel suddenly saw light and felt she was not spinning anymore. It wasn’t the heat that made her realise she was out of the black hole, nor was it the bright light shining into her eyes. It was the crisp air that irritated her lungs. Coughing, she stepped into her new world. It seemed as if she was still standing in the same place. Everything was feeling the same. She orientated herself by the vast tree that had been standing next to the withered bench. Then she saw that it was no longer in the place she expected it to be. In fact, there was nothing there.
Did she really step into another world by entering the portal that Sneden had opened for her or had time simply lapsed so things had changed and was this still the same world? Cayrel looked carefully around. Not only was the bench gone, but the monitor that was meant to display air quality was no longer there either. She took a few steps and felt the newspaper in her trouser pocket crinkle. Trouser pocket? She was quite sure that what she had put on that morning had not been trousers with pockets. She looked down and saw that she was wearing a pair of velvet corduroy trousers in a reddish-brown colour. To her horror, she saw that the trousers stopped just below her knees and transitioned into chunky boots in matching brown. He would never have approved of that.
The boots looked like she had walked many miles in them. With a sigh, she grabbed the newspaper. The thin paper had survived even this. She flipped it open and the letters had changed into an comprehensible order. There was nothing more about this language she could not understand. Even before she could start reading it, she heard someone coughing next to her.
Swiftly she stowed the newspaper back in her pocket and looked up into the amused eyes that accompanied the cough. “Muks, what are you doing here, standing here by yourself?” Cayrel did not know how to respond. She didn’t know the greeting but repeated it to the stranger. “Muks, I seem to be a bit confused.”
“You not only seem to. You clearly are. You know what to do.” Cayrel watched as the person marched away. You know what to do. Clearly she did not. She took another look around and got the paper out her pocket again. Just as she started to read the headlines she heard another throat clearing. “Muks!” she said, pleased to know at least one common greeting here. “Muks, can you help me?” Cayrel managed to jump aside just in time to avoid being spit upon. The person turned away angrily and walked off without saying a word. It was clear she was doing something wrong.
Before she could fully realise what was happening it had become dark. There was no dusk, no transitional phase when all the light got warmer before changing to a cool hue. It was darker than she had ever seen a night. The stars were a colour she had never seen before. Vivid colours radiated in the sky above her in a pattern alien to her. Cayrel found herself staring at the wondrous array of lights overhead. A large sphere was approaching slowly. Carrying with it an orange gleam. It looked like some kind of moon, maybe it was actually a nocturnal sun. It stopped when it filled half the sky and gave enough light for Cayrel to be able to read her newspaper. She marvelled at the fact that she could still read it. In this place that was so unlike anything she had ever known, there was one thing that was comforting her and that was the newspaper she had received from Sneden, in which she now finally had a chance to read what this place was all about.
The paper seemed to get more delicate every time she unfolded it. Cayrel looked around. She was certain there was no one around at this hour. 1927 had something to tell her. Her eyes skimmed over the front page. There was nothing she ought to know. She flicked the pages until she spotted it. It was a small article with a photograph she immediately fathomed. She felt her stomach turn. Nausea rushed through her throat to her nose. She could no longer breathe. Her throat was closed up and in her nose was the queasiness. She had walked until she could get as far away from the house in the picture as she could. She had walked and she had covered miles in her head just to be away from this house. Heck, she had even entered another dimension by stepping into a dying star and still she continued to see the house. The house with the blacked-out windows. Standing in front of the house was her spouse. Former spouse. As far as she was concerned, he had been her former partner for a long time. But whatever she believed had never been relevant. He had a different opinion. According to him, they would always be together. It was as if the air was sucked out of everything around her and she found herself in a vacuum. Her ears were plugged. The air was gone, There was no way to take a breath. Her eyes were tearing and she could not blink it away. She could not close her eyes, not even for a second. For next to her ex-partner, in front of the house from her nightmares stood Sneden. A younger Sneden but unmistakably Sneden.
Cayrel did everything she could think of to get a breath of air again. She crumpled up the newspaper and put it in her pocket. She had to get out of here. Cayrel started to run. If there were any similarities between over here and the other side of the black hole, she would find a place that was safe. She knew a covert place, almost a cavern made of branches where she could shelter until she was herself again. Until she would know what this was all about. Until she would grasp it. Cayrel took the turns that were pinned down in her mind as the safe routes they had always been for her. Soon she would see a small lake on her left. A small lake surrounded by trees. And there, in a place that was impossible to explain to people who were not familiar with it, if you stayed close to the ground, you would see an overgrown place where she could just about sit up straight, where nothing could reach her, nothing but filtered light. Relieved that everything was as she expected, Cayrel made herself small and laid down in the foetal position in the sheltered patch. She would wait for the sun to rise. With the light, brightness would also appear in her mind.
Through her eyelashes, Cayrel watched how the stars disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. Where it was black at first, in no time there was a bright pale blue sky, it seemed almost white. A new day. She had lived through a night in a place that was nothing at all like what she was used to and yet it was so incredibly familiar here. The sky had cleared but her mind was still a dark place. She looked out over a calm lake. When she was a child she often swam in natural water. It had always calmed her down. It was still early, there were no people around. Cayrel slowly got undressed, constantly looking around to see if she saw anyone, if she could smell trouble. She had developed a sense for danger; you couldn’t fool her that easily. Everything was quiet. Everything was safe.
Cayrel walked to the lakeside and peeked into the reflective surface. There was a moment when everything held its breath, the trees, the water and even her. Cayrel frantically rubbed her eyes. Nothing changed. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, she thought as she ruffled her hair with her hands. She pulled at it until it hurt. Until it hurt her. She couldn’t believe what she saw. A scream boiled up like a cramp in her calves. It was not her own reflection looking back at her. She did not see the mouth that had been hollering in a mask just a day ago. The scream whirred at her knees to proceed nauseously swirling to her gut.
A young Sneden looked at her with terrified eyes.
Slowly Cayrel began to grasp it. He had been right all along. There was no escape. They would always be together, defying every space and every time. Because he had said so, and he was always right.
The scream had culminated and briefly blocked her throat. Cayrel opened her mouth wide and the scream came out in all its nauseating massiveness. Her reflection rippled under the sound wave it produced. Cayrel tumbled forward into the lake, but her scream was not muffled by the water. Instead, it formed a shock wave. Cayrel gasped for breath. She took in more than just the air; with a big gulp, she inhaled her own reflection and all the water of the lake started flowing through her veins until she exhaled again and all the water she was now made of burst out under the impact of her scream. Cayrel was at one with the water, only leaving behind her cry that kept resonating in the crisp dawn.