It was night when Tyler awoke, Laurel naked in his arms, her breath warm on his cheek. It was a bedroom, a queen-sized bed presiding over a meticulously decorated room decorated with an antique dresser and night stand, a statue of a Greek nymph standing watch in the corner. It was unfamiliar and yet so perfect.
“Remember,” whispered a man’s voice. It was a deep voice, yet muted by a great distance.
Tyler pulled his arm free of Laurel, moaning as she turned to face him, her arm over her bare breasts. She was fast asleep.
There was no one else in the room, although the window was wide open, a gentle breeze rustling the blinds. Standing, Tyler approached. What was he to remember? He was with the woman he loved. Nothing else mattered.
Tyler wasn’t expecting to see anyone outside, but there was a man standing on the pathway below. It was too dark to make out his face, although the man appeared to be wearing a jacket and slacks, his gaze leveled up at Tyler.
“Remember the watch,” said the man below, his deep voice that of a man of at least 50. Tyler had put it in his pocket. Did he still have it?
Turning on a lamp, Tyler found his pants on the floor. The watch with the leather strap was still in his pocket. He retrieved it and put it on. Surprisingly, the second hand was moving.
“You should have put it on the moment you found it,” said the man from inside the room. Tyler lurched back, turning to find the man standing near the cabinet, features concealed by shadow as fingers grazed the lacquered surface.
“My father-in-law restored items like this,” said the man, his voice halting, muted by melancholy.
“He gave me the watch too, on condition I always protected you and your mother.”
“Dad?” asked Tyler. Was this wish fulfillment another trick of Murdoch’s?
The man stepped closer, lamplight revealing a youthful face, his moustache neatly groomed. There was a resemblance, although West’s eyes were dark, perhaps even black, and his face more narrow. Like Murdoch, West’s face defied time, almost seventy years passing for forty.
“I never fulfilled my promise,” said West, “yet I kept the watch. But it only belongs to those who keep their promises and say what they mean.”
Tyler needed no apologies, he only wanted to study his father’s face, shake his hand.
“Are you trapped too?” asked Tyler. His father shook his head.
“No,” answered West, a hand to Tyler’s shoulder. “Nor are you.”
West withdrew his hand, turning away. “How you must hate me.”
“I don’t,” replied Tyler. He felt nothing, but would have preferred to feel something for this stranger, even if it were hatred.
“I hope the watch does you more good than it did me,” said West. “Time doesn’t control you. You control time.”
“The watch will help me get out of here?”
West grinned. “You’re in here by choice. Murdoch gives you something you want and you never want to leave. My problem was wanting what he refused to give. I could never be happy doing what I was told, and never much good at living up to people’s expectations. I failed everyone, even myself.”
The resemblance was more than physical, realized Tyler. They both shared a revulsion for authority and a distaste for structure. After all, what use were possibilities when other people insisted upon limits?
“I can leave?” asked Tyler. “How?”
“You might start by getting dressed,” answered West, nudging Tyler’s clothes with his shoe.
As West’s gaze fell upon Laurel exposed chest, Tyler turned, his shirt in hand, as he pulled the comforter up to her shoulders.
“I can see why you don’t want to leave,” said West with a grin. “But she doesn’t belong here either.”
“I know. I’m taking her home.”
“You know this isn’t your home, don’t you?”
“Then what are you doing here?” asked West.
“And how are you here?” replied Tyler. “If you’re not trapped.”
West tapped Tyler’s watch. “That connects us all, you and me anyway; a broken promise now to be made good. I figured it was a matter of time before you made the same mistake I did, seeking out meaning and never quite finding it.”
Tyler grabbed his father’s arm. He had to be sure it wasn’t another deception, his father’s sinewy forearm reassuringly solid to the touch. West returned the contact by grabbing his son’s arm and grabbing it tight.
“I’ve looked forward to this day for many years,” exclaimed West.
“You could have come home,” answered Tyler, remembering that he did hate his father once, this man who’d abandoned him and his mother, never once calling, much less visiting. His mother told him his father would never return, but he didn’t believe her. He was convinced his father would come home, and in that waiting was unmitigated love. But the love eventually turned sour once he realized he’d been waiting in vain.
Tyler pulled his hand free and continued to dress himself in silence.
“I couldn’t,” explained West. “There were two of us, but Murdoch had one of us killed, and there was no going back alone. But at least he can’t find me now. I have no echo in this world, no reflection to give me shape and sound. Without my other self, I exist only to those who seek me out.”
“Like Carmen?” asked Tyler, retrieving his shoes from the floor.
“Like you. How do you know about Carmen?”
“I met her,” he answered, picturing himself in bed with her. He felt a twinge of shame, but West didn’t seem to notice.
“Is she well?” asked West, his gaze downcast.
“She still waits for you,” answered Tyler.
West nodded before turning away.
“She gave me more credit than I deserved. She would do well to forget. It’s been long enough.”
Tyler finished dressing himself before walking to the bed to wake up Laurel.
“There’s a price to pay for stealing from Murdoch,” explained West, a hand to Tyler’s arm.
“She doesn’t belong to him,” insisted Tyler, surprised that West, of all people, didn’t understand that. How was she any less deserving of freedom than him or his father?
“She chose this,” said West. “It was the usual seduction. He uses many guises, appearing as others want to see him. And she came to be with him, not you. If I’d known you had the same fool idea about coming here as I once did, I would have done everything I could to stop you. But you’re here now, and you’re about to make the same mistakes I did.”
Tyler shook his head. If everything he’d been told about his father were true, Tyler wanted nothing in common with him.
“I came here looking for a woman I barely knew because I was convinced she was different than all the others,” continued West. “She died because of me, but I knew there was a way I could get her back. I found her other self here and I took her away. I never paid the price for taking Carmen away from Murdoch, but my other self did. And now I can never leave because there’s only one of us, not two. I hope you see how you’ve been lured here to do the same, to steal something that isn’t yours and, perhaps, die for it.”
“She’s not something,” replied Tyler, hating his father for appearing after all these years, only to convince him that the woman he loved wasn’t worth the bother; and without Laurel, what reason did he have to stay in Two Cities or even return home to Los Angeles?
“The watch will protect you, but there’s no protecting her,” explained West. “And if he can find her, he’ll find you and …”
West’s voice trailed off as he turned to the window. “You’ll do as you please. I expect that.”
It was unthinkable to leave Laurel when he’d gone to so much trouble to find her. Lying next to her, he shook her awake. She opened her eyes, smiling.
Tyler kissed her. “It’s time to go,” he whispered.
“Where?” asked Laurel, her brow wrinkled with concern.
“I want to take a walk with you,” explained Tyler. “My father’s here. I’ll have him step out so you can change.”
Tyler turned to ask his father to give Laurel some privacy, but West had vanished.
“Dad?” said Tyler, standing and approaching the window. West wasn’t outside either, although a ladder had been hooked over the ledge.
“What are you talking about, Tyler,” asked Laurel, sitting upright, her breasts uncovered.
“Nothing. When you get dressed we’ll climb out.”
“We have a front door for a reason,” said Laurel, naked as she walked to her closet to retrieve a shirt and pants.
“Today, it’s an adventure,” Tyler explained, wondering if this was the life he was meant to live and whether he was losing his mind for questioning it.
Laurel pulled a pair of sweat pants over her legs.
“I’m not doing anything illegal,” she answered with a smile as she grabbed a long-sleeved shirt from a closet shelf.
“Unless it’s illegal to walk where we please,” said Tyler as Laurel approached. Extending a hand to his face, she kissed him on the lips.
“I don’t mind you acting a bit strange. It’s kind of … sexy. But do you seriously think we should be climbing out windows? It’s like we’re burglars.”
“We’re what we decide we are,” he answered firmly.
“What’s come over you,” she said with a faint smile, her hand to his chest.
“You know I came here for you,” he said.
Laurel held her head to his chest.
“And I won’t leave without you,” he added.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Just a walk,” he answered.
“You take your walks pretty seriously, don’t you?”
If Tyler seemed serious, it was because he feared losing her, feared that the moment she was out of sight, he’d awake alone as he’d always been, convinced once again that the world was devoid of love and that there was nothing worth fighting for. It was different now that he had something to lose; but to attempt an escape was to risk never seeing her again. To stay was to be complicit in his own imprisonment. To climb out the window was to welcome every danger imaginable.
“Where did you get the watch?” asked Laurel, her hands to his wrist.
“It was my father’s,” he answered.
Laurel’s fingers grazed the surface, as her gaze shifted absent-mindedly to the window.
“Do you ever feel like you’ve forgotten something important?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered, relieved by her honesty.
“You remember your father, but I don’t remember mine,” she continued. “Not my real father, anyway. I mean I know it doesn’t matter now that we’re together, but I don’t know why I can’t remember my parents. I don’t even remember what I was doing before you came home yesterday. But it’s alright now that you’re here.”
She clutched his arm. “It’s such a relief,” she exclaimed. “But don’t leave me again. I’ll go with you.”
“Of course,” he answered, taking her arm in his and holding her close to his chest. He’d never felt needed before, never felt so valuable to another person.
“I know you won’t forget me but what if …”
“What?” he asked.
“I don’t want to forget you, like I forget everything else. But we’re happy here. That’s all I know.”
“A long enough walk and you’ll remember.”
Laurel nodded before stepping away, retrieving a pair of sneakers from the closet and slipping them on.
Tyler gazed out the window, the path wining around the corner. It was still too dark to see what lay beyond the hedge. Hopefully, it wasn’t another wall. Though what difference did walls make when time was no longer an obstacle?
When she returned to him, he grabbed her arm and imagined the two of them outside the room. And the hedge appeared to his right, Laurel startled by the unexpected change of scene.
“We can both go where we please,” he explained.
“This isn’t our home. I suppose the same rules don’t apply to us.”
“I feel something,” she mumbled, turning to the window. “Like we’re being watched.”
Laurel grabbed his hand. “We should go,” she added.
Tyler guided her down the path, turning a corner.
The path receded into the darkness, and from the darkness appeared the silhouette of a man.
“It’s him,” she declared. “He brought me here.”
Tyler couldn’t tell if it were Murdoch or his father.
“Dad?” he asked, his voice echoing against the exterior of the house; and it wasn’t Murdoch’s home, but, rather, the building where he first met Laurel; or so he assumed. Murdoch’s fantasy extended to the immediate surroundings, but how far did it reach?
The man approached. To Tyler’s relief, it was West.
“He’ll find you,” said West.
“You know him?” asked Laurel.
“It’s my father,” explained Tyler.
Laurel nodded a greeting before turning to the wall and gazing upwards.
“Something isn’t right,” she concluded. “I don’t know this place.”
“Nothing’s what it seems,” answered Tyler.
“I don’t like it out here” she decided, her agitation increasing. “It’s not safe.”
“Then we leave, and we peel back the layers of time,” replied Tyler.
“Not with her,” said West. “Not unless she realizes this place is a construct of her mind. Murdoch doesn’t have to imprison anyone when we’re so good at imprisoning ourselves.”
Tyler turned to Laurel. Was Fay right about it being Laurel’s fault. Did Laurel really choose to while away her days here?
“We should go back to the room,” she suggested nervously.
“That’s no more real than this,” said Tyler. “He gave you what you wanted.”
Laurel shook her head.
“He warned me not to leave. But it’s alright. We have each other.”
“We don’t belong here,” explained Tyler, losing patience. Could Murdoch overhear them? And could he keep them from leaving?
“He needs both of you,” explained West, “and all the others he keeps trapped here. And none of them realize they’re trapped because they have everything they want. But they belong to Murdoch and he feeds off their will, they’re refusal to do anything giving him the strength to do as he pleases, their discarded choices becoming his. It’s the reason he’s so powerful, because so many of us surrender all that gives us purpose and strength. He even takes our memories and uses them to imprison us in complacency. But there’s a way out and it means refusing everything he gives you and remembering that there’s nothing here that isn’t his and that you must choose the possibility of losing everything.”
Laurel’s hand curled over his.
“Remember how you got here,” said West to Laurel. “Remember why you came and remember realizing it was a mistake before you surrendered your mind, choosing false empowerment and false happiness, your mind stuck in one moment when all seemed contentment. Remember that all moments are yours, not just what you’ve been given.”
“I won’t lose Tyler,” she declared.
“Did you leave that note, to remember?” asked Tyler. How was memory their salvation?
“Your feelings for each other are all that’s real,” assured West. “You’ll never lose that. But this is all a fabrication.”
Tyler remembered the fake store fronts of Lotusland. It was all a fiction. One had only to stop believing the lie and demand the truth.
“I came here for him,” remembered Laurel. “He showed me this world and it was beautiful. I wanted to stay. I told him I never wanted to leave.”
“If you chose to come here,” said West, “you can choose to leave. And that’s the only choice he hasn’t manufactured from your memories.”
“Where you go, I go,” declared Laurel to Tyler.
West grinned before grabbing Tyler and Laurel by their arms. “Clear your minds and he’ll have nothing.”
Suspecting they were being observed, Tyler turned. The mansion appeared translucent, Murdoch approaching as if suspended in air, his eyes bright as stars as light consumed all things.