Tyler wasn’t expecting Faye’s laughter. It was a knowing laugh, as if the time loop came with a punch line.
But time was both prison warden and liberator. One had only to look beyond the inexorable now to the immutable layers of time hidden underneath, and Fay’s laughter didn’t bother Tyler anymore, although it put Bandini on edge.
“Did I miss something?” asked Bandini.
Tyler approached both Bandini and Faye, grabbing them by the arms before turning his thoughts to a time before Murdoch’s house had even been built. He imagined trees before they were cut and shaped into wall supports, and the wild grasses before they were hacked away in the interest of progress and conspicuous luxury.
And so it happened, a woodland clearing replacing the house. It was surprisingly easy.
Astonishment silenced Faye as she turned to offer Tyler a seductive grin, her hand to his arm.
“Well, aren’t you full of surprises,” she noted.
“It was Murdoch who did this,” observed Bandini, his gaze darting from one tree to the next.
“Only a flat worlder can do this,” explained Faye. “You should have told me,” she told Tyler.
“I don’t understand,” murmured Bandini, mistrust prompting him to distance himself from Tyler.
“Everything’s fine. We’re just seeing things differently.”
Tyler walked toward a shrub crested hill before remembering that time shifting was dangerous, and Tyler had no intention of time shifting into a wall.
“We step outside of this house,” said Tyler, wondering how far to walk to escape the future confines of Murdoch’s mansion.
“Where are we?” asked Bandini.
“Same place as before,” answered Faye, extricating her hands from Tyler. “But you can take me anywhere,” she asked Tyler. “Can’t you?”
“I just peeled away the layers,” he explained, remembering what Mad Dog told him; and perhaps Mad Dog was still nearby. Tyler turned to the trees, expecting his guide to reappear. “But we can walk anywhere we like.”
“It’s too bad he’ll want you dead,” noted Faye before turning away.
“We should go,” said Tyler, realizing that the power over time did not render him any less mortal than before.
“So what’s happening here?” asked Bandini.
“Everything’s possible when you’re in a world that isn’t your own,” explained Faye to Bandini before shifting her gaze to Tyler. “I’ve been to your world, and did as I pleased.”
“But you came back here?” asked Tyler.
“It wasn’t my choice,” she answered, her gaze distant.
“You walked into his home,” noted Bandini. “I saw you.”
“So you did follow me,” she replied, a smile stretching her painted lips.
“You returned to him,” insisted Bandini.
“He never let me go,” answered Faye, her gaze distant.
“He can’t keep you here,” explained Tyler, wondering how long he could keep from imagining the walls of the house once again surrounding and imprisoning him. He walked away, hoping Bandini and Fay would follow, but they lingered without purpose.
“He’ll find me again,” said Faye, her voice raised so Tyler could hear her. “It won’t matter where I go, he’ll bring me back home.”
“This isn’t your home,” insisted Bandini.
Faye chuckled. “And where’s your home?” she asked Bandini.
Bandini puzzled over the question.
“Because this is your home too, and you never left, even after you told him you weren’t working for him anymore.”
Bandini struggled to contradict her.
The walls of the hallway appeared to materialize around them, but Tyler imagined a past with no future to alter it.
“We’ll go anywhere,” he suggested, although it was a promise he didn’t know how to back up.
“You’re the freeworlder he wanted, aren’t you?” she asked. “The one who cheated him. The one who thought he got away.”
Did Faye know about his father too, Tyler wondered. “My father took something from him.”
“And now you’re trying to take me away,” she replied with a broad grin. “He won’t like that.”
Tyler was anxious to put some distance between him and Murdoch. Why did Faye linger? Grabbing her arm, he tugged. Her feet were rooted to the ground, weeds coiled about her ankles.
Faye shook her head, still smiling. “I told you he won’t let me go. Because if I go, so will she, and she’s the one he wants, not me.”
“Who?” asked Tyler.
“A freeworlder like you, but she and I are linked, and where she goes, so do I. But I can’t leave without her.”
“Laurel?” asked Tyler, anxious for someone to finally confirm her existence. He hadn’t conjured her up.
“Is that what she calls herself?” asked Faye with a grin. Her amusement at her predicament baffled Tyler. Stooping, he attempted to pull her feet free of the weeds and grasses, but they appeared to have sunk into the ground. He turned, half expecting to find Laurel suspended above ground in a room that didn’t exist yet.
“She got what she deserved,” said Faye. “She wanted this. She could have left well enough alone, she in her world and me in mine. But she wanted proof, proof that I was real. But that’s the problem with people in your world. You don’t believe a goddamn thing unless it’s got you by the scruff of your neck, claiming you for its own; but maybe she wanted to belong to someone else. Me? Never. And here I am, going nowhere.”
Faye gazed to her legs. “It’s her fault I can’t leave. It’s her fault I belong to him too because she and I were linked and I curse the day I looked for her. If only she’d left me alone. If only she’d forgotten me like the rest of your kind. But she wouldn’t forget; and when you don’t forget, the past won’t let you off the hook.”
Tyler remembered the Magus. It was said they were linked too, although the full implication of that connection was still unclear to him.
Bandini was kneeling at Faye’s feet, pulling at the weeds and clawing at the earth, desperate to free her; but Fay’s problem was soon becoming Bandini’s, weeds coiling about his legs as time fast-tracked them to unbridled lengths.
Tyler imagined the weeds short. If time was hurriedly reclaiming the future, he would push it further into the past.
The weeds uncoiled, releasing Bandini and Faye.
“Run,” howled Tyler, his finger leveled down the hillside to the flatlands below.
Bandini leaped through the tall grass, but Faye appeared to be held fast by an invisible cord, her movements constrained in all directions. Bandini returned to her, his hands to her arms.
“I told you I can’t leave,” she insisted, pulling her arm free of Bandini. “Not without her, and he hid her away just like all the others.”
“I’m not going without you,” insisted Bandini.
“He knows we’re not going anywhere,” said Faye, chuckling to herself. “You boys really don’t know what you’re up against, do you? I tried to get away and here I am. He gets in your head until you dno’t know what you’re doing.”
The crunch of dried grass prompted Tyler to turn. Mad Dog was approaching, the quartz stone held aloft as sunlight faded. But as soon as Mad Dog touched stooped to touch Faye’s arm, they all vanished, leaving Tyler alone, not near a cluster of oak trees but in a dusty library cluttered with Greek and Roman statuary of female nymphs and demigods.
A door opened to reveal Murdoch’s slender silhouette. Emerging from the shadows, Murdoch smiled.
“You weren’t leaving, I trust,” said Murdoch before claiming an arm chair, gesturing for Tyler to claim the adjacent one.
“I came for Laurel,” replied Tyler, in no mind to mince words. He barely knew her, but she belonged here no more than he did; and he was determined to take her home.
“I know. But she’s happy now.”
“Where is she?” asked Tyler, refusing to sit.
“You don’t know?” queried Murdoch, finding amusement in Tyler’s frustration.
Tyler turned, hoping to find her standing behind him; but Murdoch was concealing her, not offering her release.
“What do you want with her?” demanded Tyler.
“I see your world and your world gives us life. Without it, we are nothing. But when it enters our world, anything is possible.”
Murdoch stood and approached a window, drawing a curtain to reveal the spires of future city vanishing in the clouds.
“It’s exciting, the fullness of possibility, the energy of this world more than a match for yours. Not only can I create a new city in the shadow of the old, I can sustain it for as long as I want it. And I want it all and I want it now and always. Don’t you?”
“I want Laurel,” he answered.
“She’s so much more than she was, now that she’s here. And so are you, reality limited only by what you desire.”
“I came here for her.”
“And you will have her, and you will have all that you ever wanted because that is the promise of tomorrow, and that promise is here. All you have to do is claim it. All you have to do is make it yours.”
“Where is she?”
“You realize she came to see me, don’t you?” asked Murdoch with a smirk.
Tyler shook his head.
“She’s been here many times. She called them dreams and when she dreamed, her name was Faye. You see, the woman you want isn’t one woman but two. Here she’s Faye. There, she’s Laurel. I assured her this place wasn’t a dream, but she wanted to see for herself. And now she refuses to leave. She has everything she could ever want.
Murdoch approached a grandfather clock, its pendulum no longer swinging, no longer keeping the steady beat of time. Reaching for the hour hand, he turned it to the three. Then he turned the minute hand toward forty seven.
Murdoch turned to the far door. “Go ahead and open it.”
Tyler hesitated before reaching for the door handle and pushing it down, opening the door to find a living room resembling Laurel’s apartment back in Los Angeles, her attire resembling Faye’s, her hair drawn back tight and her glasses dangling from her fingers as she perused some notes.
Faye and Laurel were not identical, but they were remarkably similar. It took a few moments for Tyler to realize it wasn’t Faye but, rather, the woman trying to look like her, her face not quite as perfectly proportioned.
Laurel gazed up at Tyler, her face brightening with recognition.
“Hi honey,” she said, setting her notes on the sofa and standing, adjusting her hip-hugging skirt before greeting him with hands to his cheek and a tender kiss to his lips. Taking his hand in hers, she led him to the sofa.
“It’s you,” he confirmed, examining one of her hands in his.
“Who else would I be?” she asked with a smile.
Tyler turned to the door just as Murdoch closed it. Pulling his hand free of Laurel’s he walked to the front door, only to find it locked.
“Tell me you’re not leaving again,” said Laurel from behind him as she drew her arms over his chest and squeezed. “You just got here.”
“How do you get out?” asked Tyler, turning to face her.
“Where would I go?”
“And leave without you?” she queried, as she held his face to hers, her lips pressed to his; and as her lips parted, so did his. He didn’t know her, but he wanted to know everything about her; and he wanted to taste her mouth, smell her hair.
“My last client left half an hour ago,” she whispered in his ear. “You have me all to yourself now.”
Tyler grabbed her hips, his hands finding her backside as he drew her close. She was soft and yielding, her mouth opening wide as he felt her warm tongue grazing his. And then he noticed the word over the door lintel. It read “Remember.”
Tyler remembered this wasn’t Laurel’s apartment but, rather a simulacrum; and they weren’t lovers, not in the world they once shared. It was a fantasy, but was it his or hers.
Tyler pulled away, holding her at arm’s length as he turned to the window. What would he see outside?
The street was familiar, the parked cars the makes and models of the 21st century. Everything was as it should be, if only it weren’t pretend. If only he were home again, and if only her love for him was were real.
“Are you alright?” she asked, her hand to his shoulder.
“Is this what you want?” asked Tyler. “How is this different from what you had before?”
“Before what?” she asked. “Before you?”
Noticing the pocket of blood just under his hair, she recoiled. “You’re hurt,” she observed. “What happened?”
“Murdoch hit me with a gun,” he answered, pleased to provide a dose of reality.
“Murdoch?” she answered, unfamiliar with the name.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“At home. With my love. What more could I want?”
Laurel held him tight before leaning back to gaze at the bump on his forehead. “You should lay down,” she concluded.
“What is this city called?” he asked.
Laurel studied his face a moment before gesturing him to the sofa. “You need to lay down.”
“Los Angeles or Two Cities,” he asked as she helped him to the sofa.
“What did they do to you?” she asked, studying his face. “We should call the police,” she decided before grabbing her cordless phone and punching in a number.
Tyler was anxious to see if she could call out. Laurel seemed to be sure she could.
“No dial tone. That’s strange.”
“This isn’t what you think it is,” explained Tyler. “Out that door is the man who locked you in here, and now I’m locked in here too. They call it Two Cities and also Lotusland, which should tell you something. Nothing’s real.”
Laurel dismissed his claim with a shake of her head before proceeding to the front door; but it wouldn’t open.
“The door’s stuck.”
“Have you ever set foot outside?”
“Sure,” she answered, still endeavoring to pull the door open.
“It’s probably locked on the other side,” he noted, standing up.
“I need you to lie down,” she commanded. “You’re not well.”
“Have you seen me here before?”
Laurel turned, struggling to conjure up a memory
“He last time I saw you it was the day we met.”
“You’ve forgotten everything?” she asked, a hand to his face. “You should get some rest and everything’ll be fine.”
“What did I forget?” he asked, prompting her for specifics.
“We’ve been together for months now. And I know you’ve been busy with the apocalypse series and with the film and everything, but it’s alright. My clients keep me busy. But that makes our time together all the more precious.”
“The series and the film?” asked Tyler, suspecting Laurel was trying to trick him. Surely, Murdoch must have prompted her what to say.
“It’s everything you ever wanted and I’m so happy for you, my love.”
Tyler shook his head. “Is that what he told you?” If Two Cities was a dream, then this was a dream within a dream, far removed from anything that really mattered. They might have called it Lotusland, but Tyler refused to be a Lotus eater.
“Who?” asked Laurel, her anxiety mounting.
“He told you to lie, didn’t he? Because it’s my prison as much as it is yours.”
“Is that what this is to you?” she answered, suddenly incensed. “A lie and a prison?”
“It’s not you. It’s him. And we don’t belong to him, and we’ll leave when we want.”
“Something happened to you,” she noted, her demeanor softening, “and I need you to lie down. And stop talking this nonsense because I know it’s not you.”
Tyler let Laurel push him onto the sofa.
“If you can open that door, or that window, I won’t speak of it again,” he said.
Laurel turned to the window, but was unable to slide it open. She shrugged it off as inconsequential before sitting next to Tyler, a hand to his leg. “If you get some sleep, we’ll go out later,” she said, suggesting an entirely different deal from the one he offered.
Tyler considered the possibility that perhaps it wasn’t a prison at all, and that this was, in fact, his life. It was a good life. He had the love of a good woman and what sounded like the beginning of a successful career as a graphic novelist. Was it so hard to believe? Was he so undeserving?
The phone rang, Laurel smiling as if it were proof that all was as it should be. She answered it, nodding before handing it to Tyler.
“It’s for you,” she said, offering him the phone.
He accepted it nervously.
“Anything you want,” said Murdoch’s voice on the line, “you pick up the phone and ask.”
“Can we leave?” asked Tyler.
“Where do you want to go?” asked Murdoch.
“We want to leave. We want to go home.”
Murdoch chuckled. “This is her home. If you leave, you’ll have to go without her.”
Tyler returned the phone to Laurel who hung it up. She was beautiful, and there was love her in her eyes. How could he leave her? No, it wasn’t possible. Besides, he was exhausted, and as Laurel slid her fingers through his hair, he could feel his worries slipping away.