Tyler couldn’t remember how long he’d been awake. He’d been gazing toward the ocean, a blue smear enclosing the flatlands below; and he’d been imagining what lay beyond that satisfied sea that had no cares.
This was more than a dream. It was a reality that only a dream could unearth; and that reality now included Laurel who lay at his side, her gaze distant and undefined. She was more than a mere aspiration. She breathed and consumed space, her brown eyes harboring the most alluring of secrets.
Remembering Murdoch, Tyler turned to Laurel. He feared that Murdoch had constructed a prison for them, built from things that happened long ago.
“Where is he?” asked Tyler, turning to the hills behind his back. They appeared to be alone, a gust of wind rustling the leaves of a nearby oak.
Laurel turned to him, shaking her head.
“Is this another beautiful lie?” asked Tyler, admiring the dimple of her breasts under her shirt, and the smooth oval of her face. He didn’t know her and yet he suspected he knew her better than anyone.
“I don’t know what to believe,” she answered, her gaze to the boots on her feet.
Tyler stood up, examining the surroundings for some flaw in the design, some tear in the visual fabric that might reveal Murdoch’s face.
“Is this why you came here?” asked Tyler, wanting to believe this uninhabited world was not of Murdoch’s making.
“Why did you come here?” she asked defensively, her gaze now fixed on Tyler.
“You left a note to come find you,” he answered before remembering it wasn’t her note.
“I left no note,” she replied. “I don’t understand.”
“Someone wanted me to find you,” he explained. “Someone wanted me here.”
“I didn’t need to be rescued,” she explained before standing, brushing dead grass from her pants.
“Did you really come here for him?” asked Tyler.
“Does it matter?” she asked, visibly irked by his line of questioning. He considered the possibility that maybe she didn’t deserve to be rescued; although he suspected they were still Murdoch’s prisoners.
“It matters that we’re trapped,” he answered.
Laurel scrutinized his face. “I thought you were him,” she said after a moment’s hesitation. “I thought I loved him.”
“That’s why you’re here?”
Laurel shook her head as if Tyler had missed the point. “I dreamed of loving someone, someone who vanished whenever I woke up. I would feel the torment of that loss for a few seconds before thankfully forgetting the pain. I wouldn’t have remembered if I hadn’t decided, one morning, not to forget.”
“He found you?” asked Tyler.
“Faye found me,” explained Laurel. “I thought it was me I was dreaming about, but it was her. Everything was hers, everything I saw and felt. Only it wasn’t a dream. It was real, and I wanted it. I didn’t want to pretend to be someone else. I wanted it for myself.”
“She brought you here?” asked Tyler.
“She warned me,” continued Laurel, her gaze distant, “and said we were better off where we were, and that she had good reason to leave. But I didn’t believe her. And I didn’t believe her when she said she loved no one. The love I felt was here, in this world, and I wanted it.”
“I came looking for her,” said Tyler, wondering if Laurel knew about Faye the night he met them both.
Laurel smiled as she contemplated a memory. “I remember you. It seems so long ago. Did I tell you about this place? I don’t think I remembered. Not yet, anyway. It was the following morning I woke up, refusing to forget and there she was in my living room. I asked her what she wanted and she said I knew already. And it was true. I did. I knew it was her. She wanted my life but I wanted hers.”
It was beginning to feel like a dream again, even his conversation with a woman he barely knew yet who was sufficient reason to send him on a fool’s errand to a place he’d never comprehend. This wasn’t his home, nor was it hers; and the sooner they both left, the better.
“We should get home,” he concluded after a moment of silence.
“But it won’t be the same,” she replied, gazing at Tyler. “We’ll never forget this place and we’ll always want to go back.”
“Because this is our home too,” she answered decisively, smirking as if surprised Tyler didn’t know.
It was Tyler’s turn to shake his head. “You don’t even know what this place is,” he cautioned.
“I know anything’s possible here. I’ve seen what Russell can do.”
“You call him Russell?”
“That’s his name. At least that’s what he calls himself. One thing is certain here. You can’t believe anything.”
“All the more reason to get the hell out of here,” he insisted.
Laurel stepped away. She was distant, her silence concealing so many secrets. If she wasn’t willing to return, he was prepared to leave without her, if she preferred to stay. She was a fool for choosing this place, and he was just as much a fool for following her.
“When I saw him, I felt the love I knew from my dreams. I never wanted to leave him. And when you walked in, I felt it again. I forgot what he looked like because it didn’t matter. I knew what I felt. But I don’t feel it now. Not for him and not for you. That love is gone, and it hurts thinking about it.”
Laurel dropped to the ground, a hand to her stomach as she curled into a ball. Tyler approached tentatively. He would have preferred her love even if he couldn’t reciprocate it. He was all too accustomed to people feeling nothing for him, and for feeling sorry for himself because of it.
“It’s not love if it’s not real,” said Tyler.
“It was real,” answered Laurel, her face averted. “If you felt it, you would know. But you don’t know, do you?”
Tyler couldn’t recall loving anyone, although he knew what it felt to love. Was it a dream that taught him how to love?
“I wish things were better,” said Tyler, sitting next to her. “But it’s not safe here. Back home, you can love whoever you want but we should …”
“Do you love someone?” she asked, interrupting him. She turned a tearful face to him.
Tyler didn’t answer. He still couldn’t recall loving anyone, although he once loved his grandmother Vi, and even his mother before she put him on the drugs that eroded the very possibility of love.
“If you did, you’d know what it feels like.” Laurel once again averted her gaze.
“You can feel that in his prison,” he answered, growing impatient with her blathering about how she could feel love but how he couldn’t, as if she knew the first thing about him. People were just as self-involved in Two Cities as they were back home. They saw what they wanted to see and disregarded everything else.
If there was anything worth loving, it was the pristine shrubland around them; though he wondered if it was the result of peeling back all the layers of time to a prehistoric Eden, or whether it was a construct of his own wishful thinking. Could he adjust his own reality as Murdoch could?
“I say you feel what you want to feel,” said Tyler, as much to himself as to Laurel. “They can’t tell you what to feel.”
Laurel had fallen silent.
“I’m sure you can come back, if that’s what you want,” said Tyler, wondering how long Laurel would brood while Murdoch prepared another trap. “But if we don’t leave soon, I don’t think we’ll ever leave,” he continued.
“Because he needs us,” she answered, wiping her face as she climbed to her feet. “I’ve seen some of them and God knows how many are in there. They seemed happy, all of them living the lives they wanted. He told me I could have whatever I wanted. And I just wanted that feeling of love never to end.”
“You saw others?” he asked, remembering Faye, Bandini and Mad Dog. They’d vanished before Murdoch invited him to see Laurel; although it wasn’t clear why Murdoch would have permitted him to see Laurel, knowing that he might steal her away.
“He was showing me that one home was actually infinite, every second concealing a boundless world of someone’s choosing.”
“And you chose your home,” answered Tyler, “because you know you don’t belong here, and you’re only here because you think you can find love here, but there’s no reason you can’t find it anywhere.”
Laurel glared at him before walking down the hill.
“Are we going or not?” she called after him. It took Tyler a three second sprint to catch up.
“It’s gotta be that way,” he said, leveling his arm east, away from the ocean.
“What?” she asked.
“Downtown. That’s how I got here.”
“Where is everything?” she asked, scanning the horizon. There wasn’t a single road or human habitation to be seen.
“We change the time frame,” answered Tyler, pausing to imagine buildings in place of trees and cars in place of shrubs.
“That’s something you can do?” she asked with a smirk.
Tyler imagined the movement of a clock, and the growth and decay of trees. He imagined men and women building homes, and laying out roads for wagons. He imagined buildings made of adobe and brick, and he imagined trains bringing people in by the thousands, enough people to start building even more houses.
Tyler heard someone call his name. It was Mad Dog, his voice in his head as the world appeared to spin. Tyler opened his eyes.
Homes dotted the hills below, a man waving to him from a distance of a quarter mile.
Laurel turned to him, struck dumb by the sudden reappearance of civilization, albeit a handful of homes.
Tyler approached the man until he was close enough to recognize Bandini, still waving Tyler and Laurel over. As sunlight dimmed, mad Dog appeared from under the shade of a withered oak.
Bandini clambered up a rocky slope, all smiles until he saw Laurel.
“Where’s Faye?” he asked.
“She was with you,” answered Tyler.
“Do I know you?” Bandini asked Laurel, scrutinizing her face.
“No,” replied Laurel.
“I lost her,” said Mad Dog as he approached. “She pulled away and she was gone.”
“You said you had her,” said Bandini testily.
“YOU said you had her,” said Mad Dog. “And don’t go telling me I’m lying ‘cause you know what you said and I don’t forget anything anyone tells Mad Dog.”
“Then she’s back there,” said Bandini, gesturing up the hill.
“What makes you think I’m goin’ back there,” said Mad Dog, his voice deeper and louder with every word. “You damn fool.”
“I came here to get her out,” insisted Bandini. “
“And I’m afraid all you got was me,” said Laurel. “Sorry to disappoint.”
“I never said that,” said Bandini, facing Laurel. “You look like her,” he observed, his tensed demeanor softening. “Anyone ever you tell you that?”
“We’re going home,” explained Tyler.
Mad Dog glared at Tyler, his withering gaze soon dissolving into paroxysms of guttural laughter.
“How you gonna do that?” asked Mad Dog.
“I walked in a door and we’ll walk back out through a door.”
“Not without that version of you that’s up in Twin Towers. You gotta get him out first ‘cause you’re not goin’ nowhere without him.”
Tyler remembered being cautioned that no one could pass from one world to the other unless both versions of a person crossed together; although it didn’t explain how Magus had come to find him in the first place.
“Magus entered my world,” noted Tyler.
“Magus?” asked Bandini. “What are we talking about?”
“That’s what he called himself.”
“Magus means he don’t have a name,” explained Mad Dog. “It means you can go to hell. But he can leave this place without you ‘cause you’re not here, only he needs you to get back in.”
“But I need him to get out.”
“’cause you don’t belong here.”
“But I needed him to get in too,” noted Tyler.
“No. He just needed you. Flatworlders can come here anytime they like, if they know where to find this place.”
“What does this matter,” chimed in Bandini. “We need to get Faye back.”
“She’s not up there,” answered Mad Dog.
“Then where is she?”
“No one took her,” said Mad Dog. “She took herself somewhere.”
“What does that mean?” asked Bandini, glowering.
“It means she made herself scarce ‘cause she wants nothin’ to do with us.”
Tyler observed Faye take a seat on a rocky ledge, hands to her face.
“We can do as we please too and I’ll get you home,” he informed her.
“She and I are linked.”
“You’re not the same,” replied Tyler, recognizing some resemblance between the two women, but the resemblance wasn’t complete.
“I took her back here, and she needs to take me back home. She warned me. I remember now.”
“Who says we can’t leave?” asked Tyler. “Do you believe anyone here? Whatever they want, it does nothing for us.”
“Do I believe you?” she asked.
“I want outta here. That you can believe.”
“The door only opens out for someone from this world,” explained Mad Dog, “not for you. So you’ll need to get Magus out of Twin Towers.”
Mad Dog turned to Laurel. “And you need Faye.”
“She was tryin’ to lose me,” said Bandini, his gaze distant.
“Cause you let her go,” said Mad Dog, shaking his head.
“I didn’t,” exclaimed Bandini, his voice increasingly high-pitched. “I’d never. And I know I can’t keep her, but how’s she happy always running around. She’s got no place to call her own. Where does she go? I don’t know why she won’t give me a chance to make her happy. I’d give her everything.”
“Only one guy can give her everything,” said Mad Dog, gesturing with a nod of the head in the direction of the hills, “and he’s got a hold on her that don’t go away just ‘cause you got different ideas in that head o’ yours.”
“Maybe she doesn’t need anyone giving her what she wants,” noted Laurel. “Maybe she can figure that out herself.”
“Then why’s she keep going back to him?” demanded Bandini.
“Well, I’ll let you folks answer those questions yourselves,” said Mad Dog, his gaze to the flatlands below. “I got my own business to tend to, and something’s happening. It’s almost certain now, and I’m gonna be there when it happens.”
“We can go with you,” suggested Tyler, feeling uneasy at the prospect of losing Mad Dog’s timely assistance.
“You lot got no place where I’m goin’” he answered with a grin before setting off through the tall grass.
“You know where to find her,” yelled Bandini, leaping down an incline to keep pace with Mad Dog. “We need to find her. Hey you. Wait.”
If Laurel needed Faye to leave, then Bandini was right about finding Faye. Tyler turned to Faye, ready to help her climb down the ledge. He wasn’t expecting to see Murdoch standing behind her, a grin acknowledging Tyler’s surprise. Faye didn’t seem to notice as she got to her feet.
Tyler climbed the ledge, only to find Murdoch had vanished.
“There’s nothing you can take,” whispered Murdoch, “I won’t take back.”
Tyler spun around, Murdoch nowhere to be seen. Tyler never felt so helpless, the prospect of never leaving Two Cities alarmingly high. If there was a prison, it was the entire world, a dream that was proving to be a nightmare without end.