Double Rainbow [Part 2]
Second part of Double Rainbow, a short story of love and transcendence.
The day he’d woken to find the space beside him empty and cold, and an impossible encounter with an otherworldly man, had been long. There was five days left in Stockholm at that point, and while Elise and he had already wandered the medieval alleys, visited the suburbs and marinas, and had even taken a train farther east to see Norway, there was still an endless amount of places to visit. Jack drove himself to pull on pants, a shirt, and warm outerwear to meet the blustery days and walk the circuit around the docks. Hundreds of boats were moored in the harbor, depicting a maritime history that made his mind spiral with images of raging waves, adventure, and drumbeats. It had been enough to distract him, but time and again he’d look over his shoulder, hoping to find Elise there with a camera raised, ready to shoot. Elise loved candid photography, loved capturing him unaware and wide-eyed.
Jack quavered. From where he stood on a stone knoll, he could see across the gentle water to the outskirts of Stockholm, beyond a dormant amusement park, to boats that were returning from the sea near Finland. The sky was a dark gray farther out, as if a storm was looming on the horizon. Nothing in the weather forecast had mentioned rain or thunder. He wondered what Elise would say if she was standing beside him on that slope right then. Reaching into the back pocket of his jeans, he pulled out Elise’s phone. The model was lighter than his own and emphasized photography over gaming—the exact opposite of his own smartphone.
The phone unlocked with the first PIN he tried. Having watched Elise make the same pattern for three years, figuring out the four-digit combination was easy. Jack’s hands trembled with worry. And excitement. He’d been shown the phone sometimes, but he’d never had the audacity to rifle through Elise’s possessions or give her reason not to trust him with her private matters and inner world. Taking a seat on the chilling earth, Jack held the phone between his two hands and started to access various apps.
The emails synced to the phone were nothing but pragmatic business exchanges and booking confirmations. Saved contacts were limited to Jack, a handful of friends, a supervisor, and two coworkers. He closed out of that, then moved onto the text messages. Most conversations were between them. In the beginning, questions had been sent to and fro like a volleyball, letting them set up more intricate topics for discussion or spiking straight to the answer. Then, those questions evolved into stories, jibes, and plans. Jack wiped his eyes as tears welled and itched to run free.
Next, he moved to the Notes. Elise was a zealous writer, someone who jotted down details about everything she saw or thought about, because she didn’t want to forget anything. So when Jack counted hundreds of saved notes on her phone, he wasn’t even the slightest bit surprised. What sent ripples of astonishment through his body was finding out that most of the notes were about him. He scrolled up and down the notes before returning to the most recent entry. For a second, he wavered between making the selection and dropping the phone into the water. He wasn’t entirely sure reading her message was a good idea. Now or never, he told himself. Sucking in a breath, Jack pressed a finger against the note to open it.Jack, my treasure, if you’re reading this, it means I’ve woken up. I miss you already. I don’t know how much time will have passed before you find this, but I promise you that I’ve thought of you every single day. I know that one day you’ll be here with me. Though I can’t tell you how to wake up, I did leave clues for you to figure it out. There are rules dictating what we can and cannot tell you, but I know that you’re almost there, Jack. Your eyes are almost open. Be strong, my love. Follow the clues. Seek the truth. We’ll see one another again. I promise you. P.S. I apologize for Isaac. He’s an asshole, but he means well and is on your side. Trust his counsel.Jack blew air from his nose at the last bit, but his heart was racing, and his head ached from reading the first paragraph. Both Elise and Isaac told him that he was almost there, but he had no way of knowing what they meant. Not yet. Tipping his head back, Jack eyed the seething clouds, the way the grays merged violently with white and black, dimming the daylight to cast the world beneath in a solemn hue. Everything he had considered real was becoming more distorted and skewed. If he continued on this path, reality was eventually going to splinter into a million pieces.
But he wanted to know the truth.
Jack relocated to a cafe to get out of the ferocious rainstorm that drowned the city. As a deluge battered the window, he read the notes Elise had recorded. Sometimes, he would look out the window to the old stone buildings, the bobbing ships in the water, and the shuddering leafless trees, thankful that he was in such an amazing city. Here, he could concentrate on Elise and know that she had once existed here. Looking back to the phone, he filled his mind with keywords and snippets pertaining to transcendence, illusion, altered states of consciousness, nine dimensions, and what it means to be awake and alive. She spoke in riddles about how humanity dwelled with a veil of falsities over its eyes.
About the time Jack had combed through everything on Elise’s phone, he’d long boarded the plane back to the States and returned to their apartment. Normal life was flat and uneventful without Elise to vivify it, but he did have a collection of notepads, sketchbooks, photo albums, and much more to remember her by. Every event she’d lived through, the challenges she’d surmounted, were recorded in dozens of creative ways, from paintings to poetry, song lyrics and short stories. He consumed them all, ravenous to comprehend the world through her unique lenses. Once in a while, Jack would look to the clock after pouring his soul into decoding clues to find an entire day had passed him by.
This world is not the worldIt is but a cageInto which humanity was hurledFor our uncontrollable hatred and rage.Our eyes are glued shut with ignoranceAnd greed.Blinded, we no longer dance,We only bleed and pray to be freed,To wake on the other side of the jail cellBut with only one person no ship can sail.
Massaging his temples, Jack signed then rested his forehead against the pages. There were times in his life when reality seemed glitched. Out of the corner of his eye, he’d see shimmering, as if the fabric of truth was unraveling, or there would be movements in the shadows, and when he glanced up, everything would be as it should be. He frequently had feelings of déjà vu. The sensation that something was hovering above him, around him, clinging to his presence and muttering musings in his ears was unrelenting. Jack rubbed the back of his neck as the hairs on the nape rose. Glancing down his arms, he saw the goosebumps. Something cool caressed the side of his face.
Pushing out of his chair, Jack jerked to stand and whipped his head towards the aghast reflection in the mirror hanging on the wall. His eyes were enlarged with terror yet sunken from lack of sleep. His skin was translucent, pallid. Strands of hair hung limply around his angular face, adding to the gauntness of his features. Shaking his head, he chuckled at himself, at his crazy imagination, and at the discontent unwinding within his chest. He didn’t stop laughing until his jaw ached and his neck stiffened. Even then, he had trouble controlling his dry amusement.
“I’m an idiot,” he grumbled while running a hand through his greasy hair. He needed a shower. Desperately. “Can’t see the forest through the trees.”
An invisible thread connecting his brain to his heart was tugged, sparking a moment of intuition. Hurriedly, Jack dove back into a stack of papers he’d written out to seek out a connection between themes and experiences. Elise had been a prolific traveler before they met. One of her goals in life was to see the entire world thrice over. It had gotten to the point where she ordered extra-large passports to hold all the visas and stamps she collected. Elise had gone places in the world that Jack never thought existed. She witnessed magic—and she wrote about those inconsistencies or idiosyncrasies readily.
There was an entry from five years ago during a stint in Thailand: In some places where time moves more slowly, you will see cracks in the street that bleed colors like stained glass when you don’t look directly at them. I often wonder if you could fall through these cracks if you don’t tread carefully. And where would you end up if you did fall through?
Jack recognized this observation as one of his own.
Sometimes, I wonder if time exists at all. Today, I hiked into the middle of the mountains while following the Aare. I thought I was gone an entire day, but when I looked at the clock, only an hour had passed. How does one walk several miles in an hour?
Looking to the digital clock on his desk with its blaring blue numbers, Jack scratched down the time—12:34—onto the corner of his records. He then flipped through more bulleted lines, sometimes returning to time he’d written down, and told himself that this was a relative moment. Everything he was experiencing could either happen in a blink or over a lifetime. There was only now, and that was 12:34. Jack fought the urge to look at the clock. Instead, he contemplated the routes Elise had taken during her travels, marveling at the accounts about journeys he’d never know she’d taken.
Today marks the sixth month on the road. If it wasn’t for others telling me the date and time, I might have assumed that the day I left was today. The world is vast, but life only changes if I want it to change.
Reading entries about getting lost in the wilds of Mongolia with a nomad group or traversing the jungles of Singapore and Malaysia swept away his awareness of time. Yet, it should have taken much longer than what the clock displayed. Jack saw the time lazily change to 12:36.
“Looks like you’re starting to realize the nature of the cage,” said a familiar voice from behind.
Jack restrained himself enough to avoid launching a book out the window. Clenching his hands, he suppressed the fear and adrenaline now coursing through his bloodstream and shot a vitriolic grimace towards the arrival. “I really wish you wouldn’t do that.”
“My apologies,” said Isaac, holding up his hands in mock surrender. “Tell me what you’ve learned.”
Positioning himself on the chair, Jack grasped the arms and leaned back as far as he could. A month or so had gone by, but Isaac looked exactly the same, save for a navy suit instead of a white one. The pulsating glow beneath his skin was as intriguing as ever. Seeing a human with luminescent veins was evidence in Jack’s hypothesis—that this world was not the real world; but even if the truth could have spit on his face right then, his brain denied anything but what was visible. His throat went dry with doubt the instant he thought to vocalize his findings.
“No need to be so nervous,” Isaac laughed. If that was meant to be comforting, Jack had some news for him.
“I’m not.” Honestly, his heart was battering his rib cage, and his palms were sweating.
Raising a single slim brow, Isaac made the throaty sound of incredulity, but said nothing otherwise. Jack sat in silence while the man in the navy suit moved about the study. The place had never been much to him. It was Elise who spent much of her free time among thousands of books, graphic novels, figurines, and other knickknacks, all of which had a coating of dust these days. She was the one who tinkered with a rainbow-colored Newton’s Cradle for hours, then would sprawl out on a plushy throw rug with a pile of books or a sketchbook.
Finally, Jack opened his mouth to utter, “None of this is real, is it? We’re just playing a game called Reality, and those who win get to wake up from the nightmare.”
“Oh? How would define ‘real,’ then?” asked Isaac as he picked a book from one of the many shelves. Though the title was partially hidden by the man’s fingers, Jack could make out something about parallel worlds on the spine.
“I always thought real was what I could sense, what I could touch, taste, smell, and see, but I’m not sure anymore,” Jack said, growing dubious of his own revelations. It sounded stupid once he said it aloud, but maybe that was something built into the system to keep him in check.
Isaac returned with the same skeptical tone: “So then you would say that everything you have experienced up to this point has been fake?”
They stared at one another for a moment, brown eyes meeting blue ones until Jack blinked and looked away. Yet, he came away from that staring match with an epiphany.
“Just because Reality is game, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from it,” he said, voice growing faint at the end. But what was the lesson humanity had to learn?
Elise had talked about it often. People, she thought, woke up when they realized that compassion and love was at the root of everything, rather than loathing and wanting. You can dance alone, but it’s always more fun with a partner—just like love and life, Elise had written in one of her journals.
His sharp intake of breath mimicked a scream. “Holy shit.”
At that, Isaac laughed again, wryly. Putting down the book about parallel worlds, the man approached the Newton’s Cradle then pulled one of the baubles back and released it, so the ball could crash into the waiting line. The rhythmic click-clack of the orbs bouncing left and right and back again filled the space, reminding Jack of a metronome. Somehow, the patterned clicking entered his mind, bringing his breathing and heartbeat into the same cadence as the Newton’s Cradle. The longer he listened to it, the slower the beat. Other sounds were reduced to an inconsequential hum in the background. He felt like he was swing on a trapeze between consciousness and unconsciousness, logic and irrationality. The truth was on the tip of his tongue, there the one answer he wanted was still lost in the amorphous unknown. Where had Elise gone?
“What would Elise do? Where would she go?” mused Isaac, as if reading Jack’s mind.
There was nothing Elise wouldn’t do, except hurt someone else if it could be avoided. She was a free-spirited, rugged life, unfettered by societal standards and norms. If you asked her about herself, she would defiantly quote Emily Dickinson. Granted, this habit didn’t make her many friends, but those who knew her loved her, and they were often just as eccentric and open-minded. None of them had settled. None of them lived ordinary lives. With renewed vigor, Jack opened another journal, one dedicated to travel. The quest yielded several sheets of paper about Elise’s friends and acquaintances scattered about the globe.
He needed to meet these people and learn their secrets, even if it took him a lifetime.
There was one particular journal entry that gripped Jack:
…They say life began with a bang. A tremendous, reality-shattering bang that jump-started existence and accelerated the formation of galaxies. The bang exploded outward to fill up empty space, expanding out in every direction and dimension, summoning up elements, the flow of time, and souls. Then, the elements collapsed and condensed over a course of billions of years. As the planets orbited the sun, eyes opened and closed, and minds started to wonder how it all came to be and why we exist. If we are truly the amalgamation of star-stuff, why is it that we fear the nothingness from which we came? What is our destiny?
Jack lifted another yellowed sheet of parchment to look a collection of loose-leafed notes and Polaroids underneath. The photographs in the box were what put the spur in his sides to retrace Elise’s tracks around the world. The images were beguiling, abstract, and poignant. Every photo revealed a facet of this life that he’d never thought about. Some Polaroids were windows to landscapes, like vines in the canopies of a jungle or the snowy reaches of distant mountains. Some featured individuals with their backs turned away from the camera, hiding their features and making them less important than the natural beauty of the land. Others were of food, often blurred from the steam coating the lens, and there was usually several people reaching into the picture to grab a morsel before the food went cold.
There were swirls of dust riding the wind, birds taking to wing as children on bikes or skateboards entered the flock, the glint of the sunlight on rippling rivers and lakes frozen in time. There were angled snapshots of crenelated posterns in Europe and zoomed in frames of ivy working into the cracks in ruined rock on Asian temples. There were so many pictures. It was as if Elise had lived dozens of lives all at once.
Soon, Jack had collected enough plane tickets to rival the number of pictures Elise had kept. He strapped on a backpack and ventured out into reality to connect with everyone and everything. Though her footprints didn’t physically remain, her energy did. It guided him to distant lands blanketed in shamanistic mist, where he shook hands with enlightened gurus that gave him funny looks. They would cock their heads, gazing deep into his soul, and then they would grin ear-to-ear. He joined assemblies of strangers in humid marketplaces and quayside bars, losing himself to the vibration of music resonating up from underground clubs, and he trained his ears to the tales these strangers wove. The feats of his fellow humans, their experiences, passions, and dreams left him feeling inspired. Every night that he stood outside with his eyes upon the moon and stars, he felt his soul becoming lighter, more expansive, and more understanding. He started to drift into the less traveled lands, going solo up mountainsides and along sloping roads. Eventually, he reached heights that stole his breath away.
Though he had needed to leave Elise’s journals and books behind in storage, he carried her essence within his mind and heart. He sometimes recalled her writing to transition into another perspective, and that unlocked new opinions on the human condition. Jack finally learned what it meant to be free in the way she’d been free. Without restrictions or suffering, he was able to find himself at the final destination in his journey. There was a single photograph of hers that had traveled the world with him.
He removed this photograph from the back pocket of his pants and held it up to the horizon line that was ablaze in the early dawn. The air was a frigid blade against his throat, but his hot breath rose and whorled up towards the celestial realm. The picture was of this very curvature of the world, depicting the first rays of light piercing through the clouds and highlighting the swaths of condensation shrouding the peaks of low-lying mountains. Jack inhaled as the sun started to beam brighter, drawing in the light that languidly stretched for the stars and chased away his shadow. Though the brightness brought tears to his eyes, it wasn’t the sole reason he cried.
He was seeing everything in absolute wonder and knew that this was how life was meant to be.
The crack formed gradually, at first. The hairline opening was there between the sun and the earth and faltered. Jack knew that he was much like that impossible fissure—so insignificant in size yet unpredictable in power. Just as a small crack could shift a mountain, he could change the tide of fate if he so tried. He could ignore the thin line and just take in the sunrise, or he could lose himself to the supposition that if he leaped into that abyss, he would be transformed. Would he continue to fall forevermore through oblivion?
Is it the promise of the fall that helps you fly?
Jack pocketed the photograph then steeled himself with an inhale. The time was now. As the sun rose higher, shifting from reddish hues to a lighter shade of orange, the gap in reality would close. That’s when two rings flared. A double rainbow.
He took flight.
The sliver shuddered as he plummeted, and the sky flickered between daylight and night. Air rushed around his ears, pulled at his clothing. He tumbled, never sure what was up or down or left or right. The ground spiraled around him, and the clouds cascaded towards the earth like soap suds rushed down the bathtub drain. Those double rainbows aligned beneath him. Jack passed through the spectrum, watching as the gap widened slightly to meet his flight. Then it swallowed him in one fell gulp.
The darkness was immediate. Crushing. The jaws of some fierce beast had closed down around him, he was sure of it. Jack tried to right himself, but there was no ground, no walls. Nothing.
Jack reached outward. This wasn’t the end. This was the beginning. Before the big bang, there was nothingness, and nothingness doesn’t necessarily mean emptiness. He thought about the journey. Growing, changing, transmuting from fool’s gold into something more. Everything he saw and the souls he had encountered had built him up to this moment. Jack spread his arms wide and let out an exhilarated shout.
Suddenly, there was light shining into his eyes, and though he squinted and tried to bring his hands forward to protect himself, the light blinded him more. Jack’s breath caught. The veins on his wrist were glowing. The blue-white luminescence crept through the tips of his fingers and up his arms, branching out like the capillaries in his lungs or the fractals found among the trees. The light strengthened, radiating out of his chest, where most of a pearlescent glow had accrued around his heart and lungs, before the glow continued to spread up his throat. He could feel a strange, familiar warmth crawling beneath his skin, ensconcing him in a sensation of utmost contentment and satisfaction. A relaxed exhale parted his lips, and he stopped struggling to extricate himself from the blackness. For a time, he floated on the unseen tide, listening to the muffled noises that passed through the space.
“Jack, can you hear me?”
The voice was tinny at first, needling his eardrums. Shivering, Jack tried to turn onto his side, but something had restrained his arms. It felt like there was a wad of cotton stuffed into his mouth and dehydrating his numbed tongue. The lids of his eyes were dense, pushing unpleasantly against his eyes. He tried to open his mouth, to swallow, to do something, but his body wasn’t responding.
“Give him a moment,” said another, much more brusque than the last.
Jack tried to vocalize, but all he could manage was a low grumble. If I could just move my fingers or jerk my foot…
Suddenly, his fingers did twitch against his side. His celebration was a silent one, but the people one either side of him made shocked sounds, and the first to speak clasped their hands around his fingers. Something warm struck the top of his hand then slid off. Tears.
“Jack, you did it. You woke up.”
Memories started to flood into his throbbing skull, amplifying the intensity of his headache, but he wouldn’t call it unpleasant. The things that his mind was reliving, the sweet moments of two lovers, the thrill of their meeting amid a double rainbow, the kind exchanges over the phone, all came back so swiftly that it nearly stopped his heart. He felt his mouth pull into a smile. His heart rate hastened. Then, with great earnest, his eyelids started to open. What started as a sliver of light pouring through to a spectrum glinting off the prismatic earrings hanging from her perfect earlobes, the world gradually opened up to him once again.
The room was much like a hospital, but different somehow. There were computer monitors on the wall, orbiting holographic galaxies, the beeping and whirring of mechanical assistants, and a programmer, Isaac, in the background by a computer with sweat on his brow. This was the real world. But even as curiosity kneaded at his chest, all he saw was Elise, glowing radiantly like the sun, the moon, and all the other stars in existence.
It felt like he was seeing and breathing for the first time in his life.