Answer the call...
Dani had lost count of the number of times she'd walked the dingy back hallways of the mall. She thought she knew every stain, each crack in the cheap tile floor, all of the exits and backdoors. Despite her supposed familiarity with the area, she had to admit it.
She was lost.
She’d taken the trash out after closing the bookshop, just like she always did. She must have taken a different turn when she came back inside from the dumpster. She would be the first to admit she wasn’t paying all that much attention to where she was going. After all these years, she didn’t think she had to.
The hallways behind the North Valley Mall all looked the same. That ugly linoleum seemed to persist throughout the employee entrance areas. No need to spend money on sections only lowly minimum-wage workers would see!
Dani was annoyed. She had a few more tasks to complete before she could leave for the night, and she didn’t want to spend more time than she had to at her workplace. She loved her job–she got to talk about books all day and her coworkers were quirky in that niche-nerd kind of way. Her manager accommodated her school schedule by letting her close during the week so she could attend classes in the morning. In fact, she had an early Geology class the following day, and she very much wanted to get some study and sleep time in before then.
She should have been able to simply turn around and go back the way she came, but she'd done so at least fifteen minutes ago and things were still not quite right.
In fact, they seemed markedly...wrong.
It wasn’t that she minded being in the mall alone–she loved coming in early when she opened on the weekends and during spring and summer breaks, before the crowds of patrons streamed in and ruined the peace of the empty spaces. At night, however, the hallways took on an eerie countenance, as though the living were no longer welcome amongst the sleeping objects and shadowed corners.
She came across a pay phone, which seemed even more unusual. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a functioning payphone. Stranger still, it began to ring as she passed.
She couldn’t quite explain it, but it sounded like it was ringing…backward. The echo came before the ring itself. She should have let it ring out–she had better things to do at that moment (like getting out of this place). Instead, she approached the phone, entranced. She picked up the receiver.
“Congratulations! You have won a fabulous trip to Poina Island!” chirped an overly-excited voice on the other end of the line.
“I’m sorry, who is this?” Dani asked as she felt her brow furrow (she had an exceedingly thorough furrow–so much so that strangers had often told her not to think so hard).
“My name is Molly, and I am offering whoever answers this phone call an all-expenses-paid trip to a tropical paradise! Would you be interested in something like that?”
“Well, of course I would, if this wasn’t clearly a scam,” Dani responded, voice dry as desert sand.
“Oh, this isn’t a scam, Dani. We’ve been looking for you!”
“Um…excuse me? How do you know my name?”
“Don’t worry about that! All you have to do is agree to our Terms and Conditions,” the woman said with a laugh in her voice.
“I’m hanging up now. Goodbye,” Dani slammed the receiver onto the cradle. Her hand was shaking, and something fluttered strangely in her stomach.
She looked up to find an exit sign she hadn’t noticed on the other side of the phone, and a door she’d somehow missed. She could loop around to the main mall entrance and finish up what she had to do at the store. She let out a nervous laugh as she pushed through the door.
Dani’s long, floral-print sundress flowed around her legs as she walked along the beach. She was so glad the phone call hadn’t been a scam after all–the company Molly had been calling from, Moe’uhane Vacations, had sent a letter to her house with all of the necessary information and reservations. It had been surprisingly easy to get time off of work, and the trip just so happened to occur during a break in her school schedule. Everything fell into place for her perfectly.
She gazed out at the shimmering crystal waters that surrounded Poina Island. The air was heavy with humidity–so different from the dry desert air she was accustomed to. The whole island took on a hazy, sepia-toned aura, as though she were walking through someone else’s memory. She closed her eyes and listened to the rhythmic lapping of the waves while she breathed in the salty-sweet air.
She slowly walked back to the hotel Moe’uhane Vacations had booked for her–which was more of a series of cabanas with one large building at the center they used for meals and events.
Molly, their host, was gathering the other contest winners together. They seemed to be the only guests at the hotel at the moment–in fact, they were the only people on the tiny island, aside from the hotel staff. Dani wondered if this was an event the company coordinated during the off-season. She was also pretty sure Molly was the same person she’d originally spoken to on the phone, which seemed a little strange but she figured Moe’uhane was possibly a smaller company where folks had to wear many hats. Besides, Molly got a free vacation out of it, which seemed like a nice perk!
“Hello, everyone, and welcome to the beautiful Hali’a Hotel! I hope you’re all settling in nicely!” Molly chirped from a small platform that served as an outdoor stage. She was a petite woman with curly ginger hair and large green eyes. “I wanted to give you all time to get to know each other before we serve dinner. When I ring this bell, I want you to find a partner and tell each other your names, where you're from, and an interesting fact about yourself. And, GO!”
Dani shuddered internally as Molly rang the bell. Meet-and-greets were her worst nightmare, and she suddenly regretted all of her life decisions.
“Hi!” A gorgeous woman with tanned skin, long, dark hair, and dark brown eyes was standing in front of Dani with a dazzling smile across her face, “My name is Ayla, I’m from Newark, New Jersey, and I play lacrosse!”
Dani’s stomach did a flip-flop as she tried to think of an ‘interesting fact’ about her totally banal life. She was also struggling to remember her own name as she stared into Ayla’s umber eyes.
“Um, I’m Dani, I’m from Phoenix, Arizona, and I work at a bookstore,” she finally managed to spit out.
“Oh, that’s so cool! I bet you get to read so many books! What’s your favorite?”
“Yeah, I guess it’s cool…uh, favorite book is a pretty big question, but Lord of the Rings is close to my heart.”
“I LOVE Lord of the Rings! I read the whole series when I was a kid!” Ayla’s eyes sparkled as she spoke.
“Me, too! I’ve read it a couple of times, it’s my comfort book!” Dani responded. She couldn’t believe how well the conversation was going.
Dani jumped as Molly’s bell cut through the din of chatter.
“All right, everyone! Find your next partner!” Molly piped. In that moment, Dani imagined doing horrible things to Molly with that bell.
“Great talking to you! See you around!” Ayla waved as she moved on to the next person. Dani waved back, trying not to show her crushing disappointment.
“Hello,” a person stood in front of Dani. For the life of her, Dani could not figure out the person’s gender. They had short-cropped hair dyed a dark blue, grey-blue eyes, and wore a loose-fitting Hawiian-style shirt. They had a completely androgynous look about them. Dani was surprised at how envious she was of them.
“I’m Nye. I’m from Denver, Colorado, and I’m a writer.”
“Hi, Nye! My name is Dani, I’m from Phoenix, and I work at a bookstore.”
“Is that all?” Nye asked–not in a rude way, but more out of curiosity.
“Wha…what do you mean?” Dani asked, taken aback.
“Is that all you are? Your profession? I don’t think it is. That’s what you do for other people. Why?”
“Why what?” Dani replied, not liking this conversation one bit.
“Why do you work at a bookstore?” Nye replied.
“Well…I love to read….” Dani said before she trailed off, contemplating.
“Why do you love to read?” Nye probed.
“Because…because reading takes you to another world. When I read something that’s written really well, I can picture everything in my head–the world, the characters, how they sound. I forget who I am for a moment and I can just be part of the fantasy. That’s why I, um…”
“Why what?” Nye said with an intense look on their face.
“Why I wanted to be a writer. I want to give that experience to other people,” Dani looked down, embarrassed that she was sharing so much information with a stranger, “But…”
“But what?” Nye was not letting her off the hook.
“I could never finish anything. I always get too distracted, or I get stuck on a part, and I give up. I’m way too easily discouraged to be a writer.”
“No, you’re not,” Nye said, firmly.
“I’m…sorry?” Dani replied.
“Don’t apologize. You are…you could be a very good writer. You just have to make a plan for yourself and stick to it. Start small and set goals.”
“How would you know?” Dani asked.
“Because that’s what I did,” Nye replied.
Molly’s bell came as a relief to Dani this time. She didn’t say goodbye to Nye, she simply turned to find the next new face.
Dani tried to relax as she stared up at the romantic mosquito-net canopy draped around her bed. Her skin was still warm from her long, luxurious shower, and her belly was pleasantly full from the incredible dinner she'd enjoyed. She was kicking herself as she analyzed the conversation she’d had with Ayla–she should have asked her more questions about herself, whether or not she was in school, what she did for work, what in the world ‘lacrosse’ was. She was pretty sure it was a sport…or maybe a form of knitting? No, probably a sport. Dani had tried to build up the courage to talk to Ayla during dinner, but as usual, she'd chickened out. The conversation with Nye was still bothering her as well. What was their deal, anyway? They had asked too many questions and seemed to be looking for specific answers.
There was a knock at the door, and Dani wrapped a robe around herself before answering. Nye was standing in the doorway, almost as though they’d heard Dani’s thoughts.
“Hey. I know I was a little…intense earlier,” they said.
“No, it’s okay, I’m sorry I didn’t ask you more questions,” Dani said with a laugh.
“It’s not okay, and stop apologizing,” Nye said, gently, “May I come in?”
“Uh…sure,” Dani said, even though she was not sure at all.
“Thank you,” Nye said as they stepped inside, “You don’t have to agree to things that make you uncomfortable, but I appreciate it.”
“I’m sorry but…can I ask you a personal question?”
“Of course!” Nye laughed, “I’ve already asked you plenty of personal questions!”
“Are you…are you a man or a woman?”
“Neither. I’m non-binary,” Nye answered.
“OH! That’s awesome,” Dani said, then cringed at herself. Nye was thankfully unbothered.
“I know, you never realized that was an option,” Nye said, smiling.
“I…guess not,” Dani replied, “How…why do you seem to know me?”
“Look, I really need to tell you some things,” Nye said, suddenly serious.
“Oh, okay, what’s that?”
“Three things, actually. First, don't live for other people,” Nye said, holding up one finger.
“Alright…” Dani said, puzzled.
“Two, you have the right to feel joy,” Nye held up their second finger.
“Three, your family will still love you when they know the truth,” Nye put their hand down.
“How…” The air grew thick and Dani struggled to breathe. Her face was wet, and she realized she was crying, “How would you know?”
“Because I’m you, twenty years from now,” Nye replied.
“Is this a joke?” Dani asked as she angrily wiped tears away.
“No. This island is separated from the stream of time. The things I am telling you now are the things I wish I’d known sooner. I can’t tell you how we got here–those are things you’ll have to figure out, eventually.”
“So what, you traveled back in time just to tell me to be happy?”
“Yes. Dani, I...we wasted so much time being miserable and lying to everyone around us about who we really are. We bent over backward because we didn’t think we deserved to be ourselves. I promise they will still love you when they know you’re queer.”
“I…I don’t understand…” Dani squeaked, then began to sob.
“I know you don’t,” Nye said, and wrapped their arms around Dani, “Try to, anyway. We can live a better life.”
Dani flinched. Touching Nye felt like the tingling pins-and-needles sensation of a waking limb. She was at once comforted by Nye’s embrace and yet repulsed, overcome with the feeling that the two of them should not be in the same place. Nye let go and stepped back, holding Dani at arm’s length with that same tingling touch.
“I have to go. Please remember what I’ve said,” Nye said, and Dani sagged as they let go of her shoulders. They turned abruptly and walked out the door, closing it firmly behind them.
Dani had about a billion questions. She rushed to the door and yanked it open…
…only to be hit in the face with a glaring flare of fluorescent lights. She was once again in the dull back hallway of the mall, and she barely caught herself from running face-first into the whitewashed brick wall. She turned around to see the open door of a janitor’s supply closet.
“But…what…was that?” She was in the same unfamiliar hallway, but the payphone and exit sign were gone. The heavy odor of bleach and lemon-scented cleaning supplies almost made her wretch. She braced herself against the cold, hard brick.
It had all seemed so real…and yet, not real. What had Nye told her? The island was separate from the stream of time. How could did that work, though? Had she hallucinated the whole thing? She'd felt the warm, wet sand between her toes, tasted the delicate flavors of the dinner they'd served, smelled the briny sea...
She drove home in a daze. As she got out of her car, she caught her reflection and recognized her eyes were the same cool gray-blue as Nye's. The lights were still on in her house, and she found her mom doing dishes in the kitchen. Her stomach clenched as Nye's words echoed in her head.
"Hey, Mom. Can I talk to you?"
"Oh hey, honey. Of course," her mom said, leaving the rest of the dishes in the sink to join Dani at the kitchen table.
Dani hesitated, her chest tightening. What if Nye was wrong? What if her mother disowned her or never wanted to speak to her again? She choked as her vision blurred.
"Sweetheart, what is it? You know you can tell me anything. I will love you no matter what."
The tears Dani had tried to hold back slipped down her face. She closed her eyes and heard waves, and an encouraging voice.
She took a breath…
About the Creator
She/They. Writer. Gardener. Cat-Lover. Nerd. Always looking up at the sky or down at the ground.
Profile photo by Román Anaya (https://www.roman-anaya.com/).
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Oh, I did not see that coming! This held my interest from start to finish, very nice work.
Engaging storytelling! I completely didn't expect the twist when Nye revealed themselves; and I found it very moving. Thanks so much for bringing this to our community, Bex.
Congrats on the top story
Damn impressive piece...and I need to take a breath... 😔
What a wonderful story. Oh, to have to power to have met ourselves from the future. Well done.
Such a great and engaging story! Very relatable!