I walked too far in the desert one night and got lost. I came to a house in a dark patch of something else and walked closer, to its huge black gate surrounding a steel patio. It was enormous, woody, stony. I gripped the gates to get a better look and was whisked inside.
I was inside the gate, and then I was on the cold, springy steel ground, and then I was inside the house. No one was there. The exit wasn’t there.
A small old woman appeared. “Welcome,” she said.
I didn’t answer.
“This is where you live now,” she said.
I studied her face. Gray hair, softness, few wrinkles.
“You’ll be here for all eternity. We’ll take you to get your things in a few days. We’ll provide everything else. Welcome.”
She pointed me down a corridor to an empty room. I went in and locked the door. I spent the night pressed against the door, listening to people sleeping beyond me. In the morning I heard voices, showers running. There were smells of breakfast, jam and tea and butter.
After three days, Nadine arrived. The door opened and pushed against me, and I fell out of the way as someone walked in. I hadn’t sat down in days.
“Are you here, too?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
She touched the underside of my arm with one finger, like testing bread dough. “They are taking us to the store today,” she said. “The woman told me. She said we would go together.”
My clothing was stiff from days of standing. There was sand in my shoes. I poured it into a pile in the corner.
* * *
The store was on a small road in a small town. The road was not a road, the town no town. Stars in the sunny sky looked over the edges of clouds.
We went down every aisle, twice. What you take now is all you’ll get for eternity. They’ll refill, but you have to think of everything you’ll need. Chocolate-covered pretzels, chips, a blanket. Soap and shampoo. Nail polish, many colors, since you don’t know what you’ll feel like hundreds of years from now. Thread of all colors. We kept trying to shop in the normal way (you don’t need conditioner, too, you can get it next week) and then remembering there’s no next week, or every week is next week, and you might want conditioner one of those days. You can’t imagine how long forever is.
Back at the house, we filled in the blank shelves with our purchases. Nadine helped me lift the desert sand into a plastic bag. She scooped up the grains and brushed them off her fingers.
* * *
That night the owner told us: “There’s a huge blackness out there. There are tiny boxes made of light, and if you leave here you’ll sit in one, in the blackness, forever.”
“Will we be alive?” I asked her.
“I don’t know. I’ve never done it.”
“And will I know anyone there? Will I be next to the others who have left?”
“I don’t know.” She said: not stars. Boxes. You were not a piece of light that people would look up at, you were just a shell made of air. It is colder up there, your shampoo is never refilled, you don’t get snacks snuck from the kitchen, you don’t have a bed, there’s nowhere to go from there. You are there forever, in almost the same way that you are here forever but more.
* * *
Nadine and I would sit in our room together at night and look at the floor. We tried not to cry because it might never stop and who knew if there was enough water in that place to make up for it. Weeks in, when we’d started looking at each other, she said, “We have to make it our home.”
I said, “That’s like dying.”
She said, “Then we are already dead. We have to live with it.”
I put my head under the pillows, but in the morning we walked to breakfast together and then I brought her outside to the patio to cut some flowers for our room.
* * *
A month passed. We began to refer to our room as home. We began to talk about things other than the house, about ourselves. Nothing about what we wanted later in life; that wasn’t part of who you were. There was only what you are, and what you’re thinking.
A year passed. New people came in, and we felt older. Our shampoo bottles refilled and refilled. We had been there so long that there was no difference between us and the people who had come before us. They had been there a hundred years, or two hundred, or a thousand, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was the resewing of the sheets; the fruitless plants growing on the steel patio; the curliness of Nadine’s hair.
We got used to living together. My ears adapted to her snoring and stopped hearing it, I could be by myself when she was there, and we agreed that this part had turned out all right, even though we hadn’t chosen it. We never, ever talked about what we would have chosen. Her smell, of the soap she had chosen that day, would never change. Five years passed.
* * *
One day at breakfast a new person asked: “Where did the gate come from?”
No one understood.
She repeated: “Where did it come from? How did this gate get here, outside of which there is nothing? How would you invent a place that is here forever? Can we ever die?” This was before the suicide attempts started, and then before they stopped. “Why would this place bother to be invented?” she continued, “by who, how? Where are we?”
No one answered, everyone uncomfortable and trying to continue eating their oatmeal, passing the raspberry jam and extra milk. Someone finally said: “Once upon a time there was a very, very small point, and then something mysterious happened and it started expanding very, very fast—” Everyone laughed except the one who had asked, and we moved on.
She came to Nadine’s and my room a few days later and said, “Look, you’re newish, you can’t have gone crazy yet, tell me what this place is.”
Nadine and I looked at each other. “None of us understands your question,” Nadine said.
The girl looked upset and turned to leave. I said, “You didn’t ask what the rest of the world is. This is just a piece of it.”
“Is it true that the stars are forever?” she asked as she walked out.
“Probably,” we said. No one knew. There was no way to find out.
“I’ll try to tell you,” she said, “even though you haven’t helped at all.”
We heard a clang and looked out the window to find her climbing between the bars; there was a yellow light and she vanished. It didn’t look unpleasant. She would flash us Morse code, but we had forgotten all about her by the time the letters started coming in, a long time later.
* * *
Ten years passed. A hundred years passed. We all traded belongings with each other, mixed to create new scents, sewed and resewed each other’s clothing. In the spring there were seeds for sale at the store and if you could get to the newcomers in time, you could ask them to check. Now we had rows of plants at every window and outside, and the seed packets refilled, if you remembered not to throw them out.
There were always new people, and the same old people. They came in slowly, so it never filled up; there was the occasional accident, and once an actual murder, someone shoving someone else outside; either way, it wasn’t crowded and there was always something new to see. The new people told us about the world, what the temperature was and who had gone into space, the scandals about people we had never heard of.
Nadine and I pushed our beds together into the center of the room, moved them to opposite sides, moved them back. We ran out of each other, then made room. Two hundred years passed. Five hundred years passed. Some people decided to go up, and left. The stars moved now, or the things among them. Old plants lived among and grew out of the wires in the house. Change was so slow and time so long that no one noticed. We were trapped, but also home. Life went on for a very long time.
* * *
Life went on forever. The new people coming in had extra limbs or were computers; they could jump extremely high, understand physics, calculate using prime numbers. It was strange that they ever got lost, or we were so well hidden that you might get lost without getting lost.
* * *
We were all sitting in the living room after dinner, as usual. There was a crash: a new person, the first in a long time. Some of us jumped. Nadine and I, holding hands, waited to see who it would be.
The newcomer rushed in, looking terrified. “It’s all right!” they yelled. “I’m a time machine.”
“What?” everyone asked at the same time, even the more recent people. Nadine huddled into me.
“We’ve figured out time travel,” they said quickly, “it was easy once we understood the secrets of the universe, it’s simple, that wave and river stuff. I can get you out of here. Don’t worry.”
Someone thrust a pillowcase over the newcomer’s head; others started running out of the room. Everyone was yelling at the newcomer to stop, but they couldn’t understand; they only knew they were in an iron cage that had dissolved the rest of us. They started spinning. The whole house crackled with black lightning.
“Stop,” we yelled again, and again, and again, but the house was changing. “How far should I go?” the time machine asked as plants shrank and died. “You, how long have you been here?” he asked me.
“I don’t know, hardly any time, really, please stop,” I said, and started screaming and screaming. The couch moved across the floor, to where it had been years ago. Crumbs appeared and turned into bread and vanished, juice stains evaporated. People began leaving.
We crept behind the couch, holding on to each other in the dark but blinking light. Nadine whispered, I lived in—but she had forgotten. I lived in a room with you my whole long life, and you were my country, your hairs my flora and fauna, your shampoo my climate, your skin my earth. The stars, the stars. Come find me in our home, she said as everyone around us vanished.
The woman who had turned into the star appeared. She knew she didn’t have long. She yelled, “BEING A STAR IS A BEAUTIFUL HELL. IT IS COLD AND OCEANIC, AND THERE IS NEVER ENOUGH TO EAT. IT IS A WARM, GLORIOUS DEATH,” and she ran to the edge of the property and jumped out, then appeared again, before she had time to get back to her old heights. She climbed out and held on to the iron gates from outside, waiting until the last moment to catch that gap between moving backward and forward.
I think she made it. I don’t know. I was holding on to someone, and then I was walking in the desert alone and feeling a terrible, crushing despair. There was a smell of soap scented of blackberries and cucumber. I went to the drugstore on the way home and smelled all the different soaps until I found it, and bought several bottles. I used it for the next few years, if not longer, and it reminded me of something nice, though I didn’t know what. It smelled like home.
Julie A. Hersh is a writer living in New York. She has lived in four countries (most of them post-Soviet) in the past three years. Her writing has appeared in journals including Gone Lawn, Syntax and Salt, and Menacing Hedge. She can be found at julieahersh.wordpress.com and on Twitter at @jahersh.