In this universe, the last time we talk is when I return the basketball I borrowed from you. We are seventeen. We’ve known each other for seven years. We’ve vivisected each other all through high school, intent on playing games of cruelties and making up, because it’s how wild animals play and we are nothing if not savages in denim and sneakers. We are always friends and always enemies, though on this day probably more friends than anything. You’d think we’d kiss this once, to seal a parting.
We never kiss. I wave goodbye and you move away.
You become an artist and I see photos of your work on the Internet.
You never send the postcard you promised.
We fight the undead with machetes and rifles. You’re bitten when we’re hiding in an abandoned supermarket. David, who studied medicine in this universe instead of dropping out of school, amputates the hand.
I wipe the sweat off your forehead, but you are very weak and gangrene is setting in. I cut your throat because we can’t afford to shoot the rifle. We abandon your corpse to the zombies.
In New Aztlan, you are a priest of Tlaloc, responsible for making the crops flourish. You place offerings of jade and shells before the shrine of the deity and offer sacrifices. When we happen to walk by each other, in the tlatoani’s palace, your eyes always look forward, dark, pretending to ignore me. Pretending, because when I look away I can feel your gaze.
We do not speak to each other.
We dwell underground, in a great city that extends deep into the crust of the Earth, only rarely venturing up near the thick glass domes that allow us to glimpse a scorched, barren redness.
I scuttle up and down the tunnels, a courier bearing messages. You stand guard by a pair of double metal doors.
Things hide in the dark, in the tunnels, things that slide and leave black trails of slime. You open the doors each day, that I may descend, and one day I do not return.
We are pupils in the same school. You are bored in class, drawing on the margins of your books.
In this universe I am the one who goes away, to be married to a merchant, a trader of salt and spices. My dowry includes silks and gold. Your wedding gift to me is a drawing, which my sister intercepts and rips apart.
I never know what you drew.
There are no antibiotics or vaccines. I contract polio and my legs are twisted, atrophied, hidden under my long skirts. I cannot chase after a basketball, so we don’t meet in the courtyard.
You do meet Gaby and she’s as pretty as she always is. So you love her — as you’ve done before, in other places — and marry her.
Again, David is a doctor and he tends after my deformed legs. One afternoon when I’m leaving his practice you walk in.
You hold the door open, glance curiously at me, the corners of your mouth lifting into a smile, and I step out.
In this universe, they organize an exhibit of your work and I make a point to attend. I hold the glossy catalogue between my sweaty hands and scan the room, glancing at your paintings.
There’s a drawing of David, a little sketch of pen and ink. There’s a great big canvas showing Gaby in full colour. There are buildings that resemble the buildings you’ve glimpsed in other places and faces that have drowned in strange oceans.
Everyone and everything, a kaleidoscope of lives one upon the other.
I look for my face, but I do not find it. Instead, I stumble upon a rough sketch of a woman showing shoulders and neck and hair and a hole where there ought to be a face.
I stare at this non-woman.
I turn and see you standing across the room, speaking to a small group of people and holding a drink between your hands. I stare and you snap your head in my direction.
I walk towards you, intent on asking why you never sent the postcard.
You said you’d write.
I charge forward and you’re still staring at me, like that time we duelled in a jungle of carnivorous flowers. I killed you, that time.
“Hi,” I say and the people around you stop their chattering, take half a step back.
“Have we met?” you ask.
The way your smile curves reminds me of our youth. I wonder if you don’t recognize me or if you’re trying to play another one of our games, pretending not to know me so it’ll hurt.
It’s the second. I’m glad we killed you when the zombies attacked.
(Somewhere, in some other slice of a world, I’m probably killing you again).
“No,” I say, “I must be mistaken.”
Your face is just like the face of the Aztec priest, obsidian knife in hand. “I thought so,” you say.
I nod and walk out of the gallery. It’s raining outside.
In another universe, you rush out of the gallery with an umbrella and we walk together, heads down, in a cryptic silence that does not break until we reach the subway and we both ask a startled question at the same time.
In this universe, however, I simply pull up my hood and splash through the puddles. We never kiss, in this universe.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work has appeared in Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction and others. Her collection, This Strange Way of Dying, was published in 2013. Her stories “The Death Collector” and “The Gan Wait” have appeared in previous issues of AE.