I’ve sought a world with a higher-than-average ratio of sunny days and a pharmaceutical industry that developed a decade before my own. Sun, of course, improves mental health. And a more developed pharmaceutical industry implies a more liberal outlook towards chemical intervention, a more specific range of treatment plans. It isn’t easy to write equations for these variables. Math is precise, math is a scalpel capable of microsurgery on a universal scale, but my hands are only so steady and there are so very many universes that are not the one I seek. It took me weeks to find this world, days more to aim the machine at our little slice of it.
The lawn looks the same. The house is painted powder blue, not eggshell. I always preferred blue. Eggshell siding requires powerwashing every year because it soaks up the dirt from every single storm. Another good sign: I’d had the time to redo it in this world.
The windows are open. I sneak across the lawn even though this is sort-of-maybe my own house and sidle up against the brick next to the kitchen window. I don’t know if the me-from-here can see this-me. I don’t know if I’m visible at all. Best not to chance it.
Through the window, I am sitting at the kitchen table, wearing a flower-dotted dress and the bunny slippers I like to plod around the house in. My laptop is open to some student’s final paper. Based on the amount of red on it, they’re not getting a good grade. Dahlia stands across from the table in her courtroom suit. This Dahlia has clipped her hair off at her shoulders. And has she permed it? It springs up around her face in curls. It’s cute.
“Time to go, Sarah,” she says. She sounds tired. Maybe she’s made partner already, if I’ve had enough time to repaint the house.
The other me curls her hand around a mug next to her. She flicks at the laptop’s touchpad, scrolls down on the paper. Dahlia frowns. “You go by yourself.”
“We have to see—” She breaks off, bites down on whatever was coming next.
The other me looks up from the laptop. “It’s been three years. I know what the gravestone looks like. I don’t want to go visit a rock anymore.”
Dahlia stares, her hands crumpled in fists at her sides. I leap back from the window before I can see more.
Of course I have so much free time in this world. My daughter is already dead.
I arrive home in a whirlwind, a mess of broken universal constants and transdimensional flimflam. Somehow my shirt’s torn and my hair tie is missing. It’s a small price.
I stagger out of the portal onto the concrete floor and Dahlia is waiting in the office chair I scavenged during the last departmental remodel. She is wearing my bunny slippers and her hair is as long as it should be.
She does not seem surprised to see me tumble from the six-foot arc of wires and rebar I constructed next to the water heater. Maybe this is marriage—loving someone so well that nothing they do surprises you anymore.
“Sarah,” she says, and sighs and presses the heels of her hands to her eyes. “Sarah, Sarah.”
“I’m going to find a world where she’s happy.” I point to the chalkboard at the other side of the basement, but she’s not a physicist. The equations aren’t proof to her. “And then it’s just a simple matter—we’ll know what we did wrong. There’s got to be a universe where we know what to do.”
And all I have to do is find it. If more sunlight and better medicine weren’t enough, I’ll find a world where poppies never grew. The calculations are already unspooling in my head.
“This isn’t going to help Elena,” Dahlia says, but I’ve already set the course. It’s easy, really, now that I’ve done it once.
“Then what should we do? Do you know?”
Dahlia is silent. I step inside the arch again, put my hands on the copper pads, let the electricity split me into a form capable of the sort of movement I desire.
As it turns out, in this world—devoid as it is of opium and hydrocodone and heroin—Elena is addicted to a sort of computer virus. I don’t pretend to understand it. I’m no neurobiologist, and even if I was, I doubt there’s anything like this in my world outside of the pages of a science fiction magazine. This Elena, who is not as skeletal as mine but is getting there, has a silver port screwed into the back of her skull.
I follow her down a twisting side street to a house I don’t recognize. Inside she kisses a boy just as slim as she is and they pull a machine with long black hoses from a closet. One hose each goes into their skulls with a wet pop like a can opening. I don’t need to go home to see that her parents are just as desperate as Dahlia and I, because I see it in the knobs in her wrist and the nectarine-colored bruise healing at the base of her neck.
Dahlia is gone when I get back. That’s fine. Maybe the police have called and they’ve picked up Elena. We asked them to put out a missing persons report, but Elena is twenty-one and there’s no sign that she was abducted by force. It’s not against the law for adults to have off, said the sergeant at the desk with his great white mustache. Give it time.
Give it time and she’ll be dead, said Dahlia once we were out the doors, and she stomped so hard down the sidewalk that she broke the heel on her boot.
Still, the police might have her if she did something wrong. I don’t think she’s hard-up enough to rob a gas station or break in somewhere, but the idea of her boat of a Ford crumpled accordion-like against a tree has been keeping me awake for days.
Perhaps I went too far in my last jump. I don’t need a world so physically different. I need one just like here, except that Elena is happy. I don’t know how to calculate for the variable of my daughter’s happiness. But I can find a universe where she made varsity soccer sophomore year and got the part of Juliet in the school play instead of crying into my shoulder when callbacks came out and her name wasn’t on the list. I can find one where she didn’t break her ankle on the soccer field at sixteen, leaving her cooped up for the summer and killing all her training for the year.
The machine hums. I don’t even feel my atoms split.
In this world, Elena has come home.
I watch through the kitchen window as she screams at me and Dahlia. She starts out intelligible and then her words start stumbling over each other and then it’s dominos and the whole line’s going down. Dahlia stands up from the table and her chair clatters to the floor. She’s shaking, and because she’s wearing a tank top I can see every muscle in her arms tense at once. The me at the table is crying. I can’t see her face, but my hands remember that motion, both pointer fingers sweeping from the inside corner of the eyes to the outside, to get rid of all the tears at once.
Elena is bright red, sweating.
Is it the heroin? I can’t tell. She isn’t bruised or too thin for her clothes. She was sick before the drugs, though Dahlia and I didn’t know it at the time. I can see it perfectly now, of course, because hindsight is always perfect and always useless. How quiet she got. The fits of never eating or eating way too much.
I don’t need to see any more.
Here the house is empty. I look through a window and see different furniture. White cabinets (Dahlia hates white cabinets), a mid-century modern entertainment center with two-toned wood (I always hated mid-century modern) and an off-white shag rug that covers half the living room floor (totally impractical for a couple with a small child, as we were when we bought this house).
At the café down the street—it’s reassuring that even across the impossible bounds of time and space, every Starbucks turns out the same mediocre mocha—I look myself up. My faculty bio lists my publications, my conference trips to Zurich, Moscow, Beijing; and that I’m a novice kayaker, but no wife, no daughter. Here Dahlia teaches criminology at a dusty desert college way out west. If we were ever married, it was a long time ago, before Google’s memory.
Elena’s mother, the one who bore her, is a mid-level copywriter at an advertising firm in California. Last time I saw her, to finalize the adoption, her hair had been brown, here it looks like she’s been dyeing it blond for a long time. I used to tell Elena that her mother picked us to adopt her because she could see we’d love her. In truth, it was because I was a physicist and Dahlia a lawyer. The mother was seventeen, the father eighteen with a face like fifteen, both sets of grandparents the sort of alcoholics that are barely hanging on to functional. They were good kids, but they’d had it tough and they knew they didn’t want their daughter to have it tough. Those sound like good jobs, the mother said, and then Dahlia and I had a daughter.
Here, her parents were killed in a car accident in her childhood. She moved in with an aunt, hundreds of miles from the boy who would be my daughter’s father. Elena never existed.
This time I’m not ready for the landing and I roll across the basement floor until I smash my shoulder into the leg of my workbench. That’ll bruise. The whole bench shakes and jangles. Dahlia’s stepfather bought us a toolkit with a hammer and three screwdrivers and a multiplicity of obscure wrenches for our wedding and much as I try to put it all back in the toolbox when I’m finished, most of it stays spread across the tabletop. It makes quite an amazing crash when I slam into it, though.
The door at the top of the stairs bangs open. I’m barely on my feet when Dahlia comes thundering down. She’s got two bags of fast food in her hand. “What’s happened?”
All I can see is the food. “Is that what you went out for? Elena didn’t call?”
“She will eventually.” Dahlia takes out a hamburger, peels off the white paper, slides it across the workbench to me on a napkin.
“Have you found what you’re looking for?” She focuses on her fries instead of on me.
“Not yet.” I can see where I’ve gone wrong though. My pants are covered in chalk dust but I wipe my palms on them anyway and dust off the equations on the board to start over.
“Maybe Elena went to the second-run theater. Remember how much she used to like it when you took her to those shitty sci-fi movies there?”
“Mmm.” Perhaps the change I need to make isn’t in Elena, but in us. Dahlia and I have had our share of troubles. No more than any other couple, but Elena was always so sensitive, crying over dead bugs and earthquakes on the news. The worst was when Elena was ten. I couldn’t get tenure where I was but Dahlia didn’t want to move away from her firm and her parents. She ended up moving out to her parents’ for a couple of weeks. It worked out in the end, but there might be a world where it hadn’t happened at all.
“Or we could call Jennifer and see if they’ve talked. They were two peas in a pod in high school.”
Elena hasn’t talked to her high school friends in years. We both know this. “I think I’ve found what’s wrong.”
The controls are spread over three tables. If I were writing this up for a paper, I’d have made it pretty. It’s only a matter of a few switches thrown.
Dahlia grabs my arm. “Don’t go.”
“I have to.”
“You don’t. You’re not going to find a solution out there.”
“Don’t you want to help our daughter?”
“I do. Our daughter. Not—not some distorted image of her.” Dahlia’s nails dig into my arm, straight to the bone through bruises I don’t remember getting. I wrench away from her. “This was never about Elena. This is about—about punishing us, so you can prove we made a mistake somewhere, because you can’t face that things are just bad sometimes, that there’s no logic here.”
Dahlia grabs for me and bangs her hip against the workbench. French fries go flying, salt and grease scattering all across my work. Dahlia presses her hand against her side and hisses. Something brews in her eyes, a dark shadow under rippling water.
“Maybe this is why she needs it,” she says. “You never could see her as she was. You always wanted her to be better, different. And look at all this—you still do.”
It feels like she’s cracked open my sternum. All my breath is gone. Dahlia jerks back, grimaces. But she closes her mouth to keep herself from apologizing.
“I’m going I find her,” I say, and I step back inside the arch before she can stop me.
When I open my eyes, it’s obvious that something must have knocked the controls wrong. Grease in the circuits, salt under a switch. This world is barren. There’s air, enough that I don’t panic and suffocate, but it’s obvious that everyone died a long, long time ago. Beyond a few leaning structures that might once have been houses, there’s no sign humans ever walked this earth. It’s grey rock, ash, and lichen as far as the eye can see.
My knees let go and then I’m covered in grit, scrabbling at the ground to find a worm, a bug, anything. My nails crack and I’ll never get the dirt out from under them and perhaps there isn’t as much air as I thought.
Sending myself home this time feels like peeling off my skin.
Dahlia’s gone again. There are cold fries all over the floor. It’s easy to spot the problem. One of us stepped on a circuit board and snapped a wire. I’ve got plenty more wire.
Upstairs the house is dark and I can’t bring myself to turn on a light. I wander the rooms like a phantom, tracking in dirt. Here’s Elena’s room, with her books and all the keepsakes she left when she went off to college. Here’s the kitchen, with spicy hot cocoa instead of Nestlé because Dahlia and Elena got the taste for cayenne from my Oaxacan in-laws. Here’s the master bedroom, with Dahlia’s half of the closet empty, because job troubles couldn’t tear us apart but in her absence, our daughter can.
I can fix it. I only have to find the right inputs, nudge the variables, discover an equation that will solve for peace.
When I turn the machine on this time, it grinds and shrieks. A bolt pings off my toe. But it’s okay, because I can feel the right hum building in my bones.
Then I am standing on the lawn and there is the eggshell house and the open window and through it I see Dahlia making a pot of coffee. There’s a yawning hole in my chest. This could be my world. It’s so close I could step inside the door and be home.
Another me steps into view. Her hair’s a mess. Dahlia pours water into the coffee maker, pops the pot back in, and slips her arm around me.
“How’s it going?” she asks.
“Not well.” The other me groans, shoves her hair back with her hand. Her t-shirt is covered in chalk. “I can’t get the math to work.”
“You’ll get it.” Then Dahlia drops her voice. “The place called. They said Elena’s gotten through the withdrawal. But she doesn’t want to see us.”
The other me buries her face in Dahlia’s shoulder. So that’s it, then. Here is a world where we never split up, and the only differences are Dahlia is willing to help me with the machine and I am incapable of building it. And Elena is lost in rehab, rather than simply lost.
I’m at the window before I can stop myself. I’ll smash the glass, I’ll smash the house to splinters and mortar. An incandescent scream builds under my ribs. You were supposed to save my daughter.
The other me lifts her head from Dahlia’s shoulder and glances at me. Her eyes go round as full moons and all at once I remember myself and run.
“Did you see that?” she shouts, but I’m off across the grass and gone from this world.
I can’t find my way home.
When I open my eyes all I see is light. Sparks. I’m breathing, but it certainly doesn’t taste like air. Maybe I’m just imagining the sensation, because there’s definitely nothing breathable in the space between universes. All I can think at first is, If I could write a paper on this, it would get me a Nobel. The sparks resolve themselves into threads shimmering among a multiplicity of soap bubbles, all hanging in endless darkness that resonates in a hum like the deepest sound a harp makes. If I were a me from a different world, I could spend my whole life here, spinning the equations that explain this beauty.
But I can already feel it crushing me, yanking me apart atom by atom and neuron by neuron. My existence is incompatible with these physics and physics will erase my inconsequential self to set things right.
And my daughter needs me.
I screech and pull and gather up the wisps of myself. I can see the path home, a shimmering pinprick. My fingers bleed when I pry it open, my lungs collapse when I try to breathe.
I will tear space and time apart for you, Elena. I will remake the world for you.
• • • •
The concrete is cold and wet and I wake up to the smell of smoke. Blood drips down my nose into my throat.
The arch is burning. Somehow a couple of the plastic components have melted and they’re dripping down onto a hot copper coil. The stench is unbelievable. I peel myself off the floor. The closest liquid is the thirty-six-ounce cup of soda Dahlia left. I toss it across the structure and the whole thing hisses.
I probably can’t handle much more of this. The plastic parts are easy enough to switch out, but every part of me hurts and my vision’s gone blurry at the edges. Dahlia’s home—I can hear her moving around upstairs. I can’t see her yet. Not until I’ve found Elena.
I think I have it now. I saw the path out there, written in light.
When I stagger through, the house is there. Someone’s planted tulips in our front bed and the smell is so strong that I’d almost believe it was artificial. There’s an unfamiliar car in the driveway next to Dahlia’s Prius. A baby blue compact, brand new.
Three women sit around the kitchen table. Me in a pencil skirt and my bunny slippers because I’ve just gotten off work. My laptop’s open to student papers, but it’s shoved off to the side of the table. Dahlia’s wearing her housework clothes, jeans and a two-sizes-too-big t-shirt that used to read VISIT CAPE MAY before it got splattered with two remodels’ worth of paint. The other woman at the table is blonde, athletic. She’s got a suit and red lipstick with such a precise line it looks like it was cut with a razor.
I blink, and the blonde woman becomes Elena, smiling.
My breath catches. My eyes are burning. If only Dahlia could see this, she’d understand why I had to come.
“Six months in New York,” Elena says. “David said he’ll visit on weekends. If I do well, this might turn in to a permanent gig.”
Elena always dreamed of the big city. Ever since she was a little girl and Dahlia’d treat her by taking her out to the Empire State Building to see the whole mess of it spread out before her.
“Be careful,” the other me says. “Galleries aren’t known for making money.”
Elena blushes. “I get to exhibit my paintings. Just a small selection, but it’s a start.”
The other me grins, but my blood turns to ice. My Elena doesn’t paint. My Elena hated art class, can’t write in cursive to save her life, cried at the National Gallery when she was eight because Dahlia dawdled in the medieval section.
And now that I’ve seen that, all the other wrong parts pop out like they’re lit up neon. My girl wouldn’t have a pixie cut. My girl hasn’t had braces and her front teeth have a sliver of space in between. This happiness is not my girl’s happiness.
There’s nothing left for me here, and I can’t bear to look in the window anymore.
When I come out of the arch the whole thing shudders and something important goes crunch. The control panel sparks and all the lights go bright and then shatter one by one. I sit down on the floor and watch it cave in on itself.
Dahlia’s leaning against the railing. She’s cleaned up all the fries and the spilled soda. When I don’t move she pads across the floor in socked feet and sits down next to me.
“Did you find her?” she asks.
“I found a world where we were all happy.” And my ribs ache to think of it. “And it wasn’t our Elena.”
“No.” Dahlia curls her arm around me, wipes my cheek with her thumb and then smears the black streak of dirt and ash and tears off on her pants. She doesn’t say I knew it wouldn’t be. Some things don’t need saying. “We’ve only got this one.”
We stay there in the ruins of a hundred universes until far above, the phone rings.