His eyes had long ago drooped. Deep black and purple accented their sockets. His face was emaciated, as much from lack of nutrition as sleepless nights. More than he cared to remember. The world outside was dead to him, him to it. The two had mutually agreed: he no longer needed sunlight, no matter how paste-white his complexion.
Billy Renard was pushing thirty. He’d long ago given up hope for anything more from life– sometime in his mid-twenties, really, but he couldn’t recall the details. All he knew was the utter contempt he’d developed for the world. It felt no different for him. His extensive, repetitive failures were to blame. Then again, such failures would send even most optimistic into furtive sobs.
Currently, Billy’s pasty skin was illuminated by a soul-sucking programming application he’d opened. His hands rebounded along mechanical keys. The rhythm was as sluggish as his brain had become. He’d largely checked-out, was working off sheer adrenaline and intuition– that, and an unending compulsion to turn thoughts into commands. His desk was from an obsessive-compulsive’s nightmare. Paper cups. Old plates. Moldy food. Beer and soda cans. Ashtrays piled into stinking mountains. Miscellaneous clutter so dense as to be indistinguishable to tired, watery eyes. Billy certainly had those, along with a hefty BO and the wretch-inducing appearance of one who’s neither bathed nor re-dressed in over a week.
Strung-out was an understatement. He barely felt human anymore. He hadn’t spoken to in anyone in weeks. Had lost track of the last time he’d dated. Even then, it was a few minutes of fumbling about for conversation before inevitably giving up. As usual he went home, settled into his place at his computer.
His hands came to a halt and his eyes made slow, incongruous blinks. His brain attempted ridiculing them for their misrepresentations. This time, they were honest. Billy was finally finished. It was only a matter of moments before he’d know for certain if all his work and self-exile was worth it. He rose from his chair on rubber legs. They’d become accustomed to the rough-seas of this life. His involuntary swagger compensated for the tilting room. He swayed for a cylindrical capsule nearby that something from an old space-travel film– the sort of makeshift aircraft built from imaginations unaware of things like G-Forces.
He angled his shoulders in, faced away from the door. The cylinder was just wide enough to fit in, but too narrow for any hope of angling in it. A door sealed shut behind him. A hiss sounded. His stomach lurched. Vile acid burned his tongue. A bright flash disoriented him into a slump. The door of the cylinder wrenched open. A burst of smoke and sparks ejected Billy. He soared through the air, landed in a heap against a wall. His exhausted brain took in a few, unfocused blinks, and he fell unconscious.
Billy awoke utterly refreshed. He couldn’t recall having slept so well in his entire life. His eyes took a moment to focus against a blinding, white light. He blinked away water, put a hand up to shield his eyes. His newly invigorated brain knew it made sense: he’d been sitting in the dark staring at a screen from a month.
He was about to question why his room was suddenly bright when it focused. It was no longer his room– or any room he’d ever visited. The walls were stainless steel, the floor too. Everything shined like freshly-polished chrome, including the bed-frame he’d somehow found his way into.
A voice suddenly sounded beside him, “Billy!?”
His head whipped at it so fast he nearly broke his own neck. “Jenna?”
The petite, freckled blonde girl fell from a chair to her knees. She instantly burst into tears. Her head fell into Billy’s lap. He froze. His mind ran wind-sprints, plowed through hurdles with lumbering clumsiness. He aimed for a finish-line he hoped might form any logical conclusion. All he found was himself eating pavement, more perplexed than ever.
“Jenna?” He repeated aloud.
“I thought you were dead!” She sobbed. “You were in a coma for weeks.”
“And I couldn’t bear losing you–”
She withdrew to pull her chair over, “Of course not. Not on our anniversary of all things!”
His eyes might’ve crossed from confusion. He and Jenna had dated approximately two months five years ago. They’d been madly in love the entire time, but one bout of drunken stupidity ended it all: Billy slept with Jenna’s sister. Worse, she caught them in bed together. Despite Billy forgetting almost the entire night, there was no defense for what he’d done. Jenna left and hadn’t spoken to him since.
Now, she was kissing him, deep and long, with that same love she’d had when they were together. His body reacted on instinct, but his mind lagged behind. When she finally pulled away, she looked him over with a curious sadness.
“What? What is it?”
He sat up in the bed, hands out, flat and low, to stay any further progression of things. “Jenna, we broke up five years ago.”
“What?” She recoiled with disgust. “Is this some kind of sick joke? I think you’ve died on our Anniversary. I sit here for weeks, waiting for you to wake up. Then, when you finally do, you start … acting like this? What the hell’s wrong with you, Billy?”
His mind reeled: Anniversary. His stomach to plummeted. He and Jenna had never made it past that two-month mark. The incident with the cylinder rushed back. But no, it couldn’t have worked. It was impossible. Even all that work, he never expected it to perform. And even if it had, how was this possible? The odds were so astronomically improbable, it was absurd. But then, here he was here. Evidently, whoever he was supposed to be was with Jenna. Judging by the massive diamond on her hand, they were married. How?
He deflated with a long, exhaustive sigh. “Jenna, what happened before I was brought here?”
“You don’t remember?” She asked, teary-eyed.
He was careful not to give too much away, “Were you there?” She nodded. “Walk me through it, step-by-step.”
“You finished the coding in your lab. Then, when you were ready, you hugged and kissed me, and stepped into the device. A second later the thing went nuts and threw you back across the room.”
“Unreal.” She squinted. “You knew what I was doing?” Again, she nodded.
He eased himself to the bed’s edge, sat before her and prepared to lie his way from the room. Her baby-blue eyes stopped him. They glistened with such admiration and love that he was lost in them. His mind threatened to whisk him away, but he wouldn’t allow it. He needed to be honest with her, for his own sake. To say she hadn’t been the best thing in his life would’ve been a lie. She didn’t deserve further disrespect, especially not after what he’d done before, elsewhere.
“Jenna,” he said with a pained look. “I’m not… me.” She was visibly taken-aback. It made him wince. “You know what I was working on, so you must know the theory I was working with.”
She nodded along, “Inter-dimensional travel. You confirmed the multiverse theory a decade ago, Billy. Everyone knows that.”
He swallowed hard: a decade. Had it been that long? He was 19 at the time, so it must’ve been, if his mind wasn’t failing him now. The fame it afforded made him a celebrity. He got rich off books and public appearances, then pissed most of the money away testing his theories. Amid that pissing away, he’d met Jenna, fallen in love, screwed her sister, then himself for life. Since then, he’d been living off royalties, as much a recluse as a burn-out.
“Jenna, the Billy you knew… he’s gone.”
Her eyes widened, instantly leaking water. “What?”
He winced, “There are only two possible variations according to my theory. One states an inter-dimensional traveler will arrive to find himself in an alternate timeline, meeting himself in the process.” Her face wavered, trembled with sorrow, “The other states–”
“That the traveler will replace himself, eradicating one of the two…”
“I’m sorry, Jenna,” he said with genuine sorrow.
She burst into sobs. Whatever his alter-self had with her was gone. Both of them knew it. Billy’s stomach plummeted to his feet. It should’ve been him. He’d only kept working to spite the world. He was a wretched creature of contempt. His alter-self wasn’t. Jenna’s grief said as much. Whatever the future held, he was stuck here. The only thing he could think to do was slink off the bed to coddle Jenna as she wept– a human thing, rather than an intimate one.
No matter what anyone said, Billy knew firsthand the grass wasn’t greener on the other side. Not for him, or his alter-self, or the woman they’d loved.