In the wake of Sarah’s pronouncement, Luke’s throat felt like it was closing up. Sweat covered his palms, his heart felt like it was beating out of his chest, and the room seemed to shrink to half its size in a moment as claustrophobia gripped him tight. It came on slower than it had in the city, so instead of curling up fetal, Luke only went to his knees at one of the desks around the room, cradling his head in his arms.
“Luke?” Angela said, crouching next to him with her hand on his back. “Are you okay?”
Back up,” Luke gasped between panting breaths. “Need space.”
“Angela, get away,” Sarah ordered. “In fact, go fetch Adriana. Wake her up if necessary, just bring her here.”
Angela nodded and left the room at a half-run, leaping over the desks the same way her father had done earlier. Sarah turned her attention back to Luke.
“Do you need any help?” she asked in a much softer voice. “Water, anything?”
Luke just shook his head. He wanted to go outside, escape the tiny box he was trapped in, but he knew from experience it wouldn’t help much and if anyone was around, he’d just make a spectacle of himself.
Instead he focused on controlling his breathing, taking measured inhalations and exhalations rather than the ragged gasps that came naturally. After maybe ten minutes, he clenched his fists and forced himself to take a sitting position with his back against the wall. A cold sweat covered him and his heartbeat was still out of control, but gradually the symptoms started to lessen.
Once a few more minutes had passed and he felt comfortable speaking, Luke wondered what he could possibly say to the woman who had triggered his attack. Before he could think of anything, the door at the back of the room opened and Angela strode in with another woman behind her. The new arrival was tall and thin, in her forties with long unkempt hair. She looked like she had been unprepared for the sudden summons, wearing sweatpants and a robe hastily thrown over a t-shirt.
Both women weaved through the desks toward the back, maintaining a respectful distance from Luke. The new woman crouched down beside him.
“Hi. I’m Adriana.” Her voice was calm with a trace of a Mexican accent. “Angela told me what happened. Can you describe the symptoms for me?”
“It was a panic attack,” Luke said, irritated and a little embarrassed at the attention. “It’s happened before. I think it was a perfectly reasonable reaction to hearing that I was yanked from my home to act as some kind of dimensional anchor, personally. I’m fine now.”
Saying the words set Luke’s heart racing again, though the attack was under control and anger had returned to mix with the fear. Since his first step in this world, everything he had done had been in pursuit of the goal of going back home. Admittedly, so far that amounted to little more than trying and failing to ask questions of Carver, but the idea that he could never go back was unthinkable. There had to be a way. Someone else could be the Tether. Someone who wanted to be here.
Adriana started talking, but Luke spoke over her. “Thanks for coming, but I think I have it handled. All I want right now is to sleep.”
The latina woman nodded. “Fair enough. Your feelings are valid of course, but I would caution you that such attacks are never the ideal response. If you feel like they are spiraling out of your control, please come find me at any time.”
Luke nodded, more out of a desire to get her to leave than true acknowledgement of her point. Adriana stood up and Sarah pulled her to one side, whispering quietly. While they talked, Luke looked around the room to avoid Angela’s concerned gaze. They barely knew each other. Why would she be worried about him? After a few more minutes of quiet conversation, Sarah finally bid farewell to Adriana, who left with one final nod to Luke.
“Unless you have any more questions for me, Luke,” Sarah said, “I think perhaps it’s time you got some sleep. We have a place set aside for your use.”
Her calm tone infuriated Luke beyond anything he’d felt so far. A powerful urge rose within him to scream at Sarah and Angela and anyone else in earshot about the circumstances they had forced him into until they understood what they had done to him. It was only exhaustion that held him in check, that kept him from breaking down completely. He stayed quiet as Sarah spoke to Angela and she led him out of the office building.
Walking through Crater the second time, Angela seemed to catch his mood and stayed quiet, for which Luke felt a dim spark of gratitude, quickly swallowed by the hole inside of him. It was less than ten minutes before she stopped in front of a log cabin, built right in the center of an old parking lot.
Luke felt a vague sense of confusion at the presence of the archaic lodging built among the more modern trappings of the rest of Crater. Some of it must have shown on his face, because Angela explained the bizarre structure.
“Here it is. There’s been a shortage of places that actually work as housing in this town for years. So we had to start making our own. It’s really almost better than living in the hotel or any of the other houses, nothing’s run down or falling apart and there’s more room than pretty much anywhere else, especially since you won’t have to share. Take a look!”
He felt unable to match her excitement, but Luke opened the door and stepped inside anyway. As with most of Crater that he’d seen so far, the interior was dark. He could make out a bed against one wall by the light of the moon, but little else. Angela moved in behind him and lit a candle on a small table by the entrance, allowing Luke to take a better look at his new room.
The walls and roof weren’t made up of logs as they were on the outside. Instead, some kind of flat gray substance covered nearly every surface, a material that Luke didn’t recognize. Even the back of the door was covered in the stuff. The wooden floor was the only exception, though rugs were spread out through most of the space with no regard for unity of color or design. There was little furniture save the table that held the candle and a single nightstand so old and battered that he felt sure it was dragged in from some half-destroyed building somewhere else. The bed, though, was the only thing Luke cared about at that moment. He waved Angela off when she started talking and staggered over to collapse on the mattress. Unlike the last time he’d been in a bed, this one didn’t fall apart under his weight. He was asleep before he could remember to pull up the blanket.
Several hours after waking up, Luke was still curled up in his bed. No one had come to get him, so there didn’t seem to be a reason to get up. A shroud still laid over his mind, but now it had nothing to do with tiredness. Everything seemed hopeless. He was never going to see his friends again. Never go on to the internet. Never have an awkward phone conversation with his mother. Instead he was trapped in a world where a town of two thousand people was the epitome of civilization and they had sentient blood monsters. Getting up to face that wasn’t high on his list of priorities.
Eventually though, he had to face the fact that while the place he slept had a bed—he couldn’t think of it as his own—it didn’t have much else in the way of necessities. Specifically, he hadn’t had any food since the last rations Carver had given him, and while he wasn’t excited to see what the staple foods of Crater might be, he would still need to eat sooner or later. He hauled himself out of bed, sourly noting that he still had on the filthy clothes he’d worn when facing the Bleeder. While his own nose seemed to have acclimated, he had to smell disgusting. After food he would have to try to find new clothes and whatever bath Carver had been talking about.
There was little else he could do to prepare to go outside, but Luke paused at the door to look more closely at the gray substance that covered the walls and ceiling. It wasn’t mortar, insulation, cement, or any other building material he could think of, not that any of those would make sense on the inside of a log cabin. It was utterly smooth to the touch, flawless and with a slight give to it. Luke pressed on it for a minute or two, watching it flex inward and spring back before he shook his head and walked outside.
The light was intense, searing Luke’s unhabituated eyes the moment he stepped out the door. The weather had been mild during his travels with Carver, but now the sun beat down on him with a relentless heat. There was a great deal more activity along the street than there had been the previous evening. People walked back and forth, carrying wheelbarrows, boxes, and tools everywhere he looked. Everyone seemed to have a task, and while Luke got a few glances for his dried bloody clothes, no one stopped to talk to him or question what he was doing. It probably helped that he was removed from the main sidewalk while he stood in the parking lot.
Without any clear place to go, Luke hesitated at the threshold of the cabin. He was on the point of picking an arbitrary direction to walk when someone called out to him.
“Oh—wait!” A girl came running over to Luke holding a cloth sack in one hand. She stopped in front of him, waving her arm for him to stop.
“Hey. I was supposed to be here when you got out, but it’s after noon and I got hungry—if anyone asks, tell ‘em I was here when you opened the door.”
“Um, who are you?” Luke asked.
The girl smiled and held out her hand. She looked to be around the same age as Luke, maybe twenty years old. She was black and wore shorts and a t-shirt, with several stylized rings on the hand she held out. “Naomi. I’m showing you around Crater.”
Luke reached out to give her a handshake, but when he took it in his grip an alarmed look crossed her face and she pulled her arm back.
“What are you doing?”
“Shaking your hand,” Luke said, bewildered.
“What are you talking about? I was trying to give you a handtouch.” When Luke’s expression didn’t change, she went on impatiently. “Don’t they touch hands where you come from? Here, look.”
She carefully put her bag on the ground and held out her hand again, taking hold of Luke’s as well. Orienting both their hands so they were palm to palm, she moved them closer together until there was the faintest brush between them and pulled her arm back.
“Sorry,” Luke said. “We do something else where I’m from.”
“Yeah, I saw that. You’ll freak people out if you go around grabbing at them. Handtouches are supposed to be a light brush.”
Luke filed that away and tried to apologize again, but Naomi waved him off.
“My instructions are to take you anywhere you want. Anything in particular you want to see or just a general tour?”
Luke’s stomach rumbled, reminding him of the reason he had ventured outside. “Um, if you don’t mind, can you show me where I can get some food?”
Naomi brightened a bit. “Right here.” She gestured at the sack by her feet. “That’s where I went just now. So if Sarah asks, I was just doing what you wanted. I got more than I can eat anyway, just in case.”
She unwrapped the burlap bag to reveal carrots, radishes, apples, and other produce. Luke’s heart sank a bit when he saw there was no meat or bread, but fresh fruits and vegetables were still a vastly superior meal to anything Carver had given him. He took one of the apples and started eating.
Naomi sprawled out on the sidewalk, wolfing through her own share of the food. They sat in silence for a few minutes. After eating one of everything but the radishes, Luke’s felt a little better about his circumstances. He tried to start a conversation with his new acquaintance.
“How did you get picked to show me around?”
Naomi shrugged. “Because we’re the same age and I wasn’t busy, probably. I think they might have been relieved to have something for me to do. I’m between jobs at the moment and I think Sarah’s running out of assignments to give me.”
“So Sarah’s in charge here?”
“As much as anyone is, I guess. She mostly figures out what jobs need more personnel and help with assignments, and any dispute that isn’t bad enough to need the judge can be brought to her.”
Luke chewed on a carrot thoughtfully. Based on how involved she seemed to have been in the decision to bring him here, he thought she might do more than that, but it didn’t seem worth it to get into it.
“Why is she running out of assignments for you, then?”
Naomi scowled. “Because all of them suck.” She didn’t elaborate. After a moment, Luke changed the subject.
“Hey, do you know where I can get some new clothes? These ones are…done, I think.”
She glanced over at his red-stained outfit. He had managed to get almost all of the hard dark blood off, but there was still a healthy coat mixed with the sweat and debris of a few days’ travels. “Nah, a weaver can probably clean those. I bet Sarah put in for you to get a free set, though. It’s the kind of thing she’d do for someone new.” She tossed a core on the ground and stood up, stretching.
“You ready? I’ve been sitting out here for hours, if I have to stay any longer I’m going to lose it.”
There were still a few vegetables in the sack, but Naomi didn’t seem to be concerned about them. Luke dropped the end of his carrot and stood up as well.
“Ok. Where are we going?”
Naomi turned away toward the sidewalk. “The Closet. It’s where they keep all the clothes that get scavenged. We have weavers that make new stuff, but sometimes it’s hard to get enough material and old people cream themselves for anything from the old world. Clothes are more popular than almost anything else from what I hear.”
“But none of them have been made for the last twenty years, right? How are they still usable?”
“A lot of them aren’t. But if there’s a shop that was closed up and went undisturbed the whole time, the clothes aren’t likely to be too bad off. They find enough.”
They were walking down the street now. In the daylight, Luke saw that the surroundings were similar to what he’d expect of a small town in his world, though there were hints that pointed to the difficulties this universe had faced. A few crumbling houses that hadn’t been restored. The lack of cars. More than once he caught sight of log cabins identical to the one he’d stayed in. The people though, as he’d noted the previous night, were virtually the same. There was more labor than would have been necessary in his world, but their behavior—talking, laughing, arguing—didn’t suggest that they were living post-apocalypse at all. It was uplifting to see, and possibly the first positive aspect Luke had noted in the universe he’d been dropped into.
Beside him, Naomi had kept talking while his attention wandered. “It’s pretty much anything that reminds people of how things used to be. Scavengers probably aren’t really necessary for survival anymore, but I think a lot of people would lose their minds if they couldn’t get all the shit they bring back. Toys, plates, furniture, literally anything. I don’t get it, but they pay and it seems to keep them happy.”
“Wait, how can they carry furniture all the way here?”
Naomi gave him an odd look. “Trucks. They don’t have those in your world? Wait, hold on.”
She pulled Luke by the arm off the sidewalk behind a nearby building and put her back to the wall.
“Did she see us?”
“Who? What are you doing?”
“Quiet! That girl by the streetlight. See if she’s looking at us.”
“Why? Is she dangerous?”
Naomi rolled her eyes. “Just do it!”
His heart racing, Luke turned and peeked around the edge of the wall. There was indeed a girl standing by herself near a metal pole across the street. She seemed to be by herself, lost in thought.
“No, she’s looking the other way. What’s going on?”
Naomi grinned. “What’s going on is that you’re going to stay here for a minute. I’ll be right back. Don’t move.”
Without waiting for a response, she crept back around the corner. A stirring of fear touched Luke, but his guide hadn’t seemed worried. He watched her approach the girl. Her crouched pose looked a little ridiculous out in broad daylight as she was, but Naomi moved quickly and quietly until she was right behind her target. She pulled something out from a pocket. Luke craned to see what it was, but before he could make it out he heard a shriek from the other girl.
A dark spot spread across her back and she spun around, a surprised look on her face. When she saw Naomi the expression turned exasperated, and she said something too quiet for Luke to hear. Naomi laughed loudly and clapped the girl on the shoulder. She said something else, but the conversation was too far for him to hear.
Luke still felt the fight-or-flight reflex triggered by Naomi’s sudden actions, but he took a few deep breaths and calmed himself. The pair were still talking when he walked up to Naomi’s side.
“Hey Abby, this is Luke. He’s the new guy,” Naomi said, raising her eyebrows suggestively. Abby, a short, tanned girl with straight blonde hair and brown eyes, had recovered her poise and nodded at Luke.
“A pleasure. My name’s Abigail, but please call me Abby. I’m sorry that Naomi’s prank took precedence over showing you around Crater.” She peered closely at Luke. “Are you alright? You look a little…wild around the eyes.”
Luke quickly schooled his expression and shook his head. “I’m fine. Just a bit surprised at being dragged around the corner like that.” Abby looked reprovingly at Naomi.
“Is it really that hard to exercise the slightest bit of thought for others in your actions, Naomi? I don’t care what you do to me, but not everyone appreciates having their collar yanked.”
Naomi shook her head. “I love you, Abbs, but God, don’t try to use slang. You don’t do it right and it sounds weird coming out of your mouth. And I didn’t do anything! I just saw an opportunity and took it.”
Abby sighed. “Never mind. I can’t count how many times I’ve had this conversation,” she said to Luke. She was still looking at him closely. “Well, if nothing else, I apologize for her sudden stunt. It’s not the first time I’ve had to take responsibility for her.”
Naomi just rolled her eyes.
“Actually,” Abby continued, “in the spirit of that apology, let me invite you to a get-together we’re having tonight. There’s just a few of us going, but I’d love for you to come.”
“Really?” Naomi said. “You sure, Abby?”
“Oh,” Luke hedged “Thanks but I’m—”
“There’s no pressure if you’d rather be on your own,” Abby said, shooting a swift look at Naomi. “But I worry that an entire day in Naomi’s company might give you the wrong idea about the people here. I only suggested it as an opportunity to prove that not all of us are as loutish as she is.”
“Loutish,” Naomi chuckled. “Who the fuck says that?”
“I’ll…think about it. Thanks for the invite,” Luke said.
Abby nodded. “If you decide to go, Naomi knows where to go. She can take you.” She looked toward the other girl again, who shrugged.
“Whatever you say. We’ve got places to be, Abby. If I’d known pouring water down your back would start a whole thing, I wouldn’t have done it.”
“And what a tragedy that would have been,” Abby said smoothly. “I do have to get back anyway, however. You’d better get going or I wouldn’t put it past Naomi to leave without you. Good to meet you, Luke.”
With a final wave, she left toward an unmarked residence nearby, while Naomi gestured for Luke to follow her.
“Abby’s cool,” she said unprompted as they resumed walking. “She gets a stick up her ass sometimes, but it’s never too far up there. You can even convince her to have fun once in a while.”
Luke nodded. He wondered how she had read him so easily after his scare in the alley. He also wasn’t at all sure that he was ready to go to a social event here, even if the girl had seemed nice. Definitely not without some different clothes and a bath, if nothing else.
After another fifteen minutes or so, Naomi stopped in front of the busiest building Luke had seen thus far. It looked like it had once been a supermarket from the prominent placing in the lot where it stood and the space for the large sign above the entrance. Rather than the elegant logo of a long-defunct chain, however, spray paint spelling out “The Closet” had been inexpertly applied. Lines of paint dripped down the wall, and each letter was a different color and size, making a chaotic presentation that would have been a poor attempt at graffiti, let alone a sign for any kind of business. Naomi beamed up at the display.
“Pretty good, right? I really think it nails the tone of the place.”
“If you say so.” Luke worried about what clothes he would find if the sign was any indication.
They stopped at the back of a line that extended a little way out of the entrance. Luke noticed that as Naomi had said earlier, it seemed to mostly be older people waiting to go in. The two of them were the youngest people there by a couple decades, if not more. It was an odd observation. Luke hadn’t gotten a good grasp on the average age of the people of Crater, but he couldn’t imagine the whole population skewed so old. Admittedly Carver was around the same age group, but for all their disagreements, Luke had to admit the old man could more than take care of himself. A lot of the people here were a lot less physically fit than he was, though. Luke wondered if sixty-year-olds were a rare sight outside of Crater.
After another fifteen minutes of Naomi alternately fidgeting and moaning about the wait, they were finally allowed entrance to the Closet by a bored young man who waited for a couple to leave before waving them in. The interior was immediately familiar to Luke, setting off a simultaneous bout of longing and homesickness that made him choke up. It could have been any department store from back home. The floor was white tile, polished until it shone. Mannequins in various poses were propped up on small boxes, showing off the apparel in various aisles. And the clothing itself was available in such an array of colors and designs that it was impossible to take it all in. They even had the white fluorescent lighting so characteristic of large stores, though Luke had no idea where they got the power. The sudden rush of emotion was almost enough to overwhelm him, but unlike the fear and panic of the last few days it wasn’t a negative feeling. Just bittersweet.
They only stood there for a few moments, Naomi oblivious to the feelings that swept through Luke, before they were confronted by a man wearing an actual suit, cleaned and pressed. He stalked up to them, his expression furious.
“Naomi, what the hell are you doing here?” The man actually snarled at her, ignoring Luke completely. “Am I losing my mind? Because I’m pretty sure we had a deal and it involved you never stepping foot in here again. Christ, what the hell is your problem? Scratch that, I don’t give a shit. Why are you making it my problem?”
“Cael, you gotta calm down, man,” Naomi said, unfazed by his aggressive tone. “You’re gonna blow something if you stay so worked up all the time. And anyway, there’s a good reason. Take a look at my friend here.”
He looked Luke up and down, unimpressed, and turned back to Naomi. “His clothes are disgusting and I’ve never seen him before. So?” Uncomfortable, Luke said nothing.
“He’s new in town. I’d bet anything Sarah told you he was coming. Did she mention anyone in particular that might be stopping by?” Naomi raised an eyebrow toward him and mouthed ‘Tether’ in an exaggerated silent enunciation.
Cael froze for perhaps three seconds before turning to Luke again, his previous hostility gone without a trace.
“You’re the new resident! Of course, I know everyone in Crater so you must be, what was I thinking. I do apologize for that…outburst,” he glanced back at Naomi, “but welcome to Schelling’s! I’ve really been eager for you stop by, I would love your opinion of my establishment. But I imagine your primary reason for visiting is to get something other than…those.” He waved in the general direction of Luke’s soiled clothing as if even pointing directly at them offended his senses.
Luke shuffled his feet, embarrassed. “Yeah. They got pretty messed up on the road here.”
Cael nodded sympathetically. “Of course. Quite a common problem, it’s a wild world out there. But I assure you, in here we have it entirely tamed. We have fitting rooms in the back. Choose whatever you’d like and feel free to wear it out! Sarah ensured that you’re paid up for whatever you please. You can stay, but touch nothing,” he said with venom toward Naomi. She shrugged in response.
Luke spent some time browsing the aisles, but felt awkward lingering in his soiled outfit. The other patrons didn’t bother hiding their disgust when they saw him, a stronger reaction than he’d gotten while wandering the streets. He chose a flannel and jeans that seemed near his size and quickly changed. Outside the makeshift stall, a woman with a silver pin handed him a bag for his old clothes.
Once he felt presentable, Luke wandered again, taking a more leisurely pace. Naomi stayed close, but he ignored her grumbling and pointed hints of boredom. The feeling of familiarity had returned, and a sense of wonder along with it. The place was incredible. The longer he looked the more details he noted that were out of place—the most obvious was that only every third light or so was actually lit—but the feeling of the place was there. It gave him hope that no matter how long he had to stay in this world, (it wouldn’t be forever, it couldn’t) there were parts of it that might be less than terrible.
Eventually he had to give in to the growing reproach of his guide and return to the front of the store. Cael intercepted him before he could step out the door.
“That’s a fine choice you’re wearing. I’m embarrassed, but I forgot to ask for your name when you entered.”
“I’m Luke,” he said with a hesitant smile. He hadn’t forgotten how the man had treated Naomi, but he saw no reason to be rude now that he had relented. “This is a fantastic place you’ve made here.”
Cael returned the expression. “You’ve no idea how glad it makes me to hear that. I am pleased you’ve come on a lit day as well. Normally we have to make due with oil lamps, but every once in a while we turn the lights on, it makes the experience so much more authentic. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the store. I’ve done my best to recreate the feel of it, but after twenty years the memory does tend to fade a bit. Any thoughts on what might be missing?”
Luke shook his head. “Maybe if I really looked for it, but just from a general impression it seemed perfect.”
“Well, perhaps you could come back later and let me know your thoughts on a return visit,” Cael said. “I promise you, I welcome any nitpicking you have. And I also promise you, Sarah’s stipend provided you with credit for a good deal more than a single shirt and pair of pants.”
Luke glanced back longingly and nodded. “I’m sure that I will.”
“And perhaps your next visit might be in…better company,” Cael added, his gaze flicking to Naomi. “The clintele are an essential part of the experience, after all.”
Luke wasn’t sure how to respond to that, but Naomi seemed indifferent. “Right,” he said noncommittally. “Well, thank you for the invitation, and the clothes.”
Cael bowed and ushered them outside, where the light told Luke that he had stayed inside longer than he thought. The sun was well into midafternoon.
“Finally,” Naomi said when they had left. “I wouldn’t have been so eager to go if I knew you were going to spend all day in there, I just wanted to see Cael’s expression when I walked in. That place sucks, why did you like it so much?”
While Luke considered how to answer her question, he turned his gaze on the surroundings outside of the store. The buildings that had collapsed from years of neglect. Roads that hadn’t seen tires turn upon them in nearly two decades. People who lined up just to experience a glimpse of the civilization that had once been. He’d walked out of a memory and back into reality. Trapped in a dead world, surrounded by strangers. Overwhelmed, Luke sat down on the sidewalk and cried.