TIME LOST: Chapter Two – “We’re only dancing for our lives.”

PREVIOUS: Chapter One

 

(Note: TIME LOST is the third volume in a story called “313”.  The first volume, MISSING TIME, and second volume TIME SPENT, are available for purchase through any eReader, digitally through Smashwords.com, or in paperback through CreateSpace.com or Amazon.com. I highly recommend you read them before attempting to read the following.  Links can be found in my SUPER HANDY LINKS PAGE!)

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

“My first memory, my very first, is of the dance.  I was little, a toddler, standing with my hands pressed up against the TV screen and staring up at this…I’m not sure what it was…some ballroom dancing competition, one of those celebrity shows maybe.  I looked up at them, my mouth hanging open, and I knew…I just knew…I was seeing something special. Two bodies, two people, flying across the screen.  They were like worlds in space…orbiting each other, whirling apart and colliding together.  They were so intimate and personal, but they were everything at the same time.  The whole universe was in those two tiny forms gliding across the stage.”

“That’s pretty deep for a toddler,” a voice said.

Tyler looked up.

One of the boys in his acting class stood over him.  He was very good looking, with caramel skin and deep brown, almost black, eyes.  Tyler admired the way the fluorescent overhead made the muscles in his broad shoulders stand out.

“Marcus,” the boy said, putting a hand out.

Tyler didn’t need to be told that name.  He knew this boy, he thought, knew him very well, though part of his brain reminded him they had never met.

Marcus raised an eyebrow and waggled his outstretched fingers.  “Are you staying here? Class is over.”

“Oh.” Tyler looked around himself and saw that he was sitting on the floor.  Class had taken place on the main stage today, and the other students had already left.  Tyler was alone, sitting on the lip of the stage, his back to the orchestra.  He reached up and took Marcus’ hand.  Marcus easily hoisted him up and for a moment the two stood almost cheek to cheek.  Tyler could feel Marcus’ breath on his neck.  Belatedly, he pulled away.  “Thanks.”

“My pleasure,” said Marcus.

Tyler grinned.  It was the kind of thing he might have said.  He never passed up an opportunity to flirt.

“So, you’re a dancer…”

Tyler nodded.  “Oh yeah.”

“I guessed from the little speech you just gave,” Marcus said, “you know, to yourself.”

Tyler laughed.  “Yeah, I guess I did.  I dunno, I guess my mind wandered.”

“Just a little,” Marcus said with a grin.

Tyler turned to go, but Marcus spoke up again.

“Hey, do you know how to salsa dance?”

As a matter of fact, Tyler knew most ballroom dances, and Latin dance was his favorite.  He had learned in a series of classes taken at a very young age.  He had been begging to learn to dance for as long as he could remember, and finally his parents had caved, enrolling him in one youth class after another.  Ballroom, tap, jazz, country and western…Tyler’s appetite for dance was voracious.  Along the way somewhere, someone had suggesting acting courses as well.  Then, as he matured and grew taller, the talk of modeling began.  He first heard the word “star” at age fourteen, and it had been attached to his name in one form or another ever since.

Tyler turned back, flashing his perfect teeth.  “Do I know how to salsa?”

“I have to learn it for this show and-”

Boldness was Tyler’s nature. He stepped forward and put his hand on Marcus’ hip, turning him around and moving up close behind him.

“Oh…okay,” Marcus breathed.

“I learned New York style salsa,” Tyler said, placing his right hand on Tyler’s hip.  “Put your left hand in mine.” He held out his hand and Marcus complied.  “Get your right arm up.”  He lifted Marcus’ right arm to point skyward.  “There you go.  Now you’re going to turn right and flourish with your right hand, and that will set up a twirl.”

Marcus did so, and Tyler twirled him around to bring them face-to-face.

“Nice,” Tyler said, looking him in the eye.  “Very…”

Something was wrong.  Tyler blinked and stumbled backward, but Marcus held him up.

“Are you okay?”

“Not sure,” said Tyler.  “Something…I need to…where’s Max?”

Marcus gave him a blank look, shaking his head. “Who’s Max?”

“My dog,” Tyler said.  “He’s a service animal.”

“What?”

“My seeing eye dog,” Tyler said, letting go and looking around the theatre, confused.  “Max?  Max, are you here?”

“Seeing eye?” Marcus lifted his hands, baffled.  “What are you talking about?”

“MAX!” Tyler shouted.

“There’s no dog here,” Marcus said.

“He’s not just a dog,” Tyler said sadly.  “He was my friend and I…I should have paid better attention but I was too busy. I was too busy…I didn’t even know he had gone.”

Marcus had no idea what to say to all that.  He began to think he might need to get Tyler to the nurse.

Tyler’s vision swam.  Spots appeared before his eyes, and the spots grew until he held his hands up before his eyes.  “I can’t see.”

“Oh my god,” Marcus took hold of his arm.  “Let’s get you to the nurse.”

“Wait,” Tyler said, “just wait.  I can see, but I shouldn’t.  I’m blind, how can I see?”

“Come on.”

“No, just stop!” Tyler pushed him away.  “I just need to stop for a minute. I have to stop. I have to stop dancing, please.”

“We need some help in here!” Marcus shouted.  “Someone, help!”

Tyler sank to the floor, covering his eyes.

“Please let me stop.”

___

 

Electrodes prodded against his ribs, and the delivered shock jolted Tyler to his feet.  Not that he had fallen far, of course, suspended as he was from the rafters by chains clasped to his wrists.  His feet found purchase on the wooden boards that he could only assume made up the stage in this hellish auditorium.  Tyler had to assume, because he could not see, would never see again.  A ragged brown cloth circled his head, crossing the top of his nose and tied in the back.  Crusted streaks of fluid ran down his face, remnants of the destruction Gwendolyn had wrought.

Tyler’s eyes were gone.

He groaned in pain as the chains were hauled up further.  His feet scrabbled against the stage until they lowered him enough for him to stand again.

“Dansssse,” growled one of the ape creatures which had applied the end of a cattle prod to Tyler’s ribs.  “Bard dance now!”

“Please, I just need to rest for a minute.”

Behind the music that played from somewhere in front of him, he assumed the orchestra, he could hear murmurs of disapproval.  Though Tyler couldn’t see them, he assumed the auditorium was filled with spectators, watching this gruesome spectacle, a man forced to dance for their amusement.

What kind of sick bastards get their kicks watching a man tortured?

He forced his feet to begin tapping again, and the threadbare shoes to which his taps were attached again worked their magic, creating the rhythmic tapping along with the music.  The chains hauled him along left and right, moving him in some predetermined pattern Tyler thought was computer controlled, but could just as well be more creatures in the rafters hauling him by hand.

Gradually, the murmurs died out, replaced by applause.  Sweat rolled down Tyler’s face.  The lights were so hot.  In fact, though he did not, could not know it, they were positioned mere feet away from him, shining hot white light directly into his face.

Tyler continued tapping out the rest of the song, but exhaustion got the better of him and he knew his rhythm was sloppy.  Finally the song ended and he was allowed to stop tapping, but only so that he could-

“Bow!” shouted the ape, shocking him in the belly.

Unable to do otherwise, Tyler doubled over and the chains lowered him just enough to create the effect of a clumsy bow.  The sound of applause, cheering and whistles exploded in the auditorium.

“HOW ABOUT THAT? IS HE SOMETHING OR WHAT?”  An announcer’s voice came over a loudspeaker somewhere above and behind Tyler.  No ordinary people had been in his presence, only the apes, so he had no idea whose voice it was or where this person could be.  “LET’S HEAR IT FOR OUR WORLDS OF DANCE SENSATION, THE BLIND BARD!”

The chains lifted and lowered Tyler again, and then a third time, as the applause grew to crescendo.

“Please!” Tyler called to the audience he couldn’t see. “Isn’t there anyone who will help me? Someone out there? Please, anyone!”

“READY FOR MORE?” the announcer asked and the audience roared their approval.

Oh god, no.

“WORLDS OF DANCE CONTINUES WITH MORE NON-STOP ENTERTAINMENT FROM OUR NUMBER ONE STAR!”

The music started up again.  Tyler was expected to perform the same dance to the exact same song.

“I can’t,” he breathed.  “I can’t do it.”

His sides erupted with pain as multiple creatures jabbed him with their prods.

Tyler’s feet began tapping almost against his will, anything to make the pain stop.  But he was tired…so tired.

“Please, I have to stop…just let me stop…”

His chains hauled him left and right, just as they had before.  Apes with cattle prods surrounded him, ready to use them if he faltered for a moment.  Behind them, the empty orchestra extended only a few meters from the stage.  Past that, a black wall stood mounted with speakers, from which the cheers and applause emerged.

“Help me…please help me.”

No help was forthcoming, for no audience watched at all.

 

THE BLIND BARD

“We’re only dancing for our lives.”

 

He had no idea how long he’d danced, repeating the same steps over and over to the same song, before they finally allowed him rest.  The chains remained, but Tyler was allowed to sag to the stage floor and sleep, unable even to move himself into a semi-comfortable position, just collapsed in a sweat-soaked heap.

In the night, with the stage lights off, it grew cold. Tyler’s breath fogged the air in front of his face.  Sometime during the night, as Tyler slipped in and out of a fitful doze, someone came to warm him, a man, embracing him in toned, muscular arms.  Tyler recognized the man’s scent.  He was sure he only dreamed this, lying in Marcus’ arms, surrounded by his scent, but eventually he became fully awake and aware of the hard stage floor, the cold chains at his wrists, and still Marcus’ touch remained.

“Who’s there?” Tyler asked.

“Shhhh…” Marcus wrapped him tighter.  “You’re okay.  You were freezing.”

“Marcus?”

“Who do you hear when I speak?”

Tyler pondered this question before answering.  “Marcus Villalobos.  You sound like Marcus. He was my…he was my boyfriend.  But I killed you.”  Tyler reached up to feel Marcus’ face with his hand, but the chains were too heavy.  “I killed you.”

A hand took Tyler’s and lifted it to feel a face, smooth shaven, with a strong chin and high cheekbones: Marcus’ face.

“It is you,” said Tyler.  “But how?”

“You were in trouble,” Marcus said. “So I came.”

Tyler was so grateful that he didn’t argue, didn’t question, just lay there in Marcus’ arms and breathed in and out.  For a long time they sat like that, until finally Tyler became worried Marcus would be caught and kept in chains like him.

“You have to leave me,” Tyler said.  “They’ll catch you.”

“No one will catch me.”

“They don’t leave me alone for long.  They’ll come back and they’ll find you.”

“Shhh…” Marcus brushed his fingers through Tyler’s hair, straightening it and pulling it back from his face.  “I’m only real to you, Tyler.  No one else can see me or hear me.  They won’t know I’m here.”

Tyler wasn’t sure what to make of this.  “Only real to me? Am I imagining this?”

“In a way,” Marcus said.  “But I am here.”

“Here,” Tyler said.  “I don’t even know where here is.  I don’t know how I got here.  I only know they won’t let me go.”

Marcus propped him up and held him close.  “But are you even sure you want to go?”

“What?”

 

___

 

His body jolted against the side of the bus as it swerved. Tyler put a hand out to steady himself.  Though he couldn’t see, he knew the inside of the school bus well enough to remember where the driver’s seat was in front of him.  He placed his right hand there and his left against the side of the bus.

There was a flash then.  For just a moment, Tyler saw something, a flash of light around an outline.

“Oh!” he exclaimed, reaching up a hand to touch the cloth wrapped around his head.  “My eyes!”

Then he saw a point of light, a point that opened before him to reveal the front of the bus, the driver, and the night outside.  The driver had craned his neck around, looking back at the passengers.

“What are you doing?” Tyler said. “Look forward!”  But he couldn’t resist looking around himself.  He pulled the cloth away from his head and found he could see the interior of the bus and its passengers dimly, as if seen through a thick smoke.

They appeared to be sitting in the same places they had before.  Strangest, though, was the bizarre shape next to him, not exactly a man or a woman, but a red outline in the mist.

The bus gained speed, and Tyler gaze snapped forward, unable to stop.

 

___

 

“I can’t look,” Marcus said.  He buried his face in Tyler’s shoulder.

Tyler laughed.  He had spent the last couple of weeks giving Marcus lessons in Salsa as well as a couple of other ballroom style dances, in order to prepare for musical auditions.  This particular show had several musical numbers as well as scenes that took place with background dancing.  Their theatre director was all but certain to use dance students for most of those background scenes.  Tyler was pretty positive he’d end up in the chorus for his skill in dance alone.  Marcus on the other hand was a nervous wreck.

Tyler edged his way through the throng of students crowding the bulletin board.  The cast list had clearly been posted, or there wouldn’t be such a mass of bodies flocking to the board.  Some were walking away immediately, others clapping and hugging each other.

“Come on,” Tyler said.  “You know you want to look.”

“You look for me,” Marcus said, turning his head away. “I can’t stand this.”

“Okay, okay,” Tyler said, chuckling.  He scanned the chorus area.  Finally, his grin widened.  “Marcus, you’re gonna want to see this. I promise.”

Marcus turned his head back to the board, hand over his mouth.

Tyler reached up a hand and placed one finger next to the name MARCUS VILLALOBOS.

Hand or no hand, Marcus couldn’t contain his excitement.  He jumped up and down and one hand dug into Tyler’s arm.

“Oww!” Tyler laughed, wincing.

“Sorry, sorry.”  Marcus kept scanning the cast list.  “Where’s your name?”

Tyler’s grin dropped.  “Umm…huh.” He didn’t find his name.  He double and triple-checked, but his name was nowhere in the chorus.  “I guess I didn’t get in,” he said, disappointment creeping into his voice.

Marcus’ grip on his arm became a vise.  “OHMIGOD!”  He raised a hand as Tyler had, only his finger didn’t stop at the chorus.  It slid up and up the cast list, resting at the very top.

Tyler’s eyes blinked.  TYLER CHAMBERS, the name read.

“You’re the star!” Marcus began jumping again.  “You’re the STAR!”

Other students started clapping Tyler on the shoulder and giving congratulations.  Tyler’s lips split in a bright smile as they milled around him, patting him on the back and shaking his hand.  Of course it was true.  It had to be true, it was who he was.

I’m a star.

 

That night, Tyler dreamed he was drowning.  Cold water welled up around him, but he couldn’t swim up or away.  When he tried, he found himself blocked by a metal boundary.  A rapidly vanishing pocket of air allowed him to lift his head up and see where he was: the inside of a school bus.  But when he swam back down, pulling himself along by the rows of leather seats, he found no way out.  Just row after row of seats with no door.  When he swam back up, he found the pocket of air above had disappeared. There was no way to breathe, no way to escape.

Something took hold of his leg, pulling him down.  Tyler turned to look, and found the rotted carcass of a dog hanging from his leg.  Its jaws were fastened around his ankle, its dead face frozen in a rictus of anger.

“Max!” Tyler cried as he bolted upright in bed.  Sweat drenched his face.

There came a tapping at his window.  Confusion flooded Tyler’s mind. For a moment, he didn’t understand where or when he was.  As the dream faded, he tried to remember the vision of the dog or why it mattered.  Why had he shouted the name Max?  He had owned a few dogs when he was younger, but none of them had been named Max, had they?

Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap.

He turned to the window and saw Marcus’ face framed between the crack in the drapes.

Tyler unlocked the window and slid it open.  “What are you doing here?” he whispered.

“Couldn’t sleep,” Marcus whispered with a grin.  “Too amped up from today.  Come out with me.”

“Hang on.”

 

It took a few minutes for Tyler to grab his clothes and slip them on.  He raised his hand to his mouth and breathed into it, smelling it.  It smelled okay, but he didn’t trust himself, so he gave his mouth a quick squirt of breath freshener just in case.

His heart was beating a little faster as he joined Marcus outside. Stop being an idiot, he thought to himself, but he couldn’t help stealing glances at Marcus’ toned arms and legs in the moonlight.  Tyler found his mind turning back to their dance lessons, and the feel of Marcus’ skin under his touch.

For his part, Marcus seemed unable to look away from Tyler at all, and he couldn’t wipe the grin off his face as they walked together.

Tyler’s family owned a large property, nearly ten acres, most of which was behind the house.  Tyler had often commented that it was like having his own football field, except it was dotted with trees.  A stable stood near the back fence, but it was unused.  His father had not bought or kept horses for many years.  Tyler had only dim memories of riding them as a child, but they had mostly faded away, like old photographs left in the sun.

Tyler and Marcus found their way to the white gazebo standing near the other corner of the lot.  A bench ran around all but two sides of the gazebo structure.  They sat on the wooden bench together, Tyler with one arm over the back and one leg propped up beside him, facing Marcus.

“How does your family afford all this?” Marcus asked.

“My dad,” said Tyler.  “He’s an attorney, has a lot of rich clients.”

“This isn’t rich?” Marcus asked, laughing.

Tyler shrugged.  “Not compared to them, I guess.  He has politicians, movie producers…”

“Whoa.  That’s why you said he knows agents.”

“Friends of friends,” Tyler said, nodding.

“So why haven’t you gotten into movies yet?” Marcus asked, smiling.  “You could have been a star by now.”

Tyler laughed.  “Thanks for your confidence.”  Marcus’ eyes met his and their gazes locked for a bit before Marcus looked away.  “My parents wanted me to finish high school first.  Mom was pretty emphatic about it.  But probably when I’m a senior I’ll meet some of them and get things started.”

“And then you’ll run off to Hollywood or something,” Marcus said.

Tyler leaned his head back and let out one laugh, then looked back.  “Yep, I’m just gonna run off and forget everyone.”

“Shut up,” Marcus said, punching him lightly on the arm.  He couldn’t resist smiling, though.  After a moment, Marcus turned to him and added, “I’m glad you stayed in school.”

Tyler’s eyes again met his.  “Me too.”

He leaned forward and took Marcus’ face in his hands, kissing him.  Marcus responded eagerly, his breath quickening and his hands reaching around to pull Tyler into him.  Tyler leaned him back against the side of the gazebo and continued kissing him, running his hands over Marcus’ arms and chest.  Marcus’ heart was beating harder than his own, and Tyler felt a slight tremble at his touch.

When they came up for breath, Marcus said, breathlessly, “I thought…but I wasn’t sure, sure you were.”

“Were what?”

“Gay,”

Tyler laughed.  “I don’t like labels.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means,” Tyler said, kissing him again, “that I can be with,” and again, “whoever I want…”

___

 

A gust of cold air washed over Tyler, blowing from the rafters of the darkened theatre where he was kept imprisoned.  The flesh of his wrists was chafed raw and bleeding, but Tyler fought to suppress the pain as he struggled to his feet.  His chains were heavy, and he was weak and tired, but he managed to lift them.  “Of course I want to get out of-” He stopped. “What just happened?”

Marcus stood.  “What do you think happened?”

“There was…it’s like I was here for a moment, and then…” Tyler shook his head.  “I’m not sure.”

“Somewhere else?”

“Yes,” Tyler said.  “It doesn’t make sense.”

“Maybe it does, you just don’t know how yet.”

“Since when do you talk like a fortune cookie?” Tyler asked.

Marcus laughed.  “Since I died, I guess.”

“Just get me out of here!”

“I’m sorry, Tyler,” Marcus said.  “I can’t get you out of here.  Only you can do that.  And I’m still not entirely sure that’s what you want.”

Tyler balled his fists and shook them, yanking his chains and rattling them.  “Why are you saying that?  Of course I want out! They’ve been keeping me prisoner here!”

“Where is here, though?” Marcus asked.  “How did you come to be here?”

Tyler struggled to remember.  The last thing he could picture was-

“Gwendolyn.”  He recalled her face, eyes glowing red, her mouth a vicious grin.  “I tried to stop her, use my power on her, but she…”  Tyler’s hand went to his face, felt the cloth that covered the holes where his eyes had once been.  “She took my eyes.”

Marcus put an arm around him.

“And then… then I just woke up here.”

Marcus rubbed his back.  The sensation was marvelous.  “And what is here, Ty?”

“A theatre, I think.” Tyler raised his hands.  “I can’t see, but I hear them.  Announcer, cheering crowds.  They call me ‘The Blind Bard’. Star of the Worlds of Dance.”

“Wow,” Marcus said.  “Cheers, adulation, adoring crowds.  Tyler Chambers, a star at last.”

Tyler lowered his head.  He didn’t like where this was going.  Marcus was starting to sound less like his Marcus and more like the other one, the alternate reality version whose light powers had threatened to blind Tyler at the army base.

Marcus leaned close, whispering in his ear.  “Just what you always wanted.”

___

 

The school bus sailed through the void between worlds, swerving and jolting as Carl picked his way, but Tyler didn’t see or feel it.  His vision continued to open up before him, and as it did he saw past the window. The first time this had happened he had been astonished, but this time it almost felt familiar.  He concentrated on absorbing the information shown him.

Vast cosmic shapes unwound and rolled apart, separating into gigantic clouds of galaxies and then, further, to individual spinning galaxies of every shape and size.

Tyler stared as the multiverse sped past him.  The vision zoomed past.  The bus drove on, and Tyler’s gaze plunged into the barred spiral of the Milky Way galaxy itself.

___

 

Tyler body twirled, performing a windmill move that brought his legs into the air, helicoptering as he rolled in a circle.  He then segued into a back spin before flipping backward onto his feet and bowing to the crowd, which broke into spontaneous applause.

The night air felt cool on his face and he bowed once more, soaking it in.  This wasn’t even a dance floor, technically, just a smooth wooden stage area where some carnival gamesman or barker was supposed to be entertaining passers by at this street fair.  Tyler had no idea where the fellow had gone or when this crowd had started to gather around him.  All he knew was that it was impossible for him to pass a potential dance floor without getting in a few moves.

Three girls surrounded him.  They had been standing at the front of the crowd, eyes wide, watching him with amazement.  One of them, a girl with long, curly blonde locks and thick, heavily lined eyelashes, pressed a piece of paper into Tyler’s hand before he knew what was happening.

“Oh,” Tyler looked down at her hastily scrawled number. Call me! the note said, with a tiny heart at the base of the exclamation point.  “Thanks.”

“Are you a break dancer?” She asked, then realizing how the question sounded, she tacked on, “I mean, professionally and stuff?”

“No. Not yet anyway,” Tyler said with a wink.  “To be honest, b-boying isn’t really my style.  It’s not my favorite.”  He looked down at his watch.  Marcus should have been there by now, he thought.  They had planned to meet a half an hour ago.

It had been two years since their night in the gazebo, and Tyler and Marcus had continued to see each other.  At first they were inseparable, talking for hours every day and spending every free moment together, but lately Tyler wasn’t sure what exactly was happening.  For one thing, while Tyler continued to be more and more popular among the theatre and dance students, and garnered more and more starring roles and acclaim, Marcus had gotten a few parts here and there and had largely segued into doing crew for the performances, in part just to be near Tyler.  Tyler had tried to coach him, but it was obvious that Marcus was not going to be in dance or theatre long term.  He talked of helping his parents out at their restaurant, and maybe moving toward that as a career, while for Tyler there was no future he would consider in which he did not move to Hollywood to pursue stardom.

“What’s your favorite,” the girl, whose name, according to her scribbling, was Tara.

“Tap!” Tyler said happily.  He gently reached out and cleared some space, then began tapping out a few steps.  “I never get tired of tap.”

The girls stepped back and Tyler continued, tapping out a rhythm and beginning to mix in some other things, which was his favorite thing to do.  The whirls and leaps kindled something in him, reminding him of that first glimpse he had had into the world of dance, as a child, looking up into that television screen.

The crowd burst into applause again, and all of a sudden, Tyler saw something: Marcus’ face, in the middle of the crowd, looking up at him.  There he is! What is he doing?

Tyler stopped and raised a hand to wave at Marcus, and the crowd surged forward, cheering and even presenting papers and pens to get Tyler’s autograph.  Marcus raised a hand to wave back, but with Tyler no longer looking he lowered it in awkward embarrassment.

Tyler smiled and tried to politely decline, but they were so kind and their appreciation so genuine that he was swept up in the moment.  He took a pen and began signing papers and books, and fair programs and whatever else the people offered.  He looked up to see Marcus further back, nudged by the crowd and left on the outskirts of their feverish pursuit of Tyler’s signature.

“Okay, I’ll do one more,” Tyler said, clearing space again.  The crowd backed off.  “I’ll need a volunteer dance partner for this one, though.” He raised his hand.

Marcus took this as a cue and started to step forward, but Tara rushed in and took Tyler’s hand before he made a step.  Tyler didn’t seem to mind.  He flashed his brightest smile at her, and moved her into position for the beginning of a traditional salsa dance.

As the dance began, Marcus turned and walked away.

Tyler had to move slowly to guide his rookie partner, but the audience wouldn’t be aware of that much.  They’d only see, as he did as a toddler, the whirls and collisions, the stars moving together and swinging apart.  The entire universe in the form of two-

A flash went off inside Tyler’s eyes.

“Ah!” he cried, faltering in his steps.  Tara stumbled against him.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“I’m not…ah!”  More flashes.  He clapped his hands to his eyes, but somehow he could still see them, right through his eyelids.  Tyler opened his eyes and stared down at his hands.  The skin was fading away, bone and muscle too.  His eyes dialed open, and his vision zoomed into the materials that made up his flesh.

Tyler looked up.  “Marcus!” he called.  “Marcus, where are you?”

Marcus was gone, but Tyler’s eyes revealed the structures that whirled and danced inside everyone in the crowd.  There were worlds inside him.  There were worlds inside them.

There are worlds inside all of us.  How could I have forgotten that?

Tyler leapt from the stage-

___

 

-and snapped back as his chains reached the limits of their reach.  Tyler’s arms jolted backward and his feet went out from under him.  He swung backward like a pendulum on its return arc, coming to a rest, finally, hanging straight down, his feet scraping the stage.

“What was that?” he asked.  “What the hell was that?”

“The past,” said a voice from the back of the theatre.  Tyler heard the sound of doors banging shut and a grating scrape of metal on metal.

“Who’s there?”

“That should hold them, at least temporarily.” The voice moved closer, until the unknown man who was its source stood inches from Tyler.

“Who are you?” Tyler asked.

“It’s me, Tyler,” the man said, grasping the chains around Tyler’s left arm.  “It’s Carl. Carl Macklin.”

Try as he might, Tyler’s mind couldn’t connect what he heard with anything resembling a memory.  “Who? Carl…?”

The man stopped fumbling with his chains and placed his hands on Tyler’s shoulders.  “Carl. Macklin. From the bus.”

“Carl…ohhh…Bus Driver Carl…”

“Yes,” Carl said with a note of irritation, “Bus Driver Carl.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Really?” Carl scoffed.  “I’m here to get you out.  I thought that would be obvious.”

Tyler wasn’t sure how to respond.  Of all the possibilities of escape or rescue, he certainly had never imagined Carl would feature in the scenario.  The last time he had seen Carl, he had been on the ground staring at Gwendolyn wide-eyed.  This also had the added fun of being one of the last things Tyler had seen before his eyes were boiled out his head by the very same being.  Things had gone downhill from there, in a hurry.

“Thanks, I think,” Tyler said.

“Don’t thank me yet,” Carl said, switching his attention to the cuff on Tyler’s right arm.  “These cuffs aren’t locked, or bolted.  Not even a seam in the metal.  How did they get them on you?”

“I’m not sure,” Tyler said.  “I remember lying on the ground.  I remember…Becca.  She sided with Gwendolyn.  She betrayed us.  I don’t remember anything after that until waking up here in chains.”

Carl shook the chain. “Well this is hopeless unless I can figure out a way to open them.  That or break your hands.”

Tyler was silent.

“Look, don’t blame Becca,” Carl said.  “She only did what I told her.”

“What? Why would you tell her to do that?”

Carl chest jumped but only a short, dry laugh emerged.  “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”  Noting the look on Tyler’s face, he added, “I’ll explain once we get you out of here.”

“He can’t get those chains off of you,” Marcus’ voice said.  “No one can.”

“Marcus?” Tyler raised his head.

“Haven’t seen him,” Carl replied, misunderstanding.  “Is he here somewhere?”

Something banged on the theatre doors, but the bar Carl had slid into place held.  Angry howls rose outside.

“Damn,” Carl said.  “I was hoping they wouldn’t come back so soon.”

“Why can’t anyone get me out?” Tyler asked.

“I told you, the chains are solid, no locks,” Carl answered.

“I’m not talking to you.”

Marcus put a hand to his face.  “If I could get you out, I would.  But these chains are yours.  You made them, only you can break them.”

“Who are you talking to?” Carl asked.

“Marcus,” Tyler told him.  “What do you mean, I made them?  I didn’t make anything.”

“You might as well have.”

“You’re talking to Marcus?” Carl looked around.  “Is Marcus here with us now?”

“I didn’t make these chains.” Tyler rattled the chains, hard enough to open the wounds on his wrists and send blood spattering to the stage.  “I don’t want to be here!”

“I don’t see him in any of the timelines,” Carl said.

“I didn’t want this…”

“Tyler!” Carl grasped his arm. “IS MARCUS HERE WITH US NOW?”

“I told you, I’m only real to you,” Marcus said.

Tyler shook his head.  “No…he’s not here…he’s dead.”

Carl cocked his head, then looked around once more.

At that moment, something heavy was brought to bear against the stage doors.  The entire wall shook, and the door and bar visibly jumped, exposing short lengths of the bolts attaching them.

“They’re going to get in here.  There are too many of them,” Carl said.  “Dammit! I haven’t seen enough yet.”

“Enough of what?” Tyler asked.

“The future,” Carl said.  “Your future.”

“The past, the future,” Tyler tried to laugh but couldn’t.  “What are you even talking about?”

“You saw it,” Carl answered.  “You were there.  Fragments of time are drifting around us. Occasionally you pass through them, and see your own past or future.”

“I…what? I saw something, but…”

“You were dancing in a street fair.  A girl with curly hair was dancing with you.”

Tyler’s mouth dropped.  “How could you possibly know about that?”

“I saw the bubble pass over you,” Carl said.  “There are others, with the future inside them.  Inside it, we’re on the school bus again.  That’s the one I need to see.  I need to see exactly why we’re there and what we’re doing?”

“We…you and me?”

“No,” Carl said, “All of us.”

“So we do get out of here, then.”

Carl was silent for a moment.  “Maybe.  I can see the time bubbles but I don’t see the actual timelines that lead us from here to there.”

BLAMMMMM!  Again the door shook on its hinges.

“I remember it now.  My powers came back.  For just a second, I could see inside everyone in the crowd.”

“I saw it too,” Carl said.  “But right now we have big problems.  In all the timelines I can see, they come through those doors, and there are too many of them for me to kill.”

“I could do it, if I had my powers,” Tyler said.  “If I could see.”

Marcus’ voice came from behind him.  He was standing so close Tyler could feel breath on the back of his neck.  “What is power anyway? You already know what’s inside us, and what we’re inside.  Do you really have to see it?”

“I can’t change what I can’t see,” Tyler said.

“Change yourself,” Marcus said.  “When you choose to do that, nothing will keep you here.”

Carl stepped back.  “Get ready, here comes another o—“

___

 

Tyler’s sight returned as he found himself again on the school bus.

Millions of stars filled Tyler’s vision, but as he sped past them there were soon only thousands, then hundreds.  They swirled through space, moving closer and closer together.

Tyler could only stare as the circle of his vision grew smaller and smaller, making it almost seem as if he were growing larger, and revealing to him still smaller phenomena.

Stars died and were born anew.  Asteroids hurtled through the void.  Comets streaked past.

As the bus continued its voyage through the darkness, Tyler’s vision sailed out of the night and skipped onto the curve of the Earth.

___

 

Now that Tyler had experienced the time jumps, it was like his mind had expanded. This time, he was aware of the shift.  He found himself sitting at a table covered with fine cloth.  His parents, Kyle and Molly Chambers, sat to either side of him, dressed very nicely, his father in a grey suit and his mother in an elegant black gown.  Looking down at himself, he found he too was wearing his nicest suit and tie.  Surrounding him were the sounds of light conversation and the clinking of forks against plates.  They had come to the nicest steak restaurant in town, at his father’s insistence and expense, to meet the man sitting across from him.

“This is delicious,” the man said, savoring a bite of his steak.  Tyler found he couldn’t remember the man’s name.  He was pretty sure his last name started with C.  First name…Ian? Isaac?

The stage accident which had left Tyler blind wasn’t far in his future now.  Not far at all.

“Tyler?” His father nudged him.

“Oh, uh, yeah.” Tyler cut a piece and chewed it.  “Really good.”

“When you get out to L.A.,” the man said, “I’ll take you to a place out there that’s out of this world.”

“Great,” Tyler said, feigning enthusiasm.  He remembered this meeting.  The man, whose name Tyler was fairly certain was Ian, was an agent, and a friend of a friend of his father’s.  Tyler was here to sign with him.  It was his dream, one he had worked toward for years, and at long last this was the beginning of it.  But something had nagged at him the entire night, something he had pushed away and dismissed: the look on Marcus’ face as he had blown him off leaving the theatre that night.

He looked gutted, absolutely crushed.  Because of me.  I picked this over him.

Tyler was struck with sudden inspiration.  “Maybe Marcus could come out with me?”

His father froze with a piece of steak hanging on his fork, mouth open to receive it.

“Oh, honey, we talked about this,” Tyler’s mother said.

“I know.” Tyler said as his father placed his fork back on the table and glared at him.  “I just thought, why not? We’ll both be graduating.  There’s no reason it can’t work.”

“Who’s Marcus?” Ian asked. “Friend of yours?”

Tyler’s father cut him off before he could answer.  “Yes, a school friend.  They’re practically inseparable.”

Tyler felt his face flush.  If only that were true, but lately he had been separating himself from Marcus only too well.

Ian chuckled.  “You’ll be busy meeting producers and casting directors and going for auditions, even taking acting lessons.  Yes, more acting lessons, always more. Acting, dance, voice lessons.”

“You’ll be too busy, honey,” Molly chimed in, then took a sip of her wine.

“Plus, you’ll probably meet lots of girls,” Ian said with a wink.  “You won’t have time for friends.”

His father clapped him on the shoulder. “Tyler likes the ladies. Isn’t that right, son.”

“Yeah, I like girls,” Tyler said.

His father nodded, a satisfied smile on his face, and went back to eating his steak.  Tyler took a long sip of water from his glass, then set it down and placed both hands on the table in front of him.

“But I LOVE Marcus.”

Kyle Chambers coughed and sputtered.  “Now, Ty…”

“Marcus isn’t my friend, sir,” Tyler said to Ian, “he’s my boyfriend.

“Tyler,” his mother pleaded.

“No, Mom, no.” Tyler cleared his throat.  “My parents mean well, but they’ve known I like boys and girls for a long time.  We’ve had lots of conversations about it.  They know I’ve been dating Marcus, and they’re okay with that.  They just thought it would be better if it didn’t come up tonight.” He exchanged a look with his father.  “Or ever, to be honest.”

His father sighed and turned his eyes to Ian to gauge his reaction.

For his part, Ian didn’t seem all that surprised.  He took the news in stride.  “I see.”  He cut another piece of stead and chewed it, considering.  “Well, I appreciate your honestly, Tyler. You won’t be my first gay client, I assure you.”

“Tyler isn’t gay,” Kyle said.  “We don’t like labels.”

Tyler thought back to all the times he had said that exact phrase.  Had he been speaking with his father’s voice every time?

“Fair enough,” said Ian.  “Let me be frank. The world is changing. We’ve come a long way since Anne Heche came out. Being open about a same sex relationship doesn’t mean your career is over, you could certainly still get parts, and professional dance companies are certainly a possibility.  But I’ve seen you perform, Tyler.  And I know your father’s connections.  No matter what anyone says, who you know is a major factor.  You’re not headed for just any career.  You have a big future.  You’re going to be a star.”

Tyler was silent, his eyes locked with Ian’s.

“Now, I’m not telling you not to be with the person you love,” Ian said.  “But, no matter how far the world has come, I’m not telling you it won’t matter.”

“It’ll matter,” his father said bluntly. “It’ll matter a lot.”

“Dancing, performing…that’s been my dream for a long time,” Tyler said.  “But you’re talking about…about being a prisoner.”

“There’s no reason anything has to be forever,” Ian said.  “Come out, get your career going, and there’ll be plenty of time to bring Marcus out later.  Hell, by that time you may have met someone else and it won’t matter at all.  You’re young.”  He reached into his briefcase and brought out some papers, laying them on the table.

“What do you say? Ready to be a star?”

Tyler closed his eyes.  Everything the man was saying made sense.  But this time around Tyler had seen his future.  He knew what was coming: the stage accident, the bus crash.  He was looking at a future where Marcus was gone, and would never return to his life.  The first time around, he had signed those papers.

I was blind, even before the accident.  So blind.  Oh, Marcus…

Tyler knew what he had to do.

“My first memory is of the dance,” he said.

“Um, what now?” Ian said.

Tyler opened his eyes.  With a flash, the worlds inside and out revealed themselves to his power.

“I was just a toddler, looking up at a television screen.  Two people dancing together.  But I saw the universe.  I saw the whole world in those two dancing together.”

Ian frowned, not understanding.

“I love Marcus.  That’s the world to me.  The two of us, together.  I learned from my dad not to like labels,” Tyler said, “so it’s true, I’m not gay.  But I choose Marcus over anything else.  So you’re wrong about your label too, Ian.”

The agent waited, eyebrow raised.

“I’ll never be a star.”

Tyler stood up.

“Son, what are you doing?” His father looked baffled.

“Carl, are you there?” Tyler said, looking around. “How do I get back?”

His mother stood, placing a hand on him. “What is it, honey? What’s wrong?”

Tyler saw it then, several feet away.  It was like a discontinuity, a break between the worlds in front and behind it.  It was shifting, undulating like a bubble in a breeze, and the worlds behind it looked strange, as if seen through the rippling surface of a lake.

“Everything, Mom.” Tyler moved toward the boundary. “Everything’s gone wrong.  But I’m going to fix it, I promise.  You, dad, Marcus…Max.  I’m going to—“

___

 

Tyler’s wrists jerked against his chains.  He was back in the theatre.

“They’re coming through!” Carl picked up his weapon from where he had dropped it and raised aiming toward the door.  The bangs were coming faster now, and the hinges were clearly about to tear completely free.

“Take my hand,” Tyler said.

“What?”

“I know what we have to do.  Put your left hand in mine. Now.”

Carl gaped at him. “Are you serious? They’re going to kill us!”

BANGGGG! BANNNGGGGGG!

“DO IT,” Tyler commanded.

Carl took a deep breath and set down the weapon.  He placed his left hand in Tyler’s right.  “Now what?”

“Now put your right arm around me.”

Carl did as instructed, but he kept craning his neck, trying to keep his eyes on the door.

“Follow my lead,” Tyler said.

“I can see every possible timeline,” Carl said.  “We’re going to die. We have to find a way—“

“Shhh…” The corner of Tyler’s mouth turned upward.  “Seeing isn’t everything. Trust me.”

“But you can’t possibly dance with these chains on.”

“You’d be surprised,” Tyler said.  “Besides, we’re only going to do a simple box step.  The most basic dance two people can do.  Just focus.”

“But…”

BAANNNNGGGGGG CRAACKKK!

“Relax,” Tyler said.  “We’re only dancing for our lives.”

Carl looked down at his feet.  He hadn’t danced since his high school prom, and his date had complained bitterly every time he stepped on a toe.

“Relax,” Tyler breathed.  “Follow my lead.  Back, left, forward, right.  Back, left, forward, right.”

Carl followed the steps.

“There are worlds inside all of us,” Tyler said.  “But we’re worlds too, part of something much larger.”

The door exploded off its hinges and the apes poured into the darkened theatre, screaming and raising weapons in their direction.

“Spinning, whirling in space.” Tyler’s feet moved faster, and Carl’s mirrored his.  “Flinging apart, plunging together.  Colliding.  Becoming one.”

The apes surrounded them.

“Exploding.”

The apes fired.  A storm of bullets erupted into the air.

A bomb detonated in Tyler’s mind.  He lifted his head.

The bullets stopped.

Tyler could sense them, frozen in mid-air, all around him.  He could feel the worlds inside them, and he held them in place.  Once, he had needed to see his target.  Even blinking would release the worlds to spin again.  Things had changed.

The apes lowered their weapons and barked confused sounds at each other.

“Sorry, boys,” Tyler said.  “Show’s canceled.”

The chains holding him melted away.  A wave passed outward and the bullets vanished, their atoms scattered to the air.  As it crested over the apes, circles of stone appeared where their bodies met the wave and spread out over them, transforming them into solid statues in a ring around the stage.  The apes cried out in pain, then fell silent as the stone sealed their throats forever.

Carl looked around, bewildered.  “The timelines.  You did something, changed them.  How?”

Tyler smiled.  “I didn’t change them.  I changed myself.  But I’m not done yet.”

He raised his arms and there were strange sounds from the rafters.

“I’ll never be a prisoner again.”

Parts of the structure began to vanish.  One after another the beams, bolts, nails and screws blew away, their atomic structures spinning apart.  The lighting fell first, crashing down toward them, but it was as if Tyler had erected a field around them.  Anything passing through the field disintegrated instantly.  Metal, wood, and other building materials fell, hammering the stage around them but never touching them.

Tyler hopped off the stage.  Carl followed closely.

Raising his hand, Tyler sent the worlds in the wall flying apart and the entire thing came down.  He expected daylight, but as the back wall of the theatre fell it revealed a tiny chamber in which one lone ape sat on a tiny, wheeled chair.  He wore a headset with a small microphone.

The ape cowered in fear.

“PLEASE!” The ape’s voice boomed over the remaining loudspeakers as he spoke.  “DO NOT HURT ME!”

“So,” Tyler said.  “You’re the announcer.”

“YOU CAN’T DO THIS!  YOU’RE NOT MEANT TO DO THIS!  YOU’RE THE BLIND BARD!  YOU’RE THE STAR!”

Tyler approached him.  “There is no audience.  Only you.  Did you enjoy watching me be tortured?”

“YOU’RE THE STAR!  THE STAR!”

“Not anymore.”  Tyler gestured, and the worlds inside the Announcer began to vibrate, faster and faster.  A white point appeared in his chest and spread out, instantly combusting and consuming him until all that was left was a pile of ash.

A hole appeared in the second wall.

“Let’s go,” Tyler said, stepping through it.

Behind them, the rest of the theatre came crashing down.

___

 

There was something in the distance.

Tyler saw down roads and through towns, over fields and across the river and bridge.  He saw a school bus approach, bus 313, and soon he saw inside the bus itself.  He saw past the driver to himself sitting in the first row.  This was the plan, Tyler knew.  He had looked through space and time and now could even see himself, the past version of himself who had just crossed the barrier into the void.

Tyler poured all the information into his past self.  Everything he had seen of the universe, starting with the roads and towns and fields, leaving the curve of the Earth and plunging into space. Comets and asteroids and stars, vast fields of stars and galaxies. Beyond the galaxies, he showed his past self the mind-boggling hugeness of the shapes that made up the cosmic web, and ultimately, beyond and greater than even those, the true form of the multiverse itself.  He knew that the final image his past self saw would be so strange and vast that it beggared the mind, destroyed imagination, and defied understanding, but he had no choice but to send it.  His past self would behold it, and his mind would recoil, but there was no other way.

Because at the end of all things, the beginning and end of this new universe they meant to create, there was a face, and that face was Tyler’s own.

His mission complete, job done, Tyler let go and felt the world fade around him as his form dissolved away.

 

___

 

Tyler found himself and Carl on the border of his strange prison.  Though he could not see, he sensed that outside it was a barren wasteland.  He looked back as the discontinuity, what Carl had called a bubble, drifted away.

“What does it mean?” Tyler asked. “The future on the bus?”

“I’m not sure yet.” Carl shrugged.  “I think each of us has a piece of the plan, some part of the mission.  I won’t know how it all makes sense until I see them all.”

“How do we find them all?”
Carl pointed a finger.  “I can see new timelines now.  We need to go this way.”

Tyler stood for a moment, pondering.  “Two times before, I’ve trusted you.  And two times before I found out trusting you is a bad move.”

“I know,” Carl said.

“Let me make this very clear,” Tyler said.  He lifted a hand and Carl froze in place.  Stone appeared at his chest and spread outward to cover his body, then his flesh and clothing slowly reappeared.

Released from the hold, Carl fell to his knees and gasped.

Tyler stood over him.  “If there’s a third time, you will regret it.”

Carl nodded, clutching his chest.

“Good,” Tyler said.  “Lead the way.”

 

NEXT: THE UNBRIDLED FURY

“The truth about you.”

© 2014 by J. David Clarke

All Rights Reserved

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