This is the story of a parallel universe. Henry, a meek young-adult who is following the crowd and never doing anything on his own, decides to make some changes in his life. The problem? He is doing it for the wrong reasons.
When I started writing this story, I was thinking of it as a horror story. It does have elements of horror, but for the most part, it contains a lot more suspense. One of my good friends and editors said that it reminded him of The Twilight Zone, and I wasn’t surprised since that is the kind of show I watched and it influenced me. I’d like you to read it and tell me what you think about it. I can’t wait.
Henry was beginning to get obsessed with the gym. Sometimes he would skip school to spend more time working out. At home, life was a living hell, where his parents and even his younger sister made fun of him. In fact, everyone in his family looked down on him. Therefore, being in a place where he was welcomed was important. Henry lacked confidence, and he would often look into the mirror, trying to look for that inner self he felt he had, that part of him that was capable of doing the things he feared to do. One of the fears he had, perhaps the biggest of all, was the water.
People call it “aquaphobia,” and Henry knew the fear was irrational. Still, he couldn’t help being frightened at any body of water. The ocean may kill you, but the chances to die under a shower at home are zero. Zip. Nothing. On his search for a more confident existence, Henry thought of the water and how the fear started. Henry had been very young; he barely recalled what age he was. During a family vacation, some cousins threw him into a pool. They spent a good minute laughing at Henry as he tried to get out of the water. And they did this over and over again. The experience stayed with him, bringing memories of his moments of anguish back to mind every time he looked at a pool.
The gym he went to, the 24-Hour Fitness in downtown Santa Barbara, had a pool he so diligently tried to ignore every time he was there. A three-story building, the gym’s last floor was buried underneath, and to get there, people had to go down a flight of stairs. The ladies’ locker room sat back, on the left side, whereas the men’s room had a place closer to the stairs and the elevator. And finally, staring back at you, on the right side, there was a glass door and a see-through wall, putting in display a beautiful, seemingly non-threatening pool.
Sometimes, before entering the men’s locker room, Henry would try to find the courage to take a look at it. But it never lasted more than three seconds. Inside there, to the left, there was also a sauna and a steam room. Henry had heard of these things because Ryan and Joshua, his best friends, would go there after working out. It was some sort of a ritual for them. Jumping into the water, using the sauna, and even the steam room. But it was swimming that they loved the most and were getting ready for a competition at the YMCA.
Ryan and Joshua had come with Henry the day it happened.
And yes, there was a girl (isn’t there always?), who happened to be the receptionist at the gym. She was short and blonde, pale, yet attractive, with several tattoos that covered her left arm. The pale tone of her skin, along with the red of her uniform, gave those tattoos a light of their own.
Henry was waiting at the reception area since Ryan had offered to give him a ride in his black Camaro after the gym. Henry was okay with waiting because as his friends swam in the pool, he would have lengthy conversations with the receptionist, making him fantasize and imagine a future with her. She seemed to like him, Henry noticed. It was the girl that made him have an obsession with the gym in the first place. The day before the incident happened, Henry was looking for books the girl liked, even eating the food she ate (vegetarian, mostly).
“I love The South Coast Deli,” she said. “Have you been?”
“No, I haven’t,” he said, adding that to the list of things he wanted to do with her.
At school, Henry was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. As he became more interested in anything that had to do with the girl at the gym, Henry decided that he wanted to study psychology. He didn’t know anything about the subject, only that it was what she was studying for. And to him, that was enough.
“And why do you like psychology?” Henry asked, still wrapping his head around the idea, which didn’t seem absurd since he was doing it in the name of love.
“I like to study people’s emotions, what makes them tick. Every time I am in front of someone who seems out of control, I like to talk to that person and find the reasons why they act the way they do.”
“That sounds cool,” Henry said, unable to hide a childish grin he started practicing. Some hot-shot Hollywood actor did it in a movie he had seen the previous night.
“It is,” the coquettish receptionist said as her left eyebrow rose, making Henry’s manhood tingle inside his pants.
“Wha– what’s your favorite hobby,” Henry asked, trying to change the subject.
“Swimming,” she said, leaving Henry speechless.
He hadn’t talked about his phobia, and a part of him was battling with itself, forcing him not to talk about it.
And the usual follow-up question ensued. “What about you?”
He wanted to please her, find things in common, and thought that it was probably a bad idea to tell her the truth. “Me too,” he said, surprised at how easy it was to lie.
But it didn’t have to be a lie, he said to himself. In fact, his friends had said they would be more than happy to teach him.
“I can see that,” she said, looking at Henry’s slim body. “You have the body of a swimmer.”
That made him blush. “Thanks.”
But then she said something he wasn’t expecting to hear. “Funny, I’ve never seen you use the pool here,” she said. “Your friends do, that’s why you wait here and talk to me while they swim.”
“Oh. Um. How do you know that?”
She pointed at a screen that was behind her. A video surveillance screen.
“Oh, ‘cause I, uh … I got a pool at home, you know. I kinda like to just be the one using it.”
“Oh, you have, like, your own pool?”
“I do,” he said, “Sometimes I swim here, but, like, not all the time.”
She leaned closer, whispering. “Well, maybe you should invite me over sometime.”
He blushed even more after hearing that, and the throbbing sensation inside his pants demanded to be acknowledged. “For sure,” he said, as his friends approached. “I’ll let you know when, uh, we can do it.”
“Can’t wait,” she said, winking at Henry as he walked away.
“See you tomorrow, then,” Henry said, joining his friends on their way out.
Ryan asked, “What was that about?”
“Are you gonna do ‘er, or what?” Joshua asked, laughing hysterically.
Henry hit him in the shoulder while laughing. “No, guys! It’s something else.”
“What is it?” Ryan asked, this time, more persistently.
“I like her, I mean, like, I really do.”
Joshua nodded with approval. “That’s cool, bro. But you’re gonna do ‘er eventually, aren’t you?”
Ryan and Joshua laughed. Henry only shook his head while looking down at the floor.
Being the most perceptive, Ryan noticed something was bothering his friend. “What’s going on?” he asked.
Henry looked up. “I kinda lied to her.”
“Oh, shit!” Joshua said. “You don’t do that, bro. I got sisters, you know, and I fucking hate it when guys lie to ’em, you know?”
“I’ve got a sister, too,” Henry said as if that meant anything. The truth was he and Tina, his younger and only sister, never got along. She spent her time ignoring her older brother and playing with a kid who lived in their apartment complex.
“That don’t count,” Joshua said. “Tina is, like, five years old.”
“I have to agree with him,” Ryan said as they approached the car. The blue sky was clean, and the warmth of the sun felt soothing. The weather never changed much in Santa Barbara. Its beauty and serenity were magnetic, unique.
Joshua said as he opened the door and led Henry into the back of the car. “That’s fucked up, man. You gotta be honest with ‘er.”
“Or,” Ryan said, as he drove away from the parking lot, “you can just learn how to swim.”
Henry shook his head, “No way! I won’t. You guys know about my fear.”
Joshua sighed, “Yeah, bro, we know, and we also wanna help.”
Ryan followed, “How many times have we told you we can teach ya?”
“Many,” Henry said. “But–“
“But nothing, man,” Ryan said. “We tried to, like, be on your side, understand your position and shit, but after today, I feel like we gotta do somethin’ different.”
“You lied to that girl,” Joshua said, “and I’m telling you if you don’t learn how to swim…” he stopped, letting Henry fill on the blank.
“You guys aren’t gonna tell ‘er, are you?”
Joshua turned back and looked at Henry, “What do you think?”
They were back at the gym on a Saturday. Waiting at the traffic light, Henry looked at the red color on top of the yellow, thinking that sometimes it seemed as though the color takes an eternity to go to green. Not today. He felt as though they had been there for just five seconds. Ryan and Joshua planned to stay longer and spend more time at the pool, teaching Henry how to swim. Luckily for him, the girl wasn’t at work that day, and he wouldn’t have to explain if she saw him using the pool.
“How do you know she isn’t here?” Ryan asked.
“‘Cause I didn’t see her at the front.”
“Who knows,” Joshua said.
His usual workout went okay. It was leg day, not his favorite, but he tried to hit every muscle he could, and because he was not looking forward to the pool, Henry was spending more time lifting weights.
Joshua noticed and called him out on it. “Dude! What the fuck! We’re gonna teach you how to swim, so hurry the fuck up!”
They made their way to the pool area, and as Henry neared the glass door, those nightmarish flashes from his childhood started to come back, making him quiver. “No, I can’t.”
“Oh, yes, you can,” Ryan said. “Joshua ain’t fuckin’ around.”
“The fuck, I ain’t.”
Henry sensed hostility. “Why are you guys so caught up on this shit?”
Joshua explained. “Remember how I told you I got sisters?”
“I know your sisters, dumb ass!”
“Whatever. One motherfucker lied to my sister Joana, and he broke her heart.”
“What did you do?”
“I broke his nose.”
“Man, you’re taking this personal.”
“Yes, I am! I ain’t letting someone who I consider my friend lie to a girl like that!”
He thought about it, looking at the glass door, then at the stairs, trying to make a decision. He didn’t tell his friends, but the previous night he had taken a bath, trying to force himself to be in the water. He was shaking, afraid to be there one more second, but thinking about the girl at the gym was somehow giving him strength and inspiration to continue. It was funny, he thought, how thinking about a girl like that can motivate you to do things you never did before.
Joshua opened the glass door, “Get in.”
Henry breathed in, looking at the threshold.
I’ve got to do this, he said to himself. In the name of love and friendship, ‘cause if I don’t, Joshua isn’t talking to me again, and I will not be able to hook up with the receptionist.
He entered the threshold, shaking, unaware of what was waiting for him on the other side.
It was just a regular three-foot-deep pool, long and narrow, where only two people could swim at a time. Its water was blue, but to Henry, it didn’t look like a regular sky blue; to him, it was darker than that. He also wasn’t sure of how long it was, but it did look gigantic. The dim lights flickered, buzzing, and humming coming out of nowhere. The people coming and going made the area look somehow more frightening once Henry was inside. Even the smell of chlorine felt uninviting as it penetrated his nostrils.
“You can even stand inside the pool,” Ryan said. “It’s not even that deep.”
“Perfect pool for you to learn,” Joshua said.
He was freaked out just by being there, inside that long, steamy, and wet room he so fervently ignored before. On the back, left side, he saw the entrance to the sauna and the steam room.
Trying hard to get out of this one, Henry said, “Aren’t you guys gonna go to the sauna first.”
“Not this time, buddy,” Ryan said. “Not this time.”
“Ok,” Joshua said. “Let’s do this slowly. We’re in no hurry.”
“What’s this?” Henry said, pointing at a smaller pool that was next to the big one. This pool was hot, steamy vapor oozing from it.
“That’s just a Jacuzzi, man,” Ryan said. “We sometimes come here and relax.”
“Can we try that one?” Henry asked, thinking of his bathtub and how easy it was for him to just get in there the previous night. He wanted to do the same thing this time, just to try and get used to it. Thoughts of the girl came back, giving him some inspiration.
Joshua and Ryan exchanged looks.
“Give ‘m a break, man,” Ryan said, looking at Joshua. “He’s trying.”
They were the first ones to get into the Jacuzzi. The water was hot and comfortable. They waited for Henry to man up and get in.
“Take your time, bro,” Ryan said, trying to be supportive.
In a way, Ryan understood Joshua’s drive and why he wanted Henry to be honest. However, he thought it would be better if they gave Henry time and tried to do things at his own pace; he wasn’t intentionally dishonest. He was just really into this girl and tried to find anything that he had in common with her.
“Thanks, man,” Henry said, glad to see his friends were doing this not because they wanted to laugh at him, but because they really wanted to help.
Joshua was getting impatient, though.
“Give ‘m a break, dude,” Ryan said again.
“Alright, alright. I’ll give ‘m a break.”
Henry got his left foot into the Jacuzzi, the hot water making him jolt as he did. His friends did not say a word, letting him try on his own. Once his right foot was inside, the descent felt a lot easier. The feeling was exuberant, and yes, negative thoughts slipped through the cracks of his mind, but he had already seen the light and was not going to give up. Once inside, he spent a good 15 minutes there, getting acclimated, trying to hold his breath underwater as much as he could, and getting ready for the pool that awaited him. It wasn’t so bad, Henry realized, thinking that he probably wasn’t as afraid as he thought he would be.
“Are you ready?” Joshua asked, and the look on his face was the same a proud parent would have after seeing his child solving a math problem independently.
Henry breathed in and sighed. “I think I am,” he said. “I think I am.”
“Let’s do it!” Ryan said, pointing at the pool once all of them were outside the jacuzzi.
They walked around the pool, looking at it attentively, but in different ways. Joshua and Ryan gave it a familiar stare, pleasant yet emotionless, the way you look at something you have seen before, and you are quite accustomed to. On the other hand, Henry thought of it as a bottomless pit that would suck him in and make him disappear.
He shook his head at that thought.
The small flight of stairs into the pool was located on the left side. Ryan and Joshua approached it and submerged right away as splashes of water flew around and crashed against Henry’s legs, inviting him to jump in. Standing on their feet, the water covered their chest area, which gave Henry even more confidence to jump in.
So, he went down, allowing himself to breathe slowly and avoid being freaked out. He threw a brief glance at the door, as though he wanted to get out and run. He also saw the clock on top of the entrance and the 24-hour Fitness sign next to it. The clock was analog, its hands killing the seconds as they went.
“What’re you looking at, man?” Joshua said, patience draining out of him.
“That’s it,” Ryan said. “Just keep coming, buddy.”
Henry’s hands grasped at the edge of the pool as he went down, and the cold of the water made him gasp when the water was covering his calves. “Fuck! This is not like the jacuzzi, man!”
“It’s not even that cold, come on!” Joshua said.
He gave a quick glance at the camera above him, still thinking of the girl. He then inhaled as deep as he could and got all the way in, yelling in bliss while standing on his two legs and splashing water around in celebration. His friends gave him hi-fives of encouragement, and as his body began to acclimate to the temperature, Henry said that he was ready to start learning.
“Stand here in the corner and see how it’s done,” Ryan said, as Joshua slid towards the right side of the pool, taking his position and getting ready.
They did brief stretches, lifting their hands up and cracking their backs, the sound making Henry blink because of how loud it was. Without wasting another minute, Ryan and Joshua started to swim. Their bodies moving expertly through the surface of the water and their hands cutting through the liquid, like knives on butter. The paddling of feet under the water made Henry think of the motor behind a boat and how it pushes the water out to stay afloat.
They swam away, and away they went, and Henry thought he would lose them if they kept swimming forward. How long is this pool? He thought to himself but opted to stay quiet and continue with the plan. Upon reaching the other side, Ryan and Joshua spun over and quickly swam back and did the same three more times, back and forth.
Once they were done, resting on the ledge, Henry looked at them and said. “I thought you guys were gonna teach me.”
“We are,” Joshua said. “We’re just catching our breath here.”
“We were just warming up, buddy,” Ryan said.
“Ok. I am ready when you are.”
Ryan started telling him the basics. “Put your hands on the ledge and float.”
Ryan put his hands on the ledge, his elbows folded and his feet paddling, as his whole body stayed afloat. “You have to hold your belly, like when you’re doing sit-ups. It’s good for your core.”
Henry looked at his weak stomach, realizing that he needed a six-pack to have a better chance with the girl. He positioned himself next to Ryan and Joshua, emulating them, tightening up his stomach and splashing water around with his feet, marveling at how easy it was to stay afloat.
“The secret is you always have to move your feet,” Joshua said. “If you don’t, you’re going down.”
“What about my hands?”
Ryan moved into the conversation, “Your hands, too. But that’s only when you’re swimming.”
“Hold your breath as much as you can,” Joshua continued, “and don’t get your head out a lot. Just when you need air, that’s it. Otherwise, you’re gonna get tired.”
“You saw how we did it?” Ryan asked.
“I did,” Henry said.
“You’re gonna try now, Joshua and I are gonna be right next to you, buddy.”
“Ok, I am ready.”
Henry felt he was going to drown, panicking as he tried to move his feet.
“Don’t freak out,” Ryan said. “We’re here.”
His mouth was open most of the time, and the chlorine’s taste was making him gag.
“Try to breathe through your nose,” Joshua said.
Ryan had an idea. “I’m gonna hold your stomach so you can get used to making it work, ok?”
Joshua did the same, putting his hands on Henry’s chest while Ryan’s hands pressed up against his belly. The only thing Henry had to focus on was moving his feet and hands the way they did it. To his surprise, Henry found it rather easy, like swimming with a lifesaver on. They pushed along the water and up towards the other end. Every now and then, Henry would lift his head to absorb as much air as he could and would continue; chlorine would also slip in, and Henry would spit it out as soon as he could. He didn’t know how long it took them to reach the other side, it felt like a lot, but he wrote it off as usual since he was pretty nervous about it. Don’t freak out, he remembered Ryan’s words, trying hard to stay calm.
When he reached the other side and clawed the edge on the pool, Henry felt like a new man.
“Ready to go back?” Joshua asked.
“Yes, I am!”
They did three more laps, Henry’s body becoming more familiar with the water as he went. Sometimes he would open his eyes under the water, even though that was a bad idea, just to see how deep it was. He noticed something about the color and saw how it seemed to get bluer as he reached the other side. He would swim back, and it was just the regular light blue it was supposed to be. He would reach the other end, and the color got darker. Henry wasn’t a scientist, but he thought that perhaps the chlorine had something to do with this.
“Are you ready to do it on your own?” Ryan asked.
Trying to catch his breath, Henry said. “I think so.”
“Just hold your belly in,” Joshua said, “and don’t stop moving your feet.”
“And my hands?”
“Yes, your hands, too,” Ryan said.
So they let him try on his own, floating and crawling alongside him, surprised, yet pleased at how easy it was for Henry to do it on his own.
“Dude!” Ryan said. “You’re good!”
“See?” Joshua followed up. “How hard was that?”
“Not hard- argh!” He tried to speak, as the water clogged his throat.
“Close your mouth!” Joshua said.
Once they were back on the light blue side of the pool, catching their breath, throwing water at each other and laughing in ecstasy like the teenagers they were, Joshua had an idea.
“Try sinking to the bottom of the pool, bro.”
Ryan gave him a look. “Not a good idea, man. He’s barely learning. You want to have a heart attack, or what?”
“We’re supposibly here to avoid that.”
“Supposedly,” Henry corrected him.
Ryan looked at Henry’s face. He didn’t seem afraid, anymore. “You wanna try it?”
Henry wiped the water off his face and took a deep breath, shivering. “How?”
“You know how to stay afloat, you gotta hold your breath and move a lot?” Joshua said.
“Well, to sink in, it’s the opposite. You gotta let all the air out and just sink in.”
The panic associated with being submerged in the water came back for a moment. Ryan and Joshua reminded Henry that they were there to help him.
“Stay down as much as you can,” Joshua said.
“All the air out?” Henry double-checked.
“Yep, just like a balloon,” Ryan said.
Joshua stepped into the conversation. “No, more like a metal, ‘cause a balloon ain’t gonna go all the way down.”
“Ok,” Henry said. “Let’s try it.”
He let all the air out and sank in, wrapping himself up in the blue underneath. He opened his eyes briefly, just to look around, and realized he was going to regret that later. He spent ten seconds there and sprang out like a spacecraft, grasping for whatever air was available on the surface. He rubbed his eyes, which were now red and itchy.
“Do it again,” Joshua said. “Try to stay down as much as you can.”
He didn’t have to tell him twice. He went down and stayed there a bit longer. He opened his eyes, and it was there when he saw it again, the blue on the other side, the blue that had a brightness of its own, weird and beautiful at the same time.
Twenty seconds later, he was out, and after catching his breath, he said, “Why is it darker on the other side?”
His friends exchanged an inquiring look.
“What are you talking about?” Ryan asked.
Henry pointed a hand towards the other end. “There. It’s like a darker shade of blue.”
Joshua rolled his eyes. “Who cares, man? Maybe they used different paint or whatever.”
“It all looks the same blue to me,” Ryan said.
Now that he was above the water, Henry also saw just the lighter shade of blue. He decided to forget about it and kept on swimming.
“Anyways. I’m gonna keep trying.”
Joshua smiled and said. “I’m glad to hear that, bro.”
“We’re gonna head to the sauna,” Ryan said, “there is no way you can drown in this pool. Just stand up and rest when you feel tired.”
“I will,” Henry said.
And that’s when they left him alone in that pool. Later, they realized they should not have done that.
Thoughts of the girl weren’t the only thing that occupied his mind. His ears perk up at the sound of the music that oozed through the speakers. Eminem’s ‘Till I Collapse” was flowing from the corners, filling the empty pool area with its beats. It was like actually having his own pool. The thought of that made him realize something: She is gonna find out I don’t really have a pool. Henry wasn’t going to let that thought derail him from his goal. When you are that deep in something, his mom once told him, you just gotta keep on going.
His mom would be disappointed if she found out he was doing this for the wrong reasons.
The wrong reasons, he thought, while swimming back and forth. The water’s fear wasn’t at the center of his thoughts anymore, but this new thought made an unexpected entrance. Am I doing this for the wrong reasons? Henry thought. He had joined the gym only because his friends were members. At first, he wasn’t so enamored with the idea, but then, after meeting that girl, everything changed.
He decided to write off this thought as something negative and moved on.
He took a long, deep breath and then submerged, acclimating himself to staying under for long periods. There was a moment when he reached thirty seconds, getting out and taking a deep gasp of air, he did it again. He focused on that feeling of exhilaration. He liked it so much he hoped it never had to end. He did it a couple more times, reaching up to forty-five seconds. Such was the emotion Henry felt that he didn’t notice the dark blue on the other side for a while. But when he did, Henry swam forward to have a closer look at it.
He swam and swam, gradually getting tired, realizing that the pool seemed to be getting longer as he went. He lifted his head a couple of times to get some air and see his surroundings. Everything was the same, except that he appeared to be at the center of the pool. He stopped, his feet touching the bottom. He wiped the water off his face and looked up at the other end. This is weird, he thought. He got back into the water and swam, moving his arms and feet like his friends suggested, opening his eyes every now and then, getting closer and closer to the blue on the other side.
The darker blue felt warmer, and he was sucked in, gulping a good chunk of water. He got his head out quickly, eyes open, but all he could see was dark all around him. He knew his eyes were open, but there was nothing there. But he didn’t give up, he didn’t panic. He swam forward and forward, thinking that he was getting tired, but could not give up now that he was nearing the other side. He opened his eyes one more time and was now able to see it. And when he reached it, the world around him changed.
Henry thought it impossible for the pool to be this long. He stood on the other end, surrounded by the now darker shade of blue. He took deep breaths, his heart throbbing as he did so. At first sight, everything was the same. Standing at the other end, the entrance to the sauna was now on his right-hand side. The Jacuzzi was at the other end by the entrance. Then there was the door, and on top of it, there was the clock.
He rubbed his eyes, thinking they were probably redder by then. The clock wasn’t exactly as he had seen it earlier. At first, he thought he saw double, but what he saw wasn’t double of anything. He saw more numbers on the clock, and its shape was now oval and slightly crooked to the right.
“What the fuck?”
It no longer had the twelve on top and the six on the bottom. Instead, there was a twenty-one on top, and the number six next to it, the number ten and the number eleven at the bottom and the number fifteen on the left-hand side. Henry didn’t know what to make of it. Sure, thinking that he was going mad was the easiest thing to do. He didn’t want to believe that, but when he looked to the right, where the gym’s sign was, Henry’s suspicion felt a lot more palpable.
42-hour Fitness, the sign read.
“42?” he said. “What the fuck is going on?”
He realized he’d just used the word ‘fuck’ twice, which wasn’t something he regularly did, but the fact that everything seemed to be wrong with the world at that moment allowed him to be a bit profane. He got out of the pool and tried to stay quiet. Droplets of water left his body as he walked away. The throbbing in his chest didn’t stop, and it was, in fact, the only noise he heard.
No more music coming out of the speakers. He thought something was going to play soon, but nothing did. Outside the pool area, through the glass, Henry hoped to see people walking in and out, up and down the stairs. But there was nothing there. He looked at the clock and the sign one more time.
“It’s 24-hour Fitness. Not 42!”
But it was 42. Henry looked at it a while longer, thinking that perhaps the chlorine in his eyes was playing tricks on him, making him see things that weren’t there. He made his way to the sauna, hoping to find his friends there, thinking it was obvious they were going to be there since they just left, what, five or ten minutes ago?
Henry didn’t know what to think.
He was now standing in front of two doors. The steam room to the right. The sauna to the left. He opened the door to the sauna, the heat that oozed from it embraced him, getting rid of whatever cold he felt from the pool. The sensation made his back itch, and the hairs of his body stood, followed by goosebumps.
“Fuck!” he said a third time.
Henry looked around. Since he’d never been in a sauna before, he decided to take in the image in front of him. The wooden seats and walls, the tiled floor, the heater that was set on the right side of the room.
But there was no sign of his friends.
There was no sign of anyone, for that matter.
And then he heard footsteps, splashes of feet making their way out of the steam room. He turned back, saw a shadow fading away into the corner, and got out of the sauna to see who it was. He looked towards the exit, the door swung back and forth, but nobody was there.
“Motherfuckers,” Henry said to himself.
He then walked out of the pool area and toward the locker rooms. In the hallway, before he entered the locker room, he finally saw people walking out of the gym area. Some of them looked at him with curiosity since Henry was only wearing his briefs. He had a towel but forgot to take it with him into the pool.
The sign of people made him feel more comfortable, though.
Inside the locker room, Henry didn’t see his friends. The place was actually empty. Anger rose from inside of him, and it made him explode in rage when he realized his things weren’t in the locker. Unable to control his temper, Henry slammed one of the cabinets, and a door snapped out of its hinges.
It’s a fucking prank, he thought to himself. I shoulda known better. They were just gonna mess with me. On second thought, he reconsidered, that doesn’t explain the clock and the 42-Hour Fitness sign.
Moments later, he was walking up the stairs and towards the main entrance. A Good Samaritan had lent him a change of clothes. The clothes were considerably bigger than the size he would typically wear, but wasn’t going to offend the good man who was just trying to be helpful. Nobody had noticed what he did to the locker, and the man who helped him out didn’t ask when he saw the door lying on the floor. It didn’t matter, and since there were no cameras in the locker room area, there was no one to blame.
The only thing he lacked was shoes, and he felt awkward having to walk out of there without them.
He still wanted to think this was a prank, a very nasty one, leaving him stranded at the gym with no phone or clothes. He pictured the long walk back home, on the Westside, calculating that it would take him about thirty minutes to get there. Trying to make sense of it all, he thought, what did I do to deserve this? He ended up guessing that Joshua had to be the main orchestrator since he took it very personally that Henry lied to the girl.
Speaking of the girl, he thought to himself, getting closer to the reception and getting a glimpse of her, sitting behind the counter, and wearing her usual red polo shirt. He smiled, happy to see that had not changed. But there was a change, something different about her, something that took him about five seconds to see.
“Can I help you with something?” the girl asked, with an extra dose of friendliness, as though she was the one who had a crush on him.
“Where are your tattoos?” he asked, ignoring the way she talked to him.
She seemed happy to be talking to him, but still frowned at the question. “My what?”
“Your, your tattoos,” he said. “I mean, you had like lotta tattoos on your left arm.”
She didn’t know what to make of it. She did think about having a tattoo, but never really got down to it. She wondered how he knew that.
“No,” she said, “you must be mistaken ‘cause I have no tattoos. I’ve thought about it but never done it.”
Henry then noticed how she was talking to him, with interest, yet sprinkled with a bit of caution, as if this were the first time they spoke. “You know who I am, right?”
“Yeah, I know who you are. You always come with your friends, work out, use the pool, and everything.”
“I don’t use the pool,” he said. “I always come here and talk to you while –“
“Well, yes, you do,” she said, taken aback, realizing that the man standing in front of her didn’t find it flattering that she knew his routine. “In fact, it’s you, the one who always like, talks about how much you want to use it.”
He was starting to think that this was not just a prank and that something was going on. He looked outside, the sky was dark blue, just like the color of the pool. He then looked at the sign: 42-hour Fitness.
The girl then looked down at the cameras, her eyes widened. She didn’t want to say what she was thinking.
“Why, why is the sign backward?”
The girl behind the counter was starting to get frightened. She stepped back. “What are you talking about?”
“The signs!” he yelled, starting to lose his temper. “Why is it 42? It should be 24!”
A manager approached the front counter. People walked past Henry and gave him a look, wondering why he was so upset.
“And- and why are you acting like you don’t know me?”
“Well, I –” the girl tried to say, but ended up stepping away.
The manager stepped in and asked, “Is there a problem?”
“You bet your ass there is a problem! My friends just left me here, I have no way to get back home, and for some reason, the signs are backward!”
“What signs?” the manager asked, a frowned forming in his face.
Henry rolled his eyes. “Isn’t this the 24-hour Fitness?”
The manager looked at the girl. She shrugged, unable to make sense of what she was hearing.
The manager said, “Man, do you want me to call an ambulance or somethin’?”
“Why? You think I’m crazy?”
“Just calm down, alright? I never thought I’d have to explain this to anyone, but the name of the gym means we’re open forty-two hours a day, alright? I mean, I thought everybody knew that.”
“What the fuck?”
People started to look at Henry like he was crazy. Many of them stood there, next to him, pondering what planet he came from. Henry continued looking at the sign, hoping it would change to what he thought was the right way. His heart began to throb loudly inside his chest, he wanted to go away but feared what he was going to find outside.
Sooner or later, he had to get out of there.
He had seen grey clouds before, grey skies, but was convinced he had never seen anything resembling the dark blue sky he was looking at. Everything else seemed to be the same, he realized while walking through the parking lot. There was a white Camaro parked in the same spot where Ryan had parked his car earlier. He walked past it and didn’t give it much thought.
The stores and streets were all the same, the Marshall’s on the corner, where Borders used to be, Forever 21 across the street, Bank of America on the other side. People looked the same, everything was the same. With all of this in mind, Henry thought the problem was only at the gym, maybe Joshua had persuaded the entire staff to play along. It was an absurd thought, but Henry had no idea what to think anymore.
He kept walking home, looking at people, trying to see if there was something else different. As he crossed the green light, Henry saw a man walking his way. He was wearing a crooked oval-shaped watch that reminded him of the one at the gym. Henry stopped on the other end of the street and started to look more attentively at people’s watches. Most of them were wearing watches like that. He didn’t see anyone wearing the usual, perfectly round watches he had always seen.
Unable to tolerate another minute doubting his own sanity, Henry approached someone and asked for the time.
“It’s 21:06,” the man said.
“You mean 9:06?” Henry corrected him, thinking he was referring to military time, but that made no sense since it was the middle of the day. 21:06 would mean nighttime.
The man frowned. “No, it is 21:06,” he showed Henry the oval watch.
“Thank you,” Henry said and walked away.
Now he was convinced that this wasn’t a prank. It could not be. There was something else going on, something he could not explain. But he kept on walking, both terrified and curious, wondering what else he was going to find once he was home.
Thirty minutes later, Henry hadn’t arrived home. Without a phone, he became lost in contemplation, strolling, looking at both the people that walked by and the sky above him. He had begun developing a theory, a crazy one, as to what had actually happened.
Maybe I’m trapped in a nightmare, he said to himself, while still looking at the sky above and the clouds that were then tinted with a darker blue that looked black at first sight. He also saw stars, even though it was the middle of the day. No, that can’t be, he told himself, realizing that his nightmare theory didn’t make much sense even though all evidence said otherwise.
On Micheltorena and Chapala streets, Henry stopped at the red light. The North Coast Deli stood on the corner, a well-known eatery he had planned to go to with the girl from the gym. He gave the sign another look along with a frown. He then scratched his head. I thought it was South Coast Deli, he said. He wasn’t quite sure what it was at that moment.
Henry looked at an old man standing next to the other end, holding a child’s hand, standing next to the traffic light that had the color red on the bottom.
Wait a minute, he said to himself, realizing that the other traffic light he saw by the gym also had the red light on the bottom. Has it always been like that? Red on the bottom, yellow on the middle, and green on top? Too bad he didn’t have his phone to ask Google.
The light turned green, and Henry hurried to the other end, trying to get the man’s attention.
“Excuse me,” he said.
The man was getting ready to walk to the other side, but he stopped, looked at Henry, and gave him a polite smile. The man, feeling Henry’s unease and strained demeanor, opted to stay calm and eschewed any possible argument that might occur by giving him his undivided attention.
“Can I ask you a question, sir?”
Unfortunately, the man didn’t understand what Henry was saying, so he asked the young child in Spanish, “Que dijó?”
Being Mexican-American, Henry spoke some Spanish. He never took the time to learn it properly, like everyone else in his family. At that moment, he felt ashamed of himself. He didn’t even know how to say “traffic light,” which would make his attempt more difficult. But he gave it a try anyway.
“La luz,” he said, pointing at the street light, but pretty sure that was not the right name for it. “It’s always like — how do you say?”
The man gave him a blank stare this time. Henry was lost in thought, staring at the traffic light. “Luz? Cual luz?”
“Es. Es siempre así?”
The young child was getting impatient, so he said, “What would you like to know about the traffic light?”
Henry sighed. “Great, um, thank you. Well, I was wondering if the lights are always like that. Like, Green, yellow and red?”
“That is an odd question,” the child said, and Henry couldn’t help but notice he looked and sounded wise beyond his years. If Henry dared venture a guess, he would say the kid was no more than ten years old.
The old man joined the conversation, “Que quiere?”
The child explained what Henry wanted, and among the words he spoke, Henry understood the word ”loco.”
“Hey! I know what that means!”
The child rolled his eyes while pulling the old man’s hand. “Vamonos, grandpa.”
Henry just stood there, lost in a sea of doubt.
His neighborhood also looked different. The traffic lights were never this way, he swore, still wishing he had his phone and could google it. He was walking down the bridge and could see the lights from a distance. He made a right on the alleyway where Super Cuca’s was and smiled, happy to see that this restaurant was still the way it should be.
What about Foodland? he thought, referring to the neighborhood’s food market. He could just walk one block down the street and find out. But he was afraid.
“No,” he said, “I’ll just go home.”
His apartment complex sat in front of Super Cuca’s. He walked into the place, and the fear seized him once again. This place was different from the place he saw that morning. There were only three apartments, same as always, all white, but incredibly spotless. They were not this clean. He hadn’t heard of anyone mentioning that they were going to clean up and paint the walls. The apartment complex’s lights flickered on top of the main doors, he remembered, and there used to be spiderwebs that looked like perpetual Halloween ornaments. The water hoses that were wasting gallons and gallons of water were no longer there. Everything was dry and beautiful.
He liked what he was looking at. It was great, but based on all the other things he had seen so far, he couldn’t help but surmise this was just something else to add to the general weirdness of the situation.
He approached his door, apartment B, right next to Laura Linden’s apartment, a good-looking girl Henry used to have a crush on. But she was a drug addict, and his parents prohibited him to even say hi to her. Her older sister had recently died, and he hadn’t given her his condolences.
“Why am I thinking about that right now?” he said, standing there, stalling, as though he was scared to open his door and see his family. There was no logical explanation for anything at that moment, so Henry opted to go for it and stop overthinking it.
So, he knocked on Laura’s door. He heard her voice, cheerful, friendly, “I’m coming!”
He was curious, thinking Leroy, her boyfriend, had probably slept with her. That was the only explanation since she wasn’t usually this happy.
The door opened, and a very svelte and smiley Laura stood in front of him. Her rosy cheeks and perfect face had no traces of sleeplessness. Her arms had no needle marks. There was no cocaine in her nostrils. How long has it been since her sister Tanya died? He didn’t remember. Had she gotten clean? Last time he saw her, she looked just the same as she had always looked.
The problem was he didn’t remember when he last saw her.
“Well, hello, Henry,” she said, the smile still on her face. “Did a cat get your tongue?”
“Not exactly, no,” he managed to say.
“I’m just teasing,” she said. “I know why you’re here. I spoke to your mom earlier, and she said you were gonna be home soon.”
“You spoke to my mom?” he asked, knowing that was impossible. Laura and Henry’s mom hated each other.
“Of course, silly,” she said and leaned closer to his face. “Me and my suegra get along just fine.” She gave him a kiss that only added more questions to the endless list he had in his head.
The kiss also gave him a meritorious boner. The way she rubbed herself against his crotch was the closest action he’d ever gotten. He was still a virgin and was so ashamed of it not even his friends knew it. He knew there was something wrong here. Not a dream, like he previously thought, but something else. Either way, he was okay with the kiss.
She let go of him, sighing in heat, “Are we still on for the movies tonight?”
“Ye — Yes, we are,” he said. He wanted to be done asking questions but could not help himself. This kissing situation felt right. He felt terrible for the girl at the gym, yes, but because of the way she looked at him today, he decided that it was okay, he could now date other girls.
“You said you knew why I was here?”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, yes! Your goggles!”
She stepped back into the apartment and grabbed a pair of goggles from the kitchen counter. “The goggles you let me borrow. Looking at how red your eyes are, I’d say you swam without them this time. You forgot I had them, didn’t you?”
He forgot she had them. He forgot he even bought them. He forgot she was this good looking. He forgot they were dating. Apparently, he forgot everything. Henry tried to remember if he hit his head in the pool, which is why he might have overlooked half his life. But that didn’t make sense. Briefly, he recalled the moment when everything went black as he was in the pool. He probably did hit his head on something, but nothing hurt.
“Baby?” she said. “Are you ok?”
“Yes, I am,” he said, deciding to play along to see what else he could find out. “I’ll see you tonight then. What time?”
“Fifteen. The movie starts at fifteen-thirty, so we’ll have time to walk there.”
Three-thirty? He thought, still thinking it was weird to use military time.
“Ok, I’m gonna go shower.”
“Great,” she said, “while you do that, I am gonna go with my sis to help out at the shelter.”
“Yeah, Tanya,” she said. “She came back from vacation. We have a lot to talk about.” She kissed him goodbye and walked away.
Henry’s face went pale. Tanya was supposed to be dead. He was afraid to open the door to his house. But he had to. Now more than ever.
Henry didn’t know if he wanted to knock or just walk in. He had a key, but it was now gone, along with his clothes and cellphone. He went for it and tried the knob. The door was locked, as it usually is. In times like this, it was worth it to be cautious.
He went around the back, towards the laundry area. The back door was always open since no one ever considered thieves would use the back door. Good, he said to himself, just like the Super Cuca’s across the street, some things still remained the same. He flicked the back door open and let himself in. And again, he was immediately hit with the fact that things were out of place. It made his heart jump.
There was a wooden roof attached to the apartment’s main foundation, covering the dryer and laundry machines in the back. Henry remembered his mom suggesting Dad should put in something like this years ago, but he always brushed it off. When Henry left this morning, the roof wasn’t there, and he was positive a job like this would take time to finish.
There was even a clock, similar to all the clocks and watches he had seen so far.
I’ll be damned.
There was also what looked like a smear of blood near the laundry machine on the floor. The city was infected with raccoons, so he surmised his dad might have killed one of them. But the smear of blood was also on the wall, and it was coming from the other side, apartment C, where Henry’s sister’s friend lived.
Tobias, he thought, remembering the name of the kid.
Through the window on the left side of the door, Henry saw his mother. She smiled and waved at him. She’s never done that before, he thought. Henry opened the door and walked in, the cold of the floor reminding him that he wasn’t wearing shoes. His father and sister were at the table, his mother was stirring what she called ‘the bean pot’ on the stove. Instead of endlessly scrolling on his phone, Father was reading the newspaper. His sister was reading what looked like an article from the Huffington Post on her iPad.
They both looked at Henry and smiled.
“Welcome back, son,” Father said. “You came just in time for supper.”
Henry smiled, but the fear that had been with him since he walked out of the gym intensified even more. Father never smiled or welcomed him like this. Neither did his mom or sister. Tina didn’t like to read, and now she was reading The Post?
Henry took a closer look at his dad. He was wearing a nice, long-sleeve, white shirt and black pants, instead of his usual dirty jeans and stained shirts. He was also in shape, and there was no trace of the paunchy fellow he had always been. This was too much, not as enjoyable as the kiss he got from his alleged girlfriend, but equally perturbing nonetheless.
“Henry,” Father said. “How was your swim today?”
“Is that where you been all morning?” Mother said with a genuine look of concern.
She wasn’t like this. She never cared about what Henry did or where he went. And what is all of this about swimming? He wondered while looking at the goggles. They all knew he was scared of the fucking water.
“Yes, Mom,” Tina said, who was usually off-putting and flippant. “He’s getting ready for the swimming competition.”
The swimming competition? He thought, recalling a swimming competition Ryan and Joshua were getting ready for at the YMCA. Henry was beginning to piece some aspects of this farce together. In this dream, or whatever the hell it was, he had a hot girlfriend, a good family, and was a good swimmer. Apparently. With all that in mind, Henry decided to just go with the flow. For the time being.
“Yes, mom,” he said, sitting right next to Tina. “I was just at the gym. Practicing.”
There was an assortment of Mexican food at the table. The smell of tortillas, beans, steak, salsa, and cheese opened an appetite Henry didn’t know he had. Mom and Dad were fixing tacos and passing them around. There was also a big jar with horchata water in the middle of the table. Despite being Mexicans, they were never quite fond of their roots; wrappers from McDonald’s and Jack in the Box is what you would usually find at the dinner table.
And they were never this… loving.
Henry had to accept that this had to be a dream, the kind of life he had imagined many times before, some sort of a paradise. Mother handed him a plate with a very succulent piece of meat, a sirloin, it looked to be, while Father did the same for Tina. The beans, sprinkled with cheese, made the plate look irresistible.
“Practicing?” Mother said, smiling proudly. “I’m glad you’re doing what you love.”
I’m glad you’re doing what you love? Henry would have paid to hear those words come out of anyone in his family.
“But,” Mother continued, while grabbing the fork and knife to cut a piece of her meat, “you have to give some thought to the family business. We talked about it last night, remember? I don’t mean to put any pressure on you, my son, but look at your sister, she already brought her first guest to the table.”
What? Henry thought to himself, the word almost made it out of his mouth. What was this about the family business? Father was a dishwasher at a local diner on Upper State, and Mother had been a cashier at Ross for God knows how long. They had lousy lives, always unhappy and bitter about their jobs; Henry was sure they weren’t even having sex anymore. Also, there were only four people at that table, which didn’t explain what Mother meant by saying, “Tina already brought her first guest to the table.”
He shrugged, unable to know how to respond, but surmised that they were probably expecting more people because of the amount of food around the table. That was another thing to add to the pile of strangeness since their idea of social life was to scroll down Facebook and talk about everyone else’s dirty laundry.
Father put a hand on top of Mother’s. “Baby,” he said. “Let’s give him some more time to decide. At least he wasn’t upset when he found out.”
Mother reconsidered. “Well, I guess you’re right about that, honey.” She then looked at Henry, smiling, but there was a look behind that smile, a look that suggested a mild annoyance.
Love? Honey? Since when did they start calling each other that?
Tina also looked at him, the same way Mother did.
Mother stood up and walked into the kitchen to check on the Bean Pot. The smell that oozed from it was a mixture of meat and spices. Henry recalled an old recipe his grandmother from Father’s side of the family had told him about. It was whole beans with diced ham and some sort of salsa. Whatever Mother was cooking smelled just like it.
Mother came back and gave Father an unexpected kiss as Father’s hand slid down and took a firm grip on Mother’s ass. She giggled and bit her lips, as part of her fought with the idea of keeping Father’s hand where it was or wait until the kids weren’t present.
Lost in contemplation, Henry hadn’t noticed Tina was still looking at him.
“Are you ok, Brother?” Tina asked. The look on her face was sincere and demanding at the same time. She looked just like the child he had seen at the traffic light, cold and confident beyond his years.
“I’m good,” he managed to say.
“You promised me last night you were going to bring someone today,” she said. “Maybe your new girlfriend next door.”
What the hell is she talking about? He thought, starting to get annoyed by the way she was looking at him. And now not just her, but also both his parents.
“Ok,” he said, “Um, who did you bring?” Henry thought that by keeping the question on her, he would have a better idea as to what she was talking about.
She could see in his eyes that he was eschewing the question. Still, Tina played along.
“Who did I bring, you asked? I told you that last night. I feel like I’m talking to a different person now, Brother.”
Henry gulped a chunk of saliva that was beginning to solidify in his throat.
“I guess I forgot,” he said, trying unsuccessfully to keep his cool, as thick drops of cold sweat adorned his forehead.
“Tobias,” she said. “Just this morning when you left. I went to his apartment, let myself in, like always. He was alone, playing with his X-box. His parents went to work, he invited me to play. I went to the kitchen, grabbed a knife, and stabbed him in the back of his neck. Just like my daddy taught me!”
Henry’s heart pounded as he put the pieces together. The smear of blood outside, Henry thought, while Father looked at Tina with pride.
“That’s my girl!” Father said, chuckling.
What kind of a joke is that? Everyone laughed, except Henry. The fear in his eyes was palpable. He grabbed a napkin and cleaned his forehead. Something made him want to look at what Tina was reading on her iPad. The title of the article made him want to vomit.
How to Make the Freshest Cuts from a Tender Teen
Without asking, Henry grabbed the iPad and scrolled through it. There were photos of people cutting through body parts lying on tables, all of them grinning, enjoying the moment, like a sadistic Martha Stewart cooking show of sorts. Henry then took a glance at his parents and how they cut through their meat and savored it, like something they never had before.
“What is wrong with you, Brother?” Tina asked again.
“Leave your brother alone, Tina,” Mother said. “He’s clearly having a bad day.”
He didn’t know what to answer. He didn’t know what to do. Clearly, running out of that place was the sanest thing to do, but he couldn’t. He was in shock, wondering why this dream turned into a nightmare; or even worst, considering that this was not a dream at all.
Tina said, “I’m sorry, Mother. I don’t mean to be a bother; I’m just concerned about my brother. Look at him.”
Did she rhyme all of that on purpose? Henry thought, seeing how creepy Tina sounded as she spoke.
“What can he possibly be afraid of?” Mother asked, reconsidering, as she and Father leaned closer, giving Henry a closer and deeper glance.
Mother then stood up and went to recheck the pot. How many times has she done that? Henry wondered. Three times?
“I’m not afraid of anything,” Henry said. “I just don’t feel okay and don’t want to talk about it.”
Mother came back from the kitchen, holding the pot with two rags. The smell that came from it was rich. He didn’t know what it was. She put it on the table, a long spoon inside.
“What?” Henry couldn’t help himself. “What is that?”
“Menudo,” Father said.
That gave him a momentary comfort. He thought they were beans because that was the pot Mother only used for that. Not that day, though.
“With a special twist,” Father added, grabbing the spoon and filling up a bowl with a couple of scoops.
“A special twist?” Henry asked, looking at it. It looked like any and every menudo he had eaten before. He grabbed one of the spoons next to the plate and got ready to give it a try.
“Yes,” Father said. “Your sister’s idea.”
“Menudo a la Tobias!” Tina said proudly.
Henry’s eyes widened as the spoon nearly touched his lips. He put it down and looked at the broth and the pieces of meat swimming on it. His urge to vomit came back. They all looked at him, again sensing his fear.
Mother sighed and looked at Father. “I told you he wasn’t going to accept it.”
“That’s why he didn’t bring his girlfriend,” Tina said. “Like he promised.”
It was time for Henry to admit it. This was worse than a nightmare. It was a nicer family than the one he remembered, yes, but they were into eating people up as if it were the coolest thing in the world. Moreover, the alleged girlfriend, how would he ever land a girl like that? And what about swimming? Why did this family think he was a good swimmer?
All of these attributes were part of what Henry always wanted to have. All except the murderous and cannibalistic side of it. Thinking about the dark blue of the water and the moment when everything went black, Henry started to consider a parallel universe, that mystical place where, according to conspiracy theorists, there is someone like us, another version of ourselves, doing the things we only wish we could do. This was the last thing he wanted to take into account. But what else?
At that moment, the front door opened. The other version of Henry walked in, carrying Laura’s dead body on his shoulder.
“Sorry,” he said, closing the door behind him. “It took me a while to find her. She went shopping with Tanya and …”
Henry two 2 saw the other Henry sitting at the table and gasped. Everybody gasped, unable to explain what was going on.
“What the fuck?” The two Henrys said in unison.
This was the moment. Henry had to get the hell out of there. This was clearly not a dream. This was clearly not his house, and this nice-looking, murderous family wasn’t his either. He stood up and made a run for it, Father tried to grab him by the arm, but he could not get a firm grip. Henry 2 also tried to block him, but Henry 1 pushed him aside with ease. Mother yelled. So did Tina, watching the intruder they thought was their Henry as he charged out of the apartment.
The cold and dense air made it impossible for him to run. Besides, having to flee on bare feet, Henry felt his chances of survival were nil. His heart raced and throbbed, and he tried to spring as fast as he could. The Micheltorena Bridge was the way he came, so he now decided to head that way again. Coming down the bridge had been easy. Going uphill was another story. Halfway across the bridge, Henry looked back and didn’t see anyone.
Then Tina materialized out of the corner, screaming, carrying a knife, bolting up the bridge. She was ready to make more menudo out of this sucker who dared to come to her house and impersonate her brother. She knew something was wrong with him and wanted to cut him up when she first noticed how shaky he was; this was her chance. And she was ecstatic.
People began to come out of the houses and apartments, curious as to what all the noise was about. An old couple was coming in Henry’s direction. He pushed them aside to get through. He felt terrible, yes, but staying alive was the most crucial matter in his mind.
“Asshole!” The old woman yelled as she tried to stand up to help her husband.
Another man down the street grabbed his phone and was able to dodge Henry just in time. “Call the cops!” The shout came out of his throat, automatically, like in the movies, and then he realized the damned phone was in his hand.
Henry had to chuckle at that level of stupidity while still running for his life.
Henry was nearing State Street when he was starting to run out of breath. He had to look back, remind himself that this wasn’t a dream and that if he didn’t hurry up, there would be hell to pay. Maybe this is hell, he thought. How else can I explain this?
He stopped that thought after seeing Henry 2 run alongside Tina. They were just two blocks away from him. Behind them, several others joined the chase, including the two he initially thought were his parents. The other people who participated had the same look of animosity on their faces. They pointed fingers, yelled, and even growled.
Henry didn’t know where he was going. Heading toward the gym was the most logical idea. But that was his problem at that moment, there was nothing logical around him anymore. This was not a dream, that was just his rational mind doing the thinking. He had to start thinking illogically. So, if this is not a dream, he thought. What is it then?
He had already concluded this was a parallel universe but couldn’t bring himself to accept the fact. He had to succumb to that conclusion, there was no other choice. How else was he going to explain the weird-looking clocks, the girl at the front desk without tattoos, the way the neighborhood looked, the streetlights, and how his alleged parents dressed and acted? Even himself, or the version of himself that was running toward him, a more capable and confident Henry, someone with a hot-looking girlfriend and lack of fear for the water.
“The water,” he said. “I have to go back to the water.”
Down State Street, he went. A jogger was going up, listening to something on his earphones, carrying a bottle of water. Henry didn’t think twice and snatched it, briefly saying how sorry he was but that he had to keep going. Confused, the jogger screamed, saying how much of a whore Henry’s mother was. He then saw the throng of people coming his way and joined them. He didn’t ask why. Judging by the look on their faces, the jogger guessed there was a good reason for it.
The sharp concrete made Henry’s feet bleed. More and more people came out of restaurants and shops to catch a brief glimpse of the commotion. Phones sprang up from people’s hands like mechanical body parts attached to their brains. Flashes of photos, video recording, laughter, anger, and doubt, all human emotions, and habitual mannerisms came together, joining in, most of them oblivious as to why they did what they did.
Tears and sweat mixed together, running down Henry’s face. He didn’t want to look back. He knew that doing so was going to frighten him even more. He then heard a voice, the kind of voice he had heard before while talking in front of the mirror, a brave voice, one he never used when others were listening.
“I’ve gotcha, motherfucker!”
Oh yes, he’d said those same words as he flexed in the small and steamy bathroom back home, trying to be someone else, like a person from another universe, a universe he now inadvertently visited, where Henry 2, the owner of that voice, was now inches away from him, trying to snatch his arm.
Henry 1 had to look back, just to see how close Henry 2 was. And yes, he was near, and so was Tina, but she looked tired and ready to stop. There was nobody else behind them, everyone gave up, it seemed. That fact gave Henry 1 some hope, hope that faded away as a car hit him when he was one block away from the gym.
The cry of tires as they clung to the surface of the blacktop was deafening. Clouds of burnt rubber covered the air. Henry 1’s face against the car’s windshield frightened the woman who was behind the wheel. She screamed, and even though the window was rolled up, the sound of her voice was loud enough to leak through the cracks.
The woman behind the wheel thought she had seen it all, but once she saw the other man, the one who was chasing after the one she hit, and how he pulled the body off the car and tossed it on the ground, she wondered what these twins were running from.
“I am so sorry,” the woman said as she rushed out of the car. “I didn’t see your brother when I –“
“He’s not my brother!” Henry 2 yelled, his face so close to hers he sprinkled saliva on her face as he spoke.
The woman didn’t know what to make of that. They were clearly twins, and she could just not be wrong about what she was seeing, could she?
“I don’t understand, but, anyway, like I said –”
“Leave,” Henry 2 said, taking deep gulps of air, looking down at the body on the ground and fantasizing as to what he was going to do with it.
The woman shook her head. “Excuse me, what?”
Cars were already backing up. People smashed their hands against the steering wheels, and the loud horns were distorted music nobody wanted to hear.
“I said leave!” Henry 2 yelled at the woman again. “Are you fucking stupid or what?”
“But — but I just hit your brother and –“
Henry 2 couldn’t contain himself. He slapped the woman and once again demanded she leave.
Anger rose to her cheeks. “I’m calling the cops,” she said as tears rolled down her face, and her trembling hand searched for her phone in her back pocket.
Henry 1 finally opened his eyes. The screams and back-and-forth bickering that were thrown in the air made him come back to life. He shook his head, still lying on the ground.
“You ain’t calling no one!” Henry 2 said. “Just fucking go!”
Henry 1 looked at the car, trying to piece together what just happened. I’ve been hit, he thought, glad that the blow didn’t make him lose his mind. But then he saw Henry 2.
Henry 2 looked down, grinning with anger. The woman was on the line with 911, giving a general description of the miscreant who just assaulted her.
Henry 1 tried to get up, but Henry 2 pushed him back down. “Stay where you are, you mother –“
Henry 1 did the unthinkable. He grabbed Henry 2’s leg and pulled him to the ground. The sound of his ass against the pavement was a loud thud that made the woman feel sympathy for one second. Then, she forgot about that and focused on the call, telling the operator everything that was going on.
Henry 1 had to find courage. He had to fight for his life. He knew that if he went back with his double, he was going to die. He had never been much of a fighter, but he had to become one. Surprisingly, looking at the angry face of his double made him think of his conversations in front of the mirror.
He had to get out of the fucking mirror and become who he always wanted to be.
“Uh?” Henry 1 stopped, for some reason finding the time to think in the middle of the turmoil.
“Motherfucker!” Henry 2 said.
“Is that the only word you know?” Henry 1 asked.
“What the –“
“You’re nothin’, you piece of shit!”
Henry 2’s eyes widened. He’s heard those words before as well because he is the kind of person who also talked in front of the mirror.
“Why do you say that?” He asked while grabbing Henry 1 by the neck.
Some people stepped out of their cars. Two men pulled the guys aside, stopping the fight.
“Why do you say that?” Henry 2 kept asking, tears of anger filling up his eyes.
Henry 1 didn’t have time to explain. He was actually curious as to why his double felt the sting of those words but decided that it was best to let it slide. He managed to break away and made a run for it. The man who held him was confused, pondering on what to do.
“Don’t let him go!” Henry 2 demanded. “Don’t let him go!”
Henry 1 ran down the street past Bank of America, another car was about to hit him at the curve, but this time he was able to dodge the blow. He was tired, feeling how the pain in his legs numbed his muscles. The gym was a couple of steps away, but he could not gather enough strength to continue. But he had to. If he wanted to survive.
He neared the parking lot, where a couple of long chains were placed to keep cars from driving in. Henry 1 tried jumping one of these chains, but his right foot got stuck on one of the chains, catching him off balance and sending him face down on the pavement; he wasn’t able to get his right hand out on time to soften the flow, and it was curled down under his chest. He even heard his joints and knuckles crack, making him fear the worst.
He didn’t break his arm, but it hurt so much he realized swimming would be harder this time. Sweat, tears, and dirt mixed in his face as he tried to get up. The gym wasn’t that far anymore, he only had to keep going without looking back. His right leg also hurt, not as much as his hand, but it made it even harder. Once in front of the main entrance, he saw the number 42 again, thinking how absurd it all was. Why did he have to go through this? He would never know. Standing there and thinking about it wouldn’t help, since someone was close behind, trying to take his life.
It wasn’t difficult to gain access back into the gym. To get in, you have to punch in your phone number and fingerprint; the two Henrys had the same. The girl wasn’t at the front counter. Some guy was there. Henry wanted to ask about her, but opted to move along instead. There was no time to waste.
“Hey!” the friendly, muscled clerk said. “Didn’t you just leave like an hour ago?”
“Yep! I really love it here, man!”
“That’s rad, man!”
“Later!” Henry 1 said and hurried into the gym.
He went down the stairs, already expecting the worst. What if the pool isn’t there? What if I never go back? He nearly tripped a second time on his way down. The pressure on his chest was unbearable. Once downstairs, he opened the glass door. The pool was still there, staring back at him.
He tried to breathe, calm his nerves while looking at it, waiting for that shade of blue he had seen before. He was convinced that was the answer, his only escape. He looked back, not wanting to see his double. He then got closer, his eyes trying to find the blue that wasn’t materializing. Maybe I have to get inside to see it, he thought, understanding that was the most obvious thing to do.
Then a voice behind him made the hairs in his neck stand. “Who are you?”
Henry 1 looked back. Henry 2 stood by the glass door, but this time he seemed more cautious. They stared into each other’s eyes, waiting.
“Apparently, I am you,” Henry 1 said.
“The fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“Beats me,” Henry 1 said, giving a step back, trying to stay as far away as he could.
Henry 2 smelled the fear in Henry 1. That knowledge gave his confidence a boost.
“And what the fuck are you doing here at the pool? You trying to get back?”
“The fuck?” Henry 1 said. “You know about it?”
Henry 2 nodded. “I just learned that today.”
“Well, as you can see, I don’t belong here, so.”
“You ain’t going anywhere.”
Tired of talking, Henry 1 jumped into the water and followed the blue shade. Despite the pain he felt rushing through his right hand, Henry 1 had to look for a way out. Henry 2 also jumped into the water, unwilling to let the impostor go. Henry 1 swam, lost his breath, and raised his head above the water to get more air. Henry 2 almost got Henry 1’s foot, throwing his hands angrily, yelling, swearing to make Henry 1’s life miserable. But the desire to proceed went away when Henry 2 paid attention to the water and how it boiled in the distance. He had never seen anything like it. He had never seen someone willingly swim toward a boiling, blue body of water that wasn’t supposed to be there.
The blue intensified and sucked in Henry 1, leaving Henry 2 speechless and unable to understand what he just witnessed.
When Henry reached for the other side, his friends grabbed him and hauled him up and out of the pool. Henry coughed, trying to inhale as much air as he could. The first thing he did was to look around. He was happy to see that everything had gone back to normal, or what he knew as normal on this site. He looked at his friends. Ryan and Joshua didn’t look different. The clock was the way it had always been, the 24-Hour Fitness sign.
“I told you to stand on your feet if you were tired, man!” Ryan said.
“Yeah. I heard him,” Joshua seconded.
Henry gagged, he felt like he wanted to vomit. He got up, shaking and staring at the water with apprehension.
“How long was I in there?” Henry asked.
Joshua and Ryan eyed each other.
“Don’t know for sure,” Ryan said.
“Let’s go,” Henry said and started to walk. His friends didn’t follow. Instead, they stayed there, looking at him. “What’s wrong, guys? Let’s go!”
Joshua said what he had in mind. “I think the girl at the front counter was right.”
Ryan sighed. “I — I didn’t wanna believe ‘er. She sounded crazy.”
Henry frowned. “What?” he was upset, and the only thing he wanted was to leave.
Ryan said, “You are not our friend.”
That was a statement. Not a question. Joshua and Ryan knew what happened. But how? Those two could never keep anything to themselves. If they had gone to the other side, Henry would have known. I didn’t wanna believe ‘er. She sounded crazy, Ryan had said, and that made Henry think there was a lot more he didn’t understand.
You are not our friend. What did Ryan mean by that?
Still, he decided to play it cool. “What are you guys talking about?”
“You’re not acting like yourself,” Joshua said.
“Oh, that’s what you’re trying to say? I get it.”
“No,” Joshua said, “for reals. You’re not our friend. The Henry we know wouldn’t be talking to us like you are talking.”
Henry thought about it. They were right, he was acting differently, as if the brief moment he was in the presence of Henry 2, he learned to be like him, the strong and confident person he always wanted to be.
“Guys,” he said, “it’s me, ok? I just don’t feel right. Can we just go?”
But his friends were not going to give up that easily.
“You been in the water all this time, right?” Joshua asked.
“Yes, I have been in the water all this time?” Henry said, getting annoyed.
Ryan stepped in. “So how come you’re wearing clothes? I mean, the Henry I know he would never wear a shirt double his size. Or pants.”
Henry sighed. “I can see why you –“
Joshua said, “I told you, the girl was right!”
“What’s this shit about the girl, you guys?”
The glass door opened as he asked that question. The girl from the front counter walked in, her eyes fixated on the three men. There was something different about her too. She was looking at Henry with hatred and curiosity, as though she wanted to get closer but realizing that keeping her distance was probably the best thing to do.
Like the girl from the other side, Henry thought.
“She just told us that you’re from –” Joshua said but stopped. “Fuck! It sounds crazy just to think about it!”
“Um,” Ryan said. “She said you’re from the other side. Whatever the fuck that means.”
Henry was getting angrier. The love and infatuation he had for that girl turned into hatred, the same hatred she was feeling for him at that moment. He looked at her as she kept on walking. “How does she …” Henry stopped and looked at the girl more closely, the way she walked and moved her hands up and down. It was at that moment when he saw something else he had missed.
She is the girl from the other side.
Joshua explained. “She told us our friend got sucked into the other side, where there are people like us, and that Henry’s version there is a lot more confident. Just like you sound right now. You’re like, telling us what to do. Our friend would never do that. Sorry to say, but our friend is kind of a pussy.”
Henry didn’t mind what Joshua just said, or at least he tried to hide it. Instead, he kept looking at the girl, and without taking his eyes away from her. “And how do you think she knows that?”
“We don’t care,” Ryan said, throwing his hands to the sides. He was fed up and wanted to get it over with.
“Henry wasn’t wearing any clothes when he got into the water,” Joshua said. “So, it makes no sense that you –”
Henry exploded. “Look at her!”
Ryan and Joshua took a step back.
“Dude, it’s two of us. We ain’t afraid of you,” Joshua said. “Even if you are like, a lot more confident and shit.”
“I said, look at her!” Henry repeated.
“What’d you want us to look at her for?” Ryan asked.
Henry pointed at her arms. “She has no tattoos! The girl who works here has like a lotta them!”
“I never seen her tattoos,” Joshua said.
“I don’t have any,” she finally spoke, feigning surprise, but Henry could see that she was lying.
How was it possible that his friends couldn’t see that? Henry knew this girl because she was the same girl he saw on the other side. But why was she on this side now? And what happened to the tattooed girl? Henry was afraid he would never be able to find the answers to those questions. Henry remembered his brief conversation with this girl when he was on the other side. She had recognized him; he knew that, but she was pretending otherwise.
Joshua and Ryan got closer and grabbed Henry by the arms. They pulled him back and pushed him in the water. He tried to get out, but Ryan and Joshua decided to jump in and make him go back. Henry pleaded and begged, telling them that he was the real friend. The girl stood there, a smirk on her face began to transform into a smile when she saw the darker shade of blue.
The struggle lasted no more than a minute, and because Henry wasn’t leaving on his own accord, the shade of blue sucked in all of them at once. The girl walked away, still smiling. She got into the locker room and fixed her lips with a shade of red. She then looked into one of the stalls, where Tattoo Girl was, sitting on the toilet, her eyes were closed, and her tattooed arm was dangling in mid-air.
“Sorry about that,” The Girl from the Other Side said, “but a girl would do anything for the man she has a crush on, even though he doesn’t see me like I see him.”
She walked away and back into the pool area, thinking of how happy Henry 2 would be when he learned that she found a way to send the impostor back. She knew when she saw Henry 1, that he wasn’t the man she liked. Henry 2 had come into the gym and walked into the sauna just minutes before Henry 1 came out wearing that borrowed change of clothes. She had been looking at the Henry she loved on the monitor when this other Henry was looking at her at the front desk.
When Henry 1 had darted out of the gym, she went looking for whom she considered the real Henry and told him all about this other man who looked just like him. She thought back on the moment when they had looked at the tape and saw when Henry 1 came from the water and how they almost ran into each other at the sauna.
“Where do you think this fucker is going?” Henry 2 had asked.
“I guess, if he thinks he’s you-”
“He’s going to my house.”
She had nodded.
Henry 2 had smiled at this girl, the girl he hadn’t paid any attention to before. “I need your help.”
And of course, she had helped him. She loved that man and would do anything for him, even learning how to swim. She smiled while thinking about that brief conversation they had when they had watched the tape. She got into the water, ready to go back home as well.