It was Freshers’ Fair, and Emily was wandering round on her own. She stopped at the Science Society stall, which advertised its presence with a huge black and white photo of Albert Einstein poking out his tongue. In multicoloured lettering across the bottom was the caption, ‘SciSoc: not as boring as you think’. The boy sitting behind the trestle table wore John Lennon glasses and a Metallica T-shirt. He looked about as bored as it was possible to be.
‘Want to join?’ he asked.
‘Yeah, why not?’ Emily replied. She handed over her student union card.
‘Emily Brownlee,’ the boy said, reading from the card. He looked up, suddenly interested. ‘Do you have an older sister?’
Emily’s heart jumped. ‘You knew Charlotte?’
The boy handed back the student union card. ‘I’m Dan,’ he said. ‘I don’t know if Charlotte mentioned me.’
‘Of course she did,’ said Emily.
Dan picked up a SciSoc leaflet and scribbled something on the back. ‘I finish at five. Come and see me then.’
Dan’s room was on the seventh floor of one of the tower blocks on campus. A lard-faced stick insect of a boy let Emily into the flat. He indicated with a flick of his green Mohican towards the end of the corridor.
Three minutes later Emily was sitting in Dan’s armchair, trying not to wince as she sipped a mug of sugarless tea. Dan was perched on the edge of the bed, poking at a rip in his jeans.
‘It was the morning after the May ball,’ he said. ‘My mate Dave wasn’t in a fit state to walk home on his own, so Andy and I volunteered to help him. Charlotte said she’d meet me back at the flat. I didn’t think…’ His voice trailed off.
Emily was trying to think of the right words to fill the silence when Dan saved her the trouble.
‘I think I know what happened to her,’ he said.
Emily put down the mug of tea and leant forward.
‘When I met Charlotte I was working on a teleportation device, like the transporters in Star Trek. I’d managed to teleport a paperclip, but I was having problems with anything bigger; things would disappear at one end and wouldn’t reappear at the other. Charlotte was always pestering me to let her try it out, but I wouldn’t. A couple of weeks ago I was cleaning under the bed when I found one of the earrings Charlotte was wearing on the night of the May ball. She must have come back here before she went missing. She’d had a few drinks. She wouldn’t have been thinking straight. What if she tried to use the transporter?’
‘Can I see it?’ asked Emily.
Dan opened up the wardrobe. On one side was a haphazard pile of clothes. The other side was empty apart from three halogen spotlights screwed into the ceiling of the wardrobe, and a large brass switch at about shoulder height.
‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ said Emily.
‘No, it’s for real all right,’ said Dan, closing the wardrobe door. ‘This is only half of it; the transmitter. The receiver’s in the shower cubicle.’
‘Any chance of some sugar in this?’ asked Emily, holding out her mug.
While Dan was in the kitchen, Emily opened the wardrobe door and flicked the brass switch. There was a low, throbbing hum and the lights in Dan’s room dimmed. Emily stepped inside.
Emily found herself in Grandma’s back garden on a warm and sunny afternoon in summer. The house had burned down years ago, and Grandma had spent the rest of her life in a rest home, but here were the house and garden, exactly as Emily remembered them. When she and Charlotte were little they used to spend every Saturday with Grandma while Mum worked an extra shift at the hospital. In the warmer months the girls loved spending time in the garden. Sometimes they’d help with the weeding, water the tomatoes, or plant snapdragons and sweet peas in their own little corner of the garden, but most of the time they’d simply play.
Something was moving near the house, so Emily decided to go and investigate. The next thing she knew she was looking in through the kitchen window without any knowledge of how she’d got there. She looked down. She could see her own body, but she could also see through it to the paving slabs below. She felt a wave of nausea.
Emily turned round. Standing in front of her, hands on hips, was a Charlotte-shaped apparition, wearing a strapless ball gown and a frown.
‘You’re an idiot!’ said Charlotte.
‘You’re alive,’ said Emily. The tears began to flow.
Charlotte softened her expression. ‘I would give you a hug, but I can’t touch anything. It’s good to see you,’ she added.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Emily.
‘I’m in two places at once.’
Emily looked blank.
Charlotte continued. ‘When I first arrived, I thought this place was all there was, but then after a while, I started to hear a noise which didn’t belong here – like waves breaking on the shore. So I concentrated really hard, and found I was able to ‘be’ in the place the noise was coming from.’
‘What place?’ asked Emily.
‘I don’t know. It’s totally dark – even with my eyes open I can’t see anything.’
‘Actually, it’s kind of relaxing,’ said Charlotte.
Emily peered through the kitchen window. ‘Is Grandma here? Have you seen her?’
‘No,’ said Charlotte. ‘She must be out.’
‘But she’s bound to come home some time.’
‘Some time, yes,’ said Charlotte, ‘But not this time. We’re in a time loop. The sun starts pretty much overhead, then moves over that way, and then there’s this sudden jump in all the shadows and the sun’s back overhead again.’
‘If Grandma’s out she’s probably down the shops,’ said Emily. ‘We could -’
‘Nope,’ said Charlotte. ‘Can’t get through the gate. I’ve tried. Can’t get inside the house, either. I can’t touch things properly, but I can’t pass through them, either. We’re stuck here.’
‘Maybe not,’ replied Emily. ‘If you’re in two places at once, then I’m probably in two places at once as well.’
‘I guess,’ said Charlotte.
‘Which means we’re both half a person. If we could find some way of joining together we might become one whole person. Maybe then we’d be able to touch things.’
I’m hungry, thought Charlotte.
That was a clever idea of mine, wasn’t it? thought the part of her that was Emily.
It worked, and I’m really grateful, but right now I need something to eat, thought Charlotte.
Spaghetti hoops! thought Emily and Charlotte together.
Walking was a real effort, but Charlotte thought it would probably get easier once she’d had a bit more practice. Grandma’s back door key was under the mat as usual. Manipulating the key in the lock was tricky, but eventually she got the door open and stepped into the kitchen.
What was that smell? Never mind, there’d be time to deal with that later. Food first. Grandma had a gas stove, and she kept the matches on the top shelf of the pantry, which had been out of Charlotte’s reach when she was little, but not now. At the back of the middle shelf she found a tin of spaghetti hoops. She had a long struggle with a can opener to get it open.
What was that smell? She almost had it now. It was on the tip of her tongue. This two minds thing was going to take a bit of getting used to.
She lit a match.
Still the smell. It was something you couldn’t see. It had no smell of its own, so they added an artificial odour to it. Ah yes, that was it. Gas.
When Charlotte and Emily’s grandmother got back from the shops an enormous cloud of black smoke was hanging over the street and three fire engines were pumping foam on the charred remains of her home.
After a while the ringing in Emily’s ears subsided, and was replaced by a new sound: a rhythmic swishing noise. She was floating in a warm liquid. She wasn’t breathing, but this wasn’t a problem, because she didn’t feel like she needed to.
A thought began to form. Is this the ‘other place’?
Yes, thought the part of her that used to be Charlotte.
Emily opened her eyes. Darkness. She kicked with her arms and legs. She was encased in a rubbery cocoon. Her heart started racing.
Calm down, there’s no need to panic, soothed Charlotte’s mind.
But Emily was already panicking. She knew where they were.
And then the contractions started.
(C) Helen Lewis 2009