Flower petals drifted across the pavement, blowing off the nearest of the blooming trees, the pale pink blossoms trod underfoot as they carried boxes into the apartment. Nina Sharp tucked a strand of red hair behind her ear and glanced across at her companions, the sound of voices wafting back to her as the men argued their way inside. Her blue eyes sparkled with merriment, for she had grown accustomed to their routine disagreements, and she picked up the few items that had fallen out of the box during the moving process and returned them to their place. Glancing up as tall, slender, dark-haired Elisabeth reappeared, she asked, "What are they fighting about now?"
"Walter thinks he can open a small window into another dimension or some such nonsense," said Elisabeth. She clearly did not believe half of what they talked about, and perhaps that was best.
Nina nodded and smiled but her expression darkened with concern when the other girl turned her back, taking up the box and following her into the coolness of the apartment. It was not far off the main campus and bore signs of Walter's occupation, for in addition to the new clutter of Elisabeth's furniture and packing boxes was his own scattered belongings. He had graduated with full honors and a doctorate and had already been offered a position as a professor at the college. His average grade had been higher than most of the graduating class, and the fruits of his labor were strewn from one end of the space to the other in the form of drawings, math calculations, and notebooks containing new concepts. Walter was a genius and now everyone knew it. He had been in a giddy frame of mind ever since and this made him good-natured, for even this argument with his dearest friend and colleague, William Bell, was met with a certain amount of good humor.
Older and more hesitant in such matters that might set them on what he called a "collision course with other worlds," Bell met her passing glance with mild frustration and returned to the car. Recognizing the indications of a coming storm, Nina wanted to go after him as she slid her box onto the kitchen counter but Elisabeth opened the nearest empty cabinet and asked, "Will you help me with these?"
Reluctantly, she obliged, handing her plates and watching her put them away. She could just see Bell out the window as he leaned against the car, arms crossed, thoroughly irritated. Unlike Walter, once he was truly upset it did not blow over very quickly. It took a long time to get him to that point, but on such serious affairs as the fate of their universe he was considerably less inclined to have patience.
"Walter," said Elisabeth as he passed the open doorway into the living room, "you are not arguing with him now, are you? The wedding is in two days and we have to spend the entire weekend together!"
"Bellie doesn't hold grudges," answered Walter cheerfully, and continued out to the car.
Watching him cross the parking lot Nina observed as they escalated into a proper argument, the distance such that she could not hear them through the open screen. She knew what was happening, however, since she had sat through this discussion before. William was warning him not to tamper with fate and Walter was arguing the merits of discerning if there was another universe. It had been his working theory for as long as she had known him and as intrigued as his friend was by it William Bell was far more cautious in intruding on it. She knew this would blow over as it always did, with both of them sulking for a short time and then resuming their usual close-knit friendship, full of witty banter and finishing one another's sentences, when they bothered to finish them at all.
"You worry about them sometimes, don't you?" asked her companion, noting her distraction. "You shouldn't. They always come back from these disagreements intact, sooner or later. And they are good together. I think given half an hour and the proper state of mind they could solve half the world's most serious problems."
"I'm sure they would say in fifteen minutes," Nina answered, humor surfacing, for both were unquestionably arrogant. Their dynamic intrigued her, for Bell was the dominant one, and Walter in awe of his talent but capable of holding fast on his own. Neither of them was much interested in principles.
Elisabeth fingered one of the plates, a lovely bluish-cream color, for she did not like the gaudy styles that were currently popular. Even her kitchen abandoned the usual garish tones of bold colors and favored pale colors, her having spent many hours lovingly repainting the entire apartment. Nina sensed a hint of longing in her tone and looked at her, for the first time studying the woman who was going to intrude on their trio. She was beautiful and taller than Nina but with fewer curves, the gentleness of her nature apparent in all her interactions. Wavy dark hair tried to escape the ponytail at the back of her head and her dark eyes observed the men in their conversation with open fondness. Nina had not quite known what to make of her at first, since she was not like Walter's usual girlfriends. He had been much more serious about her from the start.
She reached into the box and drew out a stack of smaller plates, carrying them to the other cabinet and placing them inside. Elisabeth was quiet and birds twittered in the trees outside, reminding them of the flourishing life of late spring. Nina was preoccupied, her thoughts with the two men she loved most out in the parking lot, who had abandoned their task altogether and now stormed off in opposite directions. Bell walked down the street while Walter returned and entered his office, slamming the door so loudly in his wake that one of the photo frames they had already hung up fell off the wall. It did not break on the shag carpet.
Nina left her companion in the kitchen and ran after William, the wind caressing her bare arms as she caught up to him. His handsome, sharp countenance was darkened with annoyance, his eyes hard when he glanced at her. She was not offended, for she knew the anger was not directed at her.
"Walter can be the most obnoxious, stubborn, arrogant… do you know what he wants to do? I have warned him time and again that tampering with the laws of physics, of inner-dimensional travel, could melt down the very framework of our universe, yet he persists in this notion that if caution is employed there will be no danger! There is always a danger when you attempt to open doorways into other worlds! You know as well as I do that our survival is all about balance, about order, and if one thing is cast out of alignment, if one mistake is made, then the fragile fabric that separates our worlds will tear and we cannot possibly imagine the consequences!" Bell glanced back at the building and stared at the window belonging to Walter's office. There was the slightest movement behind the curtain and Nina suspected he was watching them.
"You know how he is when his mind is wrapped around an idea," she said gently. "Walter has an incredible capacity for imagination. It fascinates him that such a reality might exist and he might be intelligent enough to discern a method of accessing it. You both have theorized that if multiple universes exist they are probably not on the same direct path. Does it not make you curious to know what your alternate self is up to?"
The wind blew her hair and she held it out of her face, smiling up at him in an attempt to soften his nerves. He relented by lifting his brows and offering her a semblance of a shrug. Reaching out and touching his arm, she said, "He will attempt nothing without your assistance. He is getting married and leaving for ten days at the lake. He will not have time to disrupt our reality and have a honeymoon. I think Elisabeth will keep him preoccupied."
A mischievous smile tugged at the corners of her mouth and his expression eased as he looked at her. Few could "manage" him, but she was one of them. Bell conceded and she nodded faintly, indicating that this was for the best. Retreating to the car, she removed one of the final packing cartons and handed it to him. He went indoors, leaving her to sigh and rub the crick in her neck. She had not been sleeping well for quite some time. Memories of the accident, the abduction, the sound of screeching wheels and the thud as a body flipped up over the hood and hit the pavement haunted her. But there were other incidents too, things she had never experienced and could not have remembered; Lauren's memories.
The murder of her roommate had shocked the campus though few knew what had truly happened. Nina had tried in the months since to forget but it still remained with her, the empty side of the room where once her closest friend had sat painting her toenails. Her music no longer distracted Nina from her studies, her perfume was gone from the air, and friends no longer intruded to inform Lauren that a boy was on the phone for her. Lauren had been everything she was not, outgoing, social, adventurous, platonic in her affairs and popular with men. She had worn short skirts, knew how to flip her long blonde hair around her bare shoulders, and had an infectious laugh. In spite of her status as the biggest flirt on campus, she had been smart and held good grades in spite of her active social life. At first she had done nothing but irritate Nina, but now her absence left a void. She could not wait to get out of that room. The summer semester was beginning and she had a choice, to remain and take additional classes or to go home. She hated the idea of returning to the country and her parents' quiet life, but maybe that was what she needed, somewhere far away in which she could forget all about her pain.
Late afternoon light followed her indoors and she was relieved at the pleasant conversation she found there, for Bell was speaking amiably with Elisabeth and Walter had emerged from his office. It was obvious they disagreed but their capacity to find common ground overruled individual opinions. Walter brought in the last of the boxes and locked the station wagon and Elisabeth phoned for take-out. It was brought by a pimpled kid on a bike and he sped away again with an irritating turn of his card-decked wheels as it was dished out onto plates. Unlike the rest of them, Elisabeth did not like eating out of cartons. Nina tugged on the bottom of her short skirt and sat down beside her on the couch as Walter brought out a bottle of wine. Normally neither she nor Bell drank but on this occasion neither of them protested, lifting their glasses in a toast.
"To Walter and Elisabeth and their new apartment," said Nina.
Shaking his head, Walter said, "To friends."
Her companion said nothing but also drank the toast, his conversation pleasant as the night wore on. But he continued to watch her out of the corner of his eye, more attentive than usual in his thoughts if not in his person. Nina was accustomed to him looking at her, for he did it whenever they were together; her physics professor might not be able to touch her, but he could look. Over the last few weeks she had sensed more than a passing interest in him, a deeper curiosity than his usual affection. Leaving them to continue unpacking and promising to drive up the coast first thing in the morning, Bell and Nina left them bathed in lamplight as they finished the last of the wine. Settling into the front seat of his car and rolling down the window, Nina stared out into the darkness and said at last, "I like her. I didn't think I would, but I do."
"Walter has always had excellent taste in women," he answered.
It was too dark to see him but she looked anyway, barely able to make out the contours of his face in the passing car lights. Walter had first introduced them and ever since had retreated into the background, their intensity from the first moment of their acquaintance eclipsing him. Lauren had told her many times to go for it, but he was concerned with the potential ramifications on their reputations. She suspected it would not do him much harm in the long run, for men were immune to most scandals and a number of professors strayed with their students, though it was neither widely accepted nor morally ethical, but it might damage her own prospects. But her friend's death had given Nina reason for pause, the awareness of how life could, suddenly and without warning, simply end. Either one of them could be on an unknown collision course with fate and not live to see the dawn. Her usual restraint evaporated and a block from the campus she said, "Pull over."
He drew up to the curb and put it in park, her hand hesitating as she touched the door handle. She could simply get out and walk the rest of the way, even though he usually let her out at the door. Few people were around and there was less risk in being seen. But she wanted to do something else more and making up her mind, she slid toward him on the narrow seat and winding her fingers around the back of his head, drew him into a kiss. His lips parted under hers and she felt the increased beat of his heart, surprised but not resisting as he responded. It was instinctive, the way he reached for her, the touch of his hands against the thin fabric of her shirt, the excitement even an innocent caress sent through her. He turned the key to the engine and shut it off, the lights going out and leaving them in half-darkness. This side of the campus was all but abandoned and he was not concerned with being seen. She was careful not to hit her head as she climbed onto his lap, his mouth teasing her throat before he drew her lips once more to his. She kissed him slowly, lingeringly, sharing in the want and desire of each tempting caress, knowing this was all they had.
Both were breathing heavily when she drew back to look down at him, his hand having settled against the small of her back, his fingers half entwined in her top and resting against her bare skin. She had caught him off guard, for Nina had never been so aggressive before. Her forehead rested against his, aware of how he held onto her, and with a tension lurking in her normally sweet voice, she whispered, "Ask me to come home with you."
Every other time he had dismissed her without much consideration but now he hesitated and within that pause she was permitted hope. He might have relented if not for the car that came around the bend, its lights caressing the trees on the far side of the street. It returned him to his senses and he gently pushed her off him. "I can't."
It was apparent he resented it and as the car passed, she said, "If this is about being your student, I don't care about that anymore. I want you."
"I know you do but this isn't like you."
That was true, for Nina always played by the rules, determined not to push her future off course. Respect had always held them at a slight distance from one another, mindful that one misstep and the knowledge of it could forever cast her in a shadow. It shook her that he would admit it and with more anger than she felt, she asked, "What do you mean?"
Enough light existed for her to see his face, the concern that darkened his eyes as he looked at her. "Lauren," he said.
She knew what he meant. Lauren had done something to her; her death had had repercussions. For months she had pretended otherwise and insisted nothing was wrong, but though she had continued her studies and aced her exams, though her term papers had all been met by high marks and she continued to spend every waking moment with them in the lab, she was different. Nina reached for the door and he reached across and stopped her, his hand lingering as he said seriously, "What happened to you went beyond mere emotion. Lauren's consciousness, her soul, transported you somewhere else. She carried you with her not once but twice, and once after death. I have a theory about life after death that our research has proven; that a person is comprised of energy. Lauren could share hers and she chose to share it with you. I think part of her soul went into you and it still remains."
Never had he expressed any kind of a belief in ghosts or possessions, dismissing them offhand as scientific pursuits they could not yet comprehend. William Bell was nothing if not practical and his manner of approaching it retained a thread of common sense but nevertheless shocked her. Once confident she was not about to leap out and storm away, he removed his hand. Nina sat still and stared into the distance, her anger draining away as she realized he must have been forming this theory for months, noticing subtle changes in her. It was true, she realized. She was acting like Lauren. It was Lauren who wore short skirts, Lauren who was sexually aggressive, Lauren who had nightmares.
"I thought you didn't believe in such things," she said at last.
He continued to watch her, a certain amount of gentleness in his gaze, as he understood her apprehension. He could be cold and unflinching in the lab but with her he had always exhibited a certain amount of tenderness, like the affection Walter held for Elisabeth. It was different from the other girls Walter had spent time with, interested in them merely as test subjects and then as casual bedfellows. But for as long as she had known him, Nina had never seen William look that way at anyone else and it caused her to trust him in spite of the dangers in doing so.
"Scientific advancement is not set in stone; it is an ever-shifting grid in which an open mind is required to fully explore all the possibilities. We have not yet begun to comprehend what science may offer to us, and no theory is too unusual to be cast aside. I can explain where Lauren's abilities began, how they were triggered through violence, and how she was able to connect her energy with yours, but what happened on the road, where she took you, how you managed to control your destination… I have no rational explanation for those events. I thought this change in you might have been on a subconscious level, out of grief, but it is more than that. I have seen it in your expressions, the way you tuck your hair behind one ear, the fact that now you like music in the car where once you preferred silence. And as much as I appreciate your interest, it is not your usual method to attempt to seduce a college professor in his car."
This brought him a certain amount of amusement and he touched her shoulder lightly with his fingertip, Nina remarking ruefully, "I suppose if your consciousness were in someone you would behave yourself."
"I assure you, the scientific possibilities would be of greater interest to me than the particulars," he answered. Silence descended and she shivered in spite of the fact that it was a warm evening. His hand slid down her arm and each soft caress spoke of his empathetic curiosity. "Do you find some merit in my theory?" he asked at last.
Yes. It was the only rational explanation for why she had changed so much, why she was wearing such a short skirt, why she now wanted to listen to music as she did her studies, and why she was quicker to put aside her work and go out with the other girls, even why she drank more. She was known for analysis but had chosen not to wonder what had altered, had not wanted to think about it, and should have suspected he would pick up on it. She was reluctant to admit in this instance that he was right, but it was implied as she asked, "What do you want to do?"
"Find out if Lauren is in there," he answered, "but not tonight."
Once more, he was intrigued not by her but by something in her life, some aspect of her that fascinated him. If his theory was correct it contained a multitude of meanings, of possibilities, concepts that would preoccupy him for weeks as he discerned what might be gained from such knowledge. If the human soul was comprised of energy and could pass from one individual into another, what might be done with it? How could it be accomplished? Was it a one-time opportunity or could it be replicated? It was how his mind worked and one of the reasons she loved him so much, but in that affection was also a kind of resentment that it was more about his scientific pursuits than his interest in her. William was capable of prioritizing, something Walter had never quite mastered, intensifying his interest in one area to the exclusion of all else. Had he been different, he would not have resisted her as he did, but now he had another distraction, one that would bring them together yet separate them, as he looked at her as a test subject, a problem to be solved.
Nina had grown accustomed to the idea that Lauren was gone and the knowledge that a small portion of her might exist within her own consciousness unsettled her, for she did not know whether to be comforted or alarmed by it. If it were true what would become of Lauren if they drew her out? Would she truly die then or would she always be a part of Nina, a small portion influencing certain of her characteristics?
The look she cast him was full of uncertainty and he leaned over and kissed her, this time with more restraint but no less longing. His fingers winding around the back of her neck, he said, "It will be all right. I will make it all right."
Familiar arrogance, she thought, but as usual infinitely reassuring. She got out of the car, pulling on a sweater as she walked back to the dorm. Normally there were students in every room or smoking pot in the stairwell but since the term had ended most of them had gone home and those that had not signed up for summer courses would soon follow. A few of the girls were packing up their rooms as she passed, glancing at her as she entered her space and turned on the light. Lauren's bed was empty on the far side, the mattress bare. Shutting the door, she went to the mirror and stared into it. Nothing had visibly changed in her round face, the soft lines of her straight red hair bringing out the color of her eyes. Lauren had worn her hair in much the same way, but Nina's was long and thick, the envy of most of the girls in the school. Drawing it out of her face, Nina pushed any such thoughts aside and threw what she would need into a suitcase.
On Monday, she would have to choose whether to go home or to remain. It would only take one class to keep her on campus for the summer.
She opened the closet and pulled out the dress she had bought for the wedding. Normally she wore black but that was considered in poor taste so she had chosen something in an unusual shade of blue. Tilting her head, she stared at it and shut the closet door again, undressing for bed. It was an unspoken rule not to smoke in the dorms but she opened a window and rolled a joint, the drug bringing over her a state of calm as she blew the scent into the wind. It normally made her drowsy and after putting it out, she shut off the light and went to bed. Sleep came easily to her this time and for once she experienced no dreams.