Darius opened his eyes, and he was in that world again.
He took a step forwards, feeling the familiar crinkle of the leaves beneath his feet. No matter where he slept, or when, he always awoke in the same place: an orchard of copper trees, their shimmering metal trunks hidden under leaves made of paper, which were written on as if some greater force had arrived long ago to save its memories there. Darius had long since given up on trying to read the inscrutable writing, of course. In that world, there were much more… interesting things to deal with.
A leaf fluttered down from the treetops above him, and without thinking he reached his hand up to pluck it from the sky. This leaf was different from the others: instead of the foreign words printed on the rest, this one instead had an image of a girl, standing in the rain with a midnight-black umbrella. He’d come across these a few times in all his visits to the orchard, and yet he still found a strange sadness looking at the girl, as if he’d forgotten something important.
The copper orchard faded as he strode away from it, feeling the calming sensation of a warm breeze on his skin. The sky above him shone with a pearlescent pink and purple, wispy clouds lazily drifting across the sky in a half hearted attempt to follow him. His worn sneakers stepped quietly on a tired dirt pathway that stretched far off into the nowhere in front of him.
What was that world?
He still hadn’t figured it out, even after all the time he spent visiting it. Sitting on the bank near a crystalline river, he took in his surroundings, twirling a strand of grass made of paper. This was a new place, one he’d never seen before. It must’ve come from the nowhere, like all the others had before this. Originally, there had been nothing but the copper orchard, its trees swaying in the breeze. That world expanded as he explored, when he visited it at night: first the pathway had appeared, leading off into the nowhere. Then it had branched off, leading to a playground, an empty crosswalk, a hill with a single flower at the top. And now, a river, flowing off into the nowhere from some unknown source, with blades of paper grass hiding it from the orchard, protecting it. He wondered how much more of that world would appear if he just kept walking.
He made his way down the river’s bank until he reached the nowhere. Reaching out his hand, he pushed with all his might, desperately trying to break through. But he knew it wasn’t enough. The nothing was too powerful, the void immeasurably strong against the pinprick of wasted strength he exerted. He could only pass it when it moved itself, shrinking back ever-so-slightly to reveal another tiny island of mysteries. It was pointless to even acknowledge it. Yet all the same, Darius couldn’t help but feel allured to the nowhere, to find himself standing right at its edge just as he always did. Its surface was nothingness, but he cherished its familiar texture. This place was perfect. Nothing could change that.
“What are you doing here?”
A voice had called out to him then. A voice? There had never been anything of the sort, not that he knew of. The nowhere had certainly never spoken, for all the ways it seemed to draw him to it. He stood frozen, his hand still pushed up against the nowhere, his mind racing. He didn’t want to turn around and see the voice. The more he thought about it, the more he realized why it should never have appeared in that world at all.
Slowly, as if in a dream, he turned.
And that world was gone.
He stood in the middle of a deserted street, a gray sky pouring rain down on him as his mind sluggishly tried to comprehend what had happened. Nameless buildings leaned in to see him from either side, their exteriors faded and broken- just background noise. The rain that poured down onto him was freezing cold and sharp, thousands of needles thrown down on him from above. Yet he felt nothing: instead, he marveled at the calm he felt, the lack of pain being caused by the rain falling onto his skin. He warily looked around at the new world around him, and then up, towards the end of the street.
And she was there.
A girl with nearly waist-length copper hair and a blue dress, holding a black umbrella above her that she clung to as if she would lose it in an instant otherwise. He’d seen her before, in the pictures on the leaves of the copper orchard. He wondered who she was, why the trees wanted to whisper her stories. She stared straight at him, expectant. And suddenly, even though he’d only ever known silence in that world, he spoke. A single phrase. A response.
“I’m here to save you.”
He was standing in front of her, gripping an umbrella tightly as he held it over her head, protecting her from the freezing downpour. She gave him a sad smile.
“Why are you trying to escape from the nowhere again?” She asked, her voice quiet and calm, almost inaudible over the sound of the rain. “We’ve been fine here so far, haven’t we?”
“There’s a world outside of this place,” he responded, the desperation in his voice mixed with excitement. How had he forgotten about her, even after all this time? “I’ve seen it. I’ve been there, and if you could just come with me-”
“Darius,” she said, cutting him off. Her mouth moved, but the sound made was lost in the downpour. Darius began to feel the chill of the water permeating his skin. He knew exactly what she said.
“Please, Aria,” he pleaded, his arm shaking as he tried desperately to keep the umbrella stable. “We don’t need to live in the nowhere forever like this. Do you really want to stay in this world of rain and emptiness for the rest of our lives? I’ve seen a place outside the nowhere, Aria. It’s full of bright skies and beautiful places, and there are rivers, and plants, and trees- trees, Aria!- with the most wonderful quirks to them. It’s always light there, and it changes every time I go back- better every time! It’s just outside of the nowhere, Aria. Please, just come with me.”
His heart dropped when she said nothing. She simply looked out at the worn-out buildings, at the street she’d been looking at for as long as she could remember now. She wouldn’t risk leaving, not unless he told her the truth.
“I can’t hold this umbrella forever.”
His voice trailed off into nothingness, and he felt his arm falter for a second, shaking the umbrella. The cold was in his bones now, chilling him past even his physical form. Aria stood silently, watching the umbrella with cautious fear. They both knew what her response was, even before she said it, but the charade of chance needed to be played out. She looked back up at Darius, the one she’d kept by her side for so long, her best friend. She gave a last sad smile.
“That world doesn’t exist, Darius,” she whispered, and took hold of the umbrella.
Suddenly, he was on the opposite side of the road, soaked to the core, his arm outstretched as if to hold on to something. He saw the girl in the distance, and was taken aback by the sense that he’d seen her before. Who was she? She began to turn away, and he found himself urged to chase her, pulled by an invisible tether he’d never realized he had. He took a tentative step forwards, and then another, weighed down by that demonic fatigue of cold. He wanted nothing more than to stop, to fall down and sleep the eternities and the chill away, but the tether pulled ever harder on him.
He began to walk faster, and the rain crescendoed, pouring down on him more and more. His clothes stuck to his skin, steel weights pulling him towards the floor. He felt his fingertips freezing, and his vision began to fade. A desperate fear filled his mind, and then spread through him, causing him to shake with something more sinister than cold. His heartbeat quickened until he could hear nothing except the pounding drumbeat in his ears.
The tether began to yank him forwards, pulling at his mind so hard he felt he might go insane. Why do I care so much? He cried, but the words were trapped in his mind, ringing over and over again. Even if he got the answer, he knew he wouldn’t be satisfied.
The rain beat down harder than ever before as he forced his legs to throw themselves forwards, pushing through the fatigue of the cold and running after her as fast as he could. He began to close the distance, his vision blurring through rain and tears of pain, and suddenly a name appeared on his tongue.
“Aria!” He cried, throwing his arm out desperately as he neared her, his voice breaking. He saw her glance at him, and a pang of guilt shot through him, causing him to stumble and fall forwards.
Why did he feel this way?
“Aria, please!” He choked out, hardly understanding what he was saying anymore. “Please, I’ll stay. Don’t drop the umbrella, Aria, please, I’ll stay!”
And then she was standing over him.
He looked up, gasping for breath as he tried to regain his composure. Aria was smiling at him, her face filled with an eerie calm. As he looked into her eyes, he remembered everything once more. The walks near the edges, the tests they’d done on their own dreams, the strange things she had begun to talk about when nobody else was around, like they were secrets to the entire world. He remembered their entry into that strange new world, and that other one, and another one still, and he remembered Aria’s excitement when they found the nowhere.
The place she’d been searching for. He remembered what happened when the rain started falling.
“I’m sorry, Darius,” she said, her voice cracking as she looked down at him. “For everything. One day, I hope you’ll forgive me.”
And she was gone. The last thing he saw was the umbrella falling to the ground, clattering as it dropped into a growing puddle of tears.
That world outside of nowhere remains still, shifting and moving with every passing traveler that visits. Only a few souls still know the secrets of that world, and many of those who do will never return to it. Darius knows this, of course. He sits at the edge of the river he found all that time ago, and a feeling of grief washes over him. It happens from time to time, but this time it’s… stronger, somehow. He wonders why these feelings come to him so, and chalks it up to the intricacies of the mind, that endless abyss of mystery.
He stands up slowly, and the feeling fades once more. It’s time to move on to the next world, isn’t it?