The EndJustin was my science partner. Till this day, I blame him for everything that has ever happened to me, most of them bad. I met him on my first day on campus, his nose in a book and my nose in a phone. We bumped into each other, naturally, and his hesitant motions afterwards amused me, compelling me to turn away from my engrossing text message and instead focus my attentions on my soon-to-be best friend.
We would talk for hours on end. How could we not? Justin was a year ahead of me, and he
He wouldn’t tell me why, at first. This was about a month into our friendship. He avoided all my calls and ignored my gaze whenever we crossed paths, frightening me into saying any sort of greeting. So I turned away as well, seeing that, maybe, our perfect friendship was over.
I met Natalya in a lecture class. Oh, I’d seen her before, tall, athletic, naturally beautiful, but I had never spoken to her. She was the one who instigated the conversation, simply by saying hi.
To my surprise, we got along. We were both into sports, though she was the champion sort who joined competitions and got gold metals every time, while I looked to them as a sort of recreation, a way to relieve my stress. She was the kind of girl who wouldn’t care if she was popular in high school, and would always put her friends and family before herself. I respected her, and she changed me.
I stopped complaining, which was an awful trait of mine. I even started to think that it was because of this trait that Justin had begun to avoid me. Also, I became more ambitious. Never had I taken it upon myself to have a goal in life; I figured I would know what I wanted to do with my future when the time came. But Natalya showed me I couldn’t live unless I knew where I was heading. The destination could change, she told me, but I had to have a sort of inkling of where I wanted to go, lest I get lost.
By the end of that semester, I had discovered my calling. I liked debate. It was by chance that I found myself joining Natalya to try my hand in the debate team. She had asked me to come along, just because it was a Friday, and, really, I had no plans unless I wanted to get drunk that night.
So I did go along, and I read the material everyone was going over—skimmed over it, actually, since at the time, I really didn’t think I would be any good at this sort of thing. It wasn’t like I was a great speaker, and, normally, I’d blow off my presentations and do it on the fly without a prepared speech. It was just that I didn’t care for it.
That night, my team won, and Natalya praised my arguments, giving me inspiration to continue in the debate team, where I felt comfortable with myself for the first time.
In December, nearing final exams, I broke off all connections with any friends and locked myself in my single room, which I had requested at the beginning of the year. There, I had papers spread out all over the floor, with dates and names and equations and terms, and my eyes adjusted to the splashes of yellow and pink and blue and orange, all on account of my incessant highlighting and my rush to cram vital information into my head while I still had time.
After a few days of this routine, I let myself have a break and stepped outside. It was evening time, and the weather was cool, but not cold enough for snow. I went to a nearby stall that sold coffee and got myself a drink, warming myself as I took an empty outdoor seat and enjoyed the rising moon and stars for a while.
It was then that I noticed a fit looking boy, about my age, standing not too far away. In the moonlight, he caught my attention, and I sat staring at him for a little while. He had hair that was a cross between blonde and brown, and was dressed in a green flannel shirt and jeans, unaware of the biting wind that brought goose bumps to my flesh.
Finally, as I finished my coffee, I stood up and walked right up to him, curious as to why he was alone. He spotted me before I could say a word, and he chuckled while my steps slowed down, now hesitant to continue. He said, “So you finally got up the courage to talk to me.”
I was surprised at first. Had he known I was there all along? Why hadn’t he said a word? “Who are you?” I asked, because it seemed like the only thing I could say.
“My name is David. And you are?”
“Rose,” I said immediately.
David was a gentleman. I hadn’t met someone so thoughtful before, and Natalya squealed with delight when I told her about him. He was always asking questions, and I was always answering truthfully, because he made me unashamed of myself.
Our first date was a study session in my room, and just three days before the first exams took place. We had known each other only a week. David started by saying, “Do you actually believe you’ll fail your exams?”
“Truly and really,” I replied with complete conviction.
David laughed at me and looked over a page of my notes for art history, occasionally glancing at my questioning face with amusement. He finally dropped the sheet by releasing his hold on it and letting it flutter to the ground slowly. “Who gives a damn about art history?”
I was shocked. “I do. Now, come on—“
I reached for the now idle piece of paper, but David intercepted my hand and whirled me to him expertly, putting both his arms around me before, in a flash, his lips were on mine.
Even though I had been irritated with him just a second before, I surprised myself for possibly the hundredth time since entering college by kissing him back. When he let go, the world was a different place, happy, hopeful, and I longed for David to kiss me again.
I did very well on my exams.
I dropped out of a physics course I had been about to take the following semester, and instead enrolled in chemistry, knowing that, after all of Justin’s tutoring, I would be able to handle the work. Besides, of all science courses, it was the only one I had an interest in.
I didn’t count on Justin’s similar interest, and when I saw him, I nearly dropped my books in a start, reminded of our happy days as friends. He saw me and gave me a slight wave before bracing himself for a second and taking a seat next to me. It was this that made him my science partner for the rest of the semester.
Afraid, I didn’t say anything. This was Justin’s fault, for such a rift. Thoughts were racing frantically through my mind as I tried to figure out how I should react. Natalya would know if she were here. She had all the answers, without even trying.
The teacher gave an introduction before handing out worksheets and explaining that we were all to complete an experiment. Justin said to me, “How do you want to do this?”
The sound of his voice and the absurdity of his question sparked anger into me. “Really?” I said. “Is that all you have to say to me? After what you did? You— You ignored me, Justin. I thought we were friends and you just disappeared. How could you? And without an explanation! How could you?”
A group in front of us were clearly listening and struggling not to turn their heads. I could tell they were listening to every word, though.
Justin adjusted his glasses in the nervous way I remembered. “I don’t want to explain myself, Rose. You know me. Unpredictable, as you called me. I do things like that… and I don’t know why.” The ways his words slowed down as he ended his speech told me he had just made that up.
“I don’t believe this,” I said. “We’re not doing this experiment until you explain yourself.”
“Seriously? Right now?”
I looked at the clock, then turned back to him. “We have time.”
I crossed my arms, adamant.
Justin was trembling, either nervous or worried or afraid. I felt a sort of pity for him and almost changed my decision to let him tell me later, but he started anyway. “My father died,” He whispered.
It was like he had dropped a bomb on me. I covered my mouth with a hand. “No.” And then all our conversations together whizzed through my brain. Justin’s description of his father had revealed how much he worshipped the man and the ground he walked on. “Oh Justin, why didn’t you tell me?”
He shrugged, as if not sure himself. But he said, “You were the one person I wanted to tell. How could I, though? I hated to say the words because— because it was accepting that he was dead. And telling you made it official. You’re my best friend, you know?”
I gave him a hug, as any friend would do, and told him softly, “I would have comforted you. Oh, I should have said something earlier. I shouldn’t have been so stubborn when you needed me the most.”
And that was how Justin came into my small circle of friends, including Natalya and David as well. He didn’t seem jealous that I had found a new friend and a boyfriend during the break in our friendship. In fact, he seemed grateful to be back by my side, period.
We tried to get the best out of our college experience, and I actually suspected Natalya and Justin being secretly involved with each other, what with their too-casual eye contact and light conversation. No matter how much I pushed them, as much as I could without being too obvious, that is, they wouldn’t give in, so I finally stopped with my incessant prodding, knowing, eventually, they would come to their senses and tell me the truth.
David and I enjoyed every moment we had alone together. He even told me one day that he was actually a geek, though I had kind of guessed when he’d been helping me study for my exams. He had a photographic memory, so he never had to look over anything twice, and he simply had insight into every subject. He could excel in anything he wanted.
Naturally, he was into sports, but he chose theatre as his core subject. And, I admit, he was a very theatrical person who probably would have made it big in Hollywood. I like to imagine that, anyway.
One day I saw Natalya and Justin holding hands. I never got an explanation.
In chemistry class, a few minutes before the teacher would walk in, Justin said to me, “So I have this idea.”
These words had become so familiar to me, coming from his mouth, that I wanted to roll my eyes and dismiss him to finish my homework instead. But he simply slid over his own homework and showed me the worked out solutions. I paused a second, then shrugged and started to copy. “So what is it?” I asked.
“I want to try and detach a human’s aura from their body,” Justin stated.
I looked at him for several seconds, unblinking. No, not an ounce of sarcasm in that face. I tried to laugh, but laughter wouldn’t come. Justin’s face was pure seriousness. “Wait, really?”
“Yeah. Why would I joke about that?”
I fumbled for an answer, but realized he was right. “Right, you wouldn’t.”
Justin nodded vigorously. “With the technology these days, you know, the newly made metals that can supposedly harness a human’s energy if enough power is produced, and so forth. I want to use the technology of the metal by storing energy so that it can keep a human alive while the person is outside his or her body. You’d be asleep, but you would see what was going on around you. It would be perfect for spies.”
“We don’t need spies,” I said.
“Maybe, maybe not. But if you’ve been keeping up with the current news, maybe America will need them soon. We’re on the brink of the second Cold War, and, this time, we may not have a Khrushchev who’ll think twice before launching missiles off the coast of Cuba.”
“How will this aura-leaving-body thing work, though?” I inquired. So Justin had invoked some interest in me. “I mean, why would we need people floating around like spirits? I get that they won’t be seen, but how do they share the information they receive? And don’t you think this is a little bit risky? A person could die.”
But Justin had it all figured out, he did. “I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I went through those very questions. Of course, they’ll need to be a sort of magnet or a line—like a fishing line, but invisible and not exactly solid—that will give you connection to your body. You’ll be able to return whenever you channel the right signal, or press the right button.”
“And how would this be tested? How could you know if it works?”
“We study a person’s brainwaves. Of course, it would be dangerous to make humans undergo the trials. It would be much better with animals, but they wouldn’t be able to give us any details of what they’ve seen.” He shook his head in frustration. “If only Japan would make that dog-to-man translator already.”
I laughed. “You’re speaking nonsense.”
“I’m not! Really, I’ve done extensive research. I’m not the first one to come up with the idea,” Justin started talking faster. “As soon as I thought of it, I immediately googled as much information as possible. There’s been a surprising amount of research done on this. Extracting a human’s soul, it’s normally called. I’ll show you the research to prove it.”
“I believe you,” I said. “I just don’t see how it could work. A human’s soul shouldn’t be able to leave its body.”
“Natalya was much more supporting that you’re being.”
Naturally, hearing him say her name made it hard to keep the smile off my face. “And? What were her thoughts?”
“She thinks if I can pull it off, I’ll be hired to work for the government in their technology department and I’ll be with the experts working to get a human soul into our enemy’s lair.”
“No doubt that will happen,” I said, “That is, if you’re able to get this thing to work.”
Justin said, “All I need is time.”
I only wish he’d needed more.
Four weeks into May, and I was, once again, studying for exams with David. However, he was under a lot of stress. He would only tell me that his brother was sick, very, very sick, but it was all he would say, and I started to pray that his brother didn’t die from whatever illness it was he was suffering from.
David had his phone in his left hand the whole time, even while he took notes or did work. He was never into what he tried to teach me, and I heard him answer halfheartedly whenever I tested him orally. Constantly, whenever the phone buzzed or lit up, David would be staring at whatever message had been sent, and then, if it was okay, he would turn back to his work until the entire scene began again.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I finally asked.
“I don’t know if I want to, Rose. Not until we know for sure.”
His voice was surprisingly steady.
David stayed next to me that night. I wouldn’t let him return to his room. He needed some form of company, especially in his distress. He needed to know the world wasn’t going to end any time soon.
In the middle of the night, I heard a sob, or what sounded like it, but when I called David’s name, I didn’t get a reply, and I was drifting off to sleep again in David’s arms.
“He’s dead,” He told me the following day.
“No,” I whispered in the same tone I had used when I’d learned of Justin’s father’s death. I had never met David’s brother, but the loss instilled tears within me and in the end, it was me who needed comforting and not David, who had just gone through the real loss. I wished death wasn’t so real. I wished it wasn’t right in front of me, staring me in the face.
David calmly told me to shush, like I was a little baby. “It’ll be okay,” He said, rubbing my hair. “I’m fine.”
I didn’t want it to be true.
I met David’s parents, who both came to pick him up so they could attend his brother’s funeral in Idaho. I kissed him goodbye, wishing him a safe flight, and assured him that I would be waiting impatiently for him to return.
His parents were sweet people, and I wish I could have known them better, the people who raised the perfect gentleman.
A week later, Justin ran to my room and banged on my door at five in the morning, his fist pounding so hard that it must have hurt, but he didn’t stop until I opened the door with irritation. “What do you want!” I shouted. I had my last exam that day. Didn’t Justin know I needed my sleep?
“You won’t believe it,” He said with excitement. “Actually, you better believe it. But you won’t. No you won’t, not till I show you.”
I frowned. “What?”
Already, I had an inkling of what he might be talking about, but I was hoping it wasn’t true. For some reason, his idea scared me; I’d had a dream or two of being away from my body, and the feeling was horrendous. The world would be so lonely in solitude.
“I’ve completed it, Rose.”
“What?” I said again.
“Aren’t you listening?”
I wiped the sleep from my eyes. “Say again?”
“I’ve done it! I know how to separate a soul from a body! Isn’t that fantastic? My life’s goal, found only in my sophomore year at college. This is unbelievable. Of course, I couldn’t have done it without the help of some of the kids in the science club, but I figured it out! In the end, it was me!”
“Justin, can you not scream?”
“But this is a huge day. There’s only one more thing I have to do.”
“And what’s that?” I asked, fearing the answer.
“Test it out, of course.”
I kept quiet, standing in pajamas with a hand on the door, trying to tell Justin silently that this was not a good idea. It just wasn’t right. For months he’d gone on about the place of the machine and how it would extract a person’s very being away from the physical particles that made us up. But we weren’t humans any more, once we left our body. We were only spirits. It was the dark magic of science that Justin was playing with so carelessly.
My silence said more than words could have.
Justin shook his head. “You’ve never once approved of my experimentation.”
I decided I could only be frank with him. “Yes.”
“You should be more like Natalya—“
“Oh, don’t give me that, Justin. If you wanted her support, you would have gone straight to her to tell the good news. Why did you come to me? Was it to just be annoying? Or did you have something else to say?”
“It’s my big day,” Justin said solemnly. “I wanted to know you were on my side. I was inviting you to the viewing of the test. That’s it.”
Before I could say anything, he was walking away in the direction of Natalya’s dorm. I wanted to call out to him, but I was afraid he’d snap at me. After I’d closed the door silently, I grabbed my phone and saw a blinking message from David. His picture smiled happily at me, and my heart swelled just looking at him. He’d written that his plane would take off in ten minutes. I couldn’t wait for his arrival.
After my exam was over, I had a quick bite to eat while reading a flyer promoting Justin’s invention. I overheard students talking about it, calling the soul extractor ‘cool’ or ‘awesome’.
Some girl even came up to me and said, “Is it true you’re the inventor’s best friend?”
“Well, I bet he’s going to ask you to volunteer yourself for the first test. Do you know what I’d give to be in your place?”
I tried to hide my frustration by biting my lip. “Actually, I think the inventor has already chosen the person eligible for the test. He did personally invite me to go see the test though.”
“The joys of being friends with a scientist,” the girl said.
At two o’clock, I walked to the exhibition center, where science experiments and the science fair and such took place. I was one of the first ones to arrive, and Justin was on stage preparing for his big break.
“Hey,” I said. Justin didn’t even look at me. I took a different approach than an all out accusation. “You know, your father would be so proud of you. I bet he’s watching you from the heavens right now, beaming ecstatically, jumping for joy. ‘Oh, my dear son!’ He would say. ‘He’s everything I wanted to be and more!’” I cheered silently, but sincerely.
Justin was staring at me now. His voice shook as he spoke. “You really think so?”
“I know so.”
“Thank you, Rose.”
I took a seat right in front of the stage. “Where’s Natalya?”
“She got called into a meeting with one of her teachers. I think she’s putting too much time into sports than academics. She’s failing.”
I was almost amused at our switch of places. “You’re okay with her not being here?”
“She apologized profusely last night.”
“And what were you up to last night?”
Justin shrugged and turned back to his invention, which I faced to get a good look at. It consisted of a smooth, silver bed-like table and a large attached board with a jagged rectangular disk about roughly the same size hovering above. Four circular points stood out on the edges of the table with a rounded bulb sticking up from each of them.
“It’s magnificent,” I said.
“I got lucky,” Justin explained. “I was straying very far away from the answer to my creation two weeks ago. And then, by accident, I found it.”
Catalyst… If only I could remember the chemistry term. “Whose your test subject, Justin?”
My friend paused in his movements, a wire lying motionless in his upturned palm. He pushed his glasses up his nose in that nervous way of his. “I was… I was kind of hoping you would be.”
My answer would have been immediate. The word was on the tip of my tongue, ready to explode ruthlessly in Justin’s face. But he looked so much like a puppy begging for my attention that I changed my answer in the last split second and said, “Sure, as long as I’m safe.”
“You will be,” Justin said. He pointed to a blinking red signal on the side of the table. “This here is your life line. It will keep your body and your aura connected as long as it’s still blinking. And believe me, with the amount of energy I’ve installed in this thing, it will be blinking for years.”
Students and teachers who were interested in this new invention seeped into the exhibition twenty minutes later, while Justin gave me some last minute instructions of what I should and shouldn’t do. Especially, he said, I shouldn’t wander too far, or else my connection to my body would be lost, and that could result in my death.
I said I would stay right by his side.
“How can we have spies if they can’t travel too far from their bodies?” I asked.
“That won’t come for years. This is simply the first stage of the invention.”
When murmurs had died down and the last set of people had finally glued their bottoms to their seats, Justin gave a brief introduction of his invention and ended by saying, “I’ll bring my subject back into her body with the click of this button, sucking her back to the real world.”
The way he spoke gave me a bad feeling, as if I wouldn’t make it back. Why was I doing this again? Right. For Justin, because he was a sensitive guy, and he needed my support. Where was David? He would be landing soon. I wanted to meet him at the airport, be one of those girls who would give him a great hug and a kiss as a welcome back. I nearly smiled on stage at the thought.
Justin strapped me to the table, and told me to relax and close my eyes. The audience wouldn’t scare me, because they didn’t even care who I was, not that it was a bad thing, but they’d only remember Justin’s experiment and his success.
The cold of the table made me want to shiver, and I clenched my fists tightly, hoping my nails digging into my skin would make me forget the cool metal beneath my fingertips. I breathed in the air-conditioned air carefully, and let Justin’s voice fade away while the whizzing sound of a moving machine came closer to me.
I felt pressure, and I was sure the large board above me had been lowered to just inches from my face. A surge of warmth made the cold sprint away in a blast, and I opened my eyes with shock, shouting out to Justin.
“Right now,” He was saying, “The subject is probably out of her body and watching us. You might think we’re doing some sort of magic trick. I assure you, it’s not.”
I tried to push the board above me away, but I slipped right through. I had no body, not even the outline of hands. I was dust in the wind. Feeling like I should be shaking uncontrollably, I took my place next to Justin and waited.
He said, “Rose, if you could do me a favor, simply watch while I silently get members from the audience to hold up a series of three numbers. I shall not tell them what numbers to use. Any volunteers?”
Quite a few hands shot up, so Justin picked three sitting near the front.
There must have been some sort of parade occurring outside because there were sudden gleeful shouts and loud bangs that startled people inside the exhibition.
The three numbers were nine, two, and seven.
Outside, the ruckus had grown louder, and the building shook violently for several seconds. Something crashed onto the roof and I turned and watched as the roof tore apart and a great orange and gold glow filled the exhibition. I would have shielded my eyes, but there was no need for it.
“What is that?” Several people were shouting, among cries of, “We’re being killed!” and “It’s a meteor shower!”
Justin was staring up at the roof with amazement. “This is…” Suddenly, he seemed to remember my body. “Rose!” He ran to the button he was meant to press, while I kept my eye on the blinking red light, which seemed to be flickering faintly for some reason.
I had to remember nine, two and seven.
There was another shake of the earth, and I thought it was an earthquake for a second—at least, it crossed my mind—but I dismissed it when wind started blowing past and all around me, in less than a second, people were disintegrating. I turned to Justin, willing him to press the button so I could hide, when suddenly, I caught notice of where the blinking red light was meant to be.
Only, it had stopped blinking.
And I felt myself falling as if into oblivion. Perhaps I was now being pulled back into my body. I wondered if all I had seen in the past minutes had been a side effect of being outside my body. Perhaps I was hallucinating.
Nine, three and seven—I wasn’t sure if it was a coincidence that the numbers spelled out war.