Chelsea followed her doppelganger and took in her new surroundings.
It didn’t make sense. She’d ran a long way in every direction, and never encountered a wall or any other obstruction. And yet now, with the darkness illuminated, she could see that she was on a stone platform with a low wall on three sides. It was rather small – perhaps twenty feet across in either direction – enough that Chelsea definitely should have run into something, or ran right off the edge at the fourth side of the platform where there was no wall, and yet she hadn’t.
While the stone platform was illuminated, the area beyond was murky. She couldn’t see any details. At the fourth side of the platform was a sort of dock, and at its end sat a long, shallow boat.
“Where are we now?” Chelsea asked.
The other Chelsea turned to her, offering a reassuring smile. “This is one of the oldest places in all of creation,” she said. “Here you can learn to be honest with yourself.”
“Where’s the Library of Solitude?” Chelsea asked. “How did we get here? Where’s Gwen?”
“The Library…” the doppelganger chuckled softly. “It’s no longer what it once was. It is becoming this place, in a manner of speaking. In time, perhaps the rest of your group will join you here. But for now, you need time to yourself. After all…” Chelsea’s doppelganger stepped into the boat and turned to her, holding out her hand, “haven’t you always been better off alone?”
Chelsea stood on the dock, staring at the boat and the outstretched hand. She looked left, then right. A dark river stretched out, far off in either direction. The opposite shore was obscured by darkness.
“Why should I come with you?” Chelsea asked.
“Shouldn’t you know the answer?” her doppelganger replied. “You need to learn what you want.”
Chelsea frowned, but she got into the boat. The other took the helm, piloting the boat forward using a long wooden pole.
“Where’s Gwen?” Chelsea asked.
“You keep asking about her,” the other said. “I don’t understand. You only just met her.”
“Where’s…” Chelsea paused, clenching a fist in frustration. “Where’s my owl?”
“Ah,” the other said. “Don’t you understand? He’d get in the way.”
“In the way of what?”
“Everything. I’m sure you’ll come to understand in time. Please, try to trust me. I’m you, after all.”
“You can’t be me. You know things I could never know – like what this place is, and where we’re going, and how I got here.”
The other turned to Chelsea, smiling. “I know these things because I’ve heard about them,” she said. “I’ve let my heart be open to the voice. You know the one, don’t you? The voice you heard when you first entered the darkness. But you closed yourself off to it. If you would just open up, you’d know so much.”
“Where are we going?” Chelsea asked. She looked back towards the dock, but it was gone. Only darkness remained behind them, and ahead of them, she could see very little. A shadow here, a flicker there.
“Somewhere I’d really rather not go,” the other said, frowning as she turned back to piloting the boat. “But you’ve insisted, so I think you need to see, if only briefly.”
The other didn’t reply, leaving Chelsea stewing in silence as they floated down the river.
What have I gotten myself into?
And why am I so conflicted about it? Isn’t it simple? I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t have entered the darkness, and I definitely shouldn’t have brought Gwen with me.
But… the voice from before. It was right, wasn’t it?
I’m alone. And whenever I’m not alone, I end up being left alone. And there isn’t so much that’s wrong with that. Why not be alone? After all, Caleb…
Shut up. Forget what that stupid voice said about Caleb. He’s…
Why can’t I think about him the same as I always do?
Why am I so angry at him?
Forget it. Lorelei…
She’ll just leave, won’t she?
No. She wouldn’t. She’s the best friend I’ve ever had, and she’s the best person I’ve ever known. She won’t go anywhere.
How do I know?
“Awfully quiet, aren’t we?” the other asked.
Chelsea stared over the side of the boat, refusing to answer her doppelganger.
“I’m sorry,” the other said. Chelsea looked up, taken aback by the pained emotion in the other’s voice. “I know you don’t like secrets or riddles. I know you like things to be plain and clear. But I didn’t make this place. I didn’t bring you into the darkness. I’m just trying to help. You have so much conflict and pain… but you don’t have to live like that forever.”
“So you’re trying to take away my pain?” Chelsea asked.
The other nodded. “But to do that, you have to be honest with yourself. You have to discover what you truly want, more than anything.”
“If you’re me, then you should be able to tell me that plainly. Why does everything here have to be so secretive?”
“Because…” her doppelganger turned back to Chelsea, and Chelsea’s eyes widened. The other was crying, tears running down her cheeks. She shook her head, wiping the tears away. “I’m sorry. It’s just… I’m only a shadow of you. I know some things, but not everything. And because you’ve closed yourself off to your innermost self, I don’t know what’s there, either. I don’t… it’s so painful. I don’t even know who I am.”
“I’m sorry,” Chelsea said. She started to stand, thinking to hug the other or something to comfort her, but then remembered her hand just passing through the other’s. She couldn’t touch her. So she just shook her head, staring at the boat’s floor. “I’m sorry.”
The other turned away. “It’s all right,” she said. “I shouldn’t be so upset about this. I just… never mind. Here. We’re coming up on something that might answer one of your questions.”
Chelsea looked to the left as the other indicated, and suddenly a space was illuminated beyond the shore. It looked like an open-air theater, and on the stone stage was…
“Gwen!” Chelsea called out, staring in shock at the young woman. Gwen was kneeling on the stage, covering her face with her hands as if she were crying. All around her were…
“Stop the boat!” Chelsea demanded, stepping up onto the side of the boat, preparing to jump. “She’s in trouble!”
“I can’t,” the other said. “What Gwen faces, she must face alone. But you needed to know she was safe.”
“You call that safe?” Chelsea asked, pointing at Gwen. “Stop the boat, now.”
“I told you, I can’t.”
“Fine, I’ll swim for it,” Chelsea said, rolling up her sleeves. As she prepared to jump, a hand gripped her forearm. Chelsea stopped, staring in shock at her doppelganger.
“I thought you were just a shadow,” she said softly, eyes wide at this strange reflection of her that could now physically touch her.
“Please,” the other said. “If you enter the water, you will die.”
“Then how do I get over there?”
The other sighed, turning back to the prow of the boat and propelling them forward. “If you insist, I can take you to a closer landing,” she said. “But Chelsea… I don’t understand. Why are you so consumed with protecting a stranger?”
Chelsea shook her head, staring at the theater where Gwen wept until the lights suddenly went out. “She’s not a stranger,” she said. “I may not have known her for long, but I count her as a friend.”
“You feel responsible for her. Why?”
“Because I brought her here. I’m the one who encouraged her to explore, and I’m the one who didn’t turn us away when we faced the darkness. It’s my fault she’s hurting right now.”
“So you wish you hadn’t come.”
The other’s voice was mournful. Chelsea walked to the front of the boat and laid a hand on her doppelganger’s shoulder. “I don’t know anything right now,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on here, and I’m not sure if I want to be here. But whether or not this is the place for me to be, Gwen doesn’t need to be here. I have to at least help her get out.”
Suddenly a shiver ran through Chelsea’s body, like her nerve endings were lighting up one after another. A wave of strange, otherworldly pleasure rushed through her and, overwhelmed by it, she collapsed to a seat in the boat.
“What is this?” she asked, shuddering, more afraid than anything else, despite what her body was telling her.
“I’m sorry,” the other said. “I overdid it again, didn’t I? I really struggle with that. I’m just trying to make you feel better.”
Chelsea stared at her doppelganger with wide eyes. “You…” she said, her heart racing. “You’re… the voice. The one that was in my head.”
The other nodded. “I wondered how long it would take you figure it out,” she said. “But you shouldn’t keep looking at me and the voice as separate from you. Don’t you understand?”
“You’re… like my… inner self?”
“In a manner of speaking. Why else would I know so much about you? Like I said – I’m you.”
“So then… why am I… what are you… I don’t…”
“I’ve been trying to help you understand. I want what’s best for you. And who else could want that more?”
Chelsea felt like her head was spinning. “How long until we stop?” she asked.
“The landing is coming up,” the other said. She veered slightly left, bringing them closer to the shore. A light went on, illuminating a stone dock, and a winding pathway beyond it filled with statues and… windows.
Odd as it was to see, there were windows built into walls, like they were on display in a store rather than serving an actual function like they would in a completed building. Small walls were built specifically to house singular windows of different sizes and shapes and colors.
“What is this place?” Chelsea asked. The boat came up against the dock, bumping against it softly, and Chelsea scrambled out of the boat, hoping for relief from the strange, dizzy sensation in her body.
“It’s the path to the stage,” the other said. “Navigate this road, and you’ll find Gwen.”
Chelsea turned back towards the boat, noticing that the other wasn’t following her. “Why are you staying there?” she asked.
“You’re traveling a path that I cannot follow,” the other said. “Don’t worry. When you find the next landing, I’ll meet you there.”
There was a sadness in the other’s voice, and despite Chelsea’s fears and uncertainty, she felt guilty about leaving the other behind. Whoever this strange reflection of her was, if she was really what she claimed and wanted what was best for Chelsea, or if she was something sinister as she sometimes seemed, Chelsea couldn’t help but feel empathy for her.
“I just need to help Gwen get back,” she said. “After that, I can go with you. Whatever it is you need to show me, I’ll go.”
Her doppelganger nodded. “I appreciate that,” she said with a small smile. “Be careful. The path… it wasn’t meant for you. It may not be safe.”
Chelsea took a deep breath and turned away from the boat. “I don’t mind unsafe,” she said. With no response from her doppelganger, she walked forward along the stone road, leaving the boat behind.
The path wound its way to the left, and Chelsea passed between two large statues that seemed like gatekeepers. They were identical, arrayed in armor and holding long staves. As she passed between them, Chelsea suddenly felt a shift in the air. It felt cold and heavy, like a force was pressing in on her from all sides. She stumbled for a moment, and caught herself on a wall. When she stood up straight, she found herself looking through a window.
What she saw wasn’t the dark, bleak outside world. Instead, she was looking onto a city street. Old-fashioned cars wheeled past among a thick crowd of pedestrians, while golden rays of sunlight swept in from the left, painting everything in a warm hue. Every single person had a sort of aura to them, a faint shimmering light around their entire being.
Along that city street walked a little girl with auburn hair and golden eyes.
“Gwen…” Chelsea murmured, watching the little girl in awe. Gwen, in this image a small child, strolled happily along between two people, holding their hands. On one side was a man, tall and handsome. On the other was a woman, startlingly beautiful, with shimmering golden eyes.
The trio strolled down the street happily, until they exited the frame. Chelsea turned to the side, pressed her nose against the glass, but she couldn’t see further. Little Gwen had gone beyond what the window could show Chelsea.
Stepping back, Chelsea looked along the winding path. She had a long way to go, and there were many windows. Did each of them show a snapshot of Gwen’s life?
The path wasn’t meant for you.
Now Chelsea understood what the other had meant.
Still, she couldn’t leave her friend to torment alone.
On Chelsea walked, coming to the next window. It was small and round, offering only a narrow perspective. Through it, Chelsea could see Gwen, still a little girl, learning to sew. Her mother sat beside her, showing her the way and occasionally guiding the child’s hands with her own. Nothing else happened, and as Chelsea stood watching, she began to get the sense that the video was repeating itself, looping over the same short snapshot of Gwen’s mother teaching her to sew.
On Chelsea walked, stopping at a statue. It was the spitting image of Gwen’s mother, and she was smiling. Around her neck she wore a hexagonal locket.
Beyond the statue of the mother was another window. Triangular in shape, it offered a view into what Chelsea assumed was Gwen’s childhood home. It was a mansion, and she watched as child Gwen danced happily in her own private ballroom with her father. Her mother played a grand piano. Above them, a crystal chandelier bathed the room with white light.
Next along the path was a statue of Gwen’s father. He stood tall, but he was looking down at…
Chelsea was taken aback. In his hand was a pocket watch. It wasn’t all that similar to Caleb’s – where Caleb’s was round, Gwen’s father’s was a diamond shape, and this one opened up to a picture of Gwen and her parents – but it still left a pang in Chelsea’s heart as a reminder of the man she loved.
The man who abandoned you.
“Shut up,” Chelsea said softly, walking on from the statue of Gwen’s father to the next window. Through it, she saw little Gwen watching from an upstairs balcony as her father engaged in what looked like a business meeting at home. Seated across from her father were two people, a man and a woman, who instantly stuck out because, unlike Gwen and her family and all the people in the first window, these two had no aura around them. They were darkened, so that almost no features were clearly visible… except for the man’s face.
His face was shining.
No words could be heard – none of the windows offered sound to go along with the moving images. But while Gwen’s father appeared pleased with the conversation, Gwen herself looked terrified, her wide eyes fixed on the man with the shining face.
Another window followed this one. Now, Gwen was slightly older, though still a child. She appeared to be pleading with her parents about something. While her mother appeared sympathetic, her father’s expression had turned cold. He walked away from her, while Gwen screamed after him, tears filling her eyes.
By the time she reached the next statue, Chelsea felt the pressure in the air increasing, and she struggled just to walk upright. This statue showed Gwen’s mother once again, but she looked sad. There was a depth of emotion in her face that startled Chelsea.
She’d seen that kind of sorrow in her own mother’s eyes, almost like a question: “how long will this go on? Where does this hardship end?”
Gwen’s happy childhood seemed to be eroding. And in the next window, Chelsea once again saw the man with the shining face and the dark woman beside him. The man was shaking hands with Gwen’s father upon a big stage in the center of a wide street in the sunset-lit city. A large crowd was gathered around, and they seemed to be cheering. But tucked away in that crowd was Gwen and her mother. While Gwen watched with tears streaming down her face, her mother stared with the same expression Chelsea saw on the statue – sorrow that was threatening to overwhelm her.
The next window saw Gwen looking like a teenager, alone in a small room as she toiled away making clothes. Sweat glistened on her forehead, and her fingers were dotted with bandages as she handled her needle and thread. Stacks of fabric were to one side of her, while all around the room were arranged finished clothes of all different colors and styles. Outside Gwen’s window were city streets, but what drew Chelsea’s eye was graffiti painted on the wall of a building across the street. It was very simple, just four letters painted in blue: LIFE.
The next window was broken. On the ground in front of it were glass shards that showed no image. But in the remaining glass, fractured and in pieces but still within the frame, Chelsea could make out a picture. Gwen was repeatedly knocked to the edge of the frame, sprawling on the floor with a blistering bruise on her cheek. Despite the horrible injury to her face and tears stinging her eyes, Gwen looked up from the floor at the center of the frame with eyes that blazed with rage. Whoever it was that struck her, and whoever it was she looked upon with such anger, was hidden where the glass had been completely shattered and removed.
Beyond that window was a pair of statues, clearly the man with the shining face and dark woman. Here, their bodies and features weren’t hidden or obscured by darkness, so that Chelsea could see them clearer, though the man’s face was still hidden by light, as if the statue was enchanted to produce its own radiance. The woman appeared pale, with dark hair and eyes, and a severe, serious expression on her face.
The next window showed a world in chaos. The sunset-lit city streets were scarred and burned as if they’d been turned into a war zone. Smoldering craters littered the streets, and entire buildings were collapsing in on themselves. Bodies were everywhere, and every single one had a shimmering aura around them. Gwen and her parents were nowhere to be found – no one living was.
The next window continued to the show the aftermath of battle and destruction. Here, Gwen was in her mansion, but it was a smoldering ruin, with only portions of it still standing. She was weeping across from her father, and between them…
Chelsea’s heart broke. Gwen’s mother lay lifeless between Gwen and her father. She’d been crushed by falling rubble, and only her face was clearly visible. In her final moments, her sorrow had strangely turned to joy, and there was an oddly serene smile on her pale and lifeless face.
While Gwen’s face streamed with tears, her father was a different, and frightening, sight. His face was bleak, as if all emotion had been drained from him. In his hands was a long knife, which he clutched so tightly that his hand was shaking. It was clean and shining, reflecting light almost beautifully in this dirty, destroyed home.
As Gwen cried, her father’s expression suddenly broke. His eyes flashed with fear, and grief, and hopelessness. His lips formed one word: “Gwen.” Gwen looked up, and as her father raised the knife to his own throat, Chelsea couldn’t watch anymore.
“Gwen…” she said softly, eyes welling with tears. “Oh, Gwen.”
She walked on, desperately hoping the end of the road was near.
“You don’t have to face this alone,” she said softly. “Just hang on, Gwen. I’m coming for you.”