This was by far the stupidest thing he had ever done.
Granted, Wes did lots of stupid things, but not for anyone. Why would he go to all this trouble just for me?
He stood before me now in the bookstore, fencing me in between him and the bookshelf. We were close enough to feel each other’s breaths on our cheeks, and I took a whiff of his familiar sandalwood scent.
When he first appeared out of thin air a moment ago, I was convinced it was my sleep-addled brain playing tricks on me. Lethargy and hallucinations were symptoms of my mysterious magical illness, after all. But when he took a step closer and breathed my name, I felt the first stirrings of hope – foolish, useless hope – in my chest.
My heart drummed an urgent rhythm – whether it was from the joy of seeing him (even though I’d die before I admitted it) or an effect of my illness, I wasn’t sure. This was the first time I had seen him in months, ever since I hightailed it out of the adjacent universes and into this one, burning all bridges connecting me to my old life.
In a place like this where stories spilled over, where did ours belong? Did our chapter lie somewhere, unfinished? We stood in the space of a breath. Around us, the books lay like silent spectators, holding in their stories, holding their breaths.
It was then that I realised what a huge risk he had taken to come looking for me here. “Wes, what are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here.”
His onyx eyes shone under the lamplight. I once told him that he had eyes that would make anyone believe anything he said, and he had laughed and said, Well, that’s half of the job done. When you lived life on the run, he said, you couldn’t afford to have morals.
Now, he directed that earnest gaze at me, and I found myself leaning closer even as I reminded myself that he could not be trusted. But who else, in this universe or the next, could I trust if not Wes?
“I found you the cure,” he said.
The cure. How many times had I dreamed of this moment, when I or someone else would utter those words? Yet, how many wild goose chases had we gone on only to have those hopes dashed to the ground?
No. I couldn’t let myself be buoyed again. The next fall would be the one to kill me. I shook my head. “You’re lying.”
“I have never once lied to you, and you know it.”
I ignored his statement. “How did you even find me?”
He ignored my question. “I found your doppelganger. Let’s go to Aunt Helen now and do the switch.” He took my hand, but I pulled out of his grasp.
“Wes, please don’t tell me you’ve been hopping around the time-space continuum all this time.”
Our bodies weren’t made for time or space travel. Every time we leapt from one universe into another, we left a piece of ourselves behind and our bodies couldn’t keep up with the change. It would start as dizzy spells and breathlessness, but eventually not stealing your doppelganger’s body could save you. I didn’t even want to know how many universes Wes had scoured out of the infinite ones in the continuum before he finally found me in this one.
He shook his head impatiently. “It doesn’t matter, Sylvia. I found you the cure,” he said, like I might have missed the significance of his words before.
“Wes, do I need to list out all the reasons why this is wrong and what could go wrong?”
“You used to want to look for your doppelganger too.”
“That was before Aunt Helen told us the dangers of –”
“So you’re going to hide in this bookstore and live out your last days in this forsaken universe?”
“Have you forgotten the part where my illness is terminal and contagious?”
“And have you forgotten the part where I said I don’t care?”
I laid my hands on his chest and pushed him back harder than I intended. There was no curing this disease of mine. It was the curse I was born with, and one that I would take to the end of all worlds.
“Syls, trust me. This is going to work. I’m going to make sure it does.”
My eyes burned with the threat of tears. My illness was mine alone to bear – not the crew, not my estranged father, and certainly not Wes, who was done with caring since, according to him, everything is impermanent.
“There are infinite universes out there, Sylvia,” he said gently. “You don’t have to trap yourself in this little corner.”
I was too old, too weary for promises, especially those made by occupational liars like Wes. “I’m running out of time, Wes. And frankly, I’m just tired of running. I’m tired of impermanence.”
“So stay put. I’ll bring your doppelganger to you. What have you got to lose?”
His gaze found mine again, and I thought of all our failed attempts to find the cure, all our dashed hopes, and how they had fostered a stubborn optimist out of the cynic standing before me now.
That second of hesitation was all he needed. He held out his hand, and I let myself trust him one last time. It would probably be the last thing I did either way.