Upon receiving the letter from Elise, Olivia was surprised to learn that her sister was living at the edge of the universe. Olivia hadn’t seen her for three years, at the last holiday party their parents were alive for. She still had the picture of the four of them standing by the tree with candy canes on her fridge, Olivia pretending the cane was a pirate hook, Elise tilting her head sideways with the cane’s hook against her neck, as if being yanked offstage. Olivia had long since cut off the other end of the shot where her ex-husband had stood, a candy cane hooked on his ear.
It is beautiful here, and I’d like to talk to you before I proceed.
Olivia was not sure what to make of the letter’s last word. Proceed. How? What was proceed-able? Flights to the edge of the universe had spotty availability. Olivia booked the next one offered, leaving in three days somewhere between five p.m. and midnight.
Olivia arranged for her daughter’s babysitter, Zach, to stay at the house while she was away. He arrived with a bag full of her daughter’s favorite snacks, and just as Olivia reached the door, asked her how she wanted him to handle Mackenzie’s bat mitzvah.
“Mac’s only seven,” Olivia said. “And we’re not Jewish.”
Zach gave her a skeptical look.
“My Uncle used to live out there,” he said. “I know how it is.”
Olivia told him not to worry about it.
When she arrived at the airport, Olivia was directed to an exceptionally tall security officer, who slipped her ticket into his coat pocket surreptitiously before taking her arm gently and guiding her across the terminal in silence. After passing a series of more traditional flight gates, the officer led her into a back hallway, stopping at a frayed curtain with a scrap of paper on it that read: Employees Only. The officer held it up for Olivia and she stepped underneath to end of the hallway, bereft of any doors. After following the officer knelt down as if to tie his shoe and fished around in his sock, removing a single white key. He then reached upwards and moved his hand across the ceiling, stopping underneath a slight dent in the paneling. Bringing up the key with his other hand, the officer jammed it into the groove, breaking through the surface like styrofoam, and twisted. A jagged piece of ceiling crumbled off and fell to their feet, creating a cloud of dust. The officer turned to her and held his palms out, nodding upward. Olivia stepped into his palm and extended herself up past the ceiling hole, pushing against the new floor to lift her lower half into the room above. She looked back down at the officer, who whispered something inaudible into a walkie-talkie before looking up at her and smiling.
“Have a nice flight,” he said, then moved aside the curtain and left her.
Olivia stood and took in her surroundings; the room she was in looked not unlike the waiting area of a doctor’s office, with couches and chairs and artificial plants, no windows. Three other passengers sat around the room, their heads dipped into magazines. Olivia counted three correlating floor-holes in random spots of carpet, including a gaping one right in front of the check-in window that she traced to the overweight man sitting in the corner. She took nervous steps towards the attendant behind the desk, who raised a finger and and swiveled around as she approached. Just give her some cookies mom, she heard him saying. Christ shouldn’t you have this down by now? Milk makes them tired I think. Yeah, I think I heard that once. She’ll watch some cartoons and PTFO. Hold on a sec.
He brought the phone down and turned back to face Olivia.
“Just checking in?”
Olivia squinted at him over the cavernous floor opening.
No, she thought, it couldn’t be — but it was.
The attendant, who was clearly Zach, tilted his head to the side and squinted back.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m sorry mam do I know you?”
“You definitely do.”
Attendant-Zach clicked his tongue and cringed apologetically.
“I’m sorry mam. Maybe you’re confusing me with some other stud.” He winked.
“I don’t think so.”
“Code phrase please?”
At this the other passengers put their magazines down and looked at Olivia expectantly. She met their collective gaze with a furled brow.
“Edge of the universe?”
They exchanged looks of satisfaction before sinking back in their seats.
“Thanks,” said attendant-Zach. “You’re all set.”
Olivia tried to say more, but he swiveled back around and returned the phone to his ear. Mom? I’m back. Olivia retreated and sat down as far away from the other passengers as possible, then took her phone out and dialed Zach’s cell.
Zach picked up on the first ring.
“Sup Ms. Riley?”
“Oh,” Olivia stammered, looking back at the check-in window. “Hi Zach.”
“Hey hey hey. Enjoying that airport bar?”
“No, I mean — no. How’s Mac?”
“She’s great. Sleeping like a — well, like a seven year old I guess.” He laughed.
“Oh good. Well…thanks Zach.”
“Anytime Ms. Riley.”
He hung up and Olivia flipped her phone closed, listening to attendant-Zach, still talking, the exact same voice she’d just heard in her ear. And try to lay off the booze the rest of the week alright mom? I’m counting on you. The kid’s not mine you know! The exact same laugh.
Three minutes before takeoff, a new hole broke open beneath Olivia’s feet and she let out a stifled shriek before pulling her legs up onto the couch. Seconds later, a man with a visor and a camera strapped around his neck emerged from the opening, apologizing to her between grunts as he struggled to lift himself up. Olivia gave him her hand and helped him the rest of the way and he lay on the floor panting for a minute before rising and dusting himself off, taking the seat next to her.
“What airport?” he asked.
Olivia looked at him in confusion.
“Ah,” he nodded, then pointed to himself. “JFK,” he said.
The man went to check-in and Olivia peered down the hole he had come through, looking into a small control room where a handful of operators sat at computers with headsets on, reciting coordinates into their mouthpieces. Olivia rose carefully and stepped over to another hole, the one closest to a French woman reading Time. This one seemed to be positioned above some sort of upper awning, an elevated catwalk just below. From far beneath it, Olivia could hear the echo of the airport intercom as flight schedules were announced: le prochain vol pour Grèce quittera en une huere.
Olivia was about to ask attendant-Zach how long they had until takeoff when she caught another glimpse through the opening near her feet to see not a control room but the sky, white wisps of cloud accompanying the blue, hurtling by at hyper-speed. So this was the flight. Olivia fumbled in her daughter’s backpack for the sleeping pills she’d brought along, taking two of them before sinking deep into the couch as the light of the room faded out.
Olivia woke to attendant-Zach shaking her.
“C’mon doofus! We’re here! Wake up! Wake up Olivia!”
Olivia broke from him and started up to her feet. The other passengers had gone and the door beside the check-in window was propped open, nothing but a wall of whiteness beyond. Olivia stood before it and craned her neck out; there didn’t seem to be a ground. She put one foot out to test it, but attendant-Zach yelped and came quickly to her side.
“What?” Olivia asked in alarm.
“We can’t land in the edge of the universe,” attendant-Zach said, as if it was terribly obvious. “You have to take the rope down.”
Attendant-Zach stuck his arm out into the white and felt around for something, bringing back a thick brown rope.
“This’ll take you the rest of the way.”
Attendant-Zach sighed and shook his head.
“Fuckin’ first-timers. It’s just a little rope-burn.”
Attendant-Zach paused and stared at her, his face grave.
“You don’t get it,” he said. “It’s all about to break.” With this, he walked back to the check-in window and sat, eyes locked ahead. Olivia went around the desk and approached him, noticing for the first time the clock ticking on the wall adjacent, the two hands moving across a blank white surface. She peered nervously at attendant-Zach, sitting upright and stoic in the chair. Cringing, she stuck out her finger and poked attendant-Zach in the nose, staggering back as his head cracked apart and went crumbling to the floor, followed quickly by the rest of his body. Olivia looked out the open door at the rope dangling amongst the white and took out her cell phone.
Zach picked up on the first ring.
“Morning Ms. Riley.”
The coffee table collapsed into pieces.
“Zach,” she said. “Could you put Mac on?”
“Oh,” he said, “I just walked her into class actually.”
“Can you go back and get her?”
The couch Olivia had slept on deteriorated into foamy bits of fabric.
“Uh…sure. Just a sec.”
A chunk of ceiling fell from the corner and crushed a chair.
“Hi mom! I’m in class.”
“I know jellybean!” Olivia shouted over the wreckage, “I just needed to tell you I love you!”
The floor began to break off into larger gaps.
“Oh. Okay. I love you too mom.”
Olivia stuffed her phone into her pocket and jumped onto the rope just as the entire room disintegrated.
It was a long journey down and Olivia’s hands stung terribly as she descended through the white. Finally her feet met something solid and she cautiously let go of the rope. She got on her knees and felt around with her hands; yes, there was ground here, though she could not see it, a sort of canvas material that resembled the surface of a trampoline in both texture and spring. Olivia rose, bouncing a bit on her feet, and spotted a figure approaching in the distance, a dark shimmer in the ocean of white. Olivia squinted; Elise. Soon she could feel the reverberations of her sister’s steps across the ground (cover? base? universe shell?), and then she could see her clearly, smiling and holding a sign that read: My Jellybean. Olivia ran forward and wrapped her arms around her, realizing as she felt Elise’s hand on the back of her head that she’d started to sob. Elise ran her fingers through Olivia’s hair gently, over and over, whispering into her ear that it was okay, that it would all be okay.
Elise took Olivia’s hand and led her through the white, turning slightly here and there until they arrived at a small brick apartment building, standing isolated amongst the nothing.
“You have neighbors?” Olivia asked as Elise got out her keys.
“You’ll see them eventually,” she said.
Elise’s apartment was filled with items from around the world; a dish towel from Iceland, a toothbrush from Pakistan, a teapot from Kenya, a broom from Siberia.
“What’s from here?” Olivia asked.
“I guess I am,” she said.
They sat in the kitchen drinking tea out of mugs from New Zealand.
“You’ll have to break that to Sacramento,” Olivia said.
At this Elise reached across the table and took Olivia’s hand.
“That’s what I needed to tell you,” she said.
Olivia raised an eyebrow in question.
“We moved to Sacramento when you were a baby. Mom and dad thought it’d be easier if you didn’t know.”
“What would be easier?”
“People like us go through life feeling out of place,” she continued. “We keep searching, feeling like there’s a place out there just past our reach where we’ll feel truly at home, but we never quite get there. That’s what it feels like to come from this place,” Elise smiled. “You’re home, Olivia.”
Olivia shook her head absently. She thought about her ex-husband, and the almost-but-not home she had felt with him. She thought about friends, sitting there present-but-not during get-togethers, never without the vague sensation that she was faking something. She thought about lying in her bed at night, alone. She thought about how much she liked to be alone. She thought about Mac.
“No,” she said. “I feel at home with my daughter.”
“If she’s a part of your home,” Elise said, “Then she’ll be here soon.”
Mac showed up the next morning, standing at Olivia’s bedside. Olivia sprang up and embraced her, asking how she had gotten there.
“Mom,” Mac said, frustrated, “We came together.”
Taking a walk with Elise and Mac that morning, Olivia began to see more; people and buildings and trees taking shape in the white. When she greeted the occasional passersby, there was the unmistakable sensation that she knew them, that they knew her, that they were seeing each other in a place where that meant something.
They picnicked in the park, laying out a tablecloth next to what Elise told Olivia she would soon be able to recognize as a cliff.
“What’s out there?” Olivia nodded beyond the cliff she couldn’t see yet, and Elise smiled.
“That’s what I plan to find out,” she said.
Mac stood and tossed the end of her PB&J into the abyss.
“My sandwich is a pioneer,” she said.
Back at Elise’s apartment, Elise showed Olivia the hang-glider in her closet.
“But isn’t this home?” Olivia asked. “Isn’t this place all you’ve ever wanted?”
“It wears out,” Elise said. “This is how I renew it.”
“How can it wear out?” Olivia felt a sinking in her chest. “Is it really home if it wears out?”
Elise came closer and placed her hands on either side of Olivia’s neck.
“Olivia,” she said. “This is the best we get.”
“Then why are you still searching?”
Elise shook her head, then kissed Olivia’s forehead and left the room.
The next day, Olivia and Mac returned to the park to see Elise off. Strapped into the hang-glider, Elise hugged them goodbye and assured them she’d be back before admitting that she didn’t really know that at all. The cliff faded into Olivia’s view just before Elise jumped off and sailed into the open.
Olivia saw more every day. The post-office and school, the wetlands and the fields, the sprawling flea markets. She felt connection all around her, realizing as the world came into focus that everywhere else she had lived in her life had been the opposite of this place; a broad expanse of nothing, hidden beneath a thin layer of something.
Two passed before Olivia tried Zach’s cell again, unable to keep her only remaining source of anxiety pushed to the back of her mind any longer. Five rings went by unanswered, Olivia standing in Elise’s old bedroom with held breath, and then there was Zach.
“Ms. Riley,” he said, a little unsure, “Didn’t think I’d hear from you.”
Olivia sat down on the bed, taking short breaths.
“Hi Zach,” she said faintly. “How are — things?”
“Everything is peaches,” Zach said. “We miss you, of course.”
Olivia sank sideways across the bed. She was silent for a moment, then forced out the word.
“Yup,” Zach said. “She asks me when you’re coming back on the daily. I tell her I don’t know, but she doesn’t believe me.”
Olivia put a hand over her welling eyes and groaned.
Edge-of-the-universe-Mac looked in at her from the doorway.
“It’s okay,” she whispered. “Zach?”
“Could you put her on please?”
“Sure thing, just a sec.”
Edge-of-the-universe-Mac took slow steps toward her, stopping beside the bed as Olivia took her hand.
Edge-of-the-universe-Mac stood next to her, mouth moving soundlessly to the words of phone-Mac.
“Jellybean,” Olivia said, “Say more.”
“Where are you mom? Come home come home come home come home!”
Edge-of-the-universe-Mac’s mouth continued to match every word, though the timing was slightly off. Olivia held her hand tight.
“I’m coming home, Mac,” she said. “I’ll see you soon.”
Olivia could see the airport now, hovering clear beneath the clouds, and she reached it after an arduous trip back up the rope. The terminal and plane were both quite regular, the attendants unfamiliar. Olivia took her sleeping pills as the plane began to elevate, falling asleep to the image of edge-of-the-universe-Mac waving to her from below as she’d ascended the rope. It had felt like goodbye, but Olivia hoped with all her heart that it had been hello.
TIMOTHY DAY loves plants, bad puns, and blanket-forts, preferably at the same time. His fiction has appeared in magazines such as Jersey Devil Press, Menacing Hedge, Cease Cows, Burrow Press Review, WhiskeyPaper, and others. You can visit him online at frogsmirkles.wordpress.com.