The phone on her nightstand rang almost as soon as she got out of the shower. The red light on the handset had been glaring at her since she got home; she knew she had to stop ignoring her mother. She wrapped a towel around herself and ran to pick up the receiver.
The table lamp next to her bed flickered as she sat down damply.
“Hi...Lily, is that you?”
Lily’s brain shifted gears. “Ian?”
“Oh, good, I was worried that you’d moved. How...how are you doing?”
Where to begin with that one. “Life’s hectic as always. It’s funny, I was just thinking about you earlier.”
“Really?” The voice on the other end of the line brightened. “I was hoping that we might talk, get together for coffee or something.”
“What did you want to talk about?”
“I’ve been missing you lately...I was wondering if you might be willing to give it another shot.”
A host of conflicting emotions ran through her. “As I recall, it was you who dumped me.”
“Yeah, I know. I had a lot going on then; I made a mistake. Look, I just want to know if we can sit down for a bit.”
She paused. It still hurt to think about him leaving. But she had liked Ian, really liked him, and there was a certain elegance to it...her relationship with Ian had ended shortly after she started with Dr. Harte, and picking up with him again now would in some sense be like excising the Visulex debacle from her life. It might be just what she needed. She wondered what she had to wear; everything in her closet these days was the same well-made, practical attire she generally favored.
She realized that Ian was still waiting. “Yes, all right. Felicia’s at 7?”
“I’ll be there,” he said.
* * *
The year was turning toward fall, Lily thought, surprised at how quickly the night gathered. Three weeks ago, the sky would still have been light at this time.
She was wearing jeans and a light sweater, a combination that she knew looked good on her but was casual in a non-committal kind of way. She stood outside the coffee shop, watching for Ian, unsure of whether to stay or go. Lily was about to leave when he came into view.
Tall, handsome, not interesting to look at in the way Matthew was, but certainly pretty. And he could be charming. He smiled when he saw her. He had a single rose in his hand. Charming and predictable, she amended.
“Shall we go inside?” he asked, handing her the flower.
* * *
Lily sat down; Ian brought over their drinks. They talked about unimportant things, then important. Lily began to feel the conversation sliding toward the inevitable conclusion of their reuniting, when she noticed the lights in the coffee shop growing dim.
It took a mental effort to focus on that fact, and she mentioned it to Ian.
“Never mind that,” he said. “It’s not important. Only you are important.” The room grew darker, and she felt as if she were falling asleep. It seemed both right and wrong, somehow.
“That’s right,” Ian said. “Just relax. Everything is fine now.”
Bach cut brightly through the room, and Lily snapped back to herself. Her cell. She flipped the phone open.
“Lily, can’t this be our time?” Ian pleaded.
“Just a minute,” she replied. “I have to take this. Hello?”
“Lily? It’s Lily. From the theater.”
“How did you get my number?”
“Please just listen. You don’t have much time left. Your system is trying to fight off the effects of the Visulex, and if it does, you know you won’t be able to bring yourself to try again.”
“How do you know about that?”
“Wake up – no, bad choice of words – look, just use the brain God gave you. You’re still in the Visulex trance.”
“Harte brought me out yesterday.” Ian was waving for her attention. He looked irritated.
“No, he didn’t. Where are you now?”
“How did you get there?”
“You sure about that?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Do you remember telling Ian that he dumped you? But it was the other way around, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. I think.”
“What did you do between hanging up the phone with Ian and arriving at the coffee shop?”
“Do you even have a neighbor named Fran? What did you have for breakfast? I’ll tell you. Nothing. That’s why you nearly fainted when you tried to exercise. You’ve only been living snapshots of a day. All those shadows and noises you’ve been seeing and hearing are the edges of the dream crumbling in.”
“Who are you? Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?”
“I told you, I’m Lily. I’m the part of you that is closest to who you want to be. Until now you hadn’t really noticed anything wrong with the world around you and there was only so much I could do, only give you a little help and watch as you dismantled the way back.”
“Back where?” Ian was standing up, a peeved look on his face.
“Back to where Matthew is. You’re in a transition state, call it a lobby, just your dreams and no one else’s. But if you haul ass back to the theater, and I mean soon, we can get you back into aleph-two proper.”
“And if I don’t?” Ian paused with his hand on the door of the shop, looking back at her with a questioning gaze.
“Then the shadows close in, and you wake up, for real this time. You’ll give up, probably wind up with Mr. Boring there again, and I’ll cease to exist. Is that what you want?”
“Maybe it is.” Lily looked over at Ian, and he smiled.
“Why did you work with Harte? You told me that earlier.”
“It was a once in a lifetime experience.”
“And why did you fall in love with Matt?”
Lily’s face froze. “I...”
The other Lily continued. “You can’t lie to me, so don’t try. Why do you love him? He’s sort of cute, but he’s been through a lot and he’s carrying more baggage than a transatlantic flight.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“Why not? Tell me.”
“Don’t you know?”
“Of course. But you have to admit it to yourself or you’ll never get through the door. I’ll give you a hint, though. It’s the same reason you worked on the Visulex project.”
“A once in a lifetime experience,” Lily breathed. Matthew, his personality, his art, being near him was like listening to Bach. Transformative. His talent was something she didn’t understand, and there wasn’t much Lily didn’t understand. He wasn’t afraid of her, and he cared about her. It was a different world with him in it. A better one.
“Now move,” the other Lily said.
Lily stood up, and went to the door. Ian smiled more broadly when she stood on her toes and kissed him on the cheek.
“I’m sorry,” Lily said. “I have to go.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 10.5]