Chapter 25.1 – Goodbyes
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Chapter 25 – Goodbyes

Marisa and Marley strolled around the mall one last time, even though it was the first time they’d done it outside of confabulated memories. They each thought of stores to window-shop at. Marisa made a mystical store with magical potions mixed amidst discounted role-playing collectibles. Marley marveled at a bookstore with more floors than possible and another store which sold incense candles and pleasant perfumes. They finished with the best sandwich place they could summon and a leisurely stroll between golden trees in the parking lot as their leaves fluttered past them.

It was a good Saturday morning, but the task at hand still lay before them, despite the delays.

Jessica’s house wasn’t far, but it was deep in a nearby residential area with many twists and turns of roads. They could remember coming to her house often and enjoying its maze-like layout. They often discovered rooms when turning a corner. A sewing area, a bathroom, and then a guest room, when they figured they’d seen it all.

Their shoes squeaked on the hardwood as they slid them off by the door and greeted Jessica’s mom. She had a clear, certain face, one which reflected both qualities of Nicolas and Jessica. She offered snacks and explained that Jessica was up working on weekend homework. Nicolas was home as well, relaxing with a book in his room, still on leave.

As they snacked, they debated which sibling to try first. Nicolas would be a challenging one. But, if he woke up, he might be a strong ally in waking up Jessica too. However, neither knew him that well and Jessica might be as much of an ally in waking him up as the other way around. Eventually, Marley decided to flip a coin, despite the fact she realized it would be subconsciously-biased. After several annoying times it stayed on the edge, the coin finally landed for Nicolas.

His door was cracked open and he was leaning back on his bed with his book stretched before him. He gave a courtesy wave to the two of them and asked, “Here to see my sis?”

The voice he used was a little more mature, a little rougher around the edges than Marley was used to with Nicolas. Touching Seth’s memories from their trade, she found he also had a hint of Steven in his tone, although without the mocking.

Folding her hands behind her, Marley announced, “In a moment…we’re here to see you first.”

Raising an eyebrow, Nicolas asked, “What did I do this time?” Memories of little conflicts between siblings spilling over into friends flashed through Marley’s head.

“It’s not that”, she reassured him. “It’s not anything you’ve done. It’s just…unfortunately…time. It’s time we all accept that this world is a pleasant little fantasy. And we can’t stay here forever because a terrible woman named Simona is still out there…”

Marley banked on the name as a trigger. Nicolas’s face wore a frown which steadily grew deeper as he listened. He rubbed at the back of his neck, where only rigorously-groomed stubble grew, and inquired with careful words, “I’m confused…is this some sort of game?”

Puffing a breath, Marley waved a hand and the book lifted into the air, out of Nicolas’s grasp. He cursed to himself and stared as the book sailed through the air without anything to support it. It shifted and changed into a different edition of the same book, hardcover first print edition, and returned to him. Marley spread out her hands. “Not a game. Things can be changed in this world because it’s a special, pleasant world made just for us.”

Staring at the book, Nicolas stretched his mouth to speak. He made small little sounds like the beginnings of words and then wobbled on his bed as his eyes rolled up into his head and he passed out. No amount of willing or shaking would rouse him. Marisa murmured, “That was probably a bit too much…”

Marley agreed and noted, “We can come back to him later. I’m sure he’ll be fine…I guess that puts Jessica first. It’ll be hard, but we’ll have to do our best…”

Jessica’s room was at the end of the hallway. It was a little fancier than Marley’s. The delighted yell and exuberant welcome she gave the both of them only made the task ahead that much more challenging.

They settled around her bed as she leaned back and asked, “So, what’s up?”

Marley scratched at the back of her hand for a moment and looked to Marisa. Before Jessica could start to feel confused, Marisa told her, “I got this…book in the mail today and it’s just like that one idea for a story I wanted. You know, the one I was talking about a couple weeks ago…”

It took Jessica a moment, but she soon smiled and nodded, recalling the concept. Marisa passed around the book and Jessica gave a giggle of delight. It was painful for Marley to see a moment like this with her best friend and feel like all she had to offer was an end to the smiles. She felt so sorry for what she was about to do. She felt the same fear which surrounded her even before they met Sim. She was afraid her friend would reject her. But she knew she had to do it. The nightmare of Jessica as an empty soul was too heartbreaking to imagine.

Marley began, “There’s more. Weird things have happened. Marisa’s wishes have actually come true. Boys have turned into girls. I mean…the pony show for one.”

Jessica raised an eyebrow and answered, “Well…I thought that was just a rumor. Marisa seemed to think so too. Weird things sometimes happen…”

Marley clutched at the ground as she continued, “Actually, they happen for a reason. They happen because this world can be changed…because it’s a world made for us…by Mona…the lady who is the nurse at school. You didn’t meet her. I mean you didn’t meet her outside the role she’s playing. But you did meet Simona. You stood up to her, like you stood up to Sim. You’re Seth…and our secret name of Marlise was the name you picked after you and me switched bodies.”

It was out there, spoken in halting yet frantic words, each sound a bare, bold step into the open, into rejection and worry. She could feel the sickness swelling back over her, but she looked into Jessica’s eyes, her calm and sympathetic eyes, and felt at ease.

Despite those sympathetic eyes, Jessica shook her head as she concluded, “This isn’t a game. This isn’t one of Marisa’s story ideas. I don’t know why you’re saying this…”

Marley reiterated, “Because it’s the truth. It’s so hard for me to say because I don’t want to hurt you. I really don’t want to remind you of what’s going on…but it’s true.”

Jessica sighed and shook her head again. “You’re really worrying me here, Marley. You’re sure this isn’t just a joke gone too far? I mean….I know what’s real here. I know my life. I know my brother. I know my family and my friends. You can understand my skepticism if you want to call everything I hold special to be lies…it hurts to hear you say that.”

And it hurt Marley all the more to adsorb Jessica’s feeling. But she persisted because she knew she had to be strong. “You were turned into Jessica because of a mirror on the wall which showed someone else. You had a name tag and it changed. You met Isaac first, before me. The first me you met wasn’t me. It was an explosion-loving Marley. I know you remember the sticky box which trapped us all…it put us in a strange place and traded our bodies.”

Still, Jessica gave Marley a pained expression. She listened, but gingerly shook her head with each new announcement. It wasn’t getting through. There didn’t seem to be anything she could offer. But there was one thing. She sniffled and took a breath.

“She took your body. She took your soul, like she took everything else. You volunteered for us. I felt like you were giving up…surrendering to Simona…”

Jessica clenched her teeth and frowned. By her expression, she didn’t seem to reject what Marley was saying. She was thinking about it, but it wasn’t easy. Marley continued.

“I was going to squeeze her…hurt her. You told me not to do it…because I’m better and stronger than her. Because you’re my friend. You know me. You shared my pain and memories….I…and you…you were the one who found me in my sadness. You saved me from my fears. And I was so afraid to lose you….”

The frown faded from her face. Jessica listened with tense concentration. Marley held back sobs as she finished, “You told me you needed to do it, for us. You were terrified, but you did it anyway. You told me to stay strong. To take care of our friends and comfort them. But you also told me that this wasn’t the end…so long as I remembered you…”

Marley reached out for her friend, who cupped her mouth with her face trembling. Slowly, cautiously, she reached out as well, and their fingers lightly touched. They each held a breath, which Jessica finally released as she said, “Simona….in my spirit. In my Atavistic Energy, as she called it.” She clenched her head as though some phantom pain was passing through it and trickling in sharp stabs down her body.

Desperately, Marley enveloped her and assured her it would be fine. But Jessica clenched her teeth and whimpered as she said, “She’s inside me. It’s like…acid all over. Eating at me. It hurts. It’s not always bad but…I remember. I can feel it now like an open wound.”

Apologizing over and over for opening that wound, Marley urged, “We need to stop her. We need to get you back. I made a promise to kill her and I intend to make good on that promise.”

Jessica flashed a heightened look of pain and said, “I’m so sorry I left you. I never wanted you to hurt like this...” Together, they cried and Marisa offered a compassionate back rub for both of them. Once they settled down, Jessica stared at her hands. Like the others knew, she now understood, like a fact inescapable when it had been invisible before, that the world around them was false. It changed according to their whims.

Cradling her face, she thought aloud, “There are some people I need to say goodbye to. My parents and teachers… They may not be real. But I would feel terrible to just leave them without saying anything.”

Marley nodded eagerly. “Of course. We all need to say our goodbyes. Hopefully, they will be temporary.”

Standing carefully, Jessica said, “Hope so too. And did she at least keep her promise not to harm you guys?” Marley flicked her eyes down and shook her head.

“No…she didn’t. She erased everyone and made me watch. Then, she brought out a nastier version of Sim to torture me over and over in agony. If not for the better version, Mona, I would be in perpetual Hell. There’s much more to say, but I want to say it to all of you at once…”

Clenching her teeth as she listened, Jessica looked like she might seize Simona through the burn of the acid. She softly hissed, “Mere death would be too kind for her or Sim.” Marley nodded in agreement and mentioned Nicolas.

Jessica relaxed at the mention of her perceived brother. Eyes dipping, she sighed. “Nicolas. Like Steven before. Not my brother, after all. But I cherish the memories inside my head, no matter what put them there. They’re lovely memories. They’re comforting memories. They’re the kinds of memories I’d like to make more of with him and with the both of you. But…we need to tell him what we all know, don’t we?”

Marley admitted they’d started, but he’d passed out when she made a book float. Jessica gave Marley a look and admonished her slightly, “Perhaps you could’ve gone a little easier on my big brother.” Marley bowed her head, and the three of them made their way to her brother’s bedroom, where he was finally awake again. He frowned at Jessica’s friends but laughed to himself and muttered, “I had the weirdest dream…”

Jessica approached him with a sigh and said, “I know. And there’s something I need to tell you.”