THERE WAS A period not unlike the half-waking moments between snooze alarms. A timeless, restless void that could have been a second and could have been ten thousand years. I felt air on my face, a rushing wind that pummeled me. I could not see, realized my eyes were closed, and pried them open. My vision immediately went blurry, air blowing the fluids from my eyeballs. I felt like I was falling. I focused my eyes and saw the ground, way down there, hundreds of feet. Lush green grass and tiny pale shapes that could have been people, little dots that seemed to grow almost imperceptibly.
Wait a second. I AM falling. HOLY SHIT!
I started flailing my arms, hoping I somehow had the ability to fly in this world. It was no good. I fell and fell for what seemed like an irrationally long time and then, I wasn’t falling. Instead I was tangled up in something soft and springy like cheesecloth, bouncing twice before landing once and for all.
I laid there for a moment in some kind of netting, dumbfounded, a split second before Molly’s ass landed right on my face.
I struggled to sit up, saw that I was hanging in a piece of cloth the size of a house, suspended high in the air. Above me, a dozen wingless, flying creatures the size of people were keeping it suspended with ropes.
Angels, I thought. I’ve gone to Heaven and I’m being carried on a tarp hefted by angels.
This wasn’t what I was taught to expect in Sunday School, but things are never the way you learn them in the classroom. The cloth convulsed and tossed me again into the air for a dizzying second. John had landed.
We were going lower, down and down. I peered through the translucent fabric, like looking through panty hose. I thought I saw a crowd down there, a flesh-colored sea with a space in the middle. I was half expecting to find gates of carved pearl and a judge waiting for me, half expecting the crowd down there to descend on me, douse me in drawn butter and eat me alive.
We went down and down and down, the air getting warmer and the wind getting calmer. We finally hit the ground with a jolt. I rolled and flailed in the netting, got on my feet, then fell back on my ass. I got a good look at the beasts carry ing the tarp. They were a sort of humpbacked men, emitting a growling noise until the moment they landed. They were naked, with penises I worked hard not to notice, but they wore loose hoods that covered their heads and draped down over their chests.
One of the men walked near, penis flopping with each step; he extended a hand to help me up. I observed that he did not in fact have a humped back, but instead seemed to have some kind of apparatus that was riding on his back with straps made of hard, jointed plastic or something like it.
I let the naked man, hairy as Robin Williams, help me up, and then I withdrew my hand as quickly as possible. He stood back and joined the humpbacks who were forming a loose circle around me and John and the dog. Beyond them, I saw the crowd.
There were maybe a hundred people standing around, every one of them wearing hoods. Every one of them otherwise naked. I observed, with some dismay, that a large percentage of them were el der ly. I noticed that one group of them were holding up a large, colorful banner but I could not make out what was on it.
I said to John, “Oooookay. So, you see Amy here?”
John said, “Dunno.” He scanned the hooded nakedness around us and said, “You know what this is, right? We’re in an alternate universe and this is Eyes Wide Shut world.”
The crowd stared at us in silence. Molly sniffed the air. It was cool here, maybe in the high fifties, a mild winter. The grass around us was still green and soft and the landscape was made of the same low hills that Undisclosed was built on, spilling out around us like a wrinkled green rug. My head throbbed from getting clubbed earlier.
I said, “I wonder what they’re expecting. Are we supposed to fight each other to the death?”
“In Eyes Wide Shut world, we’ll be lucky if that’s all it is.”
From the crowd, a large man emerged, no hood, wearing a pinstripe suit. Or should I say, he was wearing an imitation of a pinstripe suit. It was black with pinstripes that seemed to be about a quarter-inch wide, and a short, fat red tie that only hung down about six inches from his neck. He spread his arms.
His face was human, but off. A Michael Jackson sort of face. I had seen it on my tele vi sion. The man wore no hood but he was wearing something like a latex mask, better than Halloween quality but still obvious it wasn’t his real face. I could see the seams under his ear—the ear was part of the mask—and the hair was unmistakably a wig.
I said, “Where’s the girl?”
The man hesitated, seemed confused. I said, “Red hair? She’s missing a hand?”
“Ah,” he said. “Amy Sullivan. She is very safe. Come.”
The man gestured in one direction and the crowd stepped aside to make a clear path for us. One of the humpbacked men who had carried our net did something with his hands and the apparatus on his back jumped off on its own; it crawled around on the ground on six legs. It was a living creature, I realized, and it reminded me somewhat of a giant beetle. It munched on some grass and softly farted through slits in its hindquarters that I theorized had been supplying the propulsion used to keep it aloft.
The large man walked us through the path formed by the naked crowd. I saw the large banner again and this time could make out the image. It was a cartoonish painting of me, depicted as a muscular warrior with a gushing head wound, Molly at my feet, teeth bared, with the flesh of some slain enemy in her jaws. John was shown bearing a fistful of flame and with an enormously exaggerated crotch bulge.
The large man turned, said, “A select few interested parties were allowed to come and observe your arrival. We asked the ones who came to be considerate. Our style of dress here is quite different than what you are used to. We did not want to cause you stress, so we thought removing the garments would lessen your discomfort. I believe some of the styles would be quite unnerving for a person from your world.”
We were led down the gauntlet of nudity, two walls of flaccid penises and graying pubic hair and bare legs webbed with blue veins. One tall man, I noticed, was awkwardly trying to hide a gigantic erection. Not even eyes, however, were visible behind the slits in the hoods that draped over their shoulders.
“Why the hoods?” asked John.
The large man didn’t hear or didn’t feel like replying.
We came upon a grassy hill, which I for some reason thought would have been the same hill the Sullivan house rested on back on the real Earth. The hill turned out to have a door in the side, a sort of underground building built into the hill. It occurred to me that all of their buildings may have been built this way, leaving the landscape itself uninterrupted.
The door slid to the side and as we passed through I saw that the door and the mechanism seemed to be made of carved stone, something dense and smooth. Maybe granite. I don’t know my rocks. We were led down a hall lined with more hooded nudists. The overhead lights were cut into the ceiling and seemed to emit a perfectly natural sunlight that was somehow soothing. As we passed, the observers nodded and leaned to each other and gestured, noticing things and pointing them out to their neighbor. What was missing from this was any sound. No whispering, no grunting. They must have had specific instructions from the big guy not to speak and I thought maybe they spoke a foreign language when among themselves.
We entered a large, round ballroom-type chamber, and John and I stopped dead cold. In the center of the room was an enormous, flaming, golden statue. And I don’t mean it was painted gold, either. It was gold, a twenty-foot-tall represen ta tion of the image on the banner outside. John and me and Molly, our backs to each other, ready for battle. A fountain of flame poured up from the center of the statue, so each of our backs were to it.
I said, “I think they were expecting us.”
John nodded. “Look at that. It looks like the flame is shooting out of our asses.”
We were led down a hall and into a small, round room with white walls that had a rough texture like stucco. The only furniture was two large, elaborately curved chairs that seemed to be made of uncut wood, as if the branches of a tree had grown into four legs and arms and a back, purely by chance. On the floor was a pillow, presumably for the dog.
The man gestured to the chairs and we sat, dog included. The man walked past me and stopped, observing the blood running down my neck.
“Your injury. Let us tend to it.” He looked out through the open doorway and silently gestured to someone out there.
“Our world,” he said, “is far more advanced than yours. For reasons you’ll understand shortly.”
A thin, bony naked woman entered the room, carry ing two small, white kittens. She sat one of the fluffy cats in my lap and stuffed the other down my shirt. She turned and left.
“There,” said the large man. “The kittens will make your sad go away.”
The man looked back at the doorway we came through and, on its own, a door slid from the wall and clicked closed. The operation of the door was a whisper-quiet SSSSssss-fump. The inside of the door carried the same rough white texture, and the lines of the door disappeared once it was closed. I suddenly had the claustrophobia a bird fetus must feel at the moment before kicking its way out of the egg. The kitten scratched my chest and I opened my shirt to let it flop out onto my lap.
The man came around to the wall in front of us, an excited expression on his face that didn’t translate through his mask that well.
“I suppose you are wondering where you are.”
I raised my hand. “I’m going to say that we’re in an alternate universe of some kind.”
“That is correct. Do not think of it as a physical location. Think of it as another possible arrangement of the atoms in your universe to form something else. Today’s cloud is tomorrow’s puddle.”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s much clearer.”
Undaunted, the large man said, “But to perceive one world, and then the next, requires a point of connection or—”
“A wormhole?” said John, hoping to usher the guy along.