The next visit in the dorm room was dark. Edgar jumped up, fumbling with his flashlight before shining it at the shape passing by his leg. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Keres is a guide from the Higher Powers of the Core, to show me-“
“No I mean- never mind!” Edgar shifted to sit on his desk, the purple plus signs on his pajamas shining under the moon. “I guess we’ll have to talk now, because what else can I do!”
Valdís remained at the rattling door.
“I mean, no one knows what I’m going through! And I’m sick of people making fun of that cliché, but it’s true, and them making fun of it only brings me here! Nobody can tell I have panic attacks, because it’s all just peachy-keen to them, isn’t it!”
“How does that make-“
Edgar held his trembling finger out, “It’s been a rough first week, ok? I mean, I’m talking to people at lunch and someone’s talking about the sexism in 50s music and I say I like 50s music, and I think I offended him and here I am! It’s- I should be doing more things, I’m just wasting time here! I don’t even know how to not waste time anymore!”
Valdís stepped across the piercing crumbs to a stack of books on the desk, and picked the first one up.
“Fine, go ahead.” Edgar climbed back up to his bunk. On the desk, above a Monopoly box, lay a scratched-out portrait of a blood-soaked giant. “That’s all I’ll be doing my life. I know the layers fine, I just got to let them catch up to me.”
“When I claim someone, it is not that different from our meetings,” Valdís explained, looking through the window to the bent evergreens reaching for the bright green ground. “Time freezes, and other people disappear. When I touch them, they transcend to the next layer.”
The lanky Edgar had an ear to her, yet kept focused on a hanging black hat in front of a ridged, gaudy gameboard. The small room had a vending machine and a couch; it was noon outside.
“Go move the board.”
Edgar turned, but then averted his eyes from her glowing smile.
“You can tell me what happens to it when you return,” she continued.
“I’d rather not.”
“That’s ok. Now tell me what brings you here,” she verbalized.
Edgar swiveled around a wheeled chair, and then settled himself into it. “No, that’s ok. I’ll listen to you.”
“There are some differences between you in this plane and the dead in theirs. The dead are limited to a 44-meter radius from their earthly body, while you don’t seem to have a limit. My only possessions are my dog and myself, whom I have to keep on a tight leash most of the time. I’ve also learned that food can be an effective depressant if you feel anxious, so perhaps a good stream can keep you calm.”
Keres had crawled onto the stack of boxes by a dark window, and began rubbing his belly on them. Edgar’s eyes had closed, and his bottom lip held tight as he stretched his entire body.
“I keep thinking about last time we met, when I quit – well, in a sense – that board game when they started to team up against me. I mean, I made the right choice, since there’s no point continuing a game you’re set to lose,” Edgar breathed out quickly, caressing his wide knuckles. “But I still got tired from it, and when I woke up I was back in the room and my mind’s been on that.”
On a grassy bump surrounded by road, a parade of shorts and t-shirts blocked the pathways. A nearby sign read ‘University of California.’ Edgar looked for a moment, with tight jaw and tilted head, at Valdís.
“A common trigger for panic attacks is the fear of other panic attacks,” said Valdís with ease. “You’re actually quite fortunate, to have a place to go to when you’re feeling stressed.”
“Fortunate,” Edgar huffed. “Lucky. Right.” Behind him, a bowtie man with pamphlets held his sleeve collar to his cheek, his feet standing shocked at the walking duo.
This time, Valdís and Keres materialized in a sloped lecture hall, with many seats invisibly taken and an encompassing “panem et circenses” on the blackboard. She strode to the lumpy teen with a notebook in his hand, with an empty coffee cup at his side, with sweat on his forehead.
“What brings you here today?” she asked.
Edgar tensed upwards, clutched his armrests as sweat pressed against his armpits. “I never had much of a choice,” he said, adding in a little laugh.
Valdís sat like a Greek statue until he continued. “I’m not sure. The lecture was boring me, so I started getting some paper out to practice for art class. And then I get here and I don’t know why.”
She sighed. “What were you thinking before you arrived?”
“It wasn’t important.”
“Really.” She forced her way into the neighboring empty seat.
“Well, these sessions are tiring. Nothing against you, of course.”
“Just go on.” She held her spotless forehead with both hands.
“But it’s just how I feel afterwards, like I’ve hacked away at a dragon made of chewed gum or something. It takes up all my energy.” Edgar stole glances from the side, and then paused. “It’s killing my free time – my time to draw. And I know the Freshman 15 is building up, so I should begin exercising, but I don’t have the energy…”
“There’s no need,” she chimed in. “On the next layer, you’re given a new body. Much like how we discovered our magazines would not move in the real world if we moved it here, little of what’s done in this plane matters. The important mission is to see the layers, find a way to return.”
Edgar shivered, his empty breath slowing. “Do you know what the next layer is like?” A grin broke through his lips for a moment.
“It is enlightenment. Aware of the past life, the civilization there sees the futility of old religions and crusades, lives the path right in front of them.”
“I mean, what did you see there?”
By the time she responded, “I’ve never left this layer,” Edgar was calm, and everything vanished.
Valdís appeared on top of a bar, above hundreds of caps and open sweaters. There were spilled glasses of brown liquid at everyone’s feet, which Keres immediately began to lick. She focused on the thousands of bumper sticker under only neon, each one a cliché. Edgar was sliding past the hovering clothes towards her, his jacket bouncing around.
“Someone took my wallet!”
“My wallet! I’ve checked my pockets like a hundred times!” He rubbed his eyelids in dizzy circles.
“Check them again.”
Edgar pulled out a ring of keys and folded sheet of paper, then brought out the white cloth inside his jeans.
He patted his pocket sides of the white jacket, and then sighed. From his right, he brought out the stuffed leather.
“Well that was dumb,” he muttered, sliding down on the stool. “Goddamn panic attacks.”
Valdís killed three oil tycoons and a babbling vagabond before Edgar stopped drumming his fingers and looked up. “Ok, I’m not calming down, then. Wasn’t having much fun anyway.” He jolted his stool in, “How have you been?”
Valdís, looking down at Edgar’s greasy and unkempt hair, flinched a little. “How am I doing?”
“Yeah, kill anyone good today? Get Ko-meanie, what’s his name, the guy in Iran? Any old geezers that thought you were a funny-looking orderly or something?”
Valdís’ laugh was low and sudden, and Edgar slammed sweaty hands onto the bar when it happened.
“Yes! Took me long enough!” he cheered. “But seriously, how are you?”
“Well, thank you,” she smiled, before lowering herself to the other side of the bar.
“Did I mention that I’m going out with someone?”
“Really?” Valdís exclaimed. “I wish you luck, then.”
They sat in silence for a while, until Valdís added, “So where is she?”
“Oh, somewhere… there, with the cute glasses.” He motioned this with a casual hand.
“You could be pointing to someone you just noticed.”
“Oh, of course you’d say that. You’ve probably met a bunch of smart people, but needed me for books apparently.”
“I haven’t picked one up from you in a while.” Valdís leaned towards him, beamed.
“Well, I’ve done something good, then.” Edgar laughed a little, then cut it off as he twitched his cheeks. “Hang on. Hang – God dammit!”
“What is- “ She cleared her throat, “How are you feeling?”
“I have time stopping powers! Kind of! I know it’s another realm and all, but I still think I could’ve been an action hero somehow! I could’ve made Wolverine look like a poodle!” He clutched the splinter-littered bar. “I really wasted my gifts, didn’t I?”
“I don’t see why you’d want to be an action hero, let alone how you would do it.”
“Oh but there must be something.”
“Look, you know that that’s not important. Pull yourself together.”
His eyebrows tightened as he slowly let loose his fingers. “All right, all right,” he sighed, “I guess I’d have to pick the right animal theme too, lest I upset the 20th layer.”
“Right.” Edgar put his thumb in his pocket, glaring at the smudged, fake-wood floor. “22nd layer.”
To be concluded in Part 5.