Sighing, Randall asked the Entity, "What are you?"
A few beats of silence passed. Randall watched. He felt his body stiffen increasingly as the Entity's neck lengthened, as if there was more of it sitting in a pile inside its thorax and it was being unwound. It kept going until it was nearly half a metre longer. It was enough to make Randall reluctant to speak. He trembled momentarily before he mastered himself.
"Unimportant," said the Entity.
Another question occurred to Randall, but he didn't feel brave enough to ask.
"Have you decided?" The Entity asked, its monotone voice louder than before.
"I don't understand how this is supposed to help."
"You can decide for yourself," said the Entity.
Randall said nothing to that. He looked at the abyssal third point of convergence and stepped up to it. Then, he took a deep breath and entered the darkness.
When he exhaled, it was his forty-ninth birthday. It was at his home and his friends were there, though Randall only recognised a few of them. They all looked so different.
Jane was thinner and holding a baby. Mark had gained so much weight that he was nearly unrecognisable; Randall had only realised it was him because of his distinctive eyes. Richard, his former best man, had clearly learned to visit the gym regularly.
Amongst the small groups of people who stood around and others that filtered in and out of the kitchen, Elaine was there. She looked forty-nine, too. Her hair was coloured a dark brown and shorter than ever; all the greys were covered. Randall was briefly reminded of Elaine telling him how she'd just grow old gracefully while they watched some generic beauty makeover show. But Randall liked seeing the difference in her, even though his other self felt an odd reluctance every time she came into view.
She stopped to talk to Jane and give her baby a little kiss on the cheek. They spoke animatedly for a bit and when Elaine finally looked over to him, her face rearranged itself into a semblance of neutrality. She attempted a smile, but it was so faint that Randall felt almost dismissed. His body wasn't reacting strongly either. In fact, all he could really feel was a dull ache in his lower back when he moved a certain way, and a stronger ache in his left knee that flared up every time he put a little weight on it.
Elaine left the room and suddenly his friends were talking to him, so he had to pay attention.
Time moved oddly here. He existed in each moment of the party, had several conversations, and yet it all seemed to pass quickly, like spacetime was lurching sporadically. It was like he was extremely stoned and watching a movie without putting the scenes together in a coherent way.
The sun was setting outside by the time he saw her. A young woman of eighteen or so, walking up to him. She kissed him on the cheek and hugged him tight. "Hi, Dad!"
Randall stopped hearing his own voice then, except for one word; Ellie. He could feel his body's gladness, its emotions effusive and warm. He could feel his daughter's enthusiasm for seeing him and the obvious connection between them.
Ellie. He had a full-grown daughter.
Randall couldn't stop looking at her. There was a part of him that wished there wasn't some sort of barrier between himself and Ellie; that he could control his body for the sole purpose of taking himself away to a quieter place where he could learn about her, and her siblings. Where he could figure out what was going on between his other self and Elaine.
Disbelief weaved in and out of his thoughts. He was a father. There was a fully-grown adult he'd brought up and now she was just... standing there. Randall was almost reduced to tears at the thought.
"Uni's going fine, Dad," Ellie was saying, taking a bite out of a buttered bread roll.
"Good. Your mother's been worried about you on and off. Wouldn't hurt for you to call now and then, you know?"
Ellie shrugged. "Yeah. I know."
His body sighed and looked around. Even though they weren't alone, the people around them were engaged deeply in their own conversations. Randall assumed his other was making sure they wouldn't be heard, because when he spoke again, it was in a quieter voice.
"Ellie, whatever's going on between me and your mother, she's still your mother. She still loves you."
Ellie rolled her eyes and nodded reluctantly.
"Ellie, come on, you're better than this."
"I just can't believe what she said," said Ellie, glancing at her mother.
"You weren't supposed to hear what she said. It was a private conversation. Better to behave as though you never heard it."
"But I did."
His other self regarded his daughter calmly. Trying to think of something to say, perhaps.
The spacetime lurched again.
There were far fewer guests now. Just the usual crowd of the oldest friends, as well as a couple of faces he didn't know. They were all between the living room and kitchen. By this point, Randall had been able to take in more of the house. It was larger than the last one and furnished with more expensive things. He wondered which one of them had progressed that much in their careers.
After the next lurch through time, they were on their own again. Elaine was taking off her shoes on the sofa while he stood near the armchair, holding a glass of rum.
The silence was a grey cloak above their heads. His other self kept looking at her. Randall had the distinct feeling that both he and Elaine had been avoiding being alone together.
And he felt lonely; his heart was hollow.
"You have a good day?" Elaine's voice was subdued.
"Yeah. Thanks. You?"
She nodded. She curled her fingers into the sofa on either side of her and stayed silent, breathing softly.
"It was good seeing everyone," said his voice.
Elaine nodded again.
"Lainey, uh... look—"
"Is it okay if we don't talk about it, tonight? Please?" She pleaded.
Randall found himself surprised at the look on her face. She was genuinely upset; she blinked, and tears came out. She wiped them off immediately.
"Lainey? You okay?"
She shook her head. "I just feel so guilty! After what I said to you."
His body sighed and sat down on the sofa tentatively. "Look... you were being honest."
"Randall, I told you I don't know if I'm in love with you anymore! All I've been thinking about since is what if I'd heard that from you?" She covered her face with her hand and sighed deeply, almost shrinking into herself.
Hearing those words stung him. Randall's mind whirled but his body bore the sting like it was something familiar, this odd unrelenting sharpness that sank into him slowly and dissolved into his very being.
"I know I hurt you so much," said Elaine, grimacing as though she was about to cry.
"Lainey," said his pained heart. "We said we'd always be honest with each other about how we were feeling. We did that for a reason, remember? So, we'd always make sure we were treating each other with respect. I'm glad you told me."
She cried a little anyway. Randall's body sat there with her, just silent. And somewhere deep down, Randall could feel the other Randall's reluctance to comfort her because damn it, those words really had fucking hurt to hear and as much as he wanted to feel some honourable need to stop her from hurting like he would've done normally, that was all gone now. This wasn't normal. This was two people who'd been together since they were fifteen and as close as they were right now, there was a world-dividing rift between them, and she was the one who'd put it there.
Something about it felt selfish and he had no idea why. He'd made mistakes. He knew he had, and he knew how easily he could've lost it all, but they'd persevered. And this? This intangible thing she'd brought up, this uncertainty over how she felt about him now? It was like the opposite of something to hold onto; as if she'd just carved an emptiness into their lives and the more he felt it, the deeper and heavier the emptiness became.
Randall sat with the scene playing out in front of him, wondering to himself; how did anyone fix something like this?
"I don't want to feel like this, Randall, I really don't," said Elaine. "You understand that, don't you?"
His body nodded, but Randall could feel the uncertainty in it. "We'll figure it out, Lainey. We don't have to keep talking about this right now. If you don't want to."
"I just didn't want to ruin your birthday," she explained.
"Okay." Randall noted his other self ignoring that urge to say it was already ruined in a way, but even Randall understood that would have just been adding fuel to the fire.
"Do you really think we can move past this?"
His other self didn't respond to that. Instead, he got up and stretched, looking around as if he was seeking something out. It took him a moment to feel what the other Randall wanted; time and space alone. As much as there was a tiny hint of wanting to comfort her distress, he had his own to deal with and Randall could feel that distress growing bit by bit.
"I'm just going to start clearing up," said his voice.
Elaine stood up. "It's past midnight."
"Yeah. You should get some rest."
"Randall, I'll help you cle—"
"No. It's fine. I'll do it myself."
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Elaine's hand dropping to her side. She'd reached out to him, but his body had turned away at the same time. The emotional discomfort was far too much for Randall, who wanted nothing more than to leave the scene.
"It's been nearly a couple of weeks now," said his body, not bothering to look at her. "I think tomorrow, we're going to have to talk about where we go from here."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know. All those talks we've had. It's not as if they've changed anything, have they? So... I mean, fuck knows, Elaine. I don't know where to go with this. Maybe we need outside help. Maybe we need space. I just don't know."
He felt her hand on his shoulder and his body turned around.
She looked deeply upset. "I'm sorry."
"Yeah. You said."
"If I could fix this—"
Everything went dark.
Randall stepped back, barely noticing the Entity. He took a deep breath and tried to ignore her words. They were going around in his head, needle sharp and loud. The abyss was shrinking, and he focused on that, as if it would somehow block out the thoughts. Block out everything around him.
"Have you decided?"
Randall frowned deeply and looked at the Entity. He felt brave enough now, to ask that question from earlier. "How do you decide?"
The Entity tilted its head.
"I mean, how do you decide what parts of my life I see?"
It said nothing.
Randall let out a frustrated groan. The Entity moved again, the fourth and final convergence point stopping in front of him. As the darkness expanded, Randall was fast beginning to understand that he couldn't keep track of all his thoughts. There was just too much to hold onto, to try and decipher but he had nothing to guide him.
How much of these events were interrelated? He couldn't even recognise the person he was in the first flash-forward, let alone the ones after that. Elaine was different. That last visit to his future... that had hurt him in a new way.
He'd heard of it happening, of course; people falling out of love with their significant others. But it was the same as every terrible thing that happened to others; you just never imagined it would happen to you.
Elaine was the one who'd asked him to marry her. Seven years together already and they fit together so well. He couldn't deny that. However, now they were twenty-two and he was having doubts. Surely, that meant something? Richard had told him, though, that doubts were normal. Richard had also had them and now he'd been happily married for over a year. Randall thought back to the flash-forward for a few moments, trying to remember if anything had been said at all to give some hint of whether Richard had stayed married.
Ultimately, it was a train of thought with no destination. His and Elaine's life belonged to them, and he knew it'd be silly to make comparisons.
The sheer wonder of it, thought Randall. Scenes from a life not lived yet, populated by versions of himself and his love. So different to now, and yet there were still some familiar things. Elaine's controlled temper surging when she realised he'd played away, and the way she stripped for him because she liked to get naked first, to see how he'd look at her like there was nothing else in the room. The way she was thinking of his feelings and wanting so much to help him, to make it all okay because she knew she was hurting him.
He looked at the door. The knock would be coming soon.
"Have you decided?" The Entity asked.
The first few years had been easy, realised Randall. They were kids. Things might've felt complicated but all that was inside; that burgeoning complexity that meant they were becoming adults. Stepping out into the world meant stepping out into the chaos that awaited; that complexity was outside. It was composed mostly of things you could no longer rely on or hold onto. So then... you'd hold onto who you had, wouldn't you?
The fourth abyssal darkness was right there in front of him.
"This will be the last," said the Entity. "Such are the laws."
"How do you decide what I see? When I see?"
"I do not decide," replied the Entity. It lowered its thorax slightly. "You mortals move through chaos unrelenting. So, too, does your mind when it travels through the nexus."
"The fourth point is fixed."
"Fixed? To where? I mean, to when?"
"Near the end."
"The end of what?"
His body ached. He felt weighed down almost, even though his other self was light in his weight. When he saw his hands, they didn't feel like his and neither did they appear it; lined with little wrinkles spread haphazardly all over. His knuckles were slightly swollen.
The sudden changes in his body compared to his youth made Randall's mind stagger from the immensity of it. His eyes were weaker, and there was a slight droopiness to his eyelids. It took him a few moments to realise that the slight pressure over his ears and on his nose were a pair of glasses. His sense of smell seemed to be diminished a little, but that was nothing compared to his hearing; sounds were muffled as he walked along a wooden floor in what appeared to be a bungalow. He walked with a cane, the end of which had a rubber attachment and the pain in his left knee pulsed now and then. Randall had thought of the word 'doddering' before, when looking at his own grandfather, but now it seemed he had inherited the quality. More than ever, he felt as though he was inhabiting a stranger and so far, it was purely physical.
He was old. He was near an end.
Was Elaine with him still?
With jarring realisation, he thought all his close ancestors were likely dead now, but maybe somewhere out there, his children were living. Were he and Elaine grandparents now? Randall pondered on this, along with many other things.
His body was heading towards a door. Once it was open, he could see the sun was setting and they were no longer in the city. The view ahead of him was a small car park with a drive leading away to the left, and beyond the car park itself, was a field of green and a line of trees on the other side. He was in a quieter place, like he'd always wanted.
There was a panel with several buttons next to the door, with a screen above it. He watched the sun set, closed the door and pressed one of the buttons, bringing the screen to life. Several options based around security appeared, but Randall didn't get much chance to read any of it. His body pressed several buttons quickly in sequence, aided by muscle memory and at the end, the screen blinked, and words appeared: Central locking engaged.
Seemingly satisfied, his body walked back in.
Randall kept trying to pick up more hints of this part of his life, but overall, he was met with a sparsely decorated modernity, the likes of which he hadn't seen before. In the kitchen, when he touched the fridge door, several lists and images appeared. The entire surface was a screen showing lists for shopping, a few images of family and reminders and notes with numbers for different utilities.
Randall focused on the photographs. One showed him and Elaine. While his body tapped on a couple of lists, Randal looked at how old he appeared to be now. There was no hair anymore, just a short white beard and he stood with the same cane he was carrying now, leaning on it for support. Next to him was Elaine, white-haired and thinner, holding onto him with a small smile.
In another photograph, they were at a function, smartly dressed and accompanied by a younger man and woman and some children. It took Randall a moment to realise he was looking at Ellie; her hands settled on one of the children's shoulders, smiling benignly. Grandchildren? They must have been. The young woman next to Ellie looked too much like her to be anything else. In yet another photograph, he and Elaine were younger. Ellie was a woman in her thirties or so and there was a different man next to her. The man looked like Elaine, and Randall saw that he was looking at his son for the first time. Below that image, there was a small caption; Ellie and Toby on Toby's 35th.
Two children, then. Along with grandchildren. He couldn't see any other photographs hinting at his descendants, just other faces he didn't recognise, save for a few friends.
His body made two cups of tea and put them both in a small container that looked like four attached cup-holders with a handle arching above. He carried it in one hand and limped his way to another room, opening the door softly to enter a living room with two deeply comfortable looking oversized armchairs. One was empty; in the other, was Elaine.
He could still see remnants of her twenty-two-year-old self in that old body. The little smile was the same, and so were her eyes. Randall wasn't sure how to feel. More than ever, Elaine was removed from the person he knew, but his body reacted as if it was pleased to see her. There was a conflict between his mental disconnect to her and the physical affection of his body and the longer his eyes looked at Elaine, the more the conflict seemed to intensify. It was a little dizzying.
There were a few moments where Randall hyper-focused on her features, trying to seek out more of the Elaine he knew. Once those moments ended, he suddenly found he didn't want to look at her at all, though he couldn't have said why.
"What took you so long?" Elaine asked, reclining the chair back a little. "Watched the sunset?" Her voice was far quieter and he had to strain to hear it.
His body set the tea down on a small table in between their chairs and sat down. He grunted softly. "I did."
"Not as much as you."
Elaine chuckled. "You." She paused and reached out to squeeze his hand briefly. Then, she said, "Thanks for the tea, love."
"You're welcome. Well, then... shall we?" He indicated the large wide-screen TV with a little nod.
They watched TV for a bit. At least, his other self and Elaine did; though Randall couldn't help but pay attention at first because the TV had a gorgeously crisp image. It was a bit too quiet, but it didn't matter because there were subtitles he could read. After that, Randall was trying to take in what he could of his surroundings. There was a cabinet with electrical appliances that looked very sleek and expensive. More photographs and paintings, and these strange grey panels that looked like they might have been screens dotted around the room and sitting on a couple of shelves. It was a few minutes later when the silence was broken.