Children playing on the banks of Onion Creek in Falls Park yesterday thought they saw two turtle shells in the shallows. One teenage girl stepped into the water and lifted them out of the mud, only to discover they were skulls. Terrified, she turned around and called to her father who ran to the bank and retrieved them from his daughter. After placing them on the shore, Mr. Alan Tanner looked around the area and found several bones. Two tattered black garbage bags had been trapped in a patch of elephant ears. Each contained bones and remains.
A preliminary report by the Medical Examiner indicates the bones originated from two adolescent girls, possibly related, who died at least two or three years ago, based upon level of decomposition. A search of missing children files from that timeframe has so far yielded no matching reports. Further analysis is pending.
December 13, 2019
So far today, I’ve created seventy-three new universes, all containing another version of Delaney West, age sixteen. An hour ago, I opened the News Alert about the two dead girls; another version of me did not. In another world, she continues to laugh with Kaitlyn as they watch Marissa strip for her boyfriend on FaceTime. That Laney will keep her friends and possibly show some skin herself.
I, however, ran outside to sit in my car, claiming to want no part of their antics. My first sleepover in years, and now they’ll think I’m a prude. But reading the article made my head spin and gut cramp.
I thumb through the story again on my phone as my heart pounds. Two or three years ago two teenage girls died, probably murdered, their remains discovered in the same area I found Dad with another woman.
Why does one story make me think of the other?
A warm breeze slings acorns onto my roof. How can it be this warm in December? Or maybe my mind flashes back to a summer outing three years ago—a July Fourth camping trip when I caught my father having sex with a woman I didn’t know.
I told Mom what Dad had done, thereby ruining the marriage and the family, pushing Dad out of my life and opening the way for her new boyfriend, Khannan.
And a life of regret for me.
How does anyone know which choice might change her life’s direction, especially at thirteen? Simple choices like what to do on July Fourth can have monumental consequences. We’d considered watching an air show or even a movie that day but decided to camp at the lake. Who would’ve guessed that decision would change everything?
One choice, one very different life.
Since then, I’ve written stories of that day with various outcomes. One where I watched through the trees as Dad and Gibbs giggled and tore off each other’s clothes then walked away quietly, never telling anyone.
And another version—the real one—where Dad begged me to forget what I had seen and heard and never tell anyone.
“Never tell anyone” is in a lot of versions.
But I did tell because . . . I’m not sure why. At the time I was furious. I remember screaming, hitting, crying. I wouldn’t listen to anything Dad said. The woman held her clothes against her chest, mouth open in disbelief as I cursed both of them. After several minutes of my tirade, we locked eyes until hers softened a little as she reached out her hand. I froze, my chest heaving. I could’ve moved toward her, but I tightened my fists, jerked around, and left.
One version I wrote had me running into her arms, crying as she held me and kissed my head.
On the way back to tell Mom, I collapsed in tears. Sounds of a girl crying and moaning filled my head. Where did they come from? I had no idea. I remembered listening to Dad and the woman moaning and gasping before I yelled at them, but the other sounds were different. Painful, stifled screams above some kind of throbbing motor. And sounds of choking.
Something horrible had happened, but all I could remember was watching Dad and the woman.
I told Mom what I’d seen. A little later, Dad walked into our campsite. Then days of screaming and accusations at home until Mom held me to her as she raised her finger to point beyond Dad’s head and beyond our house. “Get out!”
At the time, I had no idea what would happen to us. I didn’t know how one choice could ruin my life or send one version of it, the only one I knew and really wanted, into the void, squeezing my brain forever until I could do nothing but scream or cry. Over and over.
I look back at Marissa’s door. Maybe I can go back inside and rejoin the party. Let them do what they want while I smile and act cool. That’s what I should be doing on a Friday night—hanging out with friends, not sitting in my Outback, listening to the thump of acorns on my hood. I flip down the visor, brush my hair in the mirror then pull golden brown strands from the bristles into a tangled wad. How can something look so good on my head and so nasty in my hand?
But not as bad as what the girl saw after she pulled skulls from the river, expecting to find cute turtles. I can’t shake that image from my mind.
And something else, something forgotten, lurking in the shadow just outside my memory—grunts, throbbing, choking.
I need to drive somewhere, anywhere.
After several curves and turns through Marissa’s private forest, I merge into a stream of headlights. Austin traffic at its best.
As I drive I think about an evening two years ago when I couldn’t stifle my sobs about missing Dad, and Mom heard me. I thought she would’ve noticed weeks earlier, but she was busy with her research. And being a single mom. My fault.
She ran into my room, held me, rubbed my back and wiped my tears before picking up a few stories—different versions of that day in July when I could’ve made different choices. After reading a few paragraphs in each, she stared at me, eyes bulging, her forehead turning red. “Why do you write these?”
I tried to catch my breath. Her eyes squinted hard as she flinched away from me. Was she scared of me?
“Because I wish I’d acted differently. I’ve tried to think of everything I could’ve done, so maybe . . .”
“Maybe what?” She held some papers in front of her, like a barrier between us.
I sniffed and closed my eyes. “If there’s a next time, I’ll know better. I’ll do the right thing. I’ll make a better choice.” I looked away, wondering if I should tell her more. “When I write, I feel I’m there, making the decision all over again. I think I can disappear into the story and do the right thing.”
We locked eyes.
I sighed so deeply, draining all my breath. “Sometimes I don’t want to come back,” I whispered.
And for several seconds, I didn’t think I would. Everything blurred then started to fade until I had this weird feeling I’d done this before. Just before I blacked out, Mom jerked my hand away from my throat.
“Laney! What are you doing?”
I hitched in a breath, looked at my hand then at her. “I don’t know. I’ve had weird thoughts lately.”
She frowned. “None of this is your fault. What about Sean doing the right thing? Or me making a different choice? Why are you to blame?”
Heat poured into my face. “I could’ve walked away! As soon as I saw them go into the tent, I could’ve turned around.” I drew up my legs and hugged my knees to my chest, sobbing against my bed.
Mom moved next to me. “You could have, but I’d already seen Gibbs that day, or thought I’d seen her. She had a habit of lurking in his shadow.”
My eyes shot up, and my stomach twisted. “You saw her?” For some reason, I panicked. She’d seen Gibbs? Before I did? What else had she seen?
“I wasn’t sure,” Mom said, “but when I noticed Sean missing, I sent you to look for him. None of this is your fault, Delaney. Your father and Gibbs had a long history together before me. He evidently couldn’t leave her in the past. He made the decision to follow her into the woods. You had nothing to do with it.”
My heart pounded, and I tried to catch my breath. A glimpse of a scene flashed through my mind—a woman following a man into the woods. Or maybe she was younger. Was this from one of my stories? Or some place else?
“How many versions have you written?” She held up one story and pushed the others into a pile.
I grabbed them from the floor and clutched them. “Maybe twenty.” It was actually thirty by that time.
Mom grimaced. “Dear, God.” She touched my cheek. “Maybe you should see a doctor.”
“We already tried that!” I heard myself say too loudly. “He just made it worse.”
Flashback to six weeks of, “How does that make you feel, Delaney?” And, “What are your treatment goals?” And then Mom complaining about spending time and money if all I was going to do was walk out of the sessions. Never again.
She paused, searching my face with her pale gray eyes. They always seemed cold to me. Her thin lips and no makeup reinforced the image. I knew she cared. She just had trouble showing me.
Dr. Hannah Strong is an Endowed Professor of Physics at U.T. Austin and world-famous. Maybe being a female in a typically male discipline forces her to embody her last name, which she kept even while married to Dad. Stocky, thick-boned, and short, she seems the exact opposite of the woman Dad would pursue. Fortunately, he passed his lanky height and looks onto me, though my arms are too long, while Mom gave me at least some of her brains.
She moved closer. “We could find someone else.”
I shook my head then looked away. I tried to speak, but my breaths hitched. My mouth was so dry. “Have you heard from him?” Please say yes, I thought.
“No. Not for over a year.”
My chest felt cold. “Did he ask about me?”
I was afraid to look at her. “Where . . . where is he?”
“At the time he was in Alaska.”
My eyes found hers. “So far? Why?”
She looked down. “I don’t know. Job, maybe. He told me years ago he’d gone as a teenager and liked it.” She met my gaze and tightened her lips. “He was always prone to whimsy. He rarely thought anything through. At least as long as I knew him.”
We both sat in silence. Her thoughts seemed to turn inward, and she sighed. Perhaps she had regrets too.
“What made him call?” I asked.
“Actually, I’m sure he was drunk.” Her lips tightened. “He called me about 5 am, which means it was 2 o’clock his time.” She scoffed, “His night was still young.”
“What did he say about me?”
“He wanted to know if you were still mad at him.”
Oh, God! My chest tightened as I felt tears flood my eyes. “What’d you say?”
“Nothing because he hung up. He was drunk, Delaney.”
“And nothing since then?”
I hugged my legs against my chest. Almost every day I had written versions of that episode at the lake and afterward. I had never stopped thinking about him. Once, I had tried to imagine me leaving with him after Mom kicked him out, but I couldn’t make the story work. Why would he want me?
I’d hoped he might call me, and I thought about calling him, but all I could think of saying was, “I’m sorry.” I knew I couldn’t handle his anger at me. I regretted too much already.
“You don’t need to write these stories,” said Mom. “They’re making you feel worse. As much as you want to live in these new versions, you can’t.”
I felt numb. “I know. We can’t change the past.” Tears trickled down my cheeks.
“No, we can’t, but not for the reasons you’re thinking. Every possible choice you or I or they could’ve made already exists in another reality. All the choices we didn’t make live in their own worlds. They split off into separate universes and then move forward in their own time. There is no past to go to.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, wiping the snot off my face. “Split off? How?”
She held my face. “Will you listen, or do you want to keep crying?”
“I’ll listen.” I shuddered and tried to keep my lip from quivering.
She paused and sighed, probably trying to decide how much to dumb down her explanation. I was the top student in the best private school in the city, but I was in eighth grade at the time. And she was a genius. I always felt she couldn’t wait for me to go to college so she could really talk to me.
A thin smile spread across her lips. “Math and science have given us lots of explanations as to why and how things occur, but they also show us how much we don’t know. Light can be both a wave and a particle, for instance. An electron can be in a million different places at the same time. We really don’t understand what gravity is or where it comes from. Maybe it leaks in from another universe.”
“From so far away?”
“Or nearby. Universes can be parallel or like bubbles in a foam, undetectable, on the other side of a thought.”
My mouth dropped open. “How?”
Her eyes twinkled. “You’ve heard of this question: If a tree falls in an empty forest, does it make a sound?”
“Here’s a better question. Does the tree fall if no one’s there to see it?”
“If you find it on the ground, it fell.”
“Yes, but how could you prove that your observation of the tree didn’t cause it to fall?”
“Because of evidence. The wind or disease in the bark. Saw cuts.”
“Those are still observations. If no one is there, no recording devices of any kind, each tree is both standing and fallen. Only when we look does the tree live or die.”
“That makes no sense. Our eyes aren’t power rays.”
“Exactly,” she grinned. “We don’t force things to happen just because we measure them. According to the Many Worlds Theory, each option exists in its own universe—one where the tree stands, and one where it’s fallen.”
She held my hands. “One year ago you told me what your father had done. Another universe exists where you never told me. One exists where I forgave him, but we live in the one where I didn’t.”
A tingle rose up my neck, and I lifted my stories off the floor. “Then each of these stories describes another universe. Right? Since each option could’ve happened.”
“That’s one way to look at them.”
“What’s the other way?” She tightened her lips. “Creations of an obsessive mind?”
“I didn’t say that. I know it’s a lot to absorb. Look all this up. Read about it. This is what I think about every day, what I try to understand and explain to others. I don’t have room in my brain to worry about one decision I made long ago. The average adult makes 35,000 choices each day, and I am certainly above average in everything I do.” She winked.
She wanted me to smile, to give her a hug, and put my foolishness behind me so we could get to bed. But all I could think of was how to jump from one universe to another. If I could imagine what happens in another bubble, then why couldn’t I be there? When I wrote, I saw real people saying and doing real things. There was no difference in my mind between what I saw with my eyes and what I imagined I saw. So wasn’t I in another universe when I used my imagination?
I couldn’t go back in time, but maybe I could skip sideways. “When I write, I live in these different worlds.”
“In your mind, Laney.”
“Could I ever see another universe?”
She shifted her legs and moved closer. “Let’s try this thought experiment. In one universe, you decide to stay inside the house. In another, you run outside to play in the rain. The you inside the house looks out the window by chance at the same time as the you outside looks through the window inside the house. What would either of you see?”
I wanted to say, “Each other,” but I knew she’d scoff at me. So I gave the answer she wanted. “An empty, dry living room and an empty, wet front yard?”
“Yes, because the act of looking causes another split in your own universe, one that fits logically into your particular story. Besides, by the time either of you decide to look through the window, you would have already made a dozen decisions, creating more universes which have moved forward in their own time frame. How would either of you ever catch the other?”
I stood, holding my stories. My brain was like a racehorse, ready to take off as soon as she moved away from the gate. “I need to write something.”
She stared at me, mouth open, right eye squinting slightly like she didn’t recognize me. Then she shook her head. She held her hand up for me to help her stand. “You’re not going to stop this obsession, are you?”
I pulled her up. “No. I can’t.”
She tightened her lips and touched my cheek. “Maybe . . .”
“No.” My words rushed out of my mouth. “Thanks for explaining this to me, Mom. I’ll read more about what you told me, and then we can talk again.” I turned toward my desk and pulled out my chair.
“Please don’t stay up too late, Delaney.”
“Sure.” I sat in my chair and tapped my keyboard to awaken my computer.
I heard my door close then tried to imagine all the worlds my choices had created. In one of them, surely, Hannah Strong and Sean West still lived together in our house, happy, with a perfectly normal daughter who doesn’t dream about losing herself in unseen universes. Or finding herself in them.