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A Layer of Catherines, image by Helen Mask

Catherines, by Helen Mask ©2020

CONTENT WARNING:


I’m running out of time. The face in the mirror I saw this morning is getting too similar to the face of the woman in my memory of when I was eight. That woman—the version of me that had invented time travel, and traveled back to save my sister—haunts me, nips at my heels, makes me work faster and faster every day.

My hands are shaking as I tighten the last screw of my 41,079th prototype.

I take a deep breath and let go.

It’s done.

I pick the device up, weighing it in my palm. It feels surprisingly light—probably because of the diamond—but I bite my lip. #39,712 was pretty light too, and its explosion was the reason I was thrown out of MIT. I hope this one has better luck.

My sister Petra claims it looks like a gun. She’s seen nearly 41,000 versions though, and I think of all of them, this one looks least like a gun. Over a decade of work, I’ve shifted towards this deluxe barcode reader model. Guns were only the basis for the first ten thousand models.

I take a deep breath, and steel myself. I turn it on. It hums. I raise an eyebrow. A lot of my devices have hummed in the past. It hasn’t always been a good thing. I sigh, and aim it at my least favorite wall of the shed, and then squeeze the trigger.

Something happens.

This, in and of itself, is not unusual. But for the first time ever, the thing that happens is the thing that’s supposed to happen.

I gape. A white shimmering doorway now bisects the shed wall. It looks unreal—holographic, almost—so I reach out, and touch it. It’s solid. Cold, but solid. I glance down at the prototype—my functioning prototype—and gape. I was not expecting this. I look down again, and frown. I’m not wearing the right clothes to be the woman who saved my sister as a child. I can’t be her yet.

And yet. There’s a door. I take a deep breath, slide my functioning time travel device into my back pocket, reach out. The door opens, and I step through.

I expected to be in a forest clearing in mid-October.

I’m not.

Instead, I’m in a corridor. It’s a long corridor—I can’t see the end—with a basic linoleum floor that reminds me vaguely of high school. But instead of lockers along the walls, there are doors. Hundreds—no, thousands—of doors. I step forward again, and the door behind me closes. I spin around, afraid that I won’t be able to find it again among this sea of doors. But it’s not a blank door—it’s got a window set into it, where I can see my now empty lab-shed. And it has a number marked in one corner—50004Y. It looks like it’s written in my handwriting. I frown.

Perhaps this is the right place after all?

But this isn’t what I expected. Nearly twenty years of expectations are crushed and burned by this place, by this strange turn of events, and I feel tears welling in my eyes.

No. Now is not the time to panic. I squish them down, take a deep breath, and inspect my surroundings. The ceiling, which I had assumed was just painted black, expands above me. I look up, squint, and realise that there might be no ceiling at all. This might just be a void, a nothing, and I could fall into it at any moment.

I look down again quickly. I walk down to the next door, and peek in through the window. It’s night, though a full moon illuminates the side of a large American Craftsman-style house. I blink in surprise as two silhouettes resolve in the gloom—one giggling helplessly. I can’t hear anything, but I know exactly what the two figures are saying. This is my memory, playing out in front of me. Me and Petra, aged 14 and 16, sneaking back into the house after my first ever party. I’m drunk, and fumbling, and nearly fall off the trellis for the wisteria multiple times. Petra catches me every time, and I remember the exasperated way she whispered Catherine, concentrate that night.

I walk to the door opposite. This one doesn’t have a window. Just a small “x” in the corner. I frown at it, and then something catches my eye in the door across the hallway. I walk over. It’s Petra, on her wedding day. I’m doing her hair for her, frowning as she fidgets underneath me. This Petra has a different hairstyle than my Petra had on her wedding day, and a huge tattoo surrounding the scar on her forearm.

My breath fogs up the glass on the window as I begin to understand. A word that has come up in countless of my time travel forums, in the rejections for thousands of grants, and in the conversations that Petra and I have had over the years. Multiverses.

“Oh, you made it.” I spin around. There is a woman behind me. My jaw drops.

This woman is me.

She’s me, but older. And taller? Or perhaps that’s just the black skinny jeans and long black trench coat. I remember both so well, even though I have never owned them.

This woman is her.

“It’s you,” I whisper. She smiles.

“Yes,” she says, drawing a “y” on the door she just exited. I stare at her back. My mouth feels dry. I feel ideas and theories and thoughts sparking in my brain. She is not me. Disappointment washes over me.

“I have so many questions,” I whisper. She glances at me, gives me a small smile, and then sighs.

“I don’t really have time right now,” she explains, gesturing at an extremely complicated device on her wrist that looks like a watch out of a terrible spy movie. It has a countdown running with just over a minute left.

“Why—”

“Walk with me,” she interrupts, striding past me. I flash to the arguments Petra and I have had throughout our lives, where Petra has accused me of being too brusque. Perhaps she has a point. This Catherine really is brusque. She consults something on her watch, and strides down the corridor, counting doors. I follow along, trying to parse this overwhelming flood of feelings into something manageable.

“What are we doing?” I ask weakly.

“No time to explain,” she says, settling on an unmarked door, and pulling it open. She grabs my wrist, and pulls me through too.

We’re in a forest.

No, we’re in the forest. We’re in the forest on the day. I will never forget the chattering of birds, the sunlight dappling on fall leaves layered on the ground, and the wind rushing through branches, dimming every other sound. We’re in the forest. Something that was twisted and tense and scared inside of me, unravels.

We’re in the forest.

The other Catherine drops my wrist, checks her watch, and strides forward.

I know this scene. I have replayed this memory in my mind every day for the last twenty years. I know exactly what will happen. I watch as other Catherine bends under the bough of the spruce tree, the green needles hissing ever so quietly as they glide over the fabric of her coat.

Hiss.

Next she will step on a branch.

Crack.

And then she will emerge.

I rush after her as she disappears around a clump of trees. I avoid the bough, avoid the branch, and step out into the clearing, behind other Catherine.

A young Catherine, age 7, is sitting on a branch at shoulder height across the clearing. She’s staring at us. I remember being in her shoes, sitting on that branch, though in my version of this moment, there was only one Catherine here at the time. I scan the clearing, looking for anything indicating that this is a different multiverse to mine, but it looks the same. It looks exactly the same.

My mouth is dry.

Petra, age 9, does not notice the strangers in the clearing. She is moving sticks around, preparing the fake bonfire we—no, she and young Catherine—will dance around as witches in a pretend game. Petra’s explaining the rules to me—to her—her voice firm. The childhood lisp punctuates her words. My heart aches for her innocence.

But then Petra jumps up from her crouch, back still to us, and her white scarf comes loose, spilling out of her coat.

The older Catherine is close enough to Petra now, and grabs her, yanking her to the right with a powerful tug.

A shot cracks through the air.

Petra starts screaming. I sag in relief at the sound, even while the young Catherine jumps off the tree branch and tears towards the older Catherine, rage burning in her eyes.

To the young Catherine, it looks like two strangers stepped into her clearing and yanked her sister’s arm so hard that something cracked. But the older Catherine catches young Catherine by the shoulder before she can act on that anger, crouches down and explains.

Blood runs down Petra’s arm.

I remain at the edge of the clearing, but even from here, I can hear the soothing baritone of other Catherine’s voice. I know the words—they are exactly what I remember. Twenty years of accumulated fear—that I made up this moment, made up this woman, made up these words—melt away as I whisper again.

That was a gunshot. Beat. Someone just accidentally tried to kill Petra, because he thought her white scarf was a deer. The gunshot went through Petra’s arm, instead of her head. She’s in shock now, so you have to be in charge.

I watch as, before my eyes, young Catherine calms. She deflates, and then pulls herself together again, clutching her sister’s hand. Petra is crying, and hyperventilating, and glassy-eyed.

Petra is in shock, the familiar explanation continues. You need to hold the arm up, high, and wrap her hairband—her hair ribbon, sorry—around Petra’s arm. Can you do that?

Again, the young Catherine steels herself, and nods. Together, the Catherines tie the ribbon around Petra’s arm, tightening it despite Petra’s horrified whimpering. The other Catherine smiles, tells the young Catherine to take the hunter with her, and walks back towards me.

She grabs my wrist, and pulls me back through the door. We’re back in the corridor, just the two of us. She leads me back to my door in silence.

“Have you guessed it yet?” The other Catherine’s voice is rough and gravelly.

But I’m still in the clearing. I know that the second we disappeared, a bumbling hunter crashed through the undergrowth. He was terrified and began crying in my memory. I wonder if in that Catherine’s world—a world without hair ties—he was more competent, or whether that young Catherine has to hold his hand too. Will she stumbles as she drags a weeping Petra and a weeping man to her mother? Will her mother, like my mother, attribute the vision of another Catherine as shock? Will her Petra believe her?

Other Catherine waves her hand in front of my eyes. There’s a smudge of Petra’s blood on her wrist. I blink, and recenter myself.

“You live in a version of the universe in which Petra died,” I offer quickly, my words tumbling over each other. “In which you didn’t exist.” I gesture at the clearing behind us. She nods.

She grew up in a world where there was no other Catherine. Only a young Catherine, sitting on a branch, and then a gunshot, and then a dead sister, collapsing soundlessly in the clearing.

“So, this really isn’t time travel?” I’m embarrassed as tears run down my face. I’ve spent most of my life trying to invent time travel because that’s what I thought happened in my clearing, twenty years ago. I thought I had to save Petra. And every day I failed, I worried I would lose her all over again. I spent twenty years making an average of six prototypes a day, scared to stop, scared to sleep, scared to lose my sister.

Other Catherine nods. “This isn’t time travel,” she agrees. “You can’t alter your own timeline. I’ve tried.” She laughs hollowly. We are standing close enough that I can see the wrinkles around her eyes.

“So you just save her for the rest of us?” I am incredulous. I look down the corridor, and then back at her. I’m about to ask why, but the question gets stuck in my throat as I look down the corridor. I wonder how many other memories I would see if I looked through those windows. Memories of Petra, standing up for me in front of school bullies mocking my stutter. Memories of Petra, bringing me food as I furiously worked on another failed device. Memories of Petra, the day I showed up wet and bedraggled, newly evicted from my house.

Other Catherine looks away, steps forward, and adds a “Y” to the door we just exited. Then she turns back to me. “I live in a world without her,” she says simply, “and it sucks.” She’s earnest, and I blush. She’s right. Petra is worth 41,000 prototypes. She’s worth a life in between worlds. She’s worth it.

“Thank you,” I whisper. She smiles, but there is grief in her eyes. I frown, and reach out for her hand, and squeeze it. “Am I the first person to thank you?”

“So far, yes. Though I know a couple of other Catherines are also working on the Portal Gun. You’re the only one who got thrown out of MIT, though.” She gives a crooked smile. Something inside of me breaks.

“Do you want to come back with me?” The question trips over my tongue and teeth, and awkwardly lands in the space between us. She blinks, totally surprised.

“What?”

I blunder on: “Petra—well, my Petra —would love to see you.” Tears are gathering in the corner of my eyes again. This day is a lot. Other Catherine smiles, and shakes her head.

“Thank you for the offer—I really appreciate this—but I don’t think I can.” I open my mouth to argue, but she continues quickly: “No, it’s not dimensional stuff. It’s just … ” She laughs again, though this time I recognize my frustrated laugh. “You have your Petra. She’s a wonderful sister, and she will literally always be there for you. But she’s not my Petra. And going to have dinner with you two would pretend that.”

“Oh.” She is right. I know she’s right. I look around the corridor sadly. “Do you just do this all the time?” I ask, worried. She scoffs.

“No. Time works weirdly here. You’ll notice when you go back. I’m here as much as I need to be, but I have therapy and a grief support group and a part-time job in my dimension. This just … helps, sometimes.” I nod. I get it. I did build a lot of prototypes, didn’t I?

I wish I could offer to help, offer to come here sometimes, offer a hand. But I know that that’s not what I need when I’m grieving. So instead I just look her in the eyes, and whisper: “thanks.”

“Always.” She smiles, and then pauses before she reaches out to hug me. I hug her back. It’s awkward and weird, but I remember the way that young Catherine in the clearing looked, and hold her tighter. I imagine that Catherine without this Catherine. I imagine that Catherine standing next to a dead body, and my heart aches.

“Destroy your gun, on your way out,” she whispers into my hair. “Removing the diamond should do it.”

“Thank you.” It sounds unconvincing, so I repeat it as I grab the door handle, open the door, and step back into the shed at the end of Petra’s garden. It’s dark and tiny, compared to the corridor, but I’m very grateful for its defined edges as the portal door swings shut behind me, and fades back into the wall.

I smash the portal gun on the ground, pick up the diamond, pocket it, and slip out of the shed. The Catherine in the place between the dimensions was right; only about two minutes have passed here. I let myself in the kitchen door, toe off my shoes, and pad into the living room. Petra is napping on the sofa, her huge belly rising and falling with her breathing. I push her gently, wedging myself between the edge of the couch and her pillow, and lean into her.

“Catherine?” she mumbles, sleepily squinting up at me. “Any luck in the shed?” I lean against her, smile, and shake my head.

“No,” I whisper, and snuggle into her, happy to enjoy her warmth.



Elisabeth R. Moore is a short fiction writer. She and her wife live in Germany, where Moore writes strange stories about plants, fungus, and queer women. She tweets at @willowcabins. Learn more at spacelesbian.zone.
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