TBOTSG-Chapter 13

July 8, 2024

The room Andreea Apostol led us into was a sort of office-studio with large windows to the right, in front of which a huge canvas reigned, surrounded by paints, brushes, sponges, rags, and all sorts of small, indistinguishable objects in their chaotic jumble. Filip approached the painting, while Ofelia and M took seats in front of the desk, but only after I gestured that I was quite inclined to stand. Andreea settled into the chair behind the desk, closed her laptop, and pushed the silver monitor further to the right so she could be seen clearly by Ofelia and M. Occasionally, she glanced at me furtively, as if apprehensive to meet my eyes, which amused me and gave me an impulse to tease her, to play with her. I refrained, however. Leaning against the door frame, I allowed them to get used to the feeling of being observed.

The conversation started clumsily, awkwardly, as if everyone involved had forgotten how to be themselves. Their feelings of anxiety and discomfort began to tire me. I started to block out their emotions, a task that turned out easier and more effective than I expected.

Filip also approached the desk, not wanting to feel left out.

Just when it seemed we had settled into our places, Andreea abruptly stood up and went to a small, stylish black and red coffee machine gleaming like new, inserting an aluminum capsule into it, shifting the conversation to what we wanted to drink. In a way, I felt slightly irritated by this delay, but on the other hand, I found it amusing to see them squirm, completely avoiding the topic that interested us all.

M shot me a glance over the steaming cup Andreea had just handed him, and immediately got to the point:

‘How did you know we would come?’

‘I knew that any mention of the Second House would pique your interest. So I’ve worked for years to make this gallery as well-known as possible.’

‘But how did you know that… we are here?’

‘I think even more importantly,’ intervened Ofelia, looking at M, ‘is how do you know about the Second House?’

‘It’s a long story. I’ve been having dreams about the Second House for as long as I can remember. Many of them came when I was tired, overwhelmed by the changes in my life. You see, my biological parents died when I was two and a half years old. Then I was taken care of by my grandmother, my father’s mother, but she passed away too, and I ended up with a second aunt. She tried to raise me, but she had three children of her own and lived in a ghetto, so shortly after, child services took me and sent me to a foster home. Apparently, I was a cute, well-behaved child and seemed intelligent, so it wasn’t hard to find me new parents. I apologise, it seems like I’m rambling, but it’s important. Every time such a change occurred, I had very intense nightmares that I couldn’t understand. Once, when I was in first grade, I woke up in the middle of a sea of lava. Another time, I was thrown into a black and empty space. After a while, the new parents said they couldn’t cope anymore, so they sent me back to the children’s home. The story repeated itself several times…

‘I’m sorry,’ said Ofelia, wanting to break the oppressive silence.

‘Anyway, my parents, the ones who accepted me as I am and raised me, helped me a lot to understand what I was dreaming about and how to get over the feeling of horror. One day, I dozed off during lunch hours, waiting for my parents to come back from work so we could go out; they wanted to buy me a new lab coat for chemistry. I remember well because it was a moment that changed our lives. I dreamed of a huge door looking as if made from all the trees in the world gathered together: living trees, more alive than any plant I had ever seen. Trees that were both far and near to me, and that seemed to be here and there at the same time.

‘It reminds me of the trees in the Black Forest of Death,’ M said almost in a whisper.

‘Maybe there’s a connection,’ said Andreea, ‘but for me, it was just a gateway to another world. Once opened, I never saw it again.’

‘How did you manage to open it?’

‘Initially, I was afraid, but slowly I realised that I wanted to see what lay behind a door so far beyond my understanding. I don’t know if it was curiosity or perhaps a connection that transcends time and space, but all I know is that I wanted to go beyond. So, I touched one of the branches that was closer to me, and then I got closer and closer, until I felt like I was merging with it, that reality itself was shifting. And then I opened my eyes. I thought I had woken up from a dream, and for the first time I was sorry that a dream had ended and that I had awakened. But when I came to my senses a bit, I knew I wasn’t home.

‘Where were you?’ Filip was on the edge of his seat, curious and almost envious.

‘I had crossed over. I was on a ceremonial table in the Tulip Tower, and above me, through the huge window, I could see the Second Home appearing and disappearing, as if I were on a carousel. When I saw the first priestess, the connection broke, and I was pulled back into my reality. My parents were beside me on the couch. Worried because they couldn’t wake me up, they wondered if they should call for help. Apparently, I had slept for a whole day and night without moving. Indeed, my body felt horrible. It felt like I had woken up from a kind of trance. Which, in fact, I had. Unlike other… people, my parents were understanding and together with me, they tried to figure out what these trances were about. We tried all sorts of methods to find out what was going on and where these things were coming from. Over time, we succeeded. Through a lot of meditation, through a lot of therapy, I began to understand where I was going, and how I could do it whenever I wanted to. Gradually, I began to wander through that world in the body of one of the most powerful priestesses.’

‘Fiiuea?’ M asked instinctively, almost immediately regretting it.

‘Sela,’ replied Andreea.

‘Sela?’ Interesting.

It seemed interesting to me because Sela was one of the priestesses who visited me and often sought my advice, but she had never told me that she had formed a connection with a transcendental. Could it have been that the connection formed after I disappeared?

‘That doesn’t explain why you made so much effort to find us,’ said Ofelia, pulling me out of my thoughts.

‘Once I arrived there, I began to understand what was happening, and how serious it was that the gods had disappeared. The planet was now exposed to all those dangers that the gods themselves kept at bay. It always seemed bizarre to me that an entire planet, where the gods lived their lives and were very real, had practically forgotten their role in this world. I suppose some things are taken for granted, whether we’re talking about something normal or about all-powerful beings.’

She shrugged as if all these things were perfectly normal, then she slowly told us how she gradually learned about how the world beyond was organised, what wonders existed, how it looked like, and what extraordinary beauty one could experience just by closing their eyes. I could feel M’s sense of nostalgia and Filip’s eager curiosity, and even Ofelia’s to some extent, so I let her talk about it for tens of minutes. I think I enjoyed it too. Especially when I felt the love of Andrea, M, and even, to some extent, Sela for the world that I had partly created. I felt something that I didn’t think was possible anymore. Pride. Pride that I could create a world that could inspire so many beautiful feelings. And then the bad things came. The fact that the planet and its inhabitants suffered greatly from our absence. The fact that some foolish people believed that the gods no longer had a role in the world, and how our arrogance had almost led us all on a path to ruin. My brothers had died and apparently millions of people. And something much worse was looming. I felt a strong weight on my chest. I felt sadness and panic. I felt anger mixed with guilt. I could have prevented this, I told myself again and again.

Then, Andrea’s voice echoed in a different, new tone.

‘I then heard from a friend about the burnt-out block. It didn’t seem like a typical fire. Many described it as if a strong light appeared and only then did  the small fires start on different floors. It seemed odd to me, so when I had the chance, I passed by there. I was curious. And when I got at the sight and looked up, I saw something that I’ll never be able to forget.’

There was a silence, and Filip couldn’t resist rushing her to tell them what she had seen.

‘I saw the trace that the corridor to the other universe had left when it opened. I knew someone from Sela’s universe had passed through there. I ran home and tried to connect with the other universe. Of course, I was so agitated that it would have been impossible for me to transcend if Mom and Dad weren’t there to calm me down. Once I got there, I spoke with the priestesses and realised there was a connection between our worlds. Different than I initially thought. So we started to wonder if it wasn’t perhaps a connection to the gods. The trace was too distinct to have been left by a transcendental like me. Over time, as the situation worsened, the priestesses asked me to leave a message, so I made the art gallery, and everything related to it, and left a flyer there every time I had a new opening. Years and years. And now you’ve finally appeared.’

‘Do you know who we are?’ M asked.

‘She’s Reeza…’ She looked at me with a slight apprehension. Not towards me, it was more as if she feared I could disappear into nothingness, proving to be just part of a dream. It was the first time her dream world manifested itself, without half-measures, into reality. And that, in itself, seemed unbelievable to her.

‘And you,’ she continued after a moment, looking at M, ‘You are Reeza’s legendary priest. Her only priest, in fact.’

M chuckled a little. Sure, he seemed adorable only to me. In the eyes of others, he was almost like a god. Andrea looked at him almost like she was looking at me, with a godly aura from another world.

‘The question is,’ said M, ‘why did you summon us here? The story is fascinating. The news from beyond is invaluable to me. But I can’t believe you would go to such lengths just for storytelling.’

‘I think I have a solution to save Reeza. The one trapped here and the one trapped beyond, still in the atomic bunker.’