The first message came as a dream.
Alec sat up in his bed and stared at the wall for a good few minutes before he realized that he had been awake the entire time. The blankets were curled up beneath his feet, forming an oppressive black mass at the foot of his bed. His breathing was harsh; he could hear himself inhaling and exhaling, in haling and exhaling, over and over again. Trembling hands gripped the sheets, the soft blue colors folding and crinkling.
"It was only a dream," he told himself, but it hadn't felt like a dream. That imminent pain that shot through his hand when he grabbed the doorknob—it was a black door and it was calling his name over and over again; yes, he remembered it very clearly now—was all too real. Had it been hot? No, it was a sharp pain, like a knife stabbing through him. It traveled up the length of his arm, into his shoulder, and then right into his heart. That was what jostled him awake.
Now he stood, walking over to the kitchen sink and filling up a glass with cold water. He reached into the freezer and found a few ice cubes, listening as they plopped into the glass with a satisfying splash. After a few gulps he felt his nerves calm down. His breath had steadied itself and was no longer audible to him—just another noise in the background, really.
He walked back over to his bed and sat at the foot, pushing the blankets aside, letting them topple over onto the floor. As he reached for the remote, he laid back in the little impression his body made and let out a long sigh. The television, which stood all by its lonesome on a small stand, barely large enough to hold the base of the actual device up, blinked on, revealing a middle-aged newscaster with brown hair combed over to one side. He was talking about some car-accident that had happened earlier in the day. Apparently it had claimed a few lives, one of which was a young child.
Alec sighed and let himself drift off to somewhere else. The news was never a pick-me up, but his eyes were much entertained by the constantly array of dancing colors from the graphics. Really, he only used it as a means of escape. The television had always had a strange drug-like affect on him. He figured that it was due to The Touch.
The Touch was something that he had found as a child, something that existed within him, and many others from what he could tell, and that was how he had received the message. He knew it.
Some people liked to think of it as telepathy, or psychic powers, but Alec felt that it went beyond that simple, mortal spectrum. Though their powers were never discussed publicly, he had met other Touchers before in private, after he discovered that he was not the only one. There had been some who were so powerful that they could go beyond the simple bounds of telepathy and, in some cases, levitation, a.k.a. telekinesis.
He had heard of those who could open doorways in reality, bend the fabric of existence itself, but then again, he had only heard these things. Never before had anyone displayed such power before him, but could he blame them? The Touch was not something to display publicly, especially if one had managed to obtain the higher powers.
Alec himself was not all that powerful. He could read minds very well, and was perhaps one of the best at it, but his powers ended there. Of course, being a strong telepath meant the occasional bizarre dream, most likely picked up from random people all over his apartment building. Dreams from the R.E.M. state of sleep were typically abstract, so when he picked up on those brainwaves he would often find himself in very psychedelic situations.
Tonight's dream had been different. Yes, it had been very surreal, as many of his dreams were, but the feelings were so abnormal… He could not quite describe it. There was something very off about it, something that unsettled his stomach. The pain that shot through him had been there for a reason. This dream had a purpose, and he believed that it had been shot directly into his subconscious.
It made sense; at least he thought so. The pain had shot right into his heart, but what is your heart in a dream? The nucleus that operates it all is the brain. In a dream the two are synonymous. That was the way he saw it. In a dream, your heart was your brain, and the pain had been sent right there.
This was all conjecture, though. He had no proof of it besides his intuition. Tomorrow he figured that he would go and take a visit over to Lena's apartment. She was another Toucher, and lived just a few floors above him. They were the only two in this particular building, though there were three more just across the street. As far as the rest of the area went, there were none.
Alec remembered Lena's hypothesis about the odd coincidence that they ended up living so close together. She said, "I think there's some kind of link that we all share as Touchers. I think it keeps us close to each other, because secretly we know that when we move close to another Toucher, we're safe."
"Makes enough sense to me," he replied. "I felt something when I bought this apartment. You'd just moved in, from what I remember, and there was this sense of freshness, but it was familiar to me. It was like coming home after a long vacation."
Lena nodded and smiled, her dark brown hair swerving against the curve of her shoulder as she turned her head over to the window. Alec sensed that she was thinking of something in that little moment, but he could not tell what it was. He refused to pry into her mind, and figured that if he did, she would only push him right back out. There was no reason to force a rift between them when they had just met.
They shared a dream the night before, he remembered that much. They recognized each other, seeing as they had met briefly in the laundry room a few times, shot some small talk about the weather and taxes, then went their separate ways. Alec had been able to feel how real she was in that dream, and that led him to believe that she was a Toucher. It was only upon confronting her the next day—he had planned out a few sly questions to ask her—that it was truly confirmed. They sensed each other immediately, and there was no need to even question it.
That had been about a year ago. They were not close friends; his work called too much attention from him, and Lena was still in college, her last year now. Working in Public Relations was fun, but recently he had been itching to learn more about his powers, and there was simply no time to do that when he was working late.
The next morning he found himself sitting in Lena's kitchen with a hot cup of coffee in his left hand and the newspaper in his right. The report on the car accident had made it to ink, but he flipped past it. He hated reading those kinds of stories.
"So what exactly was the dream about?" Lena asked as she made her way over to the counter. She was opening a letter from someone. It must have been dropped off personally since the mail didn't come until later. Alec took little notice of it and sipped his coffee once more time before continuing.
"I was in my bed, and then suddenly I had this weird urge to just wake up and get out of my room," he began. "I walked over to the bedroom door—everything was moving from side to side, like I was waddling but in slow motion—and then I opened it and went down stairs to the lobby. I realized that I was buck-naked, but I didn't care because no one was around. Then, in the middle of the street, just outside, I see this door.
"The door is black, pitch black, with a little golden knob on it. At first I just stare at it and wait to see if anything will happen. My mind is pushing me forward and back, as if it's trying to say 'Go there! Go to the door!', but I can't. My legs are stuck.
"The door starts calling my name. I don't know how I know it's the door that's doing this, but I just know." Lena nodded and waited for him to continue. "That's when my legs start working, and I move forward. Instead of pushing the glass doors aside I just sort of walk right through them, as if they weren't even there. At that point I'm genuinely weirded out, but my normal mind, the regular conscious, I think, is telling me that it's fine, that dreams are supposed to be like this, so I go along with it.
"I come to the door and stand in front of it. The whole day goes by. I watch the sunrise and sunset, and it's night again, but this all happened within about five seconds. The door's still calling my name, so I reach out and touch the knob, and then this pain jumps up into my arm," he paused to show her where it began and where it finished, "and goes into my heart, and then it ended."
"Strange." She paused for a few seconds, pondering to herself. "And you think that the door left a message for you in your mind?"
"Yes, because in a dream, your heart is your brain. The brain gives life to your dream, just like your heart gives life to your physical body," he said.
"I guess that makes sense, but it's still just a guess. It could have just been a dream."
"That's a little too rational for a Toucher to be saying," he replied.
Lena had opened the envelope now, and in her hand she held a check for a few thousand dollars. A Rosa Simmons signed it. Simmons was Lena's surname. Was that her mother?
"I don't think so, and what are you looking at?"
"The check," he said. "Sorry, I was just curious about it."
"My mom helps me pay for my apartment," she explained, "but that has nothing to do with this. Why don't you go ahead and tell me why this isn't just a dream?"
"Because it didn't feel like one. It felt like something… I dunno, above a dream," he said. Lena nodded and sighed, running her hands through her hair. Her dark skin glistened in the sunlight, and as she shrugged the highlights on her face and shoulder moved ever so slightly.
"I don't know what to say. If you have another dream then maybe you can figure out a little bit more, but as of right now I don't really know what to do," she said, sighing ever so slightly. Alec nodded and finished his coffee; he'd already put the paper aside.
"I guess I'll get back to you if it happens again."
"Don't be afraid to call me in the middle of the night. Maybe we can work together to re-experience it if it's fresher in your mind," she said. Alec nodded. It was a sound plan, but for now he had other things to focus on. The two said their good-byes, and he left for work.
The second message came as a person.
He did not know who this person was, but he realized it was message after they left. They had been scribbling some graffiti on the side of a building. It was in red, a very vibrant red at that, so it stood out against the bricks. The man who was performing the act of vandalism turned to him upon completion. He was wearing an old cap, like the kind Alec's grandpa would sometimes wear, and muddy-green trench coat that was torn in a few places. He reeked of piss, among other things—that was all Alec bothered identifying—and one of his eyes was lazy.
For a good thirty seconds they stood there, staring at each other. Alec could feel something radiating off of the man, though he could not say what, exactly. It was like an aura of some kind, something he'd never quite seen before. Other Touchers had a certain feel to them; that was how they identified each other on most occasions, but none of them had an outright aura. It was like he was glowing, but he wasn't. That was how eye of Alec's mind saw it. His telepathic energy, his touch, was picking up on this aura and flashing images of it in his mind.
There were blue arms of energy that spun around him in the shape of a spiral galaxy. They stretched out, touching the sides of the buildings, the sidewalks, and a nearby fence, causing everything to sing out in glorious harmony. The world was speaking at that moment, and it was a joyous chorus of voices, praising whatever deity there was standing over them cheerfully.
"Praise!" they sung, holding out the word for minutes at a time. The swaying arms nearly touched Alec, but he backed away. It was at that moment that the man ran away, dropping his spray-paint can behind him. The chorus died, and the aura disappeared.
Alec was speechless.
What had just happened to him? What was that man, and what was that aura that he possessed? Surely he did not have The Touch, but it must have been something like it, a deviation of The Touch, or perhaps The Touch was a deviation of it. Either was, he figured that they were somehow related to each other, much like how he figured the dream from before was related to what he had just witnessed.
At first he paid no attention to the graffiti words that the man had sprayed upon the wall, but he walked closer, picking up the can and giving it a close inspection. He felt nothing from it. Whatever that aura had been, it left no residue behind. Turning back, he tossed the little object aside and began to walk down the alleyway towards Central Square, but he couldn't continue. No, not yet.
He had to see what the man had written. Why did he have to see it? He was not entirely sure, but he thought that it might be important. He was right.
On the wall was written ALL DOORS LEAD TO THE CRADLE! One any other day these words would have been meaningless to him, but today was not any other day, not after what he had seen last night. This could not be a coincidence. He refused to believe that it was coincidence! There was something out there that was trying to talk to him, and though he did not know what it was yet, he did know that he had to find out.
Lucky for him, he had saved up plenty of sick days for work, so without further hesitation, phoned himself in and claimed that he had a stomach virus. That had always been his favorite fake sickness as a kid. Whenever he didn't want to go to school he'd just tell Mom that he had a "bad tummy ache", and she would always let him stay home. He was a good faker, but he didn't have to pretend too much when he called in today. Just a tired voice, that was all he needed.
The walk home was a quick one, and soon he found himself sitting in his desk chair, staring out the window with the thoughts running through his head. He had to tell Lena, but she was at a class right now. Bobby, Kenny, and Erin would be at work as well, but maybe they could fake sick too and head home? He hoped they'd find this urgent enough.
With that, he gave the three other Touchers—he wanted to let Lena finish her class since it would be highly improbable for her to just have a stomach ache out of no where and have people believe her story—a call. They all worked for the same publishing company, so if he got a hold of one then his problem only needed a little help from word-of-mouth.
He managed to find Bobby, and hurried through the events of last night and those that had transpired just ten minutes ago. "That is pretty odd," Bobby said, sounding a bit hesitant. "I mean, I guess we could drop by and see you on our lunch break, if you can wait that long. We've got a big meeting today and I don't want to miss it."
"Can you take an early lunch break?" Alec asked.
There was a pause, and then Bobby spoke again. "I'll see what I can do. Let me get the word out the Kenny and Erin, and then I'll give you a call back, okay?"
"Alright, but please try to get here a.s.a.p. It'd be better if we could analyze this while it's still fresh in my mind," he said.
"Agreed, but business is business. I'll see what I can do." There was a silence, and then the two said their goodbyes and hung up.
Alec sighed as he leaned back in his chair, grabbing his stress ball from the side of his desk and giving it a few good squeezes. These little things never helped, but he was nervous and he needed to keep his hands occupied with something. If it weren't the stress ball then he'd be tapping them on his desk, or bouncing his heels off the floor. That often upset the Carolannes from downstairs.
For some time he waited. A few minutes passed by, but they seemed to drag out forever. He turned on the television again, this time figuring that he would actually watch it, and why not? There was nothing better to do, really. He was caught up on all of his paper work and such, so he figured he'd at least try to relax a bit.
There was another report about the car accident from before. This time Alec decided that he would hear it through. Yes, it was depressing, and as much as he hated that, what else could he do? If the news was going to be so persistent about it, then he'd submit. He'd be their little lackey for now.
The third message came as a voice.
There was a little girl crying, but she wasn't a little girl; she had an aura, just like the man from before. Little blue tears were streaming down the side of her face, leaning glowing imprints behind that would throb for a moment before dying off. Alec watched in awe, and wondered if there were any other Touchers out there who could see this. Was he the only one? No, that was impossible.
A homeless man crossing the highway in some kind of stupor had caused the accident. He had been hit by a car and killed almost immediately. This caused the driver of the car to lose control, killing him and his three passengers. Another car smashed into that, killing all four passengers, and then another car slammed into that one, killing three of the four. Now only the little glowing girl remained.
He stared at her. What was she?
The question fell right out of his mind when he was shown the picture of the man who had caused the accident. It was the hobo from before, the hobo who had written ALL DOORS LEAD TO THE CRADLE on the wall. That was impossible. If the accident had taken place last night, then how could Alec have seen him just thirty minutes ago? How could that be?
Maybe he had a twin. Yes, it must have been his twin brother. Perhaps a little too coincidental, but it wasn't downright impossible. There were a lot of people out there who had twins, and this was bound to happen eventually. Perhaps other people had experienced similar things before. It probably freaked them out a good deal, but once they found the logical conclusion it was like turning on a light. Yes, of course, it was only a twin!
His mind was telling him otherwise, however. His mind was telling him that something was very wrong with this, very, very wrong. What was the door, and how was the man linked to it?
The girl was screaming now, but it wasn't just wails of pain and sorrow—they were actually words.
"I'm alive! I'm alive!" she bawled. Something told Alec that she wasn't just screaming with joy. There was something inside of her that was saying those things. Her voice did not sound like that of a child. In fact it was almost masculine. She was staring right into the camera, screaming these words over and over again.
Finally Alec could take no more; he turned off the television and took a seat on his bed. There was something out there that was contacting him, or maybe other people like him.
The phone rang. He picked it up, finding that it was Bobby on the other line. "We'll be over in twenty minutes," he said, and then hung up. Alec put the phone back on the receiver and lay down. He was so tired, so very tired of all of this, but he figured that if he went to sleep now he would only have another dream about the door, or perhaps about the hobo, or the little girl. Perhaps it would contain all three.
No, not the little girl, she'd not be a part of it. She was just an avatar for whatever that blue aura was, and he assumed that the hobo had been too. Was it a time travelling spirit? Could that be possible? It was the only way to explain how the hobo had moved from the alley to the highway.
It was only conjecture. It was only guessing, but his mind was so far ahead of him that he could not stop now. His imagination was running wild, exploring every possibility, looking into every idea.
Was it God? No, surely that could not be. It was a being, though, a being of immense power. Maybe it wasn't trying to connect with him. Maybe it was broadcasting a signal for help, or perhaps unknowingly. How could he doubt anything when he was a Toucher? When he discovered what he was capable of his entire world had turned upside down, and he could not let that happen again. There was no need for it, not now, not when he understood what it meant to have The Touch.
There was a knock on the door. Bobby, Kenny, and Erin must have been outside. They had arrived much quicker they said they would, but Alec would not complain about that. He wanted to talk about this, and he wanted to talk about it now, had to talk about it now.
He stood and made his way over to the door, giving the handle a brisk twist as he pushed the door open. Before him was not Bobby, Kenny, and Erin, however. Before him was the homeless man. The very same homeless man that had died last night, the very same homeless man that he had seen writing on the wall no less than an hour ago.
"You!" the man shouted as he pointed a gloved finger at Alec. "You got me killed! What's wrong with you?"
Alec felt his muscles tense up; his heart rate increased twofold. Stumbling backwards, he nearly tripped over his desk chair, but managed to catch himself and quickly found his balance.
"What in the…" He could barely find words.
"You killed me! You're the reason those cars are going to hit me in your yesterday!" he growled, stepping inside of the apartment. "What did you do? What did you do to me to make me do that?"
"I only met you for the first time just forty minutes ago!" Alec shouted. He didn't know what else to say. "What are you doing here? How did you find me?"
"You're not too difficult to find," the man began, "All I had to do was find your signature and follow it back here."
"How did you know it was me?" The man did not bother answering. He took a knife from his back pocket; it was small—a switchblade—and he brandished it, the tip pointing towards Alec's through. Alec stumbled backwards again. There was a steak knife out on the counter from the night before, but it was just out of his reach. There was no way that he would be able to jump over the counter to grab it. He'd be left wide open, and the man would take few stabs at his torso, and he'd be done.
"Why are you doing this?" Alec shouted. "Help! Someone!"
"You be quiet! You hear me? You be quiet and let me talk!" the man growled as he pushed his hand forward, coming dangerously close to Alec's stomach. With a fierce slashing motion, he brought the weapon down, not to strike Alec but to keep him at a comfortable distance. Alec leaped back, but he could go no further. His back was nearly pressed against a window. "I have to kill you in order to keep myself alive. My work in this body is not done yet. I'm not ready to move on, especially into a little girl."
"What are you?"
"I'm a time-traveler. Didn't you figure that out by now? You Touchers are the dumbest, I swear. Anyway, I have a job to do, and I can't have you killing me before it can get done. Now, hold still and we can make this as painless as possible. None of your Touching can work on me, so there's no point in resisting," he said.
"If my Touching doesn't work, then how could I have killed you?" Alec asked, still trying to step back even though his heel kept banging against the wall.
"I'm not sure as of yet, but I know enough to know that you were the last person that the future version of me saw before dying. He told me so himself, though he certainly was not supposed to, but I suppose if the situation calls for it, then breaking the Temporal Rules is acceptable. In my case, I think he—I—was just in his actions.
"Normally you're not allowed to tell a past version of yourself how the future will be, but we're doing the Cradle's work, so we've got an excuse. Besides, it's only bad if you tell someone else, but since I've only told you, and you're about to die, it doesn't matter much, really.
"Now you might be asking yourself how this all came to be. Well yes, it would seem awfully confusing, as at this point in time you've only met me once. However, had I not come here to stop you right now, you would have ended up leaving with your friends, seeing me again, then chasing after me to find the answers to your questions. Your sudden burst of telepathic energy will shock me into believing you're working against the Cradle, and that you're trying to pursue me.
"From there, I will enter the Cradle—you'll be hot on my tail—and then I'm going to tell the version of me standing before you now that you're chasing him. It's at that point that he leaves me, and I leave to find you," he explained.
"But now that you've told me, can't I avoid it? Isn't it possible for me not to see you ever again now that you've explained it to me? It hasn't happened yet—"
"Oh, but it has. Contrary to popular belief, time is not linear; it's more… lateral, I suppose, or perhaps omnipresent. The past, the present, and the future all occur at once, but in different sections of the fourth dimension. Time is less of a stream and more of a… quilt. As a traveler, I can pick which patch of the quilt I go to.
"Now you may be wondering what this has to do with your question. Well, since I've changed your version of the present, and subsequently made it so that the aforementioned event cannot take place as I described it, then time, being a part of nature since it's a dimension, must seek order. Therefore, no matter what you do, you will run into me again, and somehow you'll startle me into thinking that you're pursuing me—that is, unless I kill you. Do you understand? If you tear a patch of a quilt, you must sew something else into it, be it something of a similar color—an instance that would closely replicate our once-future encounter—or a completely different color—an instance that would greatly differ from our once-future encounter. Either way, there is a new path, so the end result is the same: the quilt become whole again."
"What exactly is your reason for all of this, beyond the fact that I 'killed you'? What is this great mission that you've been sent to do for the Cradle, whatever that is?" Alec tightened his fists. Indeed he could not Touch the man, but he could still throw a solid left hook, something he had picked up from his boxing days in high school. Hopefully he was not rusty.
No, I can still feel it… he chuckled to himself, keeping his face stern and slightly confused. He was beginning to grasp the situation—not so much of what the hobo was saying. That mattered little to him, but he'd managed to work the man into a spot where he was rambling on about his abilities, and it had given Alec time to think. If he could land one good punch, then get around and grab the knife, he could take the man down, or at least hold him until Bobby, Kenny, and Erin arrived.
"That does not matter. You know enough, too much, actually, and it's time that we ended this," the man hissed as he raised his knife. Alec kept his fists balled. He knew his reflexes weren't what they used to be, but surely he could out maneuver this man.
As the hobo lifted the switchblade into the air, Alec came forward, thrusting his fists into the man's stomach, exerting all of his force and weight into those two quick blows. The man gasped, the air rushing out of him, followed in suit by a small stream of blood. As Alec backed away, dashing into the kitchen for the knife, he could not help but feel his eyes almost tear up, both from excitement and amusement at the fact that he'd actually knocked the ever-living hell out of the man.
He took the knife in his hand, grasping it firmly, and then turned to the hobo time traveler. Raising it, he prepared to come down with full force. He could not allow this man to live; he was too dangerous, but before the knife could draw blood, Alec felt something change. To describe it would be beyond his mind, beyond any mind, but he soon saw the change, saw what came beyond that feeling.
A door formed beneath the time traveler—the same door that he had seen in his dream. The black wood, the golden knob, the voice calling his name, it was all there, but the man turned before Alec could realize what had happened. He grabbed the knob and fell through, back into the Cradle.
There was a white light around the man, but he didn't bother with it. He'd seen it so many times before that he was practically desensitized to it. Something inside of him was moving, moving quickly. Heartbeat… he thought. Though his mind was very much in a daze, he could still think clearly enough to know what he had to do. Get out of here, find a hospital, and then come back for him… Yes, that's just what I'll do, he told himself.
Opening another door could put him into a stupor, though, but he'll risk it for now. Another black door forms before him, and he reaches out and opens it, feeling his mind leave him for a bit. He always hated that part of it, but he learned to deal with it.
The door opened, and he stepped out onto some grass. There were loud noises all about him, and as he stepped forward he realized something—they were cars. It was me… I'm the one who dies… Then what about—
It was a mistake. He'd just been paranoid. That version of him had escaped to safety, and now here he was and… He had to run. He had to get out of here! There was the screeching of breaks and then…
OH GOD I'M ALIVE! PLEASE HELP ME!
The fourth message came as a door.
Alec stared at the floor for almost five minutes. Then, there was a voice.
"You've taken the man who was to save us all, and you've cursed him into the body of a child. To prevent any further damage from being done to the time stream, I must assign you to his place, Toucher," the voice said. It was that of an old woman.
The door appeared again.
"You knew the whole time that this was going to happen. You sent me the messages, didn't you?" There was no reply. "I can't go. I can't go. I have a life here. You can't make me!"
"Time's quilt will not allow for this. There must be a patch sewn where Chronos was, until he can come back and reclaim his place in the Cradle. As punishment for your inability to accept your death for the greater good of the universe, you must serve in his place. Open the door, Alec, and accept the chains that will bind you to your duty," she said.
What choice did he have? If he ran, she would find him. Ultimately, the quilt would have to be repaired, as much as he hated the thought of it.
"A copy of you will be placed in this world, with no memory of the events that took place. It is he who will find Chronos once your friends arrive and take you outside, this completing the necessary cycle."
"But Chronos escaped!"
"He escaped right into his death, on the highway," she replied, "and now, for the cycle to be completed, you must bind yourself to time until Chronos usurps the chains back from you and rightfully damns you!"
"Why did you make it so that I would become this?"
"I did nothing. I am but a door, a very knowing door. I took no actions other than to warn you about it, so that hopefully you would gain some understanding and be somewhat prepared. Time is an entity in itself, and it is a very delicate one that cannot be scratched even in the slightest. It is both sentient and completely mindless at the same time, aware of itself, yet it can do nothing to prevent itself from being manipulated by others, like Chronos. All I know is that once it is broken, in one way or another, it must be repaired."
Alec looked down at the door. There was no choice. He knew that he could not break the cycle, but he knew that if he took the plunge then he would be first punished as the new… messenger of time? Was that was Chronos, the time traveling hobo was? The messenger of the Cradle, perhaps? It didn't matter. Once that job was done, he'd be damned into some unknown hell, or something in that vein. It was either that, or leave the quilt of time incomplete, and he knew that if he did that—he did not know how he knew, but he just did—that he would end up suffering a similar fate, regardless.
Time had worked against him to create a catch twenty-two, and now he was forced to partake in something that he did not understand, not did he want to. He took the knob and twisted it.