4

My retinas burning, I swallow up the dark, and it swallows me. I am wafting through nothing.

But I feel sudden jerks, and tears, and hopeless agonies. I feel pins and needles being jabbed up and down my body. At times I even see flashes of brilliant colour, too bright to be anything but pure light, and only lasting fragments of moments.

And then, my pinky finger. It is solidly alive. It feels something real… or real enough. Something hot, and smooth, presses against the top of the middle segment of my pinky. The rest is reasonably warm. I float in a void, with a finger deep in another world.

Then I feel the whole hand. It's holding something, my right hand. It's holding something brittle and smooth, and against the tops of my fingers it is hot, hot, hot. As soon as feeling reaches my hand, I relax, and whatever was there is not there any more. I feel my hand, I flex it around and enjoy it. Brushes of some fabric reach me.

In a cry of sudden sharpness, the whole arm comes to me, tingly but alive, and then my chest, and soon all over. Spots carry themselves across my vision.

My lips… I can feel myself licking them, a feeling so alienly familiar. A world is forming, piece by piece. It's very red… a very red room…

I feel at once more in the next world than the void. Will this world will be even less accommodating than the last one? Can I stand many more like this? I brush away pesky thoughts of hell.

My chest heaves, and my cheeks burn, and I'm really here and really alive wherever I am. Something scalding and wet is coating my leg. I'm sprawled out… I feel a couch beneath me.

I feel incredible. These sensations are things I've missed. They are so doubly painful. I am alive.

"You're back?"

I stare into the blinking familiar face. A face so close. He's looking at me with shock, incredulity, his emotions running through me like a live wire.

"I'm back?"

"Alexander?"

"That's me."

"My god," he says, pulling me close. This is nice. I am against him, laid over him. Every movement sends more pins and needles up and down my skin and into my bones, and I groan. And then I sit back.

"Oh!" I say. "It's Trevor."

"Yeah, it's me," he says, rubbing his hand up and down my arm. He pulls me back against his chest.

"I very distinctly remember you."

He chuckles at that, but his voice carries something I'm not used to. Regret? Or the next best thing.

"Trevor."

We lie in silence until I fall asleep.

The next morning is painful. The bright sun burning through the curtains hurts my eyes, and the constant noises of the world – cars going by, birds singing, people moving around the house – scratch and claw at my ears.

But it's a kind of soaring pain. I frown at it or complain to Trevor but it reminds me how alive I am, how firmly in the universe again. He makes me a delicious breakfast. It's then he asks the haunted question:

"So," he begins, hesitantly. "Do you know what happened to Chaplain?"

"Chaplain?"

"Yes. Do you know who I mean?"

My face is as blank as my mind.

"Well, Chaplain, see, he was the one, I don't know how to say this…" he takes a bite of his eggs and swallows. "When you were gone, he was the one who was you."

"Who was me?"

"Yeah, he was you. When you left, he was there in your place… he did things for you, lived your life for you. You really don't know where he went?"

"No," I say. "Did things for me? What was he doing?"

"Things like holding that cup of hot chocolate you dropped yesterday," Trevor said, smiling. Then his eyes turned sad. "Things like going out with me. Things like getting a job, reading books, breathing, everything. I mean, god, you were gone for three years."

My fork clatters to the plate. "Three years!"

Trevor looks at me.

My mouth works silently. I take a deep breath, and stare at my plate. "Three whole years?"

"Yeah," he says quietly. He says nothing, I say nothing. We both sit nursing our two solitudes, his lost boyfriend and my lost three years.

. . .

The world is surprisingly prosaic, after all this hubbub about existing again. It turns out I have this job, which I have to be retrained for, doing filing at a local clinic. I receive papers, punch information into a computer, put the papers in the appropriate folder… try to dodge the secretary, who always has pointless make-work for me. I want to tell them there, I want to say, "I've been through walls, I've opened doors you can't understand," but they really wouldn't understand. Who could understand? Do I even understand?

I am three years behind in school. I will have to re-enter my first year. Trevor says it will be more fun the second time. Trevor.

What is this terrible feeling I get when I look around me and nobody is who they should be? Will it pass? Why is it that I look into Trevor's eyes and think, I don't know you, and you never knew me either? I get this soaked-bone feeling several times a day.

Other times I feel the opposite. What happened to me that I slept a three-year dream and woke up to a loving boyfriend and a life like this? How lucky can it be, to have the universe organize itself around me?

Trevor, I have trouble understanding. He seems to almost adore me, and he really barely knows me. And he knows it, too – he says things like, "I'm so happy you're telling me this", or, "I feel like I'm really getting to know you right now".

My first instinct was to push him away and tell him, "No, you don't know me, I'm just a boy you slept with once three years ago." I wanted to get rid of him and his annoying sad eyes, looking at me and seeing his dead boyfriend. Something changed, eventually.

Well, I guess I was lonely. I wanted him because he wanted me. I have spent so long rolling through the undifferentiated ocean of waking dreams that to have a solid human being wanting to put his arms around me, I can't say no. And he's a sweetheart; I don't regret my decision.

By far the most disturbing element of my return is "Chaplain." I keep hearing his name, everywhere I turn. Trevor hands me strawberries – "They were Chaplain's favourite." At work, the secretary – "Chaplain knew how to do this." Even my parents said "Chaplain was so good at that," when I couldn't fix the problem they were having on the computer.

It infuriates me. I don't like being compared to this parasite. I don't like living in his shadow, when rightly he is mine. It's like having an older brother who's better at everything.

I snap at people now for bringing him up. Trevor knows. Sometimes he fondles my hair and looks at me with his sad eyes, and I let him, but if he breathes one word of Chaplain I'm on my feet and out the door. I'm me again, and I won't be anyone's Chaplain.

My friends have changed. Chaplain made new friends. These are people I've never even met before, and to them I'm the new one, I'm the substitute. I thought about letting them go, too, but they are Trevor's friends as well as Chaplain's, and they like me, so. It gives me something to do while I wait for the school year to begin again.

. . .

Trevor lies across my stomach. He's dozing. We had been watching a movie, but I turned it off when we both stopped watching. I think he's falling asleep. I rub his hair absentmindedly, and look at the pictures around the TV.

"Trevor?"

He doesn't reply. He probably is asleep. I slide out from under him, and let his head fall onto the heavily carpeted floor. I yawn.

Flicking off the lights, I walk up the stairs. It's slow. I want to be in bed right now.

When I get into my room, I flop on the bed. Before I can even think I'm asleep.

I wake up with the sun, at just after six. There is a bright yellow patch against my wall. I'm terribly awake, there's no way for me to deny. I run my hand through my hair, and feel the grease there. Must shower…

But I don't want to. I look around the room. I don't want to do anything, I want to sleep. I think a book would help me fall asleep again, or pass the time until Trevor wakes up.

I look in the closet – there's nothing there. I am annoyed that everything has been changed in here since I came back. My bookcase is gone, for one thing. I wish Chaplain hadn't rearranged everything.

There's a letter-writing desk that has been mine for years, but that I kept in the attic. Chaplain had it moved into my room, apparently. I'd never looked inside it, partly out of spite, partly out of lack of interest. But he might have put books in there.

I unlatch the smooth wooden latch, and move down the plank that serves as a door to the cavity inside, as well as being a writing surface once it's down. And it's true – here are many books, lined against the back wall of the cavity. A random selection of my old books and some ones I've never seen before. The new ones are all Science Fiction. I snort to myself, and rub the side of my face, trying to get the sleepy dirt out of my eyes.

While I'm looking at titles I see a letter. I almost toss it aside, thinking it's one of Chaplain's, but then I see the addressee – it's for me, written in an unknown hand. Could it be that someone wrote me a letter before they knew Chaplain was in my place? But then who? I don't know anyone who writes letters, except maybe my aunts and uncles.

I rip the top open and pull out the letter, which is in two tightly cribbed pages. I begin reading, and partway through, I must sit down to continue. This is what the letter says.

Alexander:

I hope everything is well. I hope you've found this letter.

When I first woke up – when I was born, I guess – I was living your life. I had all your friends and your family, and Trevor. I'm afraid to say I've lost most of those friends, but I haven't lost the others. I think I've done well with Trevor. I hope you can keep him. He's a treasure.

I'll miss him a lot. I wonder if I'll be dead when I'm gone from your body… it could be. I'll miss Trevor the most. Does he miss me? Maybe you can't answer, but I had to ask.

So, anyway, at first I didn't know how lucky I was. I thought it was perfectly normal to be born into someone else's life. When I really grasped how strange my life had been, it changed me. Before then, I didn't really care who you were. Like… the previous tenant in a house. It doesn't really matter who they were. Once I understood though, I couldn't just sit still. It fascinated me, that someone could just go away like that, and be replaced.

So I started to think a lot about you, about who you were, about what you were like. I asked your parents a lot of questions! Talk to them about it, they'll laugh. It kind of obsessed me – it still does.

Lately I've been getting these strange spots in my vision, flashes of things, temporary feelings in parts of my body. I can't be sure, but I think this means you're coming back. That I'm going away, and you're coming back. It terrified me. It still terrifies me.

I mean, think. Before that, I had no way of knowing if I was going to grow old and see your parents (can I call them ours?) die peacefully, maybe make a family with Trevor, or someone like him (a boy has a right to shop around.) I thought maybe this is permanent. Well, I don't think so now. It's been getting more frequent, more powerful, these flashes and pins and needles and everything.

I'm dying, then. It's not a painful way to go. It disturbs me, but I can live with it for now. Because… because this is what I was meant for. To take your place for a while. To breathe your breath for a while. To hold your hands for you – I was meant for it all.

I think I love you. I don't know you, but I know about you. I know you were good enough for Mom and Dad (it's what I call them, sorry if it's weird for you); good enough for Trevor. I just want you to be happy and okay.

So that's it. Be safe. Say hi to everyone for me…

Sincerely,

Chaplain

I hold the paper for a minute, then let it fall from my hands. I close my eyes. Entirely against my will, I image what happened to me in reverse, losing feeling in that one pinky, then in the whole hand, then the arm, and then all over, feeling those pins and needles. And then nothing?

I'm still sitting in bed when Trevor knocks lightly and lets himself in. We hold eye contact for a minute. He embraces me, knowing nothing. I let him.