A Split Path Converging

Benjamin Plum was an ordinary man. He lived an unexceptional life, uninspired and conventional as it was, content and satiated with whatever moderate success fate happened to bestow upon him. He had no aspirations, no desires, no inclination for things grandiose or magnificent. Ben was, by all accounts, a mediocre man.

But at his core, he always thought, he was a good man. He treated others with kindness and respect. People found his soft-spoken demeanor non-threatening and friendly. People liked Ben, and because of this he found moderate fortune working a decent job with his own little office on the top floor of a old and drafty building. He wasn't, as they had put it, management material. Despite this his value was significant enough to merit a degree of importance.

Ben would visit the park adjacent to his building and eat his lunch alone. Around him the birds and squirrels and people of the city went about their daily lives, as unaware of him as he was of them. Solitude was his stronghold, a labyrinth of loneliness. Secretly he longed for someone to lay siege and smash the stony walls that he'd surrounded himself in, for he lacked the courage to throw open the gates and let anyone in. All that changed when he met her.

"Pretty, isn't it?"

Ben glanced up from his lunch at the stranger sitting next to him. She was looking right at him with a smile that managed to cover her entire face, as if every part of her was grinning. It was infectious. Ben nearly turned around to check if she was looking at someone else, but when their eyes met he couldn't look away.

"Hmm?" He managed, forgetting what she had said.

She giggled and brushed a curl of hair behind her ear. She was sitting with her legs crossed, arms behind her, back arched and chin held high with a calm confidence that Ben had never known. A gentle breeze flowed through her hair and brushed against her dress, pushing around fallen blossoms that whirled and swept across the rolling grassy field and over the lake.

Ben swallowed his mouthful, brushed the crumbs from his hand and extended it.

"I'm Ben." He said, his hand hanging in the air.

She glanced at it. Her eyebrow raised and her lips pursed slightly. She took his hand and held it, softly.

"Sherry." She introduced herself. "You come here often, Ben?"

"Yes. Every day." He replied. "For lunch."

"Good." She said, suddenly dropping his hand and standing. "Then I shall see you around."

She left, skipping idly, as if she had nowhere to be and all the time in the world to get there. Ben watched her leave, finished his lunch, and went back to work.

The next day he returned to the park, this time with purpose. His heart fluttered, filled to the brim with anticipation. He waited for her arrival, hastily eating his lunch as not to be caught again mid-mouthful. He checked his watch frequently as the minutes ticked by, counting the seconds until her return.

But she never came. He went back to the park the next day, and the next, and every other day as he had before, hoping against all odds that if he just shut his eyes she would be there when he opened them. His heart began to sink, pulled down under the riptide by feeling he had never sought to know.

Just as he was about to give up he saw her, just as cheerful and carefree as the day they had met.

"Sherry!" He exclaimed as she skipped up to him, scarcely unable to contain his excitement.

There she was. That same infections smile. That familiar dress. Auburn curls floating on the wind and bouncing along behind her. He extended his hand again, but to his surprise she brushed past it and embraced him. She leapt and threw her arms around him, swinging him around and nearly knocking them both over.

He held her close, awash with joy. She smelled of lavender and rosemary. Her skin was soft and freckled, smooth and velvety. She slid down until her feet touched the ground and looked up at him with a smile.

"Hey, you." She said. "Miss me?"

Before Ben could respond she took his hand and led him away. They walked, talking idly as the minutes ticked by, going nowhere. Ben found his stress and anxiety wash away like the oily stains of a grubby rag. She held his arm and rubbed her cheek against his shoulder. They walked, they talked, they fell in love.

It was a chance encounter. One that sent ripples across the universe. Ben's life was fundamentally changed. They moved into a quaint little house on the edge of town. It was a dusty old run-down cottage, but Sherry said it had character. While Ben went to work she stayed home and painted, planted a garden, tended, mended, and made this place their home; somewhere they could build their life together. She had her own studio where she danced, sculpted, painted and brought to life the beauty that beamed from within her.

As their lives together blossomed and grew it was time for them to write the next chapter together. After months of trying, to Ben's utter astonishment, the doctor announced they were to give birth to Octuplets. The odds were one in twenty quadrillion. Ben nearly fainted, but felt inside of him a newfound sense of purpose, a well of strength to draw upon. It would take everything he had, but together they could accomplish anything.

The day his children were born was the happiest day of his life. Sleep deprived and running on fumes they managed to stay conscious long enough to witness the birth of their four sons and four daughters, collapsing at the first opportunity and settling into a well deserved slumber.

They brought their children home and settled into their new lives as a family. Ben took leave to help around the house, but no amount of time seemed like enough. Sherry adapted easily to parenthood, rising to the insurmountable task at hand with the grace and dignity that she had embodied all her life. Ben always admired this about her.

Tragedy, however, would not allow them a life without complication. One dreadfully cold evening while the couple returned from a night on the town they hit a patch of ice that sent them careening out of control. Glass shattered and the frightful squeal of bent metal erupted as their car slammed into a concrete barrier and over the embankment. It toppled and turned, the twisted wreck soaring through the air and crashing to a halt in the forest below.

Ben awoke in a daze, his thoughts turning quickly to Sherry, her safety his first and only priority. There was no telling how long he'd been unconscious. When he reached out to embrace her she was cold and still, the life drained from her eyes. The spark inside her had faded and gone.

Racked with sorrow and guilt he held her and cried. Tears poured down his cheeks and filled his mouth the the salty sadness of loss. His muscles ached, locked in the acidic embrace of injury while the acrid smell of spent airbags permeated the wreckage. The pain was palatable.

In time the sadness that lingered became bearable, but never faded completely. The loss left a void in his heart. He felt his life would be forever incomplete. He devoted himself to his children, stretching his income enough to cover their expenses and provide for them the life that they deserved, as best as he could manage it.

At times he felt himself immersed in his work, awaking from a trance to find the hours had slipped by. On one such night he stood at his desk and stretched his sore muscles, rubbing the sleep from tired eyes.

Something in the corner of the room caught his attention, as if it had suddenly appeared there. His focus was drawn to it like a moth to flame. A door, crimson red with dark green trim, as old and weathered as the the building itself. Curiously it was located along the outer wall, seemingly leading nowhere.

It was an oddity, and one that warranted further inspection. Ben approached the door uneasily, as it it were likely to swallow him up at any moment. He steadied his hand as it reached for the handle, and stopped for a moment of consideration.

How long had this been here? Why had he never noticed it before. He blinked himself back to reality, and peeked down the hall to see if anyone else was around. It must have been late, for the office was completely empty.

It's just a door, he thought. What harm could it do to see where it went? With a deep breath to steady his nerves Ben gripped the handle firmly and stepped through. On the other side was his own office, complete with his desk and chair, and another version of himself staring back back at him.

"Ah, there you are." He said to himself. "Please, come in. Have a seat. I'm sure this is a lot to process."

Ben looked at the man before him, a spitting image of himself, then glanced over his shoulder at the office behind him. Sure enough, it was still there. He turned back to himself, to the calm and gentle smile that was oddly reassuring. He beckoned himself to sit.

Slowly and shakily Ben stepped inside his office and began to shut the door behind him.

"Leave it open, will you?" He stopped himself.

Ben did as he was told, and took a seat across the desk from himself. His Other took his seat on the opposite side.

"There." He said. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"

"What's going on here?" Ben asked, at last. His Other smiled knowingly.

"Let me explain."

The two of him talked at great length. Whatever the cause, their two universes were nearly identical, short of one significant difference. This version of Ben had seven children, while he had eight. Ben's Other explained that in this universe his door led to another reality where that version of himself had six children. Their door led to a universe of five children, and so on.

The two of them agreed to a set of rules, like his Other had done with his copy in his own door. Ben could visit as often as he'd like, but he was to bring nothing into or out of this reality. He would never shut the door behind him for the moment he did the entrance would be sealed and he would be trapped this reality forever. Lastly, and most importantly, Ben was never to enter the door in this universe.

With that out of the way Ben's Other was curious to learn about the eighth child he'd never had. Ben indulged him, explaining the many wondrous quirks of their personality and sharing the many fond memories he cherished. Ben's Other replied in kind, sharing the nearly identical experiences he'd had with his other children. As the hours passed they laughed and talked, at times finishing each other's sentences.

The night dwindled away and the daylight began to creep over the horizon. It was time for Ben to leave.

"You may want to take the day off." Ben's other advised him. Ben left with a nod, stepping back into his office and shutting the door behind him. He let go of the handle cautiously, half expecting it to disappear.

Ben went home to his family, apologized to the babysitter profusely, and paid her double what he owed, which was half as much as she deserved. Then he slid into bed and slept more soundly than he had in years.

Ben returned to work reinvigorated. The crimson doorway was endearing, a constant reminder that life was brimming with possibility. He made time after every shift to check in on his Other and update him on the events of the day, especially when it came to his eighth child. Ben wanted to bring him pictures, but it was against the rules, which they both agreed were important.

This continued for some time, the two of them sharing a mutual admiration and respect that one can only have with one's self, second only to the closeness and comfort of his own loving family. But somewhere, buried deep within the dark recesses of Ben's mind, a nagging feeling of uneasiness lingered.

Ben awoke one night with a jolt. The ground shook and the foundation creaked. The room was bathed in crimson light. Vibrant sparks of orange flickered through the window. Ben ran to the blinds and threw them open. Vast fires burned brightly across the city. Giant swathes of sky were torn open. From within the glittering stars stared back at him as if the atmosphere itself were torn asunder.

The universe was collapsing.

There was only one place left to go. Ben gathered his children and piled them in the car. They sped towards his office, ducking and weaving around the wreckage and debris that littered the road, chaos and carnage all around them. They skidded to a halt outside the ancient building. Power was out everywhere. They would have to take the stairs.

Slowly and exhaustedly they reached his office on the top floor. He threw open the crimson door and stepped inside, ushering his children in behind him. It was empty, his other was nowhere to be found.

A note on the desk written hastily in smeared ink read:

"Gone through. Damn the rules."

Through the windows Ben could see the same glittering fractures striating the sky. Fires scorched the earth and tornadoes ripped apart the landscape.

It was spreading.

Ben took a deep breath and approached the door. No way out but through. He forced it closed like he was sealing the hatch on a sinking ship, as if he was struggling against the weight of the world itself. He opened it again to find this world in disarray. The sky was torn and cracked, the city scorched to embers. Even the building itself was ablaze.

He gathered his children in this reality and prepared to enter the next. Each time it became harder and harder to close the door, until they all had to work together to force it shut. When they reached the final door all that remained was the tarnished wooden frame, outlining the crimson wood against a backdrop of desolation. The rest of the building had collapsed, leaving only the doorway standing as if suspended in time, as faded and weathered as as the one he'd left behind.

As he opened it a vibrant white light filled the room. He shut his eyes and threw up his hand, but still the brilliant light shone through and scorched his retinas. He stepped forward blindly into the Prime reality, his children following in tow. As he entered the light faded away and he was filled with a sense of peace and tranquility. From somewhere around him rose the smell lavender and rosemary.

His eyes began to adjust and he could see there was no office, no door, just a lush and rolling landscape of mossy hills and forest as far as the eye could see, abuzz with the sounds of nature immemorial. In the distance was his cottage, quaint and picturesque. He was greeted by the warm and glowing faces of his seven other selves and all their children.

And at the center of it all, bathed in light that shined through cracks in the canopy, She was there.

He froze, tears welling up in his eyes as his lungs forced forced her name from his lips.

"Sherry?"

She leapt and threw her arms around him, swinging him around and knocking them both over. He didn't have the strength left to hold her, so she held him tightly and kissed him.

Here in this reality, on that fateful day, the crash had claimed his life, not hers. All of this; their children, his Others, were just a glimpse of what might have been. But somehow here, against all odds, they could be together again.