Chapter Eighteen: The Storm
I step off the front porch at 7:45 am to walk to the 24-hour portal, trying my hardest to keep the pace that I think Tok and the Mother would. If I can just get to yesterday when I saw them and find out what is really going on I’ll know what to do. I have an overwhelming, sick feeling that it will end with us packing up and leaving.
Rationality argues with imagination as I walk through the woods.
What if he wakes up? He never wakes up, you know he sleeps like a log. You know how late he stayed up, he will be out until at least noon.
But what if he does this time? Will he remember we are supposed to be in the tank? Will he know to stay hidden? Will he panic if he can’t find me? He’s smart and resourceful. He’ll remember, he will be okay. You can just tell him you needed a walk.
What if they weren’t headed to the portal yesterday? What if I don’t find them? Tok said the cave. You heard him say the cave. There are no other caves close to here. Just go there, get out of the cave, wait for them to show up. Listen. And hide.
What if they see me? Will they know I traveled back a day? Do you look different when you time travel? Even if they can’t tell, I should have been in the tank yesterday at eight a.m…what do I tell them if they see me? You’re getting there before they did. They won’t see you…just hide.
What if I can’t hear them? What if they don’t say anything that tells me what to do? Do I stay here in the woods, pretending to go to the tank every day, raising my son around people I don’t even know if I can trust? Do I take him back to the commune and risk going to jail? Turn myself in and subject both of us to treatment their way? Go to the city and start over and just hope no one checks into it?
I am surprised to see the familiar clump of bamboo; a landmark my son and I use to get to the cave. A quarter after eight…I must have walked very slowly. My mind begins to reel with scenarios of entering the portal in the back of the cave, and I make a snap decision to shut it up by running.
I run as fast as I can straight to the cave, without even hesitating at its huge mouth. I run right in, diving head first into the light-filled hole in the mountain’s belly and am suddenly sitting in the center of it, legs crossed. No wild music, no trippy flailing free dive into yesterday. Just sitting. I look at the watch, expecting it to be spinning out of control. Nothing.
I am standing up, thinking about where I should hide when I hear the voices. They sound close; I don’t think I can leave without being seen. I frantically search the cave for a hiding place as the voices get louder. I climb to the top of a huge pile of rocks against the cave wall, about ten feet in the air, terrified that I’m going to cause some crazy avalanche. I lay down hoping like hell that my body is hidden from sight just as I hear Tok and the Mother enter the cave. Her voice is shaking, and I can barely see them through a crack in the rocks. The Mother is standing in the middle of the cave holding her wrap tightly around herself. Tok is standing cautiously beside her, his eyes darting nervously around the cave. Please don’t let him see me.
“I’m afraid for my babies, Tok. And honestly, I’m afraid of you. I never would have thought in a million years you’d do something like this to these woods behind my back.”
“Virginia, I’m so sorry. I swear to you I thought the copy of the woods would be identical…better, actually. I thought they’d be exactly the same, even in the same place, only hidden from people who would want to harm us….”
The Mother interrupted Tok with a loud, strong voice, her frail body inches from him as she shoved a pointed finger in his chest.
“YOU, Tok! Hidden from people who want to harm YOU. Stop trying to act like you thought this was some favor. You thought you’d just sneak us into some invisible place so you could win this time-traveling custody battle with your wife. You know what that’s called, when you take a child from her mother and hide her away? It’s called kidnapping, even if she is your kid, too.”
“It wasn’t just about Rupa. The men from my work, Virginia…they’re hunting me. They don’t care who they have to hurt to find me, they will use my daughter to find me and they’ll hurt her. I’ve cost them a lot of money, and money is all they care about. I can’t go back there, I can’t do the things they wanted me to do anymore.”
“You moved an entire community of people to another dimension without their knowledge, Tok. You made up this tank business so you could do it without us knowing. These people have spent twelve hours a day underground, wrapped up in that fool fabric just so you could play mad scientist with their lives. And my woods. This place was my sanctuary…these woods saved me. You don’t understand anything. You’re just a baby with a big brain playing God and you know nothing, Tok. I told you, I am the woods. I’m not this strange copy you’ve made, I’m the real woods, and I’m dying without them. What if they’re dying without me? People screw up in their lives all the time. Why do you expect us all to pay for your mistakes? How do we know this is even going to work?”
Tok has given up trying to interject answers to her questions. He is standing in front of the Mother with tears in his eyes, staring at the ground like a shamed child. He takes a watch from his pocket and opens it, looking up at the Mother when he closes it back.
She ignores him and continues, her voice becoming louder and faster. She is shaking. She looks so nervous and upset that I can feel my heart breaking.
“If you move us back to the original woods, will they still be the same? What if they’re gone? What if all these crazy things have been going back and forth through the portal? How do you know the real woods haven’t been contaminated with these monsters and drug lights?”
“Virginia, we really have to hurry. I’m listening and I want to help you understand, but we have to hurry. I am so sorry for lying to you, to all of you. I did want to be able to bring Rupa here and make sure we couldn’t be found. And I know I lost sight of what was the right thing to do, but I did really believe it would work. I thought everything would be the same, just that no one could ever pop in on us, even on accident like I did to you all those years ago. Those people are ruthless, and smart. They know I’ve been here, they have access to all my notes for years. They don’t know where the woods are on a map, but it wouldn’t take much for them to follow my instructions and get here like I did. I wasn’t just afraid for myself. I was afraid they’d come here looking for me and find everyone. I’m so sorry that it didn’t work like I thought. I’m not willing to risk your life or anyone else’s, I just didn’t see it that way. I’ll move everyone back to the real woods and I’ll leave if you want me to.”
This really explains so much, yet I’ve never felt so confused in my life. We are in a copy of the woods? He put us all in a creepy copy of the woods to hide here with Rupa? What did Tok do that people from his job in the future would be willing to kill his family over?
Tok places a hand on the Mother’s shoulder and leans down to look her in the eye.
“I didn’t lie about loving you. I’ve never lied about loving these people. I got caught up in frightening things at work and I’m scared, too. For my life, for my daughter’s life, and for the lives of all these people. I really love them. I did it all wrong and I am truly sorry. But if we are going to do this, we have to move. It’s almost 8:30, and the others are only asleep in your tank until nine. We need to set it and get back to get in with them until the switch is over.”
The Mother looks up at him, wiping her tears with her pristine white wrap. I wonder how long she has worn it, how many tears it has absorbed. I wonder how many of them have been over Tok, this man who I always saw as the last to join our group. It’s so strange to hear him call her Virginia…to picture them together, young and in love over eighty years ago. I’m crying with her, for her. I’m watching her wrap rise and fall with her breath and I can tell she is pacing it very purposefully. Her shoulders are relaxing and she isn’t shaking anymore. There is something so familiar in her movements, and I swear I can feel myself relaxing with her breath.
“How do you know everyone is safe, Tok? If moving people around is so dangerous you have top put them underground, how do you know we will be okay?”
“Everyone was fine when I switched them here to begin with. As long as they’re in the tanks like last time, everyone will be just fine. I promise. The night tankers all confirmed that they saw the day tankers enter this morning, remember?
The Mother is looking closely at Tok, watching the tears fall from his eyes as he speaks. She’s searching his face for something.
“Virginia, please. We have to hurry. The tanks keep people safe during the switch, and they help them adapt to the new environment. And that kind of therapy really does have a better outcome for people close to burnout. It wasn’t all selfish. Everyone will be fine, just like last time. We will be back in the real woods when we come out from the tanks. You’ll get better. Everything will be back to normal. We can talk to everyone about it and I can try to close the portals if that’s ok with everyone…we can vote if you want. I’ll tell them everything and we can deal with it together, honestly. I just don’t want you to die. I don’t want any more bad things to happen.”
“If you’re so sure of how this all works, why did you test it out on us before you brought Rupa here?”
“I’m usually a woman of my word, Tok, but I’m not doing this with you this morning. It doesn’t feel right. And if what you’re saying is true, then doing it today might bring harm to Rupa. I hate that you put me in this position, but here I am. And I don’t want anything to happen to that baby. Go get her and bring her here tonight. Bring her to me. In the morning when the day tankers get to the cabin for the meeting, I’ll make sure they saw the others enter the tanks. I’ll take them down to the basement myself and meditate with them, no more putting people to sleep. You do it alone, and get yourself to a tank in the woods to stay safe. God help you if it doesn’t work. I don’t want to talk to you again until it’s done. Bring me Rupa, and come back here tomorrow morning at eight thirty and get it done. We will come out of the tank at nine.”
I slide the pocket watch up my stomach toward my face as the Mother walks out of the cave, followed by a silent Tok. It feels like I’m moving in slow motion. Her words are bouncing off the cave walls as I will my rubber hands to move.
Come back tomorrow morning at eight thirty and get it done. Eight thirty. Get it done. Tomorrow morning.
The watch snaps open inches from my nose. Eight twenty-eight.
Oh my God…my little boy.