Chapter 1: Shuffle

Dammit.

Heath rolled over and threw his arm over his eyes, willing them to stay shut. It had been four… maybe five months since he’d gotten a good night’s sleep; maybe more.

Three hours… is that too much to ask?

He didn’t know who he was talking to in his head. He knew exactly who was responsible for his insomnia, but he’d put her image out of sight and out of mind a long time ago. For one reason or another, the sleepless nights decided to hang around on their own.

He rolled over again, flipping to the cool side of the pillow. It didn’t help much.

Out of options, he sat up and put his feet on the carpet, rubbing his aching and tired eyes; letting them open was simultaneously a relief and a chore.

He stared at the blank computer screen sitting against the wall opposite of him. A few button clicks and he could check the forums real quick, see if anyone else was up. Maybe some of the Aussies.

No.

He laid back down.

Need to sleep. Gonna get fired if I don’t.

A week ago Heath had been caught drifting off instead of making sure the ladder was steady for a co-worker in the warehouse. This mistake nearly ended up toppling at least three shelves crammed with cases of blank CD’s onto at least a dozen more co-workers. Instead the guy just fell off and broke his leg. Worker’s comp took care of it. Along with bits of Heath’s chewed-up ass.

Need that money. Food. Apartment. Comics.

That’s about all he had. His tiny studio apartment was the only sliver of Earth he could call his own, as long as he could still scrounge up the four hundred bucks a month. He’d been saving up to get out of the city, maybe put a down payment on a cheap house in the suburbs. That is, until she left. Attempted suicide, as it turns out, is an expensive thing. Between hospital bills, property damage, and a new car, the house money just… disappeared.

Don’t think…. Don’t think…. Don’t think…

He tried to clear his mind of any and all rational thought. It wasn’t working. Instead he found himself clenching his eyes harder and harder, forcing them to stay shut, remembering they way that guy’s leg was twisted backwards.

Stop it… stop it…

He folded the pillow over his ear, pushing down hard. He saw the edge of the bridge approaching fast. He swerved towards it intentionally. Hard.

No… quiet…

He shook his head silently. He started to remember her hair. Long. Black. Beautiful.

“DAMN IT!”

He surprised himself with how loud he yelled. For a split-second he hoped he hadn’t woken the neighbors. The next moment, he didn’t care.

I need to get out of here.

It was the first rational thought he’d had in months. That’s probably what started the whole thing.

Like a lightning bolt, Heath’s vision was struck by a sudden flash of light through his sealed eyelids, his entire existence enveloped in pure white light in an instant and then dark again the next.

His eyes flew open. Blackness.

“What the hell was that?” he asked himself aloud.

He sat up and put his feet on the carpet again. Only this time it wasn’t carpet – it was a cold hardwood floor. Shocked by the sensation, he pulled them back into bed. What the…? He hesitated for a moment, then slowly lowered them back, as if expecting it to revert into the familiar old shag carpet he had endured for years. It didn’t.

Too stumped to keep asking rhetorical questions, he started to notice how much softer his sheets felt than usual. The whole bed, actually. Groping blindly for his lamp on the other side of the bed, he pushed the thick luxurious down comforter off to the side. Something was definitely wrong. Maybe not wrong. But not the way it was supposed to be.

And that’s when he grabbed it. Not the lamp. Far from it. It was something strangely familiar yet foreign at the same time. It was soft yet firm, smooth yet rounded, satisfying to grasp yet left something to be desired. He racked his brain, trying to pare down the possibilities. Though he held it in the palm of his hand, he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

Then the lamp came on. Not his lamp, but a lamp.

Heath blinked, eyes tearing up, unprepared for the assault. He was even less prepared for what he saw.

As his vision cleared, he started to make out the walls of the room. They were farther away than usual. Much father. The ceiling was higher than he remembered it minutes ago. His computer was gone. He would’ve been pissed if he wasn’t awestruck by the huge plasma screen television in its place. Before he could fully appreciate the upgrade, he realized he wasn’t in his apartment at all anymore. Everything was… nicer. Shinier. Clean.

“Who the hell are you?!”

It took him a second to realize the voice wasn’t his own – much too high-pitched. He quickly discovered its source. Lying on the other side of the king-sized bed was a girl. A cute one at that. She was glaring at him over her shoulder. He stared blankly back.

For several moments they looked at each other, baffled. The anger on her face dissipated and gave way to confusion and then fear. He remained frozen, unable to make sense of the situation.

And that’s when he realized it. That strangely familiar object he was grasping…

… was the girl’s butt.

He looked down at it. It was a good butt.

Before the wave of embarrassment could make him relinquish his hold on it, he was thrown across the room by the girl’s blood-curdling scream. His bare back smashed into the full-length mirror on the wall. He felt the wind rush out of his lungs as his body’s weight crushed itself. Shards of glass and mirror fell all around him. Struggling to his feet, he clasped one hand to his chest and the other out in protest. He tried to call out but his voice was barely a sputter.

“…w-wait…”

He felt himself being thrown to the side as if he were a pebble in a giant, invisible slingshot. He crashed head-first into the plasma tv. Damn, he thought for a split-second before his skull screamed at him in agony.

Again he was thrown, this time head-first into a chandelier he hadn’t noticed until he was wearing it as a helmet. His momentum tore it out of the ceiling and rammed it hard into the shattered remains of the mirror. He crumpled to the floor on his face and lay motionless.

Aching from head to toe, Heath didn’t move, partially because of the pain and partially because it didn’t seem like the smart thing to do. Still an instinctual mutter escaped his throbbing body.

“…owww…”

He lifted his eyes up cautiously. The girl was backed into the opposite corner of the room covering her mouth with both hands. Her wide eyes stared at him, this time more scared for him than her own safety. Sufficiently assured that he was no longer in imminent danger, he pulled his arms underneath him and struggled to get to his feet.

“Omigod…” she gasped. She hurried over to him and wrapped his arm around her neck, helping him slump into a nearby chair. “Are you alright?”

Heath sat back, heaving deep breaths in and out in an attempt to recollect himself and give an answer. He rubbed his neck and shoulders with one hand and chunks of the mirror popped out of his skin and clinked against the floor. He looked at his hand, expecting to see blood. There wasn’t.

Heath frowned. He stared at his hand for a long moment, then gave the rest of his body a quick once-over. Aside from a few more bits of debris and some frazzled threads in his boxers, nothing was out of the ordinary. He looked at her. She was just as surprised as he.

“Actually… yeah.”

They sat there for the next few minutes, him in the chair and her on the edge of the bed, neither sure what to make of what had just transpired. Finally she smoothed her long black hair back down and took notice of the room.

“Where are we?”

“I… don’t know.” He spotted a stack of pristine white towels lying on the countertop in the bathroom nearby. “A hotel?”

She looked through the doorway and confirmed what he had seen but was obviously not content with the answer. “But… how? Why?”

There was a quiet knock on the door. A muffled voice called through it. “Hello? Is everything alright in there?”

The two exchanged an uncertain glance before Heath rose to his feet and answered it. He cracked the door slightly and stood in front of it, hiding the room behind him. A short Hispanic man in a red-vested suit with a penciled moustache stood outside with a tentative look on his face.

“Yes, everything’s fine.”  Heath did his best to fake a smile. A chunk of mirror fell out of his hair and bounced off the man’s arm. He craned his neck as if trying to look past Heath and into the room.

“We got some noise complaints for this room from some of our other guests.”

“Oh, that. Well…” Heath looked back at the girl and searched for help. She shrugged. “Uhhh…” Heath tapped his foot anxiously as the man awaited an explanation.

“Honeymoon,” Heath finally blurted out. The man raised his eyebrow. “Big night.”

Slowly a sly smile crept across the man’s face. He nodded his head. “Ah, well in that case,” he leaned in a little closer and put his hand next to his mouth, “Keep up the good work, my friend.” With a wink, he turned and headed off down the hallway. Heath shut the door and leaned against it. Drawing in a deep breath, he let out a heavy sigh, massaging his temples slowly.

Heath looked up. The girl was still sitting on the bed, this time calmly looking towards him for answers. He had none. “I don’t… I don’t know.”

“What?”

“I wish I could tell you, but I don’t know.”

She shook her head and pulled her knees up against her chest, letting her chin rest on them. She stared out the window; the curtains had been torn down in the mayhem and revealed a brilliant view of a busy metropolis nightscape. She wasn’t taking in the panoramic view, though. Neither was he.

“I’m sorry.”

She looked back at him. He was staring sheepishly at the floor. “For what?”

“Your butt. I didn’t mean to touch it. It was just dark and I was trying to find my lamp because there was this flash of light and…”

“Wait, you saw it too?” She uncurled herself, leaning towards him.

“I guess,” he scoffed. “But it was more of a feeling. Right in here.” He tapped his fingers against his sternum.

“Me too!” she shouted. The invisible force returned, causing Heath to lose his balance. The force seemed to bend the light from the lamp and the city, the air wavering like it might above pavement on a scorching summer day. She quieted herself with a hand. Warily she whispered, “Sorry. I don’t know what that is.”

Heath furrowed his brow in contemplation. Something was off but he couldn’t put his finger on it. I’ve heard of girls talking your ear off, but this is ridiculous, he thought. Instead of responding to the phenomenon, he strode over to the window and stared out at the city. An idle distraction at first, closer inspection made him tilt his head. “What city does this look like to you?”

Taking the opportunity, she hopped off the bed and stood next to him, noting the seemingly endless skyscrapers. She frowned. “I don’t know.”

“Seems like that’s the phrase of the day,” he mused. “Or night.”

They shared a chuckle. It was like a hot knife through the tense and awkward butter. For the first time since the inexplicable flash of light, they were relaxed. At least, as much as they could be.

“You wanna put on a shirt or something?” She smirked. Heath looked down at his bare chest and suddenly felt very self-conscious.

“Yeah, of course. Sorry.” He spotted the closet and slid the door open. “Woah.”

“What?”

Heath stepped to the side to reveal a slinky red cocktail dress hanging in the closet. A tuxedo with a purple bowtie hung next to it.

“Snazzy. Wonder whose they are?”

He shrugged. Yanking open a drawer to the short dresser inside, he discovered it was full of perfectly folded white wife-beaters. Weird, he thought before grabbing one and throwing it one. He turned and held his arms out to the side as if to say, taa-daa.

She pressed her lips together and folded her arms. “How about some pants?”

“No way, I can’t stand pajama pants.” He briefly eyed the red plaid ones she was sporting. “No offense.”

She stuck out her tongue only to be cut short by a big yawn. Heath couldn’t help but let one out himself.

“Guess we’ll figure out this whole mess in the morning. Not much we can do now.” She nodded. He shut the closet and walked over to the bed, pulling the top sheet out and shaking it free from its conformity to the comforter.

“What are you doing?” she asked, a little puzzled.

“You can take the bed. I’ll sleep on the floor.”

“Oh…” she let her voice trail off. She opened her mouth as if to protest his chivalry, but he had already lay down on the floor next to the bed taking only a single pillow to rest his head on. She shook her head a little and climbed into the bed, clicking off the lamp.

Heath stared into the darkness for a few seconds then let his eyes slip shut. “My name’s Heath, by the way…”

She smiled. “I’m Ren.”

He was already asleep.