From the author: Sylvie Kate is given the chance to decide her future - and she's certain it's a trick. Because there is always a catch. Always.
Sylvie Kate—the girl with two first names—met Jones Neri—the boy with two last names—at midnight in a graveyard during a blizzard, which is an intriguing story in itself, but not the one we’re interested in.
No, when we meet them, they’ve already been together for four years and Jones is mulling over the idea of proposing. He hasn’t decided on it yet, but it’s only a matter of time and he knows it. He’s surprised he’s held out this long. Some of that has to do with Sylvie who is content, as she says, to let sleeping dogs dream. Once Jones asked her what she meant by that, and she answered, “Everybody knows not to wake a dreaming dog.” He wasn’t sure what that had to do with relationships, theirs in particular, but didn’t pursue the subject further. In Jones’ experience women liked to think you understood them and it was best to pretend you did, even when you didn’t.
As for Sylvie Kate, she knows that every decision has its time and there is no sense in rushing to conclusions. Jones will either propose or break up with her; it is a fifty-fifty raffle and she holds only one ticket. Rushing the drawing won’t change the outcome. However, delaying it indefinitely precludes losing and Sylvie likes those odds better. And if Jones dumps her, she will have to find someone else and that depresses her, not just because of the amount of effort and time it will take, but because she knows all the way down to her marrow that there is not another Jones Neri out there for her. He is it. Her best chance at happy. What Sylvie doesn’t know is that she herself is a dreaming dog, metaphorically speaking, and someone is about to wake her up.
It is a Saturday in June. Jones and Sylvie walk from the movie theater, where they have just watched a thriller, to their favorite Italian restaurant six blocks away. Jones slips his hand into Sylvie’s. Her hand is warmer than his, damper, and he flashes back to the first time they made love, the way she welcomed him into her body. She squeezes his hand and that too reminds him of being inside her. His breath catches in his chest. He becomes dizzy, knows that this is love telling him to get on with it already, that it won’t wait around forever for him. He halts and Sylvie who didn’t expect the sudden stop almost pulls her hand from his as she continues down the sidewalk. He is struck by the fear that if he lets go, she will disappear. Her dreaming dogs will wake and he will lose her. In a near panic, he clutches her fingers before they can escape and the force of his grip makes her swing back toward him.
“Whoa,” she laughs. “A little warning next time.” She catches sight of his face, feels the tension in his hand and worms hers more firmly into his. “What?”
He leans down and drops a kiss on her parted lips, breathes into her. Her free hand settles over his heart. “I love you,” he tells her.
“I love you, too,” she says. “Is everything okay?”
He squeezes her hand. “Everything’s fine. Let’s go eat.”
Sylvie salivates as a platter of spaghetti and meatballs is placed in front of her. Across from her, Jones receives his chicken piccata and says, “Split?” She opens her mouth to say Of course and inhales sharply as pain wrenches her stomach. It feels as if someone reached into her and is trying to rip her viscous free. She looks at Jones—he is still smiling at her—and she wonders why doesn’t he do something, can’t he see something is wrong, oh God, it hurts! The next second Sylvie is standing on the other side of the restaurant by the hostess’s stand. The pain is gone and so is her sense of smell.
“Cute couple,” a man standing beside her says and Sylvie turns to look at him. He is her height exactly, but her senior by several decades. Yet he does not seem frail. In fact, he vibrates with an intensity that makes her squint as if she emerged from a darkened theater into a sunshine-filled day. He does not glow, but there is a brightness about him, as if he is backlit or spotlighted or light itself. “Walter,” he says and inclines his head her way.
She turns to see the couple he commented on. Blinks to see better in the dim light or maybe it just seems dim after staring at Walter. She recognizes the couple, but there is a disconnect in her brain because they cannot be who she thinks they are. It is she and Jones at the table, laughing, eating, but it is also her standing next to a man who says his name is Walter.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Walter asks.
“Is that me—”
“Yes,” he answers.
“I’m sitting there with Jones.”
“—and standing here with you.”
“Why?” She turns towards him. Staring at herself is too disconcerting.
He faces her and the restaurant fades, or maybe his brightness makes it seem faded and if she swivels her head she will find everything as she left it. Sylvie does not test her hypothesis, just waits for his answer.
It comes as a smile. “Sylvie Kate,” this Walter says, as if he knows her, has known her for years, and is very fond of her, “you have a choice to make.”
“I choose to be back at that,” she points but does not glance in its direction, “table. Now.”
“I’m afraid it isn’t as easy as that. But don’t worry, you will go back. And you’ll remember this, but you’ll also remember that. Two memories, one time. Like when dreams intertwine with waking.”
“Is this is a dream?”
“If you’d like to call it that. To business?” His arms open, palms up.
Sylvie very much wants to look at Jones and make sure he’s okay, that he hasn’t noticed that she is not entirely with him, that part of her is off in the ether somewhere with Walter who wants her to make a choice. She doesn’t think it would be a good thing if Jones catches on to what is happening. Sylvie wishes she could catch on.
“You, my child, make decisions as if you were a tree stretching its branches to the sky and splitting off into twigs and leaves, each its own option, connected to the same trunk.”
Sylvie is silent. She is already sprouting new branches and twigs, guessing at outcomes and plotting scenarios. What is the best way to get back to her life?
Walter chuckles. “You’re doing it now. I’ll get down to the brass tacks of it then. Instead of giving you two options to choose from, I’m going to give you two outcomes.”
She cocks her head. He might be that primrose path people always warn you about. Promising to tell her how things will turn out, nothing is ever that simple or easy. Why would he take the tough part out of decision-making? “All I have to do is choose a consequence?”
“What’s in the fine print?”
“No fine print. No catch.”
Sylvie is not reassured. She is sure this is her lady or the tiger moment, her Catch-22, her rock or hard place. She shivers. “This is about Jones, isn’t it?”
“He’s involved, yes.”
“What if,” she searches for a way out, “I choose to let him decide?”
“You can ask him certainly. But the only person I’m asking is you.”
“And what are you asking?” Her jaw tightens.
“No need to get angry, my dear. This isn’t a punishment. It’s an opportunity. Not many people are given this chance.”
“The chance to do what?”
“Decide the future.”
“You’re going to let me decide the future?”
“Part of it, yes.”
“And if I change my mind later? Want it to be different?”
Walter shakes his head. "Once a decision like this is made, there is no stopping it. You could try, sure, but it won't work. Forever is etched in stone, Sylvie Kate.”
“Nothing is forever.”
“Some things are. This will be.”
She can't help herself and looks to where she and Jones sit. It is too dark to make out more than shadows at the table. She feels things slipping out of her reach and remembers how hard Jones grabbed her hand earlier, how he held on so tight. She wishes his hand was in hers now.
“Outcome one,” Walter announces, “you and Jones stay together. You'll both be happy, but only for a short time. Then he dies and you'll be alone for the rest of your life.”
She glimpses that future at fast forward, too quick to see the details, but enough to find herself, not much older than she is now, at Jones' grave. Then it winks out. A lump closes her throat. Jones. Dead.
“Or,” Walter says, “you let him go and he falls in love with someone else and lives a long, long time.” Another flash of images and emotions. She tries to see the other woman. See her face, but the possibility goes by too quickly and everything is blurred.
“And me?” she croaks out. “Do I die instead?”
“No. You live. But you won't ever love anyone as much as you loved Jones.”
Either way then, life without Jones. “That isn’t a choice. I can lose him now or I can lose him later? That's the same outcome.”
“You've always known you'd lose him. Now you can choose when. And how.”
“That isn't completely my decision. Jones has a say in it.”
“I'm saying: it is up to you. Choose to stay with Jones or let him go.”
“Will he be happier with her?”
Walter shrugs. “Happy is hard to compare. Happy's happy. Who's to say longer is better or more often is better. Happiness comes and goes and we enjoy it while it lasts. He loves you and he will love her.” Anticipating her next interrogation he adds, “As for how much, only he can know. But he won't pine over you.”
“What are you?”
“I'm someone who can do this. Do you really need to know more than that?”
“Two weeks, Sylvie, then I'll be back for your answer.”
There is a sucking sound and a large pop and Sylvie Kate is back inside her body with a mouthful of pasta staring into Jones Neri's eyes, which widen with fright. “Are you okay?” he asks and then pounds her on the back while she spits half-chewed pasta onto the round white plate in front of her.
Two weeks to decide—as if he is a library book she's checked out and must return. Sylvie is angry and sad and lost as to what to do. She grabs Jones' hand and clings to it. “What?” he says softly, worried. Already it feels different.
Five days go by like torture. Sylvie's head hurts from twisting this thing around, looking at it from all angles. Better to tell him or not tell him. Better to stay with him or rip the relationship off like a Band-Aid. Better for whom? Her or him? She resolves not to think about it any more. Thinking about it is making everything worse. He looks at her with confused eyes. His hands flounder like butterflies lost, reaching out to touch her, then darting away before landing.
She decides to keep him and steel herself for his demise. But how selfish is that? To condemn him to death so she can have a few more years of happiness? She knows what she should do. Give him up. If you really love someone, set them free. Isn't that what they say? That it'd be better to know he is alive and happy than dead?
She thinks, okay, I'll let him go. Now. Before Walter comes back and I find myself pleading on hands and knees and he says something pithy like, “One or two. Write it in stone.”
But the thought of leaving Jones makes her sick to her stomach. She pictures herself telling him she wants out. It'd destroy him. He won't understand that she is doing it for him. He'd feel like a kicked puppy.
Until he found his next love. Sylvie hates that unknown woman who gets to have Jones. She becomes convinced that woman will have two last names like Jones. She'll be Townsend Smith or Corwyn Gallagher and sometimes, Jones, her Jones, will tell people, “I once dated a girl with two first names.” But when asked what they were he won't remember. “I don't know,” he'll say with a laugh, “I married the woman with two last names.” And that bitch Townsend will smile sweetly at him.
At dinner on day five, she asks Jones, hypothetically, “If you had the choice, say, a genie or angel or some random psychopath asked you if you wanted to be deliriously happy with me but it'd kill you, in like a year, maybe two, or you could live a long and happy life, without me, but with someone else you'd love just as much, which life would you want?”
“I'd stay with you. No contest.”
And for several minutes, Sylvie relaxes because she thinks she has her answer. Then she realizes she doesn't. Of course he's going to say he'll choose her. He loves her. He thinks she is testing him in some bizarre female ritual.
He doesn't realize it's a real choice. It's like...it's like asking someone, “If you were on a deserted island and could pick one food to eat, what would it be?” You ask someone that, they think what you're really asking is what is your all-time favorite food? What could you eat and never tire of? And you say chocolate pie. But if it really happened, if Walter whisked you away to an island where you were stuck eating chocolate pie for three years, you’d wish you could go back and say I want a hamburger or a buffet or something else. Because after three years you'd choke on that pie no matter how much you loved it. Sylvie doesn't want to be Jones' chocolate pie. But she definitely doesn't want Townsend Smith to get her claws into him.
That night in bed, Jones asks, “Are you all right?”
She curls into him, breathes in his scent and closes her eyes. “I know I'm acting strange. I'm sorry. I don't mean to.”
Jones knows better than to ask if it's PMS, but he can't help from whispering, “Are you pregnant?”
She inhales sharply. “No,” she says. “No.” Her mind is already racing, factoring children into the equation. She can't remember if any babies flashed past her when Walter presented the possibilities. It was all over so fast. She is sure she didn't have any, but what about Townsend Smith? What about Jones? She should have asked. Why didn't she?
“Okay,” he says and smoothes her hair. “But it'd be all right if you were.”
“Jonas?” the nurse calls, and then checks her clipboard. “Jonas...Nary?”
They always get his name wrong. Think it's a typo or that the 'e' is a badly scribbled 'a'. Oft times he doesn't correct them because once you've had a conversation a thousand times with a thousand different strangers, you don't need to have it again. For Sylvie it's her last name. Whenever she identifies herself as Sylvie Kate, without fail someone will ask for her last name. “Kate,” she'll say and then they say, “Oh! Cate with a 'c'? ” Then she says no and they say, “So Kate's your last name and Sylvie's your first?” And she nods and they ask, “Is Sylvie short for anything? ” Occasionally, after she says no, they'll say, “That was really brave of your parents." He and Sylvie always laugh together over that line and suggest other, better words—stupid, comedic, thoughtless, mean—to describe naming your child something people will constantly screw up.
Jones jokes that she'll forget what it's like to have conversations about names when she gets married. She can trade in the Kate, he'll say, but he'll never lose the Jonas. She usually punches him in the arm and tells him not to be so sure of that. This is as close as he comes to asking her if she'll love him forever. Lately she's been distracted, just off, and the longer it goes on the more worried he becomes. Because maybe she is waiting for someone better to come along. Maybe she’s decided that he is not who she wants to spend the rest of her life with. Maybe those dreaming dogs of hers are awake.
“I'm Jonas,” Jones says to the nurse and looks back so he can see Sylvie, seated in a nearby orange plastic chair, roll her eyes and shake her head. It makes him smile. “This shouldn't take long,” he calls to her as he is escorted inside. He isn't sure why she insisted on coming, but he is glad she's here. He tells himself it must count for something. She must still care.
“I'm timing you, Jonas,” she says, tapping her wrist, and it is clear that the other patrons don't think she's joking.
Before the door completely snicks closed behind Jones, something yanks at Sylvie's innards and she knows Walter has arrived. She finds herself standing in the parking lot next to Jones' car. She scowls at Walter. “You didn't have to bifurcate time. You could've just sat next to me while Jones was inside. Flipped through a magazine.”
“You've thought about this,” Walter says. He is wearing a hat this time, same suit. He takes off the hat and spins it. “I can't come to you. You have to come to me.”
“Oh,” Sylvie says. “Aren't we still at the doctor's?”
“You are. I'm...elsewhere.”
“The tunnel,” she says and nods. He looks startled.
“It's why you're brighter.” She doesn't completely understand what she is saying, but she knows it is true, the same way she knew that Walter would reappear and that, as crazy as this is, it is actually happening.
“Have you decided?” Clearly, he doesn't want to talk about himself.
She demurs. “This decision, it isn't ours to make.”
“Perhaps not. But it's still up to you.”
“And if I don't decide?”
“But you already have,” he says. “And so shall it be.”
Pop! Sylvie returns to Jones. He is paying the receptionist. Her fingers grip his sleeve. “What did the doctor say?” She tries to make the words sound normal.
“Everything's fine. They'll call with the test results. Ready?”
When they leave, Sylvie discovers a pebble in her pocket. It is yellow and etched with symbols she can't decipher. She throws the stone into the street. It bounces, hits the tire of a parked car and dribbles into the storm drain. Good riddance, she thinks and no reminders.
That night Jones proposes.
Jones walks on eggshells around Sylvie. She is unhappy. Because of him, this he can sense although he does not know why. He asks, “What's wrong?” He asks, “What did I do?” And the answer is always, “Nothing.”
Six weeks into their wedding plans, Jones finally asks, “Is there someone else?” and she looks so stricken that he is sorry he opened his mouth. “Who?” he whispers.
“No, no,” she shakes her head. “No one else.”
“Sylvie, just tell me. For godsakes, tell me. Whatever it is. Are you dying?”
“No, not me. But I...” And here it is, her confession, sooner than she expected. It streams from her. “I shortened your life. You could've been happy, lived a long life, but I didn't want to let you go. So I kept you and I'm supposed to be happy, but I'm not. I'm resentful, even though you had nothing to do with it and I know it isn't your fault. And I don't want to make you miserable, I can't help myself. It's just—it's because you get to be in love for the rest of your life and how is that fair?”
“Is it drugs?” Jones asks. “Are you on prescription meds or something?”
He looks ready to drive her to rehab so Sylvie gathers herself. Sits him down on the couch and tells him about Walter and the two Sylvies and how it twists you inside out.
“You think I'm going to die because some dude told you if we stayed together I eat it?”
“He wasn't a dude. He was some paranormal thing.”
“Like an angel?” There is an implied eye roll.
“Like a paranormal thing.”
“And you believe him?”
“But if you chose me, and Sylvie I'm glad you did, then why are you unhappy? Are you going to die or something?”
“You don't believe this is going to kill you. That I've killed you.”
“No, I don't. I know you do. And I'm trying to understand, but I can't figure why you're so mad at me if you think I'm going to drop dead any second.”
“Because you'd be happy either way. You get to be happy with me and you'd get to be happy without me and I get to be fucking miserable both ways!” Sylvie is yelling and flinging her arms about by the end of her rant.
“You're jealous of me?”
“No. Yes. I don't know.”
“Okay. Did Walter offer you someone else?”
“No. I told you that.”
“Did you want him to?”
“Don't be stupid.”
“Do you want me to leave?”
“You can't. Walter said the decision can't be unmade.”
“Do you want me to try?”
“Do you want to leave? Are you trying to get me to say it's okay for you to go?”
“I thought I didn't have a choice.” He is smiling and teasing her now and Sylvie doesn't see what he has to be amused about.
“Say you believe me,” she begins.
“Say you really do and that you think the dying part's true. Aren't you a little pissed at me?”
She waits. “That it? Just 'no'?”
“Why aren't you pissed at me? I'd be pissed at you. I think.”
“Because you picked me. I'd be pissed if you didn't.”
“You can say that because, either way, you’re happy. But me? I lose you. Either way. I shouldn't of been greedy. I put my happiness first and that was wrong. Look how it's turned out. I should be happy and I'm not. And now because I picked you, you die.” Her hands cover her face, mumble her words.
Jones pulls them away. “Oh, Sylvie, that’s not the choice you were making: whether I’d be happy or you’d be miserable. You were choosing between living life with love in it or living without it and you chose love.”
“I chose us,” she says, but Jones is right. It was always about love and she loves Jones and if she ever thought for a second that she'd leave him, that it was even possible to consider such a thing, she was fooling no one but herself. Sylvie Kate and Jones Neri belonged together; they were forever. And maybe that was the outcome Walter had etched in stone.
This story originally appeared in OG's Speculative Fiction.