Shocking Multitudes


In the fall, ten months after his divorce was finalized, Ted was scheduled to teach two sections of World Religions, one of the department’s undergraduate classes he’d overseen for years, which had never been the plan. When he started work at the university, he hoped to teach exotic things, things of his own creation, classes with titles like Zowie!: Historical Weapons and How to Use Them or Mystics, Soothsayers, and Medicine Men: Oh My! but when he suggested them in meetings, the department chair usually laughed as if Ted were testing out a standup routine.

But Ted wasn’t trying to be funny. He was trying to come up with classes students would actually want to take. None of them cared much about the Koran or the Bible or the Torah. They didn’t want to reflect on the subtle nuances of major religions. What the students wanted was to be wowed. And what better way than historical weapons or stories about whirling dervishes and vision quests?

But no. World Religions it was and always would be, fall semester after fall semester. And who did he have to blame for that? Heather, his newly ex-wife, who had encouraged him to take it on in the first place. It became a pet project of hers, and she lived vicariously through him as they designed lectures together. She’d always wanted to teach but instead made her living as a guest curator at museums across the world, a job that, on their first date, Ted was certain she’d made up to impress him. But it turned out to be an actual occupation, and she flitted off to places like Cairo and Rome and Reykjavik to curate special exhibits.

Her field was religious artifacts—an area she’d wandered into because she’d watched Indiana Jones at a formative period of her life. That was the God’s-honest-truth, though she would never admit that in the company of other industry professionals. That would be tantamount to career suicide. Indiana Jones! That slapdash meathead! That Nazi-sexing moron! She swore Ted to secrecy. She’d be laughed out of every museum from here to Morocco if anyone found out.

But the divorce papers arrived on a day when the Atlantic was gloomy outside his front window, so, depressed, Ted created flyers featuring a hastily-Photoshopped picture of his ex-wife engaged in shameful coitus with Dr. Indiana Jones. He sent them off to the curators of the Louvre, the Tate, and the Smithsonian. Let her explain that the next time she swung into town.

Between the ink, the envelopes, and the postage, the whole production cost him $48.95, the best money he’d ever spent, and it quieted his mind for two days, after which it roared back to life, consuming him with never-ending questions about just who Heather had been banging. Because that was the reason for the divorce, really: her banging other people—people, not just men. Somewhere during their fifteen-year marriage and all her international travels, Heather had become quite a sexual gourmand. Ted didn’t find out until she told him she wanted a divorce so she could continue the sex free of the crippling guilt she had racked up over the years.

“How many were there?” he’d asked.

“How many what?”

“Affairs,” he said. She’d used that word: affairs. Plural.

“Oh,” she said, waving her hand in the air, “too many to count.”

Was that supposed to make him feel better? That they were numerous and frivolous and unable to be quantified?

“How many did you have?” she asked. Her face was pleasant and blank, mildly curious, as if she were chatting to a stranger in line at Starbucks.

Affairs?” he said.



She laughed. “Ted,” she said, “be serious. It’s perfectly fine. There’s no need to hide things anymore.”

But it had been zero. He had faithfully clung to his vows for fifteen years, only to learn he was an idiot to have done so. Oh, the grad student sex he could have had! That was a thing—he’d seen colleagues seducing their students for years—and while he’d previously found it repugnant, now he wondered if he’d been too morally prudish about the whole thing. They were all adults, were they not? And adults, apparently, liked to have affairs. Plural.

So now here he was, left alone to face a new semester of World Religions, carefully designed with lectures Heather helped create. It was her content. He was just a mouthpiece. And he had no idea—no fucking idea—how he was going to make it through the year without crying in the middle of those elegant, boring lectures.


As a coping mechanism, Ted adjusted his teaching. He was no longer committed to sticking closely to lessons as they had existed in past semesters. He didn’t care about the order of the content or even if they covered it all. Instead, he started coming to class with a mug containing a ratio of two-parts Kahlua to one-part coffee, which he sipped while sitting on the front table waiting for everyone to settle in. Then, he would ignore the PowerPoints he had waiting and, instead, open the floor for discussion.

“What did you guys think of The Bachelor last night?” he might ask or, “Has anyone tried that new donut place in town?”

The students, bless them, would always answer. He could tell they knew things about him: that he was sad and alone and unlikely to right the course of his pathetic life. They were well-versed in listening and humoring him, skills they had no doubt honed in modern touchy-feely grade school and years of therapy.

But, eventually, one student would nudge the conversation back in the general realm of where it was supposed to be. Sometimes they talked about religion in the news. Sometimes they threw together amusing little bible verse quizzes. Sometimes they wanted to talk about their experiences with priests or nuns or empaths or mediums. Ted did not reign them in when they went wide or obscure. Let them talk about it. Let them figure out the world was not a place where a thing was just one thing. A thing contained multitudes—sometimes shocking multitudes. Wasn’t it better if they knew that before they started choosing fonts for their resumes?

And it was on a sullen Wednesday that they arrived, inevitably, at the topic of out-of-body experiences. Ted had started the morning with an inquiry about Britney Spears’ sons: did they recognize their mother was smoking hot, or would they deny it until their dying day? After they dispensed with that matter, one of the girls in the back—Aida—started talking about her dead grandmother who was, she claimed, a bit of a mystic.

“She swore she had out-of-body experiences all the time,” Aida said. “And it wasn’t just, like, her floating above herself as she slept. They were experiences that could move in space and time.”

“Bullshit,” a guy across the room said in a way that communicated flirtation instead of disbelief.

Aida grinned at him before turning back to Ted. “No, really,” she said. “She could be sitting at the dinner table eating her rigatoni, but she would also be back in France, seeing her life during the war.”

Ted thought that sounded fantastic—not the part about going back and reliving World War II, but the general idea: being able to remove yourself from this time and place and go to another. Sign him up! He’d do it right now, if he could. But then there would be no one to respond to Aida, who sat before him, eager for professorial comment.

“Well,” he said, “some neuroscientists believe that out-of-body experiences have to do with problems in the vestibular system.”

“What’s that?” Aida asked.

“It’s what governs our sense of balance and how we perceive space around us,” Ted said. “Inner-ear stuff.” This sounded suspiciously like learning, and some students drifted off, but he soldiered on. “Doctors theorize that most out-of-body experiences come from leaking fluid or nerve damage in here.” He tapped his right ear.

Aida looked unconvinced. “I don’t know,” she said. “Grandma didn’t have ear problems.”

“Other studies suggest links between out-of-body experiences and anxiety or depression,” Ted said.

Aida shook her head. “No way,” she said. “I’m telling you; Grandma was one of the most relaxed, happiest people I ever knew—even considering what she lived through when she was young. I just don’t see that being a factor.”

“Yogis claim they can do it,” another student said.

Ted nodded. “Buddhist monks too,” he said.

Aida shared a table with Kelsey, an anime maniac who had expressed displeasure on the first day that the class would not cover the Shinto religion. “I love everything about Japan,” she’d revealed. And now she leaned forward, contributing for the first time since their opening day.

“In Japan,” she said, “they believe in this thing called the ikiryo.”

“Living ghost,” Ted said.

The girl smiled, looking impressed. “So, basically, the ikiryo is your spirit that you can make leave your body so it can appear before enemies to torture or curse them.” She crossed her arms and sat back. “It’s fucking cool,” she said.

And then someone in the back loudly cleared his throat. It was Alex, whose usual class contribution involved snoring during his nap. He rose from his slouch. “I can do that,” he said.

His classmates, not accustomed to hearing this voice, turned to figure out who was talking. “Bullshit,” muttered the same guy who’d used that line to flirt with Aida moments before. This time, though, he did not pair it with a smile.

“I can,” Alex said.

Aida’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean exactly?”

Alex shrugged. “I can leave my body,” he said, “and go other places.”

“Like, whenever you want?” Kelsey asked.

“Pretty much.”

“But—how?” Aida asked. “How do you do it?”

Alex picked at some lint on his sweater. “It’s hard to explain.”

“You should try,” Kelsey said. She looked to Ted for support. “Shouldn’t he?”

The kid was obviously full of crap, but there was an hour left to class and Ted had nothing planned, so he nodded. “Go ahead.”

Alex shrugged again. “It’s like—dreaming,” he said.

Ted stifled an eye roll. Dreaming. The least the kid could do was avoid cliché. Still, his classmates—even the ones who looked like they thought he was nuts—leaned toward him.

“But not really,” Alex continued. “It’s more solid than that. It’s more believable. I don’t know. I can feel things. Experience them. I can hear the crunch of snow under my shoes, even though I’m not making footprints.”

“Like a ghost,” Kelsey said.

“Kind of,” Alex said. “Except there’s no floating or anything. No spooky stuff. And I can make myself visible.”

Here, the class murmured collectively.

“So, like, you could have a full-on conversation with someone and not actually be right there in front of them?” Kelsey asked.

“Yeah,” Alex said, “but it’s pretty tiring. When I come back to my body, I’m exhausted. My mother used to think there was something wrong with me when I was little. I slept all the time. She was convinced I was dying.”

“Wait—how long have you been doing it?” Aida asked.

“Since I was ten,” Alex said. “I’m much better at it now.”

Again the class murmured, a deep wordless noise Ted couldn’t read. They were either impressed or preparing to access their Puritan DNA and dunk Alex in water to see if he was a witch.

It was time to step in. Ted suspected it would be mere moments before Alex was taking requests to visit his classmates’ enemies, becoming their very own ikiryo-for-hire. He could just hear the chair’s reaction to that when it appeared on his course evaluations. No thanks. He wanted nothing to do with the inquiry that would inevitably follow, the long, interminable stretch of interviews with various deans.

“Hey,” he said, trying to drum up enough fake excitement in his voice to distract the class, “did you guys hear they might put a Chipotle in the old shoe factory?”

The class—easily bought by the allure of burritos—turned back toward him, but Alex rapped his knuckles on the desk to regain their attention.

“You don’t believe me?” he asked.

Some of his classmates gave him skeptical tight-lipped smiles. Aida and Kelsey, though, still looked interested.

“I might,” Aida said.

Kelsey nodded. “Me too.”

Alex looked directly at Ted. “What about you?” he asked.

Ted smiled. “Sure, I believe you,” he said, though he certainly did not. In his heart of hearts, he believed in very little: not God or gods, not Satan or Hell, not chanting yogis or women who read tea leaves. It was all a crock.

His disbelief had been a thorny issue between him and Heather. She was a true believer, raised by a Catholic father and a Lutheran mother, which gave her faith a wild arc that ranged from hardline readings of the Bible to softer ideas about sexuality and birth control that she picked up over tater tot hotdish at the Good Shepard Lutheran’s potlucks. It was all so confusing, and in the beginning, Ted found it sexy. Here was a woman of contradictions, but the alluring kind. She wasn’t the type to give him trouble by saying one thing and meaning another; no, her contradictions were moral and ripe for lengthy discussions over wine, which eventually led to what was, Ted thought, markedly kinky sex for someone who routinely went to confession.

“Do you really tell the priest every time you’ve had premarital sex?” he’d asked, mostly just kidding around, giving her a hard time. Because, really, what adult in her right mind would regularly schlep to church to update an aging celibate about her sex life?

But Heather surprised him. “It’s a mortal sin,” she said, pressing a hand to his cheek. “If anyone does not abide in me, he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

“Is that Luke?” Ted asked. He was too lazy to keep the gospels straight.

“John,” Heather said. “15:6.” She smiled. “Anyway, I’m not wild about withering and burning, so I figure—confession it is. Plus, I like to the give the old guys a bit of a thrill.” She wiggled her eyebrows and then unzipped Ted’s pants. And so it went.

Now, Alex frowned at Ted. “You’re lying,” he said. “I can tell. You don’t believe me.”

“I do,” Ted insisted, but even he could tell he wasn’t selling it.

Alex shrugged and slumped back against his chair. “Okay, yeah, whatever,” he said. He tugged his hat lower, giving his eyes the necessary shade for an impending nap.

Ted felt a tug of guilt for having allowed things to get this far in the first place, but he was able to swallow it when one of the other skeptics in the room raised his hand to move the conversation back to a topic that truly interested him: the looming construction of a fast-food Mexican joint that would be a salve for every last one of their sorry souls.


As the semester ticked past midterm, one of Ted’s students mentioned grades. So far, they had none.

“Isn’t that nice, though?” Ted asked. He smiled benevolently. “Everyone here currently has an A.”

Even the students who were there to kill an elective looked unconvinced. “That sounds too good to be true,” Kelsey said, and so Ted caved under peer pressure and devised a midterm exam: an in-class essay that asked them to describe their personal spirituality and relate it to any of the topics they’d discussed in class.

Ted took home the stack of essays and graded the morose results. There were far too many essays that compared the current Bachelor—some virgin football player who ran his own charity foundation—to Jesus. But that was his fault. He’d coddled them. It wasn’t as if he could suddenly start expecting them to churn out scholarly content. And so everyone got A’s, despite having produced horrendous work.

He returned the midterms the next class, and everyone left gleefully—everyone except Aida, who hung back, fiddling with a zipper on her bag.

“Hey,” Ted said as the class filed out. “What’s up?”

She watched the student exodus. “I have to talk to you.”

Dread gathered in Ted’s chest. “Is this about the grades?” he asked.

Aida folded her essay and crammed it into her bag. “No,” she said. “It’s something that happened outside of class.”

Ted was not deft at handling students’ non-academic problems; he was barely deft at handling their academic problems. He could suggest a visit to the Writing Center or to an appropriate dean, someone more capable than he, but that was where his general handiness ended.

“Can I shut the door?” Aida asked.

A shut door. It couldn’t get worse. “I’ve got it,” Ted said.

When the door was firmly shut, Aida wilted back in her seat. “This is really hard for me,” she said. “Like, I can’t believe I’m about to say this out loud.”

“Okay,” Ted said, drawing the word out slowly.

“Alex visited me the other night,” she said.

“Alex-Alex?” Ted asked, gesturing to the door through which Alex had just departed.

Aida nodded.

“I didn’t realize you guys were friendly,” Ted said.

“No,” Aida said. She met his gaze straight on. “That’s not what I mean.”

Something crawled across Ted’s skin, raising goosebumps.

“Yeah,” Aida said. “He visited me.”

“You mean, spectrally?” Ted asked.

Aida nodded again. “He was in my closet.”

“Your closet.”


“He manifested himself into your closet,” Ted said. “That’s what you’re telling me?”

“I know it sounds insane,” Aida said. “I know it does. But it happened. I swear.”

“You don’t think you were dreaming?” Ted asked. “Dreams like that happen all the time. Something lodges in your subconscious and your brain keeps picking at it, trying to make sense of it.”

“It wasn’t a dream,” Aida said. “I hadn’t even been to bed yet.”

Ted considered her face: soft and young, blameless. She wasn’t the type to make up a lie and get someone in trouble just for fun. Or was she? Ted wasn’t a great reader of people. Maybe Aida was exactly that kind of girl.

“Listen,” Aida said, “I’ll admit I’m interested. In the phenomenon, I mean. I think he came to prove himself. Because he knew I was open to the possibility. But…” Her voice thinned. “I don’t know. It crossed a line.”

Ted couldn’t think of a single intelligent thing to say. He tried to picture the flow chart the school supplied for crisis situations. Here’s who to call if someone is bleeding. Here’s who to call if you witness a racist incident. Here’s who to call if your chair is out of ergonomic whack. Nowhere did it detail who to contact in the event of a spectral stalking.

“The whole thing made me uncomfortable,” Aida said. She sat back and looked at him expectantly.

Ted let the silence hang for a moment as he struggled to find something to say.

“Did he speak?” he asked finally. “Did he talk to you?”

Aida shook her head. “I opened my closet door and he was just standing there. And he smiled. Then he was gone.”

Ted’s stomach, filled with Kahlua and half a bagel, contracted painfully. He couldn’t even begin to fathom what Aida wanted him to do about it.

Aida kept talking. “I don’t want him to get in trouble,” she said, “but I was hoping that you could talk to him for me. I can’t do it. I’m just too—I don’t know.” She dug her nails into her palm. “I just don’t know how to do it. I could hardly look at him today.”

“Well—” Ted began, but Aida interrupted him.

“I know how it sounds,” she said. “And I know you probably don’t believe me.” She began to cry.

The crying alarmed Ted even more. This was quite a long way to take it if this were a stunt, and Aida didn’t strike him as that adroit an actress. But the alternative: that she was telling the truth—or thought she was telling the truth—also didn’t seem possible.

“Maybe we should go see Dean Flemming,” Ted said. Will Flemming, Assistant Dean of Students, was an idiot, but he was the point person for the usual student problems, and Ted was suddenly filled with gratitude for the man.

Aida’s face was mottled. “Dean Flemming?” She frowned. “I’d rather not. He’s—” She paused. “He’s not super great at his job.”

Ted couldn’t hold back his smile. And when Aida saw it, she smiled too. And then they were both laughing—the laughter of relief, of having made it through something and come out the other side okay, though Ted could not figure out exactly how that had happened. Somehow, the two of them had just formed an unspoken agreement. Will Flemming would not be taking this particular task off Ted’s plate. It would be something he had to figure out on his own.

“I’ll take care of it,” Ted said, and Aida’s face brightened.

She wiped her nose on the sleeve of her shirt. “Thank you,” she said and rose to leave. When he was confident she was no longer in the vicinity, Ted left the room quickly, his gait increasing to a flat-out run that brought him to the nearest bathroom, where he hunched over the toilet and emptied all the morning’s Kahlua from his stomach in one violent gag.


Ted summoned Alex to his office Friday at noon. When he arrived, he lingered near the door in a way that struck Ted as wary, maybe even a little guilty.

“Come in,” Ted said, shuffling papers out of the way.

Alex dropped into the chair next to Ted’s desk. “So,” he said, “what’s this little meeting all about?”

Ted studied the kid. He was tall despite his perma-slump, and well-groomed. His skin was luminous, like some Botticelli angel.

“I’m curious,” Ted said.

Alex’s face lit up. “About what?” he asked.

“About you.”

Alex smiled and waited.

It was, Ted felt, important to start small and build toward the bigger questions. No need to send things careening down a strange path so soon. And so he opened with banal. “What’s your major?” he asked.

Alex looked disappointed. “Sports management,” he said.

As far as Ted could tell, the sports management program was a crash pad for overly-concussed high school football players, and Alex didn’t seem the type. Usually you could tell the sports guys right away; they had been raised by their coaches on punctuality and rules. They understood the word consequences. They came to class on time and sat up attentively, though not terribly engaged, and called their professors “sir” or “ma’am.” Ted had trouble believing those words had ever been formed by Alex’s mouth. Plus, he seemed too tired and sullen for a sports guy. They were usually pretty alert—all those endorphins careening through their system—but “alert” was not a word Ted would ever use to categorize Alex.

“Sports management,” Ted said. “Why?”

“It was my father’s choice.” Alex shrugged. “He played some college ball.”

“And what will you do with that degree?” Ted asked.

“Oh, you know,” Alex said, flicking his wrist—and the thought—away. “Nothing.”

Ted sat back in his chair. He’d hoped Alex would say he was a psychology major, someone intent on studying people and their reactions. Maybe, then, it would make sense, this whole charade: his claim, Aida’s accusation. Maybe it was all just a test, a theory he was developing for some obnoxious final project in Abnormal Psych.

Alex sat up. “Can I ask you something?” he said.


“Are you religious?”

Ted drew in a long breath. His spiritual upbringing had been lackluster. His mother’s religion was television, and her god was Jack Paar. Ted’s father, on the other hand, worshipped at the altar of bourbon: Kentucky-smooth in Steuben crystal, his favorite accessory. Neither was a bad parent, but they certainly hadn’t contributed in any real way to what Ted would eventually make his livelihood. He hadn’t been dragged to Sunday school. He hadn’t been forced to pray or confess. He hadn’t been shoved onto a plane bound for a mission to some third world country. He hadn’t even really been aware of the gravity of religious conviction until, on vacation with friends in New York City, he’d happened onto a Hare Krishna parade. The whole thing was a spectacle: all those colors, all that chanting, all those treacly cymbals crashing in the hot city air. He’d been a little high, sure, but still it was something to behold. The sari-wrapped women reached for him as they went by, a whirl of arms and sweat and silks, but he just shook his head, saying, “No, no. Thank you, no.” But then one of the men reached for him. He was short and dark, dressed in a pale orange gown. He wore no shoes—a remarkably brave choice, given the New York City streets.

Ted let himself be taken then, into the center of the parade. Above, the afternoon sun was golden, and back on earth, floating above the shimmering asphalt, they were golden, too—bathed in the sun whose face reflected in the mirrored surfaces decorating the chariots the Krishnas pulled through the streets.

“I like your robe!” Ted shouted to the man who had dragged him into the dancing, and the man stood on his tiptoes and kissed Ted right on the mouth. Their joy was palpable and suddenly everywhere. Even native New Yorkers paused along the sidewalks to watch the procession.

Ted had never been devoted to anything. The act itself—of utter devotion—seemed both exhausting and exhilarating. It seemed beyond him. But it was fascinating, and as he weaved between the jubilant colors, moving further from his friends who stood, stoned and frozen along 45th Street, he realized this was his way in: not through any actual devotion to a deity but to the study of spirituality itself. But how did you explain any of that to a nineteen-year-old-kid?

Ted shrugged. “I’m not particularly religious, no,” he said.

“Why not?” Alex asked.

Ted looked out his window, which showed the great expanse of the southern quad. “I admire religion,” Ted said, “Worship is appealing and comforting, but—”

“But you think God is a bunch of bullshit,” Alex said.

The reason for the meeting seemed suddenly distant. Ted rearranged the pens in his desktop organizer, trying to figure how to move from philosophical inquiry to the more pressing topic at hand.

“And you still think I’m full of shit, right?” Alex asked.

“You mean your—”

“Yeah, that,” Alex said. “Do you believe I can do what I say I can do?”

“Actually,” Ted said, “that’s what I called you here to discuss.”

Alex’s mouth tightened.

Ted could feel sweat dampening his hairline. “Listen,” he said, “I just want to be upfront. And frank. I have never had to do anything like this before. This is uncharted territory. For both of us, I would imagine.” He paused to see if Alex had anything to contribute, but he remained quiet, so Ted soldiered on. “I have a responsibility when a student comes to me,” he said. “I have to make inquiries. I have to follow through.”

“All right,” Alex said.

Ted folded his hands and rested them on his desk. “A student recently came to see me with a complaint.”

“Aida.” Alex slid back down in his chair. “I knew it,” he said. “Fuck. I knew she wasn’t ready.”

“So you know what this is in reference to.”

Alex gave Ted a withering glance. “Yes,” he said.

“She alleges that you—”

“Yeah,” Alex said, “I know. I get it.”

“She alleges,” Ted continued, “that you were in her closet at night.”

Alex sighed, exasperated.

“Which, by the way, is a very serious claim,” Ted said. “That’s stalking, Alex.”

Alex’s eyes narrowed. “I wasn’t stalking her,” he said. “I was showing her. I don’t have any interest in Aida. Not like that.”

Ted raised a hand. “Let’s not make this any harder than it needs to be.”

“You don’t believe me,” Alex said. “You think I somehow broke into her house and hid in her closet? How would I even fucking do that? I’m not a criminal mastermind who can pick locks and shit. And where did I go after she opened the door and found me in her closet? Did she explain how I left? Did I climb through the window? Did I run for the door?”

“She said you—”

“Disappeared,” Alex said.

“Yes,” Ted said. “She said you disappeared.”

“And you don’t believe her either,” Alex said. “You think both of us are full of shit.”

Ted’s right eye twitched, on the verge of spasm. “I think Aida is scared,” he said, “and humans think and do a lot of surprising things when they are scared.”

“You’ve studied all those things,” Alex said. “All the stuff about monks and medicine men and those fucking Japanese ghosts.”


“And you don’t believe them.”

“That’s right. I don’t believe them. I don’t believe magical things exist in our world.”

Alex frowned. “What the fuck is the point of spending all that time and money studying something you think is bullshit? And why do you think so many cultures have their own versions of these things? You don’t think that’s interesting?”

“I think it’s interesting,” Ted said, “but interesting isn’t the same thing as true.”

Alex stood up. “Listen,” he said, “I didn’t go to Aida’s house to be a pervert or anything. She said the other day in class that she might believe me. That she was open to the idea. So I wanted to show her. To make her believe.”

“Well, she believes all right,” Ted said, “and she’s scared out of her mind. She wants me to ask you to refrain from any follow-up visits.”

Alex grabbed his backpack. “Fine,” he said, “but this is all ridiculous. People say they’re interested—that they want to believe—but they don’t really mean it. It’s just something fun to think about. A thought experiment. What if.” He headed for the door. “But it’s real,” he said. “It’s my life.”

Sweat streaked down Ted’s spine. He hadn’t wanted things to go this way. In his imagined scenarios, there was absolutely no shouting. Alex had simply acknowledged that it wasn’t appropriate to show up in a young woman’s closet without invitation, the two had shaken hands, and everyone went on with their day. Problem solved.

“I’m leaving,” Alex said. He had his hand on the doorknob.

“All right,” Ted said, “but let me just communicate one more time that Aida doesn’t want you to have any contact with her outside of our class. If you don’t respect her wishes, I’m afraid we’ll have to get the police involved.”

“Fine,” Alex said. “Whatever.” He yanked open the door, sending it crashing into Ted’s bookshelf.

“Hey!” Ted called, but it was too late; Alex was already gone, running down the hallway and into the afternoon sun that cut through the immense glass façade of the building. Ted squinted, trying to see which way he’d turned, but Alex was gone, swallowed by the heart of the light.


At home, Ted poured himself three fingers of scotch and sat in front of cable news for five straight hours. He let himself be bathed in the blue light of the television, in the images that played across it: a monk starting his own YouTube channel to reach a new surge of Spanish-speaking Buddhists; a Hollywood actor accepting an award and praising Satan; a French teenager translating sections of the Bible and Koran into DNA and injecting them into his leg; a North Dakotan farmer spending hours coaxing his cows into the shape of a cross as a living tribute to God.

The world over, people were feverishly engaged in the act of belief, of worship both public and private. It looked so easy, and Ted couldn’t quite figure out how it had passed him by. There were people he loved and respected—brilliant professors and politicians and philosophers, even his ex-wife—who had stepped easily into that kind of life. The life of belief. They gave themselves over to it, profoundly, and were able to access all the joy that accompanied it. Ted could admit it: he was almost jealous. He’d always considered himself a happy person, until, of course, the divorce, but what if he wasn’t happy at all? Perhaps he was missing out on an entirely different level of happiness that wasn’t accessible to people like him, people who refused to give themselves over to something that wasn’t entirely rational.

At midnight, exhausted and drunk, Ted went upstairs to bed. He had just closed his eyes when he heard a small sound—the scrape of his closet door along the carpet.

He pressed his eyes shut even harder. This was a dream. It had to be. This was just his subconscious—that stupid, senseless, science-fiction hoarder.

And then—a voice.

“I’m here whether or not your eyes are closed,” it said. “Just so you know.”

Ted’s eyes opened. His closet door, closed firmly before bed, was now swung wide open. He could make out nothing unusual inside, just the standard contents: shirts, pants, shoes, coats. Nothing that would have a voice. This was certainly a dream. And of course he was having it. What else from the day would his subconscious have to ponder over? The new cracker selection in the vending machine? Another distressing all-caps e-mail from the bookstore manager? No. This was it. This was what needed mulling.

Ted closed his eyes again. He told himself to wake up. He repeated it: wake up wake up wake up wake up. And then he opened his eyes. The closet door was still open. He sat up and his head spun from the scotch. Definitely awake.

He kicked the blankets away from his legs and stalked toward the closet. When his hand fell upon the doorknob, a soft light bloomed near his suits. What happened next wasn’t anything he’d ever read before, nothing similar to any account in literature. The light transformed slowly but precisely, the way a deoxygenated limb prickles back after being released from an excised angle. And then he was there: Alex.

They stared at each other for a long moment before Alex broke his gaze and looked at the floor.

“Christ,” Ted said, wilting against his footboard.

“I told you,” Alex said. He raised his eyes.

Ted put up a hand to silence him. “Get out of my closet,” he said.

Alex stepped out and closed the door behind him. He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “This was a stupid idea,” he said.

“It’s certainly not the most effective way to make your case,” Ted said. He flattened his hand to his heart.

“It lacks subtlety,” Alex said, and when Ted looked up, Alex was smiling at him.

Ted’s stomach felt warm, as if he’d just swallowed more scotch. He studied Alex’s face. In the sleepy half-light of the room, he looked even more like a Renaissance painting—pale and beautiful.

“It’s not like I could just beam myself into class some day,” Alex said, “what with the peasants and pitchforks.” He perched on the edge of the mattress. “Not everyone would view this as a miraculous skill.”

“I’m not sure I do,” Ted said. He was acutely aware of how close Alex was to him now. He was radiating an unnatural amount of heat, and Ted could see a flush rising on his cheeks.

Alex laughed. “You do,” he said. Then he paused. “You will,” he corrected. “I hope.”

Alex’s skin flushed fully, his hair dampening. He was clearly expending some effort. There was a cost to what he was doing. A bodily cost. Ted wanted to put a hand on Alex, to feel what was beneath the heat—would he be tangible, made of skin and bones, or would Ted’s hand pass through him as if he were something else entirely?

Ted leaned closer, but Alex lurched away. “I don’t know what will happen,” he said. “No one’s ever touched me when I’m like this.”

Ted stayed still, his hand buffeting in the warm air between them. Eventually, Alex relaxed, eyes closed in concentration, and Ted moved his hand toward Alex’s shoulders. Ted’s fingers made contact, and his first reaction was anger. The form beneath his hands was solid. Alex was flesh—real flesh—so undeniably there, not some vapor. Ted’s palm curled into a fist, ready to tell the boy to go, to get the fuck out of his house, but then Alex breathed and his body seemed to swell, skin moving fluidly away from the frame of his bones, as if water ran beneath, and Ted’s fist sunk through—into—Alex’s skin, which flickered translucently for a moment, allowing Ted to see his fingers—expanding now, uncurling beyond Alex’s shoulder blades. And the feeling. What was it? A jolt of energy, static electricity rolling across his palm.

Ted yanked his hand away.

Alex sagged backward, breathing heavily. “There,” he said.

Such finality! There! As if that was all, everything was solved, no discussion needed. Laughter rolled up from Ted’s stomach, but on its ascent, it transformed suddenly into a deep, shuddering sob. He bent forward, crying and coughing.

There was pressure on his back: Alex’s hand returned to its solid state. He didn’t say anything, just moved in small circles until Ted’s breathing slowed and he was able to stand again.

“My God,” he said. He wiped a hand across his face.

Alex searched Ted’s eyes. Ted had never been so thoroughly examined. Still, he didn’t look away. He didn’t do any of the things his body was telling him to: flinch, tremble, move. There was a holiness, he knew, to their stillness.

A slow, lopsided smile appeared on Alex’s face. “Okay,” he said.

Ted nodded. “Okay.”

Alex rose from the bed, and then they were kissing, Alex’s form flickering between corporeal and evanescent. The static moved over Ted, and he didn’t fight it. He sank into it deeply, into the center of the stinging heat. It was not terrifying, really, to be snared between the two planes. He thought of that Hare Krishna devotee from so many years ago, walking barefoot through the streets of New York, holding his hand out, bringing Ted inside the crush of color and light and sound. He’d felt it then too, hadn’t he? This craving. Something he examined from a distance and never fully gave himself to.

But here he was now. He believed. In exactly what, he wasn’t sure. But he could feel it inside him as Alex’s lips moved from his mouth to his neck. And though Ted’s eyes were closed, he could see something taking shape there in the darkness. It moved like Alex’s limbs, slowly in and out of focus, but it was there, Ted was certain of it, and he knew that whatever happened next, he would not stop moving toward it.

JESSICA SMITH grew up outside Buffalo, New York and went on to live in both Minnesota and Maine. Her work has been published in Ruminate, Qu, Lunch Ticket, Aji Magazine, the Portland Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, and Not Somewhere Else but Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place. She teaches at the Central Maine Community College.