Cheating and the Multiverse

          In several divergent realities, the handsome man from the bookstore murdered me. These are my preferred realities. I’d choose them over the ones where I lived; in those realities, the immediate danger was splinters from leaning against the railing with the stranger behind me, or so I thought. The stranger was always a handsome catalyst: somewhat younger than me with dark brown skin and eyes, black close-cropped hair, and an all-lipped smile that pulled higher in one corner than the other. I’d seen exceptionally handsome men before, but it was rare that they saw me, let alone looked at me the way this one did—in any reality.

          Perusing the classic literature section, he was at one end with the B’s and I was down by the W’s. We both inched inward. I tried not to look too much, but it became clear that he was staring at me. I caught a sidelong glance while I trekked through the S’s, running a finger over the spines as if to imply that at any moment I might make a selection. I kept fingering my way through the P’s until I could smell him just on the other side of the H’s. We made it to the middle and my heart was thrashing against my ribs. Thinking that I was making a fool of myself, I finally reached for a book, and at the same time, he reached for a book. Both of our hands lighted upon D.H. Lawrence, his on Lady Chatterly’s Lover and mine on The Rainbow. Our fingers never touched but they were close, our wrists turned inward. In the non-preferred realities, I noticed the tattoo on his forearm in dark, elaborate script: WWJD. In the preferred realities, the flesh was smooth and unmarred by inked, out-of-date, ridiculous slogans.

          “Like Lawrence?” His voice was radio-ready, as if he’d spent time perfecting the timbre and pitch to produce a pleasing, seductive tone.

          “Yeah, he’s good,” I responded.

          “Yeah, you think so?”

          After an embarrassingly long pause, I replied, “Yeah, I do. What do you think?” I was trying out a smile Ralph likely hadn’t seen in years.

          At this point, I noticed his large hand resting against the shelf, he inched it toward the zipper on the jacket Ralph’s sister gave me for Christmas. He tugged on the zipper twice. The thought occurred to me that I should stop him, it was not a tenant of mine and Ralph’s relationship. We were monogamous, hetero-normative as our friends called it. But there in the bookstore, with the handsome stranger’s breath on my neck, any knowledge of prior commitments slipped away from me like released rope.

          He opened the passenger door of his car for me, which I found chivalrous and sexy. After getting in, I noticed that there was no handle on the door. A hard shove forced me up into the seat and the door slammed against my foot. I pushed on the door. The windows were automatic so the button was useless without the car running. Before I could make a true effort to plunge out of the driver’s side door, he had swung it open and blocked my escape. I felt a violent sting in my arm. The inside of the car shook, or maybe it was me that started shaking. Before the world faded to black, I watched him put a needle in the pulled-out ash tray, piercing a couple of tan cigarette butts.

          Awakening some time later, I found myself strapped to a bed. Sometimes my clothes were removed and sitting in a plastic bag on the nightstand, and sometimes he cut them off me with scissors. Beneath me, a blue or brown tarp was stretched out over the double bed. The walls of the room were bare except for a wallpaper border featuring canary yellow roses or lavender wisteria snaking around the planks of a picket or iron fence. The bedroom door was open and Stravinsky played loudly from somewhere inside the house.

          The handsome man entered the room carrying a large, silver meat cleaver. There was something in me that responded to the sight of a well-built man in nothing but a black tank top, his erection guiding him into the room; I felt myself stir and brush up against the bottom of my belly. What did that say about me as a person? I began to question if it was some elaborate game, if that might explain my physiological response in a state of duress, maybe a primal part of me sensed that it was all pretend. Maybe Mr. Bookstore was all bark and no bite—well, small, non-skin-breaking bites. Maybe it was role-playing, in the extreme. Maybe it wasn’t even a real meat cleaver. When he lopped off my foot above the ankle, I had to concede that the time for optimism had passed. Bad things happened to people every day, and that’s what happened to me; at least, some of the times it happened to me. However, I was always weak and consistently made bad decisions, for which I, in one way or another, faced the consequences.

          In the alternate realities, the last time Ralph saw me was before he left for work that morning, when he kissed me on the cheek as I ate toast. Toast as my last meal, usually rye but occasionally wheat. Ralph never found out what really happened in most of the ones where I died. My car was found in the bookstore parking lot, leading Ralph to suspect that I’d been kidnapped or murdered. After a respectable amount of time spent searching for me and grieving, Ralph moved on with the detective who’d let my case grow cold. The detective kept dropping by the house to see my sweet, adorable Ralph. They drank Kona blend with dark chocolate-dipped madeleines while our Persian rubbed against the new guy’s legs. The detective and Ralph had sex for the first time on the couch, awkward and fast, while I was busy decomposing beneath a flower bed, becoming one with the Mums. At least in these realities, I never had to explain a positive test result to my slump-shouldered partner as he wept into his hands.

MARTIN JENNINGS earned his MFA from Spalding University. His work has appeared in Five on the Fifth, Flash in the Attic 2, SickLit Magazine, Under the Bed, and is forthcoming in MilkFist Magazine and Typehouse Magazine. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.