Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
When I first saw Arron, he was lying on the floor of the Thompson’s bedroom, still as death.
“Hey! Are you okay?”
I prodded him with my toe. Then I crouched down and shook him, like mad, until his eyes fluttered open.
“Don’t do that!” he yelled in my face. His breaths were panicked and fast, as if he’d just come up from underwater. A rustling noise came from the other side of the room, and I noticed there were several other people sprawled out across the floor.
“Sorry,” I said. “I thought you were passed out.”
“No. I was sleeping.”
“Everyone else is out there drinking and dancing, and you’re sleeping?”
“Not sleeping,” one of the girls piped up. “Astral projecting.”
I’d heard the stories. I didn’t believe them, of course — but I’d heard them. In the past several months, all kinds of wild stories had popped up. Especially on internet forums and amateur websites.
Some of the stories were wonderful. Like the girl suffering from macular degeneration, who said it let her see for the first time in years. Others were terrifying. Like the teenage girl who realized one of her classmates was using it to spy on the girls’ locker room. Others were just… confusing. Like the woman who preferred the astral plane to real life. Now her family waits by her bedside, watching her comatose body, waiting for her to come back home.
“Does it work?” I asked.
“Yeah. And it’s wonderful,” Arron said. His ocean-blue eyes met mine, and he smiled. “You should join us.”
“It’s far better than dancing to crappy music and drinking cheap beer.”
“I wasn’t drinking. I was talking to people.”
“Well, this is much better than talking to people. You’ll soar among the clouds. See the stars up close. Swim in the ocean, without ever coming up for air. It’s the best thing in the world.”
Arron’s voice rippled with excitement as he talked. For a moment, I was tempted to just lie down on the filthy carpet with him, and try it out for myself.
But I couldn’t.
“Maybe some other time,” I told him.
I left the bedroom. As I walked towards the hall, though, footsteps sounded behind me. I turned to see Arron following.
“What are you doing?”
He shot me another hypnotizing smile. “I changed my mind. There is something better than astral projection.”
I laughed. “Nice pick-up line, there.”
“Come on. You liked it.” He shot me a wink. “I’m Arron.”
We took a seat in the corner of the room, away from the thrashing mass of teenagers in the center. “Do you go to Glenmont High? I haven’t seen you around before,” I said, over the music.
“I’m new. My family just moved here from Pennsylvania.”
“Oh. Do you like it here?”
“Yeah, I –”
A scream rang out, above the music. Then a girl broke through the crowd — face red, eyes wet with tears.
“He won’t wake up,” she screamed. “He won’t wake up!”
Arron leapt up and ran back to the bedroom. I followed. Several people crowded around a still form on the floor. Arron pushed through them. “Eric, can you hear me?” he shouted, shaking him. “Eric! Hey, come on!”
He didn’t respond.
Arron thrust a hand under his back. In one quick, strong motion, he pushed him up. Eric’s eyes shot open. He began to cough.
“He’s okay. He’s okay.” Eric began to cough. Arron smacked him on the back. “That’s it, Eric. You’re okay.”
My pounding heart filled with admiration. Arron wasn’t just handsome and kind — he was a hero.
The next few weeks were a blur. Arron texted me every day, and we often stayed up until the wee hours chatting. He’d tell me about his experiences traveling, his excitement at us being together. Finneas didn’t approve; he and Arron were both seniors. “He’s too old for you,” Finneas would say. “And he’s kind of weird. Hangs around with that astrological, spiritual crowd.”
I didn’t see him like that. I was falling in love.
We’d been dating for almost a month when Arron brought up astral projection again.
“So, I don’t want to pressure you or anything, but… I was wondering if you’d project with me.”
I turned to him, frowning. “I don’t know, Arron. It seems dangerous. After what happened to Eric –”
“That was his fault. He didn’t have a partner. You always project with a partner, in case something goes wrong.”
“I don’t know, Arron. It’s not really my thing.”
“But you’ve never tried it!” His blue eyes took on that faraway look — the same look I’d seen when he was driving me home that very first night. “Come on, Billie. It’ll be romantic. We’ll soar among the clouds, together.”
“But just last week, some woman projected for several hours. And some people are saying she isn’t the same, like she’s possessed or something –”
“That’s like, one out of thousands. Besides — you’ve got someone with tons of experience to pull you back if anything goes wrong.” He looked into my eyes, again. “Please? It would mean so much to me.”
I sighed. “Okay, okay. I’ll try it.”
He grinned. Gently holding my hand, he guided me into the bedroom. “Go ahead and lie down on the bed. On your back.”
I quirked an eyebrow at him. “You better not be trying anything.”
He laughed and lay down next to me.
“Just a few things to remember, before we start. First — don’t lose sight of me, okay? I’ll be keeping you safe. Second — if anything looks off, don’t approach it. There are… things, in the astral plane, that you don’t want to interact with. Third — we can’t stay longer than an hour. The longer you stay, the harder it is to come back.”
“That’s not encouraging.”
He turned to me, blue eyes locked on mine. “I will be with you every step of the way, Billie. You’re going to be fine. Okay?”
“Now… close your eyes and relax. Fade out all the sounds and sights around you. If you feel a heavy, tingling feeling — as if you’re falling asleep — that’s when you want to act. Imagine you’re being pulled out of your body by a rope, or climbing up a ladder.”
“This is so weird.”
“Just try it.”
I closed my eyes and tried to relax. Within ten minutes, I felt the heavy, tingling feeling that he described. I imagined a sort of endless ladder sticking out of my abdomen — and then me, climbing up it, out of my body.
A pop filled my ears.
And then I was staring down at myself.
“Holy crap,” I said. But it came out as more of an ethereal echo, vibrating through space itself.
“I can’t believe you did it on your first try!”
I turned to see Arron hovering beside me. He looked the same — except his clothes and body were washed in neon, as if he were standing under a blacklight. When he smiled, his teeth glowed brightly.
“Are you ready?”
He took my hand and pulled.
We soared right up through the roof. Higher and higher into the sky, until the town below shrunk to tiny pinpricks of light.
“Watch for your tether.”
I looked down to see a white string coming out of my chest. It extended down into the darkness, far below, like some sort of ghostly umbilical cord. “What is that?”
“The thing that tethers you to your body.”
“But you don’t have one.”
“With enough practice, you don’t need one. You just snip it off.” He reached for my hand again and tugged. “Come on. Let’s go.”
I didn’t reply.
Something had caught my eye. An orange light, in the distance, shimmering and flickering between the mountains. “What’s that?”
“What’s what?” Arron asked, scanning the landscape.
“The light.” As I spoke, it started to grow. A glint turned into a flame; a flame grew into a river of orange. It bled towards the town at frightening speed. Puffs of black smoke clouded the sky, blocking out the moon.
“Arron! Is that fire?!”
He didn’t reply. He just stared at me with those ocean-blue eyes.
The orange reached the first few houses at the edge of town. As soon as it touched them, they burst into flame. Then it spread further into town, pooling in the roads and crevices. As soon as it came into contact with a house, it burst into flame.
Then came the screams.
Horrible, shrill screams of pain. Rising up from the town like a chorus. “Arron!” I yelled over the sound. “Please, do something –”
Then I was falling.
Fast and hard, yanked forward by the cord in my chest. The cold air quickly warmed as I neared the town. The orange light licked my face. I closed my eyes. My scream joined the others.
My eyes flew open.
“Arron! We have to get out of here. The fire, the fire –”
“Billie, it’s okay.”
He wrapped his arms around me. The window outside was dark and cold; not a single flicker of light.
“But the fire –”
“Just your imagination.” He pulled away from me, ran his hand through my hair. “Sometimes, if you’re not totally relaxed… if you’re stressed, or distracted… your own thoughts can pollute the experience. Especially the first few times.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that?”
“I didn’t want to scare you. I thought maybe –”
“Maybe I’d say no?!”
He sighed. “I just wanted to have a fun with you, Billie.”
I grabbed my things and stormed out. Then I went to sleep, fuming mad.
We spent a few days in silence. No texts, no calls, no emails.
Finally, I broke down and drove to his place. After five minutes of knocking, he opened the door.
“Billie.” As soon as he saw me, those ocean-blue eyes lit up as if the sun was hitting the water. “I’m so sorry.”
He pulled me into a hug. The two of us stood there on his doorstep, hugging each other like we were afraid the other might slip away at any moment.
“I love you, Billie.”
“I love you too, Arron.”
For the next few months, our relationship was incredible. We spent our days exploring town, and our nights looking up at the stars in Groveland Park. It was on one of these nights, around 1 AM, that astral projection came up again.
“We should be getting back, shouldn’t we?”
“You go on ahead,” Arron said, stretching out on the blanket. “I’m going to sleep out here. I want to astral project again. See the stars up close.”
“Okay. Goodnight.” I started across the grass. The park was so quiet, so empty at this time of night. I thought of my bed, too, empty at home. Without Arron.
I turned around. “Actually, I’ll stay here with you.”
His eyes lit up. “Really?”
“I want to see the stars with you.” I took a deep breath and squeezed his hand. “I’ll try it just this one more time. For you.”
We lay back in the grass. The sky hung over us, scattered with stars. Arron reached for my hand, and we closed our eyes.
It came quicker this time. The tingling, the heavy feeling… it all came on within minutes. I felt my spirit peeling off my body, lifting out of the ground.
Then I was hanging in the night air, looking down at our bodies below.
“Wow, that was quick,” Arron said.
“Practice makes perfect, I guess.”
The park shrunk away as the two of us soared up towards the stars. “They’re so much more beautiful up here, see?”
But I wasn’t looking at the stars.
I was looking down at the forest. Something was wrong. The trees were shaking, swaying, knocking into each other. A few toppled to the ground.
“What’s happening down there?”
“I don’t know.”
The trees roiled and quaked, as if something immense was passing through. “Is something in there?” I asked.
An immense shadow stepped out of the forest. Thick and tusked, like an elephant; lithe and graceful, like a jaguar. It crossed over the park in quick, rapid strides. The earth shook underneath its feet.
“Arron! What is that?!”
The field tore open under its feet. Grass gave way to a fissure of rock, dirt, and darkness — just several feet from our comatose bodies. The figure had stopped in the middle of the park, sniffing the air.
“We have to get back! Arron, we have to –”
Arron was hovering a few feet below me. Holding my tether in one hand — and a knife in the other.
“What are you doing?!”
But I was too late. The knife touched the tether. Immediately, a shockwave of pain rippled through my body.
I yanked away from him. But he held fast to it; I snapped back, as if on a leash.
“I want you to be here, with me, forever.” He slashed at the tether again. I screamed in pain. Crrack! Crrack! More fissures erupted underneath me. The whole world shook.
Another sharp pain stung my chest.
And then I was floating. Drifting away, as if blown by some invisible current. “Arron — help!” I screamed. The world started to blur and shift.
My tether was gone.
I looked around wildly — at the shaking, splitting ground. At the swaying trees. Where is my body? Where is it?
There. A speck of white among the dark grass.
I forced myself to fall towards it. With every fiber of my being, I concentrated on that speck of white, among the blurry, shaking landscape. The current tugged at me, trying to pull me away. I wouldn’t let it.
With a pop, I opened my eyes.
The sky lay above me. The earth no longer shook.
I scrambled up.
A hand grabbed my ankle, hard, and yanked me back.
“Arron! What are you doing? Let me go!”
He didn’t reply. He just stared at me, his ocean-blue eyes burning with anger.
I yanked as hard as I could. Then I ran. I sprinted through the park, past the trees, to the car. Arron’s footsteps thundered behind me.
I yanked the door open and dove inside. I pressed the locks just as Arron’s hand hit the handle.
“Let me in, Billie.”
“No,” I sobbed. “You were trying to hurt me. Why, Arron? Why?”
“Come on, Billie.”
“You’re scaring me,” I said through the glass. “Please, just go.”
“I just wanted us to be together.”
“Why did I see those horrible things, then? The monster? The cracks in the earth? The fire?”
“It’s the future, Billie.” He sighed, as if what he was saying truly pained him. “Humanity has sinned against the earth far too much, for far too long. We break through the gates, cleanse the Earth, and start it anew.”
“We? Who’s we?”
“Us, on the astral plane.”
“You aren’t making any sense.”
“Didn’t you ever wonder why I don’t have a tether?”
The pieces slowly fit together in my mind. “No. You’re possessing Arron?” I filled with anger. “Get out of his body! He’s mine! You can’t take him away from me!” I pounded the glass and screamed.
“No. I am Arron. But this body… it belongs to some guy in Nevada named Derek.”
My heart plummeted. “What?”
“Don’t worry. You, Billie, don’t have to suffer like the rest. You’re one of the good ones. We’ll stay in the astral plane, while the rest of the world burns.”
“I just want to go home.”
His expression turned angry again. “Home? What’s there for you, at home? Your brother? Your parents?”
“Then I’ll bring them with us.”
“What? No, Arron –”
He took off across the park. He lay down in the center of the lawn, on the rumpled blanket, where we had held hands just an hour before.
I leapt out of the car and ran. I didn’t stop until I was standing in front of my house, weak and breathless.
I ran in the door and ran up the stairs. “Mom? Dad? Finneas?” I shouted.
I ran into the master bedroom first.
Mom and Dad lay on the bed, silent and still. “Mom?” I yelled. I grabbed her shoulders and shook her. “Mom, please. Wake up.”
I ran out of the room. “Finneas! Finneas!” I shouted as I ran down the hall.
Finneas lay in bed. His body jerked and twitched wildly.
“Finneas!” I grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. “Finneas, please! Wake up!”
He fell still.
Then he rubbed his eyes. “Billie?”
“Oh, thank God. Finneas, we need to get help. Mom and Dad won’t wake up. We need to get out of here, before –”
His eyes had fluttered open.
They were a bright, ocean blue.
“Hello again, Billie.”