“You have ruined my life,” Ryan Smith said sourly.
The man in the suit didn’t reply.
“Seriously,” Ryan said, spinning his barstool around so he could look directly at the other man. “I know I haven’t talked to you in a while, but I think that’s the last thing I told you a few years back, and now I’m saying it again. You have ruined. My. Life.”
The man in the suit didn’t reply.
“Bartender,” Ryan called over his shoulder. “How about one for my friend here?” He laughed and looked back at the man in the suit. “Wait, you don’t drink, right? Guess I’ll have to drink yours.”
The man in the suit didn’t reply.
“It’s not about Karen, if that’s what you’re thinking. I didn’t even like Karen that much. I mean, maybe I would have, if I’d gotten a chance to get past the worst second date ever.”
“Hey, buddy,” the bartender said. “I think you need to slow down.”
Ryan turned back around. “I’m not drunk,” he protested.
“You’re definitely something,” the bartender shot back.
“What? What did I do?”
The bartender rolled his eyes. “You’ve spent half an hour talking to your imaginary friend.”
“Is the man in the suit here now?” Dr. Blankenship asked.
“Yes,” twelve year old Ryan answered. “He’s always here. What part of that is hard to understand? He was here when you asked last time, too, and will be here if you ask again in five minutes.”
“What is he doing?”
“He’s taking notes. That’s all he ever does.”
Dr. Blankenship scribbled a note of his own, which was almost funny. Everyone in the room, it seemed, found Ryan fascinating.
“Does he ever talk to you?”
“No. I wish he would. I really wish he’d just disappear, but if he’s going to stick around, he could at least say ‘hello’ or ‘you doing all right’. You know?”
“And how long have you been seeing him?”
Ryan rolled his eyes. “You know you’re like my fifth shrink, right? Isn’t there like a file or something that gets passed to the next guy?”
“I need to hear what’s going on from you directly, Ryan,” Dr. Blankenship said soothingly.
“Fine. My whole life. He’s been there every second of my entire life.”
Ryan looked back at the man in the suit, who scribbled in his notebook and said nothing. “Right, there’s no one there.” He laughed again. “That’s my fucking life, man…”
“Uh-huh,” the bartender replied, scanning the room, probably wishing he could summon more customers.
“What’s your name?” Ryan asked.
Ryan wasn’t at all surprised that Mike hadn’t asked for his name in return. Don’t talk to the crazies. “Can I have another one?”
“I made it up,” fifteen year old Ryan said quietly. He stared at the table, unable to meet his parents’ eyes. “I’m sorry.” He had practiced this dozens of times, but actually doing it was hard. “I think I was jealous of all the attention Isabel was getting, so I made up someone to pay attention to me. An imaginary friend, just like you thought. Then when I got older and kept talking about him, you started paying attention to me, and…I liked that. For a while. Then I couldn’t figure out how to tell you the truth.”
Ryan forced himself to look up, taking in his mother’s tears, his father’s furious expression, and his sister’s utter bewilderment. There, he thought grimly. I’m not crazy. I’m just a lying, attention starved asshole.
In the corner of the kitchen, the man in the suit wrote it all down.
“You know what’s funny?” Ryan asked Mike. “People don’t know something’s weird until someone tells you it’s weird. If we were all just smart enough to keep things to ourselves, we’d be able to ignore all the crazy shit that happens. That’s my advice, man. If something strange is going on, just shut up about it. You’ll be happier. Trust me.”
“You should buckle up,” Ryan said to his passenger. As always, the man in the suit did not respond except to write more notes. “Yeah, guess you don’t have to,” Ryan muttered, “you’d just float right through the dashboard, wouldn’t you?”
The man in the suit didn’t reply.
“What would happen if I ever beat you to the car? Can you run at seventy miles an hour? Would you just be waiting for me wherever I was going? What if the car was full? Would you, like, float on top of people?”
Ryan dropped his attempts at conversation-not that they ever mattered anyway. With his driver’s license less than a year old, he didn’t feel very comfortable with the slick roads and rapidly increasing snow. I should have left before it started, he thought. Well, too late now.
A few minutes later, the snow was blinding. Ryan was gripped the wheel with both hands, leaning forward with his chest almost pressed into the steering column, like that would somehow improve his control, like it would somehow allow him to navigate the slick roads better.
It did not.
Ryan felt the wheel go wild in his hands as his car began to spin out of control. He forgot everything he’d learned in driver’s ed and fought the skid.
Later, he wouldn’t remember the accident clearly, but he would never forget what came next.
“Hey,” he croaked. “Hey, man. I think I’m hurt pretty bad. Do you think I’m gonna die?”
The man in the suit didn’t reply.
“Hey, could you say something? Anything? Please?”
The man in the suit scribbled busily in his notebook, and Ryan closed his eyes to wait for help. Or death. Or whatever came next.
“Have you ever had sex in front of somebody else?” Ryan blurted.
Mike sighed. “Seriously?”
“Oh, come on. That can’t be the strangest question you’ve been asked in here.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s a question I feel like answering.”
“Got it,” Ryan said. “So the answer’s yes.”
“No, it isn’t. I’m not into that.”
A flush had begun creeping up Mike’s neck, so Ryan quickly handed him a twenty. “Here. That’s for putting up with me. So we’re cool, right?”
“I’m not into that either,” Ryan said. “That’s also been a problem for me.”
“What did I do this time?” Jacqueline snapped.
Ryan winced. “You didn’t do anything, I swear.”
“Then what is it, Ryan? I try to be patient. I try to be understanding. But…honestly, if I don’t know better, I’d think you weren’t into women.”
“It’s not that,” Ryan protested.
“We’re not in high school anymore, Ryan. We’ve been together for three years. I wouldn’t care if you didn’t want to, or you wanted to wait or something. But you don’t. You keep making moves and then freezing and I don’t get why!”
Ryan looked at the man in the suit, standing in the corner of the bedroom and calmly taking notes. “I…can’t.”
Jacqueline had started to cry. “Why the hell not? What’s the problem? And why aren’t you looking at me?”
Ryan snapped his head back, but now Jacqueline was looking at the corner.
“You always do that, too,” she said. “You stop, and then you look over there. Are you worried about hidden cameras? The government in your teeth? Just give me a reason.”
Ryan took a deep breath. He couldn’t bring himself to lie to her. I see a man in a suit, taking notes on everything I do. But how do you say that? How do you tell someone you love that you’re being haunted by someone no one else can see, and that you hid it from them for years? How do you make that seem anything but crazy?
Jacqueline looked at him, sighed, and stood up. “Then neither can I.”
“You probably think I’m crazy.”
“Yep,” Mike said.
“I probably am. Doesn’t matter,” Ryan drained his beer and threw some more money on the bar, then turned back to the man in the suit. “Let’s go.”
Ryan could feel Mike watching him as he left the bar. He didn’t care. He was used to being watched.
“You know,” he said to the man in the suit, “people always talk about finding happiness. They want to know what the secret is. Funny thing is that I know. For me, it’s simple. I would be happy if you just went away. Forever. Then my life would be normal.”
Later, Ryan would remember that and laugh. Because when the man in the suit finally did walk away, that was when things really got weird.
Ryan Smith was not a huge fan of souvenir shops. When he travelled – which was rare – he liked to see things and do things, and he liked to take pictures, but he had never understood people’s compulsion to drag home shot glasses and snow globes and other random clutter. His sister Isabel, however, loved that kind of crap. When they were kids, even their thousandth trip to a local amusement park would inspire her to come home with a commemorative plate or tacky picture frame.
God, he missed her. He hadn’t been surprised when Isabel had moved to California a few years back-she hated cold weather and considered rivers a miserable substitute for an ocean-but it had been a blow, especially coming so close to their parents’ deaths. She had been a welcome constant in his life, unlike the decidedly unwelcome man in the suit.
The important thing was that Isabel was happy, and living the life she had always wanted…unlike Ryan who, at thirty, still wasn’t sure what he wanted to be when he grew up.
He was in the middle of another mind-numbing morning of data entry when she texted “I miss Saint Louis”. Glancing around to make sure his boss wasn’t near his cube, he typed, “Yeah, the mosquitos miss you, too” and fired it back to her. She responded with a grossed out emoji.
She was in the land of beautiful beaches and year-round warmth and sun and pretty much everything she loved, but home was home. I should send her a gift or something, Ryan thought. Something to remind her of home.
That was all it took to encourage Ryan to stop taking work seriously. It really never took much-his job sucked, and if he actually gave it his full attention he’d blow his quota out of the water…and then his boss would probably increase it. By lunchtime, he claimed a stomach ache and headed out to go shopping.
Leaving the building, Ryan gave the man in the suit a sideways glance. After thirty years of being constantly followed by a silent, note-taking asshole that no one else could see, Ryan could actually forget about him every once in a while…but not for long. Every time Ryan heard someone complain about a hovering boss, spouse, parent, etc., he had to resist the urge to roll his eyes. They had no idea.
Tourist traps weren’t common in Saint Louis – not the way they were in New York or Chicago or LA or other cities that had the kind of places that were big draws. Missouri, being in the middle of flyover country, had very little that was a major tourist haven. One exception was the Gateway Arch, a testimony to America’s westward expansion. Nick-knack stores were able to survive close by, funnelling tourists off the attraction to they could pick up miscellaneous items to remind them of their visit.
So Ryan found a suitably tacky store in the shadow of the huge monument and was soon wrist deep in a collection of random tat. He considered a marble with a model of the Arch in it, but it was too small, too easy to lose, and if he could find something flatter it would be cheaper to mail. The same went for the snow globes, although they were tempting because of Isabel’s hatred of winter. It might be worth the extra money, he thought, but the decided against it. He didn’t want to run the risk of it breaking in transit.
For a perverse moment, he considered asking his companion for his opinion. Sure, he’d say nothing, and just write it down in that damn notebook like he always did, but sometimes it amused Ryan to pretend the man in the suit would interact with him for once. C’mon, Ryan, all you’ll do is freak out everyone else in here. For some reason, people got uncomfortable with someone talking to a person they couldn’t see.
Ryan had just about settled on a tacky key ring that said, “Show Me State” on it, but was still rummaging in the bin, when he heard a soft voice say, “Thank you.”
Ryan turned, looking for the source of the voice, but there was no one near him. No one except the man in the suit, who was…
Who was walking away. He had his back to Ryan and was heading for the front of the store.
Ryan froze, looking at the man’s back, which he had never actually seen. His silent companion had always been facing him, or right beside him, writing notes and refusing to give any answers.
And there will never be any answers if I just let him leave.
The man was already walking through the wall at the front of the store, and Ryan bolted after him.
“Wait, come back!”
A few people on the street turned to look, but Ryan ignored them and kept running. The man in the suit wasn’t running away, just walking through the crowd at a relaxed pace that took him among and through every person who crossed his path. Literally through them – people passed through him without noticing he was there. Ryan, however, was a fully corporal human, and so he found himself shoving up against the crowd.
This man had put Ryan through thirty years of hell. People thought he was weird because he was always glancing at something none of them could see – cute when a cat did it, creepy when an adult did. Sleeping under that watchful gaze was a nightmare.
Ryan would be damned if the bastard was going to walk off after all of that without an explanation.
The man turned into an alley, and Ryan was grateful to duck out of the crowd, pushing past a pair of young women who shouted obscenities at him. Ryan felt a surge of relief. If the man in the suit had ducked through a wall, the chase would have been over in that instant. It had always seemed to Ryan that the man preferred to avoid walking through matter when he could, and this held true now.
“Stop! Just…stop! Please!”
The man…hesitated. He didn’t turn around to look at Ryan, didn’t speak, but he stopped walking and stared ahead at the brick wall.
“So you can hear me! Please, what’s going on? Who are you? Why…why are you leaving?” Suddenly, the idea of the man leaving was every bit as bad as him staying. Now, Ryan could admit that there had actually been times when the man in the suit’s presence had been a comfort. Ryan had never been alone in in his life, not in the way other people understood being alone. He’s had moments where he had no one to talk to, no one to interact with, but the man in the suit had been there, watching, writing. It was something.
When walking down a dark alley, heart pounding that some murderer was going to hop out and stab him, he had at least known that someone would notice and write it down. When feeling alone and depressed, wondering if he even mattered and if anyone would notice if he was gone, the man in the suit had been there, letting him know that at least one person would.
On the whole it had been a nightmare, but nightmares still were dreams, and even though he had fervently wished to be alone, now that it might be happening the idea of losing his constant companion terrified him.
“I shouldn’t be talking to you. I can’t imagine how hard this has been.” He paused and saw the fury in Ryan’s face, and sighed. “Or…actually, I guess I can, I’ve seen it.”
“Yeah, you have. Every day, for thirty years. I need something, man. You don’t get to fuck up my life and then just walk away without saying anything! I have questions, damnit.”
“You’re going to have to be okay with not getting answers to most of these questions, Ryan. I’ll give you this – one question, one answer. That’s all you get.”
“Only one question.” Ryan made sure to keep his voice flat, so that last word couldn’t be construed as a question, and to prevent himself from shrieking at the man. All this time, all this hell, and he only got one question? The first one that came to mind was asking him who the hell he thought he was.
“Yes,” the man said. “More than most people get.”
There was a finality to that tone, something that told Ryan it would be pointless to argue or vent his frustrations. So instead, question after question began to race through Ryan’s mind. But he needed to ask the right question, if he was only going to get one. After a minute, maybe two, of standing there frowning at the man in furious thought, it occurred to him. The question that would get him the most answers, and really, at this point, the only one that mattered.
“Why are you leaving?”
The man in the suit smiled. “Good question. And the answer is because my prediction was right – you were the one to find it. Even with me present your whole life, it was still you.” He saw Ryan’s face, saw the confusion on it, and actually laughed. “Sorry for being vague. It’s been awhile since I have spoken to anyone. You’re one of over a thousand people who match some of our criteria as likely candidates. And…well, check your left pocket.”
With a trembling hand, Ryan reached down into his pocket. His heart started pounding when he felt something in there. A couple somethings. He hadn’t bought anything at the store…what was in his pocket? He fished it out.
One of them was the keychain that he had been intending to buy for Isabel, slipped into his pocket without thought when the man started running. Gotta go back and pay for that. The other object was a black marble flecked with glitter, something he vaguely remembered picking up to get to the “Show Me State” keychain. Great, he thought wildly, more unconscious theft. It didn’t take any immense deduction to realize the keychain probably wasn’t what the man in the suit meant.
“A marble?” It was a stupid thing to ask, and the man in the suit chuckled.
So he did. He stared at the marble, and suddenly it seemed to expand, filling his entire field of vision. What he had thought were flecks of glitter in there were…stars. The swirl pattern in the center? A galaxy. It kept expanding, giving him an immense feeling of vertigo, like he was falling into the star field.
The man’s voice seemed to come from far away. “You found a nanoverse. The last one of this Era, left behind by the Creator. We were watching to see who found it, to figure out who would be next. And now that it’s been found…now that you’re the one…my work is done.”
Overwhelmed, Ryan squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated on his breathing. This is too much. This can’t be happening. I’m going crazy. Crazier.
After a few seconds he opened his eyes and was relieved to see the alley instead of the impossible field of stars.
“What…” he gasped. “What was that?”
The man in the suit turned to walk away. “I told you, only one question. But I’ll give you some free advice.”
Ryan took another deep breath to steady himself. “Okay.”
“Don’t put it in a drawer and forget about it. You’ve got a pretty amazing thing there, Ryan. And in spite of the fact that I unintentionally turned you into a nervous wreck…I think you’re going to do some pretty amazing things with it.” The man in the suit smiled. “I’ve watched you your entire life, Ryan. I have faith you’ll be able to pull this off.”
Before Ryan could ask more questions the man in the suit would not answer – what was a nanoverse, what he was supposed to do with it, what was he supposed to pull off, what the hell was going on – the man turned and walked through a wall. This time, there was no way around, no way for Ryan to follow. He was gone, and Ryan was, for the first time in his life, truly alone.
His mind was spinning. None of this made any sense, and Ryan felt like he needed a million years to process what was going on. Instead, he got seven seconds. Seven seconds where no one was looking at him, no one was writing down what he did, no one was watching him.
Then a gun cocked behind him, and a voice growled, “Put down the nanoverse, and you might get out of this alive.”