Caitlin kept on staring at her feet as her boyfriend barreled through the door to the hospital waiting room, picnic basket in hand, twenty minutes after she'd texted him the reason she was going to have to miss their date. Andrew spread the red-checked cloth over Caitlin's knees in the waiting room, trying to distract her from her shattered pride by feeding her mouthfuls of cheddar and brie.
Behind his concern, she knew he was furious.
The doctor they saw was tangle-haired, harried and unimpressed, wearing rumpled green scrubs under a smart white coat and battered pink velcro sneakers. She barely made eye contact as she tapped her thumb against the clipboard. Caitlin let Andrew do the talking, gritting her teeth against the inevitable judgment in the doctor's eyes. Andrew talked about the mirror as if she wasn't even there.
"And you're sure you've gotten rid of all of the reflective surfaces in the house?" the doctor said.
Andrew's arm was warm and heavy around Caitlin's shoulders. His voice was worried, with an angry edge she'd never heard before. "I thought so, but this one was a family heirloom. Her mother's vanity mirror. I stopped at home when she texted me and smashed it."
The doctor swung her eyes back over to Caitlin, the duo's first acknowledgment that she was even in the room. "No mirrors, sweetie. Not even once. This is your life we're talking about."
"You should have seen it," Caitlin said. "The castle."
The doctor sighed. "We've all seen the castle. That's no reason to kill yourself."
Caitlin pushed herself forward on the examination table. "Then you know. You know. You know that you have to go there."
The doctor went to a cabinet and took out a large bottle of round white pills, shaking it in front of Caitlin's face. "Nobody's successfully done that, sweetie -- even scientists with a heck of a lot more money than you or I. The portals are psychological voodoo, they mess with your head, and that's no reason to shove yourself through just to die miserably on the other side. Next time, we might not get you back."
"But what if--"
The doctor clucked her tongue, and then dropped two of the white pills in Caitlin's hand. "Be reasonable," she said. "If everyone hears the voices telling them they're the chosen one, how can everyone be the chosen one? It's not logical. Everyone else moves past this phase, honey, and you can, too."
Andrew talked to the doctor about support groups and Gazers' Anonymous groups, and Caitlin kept her feelings to herself. No matter what they said, they wouldn't understand. She'd seen the castle, the alien sun glinting on the circular towers, the great glacial mountains cast in shadows made by swirls of mist and smoke. She knew what was reasonable.
She knew everyone saw the castle.
She knew everyone heard the voices.
She knew that everyone who went through the portals died.
But she knew, just as she knew Andrew loved her and that the sun would rise in the morning, that the castle needed her.
It was confusing.
As Andrew signed her up for a group meeting at St. John's downtown, Caitlin was already trying to figure out what she had done earlier that night to make the portal appear, and what she could do to make it happen again.
Andrew drove her home, tucked her in on the couch, set her up with reruns and Chinese food, kissed her forehead and went out to pick up her prescriptions at the corner pharmacy. As soon as she heard the key in the lock and his loafers clatter down the front steps of the house, Caitlin pushed herself up with her good hand and went upstairs.
She searched through dirty laundry, castabout shopping bags, the jumbled makeup Andrew had hurled against the wall in his anger, and found what she was looking for: one plain, broken sliver that Andrew forgot to pick up with his brush and dustpan, not big enough to use but certainly big enough to gaze through. She could find out what was happening, at least, while she'd been gone. She shook it, rapped on the surface, and the portal opened with a pop and a swirl and a breath of musty-blank wind. She knelt, and looked once again at the castle, bright and blue and silver-grey in the light of the alien star, and listened to the soft voices telling her that she needed to cross the threshold and come home.
The sound of a man clearing his throat brought her back out to the world she lived in.
"Caitlin," Andrew said.
She looked up. The real world returned in an unwelcome rush. The clock had advanced twenty minutes, and her legs were folded under her, numb. Andrew stood at the door to the bedroom, his jacket akimbo, the white bag from the pharmacy clutched in a dark, shaking hand.
"Andrew, it's not what it looks like."
He hurled the bag on the bed. "It's exactly what it looks like. Cait, we were just at the hospital. We were just there. You heard the doctor. Give me that."
He reached out for the mirror shard.
"You broke my mother's mirror." She clutched it so hard the edge drew blood. "My mother's."
Tears appeared in his eyes. "This is your life, Cait. This is our life. Don't you want a future with me? How can we have a future if all you want is be somewhere else?"
"I just... had to know, for good." Caitlin dragged herself up, woozy, dizzy, and in pain. "I won't do it again, ever, I promise."
He snorted. "Do you know how many times you've told me this? You were going to quit in January. Then you were going to quit again, two months ago, and now we've been to the hospital three times this month. Three times. You're a gazer! You need help! Professional help! You're not the Chosen One! Nobody is!"
She turned the shard so he could see the achingly jagged peaks, the breath of clouds around the turrets, hear the people beyond begging her to come save them. "But I am!"
"Twenty. Thousand. People," he spat. "I don't care how many people are on the other side, or how many people want me and you and your Aunt Beth to go across. You're sick, and you can cure yourself. All you have to do is try."
Caitlin felt hot tears at her eyes. "Andrew--"
He cut her off with a wave of a shaking hand and closed his eyes. "You're either going to quit, or I'm going to quit. I won't just sit here and watch you kill yourself."
Caitlin felt dizzy. The real world, her world, was hot and terrible, pressing against her chest, holding her down. "They need me," she whispered.
Andrew wavered where he stood, and then nodded, once, with a desperate finality. He turned away and clattered down the stairs, grabbing the hoodie he'd left on the staircase, and slammed the door behind him. Caitlin followed him downstairs, but he was already gone, the roar of his Camaro echoing down to the faraway intersection.
On the kitchen table was the picnic basket, with an unopened bottle of wine and what remained of her mother's mirror. She turned it over slowly.
Andrew had carefully pasted a photograph of them inside the broken housing.
Chosen Ones didn't go to meetings, but she missed Andrew and had lost far too much weight, so she found herself inside a church basement downtown on a rainy Monday a month after the breakup. Shaking off her water-bedraggled umbrella, she looked around at the other people in the room, and felt a little better about herself. A good portion of them looked homeless, dirty, underweight. Not like proper Chosen Ones at all, she thought, which means there might still be hope for me.
Stop. She gave the umbrella one last hard shake. You're here to get better.
The scent of mold battled with the tang of burnt new coffee, making her stomach uneasy. But the moment she turned for the door a thirtyish man with a speckle-white, ragtag beard and ruddy cheeks stopped her with a knowing look on his face and a sad little cup of coffee in his outstretched hands. He gave her a hug and asked her name. She thought about it, and then gave her middle name.
"You're new here, so I want you to know that coming here is the first step on a wonderful journey," said the man, brightening as she drank the coffee. "You're going to learn that this world is wonderful, and that you have so much going for you."
"This world," Caitlin turned the soggy cup in her hand, "where none of us are special at all."
The man stepped back and indicated the circle of battered brown plastic chairs. "That's what they'd like you to believe. Being chosen is a lie. The beings behind these portals -- aliens, gods, whatever they are -- they're lying. Don't you want to be the master of your own life? Don't you want to do something else besides look in the mirror all day? Don't you want to have control over your life?"
Caitlin looked down at her dirty canvas shoes. "My boyfriend left me," she blurted out, feeling stupid. "I lost my job."
The man squeezed her arm. "Are you ready to fight for yourself? To choose yourself?"
She couldn't nod. She couldn't agree. She thought of the castle, of the feasts, of the warm light in the windows, of what it would be like to be there, sitting in the large, empty seat in the middle of the large, empty hall.
"I feel stupid," she said.
The man shook his head. "Gazing doesn't discriminate. The point is: this is a war. You are at war. They want to take your hopes, your dreams, your very self. They want to turn you into something you are not. And that's why you have to fight back. Come on, sit down."
The man pushed her firmly toward a seat as the rest of the crowd -- thin, grey, with sunken eyes just like hers -- filed in.
She listened to their stories for a while, but behind their words, all she could think of was the castle.
After the meeting, she popped her umbrella and followed the other gazers out into the rain. She took a hard right and walked behind the sixty-something grandfather that had said he'd let his hair grow long in advance of becoming a knight across the portal. She looked up and down the street, listening to the patter of water hitting plastic. On one side of the street, the sky was uncannily, cheerily blue despite the dousing the rest of the world was getting. As the rain picked up, the man ran to huddle under an overpass. Caitlin rushed to follow him, her eyes carefully averted from the ground.
She ordered a rideshare on her phone, thought for a moment, canceled it and called Andrew.
"I just went to a meeting," she said when he answered.
There was noise on the other end of the line, people talking, glasses clinking, the polite clash of restaurant silverware. She felt suddenly jealous. Andrew sighed. "I'm at brunch with my mother. Can I call you in an hour?"
"I was kind of hoping you could come pick me up. It's raining. And I want to tell you all about the meeting," Caitlin said.
A woman laughed in the background -- she sounded like bright light reflected in glass. It wasn't the throaty, dark chuckle of Andrew's aging mother.
"That... doesn't sound like Linda."
Andrew didn't respond for a moment. "Cait, I was going to tell you in a few days, when things died down. I've started seeing Amanda, from work. I'd like to say that a few meetings are going to make a difference, but I think you need to focus on your recovery."
Caitlin hollered something nasty into the phone, stabbed it off with a jab of her thumb and hurled it away. The phone cracked apart as it hit the ground. The casing bounced off and landed in the puddle at the grandfather's feet. The electronics sputtered into dark grey death in the rain. She leaned over to pick it up, muttering to herself.
The man from the meeting stared into a portal in the puddle.
"Look," he said. "I think something's happening down there."
Caitlin swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. "Sam, right? Maybe you should go back to the church."
He pointed toward the ground, his hand shaking. "They need me. More than ever."
Caitlin joined him at the rim of the puddle, and raised the umbrella so it covered them both. Below them, the alien world shone in gaudy blue splendor. But he was right: something was different. A lone figure, clad in a black hood and riding something that looked remarkably like a horse, careened up the banks of the river, pursued by a thick, dark cloud of birdlike figures. For the first time, she noticed the castle in the distance was on fire. Smoke blossomed into the bright yellow sky, choking the white cotton clouds.
He was right.
Her stomach dropped. "I really think we need to go to the church." She reached for his hand.
The man stepped forward. She dropped the umbrella in her haste to claw at his coat, but he fell through like a rock, the umbrella following. He reached out at the very last moment, clawing at her arm, his eyes wide with sudden fear. His nails grazed the palm of her hand, and then he was gone. There was only silence, the sound of rain, the hiss of the faraway turnpike. A moment passed, and the man resolved on the other side. He screamed, and screamed, and burned.
She gazed. She couldn't do anything else.
When the rain ended, she ran for home.
Home was too quiet, with Andrew gone. Caitlin wrung water out of her hair and thought it might be time to get a cat, one that would paw her awake in the mornings and force her to clean its litterbox. A lot of gazers got pets, she'd been told, to anchor them to the real world.
She put her keys on the mantel and thought of the man, his muscles evaporating in the alien air, his skin floating away into the breeze, his hair knotting and scrambling like tumbleweeds as the rider and his pursuers passed.
I don't want to end up like him, she decided.
She moved upstairs and saw the disarray there with what felt like new eyes -- an addict's den, not a real person's bedroom; the scattered clothes, the broken perfume bottles, the magazines, the sweat-stained, twisted blankets.
She walked over to her vanity and picked up the shard from her mother's mirror, to gaze one last time.
The old pull was there. The view was new. She was looking down at the river valley from the top of one of the grand mountains. It beckoned her back. It told her that it all could be hers. She could see the whole alien world -- the rider, the dark flyers, the castle, the waterfall, a dark army massing like ants on the list field, the rolling, burning hills. It felt like home in a way the house she lived in never had. Her head was filled with images: southern jungles, courts of living crystal, a forest of whispering roses. Things she could see, if she just took up what she knew to be her birthright.
And where there had once been a voice or two, there were now thousands -- a whole chorus of desperation, forcing her to look at the army and the swath of destruction they'd leave behind if she didn't come through. The way the forests would stink, the way the people would suffer, the way the rider on his horse would be speared through with the bloody talons of the flyers, his beautiful face sightless against the blackening sky.
Her stomach turned.
The shadows are gathering. The dark army is coming, the voices pleaded. We opened all the portals we could to find you. If we fall, they will come for your world. It's safe for you -- safe -- you are the only one that can help us--
She found the hammer and brought it down hard, shattering the shard into glitter. The voices died, leaving her alone in the stuffy bedroom.
Caitlin wiped the mirror-shards into the trash, then walked to the window and opened it. She inhaled the cold autumn air, watching as the dank purple storm clouds wove their way out of the city, through the cragged arms of the dead trees and the cracked roofs of the nearby row houses. She thought of choosing her destiny, of the man in the puddle, of the people at the church meeting who would be happy to see her return.
It's not much of a world, she thought. But at least it's mine.
She thought of buying a new television, of applying for a job at the bookstore. She stared out toward the sulfur glow of the supermarket parking lot on the next street, and made her first grocery list in a month and a half. She felt good. Lucky. Curious.
She would not see the dark army gathering for a very long time.