The novel asks the universal question: What if…? What if you could make a different choice at a critical moment in your life? What if you had married someone else, turned right instead of left, had taken that job that you refused? What if you had been born a man instead of a woman?
The story opens on the eve of the end of the world, Dec. 20, 2012, when five friends meet in Spanish Gardens, the restaurant where they had celebrated their college graduation 20 years before. They reminisce – and reveal long-held and disturbing secrets about their dysfunctional lives.
Each friend in turn is given a curious set of instructions by an enigmatic bartender named Ariel: “Your life is filled with crossroads and you are free to choose one road or another at any time. Stepping through this door takes away all choices except two — the choice to live a different life, or return to this one.”
All of them pass through the portal and into drastically changed lives. They change occupations and families; one changes gender; a woman falls in love — with another woman. In the end, four choose to return to their original lives. One doesn’t.
Thursday, 20 December 2012
Olivia could not believe how little had changed on the street where she stood. Twenty years had slipped by since she had last seen this place; twenty years, crumbling away with each step, days falling like leaves from autumnal branches and swirling around her feet. In an era where everything hurtled forward at a breakneck pace, where entire neighborhoods were swept away at a whim to create new malls or parking lots or great gleaming edifices of steel and glass with forlorn ‘For Lease: Office Space’ signs growing old and faded in empty windows, this particular street seemed to have remained alarmingly faithful to Olivia’s memory of it – back in the days when she was young, at the top of the world, invincible, immortal.
In fact, it was a little disconcerting to allow herself to realize that the single thing that had changed the most from the way things used to be twenty years ago was… herself.
Well, but that’s as it should be, she thought, allowing herself a little philosophical shrug.
But it was also… wrong. Wrong that everything else should be so changeless and immutable while she alone was the flotsam on the river of life, being carried hither and yon as the currents willed it, being allowed to tarry nowhere only to find herself apparently cast back on the same shores she had thought she’d left a long time ago.
The short winter twilight had passed while she lingered in the oddly empty street, wasting time, peering at shop windows and trying to recall if they were in fact identical to those she remembered being there before or if she was just painting a mental landscape with the things that she knew ought to be there. There ought to have been a notebook in her bag – there always was, she carried one by what was part instinct and part ritual, but when she rooted around for it this time, in a moment when she really needed it, the thing seemed to have disappeared.
No matter. Her mind’s eye would do. She would transcribe later – it might not be the same, it might not be as good as it came in the instant when she was standing here resting her eyes on the scenery, but enough would remain – she rolled up her mental sleeves and sat down in front of a blank screen in the back of her mind, her hands poised over a keyboard that wasn’t there.
A cursor blinked momentarily as she did a slow, apprising circle, raking the street up and down with a writer’s recording stare.
Evening. You walk down a shuttered street; there are “Closed” signs in shop windows and on doors as you stroll past. Illuminated displays of things. This is not Rodeo Drive; you’re likely to see cheap, ordinary shoes. Maybe tools. Printed T-shirts. A bicycle shop.
A narrow alley opens between two buildings. There are no signs, nothing to indicate that it leads anywhere at all. But you turn.
The passageway between a couple of blank brick walls widens abruptly into a courtyard. There is a doorway, dark now, with some sort of gilt writing on the glass. An accountant, maybe, or a dentist – I forget what it was, and maybe it even changed once or twice during my time here. And across the courtyard, dimly lit, a coy sign above the door, there it is, Spanish Gardens.
It does not look very Spanish. It certainly doesn’t look anything like a garden.
And then she was there, under the far light, and she opened her eyes… and smiled to herself, a little grimly. She might have stepped back in time, so much alike was it to what she remembered.
Olivia closed her eyes briefly. The cursor on the screen in her mind’s eyes blinked briefly, words falling after it in another burst of memory.
This was a place of celebrations – you would come here for your graduations, your anniversaries. Young women with long lanky hair and bold eyes were given wine-red roses at these utilitarian, almost dingy, tables, and their memory of it is glamored in a romantic spell. You bring your girlfriend here to propose…
Four times. Four times she had been asked that question in this place. She could remember each occasion quite vividly – twice it had happened almost by accident, meant more as a joke than anything else; the third time, over at the table in the far corner right underneath the blackboard, the swain in question had been broken quite recently by a rejection of a similar proposal made to another girl, the love of his life, a friend of Olivia’s, and initially he had brought Olivia there to pour out his misery to her. The proposal had been almost accidental, as though slipped in from sheer desperation; the evening had ended badly, because Olivia had come out with the young man as a friend, as she thought, because she could listen and commiserate, and had been entirely blindsided by the sudden switch in his focus. Rejecting him was the only thing to do, but she remembered feeling like dirt, stammering, groping blindly for words that would not slice like flencing knives and yet would not come out resembling anything remotely like an intention to even seriously consider the question. They both knew the proposal for what it was – and yet there was a thread of seriousness there, and if she had uttered anything close to a yes he would have taken it as a promise. He had finally gone very white, very quiet, and they had left early, knowing that they would never see each other again – after that night, it would have been entirely too excruciating to endure one another’s company.
The fourth time it had been Sam, and she had accepted, flushed and flustered; there had been a ring, and the resident troubadour on the bar stool had smiled and had sung… something appropriate…
“Oh I can’t have possibly forgotten,” Olivia muttered to herself, aggrieved, astonished that she could remember every nuance of the scene except the soundtrack. But it was no use, the song was gone, vanished – and the only memory that remained was that she had broken the engagement less than a month later, and fled the city, and had not come back for years.
“Forgotten?” said a cheerful, pleasant male voice to her left.
She turned her head slightly, eyebrow slightly raised, and met a pair of friendly smoke-gray eyes of a young man vigorously drying some glassware with a clean cloth behind the deli counter. Olivia’s first thought was that she could have sworn there had been nobody there a moment ago. Her second was that he looked uncannily familiar. It’s as though he and the counter, he and the whole place, were part of a seamless whole – as though he must have been standing there just like this when Olivia had walked out of the place in stiff silence with the young man whose rebound proposal she had just fumbled in turning down – or even when she had floated out on a cloud of short-lived euphoria when she had left with the one whose proposal she had accepted. It was odd, how she almost… recognized him. And yet he was nondescript, almost calculated to be erased from memory – average height, average build, hair that was neither blond nor brown, his only outstanding features those astonishing eyes and possibly the long-fingered hands working the cloth in the glass.
Olivia shook her head, her lips twitching up into a slight smile.
“Ah,” she said, with a self-deprecating little shrug “ I forget a lot of things these days.”
“That’s what some people come here for,” he said. “To forget stuff.”
Olivia’s eyebrows came together in a puzzled frown. “What do you mean?”
“Unless they come here to remember stuff,” the young man said enigmatically.
“It looks just the same,” Olivia said, almost reflexively, glancing around as she began to unbutton her coat.
“That’s the point,” he said, putting the glass down.
“The point of what…?”
“It looks the same. It looked the same twenty years ago, or ten, or two, or last month, or last week. The world ends tomorrow, according to some, and it still looks the same on the eve of that. There is nothing that will change this place. Ever.”
Olivia stared at him. “I’m sorry, do I know you? You look awfully familiar…”
“I don’t think so,” he said cheerfully.
“So you changed?” Olivia said. “This place never changes… but you’re new?”
“Perhaps,” he said cryptically. “I’m Ariel.”
“Get out of here.”
“Sorry,” she said, looking embarrassed. “It isn’t… a common name. Last time I saw it, I think I was reading Shakespeare.”
Ariel had the grace to laugh. “It could be worse,” he said cheerfully. “Can I be of assistance?”
“I’m meeting a bunch of people here tonight – I don’t suppose any of them are here yet…?” Olivia said.
“Nobody who said they were meeting a bunch of people,” Ariel said. “But the big table over in the corner – the one with the bench – you can go grab that, if you like. I’m sure your friends will be here soon.”
As she turned away, the place reached for her and swallowed her whole. Whether she was one of those who came to remember or to forget, she didn’t know – but the place was redolent with memory anyway. The cursor in her mind’s eye blinked at her, and more words spilled out on the waiting screen.
You come here in a rowdy crowd after the pomp and circumstance of the graduation ceremony, and you order Irish Coffees (“Keep ‘em coming!”) and you get beautifully, headily, cathartically tipsy while some crooner weaves his way through “House of the Rising Sun” on his high chair and you bellow the lyrics with him when you can actually remember them. You came here to laugh, and to cry, and to share, and to grow, and to guzzle cream pies and to linger over coffee after some sad movie show, and to be able to tell some newcomer, somewhere, sometime, “Ah, yes. I know the Spanish Gardens”.
Irish Coffees. That, she remembered. The cheap and plentiful food was not the real reason that this place was a legend with generations of students. It was the Irish Coffees – this place made the best Irish Coffees on the planet, bar none.
She turned on her heel, sharply, her arms not so much crossed as grasping one another, her fingers and knuckles white with pressure where they gripped the complementary elbow.
Simon’s hair had turned gray, but he had kept all of it, and almost kept the old style he used to wear it in – slightly longer than a respected novelist and a University professor ought by rights to wear it and be considered respectable, waving back from his forehead just like it had used to do when he was still her brother’s best friend, and her own heart’s desire.
Her mouth curved in what might, in other circumstances, have been described as a smile but there was something in her eyes that made Simon actually take a step back as if he had been struck. It might have been a smile, once. Right now, it was a slash of pain.
“For God’s sake, what did I do?” Simon demanded, his eyebrows coming together in a bewildered frown.
“You remind me,” Olivia said savagely, skipping small talk entirely.
“Of all the things you were. Of all the things that David could have been.”
“David…?” Simon sounded thrown. That was a name from the past, and not, for better or worse, one he had come here armed with. He made a valiant effort to regroup. “David made his own choices, I was hardly his conscience…”
“You were his friend.”
Simon shut his mouth with a snap. “Not his keeper,” he said finally, tightly leashed, his control of the words that left his mouth almost visible. “But I don’t think David is really the matter.”
“He was the origin.”
“Of my own life. Of the things that I went on to do. Once David chose what he chose – and then you weighed in – everything went bad, after that.”
“Let’s see. If I remember correctly, David enlisted and went to the Gulf. Your family shredded into political streamers and your mother is still not talking to your father who is not really speaking to you – well that was the situation, and I think it’s still pretty much current, knowing what I do about your father. And you, once upon a time, talked to me about it…”
“I told you all the things that David told me. I showed you the letters. You were his friend.”
“Yes… and then I wrote a book about it,” Simon said. “That’s one of the flashpoints, isn’t it?”
“You used him,” Olivia whispered.
“Used him? Liv, I wrote about the horrors of it. I wrote what you thought. Not what David wrote about. He was proud of what he was; I don’t think you will find much of that in the book that I wrote. I was against the damned war. Same as you.”
“You were against it for all the wrong reasons,” Olivia said.
“Which are?… Does it really matter?”
“It mattered then,” Olivia said. “It mattered enough, back then, to make for a nice bonfire, anyway. One I burned a lot of things on.”
Simon crossed his own arms, leaning back a little. “You built it,” he said. “The bonfire.”
“You betrayed my confidence, and your friend,” Olivia said. “And then, when I called you on it, when you showed me the first draft of the book…”
“I remember it well,” Simon said. “I’ve never seen you that furious, or that inarticulate. You shrieked.”
“I never shriek.”
“You did then. My neighbors came around after you stormed out to ask who won World War Three. You don’t even remember it.”
Olivia tilted her head a little. “It’s a little… hazy.”
“Incandescent rage will do that,” Simon said dryly.
“And then you slept with my best friend,” Olivia said, her voice suddenly flat and level, icy. The best friend in question was currently only the thickness of a brick wall away – Simon’s wife, now, mother of his children. “Was that payback?”
“I thought you had just broken up with me,” Simon said.
“But… Ellen,” Olivia said.
“She was there,” Simon said. “And she said yes.”
“But you asked.”
“It takes two to make that decision. Olivia, what do you want from me?”
Olivia turned away, bowing her head, letting her hair fall over her face like a concealing curtain. “I have no idea,” she said dully. “I just wish… if all of us had made different choices, I might have had a different life.” After a moment she glanced up again, her lips twisting into another small bitter smile. “You were a lousy teacher.”
“That’s not true,” Simon said, stung.
“Oh, but it is. You were of the ‘it’s never going to be good enough’ school, and you passed that on, more than you knew.” She paused. “You called me misguided once, right here in this place, the night after graduation, remember?”
“Yes,” Simon said warily. “I said that.”
‘I took it at face value, back then. I never asked. I’m asking now. Why?”
“Because you had just walked away with a degree that would never make you happy,” Simon said. “The diploma was still hot off the presses, and you were making plans about where to go from here, and already the regrets hung about you like a shroud.”
“I was happy,” Olivia said. “By rights I ought to have been miserable. So how come nobody else noticed but you?”
“Because I knew you,” Simon said gently. “Your passions were always words, not numbers. If you were to have anything to do with science, it was going to be writing poetry about the gas nebulae or visions about what it meant to be human as they unraveled the human genome.”
“You think I wasn’t capable of doing the actual science behind those things?”
“Who said you weren’t capable?” Simon said. “Don’t put words in my mouth. But the capability wasn’t going to make you happy. You could have probably designed a star drive – but what you really wanted to do was be on that rocket ship when it left this planet and send back poetry about the strange new worlds it would land on. A scientist, Olivia, cares about the how of things – you always cared more about the why, or the who. Dissecting a flower or a frog or a human being might have made you enlightened, but it would never have made you happy.”
“Damn you,” she said, after a pause.
“What does that mean? Do you forgive me?…” Simon said, and then tossed his head in a frustrated movement, spreading his hands. “Will you tell me what it is that you forgive me for?”
Olivia made a small sound that was halfway between a sob and a giggle. “If you don’t get it, Simon, there’s little point in it. Excuse me, I need to pop into the restroom and stick something cold on my eyes before the others start asking questions back at the table.”
She turned away without another word and the door of one of the two bathrooms swung closed behind her. Simon stood speechless, staring after her.
“If you want to use the other one, that’s okay,” Ariel said.
He had slipped from behind the counter somehow without Simon noticing, and now stood beside Simon, his expression pleasant but somehow alert as if he was expecting Simon to offer some sort of secret password which he knew he had to be on the look-out for.
Simon stared at him. “It says ‘Out of Order’ on the door,” he said.
“Oh, that. It’s only there to keep out the uninvited.”
“You have to be invited into the restroom?” Simon said, furrowing his brow.
“That’s a new one. Come to think of it, you’ve ALWAYS had a bathroom out of commission. Ever since I can remember, and I’ve been coming here for years.”
Ariel said nothing, merely smiled, and held out a folded piece of paper.
Simon instinctively reached out and took it. “What is this?”
“Instructions,” said Ariel. “Should you choose to follow them.”
Simon unfolded the paper and glanced at it. There were only a few lines, in copperplate handwriting looking rather as though the entire thing had been penned by an old-fashioned nib pen, the kind you had to dip into an inkwell – the language, oddly old-fashioned and portentous, had the same feel of a weight of age on them. And yet the paper looked rather like it had been torn from a mass-produced notebook available in any stationery store for a few bucks, and the ink looked barely dry. His eyebrows rose as he read.
Your life is filled with crossroads and you are free to choose one road or another at any time. Stepping through this door narrows your choices to only two – the choice to live a different life, or the choice to return to this one.
You make your first choice when you pass through the portal. Once you do, you will not remember the life you have left behind… until one single moment, when all memory will return. In that moment you must choose if you wish to return to your previous existence… or renounce it forever.
Remember this before you decide. Here, you change the world around you; there, you have to change to fit the world. Both are harder than you think. Choose wisely.
“Choose wisely,” Simon said dryly as he finished scanning the paper. “Take a step into a bathroom and flush a life down a toilet. Some choice. What is this…?”
But when he looked up again, Ariel had gone. The counter was deserted, too, but the café had started to fill up, like it always did as the evening wore on, and there was an ever-louder buzz of conversation as voices rose to be heard above the background noise. It was not the weekend, but it was technically the Eve of the End of the World, which was a sort of special occasion – and there was even a young man clutching a guitar by the throat, fussing with the connections of mike and amp by the high stool of the musician. He gave Simon a half smile as their eyes met and held briefly.
Even as he looked away again, the writer part of Simon’s brain was turning the idea over and over, dissecting it from different angles. You could choose? You could – in a manner of speaking – unchoose? Life was there to be sifted through and you could pick the bits you wanted, erase the things you would rather had never existed? That couldn’t be right – it wasn’t fair – you couldn’t unwrite something that had been written, simply unremember something that you wished to forget – but still – it glittered before him like a jewel, the temptation, the chance to start again, to be young again and to have the world unfolding in front of him before he narrowed it down by the things that he thought, that he believed, that he had allowed to happen to him and to twist him…
Simon pursed his lips, folding the paper and pushing it into his pocket.
“What the hell,” he muttered. “The world ends tomorrow morning anyway.”
He hesitated briefly at the door to the second bathroom, with the tattered ‘Out of Order’ sign that hung on the doorknob, but nobody called out to tell him that he was an idiot and couldn’t he read the sign. His hand landed on the knob, at first very lightly, and then it tightened and he turned it with rather too much pressure, as though he was expecting it to be locked and unyielding – but the door swung open at a mere touch and hung ajar, showing only darkness beyond.
Simon shook his head.
“That’s it,” he said to himself firmly. “I’ve finally, officially lost it.”
And then he pushed the door open all the way, and stepped through.
The door closed behind him. The sign swung lightly on its doorknob once or twice, and was still.
Alma Alexander was born in Yugoslavia, grew up in Africa, went to school in Wales, and lived in New Zealand before moving to the U.S. She has published more than a dozen books in the US and around the world. Alma is the author of the internationally acclaimed The Secrets of Jin-Shei, on sale in 14 languages, and the young adult Worldweavers series that VOYA suggested for readers suffering Harry Potter withdrawal.
Midnight at Spanish Gardens
Sky Warriors Books
Amazon web page: http://amzn.to/o3dOsf
Author’s web site: http://www.AlmaAlexander.com
Publisher’s web site: http://www.skywarriorbooks.com