By Kate Chandler
Olivia was shattered: a particularly boring day at work had led to an uncharacteristically intense session at Fitness World. As she drove home, flushed and soaked with sweat (she was too self-conscious to shower and change in front of the goddesses who attended her gym), she caught a glimpse of her expression in the rear view mirror. What she saw there was empty of anything but catatonic stupor; there was nobody home.
She was startled enough to let some emotion creep to the surface, which she quickly cancelled out by turning on the radio and singing along to a Bon Jovi tune. She barely knew the song and certainly didn’t like it, but it did the job. She had discovered long ago that you can’t think when you’re singing a song that you are simultaneously learning the words to, and that it’s almost impossible to be blue when you’re belting out a tune at the top of your voice, especially if you are singing the chosen song deliberately out of tune in an attempt to convey your derision of it. Even though she knew there was nobody around to hear her, she didn’t want anyone thinking that she liked Bon Jovi.
As usual, there was no place for her to park outside of her house, so she had to park farther along the street, underneath the cherry blossom trees that were ripe to shed their delicate pink petals all over her recently washed white Toyota. She found it especially irksome when something that gave her great joy, and stirred her soul with its simple beauty, became a nuisance to her by its very nature. She would have much rather had a seagull — that pesky, noisy, evil breed of a bird — crap on the hood of her car than her beloved cherry blossom fall upon it. At least then when she was scrubbing it off she could curse at the culprit with a clear conscience.
She walked along the sidewalk to the entrance to her duplex and checked her mail box. Like anyone, she always hoped to find a letter from a friend or a long-lost relative lurking amid the junk mail, but the chance was very slim given that she hadn’t written a letter to anyone herself in the last five years. She sorted through the mail, keeping anything that looked vaguely interesting and discarding the rest, then made her way into the building.
She had bought herself a ready-made salmon linguine from the market for dinner, and so she put the package in the microwave to heat up. It was only when she came to stir it halfway through heating that she looked at it properly and make the observation that salmon linguine really shouldn’t have bits of bacon and leek in it and look so penne-ish. They had put the meal in the wrong packaging, the fools. It was too late to take it back — being that it was already half-cooked — and it tasted fine, and so she finished cooking it and began to eat it, but it hadn’t been what she’d wanted and she knew that the leeks would give her wind. It didn’t exactly ruin her day, but it didn’t help to make it any better, either.
“Happy birthday, Liv,” she muttered, raising an imaginary wine glass to toast herself with. She dared not open a bottle and fill a real glass, as she knew she wouldn’t be able to stop before the bottle had been finished. Drinking an entire bottle of wine on her own at home just for the sake of it was not a habit that she wanted to return to any time soon.
She took a hot shower, standing under the forceful spray thinking about nothing in particular until her skin started to crinkle. She had intended for it to prepare her for bed, but it actually woke her up instead. As she didn’t want to fill the apartment with the empty noise of reality TV and she wasn’t in the mood to concentrate on anything more challenging, she decided to go through the mail she’d brought in with her to see if there was anything worth looking at.
One quick flip through MEC’s Spring catalogue later, having ascertained that she couldn’t afford any of the gear that she might want therein, she picked up the white envelope lying next in the pile. It looked tatty and wasn’t sealed, and the front just had her first name scrawled upon it in ink, so it had evidently been posted by hand.
Figuring it was a note from one of her neighbours, she opened the envelope and unfolded the piece of lined notepaper within. On it was a crude but sweet pencil drawing of a guy wearing a pair of green and red checkered trousers and a navy short-sleeved t-shirt, seen from behind seated on a small log amid a field full of wildflowers and mushrooms, staring out at a night sky dominated by the moon surrounded by stars and colourful swirls of light.
Olivia laughed in surprise, recognizing it immediately as a drawing she had given to Kurt, a good friend of hers back when they were teenagers. At the time, something about it had caught his imagination and he’d framed it, named the guy in it “Jake”, and imbued him with all the features and characteristics of his ideal man. She turned the paper over, and saw that on the back was written: “MEET ME AT DAWN. YOU KNOW WHERE.”
She furrowed her brow. She did not know where he could mean. They’d barely spoken in four years, and had drifted apart long before that. She didn’t know what would have possessed him to unearth this ancient treasure and send it to her out of the blue on her birthday, unless he’d just been thinking of her of late and had decided to involve her in a little mysterious adventure such as they’d enjoyed in the days of old before life got in the way.
The rest of the mail forgotten, she wandered through to her living room and fired up her laptop to check Facebook. Kurt wasn’t online, and from the looks of things hadn’t been all day, but his status update — posted that morning — simply said “Nuff Fluff.” Olivia smiled, understanding that it was a message to her, indicating that he wanted to meet her in the park where they used to get drunk and stoned and talk all night, the park where they had seen those two words graffitied at the bottom of a set of steps and puzzled over what they meant, in the summer before they had set off in different directions and everything had changed.
They had met under tragic circumstances when they were fourteen. Kurt’s eldest sister had gotten herself involved with the local drug scene and had run away from home after she was implicated in an assault and robbery. He had prayed that she would contact him somehow and let him know that she was safe, but she never did, and though he’d held out hope that this was because she knew that the police were in constant contact with their family and she didn’t want to chance it, in his gut he knew that something bad had befallen her. His suspicion was confirmed when a call came from the police up in Prince Rupert one morning a few weeks later to inform his parents that she and a friend had been found dead in an abandoned building they were squatting. It appeared that they had overdosed on a bad batch of heroin that had been doing the rounds of the northern part of the province.
Not long after he received the news, Olivia’s brother — a star athlete at school — had fallen down a tree well while out snowshoeing in the backcountry with a couple of friends. They hadn’t gone prepared with any gear and the tree well was so deep that they had been unable to pull him out or help him dig for sufficient air, and he’d suffocated before they could get a search and rescue crew to him.
They first became acquainted in the waiting room of the school counsellor one afternoon. At the time, Olivia was still struggling to accept the reality of the loss of her brother, while Kurt was stuck on tormenting himself with the idea that there was something that he could have done to save his sister. The bond made between them was instant and deep. It didn’t hurt that they had a mutual love of the paranormal, and their first year of friendship was filled with repeated attempts to contact their siblings on the other side via means of séances and ghost hunts and good old-fashioned prayers, rituals, incantations and spells.
Their parents believed that this was a morbid obsession, and thought that they were a bad influence on each other and were stopping each other from moving on, but Olivia and Kurt didn’t care. They never got anywhere close to finding what they had hoped to find, but as far as they were concerned the attempts served to help them make it through their respective grieving processes more quickly than they’d expected.
They grew out of their occult practices as they became interested in far more achievable pursuits and ambitions, but they never lost their fascination in the afterlife and their belief in parallel worlds, and would still talk of them during their time alone. They had even made sure that they were in possession of a detailed plan of action as to how one would attempt to contact and communicate with the other in the event of them dying and reaching the other side.
As time went on, Olivia felt the need to live up to her brother’s birthright in some way. Everyone had expected him to grow up to be a professional sportsman, though at the time of his death he hadn’t decided whether soccer or hockey was going to be his focus. She had always been terrible at sports, but found that she did have a talent for public speaking, and she quickly became the President of the school’s Debating Society, competing and finding success in events nationwide and gaining popularity among her peers.
She developed a keen interest in politics along the way, and began to plan out a career in Local Government for herself. She graduated high school second best in her class and was offered a place at UVic. Victoria, not being too far from home but just far enough to encourage independence, and being home to the Parliament Buildings of British Columbia, was the perfect choice for her.
Kurt, meanwhile, had immersed himself heavily in gaming, and later taught himself to code, finding that he was very gifted at it. Though he never talked of it to Olivia, by the time he was seventeen it was obvious to her that he was involved in hacking or some other kind of crime, due to the large sums of money that he occasionally came into possession of. He used a lot of this money to buy weed and mushrooms (which she happily partook of), and occasionally LSD, mescaline and other psychedelics (which she did not).
He had a small set of friends with whom he enjoyed tripping his balls off, but in general he preferred to experiment by himself, taking copious notes and becoming quite the psychonaut. He kept most of this private, but would always report his major findings and experiences to Olivia.
Kurt was not at all interested in school, doing just enough to graduate. He wasn’t worried about his lack of traditional job prospects: he’d saved plenty of money and his plan was to bum around Europe and indulge in the party scene until that money ran out, then re-evaluate. He and Olivia spent one last summer together, getting completely off their nuts most nights so that it flashed by in a blur, then they had gone in their separate directions. Olivia went to UVic, and Kurt spent two years in Europe, dispatching occasional missives to Olivia to tell her of his various adventures, before moving to Brazil. It was at that point that she got heavily into her studies and work and completely lost track of him.
Five years later he had turned up on the doorstep of the townhouse that she had shared with a couple of work colleagues at the time, having tracked her down via her parents. It turned out that he had travelled around most of South America after his time in Brazil, and then had spent significant periods in Australia, Thailand, India and Alaska. He hadn’t found whatever it was that he was looking for in any of those places, and had grown bored of traveling, so he had returned home.
They had spent a wild couple of months catching up with each other’s lives and then, finding that they had nothing in common anymore except the past, slowly drifted apart again. The time between meetings grew to weeks, then months, and suddenly she realised that he had become somebody that she used to know — just another friend who she only ever heard anything of via social media.
Olivia’s alarm clock woke her up shortly before dawn. She rubbed her eyes and got out of bed immediately. She pulled on the clothes that she’d left lying on the chair by her bed, drank a glass of water, and then left the house and headed the few blocks to Douglas Park. It being early in Spring, the air had a chill to it, but felt and smelled wonderful and invigorated her to no end.
As she walked, the birds started up their dawn chorus, and her heart sang along with them. She promised herself that she would get up earlier from now on to appreciate this time of the morning, which had always felt mystical to her. Then she laughed at herself, realising that she’d never likely pull herself out of her usual routine of cozying up under her comfy duvet until it was absolutely necessary to get up.
She arrived at the park and saw a figure sitting on the steps in the centre of the park by the fountain. He seemed to be studying the ground but he looked up, saw her and waved at her. He was dressed in checkered trousers and a navy short-sleeved t-shirt. She laughed, impressed by the level of his attention to detail, and trotted over to him.
When she got up close to him, she reared back. It wasn’t Kurt.
The man smiled at her. “Please don’t be scared, Liv,” he said.
He stood up, and held his hand out to her by way of greeting.
“I’m Jake. You know me, right?”
Olivia did not shake his hand, but neither did she turn and walk away. There was something comforting about the way he looked at her. She felt good in his presence, felt together in a way she had never before experienced. And she knew that he looked and sounded exactly like Kurt’s “Jake”. He had facial moles in exactly the right places and was even wearing the same aftershave as Kurt had favoured in his ideal man, for Chrissake. Her fear was overruled by her curiosity.
“You had better explain what is happening, and fast, or I’m out of here,” she told him.
“Okay, but will you sit down?”
Olivia perched herself on the edge of the fountain, facing him. He sat back down on the steps.
“The Other Side exists. I’m from there. Kurt is there right now — he finally found a way through, and he has sent me to tell you, because he knew that it would be the only way that he could make you believe him.”
Olivia did not want to ask the next question, but she had to.
“Is he dead?”
“Hell, no!” Jake smiled at her reassuringly. “He’s fine. More than fine. He’ll be here in a minute, don’t you worry. He just wanted to surprise you by sending me first.”
Olivia was bemused. She didn’t know what to think, but she knew how she felt: she felt like she would strangle Kurt when she saw him, for scaring her like this. A few seconds later she was shaking her head and laughing to herself. This was so like him, it’d just been so long since they’d hung out properly that she’d forgotten.
“Are you for real?’ she asked Jake.
“I’m for ideal,” he replied.
She looked at him questioningly. “I’m afraid I’m not quite following you.”
“The world I’m from is a world of ideals. Everything is perfect there, not real.”
Suddenly Kurt lolloped up behind Olivia. She turned and hit him in the chest, then hugged him, and then hit him again. She tried to say something, but found that there were no words available to her.
“See you later,” said Jake.
She turned in his direction just in time to watch him smile and then vanish.
Kurt looked at Olivia and snorted with laughter. “Oh, God, your face!”
He gently pushed her lower jaw back up to stop her mouth from hanging open, then held her by the shoulders and looked her in the eyes until she had gotten over her shock enough to be able to focus her attention on him.
“Walk with me,” he said, proffering his arm.
He took her to the edge of the park where a wall separated it from a neighbouring piece of land. Through the holes in a beautifully wrought black metal gate, she saw a large garden with a natural pond in the centre, the grass around it dotted with wildflowers. He explained to her that he’d recently discovered that the dawn chorus was not just a random selection of birds trying to show themselves off to potential mates, nor were they members of the same flock letting each other know that they’d made it safely through the night and were ready to get up and at a new day.
The secret he’d found was that the dawn chorus is a carefully articulated code, and he had managed to decipher it. It was telling anyone who knew how to listen properly that the shroud that hides the real world from the ideal world, and vice versa, is thin enough to be breached during the time of the chorus being sung. It also tells one how to go about making the necessary breach.
“The real world and ideal world exist alongside each other, all the time. There is no Other Side, per se, rather it’s all the same side — we’re just hidden from each other by this shroud. It’s normally a little too thick for us to see through, and most of us are usually looking at things in the wrong way to be able to see the other world at the times when it is thin enough.”
He turned to face Olivia, to make sure she was concentrating on what he was saying.
“You have to learn to look in a new way, much like an artist does. Look at things as their essence, rather than the physical form they manifest in. Look at them as they are, rather than how you have learned to see them. There are certain places that can help show you this, that can give you a shortcut to learning to see in a different way. This garden is one of them. We need to go inside.”
He gave Olivia a foot up so she could clamber up the wall. When she dropped down the other side, she gasped audibly. She wasn’t seeing the garden as she saw it through the gate. It was as if she’d dropped into a Monet or Van Gogh painting. Kurt vaulted the wall and landed next to her.
“You’re seeing it?” he asked.
She nodded, dumbfounded.
“Keep looking. Or rather, keep letting it just wash over you. Try not to think about what you’re seeing or interpret it in any way. If you can manage that, you’ll start smelling it, too, and feeling it, and then you’ll be perceiving the ideal world as the truth, the same way as you usually perceive the real world as such.”
Olivia did as she was told, and before long she was fully immersed in the ideal world, and blind to the real world. It felt as if she were one person in a crowd of millions singing along to a song at a rock concert, completely lost in the ultimate harmony, the moment lasting for eternity. She felt both individual and part of the whole at the same time, everything that has been or would be in existence being perceived by her all at once. She was there, Kurt was there, Jake was there, her brother was there, both Kurt’s sisters, Olivia’s parents, her grandparents, all her ancestors and descendants. There was no place to be other than where they all were, and no time other than the moment they were all inhabiting.
Gradually she noticed herself standing back in the walled garden, her perception fine-tuning itself back to the real world. The flowers and pond regained their edges, their finer features, their individual differences. She began to feel the chill of the air, smell its fragrance. She heard the dawn chorus breaking up, the birds starting to go about their individual tasks for the day. She felt Kurt’s hand in hers, became aware that he was talking to her.
“…tell you as soon as I found out, but I needed to bring a bit of mystique back to your life first, get your head into the right mindset. Then I remembered that your birthday was coming up and that I could give you the ideal gift – literally. So, happy birthday, Liv!”
She leaned into him, smiling broadly. She knew that the experience was coming to an end, but that it would be experienced time and again now that she had learned that the way to reach the other side was to stop wasting time yearning and searching for something that wasn’t there, and start paying the kind of attention needed to see what was and always would be right in front of her.
THE OTHER SIDE copyright © Kate Chandler 2015