When I imagined how I’d be spending the summer before I left for college, I thought about road trips and beaches and multiple trips to boring home stores to buy, I don’t know, sheets and shower sandals and a dry-erase board. And yet here I am, sitting in some kind of isolation tank, with only my best friend to keep me company (and keep me sane). (And I still don’t own shower sandals, which is stressing me out more than it should, considering my current circumstances.)
Bea and I have spent the past three days or so trying to figure out how we got here—wherever “here” is—and so far we have three theories: We’ve been abducted by aliens, we’re sharing a mutual dream, or my grandmother decided to lace the brownies she made for us that night with some kind of super intense drug.
“I mean, maybe got confused,” Bea says. “She’s like 92.”
“She’s 79,” I say. “And she doesn’t have access to any drugs besides her heart medication and that stuff she puts on her corns.”
“Ugh, Wiley, gross. Don’t talk about corns. You know how I feel about feet.” Bea hates feet. Especially toes. She thinks they look like “fingers that gave up.”
“My grandmother didn’t drug us,” I say. “Chocolate milkshakes are about as wild as she gets, anyway.”
“I’m going with ‘mutual dream,’ then,” says Bea. “Alien abduction is too ’70s, and too creepy.” We’ve been doing everything we can to shake off the words alien and abduction. The vibes are too intense to deal with, and they bounce off the walls of our little tank with extreme frequency.
“Super ’70s,” I agree. “And we would have seen a beam of light, right? There’s always a beam of light.”
“And someone with saucer eyes. Besides, the only ‘being’ we’ve seen since we got here looked human, right? So that rules aliens out.”
“Unless she’s just pretending to be human.”
“Wiley,” says Bea. “That doesn’t tell us anything. Everybody on Earth is just pretending to be human.”
I snort. “That’s deep. Is that from a poem?”
“Yeah. It’s from a poem your mom wrote.”
“Oh, you want to mess?” I pull my sock off and wiggle my toes in the air.
“You’re disgusting and you desperately need a pedicure, but I love you,” she says. She sprawls out on one of the two white couches and stares at the ceiling, which is shiny and pink. I sit on the floor beside her, scraping the crumbs from the bottom of a bag of freeze-dried strawberry ice cream and licking the powder off my fingers. Neither of us has brought up the obvious answer: We’re dead, and this is some kind of messed-up afterlife. I’m sure she’s thinking it as much as I am, but we love each other too much to say the words out loud.
“You’re probably right,” I say. “It has to be ‘mutual dream.’”
We sit and wait in our little box, wondering if we’ll ever get a chance to wake up.
Bea Sandoval and I have been inseparable since the first day of second grade, when our teacher, Mrs. Carroll, made us stand up and introduce ourselves to the class and we discovered that we shared an affinity for peanut butter waffles.
“I’ve never met anyone else who likes peanut butter waffles!” Bea said at the time.
“Me either!” It was true—my brother thought I was super gross for preferring peanut butter to maple syrup. His loss.
“I think that means we’re supposed to be best friends,” said Bea. “It’s called fate.”
“I like fate,” I said, because I was seven and didn’t know any better.
“Me too!” She smiled. “See? We’re totally alike. I feel like we’re best friends already.”
“Let’s make a best friend’s pact.” Bea took my hand and gave it a squeeze. “No matter what, it’s always me and you.”
I squeezed her hand back. “Us forever,” I said. “Us for always.”
Our room looks like a human-size fish tank, only instead of ugly rainbow rocks and ceramic treasure chests, there are the two couches and an aluminum table covered with packets of astronaut ice cream and bottles of water. There are two giant windows, through which we can see a ton of lights, and, a little ways away, another tank, this one filled with what looks like beautiful green water. We haven’t seen anything moving inside it, though Bea keeps saying she just knows c something’s in there. There’s a sparkling pink road separating the two tanks, lined with the most incredible trees I’ve ever seen: bright blue trunks and gemlike violet leaves. The leaves light up at night like streetlights. There is something marvelous about this place, though I’m sure I’d enjoy it more if I weren’t, you know, being held captive or whatever.
The only other person we’ve seen is a woman who identified herself to us only by an intitial: S. We don’t know anything about her, but her look is very “substitute English teacher on the go.” She wears way too many beads around her neck and her shoes are definitely orthopedic. She’s nice enough, as far as creepy isolation tank wardens go. She brings us three meals a day, pushing them through a pneumatic tube that shoots various packets—all freeze-dried—into our chamber. She’s only said two words to us since we’ve been here: “You’re safe.” We don’t necessarily believe her. You understand, right? I mean, really.
“I hope S. brings more of those freeze-dried french fries today,” Bea says. “Those were super good.”
“Eww, no they weren’t! They were like stale potato chips.” I peer out one of the window. “You know, Bea, maybe we shouldn’t even eat anything she gives us. We have no idea what her deal is.”
“I’m still going with ‘mutual dream,’” Bea shrugs. “We’ve been here for what feels like at least three days, and nobody’s poisoned us yet. And anyway, whenever I die in a dream, I just wake up, which would be fine with me right now.”
I spot S. walking up the rose quartz road, only this time she has someone with her. Or something, I guess I should say.
“Dude, come here,” I say, motioning for Bea to join me at the window. “I don’t think this is a dream.”
We press our faces up against the glass and stare at the entity holding on to S’s arm.
“Oh shit,” Bea says. “So ’70s.”
“Super ’70s,” I say.
They move closer, and Bea grabs my hand and gives it a squeeze.
“No matter what,” she says. “It’s always me and you.”
I take a deep breath and squeeze her hand back. “Us forever,” I tell her. “Us for always.” ✭