he is puzzled by what lies before him. it’s unlike anything he’s ever seen, yet there is something familiar about its rhythm. a cool, turquoise gelatinous substance covers white, grainy sand. looking closer, the not-quite-water is filled with life. small organisms twist and metamorphosize, merging and separating and merging again. one small piece of life is growing larger, absorbing all other wriggling matter until it becomes a giant, tumultuous mass. finally, once it has completely dominated its own tiny world, it splits apart into a million little pieces. the bright specks dart around, colliding and combining and sometimes disappearing into turquoise opaqueness. the observer could spend a lifetime watching tiny lives grow and shrink, but there are other places to be. one last look and a single test tube later, he’s on his way.
she loves him and he loves her. they definitely love each other. a strange, quiet kind of love maybe, but love all the same. and now he’s leaving. why wouldn’t he? it’s torture to stay, and she is not the only thing he loves; she is not the only thing he dreams about. for the first time, he doesn’t wait for a reply when he whispers that he loves her. he just gets up from his chair and walks out the door and hopes that it wasn’t the last time.
a labyrinth of wide tunnels spreads deeper into the rock, forming a puzzle that can’t be solved. the walls are completely dark and inexplicably warm. countless passages branch off, increasing in complexity until there are hundreds of thousands of choices: hollow capillaries of stone that are impossible to navigate. when he places his fingertips on the rough stone, his hand moves up and down slightly. he lies down and listens. the entire cavernous tunnel is slightly contracting, the walls moving slowly closer then farther. his own breathing slows, his stomach moving up and down to the same rhythm. he stays there for a while, listening and breathing and being. before he leaves, he picks up a single rock and places it in a small plastic bag.
he is listening to the beeping of the machine. it's an incessant sound — a never ending reminder. it keeps her alive and it's killing him. everything here is metal and glass, and it always smells like cleaner and white walls. he has foggy memories of a different life; there was a time when his skin was warm with sun and he felt earth beneath his feet and wind on his face. that was a long time ago. the beeping is interrupted by a different sound, and he pulls a device from his pocket. a message is emblazoned on the screen in bold letters: the opportunity of a lifetime.
it’s the greenest thing he’s ever seen. there are a billion different shades, each brighter than the last. leaves rustle and branches bend as wind passes through trees. among the plants he almost recognizes something else is growing. something with purple fronds that undulate in the breeze like seaweed underwater. when he gets too close, the magenta plumes bow away from him in a smooth motion that seems just a little too sentient for a plant.
he comes bearing gifts. when he enters, the room is full of new machines and uniformed people but they might as well be nonexistent; he only has eyes for her. he’s been gone so long, much longer than he promised, but he’s back and she’s still here and that’s what matters. he sits in the chair next to her bed — his chair, the one he’s sat in for hours and days and maybe weeks — and takes her hand. she looks exactly the same. dark hair, soft curves, eyelids that still make his heart jump every time they flutter. her hand is too cold, but when he places a finger on her wrist he can feel a pulse almost as regular as the sounds of the machines. he gently opens her fingers and lays his newest finding on her palm. this time, it’s a small piece of something smooth and coppery. in a low voice, he explains where he found the metal. he asks in an even quieter tone if she likes the present. he knows there will be no response. one more time, he puts his hand over hers, and thinks that she is still by far his best discovery.
he has been walking down the circuitous path for what feels like hours, and there is still no end in sight. he wonders yet again how the trail was formed. it must have taken years, since it is surrounded on all sides by metal. spires of copper grow upwards, twisting high enough to block out all but a few rays of the setting sun. it’s an odd sight, but beautiful; the shiny metal reflects every bit of light until the entire canyon of metal is ablaze. down at his feet, small scaly creatures dart between outcroppings of metal. one sunbathes on the top of a stray part of a tower. it startles awake and runs away as he bends down to pick up the fiery piece of metal.
the shelf is lined with memories. a turquoise test tube is full of wriggling creatures so small that they’re almost imperceptible. a dark rock warps the air around it with heat waves. a chunk of golden metal that still holds a bit of sun. they all surround a small wooden box, forming a sort of altar. this is his place to remember her, and her place to rest. he still travels to far away places and collects things to bring back to her. every time, right before he leaves, he carefully brings the wooden box outside and stares at the sky and clutches the container tightly to his chest and remembers. every time, he opens the lid of the box to let a few pieces of ash float away. everywhere he goes, he leaves a piece of her behind.