The Walls of the Universe

By Paul Melko
Copyright 2009

  • Chapter 1  
  • The screen door slammed behind John Rayburn, rattling in its frame. He and his dad had been meaning to fix the hinges and paint it before winter, but just then he wanted to rip it off and fling it into the fields.

    "Johnny?" his mother called after him, but by then he was in the dark shadow of the barn. He slipped around the far end and any more of his mother's calls were lost among the sliding of cricket legs. His breath blew from his mouth in clouds.

    John came to the edge of the pumpkin patch, stood for a moment, then plunged into it. Through the pumpkin patch was east, toward Case Institute of Technology where he hoped to start as a freshman the next year. Not that it was likely. There was always the University of Toledo, his father had said. One or two years of work could pay for a year of tuition there.

    He kicked a half-rotten pumpkin. Seeds and wispy strings of pumpkin guts spiraled through the air. The smell of dark earth and rotten pumpkin reminded him it was a week before Halloween and they hadn't had time to harvest the pumpkins: a waste and a thousand dollars lost to earthworms. He ignored how many credits that money would have bought.

    The pumpkin field ended at the tree line, the eastern edge of the farm. The trees -- old maples and elms -- abutted Gurney Road, beyond which was the abandoned quarry. He stood in the trees, just breathing, letting the anger seep away.

    It wasn't his parents' fault. If anyone was to blame, it was he. He hadn't had to beat the crap out of Ted Carson. He hadn't had to tell Ted Carson's mom off. That had entirely been him. Though the look on Mrs. Carson's face had almost been worth it when he told her her son was an asshole. What a mess.

    He spun at the sound of a stick cracking.

    For a moment he thought that Ted Carson had chased him out of the farmhouse, that he and his mother were there in the woods. But the figure who stood there was just a boy, holding a broken branch in his hand.

    "Johnny?" the boy said. The branch flagged in his grip, touching the ground.

    John peered into the dark. He wasn't a boy; he was a teenager. John stepped closer. The teen was dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt. Over the shirt he wore a sleeveless red coat that looked oddly out of date. He had sandy blond hair and brownish eyes.

    John's eyes lingered on the stranger's face. No, not a stranger. The teen had his face.

    "Hey, Johnny. It's me, Johnny."

    The figure in the woods was him.

    "Who... who are you?" John asked. How could this be?

    The stranger smiled. His smile. "I'm you, John."


    "Who do I look like?" the stranger said. He opened his arms, palms up, as if to share an intimate comment.

    John's head spun for a moment. "You look like...." Me, he almost said. A brother. A cousin. A hallucination. A trick.

    "I look just like you, John. Because I am you." John took a step back. The stranger continued, "I know what you're thinking. Some trick. Someone is playing a trick on the farmboy. No. Let's get past that. Next you're going to think that we're twins, and that one of us was put up for adoption. Nope. It's much more interesting than that."

    The thought of twins had crossed his mind, but he didn't like the stranger's manner, his presumption. "Explain it, then."

    "Listen, I'm really hungry. I could use some food and a place to sit down. I saw Dad go into the house. Maybe we can sit in the barn, and I can explain everything."

    There was something desperate in his words. He must want something from John. There had to be some twist, some gimmick. John just couldn't see it yet. And that bothered him.

    "I don't think so," he said.

    "Fine. I'll turn around and walk away," the stranger said. "Then you'll never get to hear the story."

    John almost let him go. He glanced left and right. No one was in the woods, lurking and laughing. If this were a joke, he couldn't see the punchline. If this were a scam, he couldn't see why he was the mark. He couldn't see the logic, and that ate at him. What harm was there in hearing the story?

    "Let's go to the barn," he said finally.

    The stranger's smile was genuine. "Great!"

    John headed back toward the barn, the stranger at his side. John eased away from him. As they walked through the pumpkin patch, he noted that their strides matched, that they were the same height. John pulled open the back door of the barn, and the young man entered ahead of him, tapping the light switch by the door.

    "A little warmer," he said. He rubbed his hands together and turned to John.

    The light hit his face squarely, and John was startled to see the uncanny match between them. In the dark, it had been easy to think their looks were close but not exact. The sandy hair was styled differently and was longer. The clothes were odd; John had never worn a coat like that. The young man was just a bit thinner as well. He wore a blue backpack, so fully stuffed that the zipper wouldn't close all the way. There was a cut above his eye. A bit of brown blood was crusted over his left brow, clotted but recent.

    He could have passed as John's twin.

    "So, who are you?"

    "What about a bite of something to eat?"

    John went to the horse stall and pulled an apple from a bag. He tossed it to the young man. He caught it and smiled at John.

    "Tell the story, and I might get some dinner from the house."

    "Did Dad teach you to be so mean to strangers? I bet if he found me in the woods, he'd invite me in to dinner."

    "Tell," John said.

    "Fine." The young man flung himself on a hay bale and munched the apple. "It's simple, really. I'm you. Or rather I'm you genetically, but I grew up on this same farm in another universe. And now I've come to visit myself."

    "Bullshit. Who put you up to this?"

    "Okay, okay. I didn't believe me either." A frown passed over his face. "But I can prove it. Hold on a second." He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Here we go: That horse is named Stan or Dan. You bought him from the McGregor's on Butte Road when you were ten. He's stubborn and willful and he hates being saddled. But he'll canter like a show horse if he knows you have an apple in your pocket." He turned to the stalls on his left. "That pig is called Rosey. That cow is Wilma. The chickens are called Ladies A through F. How am I doing so far?" He smiled an arrogant smile.

    "You stole some of your uncle's cigarettes when you were twelve and smoked them all. You killed a big bullfrog with your bb gun when you were eight. You were so sickened by it you threw up and haven't used a gun since. Your first kiss was with Amy Walder when you were fourteen. She wanted to show you her underwear too, but you ran home to Mommy. I don't blame you. She's got cooties everywhere I go.

    "Everyone calls you Johnny, but you prefer John. You have a stash of Playboys in the barn loft. And you burned a hole in the rug in your room once. No one knows because you rearranged your room so that the night stand is on top of it." He spread his arms like a gymnast who'd just stuck a landing.

    "Well? How close did I come?" He smiled and tossed the apple core into Stan's stall.

    "I never kissed Amy Walder." Amy had gotten pregnant when she was fifteen by Tyrone Biggens. She'd moved to Montana with her aunt and hadn't come back. John didn't mention that everything else he'd said was true.

    "Well, was I right?"

    John shrugged. "Mostly."

    "Mostly? I nailed it on the head with a hammer, because it all happened to me. Only it happened in another universe."

    How did this guy know so much about him? Who had he talked to? His parents? "Okay. Answer this. What was my first cat's name?"


    "What is my favorite class?"


    "What schools did I apply to?"

    The man paused, frowned. "I don't know."

    "Why not? You know everything else."

    "I've been traveling, you know, for a while. I haven't applied to college yet, so I don't know. As soon as I used the device, I became someone different. Up till then, we were the same." He looked tired. "Listen. I'm you, but if I can't convince you, that's fine. Let me sleep in the loft tonight and then I'll leave."

    John watched him grab the ladder, and he felt a twinge of guilt at treating him so shabbily. "Yeah, you can sleep in the loft. Let me get you some dinner. Stay here. Don't leave the barn, and hide if someone comes. You'd give my parents a heart attack."

    "Thanks, John."

    He left him there and sprinted across the yard to the house. His mother and father stopped talking when the door slammed, so he knew they'd been talking about him.

    "I'm gonna eat in the barn," he said. "I'm working on an electronics experiment."

    He took a plate from the cabinet and began to dish out the lasagna. He filled the plate with enough to feed two of him.

    His father caught his eye, then said, "Son, this business with the Carson boy...."

    John slipped a second fork into his pocket. "Yeah?"

    "I'm sure you did the right thing and all." John nodded at his father, saw his mother look away.

    "He hates us because we're farmers, and we dig in the dirt," John said. His mother lifted her apron strap over her neck, hung the apron on a chair, and slipped out of the kitchen.

    "I know that, Johnny... John. But sometimes you gotta keep the peace."

    John nodded. "Sometimes I have to throw a punch, Dad." He turned to go.

    "John, you can eat in here with us."

    "Not tonight, Dad."

    Grabbing a quart of milk, he walked through the laundry room and left out the back door.

    He stopped short as he pulled open the barn door. The stranger was rubbing Dan's ears, and the horse was leaning into him, loving it.

    "Stan never lets anyone do that but me."

    The stranger -- this other John -- turned with a half-smile on his lips. "Just so," he said. He took the proffered paper towel full of lasagna, dug into it with the extra fork John had fetched.

    "I always loved this lasagna. Thanks."

    The tone, the arrogance of the stranger annoyed him. His smile.... Did John look like that? He expected the stranger to keep talking, to keep goading him, but instead he remained silent, chewing on his dinner.

    Finally John said, "Let's assume for a moment that you are me from another universe. How can you do it? And why you?"

    Through a mouth of pasta, the stranger said, "With my device, and I don't know."

    "Elaborate," John said, angry.

    "I was given a device that lets me pass from one universe to the next. It's right here under my shirt. I don't know why it was me. Or rather I don't know why it was us."

    "Stop prancing around my questions!" John shouted. He was impossible! He wouldn't give a straight answer. "Who gave you the device?"

    "I did!" The stranger grinned.

    John shook his head, trying to understand. "You're saying that one of us -- yet another John -- from another universe gave you the device."

    "Yeah. Another John. Nice looking fellow."

    Again that smile. John was silent for a while, just watching the stranger wolf down his food. Finally he said, "I need to feed the sheep." He poured a bag of corn into the trough. The stranger lifted the end of it with him. "Thanks." They fed the cows and the horse afterwards, then finished their own dinners.

    John said, "So if you are me, what do I call you? If we were twins we'd have different names. But really, we're the same person exactly. Closer than twins." Twins had identical genetic material, but from the moment of conception had slightly differing environments that might turn on and off different genes. Presumably John and this other John had identical genetic material and indentical environments, up to a point.

    "My name is John, just like yours. I am you, but you may not like to think of me as John Rayburn. I think of you as John Farmboy. But you gotta' remember there's an infinite number of us. It's going to be hard to keep track of all us John Rayburns if we ever get together." The stranger laughed. "How about you think of me as John Prime for now? We'll keep track of ourselves relative to our downstream and upstream universes."

    "Who gave you the device?"

    "John Superprime," Prime said with a smile. "So do you believe me yet?"

    John was still dubious. It made a bizarre sense, but then so did any of those made-up science fiction stories he'd read at the drugstore. Anything could be believed and made to sound coherent. "Maybe."

    "All right. Here's the last piece of evidence. No use denying this." He pulled up his pant leg to reveal a long white scar, devoid of hair. "Let's see yours," John said.

    John looked at the scar, and then pulled his jeans up to the knee. The cold air of the barn drew goose bumps on his calf everywhere except the puckered flesh of his own identical scar.

    When John had been twelve, he and Bobby Walder had climbed the barbed wire fence of Old Mrs. Jones to swim in her pond. Mrs. Jones had set the dogs on them, and they'd had to run naked across the field, diving over the barbed wire fence. John hadn't quite cleared it.

    Bobby had run off, and John had limped home. The cut on his leg had required three dozen stitches and a tetanus shot.

    "Now do you believe?" Prime asked.

    John stared at the scar on his leg. "I believe. Hurt like hell, didn't it?"

    "Yes," Prime said with a grin. "Yes, it did, brother."


    Order on-line at Amazon.

  • Chapter 2