"Listen," Michael said. "I'm gonna take the garbage down, and then I'll be back up. Why don't you make yourself a drink, okay?"
Jillian nodded from the couch, where she'd collapsed as soon as she'd got through the door. She wasn't tired in any way, mentally or physically, but she was floored. The moment she'd been waiting for had finally come to pass: Michael had asked for her hand in marriage. The patrons of the restaurant they'd been in when said proposal had occurred had "ooh"ed and "aah"ed when he'd gone down on bended knee, and they'd clapped their congratulations when she'd said yes, making the moment as magical as she could've hoped for ... but there was something spoiling that moment now; something she hadn't anticipated. There was a nagging feeling in her stomach, and that nag traveled and from her gut to her mind, transforming from nausea to question, and the question was this: Am I sure of his love for me?
She tried to calm herself as she sat there, but the feeling only grew stronger, contradicting her desires. After months and months of being certain, it seemed painfully ironic that she was questioning her feelings now. But this was not to say she was not happy. On the contrary, she was positively elated ... but still, if there were only some way she could peer deep into her lover's mind, to find out if his affection was genuine....
"Oh, for heaven's sake," she said to herself, hoping to chase away her worries with her voice, "he proposed to you, didn't he? Would he have done that if he didn't love you?"
I don't know, was the answer that shot through her mind. But how, at this moment of all moments, could she be so dubious about something that she'd been so sure of for six months running? During that time, whenever that particular question"Am I sure of his love for me?"had come up, her answer to it had always been quick and confident. But now she found herself skeptical. Was that normal? Did every woman experience this inner struggle when the question had been popped?
She kicked off her shoes and pulled her feet up onto the couch, closing her eyes in an attempt to relax her thoughts. Part of her believed that she was being very silly, but another part"the stronger part"told her that it was healthy to be so analytical, especially as the thing being analyzed was one of such significance.
"Okay," she said. "You're going to count to five, and then you're going to ask yourself the question aloud, and whatever answer springs into your mind"and you already know what it's going to be"is going to be the truth. Deliberating on this any longer is going to ruin one of the most exciting evenings of your life, and you know, deep down, that there's no reason for it. You know that he loves you. So here goes. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Is Michael's love for me authentic?"
There were a few seconds of reflection, and then the verdict came back, a single word that sprung up in front of her mind's eye in stark and bold uppercase letters: UNDECIDED.
"No!" she said, hitting the couch's armrest. "That is unacceptable. How can this be happening? Why am I so unconfident all of a sudden?"
She felt tears threatening to surface in her eyes, and she closed them in an attempt to stave them off. Thankfully, it worked. Having accomplished that, she decided to give herself another shot at the question, allowing for a little more time in formulating an answer. She'd give herself until Michael came back from his garbage expedition. He lived on the twenty-sixth floor of the high-rise, and beings that it was Friday night, the three elevators would be in constant use by attendees of parties being thrown by various tenants. The garbage dump was in the basement, so she could safely assume that it would be another five to ten minutes before he"her fianc!"returned.
"All right," she said, taking a deep breath. "This is not the pressing issue you're making it out to be, Jillian. You've worked yourself into such a state that you're on the brink of a nervous breakdown, and there's simply no justification for that. Just find what you believe to be true"it's inside of you somewhere, kiddo"and let it fill your mind, spreading its warmth and comfort. You need to be composed by the time Michael comes back. It wouldn't be fair to include him in your foibles. That poor guy has just made a life changing decision too, and if outward appearances are to be believed, then he seems happy as a clam about it. So at least do him the good service of sparing him your nonsense. Ask yourself one more time, and then be done with it. So, without further ado: Is Michael's love and proposal for real?"
She closed her eyes again and tried to clear her mind of all things except for the matter at hand, and within moments, those tears she'd been so triumphant in curtailing before were now forcing themselves out of her lowered eyelids. "Damn it!" she said, smacking the armrest again. "Damn it, damn it, damn it!" Now the tears were flowing heavily, and the more she willed them to stop, the more abundantly they spilled. Why, oh, why had she done this to herself? she wondered. Why was she so consummately confused?
The crying fit that had seized her might have gone on until Michael came back if it hadn't been for the barely audible thumping noises behind her. When the sound reached her ears, Jillian quickly wiped at her tears and tried to collect herself, thinking that somehow her fianc had already come back and was standing behind her. Thankfully, he wasn't, just as she knew he wouldn't be; there hadn't been sufficient time for his return. And besides, she would've seen him come through the door, as she'd been facing it the entire while.
"What the"" she said as she searched for the noise's source, and when she found it, she didn't know whether she should scream, be amazed, run away, or all three.
At the window directly behind her were two orbs of bluish light, each about the size of a golf ball, and they were pouncing against the glass as if searching for a way in. While the sight was disconcerting, it was also strangely beautiful. Jillian found that she felt just as welcoming toward them as she felt afraid. The fear, of course, stemmed from their unknown origin, but her warm feelings toward them branched from the allure they exuded. Their luminescence made her feel serene, and she couldn't help but to think that these orbs"whatever they were"were friendly. Her dilemma concerning Michael's affections temporarily forgotten, she stood up and walked toward the spheres, not taking time to consider whether this was a good idea or not. At the moment, her curiosity was too strong to allow for any coherent thoughts: She simply wanted"no, needed"to get a closer look at these things.
As soon as she was within touching distance of the window, the orbs stopped bouncing, choosing instead to nuzzle against the glass as if they found comfort in it. Once again, not thinking about any detrimental consequences, Jillian raised her fingertips to the glass, and while the heat she felt was expected, its bizarreness was not. It felt foreign, somehow, and the term otherworldly jumped into her mind as she realized that the warmness she was feeling was nothing like the warmth she'd ever felt from the sun, or a lamp, or any other heat source. This heat made her flesh tingle, and not unpleasantly.
"What are you?" she said, certainly not expecting the answer she received. The response was not audible, but visual, and if she hadn't stepped away from the window, it would have become physical.
The orbs, pressing their natural shape out of true, began pushing against the glass, and by some means that did not fracture the window, they shoved their way through. Within seconds they were inside the apartment, and their primary goal was instantly obvious: They wanted Jillian.
Having backed up without looking behind her, Jillian had no way to gauge how much distance she'd covered, and when the orbs pushed their way into the abode, she added more haste to her retreat; and this is how she came to fall over the back of the couch, her legs flying up into the air above her, her eyes finding a view of the ceiling. She was just about to scream, but the noise was caught in her throat when the spheres suddenly appeared above her, shining their bluish light upon her countenance. Before she had time to even think about reacting, the orbs zoomed down at her face, fastening themselves to her eyes before she could close them. She raised her hands toward her attackers, meaning to rip them away from her, but before her fingers could touch the spheres, she experienced the most peaceful feeling she had ever known.
"Oh, my God," she said as she lowered her hands and let her lips stretch into a smile. "This ... this is just"" beautiful is how she'd intended to end the sentence, but she realized at the last second that no word could possibly describe what she was experiencing right now, and so it was better left unspecified.
What she was experiencing was this: Flight. She was soaring through the air outside, and although she was without a physical body, she was completely aware of her past and present. It was almost as if her mind had absconded from her body, and as she considered this unfeasibility, she came to the conclusion that it was true. She knew that her body was still lying on the couch in Michael's apartment, but she couldn't feel it, because she"that is, her essence"was out here, above the city, staring down at its lights and movement. It seemed odd that she should be feeling so comfortable, though, especially considering her profound fear of heights. She didn't even like getting close to Michael's windows, although it was perfectly safe, because the view had never failed in rendering her dizzy (this had not been the case when she'd approached the windows a moment ago, of course, because the orbs had provided the ultimate distraction). But here she was, enjoying her time in the sky, and she knew that the spheres were responsible for making her so relaxed. They were here too, keeping her aloft and safe, although their physical presences were also back in the high-rise, just like her body. It was all so strange, but it didn't discourage her from treasuring the moment.
Suddenly, the city seemed to be rushing up at her, threatening to collide into her essence, perhaps scattering it in such a way that it could never become whole again. But then Jillian realized that the city hadn't moved at all. She was descending. She hadn't felt herself doing so because ... well, because she didn't have a body to feel anything with.
The spheres, which she could sense directly in front of her, were leading her down into the city's streets, passing over the multitude of drivers and pedestrians that went about their business, believing themselves to be unobserved ... at least by the likes of her. Thinking about this made her wonder if she'd ever been scrutinized while believing she was alone. Was it possible that some spirit"detached from its physical body"had watched her while she was going about her doings, changing her clothes, or, God forbid, relieving herself on the toilet? If she considered her own current experience, then she had to assume that it was indeed possible.
For a brief moment her thoughts were less than cheerful at this prospect, but the feeling quickly wore off as she found herself entering the lobby of Michael's apartment building. What was going on? she wondered. Were the spheres already bringing her back to the confines of her body? If so, she wasn't ready. She wished there was some way she could communicate this to them, but a second later, she realized that there was no need. They were not taking her upstairs, but into the janitor's closet beyond the elevators. What could this be all about? Did the orbs want to show her a few hanging mops and other cleaning utensils? No, they did not. Instead, they wanted to take her directly into the mind of the janitor, who was hiding behind the door and sneaking a few sips of whiskey from the flask he kept stored behind the vacuum bags.
Nothing up until this part of the strange journey could be considered uncomfortable, but this"the entering into a stranger's psyche"certainly was. She and the orbs flew right into the man's bristly gray hair, passed through his scalp, pierced his skull, journeyed through the darkness of his gray matter, and then popped through the lining of the janitor's mind. Jillian could not physically feel any of this, of course, but it didn't change the fact that she suddenly experienced a sense of claustrophobia. What was the purpose of such unpleasantness? she wondered. Was she being punished for some reason or another? Or"and this possibility really chilled her to the boneless core of her present form"had she died there on the couch and permanently left her body behind, meaning that this whole thing was the beginnings of some kind of afterlife punishment?
Thankfully, a moment later, she realized that she was not dead, and that there was indeed a purpose behind this journey the spheres were taking her on. They wanted her, for some reason, to be able to see into this man's thoughts. And the thoughts they wanted her to see were very specific: They were the thoughts the janitor had toward his wife of nineteen years.
"Stupid woman," his thoughts said. "Always badgering me, telling me that I'm not good enough, that I should be more than I am. Well, she's been nothing but a pain in my backside from the day we met, and so what gives her the right to complain?"
There were a few more grumbles, but before Jillian had a chance to hear them, she was taken out of the janitor's mind just as quickly as she'd been thrust into it. From the closet, the orbs took her up through the ceiling and into the second level's corridor. Two drunken men were stumbling down it, laughing hysterically, saying something along the lines of, "I told you I could get her into bed!" "No," the other replied. "I'm the one that got her into bed. You only had the honor of sloppy seconds, and that, my friend, is truly disgusting!" Again they laughed uproariously, and Jillian wondered if they'd still feel the same in the morning, after the alcohol had worn off.
The spheres continued down the hallway and then veered through a door with the number 217 on it. They flew through the living room and down a short hall that led to the bathroom, where they entered the head of a woman who was showering behind the glass. As soon as Jillian entered the woman's mind, she knew that this was the individual the two inebriates had been speaking of. This woman's thoughts said, "What have I done? I slept with them both, and now I'll never be able to convince Chad that I love him. He'll never forgive me for turning myself into a whore, even though it was he who'd talked me into it. God help me, I never should have invited them both up here, and I never should have touched the wine. Oh, please, Jesus ... please forgive me for what I've done."
A moment later, Jillian and the orbs exited the woman's head (she was now curled into the fetal position on the shower's floor and sobbing). They traveled through several more ceilings until they reached the tenth floor, where they entered the mind of an old man who was breathing through the tube of a respirator. It was at this moment that Jillian suddenly understood what the spheres were doing: They had somehow heard her doubts regarding Michael's love, and they were showing her that they could answer her question by helping her to enter his psyche, which she had no doubt would happen before this peculiar journey came to an end. All the minds that came before Michael's were meant to prove that their ability was real, so that she wouldn't doubt what she learned when the answer to her query presented itself. She wanted to tell the orbs that there was nothing left for them to prove, that she believed in their power, but she didn't know how to communicate the message. An instant later, however, they were hearing the respirator man's thoughts, and her own were shoved aside.
"The love of my life," the old man was thinking. "There she sat, trying to look innocent about her infidelity, but I knew. Oh, yes. I knew. And I told her so, just before I pulled the trigger and put a little hole just above her left eye. I never did stop loving her, but I also can't regret what I did. She deserved it! And so did her lover, whose remains are still buried under the cellar of that old house!"
Jillian wanted so badly to scream, to say that she didn't want to stay in this old murderer's head any longer, and she felt the most intense relief when the spheres left his mind and put a good number of stories between them. The next floor they came to was the sixteenth, and again, Jillian wanted to protest against further mind entering ... but the orbs weren't quite done yet. They took her into the apartment of a young couple, whose recent wedding photograph adorned the wall just above the television. The man and his bride were sitting on the couch, watching what appeared to be a sappy romance, and just as the woman jumped up to answer the microwave's call in the kitchen, the spheres took Jillian directly into her mind.
"I'm happy," the woman's thoughts said. "I'm really, really happy. I didn't know if I would be, but I am, and I hope this feeling lasts forever."
Although Jillian wanted to stay in the woman's head longer, having found solace in her thoughts, the spheres didn't seem to think this was necessary. They jumped out of the woman's head and straight into her husband's. Believing that her recently found comfort was about to be taken from her (she thought that this man, whom the woman cherished so perfectly, was more than likely a scoundrel who already had cheating on his mind), she cringed against the heartbreak that was sure to come ... but when she heard the man's thoughts, she found that they were warm and gentle.
"I still can't believe I've gotten this lucky," his mind was saying. "I keep thinking that I'll wake up one morning to find that this is all a dream, and that in reality she'll only be my neighbor, and she'll be married to some doofus that doesn't deserve her at all. Please, Lord. Please let this not be a dream. I love her so much, and it would only crush me if it wasn't real."
Oh, this is exactly the way Jillian felt about Michael, and it was reassuring to learn that other people had doubts, too. Even ones who'd already tied the knot. Yes, she realized, doubts were normal, and not to have them would be inhuman.
Again, before she was ready to leave, the orbs tore Jillian from the man's head, and as she was taken out of the couple's apartment, she tried her hardest to leave behind an aspiration of good fortune for them, wishing them nothing but the best.
Instead of going through the ceilings again, the spheres took her down the corridor and went through the elevator doors, dropping quickly down the shaft until they burst through the ascending lift's top. Inside, Michael was standing toward the back, and in front of him was a beautiful young girl in a short skirt who couldn't have been a day over eighteen. Just as the elevator was about to come to a stop at the twenty-fourth floor, the girl turned around, and with a whimsical look on her face, she said, "Excuse me. I know this might seem like a strange question, but would you like to come to a party with me? I promise I'll make it worth your while."
Watching from overhead, Jillian wished she could gulp her nervousness down, but she couldn't for obvious reasons. Her nerves, however, turned out to be unnecessary, because Michael proved his devotion"and the authenticity of his love"when he took a deep breath and said:
"I'm sorry, young lady, but as attractive as you are, I'm afraid my heart belongs to another. I just got engaged a little while ago, and while I am a little nervous about it, I'm pleased to say that I'm genuinely happy. I'm only hoping that she feels the same way about me. I think she does, but ... well, there's always going to be doubts, aren't there?"
The girl was about to respond, but the elevator doors, which had already opened, were beginning to shut again. She reached out to stop them from coming together, and with a good-natured smile, she said to Michael, "Your fiance's a very lucky lady, and I certainly hope she understands that. Have a good night, sweetie ... and congratulations."
With that, the girl departed, and Michael continued his ascent toward his apartment. Jillian could sense that the orbs were about to thrust her into Michael's mind so that they could prove his feelings for her once and for all, but with every last ounce of her essence, she willed them not to do so. Entering his mind now would be nothing more than a violation, she knew, and it simply wasn't fair to do that to the man she loved. She needed to cast aside her doubts about him, and she had to do it willingly, without intruding on territory that was his, and his alone.
At first, she sensed that the spheres were a little confused about this, but a moment later, they granted her wish. They took her out of the elevator, up through the remaining floors, and returned her spirit to her body. As soon as she took control of her physical self again, her eyes came into focus, and she watched as the two bluish orbs detached themselves from her face and floated up into the air.
"Thank you," she said to the spheres, glad to have a voice again. "Whatever you are, thank you very much."
They circled around each other a few times, and Jillian wondered if this was their way of saying "You're welcome." Whether it was or not, she didn't have time to reflect on it, because Michael was suddenly at the door, twisting the knob. The orbs quickly flew out of the apartment, going out the same way they'd come in, and Jillian knew that she'd never see them again.
"Whoa!" Michael said after closing the door behind him and focusing his gaze on Jillian's body, which was still as it had been after she'd tottered over the back of the couch. "Either you're preparing for what looks like some very uncomfortable sex, or you're just acting extremely goofy. Either way, I'm still glad I proposed."
The silly grin that curved the corners of Michael's mouth brought Jillian up from the couch. She wanted to kiss him, and she wanted to do it right now. She strode across the room and gave him the most passionate kiss that she could offer, and her love for him burned deeper than ever as she did so.
"Wow," he said when she was done. "I'm glad to see that you're still pleased about my proposal. I was a little nervous that I'd come back and find a "Dear John" or something. But you've just made me the happiest guy in the world, and for the second time in one night, too!"
Jillian leaned in for another kiss, but before she pressed her lips to her fianc's, she had a little message for him. "I'm more than just pleased, Michael," she whispered. "More than anything else right now, I'm sure."
And having said that, she set about accepting him with her body, as wholly as she'd already done with her heart.