The Day Everything Changed
Edge Of Reality, Chapter One
There is a thin line between reality and madness. We crossed it a long time ago.
Things became real and unreal at the same time. Reality was defined by its onlooker, true to the philosophy of the tree that only existed when someone heard it fall. Was this even right? Anyway… Everything was something. And nothing. Both at the same time, depending on who looked at it. We all got to define reality in our own way. It became that thing that you chose to be real for you. The truth was hidden somewhere beyond layers and layers of meta.
There were only a few of us left.
The truth seekers.
Those who still looked for the essence of things.
Were we mad or just possessed by this strange thing called reality? You get to choose.
But not before you hear my story. Not before you know it all. The truth, I mean. You want to know the truth? You can’t handle the truth… Can you see me poking my theatrical finger at you? Wait… you have to clue who I am, right?
Let’s back up.
Listen while reading:
My name’s Ilay. I won’t bore you with my oh so sad backstory, it will come up eventually, I’m sure of it. My looks are not very vibrant either, but as you have to imagine me poking that finger at you, imagine a smirk in my dark blue eyes, my bony cheeks carrying a subtle grin and my wild ebony locks flying all over the place. That should be enough. So, back to the truth…
The story starts in a bookshop.
It was the first time I saw an artifact. I still remember it as if it was yesterday. I stumbled into this shop on my tour of Oxford, the one on the must-see-list. Blackwells. The caveat was that it looked so damn insignificant from the outside. Small window front, old blue paint. It seemed tiny, really. But as I entered, I sank into an entirely different world. This was the first time that I got the underlying certainty that things were never what they seemed. The small aisles deepened, floors upon floors of books stretched across the entire building. Oh, and the basement. It was a sight to behold.
I walked, mesmerized by the sheer amount of books containing all those stories, the letters and adventures. Okay, I’m a sucker for books. You wouldn’t guess, as I’m also good with all things physical—climbing, jumping, running. Sorry for the self-praise. But it will be important later in this story, I promise. In this bookshop, though, I enjoyed the smell of paper, both old and mostly new all around me. I was determined to take at least one of them with me. I would have taken all of them if not for the luggage restrictions on the plane. But which one would I pick? I walked those aisles back and forth, picking up book after book, reading, smelling them (which I’m sure was weird for the other shoppers), turning pages after pages. Somehow, it felt as if I hadn’t found that one yet. This special book that was worth jeopardizing my luggage for. I’m not even sure what exactly I was looking for. Maybe it was it. The truth. Calling out to me.
Hours passed. People say that I have this weird quality about me where I can immerse myself in a thing so much that I forget everything around me. That was why my father had looked for me in the entire neighborhood, notified the police even, while I calmly stacked Legos in the basement. At least, that was what I was told. I didn’t remember my father.
As the hours flew by, it happened on the top floor with the antiques. This book I picked up had a leather binding with letters engraved on it. Till We Have Faces. C. S. Lewis. As I opened it and my bony fingers stroked the letters, page by page, my reality disappeared.
There is no other way to describe it.
One moment, I was at the top floor of Blackwell’s, the other—at a magnificent cliff, overlooking a landscape that stole my breath, that would chase me for years and years to come. It was green, blooming, raw and wild, and void of danger and fear, inviting me to come—bathe, play, be. How did I know? No idea. I just sensed it. The promise of raw beauty, untouched wilderness, new life. It was the most magnificent sight I had ever experienced.
A couple of questions emerged right here. Was this even real? Here we are again, defining reality… Was I really there? If so, how? Was it a virtual experience? As Web Three was gaining ground, the Internet of Things became filled with so called “enchanted objects”—everyday objects connected to the internet and the virtual world, containing all sorts of augmented and virtual experiences. But those were normally marked with a logo. Or perhaps Blackwell’s was a virtual reality and for a split of a second, I got to peak into the real world?
At least those were the questions I asked myself as I tore my hand away from the pages of that book and stumbled back against the shelves of the book store. What the hell was that? My first impulse was to turn the book around and look for the enchanted logo—an eye embedded in a cube. Nothing. Nowhere. Which was not surprising, considering the book looked old and was in the antique aisle. But what had just happened then? It wasn’t a fantasy. I was not insane. I had felt this—it was so real and so exhilarating that I grabbed the book again, flipped back to the page where I had experienced the vision, and reached for the letters with my heart exploding inside my chest.
I frowned. How did I do it? Maybe it was the wrong page? Maybe it was the way I touched those letters? Had there been something about it? It was my index finger… no, two fingers… did I lay the entire palm on the page? I tried and tried and tried until I screamed on top of my lungs and only now noticed several customers staring at me—a stupid school graduate, touching a book in several ways and getting worked up about it.
I put the book back in and stormed out, escaping their gazes.
I was not crazy. Explosive, maybe. Engulfed in my world sometimes? Sure. But not a kook. It had felt SO. REAL. It could not have been inside my head. I glanced up at the historic street in front of the bookstore and my round glasses instantly fed me with information on the stores populating it and the history behind those buildings. I would have enjoyed it on a normal day. This was my reality—augmented by historical facts and thrilling stories on the world around me. But right in that moment, I felt betrayed. I wanted to know THE truth. Had I been on top of that cliff? Was this book part of the Internet of Things and equipped with some kind of chip that reacted to touch? Maybe I had seen the cliff as a projection on my glasses. But no… I felt the wind. I smelled the ocean. It was more.
You’re going crazy, Il.
I took off my glasses. The world around me abruptly became very… clean. I noticed details I haven’t seen before, although I had walked that street at least four times today. Had there always been so many bikes in front of that book store? I noticed the people talking into their comb watches, interacting with objects and realities only they could see with their glasses or lenses. I glanced back at Blackwell’s. The fuss was all about nothing, right? There was a perfectly logical explanation for this. Had to be. I marched back into that store, up the stairs to the antiques. I’d just ask the staff, I figured as I walked up to the shelf… only to find the book gone. I let out a cry of frustration that sounded more like a roar, not minding the onlookers that walked and turned pages extra quiet. We were not in a library, people. I looked around. Had anyone taken the copy? Nope. No-one held that from where I could see. I paced back and forth. Looked all around the top floor. Nothing.
An Asian guy with his hair tied behind into a bun and glasses that made him look especially clever had a Blackwell’s tag on.
“Excuse me!,” I said a little too emphatically and approached him as if my life depended on it.
He made a step back. “Yeah?”
“I’m looking for this antique copy of Till We Have Faces. Just saw it here a few minutes ago…”
We walked over to the shelf. He glanced at it, then back at me.
“Impossible,” he said. “It was sold two days ago.”
My eyes widened. “Is this some sort of joke?”
He frowned at the comment.
“I just saw it here,” I explained, probably louder than I should have, “just a minute ago.”
“I’m sorry, but I sold that copy. So I should know.”
“You’re calling me a liar?”
“Are you calling me one, then?”
I pressed my lips against each other. “No,” I muttered under my breath.
He shrugged and turned to walk away.
My thoughts spun. He meant it. But how was this even possible? “Wait!,” I followed him. “Who did you sell it to?”
He widened his eyes. “I don’t write the names of every customer I sell a book to, so…”
“But you must have used face recognition on him. You could trace it back on your…“
He turned around to walk away yet again. I panicked. Lowered my voice and steadied my breathing. “Listen… it was my grandfather’s last wish to purchase this copy. He had donated it to the store back in his Oxford days because of a falling out with a friend, but now he wants to reconcile…”
The Asian guy turned around and narrowed his eyes at me.
“He has cancer. Terminal. It’s his last possibility to make good, and he wants to do it with this book… I promised I would get it for him.” I turned around and pretended to hold back tears. “I’ve disappointed my grandfather before, you know. I can’t do it again. But if you could tell me the name… maybe I’d be able to buy the copy back.”
The Asian guy paused, letting the statement sink in. “I still don’t understand why you claimed you saw it here a minute ago…”
I wish I bloody damn knew.
I shrugged. “Could be the shock of knowing my grandpa’s diagnosis. We’re very close, you know…”
The seller nodded and adjusted his glasses, as if remembering his own grandparent. But he still hesitated.
“Please,” I added, “It would mean the world to him. Should he suffer for my clumsiness? Would you really deny a dying man the chance of reconciliation?”
When I looked into his eyes, I knew the lie had done its job. Sometimes, people were ridiculously easy to manipulate. All one needed was a clever story that would tap into their emotions. He ushered me to come closer while he visibly searched for something on his AR glasses.
“I’m not supposed to do this,” he whispered and lowered down his torso so only I’d hear what he said: “His name was Rupert Lewis.” He then straightened up again, dusted down his jacket as if he’d done something dirty and added in a commanding tone: “There, and now you forget this ever happened.”
I grinned at him. Rupert Lewis. I let out a deep breath as questions flooded my mind, and I suspected I was going completely nuts. Had I imagined this strange episode? I’d talk to Rupert Lewis, I decided. Maybe he’ll let me touch the book again. And if he confirmed the seller’s story, I’d better get institutionalized.
“Thank you,” I said, my thoughts already all over the place, my body rushing down the stairs. I put on my glasses. Rupert Lewis, I googled. He lived nearby, here in Oxford. Looked like an older man who wore lots of tweet jackets and never smiled in photos. Before I could talk myself out of it, I mounted the next bus to Headington. It was one of the streets where all the houses looked the same—whitish brick buildings, green front gardens. The house of Rupert Lewis was at the end of a side street, engulfed in trees and bushes that had apparently reached their full blossom.
I had to fight my way through the branches and leaves as I walked up the driveway to a small door painted in a dark green color. The house looked ancient. Overgrown. Like it had missed a renovation or two. I took a deep breath and reached for the doorbell. There was none. Did anyone even live here? The story got weirder with every passing second. Was there a Rupert Lewis? Had the seller lied to me? Or he never sold the book and just messed with my head? But why?
Only one way to find out. I knocked on that door. Nothing. I knocked again and listened. Careful footsteps echoed inside. The door was nudged open, hesitantly, only for a small gap where two eyes under two grey bushy eyebrows pierced me.
“Yes?” The voice was coarse.
“Who wants to know?”
“My name’s Ilay... Jolanda.” My voice shook. The situation seemed bizarre.
“Alright, Ilay Jolanda, what do you want?”
Okay, what do I say in order not to sound totally crazy?
“I was wondering… did you buy an antique copy of Till We Have Faces from Blackwell’s?”
Who would ask such a thing?
“Could be… why?”
“When did you buy it?”
“I don’t know…”
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t remember.”
Was he senile? I reconsidered my strategy. “Okay, might I see it, just for a quick second? You can have it back immediately.”
“I’d rather not say.”
“Then I’d rather not give it to you.”
I threw the palm of my hand against the door and pushed. “Listen… I had a very, very confusing day, so would you please just show me the copy? I promise, I’m not out here to kill you or something.”
He opened the door, shooting with his hazel eyes. Rupert was not a man easily intimidated — in his early sixties, tall and shaped like a wardrobe. Gray hair and a beard decorated a face with pressed lips and narrowed eyes. He needed no protection, nor was he afraid of me.
“Ilay Jolanda,” he said and made a firm step towards me, “if you want the copy, you have to tell me bloody why.”
I let out a deep sigh and clenched my fists. “Fine! Fine. If I tell you, you won’t give it to me anyway, but here it goes: I saw it in the bookshop. Today. And when I touched one of the pages, I was… transported… for a moment, onto the top of a cliff. I know it sounds insane, but I wanted to see if I can make it happen again, okay!” I paced back and forth while I spoke, more to myself than to him, recapturing the events of the day. Little did I know that this day was about to become even more bizarre than it already was.
When I finally stopped and glanced at Rupert Lewis, he didn’t look at me as if I was crazy. He eyed me from head to toe, saying nothing. Just quietly pondering. “How clear was this experience, this picture of the cliffs?,” he asked then.
“I was there. I could feel it with every fiber of my being.”
He nodded. “You broke the surface.”—and then more to himself—“Impressive.”
What did this even mean? At least he didn’t peg me for a lunatic. Maybe because he himself was one?
“You know the Eagle and Child?”
“It’s a pub, close to the city centre. Come there tonight, five sharp. We can talk then.”
Before I could even utter another word, he closed the door shut right in front of me. My muscles tensed, I clenched my fists and swung them against the door. Thump, thump, thump. Rupert opened for another tiny gap. “Yeees?”
“What the hell does all of this mean?,” I said, “What’s a surface, and when did you buy that stupid book?”
Rupert smiled. “I like you.” And then the smile vanished as quickly as it came, “but if you don’t leave my driveway right now, I’ll have to make you.” He nearly shut the door, but then returned for a quick instruction: “Don’t google anything on that topic while you wait. Understood?”
He banged the door shut.
I just stood there. Hands hanging at my sides. Questioning every atom of my reality.
“Noooow!” Rupert’s voice echoed from the inside, and I jerked.
“Fine!” I yelled and stomped out of the driveway.