You’re sitting on a rattan camping mat freezing in the woods, your girlfriend’s hand in your pants when the pirate ship bursts into the clearing, hull groaning, majestic, and not from this world.
It’s a week before your thirtieth birthday. Your girlfriend Tami makes it a whole thing. Says it’s one of those turning-point years. But she’s 26 with no back pain, and life is Goldilocks-sweet, so you don’t take her word for it.
She’s turned down two regional promotions to play roommate with you in your 40 square meter Poblacion apartment, goes to spin class on weekends, is close with your mother in a way that secretly makes you uneasy. Like unfurling a conspiracy where you play the punchline to all your adult connections. One morning Tami remarks, “you’re the only butch I’ve met who hates the outdoors,” and you startle at how her mane looks, out of its braid in the morning, this ungodly acid-red thing, and she thumbs the dimple in your chin to say, “is that a no?” And of course it isn’t. You don’t know what no means. You don’t think she does, either. You’re afraid of what uttering it would do: some horrific, molecular disentanglement.
Now you’re slogging up the trail, unsurprised to see that she’s managed to collect your distant friends like missing Jenga pieces. There’s Jordie, Mike, and Sarah, from design school. Keziah from retail, lifetimes ago. Isa (Ysa?) from—you can’t recall where you met Isa, but if she’s here to watch the eclipse of your best years, then maybe you did something good. You smile close-mouthed smiles.
Up the climb, you attempt small talk, breathless. This is when you realize: they are here not only for you. It’s the allure of this mountain; how transformed they’ll be on the other side of it. And always, at the center: Tami. Like Pied Piper, she leads your strange, miserable little crew, who turn to her like flowers to the sun. The back of her head lit up like a torch.
At a rest stop, Mike assembles his stainless steel coffee contraption. Sarah and I(Y)sa decide to hunt for tarsier, flying lemurs, engkantos—all the magic advertised. Jordie forecasts a massive shit and excuses himself, and when a whole hour passes with no Jordie yet in sight, Keziah and Mike volunteer for search party, because the day is slipping by and what if it was the engkanto?
“Don’t be fucking stupid,” you’re surprised to hear yourself say, too shocked to soften it with a laugh. This mountain. It’s transmuting you already. It’s pulling you waist-deep in its digestive juice.
Alone now, Tami slides towards you, grin sickle-shaped like the time she pressed you against the tiles of an empty baptism pool in high school, skirt hiked up, god in your mouth. Nothing’s changed in the brash feel of her. Or maybe everything has. The atmosphere is heady tonight and you feel roller-pinned beneath its stars. Maybe you believed something here could change you, too. Like those nights when Tami laid on top of you, an anchor, and for once you weren’t a gaping loose-hinged door: all this matter, just passing through. Just passing through. When Tami crawls her hand along the seam of your pants, you are so busy counting at least six places on your body where a mosquito buried its stinger, wondering how long it’ll take to make the descent down so you can sleep in an Airbnb tonight that you almost, almost miss the ship.
One moment you are fringed by trees, and in the next, a ship has flattened them out of view. There is a giant wound in the sky, spilling stars—and seafoam, you realize, sputtering at the salt spray in your face, the taste of a stranger sea.
About five things you immediately notice:
- The ones walking one by one down the gangplank. The pirates. They’re wearing your friends’ faces.
- Their Jolly Roger, flapping high above the trees like a nightmare of flaming hair and horns.
- Their figurehead. A weeping cherub, streaked with rust and war.
- Ysa has an entire metal leg. It’s kind of impressive. You think Jordie might have a hook for a hand too, but you get distracted, because;
- There, emerging into the moonlight, is your very own doppelganger.
Other-You is all right angles and solid butch perfection. Better haircut. Even the tattoo of a bakunawa you’ve wanted since you were thirteen, swirling up their left bicep. You know, without a doubt, that a delicious moon is tucked away between their shoulder blades, the only part of your body you didn’t mind.
Other-You doesn’t spare you a glance. None of your other-friends are. They’re not here for you. At Tami’s open-mouthed stupefaction, Other-Jordie explains in gentle tones: Tami, their Tami: gone. Slowly, painfully—a martyr’s death. One life for five. A pirate’s sentence would’ve been kinder. Then, at the edge of the world: the portal yawning like a keyhole. All of them, sailing straight into a different blue. Revenge like shipworms rotting their hearts.
“Now we’re here to do what we do best.” Other-Jordie smiles at Tami, going down on one knee as if to placate something small and wild. “To take what’s ours.”
Oh, you think, and start swinging. You give a good fight. You don’t know why. You’ve never thrown a punch before. But it feels right. Staggering after Jordie knocks you down, you make a wild grab for your pocket knife and within seconds Mike has shot it out of your hands with a pistol. Keziah cries, “don’t make this difficult, please,” like you’re a customer in closing hours who doesn’t want to leave. I(Y)sa crushes your wrist under her cyborg boot, and you turn to look at Tami, as if to plead, I tried. Look, I fucking tried, didn’t I?
But Tami is silent. Not one single cry. You imagine her at the helm, sailing into a maelstrom, her hair a living flame rippling behind her; how she hated when you called her bruha, how it transported her into years spent at mercy of her mother’s hands, armed with a brush bigger than Tami’s face. Tami had been snippy at you afterwards, but always pulled her hair into order. Not one wayward lock.
Other-You steps close. Looms over your bruised face. “Why do you get to have her,” you hear, in a strange two-tone echo of your voice, “You’re a wisp. I deserve my Captain back. I need her.”
“I need her too,” you gasp.
“No, you don’t,” Other-You says, reaching behind Tami’s ear to pull a strand of hair loose. “Not like I do.”
Tami, your Tami. She looks at you, then up at your Other. She’s never shined so bright.
“Cap.” This time your doppelganger’s voice is roughed with salt. “Won’t you sail with me again?”
For a moment, you imagine Tami pulling your Other in for a kiss, before kneeing them in the crotch and grabbing your hand to disappear into the woods, where you’ll live off of mushrooms, rodents, the kindness of engkantos. You imagine your hand tangling with hers, the same desperate way they did in the baptism pool while footsteps thundered past: a disappearing spell. You imagine the no softening the skew of her mouth. All the versions of you and your brilliant girl, lined up according to height–stepping through this moment and arriving in the next, unchanged.
“Will you come?” Tami murmurs, and you know. She means it for you. And when your silence stretches and stretches she takes Other-You’s hand and walks to the ship, her ship, and when she pauses to look back for the last time your eyes meet. Your lungs expand. You find yourself giving her a small, tight nod. A cold mountain wind fills the pirate ship’s sail, and the whole earth shudders while your visitors dematerialize into the portal’s black mouth: hull first, then the deck, then the crow’s lopsided nest. You hear water crashing. You see the silvery threads of neighboring worlds, spiralling around each other like synapses that never touch, and for some reason you can’t bear the thought of spending the night alone at a city Airbnb so you find your old courage, cradle your shattered wrist to surge straight into the fading portal before it stitches itself closed, where you’ll accept a second life as a stowaway in another passing ship or shooting star–to find your Tami, the one that would choose you, among a thousand others, and arrive safely in the shores of the version of this story where at last you too, will be free.
ANDY LOPEZ (she/they) lives and writes in the Philippines. She was a 2021 fellow for the GrubStreet Emerging Writer Fellowship and the UST National Writers Workshop. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of The Net, and has been published in The Best Small Fictions 2021, Longleaf Review, CHEAP POP, Underblong, and other magazines and anthologies. Write to her at email@example.com.