Before he hit puberty, Jin understood the universe far more deeply than the most brilliant of theoretical astrophysicists, or the most contemplative of philosophers, or the most imaginative of sci-fi and fantasy creators. Brown dwarfs, black holes, realms of thought, or dark dimensions could not contain what he knew. Biology, geology, physics, or even language itself could not describe what he witnessed. Meditation could not ground it; math could not prove it; speculation could not conceive of it.
In every mirror he had ever looked into, Jin saw worlds upon worlds upon worlds, all sharing the same space, all alien beyond imagination, and all completely oblivious to each other.
All except for Jin.
The novelty of this, of course, could not last. As years faded away and adolescence kicked in, the wonders he saw became mundane. Even when he’d discovered that every creature in this infinite menagerie could hear him sing, he still preferred the excitement of high school, television, cars, cigarettes, and girls. After all, these visions were limited to reflective surfaces and had no bearing on him in any way whatsoever.
Life, however, exists to change.
That night, Jin lay on his mattress, staring at the ceiling as he had for countless hours. In the corner of his room squatted bags of clothes, boxes of books, a small fridge, and a guitar. Goodbyes had been spoken, hugs had been exchanged, and excuses had dried out. Not long from now, the sun would rise, and when it did, he would climb into his car and leave behind his childhood in exchange for university.
Enough was enough. If he was going to stay awake, he might as well entertain himself. Humming an original tune, he rolled out of bed and set foot in the direction of the kitchen. He came to a halt when he heard the gurgle coming from his mom’s bedroom.
It might be nothing; it might be everything.
Fearing the latter, he poked his head into her door. His eyes had been open since sundown, so it wasn’t difficult to make out the gray shape of his mother twitching in bed, gasping and staring at the shape sitting on her chest.
That’s all it was: a shape–a shape so dark it sucked away both light and shadow. Had Jin not been familiar with what most couldn’t see, he would have interpreted it as the silhouette of an old woman with a head of stringy hair, wearing frayed rags that either hung or flapped around. In reality, the hair could have been tentacles, the rags could have been wings, and the head could have been any number of appendages. Without a better look, who could know? What he did know is that its head–or whatever that was–hovered directly over his mom’s mouth, and she was struggling to breathe.
What he beheld made him forget that he was still humming.
The shape released his mother and swiveled its appendage–he was pretty sure that it was a head, because it behaved like one–in his direction. He backed into the hallway until he hit the opposite wall. Since moving in reverse was the only action he could fathom doing at this point, he was now pinned there. The shape glided after him until its probably-a-face nearly touched his. Out of sheer desperation, Jin tried something. He sang.
“I am so frightened, so very frightened.
My throat is tightened; I cannot think.
This is my mother, my dearest mother
That you have smothered, with hands of ink.
“Please do not pain her; please do not drain her.
It can’t be plainer, my eager plea.
If one must die now, forever lie now,
Let it be I now. Let it be me.”
Its head tilted in the gesture of curiosity that spanned every creature in every world he’d ever seen. He held his breath, expecting it to be the last one he’d ever enjoy.
Finally, it responded in a song of its own. The words, rhythm, and pitch were unlike anything that could exist, but their meaning was clear: before him was kind of a parasite that darted from world to world, feeding on air from sentient, dreaming creatures. It had music and love and a concept of self, but not enough to develop culture or a raison d’être other than hunger and reproduction. But most importantly, it never needed to kill. The only deaths it left behind were accidents borne of sickness or age. Therefore, his mother, being healthy, was safe. He sighed and relaxed.
“I see now that my mom will live.
My thanks is all I have to give.
Dawn is near; it’s almost day,
So leave us now. Be on your way.”
It swooped off into a deep shadow, never to return.
“Wow,” he whispered.
“Jinny?” his mom coughed.
“Who else would it be?”
“Definitely not my son,” she croaked, “because I didn’t raise a smartass.”
“What are you doing up?” he asked as he returned to her room with a smile.
“I just had the worst nightmare,” she replied.
“You and me both.” With his thumb, he pointed toward the kitchen. “Shall I get us some ice cream?”
She shrugged. “What the heck,” she said. “Big day tomorrow. Big changes.”