Tom sucked in a deep breath, as if he had never breathed before, and realized there was a heavy weight pressing down on his chest. His headed pounded out the beat of a funeral march. His eyelids fluttered open, partially impeded by the accumulated sleep in the corners of his eyes. He was facing up, in a dimly lit room, somewhere in the vicinity of dawn. He realized he was lying on a careworn sofa, in a room filled with young bodies sleeping off a besotted haze. He looked straight up. A slice of pizza adhered precariously to the space of ceiling immediately above him. He cricked his neck and looked dow the length of his body. A woman in her underwear slept contentedly on top of him. Her hair was a frizzy mixture of blonde and faded pink. She wore mascara that was smeared sideways. His hand was resting on her back, entangled in her bra.
"Hello," he said with a frog in his throat. He tapped the woman's shoulder feebly with his entangled hand. She flinched, then opened just one eye briefly (the other was pressed into the folds of his t-shirt).
"Hi, John," she said before sighing and nestling her head into his chest.
"Um, I'm not John," he said quietly, not wanting to wake the others. The woman squinted with her eyes already closed.
"What?" she asked.
"I'm not John. My name is Tom."
"Um, I don't mean to disturb you, but do you think you could let me up?"
"Coffee," she responded.
"What?" she repeated, finally opening her eyes. "Who are you?" she asked, propping herself up.
"I said my name is Tom," said Tom. "Who are you?" he added after she stared at him blankly for a moment.
"Uh," she said, blinking hard and looking past him, "I'm Elaine."
"Nice to meet you," said Tom. "Do you mind if I..." He tugged gently on his entangled hand.
"Oh--" She reached back and tried to help him dislodge his hand.
"It seems to be violating the laws of topology," he laughed nervously.
"Topology?" she asked vaguely as she wriggled him free.
"Yes, the mathematics of surfaces."
"I know what it is," said Elaine.
"Oh, that's nice," said Tom forcing a smile. "Maybe that's why we ended up drunk and in this position. It's a little embarrassing but I have no memory of how I got here."
"Neither do I," said Elaine. She sat up and Tom pulled his legs off the sofa and sat next to her. "You wouldn't happen to know where my clothes are?" She surveyed the room, which was the living area of what looked to be a one bedroom apartment. There were several knotted naked bodies sleeping under a coffee table completely covered with empty glasses and beer bottles, a bearded man curled up on a grungy lazy boy with a large glass bong, three cats preening themselves on the back of the sofa, and something pink bubbling over in a pot in the kitchen.
"No, I don't know," said Tom. He stood up and instinctively stretched, feeling instantly better. Elaine crouched down on the floor and looked under the sofa.
Tom stepped over more sleeping bodies, this time clothed, to reach the kitchen. He turned off the burner and moved the pot to a cold burner. He noticed an empty bottle of Pepto Bismol on the counter. He cocked his head at it, then noticed that the fridge door was open. The fridge was free of food but a fourth cat laid inside the bottom shelf quietly nursing a litter of kittens.
"Don't go in the bedroom," said Elaine, as she tiptoed up to Tom, carrying a purse.
"I thought me clothes might be in the bathroom, which is off the bedroom apparently, but someone chucked up epically all over the bedroom. I mean, epically," she said, emphasizing the point with nodding and a double hand flourish. "Don't, I mean don't go in there."
"Okay. Well I was going to leave anyway. I'm not sure who's place this is."
"I haven't a clue either," said Elaine.
"Even when I was in college I was never invited to parties quite like this one."
"Um, I was wondering if you could do me a favor."
"Uh, sure. What?"
"Could you lend me your t-shirt to wear?"
"But it's cold outside," said Tom immediately.
"Oh." Tom gazed into Elaine's eyes for a moment, then suddenly tore off his shirt, getting it caught on the features of his face. Finally he thrust it towards her, blushing.
"Thanks," said Elaine, quickly pulling the shirt over herself. The hem fell mid-thigh. "I'll buy you a coffee. I can't believe no one stole my money. All these creeps look pretty--"
"Broke. I was going to say broke. Anyway, let's go. Got all your stuff?" said Elaine. Tom nodded. She opened the door, and they descended a questionable staircase and into a frosty morning.
"It's uh, quite cold," said Tom.
"Yeah," said Elaine, dancing a little at the bottom of the steps, barefoot, her hands tucked under her armpits. "Do you think, maybe, I could wear your socks?"
"I know it's weird, but it's fucking freezing. I don't know where I am. I don't know where my car is, and I'm going to get frostbite or something."
"Well I don't think you would but--"
"Yes, I was going to say yes." He smiled at her.
They both sat on the bottom step as Tom removed his shoes and socks, handed the socks to her, and replaced his shoes. Elaine shoved on the socks and stood up quickly again.
"They're still warm," she marveled. "Won't last though. How about that coffee then?"
"Yes. We should keep moving." He looked around. The sky refused to lighten up even in the slightest since they woke up. It was gray and threatening and stray flakes of snow floated in the air. They were in the byzantine heart of a cookie-cutter apartment complex. Elaine fished through her purse and extracted a beat up smart phone. She tapped it and waited.
"I don't recognize this place at all," said Tom. "You'll have to lead me. I don't know where there would be a coffee shop near here."
"My phone's dead," said Elaine. "No GPS for me. I can't lead you anywhere. How about you?"
"I can't afford anything that sophisticated."
"You know my ten-year-old nephew has a nicer phone than me," said Elaine. "Ironically, he paid for it with his earnings from his paper route."
"He's a regular Andrew Carnegie," said Tom, folding his arms against his bare chest and bending forward slightly to defend himself against the cold.
"I don't quite follow--"
"Never mind. Horrible joke."
"We should get moving."
"Yes. Pick a direction."
"There," said Elaine, pointing to a pathway in a gap between buildings. "Looks like it might lead out to a main road or something."
"Lead on," said Tom.
They walked towards the gap, both shivering. There was an eery muffled quiet and nothing stirred but them. They listened to their own footfalls. They passed the gap and there was a street. Empty. One end lead up a hill, and the other down a slight decline. They couldn't see up the hill, but the street going down led to more self-same apartment buildings.
"It's like we're trapped in a fractal," said Tom.
"A fractal?" asked Elaine.
"It's a mathematical construct--"
"I know what a fractal is. I just don't see how it applies here."
"All the apartments are the same. Residing in complexes that look the same. I was just thinking that maybe if we zoomed out, this whole area would be residing on a much bigger apartment building, in a complex, in a neighborhood residing on yet another bigger apartment building."
"Oh. You don't happen to remember if you took any colorful pills at the party?"
"I have no idea about the party at all."
"Maybe it wasn't a party. Maybe we were drugged and kidnapped and deposited inside some insane fractal universe inside some sadist's imagination."
Tom smiled. Elaine chuckled.
"Coffee," said Elaine.
"Agreed. Pick a direction. Up or down?"
"Down!" said Elaine emphatically. "No wait, up. We'll burn more calories and keep warm."
"It's quite an incline," said Tom.
"Yeah, but why not? There has to be a coffee shop nearby. They're on nearly every street corner these days. It shouldn't matter which direction we take."
"I'd really like to know where we are," said Tom. They began the slow ascent. The street kept getting steeper and steeper, and soon they had to use their hands against the sidewalk to help steady themselves as they climbed.
"Man it didn't look this steep!" said Elaine breathing heavily.
"We can go the other way," said Tom.
"No, we're almost at the top. I just don't understand how a city could approve of building a road with an incline like this."
"They must have to restrict it to small vehicles only," said Tom. Sweat was sheening on his chest and back.
"Almost there..." Elaine found herself pressing her whole body against the sidewalk, to pull herself up and forward. "This is not right, Tom," she said, peering beyond the cement and asphalt. Tom joined her.
"Oh. My," said Tom. Ahead of them, below the sidewalk and street, was blackness that faded in a gentle gradient up to the dark gray of the overcast sky. "Maybe we should go back to the apartment, and wait out...whatever this is."
"I don't think there really is an apartment," said Elaine in a hushed voice.
"We would be warm," said Tom.
"You don't understand. I don't think this is...real."
Tom looked at her eyes, which mirrored his own sense of fright.
"You're right," said Tom. "But I don't know what this is."
"Not a dream. Definitely not a dream."
"Maybe we should head back for the other end of the road. Maybe it's like Alice in Wonderland. 'Eat Me'."
"Oh, no. I mean't like in the book. With the mushroom with the smoking caterpillar, or the bottle of whatever it was she had to drink to make herself bigger or smaller or whatever it was. I need to stop blathering. I'm sorry."
"It's fine. I get it. I remember the Disney version."
They looked at each other, then looked over the precipice into the blackness.
"Maybe it's a metaphor," said Tom.
"What do you mean?"
"Maybe we're experiencing this," he pointed with sweeping gesture at the abyss, "because we're experiencing something like this, in reality."
Elaine looked at Tom and narrowed her eyes.
"You'll have to explain it a bit more," she said.
"We just met. At least I think we just met, but doesn't it seem somehow familiar? Maybe not that we've actually known each other before, but--"
"--that we will know each other."
Tom found Elaine's hand and held it between his own. He smiled shyly, and observed the way a lock over her pink/blonde hair unfurled over he forehead in the chilling breeze.
"Then what about the gray sky and that chasm of darkness?" asked Elaine. "How does that relate?"
"Fear," said Tom. "Fear that acting on what we know in our gut is for the best might be dangerous or wrong. And I think the apartments represent conformity, normality--"
"That I fear more than anything else. Doing the same thing day in and day out. Living up to other people's expectations of me while burying my own deep inside somewhere."
"That's pretty much my fear in life as well. Living life in the hive. I guess it's fortunate we found each other, however that came to be."
"Must have been one hell of a party," said Tom grinning. Elaine stroked his forearm, then gently held his elbow.
"So the question then is, what do we do about it?" asked Elaine.
"We jump," said Tom.
"We jump," repeated Elaine almost immediately. Tom nodded. "What if we jump and we're wrong and we just float down into nothingness?"
"Then we'll never know if we were right."
"Eugh," said Elaine. "I think much better when my veins are coursing with caffeine."
"The fact that you're seriously considering it means that it must be right."
"This is insane," laughed Elaine.
"Come on," said Tom. He pulled himself up onto the slab of concrete that made up the inner edge of the sidewalk. He helped Elaine up.
"What are we doing?" asked Elaine, smiling widely.
Tom embraced Elaine and kissed her passionately. She wrapped her arms around his chest and neck and pulled him even closer. A strong wind kicked up, stinging their eyes with cold and they ended their kiss.
"Now?" yelled Tom over the rush of wind.
"Yes!" yelled back Elaine. "Yes, yes, yes!"
Tom leaned forward over the abyss, and pulled Elaine with him. They fell embraced and smiling.