The first time I start a life with my act together—and there were a lot of lives before this one; I just didn’t keep track because of all the existential panic—I’m in a coffeeshop. The details are, as always, exquisite: the earthy undertones of espresso-smell mellow out the warm-sour steamed milk, and the sticky film left by old sanitizer collects a layer of dust and fuzz over the wooden table’s varnish. The latest fully-realized magical universe of just, like, a buttload of romantic comedy worlds created by accident and coincidentally calibrated to torture me personally.
I glance at the blackboard menu chalked with today’s specials and try to formulate a plan beyond panicking. Iris will be around somewhere—she always is—but that sets me on a completely different train of thought. A coffee shop is the perfect place for a meet-cute; maybe I’m the staid professional about to discover a quirky offbeat barista. Or maybe she’s whiling away her hours while I’m the customer who’ll manic-pixie-dream-girl my way into her life. I’m bringing literal magic into it, after all, even if I’m just yet another queer disaster pining after a best friend who’s never shown a modicum of interest.
The bell above the door jingles, and I turn to see a burnt-to-a-crisp quasi-medieval peasant step inside, looking at the pastry case with interest and apparently oblivious to the burnt-hair smell that he tracks in with him.
I take a step away. He doesn’t notice. He never notices, and why would he? He’s not real. He’s just a glitchy background character who hasn’t even realized he’s in the wrong scenario, no matter which scenario he’s in. I think of him as Harpoon Guy, for reasons that, well, involve a harpoon.
Iris comes into the main room from the back, wiping her hands on an apron, and her relaxed hair has a single stripe of purple in it.
Manic pixie dream barista it is, then.
“What’ll it be?” Iris says, smiling. She doesn’t recognize me. She does, sometimes, but this universe clearly requires a meet-cute of its own.
“Black coffee,” I tell her. It’s what the romcom clearly wants, not that it matters. The spell won’t let Iris remember anything in this world, too far-off from our own to remind her that she’s the only hope we have of getting home.
The next life is Regency-era England. Thank Christ it isn’t the Renaissance; my shoulders pull against my stays, but it’s all posture and no inhibited breathing. Sitting on the settee isn’t suffocating.
Iris beams down at me, standing above me with an offered arm. “Shall we take a turn around the room, Naomi?”
I keep the unladylike string of curse words behind my lips as I join her, wondering whether to risk it. Regency England is a borderline case; there’ve been a few lives so far that had magic in them, and I was just too discombobulated to take advantage, and I don’t know a single thing about Regency history aside from that show Iris and I binged so I can’t tell if anything is out of place, like magically out of place—
Aside from Harpoon Guy, who, despite wearing modern hospital scrubs and a decent portion of his total blood volume on his chest, is playing a jaunty reel on a pianoforte in the corner.
“Iris,” I say as we take small, purposeless steps along the wall, “do you believe in magic?”
Iris dips her chin demurely, suppressing a smile. A strand of her straightened black hair escapes its tidy bun to brush across her cheek, and for a moment I’m distracted, wondering if Iris’s spell magically erased historical racism. It was an escapism spell, after all—
“Ah!” Iris says, with a lightness that wouldn’t be there if she was hiding something. She keeps things close to the vest, but after all these years of friendship I can almost always tell. “Magic! Naomi, you have such ideas.”
This is a disenchanted world, then. No luck.
Nothing to do but wait for the next. That, and memorize the soft warm pressure of Iris’s hand on my arm.
But that’s not the kind of thing a friend thinks about another friend. All I can do this universe is endure.
“Do you still intend to absent yourself from the upcoming ball?” Iris inquires as we walk.
I have no idea what ball she’s talking about, but the answer is pretty straightforward. “Absolutely,” I say fervently. I didn’t skip every high school dance just to get roped into going to an event with even more stringent unspoken social rules.
But Iris sighs. “I think, sometimes, it would do you good to attend at least once,” she says. “Whether such a gathering falls within your inclinations or not, you cannot deny that if you risk nothing, you gain nothing.”
There’s something about the cautious, sidelong look she’s giving me that sparks a near-panic, and I chitter a laugh to bleed off the tension. “And if you risk nothing, you lose nothing.”
“Ah,” Iris says, and when she stops her hand on my arm slows me to a gentle halt as well. “But perhaps what you have is something which cannot be lost. Perhaps it will always be yours to do with as you will.”
My mouth falls open, just a little, as I gaze into her eyes. It would be so easy to tell myself that she knows, that she’s talking about us, but she’s wrong, isn’t she? Anything can be lost. Anything.
“Fear can be a comfort,” Iris continues softly. “It ensures that one is never caught by surprise. But surely fear is the enemy of trust, and Naomi, you can trust me.”
She tightens her hand on my arm, and I want to trust her, I do, but right now—
How can I trust her, when none of this is real?
Wet hair and sand in my mouth and Iris above me, silhouetted against the bright shoreline sky—
“You’re human?” she says, awed.
I snap myself upright, nearly headbutting her in the process, and see—
A sinuous tongue of pearlescent scales where her legs should be, flaring from her hips and narrowing before feeding into the flap of a fin. A mermaid tail, because Iris is a mermaid.
This reality has magic. I can work with this.
“Iris!” I say, and her wide-eyed wonder closes up like a flower at night.
“How do you know my—”
I reach out and grab her shoulders. They’re gritty with drying sea salt and sand, warm with sun, and I—I can’t think about that, I have too much to do. “Iris, you’re not a mermaid, you’re a college student! We were in the dorm and you were working on your assignment, the reality spell—”
“Oh,” Iris says, clarity gleaming into her eyes now that we’re in a universe that allows it—the accidental trapdoor of her spell, allowing for its own existence to puncture the façade. “Oh, shit, Naomi—”
“We don’t have much time, the universes are going by fast, how do I fix it—”
“Going by?” Iris repeats blankly. “It should just be one at a time.”
“It’s super not one at a time,” I tell her. “It’s random, they’re not even switching at any point that makes sense!”
“That’s not supposed to happen!” Iris says with rising panic.
“Oh my god, that’s really not comforting!”
“I,” Iris says, leaning back. “Okay. Okay. The dreams are switching. I think if you—”
She breaks off, her face going slack as she catches sight of her own tail. The fin at the end flips a little, and she yelps and nearly falls over with surprise, like she’s trying to jump away from it but of course it comes with her, like a dog trying to escape the booties on its own feet.
“You have to tell me how to fix it, Iris,” I say again, but Iris just lurches to the side and pukes spectacularly. “Iris, please, we don’t have the time—”
And we really don’t, because, just like that, the lives change again.
I don’t get much done in the next life, but, in my defense, it doesn’t have magic anyway, and on top of that—
“I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to shave it?” Iris says, pulling the strap of her tank top down to bare her right shoulder. The tattoo stencil, carefully printed onto transfer paper, goes sweaty in my grip.
“I,” I say. “Um.”
I’ve always known, in the abstract, that Iris has a shoulder. But knowing it and seeing it, and specifically seeing her reveal it, slowly, as she carefully leans forward onto the reclining chair, are just … they’re not even in the same universe. Her hair, currently in box braids, cascades around her neck to frame the canvas of her shoulder blade. A crease appears in the skin of her neck as she turns her head to look back at me.
“We good?” she says.
“Yeah,” I say, ignoring the sheer, unrelenting realness of her: the small discolorations smudged into her dark skin by the everyday mishaps of living, the soft pebbled texture of her hair follicles, the indentation where her bra strap dug into her shoulder.
I turn my attention away from her, in a desperate attempt at self-preservation. The design on the transfer paper—it’s graph transfer paper, that’s exactly the kind of nerd-shit detail that really sells these realities—shows a bold, tangled weave of linework roots spreading out from a flower. No, I realize: a rhizome network supporting an iris, half its petals reaching up like outstretched arms and the others cascading away from the stamen.
“I think the simplification from the plant store logo worked really well,” Iris says, looking further over her shoulder to me. “Thank you for that, too, by the way.”
I swallow hard. We met in the real world in a general-education critical theory class, where we’d bonded over trying to figure out what a poststructuralist rhizome was. We’d passed the class, barely, and all I really remember from it is the look on Iris’s face when she told me that irises, the flowers, had rhizomes and not roots.
That was the moment that I realized, with a giddy sinking in my stomach, that I would do whatever it took to keep this friendship, no matter how much I pined. No way was I going to fuck it up for something as insignificant as a romantic relationship. Girlfriends come and go; when it comes to friendship, I’m much more ride-or-die, no matter what reality we find ourselves in.
“Are you sure about this?” I push out through a dry mouth. “I can still put in, um, shading or something, in case I screw up the linework.”
“I love it just the way it is,” Iris says, with an oddly intent aspect to her smile. “I mean—I just mean, I trust you.”
So I smooth the transfer paper over the expanse of her shoulder, trying desperately to ignore the soft give of her beneath my fingers, and cover it with a wet washcloth. Iris hitches in a breath when it contacts her skin, then huffs out a small laugh.
“Sorry, just—surprised me,” she whispers, and I feel her back move under my hand, and I swear to God this is going to kill me, I can’t handle this, this is going to be the death of me—
Canadian wilderness wasn’t exactly the cooldown I was hoping for after my too-intimate encounter with Iris’s skin, but I’ll freaking take it at this point. Even if the smell of pine and snow is so sharp it claws its way through my nose, even if the only things I can feel are distantly tingling—
“Naomi,” Iris murmurs, clutching me through roughly one billion layers. Her layers. I only have the one, and it’s wet with half-melted snow, clinging with a cold that’s seeped so deep I can’t even feel it anymore. “You have to stay awake.”
“This isn’t real,” I try to say. I can’t feel my lips move.
She pulls me closer. Her teeth chatter but her skin burns like a fever against my cheek.
“Naomi,” she says. Are those tears? She isn’t bothering to hide them, even though she hates when other people see her cry. “Naomi, don’t, I have to tell you …”
Everything is blurring, darkening at the edges like an overenthusiastic photo app filter, and I think she says my name again but I can’t hear it over the high-pitched whine coming from inside my ears as everything disappears.
It’s one thing to have a big gay crush on your best friend who, despite her constant warmth and care, has never expressed an ounce of interest. It’s another to literally die in her arms while speedrunning alternate universes thanks to a magical midterm project gone horribly awry.
So I take a universe off.
(Because this is how it started: a study session in my dorm room, me working on my Statics homework and her on her Intermediate Dreamcrafting Practicum. Some show running in the background, as always. We’d fought—amicably—over who got the pillow, and I’d ended up on my stomach, armpits hooked around the edge of the bed and arms hanging down to my graph paper notebook on the floor, and Iris seated neatly on the pillow on the floor next to me, her ring-focus in front of her and a dot-grid notebook in her lap.
“Okay, but like, does the ring do the spell, or power it, or …?” I asked, drawing an absentminded vector on my free-body diagram.
“Kind of yes?” Iris said, and pointed with the end of her pencil to the spiral of sigils in her notebook. “So like, this array is kind of like a program, right? And the focus is what tells it to execute, and on what. Or—on who, because this is for people.”
“Whom,” I correctly primly.
Iris rolled her eyes. “Whomstsoever is wearing the ring is at the center of the spell. Well, technically touching it, but, you know. Ring. So don’t accidentally touch it, okay? The spell is not done and executing it would be a mess.”
“And your professor is really letting you get away with making a dating simulator?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.
“It’s not a dating simulator!” Iris objected. “It’s just—a series of scenarios that I guess some people might associate exclusively with romance, but that’s entirely on you. Which isn’t surprising seeing as you’re over there working out the tensions on members.”
“If you try to sexualize Professor Randall, this friendship is over.”
Something flickered in Iris’s eyes at the joke. I almost thought it was anxiety, or maybe disgust at the juxtaposition of Professor Randall and sex. Either way, I was clearly the one with the excess anxiety in our relationship—our friendship.
And anyway, it was gone in an instant, and she shoved her shoulders against mine. “Just try to get rid of me, Naomi.”
She went back to work and I started sketching my force diagrams into little phalluses, dangling tiny testicles from connections and drawing vectors as veins, and when she noticed she laughed so hard she fell forward onto the goddamn ring and trapped us both in my own personal hell.)
I don’t even remember what the scenario I took off was. I think maybe it was Gothic horror? I just hunkered down on the sunset-strewn heath and waited for a scene change. If in the distance, framed by the purple band of twilight, I saw the distant spark of a lantern as Iris presumably prowled the encroaching night.
Well, it’s not like it mattered.
“Thanks again,” Iris says, holding my hand on the porch of her parents’ house. I just go with it. She holds my gaze for a long moment, and my heart stops. “You’re a really good friend for doing this. You don’t know how much it’ll mean to my parents, and it’s just one night.” Her mouth hangs half-open, lingering on a word, and she’s looking at me like—
And I think maybe—
But then: “There’s no one else I could imagine doing this with, Naomi. Really.”
I try to look as if I have any idea what’s going on.
The door opens, and there stands Harpoon Guy, this time in full lumberjack getup.
“Daddy!” Iris says, lifting our interlaced hands. “Meet my girlfriend.”
Harpoon Guy, apparently Iris’s dad this time because why not, even though I’ve met Iris’s dad and he’s not Harpoon Guy, grins Iris’s grin, so wide that it scrunches up his nose and the corners of his eyes. “Welcome to the family!”
Iris mouths at me as we follow him in: thanks.
We’re—we’re fake dating.
I last three bites of the least comfortable dinner I’ve ever experienced before I excuse myself to go to the bathroom and instead walk calmly out the side door. I don’t stop walking until the end of the universe.
Braces yank at my teeth and stab the insides of my lips. The table beneath my elbows is institutionally easy to clean, stuck to the bench I’m sitting on, and, oh God no, we’re in a cafeteria.
“Naomi!” Iris says, stepping over the bench to sit next to me. “They just put up the audition sheets for this year’s musical! I know it’s kind of out of nowhere, but I thought maybe we could—”
“No,” I say. “Nope. Absolutely not.”
I twist myself around to slide out of the table, feeling the sharp stab of cystic acne where my shoulder blades rub against my bra strap—goddamn puberty—as I flee.
“Naomi?” Iris calls to my receding back.
“I’d rather freeze to death again!” I yell over my shoulder.
A swell of violins comes out of nowhere. Naomi’s voice, sweet and sad, follows, because apparently just being in high school isn’t bad enough, it’s a goddamn musical—
I make a run for it and cower under the bleachers until it’s over.
The earthy-clean smell of woodsmoke fills my senses, followed immediately by the weight and constriction of my outfit. My head is free, at least, so I look down and see an honest-to-god suit of shining armor, complete with a shield on my left arm and a sword in my right hand. The reflections in the silver surfaces go dim in places where soot is accumulating, but the shield has a dripping-petaled iris emblazoned on it, the pommel of the sword cages my hand in metal swoops adorned in purple gems, and my chestplate securely covers my torso without individually-hammered boob pockets just waiting for an opportunity to crush my sternum with fake cleavage.
All my childhood dreams are coming true.
Then the dragon swoops down, geysering sulfurous flame. Harpoon Guy, now in a sweater-vest and khakis and reading glasses, rushes past me with a bloodcurdling roar. In his right hand, he wields the spatula that I now recognize from the fake-dating reality.
The dragon’s fire consumes him, and his scream turns to pain. He thrashes, dropping to the ground, or more specifically about a half a foot off the ground for no particular reason, as flames dance around him and leave his poorly-coded clothing intact.
Then the dragon turns towards me, and I freeze.
“Naomi, watch out!”
And Iris steps in front of me, a staff in her hand, and a purple bubble appears around us. The flames curl along the barrier as I gape at her: she’s in a bell-sleeved deep blue dress beneath a purple velvet kirtle, tied with a belt of gold. A golden circlet rests at the root of a halo of defined curls, exposed by the blown-back hood of her cloak, which itself whips so dramatically in the wind that I know this dream-reality has some custom physics going on.
It also tells me that Iris spent more time programming how windswept her cloak should be as a warrior-mage-queen than she spent on the NPC, but, honestly, I can’t say my priorities would’ve been any different.
Finally my brain catches up with me: warrior-mage-queen.
“Iris, we’re in a spell!” I tell her urgently. “Remember? Your Intermediate Dreamcrafting Practicum?”
But Iris’s eyes stay locked on the horizon, awaiting another pass from the dragon. “Naomi, if we don’t act quickly, the queendom will be decimated!”
You know, I don’t think I’ve ever even raised my voice with Iris before, let alone yelled at her. But I did now.
“Will you get your head out of whatever HBO-knockoff you think we’re in and listen to me!”
Iris gapes at me, and then the look in her eyes sharpens. “Oh, shit, I accidentally triggered the spell!” She glances at the smoldering field around us, billowing smooth flows of smoke and twinkling with embers. “Oh, wow, the rendering is a lot better than I thought it would be.”
The words bubble up in a frantic stream. “Iris how do we get out of here and do we have to worry about the dragon?”
“The dragon can’t hurt us,” Iris says confidently, although when she catches sight of it in the distance she blanches. “I didn’t think it would be this realistic though.”
“Okay, cool, fine, whatever, now how do we get out of here!”
“Get out of here?” Iris blinks, and clutches her staff a bit closer. “I—the scenarios should—” But I can see the memory spark. “Wait, did you say that they’re…switching?”
“Yes! Very rapidly!”
She closes her eyes with a grimace. “Oh, fuck, the conditional loop—I didn’t finish it. The spell’s not done! It’s like a buggy program that’s crashing a computer.”
“So how do we get out of it? Is there a magic control-alt-delete or something?”
Her eyes go wide and serious. “We do not want to manually reboot our consciousnesses, Naomi.”
“I can put together another circle and fix it, get us out the right way,” Iris says. “But, ugh, I don’t have any components!”
“We don’t have time,” I say. “These universes don’t last long—”
“My focus!” Iris says, wrapping the pads of her fingers around the silver laurel-crown ring she always wears. Surrounded by gold signets, it does look out of place, now that she mentions it. “It’s the center of the spell, but it needs to be anchored to someone.”
The impatience thrums through me, making the soles of my feet itch. “So what do we do?”
“You remember because you’re outside of the spell,” Iris says, and lets go of her ring. “I don’t remember, because I’m … the anchor.”
“Okay, so? Give it to me, and next time you’ll remember and you can get us out of here!”
Iris blanches. “Naomi, no!”
“Don’t argue with me, I literally can’t do it but you can, you’ll figure it out, just let me—”
So of course the universe shifts again.
They’re coming too fast. We’re wheeling the gurney to an operating room, a harpoon wobbling out from Harpoon Guy’s chest like a cheap inflatable tube at a used car dealership. No matter how much blood he coughs, none of it soaks into his Placeholder High School (”Home of the Lorum Ipsums!”) t-shirt, which the harpoon itself phases through unaffected.
I stop, wrenching the gurney to a stop with me. “Iris.”
“We need fifty cc’s stat—” Iris calls past me.
I reach around the harpoon to grab her hands. “Iris.”
She glares at me frantically. “Naomi, what are you doing? This man’s life is on the line! If we don’t get the harpoon out in the next forty-one minutes the explosive charge in it will—”
“Do you trust me?” I say, and pray that I know the answer.
She goes still, and more than that her posture goes soft as she meets my eyes. “Of course,” she says, voice quiet. “More than anything, Naomi. You know that.”
I smile past the wish that that meant what I want it to. “Give me your ring.”
“Just trust me, okay? Your laurel ring.”
Naomi pulls off a bloody latex glove and twists the ring off. She holds it in front of her, confused, and the headlamp on my head projects it into an inverse annular eclipse on her scrubs.
“It’s okay,” I say, and put my own finger through it.
Opening shifts at the coffee shop are always the worst.
I clink the silver of my ring against the base of the foaming wand, because if the soft metal tap doesn’t break up the monotony, then the burn I risk might. The espresso machine belches the arrival of the macchiato’s shot. Another day, another drink, another eight-hour soak in stale-milk smell, with a mandatory half-hour lunch. Same as yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that …
The bell above the door chimes, and I look up and across the bar to see a streak of purple hair coming in.
“Hi,” I say in my best, most neutral customer-service voice. “How can I help you?”
The customer takes a deep breath, then sits at the bar. “Something with too much caffeine and sugar,” she says. “I have a lot of work to do.”
“Sounds good,” I say, and in one swift motion turn off the wand and pull the pitcher of steamed milk. When I look up, she’s staring at me, the sideways afternoon light illuminating her eyes to gold. I cover being thrown off my game with an awkward cough. “You okay?”
She gives me a small smile, and out of nowhere I think about how nice it would be to see that smile again. “Yeah. Just—figuring some stuff out.” She takes a deep breath and lets it out. Then she slumps forward onto the bar, practically collapsing in on her elbows. “I just … could you give me a sanity check real quick? If you were to, say, completely hypothetically, find out that a friend of yours had come up with an elaborate excuse to imagine the two of you in a variety of increasingly romantic scenarios, would you think that maybe—maybe—she might want to be more than friends?”
I can feel my cheeks get hot at this sudden intrusion of romance on my workday. “I mean—well, I guess, yeah. That seems pretty obvious, right?”
She folds her lips between her teeth, turning her mouth into a small line, and widens her eyes at me. The overall effect suggests that she’s either waiting for me to pick up on something incredibly obvious or internally screaming to the universe for salvation. After a moment she lets her eyes close, and her expression does a reset. She puts on a smile and holds out her hand. “I’m Iris, by the way.”
It takes me a second to realize what to do, but eventually I shake her hand. “Naomi,” I say, and cover my discomfort with a chuckle. “You know, I think you’re the first customer I’ve ever shaken hands with.”
Iris smiles. “What can I say, I like to make a first impression.”
“Well, mission accomplished,” I quip without thinking, and immediately hide behind the espresso machine. I catch a glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye, and it’s such a bad line but she’s smiling.
As I start steaming the milk for her drink—something I’ll improvise, but will definitely have way too much sugar and caffeine—I can’t help but think this feels like a beginning.
Kristen Koopman is a writer, academic, and all-around nerd. Her fiction has appeared in venues such as Escape Pod, Baffling Magazine, and has been anthologized in We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020. She can be found at www.kristenkoopman.com and she is definitely not two smaller Kristen Koopmans in a trenchcoat.