BGGM Entry 11: Friday, December 25th, 2026
This is a work of fiction. Any names, places, characters, and happenings are solely products of the author’s imagination or fictitious retellings. Any likeness to actual events, locations, persons living or dead, is coincidental.
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I don’t know what I expect the ‘cycle’ to be, but I guess I should’ve expected it to be the motorcycle version of the hovering car, even though my mind was thinking of something a lot simpler. But I’m glad the cycle isn’t simple because once I’m in the helmet he hands me, and holding onto Valentine’s waist, it doesn’t take long before Lacoste Plantation is far into my rearview, and I’m hoping to never have to see the place again.
We pass several signs along our path, telling us we are in a restricted area, each one making my body stiffen. The Valentine of this world must feel my anxiety because his large hand leaves the bar that forms a semi-circle around our bodies and places it on my knee. He squeezes and then leaves it there until long minutes later when we slow and he has to use the hand to access the controls. The house looming above us is much like the modern, concrete monstrosity, much like Lacoste Plantation, but bigger. It makes me wonder what Brenna’s father does in this reality. I’m sure he’s not just some local competing realtor with an unused degree in law like the Branton Oliver on my world. He has to be a lot more than that. Although, after seeing how advanced the technology is because of the free labor and stolen ideas from slavery, it’s possible the man is just a lawyer and realtor. When a person has slaves who are educated and can master a trade, there are all kinds of jobs you don’t have to pay people to do.
The thought of it all makes my stomach turn. It makes me want to set fire to the entire place. It makes me want to figure out a way to free them all.
By the time this world’s Valentine offers me his hand to help me from the cycle, I’m seething. My hands still shake from what I did to Beau and my flight from Lacoste Plantation. Thoughts of this world’s Christmas, my world’s Elise, #2, and all of our family and friends involved in this have my heart thudding against my chest until I feel myself shaking.
What’s happened to me has finally caught up with me and I’m feeling like I might be on the verge of a mental breakdown.
I thought my time in the box freezing and burning in equal amounts was scary. I thought the tears I spilled there would be the end of my reaction to the way I was treated. But it’s not the end. It’s far from the end. I know I won’t be able to leave this place and never come back. Even if I go home, even when I’m safe, I will continue to think of this place, about the way people here are treated, about the things I’ve seen and experienced. Because I saw things. I saw people treated horribly while I was in that box. It was like watching a bad science fiction movie where they try to combine past and present and future in some discombobulated mess no one wants to watch. I hadn’t wanted to watch and I don’t want to remember it now. Men and women punished with a shock for not being perfect, talented people used for their gifts, and a general fucked up way of life. It’s a life no one should live, one I’m lucky to have escaped so quickly.
Valentine coaxes me off the cycle and helps me pull the helmet from my head. He then pulls one of those glass bricks from his pocket and taps on the clear brick and then looks up at the wall in front of us. Just beyond where the cycle is parked, two small doors open. Valentine places one helmet in each compartment before his wide shoulders rise and fall. He seems to be preparing himself for something, probably whatever story he thinks I’m about to tell him. I doubt he missed my disheveled appearance and wild eyes. He’s probably preparing to hear the worst.
“I’m going to have to kill him, aren’t I? I told you if he ever touched you again I would, so just tell me… What happened? He forced himself on you again,” Valentine states, turning around, his body rigid and aching for a fight. His stance is like he already accepts Beau forcing himself on Christmas as fact. I honestly got the impression that having sex with Beau wasn’t something this Valentine’s Christmas did by force. No, she hadn’t wanted to have sex with Beau, but knew resistance would only lead to more problems. I got the impression that she used her body to gain favor with Beau, which gave her enough leeway to plan her escape. I don’t say any of that to Valentine since I’m sure Christmas would’ve never told him a truth that was so hard to digest.
I shake my head in answer to all of his questions as I say, “No. I handled it.”
Valentine visibly releases a sigh of relief before taking three enormous steps toward me. Before I can stop him, he pulls me into his arms and his lips crash into mine. My fingers flex, clutching the clear brick tighter as I try to resist his world’s Valentine. It’s hard, admittedly, because the man kisses with a passion straight out of an old Hollywood movie. One hand cupping my face, the other pressed at the small of my back, leaning me back, which makes the brick fall from my hand. I moan as his skilled tongue…
What the hell am I doing?
It’s hard to do, but I pull away. I hadn’t even realized I had kissed him back until I forced myself to separate from him. Looking around, I cringe at the large windows overlooking the courtyard we’re in. Many of them might have people looking out at us.
“Why did you pull away?” Valentine asks, confused by my behavior. But he thinks I’m the Christmas from this world and I’m not. I need to somehow explain that to him first.
“I’m not who you think I am.”
“Chris… what are you talking -”
“I’m not your Chris. I’m not from this world.” I hold up the clear brick. “This will take me back to my world. I’m sure it’s how your Christmas was able to leave.”
“Elise’s invention,” Valentine says, his brown eyes lowering to my hand. He then raises his gaze up again and looks at me like he’s trying to decide if I’m crazy or not. “I got Chris all the components needed to build the device after her mother sent the plans through Brenna.”
“Brenna helped me?” I ask like that can’t be true.
“Brenna doesn’t want anyone to know her secrets, that her child isn’t by a freeman who earned the right to be as equal as a black man can be to a white man in this world, but by one of her father’s most trusted slaves.” My mouth drops open and my hand covers my mouth. I want to know more, but I need to get back home more than I need to hear the gossip around the plantation. “You really aren’t her, are you?” Valentine asks, staring at the surprise on my face.
“I’m not. I’m not from this world. Is it that obvious?”
“No. Well, not at first,” Valentine admits. “But I knew the kiss was off. And your eyes… They look like hers, but different somehow. It’s hard to explain.”
“The kiss was off?”
He doesn’t answer; he smiles. He winks at me and then walks over to a door a few yards to the left of the compartments where he put the helmets. I follow, shivering when the cold cloth rubs against my skin and reminds me that only have on a tank top and pajama pants with no shoes.
“That wasn’t an answer,” I say, hurrying to fall into step next to him.
We emerge into a large loft space that looks like a state-of-the-art media room with ten screens projected against the walls, computers with three-dimensional images projected onto tables like something out of Star Wars.
I realize why Valentine believed me so quickly when I told him what I could use the device to do. He’s used to new technologies being introduced on a regular basis on this world.
“Beau’s home is nothing like this.”
“The Lacostes like to pay homage to the old ways. I’m sure you saw the city on your way in,” Valentines says then stops, turns to me and looks me over. “You sure you’re okay? Are things like this where you’re from?”
“I’m fine. I’m sure it will all sink in one day, but right now it’s fight or flight. I’m thinking flight is my best choice in this case. And no, things aren’t like this on my world.”
“I’m going with you.”
“What?” I ask. “No. You can’t,” I say, even though that’s not true at all. He can come with me if the auxiliary device works the same on all worlds. I’m assuming it does, because Beau brought me here using it. “What about Brenna and Breanna? The role you’re playing to cover up Brenna’s lie.”
“Brenna will never get punished for her part in who Breanna’s father is, and you know that. There’s no way her father will ever allow anyone to find out one of his slaves betrayed him did so in such a very blatant way. As far as Breanna is concerned, Brenna loves her. She won’t allow anything to happen to her. And Breanna already knows I’m not her father. There’s nothing keeping me here. Chris is gone and I’ll probably never see her again if the device is what she said it is. She’s never coming back here, that much I’m sure of,” Valentine says. His argument is a good one since I know if I left a place like this, I wouldn’t come back unless I had a plan to get as many people out as possible. I doubt his Christmas could’ve done that in the weeks she’s been gone.
But what if she comes back and Valentine isn’t here? She won’t know what happened to him, she won’t know how to find him…
“I can’t let you do this,” I say. “What if she comes looking for you?”
“If she can’t find me, she will go to Brenna or her mother. I’ll tell Brenna I’m leaving and when she sees Elise again, she can relay the message. Isn’t there a code or something I can leave behind so my Chris can find me?”
I look down at the device in my hand, shaking my head when I think about what he’s asking. “You don’t even know what my world is like. What if you don’t like it there?”
“And you think I like it here?” He asks with incredulousness dripping in his tone. He is right. Anything was better than here, and he could always come back if he needed to.
I bite my lip, trying to think fast, but the decision is made for me when the clear brick in Valentine’s pockets scares me when a shrill beeping sound comes from it. Valentine pulls the device from his pocket, cursing before saying that Beau is summoning him to get a group together to look for her.
“So what’s it going to be. I won’t force you, but we also don’t have time for you to weigh the pros and cons. Honestly, we don’t have time for much of anything. If I don’t get back to him in a few minutes, he’ll come here looking for you and he’ll have a team of security, the dogs, and probably some members of law enforcement willing to come in on Christmas Day if the pay is right.”
“Okay,” I say, and then look down at myself. I still haven’t changed clothes, but I don’t think we have time for that. “If I activate the device now, we’ll step through, but we will be in the same spot on my world. That could be a river, the middle of someone one’s living room or bathroom, or in the middle of the interstate. It would be better if we could get closer to Anson Valley.”
Valentine chuckles. “Anson Valley? Chris’ father has the surname Anson. I know you’re not telling me that an entire city is named for Noble Anson.”
“We can discuss the long history of my small hometown later, now -”
“Oh. Yes. We should probably grab the cycle and get the hell out of here.”
“You sure you want to do this?” I ask, giving him one last chance to change his mind.
“I’ve never been more sure about anything in my life,” Valentine says, looking at me in a way that tells me he thinks fate sent me here to replace his Christmas. I can already tell that will not bode well for the situation into which were walking. However, I can’t deny him this opportunity to leave this place. If the tables were turned, I’d want him to do the same for me.
Once again, the clear brick sounds off like an alarm telling us to get on the move. Valentine curses again, but this time he answers, but I breathe out a sigh of relief when he says Brenna’s name.
“Val, what’s goin’ on?” Brenna says, her syrupy-sweet Sookie Stackhouse tone thicker and more annoying on this world. “Beau has called me several times. He says you’re not answering your phone and I don’t think I can cover for you much longer,” she says. She’s one to talk. He’s been covering for her for ten years, but now she’s complaining about a few phone calls. “He said Christmas tried to kill him. He’s got the dogs out and he said he’s calling the police since you’re not answering him.”
“Brenna, I don’t have time to explain, but I’m going to send you some information. When you get it, save it on your phone in a password-protected file. If Chris comes back and asks where I am, give her this information. If you see Elise while you’re in the capital, give her the information,” Valentine says. “Do you understand?”
“Yes, Val… But you’re scaring me. You need to tell me what’s going on because I’m very confused. I thought Christmas escaped.”
“Tell Breanna I love her, and I’ll miss her,” Valentine says before he closes his eyes and lets out a sigh. The device goes off again in his hand, but he ignores it. “You got that information for me?”
I open my mouth and close it, wanting to say something comforting, but knowing there’s nothing I can say. There’s only one choice here for people with skin our color. Brenna will be fine, Breanna will be fine, but there’s a chance Valentine won’t if Beau finds out Valentine had something to do with Christmas’ escape.
The device in my hand gives new meaning to the words ‘there’s an app for that’ because an app is what activates the compact MV Generator. Tapping on the app brings up a menu whose interface is simple. I choose recent places and see the date of mine and Joseph’s party. There are four trips on that night, but I know my world is the last one. I hand the device to Valentine. He uses his phone to capture a few images of the information and then hands the brick back to me. He then grabs my hand as he taps out a message. But when we get to the door, I know we’ve taken too long. A feminine robotic voice lets us know there is motion within the specified perimeter of three yards.
Valentine curses and quickly uses his phone to pull up a surveillance camera. I look over at the screen Valentine holds up to show me and see Beau exiting a vehicle that looks like a hovering golf cart.
“What do we do? Is there another way to get out?”
Valentine nods, and I sigh in relief. “Through the atrium, into the back garage, and there’s a door to a set of stairs. The stairs lead to the delivery entrance,” Valentine says, making me think he’s not planning to come with me. Just that quick I got used to the idea of him being my partner on this journey back to my world. “There are vehicles arriving and leaving all day long.”
“Come with me,” I insist, reaching for him when he heads toward the door. “I won’t make it alone,” I admit. It’s the truth. I won’t make it back to the place Beau stole me from. I don’t even know where to go, let alone believe I can make it there without shoes and without knowing how to drive one of those hovering cars. I’ll get caught and dragged back to Beau if he doesn’t come with me.
“Do you trust your Valentine, the one from your world?”
“Yes. Of course. I trust him with my life,” I say, believing the words with everything in me. The words cancel all the doubts I’ve been having, making me want to get back to my world more than ever. As guilty as I feel for leaving this world, leaving these people here to endure what they are going through, I know I can’t stay. I’m a black a woman in a modern slave world. I don’t stand a chance if I stay.
“Then trust me like you trust him. I won’t let Beau hurt you again, Chris.”
I have a feeling his words are meant for the other Chris, but I don’t say that. I nod and turn, not needing him to repeat any of the directions to know the way out. My flight instinct remembers every life-saving direction Valentine gave me.
I run, finding myself at the delivery entrance in what feels like seconds. I stop at the door, knowing it will sense my presence and open automatically once I press a hand to the seam, but I hesitate. I take three steps away from the door and then turn back, knowing Valentine is going to be pissed. But I can’t leave him, not after he’s risked himself to help me, and the other version of me, escape.
Gripping the clear brick, I take off back toward Valentine. I don’t think about what I’m about to do. All I know is this might be our only chance to get away. I know how dangerous this will be, but I have a feeling Beau is more dangerous right now. I have a feeling Beau won’t buy Valentine’s excuses this time.
I’m not happy when I find out I’m right, but I am cautious. I can hear raised voices, mainly Beau’s accusing Valentine of lying to him. He accurately accuses him of helping me escape, saying Yasmin saw me run toward the path between the properties.
I guess she really isn’t my friend on this world. I wonder if that means I need to be cautious on my world…
I push thoughts of my world’s Yasmin away and tune back into a conversation that isn’t going the way Valentine expected.
“The cycle outside is still warm,” Beau says. “I know that’s not just a coincidence.”
I tense, never considering that they’d check the cycle, but I think Valentine did. Without hesitation, he responds, “It’s warm because I rode here from the main house after I got your message. I didn’t have a weapon, so I came here to get it.”
Wow, even I believe that lie as calm, and smoothly, as it leaves Valentine’s lips. The lies make sense, being that it’s Christmas Day. Where else would Valentine be other than at the main house with his wife and child?
“Why didn’t you just answer when I called?”
“Will you tell your goons to let me go and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know,” Valentine says, his tone full of authority while I’m out here in the hall shaking so hard I’m afraid I might give my location away.
There’s a moment of pause before Beau speaks. “Search the place. Make sure Chrissy isn’t hiding here somewhere,” Beau says. “If we find her here, your freedom isn’t the only thing that will be on the line. Your life will be on the line.”
I flinch, my instinct to run at the forefront of my mind as I hear heavy footfalls approach. I’m thankful for my bare feet now because I’m able to take another route back through the atrium. I grip the device in my hand tighter as I try to keep my movements silent, gasping when I round a wall and almost run right into the back of Beau. Taking two steps back, I retrace my steps, but when I turn, I run right into a human wall.
The person’s chest is at my forehead and the fabric of their uniform is black with black buttons with the letters L and P laser cut into them. It lets me know it’s a member of Lacoste Plantation security. It lets me know I’ve been caught.
I look up into hard brown eyes that make me take a step back. I’m sure my own eyes plead with the man not to say anything, but I’m not sure he’ll comply. His eyes soften. He then places a finger to his lips before he points to the way I just retreated from. I shake my head, but he nods, his eyes begging me to trust him.
Instead of doing as he says, I step forward and throw my arms around John. I mouth a ‘thank you’ to him, trusting him. I take a step backward before going back toward where I saw Beau, where Valentine probably waits for someone to drag me back saying I’ve been caught.
Looking back over my shoulder, I lock eyes with John and he nods at me. I take a deep breath, hoping my trust in him isn’t misplaced. John sucks in a breath and then pushes it out like he’s been running before he takes off back toward my previous hiding spot. Only a moment passes before John huffs out, “Mr. Lacoste, someone saw Chrissy by the service entrance.”
“No!” Valentine shouts after John’s words. I hear shuffling feet, then what sounds like a scuffle, before I hear Valentine curse at the same time I hear the electric whir of the baton Beau uses to shock his slaves as punishment. There’s a thud, and then retreating footsteps letting me know Beau believed John’s lie.
“Get back to the cycle. We can head her off at the end of the service tunnel.”
When I enter the room Valentine is on the floor unconscious. I know we won’t be going on any cycle ride back through this hellish world with Valentine out of commission like this.
Blowing out a breath, I tap on the app and open the menu. In moments, there’s a portal floating in front of me. I look through the portal and take a deep breath at the same time I hear Valentine groan. He sits up, his hand going to the side of his head. But there’s no blood on his head, the blood trickles from his busted lip. I’m guessing he bit his lip when he fell after being shocked.
“We have to go. The portal is open,” I say at the same time Valentine’s eyes find the portal.
“I thought you said we need to be closer to -”
“Do you want to leave here while Beau has the calvary out there after us?” I ask, interrupting Valentine’s questioning. “We’re going. We’ll deal with the rest once we’re there.”
Valentine stands, staring at the portal in awe. He absently helps me up like I was the one shocked and knocked out. He moves to step through the portal, but I pull him by the arm to stop him.
“Let me… I need to look,” I say, already walking around Valentine. On the other side of the portal, all I can see are rows of cars as far as the eyes can see. I first wonder if we’ve been delivered to a car lot, but then hear the roar of a jet engine above. “The airport,” I say, knowing that’s exactly where we are. It’s a place I know, somewhere fairly safe, and somewhere to which I can direct my Valentine to come retrieve us.
I try not to think about how that might go or what my Valentine might say about me agreeing to his doppelgänger coming back with me. Instead, I focus solely on getting the both of us to safety, which I do a moment later. I grab Valentine’s wrist, leading him forward. When we step through, I’m able to see why I could see the rows of cars so well. The portal has formed in the bed of someone’s truck, and when we step through, the truck shakes. I wait for an alarm to sound off, notifying parking lot security, but the truck remains silent.
“What is this place?” Valentine asks. “A junkyard?”
That makes me chuckle. Even with my own ears, I can hear the relief in the sound. Slave world Valentine will have to get used to living a simpler life than he had before if he’s going to stay here. I didn’t have time to explain anything about my world, but I’m sure he won’t mind getting used to a slower pace. Being free to do what you want, when you want, how you want has to be worth sacrificing the advanced technology from where he came.
“No. This is a parking lot. The airport parking lot to be exact,” I say before trying to climb out of the truck. Valentine rushes forward, jumps from the truck with a hand placed on the side, and a lurch of his body. He’s in front of me offering his hand before I can decide how to jump without slicing up my feet on the parking lot that needs repair.
I take Valentine’s offered hand once he’s opened the back. I bend low, about to jump, but he quickly lets my hand go, placing a hand on either side of my waist. He lifts me from the back with ease, setting me gently to my feet in a way that could rival any male ballerina.
I take a step away from him, not wanting this to be anymore awkward than it already is, but I’m going to need him to stop being so gentlemanly and noble, especially when he’s probably going to live with me until we figure out how to get him his own identity.
“What do we do now? We don’t have to show papers to be on airport property on your world, do we?”
“No papers. But we will get stares if I go up there with no shoes and coat.”
“Not much we can do about the shoes,” Valentine says, removing the jacket of his black suit. “Here, put this on.”
I take the jacket without argument and then walk toward the nearest terminal. I try to ignore the bits of glass and gravel digging into the skin of my feet as we make our way to one of the shuttle stops.
It only takes about five minutes for one shuttle to arrive, and when the driver opens the door, she stares at me. “I was robbed,” I lie to the driver, who looks me over and then glances at Valentine. “Not by him.”
“I’m just a Good Samaritan,” Valentine says.
“Did you call the police?” The shuttle driver asks Valentine, who flounders, not knowing how to answer. I assume he doesn’t enjoy getting the police involved where he’s from, so I save him.
“His phone is dead,” I lie. “Can I use yours by chance?”
“Have a seat,” the driver says before removing a device from a stand attached to the dashboard. He unlocks it and hands it to me as I sit in the seat behind him. Valentine apologizes to the other passengers, who all are white, and I shake my head briefly, wondering how long it will take to break his habit of acting subservient to the fairer skinned race.
I make a call to the only number I know by heart and twenty minutes later she pulls to a stop in front of me and slave world Valentine with my Valentine riding shot gun.
“I thought I told you to come alone,” I say to my best friend who gets out of the car. Her number is the only one I knew by heart because it hasn’t changed in the years I’ve known her.
“I thought you were my best friend, and you told me everything,” Kendall says, slamming the car door. A moment later, Valentine’s arms wrap around me, and I’m lifted from the ground. His lips take mine for long, passionate seconds until one of the airport patrol tells us we can’t park and we need to be moving along.
“You told her,” I say to Valentine, who sets me onto my feet. He tenses after a moment, and I know he’s noticed the other Valentine.
“You!” Valentine pushes me behind him like the other Valentine is going to attack me. “I should’ve known you were lying about knowing where Chris was,” Valentine accuses.
“V,” I say, my hand on his arm, meant to calm him, but he tenses again. “That’s not who you think it is. He’s… another version of you. He had to come with me. There was no other choice.”
“Guys, we have to go,” Kendall says, nodding toward the patrol officer, who now has a friend with her. “We’ll talk about this in the car.”
We pile into the car, my Valentine directing the other Valentine to get into the front seat. My Valentine gets in the back next to me, barely allowing me to click the seatbelt into place before he’s assessing me and asking me what happened.
“Beau happened,” I say as Kendall merges onto the ramp to the interstate that will take us back into the mountains, to Anson Valley. “He and his father have my mother,” I say. It’s the first time I’ve been able to mention this to anyone who might understand what that means to me and my family. “Beau said as much before he another Beau showed up, took me through to a portal to another world where slavery is still legal.”
“You went back in time?” Kendall asks, and I can understand why she might think that. “I thought it was the same time, but another world. You didn’t tell me anything about time travel, Val.”
“I didn’t know.”
“It is your world that seems to have taken me back in time,” slave world Valentine inserts. “Your world seems to be centuries behind my own.”
“He’s right. His world had flying cars, a downtown Atlanta that looked like Times Square but bigger, all made possible by the free labor of slaves, and the appropriation of their ideas,” I say. “It seems that Beau and his father know about the device on more than one world and have been using it to their advantage while also trying to spread the knowledge to every Beau and Laurent they can find. I don’t know how involved this world’s Beau and Laurent are in their network of doppelgängers, but the fact they have my mother means they know about it and know what it does. I don’t know how much they’ve used the knowledge to their advantage, but I know we have to watch our backs with them. I doubt they want anyone to know what they know and they’ll get rid of anyone they think might stand in their way.”
“They may have already done that,” my Valentine says, and looks at Kendall through the rearview mirror. They have a short and silent conversation that ends with Valentine saying, “No one has seen Noble in days. He went to California to talk to Beau because someone said they saw him in town the day you went missing. However, it was strange that Beau was in town but he didn’t show up at the party venue. It was like he knew you wouldn’t be there so why bother showing up. We knew. We didn’t need anyone to tell us, but we also couldn’t go to the police since there was no way we could tell them the truth.
“So daddy knows? He’s known about the MV Generator all along? He’s known that the Lacostes knew about it too, I assume?”
“I’m sorry, Chris, but it looks that way. I think he was trying to protect you. He never thought you’d be able to turn it on,” Valentine explains. What I don’t say is that my father didn’t think me smart enough to understand what the MV Generator does. My degree in fashion was a relief to him because he thought it meant I wasn’t as smart or capable as the Christmases on those other worlds who are scientists that work alongside or inherited the powerful brain of their genius mother. He assumed my fashion degree meant my IQ wasn’t high enough to be interested in something so complicated. His uncomplicated daughter would never disappear to another world and never return like my mother.
Stop, Chris… Self-pity is not a good look for you.
I am feeling sorry for myself, so I clench my eyes shut and try to listen without thinking. It’s hard but I manage to hear Valentine saying, “We told your father about the device and he admitted he already knew about it and assumed your mother had used it and had gone somewhere and got stuck. I don’t think he suspected Beau and Laurent of having anything to do with her disappearance. He only said that Beau is obsessed with you and had been calling him and threatening his business if he didn’t convince you to return to California to be with him. When you went missing your father was sure Beau got tired of waiting.”
It so strange that my father was so close to the truth. I didn’t realize he cared that much to pay attention. Though, that doesn’t excuse the fact he lied to me and my brother about our mother’s disappearance.
“But it had only been a few days since I broke up with him. It’s hard to believe he became so unhinged so quickly. When we were together, Beau acted like he didn’t care about our relationship,” I admit and then ask, “You all let him go alone knowing how dangerous –”
“I insisted that I go with him,” Valentine interrupts. “The morning of our flight he was already gone when I went to pick him up. That was when you had only been missing for a little over a day.”
“I have to go back and find him, let him know I’m okay.”
“Honestly, Chris, I think it might be better for you to stay missing if what you say about Beau and his father is true.”
“It’s all true,” the other Valentine says. “Beau is obsessed with Chris, and Laurent is obsessed with Elise. He doesn’t own her, and he never will. Elise is free. She earned her freedom after developing the device, or at least that’s what Chris told me. But no one knows. She lives with the man who used to own her because she loves him, not because she has to.”
Valentine frowns when his eyes dart toward the front seat of the car. He stares at the back of the other Valentine’s head for a moment before he turns back to me. Valentine takes my hand. He stares at me like he’s trying to make sure I’m real. I feel the same about him and don’t resist when he unbuckles my seatbelt and pulls me in close to him.
“When I came back from picking up Breanna and found your phone and bag but not you…” Valentine shakes his head “I didn’t think I was ever going to see you again. Ken has been at the cabin with me since I told her the truth.”
“And showed me,” Kendall inserts. “Because you know I didn’t believe a word of it until I had proof.”
“Forever the journalist,” I comment.
“Damn right. And this journalist has looked into your mother’s disappearance. I’ve been studying the case notes,” she says. “Not the police case notes, since the investigation is technically still open, but the notes of the journalist who covered the story back then. I kept coming back to how there were no tracks in the snow when she left. Of course, we know she probably went through the portal, but how did someone know exactly how to find her, lure her out?” Kendall says. “I think it was Juliette. I think she was the mastermind behind your mother’s disappearance, and I think she started planning it long before your parents left California. From what I’ve read in the reporter’s notes, people in California thought Juliette was a manipulator and a mean girl when it came to Elise. They were sure Juliette was the one Elise shouldn’t have trusted, not Laurent.”
“But my mother was seen by a doctor. She was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.”
“And guess who was the one who first approached your father about your mother’s erratic behavior?” Kendall asks, but she doesn’t wait for me to say Juliette’s name before she continues. “That same person recommended your father put her on a psychiatric hold. She told your father that your mother told her she wanted to kill herself.”
“And that’s not true?” I ask.
Kendall shrugs. “Possibly, but I don’t think so. The reporter who covered the story flew out to California to talk to some of Elise’s friends and they said they saw no signs of what Juliette claimed. If anything, your mother was excited about her future and optimistic about the impact her inventions would make on the world.” Kendall shrugs again. “What I concluded from the notes was that Elise was capable and sane. She was eccentric, but what scientist isn’t?”
“You don’t need to think about any of that right now,” Valentine says, his tone insistent. “You just got back. I just got you back.”
I nod, processing all I’ve been told despite Valentine’s wishes. I have so many thoughts and questions I can’t pinpoint just one to voice. I decide to let it all sink in, an action that exhausts me until my eyes are so heavy I can’t hold them open anymore. When I open my eyes again, I’m laid on a familiar couch with the familiar smells and sounds of my cabin filtering in. I close my eyes again for the briefest of moments, thanking whatever force out there allowed me to be back here.
“Can I just say that I thought I was the adventurous one, but no… you had to show me up and discover a way to travel between alternate universes. That’s cool, and I’m jealous… Happy Birthday, sis,” Joseph says to me when my eyes land on him. He’s folded himself into the denim blue sofa chair across from me on the right, and slave world Valentine stares at me sitting in the sofa chair on the left. He’s changed from the suit and now looks disturbingly a lot like my Valentine. He’s in a brown plaid flannel, is wearing a cream-colored henley shirt and dark jeans. The sight of him looking so much like my Valentine makes me have to turn away.
“Same to you, Joe,” I croak out. “How long have I been out?” I ask, but know it’s been a long time. It’s dark outside beyond the windows, and the moon makes the ice on the trees glow like natural night lights.
“Hours,” my Valentine says and I realize the voice came from above me. I’m lying on Valentine’s lap, my tingling scalp letting me know he’s been rubbing my head, probably trying to make me sleep as long as possible.
“So you know about the device too?”
“Well, if that other version of me knows about it, then I should too,” Joseph says, trying to make light of things as is his nature. I can almost see how he became the injured jock with a few loose screws on #2’s world. Joe’s eyes soften and he leans forward, pinning me with his brown gaze. I sit up slowly, feeling achy and tired, not wanting to do this right now. I’m drained both physically and emotionally, and I don’t want to rehash my experience for people who could never understand. Plus, it’s insensitive to tell some sob story about my week on that world when slave world Valentine has had to live on that world his whole life. What I went through while there was insignificant in comparison.
“Don’t look at me like that,” I say to my twin. “I’m fine.” I stand. I shake my head like I’m shaking off a chill, but the pajama pants I have on remind me too much of my ordeal. “I should shower. We’ll talk later. Chocolate croissants for our birthday, maybe?”
I don’t ask anyone in particular to drive into town for croissants before I retreat, needing to be alone. I need to take some time to make sure I’m not dreaming and being home is real.
When I get to the bathroom, I shut the door, placing my back against it. I sink to the floor and pull my knees to my chest and bow my head to cry silently. I sit there for long moments before I’m able to pull it together enough to get into the tub, since I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to close myself in the modern shower again. When my father told me he was making some updates to the cabin, I thought the glass box shower was a good idea, but now my stomach sinks every time I look in that direction.
I’m definitely going to have that removed.
In the bath, I sit there, soaking until the water gets cold, looking over the places where I had scrapes and bruises and burns from my ordeal with Gray. They should still be there, still healing, but they are gone thanks to the advanced technology on a very backward world.
There’s a soft knock on the door that startles me in a way it shouldn’t. My heart is already thudding when I breathe a sigh of relief at the sound of his voice.
“You okay in there?” Valentine inquires.
“I’m fine,” I lie. I reach for the faucet of the freestanding tub to turn on the hot water before I say, “Come in.”
I pull my legs into my body as the water runs. I don’t look at Valentine yet because I’m sure I might burst into tears if I see his face. If I do that, he’ll want to know what happened and what I tell him won’t amount too much, so he won’t understand how just being in that place made me feel. Knowing I wasn’t in control of what happened to me, that everyone like me would never get to live, only survive, it kept me downtrodden and broken the whole time I was there. All the days blended together like one day would never end, and the next came too fast. I hadn’t even worked, and I felt that way. I can’t imagine what everyone else there had been going through their entire lives.
Guilt washes over me. I had the opportunity to leave, and so did another version of me, but all of those people have to stay. John had even sacrificed himself, his freedom, so I could get away.
“I know you’re not fine, and you don’t have to pretend to be around me,” Valentine says as he comes through the door. He rounds the corner and I hear his steps hesitate. When I turn my head, I realize why he hesitated. It’s not my Valentine, it’s slave world Valentine.
I have to think of another name for him… #3? Val? Or maybe just Valentine…
When he sees that I’m naked, he turns his back to me and sticks his hands in his pockets. I don’t think he does it because he’s shy. I think he does it because he’s a gentleman. He wasn’t allowed to ogle women of a certain color, so he gives every woman the same respect.
“I’m sorry,” I say, reaching to turn off the water. “I didn’t know it was you,” I say, not meaning it the way it sounds. Valentine notices because he visibly stiffens, offended by what sounds like disappointment.
“I’ll go. I just… Everyone else had things to do and you’ve been in here for a long time. I thought someone should come check on you. I’ll send him in when he gets back. He said he was going to get his daughter,” this Valentine says about mine. “He’s not talking about Breanna, is he?”
“Unfortunately, he is,” I say. I don’t want to sound bitter, but I do. I know there’s a good chance Breanna isn’t his child, but who am I to tell him that. He loves Breanna. If he doesn’t suspect she isn’t his why should I? Though, I have a feeling Valentine already knows he’s not Breanna’s father but is too good of a person to leave that little girl without a father who loves her and treats her like a princess. “My Brenna isn’t as benevolent as yours. Mine is a mean girl who hates me. And the crazy thing is that the has nothing to do with Valentine, or at least it didn’t. She hated me because she lived in a town with my last name and people liked me better than her. Brenna and her friends treated me like a nemesis, which always left me on the defense,” I say and then shake my head. “I’m sure you don’t want to hear any of that. You’re probably wanting to know about your new home and how you’ll work and live,” I say. “But don’t worry about any of that. We’ll figure it out. You can stay here as long as you like.”
“I thank you for that. You’re very kind. And don’t worry. I’ll pull my weight as soon as I get my bearings,” Valentine says. “But that’s not why I came in here. I came for you. I’m the only one who can understand what you just went through and I know you’re not fine like you told them,” Valentine accuses correctly. “And you don’t have to be fine, Chris. My world is not one that leaves a person feeling fine.”
I can hear the difference between the two of them now. This Valentine has a southern twang that becomes more and more prominent the more he speaks. His tone, and his words, are drawn out and slower like he wants to make sure you’re not confusing anything he says. He has a purposeful way of choosing his words as if he wants to make sure his words don’t offend. I think I like that quality about him despite the fact that it was born from living on his world and being forced to be that way.
“No, it doesn’t,” I say, not uncomfortable admitting that to this Valentine. “But I can’t talk to them about it. It’s such an abstract idea for them. Even if I give a detailed accounting of my time on your world, they still won’t get it.”
“And you forgot to mention you don’t want to offend me,” Valentine says. It’s the truth and I wonder if it’s that obvious in the way I’ve been since stepping through that portal or if he just knows his Christmas that well. I have a feeling it’s a little of both.
“That too,” I say. “Can I ask you something?”
“I should probably leave,” Valentine says, shifting on his feet. Being in here with me while I’m naked is making him uncomfortable.
“Would you want to know?” I ask, ignoring him as I stand and reach for the towel. “Would you want to know that Breanna isn’t yours? Or do you think I should just mind my own business?”
“Do you love him?”
I nod even though Valentine can’t see me. “I do. But we just reunited. I don’t think it’s my place to get in the middle of that.”
“I’ve never slept with Brenna Oliver. That’s how I know Breanna isn’t mine,” Valentine says.
“Mine says he doesn’t remember sleeping with her,” I tell this Valentine, remembering the story my Valentine told me about the only time he ever got drunk in his life. “But on every other world I’ve been on, Valentine is not Breanna’s father,” I say after wrapping the towel around my body.
“I’d want to know. But I can admit that I don’t think I’d want to hear that from you… her. However, my Chris would’ve told me, and then she would’ve told me to suck it up and get over it. I’d probably be upset with her for a time, but our lives on my world were too short to dwell on the things we couldn’t change.”
“Can I ask you something else, Valentine?”
“Have you ever been to California?”
Valentine hesitates. He then chuckles. “I can honestly say that I have not been to California. I have never even left the great state of Georgia.”
“Then you’re in for a treat. I have to go there to close out my life,” I say. “I was living there as recently as earlier this month, but Valentine and I reconnected and I decided to move back. That decision led to me ending up on your world. My world’s Beau didn’t appreciate me ending our relationship only a couple weeks after he proposed and I accepted.”
“Won’t I need credentials?”
“Not the kind of credentials you’re thinking of,” I say, knowing he thinks black people still have to carry around proof they’re free. “But if we need identification for you, I know a couple Valentines that might help us out with that,” I say. “And if we have to make it a road trip, we will.”
“I like the sound of that,” he says. I can hear the smile and awe in his tone. The sound makes me feel good, like something good has finally come out of finding the MV Generator. Though, I guess knowing more about what happened to my mother is what I’ve always wanted, and it’s what I got. I know the Lacostes have my mother and now I need to find out where, or if she is even on this world at all.
“Okay then. I’ll check with one of my clients who has connections to places we can get a luxury car to rent,” I say, walking over to the hook to grab my robe. The robe hangs only a few feet from Valentine, allowing me to feel the heat from his body when I pass him. “I’m a stylist, by the way. I know we haven’t had a chance to talk about stuff like that,” I say, rambling as I try to push away my attraction to every Valentine on every world. Something has to be wrong with me, which is why I should probably stay far away from my Valentine. I should leave him alone and let him lead his life without me, but I’m selfish. I love him as Valentine, the man, more than I ever could as Valentine, the boy.
“Kinda like what my Chris did for Yasmin,” he says absently. He’s right, but his comment still makes my stomach turn. I don’t respond to his comment verbally, but rather nod once even though my back is to him and I don’t know if he’s looking at me.
“You should think of what you might like to do,” I say instead of responding to him. “On this world you can do a lot of things without being physically present so you don’t have to worry about there being two of you. Though, there is always the long lost identical twin story. I’m sure people in this town would believe Ms. Jeanette had a long-lost son.”
“You knew her? My mother?” Valentine asks. “I only knew her name. I never met her. Last I heard, and that was when I was only ten-years-old, she was in Texas.”
“I did know her. She was like a mother to me for a few years after I met V,” I say but I think he can tell that I don’t want to talk about that with him. That’s a conversation he needs to have with the Valentine of this world. He’s the only one who can relay who she was and what she meant to her family. “But I can tell I’m torturing you by making you have this conversation with me while I’m not fully dressed.” My tone is joking, but I can feel his discomfort, and know if his skin was light enough, there’d be a deep red blush there.
“We’ll talk more about the road trip later, but we won’t leave until after the new year, since that’s what I planned in the first place.” I pause and realize something. “It’s hard to believe it’s only been a little over a week since V and I found the MV Generator. It feels like it’s been years.” I chuckle when Valentine’s discomfort becomes palpable. I stop torturing him and say, “Thanks for all your help, Valentine. I wouldn’t be back home without you.”
I feel his eyes on me then and when I turn back around; he nods quickly and then exits the room. When he walks through the open door, he ends up literally running into himself. There’s a brief moment that seems like it goes on for years where the two men probably wonder a million different little things and ask themselves just as many questions. I can tell my Valentine wants to hate his doppelgänger like he does #2, but knows he can’t when the other version of him nods in a way that’s almost subservient. The other Valentine keeps his eyes on the floor as he passes, like he’s trying to convey that he did the same when he was alone with me. I want to stop him, tell him he doesn’t have to be subservient to anyone if he doesn’t want to, and then give him a great big hug.
I don’t do any of that. Instead I say, “We’ll talk more about the trip later.”
The other Valentine disappears without another word and my Valentine forgets all about the other version of him when his eyes land on me. I can tell he wants to erupt, aggressively take me into his arms and ravage me but he doesn’t.
I’m sure Valentine still wants the moment to be special.
It would’ve been special had Beau not lost his mind. Had Beau not lost his mind, we would’ve told the world about us by showing up to mine and Joseph’s birthday party together. It was the moment Valentine had been waiting for. It was the moment he needed. He needed people to know we were in a relationship before our relationship crossed that line. Now, I’m sure, that doesn’t matter anymore.
Why we were waiting might not be important anymore, but I’m glad when Valentine can control his desire. He hugs me tighter instead of trying to make love to me, which makes me love him more. When he says, “You’re beautiful,” I can tell he means it and it makes my heart beat heavier against my ribcage.
Despite my thoughts of only a moment ago, I can feel tendrils of desire stirring low in my belly, the way I feel about the man in front of me, undeniable. But I know I could never go through with it if we tried to consummate our budding relationship now. The act would hurt more than help.
I don’t want our first time since the night we got married to be fraught with thoughts of slave world Beau trying to force himself on me.
“You have to say that,” I return as I pull away from him to pull my robe over my shoulders, avoiding Valentine’s gaze. I can feel his eyes on me, feel them examining me as he once did when we were teenagers. Knowing me too well, and knowing that I need a little space, Valentine doesn’t approach me again until I’m covered and secure underneath the plush fabric.
Once I’m done, Valentine offers his hand and I take it. He doesn’t question why the other version of him was in the bathroom with me while I was half-naked or ask me to tell him anything about what happened to me, but rather pulls me into his arms again and lets me sob into his chest.
“I want to hold you like this forever. I never want to let you out of my sight again,” Valentine proclaims in a tone that suggests he’s been running through the possibilities of how he can do exactly that. “You scared the shit out of me, Chris,”
“Imagine how I feel,” I say. My tone is bitter and I don’t mean for it to sound that way. Valentine doesn’t ignore the tone. He pulls away from me and then tilts my chin up with two fingers. “Don’t,” I say, not knowing what I’m referring to when I say the word. I don’t know if I don’t want him to look at me with pity, if I don’t want him to ask me why I’m crying, or if I don’t want to have to explain what my bitter statement means. I decide it’s probably all three, and Valentine must know that because he doesn’t ask me anything.
“All I was going to say is happy twenty-ninth birthday, Chris. I love you.”
“Why do I feel like you didn’t just come up here to tell me you love me?” I ask, taking in Valentine, and his expression.
“Because I didn’t,” he admits. “I’m supposed to be here to encourage you to dress nice but not tell you that your brother and his mistress have decided to throw an impromptu birthday party,” Valentine says. He holds his hand up when I shake my head. “I know. But it won’t be as bad as you think. Just us, the new guy, Breanna, your brother, and Kendall.”
“And me,” another voice says, and I shake my head. It’s #2, and it’s strange that I can distinguish his tone from the other two people in this house whose voices are a perfect approximation of his. #2’s face appears around the side of the door, his grin wide. My Valentine mumbles something about an asshole, but his presence makes me smile. “You know he tried to blame me because I tried to convince not to get the police involved. What was he going to tell them? That he thinks the woman he’s in love with was taken to another version of Earth through a portal?”
“How did you know that’s what happened?” I ask. Before my Valentine answers, he turns me to face him.
“Because I knew you wouldn’t leave me for Beau. You’d never betray me that way, at least not without an explanation,” he says, completely confident in his trust in me. I think about what he said, guilt flooding me when my night with #2 comes to mind. I regret that happening in the sense that I know it will hurt my Valentine when he finds out, but I don’t regret doing something spontaneous, that was just for me. Valentine and I weren’t together in any official capacity at the time, and the truth is we still aren’t. I might be moving back to Georgia to be closer to him, but that doesn’t guarantee we’ll end up together once all is said and done.
We’ve never been in a position where we could have a relationship that was real and public. We’ve never dated or spent any amount of time together as a couple. We were friends who hung out in secret, so my father and Brenna wouldn’t find out. We have no idea if this thing between us will work out or not, so I’ve decided not to depend on that outcome. What happens will happen. I only want to be living a life that’s happy and filled with love.
Hopefully that life will one day include the mother I lost if she is even still alive.
“Oh,” I say, unable to respond to Valentine in any meaningful way for fear I might blurt out the truth. My mouth opens and closes, but nothing comes out. Valentine doesn’t understand my speechlessness, probably thinking I’m embarrassed to respond with #2 here.
“I’m supposed to tell you I’m here to check on the search for you, not to attend your birthday party,” #2 says, saving me from myself. I’m sure he knows why I can’t bring myself to say anything other than the one word I’ve uttered.
“Okay,” I say, hoping my expression conveys how thankful I am to him.
“We’ll let you get dressed,” my Valentine says, chuckling at me. “Come down and act surprised once you’re done.”
Nervous laugh bubbles from my lips. “I’ll try my best,” I mumble as the two men leave together. My Valentine gives me one last look over his shoulder, winking as he disappears through the door.
I count to ten, holding my breath the entire time. A breath whooshes out of me after I’m done counting, and I hurry from the room, not wanting to be alone for too long. I almost put on something comfortable and throw my hair into a ponytail, but if I do that, everyone will know I’m not okay.
Making a compromise with myself, I quickly do my hair and makeup, but put on one of my matching tracksuits. The white one is my favorite, but it’s dirty, and it’s also what I was wearing the night #2 and I had sex.
I should probably burn the white tracksuit.
Dressed in soft jeans and a chunky mauve sweater, but barefoot and comfortable, I make my way back down to the large living room. Everyone is there, but none of them yell surprise. They aren’t even paying attention to me. They are staring at Samanda, who is dressed in her khaki colored police uniform. Her expression is grim, and I think it must have something to do with Gray Mason and what happened at the overlook cave and in the parking lot.
“Hey Chrissy,” Samanda says, which makes everyone turn away from her to look at me. I don’t see the other two Valentines, so I assume they are hiding somewhere. I can imagine seeing three identical versions of her brother wouldn’t go over well since I’m sure she knows her mother didn’t have triplets.
Valentine rises. He hurries over to me like he should’ve done that as soon as he noticed me but is so shocked by whatever Samanda has told them he forgot. I look at the pity in his eyes, at the pity in all their eyes, as well as the sorrow in Joseph’s.
“Chris…” Valentine starts, but immediately trails off. He looks back at Samanda and asks, “You’re sure?”
Samanda nods. “As far as we know? And there’s no denying the proof.”
“What the hell are you two talking about? You’re scaring me,” I say and try not to sound panicky. But I can’t help it. There could be a number of things wrong right now, none of them good.
“Just tell her,” Joseph says, the sentence breaking halfway through because my brother has to hold back tears.
My heart thuds at a pace that must make my face contort because Valentine places a hand on my back as if to hold me up.
“Chris,your father’s ID was found in Redwoods State Park.”
“Big Basin Redwoods State Park? Not too far from San Jose?”
Samanda looks confused. “I guess so. You’d know better than me. Like I told everyone else, the station got a call saying park rangers were notified of the discovery of a crime scene in the park. A lot of blood and one of those wallets that protect the magnetic strip on your credit cards. I remembered the Mayor having a black one,” Samanda says. I feel horrible that I hadn’t noticed such a detail. I would never have known if the wallet that was found was his if someone had shown it to me.
“Is he… Is he dead?” I ask, my voice cracking on the last word.
Samanda hesitates. She glances at Valentine. Valentine gives a subtle nod before Samanda says, “There was a body. But it was too badly mutilated by wildlife to be identified. Police say they’re going to need DNA from family to positively ID the vic.”
“The vic?” I ask incredulously in a way that’s way too unkind. It’s not Samanda’s fault, but I don’t have anyone else to take my anger and frustration out on right now. Valentine tries to comfort me, to console me but I won’t be consoled as I yell, “That ‘vic’ is my father!”
* * *