THE MANDATORY SIX, Part Six: Alix Twelve 10/12 | 10:02 a.m.

Alix paced around her apartment, a clean space with light colors and minimal clutter. A simple design for calm of mind, she liked to tell her subscribers. Right now, those simple lines were blurred by tears.

She wasn’t sure what to call this feeling. Panic? Adrenaline? Nauseating excitement?

For years she’d thought of David Youngstone. She’d repeated his name in her head, each time forcing herself to focus on the memory of his face. It was all she had left of him, and from day one, she’d been aware that it would fade if she didn’t work at keeping it alive. Every night, before falling asleep, she’d run through the memory again, from the moment he’d walked up beside her after school to the last time she’d ever looked at him. She remembered the loving touch of his hands when he’d shared that vision of her life. He had a magical jewel called a vauxna that allowed him to see such things. She could still see it glimmering in the low light of the diner.

Everything he’d predicted had come true. His visit had been a pivotal experience in her young life, giving her the strength to run away from home, which, despite being an unwise decision on paper, had turned out well for her. She’d shared her story with her audience, but his part had remained a secret. It was more than the worry people wouldn’t believe her. It was like somehow, she’d known this moment was coming.

 

She stared at her laptop on the desk. The video was still open, an orange blur of streetlight against a night sky visible on the paused screen.

She got out her vlogging camera and held it up. “Hey guys,” she said, running her fingers through her auburn hair as she let the camera adjust to the light coming in the sliding-glass door. “So, I was gonna film a video about stress management today, but something really weird just happened.” She stared at the camera. “I have chills all over my body even trying to talk about it.”

She stopped the recording and set the camera down. Maybe she should think twice about this. With over a million subscribers now, deleting a video and hoping no one would notice wasn’t an option. If she put this out there, out there it would be. Normally, that was no big deal. She’d shared every detail of her transition journey, and it didn’t get more personal than that. It was in her nature to share, but this … Something told her this was different.

She fixed herself a strawberry smoothie with Greek yogurt and sat down at the computer, heading straight for Reddit. David Youngstone, she typed into the search bar. A list of subreddits popped up, the top one named after him. It had fifty-seven subscribers. The title of the pinned post read: IF YOU’VE HAD A DAVID YOUNGSTONE EXPERIENCE, PLEASE SHARE HERE.

It opened into a large post full of information and links. There were only two comments, one from a user called golden_dahlia76567 and another from someone called Thisshitreallyhappened111. She quickly learned the latter user was Daniel Hale, the guy from the Crocodile Terrorist movies.

Her phone buzzed with a video call from her boyfriend Jay, who was working a brunch shift at one of the most popular restaurants in Los Angeles. They’d both worked there part-time since moving here a couple of years ago.

Jay appeared in one of the seats on the restaurant’s back patio in all his dirty blonde glory.

“Hey babe.”

“Hey,” she said. “Oh my god. Something like … astronomically crazy just happened. David Youngstone is back.”

Jay narrowed his eyes. “What?”

“I’m not kidding. He came through a portal and appeared to other people. There’s a subreddit about it, and I’m sitting here trying to decide if I should tell my story—”

“What do you mean, a portal?”

“Look up the video. Just search David Youngstone. It’s the top thing.”

“You didn’t say anything about a portal when he came to see you.”

“There wasn’t one. Maybe I didn’t see it. Okay, I think I’m gonna tell my story anonymously on here and see what happens.”

She left Jay to check out the video and began typing out her post, leaving out any identifying details, like the reason she’d been suicidal that day. It was the other part that really mattered. David’s part. The way he’d treated her with such kindness. The way he’d walked with her down the street, butterflies in her stomach every time she glanced over at him. She was becoming a butterfly then too, not fully formed but ready to work on it. All she’d needed was a push.

After finishing the post, she tried to go about her day as normal. She filmed the video and wrote the blog she’d planned, struggling to keep her focus the whole time. At 3:30, she went to meet Jay at the restaurant, where she had avocado toast with eggs and a Bloody Mary. They went and handled some errands, did an aerial yoga class, got some groceries, and headed back home. They were getting set up on the couch with food and a TV show to binge when she checked her reddit account again. The message symbol glowed orange.

“Oh my god,” she said. “People responded.”

The first two messages were public responses from the users who’d already posted their stories. She’d read those in a minute. It was the latest response, a private message from a user called Ghost_Collector, that caught her eye.

Jay read along over her shoulder as her eyes scanned the words.

Hey there,

My name is Robert. I just read your story. I don’t want to post mine in public, but I met David Youngstone too. Like you, he came to me on a day I was thinking about ending my life. For years, I’ve kept that to myself. I figured he was just some kid, not a real time traveler. Now, I’m not so sure. On top of that, I’ve recently gone through something that brought me a great deal of healing from my past. Something that seems could have only occurred thanks to divine intervention of some form. Because of these experiences, I’ve changed my entire worldview, and now I want to reach out and find others who might understand. I guess that’s the point of this message.

Feel free to ignore this if it makes you uncomfortable, but if you want to possibly get together in some way and discuss our experiences, please let me know. I’ve already contacted Daniel from the video and Ella, who also had a David Youngstone experience. We’d all like to meet up if you’re willing.

Hoping to hear from you,

Robert Johnson

Alix pursed her lips and looked at Jay. “What do you think?”

“I think you’ve waited a long time for answers.”

He was right, although “waited” was probably the wrong word. For the longest time, she’d accepted it as a weird experience she’d likely never understand. And maybe that was still true. But at least now, there were others who got just how difficult that lack of understanding was. And maybe, if they were lucky, they’d somehow come together and figure this out.

She took a deep breath and began writing her response to Robert.

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Discover the rest of the story in BEYOND MY DYING MIND, available now on Amazon.

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THE MANDATORY SIX, Part Three: Robert Johnson 9/19 | 10:02 a.m.

Robert struggled to focus on I-40 West as it stretched ahead into the outskirts of Grants, New Mexico. He took another chug from the energy drink in the console, his palms sweaty, his heart slamming in his chest. He was getting close. She was waiting at a cheap motel a few miles from the next exit—or had been at the time of their phone call.

He glanced at himself in the rear-view mirror. Sixteen hours since he’d left St. Louis, and he hadn’t taken a full breath yet. His bloodshot brown eyes and rough dark skin aged him beyond his twenty-three years. It’d been days since he’d had a proper sleep or bothered with the skin care routine he’d been doing in Chicago. In some parallel dimension, he was looking like shit because he’d been out drinking with his friends the night before like a normal college student. Then again, if he was a normal college student, he’d already have his degree by now instead of having his studies delayed by a missing family.

Most of his friends had drifted, but it was his own fault for being so depressing. Adrenaline had fueled their efforts to help him in his search during the first couple of months, but no one could go on like that forever. They didn’t know what to say. All around him, the stench of tragedy hung in the air, emanating from the festering hole where the explanation should have been. His reality was a question mark, standing before him like a skyscraper. He had lived as a forgotten wanderer in its massive shadow, and now, after all this time, he was about to discover the truth. The only thing more frightening was the idea he never would.

A few nights ago, Mama had appeared on Aunt Tiffany’s doorstep in St. Louis. Tiffany had called, but by the time Robert made it there from Chicago, Mama was long gone, bolted out the door after overhearing Tiffany phoning the police from the bathroom.

“She wouldn’t even speak, Rob,” Tiffany said, crying. “I begged her to tell me where they were. She didn’t say a word.”

He’d stayed in St. Louis the next couple of nights, all his time spent driving around, unsure where to look. He’d eventually given up and curled up in a pathetic lump on Tiffany’s couch, where he stayed the next few days. She liked to watch the news, but the images of the massive earthquake in South America were too depressing for him to bear. Everything shook, rumbled, and fell. Including his phone when he’d realized the unknown number could be Mama. The thought crossed his mind every time someone called. This time, he’d been correct.

Mama had been quiet at first, but he’d recognized the sound of her breathing.

“I’m ready to tell you everything now, Robert,” she said. “I’m ready to tell.”

She’d given him her new location, and he’d left right away. Tiffany couldn’t take off work, but it was better this way. He wouldn’t have been able to take the car ride together, the unbearable silence as they both pondered the possibilities. Especially the one they were too afraid to ponder with clarity, the possibility that Jacob, somehow, was okay. Robert had put that sputtering hope out of its misery long ago, and it had now become the fog that floated around the back of his mind. He avoided it with everything he had as if acknowledgement would prevent it from ever coming true.

He took the exit and rolled down the road, passing hotels and fast-food restaurants despite his growling stomach. His GPS led him further from the recognizable chains and into a more remote area, where he spotted the sign for the Desert Lodge Motel, nearly invisible thanks to its display of faded gray letters against a dusty backdrop.

He pressed into the brakes, enduring a loud screech from his much-abused 2005 Mazda hatchback. It’d gotten him this far. Whatever happened from here didn’t matter as much.

He thought again about David Youngstone as he climbed from the car. The experience had remained fresh in mind over the years, at times giving him hope, other times making him laugh at his own baffling stupidity. Of course the kid hadn’t really been a time traveler. He was just a precocious young person. The water tower thing had just been a coincidence. It had to be. And that meant this whole thing could still be a bust.

Every screptch of his shoes against the dusty concrete walkway reminded him of that as he got closer.

He arrived at the door and knocked.

It opened to reveal Mama standing there. Thinner, older, and more vacant in the eyes, but Mama no question.

He’d envisioned this moment so many times. Prayed for it too. It didn’t feel like he’d expected. He could only tremble and stare.

“Mama?”

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Discover more of the story in BEYOND MY DYING MIND, available now on Amazon. Robert’s story will also be further explored in one of my future books.