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art by Richard Gagnon

Where You End and the World Begins

Sam Ferree reads, writes, and drinks coffee. Currently, he lives and works in Saint Paul. His short stories have previously appeared in Sybil's Garage, Daily Science Fiction, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Additionally, Sam wears sports coats for the pockets and has a habit of ending his sentences with "so..." He is estranged from reality and divorced from practicality. To learn more about Sam Ferree, visit his blog: scribblersdoorlessroom.bogspot.com.

It took Penelope a week after moving into her apartment to realize that the man who was always sitting on the leather couch in the living room was her roommate. At first, she took him for an overly devoted evangelist. He wore a white, collared shirt, black slacks, and a blank nametag, and had an enormous, bushy beard. When he did not leave or try to win her over to whatever jumbled philosophy he believed, she began to see him as a fixture. There was a roommate-shaped indentation in the couch. He smoked as if the air was poison and his voice was a quiet bass. Whenever she walked by the couch he murmured incoherencies or, Penelope chose to believe, advice.
On the third day after she moved in he said, "There are no entrances. Only exits."
"So... I can never come back?" Penelope asked, humoring him.
"No. It just means you can do nothing twice."
The next day, he stood on his head on the coffee table saying, between puffs of smoke, "Dissonance. Caprice. Inconsistency. Impermanence. These are the sacred bylaws of living."
From the door, Penelope said, "That list was thematically consistent."
"Only accidentally."
Five days later, Penelope was only able to open the door to her room when he shouted with the gravity of epiphany, "Yesterday never happened and today is already tomorrow. Just like every other day."
Penelope entered the living room and saw her roommate using his feet to pour Old Crow into his mouth. They had been living together for less than two weeks and already the apartment was littered with pizza boxes and plastic shot glasses. It felt like home. His room, at the opposite end of the apartment, was overflowing with boxes meticulously labeled "1940 Mickey Mouse figurine" and "Grand Canyon Ansel Adams doormat" and stranger things. His eyes were bloodshot. From the doorway, he resembled Rasputin.
"You sound more fatalistic than usual," Penelope said, sipping instant coffee from a Styrofoam cup.
"There is no fate," he said, inspecting a fresh cigarette. "There are only events."
"Hair of the dog?" Penelope asked.
"Yes," he replied and passed the bottle to her, cradling it in the instep of one foot. She pretended to pour generous thimbles into her cup before retreating back to her room.
A new client left a message on her phone at five that morning. She worked freelance finding people's lost possessions and tended to receive calls at irregular hours. Still groggy, she listened to a quiet woman leave a cryptic and uninformative message, phone number, and address. She always thought it odd how embarrassed most people were about losing things. People treated the event as if it were indicative of some major character flaw rather than what it actually was: spite from forces beyond their control.
Penelope called the woman back. "What can I help you with?" she asked.
"Well," the woman said, "this is… embarrassing and… unusual."
"I assure you," Penelope said, masking her impatience, "nothing is. What are you missing?" Penelope never asked, What did you lose?
"Well… my shadow."
Penelope lied that she had seen cases like this before and told her that she would drop by later that afternoon. After taking a few notes, she finished her coffee and went outside to clear the driveway of early winter snow.
When Penelope was eight, her mother lost her wedding ring. After days of searching in all the usual places, she fell into a deep melancholy and lost her voice too. It was not hard to hide either fact from Penelope's father since he was not terribly observant and worked long hours at the clinic. Penelope noticed, though. Every day for a week, she came home from school and found a trail of notes leading to her after-school snack and chores. Her mother lay in bed, staring at the wall.
"Momma? Are you sick?" Penelope asked.
Her mother wrote on a yellow legal pad. No, honey. I'm just sleeping.
"You're not sleeping."
I'm busy, honey, she scribbled with a little more force. Thinking up a sermon.
After a week, Penelope took a different route home from school and walked by the house where she had spent the first five years of her life. The wedding ring, a white gold band, was lying in the bottom of the mailbox beneath a pile of letters, bills, and advertisements addressed to the new owners. She placed the ring on her mother's dresser. The next day, her mother welcomed Penelope and her father home with infectious exuberance that lasted until Penelope got to middle school.
If her mother suspected, she never told Penelope. By that time, her "gift," as her mother called it, was well known to her parents. She could find anything someone else lost. This at least served to placate her parents' perpetual ire at her "disability:" gloves, hats, books, tapes, blankets, bags, stuffed animals, phones, keys, and bikes all somehow disappeared when she wasn't looking. Whatever she personally owned never stayed in her possession for long.
"You lost your coat again," her mother observed as Penelope came home one rainy day in elementary school.
"Yes," Penelope said, shivering.
Her mother gave her hot chocolate. "At least they're just things," she said.
"Just things?" Penelope repeated.
"Don't take that to your head. And don't lose that either. Come on." Her mother grabbed her keys. "Let's go to Goodwill."
The snow was a foot deep and the air so cold it hurt. Penelope spent thirty minutes clearing the driveway for her rental car. She had owned a car once. After that failure of judgment she rented or borrowed vehicles whenever necessary.
The new client's house sat at the dead-end of a street lined on either side by Victorian houses so heavily stylized she could not tell one from the other. The client's house, in comparison, looked bland. It was a two-story, baby blue, cookie-cutter house designed for an upper-middle class family. At the end of that particular street, it looked far from home.
Before Penelope could knock, the client opened the door. Their surprise was mutual. "I was… getting the mail," the client said.
"Oh," Penelope leaned over the box. "It's empty."
"Thank you," the client said. She wore a beige suit and subtle perfume. She was in her fifties, Asian, and willowy.
"Please," she said, "come in."
She led Penelope to a parlor room with two midnight blue chairs and an emerald green couch. The air was warm and smelled of Windex. The woman gestured slightly to one chair and sat on the couch.
"Thank you for coming on such short notice."
Penelope nodded. "When did you notice your shadow was gone?"
"About a week before I contacted you," the woman said.
"Did you notice anything unusual about it before it disappeared? Did it appear lighter or smaller than normal?"
"No." The client shook her head. "There was no change. One day it was there and the next it wasn't."
"Are you married?"
"Excuse me?"
"Are you married?" Penelope repeated.
The woman shifted in her seat. "I am married. My husband and I are… estranged. He and I stayed together for our son, but when he moved out Rob left for Russia and has not been back since… I think he has a new lover."
"And your son?"
"He went to college at Duke. Now he works in LA."
"Do you talk often?"
"No. We both have lives."
Penelope asked her client to take her on a tour of the house. The woman showed her each room and told her about the furniture, the pictures, the dishes, rugs, and various ceramic pieces that decorated the kitchen, bathroom, and study. In the kitchen, she spent a half hour going over her wine rack that took up all of one wall. Washington reds were her specialty. When Penelope did not ask another question, the client selected a bottle and opened it. They sat across from each other at the stone island sipping from stemless glasses.
Her client said, "I don't go out in the day very often anymore. I'm afraid people will notice. I've become more of a homebody since the men left. It doesn't feel any different, not having a shadow… Only that I think about it all the time and I'm always looking for it."
Penelope nodded. From where she sat, even if the woman had a shadow, Penelope would not have been able to see it.
After the interview, Penelope found her roommate standing at the front door, arms crossed, staring at her with furious intensity. "We've just run out of Popsicle sticks."
"We have Popsicle sticks?"
"We had Popsicle sticks, but now there are none."
Penelope saw why. A titanic model of an ancient Greek galley stood half-finished on the kitchen table. It was made entirely of Popsicle sticks.
Her roommate said, "I thought I had enough, but I was wrong."
"Did you lose some?"
"I don't lose anything."
They went to an arts and crafts store and purchased several boxes of building materials. Then they went to the grocery store and her roommate bought Popsicles to share.
On the drive home, Penelope asked, "You never lose anything?"
"I never look for anything," her roommate explained. "There's no reason to search when everything you need is right in front of you."
"But we had to go to the store to get more Popsicle sticks."
"And there they were, right in front of us," her roommate said, speaking in a tone that reminded her of her mother's sermons.
At the apartment, her roommate wasted no time in diving back into his work. His whole world suddenly shrunk to the sticks and glue in his hands and the cigarette tucked between his lips. Penelope asked, "Will it float when it's done?"
Her roommate muttered, "It will embark on an odyssey when it's done. You can have it. If you want."
Even though she didn't have the time to sleep, Penelope went to her room and tried to relax. It was November and therefore most of her clients were university-related. She still had to find an old-fashioned professor's semester grades, a high school kid's parents' car--It's urgent, he said--the class notes from about a dozen students, and a little girl's golden retriever. After five minutes of lying in bed and playing shadow puppets on the wall she decided to go to the library.
After middle school, Penelope and her family moved away from Chicago to a small town in Wisconsin. The summer Penelope turned seventeen, her father lost his wedding ring and began to work longer hours. She didn't even notice until one morning she found him staring at a bowl of Trix, dressed in his suit for work, and poised over the bowl with a knife and fork.
"Dad?" she said, looking at the clock on the wall. It was four in the morning.
"Yes?" he said and looked at the clock, too. "Why aren't you in bed?"
She had just returned from her boyfriend's house. Thinking fast, she said, "Aren't you late for work?"
He looked around the kitchen, as if for inspiration or some cue. Eventually he said, "Yes," and left his bowl of cereal uneaten.
Penelope drove her parent's car for a day trip to Madison on the pretext of making a college visit. It took her three hours, but she finally managed to find her parents' first apartment, which was empty for cleaning between occupants. She broke in through an unlatched window and found the ring lying on the carpet of what she assumed used to be the bedroom. Upon returning the ring to her father's dresser, he took a week's sudden vacation and the family spent every day watching movies, playing games, fighting, making up, and making plans for a trip to London.
In Egyptian cosmology, the shadow, the sheut, is one of five parts of the soul. The shadow follows a person everywhere. It is impossible to be separated from one's shadow. How could this universal companion not comprise something essential to the human person?
Penelope read this and took notes. At midnight she decided she couldn't sit at the uncomfortable desk a moment longer. Confined spaces were not good for her. There was the ever-present fear that if she did not constantly monitor the world it would disappear.
On her way out, she looked in one of the empty study carrels and saw an abandoned red spiral notebook. She flipped to the first page and read the name of another client. On her way home, Penelope took a detour and stopped by one of the college dorms. At door 438 she knocked and, after a cacophony of groans and a thud, the door opened. A bleary-eyed freshman stood before her in boxers and a T-shirt smelling of pot, Easy Mac, and Axe.
"Yeah?" the guy asked.
"Your philosophy notes," Penelope said and offered the red spiral.
"What? Oh!" He snatched it from her and stared in disbelief. "Holy shit! Thank you! Here--come in and I'll get you your money."
The floor was covered in books and clothes. The walls were completely disappeared beneath a black canvas meticulously covered in pinprick points that she assumed were stars.
While he dug through his dresser, the boy saw her staring. "There's too much light pollution here," he said. "I need to see the sky."
He paid her and she walked home thinking how she could cover a room ten times that size with all her lost fabric.
When she was young, Penelope played a game where she sat something--a paper clip or a pencil--on her desk next to where she was working or reading, but just out of sight. While she worked she kept the object in the back of her head, willing it to stay. Every five minutes she checked if it was still there. The average time it took for the object to disappear was about two hours. Sometimes she found it later, by accident, and sometimes she didn't.
Before she graduated from high school, her mother bought a cat. "Empty nest syndrome setting in," Penelope's father muttered when she brought the cat home.
The cat, Demeter, used to sit next to Penelope when she played her game with worthless objects. The cat never seemed surprised when things suddenly disappeared.
The semester before Penelope graduated, Demeter had kittens. After they were weaned, her parents sold them. One of her last vivid memories of living at home was the cat mewing sadly, searching under furniture, in nooks, and beneath blankets for her lost kittens while Penelope's mother watched sadly with arms crossed. Penelope hugged her mother. They stood like that, watching the cat search, for several minutes. Penelope expected her mother, the reverend, to relate the situation to faith or God, but instead she stood stoically, letting her daughter hug her.
"Where did you grow up?" Penelope asked the shadowless client the next day.
"In China," the woman said. "I moved to America in my twenties to study engineering. My husband and I met in college. When I got pregnant we decided to stay since our child would be American."
"Is this home?" Penelope asked.
The woman opened her mouth to answer, but said nothing. Eventually she said, "Yes."
"You hesitated."
The client shrugged. "Where else is home? It's not China. I've lived here for twenty-seven years. Home is where you eat, sleep, come back from work, read, relax. It's where you live."
The woman seemed to consider this for a moment. She said, "It sounds selfish, but in some ways I'm glad they're gone… my husband and son. I wanted a life outside of them. But after they left… it's lonely. Not because they're gone, but because there's no one here."
When Penelope did not immediately respond, her client asked, "Where is home for you?"
Penelope glanced out the window to make sure that the rental car was still there. "I haven't been back there for a long time."
"Why not?"
"Because home moved and I can't find it," Penelope said and stood. "Excuse me. I should be going."
The year after Penelope moved away to college, her parents got divorced. They then both moved back to their roots at separate ends of Chicago. Her father told Penelope after the decision had been made. Without warning, he showed up at her dorm wearing jeans and a T-shirt and took her out to lunch at a nearby deli. They ate hamburgers and then he told her.
"So, that's it?" Penelope asked.
"That's it," her father told her. "You're old enough now that I don't need to tell you that we still love you and this has nothing to do with you."
She shook her head. He would never realize how much this had to do with her, she thought. But she said, "Do you need help moving? Finding stuff?"
"No," he said. "We've got most of it sorted out." He looked out the window, down at his hands, and then back at her. "You know, when we moved, when you were five, it was just a few blocks down the road, but the first month we lived in that new house you cried and cried saying, 'I want to go home.' You were always like that when you were little. I always thought, 'Christ, this kid is going to have a bad time of it.' And then, like magic, when your mom lost her ring, that all changed."
She stared at him across the table. He said, "You thought we didn't notice, but we did. You decided you could fight change, but sometimes it happens whether you like it or not." After that he got the check and they left.
A few months later, Penelope lost her cell phone with both her parents' new contact information. She tried unsuccessfully to reach both of them for a year. She wondered if they thought she was angry with them for getting divorced or if they realized that she'd lost them.
After driving home from her shadowless client's house, Penelope decided to get a drink at the bar down the street from her apartment. It was early and there was only one other customer; he was sitting at the bar talking to the bartender. Penelope recognized the bearded profile of her roommate immediately. She couldn't hear what he was saying over the clamor of the jukebox, but she could tell that he was lecturing from his frenetic gesticulations. The bartender nodded occasionally while reading a copy of Peter Pan.
As she drew closer, his exclamations coalesced into ravings. "The best we can do is live unapologetically. If you begin to analyze, the whole endeavor is lost. Live like an amnesiac and be forever happy, forever free and young."
"I don't really think that's the point--" the bartender started.
"I'm not talking about Peter Pan!"
Penelope sat next to her roommate and asked, "Do you speak in anything besides declarations?"
Penelope ordered a Guinness and he got another bourbon. The powerful odor of alcohol and cigarettes faded as the effects of the beer took hold.
"Do you believe everything you say?" Penelope asked.
"Unapologetically and irrevocably," her roommate replied.
"Tell me something."
"The body takes up space," he said and held up his hand. "There was once air where my hand is now. Now it's part of me. We, you and I and everyone else, have a definite place in the universe that we take with us everywhere. Here I am. Here is where I begin and the rest of the world ends. Here is where I end and the cosmos begins. Everywhere you go you're carrying the end of the universe on your skin, your teeth, your hair, and the soles of your feet. That is beautiful."
She listened and drank as he went on and she began to lose herself in his enormous voice that seemed to overpower all other sensory input. By midnight he drank her under the table. Her last memory of the evening was her roommate telling her in a soft voice that reminded her of her father, "Everything is teleology to me. I am here for a purpose. It appears to me, that purpose is you."
"I wish I had your certainty," Penelope slurred and then moaned, "I want to go home."
"When you're done trying, you will."
She vaguely recalled being half-carried to her apartment and deposited in bed. When she woke up the next morning, a glass of water and a bagel sat on her nightstand and sunlight shone through her window. When she reached for the glass she noticed the way her shadow fell through the water and lay neatly on the cheap, fiber-wood table. She marveled for an instant at how the world shaped itself around her, how there was a boundary between her and everything else.
It was above freezing, the sun shone, and the snow was melting slightly. Penelope decided to walk to her shadowless client's house and on the way she crossed paths with a lost golden retriever. She called, "Teddy!" and the dog came to her. "Is that your name?" she asked, inspecting the collar.
She walked the dog across town to its owner's house. It was a Sunday and she saw a young girl building a slushy snowman in the yard. Teddy sprinted ahead and tackled the girl and they collapsed in a heap of laughter and barking. A moment later a man emerged at the door.
"Found your dog," Penelope said.
"Thank you," the man replied and invited her in. As he wrote her a check he asked, "How did you find him?"
Penelope shrugged. "He found me. That's the way these things usually go."
The man smiled uncomprehendingly. "Whenever I lose something, it's gone for good."
"That's because you really want to find it," she said and looked at the dog and child playing outside. "You know the saying 'It's always in the last place you look.' That's simple logic, really, but it's only because by that point you've tried everything else. When you've given up, that's when you find it."
The man stared at her, hand extended holding the check. He looked like he would prefer to say nothing, but instead, out of Midwestern courtesy, she suspected, he said, "That makes sense, I suppose."
"It doesn't make sense at all, actually," Penelope admitted and took the check.
Instead of going to the shadowless client's house, Penelope returned home and searched her entire room for her phone before realizing that she'd lost another. She lost her computer the week before and she was still in the process of replacing it. Fortunately, her roommate reminded her they had a landline. After a few brief calls, she had the information she needed.
Her roommate, who was sitting on the TV packing a long pipe that looked conspicuously like Gandalf's from The Lord of the Rings, eyed her sideways throughout the conversation. She hung up and he muttered, "Acquiesce."
"I'm trying," she said. "I have been for years."
"Then you're doing it wrong."
"You're coming with me."
She ordered a taxi that took them to her client's house. "Wait here," she said and went to the house.
The client came to the door and Penelope said, "Please, come with me."
"Where are we going?" the woman asked, staring at the taxi.
"I'll explain on the way."
"I don't like going outside. It's day and the lights--"
"No one will notice."
In the taxi, Penelope pointed at the backseat and said, "This is my roommate."
The client waved politely and her roommate said, "Charmed," with great authority.
They arrived at the airport a half hour later. With expert evasion, Penelope coaxed the client to the security checkpoint before she finally refused to go any farther without an explanation. "What has this got to do with my shadow?" she demanded.
Penelope sighed. "I can't find it. And if I can't find it, it's lost for good. You've lost that part of yourself and you can't have it back."
The woman stared at her and then looked at the callboard. Over the din of chatter and announcements she asked, "Lost that part of myself? So, where are you going to send me? To find my son? Or my husband? That's all I have left, just a couple of indifferent men?"
"Hell no. Your ticket is for Washington wine country. It leaves in two hours."
After a long moment her client nodded and Penelope handed her the ticket. As she walked away, Penelope and her roommate watched as her client passed by the gigantic windows overlooking the airfield and her shadow fell across the carpet the size of a giant.
"The indifferent get their heart's desire. What about you?" asked her roommate.
Penelope turned to him. "Was that a question?"
"Come with me."
She gave him a blank check and instructions to buy her a ticket for somewhere. Soon he returned and before he could speak she told him, "I don't want to know."
He smiled and handed her the ticket. "Everything will be wonderful," he assured her.
It took time to talk her way through security with no idea of her destination and no luggage, but she lied that she was participating in a reality TV show and had to meet a crew at an unknown location. It's part of the premise, she said. As she walked to the gate, Penelope did not look at her ticket or the callboard. She felt perfectly at ease not knowing whether she was going to Chicago or anywhere else on Earth.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 21st, 2012

Author Comments

This one was tough. The first draft was easy and came in a rush, but when I tried to revise it, I realized that the story and characters did not make sense to me. My friend Austin came to the rescue. He told me the story reminded him of the Japanese concept and aesthetic of mono no aware (which I will not attempt to articulate for fear of embarrassing myself). After an hour-long discussion, Austin stooped to the level of a layman and said, "Just think of it as a beautiful bubble." With that in mind, I rewrote the story following an emotional logic and I am happy with the results.

- Sam Ferree
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