“I don’t need anything,” Theo said to the old woman outside his door. She looked out of place in the corridor of his apartment building. As if someone had cut her out of an early 20th century children’s book, faded and worn and crinkled, and pasted her into a fancy ad for new houses.
“I think you do,” she said.
“No,” Theo said with a shake of his head. “I’m not buying anything.” Everybody was trying to appeal to the altruism and goodness of others. It was the triad of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. Now that the year was at its end, one last push was made to give and make resolutions and fool yourself into thinking that you were making a difference.
“I don’t want you to buy,” the woman said with a scoff. “You must take this, Theodor Bloom.” She thrust one end of something at him that he had taken for part of her attire. It was draped over her shoulders like a shawl. “I’ve done my part. It’s time for you to take over.”
Theo shot the blanket a glance. He was starting to get it. This lunatic knew who he was. Why hadn’t he thought of it before? Because it didn’t seem to matter. But she had been in the fabric store before Christmas. Their eyes had briefly met over a roll of Charmeuse silk. She had been in the audience with her strange blanket at his last show. Theo had dismissed her as a rich eccentric knitting something and had forgotten her exacting gaze on his creations. Before that, in the coffee shop where he often sat sketching. She was a stalker. “You need to go,” he told her.
“I never had children of my own,” the old woman said. Her eyes peeled off layers of his professional persona to leave him exposed, a young artist who had started out with grand ideas of sustainability in fashion, of donating the proceeds to those in need. But afraid to starve and afraid to fail, he had succumbed like everyone else, and he basked in the glory, dreaming of all the good he would do when he was established, when he was big. Somehow he was never big enough. “You must continue where I leave off.”
Theo had to get ready for the New Year’s party. “Look,” he said and thrust his hand into a pocket to retrieve his wallet and pull out a wad of dollar bills, “Buy yourself something nice, okay?”
“You can’t buy a better reality,” she told him. “I’m old, Theodor.”
No arguing with that. He shoved the money at her. It was countered with that blanket again, old, patched. Still, through the stitches, Theo discovered miniscule figures and landscapes. What he had mistaken for abstract, muddled colors, he now identified as tiny bits of clear, defined motifs. Some even looked brand new.
“The world is coming apart.”
Didn’t old people of every generation say that?
“It is ripping at the seams,” she said.
“The blanket or the world?” Theo asked.
Her face crumbled into a mirthless smile. “Don’t you understand? Can’t you see it yet? You must …”
“I mustn’t anything,” he snapped, “apart from attending a New Year’s party, if you’ll excuse me.” He closed the door.
When Theo left 30 minutes later, the old woman was gone. He shrugged off unreasonable relief.
Snow had turned to gray sludge and it was already dark outside. He stopped for a moment to look up at the electric illumination of neon signs and street lights. And somewhere beyond the brightness of the city, he saw the void. Shouldn’t there be stars? Yes, even in this man-made glare, he could make out stars, but there was a patch of black sky above him.
“Excuse me,” someone said, and Theo continued on his way to the subway.
Everyone he met was dressed up. Some wished strangers a happy new year. The world was fine. A chill ran down his spine as he thought it, accompanied by a sense of responsibility, but what for?
Someone laughed. Theo turned, but where he expected to see a group of partygoers was nothing. The end of the car was gone. It wasn’t that it had broken off and you could see the next car or the tunnel behind the train. There was simply … nothing.
Theo stared at the void, then swung his head from side to side, but no one else noticed. Someone even saw him looking and turned first to see what at, then back at him, uncomprehending.
“It’s ripping at the seams,” Theo whispered. With a sudden, unexpected and definite clarity, he understood. She had chosen him, and he had not listened. He had been too busy preparing for a party celebrating a new year that may end before it even began because of his reluctance.
He had to get out. He had to find the old woman. The train was coming to a halt and he pushed out of the door.
The platform was busy. Theo looked around, started to run, aimlessly. It was ridiculous to think he could find her again. But he had to try.
“I understand it now!” he shouted as a fine, dark crack began to snake its way down the closest wall. “I’ll take it! I’ll continue where you left off!”
People stared at him, talked about him, avoided him. He was a nuisance interrupting their festive mood, a raving madman, nothing more.
“Please!” Theo cried. “I’ll do it …”
The crowd parted to move around him without getting too close. And there she was. Slumped in a half-sitting position against a vandalized wall with the blanket wrapped around her.
Theo ran to her and fell to his knees. “I’m here. I’ll take it. I promise,” he said, knowing at once that he would not get a reply.
He began to pull the fragile fabric off the old woman’s body, tenderly, carefully as not to harm it.
M. Howalt is a catperch, writer and translator with a master’s degree in English studies who works in Denmark as a translator between English and Danish. This writer has a penchant for fantasy as well as speculative and literary fiction and likes to mix them while striving to create prose that sticks to the reader’s mind.