Jovie and I pulled over at a gas station a few miles out of the city to fill up the tank and grab a few snacks for the road. He seemed more calm now that we had gotten out of the traffic. For a moment back there, I saw a part of him I’d never seen before. Jovie wasn’t the type of person to show fear like that. He was the one who always calmed me and to see him so scared was jarring.
“I’m going to go in and get some snacks. What do you want?” I asked Jovie as he pressed buttons on the screen in front of him.
“Just a bag of crisps is fine,” he responded.
We still weren’t looking each other in the eyes or speaking a word unless it was necessary. He was giving my space to process everything and I felt bad for being so angry at him at first. I know he already felt guilty and he didn’t have to tell me, but he did. I walked through the station, picking up Jovie’s bag of crisps, some gummy bears and a few energy drinks in case we got tired on the road. I handed the cashier a few crumpled bills after he scanned the items and headed back through the doors outside. Jovie sat in the car, waiting for me and for the first time since this morning, I gave him a smile, handing him the bag of crisps as a sort of peace offering.
“You didn’t tell me what flavor so I just guessed,” I said quietly, situating myself in the passenger seat.
“Sour cream and onion is my favorite,” he remarked, opening the bag with a loud crinkling sound. “So you’re talking to me now, huh?”
“Jovie Baker, you’re kind of hard to stay mad at,” I sighed, opening the bag of gummy bears in my lap. “Plus, we’ve got a long road ahead. I need someone to talk to.”
“Is that all I am to you, love? A pair of ears to talk to?” he joked, putting the car back into drive.
We drove past stretches of fields and through tiny little towns I would have never seen. I hadn’t really traveled outside of London until now but the bumpy country roads reminded me of home. The snow was melting in the grassy meadows along the road, revealing small green and brown patches that swiftly moved across my vision as we sped past. It reminded me of the drive Harvey and I used to take to the wildflower field in Briar Creek.
“So, does this place have a name?” I turned to Jovie.
“Not an official one, but Lilah created a stupid little name for it when we were in there. I can’t remember it... Roda? Eroda? Yeah, that’s it. She called it Eroda... it’s adore backwards. I thought it was cheesy,” he squinted his eyes at the road in thought.
“How is this going to work?”
“What? How we’re going to get there you mean?”
“Yes. It’s not like there’s a huge gaping portal out there right? You said something about following the road.”
“You sure you can keep up?” Jovie teased, wiggling his eyebrows.
"You sure you can keep up?" I mimicked in a funny voice. “Just because I didn’t major in astrophysics or whatever doesn’t mean I can’t keep up, Tommo.”
“Alright, alright,” he chuckled. “So, think of the universes as a grid system. Theres your horizontal plane, which is what we live in. It’s what we’re experiencing right now. There’s also a vertical plane, which you can think of as all of the multiverses existing on different levels at the same time. If there’s a hole in this grid system- a rip created by an imbalance or disturbance of some sort- it’s possible to go to another universe.”
I thought through everything he’d said for a few moments, connecting the dots. I didn’t realize how smart Jovie was until I listened to him explain this. Of course, I knew he wasn’t stupid, but he carried himself as a simple and humble man. I didn’t know he was such a genius. He continued to explain things to me about how things worked and I watched him with my head leaning against the cool glass window. His tattooed fingers clutched the steering wheel as his lips moved with excitement, spewing out knowledge I could only hope to understand half of.
“So, my friends and I accidentally created a rip in the universe using a pathway one of us figured out- a lot of numbers and calculations involved in that one that even I didn’t quite get,” Jovie continued.
“Where are your friends now?” I asked, instantly seeing Jovie’s body tense at the question.
“Um... three of us were able to get out. The other two are stuck in this in between... for a while we thought they were tied to the place, but we started seeing disappearances and people were dying without any real cause. It didn’t make any sense. Then, a picture of them surfaced. They had been around Briar Creek actually. That’s when we figured out that the rip in the universe hadn’t just been in London.”
“Your friends were in Briar Creek?” I questioned.
“I wouldn’t say they’re my friends after all of this... but yeah. It was random and-”
“When were they in Briar Creek?” I pressed.
“I don’t know... maybe five or six years ago. I can’t remember. They were in the background of a picture somewhere. It was unquestionably her- the rest of AETERNUM agreed.”
“AETERNUM...” I half-whispered to myself.
A vision from years ago popped into my mind, a half-forgotten memory until now. The word AETERNUM sketched on the side of the tree that night I found Harvey in the forrest made my skin crawl. Were those Jovie’s friends? There was no way. It’d be too much of a coincidence.
“Maeve, you okay?” Jovie’s voice cut through my thoughts, shaking me back to the present day.
“Oh, yeah, sorry. That word just reminded me of something.”
We drove on through the hills of the countryside as the sun began to dip lower in the sky and I felt my eyelids becoming heavier. I blinked through the tiredness, watching more and more of the road disappear under the wheels of the vehicle. I looked over at Jo to see him rub his eyes and reach for an energy drink.
“I won’t fall asleep behind the wheel, I promise,” he chuckled, taking a swig of the drink in his hands.
“Are we stopping at all?” I asked, sitting up in the seat and stretching my arms above my head.
“Just a few more miles and we’ll stop at a hotel about thirty minutes up the road,” he replied before flashing me a smug look. “Think you can make it, sleepyhead?”
“I’m fine,” I rolled my eyes.
A few minutes later, I leaned my head on the cool glass of the passenger window and welcomed sleep for just a few minutes, not caring what Jovie would have to say when I woke up. That might have been one of the last good moments of rest I got before being thrown into a whirlwind of a journey. I felt the car stop moving and shudder off, the driver’s door opening and closing carefully like Jovie was trying not to wake me. I blinked my eyes open, still mostly asleep, to see dim streetlights illuminate a shabby roadside hotel. It looked like every hotel I’d ever seen in a horror movie: a neon vacancy sign flickering at the entrance, bad lighting down the hallways, and unknown stains painted across the pavement. I was honestly too tired to care if we would get murdered there and my eyes begged to be closed again. Just as I began to drift off to sleep again, I felt the door beside me open. Jovie’s arms pulled me tightly into his chest and he carried me to our room. I let myself sleepily melt into his warmth and his scent- this fresh powdery smell that intoxicated and enveloped me until he placed me gently on the bed.
I slept well until I heard shuffling on the ground next to the bed. I don’t know how long I’d been asleep, but I rolled over and looked down. I hadn’t realized that Jovie didn’t get into the bed, but rather he was trying to find some kind of comfort on the carpet next to it.
“Jo?” I whispered. He rolled onto his side to face me. “What are you doing down there?”
“I- I don’t know. I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable or anything,” he offered. “And you were asleep so I didn’t want to wake you.”
“Get in the bed,” I told him, pulling the covers up and moving over to make room.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to fall asleep. I don’t want to keep you up tossing and turning.”
“Jo, come on.”
He seemed to sigh with relief as he stood and slipped his feet under the duvet. His body next to me brought me a sense of comfort in sleep that I hadn’t felt in a very long time. I hadn’t had anyone in my bed since Harvey and even on a basic physical level, it made me feel safe. Maybe it’s the weight of someone next to you that takes a certain heaviness out of your soul. Maybe it’s the simple feeling of not feeling alone, of hearing someone else moving quietly beside you. I listened to Jovie’s breathing slow to a comfortable pace and matched it with my own the mystery of the next day and what Eroda held fading into white noise.