Sadie was wiping down some of the tables in Anna’s Cafe, cleaning up after the lunch shift, when the stranger first walked in. “Sit anywhere you like,” she said. He chose a stool at the counter, the one furthest from all the other tables.
It wasn’t his appearance that made him stand out, though he was young looking — probably around Sadie’s age — and conventionally attractive and dressed in a shirt and slacks.
It was that he was a stranger. And strangers didn’t just show up in Selunia Falls.
Sadie studied him discreetly as she scooped up some of the leftover drinks on the counter. She was sure — he had never come in the cafe before.
The stranger was still browsing the menu, so Sadie checked the other tables around the cafe. At the far end, a couple of scientists had finished their sandwiches, and she went to collect their dishes. They were having a spirited discussion about the results of some experiment over the weekend. She recognized only some of the words, something about activation energy, something about quarks and gravitons.
“Let’s ask her,” one of the scientists said, pointing at Sadie. “He says the gravitational waves don’t have enough energy, but I think they do. Or at least close enough.” He started to launch into an explanation before Sadie interrupted him.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know. I barely understood quantum chromodynamics,” she said.
“Not even a guess?”
“No, sorry.” She smiled politely, something she had perfected when the other scientists in the cafe tried to talk to her about their work.
“Well, never mind then.” The disappointment was evident on his face.
As Sadie was leaving, she heard the other scientist say, “Let’s ask the other waitress. I think astrophysics is one of her hobbies.” She knew it wasn’t meant to be mean spirited, and it wasn’t a jab at her, but it stung anyway. It reminded her that being just smart wasn’t good enough, not when everyone else was a genius. She shoved the dishes, harder than she had intended to, through the slot where the dishwashing robot would start cleaning them.
When she was done, the stranger was still staring at the menu. It was only a single oversized page, double sided, and yet she saw him flip it back and forth quite a few times.
She sidled up to him. “Having trouble deciding?”
“Yes… kind of. What do you suggest?”
She pointed to an item on the menu. “The corn chowder is popular here.”
“I’ll take that, then.”
Sadie put in the order, and when she turned back around, the stranger was looking out the window. He hadn’t taken out his phone like most of the other customers did when they ate alone. His hands ran back and forth along the counter, as if he didn’t know what to do with them now that they were empty.
Sadie took the opportunity. “Do you work at the lab?” she asked.
“How did you know?”
“Pretty much everyone here works at the lab. Are you a scientist? What are you researching?”
Most of the other scientists who came by the cafe couldn’t wait to talk about their work. But the stranger hesitated, a bit unsure.
“I mean, I don’t know a lot of physics, but I know some,” Sadie said. “I’m not asking you to explain all the math.”
“Well, I’m researching particle interactions in eleven dimensional spacetime.”
“Sounds complicated.” She left a deliberate opening, but the stranger didn’t say any more. It intrigued her.
When Sadie saw that he wasn’t going to elaborate, she stuck out her hand. “I’m Sadie.”
“I’m Rainbow,” the stranger said.
“That’s… an interesting name.” She blurted it out without thinking.
“Oh, I picked it out myself.”
Sadie chuckled, then stopped when she saw the expression on his face. She was about to ask him if he was serious when he started chuckling too, a little bit awkwardly, and she loosened up when she realized it had just been some deadpan humor that hadn’t quite landed.
“Have you heard of the Renaissance Faire?” Sadie asked.
Rainbow looked up from his corn chowder. “What is that?”
He sat on the same stool that he had chosen the first day. For several weeks in a row he’d come in for lunch. Always at the same time, half past one, just after the lunch rush. Always the same order, corn chowder. Always alone.
A lot of the scientists, especially the ones without family or kids, moved to Selunia Falls by themselves. But they usually found a lunch group before long. Coming in alone day after day, like Rainbow did, for weeks on end — that was rare. Sadie thought she was pretty good at reading others. She spent a lot of time people watching during her breaks at the cafe. And her read of Rainbow was that he didn’t want to be alone but he didn’t know how to take the first step.
“The town holds it every year. See?” Sadie showed him some pictures on her phone. She wore a different costume every year. In some of the pictures, she wore a bright yellow gown. In others, she was an archer, complete with longbow. There was even one year where she dressed as a valkyrie — which she was pretty sure wasn’t actually from the Renaissance but the costume had been too cool to pass up.
“You have to get dressed up to go?”
“Nah. I dress up every year for it, but a lot of people don’t. They go for some fake medieval food, some concerts. There’s lots of stuff there.”
“Well… I don’t know.”
“I can introduce you to some of my friends.”
“I don’t think I should.”
For the rest of lunch he avoided eye contact, focusing intensely on his corn chowder.
Maybe Sadie hadn’t been as good at reading people as she thought. Maybe he hadn’t been lonely — he had just been a loner.
Maybe Sadie had overstepped.
When she came by to pick up the finished bowl, she apologized. “I’m sorry–”
“How do I find you?” Rainbow interrupted.
“When I get to the Renaissance Faire. How do I find you?”
Sadie reached out her hand. “Give me your phone.” She lifted his phone extra high and held it close to her face to hide her smile as she entered her number.
It was early in the afternoon and the heat was making Sadie itchy. She squirmed in her chain mail and it rattled around her.
She and her friends were loitering just inside the entrance to the Renaissance Faire. As usual, some of their group were late. Sadie gulped down more water. Somehow she’d already gone through half her bottle and the day had barely started.
No more metal armor, she thought. Ever.
“That’s so cool! Do it again.” One of their group, Tannen, was speaking to Maddy, a girl who looked like a princess in her flowing blue dress. The skirt was long, flowing over the grass, the heavy layers of fabric dragging along. The sheer sleeves in the upper arms flared out, giving her an ethereal beauty.
Maddy adjusted something hidden in her costume. The fabric twisted, and the dress shrunk down to a sun dress, becoming sleeveless, with the hem coming down to her knee. “Much more comfortable,” she said. “It’s so hot today.” She changed to the princess dress again, reveling in the amazement. “It’s nanomaterials,” she explained. “I’ve got some other ideas of what I could do with this.”
“What about yours?” Tannen said to Sadie. “Does your armor do anything?” The metal rustled as Sadie shifted, accidentally reflecting a bit of light directly onto Tannen’s face, and he shielded his eyes with his arm.
“Not really. I mean, besides that I made it myself too.”
“Oh.” Tannen said. He hesitated, then added lamely, “Well it still looks pretty cool. Good job.”
The scene repeated itself as more of their friends straggled in late. Maddy never tired of showing off her costume, and their friends never got tired of seeing it.
By the time everyone had finished assembling, Sadie was suddenly exhausted. “You know what,” she said. “I’m going to take a break for a while. You guys go ahead.”
“You sure you’re ok?” Tannen said.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Go.”
Sadie sat down on a nearby bench and checked her phone. Rainbow hadn’t texted. He was late, except he couldn’t be late because they had never agreed on a time to meet. Then Sadie wondered if all her metal armor was interfering with her phone signal, and she wasn’t sure, so she held onto the phone, outside her pocket, in case any messages came in.
Sadie bussed the table after another of the customers finished lunch and checked her phone again. It had only been two minutes. Maybe one of the scientists in the lab was running an experiment that was disrupting the flow of time itself. No. That was just silly.
Rainbow hadn’t shown up to the Renaissance Faire. But that wasn’t the worst part — it was the added indignity of not even bothering to text her to let her know that he couldn’t show up.
She mentally rehearsed what she was going to say, a speech that she had been writing and rewriting in her head the entire weekend. She checked the time again. Another two minutes.
“Hey, are you alright?” one of the other waiters asked.
“What? Oh, yeah, I’m fine.”
She could tell he didn’t believe her, but he didn’t press the issue. She went back to practicing her script for a bit, unable to get it right. Forget it, she thought. She would just give Rainbow the cold shoulder. One of the other waiters could cover his order.
The cafe door opened, and she looked while pretending not to look.
It wasn’t Rainbow.
Sadie let out a breath. She had to get over it, she told herself. This wasn’t healthy. But she did it again the next time another customer came in, and all the times after that.
The afternoon rolled on, and still Rainbow didn’t show up. At first she felt the rush of victory. He knows he’s going to get it if he shows up, she thought. But she felt oddly unsatisfied. She had come ready for a schoolyard fistfight, but the other kid hadn’t shown.
The next day passed, and then the next, and still Rainbow didn’t come in for lunch. Sadie knew she should take the win, but she couldn’t help herself. Her mind ran wild with possible disasters. Rainbow had gotten caught in an alternate dimension when his research had gone awry. Or Rainbow had gotten hit by a car on his way to the Renaissance Faire and he was now a John Doe in some hospital somewhere.
She had to find out what had happened.
Arden, the head of security at Selunia Falls, was a regular at Anna’s Cafe, and the next time he came in, Sadie ambushed him. “Do you know that man who used to have lunch here every day? He used to sit in that corner all the time.”
Arden took a bite of his sandwich and washed it down with a triple caffeinated coffee. “What about him?”
“Do you know where he is?”
“Yes.” Arden saw that she was waiting for him to elaborate. “Sadie, you know I can’t invade someone else’s privacy.”
“Did you know he just showed up out of nowhere a few weeks ago?”
“Is he fine at least?”
“Yes.” Arden refused to say more than that.
But being a waitress at the most popular cafe in town had its advantages — one of them being friends with pretty much everyone important in town — even if the friendships were a bit superficial and were closer to acquaintanceships. And so after some quiet inquiries, Sadie found herself outside Rainbow’s house on a Saturday afternoon.
She double checked to make sure she had the right location. The houses here were cookie cutter, indistinguishable, a row of uniform paint jobs and manicured lawns, although that described much of Selunia Falls. The curtains of Rainbow’s house were drawn tight, and it didn’t look like anyone was home, but she knocked anyway.
To her surprise, someone answered.
The man wasn’t Rainbow, but the resemblance was there, too close to be just a roommate. She guessed that it was a brother, or maybe a cousin.
“Is Rainbow here?”
“Do you know where he is?”
“No,” he said, and before Sadie could say anything else, she found the door in her face.
That was rude, Sadie thought, but the man hadn’t denied knowing Rainbow. It must be the right house. She rounded back onto the sidewalk and hid behind some shrubs and tried to peer into the house. The windows were shut and the curtains were drawn. The house looked unoccupied. She stared, patiently, looking for any clues, as her muscles started to ache from squatting in the hiding spot.
Then, one of the curtains cracked a tiny bit, and though she only got a fleeting glimpse, she knew it was Rainbow. She was sure of it.
Her phone buzzed in her jeans pocket and she jumped a little, scratching her face on the hedges, though fortunately not hard enough to draw blood.
Come back tonight at 9pm. I will explain.
So Rainbow did have her phone number. Now Sadie had his number also.
Y did u ghost me?! Sadie texted back.
She didn’t really expect a response, and she didn’t get one.
Sadie’s steps echoed on the hardwood floors, and together with the thin moonlight seeping in through the back windows, made Rainbow’s house feel even more empty than it already was. It was a house sparsely furnished, the house of someone who had recently moved in and hadn’t gotten around to making it their own. Rainbow didn’t offer her a drink. He might not even have had any drinks, from the looks of it.
The silence drew on and lingered. Finally Sadie said, “Why are you avoiding me?”
“I…” Rainbow hunched his shoulders. “I didn’t think it would be such a big deal to you.”
“Not a big deal?” Sadie had been a fool. Rainbow hadn’t been in any kind of accident. He was just fine, and she had been ditched again by yet another scientist. “I guess if it’s not a big deal to you, it’s not a big deal to me.” She turned to leave.
“I didn’t think you’d even notice. I see you in the cafe. You’re friends with everyone.”
“Friends?” Sadie laughed at the absurdity. “I’m nice to them because it’s part of my job. I’m never going to be friends with them. I’m not a genius like they are. I’m an outsider. Sure, they try to include me but they always end up talking about their work.”
“I didn’t know you were an outsider too.” Rainbow looked chastened.
“The difference is that you don’t have to be. You speak scientist talk. You choose to be an outsider.”
“No. I’m not from here. I didn’t choose that.”
“No one’s from here. Everyone knows the government set up this town to do some kind of research. Probably military or some other kind of weapons research. It’s the worst kept secret.”
“I mean I’m not from here. This planet.”
Sadie blinked at him in confusion, unsure how to respond. She felt like she had never misread someone so badly. “Ok, I don’t know what’s up with you, but I’m leaving.”
“Wait, listen. Why do you think the town was set up in this specific location?”
“I dunno. Cheap land. Close enough to get supplies, not close enough for tourists.”
“It’s because the bridge to my homeworld is here.”
Sadie studied him closely but could find nothing out of the ordinary. “What do you mean homeworld? How do you look human if you’re not human? Are you a shapeshifter?”
“Our scientists haven’t figured that out yet.”
It had been such an obvious question, and yet he hadn’t bothered to work out a cover story for it. If he was a liar, he was a terrible one. But he couldn’t be telling the truth — the whole idea was too fantastical. Still, he said it with such earnestness that Sadie was almost starting to believe.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Rainbow stared out the window. For a few moments it was quiet. It was all a joke, Sadie thought. Any moment now, Rainbow would laugh, and it was going to be another of those weird scientist humor things she didn’t quite find funny…
“I could show you where I’m from,” Rainbow said quietly.
“We’re going to travel to another world?”
“No, our scientists haven’t figured out how to travel back through the rift either. But I’ll show you where it is.”
Rainbow explained more on the drive from his house to the forest at the edge of town. They called themselves the Karazai, and yes, he had been serious when he’d said he picked out his own name. He knew other Karazai had migrated over, but he wasn’t sure how many — occasionally another one would find their way through the rift. He had come through with his father.
“That guy was your father?” Sadie said as the car pulled to a stop. “He’s almost the same age as you!”
“He’s much older. We don’t age at the same rate humans do.”
They approached a station, where they got into a golf cart. Rainbow punched in an access code. The cart activated, and he steered them along the trail. The summer air was warm, even at night, and the breeze felt good on Sadie’s face.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve hiked this trail before,” Sadie said.
“It’s a popular trail,” Rainbow said.
“I don’t see how there’s any place to hide a secret gateway here.”
“You’ll see.” They continued on in silence for a while, when Rainbow suddenly pulled off the trail into a thicket of trees.
“Hey, watch it!” Sadie said. She held onto the golf cart so tightly that she lost feeling in her hand. “We’re going to die!” But then Sadie noticed that despite all the foliage, there was actually a separate trail here, well hidden. The dirt and leaves were matted against the ground and it seemed well used. Rainbow guided the cart expertly, even in the darkness.
Onward they drove. Sadie hadn’t even known the forest extended this deep. The forest thinned out a bit now, and it was clear there were multiple side trails leading to different parts. Rainbow followed one, and off they went.
“Are you sure we’re allowed to be here?” Sadie said.
“Technically they didn’t say I was allowed to show people. But, they didn’t say I was not allowed to show people either.”
Sadie had lost track of how long they’d been driving, when they stopped at the edge of a clearing. The trees gave way to flat grass, and she could see the stars up in the sky. She didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, though she did notice that it seemed eerily quiet. There were no insects chirping, no wind to stir the leaves. The only sound were her shoes as they squished slightly into the ground.
“I don’t see it,” Sadie said.
“You see that dark streak in the middle?”
Sadie didn’t know what she had been expecting, but it certainly wasn’t a hazy black brush mark that was barely noticeable. “That’s it?”
“Well it shines when the gate opens. But yeah, that’s it.”
There was a rustling nearby.
“Is someone else supposed to be here?” Sadie whispered.
Rainbow didn’t respond, but instead pulled the both of them back behind the trees. Sadie could barely make out a shadow approaching from the other side of the clearing. She wondered if it was another one of those Karazai aliens. Not that she would be able to tell, since they looked like humans apparently.
“Rainbow, I know you’re out there,” the voice called out. Sadie recognized that voice. It was Arden, head of security.
Rainbow motioned to Sadie to stay back with a wave of his arm. He stepped out into the open. “How did you know I was here?”
“GPS on the golf cart. And your access code used to activate it,” Arden said. “What are you doing out here?”
“Feeling a bit nostalgic, a bit restless. Felt like going for a drive.”
“I know the feeling,” Arden said. He looked up at the rift. “You think it’s going to open soon?”
“I’ve been tracking it. But so far, haven’t found any kind of pattern.”
“Well, let’s try to figure it out.” Arden searched the clearing, seeming to sense that Rainbow wasn’t alone. Sadie held her breath. Just when she thought she was clear, Arden called out. “Sadie.”
She stepped out. No point in making a run for it.
“So you told her,” Arden said to Rainbow. “Why did you tell her to hide?”
“I wasn’t sure she was allowed to be here.”
“I said you could trust her.” Arden turned to Sadie. “And I trust you won’t tell any outsiders about what’s going on.”
Outsiders. Sadie might never belong in Selunia Falls, but now the secret of Selunia Falls — the rift — belonged to her. “Why did you show this to me?”
“Because. Everyone needs someone they can talk to,” Arden said. “You have a good night now.” With that, he left the two of them to gaze up at the night sky.