On Earth 257, Charleston fell apart at the seams.
It started with small tears here and there, small rips in the dimensional plane—which could’ve been sewn back together at one point, but a city in tatters has little hope of becoming whole again. It’s almost like fate. At least, that’s what Ria will say if she’s ever asked.
She won’t say that she knew that city before it fell. That she had friends in that city. That she was there when it fell.
She definitely won’t say that she knows how the tears were formed in the first place.
But that doesn’t matter. There’s no one left to ask her the story.
Before the fall, Noe both hated and loved Charleston. She loved the hope hidden in it; she hated that she had to keep coming back to its barbarics. Noe believed in signs, and what better sign than the fact that Charleston on 257 bore more tears than any other place in the multiverse.
Noe stared at the map of Charleston, golden pins stuck in so many places Ria half-expected she could back up and see someone’s portrait.
“We have to be close,” Noe said. “Or missing something.”
“Are you expecting the tears to spell out a message?” Ria asked. She waved a hand dramatically. “‘This way to the Tailor.’”
Noe actually considered the notion. “Do you think it’s in another language?”
Ria traced a finger around the outline of the pins. “What language looks like a dragon-headed chair?”
“Oh, go prick yourself,” Noe waved her off. “I’m not the only one with an absurd hunt.”
In fact, both of their… hobbies were contained to a single room of the house. Noe’s map was pinned up on one wall, but the surrounding space was filled with the hanging swords of missing Stitchers. Missing according to Noe. Fallen according to Ria. Black sword upon white sword, each glowing with a soft light. The swords carried their own souls, and this is why the white Needle and the black Ripper couldn’t be created by just any hand. Because Stitchers don’t have mourning practices, Noe didn’t have a word for the collection, but Ria did: a shrine. She began the shrine when a failed hunt for her parents instead turned up her mother’s pair of swords. Since then, Ria collected any pair of fallen swords they encountered and hung them up in the eternal shrine.
“At least mine has proof,” Ria said.
“At least mine will serve a purpose.”
Because the Tailor would solve all their problems. The legendary sword maker would somehow weave their questions into answers. Assure them that they were not the only ones, that there was purpose in their work, that their lives had meaning. Noe believed in things Ria no longer could, but it was easier to keep up the search for the Tailor than to tell Noe to stop chasing fairytales. Just as it was easier to let Ria grow the shrine than to call her a heretic.
“We’ve been staring at pins for so long there are gold spots in my vision,” Ria said.
Noe offered her now-predictable compromise. “Back to the field? I have a good feeling.”
Ria had never turned down a chance to go Charleston; she certainly wouldn’t start then. “Three gold coins say that they brought down the statue.”
“Easiest three coins I’ll ever make.”
When Ria jumped through the Earth 257 tear, night stretched her fingers above and welcomed Ria into her palm. Waves lapped against the sea wall, now paved for tourists and morning joggers. The Battery, a splash of green kept as a war-era reminder, sat in shadow before her. At its head, the cursed, bronze statue of two men standing proud with their arms outstretched. Damn. Nevertheless, Charleston and all its flaws was a home Ria was never allowed to claim.
Noe popped out of the tear. Despite having been to the city countless times, Noe was always more focused on the interdimensional rips than on what really existed in the city. The hope she saw was in Charleston’s slow unraveling, not in its history or potential. So she may not know where every problematic statue was located, but she did know Confederate Defenders, and she grinned in triumph at its sight.
“Keep betting on change and you’ll go broke,” Noe said as Ria stepped up to the tear, sheathed the Ripper, and pulled out her white Needle.
“Keep betting against it and you’ll have a stroke when it comes,” Ria answered. From this end, she could stare into the fraying mouth of the Stitching Space, an abyss beckoning her return. It would not be the first time she wondered if all the fallen were just floating in that Space. She hooked the white blade into one side of the tear and brought it to the other. “Besides, there are enough Earths. I’ll win back my coins.”
“We’ll find the Tailor before you win that bet, and by then you’ll be so in debt to me that I’ll still owe you nothing.”
They placed their bets on money pilfered from sidewalk edges, forgotten pockets, lost wallets across generations and stored throughout their home on Plumera 56, small amounts that wouldn’t be missed, but enough to add up. The cousins passed it between each other’s hands. Worlds like Plumera recognizing Stitchers provided everything they needed, collecting offerings for their idols which kept the worlds from falling apart.
“Split?” Ria asked when she finished stitching.
Noe pulled out a folded map from her pocket and handed it to Ria. “Mark—”
“Wherever I Stitch. I know.”
“Sometimes you forget.”
Forget was a generous word for what Ria did. “I’ll take the south end.”
“Meet at Marion?”
Ria nodded and walked toward Broad Street. “Try not to traumatize a civilian this time.”
“Be on time and I won’t get reckless looking for you.”
“Still not an excuse for creating a rip in front of a teenager.”
“Don’t be late.”
Ria kept herself from saying, “I will be.”
Wandering is inherently selfish.
Ria learned this before she could speak. To take leisure in exploring and to not give a damn about time. To care only for your own amusement. Yes, wandering is selfish.
Her parents were wanderers: a Stitcher who used every resource at her disposal to remain rootless and found a kindred spirit in a Charleston native who wanted to be anywhere other than the world he was born into. Together they jumped from dimension to dimension, one of them doing her job stitching together the universe and the other an eternal observer who collected notes in a tattered, leather-bound notebook.
Wandering let them forget the daughter they left in Charleston. That daughter didn’t grow up in love with the multiverse. Instead, she grew up with Gran, who taught her to love a city with more history than the Stitchers could ever care about. Her parents found freedom in the secrets of the multiverse. No one considered that Ria might have found freedom in something else.
It seemed only natural to Ria that she kept returning. Ria loved Charleston because it had roots stretching beyond just one dimension. She could walk down Broad Street and witness 300 years of history stretch across the architecture. But Charleston 257 was not her Charleston. This Charleston wasn’t the cruise-ship town where Ria grew up watching the horse carriage tours rattle down the cobblestone streets and prattle on about history. It wasn’t the one where she grew up plucking frogs from the marshlands just outside the city and learned to lay sandbags during the flood season. Not the one with her cousins who hated Charleston because it was so grounded in the past. No, that Charleston was on Earth 258, just one number off from the dimension she strolled through now.
257 and 258 were nearly the same, down to the second, as Ria once checked with a church clock tower and her own watch. There was one difference Ria could make out: the version of her father here never fell in love with a Stitcher. No, he never met her, but he still had a daughter, still named her Ariadne, still left her to grow up in 92 Broad Street, a home that was older than the 97-year-old woman who spent her entire life in it. There was another difference, too: 92 Broad Street in 257 still had two occupants. In 258, the ancient home stood empty.
Ria only owned one thing from Earth 258: a blue-faced silver watch Gran gave her on her twentieth birthday because “Women had lipstick and watches.” Noe called it a reckless distraction that would one day catch on a sword and cost her a life, but Ria wore it tight every day, taking comfort in the ticking heartbeat against her wrist. She knew she’d have to get the battery changed soon; it had been two years since Gran gave it to her.
The watch attached to 257, a lifeline to pull on when Gran died in 258. A lifeline she followed now. As soon as she hit Broad Street, Ria cut open a tear and jumped through ten blocks east. She landed in a dark alley, but the streets on either side were alive with music and laughter. It was near midnight, but the city was wide awake. Most humans were creatures of habit, reliable. Ria knew there were three spots downtown she could go to find her. The first was just around the corner.
Simon’s was a restaurant with a rooftop bar and open-sky club. On a Friday night, Ria was likely to find Ari upstairs grooving to whatever blaring hit took the DJ’s fancy. The hostess downstairs confirmed as much and sent Ria up. It was humid and hot upstairs, but an occasional breeze would brush by and tousle the strings of exposed light bulbs. The bar wasn’t too crowded yet, and Ria caught sight of Ari, lean arms waving high in a strange dance. Ria was inches away when Ari opened her eyes and beamed.
“Ria!” She threw her arms sticky with sweat and humidity around Ria. “How are you?”
“Charleston always has me in a good mood. You?”
“I’ll be good with another drink.” Ari turned to the two friends she was with, friends who swapped out and were different every time Ari and Ria met. “This is the USC girl I was talking about. Ria, this is Mare and Ken.”
“I got rejected from USC,” Mare shouted over the music. The drink in her hand was to its dregs.
“Ignore her; she’s drunk,” Ken said.
“You’re the watch-twin?” Mare continued.
Ari plucked Ria’s arm in answer, displaying their matching watches side-by-side. “They know everything, too,” Ari said.
Ria had expected as much. Every other introduction ran through almost the same; everyone knew how they met. Ria wasn’t supposed to get involved, but Ari was drunk and stumbling home, and Ria knew exactly where the girl was trying to go. At some point on the long walk to 92 Broad Street, Ari noticed the watch. “Watch-twins,” she’d mumbled. Apparently, three weeks later, the watch was the only thing she’d managed to remember as she caught sight of it when Ria paid for a coffee at the cafe Ari worked at. Two accidents were enough to keep them in touch months after.
Or, as in touch as Ria could be. She had no phone, no real address, but managed to blame everything on strange parents, University of South Carolina dorms, and a desire to be down to earth. None of which were quite lies (except going to USC). Ria would drift into town every now and then, find Ari at one of her regulars, and pretend that the two didn’t have ghosts of resemblances haunting them. But Ria was grateful for the connection, to have someone know her and ground her to some place. Any place.
“Can I get you a drink?” Ken asked.
“No thanks. I’m working the early shift tomorrow,” Ria said. Noe would go berserk if she knew Ria was partying.
“Late shift and early shift?” Ari asked. “You’re a machine, girl.”
“What do you do?” Ken asked.
“Pirate tour guide,” Ari answered. “A killer gig. She gets to pick her hours and carry around those bad boys.” She pointed to the swords.
“Props, of course,” Ria answered. In a city with pirates wandering around, the swords were the least suspicious thing Ria had. Even so, she tried to steer the conversation away. “How’s Gran?”
She immediately regretted it.
“Gran’s a goddess,” Mare said. Ken poured his cup of water into Mare’s cup.
“She’s kicking,” Ari said. “Out of the recovery center and back home. Can’t go up the stairs, but she says that her favorite things are on the first floor anyway.”
Ari was home when Gran fell on 257. Ria wasn’t when Gran fell on 258. And it was so easy to keep coming back, to keep living in a world where that mistake wasn’t made. But thinking about it didn’t change anything. And there were few things that stopped her from thinking about it.
“Wanna dance?” Ria asked.
Dimensions are always in motion. They rub against each other until their borders fray, then tear. If left unnoticed, things spill from one into the other. Glass rain pools like crushed liquor bottles, strange blooms that only gather in one spot for a generation before becoming an invasive species, sometimes whole animals that wander for a few days before being snatched back into their proper homes (not without being seen and sprouting a few uncrushable myths). Stitchers keep dimensions from falling together, or, worse, falling apart.
People assume that Stitchers will favor their Needle for such purposes. Good Stitchers favor their Needle.
Ria knew she wasn’t a good Stitcher the first time she did it. She knew it the second time. And the third. And every time to follow.
Noe thought Charleston was a dimensional hub, the gateway to finding the elusive Tailor’s home. Ria knew better. Not because she didn’t believe in myths but because she knew what Noe didn’t. The tears in Charleston weren’t made from universal friction.
Hours and hours later, after Ari was wasted and Ken took Mare home, Ria stood in the alley behind Simon’s. Ari was in the bathroom, and Ria was going to have to drag her home once again, not that she minded the long walk. Noe was likely already at the Marion, but it wouldn’t be the first time Noe had to wait. Maybe Noe did find something and was taking a bit more time.
Maybe Ria should take a hint from her humanity and be a bit more reliable.
Ria pulled out her Ripper. She dipped the hooked tip into the nook where the building met the sidewalk. She pulled—making a tear so thin and delicate it would take months before it got big enough to warrant attention—then sheathed the blade. Almost as if it had never been pulled in the first place.
“What are you doing?”
Ria jumped at the voice and whipped around. Noe stood at the other end of the alley, hand on her own Ripper. It was too dark for Ria to read her cousin’s face. Instead, she pulled her Needle.
“I just found a thin tear,” she said. How much had she seen?
“I’m always late.”
“How long have you been downtown?”
“Not long. I started at the pier and there was nothing there.” There really wasn’t; she’d made sure of it last time.
Noe didn’t speak. Is there where everything falls apart?
Ria stitched her own tear as quickly as she made it, Noe silently watching. When she finished, she turned. “Should we go?”
For a moment, Ria thought that no matter what Noe had seen, she would forgive her. They would go back to their game of pretend and let their habits play out until the next incident came. But then: “Why do we keep coming back to 257, Ria?”
“You’re the one that brings us here.”
“This isn’t your life.”
It was Ari’s life, Ari’s Charleston, Ari’s Gran. Ria laughed. “Of course it isn’t. No one here even knows me.”
Ari knew lies and masks and drunken hazes. In the entire multiverse, it was just the two Stitchers. No matter how desperate they were to prove otherwise.
“No one,” Noe repeated.
Ria couldn’t answer before the door slammed open and Ari stumbled out, heels in one hand. “Twin-twin-twin,” she sang before spotting Ria and crashing onto her. “Lipsticks and watches for us.”
Ria scrambled to hold up Ari as she also tried to find a lie for Noe.
“No one at all…” Noe said.
“I can explain…” Ria said.
“…except her. What is she…”
“…she’s obviously drunk…”
“…and it’s crowded. Contact is inevitable…”
“…or your puppet…”
“…I couldn’t just leave her…”
“…or your delusion?”
“….This isn’t what I wanted.”
“That makes two of us.”
Ria felt it all at once: Ari slipped from her arms, the watch’s heart stopped, and Noe ran. Quick, like shadow, blending into the crowd faster than Ria could pick out.
Ria’s senses felt too slow. Stumbling and sloppy and slow, street after street, crowd after crowd, she was too far behind, until she found a tear, and she jumped through, and it spit her out at the pier right beside another, so Ria jumped again, and again, and again.
No one considered what would happen if Stitchers preferred their Ripper to their Needle, if they saw more value in tearing than stitching, but Ria now knows that they should have. That after jumping tear to tear to tear, frantically searching for someone who was always too many rips ahead, someone should have warned them. Or maybe they once did and when there were too few Stitchers everyone just gave up. What did it matter if someone made more holes than they closed? If one Stitcher desperate for a home started ripping apart a city for excuses to come back? If a second one went on a frantic ripping spree trying to escape the lies of the first? If all their tears finally connected?
If an entire city vanished overnight?
If the city and a Stitcher both fell because of one wanderer’s selfish desires?
Ria knows the answer now.