The new planet had rolled out of a bottle of Advil that morning. The bottle had been opened and dropped, and a few of the Advil fell out and rolled under the dresser, and the planet,, with its fog and ocean, fell out, too, and rolled under the dresser.
The bottle had been almost empty to begin with. The planet joined the stray balls of thread and dust and long pieces of hair on the floor under the dresser. The person to whom the Advil belonged didn’t want a planet and hadn’t known it had been in there. It was a good thing he hadn’t swallowed it; it doesn’t work on pain. He had pain that a new planet could not solve. When he saw the planet, several days later, he went into despair. The planet, rolled up in black threads and long orange hairs, meant that she would never love him back. He held the planet, smoothing the threads over it like a nest, and inside the nest was sea and fog, and outside there was no love.
We sat in the sea and looked at our planet and the fog. It was more purple than blue, really. We sat in our boat or just in the water itself, bobbing, warm, looking at what we had made. The planet sat or bobbed or suspended in the water, half above, half underneath or inside, restfully. The fog didn’t move, toward or away or shivering. We looked at it all.
“We shouldn’t have done this,” I said.
She shook her head. “We’re no worse than those,” she said, gesturing in the opposite direction, toward the other nine. “We’re no worse than the people who did those.” They were far away and we couldn’t see them. We could only see ours, but we didn’t go any closer.
On the seventh day he bent down to talk to us. “She will never love me because of this,” he said, his face and head large as he spoke down to us, but not as large as the planet. He held it in his hand, with the sea and the fog.
“It is what it is,” said Zhanna.
“That’s not an answer,” he said. “Why did you do this? Why here?”
“We didn’t,” I said. “It just happened. We were only born a few days ago. I don’t know.”
“Is that true?” he asked Zhanna. Her hair was black so he trusted her more. It was always like that.
“Yes. We were sea, and then we were in the sea, looking at the planet. You dropped us and we swirled around, almost lost our heads under the water, then righted and looked at each other, ourselves, the planet the same distance away, the water the same evenness.”
“Don’t talk like that,” he said. “It doesn’t belong here.”
“I don’t know that yet,” she said.
“Why won’t she love you?” I asked.
“Who would?” he asked.
“It’s not right. It’s not clean.”
“The fish will fix that,” Zhanna said, thinking of maybe the dust in our waters, the animals who would eat it and turn it into sand and seaweed.
“Not that kind of clean.” He had turned his ear so it was closest to us, and all we could see of his entire self were those complex bony curves. It looked like a strange kind of human, I thought, forgetting who he was. He looked like a different kind of earth, a complicated land you could get lost in, painfully. We were small and spoke quietly. When he answered, his voice came from far away, halfway across the sea, curving around with the wind to get back to us long after he had spoken.
“So what kind? We can clean. If we have to.”
“The kind that kills you,” was all he said, and he lifted his ear away from our planet, and the rest of him, too, and rolled us gently back under the dresser, where it was safe, but stuffy.
On the twelfth day of our lives a woman came over. She walked by the dresser on the way to the bathroom and when she came back out we had rolled into her path. We wanted to see her. We had rocked back and forth in our boats or in the water until the water began to wave, and then the planet, and the fog, until it all began to move, and we rolled a few steps before bracing ourselves, trying to hold on to the water in case it moved too far and too fast and off the planet entirely.
She bent down to look at us. She put the tip of her pinky in the ocean; it clung to her, a large drop of it, half our ocean, and she sniffed it, put it to her lips.
“What is it?” she asked him as we heard his feet approaching.
“A small world,” he said. “It just appeared.”
“How did you end up with it? Why here?” she asked again.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“That’s not quite right,” she said.
“So why not get rid of it?” she asked.
He didn’t answer.
Back under the dresser, we fell asleep that night with the light and dark of the other world, since ours had none of its own, had just a reflection of the lamps above us and otherwise its own smooth grey of light. I woke hours later in the dark, the lamps off and the grey darker, so that the world looked lost, the water, the fog, and the planet all the same shade and almost the same color. Zhanna was not there and I was by myself.
“Zhanna,” I said quietly. I put my foot into the water so that it felt the cold and the wet, trying to find her foot, to kick it, to kick her awake and into answering me. My foot didn’t find anyone. “Zhanna,” I said louder. I started kicking the sea around me, trying to move her, move myself, find something, but there was nothing, and the sea did not make sound, there was just deep black thousand-meter silence and dark grey. I slid into the sea, treaded water faster, feeling I might vanish into it. Zhanna, who had started at the same place as me, had gotten somewhere that I had not, and had not reached back to pull me after her. I took a breath and put my whole head under the water, into that land, and below could see the planet and some strands of seaweed, but no sand, no bottom, no legs. I stayed there, breathing the water under there, until my hair was wet all the way through, and so was my head. Underwater, heavy, I drifted toward the planet, until I clunked against it like some kind of metal against another kind. Zhanna was not there either. It was only me.
I closed my eyes and slumped all the way to the bottom of the sea, sat on the sand at the bottom, my mouth half in and half out of the water, things coming into me, dirt and water, and people, probably, smaller people in their size-of-sand worlds. I lay with my head along my knees under the water, which was good to breathe, rich like chocolate milk. Down there I could see the end of the universe, and I looked through its curvy glass to the floor below the floor. I could see the hair of Zhanna, and the rest of her, a drowned fish in the wrong room.
I lay there watching her for a long time, trying to get her attention. Calling to her, though it was hard to speak under water; the words bumped against an edge of the universe and disappeared, carried off by crabs and waves. I knocked, lightly, put my cheek to the edge, and waited.
In the morning the man walked into the hall where she lay, began to step on her, then stopped and noticed her, somehow, put his foot somewhere else. He noticed, maybe, that the speck was different colored, some black hair, the rest lighter, grey, blue. He stopped and looked at her, while I, so close, at the sea of the end of the world, watched him. He picked her up, or rather touched his finger to her so that she came up onto his skin like a piece of dust does; he looked at her, breathed gently on her, poked at her with the short nail of the other hand, then put her on the dresser and left. He came back a few minutes later with a little boat, just a tiny bent square of aluminum foil, and put her gently in the bottom, and put his finger up to the water, shaking it so the boat and she slid off and onto the water. He was surprised that he was able to; he thought that it was difficult or not possible to touch that world. The boat was too large for her, too large for the planet, so she looked like a little mouse with a whole ship.
I didn’t want to swim back up to see her. If I touched her and she was fully dead, she would never return to life. It was better to give her time to come back. The man walked away, came back dressed; peered at us to see if Zhanna had moved yet; looked again, noticing that I was gone. He thought I had fallen off, that I was dead too, though he didn’t care as much, Zhanna was his favorite. I wondered if he had stepped on Zhanna the night before, so that she had died in a soft human pillow, and he wondered that too. I knocked on the edge of the world. He couldn’t hear anything, we were too small, so I knocked harder and fell out in a rush of water and spots of algae. He didn’t notice that either, and I sat in the very small puddle on the floor, looking up at him.
I watched him going about the end of his routine, doing things too big for me to see, making sounds too big for me to hear. The whole world above me one giant color, then another color when I moved my head around. It was less interesting than it was from my planet, where I had my own frame of vision and my size and Zhanna’s size to back me up—this is the right one, this is the real size of the real world—and maybe the atmosphere disillusioned everything, the air between us making a large lens that shrank him into a larger version of us.
I did not like it down there. It does not take long to figure out something is not right for you, or at least not habitable. I fell back on, to where I had started, in that sea near the planet. The sea where I had actually been born. Swimming slowly through my mother water, I came finally to Zhanna’s boat, pulled the edge toward myself so I could climb in. I fell right to the bottom and toppled almost onto Zhanna herself. I touched her; she was cold, pink. The wrong color; she must have breathed in the wrong thing for too long. I pulled the boat over our heads and we fell into our water. She fell toward the bottom, though there was no bottom and she simply fell. Holding her arm so I would not lose her in the dark, I held her mouth open so she could breathe, breathe in the dark blue and the barnacles and the grey and the small sandy creatures. She probably didn’t know what death was yet; she could pretend she hadn’t found out and come back. I knew everything, I’d lived for hours longer than she.
I prodded her around the neck, the lungs and mouth, trying to persuade her to breathe. She did finally, though the air or water didn’t seem to be going anywhere because she wasn’t breathing them right. She smiled in the bottom of the water, the air water swimming around and through her, like between her fingers but through all of her. Her chest didn’t move as she breathed, but her ears and feet and hands and arms did, all swaying in and out.
“Let’s see what’s at the bottom,” she said and wrenched her arm free of me and plummeted down feet first, like she was on a rope or was a magnet. I let her go, hearing her strange unhuman voice waft behind her in my ears; she sounded like a painting, a fish, her voice slithery, blue, and oiled on. I let her go; she was not the same species as me anymore after dying. I would miss her, though, and wonder what she found down there, how she spent her days, and whether she built a soft rocky castle to live in. I floated above, watching her dark hair spiral farther away.
I pulled myself out of the water and back into the aluminum-foil boat, which was cozy, almost, like a home, though too big. The boats we had at the beginning, the boats we were born in, were gone. Now, having grown older with what happens in life, I was bigger and needed a bigger home. I did not think of the man and of the larger earth for the next few days at all. I was thinking how I might live here. I was turning soft and watery, almost slimy, and could swim and walk quickly through the land. We had gone through one life cycle here. It was interesting once.
Outside, the man and the woman are talking loudly in the kitchen. It’s been a week or two; she’s forgotten about it and forgiven him. She gets up to go to the bathroom and says, “Remember when you had that strange toy in your closet? What was it, like a little marble that looked like a planet. I thought you were crazy.”
He pretends to laugh. While she is washing her hands, he walks to the dresser and picks up the planet, sea and all, and swallows it, washes it down with a big sip of water. It goes into his stomach and spreads out around him. He stops standing on the world and starts standing in a sea, where there are stars, and planets around him. He looks around, wonders where the dresser has gone, and the woman. He looks for me, but I am way too far away. This is a whole universe. He’s inside out, becoming cold and soft and damp, and blue and grey, like a large fish. He looks around himself and flies to another planet, and then another, like walking quickly. He’s cold and tastes the dirt of each planet, feels the no air around himself. We are the same size now, only I am bigger.
Julie A. Hersh is a writer with a day job as an editor. A native New Yorker, she has lived in four countries (most of them post-Soviet) in the past three years. Her writing has appeared in Cold Noon, Leopardskin & Limes, and Menacing Hedge. Find her on Twitter or her website.