I’m sorry, Noah, it reads on the back of the faded postcard he holds. It’s not safe here. Go home. I’ll catch you later.

There’s no signature, not that Noah needs one. Not when he can find that familiar lopsided scrawl etched onto his soul.

Not when he already knows he is late.

I’m sorry, Noah.

It isn’t the first time he’s been left behind to deal with the aftermath of those words. They echo over and over in his mind, like a horrible song stuck in his head, one that he never meant to learn the lyrics of but still does.

I’m sorry, Noah.

He wants to unlearn those words.

I’ll catch you later

He hates the empty promise, the false reassurance they offer. Yet, he finds himself comforted by them, the semblance of warmth and belongingness carrying him away.

In a moment of frustration at his weakness, he rips up the postcard in quarters and lets them fly with the wind.

He watches as the pieces of ‘Greetings from Nowhere’ flutter away until they become distant dark spots dancing against the red sky. Just like her; here a minute ago, gone the next.

He wishes the Drift would let go of Lyra that easily.

(“There’s no sun in Nowhere,” Lyra had once told him. They had been lying on the back deck at their house in Anchorage, watching as the day slowly faded into the night.

“No moon there, either. Completely uninhabited.”

“Must be pretty lonely there,” Noah had muttered sleepily.

“It is. It really is, Noah”

Had his eyes not shut that instant, he would have seen the tears leak out of hers, would have seen the way her unwavering, confident grin had turned wobbly; as if she were no longer talking of the barren planet from another galaxy.)

Go Home.

How exactly does one go home when it is not a place but a person who has left him behind? Again.

The purple sands of Nowhere shift beneath Noah. He crumples to the ground and counts in his head the number of times he’s let himself get caught in-between moments.

Catch you later.

Seven times. Seven times Lyra’s promised to catch Noah. Seven times she pulled her hand away from his at the very last moment.

Seven different worlds. Seven different skies.

Seven. Different. Failures.

It has become a routine for them now. The disappointment has become a routine.

He’s never seen a sky this red before; at least that’s new to him.

Lying down on the cool sands, Noah stares up at the vast emptiness of the unknown world, Nowhere, and waits for it to end.

*

“I’m sorry Noah.” It’s not the first time Lyra’s saying those words, and it won’t be the last.

It’s the night before Lyra leaves for those different realms. Usually, she has no control over her ‘powers’ but she still feels it calling to her, knows in advance when its beckoning would become too loud to ignore and she would dissolve with it.

Not that she’s mentioned that to Noah. She thinks he doesn’t care. It’s the first time she is sharing that tidbit of information with him.

They’re both eighteen years old, and Lyra is leaning against the sink, looking like the kind of girl poets write tragedies about. Not that that’s the thing on his mind right now. Now, he is beyond furious at her.

She knows when she leaves and yet has left him in the dark before?

“That’s the thing about the unknown, Noah. We don’t know when it might come for us,” Lyra tries to reason.

“Just go away,” he shouts at her, “And don’t bother to come back”

He doesn’t understand how Lyra, who has the power to navigate through the freaking unknown, is the one talking about uncertainty.

Her eyes are sad and then they go wide with fear.

The Drift is here for her. The unknown.

She reaches for his hand but the Drift gets there first and doesn’t let go.

Noah lunges forward but his fingers clutch at thin air.

“Come back” he whispers to the spot where Lyra was a second ago.

Those words mark Noah as another character in a tragedy too, just a different kind.

*

Question: What is the Drift?

  1. A dance move that originated from the 1980s. You know the one with the leg and the hip thrust. Yep, that’s the one.
  2. A secret plane of existence in the universe that selects people without rhyme or reason, thus giving them the ability to travel between worlds and different dimensions.
  3. A horrible, horrible thing that needs to learn how to let go.
  4. All of the above

*

The first time Noah meets Lyra, he tries to evict her from their house.

“She can’t live in my room. She is a girl,” he’s trying to explain to his mothers, Rosalie and Kate. Lyra sits out of earshot at the kitchen table, scarfing down, more like inhaling lasagna like forget about eating, she hasn’t even seen food in three months, which knowing the Drift, is probably true.

“I don’t care if she’s from the Drift. She should sleep here on the sofa.”

It’s basic eight-year-old logic. Noah should have known better though; Kate is from the Drift too, and Rosalie has a soft spot for wandering souls.

Lyra says she is eight-years-old too, like Noah, but he doesn’t buy that for a second. She looks like she is made out of sharp, jagged pieces of glass you might find in an alleyway that you could cut yourself with if you aren’t too careful. Her eyes are older than even Kate’s and she doesn’t even know who Spider-Man is, which, to Noah, is more than enough of a reason to not trust her.

She doesn’t know about the Drift either, even though it’s the closest thing she has had to a home. Then again, not a lot of people do.

(He later learns the reason for Lyra’s sharpness; she has lost a part of herself among the stars and the moons, the realms, and the alternating timelines. The Drift hasn’t been kind to her.)

“The Drift.” The words fall from Lyra’s mouth like ribbons as she sits still at the table, wearing a dazed expression as if wondering why she is not flying away from them this very moment, why the Drift hasn’t come back yet.

“I’ve spent a long time in the Drift too, Lyra,” Kate is saying. She squeezes Rosalie’s hand and Noah knows that she’s thinking of the ribbons too. “When you touched down here in Anchorage, I-I just knew.”

“A drop in the ocean,” Rosalie says softly. Kate nods in agreement.

“Right. A drop in the ocean. I needed to get to you before you disappeared again. I know what it feels like, Lyra.”

World after world. Time after time. The Drift had latched onto Lyra and wouldn’t let go, that is until Anchorage. Until, Noah’s mother, Kate Thompson, grabbed her by the ankle like a floating astronaut without his tether because she knew what it was like getting caught up in the Drift; the fear, exhilaration, sheer terror, wonder, all the myriad of emotions one goes through when facing the unknown.

Kate Thompson fought against the universe and won.

Her prize? A scrawny kid who doesn’t even know where is she from because she’s been flailing through the free fall for too long.

She should have gotten something cooler, Noah thinks to himself. Like stardust from the Drift. Or the crystal-like flowers from that one planet Kate told him about.

Later that night, when Noah’s parents are sleeping, he tricks Lyra into going outside and locks her out of the house. He doesn’t think that he is being cruel, only that he knows the Drift will reclaim Lyra soon enough and he wants to spare every one of the heartache when that happens.

If only he knew how pointless his actions were.

If only he knew the Drift had let go of Lyra for a reason; because it had a cruel sense of humor.

*

There are two kinds of people who know about the Drift:

  1. The ones who have been chosen and should ideally use their gifts to travel far and wide. (Usually, they are terrified of venturing into the unknown.)
  2. The ones who have been left behind. (Usually, they are scared of when the unknown might snatch their loved ones away.)
  3. (Usually, he wishes to discover the unknown.)

*

It was Rosalie who found out that Lyra wasn’t in the house the next morning.

The first thing she did was dart up the stairs towards the bedroom Kate was still sleeping in and engulfed her in a hug. She had been worried that the Drift had taken away Kate along with Lyra.

Later they got to know that Lyra hadn’t been taken away at all; she had taken up residence in the open-roofed shed in the garden.

When Kate had asked her why she hadn’t slept in the house, Lyra had given her a charming smile and said that Noah’s room had been too claustrophobic for her and that she had chosen to lie beneath the stars and the open sky.

Noah who had been poised at the front door to dart out the minute Lyra would rat him out to his parents, had looked up in surprise as the lies fell from her lips like water, sweeping away Rosalie and Kate in its current.

He later helps Lyra with her schoolwork and teaches her about Anchorage and Alaska, and everything else she would want to know.

They’re both eight years –old (maybe?) and don’t know what to make of the other but they learn. They eventually learn.

*

Noah can’t navigate the Drift on his own. He has to rely on Kate’s thoughts to guide him. If the Drift doesn’t choose you like the way it’s chosen Lyra and Kate, then it will do its very best to kick you out. Forcefully.

World after world, time after time, Noah’s been given the boot seven times by the Drift in his pursuit of Lyra, and seven different times he concludes that there is no word in the human language that could ever describe the sensation of jumping between worlds.

Perhaps the best words he can use are: AHHHHHH and WHAT THE HECK.

Needless to say, when he finally catches up to Lyra, he’s going to punch her. Or hug her. He hasn’t decided yet.

*

“Did u know Noah that the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen is the Northern Lights?”

“Like here? In Anchorage?”

“Here. At home.”

“Um… you have traveled to other dimensions, to other worlds, and that’s the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You can’t be serious Lyra.”

“Oh, I am. One day you’ll understand.”

*

Lyra’s hardly at home. The bedroom in the garden shed feels cold and empty. She flicks in and out of their lives like a lamp.

Whenever Noah sees her, she looks like she wants to smash every window in existence.

Everyone still loves her though. Who wouldn’t? Look at her, look at this girl who looks like she’ll sprout a pair of wings at any minute! They say, Look at her, even Alaska, the country’s largest state, is too small for her.

Everyone loves her.

Noah, he-

Noah loves her. 

So the next time she leaves him behind, Noah has had enough. He knows that he has to travel the Drift himself, has to get Lyra back.

Kate had been reluctant to help him at first but had seen the longing and the fierceness in her son’s eyes, so similar to what Rosalie’s eyes had held when she had first caught hold of Kate all those years ago. Like mother, like son, Kate had thought with a sigh but had agreed to help because she had seen Rosalie and herself in her son and Lyra.

She used her long-dormant gifts to search for Lyra in the infinite vastness of the Drift and had projected Noah across the paths traveled by Lyra, hoping that he would catch up with the girl.

It seemed that Lyra had caught word of Noah’s stupidity and at each of her stops left behind notes for him. She could never stay for long in one place and knew that Noah would try to follow her. She had hoped that the notes would discourage him but somehow they had made Noah even more desperate to catch up with her.

*

Noah is lying on the sands of Nowhere when he feels the tug of the Drift. He now knows how it feels to step into the unknown waters of the Drift; he knows this is not what he longs for anymore.

Here we go again, Noah thinks as the Drift yanks him off Nowhere and spits him out at a familiar place with brutal force.

Anchorage. He’s back in Anchorage.

That means-

Lyra’s home? But that can’t be right; the Drift carries her away for months.

For a moment he is scared that he has lost Lyra forever and that’s why he’s back here, standing on the familiar dock which is close to his house.

Noah’s scared, until he sees her there, at the edge of the dock, hair blowing with the chilly wind.

The night sky above them bursts into color as Noah runs into Lyra’s open embrace.

(“Did u know Noah that the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen is the Northern Lights?”)

“I’m sorry, Noah” Lyra’s whispering, tears frozen on her rosy cheeks.

All he does is shakes his head and shuts the rest of her apology out with a kiss.

(Those words. He never wants to hear those words again.)

*

“Why did you come back?” Noah finally dares to ask.

“I can’t stop thinking about Anchorage,” Lyra says in a soft voice. “About Kate and Rosalie. Aurora Borealis. You.”

They are both silent for a moment.

“I get it now, Noah. Venturing into the unknown is not about choice, it’s about necessity. And maybe one day the unknown will become my new normal.”

Our new normal.”

Noah holds Lyra’s hands in his as the Drift whisks them both away; into the unknown.

 

– Bhavya Nayak, Delhi Public School, Noida

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