Damn, she says, he was right there. he was probably right there on the platform.
She had been running through an underground hallway, she went through a doorway and here she was , right back in her own time. and she was pissed. He was right there, she said, he was right there with me!
Cammie was in a living room, suddenly. It was nowhere she had ever been before. Somehow she had come through the dark hallway basement of the Castle, headed straight towards a large, open door, passed through it, and here she was. She had made a turn, and this room had blood red carpets and hardwood walls. It felt like a bar of some sort, a bar she had been in once before, maybe a long long time ago. it was called the red something - she didn't know what.
Around a long sturdy oak table several people sat. She didn't see how many, but they were not surprised by her sudden and dramatic entrance. They even seemed to understand what she was saying about Zeke.
Okay people, Ronson said, we're in new territory now. unmapped but not unknown. it's time travel. this is the thing. you can move in time, but every time you turn around, time is trying to pull you back to now; your own time is like a rubber band attached to you - wherever you can't be seen, a doorway, an underground hallway, time is trying to push you right back out to where you came from. even if you don't want to come back, it'll push you out.
And don't worry about the big things. big things like history you can't change, but little things can, and your life is one of those little things. you can die there and you turn up like an unexplained death back here. I've seen it happen before. back there you're stabbed with a sword in a duel. here you're hit by a bus. you just came out of nowhere, the driver says, and you did. time pushed you in front of that bus. you weren't there, and then you were. because you died, you had to die. get it? time makes a reason.
Cammie says, now we have to go back there and get him. he's still there. he doesn't know what's going on. he just got pulled in by accident, she continued. i was going back and he just came with me. we got separated, just for a second, and i lost him.
That's another thing, Ronson continued. once you're on that path, every place is a time. you turn around, you don't know where or when you'll be. you lose contact with your partner - physical contact i mean, then you lose contact, period. it's amazing Zeke was even in the same time as you Cammie. He could have been anytime, anyplace, once you let go.
When you go back, you must go back together, and you must remain together at all times. at ALL times. this is no joke, people. time will try to push you back out to now, but if it can't push you out, it's going to push you somewhere. it doesn't want you back there. time is literally your enemy. it is literally working against you constantly. you are fucking with time, with nature, with the order of things, and the order of things does not like to be fucked with.
But how do we get in there? Riley asked. How do we even know where to begin?
There's a distortion, Ronson said. Now that Zeke is back there, it's there. Just look for the distortion. You're going to find it in the places he goes in this life, in this time. You have to go wherever he SHOULD be right now, right here. Find that place, and there's a distortion. You will know it, you'll feel it, you may even see it. And then, when you do, you go into the next door, the next window, down the next hall, and you may be there where he is. Not necessarily right there in the same room, but close, somewhere nearby. Or maybe not. You might just be in the next room, period. If it's a false alarm. If time doesn't let you in, because it doesn't want to let you in. it wants to keep you right here where you belong.
Make no mistake, people, time is going to be actively working against us every moment. And we don't have much of it. I can't say exactly how long we've got, but time is trying to put an end to its Zeke problem, and we've got to find him first and bring him back.
How do we bring him back? Jimmie asked
Just find him, said Ronson, and get him alone with you somewhere, some place where no one else can see, and then go through the door. time will bring you out, bring you right back here to now, but only if no one else can see it happening. time wants you back where you belong. it's a presence, a pressure, a force. You'll know it when you feel it. Mostly we go around in time - in our own time - and never feel the pressure because we're where it wants us to be. But just try going against the grain, against the tide, you'll see.
Cammie felt like she was surrounded by friends and that maybe she was in her own place and time although she was certain she had never known these guys and had never been in this room before. I've been in places like it, she thought, and I've known people like these, but it isn't them, it's like a dream. Maybe I didn't come back to my own time, she thought.
Ronson said come on, it's time to bring him back, and Cammie said, how do you even know him, and Ronson looked at her like she was a specimen in the lab. It's dangerous, he said. Every time you go back something changes, you change. You stay too long you can't come back. You've changed too much and now you don't fit in your old life any more. You aren't who you were so you can't go back to when and where you were. Cammie, don't you know me?
She shook her head and felt a wave of despair and suddenly the realization that she didn't even know herself anymore. Why did this happen? she asked. Why did you go back? he countered. She shook her head again. I was with Zeke, she replied. We were at the donut shop, looking at donuts. I mentioned something about the history of the word. I forget which word. Zeke said it was something else. I forget what he said. We went to the old used bookstore around the corner to look it up in the big old dictionary they have there. We were walking through the stacks, we turned a corner, we were gone. That's all I remember.
Something about the word, Ronson said. It's very important. What was the word? I can't remember, Cammie said. Must have been something French, Ronson muttered to himself. Riley said that bookstore's only open till nine. We have to go right now and Jimmie said we can take my truck it's right out front.
They rushed out the door and into the truck and Ronson was giving instructions. Never lose sight of your partner. We're going in by two's. Two by two. One right after the other. Like a buddy system. Each partner keeps a watch on the other. Each team keeps a watch on the other. When one goes in, the other follows. When one goes right, the other goes right. Right with you, right behind you all the way. And think of the word, he said to Cammie, think of the word if you can.
Riley and Jimmie were the first ones through the door and they moved like the trained navy seals they were. Proceeding cautiously, watching each other's backs, silently striding through the cookbooks and the baby name books and the do-it-yourself home project books. Cammie and Ronson came next, holding hands like it was the most natural thing in the world for them to do. Cammie wondered if it was. Ronson worried that they were already too late, and wherever she had been had changed her irrevocably.
Sometimes it wears off, Ronson softly said, to reassure her. Sometimes the changes peel off like a sunburn over time, once time itself is convinced that you're really back where you belong and intend to stay that way. He failed to mention how time might treat someone it has returned, who deliberately goes right back in again. Time would not be happy about that.
They were looking for the distortion. It might still be here, Ronson thought, though Cammie couldn't tell them exactly how long it had been. Zeke might normally be somewhere else already, and they would have to consider that. But Riley thought he felt something for he raised his arm in the alert sign, and Ronson and Cammie stopped in their tracks. Jimmie gave him the go ahead, and Riley very slowly moved around the book case into the next aisle, which housed the biography section. For a moment it looked like he was actually vanishing and Ronson held his breath. There had been something. No doubt about it, but Riley soon appeared from around the other side and shook his head. Damn, Jimmie muttered. Almost had something there.
It's not here anymore, Ronson declared. We have to go where he should be right now, and he looked at Cammie for suggestions, but she said she didn't know. They didn't have any plans. And anyway, you know Zeke. From one moment to the next, he could be anywhere. Ronson said no, it doesn't help to think like that. And then he had the idea that maybe time was pushing back, trying to push Zeke back to somewhere he should be. Maybe what they saw for a moment there in the bookstore was an attempt to get him back, an attempt that failed. Time would not stop trying. The donut shop, he said. Come on, let's go.
He wasn't happy about the idea, because the donut shop was a wide open place, no hallways, no aisles, no doors. It didn't seem likely that they'd have a chance to slip back anywhere at all. But he was surprised when they got there that there was no one in the shop, not even the counter girl - she must have been in the back or in the bathroom. In the bathroom, Ronson repeated to himself. This time he and Cammie went first and Riley and Jimmie followed closely. No one in the bathroom.
There were two stalls and a urinal. Cautiously Ronson opened the first stall. Nothing. Then the next. He peered inside. He was gone. Cammie was right behind him and they were on a vast dark lawn, sloping downhill towards a grove of trees and perhaps the ocean, was that the ocean down there? It must have been. He could feel the sea breeze and behind them looming overhead was a mansion of some kind, maybe a castle, and it was dark and a little chilly. There were a few lighted windows in the mansion, the lights were flickering. They were candles. This is good, Ronson thought. Cammie was excited.
I know where we are, she kept saying, I was here, I was here before, just now. We have to get into the castle. And they started up the hill and it only occurred to Ronson for a brief moment that Riley and Jimmie weren't there, and where were they, and then he didn't think of them again. It was all about getting inside the castle, and how to get inside, and then there was the feeling of being led somewhere, against his will. Both the movements - his own volition and the other one - were leading towards the castle, but it was as if they had their own ideas. Cammie was speaking French and Ronson could understand her.
Even my clothes, he thought. They've changed to fit right in. Time makes it happen. Whatever it takes. And now I have a mustache, and it was hardly surprising. He felt like he'd always been this person he was now, and sneaking into the castle in the middle of the night with his sister's chambermaid seemed quite normal, quite the thing. He had to get her back to her quarters before anyone noticed she was missing.
They found a way in and they were in the basement and Cammie was pulling on his arm, and suddenly he wanted more of her and he was laughing and pulling back and she was laughing and saying no not now, we have to find him first, and Ronson didn't know who they were looking for. He felt an enormous need to hurry, but didn't know why or what that was about. They'll find me, he thought, and then I'll get in trouble. But how much trouble can I get into, really? Ronson asked himself, and he knew it was all just a game, and that as the prince he could have any maid he chose at any time. But why the pressure? Why the impatience? Cammie was running off ahead down the corridor and she turned a corner and by the time he got there she was gone. It was completely dark. He had no torch, no candle. He wasn't really sure where he was. He heard a voice, then two - Cammie? And another man. I'm coming, Ronson yelled down the empty hallway, and he began to run.
Back on the street, Zeke was shaking uncontrollably. I don't know, man, he kept saying. I don't know. I don't like what's happening. Riley and Jimmie and Cammie were all trying to hold him up, but he kept staggering and shaking. Finally they sat him down on one of the benches in the park.
Cammie was certain that Garrett had been right behind her all the way. He must have blinked for just a moment, she was saying. Wasn't he the one always talking about never losing contact? It's not that easy, Zeke replied. It makes you blink. It makes you look away. You don't want to be messing with that thing, I can tell you that. You mess with it, it's going to mess with you, guaranteed.
It wouldn't let us in, Riley said. I mean, we were right behind you in the bathroom. We saw you go in and bam, you were gone, the both of you. We jumped right in there and nothing. Just a couple of guys in a stall. We could hear you, though. It sounded like foghorns.
No, Jimmie said, that's not what I heard. It was more like birds, chirping in the morning.
It was dark, Cammie said, and we were near the ocean.
I was in the cellar, Zeke said. After Cammie disappeared, I just stayed right where I was. I didn't move. There were people in the next room, cooking something. I didn't make a sound.
I knew you were there, Cammie said, I could feel it. And Garrett was right behind me only he was speaking French and something else. He looked like someone else at the end. It wasn't Garrett Ronson anymore. Damn. It really wasn't him! Cammie said. The way he was looking at me!
And then I heard you, she said to Zeke, I heard you calling me.
I didn't say anything, Zeke replied, I was keeping my mouth shut. I didn't know what was going to happen.
But I heard you anyway and that's why I started running and that's how I found you and here we are.
We have to find Ronson, Riley said. We have to go back and find him.
He isn't there, said Cammie. It wasn't him. You'd think I know my own brother. He's probably home laughing at all of us right now.
Zeke was feeling better. All I'm saying, he said, is I ain't never going back to that old bookstore anymore. I don't even want to know what that word means. You know the one.
And when they got back to the house, Ronson still wanted to know what the word was, but neither Zeke nor Cammie would tell him, and he thought that maybe they didn't even remember anyway. Or maybe it was only Cammie being Cammie, and Zeke being Zeke, the way they'd always been, growing up, the little brother and sister he never had. Until now.
The very first time he went and came back, he knew that something had changed, but he didn't know what, or how. Something so simple as dipping your finger in a stream and pulling it back, feeling the drag, and the water. There was dirt on his knees, but before, he'd been wearing long pants. Something else. As he got to his feet and looked back up the hill, he had a sense of forgetting. Wasn't he with a girl? She was so beautiful, and her laughter; she was twelve years old, like him. Just a moment ago. He was alone on a hot summer day and the mosquitoes were swarming around him. He waved his arm to push them away and started walking away from the creek. Behind him the water rushed over the rocks of the dam he had built with his friend.
By the time Garrett Ronson got home he was an ordinary child. Sort of. A pile of science books spilled over his desk and crowded some half-built projects. On the walls of his room were posters of rocket ships and alien worlds. Like any other little nerd, he imagined you'd have to go far far away in order to find the unimaginable. It would be years before he would come to understand how utterly wrong he was, but that day, by the creek, was time one.
It was nothing he had done on purpose, but more like an accident, a coincidence. You are driving in your car, and you know that the traffic and weather report is on in a couple of minutes, and you want to hear about the weather. You hear the traffic reporter telling of an accident on another highway, somewhere else. You were on that highway once, and you picture it in your mind. You remember a conversation you were having with the person you were traveling with that day, on that road. You said something funny, and she laughed. You remember what she sounded like laughing. You have just now missed the weather report. You will never hear it again.
More like that. Ten minutes later they will repeat that weather report - all news all the time - but by then you've arrived at work, and turned off the radio, and parked the car. If you had heard the weather report, it would have made no difference, really. You had already left your house and couldn't bring an umbrella in case of rain, or left your sweater home, if it was going to be hot. What if it were not the weather report, but something more substantial, that if you missed, would have changed everything in your life. What if it were the last chance you had to tell somebody you loved her, and you didn't know, and you didn't do it, and then it was too late, and you would never see her again. Only those who remember, can regret. What if you never found out. What if you never knew.
Garrett Ronson never knew that the girl he went down to the river to play with, never existed in the world he came home to. She was right there with him. He said something funny, and she laughed. What she sounded like laughing. She helped him build the dam, finding just the right stones to fit together, doing it better than he did. They were building it to the left of the makeshift foot bridge that barely spanned the creek. They perched together on a big flat rock, huddling over the burgeoning pile of sticks and pebbles. She - her name was Mila, and she had dark skin and thick black hair and beautiful big brown eyes - thought there might be better stones on the other side of the bridge, so he waded under in search of them.
In the damp coldness beneath the bridge he turned around to say something, something funny to make her laugh again. He felt a tugging at his legs. It's just the current, he thought. He looked up and saw a stranger in the field behind the bridge. It was a grown man, middle-aged, perhaps, tall and thin, wearing a worn and faded blue shirt over dark brown pants, muddy brown boots, and a sort of strange red cap over his long dark hair. The man looked down at him and frowned. Garrett heard a voice, but it was in his head. He knew that. The man didn't say anything out loud. Little boys shouldn't stray where they don't belong - or was it stay, or play, he wasn't quite sure. The stranger scared him and he turned back and hurried under to the other side of the bridge. He clambered up the near side of the bank. There was dirt on his knees, but there was no stranger. No girl. Never was. Never would be. It was as if she had been erased from time. And all Garrett knew was that something had changed, but he didn't know what, or how. But he remembered the stranger, and wondered where he'd gone to so fast.
You don't get to choose, he said. you're lucky if you even go anywhere.
The visitor was sitting on the edge of the bed, scanning the room and hardly paying attention. Myron wanted to know more, but he'd already gotten the picture. If you wanted the guy to say anything, you'd better say nothing yourself, and wait. Last time he and his friends had annoyed the man, who'd simply got up and walked out of the coffee shop.
They'd been talking about him for weeks, ever since he first appeared in the neighborhood that night. Appeared, that was the word. Myron and Campbell and Tracy had been at their usual spot, sitting around the concrete chess slab in the small corner park, drinking Coronas from Coke cans (Cam's clever invention), talking about how nothing ever happens in Wetford, Arizona. Nothing ever had happened, as far as they were concerned. Ever since they were small children they'd been running around together, getting into trouble, hanging out, complaining about everything. Campbell and Tracy were brother and sister. Myron was their cousin.
It was around nine in the evening, midsummer so it wasn't quite dark yet, and hot, very hot. They didn't see him approach and then he was there, standing beside them, swaying slightly. Not even sweating in that heavy black wool coat, black pants, black boots. He didn't respond at first to Cambell's shouts of yo mister and yo what's up? When he finally did look down at the kids, they got the impression that he was trying to smile but didn't know how. And then he changed.
Good old summertime, he said, and he did smile, broadly. and he laughed and the kids got nervous. Myron stood up and got right in the guy's face. Something funny? he said. The man was not afraid. He looked up at Myron and shook his head once, then leaned back, showing his teeth. Everything, he said, quietly. Then he turned and walked away. The kids followed after him, but he turned into an alley and then he was gone.
After that night they'd waited for him to show, and sometimes he did, but never where they expected him. It was more like he was tracking them. He seemed to know who they were, and where they lived. Tracy was the most suspicious and kept threatening to go the cops, but the boys told her to shut up. Nobody goes to the cops, for nothing, never. We can handle the old guy ourselves. He's spooky, she said, and they didn't argue.
One day he was waiting by the playground when they got there. Another time he was out at the mall. Every time, he waved and smiled and laughed when Myron or Campbell would come up all manly and tough-like and challenge him to flinch. He never did. One time Myron even pushed him up against a wall, and the guy just let him. Myron felt like he was being studied and he didn't like it at all. What do you want from me? he would ask, every time he saw him. The guy wouldn't answer, and Myron would say something like I ain't afraid of you or nothing and the man would nod approvingly.
When he wasn't around they talked about him all the time, either making jokes at his expense or wondering seriously what it was about. They didn't have anything he'd want to steal. They didn't have anything at all. And he didn't seem like any kind of pervert they'd ever heard about. Maybe he was a stone killer. But why kill a bunch of nobody kids from nowhere? Target practice? Then maybe he was just a lunatic, a homeless schizo bum. But they knew he wasn't that.
And then one day they found him sitting in the park, at the concrete chess slab where they'd seen him first. By this time he'd become acclimated, wearing the appropriate clothes, fitting in better, even had a haircut that suited a white man in that time and place. He wanted to know if they'd ever been anywhere. Not hardly. Phoenix a couple of times for Tracy. Campbell'd been to Austin once to see his dad. Myron had plans to go to Hollywood and be a big star but he didn't say anything. They'd all just laugh at him. Why're you asking? he wanted to know. Just curious, he said. When they asked him the same question, he smiled and said, I've been absolutely everywhere by now. Believe me.
From then on they talked a lot. The kids wanted to know everything about everywhere he'd been and he was happy to tell them. Some of his stories didn't make any sense. He would talk about New York City and having to watch out for all the horse shit all over the streets. Or else it might be LA and taking the trolleys all over town. Tracy didn't believe much of anything she heard. The guy's been watching too much TV, she said. He's probably never even been to those places. But the details were convincing.
Sometimes he forget they were even there. Other times it was like he didn't know who they were. It got pretty confusing. When he started talking about time travel, Tracy'd had enough. He's crazy, she told them, just like I always said. You can go on wasting your time with that but you can count me out, and she didn't hang around as much anymore. Myron and Campbell, though, they were caught. They didn't understand much of anything he said, but they listened closely and talked it over with each other later.
I always heard you needed a machine, Campbell would say. You can't do time travel without a time machine! And Myron would say, but man, there's no such thing as a time machine. That's what I'm saying, Campbell'd say, there's no such thing and you can't do it without it so it can't be done. But that's not what he's saying, man, he says you don't need a machine. You don't need anything. You gotta need something, Campbell said. He says you don't. Well, he's crazy. Yeah, he must be. Even if he isn't crazy, you still need something to get anywhere. What are you gonna do? Walk back in time? Take a bike ride?
He said it can be as simple as turning the corner, Myron said. Or blinking you eyes. Oh come on, Campbell said. If it was that easy, wouldn't we be doing it all the time? Maybe we are, said Myron. He says you can't remember when you get back. Oh great, so if you can't remember, then how do you know it even happened? Because things change. Yeah, but he also said that you don't remember how things were before they changed, so even if they change, you don't know. And anyway, things change all the time. Not around here, they don't. Nothing ever changes around here.
Will you shut up! Tracy would say. You're giving me a headache. I swear it's no fun being around you guys anymore. It's all you ever talk about and you know it's just crazy shit. And she'd leave the room saying, call me when you get your brains back!
That didn't stop them. It wasn't long before they were asking him to take them with him, or to send them somewhere without him. And between themselves they were talking about where they wanted to go, and when. There were difficulties they hadn't thought about. Going back into the past in America isn't such a simple proposition for a black man. You have to be prepared, he told them. You have to understand what could happen. You go back more than half a generation and you're talking segregation. You got to watch out what side of the street you're walking on. You got to watch out for everything. No, he shook his head, this is not a great idea. Do you understand what I'm talking about?
He told them they'd better talk to some of the older folks. They'll tell you, he said. They had never really asked those kinds of questions before. What things were like. The way it was. The more they asked, the more they found out, the more they began to see what the stranger was talking about. They already knew about driving while black. Did they know about getting a job while black? eating in a restaurant while black? shopping while black? taking the bus? using the john? trying to find an apartment?
You'd only be visiting, he told them, but there is no way of knowing for sure where or when you'd end up. I can only do my best. You'd be lucky if you even got to go anywhere at all, and even then, it might only be for a couple of minutes - at best you wouldn't be seen by anyone. It's not like the movies, where you go back and you're you but somewhere else. It isn't like that at all. You go back and it makes you fit in. You might not even be black. It might make you whoever it needs to make you. Someone who's there and there's some kind of a match. I don't really know yet how it makes those decisions. And then it changes you on the way back here. However it needs to, to makes things work out all right. I don't know how it figures all that out either. I've only seen what I've seen and it's all I know.
I'm going, Myron declared. I don't care what happens to me. Campbell wasn't so sure anymore. Man, if we end up in the wrong place, they're gonna shoot us on sight and ask questions later. Show up where we ain't allowed, and that's most places, from what I hear. Then you can stay, Myron said, but I'm going. Tracy wasn't happy about it, at all. Why you? she wanted to know. What's this white man doing picking out a poor young black man and sending him off somewhere he might get shot on sight? Is this some kind of experiment? She confronted the stranger about it.
I'm not choosing anyone, he said. I can only tell you the risks and what I know.
But what do you get out of it? she persisted.
I get to learn a little more, he admitted. Every time someone agrees to go, it tells me something.
So Myron's just another guinea pig to you. It ain't right.
You could see it that way, the stranger said, but in the end, it's up to them. Not me.
Don't do it, she told Myron, but he wasn't going to be talked out of it now. I'm going, he said. I've got nothing to lose, and he turned back to the stranger and said, when do we go? The answer was, whenever you're ready. Then I'm ready now, Myron said. Let's go.
When I'm ready, the stranger replied. I'll let you know.
"If I could, I would will myself into any number of interesting times and places to visit. After all, this is the customary charm of time travel stories. The hero picks and chooses the situation, he sets the dial on his contraption and gets inside, and with a maximum of whirring and blurring he goes there and observes what he set out to observe in the first place. He stays some predetermined amount of time and then there is the worry that he won't get back to the proper spot "in time", so to speak, and will thereafter be stranded in the past or future or wherever he may be. Almost like a Sunday outing to the beach, where there's a chance you'll miss the last bus back to town.
Sometimes things go wrong with the device and then you're stuck with dinosaurs instead of screwing Cleopatra. Or someone evil gets ahold of the thing and sets about to make all sorts of things go wrong. Or by accident you change history and then you're never born. Lots of things can go wrong in this kind of time travel. Problem is, there's no such thing. There is no device and never will be. It isn't "travel" in the ordinary sense. The play on words leads to all sorts of confusion - travel implies a vehicle, it implies a destination, it implies a return-trip ticket, a schedule, a calendar. If you take the five oh five to seventeen forty one, you can take the eight thirty seven back to now. Sorry.
And what if you go to the future and clumsily meet yourself and tell yourself to do or not do something which you must do in order to become that person you are then. It's all too unlikely. Do you realize how unlikely it is? Here are some instructions. Pick a place in the ocean somewhere in the world, go to the bottom at that spot, and find a rose-colored stone dropped there by someone from somewhere sometime in the past. That is your clue. Good luck. That's how likely it is you will meet yourself in the past or in the future. Even if you knew it was you, which you couldn't. That's how likely it is you can have even the smallest effect on even the slightest moment in time. Those of your odds of going where you want to go. My friend, I'm here to tell you that it doesn't work like that at all.
There are some who believe in past lives. Most of them were either Helen of Troy, or sleeping with her. Why weren't they nobody from nowhere who died in infancy? There are no lessons to be learned from the past. This is the first thing I learned from it. There is nothing back then that there isn't here now. There is nothing here now - nothing that matters - that there wasn't back then. What matters. Are you a good person? Do you have any love in your heart? What would you do in a given circumstance? It all comes down to something like that.
A stone cast into the water causes a ripple. The ripple expands until the initial force that caused it is expended in the expansion. No more ripple. No more event. The casting of the stone is a catalyst for an episode which has a beginning and an ending. Moments in time are like that. A single moment contains events which have effects, and those effects persist and cause effects to occur around them, until the energy of that first moment s expended. Ah, but you say, what about the next moment? Yes, wave upon wave. Each moment is a casting of a stone into the water. Each moment is a catalyst of the next and the next and the next. They overlap into a seeming continuum. You could never retrieve a single thread from this tapestry, because of all the mutual effects and mutual dependencies. And even if you could extract one action of one moment and its proximate effects, and only its effects, what would you have? I will give you the answer. A memory.
This is the only way to travel in time."
"Do you think you understand now? Good. Because you don't. That's all very nice and tidy, to say that the only form of time travel is remembering. But that isn't what I said. A memory is not in itself a form of time travel. But a memory can be the gate into time, the entryway into the true voyage. Why should it be possible to have only your own memories? Why should you not be able to have someone else's memories as well? And if you can have someone else's memories, who are they? Who can they be? Anyone? From any time, any place? And if this is possible, how will you speak the language, how will you know the culture, how will you place the time or time the place? How will you recognize even who you are, because it is you who are having the memory that belongs to someone else. You are they. And when you return, who are you now? What have you experienced? What memory do you have of the memory?
Maybe you are shaking your head and saying, this is stupid. No one can have someone else's memory. Of course, you experience no difficulty with having someone else's ideas - after all, you voted in the last election, did you not? You read a book. You watch a movie. You talk to your friends. But that is different. Only in that you know how to do some of these things and do not know how to do the other. Can you see a single moment? You need to be able to do this first. Anyone who meditates can stop the world. And then? How arbitrary that you were born when you were born, where you were born, that you live now, that these things have happened to you, that you have done these things, that you are this and not that, you like sour cream, you hate french dressing. I cannot make it any simpler for you. This is all I know.
You enter the memory that finds you, and you follow its effects in time, as far as you can. Soon enough the energy will be expended and you will be returned - where else can you go? You can't stay there. When the show is over, you have to go home. But that's only if you can hang on. It's not a smooth ride. YOU become the stone, YOU are cast into the water, YOU make the splash, YOU fall to the bottom, YOU are the waves rippling outward, YOU are crashing against the rocks. You are riding a bucking bronco in the rodeo of that moment. It is a powerful moment - it has to be. Strong emotions. Violence. Consequences. This is not a pleasure cruise. You are going into something completely unknown, likely dangerous, and everything, absolutely everything, is out of your control. Why are you doing this?
Nothing makes any sense. You have only the moment and the moments that follow it, that cling to it, that belong to it. You become something in it, you play the part it gives you. You see what that part of it saw, or will see. You have only glimpses, if you're lucky. There is no bigger picture. It's a memory, a fragment of time. And you worried about creating havoc with history!
There is only one thing I can guarantee you is always true, and that is, you are not welcome. You should not be there, and the moment knows it. How else can I put it? The moment is the bronco. It wants you off its back. If you can, hold on. The ride is worth it. You'll never feel anything like it."
Riley was searching for the perfect burrito. Jimmie tagged along, as usual, content to let his buddy do most of the thinking and almost all of the talking. It had been this way since who knows when - back in the day, man, back in the day. It wasn't Jimmie's idea to be doing this search in Chinatown. That was Riley's way of thinking. Where you least expect it, man. Always that way. Remember the time we found that bowling alley? Who was it said the skankiest dives are always right off the swankiest office sites? The answer, as always, a charitable 'dude'.
It was crowded as usual on the streets and on the sidewalks, and the taller Riley pushed through a smooth narrow opening for Jimmie to follow, and they nearly swam through the pedestrian sea. Hot hot day in the middle of the afternoon, and the smell of boiling greens and roasted ducklings, chicken fat and oil. Jimmie in his olive greens and MP cap. Riley in black leather, golden earrings, and iron toed boots. Over this way, man, I think I see something, and slicing a path to the left Riley towering over the crowd and Jimmie in the wake, gliding by. Nothing in the alleyway after all. Riley turned the corner, gone by the time Jimmie got there, not two seconds behind him.
Jimmie turned to look around him. No Riley nowhere. He turned back, getting ready to call out, when a hand took hold of his arm and tugged him towards a doorway. Thinking it was Riley, he let himself be moved. It wasn't Riley. He was in the door.
And out the other side. The first thing he noticed was the breeze, and the fact that the sun was setting. Then the old man sitting on the porch across the street, smoking a cigarette and spitting every now and then. "Fuckin' A", the old man shouted. "That's what I told 'em. Zactly what I said". Quiet again and really quiet now. Nobody else on the street. Jimmie thinking, where the hell am I? Forgetting about Riley. Wondering, am I supposed to be somewhere, doing something? Then some old lady yelling from somewhere - upstairs? "Where the hell is that boy? Boy? Where the hell are you?" And the old man starting up again across the street. "I said ... zactly what I said".
Then the woman was beside him, pulling at his arm - must have been her that pulled me in here, Jimmie thought, and she was saying "come on, for Christ's sake, ain't got all day" and Jimmie followed her up the steps and into the row house behind her. Inside, the walls were peeling stucco - some godforsaken shade of pink - and small ceramic statuettes lined the numerous shelves on the walls in every room. They wandered back into the kitchen and the smell of coffee, and a small yellow dog he almost stepped on till it yelped and jumped out of the way.
"Got your dinner" the lady said and she left him alone in the kitchen. On a small folding card table was a plate of macaroni and something and a chunk of rocklike bread beside it. Jimmie looked for a beer. Didn't see one. Avoiding the food, he moved to the back door and looked out through the screen. Something was telling him to go out the door. Strangest thing, like a voice in his head, but more like the pull of a magnet, like there was a rope tied around his waist and someone out there was tugging on the other end. He pulled back, trying to resist. Nothing to stay here for, he thought. But I call my own shots. The pulling sensation left him, and he turned and went the other way.
Up the worn out carpeted stairs he went, looking at the faded photos on the walls. Nobody he knew. Nothing that looked familiar at all. At the landing he turned right and walked into a room. Before he went in he thought it must be a young boy's bedroom - thought he saw some baseball-like pennants and posters, but when he entered. it was different. And growing. Even while he stood there he could see the shape of the room changing, and then a pool table appeared in the middle and then there were bar stools along the wall and then there were overhead hanging lamps, and all of this unfolded in slow motion while Jimmie stood and stared.
Someone was standing beside him, saying "look, there's your pal" and Riley entered the room from a door on the far side. He was carrying something and smiling and laughing. "Who was it said what he said? I want to know!" and tossing the bag on the table, some foil was showing and Riley was saying "that's right. When I aim and shoot, I always hit the target! Best damn burritos this side of eternity!" he said, and the stranger next to Jimmie was holding out a bottle of ice cold beer and saying "take it, man. You look like you could use it".
Jimmie grabbed the beer and the burrito and without another word he started in on them. I ain't saying shit, he told himself. Don't nobody never need to know.
Down through the tunnel of light and - still here! Garrett blinked hard and turned to look behind him. The girl was still with him, and she wasn't very happy. "I want to go home" she pouted, and he nodded and told her they were on their way. "We're going home now" he said, and that kept her quiet for a few more minutes. They kept moving down the damp tiled platform while the green-hooded lanterns swayed above them every time another old trolley rattled through the station. Businessmen lined up politely and filed into the wobbling cars. I have no idea where I am, Garrett thought, and I don't even care.
He stopped walking and stood still, trying to take it all in. On the darkened platform the smells of water, wet bricks, burning phosphorus, tobacco, the staleness of accumulation of time. The girl was tugging at his sleeve and whimpering again. She was only seven years old and didn't want to be there. And nobody had asked her along.
I was riding my bicycle, Garrett thought, and he remembered a small white house with some kind of flowering shrub along the side wall. A driveway and on the ground a bright red bike, rear wheel still spinning. I must have fallen, Garrett thought, and the little girl was laughing at him - that was it. Where she came from. Laughing and saying he was silly and he was bleeding from the elbow - not bleeding now, he double checked. No scrapes or bruises at all. He ignored her at first, looking for water to wash off his arm. He pushed past her, seeing a faucet partly hidden by the shrub. He had to get down on his knees and crawl in a bit to turn the water on. Reaching for the knob, he heard the girl complaining she was going to get in trouble if he "messed up the bushes", as she put it.
Water came gushing out, soaking him. He jumped up and cursed. The little girl drew her breath. He left the water running and started to say something and then they were somewhere else entirely. He started walking towards the crowds with the little girl tagging along behind him. It seemed to Garrett that the station was becoming more solid, more real, the longer they were there. Not only were the smells becoming sharper, but the sounds were getting louder, and shapes more distinct, as if all of his senses were slowly fading in. At first it had seemed like everything was in slow motion, but then, suddenly, something seemed to lock into place and he reached out as the girl screamed and pulled her back from the edge of the platform just before the trolley roared by.
She began crying now, and whimpering about going home. Some lady was scolding him, saying he ought to be more careful about his little sister. He found himself mumbling "yes, ma'am" and reaching for his cap. What cap? Now holding on tightly to Sara's hand, he headed for the ticket window. They had become separated from their mother when she went to buy the tickets and told him to wait by the bank of phone until she got back. They had waited and waited for what seemed like hours. All the time, he was thinking, she could have just taken us with her to buy the tickets. Why did she make us wait here? He wasn't quite old enough to be suspicious of adults. It would not have yet occurred to him that maybe she was meeting someone there, someone she didn't want her children to see or even know about. That maybe this person was not someone altogether trustworthy. That maybe she was afraid of him.
"Excuse me, can you tell me where's the ticket window?" Garrett asked several rushing commuters before one of them even paused to take notice of the little boy, and then merely waved in some direction, saying "over there, you can't miss it". Still holding on to Sara, he waded through the crowd. It was difficult to see anything amidst the onrushing adults. Still, he caught a glimpse of what looked like a window and found it, eventually. A huge crowd was waiting to buy tickets. Garrett tried to remember what his mother was wearing that day. He remembered a blue dress with white polka dots, and white pumps, and a blue handbag, and the fact that never before had he been able to stay so long in the past. Is it the girl, he wondered?
"Let go, you're hurting me" she said, but he did not let go. "We have to find mother" he said. "I'm tired. I wanna sit down. I'm thirsty too". she told him. "In a minute" he replied. This was not going to be easy, he realized. Their mother could be anywhere. He couldn't remember where the phones were. He didn't know where the lost and found was. I have to find a policeman, he thought, and he pulled the little girl along with him now as he was walking faster and faster towards the stairs. People kept knocking up against them and once the little girl got tripped up and fell, and Garrett fell with her, bruising his knee. She started crying again and refused to get up. "I wanna go home" she wailed as he tugged at her, but she wouldn't budge. "Come on", he urged, "we have to find mother".
They were causing a disturbance on the flow of pedestrian traffic. That got a station master's attention and he came through the crowd and knelt beside the two lost children. Garrett introduced himself and his sister and the man brought out a hanky and a lollipop and the combination was enough to quiet the child. Taking one in each hand, the station master led them to an office not far from the ticket window. "Now you wait right here" he told them, after settling them on a bench and bringing them small cups of water. "I'll be right back with your mother". He closed the door behind him and the noise died down dramatically. It was a stuffy little room, with nothing but the bench, an old metal desk with a few papers on it, and a folding chair behind it.
Garrett got up and went over to the desk to examine the papers. They seemed to be from a ledger book and recorded the comings and goings of people and furniture. A lot of dates and times. Nineteen twenty six. Suddenly the room seemed louder, and brighter, and Garrett looked up and the little girl was gone. And he was in school, sitting at his desk, a pen in his hand, a notebook open on his little folding desk, his eyes on the blackboard trying to make out the assignment. Question number one. Who was Lucretius, and what was his contribution to science? Question number two. Describe, in your own words, the differences between Athens and Sparta. Question number three. He noticed that the other children were busily writing, and the paper in front of him was blank. Damn, he thought, who the hell is Lucretius?
At five in the morning nothing's moving but the steam, rising from the manholes, and the pigeons making their way across the sidewalk and back. The H & H is closed, and only the second H has its orange neon glowing in the dawn. Through the plate glass windows which surround the diner on three sides you can see the matching orange booths and orange topped chrome barstools at the counter. The counter top itself, and all the tables too, are covered with a fading blue plastic made to look like tile. The yellowed floor is damp with puddles here and there remaining from Ronaldo's late night moppings. The slate gray grill is clean, and in the back the porcelain sinks are empty and the dishes are neatly stacked in the cupboards underneath.
No one but Ronaldo ever hears the quiet the way it is like this. He listens to the water dripping from the mop into the bucket, and gazes at the steam in the streets outside. Sometimes Ronaldo hears other things besides. A voice, or two, speaking in a way nobody speaks, and coming from far away, too far to see who's speaking. Ronaldo listens carefully, but the words make no sense. The voices seem closer, louder, but heavier too, as if they were dripping with the weight of the effort. No promises. No guarantees. And maybe, no way out.
"No promises", Garrett said.
"No problem", Myron replied. "I knew what I was getting in for when I signed up".
"No you didn't" Garrett muttered, but Myron didn't hear. The two were walking through the streets of Wetford, Arizona, at five in the morning on a bone dry august night. They'd been walking since two, seemingly in no direction, but also in no hurry. It was not their first night out like this. For several days in a row they'd been wandering, searching for something Garrett called "a way in". What it was, he couldn't exactly say.
"So we don't really know what we're looking for", Myron stated.
"That's right", Garrett said.
"But you'll know it when you see it".
Myron could only shrug and glance down at the older man beside him, with a look of fond disdain in his eyes. Whatever, he thought. He was beginning to doubt just a little, but he still wanted to believe even more.
"We're looking for something that smells like rain" Garrett had told him, "or the sound of water, gushing. I've had good luck with water". But how do you look for something that smells like rain? Myron had the idea to just go turn on every faucet they could find, but Garrett said no, they had to come across it, as if by accident. Nothing smells like rain around here, Myron thought. Even when it rains it never smells like rain. But the man seemed to know what he was talking about, and they walked in silence in the darkness, weaving through the neighborhoods, watching and listening, and smelling.
"Do you hear that?" Garrett suddenly stopped. Myron shook his head and listened harder. No, he didn't hear anything.
"Water, dripping", Garrett whispered. "Seems to be coming from over there" and he pointed to a boarded up building across the street. Myron turned to look, and heard a voice cry out.
"I'm coming already", Angie yelled, her arms already full of dishes headed for the second booth from the door.
"Theresa! What you got?" Luigi yelled
"Two birds in a bush!" She shouted without turning from the counter.
"These plates ain't got no legs!" Luigi bellowed.
"I'm walking already," Angie muttered, as she gathered the breakfasts intended for booth number six.
"Shooters and a float!" Theresa shouted.
"Got your shots right here!" Luigi yelled back.
"I'll take 'em," as Theresa reached behind her and grabbed the bowl that Luigi aimed her way.
"Dixie and tots!" Luigi yelled, and Lacey rushed to grabbed them before he had a chance to say it again. Her goal that day - no repeats at all from Luigi. She'd been on her toes since six. So good so far. It was never going to happen, though. Luigi'd make sure of that, even if he had to say it twice in a row right off. She was going to beat Angie, though. She could always beat Angie.
"The morning boys were gathered round the counter in their customary spots as Lacey passed by with a tray full of drinks for the family of Woolworth's shoppers at station eight.
"Now that's a sweet young thing," the older man said, and Theresa laughed and pushed his shoulder so's he nearly fell down off the stool.
"Don't you be getting no ideas", she told him. "Nobody's gonna touch my Lacey."
"What? You own her?" asked the greasy-haired newsman, Sol.
"Course not", Theresa retorted. "I'm just looking over her, that's all. Innocent little thing like that, doesn't know her way around this world. I brought her in here, give her a place to be, a place to be someone. Before that, you didn't know who she was! Coulda been anyone".
"Now she's a five-dollar-a-day waitress!" Grunted Sol. "Call that being someone?"
"Hey, we all do what we can," the codger spoke up.
"Well, you're right about that, old-timer", he agreed, as he pushed his coffee cup across the counter in a wordless request for more. Theresa just shook her head as she poured the dark brown stuff. She pushed it back at Sol so as some of it sloshed out into the saucer.
"It was coming on ten and she'd been on her feet since five with scarcely a break. Angie was mopping up the last crumbs off the counter as Luigi threw his apron down sang at the top of his lungs - 'che gelida manina'
"That's another one," Theresa sighed.
"Sono un poeta!" Luigi sang, as Angie gave him her fiercest frown.
"What's a matter?" Luigi asked, "you don't wanna go on break?"
"I can't wait," said Angie.
"You still have to put the kitchen away," Theresa reminded her
"How come you never make Lacey do that?" Angie asked
"She washes, you dry, you put away," said Theresa.
"Yeah, she washes".
"She does her work".
"And a decent job too", said Luigi. "And the customers like her alright".
"'Cause she practically sits on their faces", Angie muttered
"What was that?" Theresa asked
"Nothing", said Angie.
"What you got against her?" Theresa said. "You're always down on her"
"What you got against me? Never say nothing nice about me, and I been working my ass off here a long time now. Always Lacey this and Lacey that. What about me?"
"You?" Luigi came around the counter and put his hand on her shoulder. Angie pretended to shake him off but let it rest.
"You're family", said Luigi. "That's about you. My own dearly departed brother's only child. Haven't I raised you like my own since your father passed away?"
"Never say nothing nice", Angie repeated, pouting.
"That's 'cause we love you", Theresa said.
"That's love?" Angie said. "Is that what that is? Then what about her?"
"That's giving a child a break", said Theresa. "That child don't get no other kind of break".
"You're so worried about her, she might as well be your own flesh and blood", Angie spat. "Well, she ain't no family of mine, so you can give me a break!" And with that she flung her dishrag over her arm and marched off back to the kitchen to finish up putting it away.
"What's with her?" Luigi asked
"What do you think?" said Theresa. "What is it always with her?"
"Oh", Luigi replied. "You mean Gianni".
"Ever since she was thirteen Angie'd been working in the diner. At first it was out of love, and the world inside those walls was magic and alive. She was everybody's sweet little thing, and the noises and the smells were those of heaven. Even now she remembered those days as the best of her life. Before her father passed away. Before her mother was taken away. Before the only family she had left was Luigi and her demented, senile grandma Elena. She always like the breakfast crowd the best, when all the men were bright and gleaming in their morning threads, with a bounce in their step, and a tilt to their hats. Always a smile on their face as they gave her a wink on their way to their life's pursuits, pursuits which left them hurried and worn down even by lunch. Eggs and bacon on the grill, cigarette smoke and coffee in the air, freshly baked and toasted bread sopped with butter and jelly on the side. And her uncle Luigi - always singing and yelling at the top of his lungs as the trolley cars rattled by and shook the floors and the windows and the chairs. And she was the prettiest little girl, with her thick black hair and soft white skin and big brown eyes, and flashing her little girl grin after bringing the drinks to the table - her own special job.
"Will there be anything else, gentlemen?" She'd coyly say, and they'd reply
"Not right now, princess"
Or else they'd say
"We'll be sure and let you know, little darling".
"It wasn't exactly like that now, though it was only a mere dozen or so years later. She still had her thick black hair and big brown eyes, but she was bigger all around, and the men had a different kind of smile on their face when she'd say
"Will there be anything else, gentlemen?"
And they'd reply with
"What else you got on the menu today, little darling?"
Or else they'd say
"Depends on what you're offering, princess."
Gianni strode in and took his usual spot at the counter - first seat in from the door. He swiveled around to see who all was there. Nobody he knew. Just an old man and a kid at the counter, looking as if they were seeing a ghost.
"So how's your old man?" Luigi asked. "How come he ain't coming down here no more".
"It's the leg", Gianni said. "He ain't going nowhere nowadays".
"Must be the weather", Luigi replied. "It always freezes up on him when it's gonna rain".
"It ain't rained in weeks", Theresa put in as she brushed by Gianni on her way to the kitchen. "I'll tell Angie you're here", she added.
"Who asked you?" Luigi called after her. "Dumb broad", he said to Gianni. Gianni smiled.
"You couldn't live without her", he said.
"Her? You gotta be kidding me", Luigi replied.
"I seen the way you look at her", Gianni teased.
"You gonna order or what?" Luigi was not amused.
"Just a cuppa", Gianni said. "I got work to do".
"Yeah? What's the job?"
"Place on Pine and Thirtieth", Gianni told him. "The works. Inside and out. But you wouldn't believe the colors these people got picked out. Good thing I don't have to live there. All I gotta do is paint it".
"Just big enough to keep the family fat and warm awhile".
"Hey", said Luigi. "Nothing wrong with that".
Luigi turned his attention to the grill, and left Gianni to look around, and it was then he noticed her. She was leaning over a booth, setting down a glass of water, and neither of the men at the table were looking at her face but somewhere close below. Some of the men at the counter had glanced around to get the other side of the view, but what Gianni saw first thing was those sky blue eyes above the ruby red lips. Gianni gestured with a jerk of his head for Luigi to come on over for a sec, which Luigi did after flipping a burger on the grill.
"So what's it gonna be?" Luigi boomed.
"Quiet down", said Gianni. "And tell me who she is".
"Who's who is?" Luigi said as loud as ever.
"The new girl, who'd you think?" said Gianni.
"Oh, that's Lacey", Luigi replied, "Hey Lacey, come on over here", he shouted, and Lacey came right over, eager as always to prove to Luigi how reliable she could be.
"Lacey", Luigi said as he put his arm around her shoulders, "this here is Lieutenant Gianni Natale, son of the man who saved my life in the war, the great Giovanni Natale".
"Pleased to meet you", Lacey extended her hand, and Gianni took it and held it tightly for a moment, before reluctantly letting it go.
"The pleasure's all mine", he replied with as chivalrous a look as he had ever managed to muster. Then he found to his surprise that he had nothing else to say, and just stood there, grinning like a fool..
"Now that's something you don't see every day", laughed Luigi, "You got him speechless!" And he let Lacey go free to get back to the job. Luigi shook his head and grinned.
"I'll be damned", he said. "I'll be damned". Gianni had no reply, but stared after her as she wiggled away. It was then that Angie came out from the kitchen.
"You remember this", the old man at the counter was telling the kid". You remember, because you won't be going back to where you came from, and this is the reason why".
"I don't understand", the boy replied.
"We've seen too much", he said. "We stayed too long. We'd best be going now".
"But I ain't finished my shake yet."
"Go on then,", the old man said. "You drink it down now, fast". The boy gulped down the last of the milkshake and lept off the barstool. He slipped on a wet patch and fell, banging his head on the floor. The old man got down and knelt beside the boy. The kid didn't move. The old man looked up and was himself again, far away from Wetford, Arizona. He was surrounded by trees, no idea where he was, but outside, definitely, kind of cold and damp, and all around the smell of rain.
Around two in he afternoon, Cammie Ronson shut off her laptop, and called to her dog Zeke (an aging Irish Setter) to come and join her for a walk. There was a new trail in the neighborhood she'd been intending to explore, and it was the perfect day for doing it. The sun was warm and bright and she was just about finished with her article for the gardening magazine. In a sense, the trail was hers. She had been campaigning for it, along with her neighbors, for several years now. Finally the county had found the money and the path was cleared and marked. It meandered through some of the prettiest countryside, up along the ridge, and back down again to Barker's Ranch.
Zeke was out the door ahead of her, and crossing the street before she had given him permission - as usual. He seemed to know where they were going, though it was the first time they'd gone to the trail head. Cammie hurried to catch up with the over eager dog. By the time she reached him he was waiting at the sign post. She smiled and let him go on ahead again. As she followed, she admired the work that was done by the county crew. If they can do this, she thought, then why do they do such a lousy job repaving the roads? All they ever did to the streets was throw down some black dirt every year and drive over it once or twice to pack it down. But this path was smooth and wide enough for horses. Perfect, Cammie thought.
She looked ahead for Zeke but he was nowhere in sight. He might be old, but he still has a mind of his own, she told herself. He's probably at the stream already. It was a quiet day - no one else was out here in the woods. They would all be over the hill, in town at their jobs, or at home, trying to keep up with their infants and toddlers. Cammie had only her Zeke. She could hear the dog now, barking at something, probably a squirrel. He was barking persistently, strangely, not like his usual self. Cammie came around the bend and saw Zeke standing there, on the other side of the creek, staring at her, fur raised on his back, teeth bared. Barking. She approached the footbridge, calling his name.
Three women came rushing across the bridge and grabbed her by the shoulders and arms. They were all jabbering, all at once, in a language Cammie didn't understand. They looked odd too, wearing white robes wrapped tightly around them, sandals, black hair tied up in breads. She struggled to push them away, but they held fast. She tried to look over their heads for the dog - there was no dog. Only the women, now pulling her towards the stream.
"Come on, hurry up" they were saying, "where have you been? everyone has been looking for you!"
"Have you gone crazy?", one of them asked, "Is that your explanation?"
"See, I told you", another one said, "she has lost her mind, wandering off in the forest"
Slowly, Cammie began to understand what they were saying. How is it? she wondered briefly. What is it? And then she began to remember, and a sense of panic creeped up inside her. No longer struggling, she fought to rush ahead of the women, to return to the place she belonged.
"Now she runs this way" one of the women said, "first one way then the other"
"She's a silly, stupid girl", another one commented, and the third added,
"Look what she is doing to us. Do you know what you are doing to us?" she asked Cammie, but Cammie wasn't listening, but was hurrying to the camp where she had duties to perform. Am I too late, she wondered, and then she knew she probably was. They wouldn't have sent the other maids looking for her if her absence hadn't been noticed. Of course. What was I thinking? she wondered, and had no idea. How did I get lost in the woods? What was I doing there? Have I really gone crazy like they say? I don't remember anything. And she knew those answers would never be good enough. She would have to think of something, quick. The Lord had no tolerance for anything out of the order.
But it wasn't the Lord she had to worry about most. There would be the Servant Master first, and his Master behind him, each one depending on those below them in rank to keep their positions and to keep them out of trouble. Especially on a journey like this, anything out of the order would be costly. Cammie did not know where they were going, but the entourage had been traveling for days, and there was no laughter in the camp, and no extra provisions, so she'd known it must be serious.
Quickly, as soon as she returned to camp, she took up her position in the ring, kneeling, head down, expressionless,quiet. Her companions joined her in a rush, and the circle they formed remained motionless for several minutes. Only women were present. Cammie wondered if the Servant Master knew about her absence, or if the women had taken it upon themselves to go and look for her. She knew that was unlikely. It would be dangerous for them to take such an initiative. He must have known and sent them, but did his master know? And did the Lord Protector know? She shuddered at the thought, and it was too late to ask now. She should have asked while they were all hurrying back to the camp.
I will be punished, Cammie realized, and let the idea sink in. She was almost too afraid to feel the fear. Punishments were always severe. Otherwise, why bother? This was the Lord Protector's way. Already the fear was burning her up inside, melting the powder on her face and hands. The Servant Master came into the clearing and counted the women. All seven were present, including the runaway. Slowly he circled around them. Cammie could feel his every footstep as if it were pressing on her neck. When he stood behind her, she flinched, and then cringed, regretting the slight motion. He barked out her name:
She did not reply or move. She was forbidden to speak to the Servant Master. All she could do was obey his commands. She waited, trembling.
"You have disgraced us!" he said. "It will be fortunate indeed if the Lord does not seek to punish us all for your disobedience".
Another voice spoke up, a heavy, deep voice belonging to a man just now entering the clearing.
"The Lord punishes only those deserving" The Lord Protector declared. "Which is the one who was missing?"
"This one!" the Servant Master declared, pointing down at Cammie. "She has just returned only now".
"Where did you go?" The Protector asked her. She did not reply. She knew that if she said a word, her punishment would only double. This one had no use for the chattering of women, as he often reminded them.
"What shall we do with her?", he wondered aloud. There was no point in answering the question. He seemed to relish the situation. It was difficult to understand a man like this, who seemed to enjoy only cruelty. He already knew the outcome. They all did.
"You ran away once!" he said, "now you must run away again, but this time, for your life!"
Cammie didn't move a muscle. The Lord Protector shouted,
"What, are you deaf as well as stupid and disobedient? I said RUN!", and he reached over and pulled her to her feet by her hair. Cammie did not look up at his face. He pushed her away and she stumbled and fell.
"Get up!" he screamed, "Get up and run or I'll cut you in half right there!" and he raised his sword over his head, and she was preparing to die, not to move, but just to accept the inevitable. Then something inside her changed. I can make it. A strange idea from somewhere. All I have to do, the idea continued, is to make it back to the stream, back to the dog. I can run. And she got up and ran. The Lord Protector watched her in amazement. He hadn't expected her to even rise to her feet, and there she was running, up the path, back the way she came, faster than he thought it possible for a woman to run. After a few moments, he chased after her.
But she was gaining ground. The Lord Protector was shocked to find her robe at his feet along the trail, and then her sandals, and still no sign of the girl. He slashed at the shrubs along the trail with his sword and yelled his battle cry. She will die in terror, he promised himself. But she had no intention of dying at all.
Cammie thought she recognized the ridge above and felt that the stream would soon be in sight. There's a footbridge there, she thought, and all I have to do is somehow make it to the other side, but when the stream came into view, there was no bridge. And there was no dog. She stopped at the bank - the river was wider than she expected, and there was ice, a layer of thin ice, on the rocks in the river. She was cold, and wondered why she'd come out in just a t-shirt and jeans, when it was clearly the dead of winter. I must have lost my mind, she told herself, but all she wanted to do was get back home, and build a fire. The kids would be coming home from school before too long.
By coincidence, that fall both professors had classes that ended at four-thirty on Wednesdays This made it convenient for them to meet every week at the Horn and Hardart's coffee shop just outside the university gates. Professor Gill was always the first to arrive and would wait patiently while his more distractable colleague dispensed with his lingering students and came straggling up the street, briefcase bulging with papers, looking weary as usual. Often they found the same booth open and sat before greeting each other with their customary salutations. Professor Gill almost always ordered the pie of the day with his coffee, while Professor Ronson wanted only tobacco with his caffeine. Almost before shedding his overcoat his pipe was in his mouth and his hands were reaching for a matchbook
"And how is the world of history this week?" Andy Gill asked, knowing full well by now that his companion would have a snappy answer to the usual question.
"It's a sneaky bastard" Garrett replied, and Andy laughed, thinking you never know what this guy is going to say next. Ever since their first encounter, Gill had been intrigued by this peculiar man. There was nothing about his background to suggest such eccentricity. Typical parents, typical childhood in a typical Midwestern small town. Came east for college like most young men of his generation, stuck around for years of graduate school, collected a few post-graduate degrees along with a wife, a pair of children, an apartment too small in a neighborhood too expensive for a mere associate professor. In his mid-thirties now, Ronson had been teaching 'western civilization' for several years. He would make full professor someday, and continue repeating his courses as constantly as the seasons until one or the other wore him out entirely.
Gill, on the other hand, was seemingly the more interesting character. A doctor by training who had served all over the world in many meaningful missions with charitable organizations , who was only now settling down in middle age to pass on his experiences to a younger and more cynical generation. He who had lived in tents in the desert, who had traveled through jungles and served the most desperate, most remote peoples on the planet, often felt like a stay at home bore when conversing with Garrett Ronson.
"What never moves, yet never stops moving", Ronson was saying.
"Time?" Gill ventured. Garrett looked up from his pipe, which was giving him the usual trouble lighting, and nodded.
"Very good", he said, "very good. Like I said, it's a sneaky bastard. It has its way with you. Like an irreversible infection."
"In that case, how could there be a cure?" Gill replied, "or what would a cure imply? The fountain of youth? Immortality?"
"Hardly", Ronson replied, "that would be more like a punishment. Even if it were possible for the body not to age, that would not prevent time from working its changes on you. Even worse, you could be changed continually forever and never show it. Maybe even never know it. You could live forever and not even be aware of it. Imagine that!"
"I don't follow" Gill said, and not for the first time, either.
"How do we know anything?" Garrett asked, and answered himself, "only by remembering. Everything we know is something we remember. Once you forget something, it's as if you never knew it. And how do we remember anything anyway? How do we forget something? Nobody really knows. Whenever I forget, I get the feeling that it's still there, inside my brain, somewhere, but I just can't get to it. Remembering is easy - it's there and you get it. You don't know how. You just do it. But forgetting, it's like something is preventing you, it's blocking you, it's hiding it from you. How does that happen?"
"I have no idea" Gill replied, and Ronson nodded in agreement.
"Nobody knows", he said. "What if you didn't remember the places you've been, the things you've done. What would that make you?"
"A teacher with nothing to teach" Gill laughed, and he knew it was true. On the surface he was teaching medical ethics and medical history, but really he was imparting his own experiences dressed up in official curriculum.
"But would you still be yourself?"
"Not the person I know as myself, no".
"Then who would you be?" Ronson asked, and the professor had no answer. Of course I'd still be myself, Gill thought, but only the appearance of myself? Myself without the self? Or with less of a self, or with a different self?
"It creeps up on you," Ronson continued ", passes you by, changing everything by changing nothing, doing nothing, but going about its business, one moment at a time. The way you thought things were, the way they really were, how can you ever really know? The way you see things, differently, now. The way you thought back then, the way you think now, the opposite. The way you feel and the way you felt, she loves me, she loves me not. Forever changing. History, the prevailing point of view, interpreting whatever happened to get recorded. Imperceptibly glossing over the depths with a seemingly seamless surface. The river flows on, sliding by the boulders, wearing them down, one moment at a time. Is this the same small stone some stupid child picked up and threw so many years ago? That old beer can, all rusted away, is that the relic of a party thrown by shadows, memories? Who remembers them? Where are those people now? Something like that beer can holds the key."
"Spoken like a true history professor", Gill said , "to take an old can and make the past come to life. Most of us see the can and think, somebody should have thrown that thing away".
"It’s the living fact of a memory" Ronson replied, "proof that something happened, that there was a time and a place and it really happened."
"Every picture tells a story"
"But not every story leaves a trail" Ronson said, "a trail you can follow. Who knows where it would take you? You think you can guess. That beer can, you guess its age, thirty years let’s say. A kind of beer they don’t make any more, Black Label. If you could go back to the day it was opened. You think t was opened right there, by the stream, but you don't know. It could have been opened anywhere. Could have got to the stream much later, through a series of accidents. Truth is, there’s a story in it, and you can’t even guess what it is. Who was the person who opened it? Who were they with? What time of year, what year, what day of the week, what time of day, what was the weather like, what were they doing, how old were they, what were their names, what happened to them, where are they now, and the can, how did it get to where it is now, and when? It could be that the person who opened it is that old man now sitting at the counter over there. It could be it was the last thing that person ever did. That can could have been opened in the back of some bus and come clear across country."
"Could have been anywhere" Gill agreed. "No way to ever know".
"Because the memory is lost" Ronson said. "And if your memory was lost? There would be no way to ever know who you are, who you were."
"Except that there are people who remember me" Gill replied.
"But if you didn’t remember them", Ronson said, "who is it they remember?"
"There’d be physical evidence", Gill said, "like a wallet, some photos"
"They would be your beer can", Ronson nodded. "Your trail. You would follow it to find yourself, who you were." Garrett paused for a moment, considering, and then he said
"You’re right, there would have to be a trail".
It was a question that had been bothering him for weeks, even months. Maybe I should have studied theology, Garrett told himself, this worrying about who I would be if I wasn't myself. It's nonsense. Yet he couldn't shake the feeling that he actually was not himself, the self he knew or thought of as himself. There were small things that bothered him. Fears. Sensations. Ideas that made no sense. Some of them could be explained away by the fashionable theories of psychology. Childhood experiences, traumas long buried and forgotten, the problem of forgetting. Do we forget on purpose? Is it truly a defense mechanism with a deep and meaningful purpose? Is it something that we do to ourselves, or is it something that is done to us? Is there a force out there, a being? He had never believed in God. If there were a God, he reasoned, it would have the same relation to us, as we have to blades of grass. Do we make them grow? Yes, in the sense that we water the lawn. Do we care for them and worry over them? Again, as a lawn, but not as individual blades. We don't give them names. We just want them to look nice and green. A God who created the earth would want it to look nice and blue from space. He would sit back after a long day of creating things and think to himself, now that's what a planet should look like.
Garrett couldn't shake the feeling that there were many things he had forgotten, or that he was being prevented from remembering, yet when he looked back on his life, everything seemed to be in order. There was nothing unaccounted for. The years growing up, the years in school, the years of marriage and teaching, all were there, no blanks, no discontinuities. There were also no traumas he could recall. He had never been seriously ill or injured. No one he knew had met with violence. His life as he knew it had been utterly boring from the start. He lived in a big city, and that in itself implied dangers, but mostly it meant exposure to noise and grime and tension. There was nothing to explain the almost pleasurable terror he felt whenever he turned on a faucet. There was no reason he could think of for the excitement that welled up inside him when he opened a door. Nothing he'd ever heard of could explain the extraordinary shock of recognition that the sight of certain total strangers caused in him. The way these little things would made him feel more alive, more afraid, more alert. If there was no psychological explanation, there had to be some other kind.
Then there were the things he knew, which he had no business knowing, like how it felt to be a soldier, freezing to death in the long, long winters of the revolutionary war. Like how the city smelled in the mornings before there were cars or buses. Like being so old the world itself seems young. Like a thousand other things he could not explain knowing, yet which he knew as vividly and as fully as anything else in his life. He could talk about them as if they had happened to him, and sometimes he would become so absorbed in the telling that even he was as mesmerized as his students, and these were qualities that made him a compelling teacher, and he was credited for being imaginative, for bringing history to life, for engaging his students in a different way from other professors. He didn't think he was imagining anything. He thought he was forgetting. I was there, he told himself. I saw those things. I felt those things. I'm not going crazy. And if it's true, then there must be a reason I can't remember. If it's true, there must be something that's preventing me from remembering. If it's true.
He was sure that it was, and that there was a logical and reasonable, even a scientific, explanation for everything, and he was going to find it. He would start from the premise that whatever it was, it was a natural process, which obeyed natural laws, rules, if you will. That it was a common phenomena, and not something peculiar to himself alone. That it was simple rather than complex and obvious, plain rather than hidden. That it was constant and not occasional. That it was predictable and not anomalous. That it was right in front of his face the whole time, and he just couldn't see it. That there had to be a trail. He just didn’t know where to look for it.
It was a hopeless quest. Another Garrett Ronson would have laughed at this one. In that particular life, he would never solve the riddle, because what he didn't know then was that he already knew the answers, and had forgotten, had been made to forget, everything.]
"oh man, my head". The man was laid out flat on his back, and just coming out of it. All he knew was that his head was pounding and he thought he felt blood seeping down from the top of his skull, but his fingers didn't feel any as they groped through his hair. He was too weak to even think of getting up. The light from the sun was bright and added to the pain in his head. Slowly he uttered his favorite sentence,
"fuck .... this .... shit!"
Beside him Jimmie laughed.
"Same old Riley", he said, "Ain't no way to fuck you up bad enough, is there?"
The man on the ground slowly opened his eyes to see who was talking to him. Nobody he knew, at least that he knew of. A little guy with short black hair and a kind of flat face, wearing some kind of matching outfit. He could have sworn he didn't know the guy, but on reflection, he realized he didn't even know his own name, and this other guy seemed to.
"You know me?" he said.
"Uh-oh" Jimmie said. "Here we go again."
"What the fuck you talking about?"
Riley struggled to raise his head up off the ground, but it was a losing effort. Now he felt that maybe his arm was broken, or his leg, or something. His body just didn't feel right. Felt like ribs were crushed, or maybe a twisted ankle. Something. Definitely.
"You just take it easy", Jimmie told him. "We ain't going nowhere fast. Got plenty of time to rest up. And don't worry. I'll look after you. Always do."
"Always?" Riley muttered, "what kind of shit it is."
"Say", he continued, "since you seem to know so fucking much, can you let me in on something?"
"Sure" Jimmie played with him, "what do you wanna know".
"Oh, I dunno" Riley said, "how about, yeah, like who the fuck are you?"
"An easy one", he replied. "Name's Jimmie Hayes. You're Riley"
"Riley, huh", he repeated, "that my first name or my last name, answer man?"
"Only name" Jimmie told him, "ever since we first hooked up in the service, only name you ever had as far as I know."
Somehow the pain was draining away. It almost felt like his bones were actually healing while he lay there on the ground. Like the blood was drying up, evaporating, flaking off. The roaring in his head was fading out, and he could open his eyes a little more, see that they were on a hillside, side of a mountain more like it. Over across the valley, trees as far as you could see, and a speck up in the sky, some kind of bird? Turkey vulture. Riley even managed to prop himself up on his elbow, looked down at himself. Clean clothes. All the expected limbs in their places. Shoes a little worn but not bad. Looked like summer out there in the world. All of that was about the sum total of his knowledge about everything.
"Don't know what you're talking about, man" he said, "Don't know about no service, no Riley, no Mister Jimmie Hayes neither. Where the fuck are we?"
"Still talk the same" Jimmie noted. "Maybe it'll start coming back to you more"
"You really don't remember anything?"
Riley shook his head.
"Nothing till a couple of minutes ago. Before that, nothing"
"I don't know how you don't remember", Jimmie said, " I mean, every time. You'd think you would remember something, like I do. Okay, so I don't remember it all at once, but it comes back to me, give it a few days and it all comes back. Not you. With you we have to start all over every time. What's my name? Who the fuck are you? What do you mean they broke every fucking bone in my body?"
"Hold on there" Riley said, "That seems familiar. Nothing I remember, but a minute ago I could have sworn my legs were broken. But look at 'em, they're fine"
"They were broken all right" Jimmie told him. "Smashed to bits. They did it with branches, too, big fucking branches. Hard as iron. Don't know how they got 'em that way."
"Who is they and would you please tell me what the fuck you are talking about?
"Don't know who they were" Jimmie told him. "Some kind of Indians, seemed like. In a jungle. Noisy, smelly jungle. Damn, all those birds and the fucking bugs! I still don't remember much about before that, but it'll come to me, I know. Something about, shit, what was it. Making coffee? Yeah, somebody was making coffee. Remember the kettle was whistling? Of course you don't. You said hey the fucking water's ready, and then it was the jungle and some kind of boat. But then the Indians popped up right out of the fucking trees and they weren't so happy to see us, man."
"Are you fucking with me? Riley interrupted.
"No man, I'm telling you what happened"
"Cause it seems to me like you're fucking with me. Maybe you just hit me on the fucking head with a rock and waited for me to wake up so you could mess with my brain"
"No way I could mess that up any more than it's already messed up" Jimmie laughed, and Riley scowled at him, but he was already realizing that the guy was probably all right, he had a feeling about it.
"Yeah, okay, so the Indians ..."
"Indians jumped us, man, must have been about twenty of 'em, all painted up and some of them looked like they had teeth coming out of their neck or something, weird. Started bashing us with those branches. We got back in the boat, yeah, back in the boat and pushed off, had to fight our way back out into the river but you barely made it back in the thing, man, your legs were busted pretty bad and I was pushing - oh man, the fucking leeches!"
The physical memory was like an electric shock and Jimmie jumped up and grabbed around his waist, certain the leeches were still on him, but there weren't any leeches there.
"Fuck!" he declared. "Damn leeches"
"Whatever" Riley said, amused at the sight. He almost felt like laughing but it would hurt his broken ribs too much, but then he realized they were all better now. He could even stand up, and he did. He felt pretty good, actually. He stretched out his arms and said,
"Don't see no Indians"
"Nope" Jimmie agreed, "we got the fuck out of there"
"Don't see no jungle" Riley said.
"Don't seem to me like we're anywhere within a couple thousand miles of any jungle" Riley said.
"Seems so to me too" Jimmie said.
"You are so full of shit, man", Riley declared, and Jimmie just laughed and said,
"You know so much, so you tell me who the fuck you are."
Riley thought about it for a minute, then replied,
"I have no idea who the fuck I am! But I can tell you one thing. I really don't feel like sitting around here on this mountain. Let's get the fuck out of here."
"Anywhere you want to go?"
"Anywhere there's a beer, man. Anywhere there's a beer."
"Same old Riley", Jimmie said, "come on, let's go"
She's been like this for years, restless, unable to sleep. She walks in the night. sometimes out in the woods. In the morning she thinks she has memories, or were they dreams? Or then again, what's the difference? I was in a place, she tells her therapist, only it wasn't a place so much as a time. It's hard to explain. Doctor Meredith asks her what she means. Explain it in your own words, she says. As if I were living another life, Cammie tells her, it's me but I'm somebody else. Doesn't everyone dream like that? We're not here to talk about everyone, the doctor replies. Cammie paces around the office. I can't keep still, she says. Then don't. The doctor encourages her to express herself, and Cammie laughs. Seems that's all I ever do, she says. Express myself.
Sometimes I think I see people I know, she says, only I don't know them. Is that so strange? Doctor Meredith shakes her head. Stop worrying about what's strange, she replies. As a therapist, the doctor sometimes feels that all she has to offer are platitudes. Your own experience is as valid as anyone else's. Everybody's different. Live your own life. She is often annoyed to hear the things she says. And yet they’re true. The trouble with cliches, she remembers someone saying. It's that they're true.
Cammie Harrison, case in point. Thirty nine, single. Art teacher at the local high school. Moved up here from the city several years ago. Likes the slower pace of life, feeling the seasons. Proud owner of several cats. Bought the old Montgomery place by the mill. Neighbors know her as friendly but distant. Students are a little intimidated. She has genuine talent. Her paintings are bright and confusing. She prefers the difficult students, the ones who are never eager to please, who seem to be holding back, who clearly have something inside. She makes no major efforts to draw them out. If they want to emerge, that's their business. She feels she'd only be interfering, and somehow she believes they respect the space she gives them. Surely all the other adults in their lives are constantly poking and prodding them.
I was born, she says, and she laughs out loud. Doctor Meredith waits patiently in her fine leather chair. Then I was born again, she says, more softly. I know what it's like to sleep in a cave in the winter with the snow piled up all around outside, but with just enough dry sticks in the fire to make it through the night. She is standing over by the window, overlooking the quaint little main street the town's so proud of. There's a boutique that sells nothing, and a coffee shop that isn't yet owned by a national chain. I once sat in a room with a man who was writing a book, she says. I just sat there while he wrote. Neither of us said a word. Don't even know if he saw me in the corner. But he knew I was there, she remembered. There was coffee on his desk and I had to have brought it in. There was nobody else.
Do you believe in past lives? she asks the therapist, who shakes her head. Do you believe in the soul? That the spirit is reborn in different bodies? No, the doctor replies, but how would I know that? What do you think? I think I remember things that never happened, Cammie says. I think I know people I never met. I think I dream when I'm awake.
One time, she says, I was walking on the beach, and I was with somebody. No, not a person, it was a dog. I loved that dog. We were walking on the beach and there was a flock of pelicans soaring overhead. So many pelicans, and they were gliding and I turned to watch them and I wanted to follow where they were going. I wanted to go with them. Surely they were going somewhere, but then I thought, where do they go? They just go to a place, and they turn around and come back. They're looking for food in the ocean. So we sat down on a log that had washed up on shore and we waited. We waited for awhile, an hour, maybe? Then the pelicans came back, going the other way. I thought if I could stay in the right place long enough, then everything I wanted to happen would happen. I've never had a dog, by the way. They need you too much.
I've been living here almost nine years now, she says, and it hasn't happened yet. Doctor Meredith asks the obvious question and Cammie answers just as obviously. What I wanted to happen.
I told myself I had to live near a river. That was important. Isn't that stupid? She turned away from the window and looked at the doctor, but the doctor wasn't going to bite this time. She'd had enough of saying, no it's not stupid, you have to go with what you feel, and so on and so forth et cetera et cetera. She was going to let Cammie fill in the usual blanks. What else was important? she asks, and Cammie doesn't hesitate in replying. There had to be a river, and there had to be woods, and it had to be a small town where at any given time you could go unseen, where you could turn a corner and no one would be there.
If you live your life a certain way, you can be ready for anything. Again the nervous laughter. But ready for what, I have no idea. Sometimes I see the way my cats look at each other, as if they all agree. I wake up in the middle of the night, every night, at two fourteen. How about that? Two fourteen exactly. I even threw away my digital clock but it doesn't make any difference. I still know it's two fourteen. I get up and I go to the door, as if someone is going to be there. I open the door, just in case. Nobody's ever there. Why should somebody be there? If it's raining I put on my boots and slicker and go out into the woods, to the footbridge at the end of the path. I've heard things there. I have the feeling there's someone under the bridge, in the water, somebody playing. I never go across that bridge in the night when it's raining. I have a bad feeling about it. But I'll go across it in the snow. Do you think I'm crazy?
Like you'd ever tell me what you think, she mutters to herself. Doctor Meredith hears every word. Tell me again about your brother, she asks. Cammie is surprised. Zeke? she replies. What about him? Is that who's playing in the water, under the bridge? No, Cammie says, I don't think so. He died when I was young. I don't remember much about him. He was always trying to show me something in a book. Or make me read to him. Something like that. How did he die? Doctor Meredith asks. You never told me. Cammie begins pacing again, back and forth in front of the window, looking out at the sky. I really don't know, she replies. I don't remember. One day he wasn't there anymore. My parents never talked about it. I don’t think they ever wanted to. How come you always ask me about him? Is it important?
Doctor Meredith thought it might be. She had talked to Cammie parents. They had never had a son.
Riley James Watkins, long forgotten oldest child of Leopold and Cleopatra Watkins, didn't know that was his real name. He was Riley, plain and simple, and all he knew about himself was what his friend, Jimmie Hayes, was able to tell him. There were some things Jimmie didn't know. He didn't know that Riley was born and raised on the wrong side of the tracks of a city known as Wetford, Arizona, but he could have guessed that he was born and raised on the wrong side of the tracks of somewhere. He didn't know that Riley'd had to drop out of school at the age of fifteen to work in the family dry cleaning business, but he wouldn't have been surprised to know he'd dropped out of school at some point along the line. He didn't know that Riley had taken so much shit from his old man that one day he just hauled off and beat the crap out of the guy, but he wouldn't have been surprised about that, either. Riley never talked about his past. It was as if the man Jimmie knew had been created right out of the blue at the age of nineteen, right there in the godforsaken navy boot camp in pisswater Louisiana, where they met. But Jimmie didn't need to know all the details. It was obvious to him just exactly who Riley was.
Riley was a natural born leader, whose special talent consisted in inspiring others to follow him by the sheer power of his courage and confidence. He instilled such an implicit sense of trust that it didn't seem to matter if his missions succeeded or failed. Nothing ever daunted or intimidated him. He was always the first to volunteer for any assignment, and always the first to go through the door into any situation. In their years together, Jimmie had followed Riley into more danger, and as a result had gotten into more trouble, than he could ever have even imagined. Yet none of these adventures had resulted in any direct benefit for Riley. In the services, he was never promoted through the ranks. He was always written up as an excellent sailor, and was never considered officer material. They served in various capacities around the world, including the occupations of various territories, the invasions of small, practically defenseless nations, peacekeeping duties with united nations forces, and humanitarian operations in regions devastated by acts of god, and in the end they were politely asked to leave the service. Careers in the military were intended for those who could advance in it, not for those who were content to remain at the bottom of the heap forever.
They had a hard time finding a new career. They had no interest in law enforcement, and little aptitude for anything else. What they liked was action and adventure, or at least the possibility. They considered mercenary work, but at heart they were both compassionate people, who, despite having been in the military for so long, had no desire to hurt anyone. They worked for a time for the International Red Cross, performing the most menial and necessary work, and in some ways it suited them, despite the long hours, lousy pay, and terrible living and working conditions. Yet there was something missing. Riley was depressed, and Jimmie realized it was because there was little if any opportunity for him to express his better qualities. Both of them merely followed orders all day long, week after week, as the moved from the site of one disaster to the next. Only occasionally was there a chance for him to dash into a crumbling building and save a child, for example. Usually by the time they arrived on the scene the bodies were only being recovered, not rescued. They retired from that work with no alternative in mind.
Riley had no memory of this. He wasn't really sure what he remembered for sure, or what he merely believed of what he'd been told by Jimmie Hayes. In his mind he could see certain people and places, and he could almost replay some events, but there were missing pieces to every portrait he put together. His body seemed to know more than his brain. It knew how to ride a horse, though he didn't know when it had ever done so. It knew how to scale a cliff side It knew how to swim in the ocean. It knew how to jump from a plane. It was from these things he built his faith in Jimmie. If Jimmie told him he'd done something, and his body seemed to know how to do it, he could believe he'd done it, though he couldn't remember it. Some of the things Jimmie told him he'd done seemed impossible. Some of the places they'd been to also. But he didn't just have to take Jimmie's word for it. There was also proof.
Proof in the form of photographs, kept in a cigar box beneath the bar at an old pub Jimmie knew. It was far away from anywhere, a place that seemed immune from progress and chance. Whenever it was necessary, whenever Riley required proof, the two of them would travel to that town, sometimes driving for days, and they'd go to that pub, and the old man behind the bar would bring out the box and set it on the counter.
"What's it been?" he'd ask. "About a year?"
"Just about", Jimmie'd reply. "And how've you been keeping?"
"Same old shithole", he replied, as always.
"Do you remember me?" Riley would say.
"Your name is Riley, and you're one stupid son of a bitch" the old man would answer back. "Every time you come here you ask me the same damn thing. Don't you know who I am?"
"Never seen you before" Riley would tell him, and the old man would shake his head, and say to Jimmie,
"I'm the one's supposed to be forgetting things. But your friend here, can't seem to remember from one day to the next. Something happen to him?"
"A lot" Jimmie'd say, and he'd grab the box and they'd sit down at the bar and have some beers and go over the photographs, taking their time. Each photo had a story to tell. Each one had been saved for a reason.
Riley couldn't deny it was him in the pictures, and he couldn't deny it was Jimmie either. And he'd become reassured that everything Jimmie'd told him was probably true. There they were in their uniforms. There they were on duty. There they were in the rubble of that earthquake. There he was in the water. There he was right here in this bar, holding that very cigar box. And if that was him, and that was Jimmie, then the other people were probably who Jimmie said they were. That would include the woman Jimmie said they'd pulled out of the path of a runaway train, shortly before it crashed into the side of a factory, something they later found out had occurred in eighteen eighty nine. Which was supposedly why she had only been with them long enough for the picture to be taken. The other man who was with them made them look away for a moment, so she could return to her destiny. At least that's what Jimmie said. He said a lot of things that didn't make sense.
There were others like her. People who only appeared in their lives for a moment, an hour, only to vanish. Jimmie had only managed to get photos of a few of them. He had other photos of places, rooms, buildings, landscapes, each representing a story more preposterous than the one before. Most of these experiments had failed. It was Ronson's idea, he'd explain. To either take the camera with him, or put it where he could grab it quickly in case they returned right away. Out of maybe a hundred attempts, only a dozen or so resulted in any pictures. The ones of people were the most valuable. Two were actually taken 'back there', as Jimmie liked to say. One of a young man and a woman. One of Ronson when he was someone else. Then there the people who'd come back with them. The woman from the train. The paperboy. The runaway slave.
More often the camera would vanish from his hand, or it would turn into something else, or he'd forget about it, or lose it. And more than half the time they wouldn't return to where they'd started out, but some place far away. You could never know where you'd end up, or what you would see, or what would happen. It's why we like it, Jimmie explained to Riley. It's what got us hooked. That, and the fact it's infectious.
"What do you mean? Like we're sick?" Riley asked.
"Sort of," Jimmie told him. "Ronson says it's more like a virus. Once you get it, you can't lose it. He says it's like a chronic disease. It's why you can't remember. It's why we never stay anywhere very long. It's why we always go back. It's why we don't have any future."
"So how come you remember things?" Riley challenged him.
"I got different symptoms," Jimmie replied. "I usually remember everything, but I'm more susceptible. I see things I'm not supposed to. It's almost as bad as forgetting. And there ain't no cure, and you never know when it's going to come get you, and the longer you've had it, the worse it gets, and it's contagious."
"Tell me again why we like it" Riley muttered, and he didn't understand, never did understand what Jimmie meant, but Jimmie didn't really know either. He only knew there were rules, and that Ronson knew what they were.
"Okay, so let me get this straight. Your telling me we're time travelers We do this with a guy named Garrett Ronson. We never know where we're going to go. We never know what's going to happen or even where we're going to end up afterwards. Chances are we might never even make it back. We could die at any moment. We could disappear without a trace. We could get lost and never find our way back. We could forget everything - hell, you're telling me I always forget everything?"
"You got it", Jimmie said.
"You hear that?" Riley yelled over at the bartender. "You know who we are?"
"Sure", the old guy replied, "you're the time travelers Who'd you think you were ... Miss America?"
He sat on a bench in the park feeling older by the second. Much older. As if he was crumbling inside. Even the landscape around him seemed to be disintegrating. The fountain in the lake was spewing out droplets. The clouds in the sky were falling. Sounds of children shouting echoed slowly in his head, and the pounding was making him dizzy. Even if I could stand up, he thought, I wouldn't know where to go. He was feeling warm, as if a fever was spreading over him, but he realized it was also warm outside, a summer day. Either I'm sick or I'm not, he decided. And the feeling that he was letting a beautiful day slip away without enjoying it.
Somewhere out there in the field his two young sons were playing football with their friends. Garfield and Patrick, ages nine and seven. His wife Patricia had some shopping to do and would join him there as soon as she could. He could see the boys falling down, getting up, running around, jumping and yelling. Some other kids' parents were watching from nearby, so he wasn't worried. Patty'll be here, he told himself, but in the meantime he was drifting away. He discovered that he was looking at his hands as if they were the hands of a stranger. The ring he wore on his finger was new to him. He looked up again at the children playing and did not recognize his own. Why am I here, he wondered.
Until this moment there had been no doubt. All of his life made sense. It was a story that progressed from one scene to the next, one foot in front of the other. Is this what happens when you lose your mind? All around him people went about their business, pushing their babies in strollers, reading their magazines and books, holding hands, telling jokes, trying to explain. Patrick, age seven, and Garfield, age nine, he told himself. My boys. Every blade of grass was pushing up against his shoes. Every branch of every tree that was swaying in the breeze was pointing in the same direction, trying to tell him something. He looked like a drunk, with his eyes half closed and his shoulders leaning heavily against the back of the bench.
"Don't I know you?" he heard a woman's voice nearby. She was standing right in front of him, with a little boy by her side.
"I'm sure I know you" she said. "I never forget a face"
He opened his eyes and tried to sit up straight. It was getting harder to speak, to think about speaking.
"I don't think so" he said, and he didn't recognize her.
"You ever been to Arizona?" she asked, and he shook his head no. "'Cause I'm from Arizona" she went on. "Just moved out here a couple of months ago. Haven't seen anyone I know. Course, why should I? I'm from Arizona."
"Never been there" he said. The woman said nothing but stared at him while the little boy was getting restless, tugging at her arm.
"You said we'd go to the carousel," he whined. The woman looked harder at the man on the bench, as if it would help her remember. Finally, she gave up.
"Come along then, Myron," she told the boy, "you want to go the carousel, okay, let's go" and they started to leave, but one more time she turned around and said,
"I'm sure I know who you are. It'll come to me", and they walked away.
A calmness settled over him, and he felt he could move now, but he didn't. Another woman approached him. This one sat down next to him and put her hand on his forehead.
"Are you okay, honey? You don't look so good". Patty Ronson settled her bags on the sidewalk and found a handkerchief in her purse to wipe the sweat off his brow.
"Really, honey, you're burning up."
"I don't feel so good" he told her.
"I'll get the boys and then we'll take you home" she said. "You just sit here a minute. Don't move".
As if I could, he thought, but as soon as she was a few steps away he stood and walked off in the opposite direction. Where the trees are telling me to go, he thought. The fog in his brain was beginning to lift. It couldn't be the same boy, he thought, and didn't know what he meant. Last time I was there he must have been seventeen. Couldn't be the same, unless I'm going around in circles. Am I going around in circles? He almost laughed out loud. He had left the park and was on a busy street, hurrying towards the subway. He noted it was almost noon. Don't want to be late, he thought, even though I have no idea where I'm going.
Something in him knew. He caught the forty one train and took it seven stops. He came up and crossed the street, turned right. Next block, he thought. On this side. There it is. The Lark and Goat. He pushed open the big red doors and walked into the club. No one here. What did I expect? He looked around at the empty tables, the empty bar, the huge painted mirror on the wall. Posters that looked like old newspaper headlines. Boxing events. License plates. Blood red carpeting, and a pool table off in the corner.
"I'll be damned" he heard a voice say, and turning he noticed two men at a table in the back. One of them was waving at him. The other one was talking.
"Just like you said".
"Come on back, professor," the smaller man said, "Guess who don't remember you again?"
"Do I know you?" he replied, as he approached the two. The larger man looked dangerous.
"Now you're going to play that game too?" Jimmie asked. "Don't I got enough on my hands already?"
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, come on, Ronson. Not you too."
"You know my name?"
Something about the look in his eyes convinced Jimmie Hayes the professor wasn't joking. With a gesture he invited Ronson to sit, and as he did he offered him a beer. Ronson declined.
"I'm not feeling too good," he said, as if he felt a need to explain. Why am I talking to these people, he wondered.
"I can see that", Jimmie said, and Riley added,
"But you're here and that's what matters, ain't it?"
"But why?" Ronson said. "Why am I here?"
"St. Steven's Day" Riley replied. "We always meet here St Steven's Day. Least that's what Jimmie says. Even if we all forget everything else, we always remember - Lark and Goat, St. Steven's Day, at noon."
"St. Steven's Day" Ronson repeated, "Lark and Goat. Noon. It sounds familiar"
"And here you are" Jimmie said.
"I didn't remember," Ronson said. "I just came. I don't know why."
"You said it was important." Jimmie told him. "Look, you even wrote it down", and he produced an old sheet of paper from his jacket pocket, and placed it on the table. Ronson picked it up, and recognized his own writing.
Dear Jimmie and Riley,
I hope you haven't forgotten me. Just in case, I took the liberty of sending this to our friend in Montana. The old broom knows the corners, and you're always bound to turn up there. I'm back east right now. Teaching again. This time I seem to have inherited a family, even children. I don't know what it wants with me. I tried to stop going but you know how it is. Once you're in, you're in for keeps. I stay away from long empty hallways. I don't work late at the office. I never drive alone. I had the idea that if I lived in a city as big as this one I would never be alone, and it would never find a way to pull me in. Of course I was wrong. I can feel it pulling me like I'm tied to a string.
As he read, Ronson felt that tugging again, an old familiar sensation. It really is true, he thought. He realized he was playing with the foreign ring on his finger, and now he pulled it off and set it on the table, and continued to read the letter he'd written and had never seen before.
I now understand that everything adds up. It's a zero sum game. It is the dealer and it always gets twenty one. The more we play the more we lose. I'm planning a final assault. This time I'm going in with my eyes closed and I won't let it bring me back. I have a theory that you can only win when you set out to lose intentionally. I'm probably wrong. Either way, I will be at the Lark and Goat on St. Steven's Day, as usual, at noon. If my theory is correct, I won't remember you, and I won't believe a word you say. Time will tell, Ronson.
"So you were right" Jimmie said. Ronson shook his head,
"I don't know", he replied. He put the letter back on the table, and sighed.
"What did you do?" asked Riley. "What was the final assault?"
"I don't remember", Ronson replied. "But I guess I was wrong."
"It brought you back," Jimmie said, "and the family?"
"Still have the family," Ronson said. "Something's missing. It's coming back to me, though. I can feel it coming back."
"They're not your family" Jimmie said. "We are."
"Yes, yes, I know that now," Ronson was waking up, "you and Riley, and Cammie, what about Cammie? Where'd she go? And where's Zeke? What happened to Zeke?"
"Who are you talking about?" Riley demanded, and he looked at Jimmie and said, "you didn't say anything about any Cammie or Zeke. You just said Ronson."
"I don't know any Cammie or Zeke," Jimmie said, and Ronson pounded on the table and declared,
"Come on, this is important. Something important, I don't know what. Where's Cammie?" and he got up and went over to the door and peered out through the glass. Riley sat back and muttered,
"Hell, man, this guy's as crazy as you or me", and Jimmie got up halfway, but sat back down again, and shrugged.
"He's always been a little weird", he said.
"A little", Riley laughed. "Man's a fucking loon".
Ronson turned away from the door and began to pace the length of the bar. Why St. Steven's Day, he asked himself. Why noon? Why here? There was a time, he told himself, when I knew a lot more than I can remember now. Laws of nature, of prediction. Cause and effect, the way things work. Trajectory. The ripple effect. An equal and opposite reaction. Conservation of energy. Where you should be now. Right now.
"That's it!" he shouted, and rushed back to the table and leaned over excitedly and said, "It has to obey its own laws. That's the weakness. That's where we have it!”
All along the coast the beach crunched beneath his feet like drying mud. The blue balloon danced ahead, blown back and forth between the cliffs and the waves by the cold and inconsistent wind. As it passed the occasional dog it darted up as if to avoid the curious paws. The boy was tired of chasing but didn't want to lose it.
- Dad, he cried, it's getting away.
His father lumbered up beside him and stooped for breath. No one should ever get old, he thought. The boy was impatient and thought about crying, but realized it would be no use. For the first time in his life, he decided not to be sad.
Something else was talking to him. A drip. Another. Over there, by the cliff? No, all dry. But where? Underneath his feet, a trickle of water emerged from the middle of the beach, and beads meandered toward the surf, only to sink again in the crisp hard sand.
- Dad, look, it's a river from nowhere! he said. His father, panting still, looked up at where the boy was pointing. He didn't see it. He turned again to ask his son. His son was gone.
Suddenly the sound of trumpets, and drums, a festival, people everywhere. Gabriel looked around at the milling crowd, then down at his shoes. Where did I get these shoes? he asked himself. It seemed important. They were black, shiny loafers. He noticed he was wearing cotton shorts, a button-down short sleeve shirt, and he was sweating. A weird kind of dizziness came over him for a moment. He started walking forward, as it towards something.
Dancers streamed by and he quickly stepped back onto the sidewalk. A parade! Noisy bangings and people standing up in big old cars, waving, smiling, carrying banners with bright letters. Gabriel was thirsty, and hot. He knew he could find some melon juice over by the corner. He felt in his pockets for some paper money and found some.
The girl selling the juice seemed to know his name.
- What a day, eh manito?
- Some day, he replied, nodding. It seemed to be the thing to say.
- Papa's been looking for you, she added, and he nodded again.
He swayed a little, felt himself almost fainting, no, falling down, like he was being pushed. He straightened up. Must be the heat, he told himself, and he waded back into the crowd. I need some food, he thought, and looked around for smoke, sniffing the air for smells. He pushed his way past people as he thought he saw some roasting corn behind some flower stands. The music sounded louder. The colors all around him seemed much brighter. Don't be silly, he told himself. I probably didn't get any sleep last night, again.
Another girl appeared before him, grabbed his arm and dragged him onto the road where they began to dance together, doing funny little steps, but his shoes seemed to know what to do. He smiled.
- Don't think I don't know, she said to him.
- Know what? he asked
- Whatever it is you think I don't know, she laughed
As they danced they seemed to get lost in the crowd. Now he didn't even feel hot anymore. Now he seemed to know where he was. He jumped up as they flew past his sister's juice stand, and shouted out to her
- Tell papa you saw me but I vanished!
He would not forget a single one of them; try as he might, he could not. There was Luz, whom he watched turn into Stella Perkins, one fine day in both March and November, at a bakery and at an office. Her distinctive laugh became another's. Her smile (Luz) on her face (Stella). There was the boy Antonio, who volunteered to step ahead around the bend. Ronson was pretty sure what would happen. Pretty sure, but not certain that the space the young man occupied would be filled in like a hole dug in the sand near the surf. First one wave comes, and then another, and the hole is smoothed away, you would never know it had been there. So it was with all the others. He would tell them of the force. He did not always tell them of the price. And he could not be sure, when meeting someone new, that there might not be an element inside them left behind by someone else he'd already taken. Sometimes he thought he could detect it; the smell of Patty's hair, the startled look in Reej's eyes, even a simple gesture like the way Porfirio glanced up before he spoke, as if retrieving words from heaven.
Garret saw ghosts and shadows everywhere. Early on he thought his memories would get worn away as well, but even when he lost himself he could not lose them, and it was they that brought him back. Sitting on a bus, maybe, on his way to work (whose job?), reading up on how "his" Giants did the day before (which day?), and encountering a name in the story that shook him from this alter life. He'd jump up, pull the cord, fly off the bus, look all around. This city which he thought was home was just another trick, another defeat. The thing had got him once again, along with the new guy, Barry. It was hard to know how long he'd been stuck, in cases like those. He would not remember everything at once, but just enough from all the lessons learned, from all the trials and errors, from all the sacrifices other people made so he could learn the rules to play the game once more.
After awhile he'd convinced himself he owed it to the ones before to keep on going, like a leader throwing good troops after bad into a war; it had damn well better be worth it, better be a noble cause or else it was all just guilt and wasted lives, and that couldn't be, he thought. There has to be some reason. It was to all mean something (but he did not believe this, only wanted to). The wheels turn endlessly like the tide, it just goes on, and if you dig a hole the waves will fill it in, and if you cannot swim you drown, and if you disappear than no one will remember you were ever there, and if you shout into the wind your words don't travel with it, and you could think a million reasons why it was okay to take someone, a stranger, and tell them of adventures, and promise them experiences, and show them something wonderful, and take them to a whole new world, and watch them swallowed up, while all the time you knew what you were doing and why, feeding your curiosity, is it not a crime? But the tree falls in a forest and there is no one to hear, there is no tree anymore, it all fills in and no one's any wiser, no one suffers, no one knows, no family is left behind to worry, no loved ones waking up at night, wondering what happened. He'd seen enough to lose his fear, but he didn't know why he could never stay down, why he always popped out again, and it was many years before he met another one like himself. When he finally did, he felt a great relief, but even more, another mystery.
It began as any other test, a casual conversation in a bar, just shooting the shit with some guy, putting out hints, laying the bait. he guy was game, for anything, really. Jimmie'd been around. He didn't think much and he didn't talk much, but he'd been everywhere, it seemed, or so he said. School of hard knocks, he liked to say. Earliest memory was of being lost in a train station as a small boy. Ronson was intrigued. His own earliest memory was of losing someone else, just like that, one moment there and the next moment gone. Jimmie said he'd looked around, grownups everywhere and himself just a lad searching for someone, but who? He didn't know. He thought he remembered parents, but not their names or faces. Could be anyone, he realized, and started to cry.
A lady in a red dress stopped and asked him what was wrong. It was weird, Jimmie said. She was like a stranger at first, but the way she said "aw, honey" and the expression in her eyes, as if she knew him, as if he really did belong to her. He always knew that she was not his real mother, but still, what else could he have done? He let things take their course, accepted the name they gave him and did his best to play along.
- I always knew, he said, and what you're telling me now, I think I get it.
For once, Ronson decided to come clean, and tell him the whole deal. Jimmie wasn't afraid at all.
- Won't happen to me, he declared. I can't get lost. I don't know how, but all my life, I can't get lost no matter how I try. I have walked into the desert blindfolded, gone to sleep and woke up in my house a thousand miles away. I have drifted out to sea on a raft and washed ashore down the street from my car. I was fighting in the jungle once, this was war, and hacking my way through the shit, and come out on the other side in downtown Minneapolis. Weird shit, huh? No lie. No dream. It's all true.
Jimmie became the first to go with Garrett and return with him. It was a pretty quick trip. Just a peek inside another time, usually enough to lose someone but as he boasted, Jimmie could not get lost. Ronson tried all the tricks. He went ahead through doors, slipped around corners, hid behind walls. Each time Jimmie followed and there he was. Ronson ran, at first through streets, and then the streets became fields, and then the fields turned into woods. He splashed across a stream and Jimmie splashed along behind him.
- Go the other way, Ronson said, and they ran in opposite directions, but moments later they almost knocked each other down.
- Turn around, said Ronson, and as they turned around they found themselves in front of each other again. Ronson climbed up a tree and when he reached the top he was standing on the ground, and Jimmie was beside him.
- It won't let us go, Garrett said.
- Like I told you, Jimmie replied. I can't get lost.
- I've never seen this happen, Garrett said, and I don't know what it means, but whatever it is I've got, you've got it too.
- What I don't know, said Jimmie, is where the fuck are we?
- Oh, I know exactly where, said Garrett. What I don't know is when.
They were deep inside a forest, surround by shadows and silence, nothing else.
- Watch this, he said, and as he and Jimmie stood there by the edge of a trickling brook, they saw the outlines of tall buildings begin to appear. Streets came out of nowhere. Cars, and noises, and people. They were suddenly back on the street where they'd met, around the corner from the Lark and Goat. Jimmie nodded and muttered "holy shit".
- It's all real, said Ronson. You and I have been through time and back.
- It felt like I was being pushed back here, said Jimmie. I've felt that thing before.
- I think you've been before, only didn't know it, Ronson said.
- Feels like home, said Jimmie. I want to go again.
- Another time, said Ronson, and they laughed
Though she had quickly learned that the past was not the safest place for a woman to travel, she could not be kept away. Each time she went she came back changed; not like other people, who learn and grow from their experiences, but seriously and irrevocably altered, a different person altogether. She had no way of knowing who she really has been, originally. She may have been Garrett's sister, his cousin, his lover, his friend, his colleague - through the years she had been all of those and had other roles as well; a clerk in his store, a driver of his bus, a chambermaid at his hotel. It was always a bit of a shock to be found by him again; almost literally, like an static charge. Although her features would be different, sometimes in every way, he had only to call her by her name, and somehow she would know, she would remember.
She could not go by herself. She needed a guide, a companion who could sniff out the entry, find the path and she would follow recklessly, all trust and no knowing. And then she could smell it, feel it, even see it sometimes. She told them it was like a vine, a rip, a fold a lightning-bolt-shaped tear in space. No one else had ever seen it like she did. Wherever and whenever it pushed her out again, she sought its symbols unconsciously. Garrett once found her with a snake tattoo along her arm. Another time she spent her evenings painting jagged lines down her apartment walls. Tiger stripes attracted her, all vertical designs.
She had trouble keeping jobs, friends, homes and lovers. Whatever name she had she felt was not her own. She changed it often, trying to get it right, and usually getting close, and then he'd reappear and tell her what it really was and she would know, and then immediately, she'd drop everything and follow him, because he was the source, the key, and she only wanted more, she couldn't tell you why. Once you're in, you're in, she'd say, and when you're out you only want back in. Somehow she'd stayed young, enthusiastic, honest. For Ronson, it seemed more and more his job to tend his 'flock'. Those he had accumulated, those who'd stuck, were more than family to him. Whenever he came back around he'd start in on the list, and she was always number one.
He was always certain he would find her, but he had no system to it. He followed hunches, bought airplane tickets randomly, rented cars and drove around. His people tended to locate close to water. They would often prefer tall buildings. One time he found Jimmie on a park bench near a monument to Neptune. One time he found Zeke pan-handling on a beach. One time he found Riley on an elevator. He'd just walked in the lobby of some anonymous skyscraper, got on the elevator with the office lunchtime crowd and went along for the ride. The doors opened up, and there he was.
There were times when she was merged so deep he couldn't reach her right away. He let it go, came back another time. You couldn't push these things. He might send Zeke to try. He might just leave a letter on her door. He would send her her recorded memories, maybe with a photo if Jimmie had managed to get one. Once she was restored, she could remember everything, but only until the next time. It was Garrett's task to take them from her, keep them somewhere safe, and return them to her whenever he found her again. Between times she would soak them in, reading day and night until she had become again the person all those things had happened to. She'd cry with joy as the memories were recovered, crashing in on her like waves at high tide pounding in her mind; the time she saw the grizzly bear, the time she swam across that cold dark lake, the time she flew down from the clouds, the time she danced around the fire, the time she slept with the giant, the time she held her twins, the time she rode the train across the desert, the time she saw the castle fall in flames, the time she wove a net of roses, the time she sang her son to sleep.
All these stories filled her and then, when she was done the reading, the latest memories would bubble up from somewhere deep inside and she would rush to write them down and hurry off to Ronson. And then, as sure as the sun would rise, she would feel the need to go again, no matter what the cost, no matter who or where she ended up. And each time, just before she left, she'd ask Garrett,
- Say my name again.
- Cammie Ronson, he'd reply.
They were always looking for clues. Sometimes they'd think they'd found something, but the next time they put it to the test, they'd find out they were wrong. They once thought that maybe rust was a factor, but they could never prove it. They thought of folds in time, maybe it bends around a corner, maybe there's a seam. They thought a lot about seams. The ripples on the beach caused by the equal and opposite undertow and incoming waves. The idea that time breathes in and out, in steady rhythms controlled by the sun and the moon. Or maybe flowing water like a zipper in time. Lightning bolts. Tall trees. Earthquakes might be interruptions in the breathing of time, and the fissures left behind could hold a seam. Elevators, mine shafts, ferris wheels, cliffs. Ronson would experiment. The others would volunteer. New recruits were sought, new guinea pigs.
More than anything, they wanted to know these things - how to get in, and how to stay. Beyond that there were larger goals - how to choose the destination, how to get back home. They sought to quantify, to nail it down, to know. They did not get very far. It seemed the rules would change. It seemed there was no continuity. They'd think they'd found a pattern, but it wasn't. They'd think they'd found a law, but it would not work every time. They had some general tendencies. They had some vague ideas. It was still beyond their grasp, and maybe always would be.
In the corner of the room, a shadow, and from the far wall came a rumbling, probably traffic from the freeway, or maybe the heating system kicking in. Never at the right place, the quiet man told himself. He had always had a sense of missing out, of arriving just a little too late, of being somewhere that only moments before was the place where he should be. There were many days of wandering aimlessly around, in every new town he came to. He was familiar with all the usual neighborhoods, the good and the bad, the busy and the dead. He preferred to take the bus, which meant a lot of waiting, and then a lot of starting and stopping. Staring out the windows, taking note of all the features which might someday be useful. Where the fire hydrants are. Where they have trees. Who knows what details matter?
Disappointment and frustration rode along with him, in the empty seat that strangers wouldn't fill. Something about him scared them away. Not his looks and not his smell, but something else. Maybe they thought they recognized him, had heard about him somewhere, knew what he was up to. He had to remind himself continually. I'm not really here, he'd tell himself. I'm just passing through, on my way from then to then. Looking for a crack to slip through. Looking for a moment of light and then the darkness. Like the time it happened before.
He was waiting for a bus, just an ordinary morning, on his way to work. Lots of other people there, on Mission Street, in San Francisco. As usual the number 14 buses were all stacked up, and all filled up, roared on by whenever they appeared, in clumps. Subway must be broken again. He could walk downtown, wouldn't take much longer, and anyway it's cold, the walk would do me good. Started to walk, then, past 22nd street, 21st, turning around, no buses there, lighting a cigarette but even that customary magic didn't work. 20th street, still windy. 19th street, but not the 19th street he knew so well. This 19th street had wooden buildings on it, had horse crap on the cobblestones - had cobblestones?
Sky still blue, wind still cold. What happened? Street boy selling something, yelling something, he could swear he heard his name being called but it was not his name, he turned around, and then, the 19th street he knew again, a 14 bus came screaming by, and empty. Turning back around, still here, still now. But he could smell it still and the voice that was shouting the name that was not his name still ringing in his ears. Somehow he knew that it was once his name - back then, it was, and it was him, and he was someone else and he was somewhere else and that was him and he was being called, and he turned around and there she was, and she was yelling something, he'd forgotten something, she was telling him what it was and he was happy just to see her and he knew her and her name was, what, he didn't know.
Not crazy, he'd remind himself, not me. It's just a memory, he'd heard about such things. The collective unconscious, reincarnation, transmigration of souls, teleportation, travel in time, parallel dimensions, multiple personalities, space-time continuum, perceptual distortions, a crack in space, an acid flashback, a dream, a daydream, fantasy, not real, not life, not here or now. He didn't believe a single bit of it. It could happen anywhere or anytime. You're here and then you're there and then you're here. Because nothing is. Because it's all a lie. Because it's all some stupid game. You might as well be a scribble on a page.
Still he waited, and sought, and chased the possibility. It might be in the shadow. It might be in the sound. It might be in the hole inside my head.
From the day she picked him off the floor, Lacey'd loved her little angel. He could do no wrong. For awhile he could do no anything at all, cracked his skull and all, couldn't talk, didn't remember his name. She called him Mike, or sometimes Mikey short for Michelangelo. Kid must've been around 12, she thought, not all that much younger than she was, and yet he was her baby, her little brother, her adopted pet. Mikey followed all around her happily enough, protected her from strangers, because Lacey was all too willing to stop for anybody, any reason whatsoever, whether she knew if it was good for her or not. Mike had the feeling that she didn't really have it all together. Too trusting, too accepting. There were some suspicious people out there and she would never know it.
Take that Natale feller, always hanging around the coffee shop, looking for something. He had the one girl and he wanted the other. Whoever told that guy he was something else? Wearing his shirt all unbuttoned up top like those hairs on his chest were gonna snag him a real find. And the old man who treated him like a god. Mikey couldn't stand the old man, yelling all the time, king of his own little world. Mike was gonna take his Lacey out of there, take her far away as he could find. The old man didn't like him either, Mikey thought. Nobody did, except Lacey. They would always tell him he come from nowhere and it was true as far as he could tell, like he just popped out of the sky, didn't fit in here or anywhere else that he could say.
There was some other guy, his Lacey told him, older guy. He was there with you that day and then he just took off. Nobody saw him go. You took a spill and he was outta here. How come I don't remember, Mikey wanted to know. How come I don't remember anything. Hit your head pretty hard, she told him. Maybe that was it.
Mikey had some smart ideas for a little kid without a past. He could fix most anything. He was putting gears and springs in things that nobody ever thought of, like the juice machine he put together for Luigi. Just throw in the pieces and bam, there's juice. Like the little toy cars he made that took off like a shot. Kids in the neighborhood were lining up to get one. Other things were strange about the boy, like he never wore a hat, and everybody wore a hat. It's stupid, he'd say, when Lacey tried to make him. He was always making sketches. One day Gianni asked him what was what and he wrote down some words and shoved the paper in his face; it was something about robot dogs. What the fuck? Natale said.
Mikey spent a lot of time watching people on the street go by the coffee shop. Lacey'd ask him what he's looking for and he'd say, got a feeling, I dunno. Think that guy is coming back? she'd ask. She was always worried that he would. She didn't want to lose her boy. He walked her home at night and back to work every morning. He was there to talk to and tell him all her problems. She was worried about a lot of things. Lacey'd come from nowhere too, you see, she'd say, come all this way and come for what? Work all day, my feet they get so tired. Two words, she'd tell him, that's the only thing that keep me going. When somebody tells me 'thank you'.
That's not enough, thought Mikey, but he didn't want to tell her that. She'd been too good to him. He knew she wasn't going anywhere by herself. He was getting bigger every day. Pretty soon I'll get a real job, he told her, not just hawking papers on the street, not just little odd jobs like I got so far. Something good that'll pay the rent and you can take it easy then. I'll take care of you, he promised. Don't worry about me, she'd say, you got to live your own life. I know you're going to go someday and that's all right. Don't stick around here because of me. There ain't nothing for you here.
Of course he knew that she was right, but how could he just go and leave her? Not after all she'd done for him. I'll take her with me, he decided, and that was when they started on their Saturday excursions. Lacey would've rather stayed and hung around the apartment, or maybe gone to a picture show, but Mikey made her come and they would walk along the river, watch the ships unload. And they would look for places where the gates weren't locked and they could sneak inside the docks and hunt for buried treasure. Mikey said he knew what he was looking for. Pieces of aluminum. Radio parts. Any kind of wire. Often we would find a thing or two and sneak it out of there. Back home he would get busy putting things together.
- What's the kid up to, Theresa'd ask?
- Heck if I know, said Lacey.
He was making experiments. He knew all about all sorts of things electrical, it seemed. Didn't know where he knew it from. He would try and explain it all sometimes but Lacey'd put her stupid look on so he'd stop. One day he came out from the little nest he had there in the living room with a small black box. Didn't look like anything. Had a hole on either side of it - one for a wire coming in, he said, and the other for the wire going out, and on the going out side there was a thing you put up to your ear. The coming in wire had a thing you stuck to things, like a chest-end of a stethoscope. It's for hearing ghosts, Mikey said.
He took that box one morning to the coffee shop and stuck the sticking end to all the walls and chairs and tables. Every time he'd stop and listen for a little while, and then move on. He went through every station in the place, and finally came back to the counter, and the chair where the other guy had sat the day that Mikey fell. He listened to that chair for quite awhile. Lacey was looking at him all the time. He turned to her and smiled.
- I can hear it, Mikey said
- Hear what? she asked
- The water, dripping, Mike replied. It's coming from over there, he said, and where he pointed they both looked, and saw a boarded up building, across the street. There was a faded sign above the door that spelled out 'Wetford Feed and Fuel'.
Zachary Hare (if that was really his name) was looking for someone. The only problem was, he didn't know who. It was someone he used to know, at least he was sure of that, like someone you almost remember from high school. If you saw their name on a piece of paper, you might recognize it, maybe even put a memory to it, possibly a face, or a voice. That was the guy who. That was that time when. Wasn't she the one who? It was sort of like that.
He was looking for someone and he didn't quite know who and he didn't know where. He had some strange ideas about where he might look, strange to his friends, at least. They wondered why he spent time around abandoned railway stations. They asked him what he thought he was going to find around the edge of the platform, because he always went around the edge of the platform, never inside the old station itself. They thought they knew why he would go to pubs with British-sounding names, because they also liked to go to pubs for a brew now and then. They didn't know why it always had to be the This and That, never the Something Thing, you know, like The Running Deer, or The Flaming Ghost. No, it had to be The Dog and Pony or The Lamb and Otter. He was very particular about that.
He was famous for being late. Most everybody knew that Zak was not going to be anywhere near where he said he'd be at any given time. People cut him a lot of slack. He had good reasons for being the way he was. Hard times. Things had happened to him when he was a kid. They didn't want to talk about it. Some of his friends remembered things that Zak didn't know, and they'd talk amongst themselves. Somebody should tell him someday, they knew, but nobody ever did. Ever since the accident.
Zachary Hare didn't know anything about any accident. He was the son of Millie Hare and somebody else, he didn't know who. Never mind. He'd been raised up right, respect his elders, get along, make your own way for yourself, not expecting anything from anyone unless you had a right to. He'd run with his crew since childhood. They'd had some wild times together. Now they're mostly married, settled down. Zachary wanted to settle down someday. He knew he would. In the meantime, he had some things to do, some people to see, some business taken care of.
It's not right that someone should come along and just give a push, now, is it? I mean, you've read about those stories in the paper where some lunatic comes out of nowhere and shoves someone in front of a train. Now, why would they do such a thing? Other than being crazy of course. Usually it's because a voice in their head came along and told them to. Voices in the head never tell you to eat your peas, now, do they? Oh no, it's always got to be something dramatic. When was the last time a prophet told you that you were going to miss that traffic light over there on the causeway? It's never the little things.
Just like that, it's just not right for a man to come up to you, right out of the blue, and tell you some important secret that you can't tell anybody else, that you even have to hide from your mom and your friends, and the thing of it is, you don't even believe him. Oh right like sure like I'm not even who I say I am, who everybody knows I am. Okay like who the hell are you and what do you know about me, mister funny hat? Oh yeah, he had a funny hat. Remember that now. Said something on it, some writing, something like 'Beatnik'. Why would a hat say 'Beatnik'? Beat-the-heck-outta-me, Zachary laughed.
But it was still not funny, even if the hat was. Come along and tell me something like that and then give a push, just a nudge, and they were at the station, and he was on his way to work, and it was just like any other day, except some crazy stupid nut case with a voice inside and a hat on top of his crazy stupid nut case little head goes and pushes you right in front of the train, and that's the last thing you remember about that little incident. Oh yeah, not even the how many months they told you that you were in the "rehabilitation facility" or whatever they called that dirty nasty shithole I was stuck inside forever.
Nobody tells you about that kind of thing. You go along, doing your duty by your life as you see fit, maybe you're a soldier and doing that duty but even then you cannot see it coming, and then you're going home without some body parts you thought you'd always have.
So he was going to find that guy, because nobody ever did. That guy who called you 'Zeke', like that's even your actual name.
On the morning of the birds, Garrett was exhausted. He'd been up too late, cramming for a midterm, and was awakened in a lousy mood. The birds were squawking outside his window, must have been a hundred of them. "What the heck" he muttered as he rolled around in bed. His mind was full of Alexander. He was so damn sick of Alexander. How great he was. How smart. How brave. How talented. What's so great about conquering the world, he wondered. Maybe it'd be greater not to.
Garrett was cold. It was still way too early in the morning, the birds were way too loud, and he didn't know how his roommate was managing to sleep through it all. Garrett got up, fixed himself some really awful instant coffee, stepped into his slippers and out the front door. From everywhere around him birds swooped down and gathered in the driveway, still screeching as they hopped around the ground. The day was gray and windy. It had the feel of imminent snow. One bird was looking at him oddly, so he thought, and laughed to himself. Now I'm freaking out about birds. Lately it seemed that everyone was looking at him oddly.
But this bird wasn't everyone. It fluttered up and landed directly on his foot and started pecking at his toe. Garrett tried to shake it away but the bird kept pecking, finally gathering some slipper in his mouth and pulling at it. Little brown bird, maybe a sparrow, maybe a wren. What do I know about birds, Garrett thought. It wants something from me, I guess, but what? Suddenly, the bird flew up and knocked him on the cheek with a wing as he flew by. He flew over to a lamppost and started screeching, staring directly at Garrett again. He wants me to follow him? Garrett started walking towards the bird and, sure enough, as he approached it, it flew away a little further, turned around and squawked at him again.
Down the street they went, just the man and the one bird now. The others had all gone away. The wind picked up and snow began falling. Garrett wished he'd put on a coat or something else besides his navy blue sweatpants and his orange caltrans t-shirt. It was really getting cold as they turned the corner of Whistler Lane and Treat Street and found themselves on the edge of a cliff overlooking a bright green meadow filled with smoke and weeds. Garrett looked for the bird but only saw a flash of bright red light and suddenly a boom like thunder and more smoke, covering him now as the earth shook and he fell.
Garrett started to get up but couldn't. Something was on top of him. A rock? No, a tree. How did that get here? He squirmed in the mud and managed to wiggle out from under it. All around him now, there were bodies, still warm, still bloody. The booming continued along with occasional pops and cries. Not far away saw a cannon dragging several bodies with it as it came plunging down the hill, and then more explosions hid everything from view. He was limping now, and scrambling back up the cliff. Above him the bird was calling and he followed.
Into the woods they went, the little bird frantically scurrying and hurrying him along. Garrett stumbled, noticed he was bleeding, felt his left knee failing. The pain was suddenly too much and Garrett dropped. The bird returned and started pulling on his sleeve, but Garrett shook his head and told it, "no, I can't. go away". The bird finally stopped its jabbering and tugging and camped out on a branch above the fainted human.
That night the wind died down, the clouds disappeared and a full moon lit up the desert sky. "Time to go" he heard a voice telling him, and it was then he understood, and got to his feet, his leg now fine, his clothes repaired. He must have walked all night along a path of footprints clearly marked out in the sand. He
saw no other creature all night long, and heard no other sound. It seemed as if he'd found a place where only one had ever been before, and he was following its tracks. Eventually he came across a stream, and he felt like he hadn't had anything to eat or drink in days. He sat down to rest on the bank and hardly noticed when the stream became a harbor filled with sailboats and a tugboat bleated by.
He followed the tugboat to its mooring where two men were setting down a crate. They wandered off and Garrett looked inside it. The crate was filled with straw, and in the middle of the straw there was a cradle, and in the cradle, there was a sleeping baby boy. He leaned over and found himself once more beside the fireplace in his small country home, miles from town, listening to the crickets chirp and rocking his son to sleep in the middle of the night like he'd done so many times before.
The rain came down in heavy shifts, blasting the mud off their shoes as they ran through the streets seeking shelter. Myron led the way and Lacey followed closely. "It's not supposed to rain in Arizona!" he shouted but she could hardly hear him. At least it's hot, he told himself, I was getting sick of the cold back there wherever the hell we were. Here the streets were deserted and the stores were all closed. Most of them were boarded up. Up ahead there was a train station and Myron went for it. That station's never closed, he thought, but now it was. At least there was a covered platform and they almost flew onto the first benches they saw, exhausted, gasping for breath.
"God damn" Myron said when he finally got some air. "That's some freaky storm". Lacey only nodded. She wasn't used to running or getting caught in the rain. She wasn't much of an outdoors type. Mostly right now she wanted a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Oh, and also to know where the hell she was and what the hell was going on. A minute ago we were in the diner, weren't we? Myron noticed the puzzled look on her face.
"That was then" he laughed, "and this is now, whenever that is".
"Is this what you heard with that thing you made?" she asked.
"I don't know", he replied. "I thought it was just a dripping, then it turned into this" he gestured at the downpour. "But you're right what you're thinking. And there ain't no going back."
"Didn't want to", she said, "but what're we gonna do here? And where are we, anyway? You know?"
"Wetford, Arizona", he replied, "home of my birth, if I remember all right. Don't know when it is, though. Maybe we oughta look for my family." I wonder if they'll even know me, he wondered. I wonder if they're even still around. He could tell it was Wetford by the smell of it, but it didn't really look the same. "When I was a kid", he said, "there was a lot of life going on down here. This was the main drag. That big building over there", he pointed, "that was Drake's department store. Everybody got all their stuff from Drake's." Now there wasn't even a sign on the wall. Got to find out the date, he told himself, and he got up to look around for a newspaper machine. Didn't find one.
The station room was locked but he could look in through the little window. Didn't see much of anything. Schedule on the wall indicated just one train at six o'clock, daily. Nothing else. Seemed to be about three o'clock now. He figured it was August, from the feel of the air. The rain was letting up just a bit. Across the tracks he recognized some houses he once knew. With Lacey behind him, he crossed over and started poking around.
Nobody living over here these days, he noticed. Lots of weeds growing up where once there was maybe some sad attempt at a lawn. Never knew much to grow around here, he told her.
"Reminds me of where I come from", she replied. When he asked where's that, she told him about a town somewhere in the south of Ohio, a place where people'd rather not even recognize her kind. "What kind is that?" he asked. "Oh, you know", she said, "the mixed kind".
"Well, better off here than there" he told her. "Everybody around here is from somewhere else anyway."
"Anywhere was better off than there" she said, "that's why I went back East. People there'd hardly noticed. Just another girl to whistle at", she laughed.
They didn't see a sign of life except some feral cats until they got to the edge of the last clump of houses. There a few old cars were parked in a circle out front of a yellow painted house. All the other houses they'd seen till then were just peeling. Lacey thought they ought to just go up and knock on the door. Myron was a little more cautious.
"I say we wait a bit" he said. "Want to see or hear somebody or something at least." They didn't have to wait too long. A long stringy man came out the front steps with a cigarette hanging from his lower lip, stared off across the street where the boy and the good-looking woman were standing there soaking wet and dripping.
"Ain't gonna bite ya" the man called out and started laughing and wheezing so hard he almost toppled over. Waved his hand at the pair as he doubled up and staggered. Myron and Lacey came on over across the street.
"Shoot", said the man when he recovered, "look like a pair of scarecrows out there scaring nothing. Ain't nothing to scare round here in any case. Name is Golden", he told them, "nothing else. Come on in and get yourselves dried off at least."
Inside the house a couple other people sat around on some pillows on the floor. They looked up and nodded as Myron and Lacey followed Golden through the door. One man, older, and one girl, maybe Lacey's age, a little younger. "That's my dad", Golden said, "you call him Dad. Everybody does. And that's my sister. Call her Ledge".
Mumbled introductions all around. Myron told a little when he was asked.
"Come from here. Ashton Street, you know it?"
"Nobody lives down that way." Golden said
"Shit", said Ledge, "nobody lived down there for years. You sure you from down there?" She didn't believe him. "Look like you maybe, what, maybe thirteen?" Myron nodded. He was actually eleven, he thought, but liked being taken for older.
"Nobody lived down there for twenty years", she told him.
"Maybe got it mixed up", he said, "I been away. Don't remember too good". It wasn't true. He remembered everything. He remembered the parks he played in. His best friend. His mom, their house, and everything. He even remembered the man he met at the train station, on that very same platform he was at just a moment ago, sitting there telling stories, telling all about traveling in time. Who was going to believe that shit? "No promises", he'd said. He also said I wouldn't be coming back again, but here I am. And where are you, old man? Where the hell are you? You even still alive?
Meantime, Lacey was staring at the TV set, wondering, what the hell is that? But she was just worn out from the trip, and after she got a little sleep she was feeling right at home.
Time Twenty One
From all the way down the hall you could hear him screaming, like he was screaming every day, like every day since those bastards brought him here. None of them seem to understand the simplest things. He would explain it very slowly, in the smallest words he knew, and they would stare at him like he was some kind of freshwater fish in the saltwater sea. Or nod their heads and hadn't heard a thing. And try to calm him down or at least to keep your voice down, Everett, there's other people here, don't forget about the other people, they might want to rest or sleep and you'd be bothering them.
Bothering them! The least of his concerns. Locked up in here and no way out and supposed to be worrying about whether someone might be bothered just a bit. He'd like to bother them a lot. I'll show them the meaning of the word, he told himself, and then right back he went to the screaming. Today he wanted to go to the cafeteria pronto. "I know she's there!" he yelled, "I saw her there. Take me to her, NOW, god damn it!" And Russell, the frail old orderly, didn't know what to do. He had to follow orders and so far his orders were to just say no to whatever Everett wanted. Didn't seem like the fairest orders. Just to say no to everything. Imagine someone just says no to everything you want no matter what.
Russell wasn't too upset because he couldn't hear too well, which was why they always stuck him with the screamers. And Everett was at least tied down so he couldn't lash out and hurt himself or anybody else. Still it didn't seem right, and Russell looked around to see if anyone might give him some new instructions. Nobody else was in the room. He peeked out the door, and nobody else was in the hall. Looked like nobody at the desk at the end of the corridor neither. Everett screaming for Nurse Ronson. I know she's there. Yeah, Russell nodded, and said to himself, I know she's there. She's talking with John.
John was the youngster they'd picked up wandering around Manhattan the other day, and brought him here to the Lark Street Hospice. Only seventeen or so, and incredibly dirty. Russell didn't know how someone could even get that dirty, and wearing nothing but rags, no shoes. Usually you only see the old timers going around like that, or the total whacked out jobs. Stinking up a storm, smell 'em from a block away. But a kid like that, no, usually you don't see a kid like that like that. So they washed him up, he didn't resist. Quiet one, that kid, just the opposite of old Everett here. Everett been screaming since the day he arrived, couple weeks ago, talking all sorts of nonsense.
Not a word out of the kid, and nothing but words out of Everett. Russell pretended not to, but he heard everything, saw everything too. Wasn't the first time he'd come across these stories. Man comes out of nowhere, white man, usually, saying he's been traveling in time. Comes from the future sometimes, but usually he comes from the past. Far as Russell can tell, it's a lot easier for you if you come from the past, because there's things that're known, and you don't have to make up lots of crazy shit just to get people to believe you. You can always talk about horses, darkness, navigating by the stars, but the future stuff, man, that takes a lot of making up.
Like Everett here. Got those implants they'll be making in the future, so they know exactly where you are all the time, tracking you down like a dog. Got those mind-reading machines, so they know exactly what you're thinking. Got those mood rings, where they put 'em on your fingers and control you like a drug. Amazing they'll be so precise with all their controls in the future when everything nowadays is shit that doesn't even work half the time. Makes you laugh. All that stuff he's making up. Or maybe not, Russell nodded, telling himself "who knows, they got all sorts of crazy stuff nowadays you never would have thought of years ago."
Nurse Ronson, now, she's an odd one too. Seems to take to these traveler types. They always end up getting assigned to her. You can see them in the corners, sitting quietly, talking quietly, seriously, lots of calming down, lots of relaxing. She's good at that. Got her with the John boy now. Russell was always curious about everything going on around him. Had half a mind to take that Everett's wheelchair and push him down to the cafeteria, just so he could listen in on what went on. Nurse Ronson wouldn't mind, no, she'd been seeing Everett already, but Nurse Ellis, she's the one to watch out for. She's the one who gives the orders you got to follow.
Nurse Ellis doesn't like this Everett guy. She wants to gag him through the night. She's sick of hearing all that crap. The other day she said to Russell, "old man, you're lucky you'll be going soon. Wish I was going with you". He knew where she meant, but he wasn't planning on kicking it any time. Not as long as there's sights to see, sounds to hear, stories to tell the grand-kids, sunny days and hot sticky nights to sit on the stoop with an ice cold beer. I don't know where you come from, he was meaning to tell Everett someday, if the man would ever shut up, but you should stick around. You might like it here. You never know.
Time Twenty Two
Riley was ready to let it all go. He'd seen enough, he'd heard enough. He'd been around, and every time he thought he'd found some peace, there was always someone bringing him back and taking it away. He wasn't sure how much he believed what Jimmie told him. He'd seen the evidence, sure, but he also knew they could always find some evidence. Wasn't he a military man? Evidence is always on the side of power. One thing he knew for sure, he didn't belong where he was now. Like I could belong, he wondered? Too many questions going around in his mind, keeping him awake, keeping him walking the city in the middle of the night, dangerous enough in itself.
If I could just find the spot, he told himself, because I know you can just go in and you can just get lost. And there's ways you can make it do what you want it to do, if what you want and what it wants are one and the same at the time. He'd been thinking about it for awhile. This is why he'd gotten so good at tracking down the fissures, finding his way in. Part of me has wanted to disappear in there forever, he realized, but another part of him was cautious, the product of too many nights out on patrol, he told himself, half joking. But he knew it was no joke.
Where's a big black man to go, he asked himself, and the answer was you had to be careful. Paul Robeson went to France, he thought, but I have been to France, and I don't want to be there. And when to go, that was the bigger problem. Hard to tell if the future is saner than the past. It's all a matter of timing. You've got to be able to make a snap decision. When you find the fissure, you can take a peek inside, but you never get a lot of time, and you either go in or else you don't. Riley could get a sense of things, but he was not a trusting man. He had some faith in his instincts, but as he reminded himself, again and again, a man's got to know his limitations.
If you want to remain yourself, at least to some degree, then maybe you can do that. Every time that Jimmie pulled him back he managed to be Riley again. At least that's what he thought. Hard to be sure, to know what's real and what somebody's told you. Physically he seemed the same, if all those photos were to be relied upon. Him and Jim in several wars, through several ages together, in the desert, in the jungle, in some anonymous fields and villages. He'd been on missions, though, where men were lost entirely, melted into passersby and disappeared. He'd seen it happen, thought about it. Is this what I want?
He'd looked in caves, into castles, on to plains as far as you could see. He'd been where there was nothing and nobody, where maybe no one ever was, and couldn't tell if it was way back when or way up when. Some places you get a sense of timing right away, just from the tools they have, the clothes they wear. Sometimes language was a problem. Lots of times it was. There's practical considerations to the choice, he told himself. Or maybe not, depending what you do. He told himself that he was ready to let it all go, but he wasn't, really. Because he wanted to remain himself, at least to some degree.
If Jimmie knew what he was up to, he wouldn't be letting him go out alone at night like that, looking out for openings, peeking in whenever he found one, thinking about taking the leap. I could melt right in, he thought, if only I could find the place, and still he had to laugh. How could you possibly know? You could be as old as forever and never find where you belong. Or you could close your eyes and take a chance, and if it melts you, if you lose yourself, then you would never even know, and all you have to do, he knew, was take that step and go inside.
Time Twenty Three
"I don't like the way he looks at you" Myron said, and Lacey replied "It's nothing I can't handle", but that's not what I meant, he said to himself as he left her in the kitchen, and he wasn't sure exactly what he meant. The feeling he had was of something sneaky going on. Golden wasn't looking as if he wanted something, or as if he was owed, even though he'd brought them in and gave them all they needed, asking nothing in return. It was more like he had secrets, and seemed to want to share them, but also wanted to keep them for himself, as if sharing them would spoil his fun. The others were just creepy; Ledge following Myron with her eyes in a permanent squint like she was trying to get him into focus, and Dad not following anything with anything, just hanging out there in the living room watching the empty TV screen.
Myron planted himself on one of the rickety chairs by the front door staring out at the endless rain fall on deserted streets, wondering where all the people'd gone and why these ones were left. Golden came up suddenly beside him and wordlessly dropped a package on the table next to him. Myron glanced over at it, Golden nudged it towards him. "Go on" he said, "take a look", and started on a wheezy laugh. Man's gonna die of that laugh, Myron thought as he picked the package up, an envelope more like it, and pulled out four sheets of paper, new copies, still warm from some machine, and on each one a photograph. The first was him and Lacey outside in the rain across the street. The next one was just Lacey in the kitchen, taken maybe minutes ago, wearing what she's wearing now, looking at the camera like what do you think you're doing? Myron was even more annoyed with him now.
"What do you see?" asked Golden. Myron looked up at him and tried to be unfriendly. "I just see you, sneaking around" he wanted to say. Golden continued, "come on, man, look closer. It ain't gonna hurt", and Myron looked again but couldn't guess what it was he was supposed to be seeing.
"Aw, shoot," said Golden, "don't you even have eyes? Or does it make you blind to things? It's only been one day, man, now look at the girl. Look at her yesterday. Hair almost blond, skin almost white, eyes sort of green. Look at her now" and when Myron looked again he couldn't believe what he was seeing. Maybe it was a trick.
"More black, more beautiful, is what I always say" said Golden, who wasn't very dark himself. But it was true, as Myron saw now. Lacey's hair was all black and curlier, her skin a cool deep brown, and her eyes, dark brown now, all still Lacey, clearly, anyone could see, even that idiot Gianni from the other time would still see the essential girl and still be in love with her. Myron suddenly felt like rushing to a mirror to see if he'd turned white, and Golden seemed to know what he was thinking as he cackled "go on, look at the other two", and the next page was a photograph of Myron and his mother at the bus stop where he always saw her off to work every morning on his way to school. The last one was of Myron and a man in a black leather jacket and a dark blue cap with some lettering on it, and they were on the platform at the station there in Wetford, all sorts of people all around and in the background cars and lights and everything the way it was like he remembered it, including his own self.
"What is this?" Myron demanded and Golden nodded, "how long ago that seem to you?"
"Couple of months", Myron said, "maybe a few"
"Those last two shots", Golden told him, "I'd say it's more like thirty, yeah that seems right. More like thirty. Years, I mean."
Myron didn't show surprise, which seemed surprising to the older man, who cocked his head and clucked his tongue before lighting yet another cigarette and giving it a good long draw.
"Want to know how, don't you"? Golden asked and Myron shook his head.
"Oh" Golden went on. "So you already know."
Myron nodded. "What about you?", he asked.
"Oh I like it where I am", Golden said. "Wetford's kind of like my spot" and with that he broke out wheezing and gasping so hard that Myron thought he might collapse and die right there, but Golden recovered after awhile and took a seat on the matching fragile chair on the other side of the window. He pointed at the picture of the man on the platform.
"Ronson" they both said, in unison.
"You know him?" Myron asked.
"Seen him", Golden replied. "You might say I know him. Seen him around. Seen him before. Seen him after."
"After what?" Myron asked.
"After now", Golden said.
Golden told how he could always find the openings here in Wetford, though they come and go and shift around. He could always sniff them out. "Peculiar smell", he said, "sometimes I don't detect it for a good long spell. Other times you can't escape it." He could only go around in time, not space, so he was always there in Wetford, where it is, where it was, or where it was yet to be. It's what he called 'a terminal'.
"There's other places it like it", he said, "at least I guess there are, but I don't really know for sure. I've traveled around in more conventional ways, been most everywhere at one time or another, so to speak, but somehow I can only smell the thing back here at home."
"I've watched it a lot", he said. "People who don't belong just show up of a sudden, like you and your big sister over there, that's how I spot 'em. Like I spotted Ronson one time long ago, and then another time, and when I saw him again and again I got to wondering why. So I had to check it out."
"I don't think he knows about me", Golden said, "I'm invisible to him. I'm just somebody on the corner, some guy just shining his shoes. I've served him coffee, he didn't know. He's never looking at me like he was gonna recognize someone, or maybe he just can't remember. I call him 'the fisherman', the way he's always looking to catch another one. I've seen the way he does it. I've seen him hook 'em, catch 'em, throw 'em back, just like he threw you back, back in time, man, just to see what happens."
"There's been others?" Myron didn't know why he never thought of that before.
"Hell yeah", Golden said, "this is like some kind of favorite fishing hole", and he liked his little joke so much he busted out into another fit, grabbing on to the arm of the chair so he wouldn't just fall off. When he recovered he added, "maybe there's other places he goes around to, I don't know. I've only see him here."
"You ever talk to him?" Myron wanted to know, but he already knew what Golden was going to say. If Ronson was a fisherman, Golden was a peeping tom, just always sneaking around, standing around, never doing nothing, just trying not to get in the way, like it was all some kind of show to him, like he'd already seen so much it wasn't even human beings to him. Golden confirmed his thoughts by saying, "that just ain't my place."
Now Myron understood what he was feeling before, about the way that Golden looked at them, like we're spiders in a web, he thought. Neither one of these guys is up to any good. He wondered if they'd started out that way, or if it was something that just happened to them over time. Maybe it's just something you pay a price for every time you do it. Maybe you have to figure that out for yourself along the way, and still you're willing to pay that price, or maybe you can't help yourself, you don't have any choice. It pulls you in, and once you're in, you're in, and Lacey and me, he thought, we're in.
Time Twenty Four
"What do you expect me to do?" he asked, "solve all the world's problems? It doesn't work like that"
"You should see some of them for yourself"
"How do you know they're what they say they are? How can you tell?"
"Maybe they're not", she admitted. "I don't know".
"Even if they were", he replied, "what could I do? It's different for everyone. There's no way you can tell what it's going to be like for them. And anyway, it's just no use, there is no way to make it do anything you want it to, and I mean anything, no more than spitting into the wind could cause a flood. Once I thought that maybe you could take someone and put them somewhere else where they'd be better off. Maybe if they didn't belong where they were, there was somewhere else they would belong, but it's really up to everyone to make their life, no matter where or when they are. Now I won't take anyone, there's no point."
"These people", Cammie said, "you really ought to see them, listen to them talk. There's this boy just now, we call him John, no way of knowing what his name is. He looks so scared to even talk, like the words coming out of his mouth don't even belong to him. He asked me what language he was speaking! Says that in his head it's something else, and when it comes out he can't even understand the words. He wants to know how there can be so many people in the world. He's in shock about everything. Says he never saw anyone outside his clan - that's the word he used, the word that came out of his mouth at least.
"What's it like where he came from?"
"Quiet, he said. Lonely and quiet. A lot of water, lakes, and fish. Mostly what they ate was fruits and fish, things you can just go out and find. They moved around a lot, always cycling through the same spots, making a loop along with the moons. They had a name for every individual day of the year, always knew where they were supposed to be. He's straining every night to see the stars but when he does, he doesn't recognize them. Showed him some star maps. He picked one out. Northern Scotland, best I can tell. Around six thousand years ago."
"Wow", Garrett was impressed. "That's some trip. Did he ever tell you how it happened?"
"He thinks he must have drowned in a lake and this has got to be the afterlife", Cammie said.
"Maybe it is", Garrett mused, "maybe it's how they got the idea. Somebody went out, went back, the way we do. Told them all about it, word got around."
"I thought you couldn't jump ahead like that", she said.
"We know so little", he replied. "I've never had anything like that. Never gone ahead at all. Jimmie thinks he might have, once or twice, it's hard to tell. What about you?"
"I wouldn't know", she said, "when I go in I just get changed, it all seems like now, it's always now and I am always who I am, whether I'm there or whether I'm here, I couldn't tell the difference. Only sometimes, just when I get back, I know that something changed, but I can never tell what."
"Me too", he agreed, "but Jimmie never changes. It must be something in him. Maybe your boy's the same. If there's one there's probably more."
"There's probably others too"
"Got to be" he nodded, "remember when we thought we had a clue?"
"Uh-uh", said Cammie, "that wasn't me."
"Just me, then", Garrett said, "but that was long ago" he murmured, as he dozed off in his bed, beside his wife of more than fifty years.
Time Twenty Five
He arrived at the terminal right on time, and found a committee waiting there to greet him. Golden liked to put on a show of how much he knew, how he could always tell when 'the train', as he called it, would be coming to the station. Ledge had stayed at home with Dad. She wasn't much for going out, it seemed. Now that he was thinking of it, Myron couldn't remember seeing her ever go outside. He thought of asking Golden about it, but just as he had many times before, he decided not to. Lacey and he had already made up their minds that they'd be moving on. Where to was anybody's guess, but it was just a matter of time.
The rain still fell, it hadn't stopped for all the time they'd been there. They had gotten used to it. They'd gotten used to lots of things: the mystery of where Golden went the days he disappeared, and how he brought back all that stuff. Didn't pay to ask any questions. Golden didn't like anyone peeking over his shoulder. "We need it so I get it" he explained, and that was that. They never saw anyone else in town, never saw a single car in motion. The town was dead, dead, dead, but they had lights, and they had heat, and they had water and it was all mysterious. Golden mumbled something about technology. Myron didn't doubt that he was scavenging from the future.
Riley's arrival was momentous. He was obviously someone who knew what the hell was going on, who took it all in stride. Nothing seemed surprising to this man. Myron had never seen anybody taller. Lacey was clearly taken with the man, rushing up to him on the platform, talking a mile a minute, grabbing his hand trying to drag him under the awning. Riley went along good naturedly. She was trying to explain how she was from the past and God knows what was going on and there's this boy who brought her here and she had a boyfriend where she was only she didn't really care for him that much and had a lousy job but all in all the people were pretty good to her so she can't complain, especially her boss and a girl named Angela.
She had come all the way from West Virginia when she was a kid and tried to make her way but it was hard there wasn't much a girl could do alone in Philadelphia least ways not in 1929 but she had plans like anybody else, she had her dreams. She was going to be a dancer. Now just look around there ain't much dancing going on around here, can you believe it used to be a desert? Now it's all just rain and rain and rain and it has been so long since I have seen the sun I can't remember what it looks like, well, not really, I don't mean exactly that, but geez I wouldn't even mind a little cold or something, all this wet and heat is giving me the chills.
Riley only wanted to serve his country. That's what he said. But now he knew that there is no such thing. It's all just made up lines on paper. If you could stand in one place long enough, you would eventually see it all turn over and over again, like this country here. Belonged to the Original People long ago. Then some people moved in from the South. Then they came over from the West. Then some others came down from the North. Every time they changed the names - The Land, Oxlaya, New Spain, Arizona, America. They even renamed all this hills and all the valleys and all the rivers and every town. They even changed the names they called the plants and trees and animals. They changed the names they called the stars, the weather, and the sun.
A man has got to find his place, he said, and when he does he might as well stay put. Lacey liked to hear that. She'd really had enough of all this shifting around so you didn't even know when and where you were. But where's your place? she asked him, and he didn't know, but he was looking for it, and she was coming along, if he didn't mind that is, and no, he didn't, not at all. "What about the boy?" he asked and all eyes turned to Myron, who didn't know what to say.
"It's true" said Golden, breaking the silence. "Stay in one place long enough and you will see it all. This ain't no place for staying. I'm only here to care for Dad and Ledge. They can't go nowhere else. Ledge, she can't even leave the house, and Dad, well, he ain't for long. I can tell you that for sure. Once I done my duty, I'll be moving on myself."
"When's the next train?" Myron asked.
"Oh, any time now" Golden said. "I can smell it coming."
"Then we'll take it" Myron said, and stepped back behind the yellow line along the platform's edge. Riley and Lacey stood beside him, waiting.
"I can hear it", Myron said.
"I can see it", said Riley
"I don't know what you boys are talking about", said Lacey, "but if it's outta here, I'm going".
Something like a vertical fold came rippling down the track, a jagged tear between the rain, and when it whistled past, the man it left behind turned back and headed home.