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He smiled… or tried to. “That’s what your friend called it.” From his pocket he took a pack of cigarettes. There was no label on them. That was something I’d never seen before, either here in the Land of Ago or in the Land of Ahead.
“Is this the only one?”
He produced a lighter, cupped it to keep the wind from blowing the flame out, then set fire to the end of his cigarette. The smell was sweet, more like marijuana than tobacco. But it wasn’t marijuana. Although he never said, I believe it was something medicinal. Perhaps not so different from my Goody’s Headache Powder.
“There are a few. Think of a glass of ginger ale that’s been left out and forgotten.”
“After two or three days, almost all the carbonation is gone, but there are still a few bubbles left. What you call the rabbit-hole isn’t a hole at all. It’s a bubble. As far as guarding… no. Not really. It would be nice, but there’s very little we could do that wouldn’t make things worse. That’s the trouble with traveling in time, Jimla.”
“My name is Jake.”
“Fine. What we do, Jake, is watch. Sometimes we warn. As Kyle tried to warn your friend the cook.”
So the crazy guy had a name. A perfectly normal one. Kyle, for God’s sake. It made things worse because it made them more real.
“He never tried to warn Al! All he ever did was ask for a buck to buy cheap wine with!”
The Green Card Man dragged on his cigarette and looked down at the cracked concrete, frowning as if something were written there. Shat-HOOSH, shat-HOOSH said the weaving flats. “He did at first,” he said. “In his way. Your friend was too excited by the new world he’d found to pay attention. And by then Kyle was already tottering. It’s a… how would you put it? An occupational hazard. What we do puts us under enormous mental strain. Do you know why?”
I shook my head.
“Think a minute. How many little explorations and shopping trips did your cook friend make even before he got the idea of going to Dallas to stop Oswald? Fifty? A hundred? Two hundred?”
I tried to remember how long Al’s Diner had stood in the mill courtyard and couldn’t. “Probably even more than that.”
“And what did he tell you? Each trip was the first time?”
“Yes. A complete reset.”
He laughed wearily. “Sure he did. People believe what they see. And still, he should have known better. You should have known better. Each trip creates its own string, and when you have enough strings, they always get snarled. Did it ever cross your friend’s mind to wonder how he could buy the same meat over and over? Or why things he brought from 1958 never disappeared when he made the next trip?”
“I asked him about that. He didn’t know, so he dismissed it.”
He started to smile, but it turned into a wince. The green once more started to fade out of the card stuck in his hat. He dragged deep on his sweet-smelling cigarette. The color returned and steadied. “Yeah, ignoring the obvious. It’s what we all do. Even after his sanity began to totter, Kyle undoubtedly knew that his trips to yonder liquor store were making his condition worse, but he went on, regardless. I don’t blame him; I’m sure the wine eased his pain. Especially toward the end. Things might have been better if he hadn’t been able to get to the liquor store—if it was outside the circle—but it wasn’t. And really, who can say? There is no blaming here, Jake. No condemnation.”
That was good to hear, but only because it meant we could converse about this lunatic subject like halfway rational men. Not that his feelings mattered much to me, either way; I still had to do what I had to do. “What’s your name?”
“Zack Lang. From Seattle, originally.”
“It’s a question with no relevance to the current discussion.”
“It hurts you to be here, doesn’t it?”
“Yes. My own sanity won’t last much longer, if I don’t get back. And the residual effects will be with me forever. High suicide rate among our kind, Jake. Very high. Men—and we are men, not aliens or supernatural beings, if that’s what you were thinking—aren’t made to hold multiple reality-strings in their heads. It’s not like using your imagination. It’s not like that at all. We have training, of course, but you can still feel it eating into you. Like acid.”
“So every trip isn’t a complete reset.”
“Yes and no. It leaves residue. Every time your cook friend—”
“His name was Al.”
“Yes, I suppose I knew that, but my memory has started to break down. It’s like Alzheimer’s, only it’s not Alzheimer’s. It’s because the brain can’t help trying to reconcile all those thin overlays of reality. The strings create multiple images of the future. Some are clear, most are hazy. That’s probably why Kyle thought your name was Jimla. He must have heard it along one of the strings.”
He didn’t hear it, I thought. He saw it on some kind of String-O-Vision. On a billboard in Texas. Maybe even through my eyes.
“You don’t know how lucky you are, Jake. For you, time-travel is simple.”
Not all that simple, I thought.
“There were paradoxes,” I said. “All kinds of them. Weren’t there?”
“No, that’s the wrong word. It’s residue. Didn’t I just tell you that?” He honestly didn’t seem sure. “It gums up the machine. Eventually a point will come where the machine simply… stops.”
I thought of how the engine had blown in the Studebaker Sadie and I had stolen.
“Buying meat over and over again in 1958 wasn’t so bad,” Zack Lang said. “Oh, it was causing trouble down the line, but it was bearable. Then the big changes started. Saving Kennedy was the biggest of all.”
I tried to speak and couldn’t.
“Are you beginning to understand?”
Not entirely, but I could see the general outline, and it scared the living hell out of me. The future was on strings. Like a puppet. Good God.
“The earthquake… I did cause it. When I saved Kennedy, I… what? Ripped the time-space continuum?” That should have come out sounding stupid, but it didn’t. It sounded very grave. My head began to throb.
“You need to go back now, Jake.” He spoke gently. “You need to go back and see exactly what you’ve done. What all your hard and no doubt well-meaning work has accomplished.”
I said nothing. I had been worried about going back, but now I was afraid, as well. Is there any phrase more ominous than you need to see exactly what you’ve done? I couldn’t think of one offhand.
“Go. Have a look. Spend a little time. But only a little. If this isn’t put right soon, there’s going to be a catastrophe.”
He spoke calmly. “It could destroy everything.”
“The world? The solar system?” I had to put my hand on the side of the drying shed to hold myself up. “The galaxy? The universe?”
“Bigger than that.” He paused, wanting to make sure I understood. The card in his hatband swirled, turned yellow, swirled back toward green. “Reality itself.”
I walked to the chain. The sign reading NO ADMITTANCE BEYOND THIS POINT UNTIL SEWER PIPE IS REPAIRED squeaked in the wind. I looked back at Zack Lang, that traveler from who knew when. He looked at me without expression, the hem of his black overcoat flapping around his shins.
“Lang! The harmonies… I caused them all. Didn’t I?”
He might have nodded. I’m not sure.
The past fought change because it was destructive to the future. Change created—
I thought of an old ad for Memorex audiotape. It showed a crystal glass being shattered by sound vibrations. By pure harmonics.
“And with every change I succeeded in making, those harmonies increased. That’s the real danger, isn’t it? Those fucking harmonies.”
No answer. Perhaps he had known and forgotten; perhaps he had never known at all.
Easy, I told myself… as I had five years before, when the first strands of gray had yet to show up in my hair. Just take it easy.
I ducked under the chain, my left knee yipping, then stood for a second with the high green side of the drying shed on my left. This time there was no chunk of concrete to mark the spot where the invisible stairs began. How far away from the chain had they been? I couldn’t remember.
I walked slowly, slowly, my shoes gritting on the cracked concrete. Shat-HOOSH, shat-HOOSH, said the weaving flats… and then, as I took my sixth step, and the seventh, the sound changed to too-FAR, too-FAR. I took another step. Then another. Soon I’d reach the end of the drying shed and be in the courtyard beyond. It was gone. The bubble had burst.
I took one more step, and although there was no stair riser, for just a moment I saw my shoe as a double exposure. It was on the concrete, but it was also on dirty green linoleum. I took another step, and I was a double exposure. Most of my body was standing beside the Worumbo mill drying shed in late November of 1963, but part of me was somewhere else, and it wasn’t the pantry of Al’s Diner.
What if I came out not in Maine, not even on earth, but in some strange other dimension? Some place with a crazy red sky and air that would poison my lungs and stop my heart?
I looked back again. Lang stood there with his coat whipping in the wind. There was still no expression on his face. You’re on your own, that empty face seemed to say. I can’t make you do anything.
It was true, but unless I went through the rabbit-hole into the Land of Ahead, I wouldn’t be able to come back to the Land of Ago. And Sadie would stay dead forever.
I closed my eyes and managed one more step. Suddenly I could smell faint ammonia and some other, more unpleasant, odor. After you’d crossed the country at the rear of a lot of Greyhound buses, that second smell was unmistakable. It was the unlovely aroma of a toilet cubicle that needed a lot more than a Glade air-freshener on the wall to sweeten it up.
Eyes closed, I took one more step, and heard that weird popping sound inside my head. I opened my eyes. I was in a small, filthy bathroom. There was no toilet; it had been removed, leaving nothing but the dirty shadow of its footing. An ancient urine-cake, faded from its bright blue operating color to a listless gray, lay in the corner. Ants marched back and forth over it. The corner I’d come out in was blocked off by cartons filled with empty bottles and cans. It reminded me of Lee’s shooter’s nest.
I pushed a couple of the boxes aside and eased my way into the little room. I started for the door, then restacked the cartons. No sense making it easy for anyone to stumble down the rabbit-hole by mistake. Then I stepped outside and back into 2011.
It had been dark the last time I’d gone down the rabbit-hole, so of course it was dark now, because it was only two minutes later. A lot had changed in those two minutes, though. I could see that even in the gloom. At some point in the last forty-eight years, the mill had burned down. All that remained were a few blackened walls, a fallen stack (that reminded me, inevitably, of the one I’d seen at the site of the Kitchener Ironworks in Derry), and several piles of rubble. There was no sign of Your Maine Snuggery, L.L. Bean Express, or any other upscale shops. Here was a wrecked mill standing on the banks of the Androscoggin. Nothing else.
On the June night when I’d left on my five-year mission to save Kennedy, the temperature had been pleasantly mild. Now it was beastly hot. I took off the sheepskin-lined coat I’d bought in Auburn and tossed it into the ill-smelling bathroom. When I closed the door again, I saw the sign on it: BATHROOM OUT OF ORDER! NO TOILET!!! SEWER PIPE IS BROKEN!!!
Beautiful young presidents died and beautiful young presidents lived, beautiful young women lived and then they died, but the broken sewer pipe beneath the courtyard of the old Worumbo mill was apparently eternal.
The chain was still there, too. I walked to it along the flank of the dirty old cinderblock building that had replaced the drying shed. When I ducked under the chain and went around to the front of the building, I saw it was an abandoned convenience store called Quik-Flash. The windows were shattered and all the shelves had been taken away. The place was nothing but a shell where one emergency light, its battery almost dead, buzzed like a dying fly against a winter windowpane. There was graffiti spray-painted on the remains of the floor, and just enough light to read it: GET OUT OF TOWN YOU PAKI BASTARD.
I walked across the broken concrete of the courtyard. The lot where the millworkers had once parked was gone. Nothing had been built there; it was just a vacant rectangle filled with smashed bottles, jigsaw chunks of old asphalt, and listless clumps of trash grass. Used condoms hung from some of these like ancient party-streamers. I looked up for stars and saw none. The sky was covered with low-hanging clouds just thin enough to allow a little vague moonlight to seep through. The blinker at the intersection of Main Street and Route 196 (once known as the Old Lewiston Road) had been replaced at some point by a traffic light, but it was dark. That was all right; there was no traffic in either direction.
The Fruit was gone. There was a cellar-hole where it had stood. Across from it, where the greenfront had been in 1958 and where a bank should have been standing in 2011, was something called Province of Maine Food Cooperative. Except these windows were also broken, and any goods that might have been inside were long gone. The place was as gutted as the Quik-Flash.
Halfway across the deserted intersection, I was frozen in place by a great watery ripping sound. The only thing I could imagine making a noise like that was some kind of exotic ice-plane, melting even as it broke the sound barrier. The ground beneath my feet briefly trembled. A car alarm blurped, then quit. Dogs barked, then fell silent, one by one.
Earthquake in Los Angle-ees, I thought. Seven thousand dead.
Headlights splashed down Route 196, and I made it to the far sidewalk in a hurry. The vehicle turned out to be a little square bus with ROUNDABOUT in its lighted destination window. That rang a faint bell, but I don’t know why. Some harmony or other, I suppose. On the roof of the bus were several revolving gadgets that looked like heat-ventilators. Wind turbines, maybe? Was that possible? There was no combustion engine sound, only a faint electrical hum. I watched until the wide crescent of its single taillight was out of sight.
Okay, so gas engines were being phased out in this version of the future—this string, to use Zack Lang’s term. That was a good thing, wasn’t it?
Possibly, but the air had a heavy, somehow dead feel as I pulled it into my lungs, and there was a kind of olfactory afterscent that reminded me of how my Lionel train transformer smelled when, as a kid, I pushed it too hard. Time to turn it off and let it rest awhile, my father would say.
There were a few businesses on Main Street that looked like half-going concerns, but mostly it was a shambles. The sidewalk was cracked and littered with rubbish. I saw half a dozen parked cars, and every one was either a gas-electric hybrid or equipped with the roof-spinner devices. One of them was a Honda Zephyr; one was a Takuro Spirit; another a Ford Breeze. They looked old, and a couple had been vandalized. All had pink stickers on the windshields, the black letters big enough to read even in the gloom: PROVINCE OF MAINE “A” STICKER ALWAYS PRODUCE RATION BOOK.
A gang of kids was idling up the other side of the street, laughing and talking. “Hey!” I called across to them. “Is the library still open?”
They looked over. I saw the firefly wink of cigarettes… except the smell that drifted across to me was almost surely pot. “Fuck off, man!” one of them shouted back.
Another turned, dropped his pants, and mooned me. “You find any books up there, they’re all yours!”
There was general laughter and they walked on, talking in lower voices and looking back.
I didn’t mind being mooned—it wasn’t the first time—but I didn’t like those looks, and I liked the low voices even less. There might be something conspiratorial there. Jake Epping didn’t exactly believe that, but George Amberson did; George had been through a lot, and it was George who bent down, grabbed two fist-sized chunks of concrete, and stuffed them into his front pockets, just for good luck. Jake thought he was being silly but didn’t object.
A block farther up, the business district (such as it was) came to an abrupt end. I saw an elderly woman hurrying along and glancing nervously at the boys, who were now a little farther up on the other side of Main. She was wearing a kerchief and what looked like a respirator—the kind of thing people with COPD or advanced emphysema use.
“Ma’am, do you know if the library—”
“Leave me alone!” Her eyes were large and scared. The moon shone briefly through a rift in the clouds, and I saw that her face was covered with sores. The one below her right eye appeared to have eaten right down to the bone. “I have a paper that says I can be out, it’s got a Council stamp, so leave me alone! I’m going to see my sister! Those boys are bad enough, and soon they’ll start their wilding. If you touch me, I’ll buzz my beezer and a constable will come!”
I somehow doubted that.
“Ma’am, I just want to know if the library is still—”
“It’s been closed for years and all the books are gone! They have Hate Meetings there now. Leave me alone, I say, or I’ll buzz for a constable!”
She scuttled away, looking back over her shoulder every few seconds to make sure I wasn’t coming after her. I let her put enough distance between us to make her feel comfy, then continued up Main Street. My knee was recovering a bit from my stair-climbing exertions in the Book Depository, but I was still limping, and would be for some time to come. Lights burned behind drawn curtains in a few houses, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t produced by Central Maine Power. Those were Coleman lanterns and in some cases kerosene lamps. Most of the houses were dark. Some were charred wrecks. There was a Nazi swastika on one of the wrecks and the words JEW RAT spray-painted on another.
Those boys are bad enough and soon they’ll start their wilding.
And… had she really said Hate Meetings?
In front of one of the few houses that looked in good shape—it was a mansion compared to most of them—I saw a long hitching rail, like in a western movie. And actual horses had been tied up there. When the sky lightened in another of those diffuse spasms, I could see horsepucky pats, some of them fresh. The driveway was gated. The moon had gone in again, so I couldn’t read the sign on the iron slats, but I didn’t need to read it to know it said KEEP OUT.
Now, from up ahead, I heard someone enunciate a single word: “Cunt!”
It didn’t sound young, like one of the wild boys, and it was coming from my side of the street rather than theirs. The guy sounded pissed off. He also sounded like he might be talking to himself. I walked toward his voice.
“Mother-fucker!” the voice cried, exasperated. “Shit-ass!”
He was maybe a block up. Before I got there, I heard a loud metallic bonk and the male voice cried: “Get on with you! Goddam little wetnosed sonsabitches! Get on with you before I pull my pistol!”
Mocking laughter greeted this. It was the pot-smoking wild boys, and the voice that replied certainly belonged to the one who had mooned me. “Only pistol you got is the one in your pants, and I bet it’s got a mighty limp barrel!”
More laughter. It was followed by a high metallic spannng sound.
“You fucks, you broke one of my spokes!” When the man yelled at them again, his voice was tinged with reluctant fear. “Nah, nah, stay on your own goddam side!”
The clouds rifted. The moon peeked through. By its chancy light I saw an old man in a wheelchair. He was halfway across one of the streets intersecting Main—Goddard, if the name hadn’t changed. One of his wheels had gotten stuck in a pothole, causing the chair to cant drunkenly to the left. The boys were crossing toward him. The kid who had told me to fuck off was holding a slingshot with a good-sized rock in it. That explained the bonk and the spang.
“Got any oldbucks, grampy? For that matter, you got any newbucks or canned goods?”
“No! If you don’t have the goddam decency to push me out of the hole I’m in, at least go away and leave me alone!”
But they were wilding, and they weren’t going to do that. They were going to rob him of whatever small shit he might happen to have, maybe beat him up, tip him over for sure.
Jake and George came together, and both of them saw red.
The attention of the wild boys was fixed on the wheelchair-geezer and they didn’t see me cutting toward them on a diagonal—just as I’d cut across the sixth floor of the School Book Depository. My left arm still wasn’t much good, but my right was fine, toned up by three months of physical therapy, first in Parkland and then at Eden Fallows. And I still had some of the accuracy that had made me a varsity third baseman in high school. I pegged the first chunk of concrete from thirty feet away and caught Moon Man in the center of the chest. He screamed with pain and surprise. All the boys—there were five of them—turned toward me. When they did, I saw that their faces were as disfigured as the frightened woman’s had been. The one with the slingshot, young Master Fuck Off, was the worst. There was nothing but a hole where his nose should have been.
I transferred my second chunk of concrete from my left hand to my right, and threw it at the tallest of the boys, who was wearing a huge pair of loose pants with the waistband drawn up nearly to his sternum. He raised a blocking arm. The concrete struck it, knocking the joint he was holding into the street. He took one look at my face, then wheeled and ran. Moon Man followed him. That left three.
“Walk it to em, son!” the old man in the wheelchair shrilled. “They got it coming, by Christ!”
I was sure they did, but they had me outnumbered and my ammo was gone. When you’re dealing with teenagers, the only possible way to win in such a situation is to show no fear, only genuine adult outrage. You just keep coming, and that was what I did. I seized young Master Fuck Off by the front of his ragged tee-shirt with my right hand and snatched the slingshot away from him with the left. He stared at me, wide-eyed, and put up no resistance.
“You chickenshit,” I said, getting my face right up into his… and never mind the nose that wasn’t. He smelled sweaty and pot-smoky and deeply dirty. “How chickenshit do you have to be to go after an old man in a wheelchair?”
“Who are y—”
“Charlie Fucking Chaplin. I went to France just to see the ladies dance. Now get out of here.”
“Give me back my—”
I knew what he wanted and bonked the center of his forehead with it. It started one of his sores trickling and must have hurt like hell, because his eyes filled with tears. This disgusted me and filled me with pity, but I tried to show neither. “You get nothing, chickenshit, except a chance to get out of here before I rip your worthless balls off your no doubt diseased scrote and stuff them into the hole where your nose used to be. One chance. Take it.” I drew in breath, then screamed it out at his face in a spray of noise and spit: “Run!”
I watched them go, feeling shame and exultation in roughly equal parts. The old Jake had been great at quelling rowdy study halls on Friday afternoons before vacations, but that was about as far as his skills went. The new Jake, however, was part George. And George had been through a lot.
From behind me came a heavy bout of coughing. It made me think of Al Templeton. When it stopped, the old man said, “Fella, I would have pissed five years’ worth of kidney rocks just to see those vile dinks take to their heels like that. I don’t know who you are, but I’ve got a little Glenfiddich left in my pantry—the real stuff—and if you push me out of this goddam hole in the road and roll me home, I’ll share it with you.”
The moon had gone in again, but as it came back out through the ragged clouds, I saw his face. He was wearing a long white beard and had a cannula stuffed up his nose, but even after five years, I had no trouble at all recognizing the man who had gotten me into this mess.
“Hello, Harry,” I said.
He still lived on Goddard Street. I rolled him up the ramp to the porch, where he produced a fearsome bundle of keys. He needed them. The front door had no less than four locks.
“Do you rent or own?”
“Oh, it’s all mine,” he said. “Such as it is.”
“Good for you.” Before, he had rented.
“You still haven’t told me how you know my name.”
“First, let’s have that drink. I can use one.”
The door opened on a parlor that took up the front half of the house. He told me to whoa, as if I were a horse, and lit a Coleman lantern. By its light I saw furniture of the type that is called “old but serviceable.” There was a beautiful braided rug on the floor. No GED diploma on any of the walls—and of course no framed theme titled “The Day That Changed My Life”—but there were a great many Catholic icons and lots of pictures. It was with no surprise that I recognized some of the people in them. I had met them, after all.
“Lock that behind you, would you?”
I closed us off from the dark and disturbing Lisbon Falls, and ran both bolts.
“Deadbolt, too, if you don’t mind.”
I twisted it and heard a heavy clunk. Harry, meanwhile, was rolling around his parlor and lighting the same sort of long-chimneyed kerosene lamps I vaguely remembered seeing in my gramma Sarie’s house. It was a better light for the room than the Coleman lamp, and when I killed its hot white glow, Harry Dunning nodded approvingly.
“What’s your name, sir? You already know mine.”
“Jake Epping. Don’t suppose that rings any bells with you, does it?”
He considered, then shook his head. “Should it?”
He stuck out his hand. It shook slightly with some incipient palsy. “I’ll shake with you, just the same. That could have been nasty.”
I shook his hand gladly. Hello, new friend. Hello, old friend.
“Okay, now that we got that took care of, we can drink with clear consciences. I’ll get us that single malt.” He started for the kitchen, rolling his wheels with arms that were a little shaky but still strong. The chair had a small motor, but either it didn’t work or he was saving the battery. He looked back over his shoulder at me. “Not dangerous, are you? I mean, to me?”
“Not to you, Harry.” I smiled. “I’m your good angel.”
“This is fucking peculiar,” he said. “But these days, what isn’t?”
He went into the kitchen. Soon more light glowed. Homey orange-yellow light. In here, everything seemed homey. But out there… in the world…
Just what in the hell had I done?
“What’ll we drink to?” I asked when we had our glasses in hand.
“Better times than these. Will that work for you, Mr. Epping?”
“It works fine. And make it Jake.”
We clinked. Drank. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had anything stronger than Lone Star beer. The whisky was like hot honey.
“No electricity?” I asked, looking around at the lamps. He had turned them all low, presumably to save on oil.
He made a sour face. “Not from around here, are you?”
A question I’d heard before, from Frank Anicetti, at the Fruit. On my very first trip into the past. Then I’d told a lie. I didn’t want to do that now.
“I don’t quite know how to answer that, Harry.”
He shrugged it off. “We’re supposed to get juice three days a week, and this is supposed to be one of the days, but it cut off around six P.M. I believe in Province Electric like I believe in Santa Claus.”
As I considered this, I remembered the stickers on the cars. “How long has Maine been a part of Canada?”
He gave me a how-crazy-are-you look, but I could see he was enjoying this. The strangeness of it and also the there-ness of it. I wondered when he’d last had a real conversation with someone. “Since 2005. Did someone bump you on the head, or something?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.” I went to his wheelchair, dropped on the knee that still bent willingly and without pain, and showed him the place on the back of my head where the hair had never grown back. “I took a bad beating a few months ago—”
“Yuh, I seen you limping when you ran at those kids.”
“—and now there’s lots of things I don’t remember.”
The floor suddenly shook beneath us. The flames in the kerosene lamps trembled. The pictures on the walls rattled, and a two-feet-high plaster Jesus with his arms outstretched took a jittery stroll toward the edge of the mantelpiece. He looked like a guy contemplating suicide, and given the current state of things as I had observed them, I couldn’t blame him.
“Popper,” Harry said matter-of-factly when the shaking stopped. “You remember those, right?”
“No.” I got up, went to the mantelpiece, and pushed Jesus back beside his Holy Mother.
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