Authors: Mark Ferguson
al returned from
his girlfriend’s in the late afternoon and rolled a blunt, but Gabe refused it. Pot seemed dangerous. The music that Henry had told him about, the all-encompassing soundscape that he’d been warned he could never unhear—it loomed on the periphery of his every moment.
He went to bed early that night and slept late the next day. It had been months since he’d gone to sleep completely sober, and he awoke feeling painfully alert. The first thing he did was replay Val’s message. Once, and then again.
He dressed for work.
The walk downtown started normally enough. It was good to be out in the fresh air. The houses and cars and people provided some distraction from Gabe’s thoughts of Henry and the image of Val stretching in her doorway. But the closer he got to downtown, the stranger he felt. The big ugly McDonald’s billboard, the men who sat in front of the train ticket vending machines begging for dollar coins, the bright red signage in the Rutgers bookstore window—Gabe felt like he was remembering all of it into existence. He had the sense that if he turned away it would all disappear. An express train shot through the station, and the pounding of its wheels jostled his joints in their sockets. The crashing rumble reminded him of watching that older Henry float through the air.
He felt unmoored. Not momentarily disoriented but deeply disconnected. The massive parking garage that rose up next to him on Spring Street seemed otherworldly, its cavernous, wide-open sides like the crumbling walls of an alien ruin. The sky felt too close, the air too thin, and the sound of his surroundings was like a muddy brown soup that had been cooked for too long. Gabe wondered how he had ever been able to separate individual sounds from one another when they were simultaneously vibrating the same little set of bones in his inner ear.
Soon he reached the short block where the Magic Dragon stood. All he wanted was to turn off the music and sit in the darkened office, but when he stepped in he heard voices in the back and saw foam packing peanuts near the door to the showroom. His boss was there, and Dave, the guy who usually worked when Gabe was off. It was a shipment day.
Gabe astonished himself with his ability to act as if nothing was wrong. He pulled small boxes out of massive ones and opened them with care so as not to scratch the glass inside with his box cutter. He poured out peanuts, lined pipes up on the counter, talked over the prices, labeled, swept, vacuumed, cataloged. He went about accomplishing each task with a resolute focus, fighting the whole time to ignore the sound of tearing tape and paper, the clink of glass hitting glass, the way that tiny pieces of foam curled into eddies or puffed up in bursts when someone threw an empty box on the ground or walked by in a hurry. It all seemed a startlingly accurate, hyper-real facsimile of a normal day. At last he broke down all the larger pieces of cardboard and tied them into stacks with twine. A half hour later he was alone. He shut off the stereo and flipped the knob on the air conditioner. It ticked as its insides settled.
He didn’t feel much like smoking, but the hours ahead of him needed to be filled with something, so he grabbed a pack of Camels from the display case, slipped an IOU into the register, and tore open the cellophane. The smoke felt good but the crackling of the moist tobacco was unnaturally loud.
He wondered if this was how it had started for Henry. When had
How would Gabe even know?
He put out the cigarette and leaned his elbows against the counter, crushing the heels of his hands into his eye sockets until his vision was filled with dark, roiling clouds. Had it only been the day before when he’d awoken in Val’s bed? When he’d spoken at length with a man who claimed to be Henry from the future? How had he let that happen? It had been frighteningly easy to abandon all reason and simply
He replayed the ride in his mind’s eye. Nobody ever came to collect Henry’s ticket. Had anyone noticed him on the train? Had anyone moved out of his way as they walked up Easton Avenue? And what about his insistence that Gabe tell nobody of his existence? It seemed like something a hallucination might say to protect itself.
Joan had seen him in the park. She’d even talked to him. But even that was no more than an assumption. Joan had spoken to
and though her description of the man was dead-on, it didn’t provide any comfort. She said he had a big beard, long curly hair, and deep, sunken eyes. Those features were the
things about the man Gabe had noticed when he’d first seen him, as if he’d conjured exactly what Joan had described without any further embellishments or additions.
The clock on the wall above Gabe’s head was louder than he remembered it. Each tick
sounded like a few dozen insect legs striking a wet surface at the same time. It was a meaty sound, and its rhythm began to frame the building noises that surrounded him. The click and
whoosh of water in the pipes behind the drywall. The creaking of the floor of the apartment above. The humming of the fridge in the office in back. The idling engines of the cars outside.
A nauseous wave rose up to the middle of his throat. Deep in his abdomen, he could feel the weight of the pizza he’d forced himself to eat when they were unpacking the shipments. He stood up from the stool, grabbed the keys, and stumbled forward, but stopped when he heard a tapping on the glass followed by the ugly electronic chime of the motion sensor at the front door.
Joan’s breathing announced itself to the room like a flat tire flapping on asphalt. Gabe took a deep breath through his mouth, not wanting to test his weak stomach with her stench.
“Whatsamatter?” she said, stopping in the middle of the room. “You look pale.” All she carried was a plastic shopping bag. Judging by the fumes Gabe guessed it contained a fifth of vodka and some Diet 7Up.
“I’m fine,” said Gabe, but his diaphragm wobbled as he spoke and he suddenly felt weightless.
He didn’t remember running for the door, but he was outside when the vomit burned up through his throat and landed on the sidewalk. The sound of it, so specific and unmistakable, started a new movement in the fugue he’d been hearing ever since the bridge. Whatever relief he felt at having cleared out his system was overshadowed by the fear of what was happening to him.
He went back inside.
“Sorry,” he said, though he didn’t know what for.
“You better go to the doctor,” said Joan.
Gabe didn’t answer. He leaned against the wall.
“My mother died of stomach cancer,” she said. It sounded like she was trying to be helpful.
“I gotta go home.”
“Better get checked out,” she said. Her face was alight with pity. “Probably nothing, but you don’t know until—”
“Joan. Get out. Please. Now.”
She shuffled in place, then retreated out the door. Gabe went to the back, rinsed out his mouth in the bathroom. He turned off the lights and locked up without balancing the drawer.
He was slick with sweat when he finally stepped through the back door of his house. The walk home had been terrible, each of his senses assaulted mercilessly. He felt as if his body had been ground into paste. His skin felt fiery, his insides cold. His only goal had been getting to the house, but once he was there he understood that it held no comfort.
Cal was in the living room. He said something, but Gabe could barely hear him and he didn’t respond. He felt capable of speaking—he just really didn’t want to. Maybe that was how Henry had felt. Gabe sat down on one of the couches, covered his eyes. Cal was watching some sepia-colored war documentary, the kind of thing that was always on one channel or another. A few seconds of it was enough to spur the nausea again, but Gabe breathed deeply and swallowed hard. He stood up, stumbled into his bedroom, and closed the door. Then he shut off the lights and stripped. He fell into bed, cocooned himself as he had the day before. But it offered no relief. He prayed for help. For deliverance. Silently at first, and then aloud. His whispers only added a new melody to the clamoring song that had enveloped him. Baritone voice-over and artillery on TV, the rustling of covers close to his ear, cars on the street and the dim, tinny radio at Tata’s. His whispers floated on top of it all. The song was a staticky, driving thumper, and it vamped and vamped, over and over, as if waiting for some cue that would drive it all home. And then, as if descending from above, there it was—the melody that the music had been waiting for. An actual melody, not sound shaped to music but music itself, a tune that he knew. A digital arpeggio that melded with everything, brought it together—an anthem of pain. It grew loud and then louder and Gabe felt he would break.
But then some lucid part of him remembered.
He had heard that melody every day for months. It was his phone. Thinking only of how he needed to silence it, how he could take control of at least that one thing, Gabe rolled from his bed and knelt on the floor. He crawled to where he’d thrown it down in his haste to undress.
said the screen.
It was so loud. He knew he shouldn’t answer, that he would only make a fool of himself and scare her, that once he said aloud what was happening to him his life would change forever. But he was too desperate to resist. Regardless of what the consequences were, he understood that he had no real choice. Henry had never asked for help. Gabe didn’t need to repeat that mistake. He would tell her everything and deal with what came next. He accepted the call and held the phone to his ear.
Val’s voice came through clear and cool and strong as a trumpet blast. It echoed in his mind, the sound of his name coming back weaker with each repetition. When finally it went silent, everything else did too.
“Gabe?” she said again. “Are you there?”
He listened for the music but couldn’t hear it. His body was still tense, his muscles sore, and his skin soiled with the accumulated nervous sweat of the day, but other than that he felt fine.
“Hey,” he said. The fever had broken, the memory of it already fading away like some absurd dream.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” he said. And then, as if nothing strange were happening, as if he weren’t standing nude and clammy in the darkness of his bedroom, shaking from the aftereffects of the strangest, most frightening experience of his life, he said, “I’m really glad you called.”
IRGINIA IS FOR
The welcome sign said so.
“Do you remember this?” Henry asked.
“I do,” said 80. He was driving, nervous eyes fixed to the road, hands tight on the wheel at ten and two.
They were headed for New Orleans, their departure timed so that they’d reach the city at about the same time as the bus that contained 29 and his bandmates. If there was a plan for what would happen once they all got there, Henry didn’t know what it was.
The car 80 drove was a nondescript gray sedan, different from the one that he’d been driving when he picked up Henry. They had left that other car twelve years in the future, which meant that, in Henry’s current moment, all its pieces were scattered around the globe. The metals were perhaps still buried in the ground, the plastics still waiting to be fabricated or recycled. 80 wouldn’t say much about it, how he’d gotten the vehicles, or the house, or the cash that he spent freely on their gas and food. He just said that it was easy to make money when time was meaningless. As they drove, Henry gave a lot of thought to that. It would be simple enough to find a casino. Sit at a roulette table for an hour and memorize a handful of winning numbers. Find a bridge and shift back.
“So if you remember this drive,” he said, “why don’t we remember seeing us when we were twenty-nine?”
80 clenched his jaw, sighed through his nose.
“You don’t know?” said Henry.
“Not for certain. But I do have an idea. It has to do with inevitability. Our meeting with 29 hasn’t happened yet. We’re driving there and we think that it
happen, but it hasn’t yet, not in any of our realities.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Henry. “You remember all sorts of things that I’m going to do even though they haven’t happened yet.”
“But our encounter is now fact. I didn’t remember any change in my past until you recognized me. It was that recognition that changed your future. This Henry, our twenty-nine-year-old counterpart, he hasn’t seen us yet.”
Henry let that idea tumble through his mind. “So what
you remember about this drive?” he asked.
“It’s strange,” said 80. “My life since I was your age requires that I return you to your time. That in turn requires that you change your mind about this trip—or that I do. For instance, this morning when you awoke on the bridge, I said we didn’t have to go anywhere. In that moment I remembered that you would agree with me, that I would take you back home. Everything would proceed from there much as I described yesterday. But then you stood up, told me we were leaving. A slightly different past was created then, one in which we got in the car but didn’t make it out of the driveway before you changed your mind. Then we made it out of the driveway and everything changed again. Right now I keep remembering how we turned back. But so far we haven’t. So we didn’t. And each time we reach a point that defies my memory, I remember something new.”
Henry couldn’t think of anything to say to that.
“We’re doing something very strange here,” said 80.
“This is just occurring to you?”
“No, but…we’re pushing the boundaries.”
“What boundaries?” said Henry. “Maybe it’s you that wants to turn around.”
“Maybe,” said 80. But he kept on driving.
The hotel in Roanoke was nice enough, but Henry felt too strange to enjoy it. He was a visitor from another time. The guests in the lobby wore clothes in earnest that would only be worn as a fashion statement where he had come from. It looked like a theme party.
When 80 told the woman at the front desk that he wanted to pay in cash, she asked a dozen questions and requested a large deposit. 80 obliged on all counts. The woman eyed Henry throughout the exchange, noting his silence and wondering, he was sure, what kind of fetish she was tacitly supporting by handing over the keycards. In the room, TV on and shoes off, Henry found the commercials to be kitschy and quaint, the long-canceled shows they interrupted just as irritating. He tried watching the news but grew frustrated. So little of it was important, not when it was still
and especially not in retrospect. He turned it off.
“What’s going to happen tomorrow?”
“We’ll leave at seven thirty,” said 80. “It’ll take twelve or thirteen hours to get to New Orleans, so with stops for lunch, gas, whatever, we should get there just in time to find a hotel and catch the ten o’clock set.”
“We’re going to see a show?”
“Indeed,” said 80. “At d.b.a. Minerva Blanc and the Grits.”
“Jesus.” Henry laughed and the memories came unbidden. He pictured Minerva—Molly, though she’d insisted nobody call her that—the way he’d always seen her onstage: from behind, straddling the microphone stand, the stage lights passing through the outer fringes of her big curly hair to form a reddish-brown halo. He’d never found her particularly attractive, though he knew she was. The reaction of the crowd told him that.
He didn’t ask 80 why they had to see the band. It would be good to see their younger self in action, to reconnect with him briefly and anonymously before changing his life forever. It might give them a better idea of how to deal with him. But that was a rationalization. The truth was much simpler. It was too tempting to resist. It would be fun.
The next day Henry drove. In the passenger seat, 80 was splayed in the totally uncontrolled backwards lean of a sleeping old man: mouth open wide, lower jaw swinging with the motion of the car. It was almost like he wasn’t there at all. Henry glanced at 80’s head, saw the graying skin and the mottled little sun spots. He understood so little about what was going on within the man’s mind. Over the years, he’d had the same feeling about Val. They’d be sitting at dinner or watching a movie and the thought would hit him with the philosophical force of a tidal wave: he had no idea what she was thinking, no concept whatsoever of what it meant to
her. And yet he loved her, knew her better than he knew anyone else in the world. It was even stranger to apply this notion to Annie. She was—in a very real way—a physical extension of Henry’s own body, and yet her mind was essentially a mystery.
Henry wondered if it would be any different when he saw his younger self for the first time. Would he see inside of this person that he’d been? Would he finally feel with himself what he’d always yearned to feel with others?
“What’s that?” said 80 as he jerked awake.
“I didn’t say anything.”
80’s body remained completely still, but his mouth, now closed, squirmed as he tried to gather enough saliva to wet his tongue.
“Hello, Georgia,” said Henry.
WE’RE GLAD GEORGIA’S ON YOUR MIND,
read a sign.
“You haven’t turned around,” said 80.
“No,” said Henry. “It’s time we discussed what we do when we find him.”
80 frowned and sat up, loosened the seat belt from around his waist. “He’ll be out of it, already a little bit psychotic. We need to get him to a bridge, travel back a few days. That should straighten him out, and it’s the only way to prove that we’re real.”
“Get him to a bridge. Okay.”
80 opened the glove compartment and pulled out an old spiral-bound map book. “There’s one over a train yard not too far from the club. Another a few minutes away that crosses the Mississippi, though it’s long and will offer less privacy. If we can take the time, I have my eye on a small crossing over a canal—should be quiet, a ten-minute drive from d.b.a.”
“And then what?”
“Then we play it by ear.”
“And what do you propose?”
“If I had a better idea, you’d remember it,” said Henry.
“It should be fast,” said 80. “We get him to a bridge right away, then we shift back. I’ll take us to an afternoon. The change from night to day should heighten the effect, make him certain that what he is seeing is genuine. He’ll recognize you more readily, so you’ll do most of the explaining. Then, if he’s well enough, we’ll get a hotel room in town and spend a couple days talking it out. He’ll need time to think. As will we, to be honest. It gets…murky.”
“And what if he won’t go with us?”
“What do you think?”
“I think we take him. By force if we have to. Once he hears the music, he’ll know. That’s all that matters. We just have to get him to the bridge.”
80 sucked his teeth and sighed.
“What?” said Henry. “Just say it.”
“This whole plan—it’s possible that it’s meaningless. The moment he recognizes us, everything will be different. Everything. More than a decade of your life will be replaced instantaneously. Fifty years of mine. You need to be prepared for how confusing that might be, how potentially damaging.”
“You couldn’t possibly,” said 80. “You can imagine it, but the imagining is meaningless. I’m so full of memories. I met you on the sidewalk and thousands of days just materialized. A whole lifetime of moments remembered and misremembered, dull and exciting and joyful and heartbreaking—they all came to me in an instant and I don’t feel as if I really lived them, but I did. I must have, because they are the pieces of me that, when put together, tell the story of how I came to be. But the old pieces are there too. They sit side by side with the new. So which am I? The old or the new? Do you see?”
“I couldn’t possibly,” said Henry.
From the corner of his eye Henry could see that 80 had hung his head, brought thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose.
“It’s impossible,” said 80. “I feel like a fool, like a child. I just don’t have the words to say what’s happened to me.”
“Then stop trying,” said Henry. “I’ll know soon enough.”