Authors: Mark Ferguson
“I did, I just did!” Gabe screamed back. “I don’t understand!”
Henry leaned forward to rest his hands on his knees, then lifted one foot from the ground and hopped awkwardly on the other. “She fixed you. You knew that. You said I should just fight it, that I could make myself better, but you knew, you knew she could fix one of us and you chose yourself. You could have told me. Everything could have been different. I would have remembered before I started any of this, and I never would have come to you!”
“I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“I came back here, I gave up everything, literally everything, just to come back here—to give her to you! Do you know that?”
her?” Gabe was standing, his back against the wall in the corner of the room, and Henry closed the distance between them with three heavy strides.
“I came back here to give her to you. Yes. That’s what I said.” His hot breath washed over Gabe’s eyeballs with each labored exhale.
her to anyone.” Gabe said the words with much more courage than he felt. He was certain he was going to be hurt, his skin prickling with the expectation of it.
mine to give. You have no idea what I gave up. I came here to make sure. To set her free, to set you free. It was the only thing I had left. But you knew. When you told me about the music, how you fought it, you knew. You knew it was her and you lied. You wanted to keep her and you left me alone. Every single time you left me alone.”
Henry stepped away, then out of the doorway and out of the house.
Gabe looked at the floor. Sensation was everything—unfiltered and overwhelming but also insubstantial. The seismic beating of his heart. Breath fast but so little oxygen. The glass, the empty bottles, unknown liquids painting the upholstery, the table overturned, the ash and dust in the air, how it caught the weak beams of sunlight sneaking in through the shades and took their shape in wide, thin planes.
Gabe bent to pick up a bit of paper, then dropped it again.
He went to the kitchen, got a garbage bag from the open box on the counter. Cal would be back sooner or later. He didn’t want to have to explain, didn’t know how he ever could.
enry didn’t know
what had happened, couldn’t remember why he was on the floor, one arm being lifted by a bearded man in a Harley-Davidson jacket, the other grasped by a goateed kid in a striped polo. Then he was standing, and the bearded man’s hands were on him, patting his shirt to dust him off. He opened his eyes wider, as if by expanding his field of vision he could also expand his understanding. He saw 41 approaching.
The bearded man saw him too and said, “This your dad?”
41 seemed dumbstruck, too confused to do anything but stare back at the man, who mistook the glare for a challenge.
“I didn’t do nothing,” said the man. “One minute he’s just sitting there, then he blacked out or something. You should take better fucking care of him.”
The goateed boy laughed and turned to his friends. “Old guy’s wasted!” he said.
41 grabbed Henry’s elbow and guided him out of the bar, then pushed him along the sidewalk until they’d reached the corner and turned off of Frenchmen. Each step aggravated a deep ache in Henry’s shoulder. As they got farther from the clubs the music receded, but Henry could still hear the song of the world ringing out and up and on and on.
They stopped. 41 turned to face him. “Do you think we can stop him?”
“Stop him? I don’t know.”
“Don’t say you
don’t fucking know!
We’re going to try. He’s going to that hospital, and the second he gets there and some nurse calls Val—”
“I know what happens,” said Henry, though that wasn’t exactly true. He could tell that something was wrong, but he was too confused to understand what it was.
“Then do something,” said 41.
Henry held up his hand and backed away. The life he was just beginning to remember came to him in random impressionistic chunks of sensory recollection. A sunny day. A rainy one. A pair of pants he bought at a department store. A restaurant he liked. A song he’d written. The time he drove to Poughkeepsie. Val’s wedding.
Each bit was confusing, the transition harder than either time before. Henry couldn’t keep anything straight, so it took him a few seconds of concerted effort to think of Annie—but where was Annie?
Oh God oh God oh God oh God where is she?
“Wake up!” said 41. “Do something.”
“You think I wanted to lose her? That I wished for this?”
“We have to fucking try!”
80 looked up, tried to focus the flow of memories, tried to pick out the ones that mattered. “It doesn’t…it didn’t work. It can’t work.” He thought of the time he’d spent trying to come up with a way, all the ideas he’d abandoned in the face of the only logical conclusion. “We can’t get her back,” he said. “She hasn’t
Even if we could somehow convince 29 to come with us—”
“But you changed my mind, right?” 41 squatted on the ground, a hand on either side of his head. “I made a decision you didn’t remember, it didn’t work—it never worked—and then it did, so we just have to do the same thing. We have to get to him now and stop him from going to the hospital, stop Val from finding out. We can stop her. If we can’t stop Henry we can go back up there and stop Val from…from…God, I can’t even say it.”
“That world is gone,” said Henry. “Even if we can make it so Annie’s born, she won’t be the same, not really. She won’t be Annie.” He swallowed hard to hold back tears. To hold back a scream. To hold himself together. He swallowed again and breathed, breathed, breathed, then said, “It’s all gone.”
41 jumped up and rushed him, grabbed two fistfuls of his shirt, and swung him hard into the fence that separated the sidewalk on which they stood from d.b.a.’s back lot. “You don’t get to give up.” He held Henry there, pushing and lifting and it hurt, it hurt so much, and he was afraid. “I should…I should kill you,” said 41.
Henry remembered saying those words, remembered meaning them. He imagined his own body breaking against the pavement. It wouldn’t take much, really—he was old, too old,
how old was he?
There were too many years. He was old even before he’d lived them three times over. He reached up and grabbed 41’s wrists. It was a strange embrace. He knew he wouldn’t die, not that night—that’s not how it happened.
“I should just fucking kill you,” said 41 again.
“Maybe you should,” said Henry. “But you won’t. It wouldn’t change this. It wouldn’t get her back. We can replace the past, but only with something new.” The words came out in a high whisper. “Everything else is gone.”
“We have to try,” said 41. “Do you understand me?” He again pushed Henry against the fence and the sound it made was like little bells. The ringing washed through Henry’s mind, taking some of the music with it as it dissipated and disappeared. 41 let go and Henry felt himself sliding down toward the sidewalk as he wept.
“We have to try,” said 41. He stepped back and pointed his face at the sky, slack-jawed.
Henry lay down on his side, his sobs growing louder.
“Shit,” said 41. He was looking back toward Frenchmen. “Get up. Get up right now.”
Henry moaned in protest.
“People are watching us. We can’t— We have to get out of here.”
41 knelt beside Henry and cradled him, lifted him up. Somehow despite the pain in his shoulder, the burning in his back, the ache in his knees, Henry stood. They got in the car.
The drive back to Esopus passed like a daydream. 41 didn’t want to sleep, so he drove through that first night and all through the next day.
Henry himself was in too much pain to stay awake for long, hard though he tried. He was afraid to fall asleep, afraid of what 41 might do. He had told 41 that they were immortal and in a philosophical sense that was the truth. But he didn’t feel immortal. Death felt certain in a way it never had before. He could feel it getting closer. Henry didn’t want to die, and given all that had happened he didn’t trust his younger self with his life. He remembered getting back safely, true, but he also remembered what 41 was thinking. He remembered the great black vacuum of sadness that had surrounded him those first weeks after losing Annie. He remembered the anger, how it seemed to demand violence, how it prevented him from thinking in a straight line about anything at all. His mind was a snarl of dead-end regrets, a broken machine, a faulty program, and though Henry hadn’t run off the road and killed them both when
was 41, that offered little comfort. He didn’t know the rules of his existence anymore. He wasn’t even sure there were any.
They pulled into the gravel drive in front of the house and immediately walked to the wooden suspension bridge to shift back to 41’s present. Then, exhausted, they both went to bed.
The next day, 41 began a cycle that would last for more than a month.
Wake up early.
Rage by himself in his room until he cried out all his energy and fell asleep again in the early afternoon.
When he woke up in the evening, they would eat. The only thing thicker than the tense silence between them was the smell of 41’s unwashed body. After a couple weeks it permeated the house even when 41 was upstairs, a fulsome reminder to Henry of everything he had come to regret. It was his penance, and as inescapable as the stench was, it bound him to his shame. As did his loneliness. Even with his years of living alone, he was totally unprepared for the desperate isolation he felt in that house with 41.
He often thought of driving down to Jersey. There he’d find the Val he knew forty years before. Perhaps he would spy on her through the kitchen window of the house she shared with Gabe—maybe she’d look out and recognize him, invite him into the house and offer him coffee. Henry imagined he would apologize. Val wouldn’t understand what for, but she would accept the apology. He would stay for dinner. Gabe would greet him when he got home from work, and like the old friends they were, they’d talk for hours about all they’d missed in one another’s lives.
The Val that was living in New Jersey right then, in 41’s present, had been married to Gabe for seven years. She was the Val that had gone to her obstetrician a decade before to request that her pregnancy be terminated. In another world—the one they’d destroyed—Henry’s twenty-nine-year-old self would have stayed on the road another week. When he left the tour he would have gone home before finally heading back to Lung-Ta.
In the world as it was, 29 saw a man sitting at a bar in New Orleans and the music returned. It scared him so badly that he sought treatment right away, and Val, by herself in New Jersey, pregnant with a fetus that a weekly email newsletter told her was only the size of a blueberry, made a difficult decision.
Val must have known that Henry would feel responsible, so she told him that she’d miscarried. It was a mercy, Val must have thought. She was sad—of course she was—but hopeful. She was only thirty. They had several years in which to try again. And they would, when Henry was better.
Henry stayed in Louisiana for three months, and when he arrived back home he didn’t recognize the place. It hadn’t changed—that wasn’t it. It just no longer seemed to belong to him. He was sane but detached to the point of cruelty, bitter about the great leap backwards he’d taken, self-pitying and angry. Val tried to coax him out of his depression, but there was nothing she could do that he would not resent. He lashed out. Eventually fights were all they shared, but even their battles lacked passion. Henry didn’t fight to win. He didn’t care if Val saw things his way. The only thing he really wanted was the freedom to not want anything.
At some point during this long dissolution, Val must have realized that the truth about her abortion was like a big red eject button. Finally, in a moment of hopeless anger, she pressed it.
They were divorced within a year.
Gabe tried to be helpful to both of them, but Henry was incorrigible. So Gabe gravitated to Val until they were in each other’s orbit for good.
Now, looking back, Henry knew that he would have lost them both no matter what. He was always losing them. In fact, he might have done Val and Gabe a favor. The first and second time around, Val had suffered for years before giving in to the knowledge that Henry couldn’t be saved. And through all of those years Gabe had been made to wait.
The mistake Henry and 41 had made in New Orleans may have erased Annie from the earth, but it had also sped up the inevitable. It had set Val and Gabe free. Henry himself was the only one suffering for that.
In the early afternoons, when 41 was back asleep and the house was quiet, Henry sat on the porch, at the kitchen table, in the living room, it didn’t matter. Sometimes he read. Every few days he went to the grocery store for food and alcohol. He spent hours cooking elaborate dishes that 41 would eat with the same bored expediency as always.
Henry’s fantasy about visiting Val and Gabe rusted and disintegrated as if oxidized by the unavoidable truth. Annie’s flesh and bone had never materialized in the dark quiet of Val’s womb. All the bits that would have become her were out in the world somewhere, wasted. In Henry’s own present, a time he would someday have to return to, Val was long dead, and if he were to drive down and see her now she wouldn’t share any of his memories of their family. She would feel no pain at the loss of their daughter. She would be a stranger.
So instead of fantasizing, he recalled worlds that no longer existed. As the sole survivor of those worlds, he felt he had a responsibility to keep them alive.
He’d remember a moment and ask,
Which life was that?
An afternoon at the beach that ended in a violent thunderstorm. Annie wrapped in a towel and shivering as she hopped her way from one puddle to another in the parking lot, how she giggled with fearful excitement. That was his first life.
The heat and humidity of his first apartment after the divorce. The way it felt thick in his lungs and made all his clothes seem damp and dirty even before he put them on. The way summer felt like sadness for the rest of his life. That was his second.
As for his third life, the world as it was since the disaster with 29, something strange was happening. Henry could remember becoming 41; he knew what it was to be the man that was even then drinking himself into a suicidal stupor in a fetid room upstairs. Eventually 41 would demand to be taken back home and Henry would oblige him. From there 41 would deteriorate fast. Without a life worth maintaining, he wouldn’t bother fighting his sickness. Soon he’d be wandering just as he had when he was nineteen. The music would follow him everywhere, so loud that he couldn’t hear anything else. And though he’d vowed not to tinker with time, though he’d told himself that he would never become the old man who had ruined him, eventually 41 would wander onto a bridge and be overtaken by the light.
That was where Henry’s memory started to fail. Trying to see what came after was like trying to see the blades of a fan while they were in motion—there was the generalized blur, and if he moved his eyes fast enough a crystal-clear image would appear and vanish so quickly that he couldn’t be sure he’d seen anything at all. The bits and pieces shifted.
He recalled, for instance, attending Val’s funeral in this his latest life, but when he tried to remember details it was as if every possibility had been scrambled together to form a void. Sometimes she was in a casket. Sometimes she was cremated. Sometimes Gabe embraced Henry when he arrived and sometimes he spurned him. Sometimes Henry didn’t go in at all but sat in his car outside. There was a universe of these possibilities, every moment a divergence into millions of possible outcomes.
What this meant Henry couldn’t be sure, but he had a strong sense that it was linked to 41’s feelings about him. He recalled the dark hopelessness. The fear and the infinite rage, how it seemed to fill every cell in his body. And all of this directed at the
who’d ruined his life and killed Annie. 41 blamed him for all that had happened, and Henry recalled how clear that conclusion was, back when he was younger. How much better to blame his elder, to avoid any responsibility of his own. And how easy when the old man had all the power. So, when 41 developed his own abilities, when he was able to shift on his own, why wouldn’t he try to escape the manipulative son of a bitch who’d taken everything from him? How he’d managed it was another question, one that Henry hoped he would never have to answer.