Clare Abshire stands from her rocker with the hair on the back of her neck when she hears her daughter's voice. The tone is urgent, but soft. Resigned, perhaps a little exhausted. She catches the throw that had been draped across her lap and carries it to the hallway, where her daughter is standing, leaning naked against the doorframe.
Alba takes the throw without looking at it. Of course, this is not the first time this has happened.
"Mom…" she pauses, her eyes on the clock on the mantlepiece, over Clare's shoulder.
"I need you to go to my school and wait for me."
"Alba? What's going on?"
"I… can't tell you. But I'm going to need you. Please? Don't ask me anything else. You'll hear it all later."
Clare's expression steels in a frown for the moment, but she doesn't ask, not yet. She goes to the phone-- still an old fashioned landline-- and dials the school halfway, then presses the cradle.
"What do I say to you?"
Alba bites her lower lip. She has never stopped doing that; perhaps spending so much time with her younger selves has rooted the habit in her. Clare waits patiently.
"You ask me what's going on."
"All right…" Clare looks down to finish dialing, and when she looks up, Alba is gone.
Clare stares at the phone in her hand, then decides not to bother. She replaces the phone in the cradle and goes to get her coat.
ALBA: I was in school, and then I wasn't, and it wasn't my idea this time. When I wake up, I am in an alley by a street in front of a building, and it's not busy, but it's not quiet, either. There's an old woman in the alley with me, and I almost start, but she's too quick for me-- she catches me by the wrist and says, "SHH!"
When I look in her eyes, I see they are the same as mine, and she is also Alba. I laugh in delight, but she is not smiling.
"Quick!" She shoves a market bag into my hands, and I can tell there's clothes in it, "put these on, and stay still."
"Oh… what happens?" I know better to ask, but I can't help it anyway. Older-me looks down and shakes her head, and puts a finger to her lips. Her grip has started to hurt, and I am about to tell her when she shifts so she's just holding my hand, like she was my grandmother-- if my grandmother was some old bag lady. She lets me pull it away so I can put on the clothes, at least. When I'm finished, she grabs my hand again, like she's afraid I'm going to go running out into the street.
"Look," She whispers, and I see where she's pointing. There is a woman, younger than her and older than me, in a pair of jeans that are too big and a Flyer's jersey, pounding around the corner, out of breath. She pants on the corner for a bit, looking about like she's crazy-- for a moment, I see her eyes fix on me, and on Old Alba, but she dismisses us really fast. She's looking past us, for something-- It's a big black car, very fancy. Somebody rich probably drives that car. I'm about to say so, when the car screeches to a sudden stop, and the Alba on the corner sinks to her knees, her hands at her mouth. She is crying! I pull at Old Alba's hand.
"She's hurt!" I scowl at her, and she is shaking her head, but I'm not paying attention. I tug away, and run towards the car, and then there's hands on my shoulders, pulling me away. I look up, and into the eyes of another Alba, this one a little older than Corner-Alba, but not so old as Bag-Lady Alba.
"You see it," She says, "So you may as well look…" She points to the street. There is a boy there, older than me, but not much. He is lying incredibly still, more still than anything I have ever seen, and he's naked. Corner Alba is slumped against the wall, not moving, and she looks… defeated, I guess? But there's another woman who has got to him and is cradling him in her arms-- she looks up at me, and she is Alba too. There is a man getting out of the car, and he, at least, is not me. But everywhere, when I look now, I can see me-- I am across the street, I am in the car behind the one that the boy is slumped in front of. My heart is caught in my throat, but I ask anyway.
"Is he… like me?"
The Alba behind me nods, and I can't tell what she's thinking. "Yes. Yes… he is."
I keep looking at her, and at corner-alba, and at bag-lady Alba helpless in the alley behind me, and up at the building across the street, and in the window there, I see another Alba. The Alba behind me points up to her.
"That's us, now."
I squint up at Window-Alba. She is standing there, blank, like she's been punched. The Alba behind me pulls me back against her, and I feel my back bump into something round and hard sticking out from her belly, and suddenly I do know what she's thinking, and I start shaking my head. "No! No! No I won't!"
She's saying something, but I don't hear her. She's saying something and shaking her head and I turn from her and all of them and run back into the alley, where I forgot that Bag-Lady Alba is, and she catches me and I'm crying which is stupid because there's no way I saw what I just saw and I don't ever, EVER want to have a baby and that didn't happen to me and she's hugging me tighter and tighter and then I'm back in the classroom, naked again, and everyone's gone home but Miss Fhal, who isn't my teacher, but is the nurse. She's reading a book, and my mother is beside her, with my clothes. Her face is relieved when she sees me, but Mom stands up, and her face is strained. She's not usually here when I do this, so somehow she knows something already-- another Alba, of course it's another Alba! I don't want there to be any more Albas but me, because they all already know...! I'm on my feet and then running and then I'm clinging to her crying and she says, "Honey, what's going on?"
And I'm crying too much to tell her, but I'm glad that whatever Alba told her to come here didn't tell her already. "Mom…" I'm whimpering, I can barely get it out-- but eventually, I tell her that I never, ever, ever want to have babies-- and I especially never want to have a little boy, because I never, never, never want to watch him die again.
Alba had been sitting in Dr. Matthias's office, waiting to have a conversation with him which has already happened, and is going to happen again, of course. Dr. Jules Matthias was a student of her father's doctor, Dr. Kendrick, now retired. He was the first graduate in studies specific to Chrono Displacement, as a specialty, presently the leader in the field, such as it is. He has more clients than one would expect, and an extraordinarily patient nature, considering that.
He is also the father of the child in Alba's womb, though he-- now-- is twenty years older than she is. It was not his present self that is responsible for it. She is the patient that most taxes his patience, on a goodly number of levels. She does not want to have this conversation, not again. She did not want to hear him explain why this was so wrong, how stunned he was when he recognized her, how he didn't know what he wanted, now with her… the thought made her sick to her stomach. When she felt the dizziness hit her and realised it wasn't just the pregnancy, she nearly fainted with relief. But instinct kicked in first, finding herself naked and face up on white tiles, staring into fluorescent lights. She sits up, moaning, and immediately grabs her womb. Nothing seems wrong-- the baby either jumped with her, or there's no weird effects, as yet. As she adjusts to her surroundings, she realises she is in a hospital laundry, judging by all the dirty scrubs, in piles. She picks a set that seem less gross than the others and a mask, not sure what to do about shoes. She slips out of the laundry and makes her way down one sterile hallway, then another, then stops. The chart on the door to the room she was about to pass reads De Tamble, Henry.
It is impossible that she not enter, and see him.
He is only semi-conscious, and thinks that she is a nurse. She almost tells him who she is, but checks herself at the last moment. Fortunately, she isn't showing yet. She comes near to the bed, and he looks up at her with no recognition.
"Mr. De Tamble," she says, almost voicelessly, "y'know, I've heard about your… condition."
"Oh?" He becomes a little more cogent, rises a bit, "You have?"
"I… used to work for Dr. Kendrick."
If he sees through the lie, he doesn't give any sign. He seems a little to out of it to realise she's not familiar to him… or maybe she is familiar to him, and he's willing to accept right now that that is why.
"I see." he says, and coughs. She clears her throat.
"You have a daughter, don't you? And she's… like you?"
Henry just coughs several more times, and she awkwardly gets him some water from the hospital room sink. He drinks it, with help, and she tries again.
"I just want to know… you know when you're going to die, don't you? Is it still worth it, to you? What if..." she bit her lip, "what if you had died a lot younger, and you'd known about it. Would you still have wanted…"
"To what?" Henry said, through much more subdued coughing, "to live?" He seemed to sink further into the pillows, "I… expect so. I don't think I'd want to know, much more in advance than…" he trailed off and was silent for a while, until she spoke up again.
"Why wouldn't I want to know, or why is it worth it?"
"You ask a lot of questions, for a nurse." But he smiled, and looked thoughtful, "I can think of any number of reasons why it is worth it. I can think of a lot of reasons why it's not either… the fear and uncertainty, the danger… when you can't control it, and you wind up in some… dangerous situations. Any one of them could have ended my life… except that I knew they didn't. Until I did." he coughed again, "You asked about my daughter… she's like me, yes. I expect you want to know why I'd do this to her, knowing that she'd… be likely to go through… this."
That wasn't at all what Alba wanted to know; that was not the part-- not precisely the part that bothered her. But… it was close enough.
"What if you knew-- what if you say, went forward in time and saw her die? What if you knew she wouldn't live past a certain age, even before she was born. Would you put her… would you put yourself through that?"
Henry blinked, fuzzily, trying to parse the question. He looked up at her, his expression clearing and growing suddenly extremely sharp, but it faded once more into contemplation.
"Would I do that to her? That's not the kind of decision I think I could make for her. I… knew that she happened. I didn't think about the rest." He was silent for a long time, enough that Alba began to wonder if he'd fallen asleep. Then he said, "I'd be more worried about my wife, putting her through that, when I'm…" he lifted his wrist's feebly, not even tugging the IV in his arm, "…useless half the time. But there's another thing." he closed his eyes, "When I die, there's still things I've gotten to see… I wouldn't have gotten to see, otherwise. I've lived across so much of time… look, I've only got a year left. That'll make me 43. I've seen and done enough… I might as well be 80. Except some things." He sighed and looked at her, a little oddly, "I wish I'd get to see more of my daughter. I can't… imagine, that I could, from this point on, and yet… well, maybe." He settled back, "Did I tell you her name?"
"No…" Alba held her tongue, though she wanted very badly to tell him that it was her, there, and he could add this to the sadly short list of times they would ever really get to talk together, as anything even sort-of like grown.
"It's Alba. Isn't that a pretty name?"
"I guess it is."
"What's your name?" She swallowed and didn't answer, but said.
"And if you knew something like that, would you tell… would you tell your wife?"
"Clare? At this point… I don't know. I think… what did you say your name was?"
He was looking at her very hard and she felt herself slipping, letting go, and his eyes getting larger and larger and then she was back in the waiting room, on the couch on top of her clothes, and Dr. Matthias is standing there with an expression exactly like the one on her father's face just moments ago. Well, not exactly. She smiles at him, a huge, cheeky grin, and puts on her stockings first, one at a time. Then she reaches for her bra, with a very languid stretch.
"I'm sorry if I kept you waiting, doctor."
He clears his throat.
"Well… get dressed, then I'll see you in my office."
"Fine." she doesn't snap at him, but smiles as sweetly as possible, and takes her own time about dressing. When she's finished, he's standing there in his office, pacing.
"You realise the risk of… jumping like that, when you're…"
"I'm pretty sure he's fine, Jules."
"How do you know it's a he?"
She nods. This is not the way this conversation usually goes, already. Dr. Matthias's hands were shaking.
"How do you know? I mean, how do you know that it's…this child, that it's…" his, of course. She sighs.
"I can do basic math. When I'm 45, I have a 15 year old son. I'm 30 now."
"There's still time…" she cuts him off, shaking her head.
"If I were to end this pregnancy, what makes you think I wouldn't end any other?"
"Have you… decided about that?"
"Whether I'm going to end it?"
He nods a very shallow nod. And she shakes her head.
"I'm not going to end it."
He exhales, his eyes closing-- whether in relief or in resignation she couldn't tell.
"How will you avoid… mishaps, if it's…"
"He will be a CDP too. I know it." Her throat is suddenly very dry, and she swallows a few times to clear it. All the moisture seems to want to go to her eyes, and she does not, by all that is holy, want to cry right now, "I guess… I can sense when he's jumping, and I can jump with him. And he with me. It's… safer, apparently, somehow, when we're both… this way."
"Oh…" his geneticist brain switches on visibly, and Alba tries not to roll her eyes. The mental note-filing is short lived, however, and his expression falls back again to confusion. "Alba… look. We've talked before about… you know, why I said no to you, when you… propositioned me."
"I know." Her throat dries up again. And it occurs to her suddenly, all of the times that she has seen the Event, spoken to her older selves, even found herself outside of that apartment staring at the street where it would one day happen-- she has no idea whether or not she was in a relationship or no. Or with whom. The uncertainty tilts her equilibrium as he keeps talking, finishing with, "…considering the circumstances, I feel it… well, I wanted to offer, anyway. To marry you."
She stares at him, dumbly.
"That's it?" She buries her head in her hands, and he starts towards her.
"I didn't mean to insult you…"
"That's not it." She pulls her hands away from her face and shoves them under her legs. It is part of it, but not the main part of it. She looks up at his face-- gentle, lined with concern-- not so technically handsome as he had been at twenty-five, at grad school when she met him the first time, or at his PHD party at 27, or any of the times in-between when they have seen each other casually, flirtatiously, him not knowing quite who or what she is, until the one time… She still finds him more attractive now, experience and life having worn his features. She loves this face, that goes without saying. Other things… cannot, in fact, go without saying. "He dies, Jules. At the age of 15. He materializes in front of a car, and it kills him."
Dr. Matthias looks as though she has struck him, and that is not far from what has just happened. His mouth forms words that look like, "how do you know?" but he knows how she knows, and she continues to tell him.
"It happens, Jules. I've seen it. I've seen it more than once. I've seen myself seeing it, /lots/ of myself, forty fucking Albas, all watching their son die of a sudden, stupid accident. So if you want to marry me because of a baby, a child that we're going to have together-- don't bother. It doesn't last long enough to try to build a life on. I'm… I'm sorry. When I jumped your bones back in aught-10-- for you-- I didn't expect this. I wasn't thinking. It was stupid and I'm sorry."
"Do you know if… you know, we?" She blinks at him and he tries again, "I mean, are you saying this because you already know that I don't marry you?"
A nod would be easier, but she shakes her head, "No, I don't know one way or the other. It's…" she snorts derisively, "never come up, when I'm pulled forward." Still, the way he's put it feels like an answer, and she starts to get up, "don't worry, I'll bring him here still, for research purposes… unless that would make you uncomfortable."
"No! I mean… no, that would not make me uncomfortable." He shakes his head, "fifteen years…?"
She nods. "Yes. I've seen myself hold him in my arms. He dies. But--" She swallows, "by that time, he'll have been elsewhen so much, that he'll have had a thirty-year old's experiences. And maybe something in him will help… someone else. I don't know. But I intend to find out." She forces herself to smile, as she cannot even begin to read his expression. "But Jules… I just wanted to sleep with you, I wasn't asking for more than that."
"More has happened, Alba." The doctor's expression was bordering on impatient, at the very least, "Don't get me wrong, I am… as I'm pretty sure I've indicated before, I was worried about the risk but I didn't want you to go and… end it, just like that."
"Well… good, I guess." she shrugs. "Is there anything else, then?"
"Alba…" He picks up a box from the desk, fiddling with it, "would you marry me?"
"In what context? Or are you actually asking?" She stands, not looking directly at him.
"I'm actually asking."
She turns, fully. He is practically radiating nervousness. She feels as though she ought to be, but it's some how… all smooth. Slowed down. Some moments stretch on for ages, in the same way that others happen over, and over… she realises that she is nodding, and she suddenly shakes her head, and he blinks, startled.
"No. At least… not yet."
"Ask me tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow morning." And she has put her hands on his shoulders, and is kissing him, and this time, he is letting her do it. He is even kissing her back, his arms around her waist, and she wonders if it could have been any other way, ever, even a little bit. And she wonders if it will last, or if she wants to know. But he has pulled his mouth away, though he is still holding her.
"Thank you," he says, "for telling me."
Something about that-- him saying that-- is a shock, but she understands. The pain is better to manage, when it is a known quantity. Fifteen years, they'll have with the boy. Fifteen years... Alba considers her own life, twice that, and nearly quadruple in some ways. It will be enough time. It will have to be enough.