Joe had always been a thinker. He'd figured out early on that it was the difference between his mother and folk who didn't sell their kids for Drop money. It didn't matter how strong you were, how fast, even how smart. If you didn't take your time and think, the maze would run you into a dead end. You needed a map. You needed to make a map.
His map led to France. He hadn't thought about what he'd do when he got there. It was enough to get there. Further than anyone else he knew had ever gone. And now it wasn't enough.
He'd thought about it. That life the other him had claimed to lead. A wife. No scars. Well-fed. More than he could've hoped for, once. It wasn't worth it.
He couldn't think. He'd thought enough, he'd rationalized enough, he'd justified enough. No more schemes. Time to pay out.
The blunderbuss spun smoothly in his hands, like he'd practiced this a thousand times. For the first time, it was aimed at him. He joined the legion who'd seen the same thing, also at his hand. His thoughts clawed at his decision like an animal in a trap. Would it hurt, would he go somewhere? Stupid stuff. He'd never cared before, why should he now?
He put his finger on the trigger; he'd done it so many times before. He looked at Sara. That was for the last time as well. He didn't want the last thing he saw to be a blunderbuss. Piece of shit gun anyway.
He looked and saw the old Joe looking back at him, that false mirror. His gun was at his side in another bad reflection. Cid was getting away. Sara was still alive.
And the old man just stared, shaking his head in denial, in confusion. "You stupid motherfucker, it's all fog," he said, looked back at Sara, sagged his shoulders and wasn't there.
A little while later, Joe stopped pointing the gun at himself.
It was over. Both Sara and Joe could sense it, but she wasn't as used to trusting her instincts as he was. Her system split the difference and threw her into a panic.
"Where'd he go?" she demanded of Joe, her voice finally cracking. "Where is he?"
Joe shrugged. "I don't know. Somewhere he can't come back from."
Her eyes scrambled over Joe, looking for lies. Apparently she didn't find any. Relief and weariness combined to overwhelm her. "We're safe then." It was almost a question.
He nodded, as much as he could.
She fell to her knees. Joe was too tired to do the same. "We should go find the kid before he gets himself lost."
That, if nothing else, revitalized Sara. She offered her hand and Joe pulled her up. Cid hadn't gone far. He was just within the cane. Watching.
Sara and Cid had already packed, but their ride had been destroyed. The van Joe's loop had driven in still worked, but it was on its side. Sara had a jack in the barn. Joe occupied himself with it.
Sara had packed only the essentials, but now she had time to decide what to take. Favorite toys, sentimental photos, a few things of Sara's sister's. Joe thought of going back to his apartment. There was nothing stopping him, he just couldn't think of anything to take with him. Except the silver, of course. And there was enough of that in the van.
He carried a box of Sara's nonessentials to the van for her. It was heavy.
"What's your plan?" she asked, trying to sound like she didn't care.
"France," Joe said without thinking. Then, considering it: "We'll head up through Canada, cash the silver in, split it fifty-fifty if that's alright by you. I only want what I've earned."
"You could have all of it if you wanted." It was half a statement, half an offer.
"I don't. Just what's mine. Once we're past the border, anyone following us will be either shaken loose or too good for me to ever shake. So we say our goodbyes there."
"And you go to France?" she asked, getting the van door for him.
He rolled his shoulders. It would've been a personal question, if he cared. "I already learned the lingo. Besides, I hate Chinese food."
"And you'll be safe there?"
He wondered whether having thirty years before his loop got closed would count as a yes or as a no. Last week, he'd been sure of at least thirty years. Now he just had uncertainty. "Safer than I've had before."
"Would we be safe there?" Sara was talking about herself and her son. Not the three of them.
"Don't know. I never checked the school system."
She grinned. He hadn't expected one of those so soon. "So it's as safe as anywhere?"
"Right. But I'll be there."
"Yeah, you will," she said, gentle before growing serious. "Do you mind the company?"
France was popular this time of year.
His eyes jumped away. "It's a free country. I can't control what bus ticket you buy."
"We're taking a train."
If you'd have asked him yesterday, Joe would've said he had no opinion on trains. Riding one, he came to a realization. It was awful. Brought back memories, being a kid, escaping from the panhandle gang with blood running over his skin until he hopped a baggage car. A shaking, jarring ride feeling filthy, diseased. He cleaned himself off without getting clean. No running water, no soap. Ended up just… presentable. Got used to that.
But Sara liked traveling that way. She'd always wanted to take Cid on a train ride but never had anywhere to go. The kid hadn't ever been outside the fucking county.
Cid didn't seem to appreciate the novelty. He gazed out the windows, the miles passing with every minute, and his expression didn't change with them. His fathomless eyes just blinked now and again.
Joe tried to sleep, but couldn't. Sara tried, couldn't. Cid finally succeeded. He laid halfway out of his seat, sprawling into Sara's, her thin hands in his hair, touching it like she was holding a live-wire. Afraid of waking him up. Afraid of the nightmares he might be having.
Joe looked at her. She looked at him. It got to the point where someone had to say something.
"It may be I've given you the wrong idea," Sara said. Enunciating very clearly. Each word refined in her head.
He played along. "Which is?"
"Cid looks up to you, for one thing. And there's an obvious chemistry between us."
"There is?" he asked, same tone, and then smiled to get her to stop taking it so seriously.
Not that it worked. "So maybe," she barreled on, "you got an impression that there's something between us." He raised an eyebrow, showing that he got it. Like in one of his movies. The cowboy met a widower and her kid, you could tell where he'd be hanging his hat after the showdown. On she barreled. "What's there, isn't that."
"Clearly." She looked at him, her eyes narrow. His head shook. "Father of the year material doesn't think about killing the kid."
The crazy thing was, Sara relaxed at that. "You'd be surprised."
"You deserve father of the year. So you're right not to want me. I wouldn't."
Sara and Cid slept in shifts like they were guarding something. A coincidence. When Cid was up, he asked how Joe had gotten the silver onto the train without anyone noticing. Joe explained about the loophole that let you transport next to anything. So long as you paid a 3D print guy to build a 'cultural artifact' around your contraband and forged a museum pass for it, the feds didn't care. All their energy went toward drugs and bombs, like an explosion would make a difference in most cities.
Cid listened, wide-eyed. It occurred to Joe that this was the kind of thing the Rainmaker would know. He accepted that. It felt the same way it had to pick up a blunderbuss, knowing one day it would be pointed back at him. Good.
As they talked, Cid turned over a train token in his hand. It was a coin the size of a quarter built around a microchip the size of a dime. The checkpoint sensors scanned it to see he wasn't a stowaway vagrant. As Joe trailed off, not wanting to go into the various ways and orifices that people smuggled drugs, the token took flight. It flitted unevenly over Cid's cupped palm, a hummingbird over a flower.
"That's pretty good," Joe said. A lack of anything to say but appraisal.
"I'm not supposed to." Cid kept doing it.
"Have you tried going any higher?"
"It goes bad."
That happened to Seth too, though his TK just fizzled out. Cid's probably broke the roof. The trick, Seth said, was concentration. No shit. "Are you forcing it?"
Cid's head tilted back and forth, like one of those drinking bird toys after you gave it a push.
"Don't. Just try and ease it up. Like you're blowing on it."
Cid's little brow furrowed. The token fluttered more erratically. Bird with a broken wing. But it was higher.
"See? That's not bad. How long can you keep it like that?"
"Looks pretty cozy up there. Want me to time it?"
Joe took out his pocket watch and saw the seconds tick by.
Canada hadn't taken the Bust well. All the healthcare they were so proud of suddenly wasn't an option anymore. Didn't help that the vagrants were crossing the borders by the millions. When the government cut back, a lot of people wouldn't take it. They started throwing Molotovs, like that would lower the price of aspirin. Martial law went into effect. It still was. The cops in America might not've done their job, but at least they wouldn't shoot you for looking at them funny.
Still, you knew the terrain, and you didn't take chances, Canada was a good detour. Snow. Which Joe was used to from Kansas, but this was clean, white. Nice. That was because travel was restricted and there was a curfew at nine o'clock, but it still looked nice.
Joe'd heard about a place that didn't ask too many questions, but asked enough for you to be sure that you wouldn’t be sleeping next door to one of the nastier vagrants. It was a Motel 8 way outside Winnipeg; even though the franchise had gone belly-up, the manager had never taken down the sign. It was still there when they drove up, so Joe guessed the right man was still in charge.
He definitely knew what was expected, taking a bar of silver and giving Joe a room that would let him see anyone coming. The motel had fire-gutted buildings on three sides, debris-strewn yards, so if you wanted through, coming from the road was the best bet. It made every passing set of headlights as threatening as a switchblade opening.
Their rooms were next to each other. Joe lingered at his door, watching Sara and Cid go in theirs. She was carrying him. He heard the bedsprings whine with Cid's weight, then Sara's tired footsteps back, and the door creaking as it shut. Finally the locks. Satisfied, he went into his room. Locked the door behind him.
It'd been a long drive from the train station to here, even longer when he had to pull over to the side of the road and disable the rental van's tracker. He could've afforded to just flat out buy a new car, but by the end of the week he'd be in Europe and he wasn't bringing anything. He had to be thrifty, even if he was technically rich. Real rich people were cautious. That's why he never saw them. They never came where they could get a bullet in the brain.
Weird feeling, having money to spend and still budgeting. It was the kind of thing he'd say out loud, and it wouldn't sound like him. He'd never thrown money around, but he'd still been flashy with it. Drugs, girls, more drugs. After all, any day he might get the golden pay-out. He could be frugal with that. And now here he was, with ten times that payday, and he hadn't spent a dime on his old lifestyle's two biggest expenditures.
It amazed Joe, but the room's web terminal still worked. Apparently crooks got better service than straights. He logged into some forums he knew and checked out China. Wasn't so bad. You couldn't talk shit about the government, but Joe hadn't been in the habit of doing that back in the States. They said there was a president. Joe had never seen his face.
All it took was some money to the right Party officials and you could get yourself set up as a Friend of the Revolution. Nice house. Three meals a day. Servants, even. Then you just found a sweatshop to invest in and you were set for life.
Joe didn't know if the girl his other self had talked about was there, but the old man had had some tattoos, looked Asian. And with the way Abe kept harping on him about China, maybe it was fate.
He wondered if the girl, whoever the hell she was, would even notice him outside whatever fucked-up Florence Nightingale situation they'd gotten into way back forward. Or maybe it was true love, love at first sight, didn't matter if he was a priest and she was a hooker or if she was a princess and he was a peasant, they'd just fit together.
Maybe that's what this feeling was. There was a gap in him she was supposed to fill.
Not that he believed in love. He'd seen the Hallmark e-mails, they had all kinds of shit about a mother's love. If they'd gotten that wrong…
He heard the ripped up bits of plastic cup he'd strewn under the welcome mat as an early warning system. Grabbed his gat. Then came the knock at the door. Still keeping his fingers around the gun, he looked through the peephole. Sara.
"Cid's asleep. Out like a light," she said, when he opened the door for her. "I think it conks him out, doing that…"
She didn't finish. He understood. Lots of things were easier when you didn't talk about them.
"You don't want to sleep in the same room as him?"
"It's not that. You eaten?"
He shook his head. "I'm not hungry."
"You didn't eat in the car either. It's the drugs, right?"
"Don't know. Never went off 'em before."
"I have. You need to eat. Unless you want to wake up in the hospital with a tube down your throat."
"Would you recommend it?" he asked, too seriously to be serious.
"Not highly." She grinned, which kept it from being as funny as it would've been otherwise. Dim future for a stand-up comedian there.
He looked around. "There'll be a Chinese menu around here. I'll order something."
"No need. They leave food in the refrigerator. All you have to do is heat it up."
"You can afford it."
"You already cooked something for Cid."
"It's on a simmer."
"I don't think I've ever eaten something that's been simmering before."
"You can't have any. That's why I'm cooking you something else."
She made her way to the refrigerator. Joe sat down on the bed. The TV was on, an old 1080p model that was still 2D. About all it could show in the right aspect ratio was the news, and that wasn't interesting. More wars, more corruption, more unemployment. But animal control had caught an ostrich that escaped from the zoo and returned it to its family. That was something.
Sara rooted through the minifridge, her ass in the air. Joe tried not to take an interest in that.
"Whatever they have is probably going to taste terrible."
"Yes," Sara answered. "But if you mix a few of the meals up just right, you can have something halfway decent. Trust me. I've lived in enough motel rooms."
"Most guys let you stay the night if you promise them something in the morning. Then they leave. You have time for a quick meal before someone tries to kick you out."
In the movies, people always said that stuff in such a poor, beleaguered, woe-is-me way, like they were reading emo poetry or something. But when you'd been through it, it was just a part of your life. Sara said it as casually as she would tell him what she had for breakfast that morning.
It was weird, Joe supposed. The movie way was better.
"How does…" she paused, double-checking her ingredients, "ravioli and cream of mushroom soup over meatloaf sound?"
"Good. You'll see what a genius I am when it tastes delicious."
It wasn't a five-star meal, but it was better than the bachelor chow he was used to. Maybe she was a genius. One of those autistic types who could figure pi to the five hundred decimal but couldn't tie their shoelaces. He told her so. She laughed.
"I forgot what it was like just chatting over a nice meal. Cid's great, but his opinions on world news are a little juvenile."
Joe smiled, surprised it wasn't just a polite thing, something to fill his face. "Try finding a hooker who's seen the latest episode of Guidance Lake."
She picked up her next bite quietly.
"Probably shouldn't have mentioned hookers," he told himself caustically.
"Yeah, it's none too charming. Good thing we already slept together." Sara guzzled the complimentary whiskey, hundred bucks a bottle. "So, was I better?"
"Wasn't even close."
"Flattery, Joe? We already slept together."
"Maybe I want seconds."
She lit a cigarette afterward. He asked about it.
"Because I'm not a bastion of self-control. Just so you know, you try that seconds line on anyone else, you're getting your ass kicked."
"Yeah, I was talking about the meal." He gestured for the cigarette. She passed it over and let him have a puff. "You were saying about self-control?"
She took the cigarette back. "No matter what I do with patches or gum, I'm gonna want cigarettes. My body drives a hard bargain. So I tell myself 'you can have a cigarette, just not right now. You have to wait a bit.' And I don't want a cigarette so much."
"You can't just quit?"
She stared at the cigarette tip oozing smoke. "Maybe I don't want to." No longer introspective, she clenched the cigarette in her teeth and spoke through its filter. Her words came out muffled. "I heard you playing with Cid on the train."
"I thought you were asleep."
"I kept my eyes closed."
"You're that scared of him?"
"I know that much about what he can do."
"He's not some nuke you can keep under lock and key."
"No, he's my son." She was out of bed then, pulling clothes on, a wisp of smoke from the cigarette following her around.
"Don't," Joe said, not knowing how else to say it.
"For the first time in his life, his childhood, he has a morsel of control and you're pushing him." She sounded bitter.
"He's going to learn one way or another. I'd rather it be at the shooting range than in a war zone."
She hurled herself so close to him that her cigarette nearly put his eye out. "I don't want him to know how to shoot a gun at all! He's my son, he's going to have a good life!"
He took the cigarette out of her mouth before she could burn him with it. Stubbed it into the ashtray on the nightstand. "He's going to be the Rainmaker. He's going to use his TK like a flamethrower on anyone who gets in his way. If you start getting used to the idea now, it'll hurt less.
She just stared at him, her mouth a line, her eyes dots. He just kept stubbing out the cigarette. Grinding it down to nothing.
"And I know what you're thinking. You've got a hell of a poker face, but there's only one thing you could be thinking. 'I'm here now and I died before, so it's going to be different. I have money now and I didn't before, it'll be different.' But we don't have any way of knowing how many times we've ridden the merry-go-round. Maybe it really is different. Or maybe in thirty years, I go back and I do everything I saw myself do and another me ends up here, with you, saying these same words and hoping that it's for the first time. Odds are it isn't. I don't know how time travel works, but I know how the world does. Toast lands with the butter down. And either way, you're going to be there. You're going to watch him grow up. You're going to see what he becomes. Whatever happens to me, there's no reason to think you won't be right there with him. But the truth is… the truth is, you stop caring now and it won't break your heart."
"Then," she finally said, "why don't you just kill him?"
Joe's shoulders rolled. "I don't care if he destroys the world. Don't care if he saves it. He's just a kid. He's your kid."
Sara kept staring at him. He tried kissing her. It didn't work.
"Don't follow us," she said and was out the door.
They took the car and half the money. He watched her count it. There was a sense of relief when he was alone. He'd expected this. Wanted it. Just glad it hadn’t hurt more.
He stayed in the motel. He didn't leave the room. He watched the news. War, corruption, etc. No psychic explosions.
How long would it take him to get drops? Maybe an hour, making certain that the first sleaze he found wasn't a cop. In an hour, he could be high.
It was a wonderful feeling. The eyes were always looking. Awake, they saw opportunities and threats. Asleep, they saw nightmares. On the Drop, you gave your eyes a rest after a lifetime of straining them, trying to see what was coming or to look away.
He was almost clean. Before, it'd felt like the shakes would never end. He could feel them getting weaker now. He could drop in one hour and it'd be like none of this had ever happened.
Maybe that was why he didn't.
Joe went online to order a ticket for China.
No planes until next week. Not much air traffic these days. Three days of waiting. He could look right outside the window and see men in too-expensive clothes standing on street corners. How many of them would know what he was talking about if he asked for the Drop? How many of them would give him a price?
There was a convenience store just beyond them. Joe walked to it, picked up a bottle of Wild Turkey, two more to be safe, and a novelty shotglass to give the impression he wouldn't be drinking from the bottle. It had a maple leaf on it. Oh, Canada.
Back in the motel room, he played a little game. He took a shot every time the news said a celebrity had been arrested. It was at least a little slower than just chugging the bottle.
He drank until it stopped burning on the way down. Vomited. Drank some more to wash the taste out of his mouth. It reminded him of a movie. The Lost Weekend. Personal favorite. Wouldn't mind going out that way. Carrying a hangover into eternity.
Maybe he wasn't supposed to live past the cane fields. Maybe there was still a loop out there, an old man with scars or metal eyes or a hook for a hand, slowly catching up with him. And the only way to outrun him was to stop. He'd shoot past Joe. Disappear in the horizon.
Suri Cruise had been arrested for illegal stem cell surgery. He took a shot.
He woke up. One of the bottles had tipped over and spilled on the carpet. The floor smelled like whiskey. Sara was there, sitting on the bed, which he wasn't in. He'd fallen asleep on the floor. It was harder than it looked; his bones felt like they'd been taken out and then put back in at the wrong angles.
Sara was smoking. Not the cool, satisfied languor of a post-coital cigarette, but fidgety and sucking, a chain-smoker needing their fix. "Cid wouldn't stop asking about you. And I forgot my goddamned cigarettes."
He counted the bottles. One was in his hand, one was on the floor. He looked around for the other one. It was by the sink. Empty.
She'd poured it out. Bitch.
He might've muttered something to that effect.
"Well, you've traded eye drops for alcohol. It's cheaper, at least." Her cigarette was halfway ash. Another puff and she started to calm down. "I'm going to the drug store to get some Dog-Hair. Try not moving."
He gave it a shot. The light coming through the windows clawed at his eyelids, trying to get in. His head was three sizes too big. His weekend wasn't lost. Nothing was. He remembered it all. He could look at his arm and remember carving in the healing scar. Beatrice. Too many letters.
Sara came back. She brought Cid with her. He heard them talking outside the door, her explaining that he was feeling sick. Their words were loud as church bells. Then she came in, slapped a Dog-Hair patch on him, and waited for it to cure his hangover. Cid sat down by his leg, butt on his shoe, and rolled a toy car around on the whiskey-soaked carpet. He seemed calm, being so close. Joe recognized the look from Sara, working her cigarette nice and easy.
He reached for his watch as the Dog-Hair worked its magic. He couldn't get it open, so he went to sleep with it in his palm, feeling the gears at work against his fingers.
He woke up again. Cid was gone. Sara wasn't. His head was clear.
"Where is he?" Joe asked, ripping what was left of the Dog-Hair patch off his arm.
"There's another kid who lives here with a full set of Toyekon action figures, whatever those are. They're playing in the courtyard."
"You're not worried they'll get into a fight? Start…" Joe made a gesture vaguely reminiscent of death and destruction.
"I have to trust him sometime, don't I?"
Joe got up. Stretched. The motel room had been tidied up. He wished she wouldn't do stuff like that. If she was going to leave, leave. Don't make domestic gestures and try to 'mend fences' or 'give it one more shot'. Stupid people did that. Stupid people who didn't know how short life was.
"So why'd you come back?"
"I was thinking 'bout what your loop told you. About what you told me. The way he just… disappeared at the end there."
"I don't think too much about that stuff."
"I do." Sara walked around. Her fingers twitched, touching her lips. Wishing she was smoking but not.
Joe sat down on the couch, found Cid's car between the seat cushions, poking into his hip. He took it out and set it on the armrest. When he turned back, Sara had sat down beside him. Again, there was that nervousness and then that nervousness going away. He was starting to think it had something to do with him.
"If you'd shot yourself, he wouldn't exist anymore, would he? That's why you pointed the gun where you did, right?"
He wished he was drunk again. "Right."
"What about the decision you made? That you would rather die than hurt Cid? Wouldn't that make a difference?"
"I don't know. It's not an exact science. Hell, it's barely science at all. Anytime someone describes it to me, it sounds more like witchcraft or something."
"Okay, but you say he remembered her, this woman who died. But she was fuzzy. What if… Christ." She stood up again. He was getting dizzy, trying to keep an eye on her. "What if he forgot her? All about her? And instead he remembered another life, because in that moment, when you chose to sacrifice yourself, you changed your future? So maybe he… you… end up somewhere else?"
"You know how thin that sounds? Maybe this, maybe that—maybe a butterfly flapped its wings in Brazil and because of that an anvil's going to land on my head tomorrow, and that's why he disappeared."
For some reason that made her smile. "You don't like going easy on yourself, do you?"
"I heard from the one guy I trust that I'm a pathetic junkie sponge that gets women killed."
"You didn't see the way he looked at me, did you?"
Joe shook his head.
"That last moment—it was like he recognized me. And I looked into his eyes and I…"
She broke off there. Didn't want to say something. Maybe she didn't like going easy on herself either.
"What?" Joe insisted.
"It looked something like what I see in yours. When you look at me. There's a kind of regret and a kind of… protectiveness, I guess you'd call it. I don't know what it means yet. I'd like to find out."
He looked over at the web terminal. The window was still open with the tickets he'd ordered to China. Another one was beside it, showing flight times to Paris.
Another one was a report on the school system there.
"And you're not worried I'm going to turn your son into fucking Darth Vader?"
"You cared about someone so much you were willing to die. Just… die, in a field, out in the sun, like a goddamn vagrant. Teach him that. Teach him that, and it's reason enough for me to be in love with you."
He took a long time to say anything. Just sitting on that couch like an idiot. Hearing all the qualifications, all the rationalizations that could be in what she'd said, and what was underneath them.
He'd never really thought about love before. But someone coming back after they said they were leaving… that'd never happened before. So maybe it counted. Who knew.
"They'll charge us extra. Changing flights, destinations, adding two seats. And there'll be more money to smuggle. I was planning to put mine in a plaster cast, maybe if I had more than one it would all fit. And I—" He stopped talking. Her fingers were in his hair, like she couldn't resist touching him, like she needed to know the feel of him. He looked up at her. She was beaming at him, a kind of… almighty great tolerance in her eyes. There was nothing he could do to drive her off, nothing he had he would sacrifice her for.
Thirty years to live, maybe. Or more, even. Suddenly it didn't seem too long. Or too short.