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Paris or Maybe Hell

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When he conquers the secret of time, the first thing he does, of course, is rescue Mischa. He is eight years old, but well built and sturdy. He tackles the brigand around the knees and brings him down. He takes the hunting knife and cuts his throat.

He bursts into tears, because he is only eight years old and he is very tired.

*

He fries the brigand in a pan and discusses things with Mischa in her high chair. "Should I have saved Mama?" he asks her.

Mischa sticks the entire piece of tenderloin in her mouth. "Mama?" she mumbles. She is only two, and her table manners are very poor.

She barely knows their mother. But--"Nanny," he says, and Mischa's face collapses, and she wails.

*

So he goes back two more weeks and saves the nursery maid. His parents had been killed first, first Father and then Mama, and Nanny had been wounded when she attacked and killed the other brigand, and then the remaining brigand had killed her. So he inserted himself in the time between the death of the brigand and the death of Nanny and he tackled the brigand, which worked just as well as it would work two weeks in the future.

Nanny kills the brigand once he's on the floor, which Hannibal hadn't expected; then she grabs him and squeezes him and calls him a good, brave boy.

He doesn't cry. He isn't as hungry this time. They are not yet starving. He binds Nanny's wound, and they cast the body of the brigand out into the snow, and she makes potato soup for Hannibal and Mischa and counts the remaining potatoes with a worried look.

Three weeks later, when they have eaten all the potatoes and killed the barn cat and learned that it is very difficult to set traps for rabbits, they harvest the body of the brigand. Nanny, her face hard, cuts him up with an axe.

*

The snows are very deep. It is twenty-three miles to the town, Nanny says, over and over, as they dig bushes out of the snow to harvest tiny, frozen, forgotten berries, as they comb through the forest floor for dead mice and mushrooms. Hannibal is terribly thin. Mischa's face is losing its roundness. In the other reality, Hannibal had walked the twenty-three miles, arriving silent and half-frozen in the town. He tells Nanny he can walk it, they can walk it, they can carry Mischa, but she says no, Mischa will freeze, and he knows she is correct. He could never have done it with the added weight and without a good meal.

If only they had not burned the car, she says. That is the first thing that happened: the coach house burned down. Father went out to see, and he was killed. Mama came after him, and she was killed. Nanny protected the children.

If they do not survive the winter, Hannibal supposes he will have to rescue his parents.

*

His memories of the future slip and fade. His adult mind does not fit into a child's brain, he thinks, and then he forgets that too. He makes traps, he climbs trees to net birds, he becomes tough and rough and strong.

In the hard, hard spring, with no sign of thaw, with no food anywhere, no mice or rabbits, when Hannibal is giving Mischa tree bark and boiled leather to eat, Nanny is too weak to move. She calls Hannibal over and tells him to fetch a knife and a bowl. "You must live," she says, placing the knife at her own throat.

He could turn back the months. He could save his parents, prevent it from happening. He has nearly done it a hundred times.

But the love in her eyes, this shining, desperate love. The silence of the forest and the house. His freedom from his father.

His knife is at her throat and she is weeping. "I love you," she says, and he cuts her throat.

*

After the thaw, they walk down into the town. Hannibal has a vague memory of an orphanage in another reality, of grim faces, and so he steals a bicycle and keeps going west.

Mischa sits in the basket and the roundness comes back into her face and she starts to laugh again. Hannibal steals food and replacement tyres from Polish villages and keeps going.

By the time they get to the West German border, it is full summer. They are deeply tanned, their hair bleached white. They are well fed. Mischa knows how to tend a fire and sleep on the ground. She knows how to hide in plain sight and not make a sound. Her little legs are hard with muscle.

The crossing from East Germany to West Germany is not trivial. He considers going around, and he steals a clean uniform and a school book bag and sits in a library with Mischa, studying maps of Czechoslovakia. But it's so far, and they have nearly been caught so many times already. He just wants to cross.

The border is made of two steel mesh fences, widely spaced. One side is West Germany. One side is East Germany. The middle is forbidden land. Hannibal is nine years old now, and very good at climbing. He picks his night, straps Mischa to his back, and crosses the first fence with ease.

He steps on a mine. He has seconds, before he fully bleeds out, to rewind time.

*

He hugs Mischa. She hugs back, although she does not understand why he is upset. He thinks of her shriek in his ear as the mine ripped through them, and he bicycles south.

They are caught by police as he returns to the village where he stole the uniform. He rewinds again.

*

It makes him confused to have lived this day twice already. Did they eat at noon, or was that another reality? Does he know that face from today or another today? Finally he climbs a tree and sits, staring up at the sky. Mischa eats a ripe pear and pats his face to comfort him.

He looks at the border. The thought of the mined ground makes him sick--the shriek, the sight of his legs--so he will not go that way again.

The road, of course, cannot be mined. He looks at it. The fortifications are heaviest there. Guard towers. Lights. The tallest fences.

He has become a good hunter. He lies still, out of sight along the branch, and watches all day. They eat bread and cheese from his pockets and he watches. Mischa falls asleep at his side and he watches all night. Several moments he rewinds and watches again, over and over.

When he is ready, he rewinds one more time. He picks up Mischa and slips down the tree.

He waits. When the guard relieves himself, he climbs the gate and then stands in the precise shadow of the light pole. Mischa is awake but still and silent on his back. He counts until the moment when the guard sneezes and his glasses fall off, and then Hannibal runs.

It is half a kilometer to the second fence. A dog barks, but it is too far away to catch him. The other guard shouts, "Halt! Halt or I shoot!" Hannibal counts paces and braces himself to rewind.

"Halt!" the guard shouts again, sounding strained. "Halt! I will shoot you!"

But he does not shoot. Hannibal sees the West German guards on the other side of the wall. He hears East German guards pounding after him. He runs until he cannot breathe, Mischa clinging painfully to his hair, and he is at the fence, and the West German guard sticks his bent knee through the bars, and Hannibal leaps and steps on the man's thigh and catches the top of the fence and he is over.

He lies on the ground, panting. He hears German yells and German taunts. The West Germans are cheering him, giving them water.

"Hey! Kid, are you German?"

Hannibal takes a deep breath and answers in French: "We are citizens of France. Please call my uncle. He will be missing us."

*

It works. He stays up for a further day as phone calls are made, as he and Mischa are bathed and fed and seen by a doctor, as the West German guard tousles his hair and shows him the bruise Hannibal's foot left on his thigh with a laugh. He is ready, at any moment, to rewind, but then they are put in a car and driven to Brussels, and in Brussels they are put in a car to Paris, and Hannibal finally collapses into sleep when he sees the sign for the border.

*

Hannibal wakes when the car door opens. He jumps upright, clutching Mischa to him.

"My God, you look so much like Simonetta," a man says.

Hannibal swallows. "Uncle?"

"I am your Uncle Robert." He is a thin man with a long face. "I know you, of course, Hannibal. Hannibal the Eighth. And this is Margryta?"

"We call her Mischa."

"And your parents...but excuse me, you are tired. Are you hungry?" Uncle Robert extends his hand.

Hannibal slides out of the car, carrying Mischa. He looks up at the house. It reminds him of home. He feels that he should weep, from joy or fear or just the end of their journey, but his eyes are entirely dry.