The taser fits right in my hand: light as a pack of cigarettes and cool as a sleeping beetle.
“Press the button,” says the man from the future.
I press it and the taser spits a fat blue spark. Pigeons flee over the bazaar at Future Pier and I laugh out loud.
It’s the spring of 1930, with grass blades peeking out of the mud and the kind of Chicago air that you might like to swim up into.
“Rudolf’ll be sore when he finds us,” Billy frets.
I give my little brother a pat on his cap and glance around the bazaar for signs of the approach of any son of a meat-magnate. “You let me handle Rudolf, kid.”
“And he’ll tell Mother.”
“I’ll handle Mother too.”
Billy gives me a dubious look.
“I will,” I tell him.
In fact what I intend is avoiding Mother entirely during the Preunion party. Afterward I’ll escape her house and go frolic at liberty through the seedy underbelly of Chicago. When I return home safely on the day after tomorrow, Mother will be so impressed at my foresight and self-reliance, she’ll have no choice but to cut the apron strings.
Billy isn’t done whining. “I don’t like that dingus, Ruth. Who do you need to give the electric cure, anyhow? You could knock somebody up with that thing.”
“Um,” says the man from the future. “What. No?”
“He means kill someone,” I translate.
“Oh. Naw. Hurts like fuck, though.” The man grins at our expressions. “That’s the way we talk where I come from, kids.”
The salesman’s fresh complexion and the zipper on his cardigan make him look like a kid himself. And not a rich one, judging by the blue canvas pants with the rips across their knees. He doesn’t act like a street urchin, though. He acts like a grifter.
“Now,” says the man from the future, “if you guys do want to kill somebody, I stock a little magic trick that’ll be illegal as soon as your government finds out about it…”
Billy grimaces as if someone has snuck a slingshot onto the school yard. “You can’t sell deadly weapons to girls.”
“What? Where’s the girl?” The salesman squints at me. “He mean you? You told me you were 19.”
“You bet I did,” I say. “And I was on the up and up.”
The man from the future scowls. “Shit, you Up-timers. Learn to speak modern English.”
That comes out “learn-na speak marrern Ing-lish.” Some kind of English this mug speaks.
“I’ll take the taser,” I enunciate clearly, “if you would be so kind as to sell it to me, sir.”
The grifter’s shoulders move. “That’ll be 5 dollars.”
Billy whistles. “You could eat out for a week on that.”
I pat my coat’s pockets. We’re both dressed for the party with our up-time relatives, me in my cloche hat and evening dress under the coat that’s almost too heavy the weather, Billy in a more fashionable cap and cardigan. The knee-socks spoil the look, though.
“Why do you want that taser dingus anyhow?” he whines.
“Why, to grill five sacks of hamburgers,” I say, “with onions and pickles. What do you think I need it for?” I find my roll of cash, peel off a bill, and hand it to the grifter.
“Awesome,” he says. “Anything else I can interest you in? If you’re into personal defense, I’ve got mace, keychain weapons, Swiss army knives…”
I don’t see any maces or chains. Or the Swiss army, neither, but before I can ask for clarification, Billy tugs on my sleeve.
“Don’t run away, Ruth.”
I sigh. Billy found out about my run-away plan this morning, when he saw that roll of cash.
“I’ll only be gone for a night or two,” I tell him. “And dummy up about it.”
“What’s the point if you’ll only be gone a day?”
“You want me to stay away forever? And I said dummy up.”
Billy’s voice drops to an agonized whisper. “But Mother says the streets full of down-time disintegrators and ray-guns getting sold to malcontents and agitators.”
I hold up the taser. “Maybe I’m looking forward to doing some agitating of my own, hey?”
I put the taser down, though, and wipe the smile off my face, when I see Rudolf.
“Ruth,” my suitor slips through the crowd with the determination of a spawning trout. The face of one, too. “Billy. There you are.”
“Rudolf.” I mutter the down-time merchant’s vulgar word and stuff the cash and the taser into my pockets. “There you are. Because we have also been looking for you.”
Rudolf stares me in the eye and smiles with his lower lip. Maybe he’s trying to tell me something with that look he’s giving me, or maybe it’s just gas. It’s hard to tell with him.
Rudolf Bleirer is the son of a baron of sausages, and has spent the fall and winter asked me to marry him on a more or less weakly schedule. I would be more flattered at his persistence if it weren’t so clear that he’s only after my family’s political influence.
Since, for her part, Mother is only interested in his family’s money, she guesses it’s a match made in heaven. She’s the one who told Rudolf to help me fetch party guests from Future Pier, maybe hoping the task would require the boy to demonstrate his marriageable qualities.
“We’re to meet our guests over there, hey?” I point down the peir and Rudolf’s eyes track the movement as if he’s about to flick out his tongue and swallow my hand.
“Yeah,” says Billy, “let’s blouse. I want to meet my future self.”
The salesman shakes his head, mutters something about blouses, and turns to fleece some other natives of 1930.
The time trains arrived just after Black Tuesday, and they saved us. Investors and humanitarians from the 22nd century dumped cash on the banks, stopped the trusts from crashing any further, and gave us the knowledge and technology to transform our world and rewrite our old destiny.
Their “railroad” sits within a circular, concrete platform at the end of Future Pier. It’s a cage composed of pipes that might be porcelain, except they glimmer with soap-bubble colors. No matter where you stand, the opposite side of the cage seems to vanish off into the distance.
“I can’t wait to meet my future self,” says Billy while I peer into the depths of time and potential.
“From what I understand, the people from down time are only what we might become,” corrects Rudolf, the tedious bore. “It is better to consider them as coming from another country.”
Sure. Another country. A country whose books contain between 45 and 203 years of extra history. There is some confusion about what the future people are doing here, since nothing they do in our version of 1930 will change anything about their own past. Mother says it’s something to do with tax-free import and export.
Rudolf takes out a cigarette and lights it. “Want one?” he asks.
“No thanks,” I say, looking past him at a row of bill-boards filled with futurese gibberish. “Bao’an’s multi-UI-e-cigarettes! Personal Maglev Packs! S. electrogenisis cultures Utility fog! Now in a can!”
“Would you like to buy something from the bazaar?” Asks Rudolf, bland as a butter sandwich.
I look sidewise at him. “No,” I say. “I didn’t come here to shop.”
Rudolf seems to accept that. He either doesn’t know I’m playing him, or else he just doesn’t care. “Your coat and hat are quite fine.”
The coat with the money and the weapon. I don’t know whether that remark was meant to be ominous, polite, or only dull. They all sound the same, coming out of Rudolf.
“It’s my driving outfit,” I answer.
Rudolf’s eyes go unfocused as he considers my response. “And where is your chauffeur?”
“I drove here myself,” I say. Over Mother’s objections, but she was too busy with preunion preparations to really stop me. It’s another reason why today is an excellent day to go camp out in Chicago. After I meet my future relatives, of course. A girl’s got her curiosity.
“You like to drive?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say from the depths of boredom and despair.
“Ah,” he says, staring at me. “Very good.”
My sanity is preserved by a violation of space and time. The soapy white cage emits a gong sound and a blast of cold air. Rainbow light shines through mist that wasn’t there a moment ago and my sense of down tips giddily outward. I stumble, and when I look up, the mist is parting over the smooth snout of a time train’s engine.
Another gong sound, and an oddly-accented voice speaks out of nowhere. “The Centuries Unlimited, now arriving at Black Station.”
The porcelain cage is only about five yards wide, but somehow the whole train fits inside, its silvery length tapering off to some distance you can’t properly call “up” or “down” or even “away.” “Thence,” I suppose.
From just this side of thence-ward, then, passengers begin to disembark.
I put my hand on Billy’s shoulder. “Would you look at that? Wouldn’t it be grand to take a ride on one of those things?”
Billy isn’t listening to me. He’s scanning the faces of passengers. “Hey,” he says, and stands up on his tip-toes to wave. “I think that’s me!”
I expected Billy’s downtime doppelganger to look like my father, but the man who walks up to us is older than my father. This “William” is like an uncle I never had: a pouchy, balding fellow in a funny green and red uniform. He looks tired, but that may just be from the train ride. I wonder how long it took? How many hours are there between 1930 and the 1960s?
“Ruth,” William’s eyes go wide when he sees me. “How young you are. You’re just a girl.” He stands there, staring at me as if either I’m made of glass or he is.
I put out my free hand and yell, “Shake, sit, roll over!”
Billy laughs at the familiar joke, and William’s eyes go misty at a memory decades behind him. He grasps my hand and squeezes. He’s real, all right, a man from the 1960s with a grip as doughy as an accountant’s.
“I’m glad,” William swallows. “I’m so glad to see you again, Ruth. And looking so well. So happy.”
“Happy to meet you, hey.” I say, a bit up in the air. Are those tears in his eyes?
“Is that…” William squints past me, “Rudolf? Rudolf Bleirer?” He looks from the meat magnate’s son to me
and his expression goes from joyfully sad to shocked and mad. “What is he doing here, Ruth?”
Billy gasps at the rudeness of his older self, but Rudolf just blinks.
I guess that leaves me to answer the question. “Rudolf’s here to fetch the other guests,” I say. “He brought his own car.”
“Then I’ll ride with you.” William turns away from Rudolf and winks at Billy. “I’d like to be beside myself.”
Billy giggles and everyone relaxes but me. I’m wondering what happened – will happen? Is fated to happen? – between my little brother and the man Mother wants me to marry. I pat the taser in my pocket and decide not to worry.
“Ah,” says William after a Rudolf-less walk back down Future Pier and through the bazaar. “Our good old Imperial Landau.”
“Imperial” is the right word for it. The car is slow, safe, and eye-wateringly ostentatious. You can see why Mother would like it. Me, though, I want a Duesenberg. Something that flies.
“Hello there, old boy.” William runs his fingertips down the Landau’s hood and smiles sadly at me. “I remember you used to love driving this thing.”
“I still love to drive it.” I glare at Billy, who’s giggling again. “And I’m good at it, too.”
William squints at me before memory dawns. “Oh, that’s right. Our first joyride was in ’29, wasn’t it?” He taps the scratch on the Landau’s right front fender. “It was not to be our last encounter with Mrs. Allais’ mailbox, either.” His avuncular chuckle joins the merriment already underway from Billy. “I remember you told me you’d been driving before, but that was your first time, wasn’t it?”
You’d been driving? The fate of our language was worse than I thought.
I sniff. “I read books on driving.” I unlock the driver’s side door. “And anyhow I’m much better at it now than back in the fall.”
Billy gets into the car. “This is screwy,” he says. “We both remember Mrs. Allais’ mailbox, but you don’t remember this meeting we have today?”
“Your life departed from canonical history the day the time trains came.” William says, and slides in after Billy. “I grew up, went to war, and had all sorts of trouble before I married. Trouble I trust you will avoid.”
Billy quizzes William about his wife and children as the Landau wallows out of its parking spot. I feel like I’m piloting the like the imperial barque of a pharaoh.
“My sons might already be at the house,” says William. “They and the counterparts of my grandchildren from the stations down time from mine: Denise and Old Denise and Very Old Denise…” Another chuckle. “And the Cheryls. Oh my. What characters they are. What characters.”
I picture the time trains and their rail system, with stations at every generation between now and 2132. “How about people from the end of the line?” I ask.
“The Present, you mean? Yes,” says William. “I believe both Very Very Old Kisha and Emulated Gavrail have sent in their RSVPs.”
“Funny names they have down in the future,” says Billy.
“My boy, you don’t know the half of it,” says William. “Not the half of it.”
I focus on steering this land-yacht. There’s a certain type who lets this sort of “canonical history” get to him. The kind of guy who digs into what would have happened if the time trains had never come: the Great Depression, World War Two, and all. I think it’s a morbid and pointless obsession. Whatever happens, now that we’ve got a pipeline to the future, it’ll be a lot stranger than any old war.
We sail in stately sloth through the bazaar and into the city proper. Ranks of windows line the gray faces of skyscrapers. Cars run up and down boulevards as wide as all our possibilities. The wind reaches in through the open window and plays with my hair as I press on the accelerator.
“How different your Chicago is from mine,” says William. “So much smaller! But, I think, more hopeful?”
“Who cares about the dumb old city?” says Billy. “What will my kids be like?”
William harrumphs. “In fact, we don’t know anything about your potential children, Billy, as I’ve been saying.”
“I mean your kids.”
“Ah. Elmo and Ignacio, you mean. Why, they became members of the government of the Nuclear Commons. That’s my country.”
“The Nucle-what? That’s not a real country,” says Billy.
“well, for me, the time trains arrived in 1962. That was five years ago, and a great deal has changed since then,” says William.
William tells Billy about “force shields,” and “the power of the atom,” and “the value of labor,” but I care less about the politics of William’s 1960s station than the people I can see here on the streets of Chicago, doing their business and living their lives. Enjoying their freedom.
The traffic tugs me as if I were swimming in a river before it becomes a waterfall. Not that I’ve ever swum in a river, or even seen a waterfall. All the more reason to fling myself into this one.
“It’s my turn now,” I say.
“Beg pardon?” asks William.
“I mean,” I stammer, “how about my future, hey?”
William is silent for just a little too long, and when he speaks, it isn’t to answer my question.
“Ruth, I’m planning to ask your mother to let you come work with me. We need skilled young people in the Nuclear Commons.”
I consider the offer as I swerve around some dope in a Studebaker. Once I’m back in the clear, I decide I would prefer to have a little fun before I’m passed from one minder to another.
“Mother won’t agree to anything like that.” It’s a good excuse, and it happens to be true.
“I’ll tell your mother that life in my station, that is to say, my historical era, is much better than here,” William declares. “We have more and safer food, better medicine, machines that wash your clothes…”
What do I look like, a servant? “How about flying cars?” I ask.
“Yes, in fact,” says William. “We import maglev cars from stations further down time, but I’m personally in favor of field-supported vehicles, which we can produce locally.”
I stopped listening at the word “yes.” “They dear, these flying cars?” I ask.
“Well,” says William. “A maglev car would cost about as much as however much you paid for this Landau, I suppose.”
“Wow,” says Billy. “Flying cars! Imagine that, Ruth!”
I do. I imagine the skies over Chicago filled with flying cars, with me in the fastest one.
“Ah, yes,” says William. “My sister used to love flying, too.”
As much as it tickles me to hear little-kid slang like ‘love flying’ coming out of this old bird’s mouth, I don’t like the melancholy in William’s voice. “You mean I don’t love to fly any more in the future?”
“Not you,” he says, too quickly. “Your canonical counterpart. She…she stopped flying, yes.”
“Why?” I ask, worried. It would be one thing to never get the chance to fly. But to start and then stop?
“William?” says Billy as the old man’s silence stretches.
William sighs. “I will tell you, Ruth. Not now, though. Not here.”
“Nobody here in the car but us,” I say.
“I promised Mother she gets to hear the future news first.”
The way he says “Mother,” I know I can’t change William’s mind.
“Then promise me,” I say. “After you talk with Mother, you’ll come find me and you’ll tell me my fate.”
“Not your fate, Ruth,” he says and I hear in his tone, I hope. “But I promise I will tell you what happened to your counterpart. In good time.”
“‘Good time,'” I say. “Cute.”
William doesn’t laugh.
Our house is an elegant, stately Victorian on a street of elegant, stately Victorians, the big, peak-roofed gingerbreaded fruits of an orchard with pretensions. The street is packed with cars and arriving guests.
The party fills the living and dining rooms and the foyer in between with future relations and 1930s high society. Jenkins and the special staff hired for today hustle back and forth, exchanging coats for canapes and flutes of newly-legalized champagne.
William introduces me to his son Elmo, a sunburned and handsome young jasper with wild eyes, who’s talking about something called “marketing” with “Old Elmo” and “Very Old Elmo,” his gray-haired and no-haired future counterparts.
Elmo’s wife looks daggers at her husband as she tries to soothe a crying baby, which is taken up and cuddled by a Chinese-looking woman named Denise. Denise is no nanny, though. She breaks off cooing at the infant and yells, “Behave, Alex, or I swear to God!” at a gangling pickle-pus who must be her son, Billy’s great grandson.
Alex hastily puts down a flute of champagne, which is picked up and downed by his bald and miserable-looking 52-year-old counterpart.
“Old Alex must have learned he’s destined to have a heart attack,” whispers William. “Must be quite a shock.”
For her part, Mother has enthroned herself on a davenport at the other end of the living room. She has on old-fashioned evening gown, her hair poofed up around her head. Mucha could have found a better model for an illustration of The Sin of Pride, maybe, if he visited the court of Kubla Khan.
William identifies the women and girl standing around Mother as “the Cheryls,” before he bustles off to go kow-tow at the matriarchal shrine. Billy joins some other young kids in a game that seems to consist of clinging onto and being dragged around by the robotic legs of “Very Old Denise.”
I manage to snag food and booze without giving up my coat and try to figure out how to avoid trouble while I wait for William to come back and dump his revelations on me.
Mother might be a withered old stick in the mud, but she plays the hostess as if her life depends on it, and she flies in circles so lofty that we could run Chicago from our living room. Besides the music and caviar, we’ve got the the O’Hares, the Rathjes, and the Adlers. They all looking awful important with their diamond-studded tie pins and sequined evening gowns.
Or, they would look important, if the 1930s natives weren’t so spooked by the future people, who are wearing just about anything. And, in some cases, almost nothing. A glance tells me suits are destined to stay dull, while dresses will mutate wildly, turn into brightly-colored togas, dissolve into fuzzy, amorphous clouds, and finally sublimate into a force that simply makes it impossible to look at certain places on the wearer’s body. Wardrobe by hypnotic suggestion. I like the idea, but I guess it must get chilly.
I goggle at the future people so much that I don’t immediately notice that they’re all goggling back at me. Politely, of course. No more than a glance here and a comment there. Worse, Mother is watching me too, and her face, as William whispers in her ear, is dismal. That’s no big change for her, but when she looks me in the eyes, I see something terrifying: sorrow.
I take a step toward them, but Mother shakes her head. She jerks her chin toward the corner of the living room next to the punch bowl, where Rudolf is standing at the edge of a huddle of frightened 1930s celebrities.
“Ugh.” I mouth at her. “Rudolf?”
Mother jerks her head more forcefully.
I consider simply leaving. I still have all my money on me, but my mind goes to William and those dark hints he laid out in the car. What if he remembers something from when his sister ran away from home? What if something is fated to happen to me in the spring of 1930?
I find a full champagne flute and beard Rudolf by the punch bowl.
He tells me I look lovely again. Maybe he was expecting me to get ugly in the last half hour? I thank him, put a cucumber sandwich in my mouth, and try to chew slowly. This passes the time, and also helps to avoid gasping in surprise when Rudolf says, “I was thinking.”
“Mm?” I encourage.
“I was thinking of a trip to Denver,” Rudolf says. “There’s still snow there. We can ski.”
I might like to ski. I never have tried it. When I do, however, I believe I’ll take somebody else with me. I would rather not die of boredom on a mountain in Colorado.
Rudolf looks as if he might expect an answer.
“I’d rather drive than ski,” I tell him. “And I can do that right here in Chicago.”
“What about flying?” he asks. “Would you like to fly?”
This time I can’t help but gasp aloud, and Rudolf gives me a tiny smile. The minute upward hoisting to his toothbrush mustache might indicate that he knows that I would sell my left arm for the chance to fly an aircraft.
I test him. “Billy would want to come.”
Rudolf shakes his head. “It would be better with just the two of us. More romantic.”
More romantic, he says, the wet sock. But all I say is, “My mother won’t agree to it.”
“She already has. I spoke with her. We can leave tomorrow.”
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Where Rudolf is concerned, Mother stops pulling me back and sets to pushing me forward. And I can always enjoy that flight to Denver before shutting my hotel room door in Rudolf’s face. Besides which, I’ll have my taser with me.
I say yes, and we stare at each other for a few more minutes, while I imagine my hands on the steering yoke and the plane banking under me. Rudolf imagines God knows what.
“Hey,” someone says behind me, “hi!”
I turn and look down to see a little black girl in a bizarre outfit. It looks as if she’s taken some boys’ clothes and splashed bright-colored paint all over them. She holds out a hand, bold as you please.
“I’m Kisha,” she says. “Are you Ruth? I’m your un-un-great-granddaughter!”
“You’re my what?” I ask, but a noise from the door makes Kisha jump and puts hands over her mouth.
I follow the little girl’s gaze to the beautiful blonde who has just stalked through the door, and who now surveys us from the folds of her fur coat as if she’s auditioning for the role of Evil Queen in a Disney picture. I’m just considering about how much competition she’s got in this family when she looks me in the eye.
“You,” the Snow Queen mouths. Or maybe it’s, “No.” Her high cheekbones go livid and she crosses herself.
I take a step forward and she turns away. “No. I can’t do this.” She has the same accent as the little girl and the mug who sold me the taser. “Kisha,” she calls. “Come here.”
Kisha frowns at the blonde. “But mom – ”
“Now!” she this woman who I realize must be my granddaughter. “Jesus, these awful people. I should never have brought you here.”
“Ginevra,” William’s voice rises above the party noise. “What are you doing here? I told you to wait an hour.”
Ginevra? What kind of name is that, even? Billy was right about future people and their screwy ways.
“I didn’t trust you,” Ginevra says. “I was right not to. You haven’t told Ruth a thing, have you? Why is she still fucking here, William? Why are you over there talking to your fucking mother?”
William doesn’t get a chance to answer. “You there,” says Mother. “Who are you and what makes you think you can speak so to my family?”
Ginevra’s eyes jerk wide. Her upper lip curls.
Kisha runs to her mother. “I’m sorry,” says the little girl. “We can go. I’m sorry, mom. Please don’t be mad.”
Ginevra nods slowly. Still glaring at Mother, she turns her head to the left and spits deliberately onto a potted palm.
“What was that all about?” I ask once the ruckus has died down.
“Search me,” says Rudolf, uselessly.
But no, the ruckus still has some life in it. The blonde, Ginevra, strong-arms past a trio of tall black women who must be the old, very old, and very very old counterparts of Kisha. Mother in heaven, that kid will live a long time.
My three great-granddaughters march up to Mother, William, and the Cheryls. One of them says something I can’t hear. I do feel the temperature drop, though.
“I wonder,” I say as I watch chill spread from this witches’ row. “Why are all my descendants so mad?”
I’m not expecting an answer from Rudolf, but he gives me one anyhow. “None of them would come with me,” he says. “I met them at the airport. Betty and Ginevra and the Kishas. I told them I was to fetch them, but they wouldn’t come with me. They wouldn’t talk to me, even.”
I’m about to ask Rudolf if my descendants hated him as much as William did, but there’s the old bird himself, looking me straight in the eyes.
William is standing behind Mother, who is still arguing with the Kishas, and he isn’t just looking at me, he’s staring like I’m a ghost. So are two Kishas and a Cheryl. And I’ve had the same horrified fascination from almost everyone at this gathering of my future family. It’s as if they’re watching the beginning of a train wreck.
My earlier suspicions grow cold and solid. Something happens to me in the spring of 1930. Or somebody wants me to think so. My hand goes to my jacket pocket. “What the hell is this?” I mutter.
“Just what I’m wondering.” Rudolf’s eyebrows meet in the middle of his forehead. So that’s what worry looks like on him. “Everyone is awfully touchy, but nobody will tell me why.”
“Someone’ll tell me,” I say, and put down my champagne flute. “So long, Rudolf. See you at the airport.”
I meet William in the same place Billy and I used to go to get away from Mother’s parties. The closet under the stairs is empty of furniture now and tall enough for us both to stand comfortably.
“Quickly.” William is sweating, face red, eyes shifty. “They’ll miss me soon.”
“Oh, they will, will they?” I sneer. What sort of dumb cluck does he think I am that I haven’t caught on to his game yet? “Because Mother doesn’t want you talking to me? Isn’t that right, William?”
“She forbade me explicitly.”
“As if I should believe you. You think you can play me for a sucker? I know what goes on.”
“I very much doubt you do.” William wipes his brow. “Saints alive, I wasn’t this nervous when I was plotting to overthrow the United States government.”
That throws me. “You what?”
“Staged a revolution.” He tugs on the lapels of his uniform. “But that’s not important.” He leans closer. “Ruth, I have to tell you – ”
I hold up my hands. “Right. You’ve some dire horse feathers to sell me about how my future self ruined her life.”
“Horse feathers?” repeats William as if he doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase.
“Admit it,” I say. “You and Mother want me to believe all my plans will end in tears. So you arranged for this whole parade of descendants to come here and show me so.”
William shakes his head, blinking. “We haven’t arranged – ”
“And even if it weren’t a load of hooey, things will be different this time,” I assure him. “I’ve got a…well. Let’s just say I can protect myself now.”
“No, Ruth – ”
“Let me finish,” I say. “I’ve made my own plans, and unless you give me an awful good reason – ”
“Ruth!” William’s voice is choked. “Don’t get on that plane with Rudolf.”
“Rudolf?” I repeat dumbly. I thought he was about to forbid me to run away.
“Break off your engagement,” says William.
“Take it easy,” I tell him. “I’m not engaged. I’m not even thinking about marriage.”
William glances over his shoulder at the door to the closet. “Mother will be here any moment. Listen. What’s your relationship with Rudolf?”
“Relationship? That’s an odd way to put it.”
“Did he invite you to go on a plane ride to Denver?”
I move my shoulders. “Yeah?”
“Jesus.” He’s shaking. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, don’t go with him, Ruth. You’ll marry him, Ruth, and then you’ll – ” He breaks off, shakes his head, runs his hands across his face. “No. Not you. She. She committed suicide.”
I feel as if I’ve been kicked in the gut. “She who? Your sister, you mean? My counterpart?” That might explain her kids’ reaction when they saw me. Suicide. Jesus. “Why?”
William shakes his head again. “I don’t know why she killed herself.” Then, as if he knows all too well, “It was after the War, when Rudolf came back from the Pacific.”
“That’s that war with Japan, you mean,” I say. “But now there won’t be a war.”
“I don’t give a damn about any old war!” says William. “Rudolf is still going to…” He closes his eyes and shakes his head, the back of his trembling hand pressed to his mouth.
I’m out of patience. “You think Rudolf drove me – my counterpart, I mean – to suicide. Swell. Did she tell you how? Because that’s what I’d like to know.”
“She never told me,” admits William. “My sister and I drifted apart during the war and I saw her only once between 1945 and her death. That was for Betty’s christening in ’47.”
“Betty. My daughter,” I say. “I mean her daughter.” The one who wouldn’t come to this house and wouldn’t tell Rudolf why. Mother of Ginevra, who couldn’t bring herself to look at me, grandmother of Kisha, whose three counterparts who had descended like furies on Mother.
“Betty was her second daughter.” William levels a look at me like a melancholy cannon. “Ruth, your counterpart’s eldest daughter was born in 1930.”
That’s not a kick to the gut; it’s a pie in the face. “Go on with you. I’m not pregnant, for Christ’s sake.”
“Not yet,” William says.
“Not yet, he says.” I’m starting to heat up again. Someone is playing me, even if the game isn’t what I thought it was. “It’s already 1930 and I don’t intend becoming pregnant before, what, the end of the month?”
William’s expression makes me double-check my math. I think about that romantic plane ride. Could butter-sandwich Rudolf actually seduce me?
Could he do worse?
I take a sharp breath. “What are you telling me, William?” But I know what he’s telling me. The skin on my neck prickles and all of a sudden the closet seems awfully dark and close. The air is clogged with old horror.
“I suspect,” says William, voice as heavy as a tax audit, “that young Rudolf has gotten tired of waiting.”
He’ll to force me to marry him. That’s what William is saying. Nine months later, my first daughter will be born, and I’ll stay with Rudolf for her sake. Then, when Rudolf comes back from the war 18 years later, he’ll rape me again. I’ll have another daughter, and that’s when I’ll decide to take my own life.
“The Kishas were right, damn them,” mutters William, rubbing his chin as if he feels dirty. “You deserve to know this even if Mother – ”
“Mother doesn’t want me to know any of this.” I point a shaking finger at him. “You spilled this whole story to her just now. That’s what you came here to do in the first place. And that job you offered me in the Nuclear Commons – ”
“I was wrong to do so.”
“– it was to get me out of this house.”
William sighs miserably. “Your mother refused, in any case. But, Ruth, you can still – ” William touches my shoulder and I twist away.
“Get your hand off me.”
“I’m sorry. I felt I had to tell you.” He looks out the closet again. “But you can see I also had to tell Mother.”
My fingertips are tingling. I see for the first time that William is between me and the closet door.
“Mother,” he swallows. “Your mother, that is, she says the future safety and, and prosperity of the family are worth your marrying Rudolf.”
“Oh she does, does she?” I raise my voice. “Her safety is worth the sacrifice of my whole damn future?”
William wrings his hands and snivels, but it isn’t he who answers.
“What are you sacrificing, Ruth? Much less than I ever had to.”
Mother is at the closet door.
“Go to hell, you dirty, rotten harpy,” I tell her, since nothing better comes to mind.
She brushes off the insults like silverfish crawling in the lace at her breast. “Weren’t you listening, Ruth? We shall prevent your suicide.”
“Not the rape, though,” I say. “That, you’re attempting to ensure.”
“Don’t make her marry that man,” pleads William.
Mother rolls her eyes. “Of course she must marry him. The Bleirer family brings us through the Great Depression. You told me so yourself, William.”
“There won’t be a Great Depression now,” he says. “Not in your timeline.”
“That misses the point a good ways,” I say. “How about I find someone better to marry, my own damn self?”
“And whom would you choose?” Mother shakes her head. “It has become clear to me that women in our family are afflicted with the urge to marry the strangest men they can find.”
I think of my father. He lives on the other side of town and opposes everything mother does, but I wouldn’t call him “strange.”
William also looks perplexed. “Beg pardon?”
“Nothing,” says Mother. “Ruth, I have been too lenient – ”
I shout over whatever lecture she has prepared. “You’re about to sell my virtue for a share of the Chicago meat packing business, you hag.”
Mother’s lip curls. I’m reminded of Ginevra. “Keep your voice down, Ruth.”
“Selling my virtue,” I shout louder, “for the possibility of – ”
“For our family’s safety,” she hisses. “Yes. And you, Ruth, would make the same decision if you were in my position.”
“Oh I would, would I?”
Mother puts her hands together and presses her fingertips to her lips, eyes closed as if praying. “Once I was foolish like you,” she says in a calmer voice, “and two persons were killed.”
I’m back up in the air. Mother’s killed people?
“Mother?” asks William.
“No,” Mother opens her eyes and drops her hands. “There is no reason for you to repeat my mistakes in order to learn my lessons, Ruth. You can simply listen to me now. And as for Rudolf, I shall ensure his good behavior.”
Her voice makes William and me shiver. I almost feel sorry for that vile, lizard-eyed rapist. Although not sorry enough to spend another minute in his company.
“He will treat you as a gentleman should,” says Mother. “In all other ways, however, you two are to carry on as canonical history dictates.”
“As you dictate, you mean.” Why am I arguing with her? I could never change Mother’s mind about anything. Now I can’t bear even to stay in the same house as her. She can go to hell. This whole city go to hell. This whole damn era of history!
I reach into my pocket. “I won’t let Rudolf rape me, Mother.”
She winces. “Language, Ruth. Why did you tell her, William? For God’s sake, don’t let her past you.”
William makes helpless little circles with his hands, and I see that Mother doesn’t need a time machine to turn an old bird into a little kid. “But you don’t need the Bleiers,” he says. “You can all come live with me. Be reasonable!”
Mother barks out a laugh. “Live? In your half-baked pseudo-Marxist utopia? No. As always, I must stay behind and create safety while others dive into danger. I must stay the course.” She points at me, finger like the barrel of a manicured rifle. “And your course, young lady, is set.”
I pull the taser out of my coat. “I’m fixing to un-set it.”
Mother’s eyes focus on the weapon and her powdered forehead wrinkles. “What is that? Some sort of gun? Put it away, Ruth, before someone sees you with it.”
William slaps his forehead. “Gun? The gun! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! This is the spring of 1930! Ruth was planning to run away!”
“Run?” Mother’s glare twitches from me to William. “So stop her! She won’t shoot you.”
William reaches out for me. “My sister had a gun, but that thing looks like – ”
I stick the taser in William’s armpit and press that button.
There’s no spark this time, just a hideous chattering sound like the jaws of a giant insect. But I keep my hold on the weapon as William spasms away from me. Brandish it like a cross in Mother’s face. She’s smart enough to get out of the way, but not smart enough to start screaming until I’m out the front door.
Clouds pile up in the northern sky, but ahead, the air between me and Future Pier is clear and blue. I haven’t my hat or the love of my family, but I’ve got the taser, my money, and the key to the Landau, which is right where I parked it.
I tear open my car’s door as they pour out of the house after me. Elmos and Ignacios, Denises and Cheryls. The Kishas advance on me like a troop of Valkyries, but I press the starter button and roar away down the street.
I don’t have much time. Mother will turn this whole city into a machine for capturing me. Billy is probably crying. I might feel a bit lousy about William. I don’t suppose I’ll be able to take him up on his job offer now. Mostly what I am, though, is glad to be in a position where I can just give up on all these mugs and get out of town.
I grip the wheel so hard it hurts and take a left turn onto Lake Shore Drive. Hooked streetlights and young trees flash past, and Future Pier stretches off to the east. Tickets on the time trains come dear, but I’ve got this big, valuable car, haven’t I?
I pat the dashboard. “Time to trade you up, old boy,” I say, “for something that can fly.”
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Daniel M. Bensen