by Tom Underhill
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Time: The present
Jim slammed the door in frustration. Three loveless weeks since he’d returned. Three weeks with cold goodnight kisses and little else. Either Rachel had guessed something or he’d changed something else. Maybe both, but like everything else right now, it was impossible to tell.
Stalking to the kitchen, he grabbed a beer out of the fridge and took it down the back steps and out to the porch. At least he’d finally figured out the consequence of that first slip: Laura had apparently dumped him on the spot after he’d called her Rachel. Instead of a senior romance with her, he’d ended up going to prom with Mary Anderson. They’d kept dating through freshmen year of college, but fallen apart when the distance became too much. And then he’d met Rachel halfway through sophomore year, instead of at the beginning, and things had evolved pretty much as they did before.
Except that he’d supposedly hinted that he wanted her to look like Claudia — the whore he’d yet to cheat on Rachel with — and Rachel had dyed her hair ever since. And even more disturbingly, he had no memories of this, or of any of the slightly altered history he now belonged to. Somehow, in some logic-defying way, he had — at least for himself — erased both the old past and the new.
But he and Rachel were still together. That fact, amidst all the uncertainty, had become Jim’s greatest comfort: they were meant for each other, in more scenarios than just one. Repeating that deduction to himself had made him love Rachel more than at any time since the era he had just flashed back to, even if almost a month’s drought of passion had started him thinking of Claudia again and how maybe another visit might help him really rekindle things with his wife.
“Who was she?”
The beer in his mouth sprayed out, coating the potted tulips directly in front of the swing he’d been rocking in. The weak “What?” that followed as he turned to face his wife only made his reaction feel even more conspicuous.
Rachel was standing in the porch doorway in her shift. Arms crossed under her breasts, eyes dry but cheeks wet. “I take it you know who I’m talking about.”
He hoped his eyes hadn’t widened as much as it felt like they had. “Honey—”
“Don’t call me that.” Her voice was as swift and sharp as the switches his dad used to hit him with.
Wincing inwardly, Jim corrected himself. “Rachel, I actually don’t know who you’re talking about, but—”
“I smelled her on you...” Her voice broke and she had to gulp twice to bring it back. “That night three weeks ago. You cheated on me. Don’t deny it. Just tell me who she was.”
Something compelled him to look her in the eyes, to tell the (partial) truth, as perverse and unbelievable as he knew it would sound: “It was you.”
Rachel’s eyes definitely widened. And then they narrowed, just before she slapped him. “I’m not joking around, you bast—”
“Neither am I!” he roared, swinging back with the force of three weeks of frustration.
Jim felt her jaw break on impact. And from the sound of it, so did her neck when she fell back onto the stairs behind her.
* * *
Get hard, goddammit. Just hard enough to go back, go back and never leave.
It had taken forty frantic minutes of driving to find Claudia. She’d looked tired, but seeing his expression, had nodded knowingly, not even protesting when he pulled into the nearby park instead of trying to find a hotel.
Please, he had to get it up, just long enough to get inside. But the sound Rachel’s jaw had made... Jesus, no, concentrate, goddammit. Focus on that good period seven years ago, the fun they’d had, the regular sex. Being in the car felt like high school. No! Concentrate: seven years ago, with Rachel. With Rachel!
For some reason, it was the flashing lights reflecting off the front mirror that did the trick; just in time, he was back with his young wife.
* * *
Time: Seven years ago
Rachel was clearly frustrated. And understandably so; he could empathize from future experience. He’d rejected her advances three times in the last week now, the most awkward being when they were already in the act, when he’d flashed back.
But he couldn’t let himself finish, couldn’t let pleasure return him to... to before. Or the future, or whatever the hell it was. He had to stay celibate, for them both.
Jim kicks off against the balcony railing, using it to rock the swing. The same swing they’d keep for years and eventually install on their first porch. This was madness. He had to figure this out, figure out what to do.
It would be easier if Rachel didn’t already know something was wrong. She’d told him again and again that he was tough to read, but she’d always managed to divine most of his moods anyway. And it probably wasn’t that difficult to sense right now: besides the unwillingness to have sex, he’d been fairly skittish around her in general.
It was too hard not to be, though, not when he kept hearing his fist hit her jaw and seeing her eyes as she fell backwards. He’d stayed home from his internship since he came back, too, barely putting any effort into maintaining the pretense of being sick. So what, what could he do without putting her on even higher alert?
Jim kicks off from the balcony again. He’d intended to stay here, to relive the last ten years, even improve them. No affairs, no complaining at Rachel’s father’s funeral, no bad financial decisions: a better decade, re-scripting the past to rewrite the future — or was it the present?.
But he couldn’t go without sex for that long, or anything close. And even if he could, he couldn’t expect Rachel not to get fed up and leave.
He stops rocking. That was it, then: he would have to make her go, leave him now so she could live later. It would have been such a noble gesture if he weren’t doing it to save her from himself.
Rachel came home in two hours. He had two hours to figure out how.
* * *
“Who... Who was she?” Minus a few crow’s feet, the pain in Rachel’s eyes looks exactly the same.
Jim can’t meet her gaze this time, though. Looking down at his feet instead, he focuses on the darkened big toenail poking out of a tear in his left shoe. The basketball bruise had been there before he’d flashed back, and he suddenly remembers how ridiculously long it would take to go away. “Just a girl from the office. But it didn’t mean anything. I’m... I’m sorry.”
He can still see her face out of the corner of his eyes, and it defines betrayal, and hurt, and loss. This was the coward’s way out, but he hadn’t thought he could stand anything that might drag out longer. He’d considered just disappearing but, for some reason, confessing to sins he had yet to commit was more appealing, in his head.
“Who?” Rachel whispers, clearly fighting back sobs.
He takes a deep breath for effect. “Janet, in shipping.” It isn’t really a lie. Or at least it wouldn’t be in about a year. And Janet had probably already started dropping hints.
Rachel’s eyes narrow in familiar fashion and, right on cue, her arm raises and her hand advances.
Jim lets the slap come without doing anything to stop it and, more importantly, without doing anything in response. Still as a statue, he watches Rachel turn, open the door into the hallway, and run towards the stairs.
* * *
He’d thought a lot about how he wanted to go back, to the point of obsessing about it: outlining different scenarios, creating different fantasies. Could Rachel be enticed into one more romp?
But that would probably contradict a lot of what he’d set in motion. And it would be too much to expect whatever self replaced him to hold to a course of action he couldn’t know, or to be any more faithful than the original version. It might be easier, then, just to round things out and give in to Janet.
Rachel hadn’t moved out yet, though, or demanded he move out, or really talked to him at all since he’d admitted to an affair he’d yet to have. But the damage was probably done: their relationship had always been built on an illusion of trust and, with that shattered, he doubted if they’d last one year, much less seven.
Jim shakes his head. He hasn’t done any real work yet today, frustrated by how limited these old computers are. Mostly he’s just played solitaire, which, thankfully, is about the same. His boss — whom he’d always remembered as extremely laid back — gave him a skeptical look when she walked through at ten o’clock, though. It wouldn’t do to lose a wife and a job in the same flashback.
He stands up. Alright, a bathroom break and then he’d work hard until five. Skip lunch like he used to. Push his body so he could push all these thoughts out of his head, about what type of sex to go back with.
He has no willpower.
Tugging open the door to the single occupancy unisex unit, Jim sits down on a toilet that won’t flush automatically for at least another two years. What would the future be like once he did go back? The times before the differences had been minor, but so had the changes he’d made. Did the two points stay more or less fixed while the interim adjusted to fit them? Or had he opened up an entirely new branch? How...
It doesn’t matter. He puts his head in his hands, shifting on the seat as he does so. What’s done is done, sci-fi logic be damned. All he has to figure out now is how to go back. Janet? Janet had never been anything more than a fling: now that he thinks about it, the prospect of doing anything significant with her would ruin the whole point of their affair. Their actual sex had always been fairly uninspired anyway.
Not like with Rachel. Not like how they used to make love...
His hand slides under his boxers almost of its own volition. It had been so good, so passionate. So creative, and inventive, and perfect, and he’d spoiled it.
Jim slows down for a moment, and then speeds back up. No matter what he’s done,what he’s changed, he’ll have the memories of the two of them. His mind hadn’t altered when he went back before: it shouldn’t now.
Someone knocks on the door. He slows down again, but doesn’t stop as the intruder jiggles the handle, makes an embarrassed murmur on finding it locked, and walks away as Jim speeds back up.
But this wasn’t the way to go back, not by himself in the bathroom at work. He needs to stop. Better he go back with Janet than this, or even Rachel, or—
He goes just as somebody knocks on the door again.
* * *
Time: The present
Claudia chuckled as he groaned, withdrawing leisurely as someone knocked on the driver’s side window.
Disoriented and furious — with himself, with the whore, with whoever was complicating things more than they already were — Jim rolled over and looked out at an officer, bathed in the flickering light of police car.
The cop motioned for him to roll down the driver side window and, after a frantic moment’s pause, Jim did so, terrified of what the charge would be.
* * *
“Hey, you don’t get all day.”
Jim mumbled an apology but still hesitated. It had been prostitution, not murder. The police didn’t have any knowledge of Rachel being dead.
But if she was, it probably hadn’t been long enough for them to know.
When the office rebuked him again with a “Hell, do you want it or not?”, Jim finally started dialing. On the last digit, though, his finger hesitated just above the button before an angry “Well?” spurred him to finish.
Don’t pick up, Rachel. Pick up, Rachel. Don’t pick up, Rachel. Pick up, Rachel...
Three rings, and no one-
At the scraping sound of someone removing their phone from its receiver, Jim dropped his, and let the incredulous cop hang it up for him.
But neither action was quick enough to prevent a male voice, one that Jim had never heard before, from leaking out of the phone. “Hello? Nothing. It must be those punk kids again, Rachel—”
Copyright © 2009 by Tom Underhill