Alison McBain, Enchantress of Books
Enchantress of Books
Publisher: Fairfield Scribes
Date: April 4, 2019
Length: 208 pages
ISBN: 1949122123; 978-1949122121
Some people might say I’ve created lives. Some people might say I’ve destroyed them.
But I would be the first to admit: a choice like this really shouldn’t have been given to me.
* * *
“Susan, I’m sorry to do this to you. Ed turned in his story late and the book is about to go to press. I don’t have time to edit it.” My boss, Dave, thunked the hard copy down on my desk. I shared the space with two other co-workers, since budget cuts now extended to furniture. The City Voice magazine — a “book” in industry speak — employed each editor only twenty hours a week. Because of my son’s school schedule, I always took morning shift.
“You want me to edit Ed’s story?” I hesitantly pushed up my glasses to take a look, but Dave walked away instead of answering me.
Our star writer Ed was a pain in the ass. Ed was old school ... like the Dark Ages. He never let me touch his work, not after my first copyedit on the job had revealed he played fast and loose with his so-called facts. Ed had thrown a tantrum when I’d tried to point out his errors, and gone storming to management. Now, usually only Dave got the privilege of telling Ed when his “true” stories veered over into fiction.
But Dave already knew Ed’s peculiarities, so if he gave me the story ... it must be okay.
Ed’s editorial hooked me at once, even though he played fast and loose with his comma choices. The story was about our city’s former mayor, Julian James. He’d gotten caught up in fraud and embezzlement while in office; a common-enough tale. But his tale became unique when the investigating FBI agent disappeared. Although no body turned up, the ensuing scandal was massive and immediate. Even more so when James killed himself just days before charges were supposed to drop, with a highly publicized suicide “note” recorded on YouTube.
“Poor kid,” I muttered to myself as I read the snippet of an interview with Julian’s adult son. The guy was crying in the picture accompanying the article, his arm around his mother, James’ widow. “Too bad it turned out the way it did. His dad really shouldn’t have killed himself. Of course, James should’ve been smart enough to be on the right side of the law.”
Ed’s original story had skyrocketed to national fame, and this one-year follow-up piece was sure to draw widespread attention, too. Until Ed’s story broke, there had been talk about shutting the magazine down. The old fart had saved all our jobs. It always made me wonder why Ed stayed at such a small nickel-and-dime mag. Even if all his contacts were local, I figured the good ol’ boy network could hook him up on a national level. Or perhaps he was worried that the bigger books wouldn’t take his BS accounting of facts.
I didn’t exist to him, though. He once said “Hi, Brenda” to me after we’d worked together for two years. Since Brenda’s a tall, skinny blonde and I’m a short, curvy brunette, it gave me a strong idea of my placement on his professional radar.
I edited and emailed the story off to Dave, then glanced at the clock. Sure enough, it was two minutes until I had to run to get my son, Bobby.
On the way out the door, I nearly collided with Dave. He seemed like he was struggling to speak, his expression best described as “needing to eat a bran muffin.”
I gave him a half-wave, but didn’t wait for him to collect his thoughts. Bobby got antsy if I was late, even by a few minutes. I loved him to bits, but I figured the teachers already had their hands full with him during the day.
I prayed that my old Honda wouldn’t be temperamental. I was in luck; after an initial chug and cough, the rusty vehicle shuddered to life. I made it to school with thirty seconds to spare. When Bobby came out the door, his face lit up as soon as he saw me — not “too cool” to be happy to see mom. We went hand-in-hand to the car and, miracle of miracles, the Honda started on the first try.
Bobby was like a parakeet, constantly chirping until we got to our one-bedroom apartment. It took a while to settle him down to working on his first-grade homework, and my help mostly consisted of reminding him to focus. After a couple of TV shows, we ate dinner and I tucked him into bed with twenty kisses, one for each finger and toe (our ritual since he was a baby). I stayed up late doing a few freelance editing projects — making ends meet editing teens’ school papers, college essays, and Suzy Homemaker blog articles. Until the words started to blur. On the sixth read-through of the same sentence on how to sautée onions, I pulled out the sleeper sofa and fell onto it.
For some reason, my alarm blared me awake fifteen minutes later than normal. Had I accidentally reset it or hit the snooze button? I rolled out of bed and took a shower in lightning time. When I hit the kitchen to microwave yesterday’s old coffee on the way to wake Bobby, I stopped dead. On the counter was a brand-new, single-cup coffeemaker.
I’d always wanted one, but they were expensive, especially for the k-cups. Much more pricey than the usual pot and scoop. Sleep deprivation didn’t equal new appliances, as far as I knew. How had this gotten into my kitchen between last night and this morning?
My mind went on wild tangents, ending up in a caffeine-deprived and improbable scenario. Bobby had just lost his front teeth, giving him an adorable, fanged smile and a lisp. Perhaps because my old machine had been on its last legs, the coffee fairy had left me a brand new one.
It made a hell of a lot more sense than someone breaking into my apartment last night, not to steal things, but to leave me new appliances.
No time for the mystery — I had to get Bobby to school. Still, I couldn’t help glancing around on the way to Bobby’s bedroom to wake him up, a sense of unease crawling up my spine. Someone had been here while we were sleeping-I certainly hadn’t bought the machine or set it up on the counter. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary to my sleep-bleary gaze, but since our small apartment always looked like a toy tornado had come through, it was hard to judge.
I got Bobby breakfast and eyed the coffeemaker. My old, beat-up one was nowhere to be found in cupboards or under the sink, so if I wanted caffeine, I would have to use it. It took me two tries to figure out how to work the thing, and Bobby was chirping behind me about Animal Squiggles trading cards (the hot ticket item in elementary school this year) in between mouthfuls of his favorite sugary cereal, not noticing my struggle.
Two cups of coffee later, Bobby and I left the apartment. Despite pumping the pedals, my car made screeching noises instead of chugging to life, and so we ended up jogging the fifteen blocks to his school before I caught the bus to get to the far side of town.
My stop was five blocks from work, and the grey skies opened up just as I stepped out. A frantic scrabble in my purse yielded gum wrappers, but no umbrella. I tucked my bag under my hooded coat and ran for it.
The double doors swished open on the office building’s shared lobby. The usual doorman, Jack, was absent. Sitting in his place behind the security console was a man I had never seen before.
He glanced up from the magazine he was reading. “Can I help you?” he asked as I paused in the lobby.
It was enough of a push to remind me about how late I was. “Sorry, just caught in the rain,” I said, squelching my way towards the elevators. “I work here.”
“Okay.” He glanced back down.
In the elevator, I pressed the third-floor button. I don’t know why people always look up and watch the floor numbers pass, even when alone — I did, too. When it dinged on my floor, I stepped out.
No, not literally nothing. There was an empty corridor leading to the door of the office. But the door was closed, the lights off. The magazine’s logo-gone.
I walked up to the door. Tried the knob, which was locked. Peeked in through the window.
The desks and bookcases were empty, the ones that were left. Most had been removed, only one or two still littering the space. There was enough dust to indicate that it had been abandoned for at least several months, if not longer.
What the hell? I knew I hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep, but there’s no way this could have happened overnight.
Maybe the coffee machine fairy had made a second stop?
I walked downstairs this time, rather than taking the elevator, to give me time to think. I approached the man at the front desk. He glanced up, then back down to his magazine without acknowledging me.
“Hello,” I said loudly. The security guard reluctantly lifted his eyes again. “What happened to the third floor?”
He shrugged, eyes scanning the ceiling as he rubbed his chin. “Used to be a magazine. They folded.”
He scratched his head. “Dunno. Before I was hired.” He nodded at the mag he was reading. Instead of the City Voice, he held our competitor, the Street Times. “Last one in town.”
I stared at it, then at him. My mind was blank. If the City Voice didn’t exist anymore, then where did I work? My thoughts spun uselessly. “Where’s Jack, the usual doorman?”
The man gave me a funny look. “Lady, I’ve been here for almost two years. Don’t know any Jack.”
“Oh.” Of course. “Thank you.”
I made my way outside where, thankfully, the rain had lessened. I was still soaking wet, but at least I could put up my hood as I stood under an overhang and tried to figure out my next move.
That’s when I had a horrible thought and swiped open my cell to make a call. What if ... ?
“Hello! Lincoln Elementary School.”
“Hi! It’s Susan Rose. I’m the mom of Bobby, who’s in Mrs. Nichol’s first grade class. Is he okay?”
There was an awkward paused, and I realized my calling out of the blue like this would seem a little strange. I filled in the silence by hedging, “He was feeling a little ... he was coughing this morning. I just want to make sure he’s not gotten sick.”
“Oh, okay. Let me check. Can you hold?”
I fidgeted until the secretary came back on. “Mrs. Nichol says he seems fine, but she’ll keep an eye on him.”
Relief buzzed through me, and I sagged against the building wall. “Great, great. Thanks.” I hung up.
For some reason, I’d had the terrible idea that since things were appearing and disappearing, Bobby would have gone “poof,” too. The thought still niggled at the back of my mind — should I pull him from school, just in case?
But, honestly, he was probably better off there. There, he had his friends and teachers with him. Out here, I still didn’t know what was going on. I wasn’t going to risk him disappearing, too. Until I figured all this out, I needed him safe and accounted for.
Although, speaking of knowing people ... I checked my cell. No one had texted or phoned. In fact, many of my usual numbers — Dave from the office, a friend from work, students whose writing I’d edited, Ed — they weren’t in my list of contacts at all.
But there were a few new numbers in there. Who was “JJ?” And why did I have “Felicia’s Dog Grooming Service” on my “recently contacted?”
It was a bit scary thinking of calling someone I didn’t know at all, especially considering how this day had been going — someone whose name hadn’t been in my phone yesterday. So I opted to call the dog groomers. Maybe we now had a pet, just like we had the new coffeemaker.
The phone picked up after seven rings, and the woman who answered spoke quickly, as if rushed. “This is Felicia. How can I help you?”
“Hi,” I said. Then, for lack of a better option, “This is Susan Rose. May I ask — ?”
“Susan!” the woman said sharply. “Where the hell are you?”
“I’m — ” I glanced around. “I’m on the west side. I had a bit of car trouble.”
Felicia blew out her breath with a sharp sound. “Why didn’t you call? You know we’re booked solid! Look, I try to put up with your schedule, but it seems like this always happens — ”
“Wait,” I interrupted. “What do you mean?”
“I’m sorry,” the woman said. “I didn’t want to do this over the phone, but I’m going to have to let you go. You can pick up your final check on Friday.” The phone went dead.
Aha. Well, that answered the question of where I worked.
Or did. Did work, apparently. Since I’d just been fired.
I glanced at my contact list again. “JJ” stared back at me.
Well, the first phone call hadn’t gone well. And my trip to work had been a bust. Maybe I should go home (if it was still there, which I was starting to doubt), regroup with another strong cup of coffee, and then try to figure out what was going on.
* * *
Caffeine helped, especially since my key still worked and my apartment hadn’t disappeared. At least, coffee helped me feel halfway human again after I changed out of my sodden clothes and got a warm cup in me.
I started to notice more differences in our home, small ones — new clothes in my closet when I was changing, some toy dinosaurs I’d never seen before, and a blue-striped duvet on my bed instead of the normal paisley one. But none of the changes cleared up any of this crazy situation. None of this made any sense, not unless I’d hallucinated the past number of years working at the magazine.
So ... time to call that other number in my phone. The mysterious “JJ.”
The phone rang and rang and rang. After a couple minutes, I got a generic voicemail message repeating the number I’d called in a monotonous voice and advising me to wait for the beep.
“Hi,” I said when it started to record, and then paused. Hell, I probably should have rehearsed this part. I didn’t think I would have a lot of time on voicemail to explain things ... not that I had anything to explain, since I had no idea what was going on at all. “Um ... it’s Susan Rose. Can you please give me a call?”
I hung up. So now what? I glanced at the clock. It was nearly 11:30, so there was still a while to go until it was time to get Bobby from school.
Before I had gotten very far in my thoughts, my phone rang. “JJ” popped up on the screen, and I swiped the bar to open the call.
“This isn’t great timing. What do you want, Susan?” the male voice said brusquely.
Taken aback, I said, “Look, I woke up this morning and everything was ... different. Your number is in my phone, so I hoped you might know what’s gone wrong.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “What are you talking about?” The man’s volume dropped and a worried note entered his voice. “Are you okay?”
I took a deep breath and explained a bit how my morning had gone. There was an even longer pause on JJ’s end.
“What’s really going on, Susan? Did something happen you’re not telling me?”
I shook my head, even though he couldn’t see it. “Look, I know it sounds nuts. I sound nuts, but I swear that things have changed overnight. All I can think is maybe I had some sort of head injury and I’m forgetting what’s happened. But I feel fine, and that still doesn’t explain why I would think I was working at the magazine yesterday, but it’s closed today. Maybe the police could help?”
“Um, no. Don’t involve the police.” He hummed under his breath. “My lunch meeting was cancelled, so let’s see if we can get to the bottom of this. Can you meet me at Eight Dragon Restaurant?” He gave me an address.
“Okay.” The restaurant was located downtown by the history museum, where I’d taken Bobby for his birthday. “I can be there in twenty minutes.”
The bus dropped me a block away from my destination. The restaurant was a hole-in-the-wall place with a steady stream of lunchers coming and going, mostly Chinese and mostly large groups. The conversations and shouting of waitresses and kitchen staff created an inferno of noise that bounced around the bare walls like a mass racquetball match. But the smells of the food were heavenly, and it made me realize I had skipped breakfast.
“How many?” barked the waitress/hostess over the din, and I told her I was meeting someone. “Sit now or wait?” she asked.
I thought I heard my name, then a hand gripped my elbow from behind. I spun around to face the man who had so casually touched my arm, to see someone completely unexpected.
I’d seen that face before. In fact, everyone in the city probably knew that face. “JJ” wasn’t just anybody. “JJ” was Julian James, the former mayor. The one Ed had run an exposé on two years ago, which had led to Julian’s suicide.
The room became hot and started to wobble around the edges. I pulled free of Julian’s grasp and steadied myself against the waitress stand. This was impossible. There was no way that this could be real.
“You,” I breathed faintly. “You ...”
“Yes, me,” he said with a wry twist of his mouth.
When James had first been elected, people said he was too young. He looked young still, even though his forty-odd years on this planet had produced thin lines around his mouth and eyes, plus a silvering at his temples. He was handsome, but too polished — his hair over-styled and gelled to solidity, his teeth too white. But the picture he tried to create wasn’t perfect by any means. His smile was forced, and there was a hollowness behind his eyes that suggested he was haunted by something that was giving him restless nights.
“Table for two, please,” he told the hostess, who nodded and squeezed us into a tiny space next to the banging doors of the kitchen. As soon as she was out of earshot, Julian said, “Is this just a trick to get me to talk to you again?”
Although a bit dazed, I had enough presence of mind to shake my head. “Seriously, I had no idea who you were when I called. Although I ... I do now.”
He smiled slightly, glancing down at the table. He fidgeted with his fork — nervously, I thought. “Why are you pulling this, Susan? I thought we’d agreed to wait.”
“Look.” I hesitated, but this all felt slightly unreal. “Um ... first off, how do I know you? How did we meet?”
He gave me a look that flustered me. It was both worried and intimate to a degree that I hadn’t experienced since Bobby’s father, and the two of us had been barely out of our teens when I got pregnant and he left me on my own. Bobby’s dad was the only man I’d ever been with. Though I couldn’t imagine life without Bobby, I’d steered clear of relationships since then. I couldn’t afford any more complications.
When I said nothing, trying to deny the look he’d given me, Julian casually scanned the restaurant as he belatedly answered my question. “We met at Felicity’s Grooming when I took in Puddles — ” at my blank look, he clarified, “ — our dog. My wife’s dog, actually. I didn’t tell you I was married, at first. To be honest, I didn’t want to.”
“But I would never — ” I protested, but stopped. I felt slightly sick. “Did I break it off with you when I found out the truth?”
Julian hesitated for a moment, then shook his head.
“Oh,” I said. Almost to myself, I added, “I didn’t think I would ever do something like that.”
Julian patted my hand on the table, but didn’t do more than that. “It was — well, my wife and I have been having a lot of problems. We married fresh out of high school and had our son when we weren’t ready for the responsibility. We made it through, but we’re different people now. We agreed to separate. However, break it off during an election year? It would kill me in the polls.”
I opened my mouth to ask for more details, but realized I didn’t want them. This other life — this other me — seemed miles different from where I’d started out. Instead of continuing on about an us I didn’t remember and didn’t want to remember, I began to talk. Details about my two lives came pouring out of me in a confused rush. I didn’t know why I confessed everything, but it felt natural to talk to him. As if we’d known each other for years.
Working at the magazine. My son, and the intense fear he’d disappear just like my job had. The new possessions that had shown up in my apartment overnight. The exposé on Julian’s fraud and embezzlement. Julian’s suicide.
Through it all, he listened, with only a break to order food. When I came to the end, he said, “Hmmm.” Nothing more for a moment.
I supposed I sounded crazy. I wouldn’t have believed me. But, then again, I was talking to a dead man.
“I don’t know what to tell you about the differences,” he said. His mouth quirked. “But I do know one thing. There was no coffee fairy. I gave you that coffeemaker on our third date. After you told me you were allergic to flowers.”
The unexpectedness of his statement made me laugh out loud. A bit hysterically, but it felt good to let out some tension. Julian just smiled, then the smile dropped from his face.
“As to something illegal going on — let’s just say that someone might have known events were happening behind the scenes,” Julian said. “Even if this person wasn’t responsible for the crimes being committed, he wouldn’t want the person responsible to get caught.” He twisted his napkin on the table. “I always thought fighting for the right thing was black and white. That knowing about wrongdoing and taking action were tantamount to the same thing. But they aren’t. Not when your own flesh and blood is involved. I can see that a man might take the fall in order to protect someone more important to him than his own life.”
I raised my eyebrows. “So Ed made up his story? You weren’t involved at all?”
Julian smiled, shrugging. He seemed much more relaxed than he did when we met at the restaurant’s entrance. The haunted look was gone. “I’ve never committed fraud and embezzlement. I’ve certainly never murdered anyone. And this Ed character you keep mentioning? If he’s a writer, it’s not for the Street Times.”
Something about what Julian said niggled at the edge of my consciousness. Something that had happened while I was editing Ed’s follow-up article yesterday. Hadn’t I said to myself that James shouldn’t have committed the crimes? And here, today, he hadn’t done it. And he was still alive.
The waitress approached once more and took Julian’s credit card. After he paid, he leaned forward, but didn’t touch me again. “I miss you,” he said softly. It was hard to meet the intensity of his gaze, and I could feel the weight of our shared history in this other life. A life I knew nothing about, except that this man had been a large part of it. “But I need to win the election first — I’m doing a lot of good for this city. And then I need to figure out what to do about other elements. Repeating a tragedy like the one you mentioned — that wouldn’t be in my best interests, now, would it?” Despite the joking tone, for a moment, he seemed tired and older. I wondered what I would do in his shoes.
However, there was one priority that I agreed about with him. If it came to Bobby or me, I would choose Bobby every time. No matter what it meant or whatever my son did.
“I don’t know what’s happening to you,” Julian continued. “I wish I could help. One thing I do know — I would strongly advise against going to the police. It won’t help you or Bobby, a strange story like this.”
And not going to the police would help Julian, I couldn’t help thinking cynically. Not confessing to the authorities what I knew about his son’s crimes. But, then again, I had no proof. And there was no reason for me to turn him in ... right now.
I could see the same knowledge on his face, and that he knew I was able to pick up on his awareness. “I can’t say I believe everything you’ve said. Honestly, it’s a tough sell.” I nodded in agreement. “But my suggestion would be to track down those people you believed you worked with at the magazine. If they’re real people, then there must be a logical explanation. And they might be able to help you put together the events in your life much better than I could.”
I nodded again, my mouth dry. From that glimpse of the connection between us, I could understand why I’d done what I’d done with Julian in this life (although it still bothered me that I’d abandoned my morals long enough to have an affair ... and that I had an affair with such a handsome man and couldn’t remember a thing), but it felt like his advice was on the right track.
“Thanks,” I said. Then, because I could think of nothing else, “Good luck.”
He nodded and left. It took me an extra minute before I collected my purse and headed back to the bus stop. I’d need to hustle to get to the elementary school for pick-up.
As soon as I saw Bobby, I lost the worst of the panicked confusion that had been riding my shoulders since that morning. I bent down to give him my usual hug, but held on a few moments longer, until he began to squirm. We walked home rather than take the bus, since the sun had finally come out. I asked him about his day, plus one or two leading questions — “Notice anything different today?” “Any new people at school?” — but he seemed unaffected by the change. Or he was affected — he was a part of this changed world, and I was the only outsider who knew about our other life. When I asked him about my new coffeemaker, for example, he told me that my friend had given it to me.
“JJ,” Bobby replied casually. “But he doesn’t visit anymore.”
I dropped the subject. I didn’t want to know how big a part of our life “JJ” had been. Whatever involvement he’d had, it was too much.
After that, it was homework, playing, dinner, bed.
I’d just gotten back to the living room and was wondering where to begin searching for my old co-workers when my phone rang. I quickly swiped it open without noting the number, hoping the sound hadn’t woken Bobby. “Hello?”
Oh, my god. “Dave!” I practically shouted, then dropped my voice and paused, to see if there was any stirring from the next room. Nope — nothing. “Dave,” I repeated in a whisper. “I am so glad to hear from you.”
This time, the pause was on the other end. “You shouldn’t be. I’m sorry, Susan. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Dave’s tone seemed ominous. “Do what?”
“I couldn’t take the responsibility anymore. I’ve been doing it for years, and the stress ... it became too much. I needed to take a break.”
Lightbulb. “You’re talking about changing our lives, aren’t you?” I asked excitedly. “You know what’s going on, don’t you?”
Dave sighed. “Yes, I know. I know about all of it. I was in your shoes for many years, and it’s a terrible place to be.”
“So what’s happening? How do I go back to the way things were?”
“The way things were?” Dave laughed, but the sound was rusty. “Why would you want to do that?”
I hadn’t really had time to think about it. “Because ... because, well ...” I ran my hand through my long hair. “Because I don’t like who I am here. Apparently, I’ve done things I shouldn’t have.”
“Haven’t we all?” Without waiting for an answer, Dave continued. “We’re safe here. It might be different, but you can’t change the past. Not without Ed, and that’s not going to happen.”
“Why not?” I asked belligerently. “I want to go back.”
“You can’t,” Dave repeated. “But this change will end it. Nothing else will shift, as long as you leave it alone. And that’s what I’m warning you about — don’t try. Just leave it alone.” The phone beeped in my ear, and I realized he had hung up on me.
I frantically scrolled to my recent calls, and saw that the call had come from a blocked number. Damn.
I’d been a copy-editor for years. I knew how to fact-check, and I knew how to track things down. Dave said things wouldn’t change without Ed. Well? First step: find Ed.
I sat down at my computer and opened a web browser.
Ed O’Hearne, Edward O’Hearne, Ed A. O’Hearne — I looked up all the variations of his name I could think of, but got zero hits for magazines. If he was a writer, he must be unpublished.
I scrolled to page two and three of the search. Okay... this might be something. A long-outdated Facebook page. No profile picture, but the age seemed right. I checked the posts, the most recent from a few years ago. He’d shared several pictures of what looked like younger versions of the Ed I knew (kids, maybe?), but no pics of himself. I followed through to the Facebook page of one of the older women in a picture, and hit paydirt.
It was his wife, and she was much more active online. Pictures, posts, little snippets of a life together. Lots of pictures of Ed and her.
They lived the next town over from me, so I friended her and sent a message asking if we could meet. That I’d found something of her husband’s that he’d probably want back. I kept deliberately vague with the wording, trusting that based on her generally sweet-natured posts and the fact I was a woman living nearby that she would be more inclined to not question my flimsy excuse.
And she didn’t. The next morning after I dropped off Bobby at school, she agreed to meet me for coffee. I chose Preston’s Perk, a local coffee shop, usually busy and anonymous this time of the morning.
Ed’s wife looked even sweeter in person, a grandmotherly type who’d have homemade cookies in a jar for the grandkids. We chatted about her children and my son for a few moments before I brought out my decoy — a dog-eared old biography from my college days. The cover was bright red, and I’d written Ed’s name on the inside front cover. When I pointed out her husband’s name to her, I told her I’d found the book in a magazine rack at the doctor’s office and picked it up.
“That’s strange,” she said. Her fingers were swollen with arthritis, but she accepted the book and turned it over in her hands. “I don’t remember this.”
“Well, I figured it was important, since it had his name in it.” I pointed again to the “evidence” I’d created, and she nodded. I added, “You can ask him about it when you give it to him.”
I didn’t understand why she didn’t answer. Not until she fumbled in her purse and took out a tissue to wipe at her eyes did I realize she was crying. “I wish I could ask him.” Her voice broke. “But he passed away a month ago. That’s why I wanted so badly to know what you’d found ...”
My heart sank. My plan had been to follow her back to her house, so I could talk to Ed. Although I hadn’t liked the guy, I’d never expected this.
Dave had said Ed was the key to the change. Now, the rest of what Dave had said made sense. If Ed was dead, and he was the key, then I could do nothing.
But if that were the case, why had Dave been so set against me pursuing this? There must be something I was missing.
I realized the silence had gone on too long, and I belatedly replied, “I’m so sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say. Out of guilt, I sat with her for the next hour and listened to her ramble on about their life together ... their kids and grandkids, Ed’s job as an English teacher, his retirement three years ago, his sudden heart attack.
“Did he ever write stories at all?” I asked, more to make conversation than because I thought it would solve anything. I had been listening with half an ear for a while now.
“Oh, yes. He always wanted to be an author. He even wrote a book manuscript, but it was never published. One of his only regrets, I believe.” Her eyes had dried up a while ago, but she now looked ready to cry again. “Why? Are you a writer, too?”
So that’s why Dave warned me not to pursue any leads. Even though Ed was gone in this life, his writing was still around. It made me realize that that last day in my other life, it wasn’t Ed I’d interacted with in person. It had been Dave. The only connection I’d had with Ed was through his story.
I had a sudden stroke of inspiration. “I’m an editor, actually,” I said. “Tell you what? Why don’t I take a look at his book, see if it has any promise? If you could get it published, it might be very fulfilling to your kids and grandkids to finally see his words in print. To realize a dream of his, even after his passing.”
She sniffed, but nodded almost at once. “Oh, I would love that! I would be happy to have you look it over.”
After exchanging contact information, I practically danced my way home. I waited breathlessly by my email, but I’d only been online for a few minutes before a new message dinged in my inbox. It was her.
I opened up the file and got to reading.
The thing that struck me right away was that the writing style was nothing similar to the article I’d edited before everything went haywire. This new Ed’s style was precise and exact, but his composition was completely lifeless ... almost as if I’d written it. On top of that, there wasn’t a comma out of place, and the grammar was perfect. It had technique, but none of his usual flashy style.
The eerie part was the subject. It was about a mayor whose son had committed fraud and embezzlement, but he turned a blind eye to his son’s crimes. The mayor was married, but having a heated affair with a pet shop owner. She was a short, curvy brunette who wore glasses.
A chill went through me, and I had to stop reading for a moment and take a few deep breaths. Finally, I nerved myself to scroll to the ending of the book.
It was both a relief and frustrating to see the manuscript stopped right in the middle of a sentence. I read back a few paragraphs. The last scene in the book took place late at night. The son was meeting an FBI agent down by the shipyards, supposedly to confess his father’s crimes. Instead, he had a gun in his pocket and ...
Calling up Ed’s wife yielded some answers, at least about the book’s style. Unlike “my” Ed, who’d schmoozed his way into a job and learned writing along the way, this one had gotten the full ride — college, honors, teaching. And some of what she was saying in particular stuck out.
“He was always correcting my grammar,” she told me with a smile in her voice. “It was terribly annoying, but just who he was.”
Good at editing, but bad at writing. From what I’d heard from his wife, he’d been a doting and selfless husband, and not at all the lying sleaze who would make up facts so his stories garnered widespread recognition. The total opposite of “my” Ed. I asked her when he had started being this way.
“Always,” she told me. “I knew him since grade school, and he was terribly proper, even then. He knew exactly how to fix things — in fact, he helped tutor me in high school. That’s how we became sweethearts.”
I thanked her and hung up.
There was a connection between Ed’s writing and the timeline change, that was obvious. But it wasn’t just the writing that had changed things, I felt. There was a bond between Ed’s writing and the editor who worked on it that made things different. As if somehow my editing his article had passed on that talent to him. And that skill had changed his direction in life. No longer was he fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants, only-looking-out-for-himself Ed.
My phone began to ring, and when I glanced at the screen, it said “unknown number.” I moved to swipe it to silence, but hesitated. After the fourth ring, right before voicemail, I tapped “speaker.”
“Dave!” My tone was halfway between pissed and relieved. I went with belligerent. “Why are you calling again? I figured it out already.” Almost. “There’s nothing you can do to stop me.”
“Look, I didn’t want it to be this way.” He sighed. “You have no idea what it’s like. I’m exhausted, you know? You think you’ve got it fixed, you try to stick to the facts, but then something else changes, and suddenly the world’s gone to crap. I couldn’t take the pressure anymore.”
Okay. Not exactly the explanation I was hoping for.
“So ... ?”
“So everything’s better this time. No more Ed means no more stories. No more competing timelines. No more places where good intentions can lead us astray. We’ll live our lives in peace.”
“But I can’t,” I argued. “In this life, I have no job. I’ve abandoned my morals. I don’t want to live like this. I want to be a good role model for my son, not ... this person.” For a few moments, all I heard from the line was heavy breathing. I raised my voice. “I’m going to do this whether you help me or not, Dave. So if you don’t want things to go to badly ...”
He sighed. “It’s not a science, you know. And if you take us back to our old timeline, I won’t interfere. But if the world ends in nuclear warfare, that’s on your head, not mine.”
I took a deep breath. “Things can change that much?”
“Yeah.” He snorted. “He’s a wild card, and the power is tied up in him. But the control is in you. You have to rein in his words. It’s the only way to keep everything safe.”
“Fine. Okay, tell me what I need to do.”
* * *
I picked up Bobby from school and the rest of the day seemed normal, at least from an outside perspective. Hopefully to Bobby, especially. But to me, time was ticking by like an ant crawling across the Grand Canyon. By the time I finally put Bobby to bed and gave him our twenty kisses, I thought my stomach would explode with anxiety.
Time to tackle this monster manuscript. There was no time to be subtle. As best as I could recall, I rewrote Ed’s original article about James’ suicide and the interview with James’ son, cutting out huge swathes of Ed’s technically polished chapters. I made typos, missed commas, and added run-on sentences galore. “James is guilty as hell,” I whispered over the article, feeling silly to be talking to the words on the screen. “Put everything back the way it was.” And then I saved the book file and pulled out my sleeper sofa.
As soon as my alarm went off in the morning, I scrabbled for my cell and flipped immediately to my contacts.
Dave, Ed, friends from work — they were all back in place. No Felicia’s Dog Grooming Service. And no JJ.
It had worked. It had actually worked. Things were normal again, as far as I could tell. But that made me curious — there was just one more thing I felt I needed to check.
I opened a webpage and typed in “Julian James.”
“ — committed suicide,” I read aloud.
Damn. I knew that putting the world back the way it had been would also put James back into the role of the corrupt and suicidal politician. But after having seen the other side of him-the personal side, the side who would do anything to prevent his son from taking a fall — it was hard not to think about what I had done by adjusting the timeline exactly back the way it had been. Hard not to wonder if it was the right thing. Also hard not to wonder if I had the power to change the timeline into something better.
Especially since the new and improved Ed, who had turned out to be a decent person and shared a life with a wonderful woman, was gone again. In his place would be the lying sleaze who couldn’t remember my name.
Here, I had work and could take care of my son. Here, I had my morals intact.
There, a good man who loved his son was still alive. Still working on helping the city, even if he made some mistakes along the way.
I popped some aspirin to deal with the headache these thoughts created, and got Bobby off to school. Then I went to work — a work that was, thank goodness, there again. I was back to the grind, back to a steady paycheck, back to a car that worked, albeit grudgingly.
Near the end of my shift, Dave shuffled by and dropped a stack of typewritten pages on my desk. “Remember, I won’t help again,” he muttered to me. “Don’t mess this up.” He shuffled off.
I gingerly picked up the pages and started to read.
Unlike the article from a few days ago, this was a feel-good piece. A prominent couple celebrating their fiftieth year of marriage. The husband was a world-renowned poet, the wife a retired actress.
In some small way, the couple reminded me of the life the other Ed had had. In this life, he’d never been married, never had kids.
I picked up my red pen to edit the story, but put it down again.
I could edit the article and try to keep this reality intact. Or I could try to change the facts and change reality into something better.
But if I did that, would we instead go back to that other life? The one where Ed was dead, but had lived a long and happy life in the meantime — a better person, who had destroyed no one else’s life in the process? The one where Julian was alive to fix the wrongs his family had done, rather than be the fall guy for terrible crimes he didn’t commit? The one where I had given up some part of myself in order to love someone other than Bobby?
And who was I to make that choice? What if I messed it all up, like Dave said? I was supposed to be the one in control — the one who kept things steady. Knowingly trying to change other peoples’ lives ... that seemed egotistical, and wrong.
I thought of Bobby who I would do anything for, and I thought of Julian — trying to save the city and destroying his own life in the process. The other Ed, a good man with a family who loved him.
There was no one to help me if I failed. So should I even try?
I bit my lip. I sighed.
And I picked up my pen again.
Copyright © 2018 by Alison McBain