31. FEAST AND FAMINE
Barnegat Light, Long Beach Island, New Jersey: December 31st,2010.
Fireworks out over the cold ocean. Locals setting them off out over and beyond the Old Barney Lighthouse. The island sits off the coast of New Jersey, shaped like the rumpled skin of a molted snake, or like a single discarded stocking left on the floor after a night’s lusty dalliance. The only people who winter here are those who live here. It’s quiet. Streets mostly empty except for the pop-pop-fizzly-crackly-pop of those fireworks. A few hoots and broken bottles. Laughing.
A big man sits on a bench outside the walkway leading up to the old lighthouse. Peterbilt trucker hat. His torso strains at his flannel shirt, buttons pushing out so far and so hard it looks like the shirt might spring open and send those buttons like bullets at anybody standing nearby. The man noisily eats a hoagie. He picks a string of oily red onion from his beard the way a bird plucks a worm from the grass and then eats it with a slurrrrrup.
A girl walks up. Parka pulled tight. Fur-lined hood over long, fire-red hair. She pitches a cigarette into a slush-puddle and sits down.
“Vanth,” the man says by way of greeting. His voice is a high-pitched titter — it doesn’t match the burly, garbage-bag-body of the truck driver guise in which he appears.
“Charu,” she says. Fidgeting with the fingers of her gloves. “Aren’t you cold? No jacket.”
“I’m never cold. Even as the ground cools I can always dig deeper. But you, little bird. You always fly high. Even on the warmest day, the highest cloud is an icy puff of breath. That, to me, is hell and not heaven.”
She snorts. “You always have a way to make stupid, simplistic ideas sound so elegant and high-minded.”
He bites into the hoagie, and around a mouthful of meat and bread he mumbles: “It ish a gift.” Chew, chew, chew.
“What are you dressed as, anyway?”
A hard swallow. Gulp. “Truck driver! Big. Burly. _Manly. _Ringing any bells?”
“You never ring my bells.”
He covers up his one eye with a hand. “There. Cyclops. Better? Barnegat Lighthouse — come, now, I can’t do any better than this.”
She gets the joke — he’s referring to another one of her “tests” — but she refuses to engage. “You wanted to meet?” she asks.
Fireworks again. Nothing fancy. Just a few starbursts of sparkly, smeary blue. Burn hot, bright, fast, then gone again.
“To talk about the Cochineal Box and your latest…” He makes a sound like he’s gagging somewhere in the back of his meaty, flabby throat. “Charity case. The addict. The moron. Dave.”
“Well, isn’t the one calling himself Dave, now?”
“I think the concussed one is, yeah.” She finally stops fucking around and just pulls off the one glove, then takes out a hand-rolled cigarette and lights it. Hot ember in the cold dark. Smoke breath, steam breath, exhale. She laughs, finally — bitter, sardonic, amused. “You’re worried.”
“I’m what, now?”
“You’re worried that things are looking up. That I’ll win this wager and earn the hammer. Things are looking good.”
Charu shakes his head, but she can tell he’s nervous. “Wrong, wrong, wrong. I’m here to note just how poorly things are looking for your young pill-popping pill-head. He’s replaced his one addiction with another. He has become wedded to the use of the Box, which of course only leaves him a trail of bodies to clean up — clarify something for me, will you?”
“I only pay cursory attention to this situation as there’s so many other worlds to which I must attend. But can you run me through it? Exactly what happened a few days ago? With all the bodies, I mean. All these timelines are really a tangled skein I care too little to tease apart. I’m not a cat. I do not enjoy playing with knotted yarn.”
You’re not a cat. You’re a worm.
She rolls her eyes and pulls a deep crackle of nicotine. The cigarette hisses and glows bright. “Fine. Let’s see. Dale goes and finds out who is going to win the ponies. He goes out, presses the button. He hides in wait for the Other to show up so he can kill him, take the Box, make the bet, win big. He gets the Box, but, the Other escapes.”
“With you so far.”
“Dale wins the superfecta. Big payout. The Other looks for him to regain control of the Box—”
“—but gets caught. Mafia, as it turns out.”
“How salacious. Winning that big is apparently an excellent way to draw the attention of the Made Men? The intersection of the criminal Underworld and the very real Underworld is one that amuses and interests me even still. Juicy, juicy.” He bites into the sandwich. Oil and vinegar runs down his wrist, and the smell disgusts her. “Do continue.”
“They went after Dale but found the Other instead, so they Taser his ass and drag him away. Turns out, they got him on camera from the casino. From before — when he won at the roulette wheel that first time. So they think he’s scamming them, somehow. They don’t just have him on camera from the casino, they have him from the parking lot. Where he appears to be talking to someone else — fuzzy camera, hard to see, but their conclusion is: he has a partner.” She picks a tobacco fleck from her tongue. “They beat him. Torture him. Find out where he’s living and decide they’re gonna go back to his place and look for the money and maybe meet his partner, too. The Other is okay with this because, at this point, _fuck _Original Dale.”
“Competition with the self. Positively Roman.”
“They go back to the apartment and wait.”
“Other Dale and one of the Mafia pricks. Morty Something-or-other. Capelli? Capaldi? I dunno.” She flicks the half-smoked butt over a chain railing and into the cold sand. “They go. Find Concussed Dale — ‘Dave’ — there. Morty starts to torture Dave. Starts to cut his ear off. Wants the money. The Other is freaking out, trying to get the gun. Meanwhile — Dale, the one with the big fat pony-playing check, is at a bar and he’s trying to secure a future with the girl’s boyfriend. Paying him off to send him packing. Dale is drunk. Dale has the Box. Dale goes home, unlocks the door, and finds Morty on the floor with Concussed Dave, and the Other sitting at the chair, half-tortured, scabbing over.”
“Quite the scene, but—”
“Still talking. Morty has a gun. Dale is drunk, but Morty is slow getting up, fumbling for the weapon. And Dale—”
“Has the Box.”
“Has the Box, exactly. He thumbs the button and — poof. Back in time ten minutes while another version of himself is writing a fifty-thousand dollar check to a bartender so that bartender will break up with Susannah.”
Charu finishes his sandwich, then licks his fingertips. “Let me get this straight. At this point there are—” He counts each of his licked fingers. “Four versions of your charity case, Dale, in play?”
“Were,” Vanth answers him. “Dale Number 1: Concussed Dave. Dale Number 2: the tortured one. Dale Number 3: the one drunk on cocktails. And Dale Number 4: the one blissfully unaware of what he was about to walk into.”
“Interesting.” And she hears that in Charu’s voice. That worry, again. A little tremor — like an earthquake that registers only to those with their hands to the ground. He’s worried because Dale is slowly, surely, starting to understand. And that means the game is getting… well, as the big man said, interesting. “But he cleared house, of course.”
“He did. Number 3 appears in the apartment ten minutes before — Morty is already present, but doesn’t expect anybody magically appearing, and so Number 3 gets the upper hand. Breaks a plate over Morty’s head. Steals the gun out of the Mafia prick’s waistband. Boom. Shoots him in the head. Boom. Shoots Dale Number 2 in the head—”
“Because it’s time to trim that thread.”
“Mm,” she says with a nod. “And not long after, Dale Number 4 walks into his own apartment and stumbles upon this scene. A bloody, righteous, riotous mess. Bodies and chaos.”
“You like chaos.”
“Chaos contains answers.”
“Order is its own answer.”
She shrugs. “A boring one. The universe thrives on random chance. On the self-determination of man, which is totally fucking mad and utterly unpredictable.”
“Welcome to the party,” Charu says, echoing Dale’s words. “So what happened next?”
32. THREAD AND GRISTLE
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: December 29th, 2010.
“Welcome to the party, pal,” Drunk Gun-Toting Dale says, and laughs. He points the gun. Goes to pull the trigger.
Concussed Dave bites down on his ankle. Achilles’ tendon, to be specific. Teeth biting tendon way you might chaw on steak gristle.
The Dale who just walked in through the door screams.
Then he rushes into the room. Fists up and out.
The two Dales crash together. Concussed Dave blubbers and laughs as feet stamp and stomp all around him, as the two identical men — identical but for the blood splashed on the one and not the other — struggle and wrestle, the gun roving this way, then that, then back again.
Eventually the gun ends up under a chin.
And with a jerk of a finger—
Blood and brains spraying upward. A peacock spatter in red and gray.
The fourth Dale — the blissfully unaware one, falls to the ground. Not because he has been shot but rather because his ears are ringing and all of this is terrible. Above him, the third Dale, the Dale he should have been by a margin of ten minutes, stands there. Teetering like a Jenga tower about to fall, the top of his head open like an ugly flower.
Then he falls, and it’s done.
Barnegat Light, Long Beach Island, New Jersey: December 31st,2010.
The loud bang of a firecracker going off mirrors the mouth-sounds Vanth makes when mimicking the sound of the gun going off.
Charu jumps and laughs a little. “Quite the drama.”
“He’s also quite doomed, that one.”
“Fuck you,” she says. “He’s alive, isn’t he? You thought he’d be dead meat by now, don’t lie.”
He sighs. “I admit, I assumed he wouldn’t last very long, but it also hasn’t _been _very long. For us, maybe. Not for him. The addict is addicted. He almost ended that night same way as his predecessors ended _their _last night in that filthy urban alley. Wrestling over the Cochineal Box, both dead. He has no plan. No strategy. No awareness.”
“He has the girl. Susannah.”
“Ugh. Oh. No. You’re not — you aren’t actually hewing to that old clichéd love will save the day tripe, please.”
“It’s given him purpose. He has a strategy—”
“He has an addiction. Surely you can see that! Surely you realize now that the game is already over and you have lost. You backed the wrong horse, dear girl. And it will cost you dearly. Tell you what: give up now and you don’t even have to give me your torch. We’ll find something else. Something smaller and inconsequential to you. One of your other test cases, perhaps.”
“You’re afraid,” she says, standing up. She says that but suddenly she feels the fear, too. What if the cosmic fuck is right? What if Dale is really just a mess? What if his fall is inevitable? She could cut bait now and hand over a reduced wager — a kind of short-shrifted penance. But then she feels something else along with her fear: a hot spike of anger. “You can have all my test cases,” she blurts. “And the torch. But only if I lose. Only if Dale fails—”
“If Dale fails like all the others. The Cochineal Box never ends well. Nobody ever figures it out. And you’re doubling down? You really are batty. A rare bird, indeed.” He snorts. “A rare canary, more like. Signaling death in the mines. You poor thing.”
“Go fuck your horse.”
She begins to walk away.
He calls after her: “Don’t forget: you’re not allowed to engage! You can’t manipulate the experiment!”
“I haven’t,” she lies.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: December 29th, 2010.
Dave is damaged goods. Cracked egg. Cracked eggs, even — a whole dozen, shells stuck to the crate by a shellacking of eggy goop. Everything about him is broken open, pulled apart, a door kicked off its hinges. He was Dale; now he’s Dave. Like his identity is leaking out. His mind and sanity along with it. But when something goes out, other things come in — sometimes water replaces air, or air replaces water, and what fills in the void left by the egress of his saner features is something else. A kind of awareness. A greater mind than the smaller one he possesses.
He feels like an antenna. An antenna accepting frequencies from so many other channels. Voices and snippets and thoughts. Crackle static. Whisper hiss. Signal in the noise. Delicious. Useful. Fascinating.
Sometimes the voices, they talk to him.
Like this one voice.
A woman’s voice.
It’s the same voice but different every time. Sometimes she talks in English, other times in Chinese, other times in 1s and 0s and clicks and burbles and symbols once visual made aural—
He’s there on the ground, half his ear hanging off because some stranger he didn’t know decided he was in on some kind of “scam” or “robbery” and there above him was some later iteration of himself — still a Dale, it seems — holding a gun. This Dale had just shot another Dale (at this point Dave cannot figure out which one is which and it’s all growing more than a little confusing to his already-addled mind), and was about to shoot this new Dale walking in through the door.
And the voice, it spoke.
As everything slowed to a crawl like a clumpy milkshake sucked up through a too-tight straw—
She said, Only one can make it out of this. The one with the gun can’t be it. He’s damaged goods. Too damaged. Like you. We don’t need more of you, do we? He’s got blood on his hands. Not just his own. He’s the one that’s gotta go. You can do this. You can save the experiment.
Dave doesn’t know what any of that means.
But he knows how to open his mouth and bite.
And he does.