by Chuck Wendig
Edited by Brian J. White
Surf City, Long Beach Island, New Jersey: July 12th, 2011.
Dale presses the button.
And nothing happens.
Panic catches in his throat like a dead frog in a pool filter.
Susannah stares at him, mouth soundlessly trying (and failing) to work out an answer to what’s happening in front of her — him, the marriage proposal, the ring, and now this, the blood-red box with the shiny black button, a box he has fixed in a claw-like grip, a box with a button that he keeps trying to push, stabbing with his finger, stab stab stab—
Why isn’t it working?
What is happening?
Everything feels caught. Trapped like a sleeve in a car door. He looks down at the Box, and then he sees—
A tiny little slip of paper is caught between the black button and the red box around it. A fortune cookie fortune. Curled up, weathered, beaten and crinkly. He plucks it from the Box, sees the fortune printed there:
No problem is too hard when two hearts are tied together.
He remembers this fortune.
He pockets it. Susannah protests — “Hey!”
And then he goes to hit the button but suddenly doesn’t.
Oh, god. He didn’t think this through. Not at all. If he hits the button here he’ll reappear here, right here in the middle of dinner, right here in front of her, and that’s no good, that wouldn’t work, that would only complicate things.
So instead, Dale quickly stands. He looks to Susannah one last time, hoping everything will change — that their two hearts will suddenly lash together, that she’ll undo what time has wrought and she’ll turn her no into yes and then he can take the Box and fling it far, far away. His gaze pleads with hers, and hers back with his, and then the moment is lost.
Swallowed by waves. Lost to the undertow.
Dale hurries to the men’s restroom. Susannah does not call after him.
Inside the restroom, he throws up lobster tagliatelle in the urinal.
Then presses the button on the Box.
42. THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION
Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania: October 23rd, 2011.
Lip split like a dinner roll. Head cracked like an egg. Blood crusted on his brow, his chin, rimming Walter Bard’s nostrils like rust flakes around a pair of old spigots. Bard coughs. Coughing hurts. Makes his head throb. Forces pain licking like lightning across the round hill of his neck and shoulders. He groans and tries to undo his hands behind his back—
But his hands are not bound with rope.
They’re bound with handcuffs.
Smart money says: his own handcuffs.
Behind him, the creak of footsteps.
Not from one man, but two.
Two thugs come up alongside him, one to his left, the other to his right. One’s young, scrappy, a fresh-faced greaser with hair slicked back and his lean frame tucked into a sharp-cornered leather jacket. The other is older. Face peppered with ugly moles. Big moles, too — each big as a pencil eraser. Between his nose and his cheek. Above his brow. On his chin. His face is like a wadded-up sock. Ugly as Monday morning, this one.
Mob guys. Walter’s not a Philly cop, but he knows the look.
The young, handsome one speaks: “Got one question. Where’s Dale?”
Before Walter can say anything, the older one growls in a gravel voice: “Young Mister Capelli here is asking you a question.” Moleface draws a gun — Walter’s gun, a .357 service revolver. Smith & Wesson. Nickel gleam. The thug points it at Walter’s head, cocks the hammer — finger hovering near, but not around, the trigger. “So answer the question.”
“I’m looking for him, too.”
“Uh-huh,” Kid Capelli says. “Whyzat?”
“I’m a cop.”
“Toldja,” Moleface grumbles.
“I got a wife,” Bard says.
“I give less than a turd,” Kid Capelli answers. He cocks a hip toward Bard, flicks back the leather of his coat, pats a pistol hanging there in a holster by his hip. “Dale’s a dead man. He killed my older brother. He stole from us. He keeps stealing from us. Time he pays his debt. Better tell us what you know, or you’re gonna be joining him in a grave somewhere, asshole.”
A grave full of bodies, _Walter thinks. A pumpkin patch, maybe_.
“You know as much as I do,” Walter says. His voice sounds like someone took a cheese grater to his vocal cords. “Hell, you know more than I do, kid, so just let me go, yeah?”
“That doesn’t make you particularly useful,” Moleface snarls.
Kid Capelli tenses. He looks to Moleface. “We ain’t letting him go.”
“Didn’t say we could let him go.”
Suddenly, the kid really looks like a kid. He looks scared.
“Whoa, whoa, hold up. Gio. Gio. He’s a cop.”
“We can’t just… we can’t.”
Moleface — Gio, apparently — shrugs. “Eh. We can’t just let him wander up out of here. He’s seen both of us. He knows who you are.”
The realization sinks in. Bard wonders if his own face mirrors Capelli’s own: reality’s shadow crosses the younger man, that shadow like a vulture flying in front of the sun.
“Yeah,” Capelli says, nodding, swallowing, mouth sticky with spit. “Yeah, yeah. Shit.”
Gio grumbles, impatient. “So go on, then. Do it.”
“Wait, wait, wait—” Bard says, but they’re not listening to him. He feels the heaviness of the world settle on him. All his life, leading to this. He should’ve stopped poking anthills. Should’ve let that new shithead chief just be right. Should’ve turned around and gone back to Maisie and let this puzzle solve itself without him. But now he’s in it. He’s part of the puzzle. Walter Bard is going to end up as part of the question without ever finding out the answer. Maisie, I’m sorry.
“I’m not doing shit,” Capelli says. “You’re not my father.”
“Just do it. This was supposed-ta-be you cherry-pop. So pop your cherry already, willya? Shit.”
“No, no, wait, Dale was supposed to be my cherry-pop, you moley-faced fuck. You don’t tell me what to do. You don’t have the juice—”
“No, you don’t have the juice. You’re a fresh fish and I’m a shark. Now take your goddamn gun out and—”
The air behind Kid Capelli shifts and shimmers.
Then, soundlessly, a third person enters the room.
No. Doesn’t enter the room. But appears. As if never having existed before, as if there was a skip in the film reel and now, suddenly, a new frame has been spliced in.
Dale grabs the gun from Kid Capelli’s holster.
43. A PROBLEM WITH YOUR RESERVATION
Surf City, Long Beach Island, New Jersey: July 12th, 2011.
They laugh and tell stories. Dale’s are safe; he fears taking the mood down strange roads. Susannah’s are bold and ballsy — she talks about how her father used to yell and scream and throw things at her mother and how her mother once drove their Subaru into Lake Wallenpaupack on a camping trip. Dale worries they’re getting too far from the mood, straying away from safety. Leave the walkway and jump the fences, and suddenly the ground is unstable. The ground can’t be unstable, not here, not tonight, and so Dale tries to fishhook it back to steadier territory—
But then Susannah reaches across and holds his hand and says, “It’s good we can talk about this stuff. It makes me feel closer to you. We didn’t used to talk about this kinda thing. It’s good that we can have all that—”And here she lowers her voice. “—sweet monkeylove and all, but honestly, we did that before when the two of us weren’t too stoned to get it together. I’m happy that we have more than that this go-around.”
“It’s good,” he agrees. “It’s perfect.” And it is perfect — that’s no lie, Jack, because he realizes suddenly that the door isn’t only open, but the sun is shining through the open space and all he has to do is walk through it into forever warmth. But then—
A hand falls on his shoulder.
The host. A small man with pencil-lead eyes and a rumpled white button-down shirt. “Ahh. Sir.”
Dale stiffens. “What?”
“There is a… problem with your reservation, sir.”
“A problem with my what? But we’re here.”
“We’re already eating,” Susannah protests. “I mean, look—”
“If you’ll just come with me,” the small man says.
“I can go talk to them,” Susannah says, but Dale waves her off.
He says, “I’m sure it’s fine. I’ll go, I’ll go.”
The ring hangs heavy in his pocket.
But he grits his teeth and follows the small man. Through the tables. Past an open window which carries the breath of the sea — salt and sun and shore. The man leads him into the kitchens and he’s assaulted by those smells, then: onion and fish and seared flesh, and the small man keeps saying, “This way, this way,” and Dale keeps protesting, saying he doesn’t understand, asking what the hell is going on. And then the man is reaching for a door and ushering Dale through and—
He’s outside. The sun is still out because it’s summer and for a moment everything is white. He shields his eyes and turns back around to protest… but the door is already closing. Already locking.
The wind kicks up. A paper fast food cup bounces and rolls across the small little Jersey Shore alleyway he’s just found himself in. This cracked lot with bleached asphalt, with sand under his shoes, with a big dumpster nearby and next to it, a lone flipflop sitting there, unattended and forgotten.
A scuff of a heel and then he hears his own voice:
“You can’t ask her.”
He turns, sees himself — identically dressed — step out from behind the dumpster. Dumpster Dale has a hunk of broken parking lot in his hand.
Dale says, “She says no, doesn’t she?”
Dumpster Dale — the Dale of Bad News — nods.
“You don’t have to kill me. I… I don’t have the Box. I won’t ask her.”
“Can’t be two of us.”
“Y… yeah there can, Dave is out there still, we let him go—”
But Dumpster Dale says it again: “Can’t be two of us.”
Dale turns to run.
But the hunk of asphalt smashes into the back of his head and—
44. PULLING RABBITS OUT OF HATS
Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania: October 23rd, 2011.
The gun goes off twice. Bang. Bang. Kid Cappelli’s head-blood ends up on Gio’s moleface — a spatter of red, a crimson mist, and an excellent distraction because as Gio is spitting and staggering and swinging Walter’s pistol toward Dale, it slows him down just in time to take a bullet to the chest.
The two bodies hit almost simultaneously.
Bard sees that this is hard for Dale. He flinches with each shot, and flinches again as the bodies drop.
Then he turns the pistol on Walter.
“You’re the cop. One that’s been checking on me.”
“You’re Dale. One I been checking on.”
The gun barrel wavers.
Dale says, “This isn’t about you.”
“That’s not how police work works, son. It’s never about us.” Walter thinks, but does not say: It’s always about us.
“You shouldn’t be nosing around.”
“Again: kinda how being police works.”
Dale checks his watch. “Shit.”
Then he turns the gun away from Walter, and steps toward the doorway to the back deck — a sliding glass door. He stands off to the side of it, next to a modern-looking wrought-iron pellet stove.
Walter cranes his head to see—
Oh, no. Oh my. Maisie, what have I gotten myself into?
Dale creeps up the back. He’s outside. But he’s inside, too. Two different Dales. Twins. Gotta be twins. He’s got something in his hand — he holds it like a grenade, almost. A flash of red and black. Isn’t shaped like a grenade. It’s square. Dale reaches for the sliding glass door — but then he sees through it, sees the two bodies there, and his eyes go big as plates—
Inside Dale, the one with the gun, steps out from behind the stove.
Outside Dale’s mouth opens in a soundless scream.
Gunshot through glass.
Outside Dale drops. The hole in the glass is a bull’s-eye in the middle of a spider web. Inside Dale — the Dale still alive, the Dale with Kid Capelli’s gun — shudders, and takes a few steps back. Plainly rattled. But then he closes his eyes, draws a deep breath, and it’s like a wall of ice slams down.
Dale steps outside. Drags the body that looks just like him inside.
Then he goes back out to the deck and grabs the thing that Dead Dale had been holding. A box. Red as the Devil’s tail, button black as God’s eye.
Dale walks back to Walter, and again points the gun.
It’s then that Walter suddenly understands.
Well, that’s not true. He has no fucking idea what’s going on, to be honest, not in the mechanical sense. The steps and systems that lead to him sitting here are still veiled behind a gauzy reality he has only begun to tease out, but just the same, he sees the larger picture at work:
All the corpses in the pumpkin patch, save for the other Capelli, have been Dale. The dead body that Dale just dragged into the house is another corpse for the pumpkin patch pile. And the way Dale is cradling that Box, holding it with a grip so tight it’s practically arthritic, it’s important.
“That box,” Walter says. “It’s the key to all this, isn’t it?”
Dale retracts his hand, as if Walter might be able to snap the chains of the handcuffs and just snatch up the device. “No. Yes. Just be quiet.”
“It’s a cloning device, isn’t it?”
“What?” Dale laughs. “No, it’s not a… what? It’s a time machine not a…” But the words die in his mouth. “I gotta go. I gotta bury these bodies.”
“Let me free, Dale. I got a wife. I have a job. I’m old. I’m not gonna tell anybody, I don’t care anymore—”
“No. I dunno. Not yet.”
“Maybe I can help you. I can help you with those bodies, I can…”
“You just stay here. I’ll handle this. I have to think.”
But Dale ignores Walter’s pleas as he drags the bodies, one by one, out the front door of his house.