Mistakes Were Made

chuck-wendig

Edited by Brian J. White

June 2014

45. MISTAKES WERE MADE

Surf City, Long Beach Island, New Jersey: July 15th, 2011.

It’s midnight and Dale stands on the beach in bare feet, wet sand sucking at his toes. A little further down the shoreline sits a circle of kids playing guitar and sloppily banging on bongos as they laugh and sing and smoke weed. Closer in the other direction is a couple laying there on a rumpled towel — he’s on top of her with his hands planted on the ground like he’s doing push-ups, and she’s writhing and scratching his back with fingernails long enough and sharp enough to remove the grout from between bathroom tiles. His hips move against hers. He grunts. She squeaks.

Dale clutches the box to his midsection. In part to hide his erection.

The Box. The red box with the black button.

Moonlight catches in the Box’s shiny metal edges.

The erection is embarrassing. He shouldn’t have it. He thinks about Susannah. She’s gone, now. Gone probably forever.

Shit shit shit.

It’s time.

He picks a jetty and walks out onto the stone as the gray surf claps against it, the white churn splashing and sliding between rocks back out to the great wide hungry mouth that is the Atlantic Ocean.

Dale goes out as far as he can before the jetty is swallowed by the sea.

He knows what he’s gotta do.

The Box is heavy in his hand. He thought once that this would be the solution to everything. And in part, it was. It gave him money. It gave him a way up and out of where he was — out of who he was. But all that was meant to do one thing: get Susannah back. And that didn’t happen. It made that worse. The Box convinced him he was invulnerable, that he could do anything — that all his mistakes were just pencil marks on a page, easily erased with the push of a button. Click.

Thing is, cleaning up his mistakes was itself a mistake. Every time he pushed that button he created a new Dale, and every time he created a new Dale he had to get rid of that Dale, and that meant more blood on his hands, more bodies to bury in the field (or conceal here, underneath a fish-stink dock across the harbor in Tuckerton, New Jersey). It meant coming home late a few days ago, smelling like seawater, blood under his fingernails, to find Susannah waiting there. Sitting on a pair of packed suitcases, makeup streaked on her cheeks by the tears that fell, but then ran dry.

She excoriated him. Yelled at him for abandoning her in the middle of their date. And of course he had to, because suddenly he’d made a body — a corpse of himself — in the alley behind the restaurant. He had to move that body. Hide it. Take it away and keep it from ever popping up.

The kicker, the corker, the irony-of-all-ironies, is that she said: “I thought maybe you were going to propose to me tonight.”

He laughed. He didn’t mean to laugh, and he wasn’t laughing at her, nor was he laughing with her — but the absurdity was just too much too take. It socked him in the gut and all that came out was mad, cackling laughter. Tired. Bewildered. Dirty. Hungry. And what then went through his mind was the memory of a timeline that no longer exists — a timeline he cut short with the guillotine swipe of the Box’s merciless mechanism. There, the memory of him asking her to marry him. And her laughing.

He didn’t understand it then, though maybe he does now. Now that he’s drunk. And on pills again. He tells himself that maybe it’s that with all this time-travel and temporal rejiggering he broke something — that somewhere he glimpsed a reality that was one of many potential ones, and somewhere in there the train hopped the tracks and now he stands in a reality where Susannah would’ve said yes. And there he fears that somehow he’s been using the Box wrong all along, though he can’t for the life of him say how exactly he should be using it. Maybe nothing he could’ve done mattered. Maybe it was a Catch-22. Or some kind of paradox. Maybe this was the noose that was always going to tighten around his neck. And hers.

A smaller voice, though, reminds him cruelly of another, perhaps more realistic, option:

She wanted him to ask.

But then when he did, the reality of who he was and what they were hit her like a brick in the face. And she laughed the same way he laughed that night with her on her suitcases — not because it was funny but because everything is absurd and all things are broken and that’s not ha ha funny but it’s definitely funny in the holy shit everything is cosmically fucked way.

And with that realization she said “no.”

Maybe she would’ve come back around to it.

Maybe she one day would’ve said yes.

Maybe that would’ve happened ten minutes after she said no. Or ten days. Or ten years.

Now, though, it’ll never happen.

They’re done. She made sure to tell him that.

She left. And he went out, found liquor. And the next day he found pills from a couple of Ocean Pacific-wearing dude-bros standing outside the surf-shop which was conveniently next to the head shop.

He’s not proud.

And yet, he refuses to blame himself.

He blames the Box.

He holds it. Ready to throw it.

But then he hears it:

Footsteps. Behind him. The wet slap of bare feet. Walking confidently, as if the person already knows the contours.

Dale grits his teeth. “Lemme do this. It’s bad mojo. It has to go.”

“It’s a mistake,” comes the voice. The voice is wet, throaty, and the man coughs. His own voice. “I almost died going after it. The undertow got me. I was able to hit the button before it sucked me out to the big blue nowhere. We need it.”

“Shit. Shit.” Dale winces, cocks his arms like he imagines a Major League pitcher would. “I’ll throw it. I’m gonna throw it.”

It’s a hollow threat because he knows what happened. Dale throws it. Regrets it. Jumps into the surf to go after it. Except — the fact that he’s standing behind himself is telling. That means Dale doesn’t reclaim the Box easily. Not easily enough to just walk back to the beach. He must get the Box because he has access to the button. So, what? The undertow, perhaps. The hands of the sea grab him, pull him out, threaten to drown him? Maybe he starts to drown. Maybe he hits the button and comes back — and ten minutes is maybe enough time to get ahead of the current.

He doesn’t know.

And now it doesn’t matter anyway.

Behind him, Other Dale says:

“Sorry, friend.”

Dale tenses, starts to whip his arm —

The bang of a gun.

The feel of something punching through his heart.

A cloud of gunsmoke, the stink of sea brine.

The Box drops out of Dale’s hands as he tumbles forward into the surf.

46. THE CONVERSATION

Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania: October 23rd, 2011.

Night falls. The sun dims beyond the windows, goes from bright white to bleeding orange before finally settling into the eventide blue. Dale comes back in. Dirt smudged across his cheeks like chocolate marking the face of a greedy little boy. Hair tousled in much the same way. He looks tired. Walter knows that look because he feels that look. Except this fellow’s too young to be tired like Walter is tired.

Then again, maybe not.

Dale goes into the kitchen, gets a beer. Dogfish Head ale, by the look of it. Local-ish. Bard drinks it, too, or did when he still drank.

Chair-legs judder across the floor as Dale brings it over, then sits down across from Bard.

The gun hangs heavy in Dale’s pocket. Bulging there. The grip hanging out like a dick.

“You guys took away my body-hiding spot,” Dale says.

“Yeah. Well. Sorry about that.”

Dale shrugs. Sips the beer. The bottle goes ploonk as he pulls it away from his mouth, as if he had been suckling on it like a baby at a teat. “It’s no big thing. It’s your job.”

“I dunno what my damn job is anymore. I mean, I guess I know, and I guess this right here isn’t it, and yet — here I am. Stepping into it.”

“You said you got a wife?”

“I do. Named Maisie. Got some health issues. I sure would like to go check on her. Listen, Dale. Like I told you, you let me go, I’ll go. I’ll let this drop like a hot potato because this hot potato’s been burning my hands too long. Now that I know what’s up, I ain’t gonna tell anyone because ain’t anyone gonna believe what I’m telling them anyhow.”

Dale thinks and drinks. “We’ll get there.” He licks his lips. “I think I’m in trouble — what’s your name again?”

“Don’t think I mentioned it. Bard. Walter Bard.”

“Nnh-huh. Walt, I think I’m in deep fucking doo-doo.”

“I’d say that’s accurate enough.”

“Cops on me. And these Capelli assholes.”

“How’d you manage that, anyway? You steal from them?”

Dale laughs. “No. But that’s what they think. I used my… this Box here—” He pulls it out of the other pocket, the one opposite of the gun. “And took the casino and the racetrack for a lot of money. And then I did it again after Susannah left me. Again and again. And eventually they got it in their mind that I was ripping them off. In a way I guess I was. Even after I knew they were involved I just kept doing it. Because it felt good.” He holds up the beer as evidence. “And I am nothing if not a man who can’t help trying to feel good, you know?”

“I don’t know. I seem to want to feel bad all the time.”

Dale swallows a hard mouthful of beer. “See, though, that’s the thing. Wanting to feel good all the time usually means feeling bad more often than you’d like. Convinces you to be your own worst enemy. It’s a trap. That’s how addiction rolls. Rolls right over you like a steamroller as you’re standing there, looking up in the sky, admiring clouds. It’s a distraction. Like masturbating as a grizzly bear is eating you.”

“That’s quite an image.”

“I have a lot of time on my hands to think about stuff like this.”

“Yeah, even if I had a lot of time on my hands I dunno if I’d be thinking about jerking off while a bear is killing me.”

Dale shrugs. “That’s why you’re you and I’m me, I guess.”

“You got a plan?”

“I don’t.”

“What’d you do with those bodies?”

“Dumped ‘em in an old well out back. It’s a big property.”

“They’ll come for you. Not the bodies, I don’t mean like, zombies and such, I mean: the Capellis. They aren’t done with you yet.”

Dale finishes the beer. “Figure they’re on their way already. As I dumped the last body I heard the one phone ring, then the other. Then again in the same order. Somebody’s checking in, checking up, and when nobody answers the phone somebody’s going to come poking around.”

“They’re gonna wanna do more than just poke around.”

“Yeah, no, I’m pretty damn sure they’re gonna bring everyone.”

Dale’s right. And Walter’s trapped here with him.

“Maybe this is a good time to let me go, then,” Walter says.

“Maybe you can help me.”

“Okay. Maybe, maybe. We could call in the cavalry. Officer down and all that. Cops’ll get real excited at the chance to take down some organized criminals. Sometimes they’re hard to touch and—”

“No cops,” Dale says. “They catch those guys, they’ll scoop me up in their net, too. And I can’t have all this getting out there.” He holds up the Box as if to demonstrate. “It’s just you and me, Walt.”

“I’m old, Dale. Old and beaten up. I might have a concussion.”

“I had one of those. Well. Not me. But me.”

Bard doesn’t follow, not exactly, but at this point he’s not sure it matters. He feels like he’s on a roller-coaster, belted and buckled in with no way to stop it before it reaches its conclusion. Or before it crashes and burns.

He’s about to say something else, when light streams in through the front windows. Headlights. From not one car. But two, maybe. Or three.

Dale sighs. “I was gonna offer you a beer, but I think this party is ending. Or is just starting.” He urps into his fist — a careless, casual act that almost (but not quite) hides the fear shining in his eyes. Like moonlight caught on fish scales, sliding underneath dark water. “I undo those cuffs, you’re going to help me?”

“I’ll do my best. You gonna gimme my gun back?”

“We’ll see, Walt. We’ll see. You’re just lucky I got the cuff keys out of Capelli’s pocket before I dumped the body.”

Outside, men’s voices. Raised. Heated. Angry.

Dale moves behind Walt.

And begins unlocking the handcuffs.

47. MOOKS

Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania: October 23rd, 2011.

A dozen men in three cars. One Cadillac Escalade. Two Lincoln Town Cars. All these men: members of the Capelli family. You got Danny and Eddie Capelli: twins, young guys, soldiers for the family. Cousins Francesco “Frankie” Fiorelli, Michael Fiorelli (aka “Mikey Fio”), Bernie Fiorelli. Then there’s Vito, Antony, another Mikey, Antony Jr., Lemmy, Leo. They’re all Capellis — last name in place, all of them family, all of them looking for vengeance. They got a patriarch along for the ride — not the capo di capo, not the big boss with the red sauce, but big enough.

They got Aldo Capelli.

Aldo. Fat. Like a frog, fat. Small head and then everything else is a mountain of lumpy flesh. Squat. Big man-tits. Gut bigger than the man-tits. Ass and hips bigger than the gut. Even his face has that sense of gravity, that look that everything is smashing down on itself.

Aldo, he’s the one to marshal the troops. He pops the trunk of the newer Town Car, starts handing out weapons. Couple shotties. Buncha pistols. Lemmy’s like a surgeon with the AK, so he tosses that to him.

As for Aldo, he’s already got his gun.

A beautiful piece of craftsmanship. A Benelli B76. Italian-made. 9mm. Feminine contours. Fulvio Bellisario out of Jersey City once mocked him, said Aldo probably took that thing home and fucked it. Stuck his tiny dick right in the barrel and just fucked it, and then said — through braying donkey laughs — that the reason he had the gun in the first place was because his dick was so tiny he had to convince everybody that it was—

He never got to finish that thought.

Aldo shot him in the knee. Then beat him to death with the gun.

Years later some of Fulvio’s forehead skin is still stuck to the front sights with a tiny tuft of hair.

Good. Fulvio was a prick.

Aldo racks the slide. Everybody stands around doing the same — loading their shotties, checking their pistols, spinning cylinders not because it does anything but because it makes you feel a little like a bad-ass.

He’s about to give a speech. Not some moving, passionate speech full of poetics and polemics, but fuck it, it’s his job to get these mooks up and ready to go. Truth is, the family’s so big, so spread out, half of them don’t even know each other anymore. Ain’t like it used to be, so he’s gotta get their blood hot, put the scent in front of the hounds’ noses to get them riled up. He’s gonna give them some shit about family and the bonds of blood, and he raises the pistol in the air and opens his frog-slit mouth—

When the side door to the house flings open.

Their quarry runs out.

It’s him. It’s gotta be. He’s under the outside light for a half-second and he matches the description and — well, shit. Then Dale is up over the patio’s edge and over the retaining wall and then down into the trees.

Goddamnit.

“Kill that motherfucker!” Aldo shouts.

That, as it turns out, is all the scent these hounds need.

48. YOU SAY FLIGHT, I SAY FIGHT, LETS CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF

Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania: October 23rd, 2011.

The sound of doors opening, slamming. A trunk, too, maybe.

“You got a plan?” Walt says, stretching his arms out, feeling the blood pool back into his hands with a buzz, then a burn.

Dale looks down at the pistol. “Well.” His voice shakes. “I’m going to give you the gun back. I still have Capelli’s gun, so I’ll be armed for whatever good that’ll do me. And then I’m going to run like a crazy person and hope they don’t catch me. If you’d be kind enough to cover me…”

“You’re gonna run.”

“I’m gonna run.”

“That’s your big plan.”

“Yep. Yeah. Thought I was pretty clear.”

Walter looks down at the boxy pocket bulge.

“I got a better idea.”

49. ALL THESE MEN ARE GOING TO DIE

Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania: October 23rd, 2011.

Gunfire cuts through the trees. They find Dale slumped against an old, broad-chested oak. Blood running down his arm, dripping at the ends of his fingers. Aldo hangs back, smirks. Tells the men to grab him, fetch him, bring him to the car. He sends both Mikeys to do it — because, coincidentally, both Mikeys (Fio and Capelli) are built like a couple of oxen. Each a bodybuilder, roided-up, plumped, muscle-bound to the point of looking like the skin is gonna split like an over-cooked hot dog.

They go up together and grab Dale and slam him against the tree, and they laugh and make fun of him and high five over Dale’s wobbly head. The rest of the men laugh and clap because this was easy. They like it easy. They caught their prey and now it’s time to tear him apart.

Bang.

That’s when Mikey Fio’s head jerks. A pink mist in the night. Mikey Capelli wheels, and a red penny appears in the center of his head alongside another gunshot and then he’s down, too.

Everything falls to shit.

Aldo sees the shadow off to the side, a shadow with a smoking pistol and who he swears to the Mother of God has Dale’s face, except that he’s looking at Dale right there, bleeding up against a tree and—

Shadow Dale runs into the woods, deeper.

The men turn. Aldo hollers, tells them to go after him.

Movement. By the tree.

Bloody Dale already has the shotgun up.

And another Dale stands next to him. A twin. A triplet. Something. That Dale has a gun, too. Mikey Fio’s pistol.

Aldo tries to shout, tries to warn the other men, but it’s too late.

Bullets catch them in the back.

Aldo panics. Feels his blood go to cold piss. Other shapes start moving in at the margins. Moonlight faces. Dale’s over there, by the rock. And another one hopping the retaining wall. And a third running up with a fucking — what is that, a baseball bat? Hooting and laughing. Gunfire everywhere. Gunpowder stink.

He runs. Aldo doesn’t know what’s happening.

But he knows this is a massacre. He hurries back up the embankment, through the trees, pulling himself along, occasionally turning and firing the Benelli into the woods at what, he doesn’t even know. Boom, boom, boom. Then he’s up into the driveway again, heading toward the Town Car —

A bang, and then his knee is bending the wrong way. Blood blown out the back of the cap like a blister popping. Aldo pitches forward, his bulk stopping him from landing hard — but just the same, his Benelli spins away, out of his grip, clattering on cobblestone.

A foot falls on the pistol.

Aldo looks up.

Sees a heavyset black man, older, standing there.

A pistol in his hand. A .357 revolver. Like a cop would carry.

The gun goes off, and Aldo is no more.

50. PURPOSE

Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania: October 23rd, 2011.

Before it all goes down, Walter stands there inside the house with Dale and he says, “You remember what I asked you? I asked you, It’s a cloning device, isn’t it? Because that’s what I thought it was. Finding all those bodies in the field. All those versions of you put to pasture.”

And that’s when Dale gets it.

Oh, shit.

It really wasn’t a time travel device.

Or, if it was, it wasn’t a very good one.

It really is a cloning device. A copy machine for whoever presses the Box’s shiny black button.

He laughs.

Dale presses the button.

The first one is the hardest. Dale hits the button and goes back to the same spot, just as the Original Dale is standing there behind Walter, unlocking the handcuffs. And right out of the gate he’s gotta start waving his hands, saying wait wait wait wait they’re coming I got a plan —

But already Original Dale is taking a step back and raising the gun.

It’s Walter who saves him.

Walter who steps in front and says: “I think I know what his plan is.”

51. REASONABLE FACSIMILE THEREOF

Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania: October 23rd, 2011.

The clones arrive, one by one. Walter watches, amazed each time that a new Dale shows up with a new press of the button. To him, it happens almost instanteously. One clone, right after the next — they make no sound as they appear, they simply go from non-existence to standing there as if they had never not been there. It boggles Walter’s brain because way Dale plans it, he pushes the button then waits ten minutes, then: click. But this Walter isn’t following that journey. This Walter is aware of the here and now, and yet is similarly aware that somehow, somewhere, there exists a Walter Bard who waits each ten minute iteration until the button is pressed anew, perhaps as men with guns close in on the house, closer and closer — and maybe too there’s a timeline where Walter stays behind even as Dale disappears, leaving behind no Dales, one Dale, or five Dales, and each iteration creates a universe all its own of broken lines and deviant margins.

But Walter can’t think about that now.

Because suddenly, he’s looking at 12—

No, 13 other Dales.

They’ve no time to discuss a battle plan.

They only have the one Walter and Dale — er, Original Dale, or Dale Prime, or whoever he is — concocts.

Run.

Let them follow.

Then attack.

52. IT BEGINS WITH CORPSES AND IT ENDS WITH CORPSES

Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania: October 23rd, 2011.

“The cops will come,” Walter says. “Lotsa gunshots and all.”

Dale Prime — easy to identify now because of the bullet that clipped his bicep, coating him in blood — nods. “I figure we have time. We’re pretty insulated out here. Though, uhh, I might need a doctor eventually.”

Walter looks down at his own revolver, realizes he’s still holding it. He slides it into his holster. The headache he had has been pushed out to sea, though his ears are still ringing, his nose is still burning. “Dale, I’m gonna go home. I intend for this to be the last time we meet. Tomorrow morning I’m going to turn in my badge and gear up for retirement.”

Dale winces, offers a hand.

“Sorry for dragging you into this, detective.”

They shake hands. Bard shrugs.

“I dragged myself into it.”

“We can relate to that,” one of the other Dales says. That Dale has flecks of blood on his cheek, nose, and forehead. Blood that’s not his own. They didn’t lose any Dales, to everyone’s surprise.

“What’s your plan now?” Bard asks.

“I guess we do what we’re by now good at doing.” Dale Prime lifts his eyebrows and sighs. “We get rid of some bodies. After that, who knows?”

© 2014 A. E. Decker

About the author

A. E. Decker

A. E. Decker, a former ESL tutor and tai chi instructor, lives in Pennsylvania. Her young adult novel, The Falling of the Moon, is published by World Weaver Press. A graduate of the Odyssey Writers’ Workshop, she is the author of numerous short stories and a five-year member of the Bethlehem Writers Group. Like all writers, she is owned by three cats. Come visit her site, Words Meet World, for free stories and fur Daleks.