10. IS BLISS
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: December 20th, 2010.
Five days till Christmas, and three days after the event which shall not be acknowledged, all Dale can really do is sit in his apartment and ignore repeated calls from his landlord (who as it turns out would very much like to be paid the rent for the last three months) while watching the worst television known to mankind. It’s all gavel banger shows and infomercials. It’s soap operas and public access preachers. It’s Kardashians from top to bottom. And this ignorance feels glorious.
It’s all he can do to ignore what happened.
It’s a big long game of playing pretend.
(It would be a whole lot easier with pills.)
But he doesn’t have pills and honestly, he’s afraid to even try to get some right now. Far easier to succumb to the narcotic allure of bad television; disappear beneath the waves of toxic, soporific pop culture.
On the kitchen counter — which he can see from the couch because outside of the bathroom and one closet all of his apartment is contained in a single room — sit two Seiko watch boxes.
The red box with the black button is in a drawer.
He has begun to think of it as a proper name. Capitalized.
He can’t stop thinking about it. The TV’s on but he’s not paying attention, not really. He’s got a cold beer in his hand, a bowl of Frosted Flakes (dry, no milk) on the table.
It’s like he can feel The Box vibrating through the floor.
Like it’s calling to him.
He still tries not to think about it. But slowly, he can’t not think about it. And then he can’t stop thinking about it.
It’s a time machine. He’s pretty sure.
A fairly disappointing one, all told. It sent him back, what, ten minutes? It sent him back to the same spot in the alley where he was standing when he pressed the button.
He suddenly fishes around on the mess of his coffee table and grabs a Chinese take-out menu. In the couch cushions he finds a Sharpie marker (sometimes he still tries to write songs in the dark of the night and so he has pens and markers stashed around the place).
Rules. The Box has rules.
So. Takes you back ten minutes. Can it do more? Dunno yet.
Takes you to the same spot where you pressed the button.
The Box didn’t come with him. When he “traveled.”
That’s weird. Like it’s… fixed in time, somehow. You go, but the Box stays. Okay.
So, that’s it.
Three rules. Back in time about ten minutes. Back in the same spot. And the Box doesn’t come with you.
Then he laughs. Because — this is crazy. This isn’t real. The Box didn’t do anything for him. It’s just a box. A toy, probably. Or some nerdy collectible from some movie he can’t afford to go see. What happened three nights ago was a fever dream, a fit of fatigue and desperation. (And addiction.) Or hell, maybe he ended up getting some Oxy after all, and he got really crazy high and his trip ten minutes back in time was all in the imagination of a drug-blasted dipshit.
For Christ’s sake. What is he, twelve?
Then comes a knock at the door.
No. Not a knock. A pounding.
Whump whump whump.
“You owe me, Gilooly. Open this door. Gilooly! Gilooly.”
The landlord. Stankieiwicz. That crooked old bastard. Dale thinks to do what he’s been doing: just pretend he’s not here. TV’s on, sure, but that doesn’t have to mean anything. So he just sits on the couch. Quietly munching on a few stray Frosted Flakes fished from his palm.
Then he starts to hear the key in the lock.
He springs up and springs for the door, reaching for the chain—
Too late. The door creaks open.
And there’s Stankieiwicz. Old man’s got the body shape of a fishing hook — stooped over, big hump on his back. Bald on top, but long frizzy white hair coming out from the sides like puffs of insulation pulled down through a ceiling.
The landlord doesn’t gesture with his finger, but rather, with his thumb — already he’s coming forward and thrusting his thumb into Dale’s breastbone, prod prod prod.
“Gilooly, you owe. You owe big. You owe three months. Fifteen hundred bucks you little prick. Gilooly.”
Dale bats away the old man’s hand. “I’ll pay.”
“How? With what? You still got that coffee bitch job?”
“Barista. They call it a—” The old man takes another step forward and takes another jab with the thumb. “Barista.”
“I want five hundred bucks.”
“What? You said fifteen hundred—”
The landlord hollers: “No! I mean five hundred now! Right now or I kick your shit-can outta here. Right on the street!”
“C’mon, Mister Stank, it’s almost Christmas.”
“Fuck your Christmas! I got meds. And those meds ain’t cheap, you little leech. Fifty bucks for this pill, sixty-five for that pill, and Medicare ain’t but a fart in a cup.” With each word the old man’s jabs get harder and harder. Dale backs up further and further until his buttbone jams up against the edge of the countertop. “Money. Now.”
And that’s when Dale gives the old man a shove.
It isn’t much of one. But Old Man Stank, that hump makes him top heavy. Like a stack of plates balanced on a broomstick.
He teeters, totters—
Then goes down.
Dale watches it happen. Practically in slow motion because the landlord falls slowly — more a building collapse than a boulder falling. Arms reaching, flapping, one leg up like a flamingo, the other leg bending, the foot sliding out—
As the old man cries out, Dale reaches—
But the old man’s hand falls underneath him as he pivots.
There’s a sickening crunch as the arm breaks.
It turns at a funny angle — not funny _ha ha _but funny _oh god no _— and the landlord’s other arm bats at the floor as he cries out from between gritted teeth. Dale says, “Oh shit oh shit,” and tries to help the old man up—
But the old man isn’t stilled. His carapace is cracked and all that’s spilling out is venom: “You broke me! You broke my arm! Criminal! Thug. I’m going to call the police. Assault! Assault!”
The old man scrabbles to stand, but fails, and instead gets on his knees and shuffles toward the exit like an insane monk scraping ground to meet his Maker — Dale trails along, pleading, begging, trying to make sure the old man knows it was just an accident, please don’t call the cops—
“Fuck you! You abuser! Assault! Assault!”
If it’s real…
If he’s right about what it is…
Shoving the landlord was a mistake. He made this mistake and he can correct this mistake. The sheer potential of the Box he now holds in his hand — after rescuing it from its kitchen drawer prison, of course— suddenly crashes down on him, a wave of elation.
He holds it. Thumbs over its smooth edges. It’s cold. And warm. And it hums so sweetly.
Dale turns it over.
The black button shines like a shark eye.
He presses it.
Doylestown, Pennsylvania: October 21st, 2011.
The doctor tries to explain to Walter what it is, but Walter waves him off and tells him that he already knows what optic neuritis is because that’s how they first found out Maisie had MS in the first place.
So now Walter sits as Maisie reclines in a hospital bed. Everything here sits cast in a lemon chiffon color, which would normally make Walter think about lemon meringue pie, which would in turn remind him that_ hey you have diabetes, dumbass_. But being here in the hospital like this casts the lemon yellow in a kind of sickly hue. A swimmy hue of infection and illness.
“I keep thinking if I blink, it’ll fix it,” Maisie says.
“I bet,” Walter says. He gives her hand a little squeeze.
She waves it off. “Eh, you know, death perception is overrated.”
“I think it’s ‘depth’ perception.”
“Oh. Oh!” She laughs, which dissolves into coughing. “You’re right, Walter. Death perception I guess isn’t a real thing? Imagine that, wouldja? Seeing how people are gonna die. You think it was a gift but I bet it’d be just awful.” She reaches to the tray in her lap and plucks the cup of ice water and gives it a long slurp. “Anyway. I’ll be fine.”
“I know you will.”
“Maybe being blind in one eye will make all my other senses better, huh? Like I can smell real good or hear things going on next door.”
“Could be, Maisie.”
“Are they gonna be replacing my hip? The doctor didn’t say.”
“He did say, and yes they are.” One of the things with MS is sometimes it fuzzes Maisie’s thinking. No long-term cognitive decline or anything: she still knows her name. But sometimes stuff just gets lost in the fog. “You go in for surgery tomorrow.”
“I’m not scared.” The way she says it tells him otherwise.
“I know you’re not.”
“The fall was a bit scary.”
“I bet it was.”
And here he twitches. Because he’s been trying real hard not to think about work. Some detectives, some cops, can’t let it go. All Walter wants to do is let it go, let it slide out of his hands like a slack rope, let that boat float out to the middle of the ocean without him in it. All he wants is beach drinks and a good paperback book. A Lee Child, maybe. Or a Dan Brown. He calls them dumb books for smart people. It’s like fast food for the brain.
But right now Maisie has to ask him about work and it’s like his balloon goes pop. He can feel his blood pressure go up. Like someone’s thumbs pushing hard on his temples. Like his heart’s in a vice.
That shouldn’t be giving him the fits. Maisie being sick should. Her going blind in one eye and falling down in the kitchen, busting her hip like a fragile little teacup — that should be what’s bothering him. But her illness has always been a part of their lives. He’s grown uncomfortably comfortable with it. So has she, he figures. It’s not really gonna kill her. It’s just gonna whittle her down till she’s a toothpick cut from a broomstick.
The question hangs. How’s work?
He realizes he hasn’t even answered it yet.
So he grunts and says, “Just fine.”
His phone makes a vrrrrbt sound in his pocket.
A text message sound. He knows who it is. It’s Chief Ruggieri. Danny Ruggieri. In all the movies the chief is some old grizzled hardass but Danny’s fresh-faced and raven-haired, a 30-something kid who took the rungs of the ladder three at a time. And the Chief loves his text messages. He made sure everyone had a phone and a texting plan.
What an asshole.
Walter looks at the phone.
From Danny: We drummed up an address for your dead guy(s)
Walter grunts, texts back: busy now
Danny: Hey this case is hot shit, we need to jump!
Walter: corpses aint getting any deader
Danny: I’m going to email you the addy, get out there
Walter almost types, I’m in the hospital with my sick wife, then also thinks to add, you upwardly mobile little turd with your shiny hair and your big eyebrows but insults won’t get him anywhere and moreover, he doesn’t owe Ruggieri anything. He’s been working as a cop since Chief Danny was an unpopped sperm bubble blowing up off the end of his daddy’s thang.
Instead he just turns off the phone and holds Maisie’s hand again.
“That young chief bothering you again?” Maisie asks.
“Mm,” Walter says, and closes his eyes for a while.
12. TEN MINUTES AGO
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: December 20th, 2010.
That’s all it takes. One blink of the eye. One push of the button.
And in the hair’s breadth of a second, in that space between moments when Dale closes his eyes and reopens them, it’s like someone grabs the minute hand on the Great Big Cosmic Clock and yanks it back ten minutes.
Stankieiwicz is no longer on the floor with a broken arm.
The TV is on across the room. He’s seen this commercial already: advertising some As Seen on TV product: one of those blankets with sleeves for arms — not the Snuggie or the Slanket but the Freedom Blanket. It makes you look like a wizard. He thinks now as he thought then: Hell, I’d buy one.
The him that’s on the couch is probably thinking the same thing.
Right now, in fact.
That trips Dale out a little.
That Dale, the Other Dale, is unaware of the new Dale that just appeared in his kitchen, near the counter. Because Other Dale is facing toward the TV. And Other Dale’s hand suddenly jerks out, pats around the coffee table for a—
Right, a Chinese takeout menu.
He’s (I’m) just about to start working out this whole box thing.
Other Dale uncaps the Sharpie. Begins taking notes.
Dale — this Dale, real Dale, present and actual Dale — doesn’t know what to do. He didn’t think this through. He has to stop Stankieiwicz from coming in through that door. Easy enough — just close the chain. But that’s in full sight of Other Dale. Is that bad? He doesn’t even know.
No. Wait. He has something else he has to do first:
Get the Box.
The Box is everything. He slides sideways to the kitchen drawer, and eases it open — there sits the red box, the black button. Cold like marble. He reaches in, plucks it out with the gingeriest of motions—
The drawer rattles.
Just a little.
Other Dale pokes his head up over the couch like a spooked gopher.
That Dale sees This Dale. And Other Dale’s face goes slack.
“Oh, shit,” Other Dale says. “I don’t—you—me—we’re—”
“You’re just figuring it out,” Dale says.
“It is what I think it is. It’s a time machine. It’s not just Oxy. Unless—”
“You’re not high right now.”
Other Dale blinks. “That’s good to know.” But then his eyes fall to the Box. “Hey. That’s mine.”
“No, it’s mine.”
“You can’t just take it.”
Dale flinches. “I am and I did.”
Other Dale stands. He holds the marker like an inmate might hold a shiv made from a toothbrush or a bar of soap. Out in front of him like he’s ready to stab. He circles around, toward Dale.
It’s then Dale realizes—
They’re the same, but they’re not.
They’re still different people.
And they each want the same thing. Because Other Dale’s eyes keep flitting toward that Box. He says, “If that does what I think it does you can’t just take it away from me. It has power. There’s potential there.”
“No shit, Sherlock.” The potential to fix mistakes. To course correct and get right with the world. To make money.
But then it hits him:
To get Susannah back.
That’s absurd. He knows it. But the very presence of the Box is absurd. It’s not like he can go back in time that far — he can’t fix what’s really broken between them. He can’t go back and stop himself from bombing his own mind while Susannah has to make a hard and terrible decision all by herself. He can’t save their child. That choice was made.
But she’s still out there. And he loves her.
I love her!
Holy shit. Maybe it’s just the adrenaline from using the Box. Maybe it’s just all the craziness but it hits him like a boulder flung from God’s own slingshot: he misses her, he needs her, he loves her. She’s his Oxy.
Other Dale closes in.
“Gimme the Box,” Other Dale says.
“Sorry, Other Dale.”
“Other D—dude, you’re Other Dale,” Other Dale says, obviously not getting it. “It’s all a matter of perspect—”
Dale hits Other Dale in the head with the Box.
He doesn’t really intend to do it.
But time is ticking. Stank is on his way.
And Other Dale was kinda pissing him off. So, he hauls back and whacks him across the temple with the corner of the Box. Other Dale drops like a sack of hammers. Just as footsteps manifest outside the door.
The landlord is here.
Dale quickly drags (his own body) Other Dale behind the couch, then vaults it just as Stank begins pounding on the door.
Whump whump whump.
“You owe me, Gilooly. Open this door. Gilooly! Gilooly.”
Dale hurries to the door—
Starts to hear the key in the lock—
He fumbles with the chain, tries to be quiet—
The chain latches just as the door opens.
It jars against it. Dale hides behind the door so that Stank can’t see him. And the landlord won’t be able to see Other Dale, either, because that body is behind the couch.
“Gilooly,” Stank calls in. “You in there, you little cat turd?”
Dale winces. Stifles his breathing.
Seconds chase other seconds until they circle for a whole minute.
And then, the door gently closes.
Dale almost hoots like a monkey. He did it! He fixed it. Time has been altered. Things have changed.
And suddenly he sees his future, shining and bright. A future without mistakes. A future with a magical, ten-minute cushion.
A future that will allow him to get Susannah back.