[It’s late on Saturday and I haven’t written or thought about a story for today. So here’s a chapter from the first novel I ever wrote, one that would need a lot of revising to ever see print.
I wrote this over a decade ago, and I’ve only skimmed it since then, but since all my Daily Story Project posts are first drafts, this one will fit right in.
It should stand on its own, I think. Tell me if you think my style of writing has changed, for good or ill, since then.]
He had carefully blow-dried hair, a conservative suit, and an expression of cautious optimism. He was a rhapsody of concern. He sat in front of a guardedly decorated set, and read the news. In spite of the news anchor’s trepidation, at least one member of his audience felt disquieted by his top story.
“Good evening, thank you for watching. Tonight, with 70 percent of the vote counted, the country has spoken. Walter Mondale has been elected President of the United States of America.”
A good number of people at the bar cheered; apparently a Democratic crowd. Don finished his Tanqueray and tonic, and signaled the bartender for another one by lifting his glass and catching her eye.
It’s a good thing I didn’t bet on the election, he thought. His knowledge of the future had finally reached the nadir. He could no longer predict what would happen. From the very first, with Game 4 of the 1980 World Series, there had been differences, little ones that didn’t affect the overall outcome of individual events. But those differences had accumulated, one by one, to add up to a completely different world than the one Don had remembered. Tonight was the capper; despite Ronald Reagan’s popularity, the people had had enough of a president who didn’t seem to know what was going on. Don wondered how President Mondale would do. Don was just another spectator now, along with the rest of the human race. His unique position had come to an end.
The bartender brought his drink. She was a petite redhead, tough-talking but basically sweet underneath her tattoos and piercings. Don liked this bar because he never got carded; it was still another couple of weeks until he was legal. The tonic (or was it the gin?) glowed soft blue under the blacklights, limning the icecubes in an aura. “Christine, all the world is asleep.”
She smiled, showing off the silver ball on the end of her tongue. “At least the ones who voted for Bush, anyway.”
“That’s not really what I meant.” Don shrugged. No one got him. He was unique. Or he had been. He tried again. “What I mean, is that most people are happy with safe choices, looking for comfort and security. Those are the ones who sleep. Then there are those who are awake. They see the world as it really is, a horrible dangerous place that is also capable of great beauty and pleasure. The awakened ones feel things more intensely than anyone else. Their experiences would crush a normal person, like a grape under an elephant’s foot.”
“Oh-kay, uh, I think that’s, uh, enough for you Don.” She shook her finger at him. “Don’t make me cut you off. You’re a big tipper, so I’ll let this one slide.”
“You don’t understand. But, even among those who are awake, there are divisions. Some of them want to protect the rest of humanity, guard them from the pain. Others want to inflict the pain on the asleep.” Don put his head in his hand. “But are those who protect the others, doing them a favor or hurting them? They’re keeping the great pleasure to themselves. They’re being selfish. It’s a conundrum.”
“I’ll tell you what’s a conundrum; considering how much gin you’ve downed tonight, how it is that you’re still standing.” She pulled out a pack of cigarettes, tapped one out, lit it. She gestured with it at Don. “Hey, you haven’t paid me for that one.”
Don pulled out his wallet, fished out the first bill he found (a twenty) and laid it on the bar. “All yours. Keep it. I’ve got lots more where that came from.”
“See what I mean? You’re a big tipper.” She scooped it up, tucked it in her bra.
“Sweet dreams, Christine. Sleep well.” Don got up and left the bar.
He walked out into the city. At least the changes were mostly superficial; a Wendy’s instead of a McDonalds on that corner, the buses were green and white instead of the orange and white he remembered. Or was his previous life the dream, and this was reality? After only five years, he could no longer tell. The whole exercise had gotten very dull to him.
He and Shannon had broken up, completely. He had given her the Camaro; she had taken a baseball bat to it the last time he’d seen her. It had been a spectacular fight, shouting in the street, friends on both sides joining in, objects thrown, hurtful words spoken. Don had died that day. That was the day he had woken up from the dream, to realize that the world was pain and nothing but. He had felt the ultimate pleasure, love for a woman who had loved him back. And he’d been paying the price for that pleasure ever since.
With the money he’d made betting on sure things, he coasted into a good college. He was in his second year, studying Physics, specifically quantum physics. He intended to find out the physical basis for time. He was driven to it, obsessed with it beyond any other thought in life. He had to know more about the phenomenon that had propelled him back.
Yet in the back of his mind, he knew he would never find what he was looking for. It did not exist. Or, if it did, science could not contain it. It was a supernatural power. And that scared him. If he couldn’t define it, it frightened him.
His money had reached the point where he couldn’t spend it all; it was now only good for making more money, the old-fashioned way: the miracle of compound interest, and the rising stock market. At least he had creature comforts; it was his soul that hurt. What could replace the woman he’d fallen for, twice? He laughed at the concept of “once in a lifetime.” Meaningless, to him.
Life, once so full of promise, had broken him.
And it was entirely his fault.
The reception was held outside, in a fenced area near the church. A parklike setting, lit with paper lamps, hung with crepe streamers, filled with partygoers and revelers. A band belted out hits from the fifties and sixties, sending dancers gyrating around the open end of the fenced area. Under the tent, people from both families sat and tried to learn more about their new in-laws.
Hillary Astonbury, nee Hillary Glass, radiant in white and lace, held court to the well-wishers. The cake had been cut, the gifts opened. All that was left was drinking, dancing, and then the dash to the limo to take her and her husband, Oscar, to their honeymoon in Fiji. That had been her brother, Don’s, gift to her. He could afford it.
Don sat with Alyson. Don had changed out of his tuxedo; Alyson, too, wore more comfortable clothes, although she had not been part of the wedding. They sat at the periphery of the party. Don wanted to feel good about his sisters marriage; Oscar seemed a bit oafish, but nice. Alyson had been on edge all night.
“It’s just that I feel like I’m on display. Everyone assumes we’re a couple.” She grumped at him.
“That’s just my family. The other family, the Astonbury’s of Seattle, don’t know and don’t care. Besides, I thought…” His voice trailed off. Alyson didn’t respond to that last.
She smiled at him. “You always say ‘of Seattle’ after saying their name. Is your sister now ‘Hillary Astonbury of Seattle’?”
“Yes. No longer a Glass, now and forevermore an Astonbury. Of Seattle.” Don sighed and leaned back in his chair. “That’s a good thing. I wish I had a place to call my own. Maybe I’ll buy an island out in the middle of nowhere.”
“I think you’d go crazy. You need some excitement and adventure, and lots of people around you.” Alyson laid her hand on his, squeezed.
“Do I? People are what’s wrong with the human race. Eliminate them, and there’d be no problems. Look at all the things that would go away: war, hunger, poverty. There’d be enough for everyone. Which is to say, no one. It’s a concept whose time has come.”
“You don’t really believe that. What’s that you always say? ‘Only a few are awake; the rest require protection.’ Or something.”
“You know me too well.” He leaned forward, turned to look at her. “You’ve been a good friend, Alyson.”
Her eyes held a shine that was more than the reflected lamplight. “I’ve wanted to be more than that, to you.”
Don’s face soured. “That, again? Why does this come up. I enjoy your company, I like talking to you….”
“But… I don’t feel what you want me to feel. I don’t think I ever will again. I’ve told you all that. Never again. Risk is for people who have something to lose. I care for nothing; therefore I have nothing to lose. I can’t risk what I don’t have.”
She pulled her hand away. “You care for your sister. You seem to care for me.”
“Not that way. I care for my friends, but it’s different. I walk alone.”
“You’re so melodramatic. You make yourself sound like a vampire, all dark and serious. Have some fun, lighten up.”
“I suppose.” He sat up, looked around at the fading crowd. “If this isn’t fun, then what is?”
Separately, they watched the party goers around them, on the dance floor in pairs, seated in pairs, moving around the grounds in pairs. From a distance, Don and Alyson appeared to be a pair, too.
“Did I tell you I’ve started a new work? It’s my largest ever. I might have to break it into pieces to get it out of the house. I’m thinking of renting a studio.”
“You should. You have a real talent. Even if I don’t understand your paintings.” Alyson laughed, lightly.
Don searched for words. “They aren’t meant to be understood… they should be felt. They’re pure emotion; they should provoke an emotional response.”
Alyson smiled, not saying a word.
Don sighed. “Your point is… what?”
“Nothing. Just a comment on ‘emotional response.’ As in, I’m trying to get one out of you.”
“Alyson, it would never work. Besides the fact that… I just can’t, we’re just completely different people.”
She cocked her head to the side and crossed her arms. “See, I’ve never understood that. Haven’t you ever stopped to think about why people are attracted to one another? ‘Opposites attract’ and all that? That’s the whole point. In a relationship, you’re sharing with the other person, right?”
“Well, right, but–” Don started to say.
“Well, you don’t share something with someone if they already have it, do you? You share the things that you have and they don’t.” She picked up a spoon from the table. “Hey, Don, I’ve got this spoon. You don’t have it. Would you like to borrow it?” She watched his reaction.
“I get it. I get it. You’re right, but… I just don’t think it would work.” He leaned forward in his chair, meeting her gaze. He took her hands in his. “Alyson, you shouldn’t wait for me. I’m… broken. I’m not a good person to be with. You have no idea… I’m under a doom. I will fail you, just like I’ve failed… everyone.” He finally looked down, his face reddening.
“Shannon. You think you’ve failed Shannon. Not everyone.” Laughing, she said, “There hasn’t been anyone but Shannon for as long as I’ve known you.”
Don stood up, ready to walk away. He didn’t walk; he bounced from foot to foot. “I wish I could tell you… but I can’t. Trust me, there’s been others. Long long ago. But, you’re right, mainly, this time, it’s been about Shannon. And I did fail her. She didn’t feel she could talk to me about… about her condition. I couldn’t be there for her. And… and there’s more. Things I told her. Things I can’t tell anyone else. No, don’t ask me. I can’t tell you.”
“I don’t know how you came to be this, this fixated on your little secret. But it’s become tiresome.” Alyson stood up. “You’re right, Don. I shouldn’t wait for you any longer. I’ve already waited long enough. Good bye.” She picked up her purse and walked away.
Don felt some surprise at his reaction. He didn’t spend a lot of time analyzing it, he just let the feeling stay there, lingering, while he watched her walk away from him. Alyson, who had been such a good friend to him, almost from the very beginning of his second life. Good ol’, always-be-there Alyson. Gone. Like all the others.
He felt… relief.
Muscles working, pavement slapping his sneakered feet, Don navigated the Saturday crowds thronging the street. He ran for exercise, he often ran, but rarely down the main drag. His neighborhood had a small-town feel to it, full of shops and boutiques. The sidewalks were full of happy couples and soccer moms shopping for bargains. He reached a major intersection, and had to stop for a light. Perspiring, he leaned against a cart outside of a flower shop, stretching his calves to keep them from cramping up.
It was Shannon.
He turned around, to see her emerging from the flower shop. She wore a light tank top and shorts. Her tan skin showed she’d been outside a lot this summer. Her hair was pulled back from her face; her eyes hidden behind Ray-Ban sunglasses. Her smile, unsure, still seemed genuine. She held a bouquet of lillies in her arms.
“My God. Shannon. How are you? It’s been a long time.” He stepped closer, unsure of her reaction.
She moved to hug him, hesistated, laughed. “You’ve been working out.”
He shrugged, pulled his shirttail up to wipe his face. “And it’s a warm day. I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK.” She paused, considering him as if for the first time. “Exercise agrees with you.”
“Thank you. You look great. I’ve missed you. It’s been… has it been five years? We didn’t leave on the best of terms.”
“That was a long time ago. What have you been up to?”
“Let’s see… high school, college, investing, painting. You?”
“Two of those, high school and college. I’m seeing this guy, he’s in a band. But it’s not serious; more like friends. Painting? I didn’t know you painted?
“It’s my passion.” Don asked about her flowers with his eyes.
“Actually… these are for my mother. It’s the anniversary of her… her death.” Shannon didn’t meet his eyes.
Thinking of his other life, Don saw Shannon standing at her mother’s graveside, while he watched from the car. He considered what had happened in this lifetime; she hadn’t ever really talked about it. Should I play dumb? It’s all so long ago. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Shannon looked up, her eyes still shielded by black lenses. “She passed away a long time ago, when I was young. I don’t think I ever really talked about her, when you and I… were together. I didn’t like to think about it, then. I’m on my way to visit her.”
Don felt the old feelings rise up in his chest. He wanted to protect her, to hold her… but perhaps she wanted to be alone. He moved to leave. “I see. You’ve got to go. You should call me. I’m in the book. It was good to see you.”
“Don’t go. I’ve got all afternoon to go.” She moved out of the doorway to the flower shop for another patron. “There’s a coffee shop down that way. Want to get a cup? Reminisce?”
Don flushed. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Within minutes they were seated at a sidewalk table, shaded from the sun. Shannon set her flowers down on a third seat. “I know I didn’t talk too much about mother in school. It was something I tried to forget about. Now, I go to see her at least two or three times a year. When the anniversary rolls around, I make it a point to go. The cemetery is close to here.”
“You’re a devoted daughter.”
“I try.” She crossed her arms on the table, leaned forward. “So, when did you start to paint?”
“Oh, years ago. A long time ago.” Don smiled to himself. “I’m studying physics, but I need a creative outlet or I’ll go crazy. Did you say you were going to school?” Don thought that she’d gone to Portland State, but had no faith in his previous life ringing true in this life.
“Yes, I’m at Oregon State. I’m majoring in Business, with a minor in Music, although I’m thinking about changing my major. I’ve got an interest in literature, or even mythology. I haven’t decided yet.”
See? Don smiled, sourly.
She continued. “College is nothing like I thought it would be. It’s hard to concentrate on my homework.” Her laugh came out as embarrassed.
“Too much partying? That doesn’t sound like the Shannon I knew. Oh, wait… yes, it does. Darn this memory!” Don and Shannon both laughed at that. “You were quite the hellion. Remember the road trips we took? We were so young then.”
“Those were fun. I never understood how you could afford them.”
Had she forgotten his confession to her? Did she think he was joking? Just as well, Don thought. But his mind had moved to another aspect of their past. “We left things hanging, before. I always wanted to tell you how sorry I was about what happened between us. I was a jerk, a big jerk, and I apologize.”
“You don’t have to apologize. We were kids, what did we know? And I’m glad I found out what kind of person Therese was.”
“Therese! My God. She was… an evil influence.”
“Tell me… how did you end up with her?” She spoke softly, barely above the noise of the traffic.
“I didn’t. I swear it. I was only over there to find out where you were. She made it seem to be more than it was. I don’t understand why she did that. And I never got the chance to explain it to you. I made a big mistake.”
She was silent, looking down at her hands, then out at the crowd. She lowered her sunglasses. Her eyes, red, but not crying, met his for the first time that afternoon. “I believe you. At the time it all seemed huge, out of proportion. But now, playing it back in my head, I can see I was just… just looking for a reason to hate you. I’m sorry for that. You were always good to me.”
“I want… I would like to be your friend, again, if that’s possible. I know you said you’re seeing someone, but….” Don took a chance and blurted out his feelings.
Shannon smiled, sadly. “After what I did to the Camaro?”
Don waved away her objection. “The car? It’s of no consequence whatsoever. It was just a toy. People are more important. Relationships are more important.”
“Yes, we can be friends again. I’d like that.”
Neither one of them had drank more than a sip of their coffee.
The canvas sat on the easel. Don stretched his arms, wringing one last effort out of them. He’d painted through the night, inspired again to express himself in colored pigment.
The painting showed a male figure and a female figure, nudes, running away from the viewer, down a road. An evil-looking hedge, thorny and vile green, that stretched off to the horizon separated them; but, far off, ahead of the runners, the hedge burned, ashes coating the ground as the flames rushed towards the viewer and the subjects. Above all, a two-faced head loomed, blending with the stars of the night sky.
Too obvious? Don thought.
He’d gone running with Shannon earlier that day (yesterday, he corrected himself after a glance at his watch) and they had talked about their past. And their future. She had been offered an internship in California, and wanted him to know about it. She hadn’t yet accepted, but was strongly considering it. She wanted his opinion. Don hoped she wanted him to tell her to decline it; but it was not a serious hope on his part. He was being selfish again.
They’d been nothing but friends since meeting again, almost a year ago, but were good friends. Close friends. Don hadn’t wanted to push it any further than that. This time.
He looked at his artwork. The hedge separated the two, but they could see each other over the top; it only ran to their waists. And the flames ahead were a danger to them; but it also burned away the brush that kept them apart. Danger, risk… potential for release, freedom. And the puppetmaster over all.
Janus had promised more than one chance. Was this the last chance he’d get? Should he try to hold on to her? Should he let her go, let her leave from his life again? This time would be more amicable, though sad. They had promised they would stay in touch. And Don’s money meant that he could afford to go see her whenever he wanted, or even move there if he wished to.
But… she was a different Shannon. Her music degree; that hadn’t happened before. She’d been a computer programmer, not a Business major. And perhaps he’d interfered in her life enough. Perhaps he should leave well enough alone.
Looking at the painting, he saw that it was crowded, the composition seemed busy, overly so. And yet, there was room at either side for the runners to stop running towards the fire, to find another path. Doing so would mean abandoning the other. Could they do that? What was the tension that held them to this path, this treacherous road along the hedge?
There was no doubt about what he should tell Shannon. She should follow her instincts. The job offer was a good one, it would be a good start to her career. But he would tell her he’d miss her.
Through the front windows, Shannon could see a crowd filling the space inside the gallery. Tasteful blonde wood paneling covered most of the walls, except for one wall, earthy bricks and mortar. On every wall, painting after painting hung. The crowd either moved from work to work, or loitered around the table near the back, sipping champagne and eating hors d’oeuvres. It was chilly outside, nighttime lit by sodium vapor lamps, and her breath fogged the window.
She had come back to town for the holidays, to spend time with her father and sisters. And one other thing, a secret to share. She only had a couple of days vacation. But last night, after an early dinner and relaxing from the flight, she’d picked up a newspaper and seen an article on a new artist having a showing that night.
So she had gotten her coat, made her apologies to her father (with whom she was staying) and borrowed Daddy’s car to drive all the way downtown. Because she hadn’t seen Don in months and months.
She spotted him, in the back, dressed sharply and laughing at some droll comment. His arm was around a slender dark-haired girl. She fed him something on a cracker; he followed it with a sip of white wine. All very civilized, and hip. She rubbed her hands together (she’d forgotten her gloves), and blew warm breath on them.
Should I stay, or should I go?
The door opened, letting out a burst of laughter and warmth. A couple, leaving, spoke of texture and shadow, and the interplay of something or other. Shannon slipped inside before she could change her mind. She stopped just inside, looking at a painting of a man drowning against the image of a woman’s curves. Although she’d never seen it before, it resonated with her. She could see Don painting this.
A short man all in black approached her. “May I take your coat, miss?”
“Yes, thank you.” She started to take it off; he helped her. The man’s goatee and bald head made him seem more “arty”. He went to a coatrack, hung it up.
She wandered towards the back, pausing to admire Don’s work. The common theme was the connection between men and women. Both male and female images appeared in almost all of the works. There were even two bronze sculptures; Don appeared to have dabbled in different media.
She found a chair, around the corner from the admiring throng that surrounded the artist. She sat and people watched. Most seemed serious, hushed. The mood in the gallery was sober. She strained her ears to eavesdrop. She heard Don chuckling.
“I’ve been a starving artist for too long,” he declared.
“Donny, you live in a three-bedroom house by yourself. You drive a German car, and I don’t mean a Volkswagen. You’re hardly starving.” A woman’s voice, teasing, playful.
“Just because I have money, don’t assume I take the time to eat. I live to paint.” Don rebuked her. The crowd laughed, politely.
“You’re a hit. The critic from the Willamette Weekly made a good offer on your sculptures.” Shannon didn’t recognize the voice.
“If they want to buy it, they must love it.” A woman, different from the one before.
“Wouldn’t that be a conflict of interest?” Don spoke, faux-nervously.
“Maybe they want to hide it from public view,” a reedy voice suggested. The crowd laughed, disagreeing with the negative comment.
“Let’s take a look at it,” a baritone voice said.
“Yes, let’s. I’m not sure it’s for sale,” Don said.
The crowd moved closer, wandered in front of her chair, moved past. She rose to follow them. They stopped in front of the sculpture, another female nude. Don, in the lead, turned to the crowd. His eyes caught hers, lit up. “Shannon!” Arms out, he approached her. The crowd parted before him, curious.
“I thought I could just sneak in without being spotted.”
He hugged her, tightly, boisterously. He lifted her off her feet, spun around, set her down again. “I can’t believe you’re here. On opening night! How have you been? You look good.”
“Thank you. I’m in town for Thanksgiving, and I heard about this showing. I had to stop by.”
Don smiled, took her hand. “I haven’t seen you in a year! I’m sorry I missed your graduation ceremony.”
“It’s alright. It wasn’t much of a ceremony.”
“I want to catch up with you. Stick around and we’ll go get coffee later.” Still holding her hand, he turned side-by-side with her, tucking her hand under his arm. “In the meantime, have you had a chance to look around? Some of these paintings… might have a special meaning for you.” He looked at her, obliquely. He winked at her.
He seemed happy, contented, at ease with himself. He didn’t act like he’d missed her at all. She felt bad for feeling bad; had he gotten over her? They hadn’t talked in a couple of months; she had been busy in the Bay Area, setting up a new department at her job. He was in a Master’s program, for Physics, but obviously hadn’t been using it. She saw his entourage, pacing the two of them, reacting to his comments and mood. She must have missed something; when had he become an artist, when had he changed?
“How long have you been planning this?” She asked him.
“This? All this? About a month or two. I sold one of my paintings to the art director at school, and she liked it so much, she wanted to see more. Before I knew it, she had talked a director from this gallery into looking at my work, and between the two of them, they arranged this show. It’s been a whirlwind. I know I’m not using my degree much.” He leaned down to her, conspiratorially. “You know what I’ve found out, after all those years of study, about Physics? It’s all bunk. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s all self-consistent, it all fits together, but it doesn’t describe what can happen in the real world. The way to understand what happens to us exists in art. It’s all emotional resonance’s.”
He stopped in front of a large canvas. It was an impressionistic image, seen through a fog, the colors smeared and fading into each other. It was a breathtaking image of a woman’s face, two faces depending on how one looked at it. The woman was old and young, angry and sad, loved and unlovable at the same time.
Shannon recognized her own face in the painting. But there was something else about it she couldn’t pinpoint.
“This looks familiar,” Shannon said.
“Why, it’s you!” Don, playfully, pointed at Shannon.
The crowd murmurred knowingly. Shannon gave Don a sour look.
“It is. And it isn’t.” Don said, elliptically. “She’s many things at once, and none of them. She’s my first love; she’s the love I can never have and never will. She’s my best friend, and she’s never met me.” He looked at the painting, not looking at Shannon. He squeezed her hand in his. “I hope you’re not offended by it. It’s one of my favorite works.”
“I’m not offended. Not at all.” She stood closer to it, then backed up a step, squinted at it. “Is this how you see me?” she asked.
“In many ways, yes. I don’t believe I ever had a clear picture of who you were. Are,” he corrected himself.
Someone in the crowd said, “Perhaps the subject could give her own interpretation of the work?”
Shannon said, “The subject is finding all this lack of privacy a bit disconcerting.” She turned to Don. “Perhaps the subject and the artist could discuss this later?”
Don smiled, without meeting her gaze. “The artist would be honored, and apologizes for the lack of privacy.” He looked at his watch. “Give me fifteen more minutes, then we’ll go somewhere and talk. Is that OK?”
“Sure. I’ll just wander around.”
Actually, she found a chair to sit in and waited. Twenty minutes later, he came to find her. He had her coat, and wore his own. They left, but not through the front door; out into a back alley.
“There’s some nice places nearby we could walk to. Or if you want we can drive.” They stood near his car, a BMW two-door sedan.
They walked along the busy streets of Northwest Portland, until they found a deli that was still open. Don just ordered a Pepsi; Shannon, who had only eaten on the plane, was starving and ordered a Cobb salad. While waiting for it to arrive, she looked at her friend.
“You seem to be doing pretty well. Driving a BMW, college, your artwork being shown. You’re pretty together for someone who’s only twenty-three.”
“I just turned twenty-four last week.”
“My point still stands. My life seems so… complicated. I’ve known you forever, and you always seem to know exactly what to do next. You have no doubt.”
“I told you, once, why I’m like that. You didn’t believe me, then. But, since then, things have changed. I have a lot of doubt now. Life is full of doubt.”
“You mean your time-travel story? That’s… crazy.” She said it softly.
“Crazy or not, it’s how I knew who would win the World Series for three years in a row. Also the Super Bowl and the NBA Finals. If only I’d paid more attention to the NCAA tournaments, I could have really cleaned up!” He laughed. “And, on a more personal level, I knew where you were. I sought you out. But my interference changed things. And now I don’t see the future anymore. In my old timeline, President Reagan was re-elected. We didn’t have President Mondale. Then, this year, in my old timeline, we got President Bush, Reagan’s vice-president. Only now, Bush ran against Mondale and lost. So I’m completely lost as far as what will happen next. And that’s just one example. I knew that you went to college, but you went to college at Portland State, not OSU. And you studied computer science. And you took six years to graduate.”
“But I made it through college in five years. I graduated this year.”
“I know; things are different. Somehow, in this timeline, you’re more… focused, more agressive. The other Shannon always seemed a little… passive to me.”
“We’re two different people.”
“Exactly.” Don was pleased. She seemed to accept his story now.
The salad arrived. They each pondered their own thoughts for a moment.
Shannon, poking at her food, broke the silence. “There’s something else, too. Did the other Shannon have any children?”
“Yes. But not until she had married Corbin.” He did a double-take. “Are you saying…?”
“Yes. I’m pregnant. Three months along. I hardly show it, huh?”
“That’s… wonderful? You had said that you were dating, but nothing serious.”
“That’s true. And it is wonderful. Even though it looks like the father doesn’t want to be part of it. I’m making good money, I can afford to take care of her. And Chelsea has offered to move in with me to help out.”
“What kind of father wouldn’t want to be part of his daughter’s life?” Don nearly growled.
“His name is Ed. I met him while I was up here last summer. I was up here nearly two weeks then. You were out of the country or something. We went out a couple of times. He flew down to the Bay area once in August, and that must have been the time that I got pregnant from. By September I knew I was pregnant. And, knowing how hurt I’d been before, you know,” and their eyes met and they remembered, “I knew I couldn’t go through that again. I knew I have to keep it.”
Don seethed. He hadn’t been much of a guardian angel for Shannon. Ed! Of all the people. Don had thought that Ed was long gone; she’d met him while in high school. In spite of all the changes, some events seemed almost destined to happen. But the consequences seemed worse this time.
She paused to eat a bite of her salad, then continued. “I’ve tried to contact Ed, after I knew. He won’t return my phone calls. I plan on tracking him down while I’m up here.” Shannon looked up, reached across the table to take Don’s hand in hers. “And I wanted to tell you about it and hear what you had to say. After last time, I think I owe it to you. You’ve been a good friend to me.”
Don frowned, unable to look her in the eye. “It’s… I’m not sure how to react. I want to be happy, but… this all feels like it’s my fault.”
“How can it be your fault?”
“I should have warned you, or something. But I didn’t know… In my timeline, my past life, you met Ed much earlier. And he hurt you, then, but it was less than this. He stole some money from you, some credit cards. That’s all. But this….” He had a pained expression on his face.
“It’s not as bad as that. Yes, I made a mistake, but you can’t be responsible for all my decisions. And… I do want children. In a perfect world, I would have a husband to help me take care of them, but I can make this work. I was able to make it through college, with your help, and now I’m working at a good job. So there’s somewhere you’ve helped me.”
“And I won’t stop helping you. If there’s anything you need, I can provide it.” Don laughed. “Heck, I’ll even baby-sit if you ask me to. That’s a pretty big sacrifice, you know.”
Shannon laughed, too. “You mean you’d fly all the way down to San Francisco just to baby-sit? I’ll believe it when I see it,” she teased.
“Just say the word. Anytime. Even on short notice.”
“I’m going to take you up on that.”
“Thank you for telling me about this. I want to be part of this, as much as I can.”
Shannon smiled to herself a moment. “Actually, I was thinking of having you be the godfather.”
“Godfather? You want me to be a mobster?”
“No, godfather means that you’re responsible for the baby’s religious instruction. It’s spiritual life.”
“That, I can do. Although it might be a little unorthodox. With my experience, I’m not sure I believe much in traditional religion.” He said it with a smile on his face. “Considering all that’s happened, it’s strange to me what changes from life to life, and what stays the same. It all has given me a new perspective on life.”
“Share it with me. What are you thinking about?”
“Well, what happened to the Don and Shannon after I left?” He interrupted himself. “I mean, that doesn’t come out right, but you get what I mean: did the timeline I was on continue past where I, or I guess my consciousness, left to come back to my fifteen-year-old body? What happened after that? Or is that still on hold, waiting for me to catch up? Is there multiple universes, or just one and Janus made it start over?”
“Janus is the god that sent you back, right?” After Don nodded, she continued. “It sounds like you’re asking how much power Janus has. It would take a very powerful being to do what he did to you. Or it could all be just a big illusion.” She poked a finger to her arm, her face. “I feel real to me, though.”
Still holding her hand across the table, Don agreed. “You feel real to me, too. But… think about it. I’ve told you a little bit about what happened, but not the whole story.”
Don spent an hour telling Shannon how his previous life went, up to the point he met Janus. Shannon reacted to it as she would a movie, or a book; it was an interesting story, but she felt a bit distant from it.
“It just doesn’t feel like my life. I’m not that person. But I see what you mean; what happened next? Their story has no ending.”
“Let’s see…” Don stroked his chin. “Donny leaves, quits his job, and secludes himself in his artwork. He runs out of money and starts painting, but without Shannon in his life, there’s no soul to them.”
Shannon took up the thread. “Meanwhile, Corbin and Shannon continue as they were. Shannon, after being awakened to the possibilities of life after meeting Donny, decides to branch out, live life more fully. She takes up hiking, skydiving, sailing. Corbin, being a bit of a prick, tries to stop her, but doesn’t want to lose his children and allows her to continue.”
“Donny realizes that he needs money, and goes back to school. He gets a teaching certificate, and teaches classes at the local community college. Begining art classes. A decade goes by. One day, Shannon enrolls in his class, not knowing he’s the teacher. They still feel an attraction to each other, and each has missed the other since the last time they spoke.”
Shannon said, “Shannon, now the mother of teenage boys, and more emotionally distant from Corbin, realizes that the obstacles between her and Donny being together no longer matter. They go out for a friendly date, just lunch, and it becomes quickly obvious that they can’t just be friends. The passion that existed between them before had no outlet; now it seeks its outlet. They make love for the first time.”
Don, liking how this is turning out, persists. “Donny is still deeply in love with Shannon. But Shannon still has doubts, and she avoids contact with Donny after that for weeks. Donny is hurt, but allows her her space. Finally, Shannon decides that life is for living, and she presents Corbin with divorce papers. She and Donny move in together, and they live happily ever after.”
“Wow.” Shannon teased him, “You’ve really messed up. You should have stayed. It would only have taken another ten years, and you could have had her.”
He shook his head. “But I would have missed all this.”
Don and Shannon talked all night.