Do you know this feeling when you’re so tired you can’t really enjoy the fact it’s Friday night and you’re looking at two days of rest? This is exactly how I felt this Friday. I’d been freelancing as financial advisor for a little over a year and I already had so many clients I had to take on a partner. Sonia was great. In fact she was so great she doubled our client numbers. The federal government helped as well with a few huge contracts with China that made more people rich enough to think about investments. Things at work were going so well I began having a vague suspicion something bad was about to happen. I was born this way. I’ve tried to fight it but I gave up a long time ago. Because something bad almost invariably did happen.
One more reason for this bad feeling was that everything was going well at home as well. Antonia had started first grade and she loved it. She was taking Italian and swimming on the side but no figure skating although she had pleaded with me and Madeleine to sign her up. I still remembered what she had told me in another reality about her head injury that might have caused the brain tumor that brought her to me. I didn’t care about the “might” part, I was a little obsessed with her well-being and I wasn’t risking it. Swimming sounded safer.
So, here I was this Friday night, after I’d had dinner with my family and had kissed Tony good night, down at the Dansk Finanzbar for a congratulatory beer on yet another week when nobody had needed my special help. At nine-thirty the place was full. Most were drinkers but a few were at the ATMs, including a man who was visibly swaying while he tried to put his card into the slot. In the absence of anything more interesting to watch, I watched him. He tried three times and he failed. He grabbed the ATM and tried to shake it out of its place. When this failed, too, he gave the machine a kick, slapped the air above the keyboard, and retreated to a table for two, which was, unsurprisingly, full of beer bottles. Dansk Finanzbar did not serve spirits because of the banking part but it served two dozen brands of beer. From what I could see, the drunk was a fan of their special DF Neon Black and he was on the sixth one.
I took a sip of my own Transylvania Blonda—one of the nicer imports from the Fringe unlike the cheese—and yawned. I was exhausted from the week’s work but not relaxed enough to sleep. That’s why I’d come here, alone. I couldn’t handle any interaction right now, I needed a pause. So I watched the drunk, who finished his sixth bottle, slammed it on the table and picked up the pizza-shaped order remote with an unsteady hand. It took him a while to focus but he finally punched a button. He punched it again and then, after a couple of seconds, a third time.
I couldn’t help a grin. The bar was full of sensors and these sensors told the barperson hidden behind the actual bar if a client was getting too drunk to be safe. No bar wanted brawls on its territory, so once the sensors—in the table, in the chairs, on the floor—told him or her someone had drunk too much, they stopped serving them. Everyone knew it. So, most gave up on trying quickly and left quietly but not this guy. He just kept punching the Neon Black button again and again. The sight was pathetic to watch and I knew the barperson was not coming out to escort the client to the street. He or she would just wait a few more minutes and call the police who’d throw the guy into a cell for the night. I finished my beer and softened by it or the exhaustion I decided to spare him the cell so I got up and walked up to his table.
“Hello,” I said and I leaned over him. “I think it’s time for you to go.”
“Who’re you? Where’s my beer?” The man tried to focus on me, frowning and squinting. “You’re the barman?”
“No, I’m a client and I suggest you come with me before the barperson calls the police. They’re very strict here.”
He stared at me muzzily, swaying a little.
“Yeah,” the man said, dropping his head. “Yeah, I guess it’s time to go. Do you know I got fired today?”
“I’m sorry to hear that. You can tell me outside, get some fresh air.”
The man thought this over staring at the empty bottles and finally made a decision. He got up unsteadily. I was ready and took him by the upper arm.
“Don’t forget your wallet,” I said, taking a step back as he leaned on me with most of his weight threatening to take me off balance. I was heavier now, thanks to Maddy’s cooking and the absence of what she called special assignments in Tony’s presence, but the guy was not small either. In fact he was heavier than me though shorter.
“My wallet,” he parroted and grabbed for it. “Gotta pay for the beer. Couldn’t get cash from the fucking bog.”
I stifled a grin. I never understood why people called the ATMs bogs but it sounded hilarious every time I heard it.
“It’s already paid for if your wallet was on the table. It has a card reader for absent-minded clients.” They had them for soaked clients, of course, clients like my new friend who was magically getting heavier the longer we stood by his table. Dansk Finanzbar was a progressive place. I tugged on his arm. “Come on.”
He gestured at the table as if waving goodbye to the bottles and we walked out on the blissfully cool street where a light drizzle of snow should do the job of getting the man to his senses enough for him to take a cab and go home. I let go of his arm and took a step back. A cab drove past but the man made no attempt to hail it.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll be going now. It’s getting late. It was nice meeting you.” It hadn’t been exactly nice but it had been amusing and I felt better for doing someone the small favor of sparing him a night in a cell at the nearest police station. I turned to go.
“Yeah, okay,” the man said. His voice made me turn back. It was distracted and hollow, in a word weird. I heard a car approaching. Traffic was sparse on Friday night when everyone was drinking somewhere and taxis ruled the streets. This one was a taxi, too. As it rounded the corner my new friend stepped forward. The sidewalk was narrow here. One more step and he’d be on the street, which was exactly what he was going to do when I hurled myself at him and tackled him to the ground. The taxi’s driver had the decency to honk his horn when he shot past us without slowing down.
“Did you just try to kill yourself?” I panted as I got off him and offered a hand to help him up. I’d landed on top of him but it was still unpleasant and I had slush on my jeans.
“I’m sorry,” the man said. “I’m so sorry.” He sounded on the edge of tears and I regretted asking him. Okay, so he had probably tried to kill himself and I’d saved him. I couldn’t just leave him there. He looked absolutely helpless.
“It’s okay.” I pulled him upright. His eyes had cleared a bit and he was steadier on his feet. “My name’s Lars. Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?”
“I’m Martin. Martin Anderson.” The man patted his coat pockets and pulled out an e-cigarette from the left one. He sucked on it hungrily. “I’m VP of research at VEQ, at least I was until yesterday. They haven’t told the media yet but they will.”
VEQ was the largest e-car maker in the Federation, a spinoff by Mercedes, BMW, and Volkswagen that helped them corner the market and hold off the invasion of low-cost Chinese cars. And its vice president had almost got hit by a taxi outside my local bar.
“What happened?” I asked and blew on my hands. I’d forgotten my gloves at home. I hadn’t planned on standing on the street in sub-zero temperatures.
He sucked on the e-cigarette again.
“They said I’d embezzled several million. It’s not true, someone framed me but all evidence said it was me.” His lips twisted into what might have passed for a smile were it not for his eyes, dark and desperate. “I tried to reason with them. I tried to tell them I had no need to steal money from the company, you know? I get paid enough, for god’s sake! But no, they refused to listen. Said they’d investigated the matter and had found me guilty. Said they’d give me 24 hours before they tell the media. Like, you know, they give me time to do the honorable thing.”
“Do you have a family?”
“Yes. Three kids.” He dropped his eyes, which told me what I needed to know: he hadn’t risked getting run over by accident. He had done it deliberately.
“Then you should go be with your family.” I said. “Not in a bar.”
Okay, so I risked a punch for offering unwanted advice if the man was agitated but he wasn’t. He was confused and obviously hurt but not agitated.
“Yeah, you’re probably right. I had trouble facing it, you know? I thought about how everyone will report it tomorrow and how all these vultures will swoop on me, asking if it’s true, if I did it, why I did it, what now. Oh, God.” He ran a hand through his tousled dark hair with a trendy cut, short on the sides, longer over his forehead, and messed it up completely. He looked like a tramp save for the clothes. He looked lost.
“Come on, I’ll call for a cab.” I took my phone and dialed the cab company I used in those rare cases when we needed to go somewhere very fast. I didn’t drive. With my office a ten-minute walk from my home—I had to lease an office when I took Sonia on—I saw no need for such a luxury as a car. Besides, most were electric and I didn’t like them. Don’t ask me why. I don’t like to talk about it.
“Thank you, Lars, was it?” Martin said when I relayed the message the taxi will be here in five minutes.
“Well, thanks. I could have done something stupid tonight if it weren’t for you. But,” He almost blushed under the freshly trimmed beard “I hope you wouldn’t tell anyone. It was a mistake. I was really stressed.”
What I didn’t understand was if Martin was someone who needed my help or this was all just a coincidence, running into a troubled person when I expected trouble. He didn’t look like he needed any more help, really. He wasn’t swaying anymore, his eyes were focused, likely with the help of the weather, and he was pulling on his e-cigarette more slowly now. Probably a coincidence, then. Earlier that night I had wondered when the next dream case would come my way, not really looking forward to it but also curious what it would be about. Well, apparently it wasn’t going to be the case of the suicidal VEQ vice president of research.
The cab arrived and the man put his e-cigarette back in his pocket before he offered me his hand. It was cold and dry, a soft hand. I shook it.
“Thanks again, Lars,” he said and got into the back seat.
“No problem,” I mumbled, hit with a sudden suspicion something wasn’t right. I had no time to analyze it, however, because the cab took off with the reason for my suspicion sitting in the back seat, looking straight ahead.
I dreamt I was a rubber band someone was stretching and stretching and stretching to the point of snapping. It hurt like blazes and when I finally snapped there was relief mixed with the shock of waking up. I wasn’t too surprised to see I was back in Dansk Finanzbar, watching Martin Andersen try and order another beer. I had dreamt this dream before, when I accidentally made all the children in the city disappear. That’s how I brought them back, by reloading the day and deliberately not dreaming about disappearing children. That I did by simply not sleeping. But I had no idea why I’d dreamt it now. Martin hadn’t killed himself. I’d saved him.
He punched the Neon Black button again and again while I wondered why we had to replay last night’s events. Madeleine, the doubtlessly supernatural being that posed as my mother but was in fact some kind of a guardian angel although she disliked the word angel when I had mentioned it, had warned me sometimes I would fail until I learn to control my powers. Yes, she called them powers and when I laughed she told me not to. Unusually cold, she said this was no laughing matter and she could tell me stories about people who didn’t take their talents seriously enough but she wouldn’t, not yet, so I wouldn’t get scared. Which I already was, of course. By her. “Why do you think I saved you that day, huh?” she’d said finally. “You would’ve been dead by the end of the week without me. But you have a talent and it must survive. Are we clear?” Well, what do you think I said?
Hello,” I said with a sigh as I leaned over Martin who wasn’t giving up on the beer. “I think it’s time for you to go.” We went through the scene again.
“Who’re you? Where’s my beer? You’re the barman?”
“No, I’m a client and I suggest you come with me before the barperson calls the police. They’re very strict here.”
Ten minutes later I’d pulled Martin away from the taxi for the second time and he was thanking me and telling me why he’d tried to kill himself. Five other minutes later I’d loaded him into another taxi and had sent him on his way home to his family. I thought hard on the way home, thought about this unnecessary reload and what it would cost me. Energy, that’s what, and a lot of it. Maddy was right: I would have been dead in days if she hadn’t found me. I’d reloaded time and I hadn’t taken care to recover the energy spent doing this because I didn’t know I had to. I was getting weaker, slowly but surely, until she came into my life and started feeding me and teaching me how to really relax. So, I’d just spent tremendous amounts of energy I would now have to make up for and I didn’t even know why.
“Maddy?” I knocked on the door as quietly as I could. I knew she didn’t sleep—she had told me herself—but she pretended for Antonia’s sake and mine, spending the nights in her bedroom doing who knows what. This she hadn’t shared.
The door opened and Maddy greeted me with a smile that was just a tiny little bit eerie—she looked fresh and it was simply not normal to look fresh at 11 pm.
“Is something the matter?” she asked.
I raised my hand to run it through my hair but stopped halfway through and let my hand drop. I was already losing my hair, pulling it out wouldn’t help.
“I’m not sure but something unusual happened.”
“Come in,” my pretend mother said and opened the door wider.
I never felt comfortable in her bedroom, not because it was the bedroom of a significantly older woman who I lived with but had no actual relation to. Well, that was part of why I didn’t feel comfortable. But more than that, it was because the room was all white. Everything from the walls to the carpet, the bed frame, the vanity, the chest of drawers, and the wardrobe was white. The curtains were white, too. So was the armchair where she sat now, moving the open book that lay there to the armrest. “Nothing To Be Frightened Of” by Julian Barnes. Funny title. I perched on the edge of the bed. All this whiteness made me feel like I was covered in dirt and was spreading it everywhere I touched.
“What happened?” Maddy said. She seemed oblivious to my discomfort but I doubted she actually was oblivious. Little escaped Madeleine’s attention if anything. But I supposed she had her reasons to act this way.
“I just reloaded yesterday night and I’m not sure why.” I shifted. The edge of the bed frame was sharp and hard. I moved a little back, to the mattress. “I met this guy at the bar, drinking himself stupid and I helped him leave before they called the police. And then he tried to kill himself but I stopped him. And then, when I came home and went to sleep, I reloaded the night.”
“Did you save him again?” Maddy’s face contained polite interest and a spark of curiosity that was always there in her eyes but nothing else—no worry, no discomfort, nothing negative. I felt a little better.
“I did, yes.” The implication of her words caught up with me. “Wait, do you think I shouldn’t have?”
Maddy’s shoulders moved in a way too slight to be called a shrug.
“I can’t be certain, Lars. But if you saved him and then your brain found it necessary to reload the scene, then… Perhaps you should not have saved him.”
“But…” A tiny invisible drill got to work on the brain she had just mentioned, right in the center of it. A point of pain appeared and spread into a wave that washed over my whole skull. “But he said he had a family. They’d accused him of embezzling millions. He’s probably going to jail.”
“And he told you he was innocent.” Maddy said, allowing herself a meaningful smile.
“Yes. No, he never actually said it but it sounded like it. He never admitted he’d stolen the money, either.” I rubbed my temples. “So, does all this mean I’ll reload again?”
“Most probably,” she said and stood up. “Come here, let me fix this.”
I turned around so she was behind me and closed my eyes gratefully when her cold fingers touched my head. Madeleine could make any headache go away in minutes. This was one of her many talents.
“So I have to let him die, is that what you’re saying?”
“I don’t know if I can.”
The pain subsided, and soon disappeared, drained out of my head. I opened my eyes and turned back to face her.
“Well, Lars,” she said “In the end it will be you or him. You will probably reload again and again until you do the right thing. And you’ll lose energy, which I don’t even have to tell you. You can right wrongs but when you don’t, you pay for it.”
“And letting a man kill himself is righting a wrong?”
Maddy spread her arms and raised her eyebrows.
“Don’t judge the universe. I’ve told you this more than once.”
She had. More than twice, too. The universe didn’t care about human morality, she said. It cared about balance and this was what my “powers” helped ensure. But I still found it hard to accept something like letting someone die as a positive thing, as helping ensure the balance in the universe. It just sounded way too abstract while letting that someone get run over by a cab sounded all too specific for comfort. And yet I didn’t feel like dying from exhaustion, either.
“Okay, I’ll try,” I said and stood from the bed. “Thank you.”
“I’ll make you a full English breakfast tomorrow,” she promised. “And you’ll eat all of it.”
I couldn’t do it. I reloaded Friday night again and I saved Martin’s life again. Then another reload. I sat and watched Martin try to order another beer he would never get and I listened to my heart beat faster than usual. It tripped once and this scared me. I’d never got to eat that English breakfast and I was now on the third reload of Friday night. I was starving, my hands were shaky, and my knees felt soft and weak. I curled my shaky hands into fists and sat where I was as Martin finally threw the order remote to the table and stood up unsteadily. So, he wouldn’t spend the night in jail, at least.
The thought he would now go out and throw himself under the taxi pulsed in my head, itching, urging me to go and help him stay alive but this time I resisted. I thought about Antonia, my daughter who wasn’t really my daughter but someone I’d managed to save from an early death. At least I hoped so. She was my responsibility and I enjoyed this particular responsibility. I couldn’t afford to die out of a mistaken belief I needed to save a desperate man who’d decided to end it all.
Martin staggered towards the door and someone pulled it open for him. He lurched out and I stayed where I was, staring at the bottle of Transylvania Blonda in front of me, with a monochrome outline of a mountain peak and a tiny bear on top of it, its muzzle raised like a howling wolf’s. I looked at the bear and tried to shut my ears down. But all the hairs on my body stood on end when a few minutes later I heard the screech of the wheels and the thump. The whole bar rushed out to see what had happened but I stayed. I knew what had happened and I didn’t have the slightest desire to see it. The ambulance came a couple of minutes later, when some of the bar’s patrons were returning to their drinks, shaking their heads.
“What a mess,” one said as he and his companion sat at their table, which happened to be the one next to mine. The other guy took to his beer without a word.
“What happened?” I said weakly. It took effort to pull my voice from its hiding place. “An accident?”
“A guy threw himself under a taxi. He’s dead.” The man shook his head again and picked up his beer. “Driver almost had a heart attack as well.”
“Sounds bad,” I said. I debated whether I could leave now and risk seeing the consequences of my decision or wait a little while longer, until the flashing lights of the ambulance went away. Seeing as I still felt weak at the knees I opted for another beer and ordered it.
The universe didn’t care about human morality. The universe cared about balance. I was going to have that tattooed somewhere visible.
I went home an hour later and I did my best to not look at the street. They’d taken care to clear up the mess but I knew where it had happened, where it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t listened to Maddy. But I had to listen to her because she was right. It was not up to me to make the decision who was worth saving and who was not. I had no control over this and while it was annoying it was also relieving. Control over the life and death of other people caused mental problems and I didn’t want any more than the ones I already had.
The next day the suicide of Martin Anderson was breaking news. There was no mention of the embezzlement story, though. VEQ was a big company it would manage to cover the loss. Apparently, they had decided against risking their reputation and I couldn’t blame them. I wouldn’t buy into a company that can’t keep the stealing hands of a VP out of the honey jar. But if Martin had lived they would have had to make it public. So I’d saved the reputation of a company with my inaction. Not the most pleasant thought.
“In the other reality he went to prison and his family lost their home,” Maddy’s soft voice said behind me. A moment later her hands were on my shoulders kneading them gently. “You did the right thing, Lars. Never doubt that.”
“You can see them all,” I said. Her fingers drained away the tension and self-hate I was quickly filling up with.
“So why didn’t you tell me about it when I came to you last night?”
“Because it would have been just like turning to the answers page before solving the maths problem. Which means you wouldn’t have solved the problem.”
It made sense. Everything made sense.
“How many like me are there?” I’d itched to ask this question for a while and now seemed like the right time.
“You’re the only one in Europe,” she said after a pause. “And they will start coming to you, Lars, people with their problems, desperate people, and evil people with plans. Not tomorrow and not next year but they will start coming.”
“This doesn’t sound like it will be a lot of fun.” In fact her words had sent a shiver down my spine. I pictured a swarm of rats, for some reason, all rushing to me.
“It won’t. You will have to let people die sometimes. You need to accept this.”
“You need to accept this because I can’t stay with you forever. I will have to leave and we have to make sure you’re strong enough by then.”
“How long do we have?”
“Two more years,” Maddy said. To me, the words sounded like the slamming of a door.