Women on the Brink of a Cataclysm
a short story by Molly Brown
I felt like I was going through a meat grinder. Then there was a blinding flash of light - bright orange - and I felt like I was going through a meat grinder backwards. And there I was, back in one piece. Slightly dizzy, a little stiff around the joints. Swearing I'd never do that again.
The digital display inside the capsule read: 29 April 1995, 6:03 p.m., E.S.T. If that was true, then I was furious. Toni promised she would only set the timer forward by two minutes, and I'd gone forward by a year! A whole year, wasted. Didn't she realise I had work to do? And then I thought: oh my God, the exhibition! I was supposed to have an exhibition in July, 1994 - if I've really gone forward a year, I missed my one-woman show at Gallery Alfredo!
I opened the capsule door, bent on murder. And then I froze. This wasn't my studio.
I live and work on the top floor of an old warehouse in lower Manhattan, and I do sculpture. Abstract sculpture. I take scrapped auto parts and turn them into something beautiful. I twist industrial rubbish into exquisite shapes. I can mount a bicycle wheel onto a wooden platform and make it speak volumes about the meaning of life. I once placed a headless Barbie doll inside a fish tank and sold it for five thousand dollars, and that was before I was famous - I hear the same piece recently fetched more than forty.
I'd been working on a new piece called "Women on the Brink of a Cataclysm": an arrangement of six black and white television sets, each showing a video loop of a woman scrubbing a floor, when Toni Fisher rang the doorbell. I've known Toni off and on since we were kids. We grew up in the same town and went to the same high school before going our separate ways after graduation, in 1966. I went to art school in California, she got a scholarship to study physics at Cambridge in England. It would be twenty years before we met again, at the launch party for Gutsy Ladies: Women Making Their Mark in the 80s, the latest book by Arabella Winstein.
It was one of those dreadful media circuses; I remember a PR woman in a geometric haircut dragging me around the room for a round of introductions: "Hey there, gutsy lady, time to meet some other gutsy ladies!" I was there in my capacity as "Gutsy Lady of the Art World" and Toni had been profiled in a chapter entitled: "Gutsy Lady on the Cutting Edge of Science".
I saw her leaning against a wall in the corner: a tall, stick-thin character with spikey blonde hair, gulping champagne. I could see she was a kindred spirit - we were the only ones not wearing neat little suits with boxy jackets - but I had no idea who she was; in high school she'd been a chubby brunette with glasses. She saw me looking at her, and waved me over.
We leaned against the wall together, jangling the chains on our identical black leather jackets. "I'm working on a calculation," she said, "that will show density of shoulder pad to be in directly inverse proportion to level of intelligence. I'm drunk by the way."
"I'm Joanna Krenski."
"I know who you are. I've still got the charcoal portrait you did of me for your senior year art project. The damn thing must be worth a fortune now; I keep meaning to get it valued."
That was the start of our friendship, the second time around.
Eight years later, I was sitting inside this metal egg, surrounded by my work and my tools and the huge amount of dust they always seem to generate, and Toni was shouting okay, push the button. Then I opened the capsule door and Toni was gone and all my work was gone and even the dust was gone.
I was in a huge, open-plan loft with floor to ceiling windows - that much was like my studio - but everything had been polished and swept and there were flowers everywhere. Flowers in vases, flowers in pots, flowers in a window-box. And then there were paintings of flowers. Dozens of delicate little watercolours depicting roses and lilies and lilacs completely covered one wall, each framed behind a pane of sparkling glass. Unframed oils on canvas stood leaning against every wall, apparently divided into categories: fluffy kittens, cute children, puppies with big sad eyes. I could have puked.
A woman was standing with her back to me, painting something on a medium-sized canvas mounted on a wooden easel. It looked like it was going to be another puppy. The woman had tightly-permed hair cut just above the collar - mouse brown gone mostly grey - and she was wearing a white smock over a knee-length dress. I also noticed she was wearing high heels. To paint.
Oh God, I thought, just like my mother. I remembered her putting on a hat and a little string of pearls to attend her first evening art class; she was like something out of a '50s TV sitcom. And how proud she was of her little pictures of birds. My mother used to paint birds: little red robins and yellow canaries, with musical notes coming out of their beaks. She hung them all over the living room walls. It was embarrassing.
I was going to have to handle this very carefully. The woman was obviously some old dear of my mother's generation and I was a disembodied head sticking out of a metallic egg. I didn't want to give the poor woman a heart attack. I cleared my throat. "Excuse me," I said, "Please don't be frightened, I'm not a burglar or anything." Even as I said it, I realised how stupid it must have sounded: a burglar in a metal egg.
The woman swung around, and I gasped.
"You again," she said, quite calmly. "I never expected you to turn up here."
I felt my mouth open and close half a dozen times, but no words came out. I just sat there, inside the capsule, gaping like a mackerel. The woman had my face. She'd let her hair go grey - something I've refused to do - and she was wearing a string of pearls just like my mother's and a dress I wouldn't be caught dead in, but based on her face - and even her voice - she could have been my sister. My twin.
There was an odd smell in the air; I'd noticed it the moment I opened the capsule door and now I realised what it was. It was bread, baking. Something very strange was going on here.
"I don't know how you did it," she went on. "Toni said we were both stuck where we were. She was very apologetic about it, of course." She put her palette and brush down on a table beside the easel, then crossed her arms and looked at me. She seemed angry. "Well, you can forget it."
I finally managed to get my vocal cords working. "Huh? Forget what?"
"Even if you've found a way, I'm not going back," she said. "No way am I going back. Ever. This is my life now, my world, and I like it. Though..." she paused a moment, and her face - my face - crumpled into a mass of lines. Oh God, I thought, I don't look as old as her, do I? She blinked hard, several times, as if she was trying not to cry. "How's Katie? Is she all right?"
I shook my head; the only Katie I knew was a drama critic, and I didn't think that was who she meant.
"The boys I don't worry about so much; they're grown up now, I know they'll be okay. But Katie... she's just a kid, isn't she?"
"Katie who? And who are you? I mean you look so much like... like my mother. Are we related or something?"
Her eyes opened wide. "You mean you don't know? But... but you've been there. Isn't that where you came from just now?"
"But you must have! Or how could I be here?"
This woman was talking nonsense; I figured she must be crazy, maybe even dangerous. Maybe she was one of those fanatical fans who get plastic surgery to look like their idols. Okay, maybe a forty-five-year-old sculptor doesn't have that kind of fan. Even a forty-five-year-old sculptor who appeared in two Warhol films and has had her picture on the cover of everything from Newsweek to Rolling Stone (twice), probably doesn't have that kind of fan. I still figured the only thing for me to do was to get the hell away from her in a hurry.
I leaned forward, trying to pull myself out of the capsule, but she grabbed me by the shoulders, shoved me back down inside it, and held me there. I struggled and swore, but I couldn't get up. I don't think she was any stronger than me, but she had the major advantage of not being curled into an almost foetal position inside a metal egg.
Her face hovered inches above mine, mouth twisted with rage, eyes narrow and shining with something that might have been hate or might even have been fear; I couldn't tell. It was like looking into one of those distorted fairground mirrors.
"But you have been there," she insisted. "You arrived there a year ago today. That's when the switch took place."
"This switch," she said, slamming the capsule door down over my head.
It was worse the second time. My head was pounding; my whole body ached. It took a few seconds for my eyes to come back into focus - then I saw the digital display. I was back where I started; 29 April, 1994, 6:01 p.m., E.S.T. I sighed with relief. I was home and I still had three months to get ready for my show at Gallery Alfredo; I hadn't missed it after all.
I shoved the door open, expecting to see my studio, and Toni waiting by the capsule. I had a few choice words in store for Toni! But she wasn't there. And my studio wasn't there.
I couldn't tell where I was at first; it was dark. But as my eyes began to adjust, I saw that I was in a windowless room lined with crowded shelves.
"Hello!" I shouted, "Is anybody there?"
"Shit." I took a deep breath, gathered all my strength, and slowly began to extricate myself from Toni's infernal machine. I never felt so stiff and sore; I could hardly move. My jeans felt tighter than usual, as if my body was swollen. And my poor legs! I had to massage them to get the blood moving again, and then there was an unbearable sensation of pins and needles. I finally managed to stand up.
The shelves around me were stacked with jars of homemade preserves and chocolate chip cookies. There were bags of flour, a tinned baked ham, fresh coffee beans, baskets of fruit and vegetables, various pots and pans. It looked like some kind of a pantry.
I reached for the door, praying it wasn't locked. It wasn't, and I stepped into a kitchen that would have been the height of technology in 1956. The brand names were all ones I remembered from my childhood, the appliances were all big and white and clunky, except for the toaster, which was small and round and covered in shiny chrome, and the coffee percolator, which was switched on and bubbling away.
There was nothing in that room that would have been out of place when I was five years old. No microwave oven, no food processor, no espresso machine. There was a meat grinder and a coffee grinder, each with a handle you needed to crank. You needed a match to light the stove. You had to defrost the fridge. And it was all brand new.
"Hello! Anybody home?" I wandered through the dining room - a printed sign on the wall above the sideboard read, "Give us this day our daily bread" - and into a living room with a picture window and clear plastic covers over all the furniture. An embroidered sampler above the fireplace proclaimed, "Bless this house and everyone in it." I shook my head.
I looked out the window and saw women in cotton dresses hanging laundry, men in white shirts mowing lawns, kids on one-speed bikes with little tinkling bells and metal baskets. There was at least one big, gas-guzzling automobile in every driveway. It was 1950s suburbia, even worse than I remembered it. I had walked straight into an episode of Leave it to Beaver. I shook my head in disbelief; Toni's time machine had actually worked.
I heard a crash, coming from the kitchen. I ran back, pausing in the kitchen doorway. The back door was open. I looked around the room. There was no one there. Nothing seemed to be missing. I took a couple of cautious steps onto the linoleum floor. Then a couple more.
Everything seemed okay; the door probably wasn't properly closed in the first place, and a gust of wind had blown it open. It wouldn't be that unusual back in the '50s; we never used to lock the doors when I was a kid. I crossed the room and pulled the door shut. I realised I'd been holding my breath, and let it out.
There was a sudden high-pitched sound, and I nearly jumped a mile. I swung around, clutching my chest and cursing myself for being such an idiot. It was only the telephone.
The phone was mounted on the kitchen wall behind me, big and white, with an old-fashioned dial. I walked towards it, then decided to let the answering machine pick it up. I listened to it ringing and ringing, until it finally struck me they didn't have answering machines in the 1950s. I lifted the receiver. "Hello?"
"Joanna, what kept you so long? I was just about to hang up."
I knew that voice! "Toni? Oh thank God. How did you find me? How did you know what number to call?"
There was a long pause. "Joanna, are you all right?"
"I'm stuck inside a forty-year-old copy of Better Homes and Gardens, and you're asking me if I'm all right?"
"Joanna, you sound a little strange. Is Bob there?"
"Bob? Who the hell is Bob?"
"You're having one of your little turns again, aren't you? Now do me favour. I want you to sit down, or better yet, why don't you lie down? Take some good deep breaths, and try to relax." I could not believe the way she was talking to me, in this slow, soothing murmur, like I was some kind of nutcase. She might as well have been saying, "Now put that gun down, Joanna."
"You said you were going to send me two minutes forward, not forty years back! I don't want to lie down and relax. I want to get out of here! And what do you mean, 'turns'? I do not have 'turns'!"
"I'll be there as soon as I can, okay? Just try and stay calm; I'm on my way." There was a click.
"Wait a minute, Toni! Toni?" There was no one there; she'd hung up. I leaned against the wall, rubbing my throbbing temples. Nothing made sense. If I was really in the 1950s, and I'd left Toni back in the '90s, then how how could she phone me?
I heard a door open and slam shut, then a man's voice: "Honey, I'm home!"
I didn't know what to do. One half of me said I should walk right up to the man, introduce myself and calmly explain what I was doing in his house. The other half said I should hide. I heard footsteps, moving towards me. Heavy footsteps.
I decided to hide.
I tiptoed backwards into the pantry, pulling the door closed behind me, trying hard not to breathe. I turned around and saw a second metal egg.
I raised a hand to my mouth and bit it to keep myself from screaming. Where had that other egg come from? I bent down to examine it. Like mine, the digital display must have been broken; it still said 1994. But this egg was nearly twice as big, and looked a lot more comfortable. It even had a padded lining.
So that was how Toni found me; she'd followed me back into time. She'd had a second egg the whole time, and she'd obviously saved the better one for herself, the selfish bitch. But if she was here, in the same house, then why did she have to phone me? And where was she now?
I heard the man's voice again: "Joanna, sweetheart! Jo-aaann-a!" Who was this guy and how did he know my name? "Joanna!" The voice was louder, he was getting closer. I heard footsteps moving across the kitchen floor. They stopped in front of the pantry door. I watched the doorknob turn. I tensed, unsure what to do.
"Who's there?" I said.
The voice sounded relieved. "Oh there you are! Didn't you hear me?" The door opened and I saw a middle-aged man with his mouth hanging open. "Oh my God, Joanna! What have you done?"
"Your hair! What have you done to your hair? It's... it's purple!"
I couldn't believe it; this guy catches an intruder cowering in a closet, and his only reaction is to comment on her hair colour? And my hair isn't purple, by the way. The tint I use is called Flickering Flame, and the packet describes it as a deep burgundy red. The guy was so busy gawking at my hair, he didn't even notice the pair of metal ovals sitting in the middle of his pantry floor. I stepped out into the kitchen, pulling the pantry door closed behind me.
"You... you look positively indecent," the man went on, following me across the kitchen. "Look at you! Hair sticking up all over the place, like you haven't combed it in a week!" I positioned myself with my back to what I assumed was the cutlery drawer; I wanted to be within reach of something I could use as a weapon, just in case. "You look like some kind of a... a... a hussy! No wife of mine is going around looking like a hussy."
Wife? I thought, this man thinks I'm his wife?
"And where did you get those awful clothes? You look like some kind of a greasy mechanic!"
I was ready to punch the guy. First my hair, and now my clothes. There was nothing wrong with my clothes. I was wearing black designer jeans - strategically ripped at the knees - that cost me nearly five hundred dollars, and an understated, plain black tee-shirt that was a bargain at $57.99.
Hussy? I thought. Greasy mechanic? What kind of bigoted moron uses words like that, and more important, what kind of moron mistakes a complete stranger for his wife?
The man looked normal enough - almost too normal. Forty-something, thinning hair, brown tinged with grey, bit of a paunch, dressed like he just came home from an office.
"What if the neighbours saw you looking like that? And what about Katie?"
Katie. That rang a bell. "Ah," I said, remembering what the woman who looked like my mother had told me, "Katie's just a kid, isn't she?"
The man sighed and shook his head. "You're having hot flushes again, aren't you?" He touched my forehead as if he was checking for a fever. I slid my hand into the drawer behind me, grabbed hold of something I hoped was a knife, and waited to see what he would do next. But all he did was bend slightly forward, and stare open-mouthed at my feet. "You're wearing tennis shoes."
"Tennis shoes? I'll have you know these are Nikes!"
"Nikes?" he repeated, obviously confused. "But I thought you must be wearing heels..." His eyes moved upwards along my body, finally stopping at my eyes. "Joanna, I don't understand what's going on." Neither do I, I felt like saying, but I didn't get the chance because he carried straight on without a pause. "How could you possibly be taller?"
"Taller than who?"
"Than you were when I left you this morning. And you're thinner, too."
"Ha! Don't I wish." I took my hand out of the drawer. The guy didn't seem violent, just confused. And standing as close to him as I was, something about the guy was awfully familiar. I thought, I know him. If I could just see past the bald patch and the beer gut, and concentrate on the voice and the eyes, I knew it would come back to me. Then it hit me.
"Bobby!" I said, "Bobby Callahan! You took me to my senior prom."
His eyes went very wide. "Yes, dear," he said cautiously, "why are you bringing that up now?"
"I didn't recognise you at first; it's been a long time. It's gotta be twenty-five years. No, closer to thirty. God, Bobby, I can't believe it! So what are you doing with yourself these days?" I reached out to shake his hand.
Bobby went ever so pale. "Joanna, darling. I think you should lie down."
A few minutes later, I was leaning against a stack of frilly pillows, embroidered with sayings like "I Love Mom" and "Home Is Where The Heart Is", on one of a pair of narrow twin beds, separated by a twee little night table with two separate lamps and two individual wind-up alarm clocks, listening to Bobby clatter around in the kitchen below. He obviously wasn't used to cooking. My sudden appearance in the pantry apparently hadn't surprised him at all, but the fact that I hadn't made dinner seemed a shock beyond belief.
There was a loud crash, an "Ouch!" and a "Dammit!", then footsteps moving back up the stairs. Bobby poked his head into the bedroom and said he was driving down to the Chinese. The last thing he told me was that I should try and get some sleep.
I jumped up the minute I heard the downstairs door close; I had no intention of hanging around until he came back. Then the wardrobe doors flew wide open, and a hand shoved me back onto the mattress.
For the second time in less than ten minutes, I found myself staring open-mouthed at someone with my face. This one was even dressed the same as me: the same jeans, same tee-shirt, same Nike sneakers. She had the same blunt haircut, the same shade of Flickering Flame. "Snap!" she said.
I raised my head and took a long, careful look at her. I noticed two slight differences between us: she had a blue canvas shoulder-bag draped across her arm, and a bad case of sunburn. The sunburn looked painful; the skin on her nose was peeling. "Who are you?" I said, "Is this your house?"
"Let me address your second question first. If this was my house, do you really think I would be hiding in the wardrobe? And as to your first: who do you think I am? I know it's a little difficult, so I'll give you a clue. Who do I look like?"
"Bingo!" she said, "You got it in one." She flopped down on the other bed, stretching her arms high over her head. "God, my back is killing me!"
I swung my legs around and sat up, facing the other bed. "Let me get this straight," I said. "You're saying that you're me?"
She rolled onto her side, propping her head up with one arm. "That's one way of putting it. Though as far as I'm concerned, it's you that's me, not me that's you. A subtle distinction, I admit, but a significant one. To me, at least." There was something slightly different about her voice, too. It was a little deeper than mine, and a little harsher, as if she wanted to scream but was struggling to control herself. I guess the fact I didn't understand a word she was saying showed on my face, because she gave me a look of pure disgust. "Don't tell me you don't get it! Look, I'm an alternate you from a parallel universe, capeche?"
I couldn't believe what I had just heard. "A parallel universe?" I said. "Then how the hell did you get here?"
She got up and started looking through the various jars and bottles on the dresser. She opened one of the jars and spread some cream on her face. "How do you think I got here? The same way as you: inside that damn machine of Toni's. She made one in my universe as well, you know. A slightly better one, if you don't mind me saying so; I've seen yours down in the pantry, and it does look a bit poor."
I got up and stood by the window, watching wives in cotton dresses calling children and husbands in for dinner, and I knew this wasn't my universe, either. "So this is what the universe would have been like if I'd married Bobby Callahan."
"Oh get real!" the other Joanna said, disgusted. "Cultural and scientific stagnation is the basis of this type of universe, not who married Bobby Callahan."
"I don't understand how I got here. Toni's machine was supposed to send me forward in time, not sideways through space."
"That wasn't the machine's fault; it was that woman!"
"Woman? What woman?"
Her hands tightened into fists and her eyes became narrow slits. "The bitch that set the timer on Toni's machine to go backwards. Don't you see? As long you only move forward, you remain in the same universe. But if you try to go backwards, even by a fraction of a second, you end up in a parallel world. They tell me this is to stop you murdering your grandmother so you were never born. Anyway, she set the timer backwards on purpose to get me out of the way, so she could take over my life in my universe."
"How do you know this?"
"Because she told me! I met her. I talked to her; she's living in my studio, and I tell you she's ruined it. Cleared out all my stuff, and covered every available space with pictures of flowers and kittens. Disgusting!"
I sank down onto the nearest bed. "What did she look like?"
"Like me with grey hair and a perm, dressed in my mother's clothes. She's an alternate me from one of these oppressive suburban worlds and now she's living it up in mine, spending my money, using my name and reputation to exhibit her nauseating little pictures at all the best galleries."
Suddenly it all made sense. The woman in my studio, talking about a switch. "I've met her, too. She slammed the capsule door down on my head and the next thing I knew I was here."
"Isn't that always the way?" said the other Joanna, nodding in sympathy.
"But I still don't understand. I mean, how did she get there in the first place?"
"I have a theory about that," said the other Joanna. "I think one of us - meaning one in a world where Toni has invented a time machine - pushed the wrong button and went back by accident, maybe by only a couple of seconds. She ended up in a world like this one, and came face to face with her parallel self, a housewife who always dreamed of being an artist but never did anything about it. The Joanna like us explained who she was and how she got there. The parallel Joanna saw her chance at wealth and fame and stole the machine, leaving the other one stranded. Maybe this happened more than once, and one of these parallel Joannas ended up in your world and one in mine."
"Well, Toni will know what to do when she gets here."
"Yeah, she phoned just a little while ago. She said she was on her way over."
"Oh, you mean the Toni that lives here. You can forget about any help from that direction. Not the right sort of Toni."
"The right sort?"
"I've met most of the Toni's you get in this sort of world. Sometimes she's a widow with a grown-up son - usually in the army - sometimes she's a librarian, and if you're really lucky, she might be a high school science teacher."
"You've been in other worlds like this one?"
"Sure. I've been in loads of 'em. I always arrive on the same date: the 29th of April, 1994, and the same time: just after 6 p.m. Because that's when the first switch took place - in one of this infinite number of universes. And eventually, I'm going to be there when that first switch is about to happen, and I'm going to stop it before it does, and then none of this will ever have happened."
"How will you stop it happening?"
She smiled, patting the canvas bag that still hung from her shoulder. "I have my methods."
So she was going to make everything all right again. I should have been thrilled, but I couldn't help feeling resentful; I didn't like being made to feel stupid. Maybe I hadn't grasped all the nuances of quantum theory, and instantly figured out what was going on and how to fix it, but I was still a famous artist, and very rich. Didn't that count for anything anymore?
"I'm having an affair with a twenty-two-year-old male model," I said, leaning back on the bed. "We might even do a TV commercial together; they want him to play a gorgeous young man at an exhibition opening, and me to play myself. Then he picks up a bottle of..."
"Shut up!" she said.
"Ooh, hit a sore point, have I? In my world, I'm often seen with much younger men."
"Will you be quiet, there's somebody coming." She moved to one side of the window, flattening herself against the wall.
"Who is it?" I whispered, sitting up.
She raised a finger to her mouth to signal silence. I got up and headed for the window.
"Get back!" she hissed, then mouthed the words, "It's her."
I flattened myself against the wall on the other side of the window from her, and peered cautiously around the frame. A woman was walking towards the house, struggling with several large shopping bags. She had my face.
I looked across to the other Joanna, and saw her reach inside her canvas bag and take out a gun. She reached in again, and took out a silencer.
"What are you doing?" I whispered.
She ignored me, raising the gun and taking aim at a defenceless woman. I couldn't stand by and let this happen; I picked up one of those twee little table lamps, and broke it over her head. The gun went off, missing the woman, but sending a bullet tearing through one of her shopping bags, spilling groceries all over the pavement. The Joanna that married her high school sweetheart stopped in her tracks, staring at the shredded bag. "Move!" I shouted, "she'll kill you!"
Unfortunately, the lamp didn't knock my other self out, it just made her mad. She swung around, blood streaming from several cuts on her scalp, and pointed the gun right at me. "You stupid bitch! I fucking had her!"
"You were going to kill her!"
"I'll kill every one of them, until I get the right one. And no one's going to stop me."
I swung my right leg back and around, kicking the gun from her hand just as it went off a second time, sending chunks of plaster flying from the wall beside her. I'd taken a course in Jiu-Jitsu about fifteen years earlier, and this was the first time I'd ever used it. Of course she'd taken it, too, and two seconds later I was being thrown head first over her shoulder. I landed on the bedroom floor with a thud, and looked up to see my other self with a gun once more pointed at my head. She was smiling. "It isn't murder, you know. It's more like suicide by proxy."
I closed my eyes, and waited to die. There was a sound like an explosion, and I thought, is that it? Am I dead? Then I thought, that can't be it; I've got a lap full of glass.
I opened my eyes again, and saw a grey-haired woman with my face, holding what was left of the second table lamp. Bobby was right, she was about an inch or two shorter than me, and maybe five pounds heavier. She reached down and picked the gun up from the floor beside the other, unconscious, Joanna, and pointed it at me. "I think you owe me an explanation, don't you?"
I told her everything. She didn't believe me of course, until I showed her the two metal eggs in her pantry. "I'm a bit of an artist myself," she said. "One of my paintings was in an exhibition at the town hall. Maybe you'd like to have a look at some of my paintings later; they're up in the attic."
Then there was the problem of what to do with the other Joanna. When we went back up to the bedroom, she was starting to wake up. "Wha'?" she said, "What happened? Where am I?" Joanna Callahan and I stood on either side of the bed where we'd left her firmly tied down with a length of laundry-line. She looked from one side of the bed to the other. "Who are you guys supposed to be, the Bobsey Twins?"
"Maybe I shouldn't have hit her so hard," said Joanna Callahan.
"I'd be dead if you hadn't," I reminded her.
"And so would I, if what you say is true," she sighed.
"What's going on?" said Joanna on the bed. "Who are you bozos?"
"Don't you know me?" I asked her.
"I never saw you in my life!"
"Do you know who you are?" Joanna Callahan asked her.
"Of course I do! I'm..." She frowned in concentration. "Oh shit."
"You stay with her," Joanna Callahan told me. "I'll just run and get my first aid kit from the kitchen."
Before I could think to ask her what she had in a first aid kit for amnesia, she was gone.
"Why don't I remember who I am?" asked Joanna on the bed.
"You've had a nasty crack on the head," I told her. "You fell down the stairs."
"Why am I all tied up?"
"To keep you from falling down again. Stay there, I'll be right back." I ran downstairs to the kitchen. The pantry door was open, and there was only one metal egg: the one I came in. Joanna Callahan had stolen the nicer one, with the padded lining. "Bitch!" I shouted, kicking the refrigerator. "Fucking bitch!"
Then Joanna upstairs started screaming for help. She was making a hell of a racket; someone would call the police if she kept that up. I ran back up the stairs and found the bed tipped over onto its side, and Joanna wriggling around on the floor, trying to break loose. "Help!" she kept screaming, "Somebody help me!"
The front doorbell rang, and Joanna started screaming even louder. I stuffed a pillowcase down her mouth; that shut her up.
The doorbell kept ringing and I heard a woman's voice call my name. "Joanna! Open up! Are you okay?" Toni.
I grabbed a scarf out of the wardrobe to hide my Flickering Flame hair, then I ran to the window. "Toni!" I called down, faking a yawn. "Sorry, I must have been asleep."
A large, dark-haired woman wearing a brown cardigan sweater over a white blouse and brown skirt looked up from the street. She was wearing a pair of horn-rimmed glasses so thick they reminded me of Mister Magoo. She had "small town librarian" written all over her. Definitely not the right sort of Toni. "Joanna, are you all right? I thought I heard you screaming for help!" Joanna with the pillowcase in her mouth was trying to stand up with a bed tied to her back.
"I was having the worst nightmare! Hold on, I'll be right down." I ran down the stairs to the kitchen, then remembered something and ran back up again. The other Joanna was squirming around more than ever, making a lot of "Hmph!" and "MMMMMM!" sort of noises. I had to admire her determination. "Don't worry, Joanna, someone will untie you in a minute, I promise. But it won't be me." I put the gun back inside her blue canvas bag, and slung it over my shoulder.
I was halfway down the stairs when I heard Toni say, "Bob! Thank God you're home! There's something wrong with Joanna!" I reached the bottom just as his key turned in the lock. By the time they reached the bedroom, I was already in the pantry, squeezing myself back inside my uncomfortable, unpadded, metal egg. There was a lot of screaming and shouting going on upstairs. I heard Toni say she was calling the police, and then I heard heavy footsteps on the stairs.
I pulled the capsule door down over my head, and stared at a row of unlabelled buttons. I didn't have the slightest idea which one to press, so I pressed them all. I heard Toni's voice outside the capsule, saying, "What the..." and then I was ripped into a million pieces.
I pushed the door open and found myself staring up at a cactus. I was dizzy and more than a little nauseous; I waited for the cactus to stop spinning before I tried to sit up.
The moment I raised my head, the cactus started whirling again, faster than ever. I'd been broken down and reassembled for the third time in less than half an hour, and I didn't think my body could take a fourth; at least not yet. I pulled myself out of the capsule, fell to my knees, and vomited onto scorching hot dust. I crawled on all fours towards a clump of stunted bushes a few yards away, and rested in the tiny patch of shade they provided.
I don't know how long I was there; I think I must have fallen asleep. All I know is when I opened my eyes again, a man was standing over me, his face a mixture of surprise and concern. "You all right?" he said. He had white hair down to his shoulders, a full white beard, a round face with chubby red cheeks, sparkling brown eyes, and an enormous belly. Santa Claus in blue jeans.
"No, I'm not all right. I feel like hell and I don't have the slightest idea where I am."
The man knelt down beside me. "My house is just the other side of that hill. Don't try to move; I'll carry you."
"No, it's okay. I can walk."
"Now you just lean on me," he said, helping me to my feet. "And don't you worry 'bout a thing, my old lady'll get you fixed up in no time. She'll be interested to see you. Real interested, I'll tell you that for nothing."
"What do you mean, interested?"
"You'll see. Believe you me, you'll see."
A pair of large dogs - one black, one brown - lunged forward to greet us as we approached a large adobe house painted in a myriad of colours. Each of the outside walls was like a mural, one side adorned with children running through a field, another with a cityscape of high-rise buildings lit by a reddish-gold setting sun, another a series of geometric shapes in primary colours. Behind the house was another building, a bright red barn almost as big as the house.
"Down Horace! Get down, Charlemagne! Down boys," the man said as the dogs leapt around us, barking excitedly, "this here lady doesn't feel too well." Then he raised his voice to a shout: "Jo-aaannn-a!"
A woman appeared in the doorway. Wearing an ankle-length denim dress and a string of beads. Centre-parted, waist-length hair. Brown, streaked with grey. "Who you got there, Mark?"
"This lady's sick. Help me get her inside the house."
She ran forward, and slid an arm around my back. I closed my eyes; I didn't want to look at her face.
"Oh my God, Mark," she said.
"Yeah, I know. Ain't it the strangest thing?"
I woke up with a dreadful case of sunburn; my face and arms were bright red. I raised my head and saw the woman who had introduced herself as Joanna Hansen standing in the bedroom doorway, holding a mug of coffee. Her salt-and-pepper hair was tied back in a long ponytail, and she was wearing sandals and a cotton kimono. I looked around for my clothes, and didn't see them.
"I put them in the wash," she told me. "Borrow anything you want from that closet."
I pulled on a pair of jeans and a denim shirt, and went down to the kitchen. Mark was making hotcakes in honour of my visit. He was under the impression I was a long lost cousin of Joanna's - at least that's what I'd told him the night before.
I'd known Mark Hansen back in 1967, when we were both art students in San Francisco. It was the Summer of Love, and he had long black hair and drove a VW van.
So there actually was a universe where I'd said yes when he asked me to go and live with him in the desert. In his day, he was every bit as gorgeous as any twenty-two-year-old male model. I wondered if there was a universe where he hadn't ended up looking like Father Christmas.
"I can't get over it," he said to Joanna, "all these years you had a cousin that's your spitting image and you never even knew she existed!"
"Yeah," said Joanna, eyeing me suspiciously, "I can't get over it, either."
I had told them both the most ridiculous pack of lies the night before, how I'd been on my way to visit Joanna and my rented car had broken down in the middle of the desert, and Mark, at least, seemed to believe it. I knew Joanna was waiting for the chance to get me alone; that's what I would have done.
Her chance came that afternoon, when Mark drove into town to get the shopping. We were sitting on the front step, sipping iced tea with slices of lemon, when she finally said it: "Isn't it time you told me the truth?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"I don't have a cousin named Annabel." (Annabel was the first name that popped into my head the night before; I don't know why.) "Not even a long-lost one, like you claim to be. So who are you, and what were you doing out in the middle of nowhere, covered in plaster dust and broken glass? And how come you look so much like me? I'm warning you, I want the truth."
"You'll never believe it."
"Okay." I put down my glass of iced tea, and looked her right in the eye. "Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you'd made some different decisions along the way?"
"I haven't done acid since 1975," she said when I was finished. "Don't you think it's time for you to give it up, too?"
"I told you you'd never believe me. Maybe if we could contact Toni; she might be working on something similar in this world. Maybe she even got it right in this one."
Joanna Hansen shook her head. "Toni's dead. She died a long time ago," she said. "O.D.'d."
"What? She can't be dead!"
"Why not? If I'm supposed to believe you, then where you come from, my two kids were never even born!" Mark had shown me pictures of them the night before: two extremely dishy young men, one twenty-five years old, the other only twenty-one. Then I remembered whose children they were.
"Oh yeah," I said, "Joanna Callahan apparently had some kids as well."
"And she just up and left them."
"More than once," I said. "I mean, more than one version of her left more than one version of them."
"How do you know I won't steal your machine, so I can be rich and famous in New York?"
"You don't know where I left it."
"You think I couldn't find it if I wanted to?" She laughed. "You ought to see your face, you've gone bright green. Well, you sit out here and worry yourself sick about whether I think being you is such an attractive prospect or not. Meanwhile, I've got work to do. Help yourself to anything you want from the fridge." And then she left me, sitting alone on the step.
I was still there when Mark came back, two hours later. The dogs leapt out of the truck and ran towards me, barking and wagging their tails. A second later, I was on my back, having my face licked. "I've never known those dogs to take to someone as quick as they've taken to you," Mark said. "It's like they've known you all their lives."
"I noticed," I said, pushing them away.
"She said she had some work to do."
"Then she'll be in her studio. Haven't you been in there yet?"
I shook my head.
"I thought she'd have given you the grand tour by now," he said. "Never mind. Help me get the groceries in, and I'll take you around."
A short while later, he led me around the back of the house to the large building I'd assumed was a barn. "Please don't think she's being rude, abandoning you like that. It's just that she's got this big show coming up in a couple of months, and she reckons she's nowhere near ready."
"Show? What kind of show?"
"Joanna's an artist, didn't she tell you?"
Of course, I thought, Mark and I had met in art school. So what was this Joanna's art like? More puppies and flowers? No, I thought, this one's an old hippie; I'll bet she weaves native-style blankets and sells them at craft fairs. Then Mark opened the door and my mouth dropped open.
This Joanna, like me, was a sculptor, and like me, she worked mostly in metal, and - this is a hard admission for me to make - she was every bit as good as me. Maybe even - this is an even harder admission - a little better.
I touched the twisted trunk of a metal tree with shiny flat leaves. Tiny men hung like fruit from its branches, each with a noose around his neck, each with a completely different and individual expression of pain or horror on his face. I wished I'd done it. Though in a way, I had.
"That one's already sold," Mark told me. "Some museum in Europe's offered her a couple million for it, and she's told 'em they can have it after the show."
At the sound of the words: "couple million", my heart almost did a flip-flop. It was all I could do not to clutch at my chest. I took a few deep breaths, counting to ten on each inhalation. "So where is this show of hers?" I asked him, trying to sound nonchalant.
"The Museum of Contemporary Art," he told me, adding, "That's in New York." As if I didn't know. And I'd been so worried this Joanna might want to trade places with me. "Didn't you see that TV show they did about her?" he asked me. "It was on prime time, coast to coast."
"I'm afraid I missed it."
We found her at the far end of the building, working on a rather familiar arrangement of six black and white television sets called: "Women on the Brink of a Cataclysm". She couldn't figure out why I thought that was funny.
Then she switched it on, and I saw that unlike mine, each of her screens showed a different woman doing a different repetitious task: one scrubbing a floor, one doing dishes, one hanging laundry, one ironing shirts, one chopping vegetables, and one slashing her wrists, over and over again, in an endless loop. I wished I'd done mine like that - though of course I would, now.
There was nothing in Joanna Hansen's work I wouldn't be proud to call my own. If I couldn't get back to my own world - and I was beginning to doubt I ever would - then this one would suit me just fine. But making the switch might be difficult with Mark around; it would have to be done gradually.
I offered to help Joanna in her studio, and learned exactly where she kept everything. I got her to tell me her complete history under the pretext of trying to figure out just where our paths had diverged. I got Mark to tell me everything I'd need to know about him under the pretext of finding him a fascinating conversationalist, which he never was, even when we were students. I went through every photo album and every scrap book, memorising the details. I sat through slides and home movies. And I nagged Joanna about her hair, told her it made her look much older than she was, and reminded her of all the photographers that would be at her opening party in New York. "Just trim the ends a little," I told her. "Just cover the grey." I finally convinced her to let me cut it - a much quicker process than waiting for mine to grow - but I couldn't get her to colour it; I had to let myself go grey.
Within three weeks of my arrival, Joanna Hansen and I were indistinguishable.
One morning when Mark had driven into town, I told Joanna it was time for me to leave. I put on the clothes I had arrived in, slung the blue canvas bag with the gun in it over my shoulder, and thanked her for everything. Then, as though it were an afterthought, I asked her if she'd like to see the time machine.
I led her out into the desert, to the spot where Toni's metal egg sat hidden behind a cactus plant. "That's it," I said.
"It doesn't look very comfortable."
"Why don't you try it for yourself?" I said. "Get inside, see how it feels."
I pointed the gun at her. "Get inside."
"You can't shoot me," she said.
"I can and I will if you don't do what I tell you."
"No, you can't. That gun isn't loaded; I took the bullets out ages ago."
I pointed the gun straight at her and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. "You bitch! You've been through my things!"
"Damn right. I did that the first night you turned up. You think I'm stupid or something? Now," she reached into one of the pockets in her denim skirt, "this gun is loaded." She was holding a little semi-automatic pistol. "As you were saying, Joanna, it's time you went back to your own world."
"Wait a minute," I said. "That was only a joke with the gun; I was never going to shoot you. What I was going to suggest is that we work together, sort of interchangeably. You could get twice as much done, and nobody would ever know."
I got inside the machine, and the next thing I knew it was the 29th of April, 1994, a little after 6 p.m., and I was back in Joanna Callahan's pantry, with swollen joints and a raging headache. As I struggled to pull myself up, I noticed another metal egg. This one not only had a padded interior, but a row of little flashing lights along the outside.
Someone was coming. I ran through the kitchen and out the back door. I crouched down outside the open kitchen window and listened to the phone ringing, then my voice: "Toni! Thank God! How did you find me? How did you know what number to call?"
I was about to go back inside and talk to this woman, when I heard a car pull into the front drive. I crept along the wall towards the front of the house and saw Bob Callahan put his key in the front door. "Honey! I'm home!"
He'd head straight back to the kitchen and find the other me cowering in the pantry, where I'd left my only method of escape. I had to get back inside the house; I reached the door just before it swung completely closed, and crept into the hallway. I heard voices coming from the kitchen, then I heard Bobby say, "I think you'd better lie down."
I ran upstairs to the bedroom. It was different than I remembered. There was only one bed, a double. I looked out the window and saw a long-haired guy in black leather tinkering with his motorcycle, watched by a bunch of kids in baggy clothes and baseball caps worn backwards. I breathed a sigh of relief. This was more like the 1994 I knew. But it still wasn't the right one; Bobby Callahan was leading one of the alternate me's up the stairs.
"If this was my house, do you really think I'd be hiding in the wardrobe?" I said a short while later. "And as to your second question: who do I look like?"
"Like me, I guess. But older."
"Older?" I rushed over to the mirror. She was right. That grey hair put ten years on me, and my time in the desert hadn't done my complexion any good; I noticed several new lines around my eyes and mouth. I opened a jar of Joanna Callahan's moisturiser and spread it on my face.
"You look a lot like that woman who was in my studio," said the other Joanna - she was reaching for something inside a canvas bag just like mine, only her's was green. "Or at least I think it was my studio."
The downstairs door opened and slammed shut. Bobby couldn't be back already. I whispered to the other Joanna to stay where she was and keep quiet, then I tiptoed into the hall. A teenage girl with blonde hair, black roots, and thick black eyeliner, stomped up the stairs in a pair of platform boots. She had four or five earrings on each ear, and one through her right nostril. "Fuck off, Mom. Don't hassle me," she said, opening one of the other doors and slamming it behind her. So this was Katie. A moment later, the walls were vibrating with music by some band I'd never heard of.
I went downstairs and had another look at the house. There was a stack of videos next to the television, a microwave oven and food processor in the kitchen. All those "Bless This House" embroideries were gone, replaced by paintings of a grey-haired woman in varying states of depression. They weren't bad. I flipped one over and read the neatly-printed words: Number Three in a Series of Women on the Brink of a Cataclysm.
Well, Joanna, I thought, meaning both of them - the one I'd left upstairs, and the one who'd be home any minute now - you're on your own.
I opened the pantry door and sank down inside a padded machine with a row of lovely flashing lights.
The machine was a joy. I didn't feel a thing. No stiffness, no swelling, no dizziness. I opened the door and found myself back in the desert. April 29th, 1994, just after 6 p.m. New York time - the middle of a scorching afternoon out west.
I had been given a second chance. And this time I would do it right. I wouldn't let Mark see me; I'd get Joanna on her own and do the switch immediately. Then I'd have my exhibition, collect my millions, and give poor Mark an amicable divorce settlement - in this world, I could afford to be generous.
I climbed the little hill that hid the house from view and saw a shack. A dilapidated little house, like something out of Ma and Pa Kettle. I'm in the wrong place, I thought, I made a wrong turn somewhere out in the desert. Then two large dogs ran towards me, leaping and barking. One was black and one was brown. A man chased after them, shouting, "Charlemagne! Horace! Get back here!"
He looked at me and stopped dead in his tracks. "Joanna! Come outside!"
She appeared in the doorway, dressed in jeans and a transparent gauze top. "Wow!" she said.
They offered me a glass of home brew and a joint. Joanna told me she made native-style blankets and sold them at craft fairs.
I left after dinner.
I pushed the capsule door open, and breathed a huge sigh of relief. I was back in New York, surrounded by noise and dirt and traffic. I was home, though for some reason I wasn't in my studio. I had landed in an alley, surrounded by overflowing metal garbage cans and stacks of cardboard boxes.
I heard a rustling sound coming from one of the cardboard boxes - the closest one. Rats, I thought, cringing. I hate rats. I leaned forward to pull myself up, and came face to face with a pair of bloodshot eyes, staring through a little hole in the nearest box. My own eyes watered at the pungent, combined aromas of alcohol and stale perspiration.
"So you've come for me, at last."
Oh no, I thought. There was something horribly familiar about that voice. "Maybe," I said. "That depends on who you think I am."
"You're the angel of death, aren't you?"
"Your name isn't Joanna, by any chance?"
"You are the angel of death!" The box lid flew open and a woman rose before me. Toothless. Matted grey hair crawling with insects. Dressed in layer upon layer of dirty, ragged clothing: a winter coat over a man's shirt over a sweater over a dress over a pair of trousers. Eyes shining with madness, hands clutching a pair of heavily-laden shopping bags. "I'm ready. Take me to a better world than this one."
I slammed down the lid and pressed every button. I knew I must have arrived someplace else, but I couldn't bring myself to look. I just sat there, curled up inside my padded metal egg, and shook.
How could I have ended up like that? Me, Joanna Krenski. Talented, attractive, intelligent. Whatever could have happened to bring me down to that level? Homeless. Penniless. Living in a box. And then I realised why I couldn't stop shaking.
I, Joanna Krenski - the Joanna Krenski - was in exactly the same position. Homeless and penniless, living inside a box - it's just that mine was made of metal instead of cardboard.
Joanna the bag lady had lost her mind; how long would it be before I lost mine? If I dared to think about it, I knew I was already on the way.
All my life I'd thought of myself as an essentially good person, but all I'd been was comfortable. The moment I realised I'd lost my place in my world, meaning my material security (not the so-called friends I'd chosen on the basis of what they could do for me, not the young lover I only regarded as a trophy), I'd been ready to lie, steal, and even kill. I had almost murdered the only alternate Joanna to treat me with any kindness. Now I thanked God the gun hadn't been loaded.
I felt disgusted and ashamed. I hated myself. Over and over again.
I didn't care where I had landed this time - the desert, the suburbs, my studio, a sewer - it didn't matter. I would stay curled inside my egg; I was never coming out again. And I wouldn't have come out, if someone else hadn't pulled the capsule door open.
"Please," a familiar woman's voice said in a whisper. "You've got to help me."
I lay back inside the egg, looking up at one of the Joanna Callahans. She was trying to squeeze into the machine with me. "Why should I help you with anything?" I said, wedging my legs across the opening. "Everything that's happened is your fault. If you didn't like your own world, you should have done something to change it from within, not try to steal someone else's."
"I know that now. I know," she whispered, leaning down over me, "and I'm sorry. Really I am. But you've got to move over. There's room in here for both of us. Please. She's killed the others, I saw her do it!"
So I had come full circle. One of me was killing off all the Joanna Callahans so the whole thing would never have happened. It didn't seem like such a bad idea to me now, and I said so.
"No, you don't understand! She's the one that started it! She's..." she looked up at something I couldn't see, a look of pure terror on her face. "Press the button," she said, slamming the lid down. "Save yourself!" Then I heard the most horrible scream: an animal sound that would haunt me forever, through every time and every universe.
I pushed the door open and raised my head in time to see a woman in a silver catsuit drag Joanna Callahan across the floor and through a giant hoop, by means of a grappling hook stuck into her back. As Joanna passed, howling, through the hoop, there was a blinding flash of light. She covered her eyes, shrieking and floundering helplessly. There was a final tug on the hook, and then she stopped screaming.
Joanna Callahan lay dead in a pool of blood at the feet of a woman with long black hair tied into a knot at the top of her head, a taut, muscular body, an unlined face with implanted cheekbones out to there, and the cruellest eyes I have ever seen. Me with plastic surgery, a personal trainer, and an advanced state of psychosis. She smiled at me and licked her lips; I slammed the capsule door shut and carefully pressed what I hoped were the right buttons.
I didn't want to switch universes this time, I wanted to stay in this one. Whatever this me was doing, she had to be stopped.
I opened the capsule just a crack; it was dark. I opened it a little further, and listened.
The digital display inside the capsule read: 29 April 1994, 11:59 p.m., E.S.T. I had gone forward almost six hours. I stepped out of the capsule and examined my surroundings. I was in a large, square room with a bare concrete floor, furnished with a combination of electronic equipment and implements of torture.
The giant hoop leaned against one wall. It was about six and a half feet high, and three inches deep, lined with hundreds of tiny light bulbs. I still had no idea what it was.
I walked to the window and looked down at the twinkling lights of Manhattan. At least I assumed it was Manhattan; I didn't recognise any of the buildings. All I knew was I was very high up - at least ninety floors. I opened the only door in the room and peered down a long, dark hallway lined with doors. No lights on anywhere. It was a Friday night; she'd probably gone out.
I shoved the egg behind something that looked like an Iron Maiden with electrical cabling, and stepped out into the hall. Two Doberman Pinschers raced at me from the shadows, barking and growling. Stay calm, I told myself, dogs can smell fear. And then I remembered: smell. Joanna Hansen's dogs had taken to me because I smelled exactly like her. "Down boys," I said firmly, holding out my hand for them to sniff. They slunk away as if they were terrified.
I stood where I was, listening and waiting. Then I switched on the lights; if those dogs hadn't roused anyone, there was no one around to rouse.
I opened one door after another, peering into a seemingly endless succession of huge, opulently furnished rooms. This Joanna was seriously rich. Then I came to a door that had no visible lock or handle; on the wall beside it was a small glass plate showing the outline of a hand. I pressed my hand flat against it, a little sign flashed "palmprint cleared for access", the door slid silently open, and I stepped into an armoury.
There were guns of every description, hundreds of them, lined up on racks inside huge glass cases. There was every type of sword, machete, axe, knife, and razor, also behind glass. There were stacks of drawers marked "ammo". And, mounted on the wall: the grappling hook, Joanna Callahan's blood still visible on two of its iron claws.
To get into the weapons cases required a voiceprint identification. That was easy, all I had to do was say "open".
I don't know anything about guns, so I just took one that felt fairly light and easy to handle, a smallish rifle. I loaded both the rifle and the handgun I'd stolen from that other Joanna back in the suburbs, and filled my canvas bag with extra ammunition.
I pushed the last door open, at the end of the hall, and felt around in the dark for the light switch. There was a slight humming sound, followed by a "whoosh", before the room came into view.
The walls, floor, and ceiling were velvet black; the only light came from inside the glass display cases scattered around the room. Each contained a moving, three-dimensional figure. They were better than any holograms I had ever seen; there was no angle at which they appeared to lose their definition, they were every bit as convincing from the back as they were from the front. And as I said before, they moved.
I stopped in front of one and watched a man pounding against the glass, his face contorted into a howl of hysteria. I could almost hear his screams, almost believe he was alive. I waved my hand in front of his face; he kept on pounding, his hands raw and bloody, his eyes glazed with desperation, staring at something I couldn't see. An engraved plate at the base of the display read: Trapped. J. Krenski, 1987.
I paused beside another case. Its occupant lunged towards me, holding a knife, and I leapt back, raising my rifle. I shook my head, cursing myself for being so jumpy, but the damn thing was incredibly realistic. The slobbering face pressed against the glass seemed to be leering directly at me. I looked at the title plate: Slasher.
In one display, a child was shooting up. In another, a hideous couple performed continuous sex, in another, an animal gnawed at its own foot, caught in a metal clamp above the title plate: Trapped 2.
There were rows and rows of cases, each more grotesque than the last. Finally I came to the arrangement of six glass cases, titled: Women on the Brink of a Cataclysm: 6 Variations on the Theme of Suicide by Proxy. Joanna Callahan was there, sliding across the floor with a grappling hook in her back. A version of Joanna Hansen was there, twitching at the end of a noose. A platinum blonde Joanna in a waitress uniform clutched at a knife in her chest. A brown-haired Joanna in a business suit appeared to be suffocating. One like me was in the process of being shot repeatedly, and one with black hair and fake cheekbones stood motionless, pointing a sub-machine gun directly at my chest. "Drop the rifle, Joanna," she said.
I dropped it.
"And the bag."
The bag hit the floor. "I don't get it," I said. "What's the point of all this?"
"The point?" She raised both eyebrows. "The point, my dear, is art! I brought you here to be part of my exhibition."
"That was amazingly easy. When Toni first came up with the idea for her time machine, she decided it was extremely likely that at least one or two parallel versions of herself might be working along the same lines, and that at least a few parallel versions of myself might have one or two fundamental character flaws. So we sent out one empty machine, pre-set to go backwards, and it took exactly ten seconds to round up half-a-dozen of you, who'd been bouncing back and forth between your various universes, doing everything from ripping each other off to committing mass murder. And the minute you were all in one room, how you went for each other's throats! It was all Toni and I could do to keep you apart." She threw her head back and laughed. "I'd say every single one of you deserved her place here."
"You don't want me for that piece, though, do you?" I said. "I mean, you've already got one like me; I'd throw the visual balance off."
She shrugged. "You'll look different by the time I'm finished with you. Toni!"
Toni entered the room, pushing the giant hoop on a set of wheels. She had an American flag tattooed across her shaven head.
"What is that thing?" I asked.
"It's a three-dimensional camera," Joanna explained. "It photographs you from all directions at once."
The blinding light I'd seen was the flash going off. "So everything in here is just a photographic image, kind of like a 3-D movie."
"More or less, though we enhance it on a computer."
"So why did you have to kill them? Couldn't you just simulate the whole thing on a computer?"
She snorted in disgust. "That would be cheating."
I leaned against the 95th floor lobby wall, watching Toni set up. There was nothing else I could do with Joanna pointing a machine-gun at me. As she'd already pointed out, there was no point in screaming because there was no one around to hear; this was an office building and no one else lived here but her, because she owned the entire block.
"Okay," Toni said. "It's all ready."
She had the elevator doors propped open. The 3-D hoop camera was wedged on its side inside the shaft, three floors down. The elevator car was stopped one floor above us.
"This is going to be such a brilliant image," Joanna said, motioning me towards the elevator shaft.
"How can you do this to me? I'm you, you stupid bitch! How can you do this to yourself?"
"No, dear," she said, shaking her head. "Only I am me. You are merely a variation on a theme. Now are you going to jump, or am I going to push you?"
I clung to the wall either side of the shaft with all my strength. "You're gonna have to push me."
I heard a horrible cackling laugh. That was Toni. Then I heard at least a dozen gunshots in rapid succession. I turned around and saw a bag lady holding an automatic assault rifle.
It turned out one of the other Joannas had landed in an alley and left her machine unattended for less than a minute. Joanna the bag lady turned out to be just as much a thief as the rest of us - thank God - and much better at staying out of sight, having had a lot more practice. She'd spent most of the last six hours under a stack of towels inside a cupboard, which she told me was a lot more space than she was used to.
We found her machine and the ones the others had arrived in, in a workroom behind the exhibition. They were each quite different - some weren't even egg-shaped at all. We used one of the larger ones to dispose of Joanna and Toni; we sent their bodies three hundred years into the future.
"So what will you do now?" I asked my bag lady self.
"Treat myself to a bath and a change of clothing," she said. "Then a long sleep, in a real bed, and breakfast in the kitchen in the morning. Maybe I'll just stay here permanently and stage an exhibition of my own. I'm a bit of an artist myself, you know. I mean, I am Joanna Krenski, and I seem to be extremely rich." She smiled and nudged me towards one of the eggs, at gunpoint.
I found myself back in the Callahan's pantry, pushing the door of my little padded capsule open just as Joanna Callahan herself was settling down into another egg directly beside me. "Don't do it," I told her. "On behalf of all your possible selves, I beg you not to do this." She ignored me.
I got up and walked through the house. The kitchen was shiny and white, the dining room decorated with watercolour paintings of daisies and the living room walls covered in pastel sketches of guinea pigs and bunny rabbits.
I went upstairs and found one of me sitting on the edge of a narrow twin bed. Bobby was right - her hair was purple. And so was her canvas bag. "She's done it again," I said, "She's stolen your egg. Why are we all so horrible to each other? To ourselves? I don't understand it."
"What did you say?"
"I said she's stolen your egg. Though I can't say I'm surprised. I'm not surprised by anything any of us do any more."
She got up and ran downstairs. "Wait!" I said, running after her. By the time I reached the kitchen she was gone.
I stared at the empty pantry floor for a minute or two and then I sighed. "Well that's it, then," I said.
I went upstairs and put on a cotton dress, a little big around the waist and hips. "Toni!" I said when she arrived, "I'm sorry if I sounded a little strange on the phone..."
I don't check the pantry for eggs any more; if anyone was coming, they'd have been here by now.
Bob's finally getting used to the idea that if he wants a shirt ironed or the house vacuumed, he'll just have to do it himself. And the same goes for sex. I don't feel sorry for him any more; his wife walked out on him more than six months ago, leaving him with a stranger from another universe, and he still hasn't noticed.
The Katie in this world is just too sweet for words: little brown pigtails, knee socks, freckles, and pleated skirts. I preferred the other one.
Bob Junior just turned twenty-eight. He and his wife live a couple of blocks away, and he has a little construction business. He helped me convert the garage into a studio, then he gave me a complete set of tools - including a welding torch - as a "studio warming" present.
My other son, Harold, lives in New York, but comes to visit most weekends. He wants to be my manager; he says he loves what I'm doing, especially the metal tree with the little men hanging from it like fruit. He says he doesn't know where I get my ideas.
I have an appointment with one of the major gallery owners tomorrow. I'm taking my latest piece to show him: a headless Barbie doll stuck inside a fish tank.
Well, it worked the last time.
© Molly Brown 1994, 1997
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