The Color of Paradox
“The Color of Paradox,” by A.M. Dellamonica, is a science fiction story about one of a series of time travelers sent back to the past in order to buy more time for the human race, which in the future is on the verge of extinction.
Like some other stories published on Tor.com, “The Color of Paradox” contains scenes and situations some readers will find upsetting and/or repellent. [—The Editors]
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ellen Datlow.
The last thing they did, before sending me into the past, was shove me to the end of the world.
The Project Mayfly nurse waited as I raised myself onto a wicker table with a surface made of tightly-strung hide, a grid that put me in mind of a tennis racket. The squares of string pressed against the thin fabric of my hospital gown.
As I climbed on, I couldn’t help noticing the drain in the floor. It was a hand’s width away from the letters scratched into the concrete: “16—Hungry.”
There were marks on the wall, too, across from the metal staircase. A timeline, in yellow chalk, running from floor to ceiling, hashed at one-inch intervals. The year 1900 was scrawled at the bottom, the numbers mashed short by the floor. A foot and change upward from that, 1914 and 1916. The nines had a familiar, slightly twisted look to them. They were at once readable and yet not quite perfectly formed. So were the nines in the other chalk digits that followed: 1937 and the current year, 1946.
The nurse dodged the hand I’d put out, just for a last friendly pat, you know. She covered me, toes to chin, with a lead blanket.
“When do you tell me my mission?”
“Willie will send word when you’ve gotten there safe and sound.” The Major’s words came from a speaker in the ceiling. “Good luck, son.”
“Eyes wide, now.” The nurse slid a hand into the seven tons of steel bolted to the ceiling above me, drawing out a pair of rubber cups on a long, noodle-pallid cord. I complied, distorting my view of the chalk timeline on the wall across from me; she popped the cups on my eyes, like contact lenses except they were so thick they braced my eyelids open.
“Bit of discomfort coming,” she said, patting the lead blanket.
Blinded, I felt the vibration of the machine as it lowered from the ceiling, Dr. Frankenstein’s version of an optician’s examining rig. It settled on my body like an automobile laid atop the blanket. I heard clips. The flesh of my rump pressed the rawhide grid below.
“It’s wrong on my nose,” I protested: cold steel was pressing down on my face with bruising force.
“Try to breathe.”
“My nose,” I said again.
All their warnings ran through my mind: If you lied about ever being to Seattle you will die. If there is any metal in your body, you will die.
Who would lie about visiting Seattle?
This is a one-way mission.
Knowing I would survive the press was hardly a comfort.
Seven tons of steel were clamped around me and my nose was going to break, and after telling me to breathe, just breathe, that nurse—she smelled of rosewater, I’ll never forget it—was sliding some kind of leather bit into my mouth. It was enough to make me wish I was at the front, face-to-barrel with one of the new Russo-German repeating rifles.
I heard her retreat to the staircase, locking the lead door. I counted to thirty. What felt like a year passed.
Then I saw the death of the world.
It was hot, but there was no fire. My crushed nose picked up a smell straight out of Dante’s Inferno: charnel and brimstone. I rose above the great American city, above Lake Washington and Puget Sound. Higher, higher.
But something was wrong with the color of the future, seven weeks out. Seattle, below, the sky above, even the air around me . . . it was all splashed with color I’d never seen before. Everything was off the accepted painter’s wheel of red, blue, yellow.
The cries of thousands of living things, dying in agony, merged with my own.
My mind, confronted with the impossible, revolted. Pinned, gagged, and clamped in place, unable to look away, I screamed as the timepress thrust me against the end of everything, as I bounced off that imminent stained future and ricocheted into the past.
A sproing, a sense of strings beneath me popping. I dropped—but struck something soft before I realized I was falling.
It was dark, everything hurt, and I was still screaming.
I fought the howls, eventually compressing them to whimpers, then a voiceless suctioning of air. The cups over my eyes were gone, but I seriously doubted whether I would ever open my eyes again.
. . . color that color that sound that smell . . .
When I did, I saw a square of light above, the doorway at the top of the staircase.
Was I still in the project basement? All the equipment was gone. I lay on a mattress in the middle of the floor, placed where the gurney had been. A bare light bulb hung overhead; the staircase that led up and out was wood, rather than steel, and my chalk timeline, naturally, was gone.
Just within reach was a milk jug full of water. A bucket waited in the corner.
A woman—not the nurse from before—waited at the top of the staircase. She had a blanket in one hand and a pistol in the other.
“How do you feel?” She sounded wary.
I covered my groin with one hand and felt for the bit in my mouth. The handful of leather was almost too much to lift; I was that weak.
I prodded my nose: not quite broken.
What I managed was a thready: “Skinned. I feel skinned.”
She nodded, pocketed the weapon, and brought the sheet, restoring my modesty with a brisk snap of linen. Everything it touched ached, as if bruised.
Vanishing upstairs, she returned with a pillow, a proper blanket, and a tray containing broth, aspirin, and a tiny soda biscuit.
“Keep your hands under the bedclothes,” she ordered, feeding me extremely small sips of the soup.
“Who are you?”
“Constance Wills. Willie.”
“You’re Agent Sixteen?”
“Thought I was a chap?” she said. “The Major loves his little joke.”
The Major had told me they’d pressed Willie in 1937, seven weeks before the first time the world ended. Somehow she’d made it back to 1916 and pushed the devastation off nine years. If not for her, I’d have died at age nine.
She was the first of us to survive the timepress.
“Do whatever Willie says,” they told me. “You’ll be fine.”
It was a bit of a dirty trick to be expecting some war-ragged captain and to find, instead, a girl with cornflower eyes, hair the color of a strawberry roan, and delicate, freckled hands. Her face was stronger than I liked, her gaze more direct. No lipstick, either. Pity. I like a girl who tries.
“I’m—” I began, and she dumped lukewarm soup in my mouth.
“I don’t want to know your name unless you make it.”
With the spoon caught between my teeth, I could hardly tell her how I knew I would survive.
It was days before my body agreed, and conceded to feeling as though I might not, as Willie expected, simply die.
I took what she gave me—pills, pale suggestions of food—and shivered on the mattress. The thing I’d seen raked at my dreams, even though I couldn’t properly recall that awful color, or the exact timbre of that chorus of screams.
I dreamed incomprehensible, awful things: men suckling the intestines of disembowelled soldiers, window glass turning to liquid and forcing itself into the ear canals of soft, white-fleeced sheep, a robed worker running a girl’s body through an industrial steam press.
The dark and quiet of the basement were soothing. The walls were close and plain, offering tight, restful concrete horizons. The crawl to the bucket in the corner was as much as I could manage physically, and as far as I wanted to go.
Willie nursed but otherwise ignored me until I finally got bored enough to ask for a newspaper. She brought me the Post-Intelligencer and there was almost more information in it than I could bear: I threw it aside after two pages of Volstead Act enforcement and reminisces of a snowstorm the previous year.
The next day she brought the paper again and the world was easier to face. That afternoon, I was allowed a little more solid food: two bites of chicken and a mash of turnips.
“The paper,” I said. “It’s current?”
“I’ve just had my appendix out—at home, I mean.”
“They press us down into the precise moment when our younger selves are under anesthetic. Doctor Stefoff’s theory is it’s easier to make the transition that way.”
I ran a finger over a week’s worth of beard. “I’d like to shave.”
“You’re not ready.”
“I wish to be presentable.”
“Nobody cares what you look like.”
I tried to summon a shred of charm. “You should be nicer to me, Willie. I’m here to save the world, remember?”
“You can have a mirror and a razor when you come up to your room.” With that, she vanished upstairs.
That gave me pause. The prospect of climbing that staircase filled me with dread, like a child mandated to visit to a malevolent old relative. Some dying grandfather, furious as his body failed, refusing to know his time was coming. Clawlike hands and the smell of dying . . .
Up in the house was sunshine and fresh air and the inevitability of the end.
It took me another day to muster the nerve. I was rubber-legged and sweating before I was halfway up the staircase.
“See here, old man. This isn’t physical.” To prove it to myself, I marched down to the bottom again, one two, one two, setting a slow but steady pace and swearing I wouldn’t break it. When my feet hit the concrete floor I turned on my heel—about face, good soldier!—and maintained my march to the top.
I was trembling with nausea when I reached the door, but I nevertheless forced myself through.
The door led into a closet, filled with men’s clothes. Beyond it was a plain, old-fashioned and distinctly masculine bedroom, with blue bed covers and uninspired wooden furniture. Even that, for a moment, was almost too much color.
A shaving kit taunted me. The water was fresh, steaming; Willie must have heard me dithering on the stair.
“You can do this,” I told myself.
The face in the mirror was thinner, and the bruising on the bridge of my nose was smeared, on one side, into a black eye. I’ve always been on the pale side; now I looked positively bloodless. My hair had turned a brittle white-blond, except at the roots.
I had been convinced I’d see it—the end, that horrible color—brimming from the sockets of my eyes.
I shaved, slowly, taking care not to cut myself. The sight of blood would have sent me quailing back to my sickbed. Putting on a suit from the closet that just about fit, I listened at the door.
Women’s voices and a mutter of teacups: Willie had company. No matter. She couldn’t keep me from my mission forever.
I found her in the kitchen with an older woman and a sickly looking Negro man, the three of them sharing a breakfast of eggs and bacon. The smell was so rich my stomach turned.
The older woman looked at me, eyebrows raised. “Who’s this fellow?”
“My brother.” Willie swallowed a slimy, soft-boiled egg. “Jules Wills the Third.”
The woman turned out to be a housekeeper and cook. Her name was Mrs. Farmer and she seemed a gem: motherly, warm, efficient, everything a matron should be. The old man, Rufus, was nominally a servant. This polite bit of fiction allowed him to live, despite his race, with three other gents Willie was keeping upstairs. I was given to understand she ran a boarding house for convalescent bachelors.
I endured an interminable stretch of pointless chitchat about the stock market and a recent State of the Union address and whether the carrots at market had been overpriced that day. Finally Rufus caned his way out into the hall and Mrs. Farmer took away the dishes, with their intermingling, overstrong smells.
“I could just about do a cup of tea,” I said. “Be a love, will you?”
Willie affected not to have heard, opening a small journal and paging through the opening leaves.
“Why am I appointed your brother?”
“Because you’re a flirt, and I wish to avoid trouble.”
“You said you’d be nicer to me if I survived.”
“Who says you have?”
That took the wind out of my sails. “My strength is—I am recovering.”
“You might yet run mad and cut your throat,” she said, with no apparent interest. “Or need to be shot.”
“You’re not as cold as all that, are you?”
“Would you like to test me?”
I was too irked to tell her that I'd seen proof I was going to make it. “When do I receive my orders?”
She took up a pen, turned to a blank page in her journal, and spoke as she wrote: “February 7th, 1920. My brother Jules has arrived from England and met with a mishap: he’s been robbed of his luggage and caught a fever. I have been nursing him ’round the clock—”
“Ha!” said I.
“—and it begins to look as though he may pull through. Since I saw him last, six years ago, Julie has grown into a reasonably handsome fellow—”
“He has blue eyes, like mine, and hair so dark it might be taken for black.”
“It’s not dark now.”
“It’ll grow in.” Willie continued to narrate: “He has had his appendix removed in childhood and—” She paused. “Other scars?”
“If you’d nursed me as attentively as you claim, you’d know.”
“The project must know which one you are if they’re to send proper identification.”
Which one you are. It raised the hairs on my arms.
“Shall I be forced to describe your personality?” Withering tone there: whatever she said would be unflattering.
“It’s the bottom of my foot. I stepped on a fishing lure.”
She finished the sentence in silence and then added, “Though dear Julie isn’t out of danger yet—”
“I’m not wild about this pet name you’ve given me.”
“—he is restless and eager to be of use.” She looked across the table. “They’ll send something along presently.”
“Just like that?”
We could press things back, never forward. Willie would complete her girlish diary and shelve it somewhere safe: her notes would wait until they reached the project, twenty-six years on, for the Major to read about my arrival.
“What is it?” Willie said.
“I won’t see 1946 again until I’m in my forties.” The thought was staggering.
She frowned. “Your package will arrive downstairs. When you go, bring up the sheets.”
“Would you have me dust while I’m at it? Arrange some flowers?”
“I’m sure, Julie, that I don’t care what you do.” She jotted one last sentence, snapped the journal shut when I tried to see it, and left me tealess and suddenly chilled in the kitchen.
She told them I was insubordinate. My stomach cramped and I was, all at once, brimming with fury. I had an urge to chase her out of the room, to smash her head against the banister until her blood ran between my knuckles. To lick, drink . . . I touched my tongue to the notch between my clenched index and middle fingers, imagining salt, and saw a flash of color . . .
It passed, leaving me dry-mouthed and appalled at myself.
You may yet run mad.
“Maybe Julie isn’t out of the woods yet,” I conceded, and escaped downstairs.
The basement had a sour smell I associated with an animal’s den—my smell, I realized, from days of sickness—overlaid by lubricated machinery. I gathered the bedding, wadding everything into the top sheet, and walked it up to the room with the wardrobe. The stairs were easier the second time.
Between the sheets and the mattress was a stiff black tarpaulin. I folded that, too, finding the mattress beneath pristine, and carried it up.
Returning once more, I strained to tilt the mattress off the floor. There was no drain there yet. The message scratched into the floor, “16—Hungry,” seemed fainter than it had been, a week ago in the future, when I was climbing aboard the gurney.
I let the mattress fall back into position and paced the room. There was nothing down here but cool air, bare walls, soothing quiet. By my time, there would be a trapdoor under the staircase, access to a lower basement. For now, though, the floor was intact: this was the bottom of the hole.
I had never been monstrous. The flash of bloodlust was tied to what I’d seen, seven weeks into my future, at the end of the world. I’d been infected. Some rot was blooming within my mind or soul.
What could I do but fight it?
I should go out, take in a little air, feel the rain on my face. Or eat—Mrs. Farmer would fix me tea, I’d wager, even if Willie had no idea of proper female behavior. I could go upstairs and meet the convalescents.
Instead I sat on the steps in the blessed dim and quiet, trying to still my thoughts.
After about an hour a satchel appeared in mid-air, at waist-height—the height of the gurney. It was scorched. A scrap of strung hide was burning into its bottom.
It flopped onto the mattress, just as I had, and lay there, smoking. I thought of horse droppings, suddenly, steaming on frosty lawns.
Inside the satchel I found bundles of letters and a paper-wrapped package, tied in string and all neatly labelled, like an odd Christmas parcel. Names: mine, hers, someone named Robert Chambers and Kenneth Smith.
I opened a package with “Jules Wills III” on it, and found a wallet containing thirty dollars in American bills. A small fortune.
The brown paper the wallet came in had been inked with facts and figures I was meant to memorize: my birthday in 1898, Willie’s in 1895, our parents’ names. There were notes outlining a sketchy little cover story about growing up on an estate in the West Dorset countryside, and the circumstances that had brought us to America.
The tale was Willie had married a man who’d brought her here. He’d died in the Great War and so she’d set up the convalescent home. Our parents had sent me out to check on her.
“Is the post in?” Her voice at the top of the stair made me jump. “I smell smoke.”
I coughed, stood, passed it up. Her eyes travelled over the basement—she saw the soot-mark from the bag on her virginal mattress and I realized I wasn’t meant to have brought up the tarpaulin.
“You put the mattress there?” I asked suddenly. “You’d have fallen onto—”
I gestured at the floor and wondered if she’d broken anything when she hit the concrete.
She extracted the bundle with her name on it and passed me a bunch of letters. “From Father,” she said. I could sense she was debating her answer.
“Please, Willie. I don’t mean to be beastly. None of this is what I expected.”
She shook her head. “There was no mattress. How could there be?”
“It’s only a yard, I suppose. Were you hurt?”
“Grady and Biggs broke my fall.”
“Agents fourteen and fifteen. What remained of them, anyway.”
I’d have expected her to leave after that grisly revelation—Willie seemed to love a good exit line—but instead she gave my shoulder an absent pat and started opening her letters. “The brown sheets speak plainly—they’re meant to be burned. The letters we can keep. They don’t say anything revealing.”
“Aren’t they afraid we’ll miss one of the brown sheets—fail to burn it?”
“They don’t last. The ink fades and the paper tatters within a month or two.”
The letters from my false parents ordered me to mind my sister, mind my health, and remember the considerable spiritual benefits of prayer and clean living. In other words: obey my C.O., stay physically fit, and try to avoid going mad.
The note from ‘Father’ was written in the Major’s hand. He wanted me to set up a bank account and asked me to make some modest but specific investments. Cash would be provided for further deposits. There was also an allowance: this much for clothes and kit, that much for expenses as I ‘made myself useful.’
Useful. The letter hinted that I might indulge a bit of a carousing and gambling habit, by way of ingratiating myself with local gossips and crooks. This would be funded as long as I wrote home about whatever they told me.
A license to drink and gamble. There were worse things.
“Mother,” whose handwriting I didn’t recognize, said I should see Willie’s doctor and take iodine pills—these they’d enclosed. I was to refrain from smoking while I recovered.
The final wrapped lump with my name on it felt like a book.
I untied the string and then, in the process of extracting the biography of a reporter I’d long admired, I tore the brown paper in half.
My eyes drifted to the mattress in the middle of the floor and I pictured Willie suddenly: young, sick . . .
(helpless, bleeding, delicious)
. . . and dropped on concrete, onto the corpses of two previous agents. Using something—who knew what?—to scratch those words into the floor.
“16—Hungry.” Begging the future for food, because she was too weak to fetch any for herself.
I shook the image away and held two sides of the page together to see what it was I’d been sent back to do.
Willie looked down, offering an especially masterful performance of her incurious stare. I passed her the torn pages.
She held them up and scanned. “Paperboy with the Seattle Union Record. Name of Peter Rupert, lives near Jackson Street. Ruin, spoil, or if necessary kill.”
“Bloody Peter Rupert.” I waved the biography at her.
“You know him?”
She shook her head. “He wasn’t—in my 1937, he must not have had any significance.”
“Well in my 1937 he’s a bloody hero. Cottoned onto an attack Japan was planning on Hawaii, on the U.S. Fleet. He broke the story and stopped the whole—”
“You have to forget about that,” she said. “It’s going to change. Whatever you remember is already gone. It will all unfold differently after you—”
“Ruin a nine-year-old boy?”
“Or kill him.”
“What kind of a monster are you?”
“If you are so certain that ruining someone is better than killing them outright, you’ve had something of a soft go at life.”
“I’m not killing a child.”
“All right.” She ignored my distress, looking over the book but far off, deep in thought. “If he were disfigured, people mightn’t talk to him. Or if his voice were damaged—did he file dispatches by telephone?”
“Disfigure or cripple a nine-year-old,” I said. “A hero. He reported on the Russian counter-revolution. I dreamed about being like him.”
“No doubt that’s why you were sent. Know thy—”
“I have no intention of doing my target the slightest harm,” I said.
She shrugged, passed the book back, and left me in the basement to fume.
Anger drove me out of the house. I went and set up the bank account and investments, paying lip service to the idea of military obedience. I bought myself a new suit and an umbrella. Everyone looked young and hopeful. They were dressed in clothes that reminded me of my childhood. There were almost no automobiles on the streets: trolleys, carts, and pedestrians were everywhere.
In the basement, at Willie’s, I might still have been in 1946. Now it sank in: I was living in my own past.
Up ahead, just decades away, the world was turning to something far worse than ash. Peter Rupert would do something to bring that day closer.
But it was probably one action of his, wasn’t it? Probably the Japan scoop. One single story of the hundreds he filed.
I found myself a street corner that smelled of washed earth—not of horse, not of smoke or fuel. I stood there, snug under my umbrella, and watched the rain pour down as I formulated a plan.
“What if I got close to him?” I said to Willie that night. “The Project must know more about whatever Peter does to . . .”
“To bring on the Souring?” She sat in a rocking chair in the parlor, knitting in front of the fire, playing at being an ordinary woman.
My mouth went dry. “The—”
“Sorry—that’s what I call it. What we saw.”
I swallowed. “It’s apt.”
“It’s useful,” she said. “I use it in the journals. I’ve cultivated a conceit that losing my husband made me a bit odd.”
“Ramblings of a daft young widow?”
She nodded. “Just in case someone unauthorized gets a look.”
“Whatever Peter does to bring on your Souring,” I said, “it’s bound to be one story. They chose him because he’s key, am I right? Because he’s a simple target?”
“The Project must tell me which story. If he sees me as a friend, an older brother, or even a father figure—his own father died in the flu epidemic—”
She flinched, for some reason.
“It’s why he’s working as a paperboy, to support his mother. In any case, I’ll keep him off that one story.”
“You’re proposing to chum around with him for years?”
“Why not? I’ll make myself useful meanwhile: keep investing money, reporting gossip, maybe help dig out the next basement . . .”
“. . . I’d need someone to explain the engineering to me, obviously. How does one secretly dig a second basement in a house that already exists?”
“I needn’t live here in the house if you don’t want me underfoot.”
She pulled herself upright in her chair, sitting as prim and proper as a schoolteacher. I imagined I heard her sleeve tearing, and thought about running my tongue over the freckles on her arm: how far did they go? She folded her hands, seemed to fight an urge to wring them, and waited for me to run down.
“What is it?”
She said. “The timepress uses a radiant form of energy. It’s what makes us so sick. They told you that, didn’t they?”
“I’m not going to relapse on you. I live, I know it.”
She didn’t smile. “Chances are you will die of cancer within the year.”
“Rufus has survived almost fifteen months, but...”
She meant the sickly Negro man.
“You have no great span of time in which to befriend Peter Rupert. You can’t jolly him along for a decade and hope to break his leg before he leaves for Japan. You—”
I was across the room before I knew it, grabbing at her, tipping the rocking chair. We ended on the floor, my hand wrapped around her jaw, and again that red desire swam up. To smash, to smash, to taste of her blood on my knuckles.
“You’re. Not. Dead,” I snarled. “It’s been years and you’re not dead.”
A little flicker. Fear? I am ashamed to admit I hoped so. I needed to see something beyond pity or contempt in her.
“Go ahead, then,” she said, and I realized my other hand was resting atop—was squeezing—one of her strangely firm breasts.
Trying to buy her life? Well, she’d all but opened her legs now: I gave her blouse a swift tear as my defeated sanity—the despairing, quashed part of me that knew better—protested.
I found: a padded bodice, formed like a woman’s body.
I pushed it aside, exposing her belly...
...and found nothing but scars.
The slices had been pulled up and then stitched tight. Everything below her collarbones was purple and red, twisting lines of hashed-together tissue.
“About a week after I finished my mission.” Her words were distorted by the grip I had on her—she couldn’t really move her jaw. “I woke up with a terrible feeling. It wasn’t physical—I’d never felt so well.”
“Feeling?” I was staring at her torn-up body; I couldn’t look away.
“Panic, pure and simple. I went to a surgeon and paid him to cut away everything that made me a woman.”
I gagged, released her, and pushed myself back, back, until I was almost in the fireplace. I got entangled with her knitting bag and it came with me, my slippers trailing a half-knit Christmas stocking and strands of red and green wool.
Willie sat up. “This city is full of sweet, bright, talented boys, Jules.”
“But the future won’t have anyone, bright or otherwise, unless I fulfill my mission. Is that what you’re saying?”
She struggled to anchor her bodice over the ruin of flesh under her throat. Those empty scoops. Then she hunted on the carpet for the buttons I’d torn off her dress. She got to her feet, righted the chair, and peered out before creeping off into the house, holding her blouse shut.
I disentangled my feet from the red and green yarn, spilling Willie’s journal in the process. Snatching it up, I fled the house.
The Major had recommended a particular neighborhood speakeasy to me and it was there, with a whiskey in front of me, that I opened up the journal.
I suppose I expected to find an account, cleverly couched, of Willie’s earliest days. Or that first mission of hers.
Who did you ruin, spoil, or kill, Willie?
But that first journal was long since filled, I’m sure, filled and locked away, waiting for the project to discover its secrets. This one had only been on the go for a month or so.
It began with a brief account of the death of one of the gents upstairs, and a note to the effect that she was glad he’d got to see the Great Pyramid on ‘his recent business trip to Egypt.’
They had briefed me on that mission: Smitty had interfered with the mail in the Middle East, stealing correspondence and replacing it with false letters to a number of gentlemen in Jerusalem. This had eased tensions there and thereby delayed the onset of the second Great War until 1936.
All the sick men upstairs in the bedrooms. They’re not tenants, they’re time agents. They’ve served their purpose and now . . .
“What’re you doing, Mac?” A drunk nudged me, apparently hoping I’d stand him a round.
“Reading my sister’s diary,” I said, which got a general laugh.
Ruin, spoil, or kill. The thought crept in, despite my resolve to refuse the mission. Peter Rupert, the reporter, had terrible problems with drink.
I paged ahead, past an account of some Boeing engineer and his odd friendship with Rufus. Beyond that was the account of my arrival Willie had written, just days before. I checked that last line, the one I’d believed was her tale-telling about my intransigence.
She had written: “What’s best about him, so far, is that he’s stubborn.”
There was more about the engineer, and an entry saying someone named Valois had written with an address in France and a request that she forward his mail. He was settling down with a girl in Paris, for ‘however long he had.’
She’d got back to me in her final entry: “Julie has survived his first week in America. His spirits are in turmoil. Homesickness, I expect. Nothing out of the ordinary. He’s wonderfully strong. Father expects rather a lot from him, and he is mulling over how to make the family proud.”
I had one more shot of the bathtub whiskey, then paid for a flask to take away.
On the way back, I passed a school. It was late in the day; the children were gone.
On a whim, I went in and wandered the halls, waiting for someone to challenge me. Nobody did; nobody took notice of me at all.
I stepped into a classroom and found myself contemplating a long ruler and a piece of chalk. The smell of the chalk was like the bare cement walls of the project basement: dust and bone, calm, a scent of earth and eternity.
“Are you here to fill in for our art teacher?"
I turned. The man who’d addressed me was cut from the same pattern as my father: round, pink, affable. He had green eyes, emerald chips, bright and long of lash. His wedding ring was plain and a little too tight for his finger; the valise he clutched was well-worn.
“Veteran?” he said, and I nodded.
“There aren’t enough thanks in all the world, sir, for what you’ve done.”
“I accept pound notes,” I said.
His laugh was like Dad’s, too, a boom that came from the soles of his feet. “Principal’s at the end of the hall, on the left.”
I found Willie tucking her heavy tarpaulin back into place on the mattress in the basement. There was an ugly bruise around her mouth, but when she saw me, her lips twitched. Trying not to laugh?
“Sorry.” What else could I say?
I lifted the edge of the mattress so she could smooth the tarpaulin under. “What are you doing?”
“Preparing for the next one.” She handed me the sheet.
That should have been my cue to tell her it wouldn’t be necessary to send another man, that I’d take on the mission. But there would be someone else, wouldn’t there?
“Have you got my book, Julie?”
I passed the journal to her. “Lots about Boeing.”
“The airfield’s one reason we’re in Washington. A hint to an engineer here, a line on a blueprint there . . . the planes make an immense difference to how it all plays out.”
“Is that what you did—help make planes?”
“Rufus is the engineer,” she said. “Who would take plane-building notes from a dotty old widow?”
“So your mission: was it ‘ruin, spoil, or kill’ too?”
“Well.” Her voice was dry. “We are siblings.”
I took that as a yes.
She said: “You’ve thought it out, haven’t you?”
I showed her the flask. “Peter Rupert has a compulsion. If I start him drinking early, especially given the poisons they’re putting in alcohol right now . . .”
Willie nodded. “Might be kinder to shoot him.”
“Kinder for him? Or me?”
“You, of course.”
If he became a drunk as a youth, he might yet pull a less illustrious life together later. “It shouldn’t be easy.”
“That’s simply masochism.”
“You’re afraid it won’t work? That I’ll die before he’s—”
She gestured at the mattress. Meaning: if I failed, someone else would come and finish the job.
I took up my ruler and walked to the wall, drawing the line I’d seen there. Working slowly, I made notches at one-inch intervals, and wrote 1900, 1914, and 1916 at the appropriate heights. They looked just as I’d remembered. There’s an odd curl to my nines I never managed, quite, to amend.
I counted forward to 1937, the year they pressed Willie, and wrote an encircled “1” beside it.
“The first Souring?” she said.
“Yes.” I counted forward through the nine years she’d bought us, to my own time, and noted the second.
“They’re learning more with every press,” she said. “Rufus has been doing quite well.”
I nodded, but I wasn’t paying attention. The scent of the chalk had caught me again, along with the odd little miracle of the bright yellow line it made, here on the rough grey wall, and the residue left on my hand. It was the same feeling I’d had when talking to the old teacher, an almost painful awareness of . . . was it beauty?
“Sorry, what?” I said.
She wore, to my shock, a smile. “One of the effects of having been—what was your word? —skinned,” she said. “Little things shine out like that. It’s never the things that are meant to be attractive, I find, but—”
I gave in to the urge to put the chalk under my nose, like a cigar, and inhale. “It’s just that it’s so different. Different from the end.”
“Yes. Solid, somehow. Real. Food’s better too, once you can handle it.”
“Tonight, maybe,” I said, pocketing the chalk and leaving the ruler leaned up against the short stretch of the twentieth century, the scratched out record of the precious years we’d bought so far. “So, Willie, do you want to know my name yet?”
“When you’ve lived, Julie,” she said, and she meant something different by it this time. And what did it matter? I bent to help her with the sheet, smoothing out the mattress to catch the next wretched one of us, whenever he or she might land.
“The Color of Paradox” copyright © 2014 by A.M. Dellamonica
Art copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey Alan Love