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But the best evidence we have that time travel is not possible, and never will be, is that we have not been invaded by hordes of tourists from the future.
—Stephen Hawking, “The Future of the Universe”
I remember now how lonely I was when I met Cross. I never let anyone know about it, because being alone back then didn’t make me quite so unhappy. Besides, I was just a kid. I thought it was my own fault.
It looked like I had friends. In 1962, I was on the swim team and got elected Assistant Patrol Leader of the Wolf Patrol in Boy Scout Troop 7. When sides got chosen for kickball at recess, I was usually the fourth or fifth pick. I wasn’t the best student in the sixth grade of John Jay Elementary School—that was Betty Garolli. But I was smart and the other kids made me feel bad about it. So I stopped raising my hand when I knew the answer and I watched my vocabulary. I remember I said albeit once in class and they teased me for weeks. Packs of girls would come up to me on the playground. “Oh Ray,” they’d call and when I turned around they’d scream, “All beat it!” and run away, choking with laughter.
It wasn’t that I wanted to be popular or anything. All I really wanted was a friend, one friend, a friend I didn’t have to hide anything from. Then came Cross, and that was the end of that.
One of the problems was that we lived so far away from everything. Back then, Westchester County wasn’t so suburban. Our house was deep in the woods in tiny Willoughby, New York, at the dead end of Cobb’s Hill Road. In the winter, we could see Long Island Sound, a silver needle on the horizon pointing toward the city. But school was a half hour drive away and the nearest kid lived in Ward’s Hollow, three miles down the road, and he was a dumb fourth-grader.
So I didn’t have any real friends. Instead, I had science fiction. Mom used to complain that I was obsessed. I watched Superman reruns every day after school. On Friday nights Dad used to let me stay up for Twilight Zone, but that fall CBS had temporarily cancelled it. It came back in January after everything happened, but was never quite the same. On Saturdays, I watched old sci-fi movies on Adventure Theater. My favorites were Forbidden Planet and The Day The Earth Stood Still. I think it was because of the robots. I decided that when I grew up and it was the future, I was going to buy one, so I wouldn’t have to be alone anymore.
On Monday mornings I’d get my weekly allowance—a quarter. Usually I’d get off the bus that same afternoon down in Ward’s Hollow so I could go to Village Variety. Twenty five cents bought two comics and a pack of red licorice. I especially loved DC’s Green Lantern, Marvel’s Fantastic Four and Incredible Hulk, but I’d buy almost any superhero. I read all the science fiction books in the library twice, even though Mom kept nagging me to try different things. But what I loved best of all was Galaxy magazine. Dad had a subscription and when he was done reading them he would slip them to me. Mom didn’t approve. I always used to read them up in the attic or out in the lean-to I’d lashed together in the woods. Afterwards I’d store them under my bunk in the bomb shelter. I knew that after the nuclear war, there would be no TV or radio or anything and I’d need something to keep me busy when I wasn’t fighting mutants.
I was too young in 1962 to understand about Mom’s drinking. I could see that she got bright and wobbly at night, but she was always up in the morning to make me a hot breakfast before school. And she would have graham crackers and peanut butter waiting when I came home—sometimes cinnamon toast. Dad said I shouldn’t ask Mom for rides after five because she got so tired keeping house for us. He sold Andersen windows and was away a lot, so I was pretty much stranded most of the time. But he always made a point of being home on the first Tuesday of the month, so he could take me to the Scout meeting at 7:30.
No, looking back on it, I can’t really say that I had an unhappy childhood—until I met Cross.
I remember it was a warm Saturday afternoon in October. The leaves covering the ground were still crisp and their scent spiced the air. I was in the lean-to I’d built that spring, mostly to practice the square and diagonal lashings I needed for Scouts. I was reading Galaxy. I even remember the story: “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” by Cordwainer Smith. The squirrels must have been chittering for some time, but I was too engrossed by Lord Jestocost’s problems to notice. Then I heard a faint crunch, not ten feet away. I froze, listening. Crunch, crunch . . . then silence. It could’ve been a dog, except that dogs didn’t usually slink through the woods. I was hoping it might be a deer—I’d never seen deer in Willoughby before, although I’d heard hunters shooting. I scooted silently across the dirt floor and peered between the dead saplings.
At first I couldn’t see anything, which was odd. The woods weren’t all that thick and the leaves had long since dropped from the understory brush. I wondered if I had imagined the sounds; it wouldn’t have been the first time. Then I heard a twig snap, maybe a foot away. The wall shivered as if something had brushed against it, but there was nothing there. Nothing. I might have screamed then, except my throat started to close. I heard whatever it was skulk to the front of the lean-to. I watched in horror as an unseen weight pressed an acorn into the soft earth and then I scrambled back into the farthest corner. That’s when I noticed that, when I wasn’t looking directly at it, the air where the invisible thing should have been shimmered like a mirage. The lashings that held the frame creaked, as if it were bending over to see what it had caught, getting ready to drag me, squealing, out into the sun and . . . .
“Oh, fuck,” it said in a high, panicky voice and then it thrashed away into the woods.
In that moment I was transformed—and I suppose that history too was forever changed. I had somehow scared the thing off, twelve-year-old scrawny me! But more important was what it had said. Certainly I was well aware of the existence of the word fuck before then, but I had never dared use it myself, nor do I remember hearing it spoken by an adult. A spaz like the Murphy kid might say it under his breath, but he hardly counted. I’d always thought of it as language’s atomic bomb; used properly the word should make brains shrivel, eardrums explode. But when the invisible thing said fuck and then ran away, it betrayed a vulnerability that made me reckless and more than a little stupid.
“Hey, stop!” I took off in pursuit.
I didn’t have any trouble chasing it. The thing was no Davy Crockett; it was noisy and clumsy and slow. I could see a flickery outline as it lumbered along. I closed to within twenty feet and then had to hold back or I would’ve caught up to it. I had no idea what to do next. We blundered on in slower and slower motion until finally I just stopped.
“W-Wait,” I called. “W-What do you want?” I put my hands on my waist and bent over like I was trying to catch my breath, although I didn’t need to.
The thing stopped too but didn’t reply. Instead it sucked air in wheezy, ragged hooofs. It was harder to see, now that it was standing still, but I think it must have turned toward me.
“Are you okay?” I said.
“You are a child.” It spoke with an odd, chirping kind of accent. Child was Ch-eye-eld.
“I’m in the sixth grade.” I straightened, spread my hands in front of me to show that I wasn’t a threat. “What’s your name?” It didn’t answer. I took a step toward it and waited. Still nothing, but at least it didn’t bolt. “I’m Ray Beaumont,” I said finally. “I live over there.” I pointed. “How come I can’t see you?”
“What is the date?” It said da-ate-eh.
For a moment I thought it meant data. Data? I puzzled over an answer. I didn’t want it thinking I was just a stupid little kid. “I don’t know,” I said cautiously. “October twentieth?”
The thing considered this, then asked a question that took my breath away. “And what is the year?”
“Oh jeez,” I said. At that point I wouldn’t have been surprised if Rod Serling himself had popped out from behind a tree and started addressing the unseen TV audience. Which might have included me, except this was really happening. “Do you know what you just . . . what it means when . . . ?”
“What, what?” Its voice rose in alarm.
“You’re invisible and you don’t know what year it is? Everyone knows what year it is. Are you . . . you’re not from here.”
“Yes, yes, I am. 1962, of course. This is 1962.” It paused. “And I am not invisible.” It squeezed about eight syllables into invisible. I heard a sound like paper ripping. “This is only camel.” Or at least, that’s what I thought it said.
“No, camo.” The air in front of me crinkled and slid away from a dark face. “You have not heard of camouflage?”
“Oh sure, camo.”
I suppose the thing meant to reassure me by showing itself, but the effect was just the opposite. Yes, it had two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. It stripped off the camouflage to reveal a neatly-pressed gray three-piece business suit, a white shirt and a red and blue striped tie. At night, on a crowded street in Manhattan, I might’ve passed it right by—Dad had taught me not to stare at the kooks in the city. But in the afternoon light, I could see all the things wrong with its disguise. The hair, for example. Not exactly a crewcut, it was more of a stubble, like Mr. Rudowski’s chin when he was growing his beard. The thing was way too thin, its skin was shiny, its fingers too long and its face—it looked like one of those Barbie dolls.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” I said.
It started. “There is something wrong?”
I cocked my head to one side. “I think maybe it’s your eyes. They’re too big or something. Are you wearing makeup?”
“I am naturally male.” It—he bristled as he stepped out of the camouflage suit. “Eyes do not have gender.”
“If you say so.” I could see he was going to need help getting around, only he didn’t seem to know it. I was hoping he’d reveal himself, brief me on the mission. I even had an idea how we could contact President Kennedy or whoever he needed to meet with. Mr. Newell, the Scoutmaster, used to be a colonel in the Army—he would know some general who could call the Pentagon. “What’s your name?” I said.
He draped the suit over his arm. “Cross.”
I waited for the rest of it as he folded the suit in half. “Just Cross?” I said.
“My given name is Chitmansing.” He warbled it like he was calling birds.
“That’s okay,” I said. “Let’s just make it Mr. Cross.”
“As you wish, Mr. Beaumont.” He folded the suit again, again and again.
He continued to fold it.
“How do you do that? Can I see?”
He handed it over. The camo suit was more impossible than it had been when it was invisible. He had reduced it to a six-inch square card, as thin and flexible as the queen of spades. I folded it in half myself. The two sides seemed to meld together; it would’ve fit into my wallet perfectly. I wondered if Cross knew how close I was to running off with his amazing gizmo. He’d never catch me. I could see flashes of my brilliant career as the invisible superhero. Tales to Confound presents: the origin of Camo Kid! I turned the card over and over, trying to figure out how to unfold it again. There was no seam, no latch. How could I use it if I couldn’t open it? “Neat,” I said. Reluctantly, I gave the card back to him.
Besides, real superheroes didn’t steal their powers.
I watched Cross slip the card into his vest pocket. I wasn’t scared of him. What scared me was that at any minute he might walk out of my life. I had to find a way to tell him I was on his side, whatever that was.
“So you live around here, Mr. Cross?”
“I am from the island of Mauritius.”
“It is in the Indian Ocean, Mr. Beaumont, near Madagascar.”
I knew where Madagascar was from playing Risk, so I told him that but then I couldn’t think of what else to say. Finally, I had to blurt out something—anything—to fill the silence. “It’s nice here. Real quiet, you know. Private.”
“Yes, I had not expected to meet anyone.” He, too, seemed at a loss. “I have business in New York City on the twenty-sixth of October.”
“New York, that’s a ways away.”
“Is it? How far would you say?”
“Fifty miles. Sixty, maybe. You have a car?”
“No, I do not drive, Mr. Beaumont. I am to take the train.”
The nearest train station was New Canaan, Connecticut. I could’ve hiked it in maybe half a day. It would be dark in a couple of hours. “If your business isn’t until the twenty-sixth, you’ll need a place to stay.”
“The plan is to take rooms at a hotel in Manhattan.”
“That costs money.”
He opened a wallet and showed me a wad of crisp new bills. For a minute I thought they must be counterfeit; I hadn’t realized that Ben Franklin’s picture was on money. Cross was giving me the goofiest grin. I just knew they’d eat him alive in New York and spit out the bones.
“Are you sure you want to stay in a hotel?” I said.
He frowned. “Why would I not?”
“Look, you need a friend, Mr. Cross. Things are different here than . . . than on your island. Sometimes people do, you know, bad stuff. Especially in the city.”
He nodded and put his wallet away. “I am aware of the dangers, Mr. Beaumont. I have trained not to draw attention to myself. I have the proper equipment.” He tapped the pocket where the camo was.
I didn’t point out to him that all his training and equipment hadn’t kept him from being caught out by a twelve-year-old. “Sure, okay. It’s just . . . Look, I have a place for you to stay, if you want. No one will know.”
“Your parents, Mr. Beaumont . . . .”
“My dad’s in Massachusetts until next Friday. He travels; he’s in the window business. And my mom won’t know.”
“How can she not know that you have invited a stranger into your house?”
“Not the house,” I said. “My dad built us a bomb shelter. You’ll be safe there, Mr. Cross. It’s the safest place I know.”
I remember how Cross seemed to lose interest in me, his mission and the entire twentieth century the moment he entered the shelter. He sat around all of Sunday, dodging my attempts to draw him out. He seemed distracted, like he was listening to a conversation I couldn’t hear. When he wouldn’t talk, we played games. At first it was cards: Gin and Crazy Eights, mostly. In the afternoon, I went back to the house and brought over checkers and Monopoly. Despite the fact that he did not seem to be paying much attention, he beat me like a drum. Not one game was even close. But that wasn’t what bothered me. I believed that this man had come from the future, and here I was building hotels on Baltic Avenue!
Monday was a school day. I thought Cross would object to my plan of locking him in and taking both my key and Mom’s key with me, but he never said a word. I told him that it was the only way I could be sure that Mom didn’t catch him by surprise. Actually, I doubted she’d come all the way out to the shelter. She’d stayed away after Dad gave her that first tour; she had about as much use for nuclear war as she had for science fiction. Still, I had no idea what she did during the day while I was gone. I couldn’t take chances. Besides, it was a good way to make sure that Cross didn’t skin out on me.
Dad had built the shelter instead of taking a vacation in 1960, the year Kennedy beat Nixon. It was buried about a hundred and fifty feet from the house. Nothing special—just a little cellar without anything built on top of it. The entrance was a steel bulkhead that led down five steps to another steel door. The inside was cramped; there were a couple of cots, a sink and a toilet. Almost half of the space was filled with supplies and equipment. There were no windows and it always smelled a little musty, but I loved going down there to pretend the bombs were falling.
When I opened the shelter door after school on that Monday, Cross lay just as I had left him the night before, sprawled across the big cot, staring at nothing. I remember being a little worried; I thought he might be sick. I stood beside him and still he didn’t acknowledge my presence.
“Are you all right, Mr. Cross?” I said. “I bought Risk.” I set it next to him on the bed and nudged him with the corner of the box to wake him up. “Did you eat?”
He sat up, took the cover off the game and started reading the rules. “President Kennedy will address the nation,” he said, “this evening at seven o’clock.”
For a moment, I thought he had made a slip. “How do you know that?”
“The announcement came last night.” I realized that his pronunciation had improved a lot; announcement had only three syllables. “I have been studying the radio.”
I walked over to the radio on the shelf next to the sink. Dad said we were supposed to leave it unplugged—something about the bombs making a power surge. It was a brand new solid-state, multi-band Heathkit that I’d helped him build. When I pressed the on button, women immediately started singing about shopping: Where the values go up, up, up! And the prices go down, down, down! I turned it off again.
“Do me a favor, okay?” I said. “Next time when you’re done would you please unplug this? I could get in trouble if you don’t.” I stooped to yank the plug.
When I stood up, he was holding a sheet of paper. “I will need some things tomorrow, Mr. Beaumont. I would be grateful if you could assist me.”
I glanced at the list without comprehension. He must have typed it, only there was no typewriter in the shelter.
- One General Electric transistor radio with earplug
- One General Electric replacement earplug
- Two Eveready Heavy Duty nine volt batteries
- One New York Times, Tuesday, October 23
- Rand McNally map of New York City and vicinity
To receive in change:
- Five dollars in coins
- Twenty nickels
- Ten dimes
- Twelve quarters
When I looked up, I could feel the change in him. His gaze was electric; it seemed to crackle down my nerves. I could tell that what I did next would matter very much. “I don’t get it,” I said.
“There are inaccuracies?”
I tried to stall. “Look, you’ll pay almost double if we buy a transistor radio at Ward’s Hollow. I’ll have to buy it at Village Variety. Wait a couple of days—we can get one much cheaper down in Stamford.”
“My need is immediate.” He extended his hand and tucked something into the pocket of my shirt. “I am assured this will cover the expense.”
I was afraid to look, even though I knew what it was. He’d given me a hundred dollar bill. I tried to thrust it back at him but he stepped away and it spun to the floor between us. “I can’t spend that.”
“You must read your own money, Mr. Beaumont.” He picked the bill up and brought it into the light of the bare bulb on the ceiling. “This note is legal tender for all debts public and private.”
“No, no, you don’t understand. A kid like me doesn’t walk into Village Variety with a hundred bucks. Mr. Rudowski will call my mom!”
“If it is inconvenient for you, I will secure the items myself.” He offered me the money again.
If I didn’t agree, he’d leave and probably never come back. I was getting mad at him. Everything would be so much easier if only he’d admit what we both knew about who he was. Then I could do whatever he wanted with a clear conscience. Instead he was keeping all the wrong secrets and acting really weird. It made me feet dirty, like I was helping a pervert. “What’s going on,” I said.
“I do not know how to respond, Mr. Beaumont. You have the list. Read it now and tell me please with which item you have a problem.”
I snatched the hundred dollars from him and jammed it into my pants pocket. “Why don’t you trust me?”
He stiffened as if I had hit him.
“I let you stay here. I didn’t tell anyone. You have to give me something, Mr. Cross.”
“Well then . . . ” He looked uncomfortable. “I would ask you to keep the change.”
“Oh jeez, thanks.” I snorted in disgust. “Okay, okay, I’ll buy this stuff right after school tomorrow.”
With that, he seemed to lose interest again. When we opened the Risk board, he showed me where his island was, except it wasn’t there because it was too small. We played three games and he crushed me every time. I remember at the end of the last game, watching in disbelief as he finished building a wall of invading armies along the shores of North Africa. South America, my last continent, was doomed. “Looks like you win again,” I said. I traded in the last of my cards for new armies and launched a final, useless counter-attack. When I was done, he studied the board for a moment.
“I think Risk is not a proper simulation, Mr. Beaumont. We should both lose for fighting such a war.”
“That’s crazy,” I said. “Both sides can’t lose.”
“Yet they can,” he said. “It sometimes happens that the victors envy the dead.”
That night was the first time I can remember being bothered by Mom talking back to the TV. I used to talk to the TV too. When Buffalo Bob asked what time it was, I would screech It’s Howdy Doody Time just like every other kid in America.
“My fellow citizens,” said President Kennedy, “let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out.” I thought the president looked tired, like Mr. Newell on the third day of a campout. “No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred.”
“Oh my god,” Mom screamed at him. “You’re going to kill us all!”
Despite the fact that it was close to her bedtime and she was shouting at the President of the United States, Mom looked great. She was wearing a shiny black dress and a string of pearls. She always got dressed up at night, whether Dad was home or not. I suppose most kids don’t notice how their mothers look, but everyone always said how beautiful Mom was. And since Dad thought so too, I went along with it—as long as she didn’t open her mouth. The problem was that a lot of the time, Mom didn’t make any sense. When she embarrassed me, it didn’t matter how pretty she was. I just wanted to crawl behind the couch.
As she leaned toward the television, the martini in her glass came close to slopping over the edge.
President Kennedy stayed calm. “The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are—but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world. The cost of freedom is always high—but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.”
“Shut up! You foolish man, stop this.” She shot out of her chair and then some of her drink did spill. “Oh, damn!”
“Take it easy, Mom.”
“Don’t you understand?” She put the glass down and tore a Kleenex from the box on the end table. “He wants to start World War III!” She dabbed at the front of her dress and the phone rang.
I said, “Mom, nobody wants World War III.”
She ignored me, brushed by and picked up the phone on the third ring.
“Oh thank God,” she said. I could tell from the sound of her voice that it was Dad. “You heard him then?” She bit her lip as she listened to him. “Yes, but . . . .”
Watching her face made me sorry I was in the sixth grade. Better to be a stupid little kid again, who thought grownups knew everything. I wondered whether Cross had heard the speech.
“No, I can’t, Dave. No.” She covered the phone with her hand. “Raymie, turn off that TV!”
I hated it when she called me Raymie, so I only turned the sound down.
“You have to come home now, Dave. No, you listen to me. Can’t you see, the man’s obsessed? Just because he has a grudge against Castro doesn’t mean he’s allowed to . . . .”
With the sound off, Chet Huntley looked as if he were speaking at his own funeral.
“I am not going in there without you.”
I think Dad must have been shouting because Mom held the receiver away from her ear.
She waited for him to calm down and said, “And neither is Raymie. He’ll stay with me.”
“Let me talk to him,” I said. I bounced off the couch. The look she gave me stopped me dead.
“What for?” she said to Dad. “No, we are going to finish this conversation, David, do you hear me?”
She listened for a moment. “Okay, all right, but don’t you dare hang up.” She waved me over and slapped the phone into my hand as if I had put the missiles in Cuba. She stalked to the kitchen.
I needed a grownup so bad that I almost cried when I heard Dad’s voice. “Ray,” he said, “your mother is pretty upset.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I want to come home—I will come home—but I can’t just yet. If I just up and leave and this blows over, I’ll get fired.”
“But, Dad . . . .”
“You’re in charge until I get there. Understand, son? If the time comes, everything is up to you.”
“Yes, sir,” I whispered. I’d heard what he didn’t say—it wasn’t up to her.
“I want you to go out to the shelter tonight. Wait until she goes to sleep. Top off the water drums. Get all the gas out of the garage and store it next to the generator. But here’s the most important thing. You know the sacks of rice? Drag them off to one side, the pallet too. There’s a hatch underneath, the key to the airlock door unlocks it. You’ve got two new guns and plenty of ammunition. The revolver is a .357 Magnum. You be careful with that, Ray, it can blow a hole in a car but it’s hard to aim. The double-barreled shotgun is easy to aim but you have to be close to do any harm. And I want you to bring down the Gamemaster from my closet and the .38 from my dresser drawer.” He had been talking as if there would be no tomorrow; he paused then to catch his breath. “Now, this is all just in case, okay? I just want you to know.”
I had never been so scared in my life.
I should have told him about Cross then, but Mom weaved into the room. “Got it, Dad,” I said. “Here she is.”
Mom smiled at me. It was a lopsided smile that was trying to be brave but wasn’t doing a very good job of it. She had a new glass and it was full. She held out her hand for the phone and I gave it to her.
I remember waiting until almost ten o’clock that night, reading under the covers with a flashlight. The Fantastic Four invaded Latveria to defeat Doctor Doom; Superman tricked Mr. Mxyzptlk into saying his name backwards once again. When I opened the door to my parents’ bedroom, I could hear Mom snoring. It spooked me; I hadn’t realized that women did that. I thought about sneaking in to get the guns, but decided to take care of them tomorrow.
I stole out to the shelter, turned my key in the lock and pulled on the bulkhead door. It didn’t move. That didn’t make any sense, so I gave it a hard yank. The steel door rattled terribly but did not swing away. The air had turned frosty and the sound carried in the cold. I held my breath, listening to my blood pound. The house stayed dark, the shelter quiet as stones. After a few moments, I tried one last time before I admitted to myself what had happened.
Cross had bolted the door shut from the inside.
I went back to my room, but couldn’t sleep. I kept going to the window to watch the sky over New York, waiting for a flash of killing light. I was all but convinced that the city would burn that very night in thermonuclear fire and that mom and I would die horrible deaths soon after, pounding on the unyielding steel doors of our shelter. Dad had left me in charge and I had let him down.
I didn’t understand why Cross had locked us out. If he knew that a nuclear war was about to start, he might want our shelter all to himself. But that made him a monster and I still didn’t see him as a monster. I tried to tell myself that he’d been asleep and couldn’t hear me at the door—but that couldn’t be right. What if he’d come to prevent the war? He’d said he had business in the city on Thursday; he could be doing something really, really futuristic in there that he couldn’t let me see. Or else he was having problems. Maybe our twentieth century germs had got to him, like they killed H. G. Wells’s Martians.
I must have teased a hundred different ideas apart that night, in between uneasy trips to the window and glimpses at the clock. The last time I remember seeing was 4:16. I tried to stay up to face the end, but I couldn’t.
I wasn’t dead when I woke up the next morning, so I had to go to school. Mom had Cream of Wheat all ready when I dragged myself to the table. Although she was all bright and bubbly, I could feel her giving me the mother’s eye when I wasn’t looking. She always knew when something was wrong. I tried not to show her anything. There was no time to sneak out to the shelter; I barely had time to finish eating before she bundled me off to the bus.
Right after the morning bell, Miss Toohey told us to open The Story of New York State to Chapter Seven, Resources and Products and read to ourselves. Then she left the room. We looked at each other in amazement. I heard Bobby Coniff whisper something. It was probably dirty; a few kids snickered. Chapter Seven started with a map of product symbols. Two teeny little cows grazed near Binghamton. Rochester was cog and a pair of glasses. Elmira was an adding machine, Oswego an apple. There was a lightning bolt over Niagara Falls. Dad had promised to take us there someday. I had the sick feeling that we’d never get the chance. Miss Toohey looked pale when she came back, but that didn’t stop her from giving us a spelling test. I got a ninety-five. The word I spelled wrong was enigma. The hot lunch was American Chop Suey, a roll, a salad and a bowl of butterscotch pudding. In the afternoon we did decimals.
Nobody said anything about the end of the world.
I decided to get off the bus in Ward’s Hollow, buy the stuff Cross wanted and pretend I didn’t know he had locked the shelter door last night. If he said something about it, I’d act surprised. If he didn’t . . . I didn’t know what I’d do then.
Village Variety was next to Warren’s Esso and across the street from the Post Office. It had once been two different stores located in the same building, but then Mr. Rudowski had bought the building and knocked down the dividing wall. On the fun side were pens and pencil and paper and greeting cards and magazines and comics and paperbacks and candy. The other side was all boring hardware and small appliances.
Mr. Rudowski was on the phone when I came in, but then he was always on the phone when he worked. He could sell you a hammer or a pack of baseball cards, tell you a joke, ask about your family, complain about the weather and still keep the guy on the other end of the line happy. This time though, when he saw me come in, he turned away, wrapping the phone cord across his shoulder.
I went through the store quickly and found everything Cross had wanted. I had to blow dust off the transistor radio box but the batteries looked fresh. There was only one New York Times left; the headlines were so big they were scary.
US IMPOSES ARMS BLOCKADE ON CUBA ON FINDING OF OFFENSIVE MISSILE SITES; KENNEDY READY FOR SOVIET SHOWDOWN
Ships Must Stop President Grave Prepared To Risk War.
I set my purchases on the counter in front of Mr. Rudowski. He cocked his head to one side, trapping the telephone receiver against his shoulder, and rang me up. The paper was on the bottom of the pile.
“Since when do you read the Times, Ray?” Mr. Rudowski punched it into the cash register and hit total. “I just got the new Fantastic Four.” The cash drawer popped open.
“Maybe tomorrow,” I said.
“All right then. It comes to twelve dollars and forty-seven cents.”
I gave him the hundred dollar bill.
“What is this, Ray?” He stared at it and then at me.
I had my story all ready. “It was a birthday gift from my grandma in Detroit. She said I could spend it on whatever I wanted so I decided to treat myself but I’m going to put the rest in the bank.”
“You’re buying a radio? From me?”
“Well, you know. I thought maybe I should have one with me with all this stuff going on.”
He didn’t say anything for a moment. He just pulled a paper bag from under the counter and put my things into it. His shoulders were hunched; I thought maybe he felt guilty about overcharging for the radio. “You should be listening to music, Ray,” he said quietly. “You like Elvis? All kids like Elvis. Or maybe that colored, the one who does the Twist?”
“They’re all right, I guess.”
“You’re too young to be worrying about the news. You hear me? Those politicians . . . .” He shook his head. “It’s going to be okay, Ray. You heard it from me.”
“Sure, Mr. Rudowski. I was wondering, could I get five dollars in change?”
I could feel him watching me as I stuffed it all into my book bag. I was certain he’d call my mom, but he never did. Home was three miles up Cobb’s Hill. I did it in forty minutes, a record.
I remember I started running when I saw the flashing lights. The police car had left skid marks in the gravel on our driveway.
“Where were you?” Mom burst out of the house as I came across the lawn. “Oh, my God, Raymie, I was worried sick.” She caught me up in her arms.
“I got off the bus in Ward’s Hollow.” She was about to smother me; I squirmed free. “What happened?”
“This the boy, ma’am?” The state trooper had taken his time catching up to her. He had almost the same hat as Scoutmaster Newell.
“Yes, yes! Oh, thank God, officer!”
The trooper patted me on the head like I was a lost dog. “You had your mom worried, Ray.”
“Raymie, you should’ve told me.”
“Somebody tell me what happened!” I said.
A second trooper came from behind the house. We watched him approach. “No sign of any intruder.” He looked bored: I wanted to scream.
“Intruder?” I said.
“He broke into the shelter,” said Mom. “He knew my name.”
“There was no sign of forcible entry,” said the second trooper. I saw him exchange a glance with his partner. “Nothing disturbed that I could see.”
“He didn’t have time,” Mom said. “When I found him in the shelter, I ran back to the house and got your father’s gun from the bedroom.”
The thought of Mom with the .38 scared me. I had my Shooting merit badge, but she didn’t know a hammer from a trigger. “You didn’t shoot him?”
“No.” She shook her head. “He had plenty of time to leave but he was still there when I came back. That’s when he said my name.”
I had never been so mad at her before. “You never go out to the shelter.”
She had that puzzled look she always gets at night. “I couldn’t find my key. I had to use the one your father leaves over the breezeway door.”
“What did he say again, ma’am? The intruder.”
“He said, ‘Mrs. Beaumont, I present no danger to you.’ And I said, ‘Who are you?’ And then he came toward me and I thought he said ‘Margaret,’ and I started firing.”
“You did shoot him!”
Both troopers must have heard the panic in my voice. The first one said, “You know something about this man, Ray?”
“No, I-I was at school all day and then I stopped at Rudowski’s . . . .” I could feel my eyes burning. I was so embarrassed; I knew I was about to cry in front of them.
Mom acted annoyed that the troopers had stopped paying attention to her. “I shot at him. Three, four times, I don’t know. I must have missed, because he just stood there staring at me. It seemed like forever. Then he walked past me and up the stairs like nothing had happened.”
“And he didn’t say anything?”
“Not a word.”
“Well, it beats me,” said the second trooper. “The gun’s been fired four times but there are no bullet holes in the shelter and no bloodstains.”
“You mind if I ask you a personal question, Mrs. Beaumont?” the first trooper said.
She colored. “I suppose not.”
“Have you been drinking, ma’am?”
“Oh that!” She seemed relieved. “No. Well, I mean, after I called you, I did pour myself a little something. Just to steady my nerves. I was worried because my son was so late and . . . Raymie, what’s the matter?”
I felt so small. The tears were pouring down my face.
After the troopers left, I remember Mom baking brownies while I watched Superman. I wanted to go out and hunt for Cross, but it was already sunset and there was no excuse I could come up with for wandering around in the dark. Besides, what was the point? He was gone, driven off by my mother. I’d had a chance to help a man from the future change history, maybe prevent World War III, and I had blown it. My life was ashes.
I wasn’t hungry that night, for brownies or spaghetti or anything, but Mom made that clucking noise when I pushed supper around the plate, so I ate a few bites just to shut her up. I was surprised at how easy it was to hate her, how good it felt. Of course, she was oblivious, but in the morning she would notice if I wasn’t careful. After dinner she watched the news and I went upstairs to read. I wrapped a pillow around my head when she yelled at David Brinkley. I turned out the lights at 8:30, but I couldn’t get to sleep. She went to her room a little after that.
I must have dozed off, but when I heard his voice I snapped awake immediately.
“Is that you, Mr. Cross?” I peered into the darkness. “I bought the stuff you wanted.” The room filled with an awful stink, like when Mom drove with the parking brake on.
“Mr. Beaumont,” he said, “I am damaged.”
I slipped out of bed, picked my way across the dark room, locked the door and turned on the light.
He slumped against my desk like a nightmare. I remember thinking then that Cross wasn’t human, that maybe he wasn’t even alive. His proportions were wrong: an ear, a shoulder and both feet sagged like they had melted. Little wisps of steam or something curled off him; they were what smelled. His skin had gone all shiny and hard; so had his business suit. I’d wondered why he never took the suit coat off and now I knew. His clothes were part of him. The middle fingers of his right hand beat spasmodically against his palm.
“Mr. Beaumont,” he said. “I calculate your chances at 1016 to 1.”
“Chances of what?” I said. “What happened to you?”
“You must listen most attentively, Mr. Beaumont. My decline is very bad for history. It is for you now to alter the time line probabilities.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your government greatly overestimates the nuclear capability of the Soviet Union. If you originate a first strike, the United States will achieve overwhelming victory.”
“Does the President know this? We have to tell him!”
“John Kennedy will not welcome such information. If he starts this war, he will be responsible for the deaths of tens of millions, both Russians and Americans. But he does not grasp the future of the arms race. The war must happen now, because those who come after will build and build until they control arsenals which can destroy the world many times over. People are not capable of thinking for very long of such fearsome weapons. They tire of the idea of extinction and then become numb to it. The buildup slows but does not stop and they congratulate themselves on having survived it. But there are still too many weapons and they never go away. The Third War comes as a surprise. The First War was called the one to end all wars. The Third War is the only such war possible, Mr. Beaumont, because it ends everything. History stops in 2019. Do you understand? A year later, there is no life. All dead, the world a hot, barren rock.”
“But you . . . ?”
“I am nothing, a construct. Mr. Beaumont, please, the chances are 1016 to 1,” he said. “Do you know how improbable that is?” His laugh sounded like a hiccup. “But for the sake of those few precious time lines, we must continue. There is a man, a politician in New York. If he dies on Thursday night, it will create the incident that forces Kennedy’s hand.”
“Dies?” For days, I had been desperate for him to talk. Now all I wanted was to run away. “You’re going to kill somebody?”
“The world will survive a Third War that starts on Friday, October 22, 1962.”
“What about me? My parents? Do we survive?”
“I cannot access that time line. I have no certain answer for you. Please, Mr. Beaumont, this politician will die of a heart attack in less than three years. He has made no great contribution to history, yet his assassination can save the world.”
“What do you want from me?” But I had already guessed.
“He will speak most eloquently at the United Nations on Friday evening. Afterward he will have dinner with his friend, Ruth Fields. Around ten o’clock he will return to his residence at the Waldorf Towers. Not the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, but the Towers. He will take the elevator to Suite 42A. He is the American ambassador to the United Nations. His name is Adlai Stevenson.”
“Stop it! Don’t say anything else.”
When he sighed, his breath was a cloud of acrid steam. “I have based my calculation of the time line probabilities on two data points, Mr. Beaumont, which I discovered in your bomb shelter. The first is the .357 Magnum revolver, located under a pallet of rice bags. I trust you know of this weapon?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
“The second is the collection of magazines, located under your cot. It would seem that you take a interest in what is to come, Mr. Beaumont, and that may lend you the terrible courage you will need to divert this time line from disaster. You should know that there is not just one future. There are an infinite number of futures in which all possibilities are expressed, an infinite number of Raymond Beaumonts.”
“Mr. Cross, I can’t . . . .”
“Perhaps not,” he said, “but I believe that another one of you can.”
“You don’t understand . . . .” I watched in horror as a boil swelled on the side of his face and popped, expelling an evil jet of yellow steam. “What?”
“Oh fuck.” That was the last thing he said.
He slid to the floor—or maybe he was just a body at that point. More boils formed and burst. I opened all the windows in my room and got the fan down out of the closet and still I can’t believe that the stink didn’t wake Mom up. Over the course of the next few hours, he sort of vaporized.
When it was over, there was a sticky, dark spot on the floor the size of my pillow. I moved the throw rug from one side of the room to the other to cover it up. I had nothing to prove that Cross existed but a transistor radio, a couple of batteries, an earplug and eighty-seven dollars and fifty-three cents in change.
I might have done things differently if I hadn’t had a day to think. I can’t remember going to school on Wednesday, who I talked to, what I ate. I was feverishly trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. I had no place to go for answers, not Miss Toohey, not my parents, not the Bible or the Boy Scout Handbook, certainly not Galaxy magazine. Whatever I did had to come out of me. I watched the news with Mom that night. President Kennedy had brought our military to the highest possible state of alert. There were reports that some Russian ships had turned away from Cuba; others continued on course. Dad called and said his trip was being cut short and that he would be home the next day.
But that was too late.
I hid behind the stone wall when the school bus came on Thursday morning. Mrs. Johnson honked a couple of times, and then drove on. I set out for New Canaan, carrying my bookbag. In it were the radio, the batteries, the coins, the map of New York and the .357. I had the rest of Cross’s money in my wallet.
It took more than five hours to hike to the train station. I expected to be scared, but the whole time I felt light as air. I kept thinking of what Cross had said about the future, that I was just one of millions and millions of Raymond Beaumonts. Most of them were in school, diagramming sentences and watching Miss Toohey bite her nails. I was the special one, walking into history. I was super. I caught the 2:38 train, changed in Stamford, and arrived at Grand Central just after four. I had six hours. I bought myself a hot pretzel and a Coke and tried to decide where I should go. I couldn’t just sit around the hotel lobby for all that time; I thought that would draw too much attention. I decided to go to the top of the Empire State Building. I took my time walking down Park Avenue and tried not to see all the ghosts I was about to make. In the lobby of the Empire State Building, I used Cross’s change to call home.
“Hello?” I hadn’t expected Dad to answer. I would’ve hung up except that I knew I might never speak to him again.
“Dad, this is Ray. I’m safe, don’t worry.”
“Ray, where are you?”
“I can’t talk. I’m safe but I won’t be home tonight. Don’t worry.”
“Ray!” He was frantic. “What’s going on?”
I hung up; I had to. “I love you,” I said to the dial tone.
I could imagine the expression on Dad’s face, how he would tell Mom what I’d said. Eventually they would argue about it. He would shout; she would cry. As I rode the elevator up, I got mad at them. He shouldn’t have picked up the phone. They should’ve protected me from Cross and the future he came from. I was in the sixth grade, I shouldn’t have to have feelings like this. The observation platform was almost deserted. I walked completely around it, staring at the city stretching away from me in every direction. It was dusk; the buildings were shadows in the failing light. I didn’t feel like Ray Beaumont anymore; he was my secret identity. Now I was the superhero Bomb Boy; I had the power of bringing nuclear war. Wherever I cast my terrible gaze, cars melted and people burst into flame.
And I loved it.
It was dark when I came down from the Empire State Building. I had a sausage pizza and a Coke on 47th Street. While I ate, I stuck the plug into my ear and listened to the radio. I searched for the news. One announcer said the debate was still going on in the Security Council. Our ambassador was questioning Ambassador Zorin. I stayed with that station for a while, hoping to hear his voice. I knew what he looked like, of course. I knew Adlai Stevenson had run for President a couple of times when I was just a baby. But I couldn’t remember what he sounded like. He might talk to me, ask me what I was doing in his hotel; I wanted to be ready for that.
I arrived at the Waldorf Towers around nine o’clock. I picked a plush velvet chair that had a direct view of the elevator bank and sat there for about ten minutes. Nobody seemed to care but it was hard to sit still. Finally I got up and went to the men’s room. I took my bookbag into a stall, closed the door and got the .357 out. I aimed it at the toilet. The gun was heavy and I could tell it would have a big kick. I probably ought to hold it with both hands. I put it back into my bookbag and flushed.
When I came out of the bathroom, I had stopped believing that I was going to shoot anyone, that I could. But I had to find out for Cross’s sake. If I was really meant to save the world, then I had to be in the right place at the right time. I went back to my chair, checked my watch. It was nine-twenty.
I started thinking of the one who would pull the trigger, the unlikely Ray. What would make the difference? Had he read some story in Galaxy that I had skipped? Was it a problem with Mom? Or Dad? Maybe he had spelled enigma right; maybe Cross had lived another thirty seconds in his time line. Or maybe he was just the best that I could possibly be.
I was so tired of it all. I must have walked thirty miles since morning and I hadn’t slept well in days. The lobby was warm. People laughed and murmured. Elevator doors dinged softly. I tried to stay up to face history, but I couldn’t. I was Raymond Beaumont, but I was just a twelve-year-old kid.
I remember the doorman waking me up at eleven o’clock. Dad drove all the way into the city that night to get me. When we got home, Mom was already in the shelter.
Only the Third War didn’t start that night. Or the next.
I lost television privileges for a month.
For most people my age, the most traumatic memory of growing up came on November 22, 1963. But the date I remember is July 14, 1965, when Adlai Stevenson dropped dead of a heart attack in London.
I’ve tried to do what I can, to make up for what I didn’t do that night. I’ve worked for the cause wherever I could find it. I belong to CND and SANE and the Friends of the Earth and was active in the nuclear freeze movement. I think the Green Party (www.greens.org) is the only political organization worth your vote. I don’t know if any of it will change Cross’s awful probabilities; maybe we’ll survive in a few more time lines.
When I was a kid, I didn’t mind being lonely. Now it’s hard, knowing what I know. Oh, I have lots of friends, all of them wonderful people, but people who know me say that there’s a part of myself that I always keep hidden. They’re right. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tell anyone about what happened with Cross, what I didn’t do that night. It wouldn’t be fair to them.
Besides, whatever happens, chances are very good that it’s my fault.
Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 1999.
James Patrick Kelly has won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards; his fiction has been translated into twenty-one languages. His most recent story collections were this year's The Promise of Space from Prime Books and Masters of Science Fiction: James Patrick Kelly published by Centipede Press in 2016. His most recent novel, Mother Go, was published in 2017 as an Audible original audiobook on Audible.com. He writes a column on the internet for Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine and is on the faculty of the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine.