“Thursday’s Child Has Far To Go” by Mark Anthony Brennan
“Good morning. Is Mr. Johnson there, please?”
“I’m sorry, no” said the woman on the other end. “Who’s calling?”
“Am I speaking to Mrs. Johnson?” asked Malotte, eyeing the read-out on his screen: ‘Irene Johnson (Mrs.) Divorced’
“Well, Mrs. Johnson, this is Jason Malotte of RMS Securities. Your husband asked me to call the minute an opportunity like this came along. Is he around?”
“No. You see he doesn’t live here anymore. We’re not…together.”
“Oh, I see, that’s too bad,” said Malotte, tapping his desk with his pencil. Irene Johnson sounded friendly, trusting. He had a real shot here. “I had this great investment opportunity that just came up. I was dying to tell him. Perhaps you’d like to hear about it?”
“Well…,” said Mrs. Johnson hesitantly. “I don’t know much about these things.”
“It’s nothing complicated. Don’t worry. When I was speaking to, um…” Malotte quickly checked the information on his computer screen. “…Bill, he wanted something simple. Now this is _ “
“Bill? Did you say ‘Bill’?”
“Yes, ma’am, your husband, Bill.”
“No, no, he goes by William. No one’s ever called him Bill. Bill is our son’s name.”
“Oh, your son.” Malotte scoured the page looking for her age. There it was: 63. “Yes, of course, I remember now, Bill is your son. OK, well, when he and I spoke we _ “
“Wait,” stated Mrs. Johnson. “Just wait, Mr. …er…”
“Malotte, ma’am. Jason Malotte.”
“Mr. Malotte.” Her voice had turned to ice. “You never spoke to my son. Bill has been dead for 14 years. Really, do you people have no shame?”
The line went dead.
Malotte ripped off his head-set and flung it down on the desk in disgust.
“Jerry!” he yelled.
“He’s off shift,” came a voice from the other side of the office.
Malotte took a deep breath. That god-damned Jerry. Worst fucking fact-checker in history.
He could have tried tweaking with Mrs. Johnson. But how? Change her husband’s name to Bill? Bring her son back to life? No way. Too drastic. Tweaks like that could do him in.
He spotted Hanson, the Shift Supervisor, over top of the cubicles. Hanson raised his hands with the silent question: ‘Why aren’t you on the phone?’ Malotte gave him a sarcastic smile and wave.
Hanson could go fuck himself. Malotte was the best closer on the floor, and everyone knew it.
He pulled his head-set back on and glanced at the time. 9:13, was that all? The thought of another three hours until lunch was unbearable. A simple tweak should do the trick.
He closed his eyes and selected a point in his brain. A pin-point, centre-front. He clenched his fists, willing the point to grow. Ow, ow, ow. Sharp, stinging pain. As the point grew the pain grew. Don’t forget the time. The time, yes, nudge it just a bit. And…let it go…
He let his body go limp, his fists relaxing. The pain in his head became diffused and weak. It was ebbing away. He opened his eyes. 12:01. Perfect.
He rubbed his forehead with three fingers, but there was less than a dull throb now. More of a memory of pain. His stomach suddenly lurched, then slowly, slowly subsided. He sighed. He was fine. As usual, he was fine.
But he never got used to it. Even after all these years the pain was still nasty. Migraines. At least, that’s what people called them. Flashes of real unpleasantness. But, so long as he brought them on, so long as he controlled them, they were tolerable. Not like those involuntary ones he used to get when he was a kid. Those were killers. He hadn’t had those kind in years. Not until last night, that is.
It had struck him in the middle of the night like a bolt of pure pain. A lightning strike out of nowhere. Searing white-hot agony. He had no idea how long it lasted. During the white torment there is no time.
“Shaky start,” said Hanson as Malotte walked by him, “but a good morning for you after all.”
“Yeah,” sneered Malotte, “well some of us have to actually earn money around here, you know what I mean?” He turned back before opening the door to the elevator. “Hey, what’s with the smell in here today anyway?”
Hanson shrugged. “What smell?”
“I dunno,” Malotte called back as he passed through the door. “Like someone lighting matches or something. Friends of yours?”
A good morning? Just ‘good’? It was supposed to be better than that. He had to work on that tweak.
In the coffee shop they were playing Dire Straits – their first song, his favourite.
‘…and the vultures, yes, the vultures wait eons…’
Wait, wasn’t that where they sing, ‘…and the Sultans play creole…’? He’d never noticed anything about vultures before.
‘…they are the vultures, they are the vultures of Spring…’
Malotte gave a short laugh. The young guy behind the counter looked at him, puzzled.
“It’s just the song,” explained Malotte, pointing upwards. “It’s funny how they do remixes. You know, alternate versions.”
The barista cocked his head. “I dunno, man. Pretty sure it’s the original.”
Malotte smiled. The song was even before his time. But this kid? No, he clearly had no idea. “This song is called ‘Sultans of Swing’, not ‘Vultures of Spring’.”
“No, you’re wrong, dude. My dad is like the biggest Mark Knopfler fan there is. This is ‘Vultures of Spring’. I should know.”
“Huh,” said Malotte, holding his hand out for his change.
Okay. Well, that was weird.
Malotte sat bolt upright in his seat. He hated falling asleep on the train. It was even worse when you woke up screaming in pain.
Several people in the compartment were looking over at him. One or two seemed genuinely concerned, but most of them were just annoyed.
“Holy shit,” muttered Malotte to himself. He’d had many a bad headaches, but this was something else. Like someone had split his head open with an axe. The scorching hot blade was still in there. There was even a metallic taste at the back of his throat.
His head throbbed, but the pain was billowing, getting lighter. His stomach heaved. He felt nauseous enough to vomit but he didn’t. It was getting better. Almost back to normal.
He rolled his head to the side and looked at the fields sliding by. They were close to the city centre, but the commuter train was passing through one of the green belts. Most of the fields were brown, with rows of vegetables, but there was the odd green patch. These grassed areas were dotted with stacks of hay, cows, and…
What was that? Malotte twisted his head around, trying in vain to look back at what he’d just seen. It had been an animal, taller than cow. It was pink, and he could have sworn it had the head of a pig. He straightened back up in his seat. It was probably just the after-effects of that horrible migraine.
By the time he reached his stop downtown he felt much better. Physically, anyway. He was still out of sorts. The station looked the same as ever but it was unfamiliar somehow.
It was no better when he reached the street. Same storefronts, same buildings, same everything, but it just wasn’t right. When you are driving through somewhere headed in one direction it seems different from when you drive through it in the other direction. Same place, just different. That’s how Malotte felt as he walked to work – he was heading outward but he had the inbound view.
And it reeked. Like burning garbage. He had thought it was just a funky smell on the train, but it was everywhere. What could make that smell?
When he reached his office, or at least where his office was supposed to be, he dropped his briefcase in astonishment. His building was gone. The entire block was gone. In its place was an old apartment building. Old, not new. He recognized it. This building was here when he was a kid. It had been torn down decades ago.
He looked around nervously. New cars, new stores, new signs. No, he hadn’t travelled back in time. But, what the hell…?
His stomach churned. He wasn’t sure that he could keep it down. He had to sit before his legs gave out under him.
Plunking himself down on a city bench he fumbled in his pocket before pulling out his cell phone. With trembling fingers he dialed a number.
“Marcie? Marcie, don’t hang up. It’s me, Jason.”
“Jay?” Marcie snorted. “I’ll give you one minute, that’s it.”
“Don’t be like that. Please. I’m having a real bad day.”
“Okay. What is it? What’s wrong?”
“It’s the tweaking, it’s out of control. It’s out of my control. Things are happening that _ “
“Jay!” Marcie snapped. “Are you still talking about that stuff? You still think you can change the future?”
“I never said I could change the future,” said Malotte defensively. “I just…change the option. Time is on a…a track. But there are others, other tracks. Like in parallel. I just…you know, switch.”
“Are you off your meds?” Marcie sounded disappointed.
“I don’t need medication.”
“Oh god, Jay, you’re off your medication?”
“They don’t do anything. They don’t change anything. Those doctors are wrong.”
“This is so like you, isn’t it? Everyone else is wrong, and you are right. You know what Dr. Chang said.”
“I know what he said, Marcie, but Dr. Chang doesn’t understand. The migraines aren’t having an effect on me, it’s the other way around. I bring them on. I tweak them. I use the migraines to shift things.”
“Your minute is up.”
“No, wait, please. Can we meet? I need to talk.”
“Don’t do this, okay? It’s not fair. I can’t deal with it. You know I can’t. Get help, Jay, please. I gotta go.”
Malotte stared at his phone in disbelief. ‘Call ended’. She’d hung up. How could she hang up on him?
He looked around despondently. What was he going to do now?
Suddenly the guy in front of him turned around and faced Malotte, placing his arm on the back of his seat. “This is the one.”
Malotte groaned inwardly. What now? He was in no mood for some clown talking to him on the commuter train.
He hadn’t slept well the night before. He kept imagining there was a dark, sinister figure approaching his bed and he was paralyzed. Then he would jerk himself awake. It was one of those disturbing, but really annoying, ‘waking’ dreams. He’d lay back and there he was again, but this time, no, he really was unable to move and the figure drew near. Then he’d wake up again. It went on and on. Finally he gave up and got out of bed.
Now he was exhausted. He shook his head to keep himself from drifting off. He didn’t want a repeat of yesterday.
“What?” he said irritably.
“This is the one, Jason,” said the guy. He was obviously heading for the business district – his suit was expensive. A power suit, similar to the ones Malotte normally wore. “This is the one where a man on the train turns around and talks to you.”
“What…what do you mean ‘the one’?”
“The reality, Jason.” The ‘suit’ had a stupid smile hung on his face. It was out of place – there was nothing funny or pleasant going on. It was aggravating. “This is the reality. One of an infinite number, right?”
“Look, I don’t know you. Why don’t you just _ “
The ‘suit’ held up a finger. “Wait, just wait. Let me finish. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? Of course you do. But you’ve got it wrong, you know that?”
“Wrong?” Malotte wasn’t sure why he was talking to this guy. He should just change seats, but he was too tired to bother.
“You think too linear, Jay my friend. It’s not like a bunch of tracks. This reality, the one we’re in, it’s like a sheet of fabric. Okay? Every point on that sheet represents a place in time and in space. With me so far, buddy? Now that is just one sheet. This old universe has no bounds, has it? How could it? Everything that exists, everything that has existed, everything that could possibly ever exist, the universe has it all. That’s right, Jay, there is an infinite number of sheets. But you knew that already, didn’t you?”
Yes, he did. Malotte had never thought of it in those terms, but the ‘suit’ was right. Undeniably.
“Now, here comes the kicker, my friend. Those sheets are discrete – they exist unto themselves. No touching, no interconnecting. They remain intact, and never the twain shall meet. At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But sometimes there’s holes.”
Malotte’s heart sank. He didn’t want to hear this. “Holes?”
“Yeah, like perforations in the fabric. Then things trickle through. They slip from one sheet to the other. You’ve been a bad boy, Jay Jay. You shouldn’t have done it. You knew you shouldn’t have. But you couldn’t help it, could you? Over and over again, you couldn’t help yourself.”
Malotte blinked. This was getting scary. “Look, whoever you are, this is bullshit. I mean _ “
“Bullshit?” said the ‘suit’. “Really? Really, Jay, you think so? You know what happens when you put too many holes in a fabric? It gets weak. It begins to rip. It’s torn, you moron. It’s torn because of you.”
“OK, enough,” said Malotte. “Just who the hell are you?”
“You know, Jason. You know who I am. Asshole.”
Still wearing his silly smile, the ‘suit’ turn away from Jason and faced the front of the train.
“Hey,” said Malotte, lunging forward. He grabbed the guy by the shoulder. “Who are you? Tell me.”
The guy turned to Malotte with a look of surprise. It was as if he’d never seen Malotte in his life.
“What is this?” said the ‘suit’. “What do you want?”
“Those things you just said, how did you know all that?”
The ‘suit’ grabbed Malotte’s hand and wrenched it off his shoulder. He frowned. “Buddy, I’ve never talked to you, ever. You’ve got the wrong man.”
Malotte searched the guy’s face for a second. He finally slunk back into his seat.
Yeah, I know. I know who you are. Asshole.
It wasn’t until he reached the station that he realized he had nowhere to go. He was acting out of habit. It was lack of sleep – he wasn’t thinking straight. What was the point of being downtown? He had no job to go to. None that he was aware of anyway.
It rarely rained, even in winter. This was summer, so it was always sunny. Not today, however. As Malotte left the station he looked up at the heavy clouds that filled the sky. They looked about ready to burst at any second.
He wandered aimlessly down 33rd Avenue, hoping that something, anything would provide some guidance. He didn’t know where to turn — he was at a loss.
Finally he stopped at a street corner. He had to call his Dad. His Dad always knew what to do. Of course, that was when Malotte was a kid. So what? There was no one else he could talk to.
“Jason! How are you?”
“Yeah, well…you know, been better. How about you, Mom?”
“Oh, the hips are still acting up. The left one especially. Dr. MacDonald, he says I should get braces. I don’t know. He’s awfully young. I don’t think he really knows what he’s talking about, you know?”
“Mom, you should listen to the doctor, okay? Um, I really wanted to talk to Dad. Is he there?”
“Jason, don’t do that.”
“Don’t do what?”
“It’s not funny, that’s what. It’s bad enough I have to live here on my own. You don’t have to be cruel. You know, since your father died I haven’t had _ “
Malotte dropped the phone in shock. Dad? His father was dead? When? How?
A searing hot sword pierced his skull, his brain exploding in excruciating pain. His very being became the pain. There was nothing else, just the burning flame of agony.
The white torment. White. White…
Malotte was confused. He wasn’t sure of anything. All he knew was the pounding in his head.
Oh yes, a migraine. He’d had a migraine, and it was fading. Where was he? On the ground?
The side of his face was wet. Puke. He was lying in a pool of vomit. His chest heaved and he coughed up a few more chunks.
“Haka, moof, add kee noo?”
Malotte didn’t want to get up. He wanted to relax and enjoy the bliss of having the pain seep away. What was this guy saying anyway? He sat up, wiping away the vomit from his face.
“What did you say?” asked Malotte, blinking. Why was the sky so bright?
“Add kee,” said the man standing over him. He looked more scared than concerned. He pointed at the top of Malotte’s head, agitated.
Malotte felt the top of his head. Hair? The guy was pointing at his hair?
The man was much shorter than Malotte. He wore an odd, one-piece outfit with a rope for a belt. He was completely bald.
Malotte rose shakily to his feet, rubbing his eyes. He glanced around as he dusted himself off. Where the fuck was he? It looked like downtown, but it was no street that he recognized.
The other people on the street were dressed in the same, one-piece outfit. And they were all bald. Some stared over at him nervously, but they kept moving.
“Talla kwag, moof,” said the man next to Malotte, shaking his head. With that he turned on his heel and scurried off.
Malotte tried to wipe the puke off his shoulder with his hand. It was then that he noticed the cars, if you could call them that. Trundling along in silence, the vehicles were boxy and flimsy. Electric-powered, no doubt. They all had the same colour scheme – pale green, beige and cream. Those three colours were everywhere – on people’s clothes, on storefronts, on signs.
The signs. They weren’t in English. In fact, they weren’t in any language that Malotte had ever seen. Just crazy squiggles.
People continue to stare, making Malotte uncomfortable. It was time to go. He ducked into an alley, hoping it would lead him to a street he knew. He batted at the air – it was teeming with insects, so many that he kept breathing them in.
Malotte was dismayed to find that the next street over was no more recognizable than the last. He stood surveying the street for a while, so at first he didn’t pay much attention to the chattering behind him. Finally, someone tugged at the back of his jacket. He spun around, surprised to find that a small crowd had gathered. There were about seven or eight of them. Happy and excited they pointed at him and then pointed at themselves. In horror, Malotte realized why.
They all had his face. He stared out at eight miniature, bald clones of himself. The vision of them swam before him and started to recede. He almost fainted, but he caught himself.
Malotte staggered off, bewildered. He was going insane, he had to be. He needed rest, that was it. He had to go home and get some sleep.
He just hoped that ‘home’ was where he left it.
Malotte moaned as he woke up. He really felt like shit. As a young man he’d often woken up after a beery night with serious jungle mouth. That was nothing. Right now the inside of his mouth was as rough and dry as sandpaper, and it tasted vile.
He’d had an episode during the night. Another white flash of blinding pain. He was so tired, though, that he just fell back asleep.
His nostrils twitched. There was an acrid tang in the air. It was hard to breathe.
He threw off his blanket with a crackling noise. Static. Lots of it. So much that he’d felt the discharges on his skin like thousands of tiny pinpricks.
The curtains were drawn, so the room was still quite dark. In the gloom he peered down at his hand. Minute points of light danced all over the surface of his skin. He was alive with electricity. In despair he brought his hand up to his brow. The air hummed. It got louder as his hand approached his face. He pulled his hand away. Sure enough, the sound went away.
Malotte rose up out of bed, emitting twinkling ripples in the air. He gulped hard, and then headed for the window, sparks snapping at his feet with every step.
The diffused light around the edge of the curtains was unsettling. Surely that was the wrong colour.
Miniscule bolts of lightning shot from his fingertips as he reached for the drapery. He paused, taking a deep breath. Finally, he drew back the curtain.
“Oh, holy Jesus Christ! No!”
“Thursday’s Child Has Far To Go” originally appeared in Tales of the Talisman