Geronimo Horatio Wilder sat on a wooden bench, fingering a holdout pistol in his pocket. Like the ones gamblers used in the wild west, a century before he was born. Like it, but not quite. Rather than gunpowder to propel its deadly charge, its sterile casing contained a real charge: a bundle of caged electrons straining to deliver a single 50-watt laser blast. It was appropriate for his wild-west birth-name bestowed by his whimsical parents. An outlaw. A geriatric outlaw.
Out to kill himself.
The slats of the bench creaked beneath him as he adjusted himself, withdrawing his hand to rub his back. Aches, pains, everything hurt. Everything had been hurting for as long, for as deep as his memory would go before becoming a murky cloud of mixed-up reminiscences. No reason to go on with this.
Laura. His daughter. She'd told him she was visiting, but he'd neglected to remember. Another Sunday afternoon, another hand-holding session with his forlorn single daughter. Into her forties and not a man in her life. Did he scare them all away? Did he scare her away from them? He wanted her to experience everything he hadn't, so she wouldn't make the same mistakes out of misbegotten regret. She didn't. She was a good girl.
A dull girl.
Gerald looked up at her, effortlessly forcing a smile. She knew he loved her. She'd always known that. Maybe he didn't "know" it in anything but an obligatory sense, but she knew and believed it.
He called himself Gerald. Never appreciated the whimsy of "Geronimo", and came to think of it as downright offensive during his politically correct years, which didn't last long, but long enough to discard his "Christian" name.
"For the trip? Remember?"
Gerald remembered. She had something planned this week. Kind of a conflict with his plan to disintegrate his being, to unravel the tightly-wound cords of his brain that composed his self.
He faked enthusiasm. Again, effortlessly. What does it matter if it's sincere? He's saying it, and she believes it. Always an act.
"We're going to try that new travel service."
"This block looks familiar."
Gerald sat in the back seat. He joked to Laura that it made him feel important, as if she was chauffeuring a big man about town. The buildings were new, the façades were were different. The ground was the same. Something was familiar about it.
"It's where you and mom lived when you first got married."
Gerald nodded into the rear-view mirror. When we first got married.
"Hello, sir, ma'am. Do you have an appointment?"
Laura went through the pleasantries and rigmarole as he found a seat reasonably offset from the other patrons, thumbs twitching through the pages of their e-mags. He laid his head against the wall and closed his eyes, assuming his usual pose reserved for waiting in rooms designed for waiting. E-mags and uninspirational inspirational posters and stale classic hip-hop. He didn't like it in the 90's and he hated it now.
He opened his eyes, sensing Laura above him. She was smiling. He smiled back, rose at her implied request and came with her to the receptionist. She reached for his coat.
"No, I'll keep my coat, thank you." The receptionist shrugged. He gripped the blaster. She led him beyond the threshold of the waiting room into the hallway toward the business proper. Whatever that was. He didn't get what his daughter had explained to him. Not because he was intellectually incapable of it, but because he didn't care.
Laura called to him, "I'll meet you when you come back, dad! Have fun!"
"Well, we put you in this transparent booth, and we send the booth back. Nobody can see you, and you can't interact with anyone. But you can see, hear -- even smell -- everything. It's a window to the past, Mr Wilder."
"Where will it go?"
"Anywhere. Anywhere you like. Your daughter has gifted you with our premium package. From the moment you walked in, all the way back to the very origin of our species: all of time is on the menu, sir."
"2002?" The representative seemed disappointed. He was nondescript according to Gerald's perception. When he was young, when he was learning to categorize people, there were still categories. Blacks, Indians, Asians. Everyone was the same now. That same gorgeous tan skin, the light brown eyes. Everyone and everything was one, melded together into the future.
"Certainly we can deliver you there, but -- but why? It's only forty years or so back. Why, it's a mere generation from the Threshold, when our peculiar form of time travel was discovered."
"Alright, sir." He sighed, and turned soundlessly in his swivel chair to punch in the destination. Then he rose, took Gerald by the arm, and led him into the booth.
She was crying, on the bed. A blue comforter was wrapped around her. Floral print. He knew it. Familiar. Again. Everything was familiar. The arrangement of chipped paint on the walls. The warped creak of the ceiling fan. The door that wouldn't shut all the way and bounced mockingly when you tried to slam it.
Gerald stood in the machine. The rep had put him in there cursorily, closed the door, tapped onto the interface, and now he was here. Wherever he was.
"What was it? How..." Gerald struggled with the sparse controls, the half-dozen sticks and knobs too much for a brain cluttered with decades of dusty trivia, rusty knowledge, and rancid emotion. "Ah, there." He twisted a knob slowly, then staggered as a blast of noisome air rushed into the chamber and abraded his nose and throat. He quickly turned back the knob.
"Must be this one..."
The image of the woman, of everything around him, magnified. He became, well, not truly, but seemingly, smaller, hovering half-way inside the mattress.
Her hair. That shock of grey. The mole on her shoulder. "No. No, it can't..."
At that moment, she jerked in bed and flopped around to face him.
"Daria?" His cloudy blue eyes widened. He slapped his hands against the plasticene wall. "Daria!" Started pounding. She paid no heed. "She can't hear me. She can't. I can't."
She wiped tears from her cheek, snuffled, stared through Gerald and out the window to the fluttering leaves of a ginkgo tree. Gerald followed her gaze. "That tree, this room, Daria. It's our old house."
He stopped. Body slack. The wrinkles around his eyes dropped and smoothed. Skin quivered. "It's 2002."
"It's the year... it's when she left."
The door opened abruptly and an average-sized man entered. Average in the physical sense, but blown up with rage like a predator expanding itself against wild prey to appear larger. Fire blazed behind him, burned in his eyes. He stopped at the foot of the bed. He didn't touch her.
Gerald whispered aloud to himself, "I never laid a hand on her. Not in violence."
"What? What did I do now? Why do you always do this?"
The woman -- Daria -- lay still in bed, staring out into the early spring sunlight filtering through the branches.
"Look." Then-Gerald sat on the bed, the trail of fire smoldering back into him as he calmed somewhat. "I still love you. I just don't... I don't know what love is. I never had the adventures you had..."
"I want to experience others, other people, other women."
She rolled her legs up and turned over again, positioning her back solidly to him, putting up a wall between them.
The man sighed, reached over to stroke her calf, sticking out from under the bedsheets. She withdrew. He sighed again, rose, and walked out, pulling the door, then pulling again harder to force it shut.
Gerald watched her. The smooth pale skin, the freckles from sunburnt pre-marriage holidays with her parents, the curve of her belly under the sheets. He saw her beneath the covers-- he remembered her completely. She was the first and only one he'd loved. The only one he'd ever loved.
She got up, throwing back the thick sheet, and walked into the bathroom. Gerald's heart began to thump. Sweat beaded, then poured down his face. "She's going to do it. Now. She's going to do it."
She walked to the closet, opened the door, reached inside, and produced a rifle.
She tip-toed toward the shelf.
She grabbed a single shell. 12 gauge. Gerald knew.
She went into the bathroom and closed the door.
Almost immediately after the door closed, a deafening blast. Gerald screamed, fists clobbering the wall between him and his past. "No! Daria! No!"
Too late, and useless anyway.
Now-Gerald watched in a panic as the paramedics rushed in, ahead of a haplessly guiding then-Gerald, his own panic evident. They swarmed into the cramped bathroom, shaking their heads in that instinctive cliché gesture of "dead -- nothing we can do" we learn to imitate from television dramas. Now-Gerald strained to see. The knobs weren't working. He struggled vainly with all of them, then the olfactory trigger kicked in again.
Death. Rusty blood and earthy-sick unleashed viscera. It filled the chamber. He couldn't turn it down. One of the paramedics moved aside, and he saw the stump of her head, as through a synaesthetic haze of this death-stench.
"I only even used the shotgun once. Why did I even keep it in the house?" Now-Gerald shook his head, then slapped it against the glass. Then he heard:
"Wait. This woman's pregnant."
A medic turned to then-Gerald. "Sir, did you know your wife was pregnant?" The color in then-Gerald flushed to his feet. Now-Gerald rose his head from the wall slowly. He knew what was to come; he knew what then-Gerald didn't. He knew the horror. The shame. The crushing shame.
He felt it all over again.
Gerald slumped in the corner of the booth, stuffing his hands into his overcoat pockets. His right hand knocked against the cold blaster, his brittle finger bruising at the contact. He pulled it out, sucked on the knuckle, then the clouds in his eyes parted a bit, a revelation sweeping through.
He took the blaster out, held it to his head, and pulled the trigger.
Gerald opened his eyes. It was white outside the booth. The booth. How did he -- oh, yes. He remembered. But where was everyone? The paramedics? His younger self? His dead--
Gerald felt himself balloon, heave, swell -- expanding toward infinity and everything as the woman, on her knees, fell into him, wrapped her arms around him, crushed her breast to his thumping heart, kissed his neck, his cheek, his reflexively closed eyes.
"You're back. You're you!" She squeezed him. "Oh, my Geronimo."
Gerald began to cry. He hadn't cried in fifty years. It was like a squeaking trickle through an unused garden hose, then a splash, then a deluge. All that rancid emotion was fertile ground now, green and flowers bursting from it. All coming back. All he'd lost. All he'd forgot to feel.
Like a child.
"Daria." He wiped his cheek. She pulled back to look at him, her green eyes full, of love and life and selfless, mindless devotion. "Daria. Wha-- where are we? Why are yo-- why are you ... alive?"
She looked down slowly, but not sadly, scooted back on the floor of the chamber and sat cross-legged in front of him, elbows on her knees, cupping her face, staring at him, smiling softly.
"What? God-dammit, Daria. What? What's going on?"
She laughed to counter the wet, impotent frustration on his face.
"We're both dead. We're both alive. It's all the same here, but, well, I can't say 'now' exactly, but I will. 'Now' you're with me. 'Now' we're together."
He stared back blankly, bewildered.
"I've been waiting for you. For fifty years, for an hour, for a moment, for a second. Waiting for the you I married, the you I fell in love with, the you I knew you'd become again."
He drooped his head and closed his eyes. Whispered.
"I killed you."
She touched his cheek, lifted his face to her, thumb dabbing away a tear.
"I killed myself. You killed yourself."
"We all kill ourselves."
She nodded, voiceless, still smiling.
"Anything. I can show you what I've found, what I've learned. It's probably all white, but, well, not white exactly. Blank. It's blank for you." Gerald nodded, looking out as if underwater, clear and endless, with no boundaries and nothing to quaver in reflection. "But that's the beauty of it. It's a canvas. Once you learn, you do anything."
Gerald stared into the emptiness. In the intangible distance, shapes began to swirl, colors began to emerge.
"You remember lucid dreaming? You loved to dream. We talked about it. When we talked, when we shared. Now." Gerald nodded, still staring. "You regretted not being able to do it since you were a teenager. To touch dream-things, to feel their texture and weight in your hands."
Gerald turned to her, her face bright, full of hope and wonder.
"You can do it here! It's an unreality more real than the one we've left!"
Gerald remembered now. The blaster. He was dead.
He didn't seem to mind at all.
"There's something wrong here. There's two in the booth. How the hell..."
Laura recognized her. From pictures. "Mom?"
"I'm sorry, Ms Wilder. He's -- they're both dead."
Huddled in the corner were the old man who'd entered the booth an hour ago, and an out-of-that-time beautiful young woman with a shock of gray through her raven-black hair. Arms around each other, her head on his shoulder, his resting against hers, one hand in mid-stroke of her hair, the other clasping hers in his lap.
Wordlessly and soundlessly, but Laura could swear the word tumbled from the young woman's lips: