Carla sat on the edge of the metal railing that lined the motel’s third-floor landing, gripping its paint-chipped bars with long, slender legs. Black lace stockings disappeared into a tattered bathrobe and a lipstick-stained cigarette rested between her fingers.
She liked the feel of the breeze on her legs, the thrill of the twenty-foot drop below. She wasn’t a danger junkie, far from it, although she could have probably found a safer way to make some cash while Ash was at school — a florist, maybe, or a cashier. She had job offers, but the hours weren’t flexible enough, and cashiers got robbed all the time anyway.
“So.” The man standing behind her cleared his throat. “Are you married?”
“Me? Nah. Never tried it.” She looked back at him. “How about you?” She thought he’d said his name was Stig, but she wasn’t about to use it. Guys didn’t like it when you got their name wrong, even if it was fake.
He stared past her into the mid-day heat rising from the oil-stained and cracked parking lot. He was kinda cute, like a movie star from the nineteen fifties: chiseled jaw, dimpled chin and blond curly hair. His stained and wrinkled dress pants contrasted with the smooth skin of his chest. A patch covered his left eye.
“Yeah,” he answered in a faraway voice. “I think so.”
“You think so?” A column of ash fell from her cigarette to splash across the cars parked below. “You mean you don’t know?”
“I lost her. I lost them all. Two sons and a wife. I’m trying to find them, though.”
She looked at him, her face a squint as she took a drag of her cigarette. “Whadya mean?” Her words came out with a cloud of smoke. “You misplaced them?”
“The places I go.” He paused, shaking his head. “It gets complicated.”
A new sadness in his eye caused her attitude to soften. She liked the guy. He seemed nice, and there was something mysterious about him. He came across somewhere between a world-weary sailor and a lost child: just a first impression, but she was usually right. “Look, I’m sorry. I, uh, I hope you find them.” She stubbed out the cigarette and shrugged the bathrobe down a few inches, revealing breasts swept by the ends of her long black hair. “So, you ready to go again?”
After, she fell off him, scooped her bathrobe up from the floor, and headed to the TV in search of the remote, threading her hands into oversized armholes on the way. She always brought her own bathrobe. It was portable luxury: armor against the squalor of the cheap motels that even the sticky remote couldn’t pierce.
She returned to the bed, settled back against the headboard and started pushing buttons. The TV remained black, and after a few seconds she sighed and tossed the worthless device onto the bedstand with a clatter.
At the sound, the man sat upright like a sprung trap. He frowned at the remote, then sank down and stared at the ceiling. As he moved, Carla briefly saw the black silhouette of a raven tattooed at the base of his neck. The image recharged his air of mystery and piqued her curiosity. She remembered their discussion on the landing; maybe exploring some of his secrets would be even more interesting than her missed shows.
“So, where did you see them last?” she asked.
“Your family. Where was the last place you saw them?”
“It’s not really like that. It’s that I can’t find the path back to them.”
“What do you mean, ‘the path back to them’? Were you camping or something?”
He looked at her, measuring her up in a way she’d seen before. She recognized the instant he decided that she wasn’t important enough to lie to. She didn’t like the look. It took something from her, and the secrets the johns told her, usually how they hated their kids or planned to leave their wives, weren’t worth the cost.
“I travel through time,” he said. “That’s where I lost them: among the possible timelines.”
“What?” Her sardonic expression went unnoticed, unable to penetrate his study of the ceiling.
“I move forward in time, look around, go back, change something and then when I move forward again things are different. The possibilities form an immense branching tree, and I lost them somewhere in its branches.”
“Seriously? You’ve been to the future?” She leaned in and conjured a seductive voice harvested from a lifetime of movies. “Do you know what happens to me?”
“Prove it.” She flounced against him on the bed, now playing little girl. “Tell me something about my future.”
“You’re going to steal my wallet when I take a shower in five minutes.”
“Pfft, that’s some reverse psychology bullshit. I’m not gonna touch your wallet.”
He just stared ahead and shrugged.
“C’mon,” she said, disappointed he wasn’t playing. “Tell me something better. You know, like a fortune teller.”
“Your son, Ash. He’s going to die in three weeks.”
All her voices and personas fell away like chips from a poker table thrown over before a bar fight. She peeled herself from him while wide-eyed shock slid into an angry glare. “That’s not funny,” she said with a dire tone. He kept staring at the ceiling, oblivious or unconcerned. “Hey. I said that’s not funny!” She shoved him, but he gave no response. His calm indifference was a stiff breeze against her kindled anger but she didn’t know what to do. Finally, after crouching in a frustrated rage for several seconds, she threw herself off the bed, snatched her cigarettes from the bedstand and stormed outside, slamming the door behind her.
A few minutes later, she returned to find the bed empty and the sound of running water coming from the bathroom door. She changed quickly into her clothes, stuffed the bathrobe into her massive purse and headed out. Before the door closed she paused, went back inside and wrestled the wallet from the man’s jeans, where they lay in a heap by the side of the bed. She slammed the door again as she left.
It wasn’t until that night that she realized he had used her son’s name.
The roar of machinery forced their tiny guide to conduct the entire tour by shouting. The young woman, transformed into a bright orange blob by layers of safety gear, led her three charges through a maze of complex and expensive-looking equipment.
The company’s Chief Technical Officer, a tall woman in her mid-thirties, had joined Stig and Osmond to answer questions that never materialized. Osmond couldn’t remember the CTO’s name. He figured her real role was to tackle him or Stig if either started taking pictures of their proprietary do-hickeys. She had somehow managed to retain a feminine shape despite the safety gear, and Osmond considered testing his theory, but he knew that Stig would make a scene soon enough and he didn’t want to interfere.
Dr. Stig Gangleri, his best friend since college, and co-owner of Aesir Consulting, managed to look good in the gear too. It contributed to a mystic shaman vibe, with his bright blue eyes shining through the protective glasses like twin beacons of magical enlightenment. Osmond’s own gear had consigned him to Club Blob, along with their guide.
They followed the guide through a vast underground warehouse filled from floor to ceiling with twisting, brightly colored pipes and tanks. Osmond only heard half of what the guide said and understood even less, but it didn’t matter. Stig was the show pony. Osmond only made it happen, then made sure Stig didn’t get lost on the way home.
“Temperature and pressure are all monitored remotely, as you can see here.” The tour guide looked back at the group and paused. “Dr. Gangleri?” She looked around, causing Osmond and the CTO to do the same. Stig had disappeared.
They scattered to look for their missing companion and eventually found him in an aisle they had passed earlier, with his arms crossed and head tilted back, staring blankly at the bend of a pipe.
“He hasn’t listened to a word I’ve said,” the guide said, exasperated.
“What’s he looking at?” the CTO asked.
“Oh, probably nothing,” Osmond offered. “He gets like that sometimes. His mind takes him somewhere else entirely, but trust me, this is your man.”
No one seemed particularly interested in going to get him, expecting instead that their collective stare would bring him back in line. Osmond knew different, but was in no hurry. He didn’t want to ruin the magic.
“What are his credentials again?” the guide asked, incredulous.
“The professor has PhDs in both theoretical physics and statistical analysis.”
“Hmph,” the guide said, still unhappy that her shouting had been in vain.
“But it’s not the credentials that matter. My associate has a photographic memory and an amazing gift for extrapolation and leaps of intuition. He’s a genius the likes of whom you’ve never seen.”
“He doesn’t look like he could put his shoes on in the morning,” the guide muttered.
“Hey now, show some respect!” All eyes turned to Osmond, who found himself glowering over the petite guide like a great ape defending his territory.
“Sorry. Sorry. It’s just that—” He shook his head and tore away from their stares to look back at Stig. “He’s a great man. You’ll see.”
They shuffled in place awkwardly for several minutes before Stig broke free and wandered back to the group, unaware or unconcerned that they had been waiting.
The tour guide resumed with a sigh. “Dr. Gangleri, thank you so much for joining us.” Her eyes flashed to Osmond, whose affable smile deflected her sarcasm. “What I had been trying to explain is that data from the remote sensors is actually processed at the—”
“At the point of collection, the same way the retina and many other biological sensors process data.” Stig finished her sentence to hijack the conversation, then promptly changed the subject. “You will have a seam failure in three days. It will begin there.” He pointed at a structure in an aisle they hadn’t reached yet. “It will cause one death and nine million dollars in damages.”
“With all due respect, Dr. Gangleri,” the guide said in a tone suggesting any debt of respect had been fully settled, “if you had paid attention, you would know that a failure of that nature is impossible because—”
“Because all seams are robotically resistance-welded within a tolerance of point zero one percent. That doesn’t matter. Material strain from micro-temperature fluctuations will lead to the failure.” With arms still folded across his chest he walked briskly down another aisle toward a section they hadn’t visited. After a few seconds, the rest of the group caught up. The guide’s face glowed red beneath the plastic shield and the CTO had a look of intrigued skepticism. Osmond tried and failed to suppress a grin. He always enjoyed seeing Stig do his thing.
Suddenly, Stig stopped and pointed at what seemed a random direction. “That pile has a heat leak which is throwing off your calibration. It won’t be caught for three months and will result in the loss of a major grant.”
Then he swung around and pointed to a drain grate on the floor. “Rats. A sink overflow upstairs at the end of the year will lead to an infestation. It’ll never be discovered, but the ammonia from their urine will slowly degrade the sensors and prevent you from ever achieving the project goal.”
The guide and the CTO both stood stunned, mouths agape. Osmond smiled broadly. “And there you have it,” he said. “You will, of course, find Dr. Gangleri’s predictions to be one hundred percent accurate. Payment has already been confirmed and no refunds are available. However, I assure you, none will be needed.”
The CTO straightened herself and turned to Osmond, “I look forward to Dr. Gangleri’s report, especially the technical analysis that supports his conclusions.”
“Oh, my dear.” Osmond wrapped his orange arm around her shoulders. “There will be no report. Our work here is done. You’ve been pointed in the right direction; the rest is up to you. One word of advice, though: if you can’t figure out how he’s right, assume he is anyway, okay? Best avoid that death and all that wasted money.” He dropped his grin and looked at her steely-eyed. His voice took on a serious edge. “He’s never wrong.”
He released the stunned CTO and moved over to Stig, placing his gloved hand on his friend’s back to direct him toward the exit. “Thank you, we really must be going now.”
“But, Dr. Gangleri,” the CTO called out as the two men moved away. “How do you know all this?”
Stig stopped and turned. “I saw it happen.”
Stig walked down the short hall that divided living room from kitchen. It was always the same house with the same familiar smell of old wood and the same creaking floors, even if he wasn’t always the same. The thought sent his hand rising up unconsciously toward his healthy left eye.
He had grown up here and inherited the place from his grandmother on his twenty-first birthday. He had been happy in this house: in the past, as a child doted on by his grandmother who had raised him as her own, and again, in a future he couldn’t find. The rest of the time, its emptiness felt like a cold that the heaters couldn’t warm.
Sometimes, when he turned the corner into the living room he didn’t know if he would find his grandmother sunk into her old overstuffed chair reading spy novels or his sons sprawled across the floor playing while his wife watched sleepily from the couch.
This time, the room was empty except for hundreds of sheets of paper that covered the floor. His heart sank. He had no reason to expect otherwise, but hope grew from a different place than reason.
He walked into the room, stepping carefully on the edges of the pages, which puckered between foot and carpet as he went. Each page contained a portion of an immense branching map of the possibilities he had explored. He remembered them all perfectly, every detail of every moment. Yet nowhere in this map could he find his family. His memories of them were as vivid as any of the branches beneath his feet, but somehow they had become detached from the tree of possibilities. He couldn’t find his way back to them. He had lost them.
He knelt down among the pages and traced each branch, looking for a lead, a promising direction to explore. He had recited this mantra a thousand times before. It had become an invocation, a prayer to be happy again.
A loud knock at the door interrupted his reverie. There he found Osmond Higgins, always best friend and sometimes business partner, fidgeting on the step. Osmond was a big man with a ruddy, pock-marked face and gaps between his teeth. He gave Stig a wide smile and a bone shaking pat on the back.
“Hey, Stig. I need some papers signed and wanted to drop off this check.” He marched past Stig toward the kitchen. “That last gig was great. They already confirmed two of your predictions, and I gotta say they are loving you now. Word of mouth, my friend, word of mouth. That’s what will send us into the heavenly realm of outrageous consulting fees.” He opened the refrigerator and closed it with a grunt of disappointment. “Do you even eat?” He turned to Stig and smiled, “How are you doing, buddy?”
“Good,” Stig answered, wandering back to the living room.
“How’s your, uh, project going? What did you call this again?” Osmond asked, following his friend into the paper-strewn room.
“It’s Yggdrasil. The tree of life.”
“Right. All the possible futures you’ve explored, looking for your, uh, family. It’s a lot bigger than the last time I was here. You’ve been busy.”
Osmond stood back and squinted at the mighty opus. Through sheer artistic accident, the heavily annotated branching connections did look like a massive gnarled tree, spread across several hundred pieces of paper. Cramped, looping symbols inscribed along its length lent it a texture of mossy bark and hundreds of tiny oval notes dangled from the branches like leaves. The entire left side was stunted and dark, as if the great tree had been hit by lighting. There, the symbols crashed into each other with a sense of urgency, giving the branches a scarred, sinister appearance.
“What are the leaves, again?”
“Decision points. Variables that are likely to significantly alter subsequent events.”
“Um, in English?”
Stig sighed. “Possible directions of future exploration.”
“I see. And where are we now? What branch or twig or whatever shows us having this conversation?”
Stig pointed to a spot near the upper right edge of the tree. “We’re here.”
Osmond nodded and leaned forward. “May I?”
Stig motioned for him to proceed. “Carefully.”
Osmond tip-toed between the pages, careful not to disturb any. The page Stig pointed to looked like all the others. Thick dark lines connected it to the surrounding pages. Strange symbols and occasional words, places and names crowded around the lines. Stig had once tried to explain his personal system of time-travel notation, but Osmond had retained nothing.
Osmond looked up. “Well, I don’t understand it, but it looks pretty impressive.”
“It’s a rough map. A way for me to see how the pieces fit together as I explore the timelines, following leads, looking for them.”
He looked down at the great tree on the floor, superimposing it over the one in his mind. He could move through it much the same as in the trees he had climbed as a child. With almost no effort, he could release his grasp of the present and slide down to another time, catch himself on the crook of a past fork, then pull himself onto a different branch using memories as footholds, until he reached its terminus, where time would resume its measured growth. He had clambered over every inch of the tree but couldn’t find his family. His recollections of them, although intense, were as unsubstantial as sunlit mists, and wouldn’t support his weight.
“What are all those branches that start behind us? Like those over there.” Osmond pointed to the left side of the tree.
“Those branches are what happens when I drop out of college.”
Osmond shivered like a teenager at a campfire ghost story. “You mean ‘if you had’ dropped out of college. I was at your graduation, all of them. So, those other branches never happened. You know that, right?”
Stig shrugged. “I still go there. Those branches are as real as any other.”
“My friend,” Osmond said, “don’t you see? You aren’t time traveling. You’re daydreaming. I once read that Henry Ford could design a machine and then run it in his mind. You’re like that, except the machine you’re running is the world. You imagine alternate pasts and possible futures with such detail that you feel like you’re there, living them, but the entire time you’re really here, in the present, with the rest of us, running simulations.’
“Maybe,” he said, with a patience that bordered on boredom.
Osmond shook his head and scanned the left half of the tree. “Honestly, I’m not sure it’s healthy for you to keep going back there. It’s like you’re building entire fantasy worlds and then living in them.”
Osmond had expressed these concerns in every timeline. To him, only the timeline he was on was real and all others were the products of Stig’s overactive imagination. Stig understood that — his friend couldn’t travel from one to another, he couldn’t see that no present had more claim on reality than any other. The surety of experience inoculated Stig from doubt, but each time Osmond raised the question, he received another dose of the contagion and there were times when he wondered if maybe Osmond were right. Perhaps he had lost more than his family. Perhaps he had lost the present.
“Hey, I see the name Carla a lot over here. Is that the woman you’ve been looking for? Your wife?”
“No. Just an acquaintance.”
“Well, you’ll have to introduce me to her someday. You know, if she’s real.”
“Excuse me. Sir? Mr. Gangleri!” The voice came from his blind spot but didn’t startle him. Stig finished threading the key into the front door of his house then turned toward the road. A woman hurried toward him from the other side of the street. She looked like a stressed-out soccer mom, with frazzled, pulled-back hair, and jeans tucked into boots that made for awkward running. He traced her path back to an old Honda Civic where cigarette butts on the ground attested to a long wait.
“I’m not sure if you remember me.” she said, breathless from her short jog. “I’m—”
“Carla Munn. From the motel.” He turned back to the door lock. “I remember.”
“You, uh, left this. At the motel.” She produced a bulging flap of leather and held it out to him straight-armed. “It’s all still there.”
Stig took the wallet, tucked it into his back pocket and walked inside, leaving the door open behind him. Carla glanced back at her car for a moment before following him into the dark house and closing the door behind her. She found Stig in the kitchen, filling a glass of water.
He leaned against the counter, glass in hand, and watched her. He could see her unease, her keen awareness that she was in the middle of someone else’s house, no longer on neutral ground. For all of her daring and bravado, she wouldn’t be here without a good reason.
“Look, I don’t,” she stopped and shook her head. “This sounds crazy, but I need your help. It’s my boy, Ash.” Her eyes started to fill and her voice cracked. “He’s dying.” She burst into tears and sat heavily at the kitchen table, sobbing. Stig leaned against the sink taking occasional sips from his glass. He wanted to console her, but it would be awkward, strange. He didn’t need to visit the future to see that.
“You knew it was going to happen,” she said, her voice an octave higher than usual. “Somehow you knew.”
Slowly her sobbing subsided and with a determined face, streaked with mascara and snot, she collected herself and continued. “Two weeks ago, Ash spent the afternoon playing with his cousin.” She paused for a moment to search her purse for a tissue which she unfolded and used to wipe her face. “Three days later Ash got a real bad headache, a high fever and a weird rash. Later we found out his cousin had been sick too but got better on his own. Ash just kept getting worse. I’ve never seen anyone so sick. At the hospital they put him on a breathing machine. They said he had meningitis.” She started to tear up again. “Now they say my little boy is brain dead and they want to pull the plug. Mister Gangleri, you’ve got to help him.”
Stig set the empty glass on the counter and frowned. Her formality always caught him off guard, but what did he expect? She didn’t know all the times they’d been together, all the permutations. Carla was a recurring feature of these timelines, the forbidden fruit of the dark side of the tree. To her, he would be little more than a stranger, a one-time customer, but he knew her well and thought of her, in a strange way, as a friend.
She stood up and grabbed his sleeve. “Did you hear me? You’ve gotta do something. You said you time travel or something. You could prevent this. Please.”
Stig spoke dryly. “If I were to go back and prevent his death, it would create a new timeline. This branch would still exist. He’ll still die here.”
“Take me with you, then.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Carla. But it doesn’t work that way.”
“I don’t care!” she shouted. “At least in some other universe or whatever, my baby will live. I don’t care. Please, save him. I’ll do anything, anything.” She moved her hand up and ran her fingers jerkily through his hair. “Please.”
“You won’t know. You’ll never know.” He seemed to be talking to himself. “Whether or not it’s real for me, it can never be real for you.”
The students, slumped in various degrees of boredom, occupied the lecture hall’s available seats unevenly. Stig had arranged to have an old chalkboard moved from storage, and he wheeled it in front of the modern equipment before each class. He enjoyed the feel of the chalk on his fingers, the staccato tapping as he wrote. A breeze from the windows, propped open by an antiquated crank system, carried the smell of the old building to him and threatened to send him to another time. He resisted and kept talking.
“As you move through time, each particle is continuous. So you see, from the perspective of spacetime, it’s not a particle but a thread: unbreakable and woven with all the other threads of matter and energy like a tangled mass of spaghetti. From this perspective, motion is an illusion. It’s merely a bend in the thread. Not only are the threads unbreakable, but Einstein showed us that they can only bend so far: the speed of light.” As he spoke he drew frantically on the chalkboard to illustrate his point.
“Our brains consist of an immense tangle of these threads. The present is merely the point along them where a particular set of perceptions and thoughts converge. Time does not pass. It is an illusion, an artifact of consciousness.”
Stig looked up to see blank expressions on the few students that were still awake, with the exception of one young lady at the back of the class whose hand rose silently.
He squinted his eyes to see the owner of the hand. “Yes. Ms. Verdandi?”
“So, if each thread of matter is unbreakable, does that mean that everything is predetermined?”
“No. Because of uncertainty.”
“Bah. Everyone is obsessed with quantum this and quantum that. Flip a coin. There’s enough uncertainty in that mundane act to change the course of history.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a coin and prepared to flip it. “There are two possible outcomes. Heads you pass, tails you fail. Do we have a deal?”
“Uh, no. I need an ‘A’,” she said.
“Couldn’t the result of the coin flip be predicted?” another student interjected. “Like, if you knew the location and momentum of every atom in the room?”
“That information is not only unavailable, but unobtainable.” Stig flipped the coin, trapping it on the back of his hand. “Even though all the matter and energy in the room consists of unbreakable threads, we now have two possible futures: one where Ms. Verdandi passes and another where she fails. With this simple act I’ve caused them to branch.”
He raised his hand to reveal the coin resting on his palm.
“Dr. Gangleri, I didn’t agree to this.”
Dishes clattered as Stig’s grandmother gathered them from the table and brought them to the sink. The sound sent shivers of Pavlovian dread down his spine, hollowed him out and filled him with bile. He sat, frozen, at the dinner table, scarcely able to pick at his plate. He had visited this terrible scene too often, in pursuit of the myriad possibilities that sprang from it.
The dinner had been like any other. His grandmother hadn’t spoken much during, but at the sink she found the courage to say what had been on her mind the whole time. In a faux casual tone, she spoke over the running water and jangling silverware. “Your mother called today. She says she’ll be in town for a day after the holidays. Just a short stopover between movies. She’s moving from one set to another clear across the country. Isn’t that interesting?” She flashed a quick look at him over her shoulder.
It was one of the rare occasions where his decision didn’t matter. Seeing his mother that day stirred a deep pond of sadness and disappointment but had no lasting effect on the timelines. Either way he ended up on the same branch.
“No, I think I’ll pass.” That wasn’t why he had come.
She nodded silently and kept washing. “So, Stiggy, are you all ready for finals?”
“You going to get all A’s again this year?”
“I always do, ‘ma.”
“I can’t believe you’re going to be a junior in college. You grew up so fast.”
Stig stared at his plate, pushing peas around with his fork. In some branches he kept eating, slowly finishing his meal while his grandmother cleaned the dishes, but to access certain hidden branches of his possible futures, Yggdrasil demanded a toll, a sacrifice of a not-quite-metaphorical pound of flesh, a price as arbitrary and cruel as most things in life.
With ice in his veins, he stood and carried his plate to the sink. There, he turned on the water, activated the garbage disposal and pushed the remaining food into its roaring maw. The rumble of the disposal changed abruptly to a loud hum and all motion ceased. He looked at the fork, still dangling from his hand. The first time had been an accident, but every time since had been calculated. He stuck it into the drain. The infernal mechanism sprang back to life, jerking the fork from his hand. A blur of motion was followed by an odd coldness in his left eye. Three drops of blood splattered into the sink, one after another, before he felt any pain. The disposal had torn the fork apart and launched a tine into his eye. Reflexively, his hand rose. No matter how many times he went through this, he could not prevent that hand from rising up and making its grisly discovery.
Stig studied the cracked and peeling plaster of the motel room ceiling. He had spent less than an hour here, but he had done it many times. Did he know the pattern of blemishes any better from his numerous visits? He could have drawn a detailed map of the ceiling after the first time, but it felt familiar now. If Osmond were right, he had imagined each visit here, including this one. But by that logic, the present could be anywhere, even here, and his two-eyed memories as a professor and successful consultant could be the fantasies. This felt real. All the branches did.
“So, where did you see them last?” Carla asked, sitting in her bathrobe beside him on the bed.
“Your family. Where was the last place you saw them?”
“It was winter.” Stig let the ceiling blur and fade away. “There was a fire in the fireplace. It was actually too warm, but it felt nice. Cozy. My wife lay on the couch. The boys sat on my feet and held onto my legs while I walked around the living room and tousled their hair. I can hear them squealing with laughter and see my wife smiling up at me. So beautiful.”
“Huh,” she said, uncertain what to make of his story. “That sounds nice.”
“Have you ever wondered if the things that are happening to you are real or if you’re just imagining them?” he asked.
“Well, I’ve had some pretty vivid dreams,” she said. “You know, where you wake up and it takes a while to figure out it was all a dream. Is that what you mean?”
“I don’t think so. I don’t know. I never dream.”
“Never,” he said. “Dreaming is all about forgetting. I don’t forget.”
“Don’t people go crazy if they’re not allowed to dream? Maybe that’s why things seem unreal to you. You have to be able to forget things that didn’t happen to know what did.”
“I’m not crazy.”
“No, of course not. No. I didn’t mean that you were. I just…. Hey, listen, I think I’m going to go take a shower.” She stood and looked at him. “We, uh….”
“We better settle up now. Chances are you’ll be gone when I come out.”
“Ah. Okay.” He rolled over to the side of the bed where his pants lay in a heap, fished around for his wallet, and sat back up. He pulled some bills out and handed them to her.
“So, if I don’t see you again, uh, good luck with your family and all that.”
She headed to the bathroom, scooping up her pile of clothes and purse on the way. Just before the bathroom door closed Stig called out.
She stopped and looked back, surprised he knew her name. “Yeah?”
“Don’t let Ash play with his cousin next week. His cousin has meningitis. Ash will — he’ll get very sick.”
Her look of perplexion deepened. “What? How do you know all that?”
“I just do. I, uh, know someone. A doctor told me. It doesn’t matter. It’s important, though. Okay?”
Visibly shaken by his warning, she gave a slow, “Okay,” and closed the bathroom door on her puzzled look.
“You still with me?” Osmond asked.
Stig sat at the small coffee shop table looking through the window at the busy street outside. He looked up slowly and seemed to rediscover Osmond sitting next to him. “Yeah,” he said.
“Well, anyway, I’m sorry,” Osmond said.
“Don’t be. I understand.”
“It’s almost as if no one wants to hire a one-eyed guy with no credentials to look over their most precious tech secrets these days, am I right?” Osmond asked with a gentle punch to his friend’s shoulder.
“Seriously, though, have you ever thought about going back to school? Finishing college?”
“I already did that.”
Osmond was puzzled for a second, then understood. “Oh. In other timelines. Right.”
“The degrees don’t matter,” Stig said, staring at the table. “I know everything that the college professor version of me knows. I’m the same person. I’ve lived both lives. Many lives.”
Osmond tapped a finger on the table, trying to think of a polite reply. “The problem is,” he said, “other people don’t know all that. They don’t know what you can do. I mean, I can’t even remember all the times you’ve helped me. Hell, you’ve saved my life at least twice.”
“I’ll always help you, Oz. You’re my best friend. The year I spent in and out of the hospital after the accident, you never left my side. In all the branches, you’re the one constant. I can always count on you.”
Osmond put his meaty hand on Stig’s back and squeezed his neck. “That was a rough time. Tell you the truth, I didn’t think you were going to make it — between the surgeries and the infections.” Osmond trailed off shaking his head. “You’re lucky to be alive. Anyway, I’m sure our business will take off. We just need a lucky break.” He let his arm drop and swirled the dregs of his coffee, lost in thought. When he looked up Stig, was staring out the window again.
“Hey Stig,” he said. “Do you think that maybe you could work that mojo of yours to impress some bigwigs? You know, like hold back some CEO just before a piano falls on them, or something like that.”
Stig answered without taking his eyes from the street outside. “Maybe.”
During their years together, Osmond had grown used to their one-sided conversations. He kind of liked them. He joined Stig in looking out the window, and a longer silence followed, each of them lost in their own thoughts. It was Osmond who once again broke the quiet.
“You know how you always say you’re time traveling and I always say you’re only daydreaming?”
“Well, I was thinking. Have you ever followed one of these branches of yours all the way to the end?”
Stig looked up. “The end?”
“Yeah. I mean, it seems like if you follow any branch of your tree out far enough, you’d eventually die, right?”
“Well, if you followed a branch all the way to the end and lived to tell about it, wouldn’t that prove you’re daydreaming and not actually time traveling?”
“I imagine I could leave that branch before I die. Go to another branch.”
“Hmm.” Osmond scrunched up his face. “I guess. But then that would make you pretty much immortal since you always have another branch you can escape to if you’re about to die.” Osmond held his arms out dramatically. “I sit in the presence of an immortal, time traveling God.”
Osmond saw the serious, thoughtful look on Stig’s face and broke out laughing. “I’m teasing you, man.”
Stig stared at him blankly.
“You’re not,” Osmond said.
“You’re not a God. You’re just a smart man. So smart that sometimes you’re really quite dumb.”
Stig just nodded.
“What do you think would happen,” Osmond asked, “if you didn’t leave a branch before you died?”
“Are you asking me what’s after death?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“I don’t know.”
“Mr. Gangleri, I can’t explain why the antibiotics aren’t working, but they aren’t. The infection is out of control. The last scan showed a fluid collection eroding through the optic canal. We need to take you to the operating room today to have it drained.”
The doctor stood by the door, ready to make a quick getaway. Stig’s grandmother sat attentively next to his bed, completely overwhelmed, her spirit broken. Each time he sacrificed his eye to see the branches beyond, he also sacrificed his grandmother’s happiness. The sicker he became, the higher the toll she paid. He had seen her in worse shape dozens of times and had buried her as many, but he hated being the cause. Maybe this would be the last time.
“Today?” she asked.
“Yes, we have to try to control the infection. Do you understand, Stig?”
“I do.” He understood more than the doctor knew. The antibiotics weren’t working because he hadn’t been taking them.
The doctor spoke a little longer to his grandmother, had her sign some forms and vanished.
Lying under the glaring surgical lights, Stig waited for the anesthetic to take effect. The morphine barely touched his pain and he shook violently with chills. Each visit to this early bough of Yggdrasil came with multiple surgeries, but he had never been this sick before. He should have been frightened, but instead he just felt exhausted: tired of being separated from the ones he loved and tired of being lost in the tangle of Yggdrasil.
“His blood pressure is dropping,” a voice said. He understood the tone, not the words.
The pain faded, and the light grew brighter. The murmuring voices and electromechanical sounds of the room withered like shadows before the advancing light until only silence remained. Silence and light.
He felt himself walking before he saw anything. Walls emerged from the blinding nothingness to form the familiar hallway of his home. He reached the end of the hall and turned the corner hopeful, as always, of what he would find. There, rocking a baby over a bassinet while another slept peacefully nearby, stood his wife. When she saw Stig, a warm smile spread across her face and she lowered the sleeping baby into the bassinet. She hurried across the room and gave him a long hug, burying her head on his shoulder. When they separated she held his face gently and looked into his eyes.
“My love,” she said. “You must leave this branch. It ends and your work isn’t complete.”
“But I finally found you.” He took her hands from his face and held them tightly. “I want to stay here, with you.”
“Much of Yggdrasil remains undiscovered. Your destiny is unfulfilled,” she said. “You must continue.”
“I can’t leave you. You were too hard to find. What if I never find my way back?”
She laughed gently. “We are easy to find. All branches lead here.”
“I don’t understand. I’ve searched Yggdrasil for lifetimes without finding a way here. I shouldn’t be here now. This branch — I’m only nineteen and my grandmother still lives in this house. I couldn’t have met you yet.”
“Silly. You’ve been looking for us within the tree, but we live beyond the tree of possibilities, in the space between the branches. You’ve found us here, in this house, because this is familiar to you, but we are not tied to any one time or place. We are always with you, like air against a tree, rippling its leaves and rustling its branches.”
“But I’ve been with you before. How?”
“You caught glimpses of the impossible when your mind was freed.”
“From anesthesia? During surgery?”
“Yes. But you must go now, or Yggdrasil will never be complete.”
“I don’t know where to go. I think I’ve lost the present. Without it—” He paused and shook his head. “Without it, I can’t tell what’s real.”
“The present is where the future turns into the past. It follows your mind like a mirage. You know this better than anyone.”
She released his hands. “Now go, and return to us after you have accomplished great things and grown tired of wandering.”
The ebb and flow of chaotic motion outside the coffee shop window mirrored his thoughts, and mesmerized Stig in a way he found hard to resist. Osmond’s voice pulled him from his reverie.
“You know how you always say you’re time traveling and I always say you’re just daydreaming?”
“Well, I was thinking. Have you ever followed a branch out to the end?”
“No. Not to the end. But close enough to see what’s beyond.”
“Oh?” Osmond looked surprised. “What’s there? What did you see?”
Stig looked up from the window and smiled. “The impossible.”
Beautifully written, Douglas. Thank you.