The coffee shop glows throughout, illuminated by the falling sun, rays almost horizontal as it sets, slowly, behind the city’s skyline.
Jo, her brown eyes shifting color with the light, matching now the wood of the table, now the foam of the cappuccino she steals from my cup (I can’t drink a whole one of these, she says, but nearly the whole cup is gone anyway) sits across from me, radiant in profile as I begin to consider ordering more coffee. I read the paper, dust motes fluorescing as I turn the pages, performing their fractal dance in the still evening air.
What’s that, mister? A boy, ten years old, dressed in outdated Huckleberry Finn clothes, points through the window at a shining red car parked outside. It’s a Ferrari. No, it isn’t; I know every car Ferrari ever made, and they never made one of those. Jo, smiling slightly, turns to look at the child, then frowns: He has your eyes. What do you mean? That same strange gray, with the hairline brown around the pupils.
So he does – she sips the cappuccino again, draining the cup, and tries to set it down without my noticing; I smile, knowing, and brush her hand with mine; her smile returns: the signal is passed.
That can’t be a Ferrari. But it is. It’s called ‘Testarossa,’ which means ‘Redhead.’ They called it that because it’s fierce and unpredictable. He considers this for a second: Say, my mom’s got red hair, and she can be pretty fierce – I guess I know what they mean. Yeah, mine, too. Anyway, it’s new: one of the fastest cars ever made. Jo frowns again: But that car’s at least fifteen years old.
Not to everyone, honey. Gee mister, what’s its Engine like – what’re its speci-fi-cayshuns? The light, spilling off the car, gives the boy’s face a reddish cast; his eyes, drinking in the sensual form of the car, give his mind a prepubescent jolt of sexual awareness.
Well, it’s a five-point-seven liter V-12. Five-point-seven? Wow. Yes, well, that’s not the really cool part. Do you want to know what the really cool part is? His face lights in anticipation: Sure, mister. Well, see, the engine’s bolted directly to the passenger cabin. Then the suspension’s bolted to the engine. If you drop out the engine, then the suspension and the back wheels come out with it: you can wheel it around like a wheelbarrow.
The body you see doesn’t really do anything except look pretty and funnel the air around. Wow… I ain’t never heard of nothin’ like that before. How d’ya know all this stuff, anyway? Is that your car? Jo’s musical laughter; a flash of sun-gold from her teeth: No, he drives an old piece of junk. I smile. Indicating the Ferrari: Why don’cha get one of these?
Absent-mindedly, I touch the long, jagged scar on my forehead: Well, I had kind of a bad experience with one when I was your age… gave me this scar here – put me off a bit. I never did buy one. But I used to test drive these things; had to take a few apart in my time. Wow…
His face, rapt, studies me more carefully: Say, mister, do I know you from somewhere? Her teeth glowing orange in the dying sunlight, Jo grins suddenly: You know, for someone who hates children, you’re doing OK with this one. Sure you don’t want to have any? Yes, well, maybe this one’s the exception that proves the rule. Well, mister? Maybe you do… from somewhere.
The frown is back on Jo’s face. What’s your name? I hesitate: My name’s Jim. Gee, that’s my name, too. Jo’s hand on mine, feather-light: What’s going on? Don’t worry; everything’s fine.
Say, mister, that newspaper; the date; that can’t be right, can it? It’s a dream, Jim: you’re dreaming. Pretty soon, you’ll wake up again—Gee, this dream’s neat. Say d’ya think it’d be all right if I went out and took a closer look? Sure, Jim, it’s your dream. Knock yourself out… and a second sun rises in the boy’s grin as he bolts for the door.
What is this, Jim? What do you mean this is a dream? Who is that boy? He looks like you. God damn it…
He approaches the back of the Testarossa, his face screwing up with concentration as he mouths the syllables of the unfamiliar name, fixing it in his memory, forming photographic mental images of every aspect of the flowing body, the minimalist interior, the oversized, widely-spaced wheels. He drinks in the car’s beauty, as all people do with their first loves; the moment, for him, is everlasting.
He’s… just a boy. I’m appealing to his sense of fantasy. But it’s more than that, Jim, he reminds me of you…
The newspaper rustles, more dust motes join the fractal dance as the café door slams shut. The boy returns to the table, Jo into troubled quiescence. Brisk efficiency: Can I get you anything else, sir? Sure – another cappuccino, please. Be right back, sir.
Say, I think that Ferrari’s gonna start up real soon.
Intimately familiar, the driver approaches the car, keys held in the right hand. Mister, is that your brother? He looks zackly like you. I mean zackly. If you weren’t here, I’d think that was you…
No, that’s not my brother – I don’t have a brother… the driver, who is my height, who walks like me, who is more than a brother could ever be, climbs into the car, sinks into it with a familiar groan as he lands in the seat, his center of gravity shifting to the horizontal, his face now obscured by shadow, but not before Jo catches it, turns to me, her lips framing a question: How…?
The driver reaches for the ignition as I dive across the table, catching Jo and bearing her to the floor, covering her with my body; strident in the fading light, her screams of protest: Jim! What the hell? Are you fucking insane?
The engine’s roar transmuted into massive violence, the light midday-bright again as the car vanishes, a fireball lifting off the road surface; the windows of the coffee shop detonate inward, shattered glass spraying over everyone and everything inside, the moment slows; the air is filled with iridescent, gleaming sparks; the boy screams, propelled backward by the force of the explosion.
Moments later, the only sound: tiny fragments of glass, tinkling to the floor in a musical susurration. Soon, everything is still once again. I move; Jo looks up at me: How did you know?
She turns to look for the boy; he’s climbing to his feet, shaking slightly, a long, jagged cut on his forehead pouring blood. I touch the scar on my own head reflexively, and he catches the motion, understanding at war with disbelief in those flat, gray eyes with the hairline brown around pupils as wide as saucers: Is this really a dream? I don’t know anymore, Jim; perhaps it is. Don’t worry, though – whatever it is; you’ll wake up soon.
I smile confidently at him, and his look of shock abates slightly.
Jo’s calm whisper: But how is it possible? This can’t be – her eyes, red now in the fire and the twilight, flicking around, absorbing the scene. I don’t know, honey: somehow it’s a nodal point in a branched causality tree… Jim, what the hell is that supposed to mean? That driver: he was you, somehow, wasn’t he, and young Jim here; he’s you, too, right?
So it would seem. But how can the boy be here, when he should be in – what – 1956? I don’t know; I can only assume I haven’t made that happen yet. She thinks about it for a while, her eyes clouding, turning brown once more: It doesn’t make sense, though – that means you have to live long enough to be in today’s future: if you died in the car, you couldn’t reach that future, so how did you ever get to the future to stop yourself from dying – who are you exactly; what are you doing here?
I don’t know – it’s as confusing to you as it is to me… this is only my second time here, and last time I was someone else. My mind’s twisting up in knots.
But how did you know to be here today? The paper… the paper… I saw it when I was a child… Jim here saw it; therefore, I saw it… I indicate the newspaper, which is miraculously undamaged, lying on the floor in a collage of broken glass and splintered china. I turn to the boy, but, as I expect, he is gone: his moment is over.
A scream of anguish from outside: a woman barely visible through the smoke half runs, half stumbles to the smoldering fragments of wreckage, crying: she can barely see. Jo gets it first: Oh, Jesus… At that moment, I know: So it’s you who figures it out; you who creates the nodal point, some time in the future – this is the part I never saw as a child; the part I’ve spent fifty years trying to understand.
As I smile, lost in the picture of perfect causality, Jo starts: But we’ve got to help her; we’ve got to tell her… I am lost in the euphoria of realization: No, honey – we can’t. If we interfere, we’ll change things. But how do you know we’re not supposed to tell her? How do you know we’re not changing things by not telling her? Well, nobody told her the first time around.
But what if time is fixed: what if there is no first time around, and it’s just like this and always has been? I wouldn’t say I like that. Why not? Because it implies that we have no free will, and we’re just following a script. Both of us withdraw, thinking, while the other Jo, outside, continues to cry, wandering around aimlessly in her grief. The sun has set now, and the street lights give a dark, post-apocalyptic cast to the scene.
I reason it out: the logic is irrefutable: We can’t help her. Why not? The only safe course is not to help. Her face hardens; her eyes are milled steel: Explain! OK – we agree that either there’s a loop, in which case there was a first time around when she had no help, or that time is fixed, in which case nothing we do matters because any decision we make must be correct, yes? Slowly, she nods assent, the wailing of her counterpart a background noise from another reality.
Right, so what that means is that the only scenario that counts in making a decision is the first one, with the loop: if that’s how reality works, it would be wrong to help because it would affect what she does later.
After all, helping wouldn’t represent the first time around the loop. If, on the other hand, it turns out that the fixed time scenario represents reality, then it doesn’t matter what we do because it’s bound to be the right choice. Jo’s features soften as she sees it: So the only wrong choice we could make would be to help her if the loop scenario turns out to be the correct one. But not helping her can never be wrong, regardless of which scenario is correct. But I don’t like it – that poor woman.
We lapse into silence again, thinking, while other-Jo continues her mourning outside, now sitting against a wall, hugging her knees, the sounds devolving into dry sobs.
Jo’s face lights up, her eyes reflecting street lights: But wait a minute, maybe we’re thinking about this all wrong. In reality, we are here; I refuse to believe that two words to that other me will make us disappear in a puff of non-smoke… I think about this: it does seem ridiculous: Well, you may have a point.
It could be that at the moment we talk to her, we create a branched future: in one branch, we haven’t talked to her, and she goes on to create the nodal point; in another, we talk to her, and we all live happily ever after, or whatever. Jo’s face hardens again: Right then!
She walks haltingly, debris forcing her path into a dance whose purpose is an avoidance of chaos; I, seemingly frozen at the moment, watch as she approaches her counterpart: a hand on the shoulder; a sudden moment of recognition; the tears stop as the body stiffens. As Jo – my Jo – talks, her counterpart’s body relaxes; she regains composure and slowly stands up. The women hug, then that unknown yet intimately familiar person turns and walks away, back into her unknown reality.
I walk over to Jo: What did you say to her? She looks at me, composed: I told her that things were not necessarily as they appear, not to give up, that this wasn’t the end. I think it helped.
We walk away, down the darkening street, the Ferrari still smoldering blackly, and the sounds of sirens starting to become audible in the distance.