I drove the three hundred miles from Louisville to Chicago in a flash, but this last half-inch is taking an eternity. I’m sitting in the grass of a sprawling lawn in Oak Park, peering through gaps in a privet hedge at my target, who, having played polo all morning, is napping in a hammock and snoring like some kind of beast. I’ve got two fingers on the trigger of this brand-new Colt .38. One squeeze and a bullet will rip through that hulking body and set me free. So why have I been sitting here so long that my legs have fallen asleep and my need to urinate has reached a fever pitch?
A violent last snore and he stirs in the hammock and rubs his face. My window of opportunity is closing. I shut my left eye, take aim, and remind myself that, if things were reversed, he’d do it to me.
How do I know?
Because he already did.
Depending on how you count, it was either five years ago or today when I met the man who would change my life forever – though he would never approve of my saying it that way.
I’d been standing on my dock, admiring the full moon smeared across Long Island Sound when an unfamiliar voice called out, ‘James?’ I hadn’t used that name in years.
I wheeled around to discover a pear-shaped man in a wrinkled suit, holding a martini in one hand and a cigar in the other.
‘Name of Hugh Everett. I thought I might find you here.’
Holding his cigar between his lips, he extended a hand, which I cautiously shook. ‘What made you think that?’ I asked. The obvious place to have looked for me would have been in my house, where I was, in theory, hosting a party.
‘Look, I’m going to cut right to the chase. I may know a way to help you get what you want.’
‘What I want?’
‘Tom Buchanan’s wife.’
My breath caught. I had confided in very few people about Daisy, and this man was assuredly not one of them.
‘Don’t bother denying it,’ he continued. ‘I know all about you: the poor childhood in North Dakota, the ninth machine-gun battalion, the fortune you made selling bootleg liquor in an attempt to win back your golden girl.’
The dock seemed to lurch beneath me. I took hold of the wooden railing to steady myself. ‘Who are you?’
‘I told you my name. Of course, I won’t be born in this world for another eight years yet…’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You’ll want to get used to that.’ He sucked on his cigar. The tip glowed orange. ‘You heard me right,’ he continued. ‘I come from a world in which there’s a widely read classic called The Great Gatsby.’
I laughed – this was all growing nuttier by the second. I decided I must be dreaming and played along. ‘I like the sound of it.’
‘You wouldn’t like the story.’
‘It’s a masterpiece.’
‘Then why wouldn’t I like it?’
‘Because it’s about you, James, a man so fixated on his dreams that he chases them right into an early grave.’
I tried to maintain my air of amusement even as my stomach sank.
‘I’m a science fiction guy in general,’ he continued, ‘but my wife had been pushing that book on me for years, so I finally gave in. I can’t claim to have enjoyed it, but let’s just say there’s a certain tragic arc to my own life, so it spoke to me. To be honest, I wish like hell I’d never read the damned thing.’
‘Why wouldn’t you want to read a novel that spoke to you?’
‘Because I felt sorry enough for the son-of-a-bitch it was about that I knew sooner or later I was going to have to get out there and find him.’
‘I haven’t the faintest notion what you’re talking about.’
‘In short, James, the universe is infinite and continually multiplying. I’ve been trying to convince my physics colleagues of that since graduate school, so I don’t actually expect you to understand.’
I certainly didn’t. ‘What’s any of this have to do with me?’
‘What does the infinite universe have to do with Jay Gatsby?’ He coughed a few times and then dissolved into laughter, his gusto steadily increasing as the joke travelled from his head to his ample gut. My face grew hot and I was on the point of ejecting him from my property when, noticing my aggravation, he recovered and said, ‘I’m sorry, James. Here’s the gist of it: another way of stating that the universe is infinite is to say that any novel that doesn’t violate the laws of physics is non-fiction somewhere.’
The idea strained comprehension. I was aware of my own eyebrows entering the top of my visual field. ‘You mean to tell me that you read a novel in another world and then travelled to one that corresponded to the one in the book?’
Whether Everett was a creation of my subconscious or not, I was starting to admire his gift for fabulation when back at my house the jazz band, fresh off an intermission, launched into their next number and broke whatever spell he had put me under.
What in blazes were we talking about? A moment ago I’d been quietly pining for Daisy, who’d decided to keep up appearances at home for the evening, and now here I was having a philosophical discussion with an alien from the future. ‘Forgive me, Mr. Everett,’ I said, ‘but it’s going to take more than the word of a stranger to convert me to some esoteric new religion.’
‘Glad to hear it,’ he said, and then he reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a book, and handed it to me.
I took a deep breath and looked down. By the light of the full moon, I could make out those three extraordinary words and the author’s name, F. Scott Fitzgerald. The cover featured a drawing of a set of eyes and lips against a background of blue sky and what looked like a brightly illuminated Coney Island. A tear slid down one of the cheeks. I opened to a random page and read aloud: ‘There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.’
My hands clasped the book shut while my head swam. I took a moment to pace the dock and catch my breath. Everything was different now.
‘Do you mean to tell me that between these covers is the story of my life?’
‘To within a trillionth of a percent. Strictly speaking, there are a myriad worlds that correspond to the one in the novel, but this one is the average of them.’
‘And you know all this how?’
‘Suffice it to say I specialise in computer modelling at the Pentagon.’
‘Oh, right. Picture a sort of vastly powerful electronic brain. Using a network of such machines, I developed a method of Bayseian analysis that enables me to extrapolate the infinitely branching worlds predicted by my theory and map their coordinates in Hilbert space.’
He might have been reciting Symbolist poetry for all I understood of it.
‘That wasn’t even the hard part. The real challenge was in figuring out how to travel bodily between these worlds.’
‘And how did you do that?’ I asked.
‘Happily, I didn’t have to. One day while I was banging my head against the problem, there came a knock at my door. You can imagine my surprise when I found myself looking face-to-face at another me who had come to deliver just the sort of device I’d been labouring to create. I begged him to explain its workings, but he insisted that he couldn’t even if he wanted to. Another one of us had gifted it to him, and he too lacked the knowledge, having had the device bestowed on him by yet another one of us, and so on down the line. Now obviously someone must have invented the device, but any explanation as to how it worked had been lost to a game of metaphysical telephone. And yet here I am.’
‘Lucky,’ I said.
‘In my view of things,’ Hugh said, ‘there is nothing that word could possibly mean.’
‘So you’ve come here to…what? Help me change the ending of my story?’
‘No one can do that,’ he said brusquely. ‘We all feel like we’re at the helm of our futures, but at the end of the day it’s a clockwork universe and we’re billiard balls. No, I came here because by the time I put down that book, I knew I had to, that’s all. I knew you were a part of my future just as surely as you know Daisy is a part of yours.’
‘I do know that,’ I said.
‘I know you do. That’s why I want you to understand the implications of all I’m saying. Now listen to me very closely, James: Every possible you that ever was or ever shall be is out there somewhere.’
It took me a moment, but when the realisation came, it hit me like a tidal wave. I closed my eyes as the scads of worlds I’d been trying to imagine exploded into infinity. ‘You mean to tell me there’s a world in which I’m me as I was five years ago?’
Was it true? Was there another world where even now I was sitting with Daisy in her little white roadster, brushing a strand of hair over her ear and gazing into the true north of her eyes?
‘I suppose,’ he continued, ‘that there must even be a James Gatz out there, as real as you, who never went to the war. Shot himself in the foot to stay behind and elope with one Daisy Fay.’
Part of me wanted to pop him on the spot for suggesting that I could ever have been such a coward, but in fact shooting one’s foot off now seemed to me as courageous an act as any I undertook in that imbecilic war. I’d do anything to have thought of it then.
‘And it’s possible for me to go there?’
‘You can swap places with that other you just as sure as I’m here with you now.’
I threw my head back and began to laugh at the lunacy of it, but something stopped me short. Those other me’s were in love with the right woman. I had been them myself once, more or less, and as soon as I could get Daisy to confess she’d never loved her husband, I would be them again, in this world.
A new possibility occurred to me. ‘You said that my story is a tragedy, yes? That I die in the end?’
‘So what’s to keep me from reading the novel and then making different choices from the me in the book?’
‘Choices,’ he repeated mockingly. ‘Have you heard nothing I’ve been telling you?’
He was really annoying me now. ‘But haven’t you already changed things just by being here?’ I challenged.
‘Actually,’ he replied, ‘since this is the world of the novel, and since I was irresistibly compelled to visit it, I’m forced to conclude that I am in fact in the novel – not in plain view perhaps, but hidden around the corners.’
‘How is that possible?’
‘Because The Great Gatsby isn’t narrated by you, James. It’s narrated by your next-door neighbor.’
‘Correct. And Nick is privy only to what he observes. Otherwise, he’s left to speculate. Take this conversation we’re having right now. Nick knows nothing of it, and so it’s not in the book.’
‘But then why all this talk of my going to another world when you’ve already said I die at the end and we can’t change anything?’
‘Because who knows what else isn’t in the book? Maybe you do jaunt to another world. As long as Nick doesn’t know it, then the reader doesn’t know it either. Believe me when I say I’m as curious as you to see how things will turn out.’
I felt lightheaded and took hold of the railing again. My emotions had swung so wildly in the last few minutes, and now I was back to suspecting this man of insanity, or myself of dreaming. ‘This is all a bit tough for me to swallow.’
‘In my field,’ Everett said, ‘that tough-to-swallow feeling usually means you’re on the right track. I only wish my colleagues knew that.’
‘I think I’ll be asking you to leave now,’ I said.
‘I understand,’ Everett replied. ‘It’s high time I get a refill anyway.’ He wrote down a phone number where I could reach him, and then trudged back up the beach to the party.
I remained there on the dock another hour, paging through that book that stubbornly went on existing while the waves lapped at the shore, partygoers revelled inside my house, and Daisy did whatever she was doing with her lawfully wedded husband just across the bay.
I remained a reluctant follower of the church of Hugh Everett straight up until five o’clock the next evening, when Daisy, officially taking a golfing lesson from her friend Jordan, joined me at my house for dinner. We ate on the porch, seated across from each other like the married couple I was sure we’d soon be. A gentle breeze blew, and the sea shimmered for us like a vast field of gems.
‘You know, from here we can make out the—’
‘I know, Jay. The green light at the end of my dock. You’ve told me fifteen times.’
‘I suppose I have, haven’t I?’
Impatience, arguments, the daily frictions – I wanted it all, not just the pulse-quickening excitement of the early days.
After dinner, we retired to my bedchamber. By the time she left at eight fifteen, Hugh Everett’s physics were as distant and irrelevant to my life as Zoroastrianism.
I stayed up late that night reading The Great Gatsby in my library. I was sorry to learn that Nick found me exactly as delusional as I supposed, and his failure to capture the depth of the feelings Daisy and I felt for each other saddened me. By the time I reached the depressing final pages, I was convinced the story revealed so much more about Nick’s tragic cast of mind than any facet of my own. I had climbed so far to reach my present station in life; if Everett’s philosophy was going to be another obstacle in my path, then I would simply have to conquer it as I had poverty, the German army, and the occasional spasm of guilt.
I telephoned Everett the following morning and announced that, though I was grateful for his offer, I had no interest in pursuing his ideas any further.
‘I’m coming over,’ he said.
‘All I ask is twenty minutes of your time and then I’ll leave you alone forever if that’s what you want. How’s ten o’clock?’
Daisy wasn’t due to come until three.
‘Twenty minutes,’ he repeated. ‘Not a second more.’
‘Jay, think of the stakes.’
‘Fair enough. I’ll see you at ten.’
I spent the next couple of hours on the telephone, finalising some business dealings with an associate in Los Angeles.
Everett rang the doorbell at precisely ten o’clock, and I had my new butler show him to the drawing room. He sat in the armchair beside mine.
‘What is it you so direly need to tell me?’ I asked.
‘What I need to give you,’ he said. Without waiting for a reaction, he reached into his briefcase, pulled out a pair of large spectacles, and handed them to me. On closer inspection, they were more like goggles, the sort I associated with the Wright Brothers.
‘Try them on,’ he said.
‘Just do it.’
I frowned, but then did as instructed and…found myself in a different room altogether. I took off the goggles posthaste. ‘What was that?’
‘I told you. I don’t know the mechanism.’
‘You mean this is the…device?’
He nodded. ‘Last evening I took a little jaunt through the universe and borrowed it from myself. One of the advantages of this sort of travel is an infinite supply of nearly everything.’
‘What do you do with them?’
‘Put them on again,’ he said, retrieving an identical pair from the briefcase. ‘I’ll put mine on too and meet you inside.’
My curiosity overwhelmed my misgivings and I soon found myself back in that other room.
‘What do you see?’ Everett asked.
‘Shelves. Books. A library?’
‘Good. Now look around.’
As far as I could see to my left and right were rows of books. A railing gave out on a central shaft, and when I peered up and down, I saw the shelves ran as far as I could see in those directions as well.
‘What you’re looking at,’ Everett said, manifesting in the room beside me, ‘is all possible copies of The Great Gatsby. Every conceivable permutation of plot and narrative strategy, even every possible typo, to within one percent of the novel’s length. Go ahead and grab a copy.’
I retrieved one at random. The cover was just the same as the one I’d read, but when I opened the book, it was all gobbledygook.
‘Nonsense,’ I said.
‘To be sure,’ Everett confirmed. ‘The vast majority of these volumes will read that way. But every once in a while you’ll find a volume consisting of English words. You would have to travel some miles through the library to encounter such a book, but there’s an easier way. Follow me.’
We walked around the hexagonal mezzanine and turned into a side room. I was only dimly aware that my actual body was still sitting in the same chair in my drawing room.
‘Each floor has a reading room,’ Everett said, ‘all exactly like this one.’
If this was a reading room, it was unlike any I had seen before. It consisted of nothing but a lectern in the centre of an oak-panelled room, and as we approached, I saw that it had on top of it what looked like two bicycle handles arranged vertically, one on each side. Toward the back was an unilluminated lightbulb.
‘I’ll go first,’ Everett said. He gripped the handles and closed his eyes. ‘I’m imagining a copy of The Great Gatsby that reads exactly like H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine with any additional pages at the end filled with the words “The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog” repeated.’
A moment later, a volume appeared on the lectern. The lightbulb glowed red.
‘Go ahead and read,’ Everett said.
I opened the book to the first page:
The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us. His pale grey eyes shone and twinkled, and his usually pale face was flushed and animated.
I had never read The Time Machine, though I had no reason to doubt these were the words that began it. I flipped to the back of the book and riffled through pages filled with the words ‘The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog…’
‘Quite something, isn’t it?’
‘Astonishing,’ I said, ‘but I don’t see what it has to do with travelling to another world.’
‘Yes, well… Did you notice the red light?’
‘That means that there is no world out there corresponding to the one in this book. And it’s easy to see why. Time travel of the sort it describes simply isn’t consistent with the laws of physics. On the other hand, had I requested a copy of The Great Gatsby that reads exactly like, say, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you would have seen a green light instead of a red one, meaning that the device had located a world consistent with that book’s description of reality.’
‘It really exists?’
‘But how can one travel there?’
‘Do you know what entropy is?’ Everett asked.
‘In brief, it means that every story is a tragedy if you stay with it long enough because everything is always moving deathward. The entire universe is running down like a clock and will eventually stop forever. But in the meantime nature struggles just as we do. She hates waste and wants to economise. So if you can become so absorbed in reading one of these books that your brainwaves synchronise with a character’s to a higher degree of resolution than any other brain in the universe, she’ll instantly swap you out, no questions asked.’
I took a moment to stagger mentally. ‘But how,’ I asked at length, ‘did you swap into this world? I thought you weren’t due to be born for another eight years?’
‘That’s true,’ Everett said, ‘but there’s no rule that you have to swap with yourself. The less a book reveals about a character, the more wiggle room you have while projecting yourself into that world. In my case, I simply jaunted into one of your parties and took the place of a man called Newton Orchid, about whom the novel reveals only a name. I created a backstory for him, got fully into character, and presto change-o, there I was.’
I vaguely knew Newton through the silent auctions he arranged. ‘And what’s happened to him?’
‘Not to worry,’ he said. ‘Mr. Orchid will have found himself in an amply supplied basement apartment for the duration of my stay here.’
‘You’re saying I can become whoever I want? Not just other versions of myself?’
‘Provided you can imagine being them more fully than their real-world counterparts can. This is no easy task, mind you. The problem isn’t so much getting immersed in the story; every reader does that from time to time. The problem is the subconscious, which acts like an anchor to keep us in our own world. That’s why I’ll also be giving you a special serum. One drop on the tongue and your subconscious will hollow out for the next ten minutes. Now all you have to do is hyper-attune your brainwaves to your target’s.’
For a moment, I fancied what it would be like to become Tom Buchanan, with his breeding, his money, his Daisy, but the thought left a foul taste. What kind of triumph would it be if I had to give up being me in order to achieve it? And even if I were to take the place of another version of me, how could I ever experience that life as truly mine? Everett’s appeal was premised on my believing that I had no hope in this world, but I simply couldn’t believe that. A Jay Gatsby without hope wouldn’t be me at all.
I took the goggles off.
Everett followed close behind.
‘Time’s up,’ I said.
‘But I haven’t finished—’
‘I see it’s been twenty-three minutes already and I’m quite busy. It’s been nice chatting with you.’
‘Shall I call in one of my goons?’
I wasn’t going to waver and he knew it.
‘Here,’ I said, handing him the goggles.
‘Hold on to those,’ he said.
‘Who knows? Maybe you’ll want to do some reading.’
‘I have more than enough books in my library.’
‘With uncut pages, I know. But you’ve only got one version of The Great Gatsby.’
‘Hugh, let me make this clear: As long as you’re determined to convince me that I’m a tragedy in the making, then I’ll be determined not to believe you.’
I instructed my butler to show Mr. Everett out. When he came back, he handed me a small dropper vial half-filled with a clear fluid, saying, ‘Mr. Everett asked me to give you this.’ I stowed the vial in a drawer of my library along with the copy of The Great Gatsby Everett had given me, and then shut that drawer with a peremptory oomph.
Daisy came over that afternoon. I held her to me as tightly as I could short of crushing her, and made her promise that she would never leave me again. ‘Oh, Jay,’ she said. ‘Leaving you was the biggest mistake of my life. I’d be a fool to repeat it.’
‘Say it to me straight,’ I said.
She left off kissing my neck, looked me directly in the eyes, and stated plainly and with all the solemnity I could have hoped for: ‘I will never leave you, Jay Gatsby.’
At once my entire body relaxed as if submerged in a warm bath. Partly this was because Daisy had resumed attacking my neck, but mostly it was because I believed her.
For the next couple of weeks, Daisy and I met as often as possible, always in the sanctuary of my house, which I was glad to see she was coming to regard as her domain as well. She no longer asked permission to help herself in the kitchen or hesitated to make requests of the servants. Gradually I broached the tactical questions of how we were going to make our temporary Eden into a permanent utopia.
I suggested we start rehearsing for when we finally made our stand against Tom. We took turns playing roles and trying to anticipate every possible way the confrontation might play out. By the time the novel caught up with us again, I felt confident we were ready.
And then it was happening: the Plaza Hotel, that stifling room, muffled music from the ballroom, and Tom asking me what kind of a ‘row’ I was trying to start.
I was perfectly aware that the reply forming in my brain corresponded to the one I had read. Rather than mindlessly deliver it, however, I held it up as an object in my mind. Had I formed the line on my own? Or had I been inspired by the book? Was it, in the final analysis, my line, Nick’s, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s? Life’s or art’s? It was impossible to say. Perhaps it was God’s. In any case, I felt free to veto it if I chose, but the words were the right ones: ‘Your wife doesn’t love you.’ Then, turning to Daisy and remembering the words even as I conceived them, I said, ‘Just tell him the truth, that you never loved him – and it’s all wiped out forever.’
‘I never loved him,’ she said.
It was an admirable start, but there wasn’t enough conviction in it; she needed to say it again. The room held its breath as Tom made his desperate appeals and Daisy flashed me a breathless, pleading look.
‘Say it,’ I mouthed to her, ready to burst. I couldn’t wait to take her in my arms and whisk us into the better life that awaited us just as soon as she obliterated the last four years with her next words.
And then she said them, only instead of being directed at Tom, they were aimed at me: ‘Oh, you want too much! I love you now – isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.’
No, no, no, those were not the right words at all. I remembered them too well.
‘I did love him once,’ she went on, ‘but I loved you too.’
Words continued flying around the room, and some were mine, but even as I said them I sensed how futile they were, how the die had already been cast. Daisy was slipping away from me, and the agony of her receding was compounded by the recognition that Everett had been right all along: I wasn’t in control here. No matter what precautions I tried to take, or how free I felt, the story would play out exactly as his machine had predicted. Words and ideas would arise in my mind and I would act on them precisely as I had in the novel, which Nick would then proceed to write. It occurred to me that I could take off my clothes and start uttering absurdities – ‘Umbrella! Salamander! Charlie Chaplin!’ but I knew well enough that there was no Jay Gatsby in any world capable of such a thing. I was sweating profusely, and nauseated, and the squeaking of blood in my ears seemed as loud as the cacophony of that room. I resigned myself to riding as effortlessly as possible on the tracks laid down for me by inevitability.
Secure in his victory, Tom let me drive Daisy home. I recalled this part of the novel – me giving the wheel to Daisy, Daisy accidentally mowing down Tom’s lover in the street – so when she asked me if she could have a turn at the wheel, I took one last stand against fate: ‘I’m sorry, Daisy, but there is no way I’m going to let you drive this car.’
‘Please, Jay. It will help steady my nerves.’
I shook my head.
‘Have it your way,’ she said, and all at once she opened the door and stood up on the car’s running board as if to fling herself onto the road.
‘Jesus, Daisy—’ I reached out a hand, but she refused to take it.
‘Goodbye, Jay,’ she said.
‘Okay!’ I said, relenting. ‘You can drive. Just come back in.’
She crouched down and gave me the coldest look I’d ever seen from her. ‘Promise me you’ll let me drive,’ she said.
And I stood by my word. Daisy might not keep her promises to me, but I would be true to her for as long as I was alive.
So I watched, resigned, almost amused, as The Great Gatsby became my life. Daisy accidentally mowed down Tom’s lover, who’d all but flung herself at our car, believing Tom to be in it, and I sped Daisy home so that she wouldn’t have to face the consequences. I parked the car in my garage, then took a taxi back to watch through a window as Daisy and Tom conspired against me at their kitchen table. I reminisced about the naïve youth I’d once been. I wanted to slap him across the face. More than that, I wanted to shoot him in the foot.
Nick came around dawn and suggested I go away to Atlantic City or Montreal. I pretended I wouldn’t hear of it, though in fact I was planning to go much farther afield. After he parted, I went to my library and reread the final pages of The Great Gatsby. All that remained for me was to take a swim in the pool and get shot dead by Tom’s lover’s husband, George, who, thanks to Tom’s lies, believed I’d been carrying on an affair for some time with his suddenly murdered wife. I forgave thickheaded George in advance. He was just the murder weapon; Tom was the one behind the trigger.
I planned my actions very carefully. I entertained the possibility of popping up into Daisy’s roadster, but I couldn’t very well go swimming in my officer’s uniform. I had never been swimming with Daisy, though if everything Everett had told me was true, there was a world out there where we were swimming together even now in any pool I could imagine.
At five minutes to two, I went outside in my bathing suit, clutching my goggles as if they were the ordinary swimming variety. I had my chauffeur help me inflate a pneumatic mattress, then I lay on it in the pool and squeezed a drop of Everett’s serum on my tongue. Knowing my assassin was due to manifest through the trees any second, I put on the goggles and, bidding farewell to this tragic world, let myself be transported to that impossible library again, wherein I summoned an edition of The Great Gatsby I liked far better than the one I had read.
The book materialised, and the bulb flashed green.
‘How’s that feel?’ Daisy asked.
‘Wonderful,’ I replied. We were in her parents’ pool in Louisville – they hadn’t had one when I was here before, but it wasn’t too much of a stretch.
I gave a moment’s thought to that other me, no sooner taking in his new and befuddling surroundings than being gunned down in them. I vowed not to think of him ever again.
‘Where’d you get those ridiculous goggles?’ Daisy asked.
‘These?’ I doffed them immediately. ‘Oh, I’ve had these for years.’
‘Go easy now,’ she said, supporting me on her arm. ‘Don’t put too much pressure on it.’
I couldn’t peel my eyes from her immaculate face.
‘What?’ she said.
‘You’re so young.’
She gave me a queer look.
We were married on an idyllic day in mid-April and honeymooned in Hawaii. Upon our return, we moved into a modest house a few streets over from her parents, and Daisy’s cousin brought me on as a teller at a regional bank. We were unutterably happy – for a time.
Alas, Everett wasn’t wrong about entropy.
One not-so-fine morning I came across a certain headline in the paper: “Wealthy Chicago Bachelor Pays Record Sum for Polo Pony,’ and when I glanced at the photo accompanying the article, Tom Buchanan’s eyes pierced my heart like a bayonet. Of all the myriad worlds out there, why couldn’t I have chosen one in which Tom was prematurely dead, or never existed at all?
When Daisy came home from lunch, I found myself asking more questions than usual. How was the restaurant? What did she order? What did she and her friends discuss? Then I showed her the article. ‘Would you believe there are people in this world paying so much for a pony?’ I gauged her reaction as she beheld Tom’s photo. That she hardly registered one at all should have satisfied me, but I failed to get a wink of sleep that night.
The following day I scanned the microfilms at the local library. As far as I could tell from several dozen articles about the Buchanan family, Tom was in every respect the rogue I knew. I recognised that in this world he didn’t even know Daisy and I existed, but I was haunted by the certain knowledge that, if things were different, she’d have chosen him over me. That abstract jealousy began to spread like gangrene, infecting not only my relations with Daisy but with everything in my life that could conceivably bring me joy. Even the birth of our son, Hughie, which ought to have signalled the full incarnation of my dream, was contaminated by my knowledge of the theoretical Pammy my wife might have delivered instead. ‘You can’t repeat the past,’ Nick once told me, but he was dead wrong: as long as Tom Buchanan was alive, I couldn’t not repeat it. And it was torture.
I had infinite worlds at my disposal, of course, but I wouldn’t give this one up for anything.
So here I am, several years on, pointing a gun at Tom’s disastrous head. He’s awake now, swimming languid laps in the pool. I’d have a clean shot if I wanted it.
Unfortunately, I’ve been running simulations in the infinite library of my imagination all morning, and I believe I’ve learned some things. Even if I murdered Tom a million times over in a million different worlds, I can no more rid myself of the idea of him than I can rid my son of the boogeyman. And even if I could, what would I be without Tom’s influence on my life? More importantly, what would Daisy be, to me, without Tom’s influence on my life? I can hardly bear to think of it.
I quietly relieve myself in the hedge and stay put until Tom eventually towels off and heads inside. Then I tiptoe from tree to tree until I’m back on the street again, and safe inside my coupé.
Hours later, I stop off at a drugstore in Louisville to pick up some roses for Daisy, who didn’t protest when I told her I wanted to take a long drive in the country today. As soon as I open the front door, little Hughie rushes at me and hugs my legs. Daisy’s right behind him. I hand her the bouquet. She takes it, a little cautiously. ‘How are you feeling?’ she asks.
‘Lucky,’ I say.
Hugh Everett had told me there was nothing that word could possibly mean, and as usual he was probably right, but as I scoop my son up into my arms and Daisy’s pursed lips rise to meet mine, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for the son-of-a-bitch. ∎
Tom Gammarino is author of the novels King of the Worlds and Big in Japan and the novellas Jellyfish Dreams and The Yellows. Recent shorter works have appeared in Utopia Science Fiction, What’s Next: Short Fiction in Time of Change, and World Literature Today. He co-edited Snaring New Suns: Speculative Works from Hawai’i and Beyond. Find him at tomgammarino.com.
Richard Wagner is a graphic designer and illustrator living in the United States. His academic schooling consists of a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with an emphasis in painting and drawing as well as training in graphic design and illustration. For seventeen years he taught college level graphic design and photo-illustration classes while also freelancing. He now works on his own and enjoys focusing on being a designer/illustrator. Richard can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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