About the Poem
Those of you who spend much time at Passions know I often capitalize the word "Truth," and treat it as if it really existed. It doesn't, you know.
If you read this as a science fiction story, you will walk away with one Truth. If, on the other hand, you read it as mainstream fiction, you will find an entirely different version of the Truth. Is one more valid than the other? Or is Truth something that exists only within the human mind?
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|by Ron Carnell|
My name is Lisa Williams and, according to the State of California Fourth District Court, I am hopelessly mad. Of course, no one has ever actually called me mad, at least not to my face. Not even insane, which I might have once expected. During my trial five years ago, the lawyers used more impersonal words, words like deranged and demented, as if such clinical precision could distance them from the human being. The doctors tell me I'm confused.
Nor has anyone ever told me my condition was hopeless. I take my medications daily, participate in group therapy twice a week, and meet with a doctor at least once every month or so. We go through the motions. But after five years the only thing my treatment has accomplished is to make me a little more reluctant to share my real feelings, a little more careful about those I trust. In another five years, I expect I really will be mad. Hopelessly mad.
Maybe the most insane thing about me, though, or about any human being, is that I haven't completely given up hope yet. I keep trying. I continue telling my improbable story, hoping that somewhere in this world there's at least one person who will put two and two together and realize the answer just might be five. In my brighter moments, I like to think I have determination and persistence. The doctors call it a fixation.
Five years ago I was a normal human being, not yet hopelessly mad. I worked as a researcher at a small publishing firm in Los Angeles, making just about enough money to survive. Barely. LA is a city of excesses - excessive violence, excessive prices, excessive dreams - and survival isn't always easy for a young girl just out of college. I shared a one-bedroom apartment in the Valley with Robin Edge.
Robin was seven years older than I was, an up-and-coming junior editor with Oaktree Press. We met the summer before my final year at UCI, at a workshop on short fiction, a workshop I had attended for three years running. Robin and I were the yin and the yang of that workshop, the light and the shadow. She was tall and dark and beautiful, while I was short and blonde and plain. She was from a good family on the East Coast, had a serious degree in business from a small college in a small town, and wanted nothing more in life than to marry and have a dozen kids. I had no family to speak of, was raised in nearby Santa Ana by my widowed aunt, had recently switched my major yet again, this time from Journalism to Communications, and wanted nothing more in life than to be a publishing writer. Yet, in spite of the vast differences in our backgrounds and desires, Robin and I became friends.
I remember the night I moved into her apartment, just a week after she talked her boss into hiring me as a researcher at Oaktree. We were sitting at her small kitchenette table, sharing a bottle of cheap wine after an exhausting day of moving box after box of books from my campus apartment, and she started talking about our friendship.
"Of course we're different," Robin said. "I'm a violin and you're a flute. Two very different instruments. But we're both playing in the same key, Lisa. We harmonize. And that's a hell of a lot better than being the same."
Robin was like that: pragmatic and poetic, realistic and romantic. She was a dichotomy of human traits, a paradox of reason and emotion. On the one hand, she represented so many of the problems I saw in society. The materialistic side of our nature, the staid devotion to success, the eager acceptance of the roles of Wife and Mother. And yet, at the same time, the sensitive side to Robin, the dreamer in her, offered the solutions to those problems. Maybe that's why I loved her.
March 15 was a Tuesday, one that started out as many other days had for the past six months. I laid in bed, sipping the too-hot coffee Robin had brought me, watching her silently dress for work in the near-dark. Neither of us talked much in the early morning, and this morning was earlier even than usual; dawn was still several hours away. Robin put on her dark blue pants suit, the one she bought at Broadway during their post-Christmas sale. That meant today was going to be what Robin called "a real work day," as opposed to "a meeting day." Had she been scheduled to see any authors, Robin would have worn a dress, or perhaps a cotton skirt with white blouse. The pants suit meant she planned to work on manuscripts all day.
She stood in front of the dresser mirror, flicking a brush through her short, thick hair, pushing the dark waves away from her face. Without taking her eyes from her reflection, she reached across the dresser for her perfume. Carefully, she applied two quick sprays across either side of her neck. I breathed a little deeper and was rewarded with a rich musk scent, the same smell I knew was on the pillow beside me. Setting down the bottle, in the same space it had previously occupied, Robin adjusted her suit jacket and appraised herself in the mirror.
"You look good," I said. She shifted her eyes a fraction, looking over her reflection's shoulder in the mirror, and smiled at my reflection.
"What time are you going to come in?" she asked without turning.
I shrugged my shoulders, almost spilling the hot coffee. "I have to meet a professor at Cal Tech to verify some parts of that physics text. Shouldn't take more than a hour or so. Probably be in the office about nine."
She nodded, picked up her purse, and left the bedroom. A few minutes later I heard the front door open and close. I stayed in bed, listening for the sounds of Robin's Honda, but the other street sounds must have drowned out her car. Somewhere in the complex, far enough away as to not be too irritating, a cat was howling like a human baby, only much louder than any baby could ever cry.
I didn't have to be at Cal Tech until seven o'clock, still three hours away. I thought about going back to sleep for an hour or two. I wasn't really the early-morning person Robin was, and it had taken me several months to adjust to her strange hours. Whenever her work load got heavy, she preferred going in early to staying late. Me, I looked forward to any opportunity to sleep in. Robin said that would change when I got older. The coffee had already done its job of waking me, though, as Robin probably knew it would, so I crawled out of bed to refill my cup. The kitchen linoleum was like ice on my bare feet.
I instinctively wandered to my small desk, standing in one corner of the living room. Briefly, I thought about getting in a few hours on my own writing, but didn't really feel like it. Instead, I decided to prepare for my interview by going over the notes on the physics manuscript. That's when I discovered the notes were missing. I went through my backpack three times, pulling out all the folders and quickly looking inside each, but the physics manuscript and notes were both conspicuously absent. I must have left them at the office.
For one quick moment, I considered going to the interview without the notes. The Cal Tech professor would have a copy of the manuscript, I knew, and I could probably remember all of the major questions in the notes. And if I forgot to ask something important? Mark, the editor handling the physics manuscript, would have my head. It just wasn't worth it, not when I had plenty of time to drive to the office and retrieve the notes.
It was a quarter to five by the time I left the apartment, still early enough to beat the traffic. The Interstate was as empty of cars as it ever gets in LA, with more eighteen-wheelers than anything else, and I pulled into our Wilshire office parking lot about twenty minutes later. Taking the elevator up to the fourth floor, I was mentally rehearsing how I would tell Robin I had screwed up and forgotten the notes.
The overhead florescents were off and I left them that way. There was enough light streaming in the large office windows, some of it moon and star light, but mostly street lights, to guide me to my small cubicle. Once there, though, I realized it was too dark behind the wall partitions to even attempt finding the physics notes. Robin's office was adjacent to my area, nine or ten feet away, one of the four enclosed rooms at Oaktree. Her door was ajar a few inches, light spilling out like a narrow spotlight across the carpeted floor.
The first thing I noticed when I walked into Robin's office was the naked woman bent over the desk. She had blazing red hair, the color of the clay found in some parts of the Midwest, only far more intense and saturated. It was long, too, and thick, and fell over her leaning shoulders, hiding her face. She was slender, but well muscled, especially her legs. Her complexion was typical redhead, pasty white with uncountable freckles. She had very small breasts, the kind that ignore gravity. Narrow hips. No tan marks.
The second thing I noticed was Robin. She was slumped over in her chair, her head lying sideways on the keyboard in front of her. The PC was beeping incessantly in irritation. There was blood everywhere, pooling across the desk, soaking the papers, dripping to the floor, turning the blue of Robin's jacket to muddy black. In Robin's left eye, the eye closest to the keyboard, was a letter-opener, three or four inches of its length buried. The other eye seemed to be staring, vacantly, at the woman with red hair.
I must have made a noise, something loud enough to be heard over the PC's beeping. A gasp? A sob? The redhead jerked up and stared into my face. Her expression never changed, never registered shock or dismay or fear. Or remorse. If there was anything at all to see in her face, it was maybe annoyance. Her eyes were green. There was a smudge of blood on one cheek, and a few darkened strands of hair were stuck in it.
She stared into my eyes for what could have been five seconds or five hours. Then, seemingly dismissing me as unimportant, she returned to examining the papers on Robin's desk.
I think I almost fainted. How many emotions can the human brain handle before it shuts itself down? Shock. Grief. Anger. Each warred inside me, leaving me dizzy and disoriented. Maybe I would have passed out, too, but in the end one emotion won over all the others: anger.
There was no skill in my attack, no finesse, no thought of what I could accomplish. I just threw myself at the woman with red hair, my flailing arms and twisted fingers embodiments of my hate and anger. We crashed against the file cabinet, then tumbled to the floor, my left hand twisted in her mane of hair, my right grasping for her throat. She was using both her hands, and all her strength, to keep me from reaching her throat. Her head was twisted by the pressure I was applying on her hair, her face involuntarily facing the ceiling, but her eyes continued to focus on the threat of my right hand. She twisted, her elbow arching out and hitting me in the nose. A sharp pain, then the taste of my own blood flowing freely. But my anger gave me determination, my hate gave me power, and my hand, fingers crabbed like a claw, slowly drew closer. In that instant, I knew I would kill the woman with red hair if I was able.
There was a sudden wrenching feeling in my gut, the kind of intense dropping you feel on a roller coaster. My eyes were still open, I could still see the redhead with her throat just inches from my outstretched hand, but everything around us was a shimmering sheet of light. Like visual white static. And then I felt hands clutching at me, dragging me off my prey.
"What the hell's going on?" a man's voice asked from behind me.
"She killed Robin!" I screamed.
"She was in contact during transition," the woman with red hair said, far calmer than she had any right to be.
"A fair understatement," said the male voice. "Get a sedative while I hold her."
I twisted then, trying to break free, but the man had me from behind by both arms, just above the elbows, and was too strong. I whipped my head back, trying to hit him, and tried to stomp on his feet. And that's when I realized I wasn't wearing any clothes. My dress was gone, my shoes were gone, my nylons were gone. I could see the small indentations in my skin where the elastic of my underclothes had pressed. I was as naked as the redhead.
And the room! This wasn't Robin's office any longer. There was no file cabinet, no desk, no beeping PC, no blood-spattered Robin. The room was larger. There was cold cement beneath my bare feet, painted off-white. The plaster walls were painted the same sterile color, and the cabinets lining one wall were a washed out green. There was a huge machine in one corner, all plastic and steel, colored lights blinking on and off like an old vacuum tube computer, spreading an almost inaudible humming throughout the room. Next to the machine, directly in front of me, was a small platform, and next to that was a wooden table, empty save for a few papers, with a single chair. Overhead, naked incandescent bulbs cast everything in a harsh, shadowless light.
"Hold her," said the redhead, returning from one of the cabinets with a hypodermic. I twisted again, struggling to break free. I lashed out with both legs, supported entirely by the man, trying to kick the redhead, or at least keep her away from me. But the man held me tight and the redhead approached from the side, and when she grew too near I stopped struggling. Funny; I was more afraid of having the needle break off in my arm than I was of what was in the hypo.
"OK," said the redhead, shoving the needle into my shoulder, "she'll be a little calmer in a minute."
The drug must have been some kind of muscle relaxant. Within seconds my legs turned to silly putty, and my head dropped forward onto my bare chest. I felt myself being lifted, then gently set on the table. I could still see, though I had trouble focusing and had no will or strength to turn my head.
"Did you destroy the book?" asked the man.
"It wasn't there."
"This whole mission is falling apart. Any idea who she is?"
"At this point, I'm not sure it matters."
"I hope you're right, actually," the man said, sighing softly. "It'll make things easier. But we have to be sure."
"OK," the redhead said after a short pause. "She must have been an employee. I'll check the records."
I heard the sound of a door opening and closing. Time passed, what seemed like hours. My muscles were so relaxed, I think I almost fell asleep. But a mixed knot of fear and anger in my gut, a knot that wouldn't be relaxed by drugs, kept me awake and waiting. Finally, I heard the door again.
"Got it," the woman said as she closed the door behind her. "And you're not going to like it."
"She's Central, then?"
"No. Never comes anywhere near the Movement, either for or against. But her daughter does. Seems she got the entire Berkeley chapter off the ground."
There was silence for several moments, nothing but the continuous background hum and the muted sounds of pacing. My daughter? The Movement? Nothing was making any sense.
"She has to go back, then," the man said at last. "We don't have any other choice."
"It may already be too late, you know. We may have already changed history just by bringing her here."
"Maybe. But you and I are still standing here, so the damage might be repairable."
"You know that doesn't mean anything. The temporal waves wouldn't reach here for hours yet. And if they're severe enough, you and I won't feel shit anyway."
"Yea," he sighed. "But we have to try, right?"
"Yea," the woman answered, her voice still as calm as ever. "We have to try."
"You calibrate. Most of it's already set. I'll put her on the pad."
I felt myself being lifted again, then gently set down. The background hum moved to the foreground, turning fierce and shrill. There was that gut wrenching drop again, and my eyes filled with white static. It must have finally been too much for my over-loaded brain: I fainted.
I've always been grateful I wasn't conscious when Mark found Robin and I that morning, her sitting in a pool of her own blood and me lying naked on the floor beside her. Hearing his testimony was bad enough. By the time I awoke I was already on an ambulance gurney, properly covered with a sheet. And babbling, of course.
I told my story to the police. And to the lawyers. And to the psychiatrists. And, finally, to a jury. I even took lie detector tests, several of them over the course of those few months. I didn't realize, until the trial, that passing all of those tests only proved I couldn't be sane. I told the same story under hypnosis, too. Same result.
Robin's parents flew into LA the following Friday for the funeral, and I tried to explain to them what happened. I had just been released on bail that morning, and it was as hard for me as I know it must have been for them; I think Robin would have been proud I made the attempt. Robin's mother cried a lot. Her father got a court injunction, preventing me from coming within fifty yards of them.
I've had a lot of time in the past five years to think about what happened to Robin. What happened to me. I still have more puzzles than solutions, more questions than answers. But I've reached a few conclusions. I know, for example, that the woman with red hair was wrong when she said I wasn't for or against the Movement. Dead wrong, I hope.
I have only one weapon to use against my enemies. If I fail, I know I will just draw their attention to me again. There's no sanctuary deep enough, no refuge dark enough, to hide from them; they can find me any place, any time. Especially any time. Sometimes I wake up at night, imagining I hear a background humming and expecting to open my eyes to see the woman with red hair standing over me. My single chance for survival is to insure she never has the opportunity to exist.
My sword is this story.
If time travel is discovered in the next few years, even if it's just shown to be possible, someone involved with it just might hear my tale. They just might believe. And if that doesn't happen -- I know it's a long shot -- then telling my story over and over will probably keep me institutionalized for the rest of my life. But that's ok, too. I figure the chances of having a daughter are pretty slim as long as I remain hopelessly mad.