I remember my name.
The nurse who comes and goes like a shadow tells me that the year is 1945, and I remember small fragments, scattered shards of memory. I recall gadgets that seem both alien and familiar; wars and tragedies that haven't happened yet and atrocities committed centuries ago; the smells of blood, fire, death. Entire universes opening up and swallowing galaxies. And from a small warm bundle, a tiny hand reaching up to catch the hot tears that run off my face. Arms around me, a wife, a family.
I wake up alone. But I remember my name. Spencer. I say it over and over in my mind. Spencer. This one small piece makes me feel less untethered from the world, as if knowing my name makes me more real. I’m not a ghost, even if I feel like one. I have a name. I don’t know if it’s my first or last name, but it’s something. I am something. I just don’t know what yet.
Untethered. Just thinking the word makes me anxious. I feel as though it has a deeper meaning, though I can't quite remember it. My mind is shattered glass, cracked, fragile. Broken into tiny pieces that don't make sense.
“You’re awake,” says a soft voice. A woman’s silhouette fills the doorway and then she steps into the light. She moves her hips as she walks, her red hair slipping over one eye. She laughs and pushes it back carelessly. I can’t remember if I know her, but seeing her makes me feel uneasy, and I clench my fists as she fixes me with her bedroom eyes.
“Hey, stranger,” she says, and she smiles, her teeth whiter than white. “I was so worried.”
I watch her without speaking as she sidles up to the bed. She looks older close up. In her late forties, maybe, but it's hard to tell under the makeup caked on her pale skin. When she takes my hand, I want to pull away. Her blue eyes are cold and her smile is too perfect. Her lipstick is deep red, and shines like it’s wet.
“Do I know you?” I say. The redhead rolls her eyes and laughs again. She sounds forced, fake.
“Of course, darling,” she drawls. “I’m your loving wife. Now let’s get you out of here, I hate hospitals.”
“You’re my wife,” I repeat.
“You really don’t remember?” Her eyes go sad, but not really. There’s a chill that stays.
“What’s my name?” I say.
She raises a perfect eyebrow. “Spencer McQuarrie, of course. I am Mrs. McQuarrie.”
“What’s your name?”
“Rita,” she says, and she looks it. I believe she’s a Rita, but my wife? My stomach feels like a bag full of eels when I look at her.
“I don’t remember you,” I say.
“It’ll come back,” she says. “It always does.”
“This happened before?”
She nods and her eyes fill with tears.
“What’s wrong with me?”
“In the war,” she says. “You saved another man in your platoon when the Germans dropped a bomb.
You got all torn up. Shrapnel.”
“There are no scars,” I say.
“It was a while ago,” she says, not looking at me. “Spence, why are you being this way? Don’t you want to come home?”
“There would be scars,” I say. “Shrapnel leaves a scar.”
“Are you saying I’m lying?” she says, the tears stopping. “Your own wife is a liar?”
“I don’t know you,” I say. “Who’s to say you’re not just someone off the street?”
“How do I know your name, then?”
“I don't know if it is my name,” I say, but I'm lying. It's my name and I know it. My mind twitches. Names.
Have I had more than one? Why would I have more than one name?
“You selfish bastard,” she says, and her eyes are cold again. She tosses her hair back and narrows her eyes into pretty little daggers looking for a vein. “You're coming home with me whether you like it or not.
You’re my husband. You belong with me.”
“I'm not going anywhere with you,” I say.
She turns and walks to the door, stopping before she turns the handle, her handbag swinging from her arm.
“You’re going to regret this, Spencer McQuarrie.”
“I already do.”
She slams the door and the cheap pictures on the wall shudder. I push the blankets away and swing my legs over the side of the bed. I have to get out of here. A panic rises up from my guts, turning my stomach to acid. This is wrong, all wrong. I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be. The thought stops me as I put my bare feet on the cool tile floor.
I shouldn’t be, I think to myself. And now I know four things: My name is Spencer McQuarrie, I dislike the redhead who claims to be my wife, I have to get out of this hospital, and I shouldn’t be. Be what? Here? A person? Alive? I shake my head. I can’t think straight. I try to remember Rita, how I know she isn't my wife, but all I get is a headache.
I stand up, head swimming, as if it’s stuffed with cotton. I’m thirsty and spend a good minute slurping from the little sink in the room. Then I open up the wardrobe. There’s a shopping bag stuffed with clothes and I pull them out, piece by piece.
“Oh, hell,” I say. What used to be a suit is now shredded into strips and small scorched pieces. A blue tie survived, but it’s twisted and stretched and stained with what looks like blood. There’s a thin robe on a hanger and I grab it, put it on, knot the belt.
Clothes will have to come later. The panic in my chest is forcing me to move, to run, to flee. I poke my head out the door and see two men with badges talking to a nurse down the hall. I go the opposite way and turn the corner, peeking my head around to look back. I see the cops, one broad and fat and the other short and stocky, go into my room. I turn and run, my bare feet whapping against the floor, my robe flying out behind me like a cape. I hear people yelling after me, nurses, doctors, but I keep going.
It’s hot outside, and so humid the air feels like soup. I look around and recognize some of the buildings, but the panic is still urging me on. I start running and realize that my body seems to know where I’m going, even if my brain doesn't. I trust the feeling and in a few blocks allow myself to stop running and walk. I've cut my foot on something and feel a twinge of pain with every step, a heel-print of red following me. Sweat is pouring off my forehead and soaking my hospital gown and robe. I’m feeling lightheaded and thirsty, but I cut a path through the streets, toward the destination my slow, sodden brain can’t quite remember.
On the street corner, a black man with a saxophone stops playing and stares at me for a second before his face cracks into a wrinkled grin.
“Damn, you escape from the crazy house?” He doubles over in laughter. Men in suits, their faces a sheen of sweat, pass by us, scowling at me. A white woman gasps audibly and crosses the street. At the nearest bodega, an old man in a short-sleeved shirt comes out and shakes his head at me, muttering in Spanish.
“Come on now,” says the old man with the sax. “You’re scaring all the white people away.” He nods at the open saxophone case, littered with a few nickels and dimes.
“Where am I?” I say. I wipe my forehead with my palms and rub them against my robe.
The old man laughs again and I feel like I should be angry with him, but there’s no malice in his laughter and I find myself wanting to laugh with him. I look down at myself, brown legs sticking out of a thin cotton robe, drenched in sweat.
“You a mess, kid.”
“Yeah,” I say, wiping the sweat from my eyes with the back of my hand.
He pulls a packet out of his shirt pocket and offers me a cigarette. I take one and my hands are shaking. He lights it with a wooden match that he strikes on the brick wall behind him.
“You been through some shit today, haven’t you?” His eyes are smiling as he lights his own cigarette, the saxophone hanging off his shoulder.
I nod and inhale the smoke, closing my eyes as the nicotine hits me.
“You in N'awlins, kid. Can't you tell?” He waves his hand around, holding his lit cigarette.
I look around. It’s all familiar. I know I’ve been here, maybe even lived here. I should be looking for someone, but I just can’t remember.
“Hey, it’s okay, man,” says the old saxophone player. “Maybe you better get yourself back to the hospital.”
“I can’t,” I say. “There’s some policemen looking for me.”
“Oh, it’s like that, is it?” he says, narrowing his eyes. “What you done, then?”
I shake my head. “I wish to God I could remember.”
“Well,” he said, drawing on his smoke, “you don’t look like a killer.”
“I don’t think I am,” I say hopefully and the man laughs again.
“Yeah, I don’t reckon I can see you killing anybody,” he says.
“I guess I’ll sound real stupid if I ask what year it is?” I say.
“Oh, shit, son,” he says, and he doesn’t laugh this time. “It’s 1945. War just ended. You sure you’re okay?”
“No,” I say. “Thanks for the smoke.” I start to walk away.
“Where you going?” he says. “You don’t even know where you are and you just going to walk through
the streets like that?”
“I know where I’m going,” I say, waving.
He laughs. “Okay, kid. You be safe out there.”
The French Quarter makes itself known before I even get there. There's shouting and singing and music in the streets: all kinds of different people playing, singing, dancing, laughing. Happy. I see a chaotic parade as I approach, but as I limp closer, it's just a long line of happy drunks, bottles sloshing with various colored liquids, eyes red and laughter on their lips. I see two men fighting, a plump but pretty white woman watching them as she smokes a cigarette.
“What's going on?” I ask her.
She looks at me, focusing slowly, blowing smoke in my face.
“War's over,” she slurs. “Or ain't you heard?”
“Oh, yeah,” I say. “I did hear that somewhere.”
Her lips raise up in a smile. “You're a funny one. Want a drink?” She raises a grubby bottle to her own plump lips and drinks, watching me.
“No thanks,” I say. “There's somewhere I have to be. I think.”
“Hey,” says one of the men fighting. The other stops grappling with him to look. “That's my girl.”
“Don't worry,” I say, walking away. “You can keep her.”
“Put some pants on and you'd be taking me home, green eyes,” the woman calls. “So I can take them off of you.” I hear her explode with laughter as I weave my way through the crowd. It's only late afternoon, but the clubs and the bars are already bursting with people and sounds and smells. Cajun spices fill the air, mingling with sweat and booze and the old urine and garbage that flow from every alley. It's all familiar, but more than that. Through the chaos, all the sounds and smells and laughter give me a sense of calm. This is where I belong.
A large black woman in a headdress is dancing on top of a pedestal, three men attacking the drums below her. Jazz and blues and big band music are bumping up against one another in a cacophony of sound that is completely perfect.
I make my way through the revelers as best I can. In a few blocks, the crowds start to thin. I let my feet guide me to a small street, too narrow to hold more than one car. There are no people in sight, no traffic, no parades or revelers or dancers. I can hear the party, but it is distant, as if happening in another world. The buildings are nondescript ugly gray squares: an apartment building, a storage facility, offices. Except for one: a small green shop set into the middle of the block. The front is dominated by a picture window made up of dozens of panes of thick glass filled with bubbles. It has an odd green tint, as though made in another century. The sign, too, looks as if it came from another era. In antique lettering running across the top of the building near the roof, the cracked and peeling letters say: TRAVELER'S CLOCKS.
I stop, staring at the building. In the alley next to it, I can see a line of tidy garbage cans, clean and shining, as if they've never been used. I cross the street, my feet on fire from the heat radiating from the street. I peer into the little panes of glass, trying to see inside. This is where I need to be. Faces peer at me from the apartments next door, the wrought iron bars on their windows starting to rust. I find a key under the doormat and pick it up.
With the key halfway in the lock, I feel a hand on my back and turn, but there's no one there. I'm shaking so hard I can barely get my hand on the knob, but manage to open the door and a bell tinkles.
“Spencer,” a voice says, and I stiffen.
I turn again and Rita's there, smiling in the sun.
“Don't be this way, Spencer.” Her voice changes, goes cold. Her lip curls, then she turns her head and smiles as a shining car pulls up the curb. Rita looks back at me and I know she's not my wife. Not my friend.
“You should have listened,” she says. “My friends aren't so nice as me. I would have taken you away from all this. We could be happy.”
The car looks new and expensive and a behemoth of a man steps out of the driver's seat, skin dark against his white suit. He's wearing a matching fedora that's too small for his head. He comes around and opens the rear door and a man steps out, dressed to the nines. He's tall and thin with a dangerous look to his eyes. He lights on me and smiles, his teeth long and straight.
“Well, Mr. McQuarrie,” he says. “As I live and breathe.” There's a Creole lilt to his voice and I can see a thin white scar running across his neck, just above his shirt collar, bright against his copper skin. A third occupant of the car, sitting in the passenger seat, is staring at me with bulging, bloodshot eyes.
“Do I know you?” I say, holding onto the doorknob for balance. Sweat stings my eyes and my vision keeps swimming with black spots.
Rita laughs and my stomach turns cold.
“He's good, isn't he?” she says to the man in the dark suit.
The man takes a step toward me, shaking a finger. I see the behemoth watching me warily, his hand now moving slowly into his jacket. There are heavy bulges in both of their jackets. Guns.
“I don't know,” says the man. “Something happened to you, McQuarrie, didn't it? Something that shook you. You look like shit, man. You're a pale reflection of who you used to be.”
“Did I do something to you?” I look back to the man in the car, still staring at me with mad, bulging eyes. Something about him sends a thrill of panic through me.
“See,” says the man in the suit, continuing as though I hadn't spoken, “my friend there, he told me everything. All you did. All you saw. At least all that he knew of, which I'm going to bet ain't the whole story.” The smile disappears from his face and his expression is like knives. “I want to know how you did it, McQuarrie. How did you survive?”
“Something's wrong with my head,” I say. I stagger a little, my hand slipping on the doorknob. “I don't know what's happening. I can't remember. Anything.”
“It's okay,” he says, his voice low and more deadly. “I'm going to get it out of you. You don't remember me, that's okay. Scarasse. Louis Scarasse. Now we know each other. Let's take a little ride in my car and we'll talk. Now that we're friends.”
The behemoth was coming toward me, slowly, not in a hurry.
“Look, I don't know what you want from me,” I say, “but there must be some mistake. I woke up in the hospital. They said I was some kind of veteran.”
Scarasse laughs. “War hero, eh? There is a war, that's true enough. But I'm the hero here. They're all looking for you, did you know? All your little friends have turned against you. They know you're running around untethered, McQuarrie.”
That word again.
“Maybe he really doesn't remember, Louis,” says Rita, looking at me. “Maybe he doesn't know.”
“Well, we'll get this all figured out, won't we?” He smiles.
The behemoth is right in front of me now and reaches his hand out, grabs the back of my neck. I see a figure standing right behind him and I go even weaker. A tall man, thin as a skeleton, stands between the behemoth and Scarasse. His eyes bore into me and I can see that they're not just red, but glowing. He's wearing a top hat, with two pointed horns rising up on either side of the brim. He smiles at me. I look at Scarasse, but he doesn't seem to notice. The man in the car starts to scream.
The behemoth loosens his grip on my neck and I fall on the stoop. The man with the horns isn't staring at me anymore, he's not even next to me. He's sitting in the car. I don't even see him move, but he's suddenly inside the car. I can't see what he's doing, but I see the man in the passenger seat gyrating and spasming as if having a fit. And then he goes still and I can see that the horned man is holding his coat open. Something is moving there, out of his coat, slithering and shifting, like snakes, but without substance. I blink and the horned man is standing outside the car now, looking at me.
“What the hell?” says Scarasse, opening the car door. The man falls onto the pavement, blood trickling from his mouth. The behemoth walks over and puts a hand on the fallen man's wrist and shakes his head. Scarasse looks at me.
“What did you do, traveler?” he says. “Is that really McQuarrie in there?”
“What? I didn't do anything,” I say. “It was him.” I point at the man in the top hat and horns, grinning at me from beside Scarasse. But Scarasse can't see him, I can tell right away. I rub my eyes. “I think I'm hallucinating.”
“Take him,” says Scarasse. “Rita, get this fool out of my car.”
Rita walks over to him, shoes clicking on the sidewalk, and looks down at the dead man. “What do you want me to do?”
“Pull him out, leave him, bury him, what the hell do I care?”
The behemoth grabs my arm and hauls me up. There's a strange vibration in the air, and I'm sure I'm hallucinating that, too, because no one even looks up. The hair on my arms and the back of my neck is standing on end. The man in the top hat is gone and Rita is dragging the dead man out of the car as best she can as Scarasse brushes at his suit.
And then I hear her voice.
“Spencer,” she says, and I know that voice in my bones. Down to the darkest depths of my soul, I know her. As the behemoth pulls me by my arm to the car, I turn around and see her standing in the mouth of the alley, gasping for breath. Her clothes are hanging in tatters and she has to hold on to the side of the building for support. Her hair clings to her face, but I can see her dark eyes shining. Her skin shows through her clothes, the fabric now in ashes that fall away from her legs and stomach and arms and float to the ground like snow. A white woman comes up behind her, older and wiry, in a similar state of disrepair, though her steely hair is holding tight in a severe bun on the top of her head. The old woman fiddles with a case next to her and comes back with a gun half as big as she is.
“Stop!” she says, and to my surprise, everyone stops. “That man is wanted for questioning. Hand him over to me or there's going to be hell to pay, Scarasse.”
“Spence, I've been looking for you so long.”
“Josephine,” I say. “Your name is Josephine. I remember.”
“Yes,” she says, with a fragile smile.
“Enough,” says the wiry woman at Josephine's side. “Hand him over.”
Rita has stopped trying to lug the dead man onto the sidewalk and she's standing next to me now. The behemoth has his hand on his weapon, his muscles coiled. He lets go of me and I fall over again, nearly passing out, but fighting it. I look at Josephine again and I feel like I can look at her forever. She's crying and I wonder what's happened to make her so sad.
“Oh, Jesus, enough,” says Rita, pulling something out of a handbag. There's a flash in the sun, a reflection of something large and shiny. And when I realize what Rita is holding, it's already too late, because she's already squeezing the trigger. No hesitation.
I see the blood running out of Josephine's chest, but before I can register what just happened, the air is filled with a deafening barrage of shots. The old white woman is firing a Tommy gun towards us, most of the bullets hitting Rita. The behemoth is hit but fires back at the old woman, hitting her in the arm.
She screams, but keeps shooting.
Josephine falls and I hear myself screaming. I feel the tears on my face. I see her collapse, crumpling to the ground quickly, not making a sound. Then all I can see are her bare feet, sticking out of the alley, blood trickling out between her toes and flowing between the cobblestones. Someone is pulling me, shoving me, putting me into the car, and Rita is crying for real now.
“Don't leave me,” Rita says. I don't realize until much later that she is talking to me.
I know two more things now: Josephine is my wife. And Rita just killed her.
Scarasse is in the driver's seat as I collapse into the back.
“It's just business,” he says, but he sounds scared. His hands are shaking so hard it takes three tries to get the key into the ignition. “It was an accident. I didn't know she was going to do that. I did not know.”
He looks over at Josephine's feet. “It's for the best, but he's not going to like this.”
Scarasse shakes his head, shifting the car into drive. “The boss.” He glances at me through the rearview mirror.
“Who's your boss?” I hear myself say, my voice a million miles away.
He doesn't answer.
Another rider is in the passenger seat now, top hat in his lap. I see his horned head turned, looking at Scarasse and laughing. The horned man turns to look at me, eyes glowing red.
Then I'm falling, and the sensation is so real and familiar that it's better than losing consciousness in a car. I'm falling away from the world, away from the smell of blood, from horned men in top hats. I'm falling and I remember the word that puzzled me before.
“Untethered,” I whisper to myself, finally getting it, finally understanding. Untethered from time and space. I fall into blackness, into a void, into nothing, and it feels better than anything. Better than Scarasse's threats, better than the clock shop.
Better than watching my wife die in an alley.
The tears float off into space without a sound.
Time passes, but doesn't. I'm floating for seconds and for an eternity. My tears dry and the nothing in which I'm floating starts to close in. I can't breathe or speak or scream. Images flash through my head so fast I can't latch onto them, except the one that is repeated. Over and over, I see a child, a girl with cinnamon skin and dark ringlets surrounding a cherubic face. Her eyes are startlingly green, like light shining through emeralds, and seeing her face takes everything out of me. Every emotion, any breath left in my lungs, any life remaining in my weakened body. Everything.
Shapes emerge in the void. suggestions of color and forms. I feel breath against my ear and a woman's voice whispers to me.
“Don't you remember?”
I can't see her, can't turn to look. The colors are growing in intensity. It's like a sunset, only vastly brighter and more beautiful. Out of the blackness comes a shock of magenta, followed by swirls of violet and turquoise and behind it all, a white light so bright that I fear it will burn my eyes. But I don't stop looking, I can't look away, because the beauty is so immense, so all-encompassing, so complete.
There are more voices now. There's a second, then a third, then a hundred different voices, and they're all whispering to me. I can't make them out, can't understand what they're trying to tell me, what they're asking me to do. I want to cover my ears, but my arms won't move.
With a slight lurch, I feel my feet standing on the solid roof of a tall building. The voices slowly ebb away and I'm looking out over a sea of water, green and brown, rising up over an infinity of rooftops. The water is rushing in, the colors of the void rising above it all like fireworks frozen in time.
Then she's standing in front of me. A woman with braids in her hair. She seems so familiar. She's walking toward me and I can see that her feet aren't touching the rooftop. She's floating just above the real world, the colors of the nebula surrounding the top of her head like a halo. There's a white sash tied around her eyes, and she's carrying a small bundle. A person. A child. Small and limp.
“Don't you remember?” she says.
I'm staring at the body in her arms, and I almost do remember, I can almost grasp it, but then it's gone, and so is the child.
“Remember what?” I say. “I can't remember anything.”
“That's not true,” she says, her arms now at her sides. “You remember her.”
The woman turns her face to the sky, which is bleeding color, the stars shining through like diamonds.
She raises her arms to her sides, her feet together, like Christ on the cross. She lowers her face, looks toward me again, and smiles. Tears are falling down her face, but they're the color of the sky, varicolored and beautiful. She has sky on her face and it seeps through the sash covering her eyes.
“Josephine,” she whispers, and I feel it as if she is saying the word directly into my ear.
Then the world opens up. A crack in the veneer. The water separates and I can see the city again. A street. An alley, now empty, which before was covered in Josephine's blood.
“She was everything,” I say, and I know it's the truth.
“She can be again,” says the woman. She's not smiling anymore, and she looks so familiar that my heart aches. “All of this has happened before.”
It hurts, like a broken heart. And then I'm falling again, and the falling feels familiar, just as the image of the child felt familiar, just as the woman's face was familiar, just as the city was familiar. I can't grasp it. It slips by me like water through a sieve. The familiarity is all I have.
The colors have disappeared, and the woman is gone. The water vanishes as I fall into the crack that divides it. I don't scream, I don't cry. A figure is waiting below, and I can smell the sweetness of her before I'm even on the ground. I know her, I've felt her in my arms. And I can't believe she's real.
“Josephine,” I breathe, and then I hit the ground.
I land with a crack and smell something burning, like a candle going out. Gasping for breath, I blink away the tears of pain as she walks toward me, her shoes clicking on the pavement. Her arms are crossed and she watches me struggling with a small smile of satisfaction. She's wearing a pillbox hat, her hair done in waves that curl around her tawny shoulders. It's night, but the moon is out, bathing her beautiful face in a glow.
“About time,” she says, a coldness in her voice.
“I knew you'd show up eventually. I have something to say to you.”
“You're alive,” I rasp. “Oh my God, Josephine. You're—”
“Save it,” she says, and takes my hand in her gloved one, pulls me to my feet. I reel a bit, but finally manage to stand on my own. What little was left of my gown and robe has burned off of my body, ash falling away, floating to the ground. Josephine is studying me, seeming to make a decision. She nods.
“What do you want to say to me?” I gasp, holding onto the side of the building for support. Josephine narrows her eyes, drops her arms to her sides. She's angry, I can see now, and I strain to understand why. She's alive, is all I keep thinking, and the thought fills me with a warmth that makes me dizzy.
Josephine steps toward me now and my already-stunted breath comes even harder, my heart beats fast in my chest.
When the punch comes, it's a surprise. I taste blood and Josephine shakes her hand like a hero in an old movie, blowing on her knuckles. There's blood on her glove. My blood.
“Did you hear me that time?” she says, as I fall back, hitting the ground hard.
“I heard you,” I say, and I can taste blood in my teeth as I smile, even the pain seeming like an answered prayer.
“Why the hell are you laughing?” she says, her anger growing. I can't help it. I'm smiling up at the moon.
“I'm so happy to see you,” I say.
“Well, the feeling is not mutual,” she says through gritted teeth. But she helps me up again and puts my arm around her shoulders. “Let's get you inside and find you some clothes before someone sees you.”
“Jo?” I say.
“I've lost my mind.”
“That much is clear.”
I wake up to sunlight streaming through a grimy window, warming my face. I run a hand over my cheek and feel the springy softness of a beard. I smell like something that's been a dead a while, but the crisp white sheets and handmade quilt on the bed are clean. I sit up, head swimming, and my cheek is tender where Jo hit me. My head is throbbing so hard that even my hair hurts. I'm naked, so I wrap the sheet around myself and try to stand up. As I fall back onto the bed, I see Jo standing in the doorway, watching in amusement.
“Don't feel so good, do you?” she says. She's holding a steaming cup, which she carries in and sets on the night stand.
“No,” I say. “Feels like I got run over by a truck.”
“That's traveling for you,” she says, purposefully not looking at me. I catch her hand and her eyes widen in surprise. She looks at me and pulls her hand away.
“What's going on?” I say. “Please, Jo. I honestly don't know what's happening.”
She takes a step back and there's hurt in her eyes. And anger.
“I've done something to you,” I say.
“You've got to be kidding,” she says. She stares at me for a long time, like she's trying to decide what to do with me.
“I know we're married,” I say. “I know that I keep turning up in the wrong places. The wrong times. And I think I'm hallucinating because I'm pretty sure I saw the devil kill a man in 1945. And...I saw other things, too.” I take the coffee she set down and take a long drink, letting it burn its way down my throat.
“Everything else, though, it's there, but I can't seem to latch onto it. It keeps slipping away.”
Jo sits down on a rickety wooden chair near the bed. It creaks under her small frame. She's looking at me strangely now. The anger has lessened, but there's something that's replacing it. She wipes a tear away with the back of her hand.
“Spencer,” she says. She opens her mouth to say more, but closes it again. She looks at her hands and gives a bitter laugh before she looks at me again. “Where the hell have you been for the last five years?”
“Yeah, it's been five damn years since you walked away,” she says. The anger is back. “You left me to pick up the pieces. Just left me. I thought I couldn't break any more after she was gone.” She shakes her head and her eyes are far away “I thought I couldn't break a second time. But when you left like that, I broke all over again.”
“After who was gone?” I say, and immediately knew that it was the wrong question. As if I shouldn't ask. I want to take it back because I suddenly realize I don't want to know the answer.
“Jesus,” she says, her voice low. “Spencer.”
She walks away, and I think she's going to leave, but she comes back with a plate of food. Eggs and toast. She puts the plate down noisily on the night stand. I drink my coffee and watch her pace back and forth across the room. She looks at me, annoyed.
“So are you going to tell me?” she says. She's watching me while a storm rages in her head. Different emotions skim the surface of her face: anger, resentment, grief, pain, and maybe even love. I drink my coffee and think about what I saw. Or thought I saw. In 1945, Josephine is killed in front of me. In 1945, she can't be angry or sad or sentimental. In 1945, I'm going to lose her.
“What year is it?” I say.
“Dammit, Spence, what the hell is going on?”
“That's what I've been asking you.”
“It's 1927.” She stalks out of the room. I hear her heels going down the hall, pausing, coming back again. She tosses a newspaper toward me. The New Orleans Tribune. She cocks an eyebrow. “In case you don't believe me.”
“I believe you, Josie.”
“Don't call me that,” she says. “Only my husband calls me Josie.”
“I am your husband.”
She crosses the room quickly and I know she wants to slap me, but she grasps her hands together as if holding herself back. She's taken her gloves off, displaying short, clean fingernails. She crouches down to look up at me. Her eyes are pleading.
“Tell me you're lying, Spencer. Tell me you left me for someone else. To crawl into a bottle. To get away from me. Tell me anything. Please. Just let me hate you for leaving. Allow me to hate you and let you go because you're horrible. Don't pull me back just to break me again.”
I think about Scarasse. I think about Rita, pulling a gun from her purse. I think about Jo, clothes shredded to nothing, looking at me with soft eyes and regret and sadness.
“Yeah,” I say, putting the cup down. I watch her face and I feel like my heart's going to burst. I feel cold and shattered at the thought, but then I remember the woman from the void. She suggested that I could save Jo, that I could make things right.
I could protect her. I could keep her from being in that alley in 1945. I could let her hate me and then she wouldn't try to save me. But I was going to have to lie.
“I was drunk,” I say. “Going from woman to woman. That's all. It was all too much.”
She stands and walks to the window, looks out.
“What was too much?”
I stand and look around for something, anything to wear. If I leave now, maybe she won't come looking for me. This version of Jo doesn't know this version of me yet. I feel sure that I'm right. I have to do this.
“You know,” I say. “Married life. Monogamy. It was too much.”
“What about her?” she says, without turning around.
“Yes, there was a woman,” I say. “I'm no good, Josie. I'll just be on my way.”
“You don't remember,” she says. I can see the tension in her shoulders, the familiar way she's hugging her own arms. “You were telling the truth. You don't remember any of it.”
“No, I do remember, and I don't care. I'm a monster.”
I open a door and it's a closet. There are men's and women's clothes of varying sizes. I find a pair of slacks that look like they'll fit. A button-down shirt. Underclothes on the top shelf. I start pulling them on.
“Her name was Mercy,” Jo says.
I stop dead. Frozen.
“What did you say?” My voice is weak, without force.
“Mercy.” She turns to look at me. I feel my knees turn to jelly when I see she's crying, her eyes red, her face wet and swollen. “Don't you know her name?”
The woman in the void's words echoed in my head: Don't you remember?
“When I was in the void,” I say. “The place where I was sucked through, I saw a child.”
“The void?” she says. “What void?”
“The place you go,” I say, my voice tremulous, “between time.”
She's wiping her face with a handkerchief, dabbing under her eyes. She looks at me and shakes her head.
“Where's your kit, Spencer?”
“My kit? What's a kit?”
“We use the kit to travel,” she says. She's looking at me like I'm something alien, something beyond her understanding. “It has everything you need.” She glances at the corner of the room and I see a silver case. The same kind of case that the old white woman rummaged in before she shot Rita.
“I don't have one,” I say. “I must have lost it.”
She closes her eyes and seems to be collecting herself. I want to go to her, put my arms around her. I don't know her, but I do. I know I do. And she knows me. Doesn't she? Again I feel the odd pang of nonexistence. I woke in the hospital with a feeling of being a ghost, of not belonging in the world. I push away the thought and sit back down on the bed.
“You don't understand,” she says. She opens her eyes and looks straight at me. She's worried. Scared. “You can't travel without a kit.”
“I did,” I say, frowning. “I didn't know. I woke up in a hospital. I didn't have anything.”
“No, Spence, you're not hearing me,” she says. She walks over and sits in the chair again, but leans toward me, and her brown eyes are right in front of me. “You can't travel without a kit. It's impossible.”
I shake my head. My knees are jangling together, my teeth chattering. I'm sweating again, but not from the heat. I look at her and try to say something, but I don't know what to say. I don't know how to be or what I'm feeling. She puts a hand on mine and my knees stop shaking.
“Here's what's going to happen,” she says, her voice not much louder than a whisper. “In about an hour, someone is going to show up here. They're going to take you and I don't know what they're going to do with you. I don't know where you'll go or if I'll ever see you again. They've never seen anyone like you. No one has ever gone rogue before.”
“Untethered,” I mumble.
“Spencer,” she says. “This is serious. I want you to go take a shower because you smell like something that crawled up from the sewer right now, and it's hard to blend in when you smell like shit. Then you're going to get dressed as quick as you can, and we're going to go somewhere.”
“Does it matter?”
“Will you do as I say?”
“Why don't you stay and I'll go,” I say. “I don't want you to get hurt. You could tell them I had a gun. Say anything, as long as you're safe.”
“No,” she says. “You won't make it without me.”
“What makes you say that?”
She smiles and it's glorious. I swear I hear choirs singing when she smiles.
“Because I know all the best places,” she says, “and you don't know your ass from a toaster right now.”
“You make a fine argument, but...” I say.
I decide that I should refuse her. I will say something that makes her want to leave me to the wolves. I should stay and let them take me away. Even if they lock me up, at least she'll be safe. She won't be in that alley in 1945. But just as I'm about to announce my decision, she stands up, hovering over me. She lifts my face and I'm looking into those wide brown eyes. And when she kisses me, I see the flash of stars and colors and frozen fireworks in a dark world. A nebula opens up and I remember what love feels like. It's cold and hot at the same time. It feeds you and consumes you, and makes you feel pleasure so hard that it's almost pain.
That's when I know it's too late. And before I know it, I'm following her out the door in clean clothes, my
face newly shaved.
But I'm holding her hand.
Blood of the Stars is available for pre-order on Amazon and you can find it here on Goodreads.