Lee stared at the checkerboard tiles of the coffee shop floor until they grew crisp and unnatural and he didn’t really see them, every thought draining from his head. A long-forgotten cup sat cold beside him. A pair of legs appeared. He followed them up and found Mike looking down at him. He managed a little laugh and a rueful grin.
“Good morning,” he said. “Come to stare into the abyss with me?”
“You do look lost. What’s wrong?”
Lee gestured to the seat beside him and pushed a copy of Variety across the table.
“Coup de grâce,” he said, tapping his fingers on a headline.
Mike sat and read, “Two More Futures for Stoltz”.
“Oh, man,” he said, shaking his head. “He signed on. I’m sorry, Lee, really. But you knew it was coming.”
“It should have been ours. It was ours, just for the taking. They wanted Michael,” he said, bringing his hand down on the table in a series of little karate chops marking off the path to his undoing. “Michael wanted them.” Another chop. “Life is bright and beautiful.”
“Gary won’t let Michael out of Family Ties.” Chop. “Chance of a lifetime, goodbye.”
“Lee…” Mike tried once more, but knew he was going to hear it all again.
“They go with Stoltz. I get sick of the whole mess and take off for two weeks in a little cabin in the woods. Bob leaves messages.” Chop. “Michael leaves messages.” Chop. “My idiot call service can’t put two and two together and figure out they should call me.”
“You could have left better instructions…” Mike murmured, knowing it would just get swept under the flood.
“I come back, I return calls. Bob was trying one last time. He was willing to scrap it all and start over if there was any chance Michael could do it. They were willing to throw away millions if they could have him. Michael, meanwhile, is calling to say Baxter’s coming back to the show and he’s going to have time again. If I can get him any side projects…”
“I know, I know…”
“Too late then! They were too far in with Stoltz. Damn it, I could have made that deal,” he said, the whole hand coming down flat this time, the sound too loud in the almost-empty shop. “If he had to work 24/7, if he had to live on NoDoz and adrenaline, Michael would have done it. Now he’s moved on to new management – ”
“Can you blame him? He could have had the biggest thing since Star Wars, and all I got him this year was Teen Wolf. Back to the Future mopped up the whole Summer, Stoltz’s face is on every magazine, and I’m the village idiot.”
He realized he was shouting. On the stereo, George Michael was assuring him that he’d never dance again. The barista stopped staring and looked fixedly out the window.
“Sorry…” he said, sinking back in his chair. “I just don’t know if you understand how bad this is. I was on my way with Michael… and a few smaller clients. I was making a name for myself, a solid reputation in the business. Now I’m poison. I’d be in Carson’s monologue if it wasn’t so Inside Baseball. I don’t see how I ever claw my way out of this.”
“You’re blowing it up. It’s just a setback, Lee. It could happen to any of us. Could be me tomorrow, it’s not like I have tenure. You’ve just got to take time to regroup and get back in there.”
“It could be you? How? Unless you blow up a chem lab, you’re never going to be the kind of pariah I am. You’ve got security. Me, I’ve got… Wait, speaking of that, shouldn’t you be teaching?”
“I took a sick day.”
“A sick day? You look fine.”
Lee looked at him closely, and a smile spread across his face.
“Mike… ? Mikey, playing hooky? My world is upside down.”
“Something came up, something important.”
“It would have to be.”
“I could use your help. I am sorry about all this, really I am, but right now we have worse problems than career troubles. Much, much worse.”
“Oh, that’s perfect. How did you guess? I could use worse. Worse is just what I was hoping for.”
“Can you come with me? I’ll have to show you something.”
Lee laughed. “It is Freaky Friday. Where were you all those times I wanted to cut class?”
“Where were you when any of your cool friends came around?”
“Mike, we’ve been through that a…”
“Right. So just come on. Just give me a couple of hours of your time. Please.”
He thought it over. Mike looked earnest, but then, Mike always looked earnest. Still, what was the alternative? Go to his office and listen to the phone not ring all day? He shrugged, and got up and went with him.
Mike drove into the hills and up side roads that made Lee more uneasy with each twist and climb. At last, they came to a dead end. A set of railroad tracks led onto a trestle bending around a canyon dropping far below. They got out, and Mike got a couple of things from the trunk.
“What’s here?” Lee asked.
“Nothing,” Mike said, “it’s just out of the way. This line ran to a mine that was abandoned years ago. No one will be around to see us.”
“To see us doing what? And… why the pumpkin?”
Mike was holding an impressive specimen of the species under one arm.
“Come on, I’ll show you,” he said, starting for the bridge.
Lee stiffened and held back.
“Um, no, you go ahead. I’ll watch.”
“You can watch out there with me. You’ll see better.”
“No, I’m fine here. Really. I can see.”
“Look, it’ll just take a minute…”
“No!” Lee shouted.
Mike stared at him. Lee held his gaze for a minute, then looked at the ground, red with embarrassment.
“You’ve got the wrong guy,” he said. “I have to call somebody to get on a chair to change a light bulb. I can’t get anywhere near that, unless you want to drive me to the E.R. with a heart attack.”
“What? When did this start?”
“Oh…” He considered. “Around the time I was born, I guess.”
“We’ve been friends since grade school. Why am I just learning this now?”
“You remember grade school? And high school? Would you want it to get around?”
“No.” Mike thought back. It felt good to know even Lee had been afraid. “I guess not. Certainly not with that crowd you ran with.” He looked down the tracks. “This may be a problem. Ok, just watch from here for now. And I mean watch. Don’t take your eyes off this pumpkin for a moment.”
He said it with a gravity that almost stifled Lee’s involuntary laugher, then reinforced it and shoved it out in a snort. Mike glared. Lee tried to straighten himself and look apologetic, then wondered what he was feeling sorry about. I mean, come on.
Mike sat the pumpkin on the ground and squatted down to attach the other thing he’d gotten out of the trunk. Lee eyed it curiously. It was a small device like a Walkman, but not much bigger than a deck of cards. It had a couple of dials on the front and a switch on top, but was otherwise unremarkable. A metallic silver belt was fastened to the back of it, and Mike used this to secure it to the pumpkin. He twisted the dials and flipped the switch. A red light started blinking on and off in the upper right corner.
Mike stood up with the pumpkin and said, “Lee, I’m serious, you’ve got to watch what happens next. It’s important that you believe it.”
Lee thought he shouldn’t worry. Whatever was going on, he had his attention now.
Mike walked alongside the tracks until he came to the trestle and stepped on the narrow walking platform. He went almost halfway down the span, then turned and held the pumpkin over the edge. He looked back at Lee, who nodded and inched forward just enough to have a clear view of where it would land, next to the creek far below.
Mike opened his hands, and down it went, faster and faster, the little red light blinking at Lee all the way down. It reached the spot where Lee had predicted it would hit and smashed into the ground.
Lee stood for a moment with his brows knit, like someone trying to work out a magic trick. What was he supposed to have seen? He couldn’t see a single thing…
Then his body jerked to a start and he felt something crawling all over his skin. Mike was coming back to him.
“Why didn’t I hear it hit?” he asked, and, looking down again, “And why is it black?”
Mike nodded. “Come on,” he said, and started down the side of the ravine.
Lee only fought with himself for a moment, curiosity overwhelming his instinctive fear, and carefully made his much-slower way after him.
The pumpkin was in a tidy pile. Instead of scattering pulp and seeds in every direction, it had left the surrounding ground untouched and had fallen inward in a dark, gooey mess. Mike grabbed a bottom edge and lifted it, showing Lee that where it contacted the ground it was still intact, just a paler shade of orange than it was before it fell.
“Ok,” Lee asked, “So what’s the riddle?”
“Rotted? Since you let go of it up there?”
“No. Since it landed here. It’s been sitting and rotting for a month.”
“Oh, ok,” Lee said. “Sure. And Arnold Schwarzenegger’s the governor.”
“Look… Come sit down,” Mike said, pointing to a couple of rocks nearby. They sat, and Mike took a long breath.
“Last year, when you were trying to make a deal with Zemeckis, he mentioned he needed a technical consultant. Somebody to punch up the time travel mumbo-jumbo. You passed my name along, and I gave him a couple of pages to work with.”
“Sure. At least one of us got something out of that deal. They used it almost line for line. They were really happy with it.”
“They should have been; they got a lot more than they payed for. They wanted something that sounded vaguely plausible, so I based it on some real research I’d done for my dissertation. Some real research that turned out to be too real. It kept coming back to my mind after I saw the movie. I got out my old papers and sat down with them for a few days and… It works. Lee, it actually works.”
“Not all of it, it’s mixed in with what they already had, but if you keep going down the same logical path, you get to something that really checks out, all the way down the line.”
“But how? You’re not talking about building a better boombox here, or even a flying car.”
“It’s simpler than you think. It’s not that different from what was in the movie, only instead of forward motion, it has to be motion downward. Gravity plays a part. And you don’t have to hit a specific speed, you just have to travel a minimum distance. Anything 64 meters or over, and the effect is triggered at the bottom.”
“And you don’t go splat because…”
“Because you never actually land. At least not in the now. It’s like those graphs we plotted in high school. You remember how you’d get nearer and nearer to an axis, but never actually touch it? Same thing. You get closer and closer and closer to the ground, but somewhere in that infinity of not reaching it, you slide back in time. Or forward. The momentum you’ve built here doesn’t exist there. Er, then. You just settle to Earth, like when your muscles let go at night and you sink into the bed.”
Lee stared a long beat.
“That crap in the movie was more convincing.”
Mike pointed to the mass of pulp laying a few yards from them.
“Right, right…” Lee said, now dazed, his mind racing. “But what about the rotation of the Earth? Its movement around the sun? Why didn’t the pumpkin pop out one twelfth of the way back around the orbit?”
“That’s all handled in the theory,” Mike said impatiently, hurrying on now that Lee had seen. “We don’t have time to draw diagrams in the dirt. We’ve got to jump on this thing, now. Don’t you see, Lee? This thing makes all the missiles in Siberia look like firecrackers. I’m not the smartest guy on the block. If I could figure this out, it’s only a matter of time before someone else notices it, too. Universal’s given this a million times more distribution than Scientific American ever could. I made that thing in my garage. Anybody who knows a little about physics could put one together, strap it on, and wipe out a whole nation with a single shot at its founder. Or bump off Gutenberg before anything rolls off his press. Put the Third Reich back on its thousand-year plan.”
“Get the girl before the better guy walks in the bar…”
“I’m serious. Once this gets out, we’ve got no way to control it, no way to police it. How’d you like to not wake up tomorrow because somebody stepped on the first fish crawling out of the ocean?”
“You’re right,” he said, “This is heavy.”
“Ok, ok… So we’re sitting on Armageddon here. So what do we do?”
“We go back. We stop this before it starts. We stop ourselves from ever going down this road. And by ‘We’, I mean you.”
“Me? I’m your idea of an action hero?”
“You’re someone I trust. And you don’t have to be James Bond for this.”
Lee shook his head. “Hollywood agent saves the world? Who’s going to root for that? Terrible casting. Besides, why me? You’re more qualified. You’re the only one who’s qualified.”
“Because I’m absolutely sure it will work, sure I’ve worked it out to the last detail, but… Being sure is never a promise of being right. Produce is one thing. It’s never been tried by a person.”
Lee took this in.
“Your mission,” he said, “should you choose to accept it… And you’ve got two kids expecting you to pick them up after school today.”
“It’s not just that. I’ll go back if I have to. Unless someone straightens this out, they’re not going to have a future in any event, with or without me. But if something goes wrong, and I’m not here…”
“Oh, right.” He looked at the platform far above them. “If I step off there, and you see me snap my spine here, or I’ve been lying here rotting like a pumpkin for months…”
“I have to be here to know, so I can try again. Because sooner or later, someone has to succeed. Lee, you’ve been my best friend for a long, long time. I trust you more than anyone I know. I wouldn’t ask you to do this, but… I wouldn’t ask anyone else.”
Lee considered puncturing this bit of ego-stroking, but since it was in a good cause… He made a sudden, probably misguided decision, locking himself in before his rational side could start screaming objections.
“Let’s hope you won’t have to,” he said. “I don’t want you to entrust the fate of the world to your second-best friend.”
Mike smiled and squeezed Lee’s leg.
He went to the pile of goo and started hunting through it. He swished it back and forth, probing it here and there. He felt around carefully, then more vigorously, then stopped. The blood drained from his face. He padded both his palms all over it. He picked up the bottom of the shell and held it sideways, spilling the guts on the ground. He shifted them around with his foot, then gave them a field goal kick, splattering bits over Lee. They stared at one another, and Mike ran to the creek.
Lee ran after him, saying, “It’s just some kid. Some kid came along and picked it up, thinking it was a toy. He couldn’t get it to work, and he’s thrown it away by now.”
“Or he’s stuck it in a drawer,” Mike said, quickly washing his hands, “where someone will find it in ten years. Or he’s shown it to his uncle, who works for Lawrence Livermore. Or it gets passed around until it gets to someone who can take it apart and figure it out.”
He stood up, wiping his hands on his jeans.
“I didn’t think anybody would be out here. Dammit, Mike. Why not a cucumber and three days?”
He rushed back up the hillside, Lee chasing after him.
“We’ve got to get you back, now. The clock’s ticking. The longer we let this play out, the bigger the chance that all hell breaks loose.”
Lee sat on a stool for a few minutes and watched Mike quickly but carefully laboring over his workbench, then decided he should be using the time to practice his landing. He got up and hopped an inch off the ground over and over again, trying to imagine what it would be like to fall and fall and then not fall, trying to teach his muscles to relax and settle into a soft cushion of earth that’s just suddenly there, a hair’s breadth away from the soles of his feet. A thought struck him as he was coming down yet again, and he stumbled.
“Wait..” he said. “In the movie, Marty closed the loop. He just had one brief scene watching… call him Marty One, then Marty One went back and Marty Two went on living his life. If I manage this right, you and I will never be here. You’ll never build one of those things, let alone two. If we’re never here, do I stop being there? Do I just vanish the minute I change it? Or… What if I do get back to now and… I’m still here?”
“I told you the dangers of failing,” Mike said, not looking up from his work. “That’s one of the dangers of succeeding.”
Lee thought he should go back and stop Mike from ever joining the project, but Mike said there was too much chance of him crossing paths with himself then. Lee flipped back in his calendar, and they picked the day he’d left for the cabin. He’d be gone that morning, but it was close enough in time that no one would catch on that he was in two places at once. They hashed out the best plan they could think of to get the job done and the best guidelines they could make up on the fly.
“Above all,” Mike said, “Get in and get out. The longer you’re there, the more collateral damage you could do.”
After a quick lesson in setting and using the device, they hurried back to the canyon. Mike’s mind raced along with the car, running down as many possibilities as he could. Lee thought that anything he was about to do couldn’t be nearly as heroic as the way he kept a straight face the whole time they were pulled over for speeding, while Mike fumed and fidgeted and tap-tap-tapped the wheel.
When they pulled in at the top of the ridge, Mike took off his watch, synchronized it to Lee’s, and dropped it in a box. He had Lee walk out on the trestle with him this time, the first step in his therapy. Lee set the device and strapped it to the box, shaking so badly that he almost dropped it before the belt was fastened. He held it out with his eyes closed, leaning back until it looked like his hands and shoulders would snap away from each other somewhere in the middle. He let go and stumbled, Mike catching him and keeping an arm around him all the way back to solid ground.
He sat against the hood of the car with his head between his knees, listening to the ringing in his ears, feeling his whole body heave on each breath, wishing he had a paper bag to breathe into. Mike clambered down and was back with the box in a few minutes. Taking out the watch, he lifted Lee’s arm and showed him the two faces side by side.
“Mine’s five minutes ahead,” he said. “It’s working. Showtime.”
It took seven attempts. On some, Lee didn’t even get completely over the railing. Twice, he had to go back to the car, his palms sweating against the metal, struggling not to throw up. Despite his urgency, Mike was gentle and patient. At last, they faced each other, Lee shaking all over, his eyes closed. He opened them and looked into Mike’s. Acting before he could think, he opened his fingers, gave a little hop, and pushed himself backward. He lifted his head, still looking into Mike’s eyes as they grew smaller and smaller with amazing speed, the momentum doubling and redoubling, his feet plunging into nothing and the wind whipping up his pantlegs and hair and around his fingers, the electric tingle in his bones and the desperate, awful need to be safe and secure, to not be falling, to not be falling…
The roar of the wind grew and grew, and in his peripheral vision, he saw the walls of the canyon sliding in, swooping down fast to form the bowl of hard earth rising to catch him. He started to scream, but it was all happening too fast to get it out. In an instant, the ground was there, and something shifted. He felt a rush of immense motion in the blink of an eye, then a coasting to great stillness and quiet. The scene changed.
It was the same place, and not the same. It was transformed in a million obvious and subtle ways. The light was different. The temperature, the humidity, everything slightly off. The stream had a different sound. The sand was blown in different patterns, the shadows in different places. His feet closed the tiny gap to land. He was disoriented, and, despite his best efforts to prepare himself, had braced his body for impact. He wobbled stiffly like a top and keeled over, smacking down on his side.
He lay panting, blowing up little clouds of dust and thinking it had all been a waste, that he’d come back only to be discovered as some hiker who’d gone into cardiac arrest. He looked over to the dry ground where the pumpkin guts had been kicked. He rolled onto his back, slowly calming down. He looked up at the tracks and saw the empty spot where Mike had been. Or, rather, would be. Or wouldn’t, if luck was on his side.
Ok, kid, you made it. All up to you now.
He walked back to the main road and hitchhiked into town, chatting with a fruit truck driver about the news to remind himself what had and hadn’t happened yet. The driver asked if he thought the 49ers could go all the way against Marino, and he had a moment’s temptation. Just a little call to Vegas… No, stop it. Be good.
He caught a cab to Universal and was glad to see a guard who knew him.
“Hey, man, you back to try again?”
“Hope springs eternal,” he grinned.
“Somebody expecting you… ?” the guard asked, reaching for the phone.
“Uh, yeah, Bob Zemeckis,” he said hurriedly, “But you won’t get him. He asked me to come down and have lunch with him. Said to come right to the cafeteria.”
The guard looked at him a moment, then shrugged.
“All right,” he said. “I guess you know the way. Anything in the wind?”
The guard leaned in conspiratorially.
“Word gets around, even to us peons. People got to talk about something on the midnight shift. Rumor is the honeymoon’s over on that set. You think you’ve got a chance again?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” Lee said, “A whole other project down the road. Just putting a stake in the ground.”
“Hm,” the guard said, nodding but not buying it. He shrugged and tossed his head over his shoulder.
“Thanks,” Lee said, passing through. “Sorry I can’t be more help.” He wondered how much the guy made moonlighting as a source for People and the Enquirer.
He fell inconspicuously into the regular patterns of people crisscrossing the lot and made the most direct route he could to Zemeckis’s offices. He glanced at the cafeteria and saw he’d timed it well. It was full, and the halls should be empty. There would be cameras, but he was no stranger, and he doubted anyone would bother to pull out the tapes for the little job he had planned.
He came to the building and reached into his breast pocket for the twelfth time to check that the paper was still there. He and Mike had typed up a memo dictating script changes. He knew the lingo, and tried to assure himself it was convincing enough, that it would work its way through the system without too much protest. Now he just had to get it under the secretary’s door and make a clean escape.
He slipped in with his head down, walking purposefully past the elevators and into the stairwell. His shoes fell softly on the treads, but his heartbeat filled his ears as he climbed. Nervous energy spread through his limbs. He was a teenager again, shoplifting the five-and-dime or sneaking into a movie or whatever stupid misdemeanor would impress his friends. But he was years out of practice and struggled to shrug off the cloak of respectability – or at least self-conscious maturity – that had fallen on him.
When he got to Zemeckis’s floor, he peeked through the rectangle of glass in the fire door. The hallway was empty. He pulled the handle and prepared to make a nonchalant stroll to the secretary’s door when a door nearer to him opened and Zemeckis himself stepped out. He had his back to Lee, one arm full and the other fiddling with the lock on the door handle. Lee froze, his body jerking back and up to flee so he felt five inches taller. He grabbed the door jamb to keep from tumbling and managed to right himself and pull the door shut. He saw Zemeckis through the glass, now coming right at him. He turned and bolted up the stairs, slipping on a step and hoping his flailing wouldn’t draw attention.
Before he reached the next landing, he heard the door open below him. He stood and listened to the footsteps — heading down, thanks to whatever providence was still on his side — and tried to pant quietly through his mouth. They faded down and away. He waited, listened, looked up, and saw a camera pointed right at him.
He flinched and started down. All right, maybe somebody saw you. What did they see? You didn’t want to run into someone. How often does that happen in this town? Get yourself together. Where’s your inner 16-year-old?
He was still absorbed in talking to himself when he reached the landing and, out of the corner of his eye, saw Zemeckis coming back up and arriving just after him.
Zemeckis looked up from his own preoccupations and, seeing it was Lee, drew his eyebrows together.
“Hmm,” he muttered. “Great. Just great.”
“Umm…” Lee said, realizing it was probably what he would have said in any event.
“Sorry, I’m sorry, it’s not you,” Zemeckis said quickly. “Just the association. Seeing you after the month I’ve had, and flashing to what might have been…”
“Oh,” Lee said, easing as he felt the attention moving away from himself. “It’s, uh, not working out?”
“Yeah, like you don’t know,” Zemeckis said, tilting his head wryly. “You didn’t talk to the gossip at the gate? Or get the scoop from the special correspondents down in costuming?” He looked relieved to talk to someone from outside. “No,” he said, “no, it’s not. I mean, it’ll work, we’ll make it work, what choice have we got? Nothing against Eric, he’s giving it everything he’s got, and he’s great. He’s really great. He’s just… He’s not as funny, he’s not as… perfect, you know? Michael would have been perfect.”
“Hey, go easy, you keep selling yourself, you’ll put me out of a job.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter now. To tell you the truth, I was actually thinking about picking up the phone and calling you, but I don’t know why. Still impossible on your side, I guess?”
“Ergmk,” Lee said.
“Nothing, I just bit my tongue,” Lee said, rubbing it against his gums.
“Besides, I think I already put you out of a job. Sorry for us both. What brings you down here, anyway?”
“Ah, some business upstairs,” Lee said, gesturing to where he’d come down.
“Hey, good for you! Get back on that horse. This one was bad breaks, but it wasn’t your fault.”
“That doesn’t stop anyone from…”
“Forget it. Memories fade. You’re good, Lee, and you’re honest. Don’t tell anybody, but I even like you. How rare is that?”
“We never got as far as salary negations,” Lee pointed out, grinning.
“True,” Zemeckis said, smiling back, “but even so. You stick with it. It’s going to take you longer to get going than some of the cutthroat guys, but you’ll go the distance they won’t. You’ll be surprised how far some basic decency will take you, even in a business like this.”
Lee choked up and kicked himself for being so unprofessional. Or maybe it was true. Maybe being a little less professional would win for him in the end. Either way, the crazy trip seemed worth it right then, just for that.
“Thanks,” he said. “Really, Bob, thanks. I needed that. You don’t know what I’ve been through.”
“Oh, I mean… I guess it just seems like forever. Caught in a nightmare, you know? Anyway, I hope you’re right.”
“Of course I’m right. You’ll be fine. Me, on the other hand… I managed a hit for myself, but Bob and I feel like we’ve been let out on probation to make this one, and it’s not feeling good. Not good at all. We lay a third flop in Steven’s lap, I don’t know how we’ll look him in the face again.”
“A flop?” Lee said, with too much certainty. “You won’t have a flop. Trust me. The script’s too solid.”
“That’s nice of you to say, Lee. I want to believe it. It just all feels off now, like a tire’s just a little out of alignment and the whole thing’s slowly veering into the ditch. But hey,” he said, snapping out of it, “I shouldn’t bother you with this. There’s nothing you can do to help now. You can’t come on this ride.”
Zemeckis looked at him wistfully.
Lee stared into his eyes, mesmerized, hypnotized, Zemeckis’s pupils turning into pinwheels, drawing him in. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mike, a shadowy apparition hovering over Zemeckis’s right shoulder, glaring at him and vigorously shaking his head.
“I… I… I…” he said.
Zemeckis’s eyes widened. “What?”
Lee put his hand to his left eyebrow, like he was thinking. Mike moved to the other side.
Sorry, he thought. You didn’t send Superman. I can’t. I can’t!
“I… Shouldn’t get your hopes up…”
“What?” Zemeckis said, leaning into him.
“It could just be rumors, but I heard from somebody who heard from somebody that Baxter’s about to come back from maternity leave. If it’s true, it’ll take the pressure off Michael. I don’t know how much they’d give you, I don’t know if it would be enough…”
Zemeckis already had his arm and was pushing him through the door.
“Call. Now. Phone in my office. Call. Call everybody. Now,” he sputtered, dragging Lee down the hall.
Lee pulled back, but ineffectively, like a child walking a Great Dane that spotted a squirrel. Regret would have to come later. He’d committed himself. His mind flashed about, chasing down consequences.
“It’ll be delicate,” he said when Zemeckis had let go of him to fiddle with the lock. “They said ‘No’ before. They said ‘No’ a lot of times before. And I’ve got to reintroduce the idea without coming off as Baxter’s stalker.”
“You’ll do it,” Zemeckis said, opening the door and shoving him inside. “Didn’t I just tell you how great you are?”
“Sure I’ll do it,” he said, bristling. I could have done it the first time if I’d had the chance. “But, um, give me some privacy?”
“Sure! Sure, whatever you need,” Zemeckis said, taking a step back and assuming a “hands off” posture. “You just get me Michael. God!” he said, catching his breath. He blinked. “If I hadn’t bumped into you…”
Lee shrugged. “I was just in the right place at the right time.”
Zemeckis started out, shaking his head and seeming to float a little off the floor. He stopped and sank down again.
“Damn,” he said.
“Once this is settled, I guess my next stop is Eric’s trailer. Damn it, that poor kid.” All the air went out of him, and he was back to the gloom of five minutes before. “Well, you let me worry about that. Get to it, I’ll wait to hear the good news!”
“Say!” Lee said, grabbing an opening, “Speaking of that, since we’re not supposed to know about this, let’s wait for Michael to give the official word. If you see me again and I act like I don’t know what you’re talking about…”
“I know nothing.” He pulled a zipper across his lips. “You were never here. But…” he said, smiling and pulling the door behind him, “I’m sure glad you were.”
The door clicked, and Lee stared around the room. He was still for a long moment, then he was off the ground and his limbs were flying in every direction. He went back-and-forth across the carpet, doing a variety of dance moves that were decidedly not for public consumption, and was in the middle of giving himself a high five when the door opened again and Zemeckis started in. He stopped and stared at Lee, now frozen mid-motion. He took in the scene with the heartfelt appreciation of someone who’d been given a new story to tell over dinner.
“Forgot what I came back for,” he said, reaching across the desk and picking up a folder.
He looked at Lee with the affection of a fellow conspirator.
“Don’t sell yourself short,” he said. “Get what you deserve out of this, ok?”
“Not to worry.”
He went out again, and the door opened a moment later.
“But don’t come back asking too much, either. I just threw our budget out the window. Ok?”
The door closed again, opened again.
“Speaking of that, if we’re starting over from scratch… You know anyone who’d be good in Glover’s part? No? Just a thought. Keep it in mind.”
The door closed. Lee watched and waited, but it remained closed. He went to it, placed his ear against it, and heard the fire door shut. Locking the handle, he turned to the room.
First things first. Can’t save the career if you don’t save the world.
He sat behind the desk, slipped a piece of letterhead into the typewriter, and addressed a memo to the script department. He took the paper from his pocket, smoothed it on the desk beside him, and began to transcribe it.
“When spoken, the dialogue regarding the mechanism of time travel is too dry and academic. Replace with the following:”
He skimmed what he and Mike had concocted and elaborated here and there as he typed, adding flights of fancy Mike hadn’t allowed but which he knew would appeal to creative types. He fell into a groove, spurred on by the elation he felt after his run-in with Zemeckis, and threw in references to gigawatts and other technobabble that further butchered Mike’s theorem. He was especially proud when he brought it home with a piece of sublime nonsense, the “flux capacitor”.
He ripped the sheet out and read it over with satisfaction. Zemeckis would like it. He’d think it was a prank pulled by someone on the crew, but he’d be in a good mood after the change in their fortunes, and he was too smart to throw away a good idea, whatever its source. If he suspected Lee, well, Lee #1 could honestly say he knew nothing about it. Zemeckis would use it and earlier drafts would pass into obscurity or, hopefully, oblivion.
Lee shoved it under a stack of other papers in Zemeckis’s outbox.
He sat quite still for a moment and tried to sense whether anything felt different. He held up his hand and slowly turned it back and forth. It remained solid and opaque.
“I guess that’s… good?” he wondered.
He put it down and tapped his fingers on the table. He reached into his wallet, searched for a business card, and dialed a number.
“Hi,” he said, “I’ve got a message for Lee in Cabin Six. He’s not?… Huh, he should be by now. Anyway, this is very important – could you ask him to call Michael J. Fox right away? Yes, that’s right. Yes. No, he’s got the number. No, he… Yes, I’m sure. Quite sure. Yes, I’m a big fan, too. Yes, I’m sure you understand… Yes, that’s right. It’s very important to Michael. He’ll appreciate it very much. Right. Well, I’ll tell you what: Wait until Lee’s made the call, then mention that to him. I have a feeling he’s going to be in a pretty generous mood. Not at all. You too.”
He put down the receiver.
“On your way, kid.”
And you get on your way, too. God knows where.
He made his way quickly and calmly off the lot, trying to walk through less crowded areas and avoiding eye contact. He’d done enough damage for one day.
The guard in the gatehouse had a car stopped, but turned and said, “Hey, that was a quick lunch! Things didn’t work out?”
“I wouldn’t say that. In fact, I think you and I are going to be seeing a lot of each other.”
“And a certain special someone, maybe?”
“Nah. Like I told you, I’m thinking about the future.”
He gestured to the guard to come closer and whispered in his ear.
“I’ve got a kid who’s going to be great in Rocky 27.”
The guard blew a raspberry (an unpleasant gesture at such close quarters) and said, “Get out of here.”
He turned out of the gate and made his way up the street quickly but unobtrusively, putting space between himself and anyone he might know but without drawing attention. He felt like a paratrooper dropped behind enemy lines to aid the resistance, braced for the call at his back ordering him to stop and show his papers.
Slow and steady, boy. The hard part’s over, just don’t crash on the way home.
He turned down a side street and hailed a cab. His own office building was the nearest place that was tall enough. It was risky, but after planting at least two timebombs, he decided it was riskier to overstay his welcome any more. Besides, he knew the layout and wouldn’t have to explain his presence there.
He had the driver pull up to the side of the building and slipped in the door opening on the stairs to the parking garage. He opened the other door onto the lobby, making brisk, purposeful strides toward the stairs by the elevators, turning his body slightly from the main doors and trying not to notice anyone coming in there.
“Hey! What are you doing here?” a voice called from the guard’s desk. “I thought you said to hell with this rat race for a while.”
“I did, I sure as hell did. Just forgot something in my office. Gonna run up and get it, then you won’t see me until this town becomes livable again.”
“Should we start advertising your space now?”
“Hey, don’t be so pessimistic, Gale. Things can turn around when you least expect it.”
The guard did a vaudeville double-take.
“Huh? Wait, have you got some ID? You’re not the guy who slinked out of here yesterday. What kind of night did you have?”
“A gentleman never tells,” Lee smiled, straightening his tie. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if you see me come back a changed man.”
“Well,” Gale said, drawing out the word. “Wouldn’t that be nice? Sure would brighten my day if you stopped dragging those storm clouds through here.”
“Storm’s almost over. Wish me Bon Voyage, and it’s smooth sailing from here on out.”
The guard tapped two fingers to his brow in salute, and Lee passed on.
Just a few more steps… He reached the door. His hand on the knob, he heard the door across the lobby, the door he’d entered, open behind him. He had a Lot’s Wife moment, knowing he should leave it and push on even as he turned his head.
Through the door came a man wearing the same suit he was wearing – not just the same suit, the very same suit – and walking his walk, though slower and careworn. The face caught him most of all. The face he’d seen so often, but only in mirrors, now liberated and acting independently. He was transfixed in fascination until he saw the downcast, downtrodden eyes start to take in their surroundings and his heart skipped as he realized they could turn his way any second.
He also realized he wasn’t the only one staring slack-jawed. The guard’s head had swiveled from him when the door opened, and there was a long beat as his brain failed to process what his eyes saw. Then his play-acted double-take of a minute before was replaced by the genuine article. Lurching through the door, Lee made his professional appraisal, judging the second try less believable.
Tone it down, drop the bug eyes. That’ll never play on the screen.
Mounting the stairs, he cursed Zemeckis for suggesting the lame excuse. He remembered now. He had forgotten the tapes he wanted to listen to in the car, and had come back to get them.
The door opened again just below him. Looking over the railing, he saw the top of his own head. Oh, dammit, I was on that health kick, he remembered, redoubling his pace and switching his curses from Zemeckis to Jane Fonda. What is happening today? God, get me out of this, and I’ll never go in a stairwell again.
He came up short, realizing he wasn’t hearing footsteps. He peaked cautiously down. There, on the first step, he was dangling his heels, stretching his calves. He stepped off and pulled one knee and then the other into his chest. He puffed out a breath, then, like a starter’s pistol had gone off in his head, exploded up the stairs.
Lee’s own eyes bugged, and in an instant he was propelling himself up, two, three, four stairs at a time, grabbing railings and swinging himself around corners, the echoing clamor from below filling his ears and pushing him on. He looked up at the roof that seemed to get no closer. He tried to catch each floor number as it flew by. When would he reach his own and lose his tail? He’d let himself go since last Winter, and the man surging up beneath him was in much better shape and fueled by anger-soaked adrenaline. He didn’t dare look, but his ears told him he was on the constant edge of a photo finish.
Up, up, up. His heart pounded, his muscles flagged, and sweat started to pour. He stripped off his jacket, and in a moment of either desperation or genius – he’d later decide it was a brilliant bit of improvisation, but never believe himself – dropped it over the railing.
Each flight of stairs heading up was just a few inches from the flight heading down, so as long as you kept away from the edge, you could pretend you were on solid ground. The jacket clattered back and forth, banging its buttons on the metal bars. His pursuer must have seen it, and before he knew what he was doing, made his mistake. Lee heard a strangled cry and the sound of feet slipping as they desperately threw a body back against the wall. The other Lee had looked over to see what had fallen and had seen the ground, now so many stories below.
The blessed sound of incapacitating hyperventilation reached his ears. Lee did some overdue panting of his own, then realized feet were still pounding steps. It confused him. He knew he couldn’t have recovered already. Bracing himself, with his backside as far as it could get from the edge, he poked his head over just long enough to glimpse the blue uniform of the guard. He must have come to his senses and followed to see what the hell was happening.
“Hey!” He heard him cry. “Are you all right? Did he slug you?”
“Who?” He heard himself answer, creeped out at hearing that voice live and not off a cassette. His vocal cords flexed instinctively, as though they assumed they should be involved and had missed their queue.
“The… I… This is going to sound crazy, but…”
Lee lurched up the steps, trying to gain a head start with the element of surprise. A shout of “Hey! You there! Stop!” Gave him a few more seconds, and every one counted.
Gonna make it, got to, his brain stuttered, as if he were panting it out loud.
The footfalls and shouts to stop kept dogging him, but he was close now, and Gale was no rookie cop. One more floor, and another, and he saw the door. He shoved the emergency exit handle and stumbled into the sunlight. He looked around, trying to orient himself. He had to move. The alarm was blasting and drowning the sounds of the guard’s ascent. He could pop through any second.
Go, boy, go!
He figured out which was the side facing the alley as he got the little metal box out of his pocket. He frantically double-checked the settings and flipped it on as he tightened the belt, then faced the concrete ledge a few yards away.
His body rocked back and forth. No time, no time! No time to think, he was just suddenly running.
Up, up and over, twisting like a pole vaulter. Just the quickest glimpse of the alley, then the sky and blinding sun, and in between, Gale jumping out of the door, squinting in the light. Had he seen? No time to wonder, it was falling now, falling, accelerating, rushing, wind and speed and terror as he tried to give in to it, limbs open and fingers spread, spinning and slamming his eyes shut as the pavement came flying in. At least he remembered to scream this time.
And then there was nothing. Quiet, dark. An eternity of his body knowing it had gone forever, then feeling the touch of the asphalt, shivering in confusion, flopping around in the spasm of the impact it had expected and never felt. It got it out of its system, then sank Lee’s face in the dirt.
“t,” he said.
He lay there, everything draining out of him. After a long drift, sensations came back. Wet, he thought first. The ground was wet, and as sound came back, he heard the raindrops and felt them on his back. It was the morning after he’d left, and they’d forecast rain.
So… he wondered, I haven’t broken it all?
He got up and brushed the water off as he walked out the back side of the alley. Two blocks away, there was a theater where it was still playing – or, at least, had still been playing. He’d started taking a different route to work to avoid seeing it. Now he walked right up the sidewalk and turned to face the poster.
“Ah,” he sighed.
There was Marty, straddling the flames, glasses lifted, staring down at his watch with that same look of shock and wonder… Only it was Michael now. He sighed again.
I’m sorry, Eric, really I am. But he was right. It’s perfect.
As he approached the coffee shop, he could see Mike, sitting in the same chair he’d sat in himself the day before. Well, not the day before, but… Yes, the day… He stopped before he got dizzy, and went in.
He walked up to the table and waited until Mike looked up from his paper.
“Morning,” he said.
Mike looked at him strangely. He looked, and kept looking. It went on, and went on some more, until Lee, unnerved, pulled up a chair and tried to settle in it nonchalantly.
“You’re looking good this morning,” he said, idiotically, “How’s tricks?”
“Tricks…” Mike said. “Tricks are fine.”
Silence. And the stare. Cool, and thoughtful. Lee’s eyes darted around as he decided this was the worst idea he’d ever had.
“Just… just thought I’d drop in and see how things are going.” He didn’t know who else he could ask, and, of course, couldn’t ask anyone, this Mike included.
Mike’s eyes narrowed on him.
“I think…” He said, “I think… things are going just fine.”
He softened, and Lee looked at him curiously. His eyes never leaving Lee, Mike reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. He laid it on the table and pushed it across. Lee looked at him, and he nodded towards it. Lee picked it up, unfolded it, and saw the memo they’d written together in the garage.
“Huh,” he said.
“Sorry,” he said, embarrassed but relieved.
“The guard at your building found it in your jacket pocket. He gave it to you, and you had no idea what it was. He had some insane story about… Well, I think you know.”
“I’ve got an idea. Poor guy.”
Mike nodded sympathetically.
“Damn fine vanishing act,” he said. “You brought it here, and I could honestly say it meant nothing to me. It wasn’t until I started thinking about the film some more, and the changes they made to what I gave them… I pieced together what I thought had to have happened. It was the only answer that fit, but I still couldn’t believe…”
He leaned in, his eyes opening in excitement and wonder, a schoolboy again.
“And it works? It really works?”
Lee grabbed his arm with earnest affection.
“Mikey boy, I can say here and now that you are, without a doubt, the only grade-A, top-flight, incontrovertible, stone cold genius I’m ever likely to meet. Newton was a slobbering child, Einstein a simpering hack.”
“Shoulders of giants,” Mike corrected, but falling back in his chair with satisfaction.
“I’m just sorry we’ll be the only ones to ever know it.”
“No matter,” Mike said. “The work’s its own reward. And safety first. Especially where the universe is concerned.”
“Speaking of that,” he said, his eyes turning on Lee with an inquisitor’s stare, “How did it go? Without… giving me any details I shouldn’t know… How clean was it?
“Oh, it…” Lee said, too quickly.
“No, really, I…”
Lee looked at him. Parents, teachers, storeowners, the occasional cop… He’d lied to them all in his day, but he’d never found the way around this oldest friend. Too close, he thought, realizing, now that they were near the end, just how close that was. After all, he could lie to himself all day long…
“Yeah,” he said, happy in defeat, “I may have… strayed past my mandate here and there.”
Mike tightened, wavering between the need to know and the need not to know.
“But only when I couldn’t help it.”
“Couldn’t help it.”
“Things happen! You try… Look, let’s just take it from your side, from what you know. The sun came up this morning, right?”
“I don’t know. Clouds, side to side.”
“Empirical bastard. You know what I mean. Any big surprises? Any wars you can’t account for? Crazed demagogue win the lottery? New continent pop out of the ocean?”
“Things don’t happen that fast.”
“Then we wait and see. And have faith. And maybe some gratitude.”
Mike looked sheepish.
“You’re right, I’ve got no… But hey, of the things we can control… You’ve… taken care of everything?”
Their eyes locked, and Lee felt the little metal box lying heavy against his thigh.
You’re right, he thought, Of course you are. There’s no excuse.
But he couldn’t. For the second time, and with the real Mike staring him down, he couldn’t be the hero he needed to be. He did what he never had, what he never thought he could do.
He said, “Of course.”
Mike nodded, and looked around for any loose threads. Not finding any, he lifted his eyebrows and his hands.
“Then I guess… we’re done.”
“I guess we are.” I’m sorry. Just… trust me.
“And you’d better go.”
“You made plans? Or… we did?”
“Yeah, I’m set. And the way things turned out… It’s all right if I call you sometimes? I mean, who else can I?”
“I’ll be here for you, Lee. I’ll always be here for you. For you both.”
Lee choked up.
“Thanks, Mike. Hey, and speaking of that…”
“When I came in, how did you know it was me, and not… me?”
“You left five minutes before you arrived. So be careful out there, ok?”
“And thank you,” Mike said, watching him rise.
“All in a day’s work.”
Lee looked down at him, and Mike couldn’t keep the pity out of his face, or stop his voice from breaking a little.
“And I’m sorry.”
Lee bought a ridiculous Panama hat which he soon realized did more to draw attention than to hide his face. He did his best 007 to the bank, tucking his chin and peaking around corners and generally feeling like an idiot. He was surprised at how easy it was to cash out his accounts, but he’d been banking there for years and his vague explanations satisfied them.
You won’t need it, he said to himself (the other self). Not with your 10% coming in. Have fun explaining the security footage. It was hard not to be hard on that guy, even though none of it was his fault.
He made even more overcautious maneuvers back to his office building, creaking the side door open and jumping at every sound. He tiptoed his way down to his parking place. (Sorry, God, can’t seem to keep any promises today.) The same car was still there.
Good for you, you didn’t run out and buy a Bentley. Frugal old Mom taught you well.
He felt a pang at that.
No place for you at Thanksgiving this year.
He slipped his key into the lock and was across the border before dark.
He found an apartment and stretched out on the bed, staring at the ceiling without a thought in his head. There was nothing left to think about, and now that it was over, the cold emptiness of grief absorbed him so that thought was impossible anyway. He wished he had a guidebook on disappearing, and one on how to face the future when someone else has your past.
No, he thought, not entirely done. Still one thing to think about.
He got up and went to the desk. He took the strange little device out of his pocket and laid it down and sat and looked at it. He found a magic marker in a drawer and wrote “Cyberdyne Systems” across the top of it.
He’s right, little friend. You have no business being here. I should find a screwdriver and spread you across three Estados. If there were just a safe way to use you. The benefits to historians! To doctors who could grab medicines from tomorrow. To…
Oh, hell, be honest, Lee. If there were some way to get your life back.
The other Lee had kept the car, but he had been out shopping. He’d checked the trunk before taking it to the border and saw it was full of packages. He went down and brought up a pair of shoes. (Just my size. Thanks, buddy!) He sat them on the floor, put the device in the box, and walked it to the closet, placing it on a shelf.
Top men, he thought. Someday I’ll find some top men to work on you.
And he switched off the light.
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey Covey, all rights reserved.