I didn’t leave downtown that night. Catherine, the woman from the Vortex, had a loft down near the Station. Not too far from Scott and Diane’s condo, actually. She had just moved to Atlanta after getting a job here and hadn’t met that many people yet. She had been out with her co-workers and Shelly had pointed me out to her. We had hit it off fairly well and I had wound up staying at her place that night.
We had both realized that we probably weren’t going to be together long-term, but for now we were each what the other needed. I was just glad to be able to spend time with someone who wasn’t involved in all the reality-altering business I had become involved with lately. It was nice to be able to just… be with someone and not have to worry about who I was or what I was thinking.
Of course, that changed the next morning. I had left as she was getting ready for work and I was heading up I-75 trying not to think about her. If I did, I was afraid that I would warp her into what I wanted her to be, not who she was, and that was important to me for some reason. I had just hit the Perimeter when my phone rang.
“It’s Dale,” I answered automatically, grateful for the distraction.
“What’s going on!” It was Scott, sounding extremely agitated.
“I’m… on my way to work?” I said, trying to think of what could be going on. Had Sara called them last night? “What’s up!”
“You aren’t at your office?”
“No,” I said, exasperated. “I told you, I’m on my way in.”
He sighed. “Turn on the news.”
I froze at that. “OK, sure. Hang on.”
I had been listening to one of my podcasts, as usual. I hadn’t even turned on my radio in who knows how long. I disconnected the phone and flipped over to the first station I found running news.
“…and we’re now over the scene,” came the voice from the speakers. “Cobb county sheriffs have cordoned off the area and we aren’t seeing any activity outside, but we are told that the sheriff’s office has so far been unable to locate the individual the suspect is demanding to see. We will continue to monitor the situation and will keep you informed of any developments. This is Parker Howard, with the WSB news team…”
I pulled the phone up to my ear. “What is that all about?”
“Sara!” he said, urgently.
I heard him sigh. “Where the hell are you?”
“75 north?” I said. “I… stayed downtown last night. I was just now heading in.”
I heard him say something under his breath. “Sara went to your office this morning. With a gun. She’s taken several people there hostage and is demanding that you, and the singer Drake Ransom for some reason, come there to talk to her. She says she’ll kill them, and herself, unless you do.”
“What!” I slammed on brakes, prompting a horn blare from behind me. Fortunately I was heading opposite of traffic and was able to get to the emergency strip without further problems.
“OK,” I said, once I was stopped. “What the hell is going on!”
“I was asking you that!” Scott was practically yelling. “She’s been quoted on the news as saying that the two of you are ‘controlling her life’ and that you need to talk to her or ‘you won’t do it anymore’.”
I sighed and swallowed hard. Apparently one night of relaxation was all I was going to get.
“Where is she?”
“At your office!” he shouted. “What the hell is going on.”
I hesitated. “I… took her to meet Caleb yesterday.”
“What the hell does that have to do with anything.” I heard the annoyance in his voice.
“It… didn’t go well.” I took a deep breath to collect my thoughts. “Caleb, he…. he’s Drake Ransom.”
There was a long pause. “What?” I heard, finally.
“Yeah. We went to meet him. He… threatened her. I said I would protect her from him but… she didn’t take it well.”
This time the silence went on long enough that I thought he had disconnected. “Hello?”
“I’m here,” he snapped. “I’m thinking.”
“Sorry,” I said reflexively.
“Of course you are.” I heard anger in his voice. “You’re the one with magical powers, why don’t you do something!”
I sighed. “I’m thinking!” I said. I actually had no idea what I was going to do. “Don’t worry, I’ll handle this.”
He snorted audibly. “Yeah, right. If you handle this the way you handle everything else this will be a disaster.”
“Look, you need to…”
“Trust you?” he interrupted me. “That’s worked so well so far, hasn’t it? This is your mess. Fix this!” The call ended.
I sighed, leaning back against the seat and gripping the wheel tightly. I thought about everything that had happened over the last few days. No matter what plans I came up with, what options I thought of, I couldn’t reach any other conclusion.
I had to make a change.
I sat there for a long while, working out the scenario in my head. Trying to think of every contingency. Every alternate path that could occur. I was probably there for close to an hour. I was a bit surprised that no one stopped to see what was going on, but I assume the highway patrol were busy handling the rush hour going into town and not a Jeep sitting on the emergency strip in the outbound lanes.
Finally I got everything worked out in my head. I didn’t like it, but it was the only way I could think of to clean up everything I had done. I was ready to leave things behind and move on.
My only regret was that I wouldn’t see how things would have worked out with Catherine. I wondered what she would think.
I put the Jeep into gear and pulled out into traffic, then started thinking. No, started reshaping the world around me.
Sara hadn’t gone into work that morning. She had stayed home, not feeling well. I couldn’t remove her memories of what had happened, of what had been done to her, but I felt doing that would have been wrong. Instead, I had been more supportive of her the night before. Enough that she would wait a big more before doing anything rash.
The radio went through another news break and this time they didn’t say anything about a hostage crisis in Cobb county; just the usual traffic mess. So that was done.
Now… I had to take care of me.
This one was harder. I would never be able to go home again. I would have to leave everyone I knew, or at least everyone I cared about, without saying goodbye.
I looked down for a moment then back at the road. There was no traffic anymore and I was heading through nondescript Georgia pine forest. I had subconsciously cleared everything else out around me. Fine. I didn’t need any distractions.
I felt bad about what was next, but it was the only thing I could think of.
Another version of me from elsewhere was in my apartment. And they had killed themselves. The neighbors had reported a gunshot and the police were already there. Soon it would hit the news. Most people wouldn’t pay attention at all. A few, my friends, would. But while they would be sad they would also be relieved that I would no longer change their reality around them.
I thought again about Catherine. She would… just forget about me.
Trenton would know of course. And Caleb, if he paid attention. And Angela. But all of them would probably be fine with it. It didn’t affect them, after all. In some ways it made their individual goals easier.
I sighed and drove along for a while. There were a few things I didn’t want to leave behind. A few of my favorite games. All the notes I had kept on the various campaigns I had run. I smiled at that; I planned to visit a few of those worlds soon.
l glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw boxes in the back where I would normally have carried my deliveries and smiled. Yes, I had everything.
Looking back ahead at the road, I tried to think of anything i had forgotten. Anything I hadn’t closed off. And there was one.
I turned to look at the passenger seat. “Are you real?” I asked.
Nichole looked at me in confusion. “What?”
“You show up and disappear,” I said. “You appear just as I’m about to kill myself, long enough to talk me out of it, then disappear long enough for me to take care of some of the things that led to it. I have a crisis with myself and you’re there again to give me advice, then are gone for me to act on it.” I paused. “Who are you? *What* are you?”
She was looking at me with a mixture of concern and fear. “Dale… what is it?”
I looked back at the road. “Are you someone who was trapped? Someone who needed help? Or are you someone I created to give myself someone to talk to.” I tightened my grip on the wheel. “Can I trust anything anymore? Can I trust myself?”
I felt a hand on my shoulder but didn’t take my eyes off the road. “Dale… what happened?”
“Don’t you know?”
The hand went away and I heard an exhale of annoyance. “No! How could I?”
I took a deep breath, held it, then blew it out noisily. “OK, fine. Let’s play the game.” I told her what had happened over the the last day or two, our visit to Caleb, Sara’s actions at our office that morning, and what I had done since.
There was a long silence. Finally, she spoke.
“So you’re running away again and hoping your friends feel guilty enough about it to forgive you for it. Again.”
I slammed on the brakes, bringing the Jeep to a halt on the deserted highway. I turned to see her looking angrily at me.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean!”
Her gaze never wavered. “Exactly what I said. What you have probably said to yourself. You run away from everything. Every challenge. You dropped out of school and your response was to run away from your friends. Your girlfriend had an affair on you after you ran away from her, and you ran away from that. Then you get the ability to change things however you want, and you run away as soon as it quits being fun. And the one person who actually needs you? Who can’t do what you can but has given you the best advice she can? You accuse her of not even being real!” She stopped and turned away, staring out the window for a long moment.
“Just drop me off,” she said, finally. “Just let me off here. I’ll find my way back to… somewhere. Someone else will be along, eventually, and will pick me up. I’ll find my own way home.”
“I won’t do that to you!” I said, irritably.
There was a pause. “Why not? You’ve done that to everyone else.”
I felt my grip on the wheel tightening as I thought about what she had said. I sat for a long time and she remained silent in the passenger seat. She was right. I *was* just running away.
“I can’t stop him,” I said finally. “She isn’t afraid of me… I don’t think so anyway. He directly manipulated her, and directly threatened her. She blames me for that because I’m the one who helped her remember. I’m just like him in her mind. What else can I do?”
“Help her?” she said.
I shook my head. “How?”
I wasn’t looking at her but I heard her frustration. “You know.” She paused. “Look… I’m not like you. I don’t have the abilities you do. But, if I did…” she paused. “If I did I know how I would solve Sara’s problem. From what you’ve said, there is only one way you can keep him from ever hurting or threatening her again. You’re running away anyway; you may as well do the right thing first.”
It took me a second but I then abruptly turned to stare at her. “Seriously?”
She shrugged. “Do *you* know a better way to protect Sara from what Caleb may do to her? From what I, and you, know, there’s only one way.”
I sighed and looked down. “You’ll stay with me this time?”
“Will you help me find my husband?” I heard her ask.
I nodded. “Sure.” I paused, then sighed. “OK… Let’s do this.”
She didn’t say anything, but I put the Jeep back into gear and headed down the empty road again. I started thinking about what needed to happen to make it work, and almost immediately an exit appeared. I took it.
I was back on that street in Los Angeles. I drove until I saw the entrance to the Drake Ransom estate. Without hesitation, I pulled into the entryway. The same guard exited his shack and walked towards us.
“You again?” he said, with obvious irritation. “What the fuck do you want?”
“I need to see Caleb. Ransom. Whoever. Now.”
He sighed and shook his head. “Sorry. I’ve been told specifically that you aren’t allowed in.”
“Tell him I need to see him. Now.”
“And I’ve been given specific instructions on you. You aren’t welcome.”
It was my turn to sigh. I reached behind me to where my bag was sitting. I pulled out the Glock and cocked it, then aimed it at him. “I want to go in.”
“What the fuck?!” he said.
I shot him in the shoulder. His face continued to register surprise as he fell to the ground, screaming. I backed the Jeep up and slammed it into the gate. It held. I backed up again and gunned the engine as I hit the gate again. This time it slammed open and I drove up the driveway to the entrance.
I didn’t know what had come over me. It was like every bit of frustration and anger I had ever felt was coming out at once. I wasn’t even thinking. I barely knew Sara. I hadn’t spoken more than a dozen words to her prior to this week. And now, because of me, she could have her life destroyed at any moment and not even know it had happened. The same went for my friends. Caleb may not know who they were yet, but he could find out.
For the first time I had a real problem, not something I just thought was a problem. And I had to fix it instead of running away.
I slammed on the brakes as I hit the bottom step of the entrance. Caleb and Gerard came running out the front door. I saw that Gerard had produced a gun of his own as I stepped out the Jeep. As soon as he saw the Glock he fired, but his aim was off and the Jeep’s window shattered. He seemed distracted and confused, a confusion that turned to surprise as I shot him.
Just like I had known he would be.
Caleb realized what was happening and turned to run back into the mansion. I turned to him and fired, but missed. I fired again and caught him in the leg. He fell.
I walked up the steps to him. He rolled over to look at me.
“You fucking idiot! What do you think…”
He didn’t finish as I shot him in the head.
I felt, something, as he died. A flush. I knew he and his influence on the timeline was gone. And I knew others were aware of it as well. Now, it really was time to run away.
More people came out of the house and I saw one of them was armed as well. I fired a final shot in their direction just to make them hesitate as I ran back to the Jeep. I heard a shot behind me but knew it had gone wide without even looking. Jumping in, I backed up, turned around, and sped for the gate.
A final shot shattered the rear window but I hit the street with squealing tires and shot down the road. I heard the first sirens in the distance as I saw a side road ahead. I took it.
There was another squeal of tires and a blaring horn as I shot off the exit and into Atlanta traffic. It took me a few seconds to get the Jeep back under control and moving with the cars around me, then I glanced to the right.
Nichole was holding onto the dashboard with a death grip, eyes wide. She turned to look at me.
“Is it over?”
I nodded. “Yeah, give me a second.” I concentrated. No one other than Caleb was seriously hurt; the two others I shot would be fine. And all the eyewitnesses and the security footage would show the attack was perpetrated by someone who looked like Patrick Swayze wearing an O.J. Simpson mask driving a Ford Bronco. That should confuse pretty much everyone.
And the Jeep was repaired. No more gunshot holes or shattered windows.
I nodded again. “Yeah,” I said. “We’re good.” I sighed, then reaction set in. I started shaking, then my stomach revolted.
I pulled the the side and stepped out, almost stepping in front of a car that shot past with horn blaring. I quickly moved to the front of the Jeep and knelt over, hands on my knees, as I messily vomited all over the ground.
After the second or third round there was nothing left in my stomach but I kept heaving. Finally, after what seemed to be forever, I pulled myself upright.
Nichole was standing on the other side of the Jeep, looking at me. “Are you all right?”
I shook my head. “No,” I said with a cough. “No.”
She looked at me in concern. “You’ve never killed anyone before, have you?”
I shook my head again while rubbing my forehead. “No. Never.” I sighed. “I’ve never shot at anything alive before.”
She nodded. “I understand. Look, we can talk about this later, but we need to move again. We don’t… we don’t need someone to stop and check on you again and us have to explain the recently-fired gun you’re still holding.”
I looked down. The Glock was still in my hand. I almost threw it away, then abruptly went back and got in the Jeep. Nichole had barely closed her door when I pulled out into traffic.
I simply dropped the Glock at my feet as I drove. It was barely a minute later when an exit appeared ahead of me. I took it.
I was back in a Georgia pine forest. About a mile down the road the now-familiar cluster of buildings appeared. Without thinking, I pulled into the empty parking lot of the Boot Scooters, parked the Jeep and got out.
I heard Nichole following me but I didn’t really pay attention to her. I went in and immediately went behind the bar. I pulled a beer, rinsed my mouth with it, and spat it out into the sink. I then refilled the beer and walked over to a table.
Nichole sat down opposite me. I had downed almost half my beer before anything registered on me.
“Oh,” I said, suddenly embarrassed. “Do you want one?” I held up my glass.
She shook her head slowly. “No, I’m not a beer person actually. But if they have some wine..?”
I nodded. “Got it.” I went back to the bar, found a bottle of red and opened it. I then refilled my own glass and took it, the bottle and a wine glass back to the table. I sat the glass and bottle in front of her then returned to my beer.
She looked at me with some concern in her eyes but poured herself a glass of wine before saying anything. “You did what you had to do,” she said finally.
I nodded, closing my eyes against a sting of tears. “Yeah,” I said with a sigh. “Yeah.” I sat in silence for a long minute.
Finally I sighed and looked up at her. “I’ve played that scenario in my head thousands of times. For games, you know? Hero faces down villain and shoots him in the end, usually making some funny quote as he does. But, doing it for real?” I shook my head. “I know it was the only way to keep him from ruining Sara’s life. And probably my friends’ as well. Or maybe he would have forgotten about all of us.” I shook my head. “Now I have to wonder if that was the right thing. If there was another way out.”
She sighed, reached over, and took my hand. I jumped at the familiarity but she kept her grip. “There wasn’t. Trust me. I don’t have the ability you have, but I know how people are. I know what certain types of people will do. And from everything you have told me about Caleb? He would have done everything he could to hurt her. He would have changed her, and made sure she knew it, just to punish her for not throwing herself at him. Even though he didn’t deserve it.” She let go and shook her head. “Too many people are like that.”
I sighed and shook my head. “I guess but… It still feels bad. I *killed* him. I shot him in the head. After arranging things so that no one with him could stop me.” I sighed. “I feel like I cheated.”
She shrugged. “You did. But again, from what you have said, he deserved it.”
“I suppose,” I said, sighing. “At least my friends are safe now. He can’t hurt them. Or Sara.”
She nodded. “Sometimes… that’s the only way.”
I grimaced. “I suppose.” There was a long pause. “But… It’s different when you actually kill someone, you know.”
“I know,” she said. Something about the way I said it made me look up.
It was her turn to sigh. “I told you about how someone told me he could help me find my husband, then tried to take advantage of me and abandoned me in this nowhere place?” She gestured around.
I nodded. “Yeah?”
“Well, it wasn’t the first time.” She hesitated. “While Nathaniel was out at the war, I was at home. I… didn’t want to stay home all the time. I didn’t want to cheat on him; I would never do that. But I didn’t want to be alone at night either. So I went out a lot. To places like this. Not to try to find someone, but just to be around other people.” She looked at me questioningly and I nodded.
She sighed, then continued. “Well, one night there was this guy. Kept trying to talk to me even though I kept telling him I wasn’t there for conversation.” She paused.
“He followed me to my car. Tried to grab me. He didn’t know I had this.” She reached inside her skirt and pulled out what looked like a set of brass knuckles with a short blade protruding from them.
“A punch dagger?” I said, somewhat surprised. “I bet he wasn’t expecting that.”
She shook her head, smiling slightly. “No. No he didn’t.” She gazed off into the distance. “They never found the body either.” A faint smile of satisfaction crossed her face.
I carefully put my beer down and leaned back. “Um… remind me to keep my hands to myself.”
She looked at me in surprise. “Oh, no. Don’t worry. I trust you.” She smiled. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”
I felt myself flush uncomfortably. “Do you?” I said, looking away. “Or did I make you trust me?”
I heard her sigh. “A few minutes ago you were accusing me of not being real.”
I turned back to her. “I don’t even know what is going on anymore. I don’t know what is real anymore.”
“Whatever you want to be real is real,” she said. “But you will always be you. And I trust you.”
“Why?” I said angrily, downing the rest of my beer. Without waiting for an answer I got up and went back to the bar. I deliberately kept my back to her as I refilled the glass. When I got back to the table I saw that she had refilled her wine glass as well. More than once, based on how much was in the bottle.
She looked away as I sat down. We sat in silence for several moments before I finally spoke. “Why?” I asked again.
She took another drink of her wine then looked back at me. “You could have had your girlfriend back and madly in love with you. Or Sara. Or… anyone else you’ve met. You didn’t. If you wanted to take advantage of someone, you are in a better position to do so than anyone else I have ever met. You didn’t.” She paused. “The man who abandoned me here could have forced me to fall in love with him too. He didn’t. I sometimes wonder… why? Maybe he wasn’t quite like you, but still couldn’t force someone to do something they didn’t want to.”
She took another drink and looked at me again. “You know what is right and wrong. You know where the line is and you’ve stayed on the right side of it. You could have changed me, and you didn’t. You could have abandoned me, and you didn’t. *That’s* why I trust you.”
I suddenly felt myself flush again. “I…” I paused. “I hope I can live up to that.”
She smiled. “I know you. In the short time we’ve known each other, I’ve come to know you. You… Even with godlike powers, you still hold onto yourself. That’s rare.”
I flushed again. “Now this is really sounding like something I created to stroke my own ego.”
She shook her head. “Someone stroking their own ego voluntarily threw up beside the road an hour ago?”
I looked down and shook my head, embarrassed. Mostly because I was feeling uncomfortably proud of myself. I was handling this well, wasn’t I? I quickly cut that train of thought off.
I looked back up and took a deep drink. “OK,” I said, exhaling loudly. “Let’s go find your husband.”
She back at me, head tilted. “Are you ready?”
I shrugged. “I can’t go back home. Too many problems. And questions. And I said I would.” I drained the rest of the beer then stood up. “Let’s go.”
She hesitated, then finished her glass of wine and stood up as well. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.” She looked away, then back. “Thank you.”
I smiled. “You’re welcome. I… After all the help you’ve given me it’s the least I can do.”
She looked at me. “Are you OK with this?””
I nodded. “Yeah, let’s go.”
We left the restaurant. As we got to the Jeep I looked back. This would be my beacon, I thought. If I ever wanted to come back home, this would be the place I came to. It would be a while before I came back.
I got in and we pulled out of the parking lot. This time I turned right instead of left. It was time to go somewhere else.
We drove for a dozen or so miles in silence through an empty countryside. There were signs of civilization, but nowhere did I ever see anyone else. I did see a few dozen cows in a field, which surprised me, but no other people.
Eventually we came to a major interchange. The signs were for “USNA Superway 75” but I knew an Interstate when I saw it. I pulled onto the road.
Immediately I felt out of place. The cars around me looked wrong; too long and rounded. The billboards were for brands that looked normal at first glance, but at second look were slightly off. MacDonalds and Virginia Fried Chicken were the first two I noticed.
I saw a few drivers and passengers looking curiously at us and realize that the Jeep was standing out a bit. A bit of thought and it lengthened and its corners rounded off. It still didn’t look exactly like anything around, but it didn’t immediately stand out as different either.
“This isn’t where I’m from,” Nichole said with some concern, looking around. “Where are you taking me?”
“I’m going to where your husband is,” I replied. “I’m not sure how this works exactly, but… he’s here somewhere.” I glanced over at her. “Trust me.” She nodded in return then turned back to the window.
I continued to drive until an exit appeared. I took it and found myself somewhere with hardwood forests to the left and farmland to the right. I wasn’t sure what part of the country I was in, but it wasn’t Georgia. Or Washington.
A few minutes later another side road appeared, this one a simple dirt road, leading between the fields. Without hesitation I took it.
Nichole was looking around in confusion. “He’s… here?” She looked at me. “Why?”
I shrugged. “Well, you can ask him in a few minutes. I think we’re here.” I pointed ahead. There was a small cluster of about a dozen or so houses in front of us. A wooden log blocked further passage along the road. I pulled up in front of it and stopped. Several children came running towards us and a few adults looked in our direction curiously.
We got out of the Jeep and walked towards the town. The children, there were five or six of them, stopped a few feet away, looking and giggling. They seemed curious about us and about how we were dressed; all of them were in simply made cloth shirts and pants, as were the two adults now walking towards us. I unclipped the flap of my bag, then remembered that I had never reloaded the Glock. Hopefully I wouldn’t need it.
“Welcome to Parvil,” said the first as they arrived; a woman in her late 50s. A somewhat younger man was with her and, from appearance, he was probably her son. “If you’re looking for a service station or a restaurant, we don’t have anything like that here; this is a private community.”
“No, nothing like that,” I said. “We…” I turned to look at Nichole. She was looking from the woman who had greeted us to the town beyond then back again. “We’re looking for someone,” I finished.
The woman frowned slightly. “In general, those of us here are hear for our privacy. We really aren’t looking for visitors.”
“It’s my husband,” Nichole said suddenly. “Nathaniel Masters. I’m Nichole; his wife.”
The woman’s frown deepened. “Again, people come here for privacy. If he is here….”
“He is,” I said, flatly. “He may not be using that name, but I know he’s here.”
The younger man stepped forward. “Even if he is, he may not want to talk to you. I think you should leave.”
“Wait!” said Nichole, stepping forward. The man moved towards her but the older woman put a hand on his shoulder. “Look, like he says, we know he’s here.” She turned to me as she said that, eyes raised slightly in a silent question. I nodded.
“He’s here,” she repeated. “And maybe he doesn’t want to talk to me. But I need to know that. Please… tell him I’m here. We’ve come a long way to be here. A very long way. And it has taken a very long time.” She closed her eyes and I could see tears in the corners of her eyes. “Just… let him know I’m here. If he doesn’t want to talk to me, fine. But I need him to say that.”
The woman looked at her for a long moment then turned to the man next to her. “Brother Nathaniel is in the south field today. Go tell him that his wife Nichole is here to see him, if he wishes. The man hesitated, then nodded and trotted off to the south.
“Thank you,” I said.
“I’m not doing this for you,” the woman said, turning an icy gaze towards me. “I’m extending a courtesy to her. And who are you in all this?”
“A friend,” I replied.
“Oh?” I saw her eyebrow raise doubtfully.
“He *is* my friend,” Nichole said, surprisingly angry. “And *just* a friend, if that is what you are implying. He’s… he’s the one who found Nathaniel and helped me get here.”
“Oh,” she said again, this time disdainfully. “I see.” She sighed. “Well, I’ve sent your message. Please wait here and we will see if he really is here, and if he wants to talk to you.” She looked at me again, grimaced, then pointedly looked away.
“Children! Please come back to the square. Let’s not bother our ‘guests’ any further.” I heard the slight emphasis on the word ‘guests’ that I was sure the children missed. They ran off past her towards the middle of the small town. With a final glance at the two of us she followed them.
“Well,” I said. “That could have gone better.”
“Why is he here?” Nichole was now crying openly. “I thought he was being held somewhere. Or trapped. Or hurt. But… he ran away here? To get away from me?” She looked at me. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “We’ll just have to wait.”
She closed her eyes. “He has to talk to me. He has to. I just… I just want to know… why?”
I nodded in understanding. We stood there silently for several long minutes.
I was looking off into the distance, trying to determine where I was. It had just hit me that I was actually in a different world when I heard Nichole gasp sharply. I turned to see her looking past me.
I turned to see what she was looking at. I saw the same man as earlier, accompanied by a second man walking towards us. Nichole took off running towards them and, after a moment, I followed at a trot.
When I caught up she had thrown her arms around the newcomer and had buried her head on his shoulder. He had his hands on her arms but was looking at me instead of her. He pushed her gently away as I came up.
“Nathaniel!” she said, looking at him with disbelief. “Why… what happened to you! Why didn’t you come home? I tried to find you! I’ve been looking for you… for years! I…”
He held up a hand. “How… how did you find me?” His voice was flat, as if he was trying to force any emotion from his voice. “I… I didn’t want to be found.”
Nichole seemed taken aback. “Nathaniel? What’s wrong?”
He was looking at me again. “Did you bring her here?”
I nodded slowly, starting to wonder what I had gotten myself into. “Yeah,” I said. “She helped me though a bad spot, so I’m helping her.”
“I’m sure you are,” he said. Irritation was now evident in his voice.
I was a bit taken aback, as was Nichole. “Nat…?” she stepped back from him, looking confused. “What… what is it?”
“Yeah…” I said. “I would have thought you would have been a little happier to see your wife again.”
“As happy as you are?” he said, irritation now coming through clearly.
“No!” I almost shouted. “No! Nothing like that. I just… was helping her get here.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Trust me, I believe that.”
Nichole was looking from him to me. “Nat… what’s wrong? What is going on.”
He sighed and turned to me. “Let me talk to my wife for a bit, OK?”
I hesitated, then shrugged. “Sure. I understand.” I turned to Nichole. “I’ll be back with the Jeep for a while, OK.”
She nodded while keeping her gaze on Nathaniel. “OK, sure… I’ll check in before you leave.”
I suddenly felt awkward. “Sure. No problem.” I turned and walked back to where I had parked the Jeep, resisting the urge to look over my shoulder.
I sat in the Jeep for a while. Probably an hour or two. I had pulled a couple of my old campaign folders out of the boxes in the back and had been looking through them, trying to find the place I wanted to go. The more I looked the more I decided I didn’t really want to visit any of them. They were all great worlds to play games in, but all were a bit too dangerous to be someplace you wanted to actually live from day to day.
I had given up on my old campaigns and had started on creating a new campaign world when I suddenly heard the passenger door open. I looked over in surprise to see Nichole getting into the Jeep. Before I could say anything she closed the door and leaned back in the seat with a sigh.
“Um…” I said, closing my pad to cover my confusion. “Um… how did it go?” I winced. The answer was obvious.
“He doesn’t want to be with me,” she said expressionlessly, staring out the windshield.
“What?” I had realized something was wrong from the beginning, but hadn’t expected the abruptness of the ending.
She lowered her head and shook it. “He has a wife here. I met her. And their children.” She turned to face me and I saw she had been crying. “We had talked about having children. I wasn’t ready. I really wasn’t interested, but if I had realized how much that meant to him…” She looked back down and I could see she had started crying again.
I looked out my own window, feeling as if I had intruded on something I shouldn’t have. Finally, I spoke again. “Was that it?”
I heard a sigh behind me. There was a pause and I almost thought she wasn’t going to answer, but she finally spoke.
“No, there were other things. Some… personal. But…” She stopped and sighed. “In the end it was that he just wanted a simple life. No complex responsibilities. A wife who was dedicated to him and his home and family and nothing else. Just a quiet life.” She went quiet again, long enough that I looked over to see if she had disappeared again, though I knew she hadn’t. She was still sitting there, looking down.
“I never wanted a quiet life,” she said softly. “I tried for him but… it wasn’t me.”
I looked away again. Finally, I spoke. “So, what now?”
She sighed. “Can you take me home?”
I nodded and started the Jeep.
“Or…” I said, not looking at her, “there are an infinite number of worlds out there. We could… check a few of them out first?”
There was a pause and I looked over at her. She was looking back and I saw indecision in her face. Indecision that suddenly turned into a smile. She reached over, grabbed her seat belt in a practiced move and pulled it across her.
I nodded and with a smile put the Jeep into gear and headed out onto the Road.