art by Tim Stewart
Rinse or Repeat
by Sylvia Hiven
Sylvia Hiven lives a solitary life with her dog and an overpowering imagination. Her fiction has been published in PseudoPod, Eschatology, and AlienSkin Magazine.
Gabriel wouldn't ever have thought there would be circumstances rough enough for him to set foot in lower Manhattan Chinatown. In the old days, perhaps, but not after the integration. Too many dragons.
There were mainly humans, of course; clingy people chattering in Mandarin as he walked by in the drizzle, one offering traditional Chinese souvenirs while the next tried to sell him pornographic holograms--"real girls, real action, not Jìsuánji made!" But in the shadows beneath the awnings, he saw their willowy shapes, the odor of their dirty scales wafting against his face as he walked. They wouldn't do anything now, but ten years earlier, they would have scorched him and promptly sucked the meat off his bones. It made him pull up his collar and walk faster.
A horrific thought zinged into his mind. Shit, I hope the displacer isn't a dragon. Fuck. I can't handle that. Not even to get rid of Merridy Redwing.
He looked down at the note that Frank had given him. Turqoise Pavilion, 212 Mott Street. Mr Foeyard. He relaxed; that name sounded distinctly human.
The drizzle turned into a downpour, and by the time Gabriel found the restaurant, he was drenched. He hurried inside, shook the water out of his coat, only to slip on the wet linoleum floor as he approached the hostess stand. He asked the skinny teenage hostess for Mr Foeyard. She raised an eyebrow with way too much American attitude to be a convincing Chinese courtesan, despite her elaborate silk dress and the chopsticks poking out of her hair.
"Sorry, I don't know him," she said.
"That can't be. My friend told me I could find him here." Gabriel leaned closer to the girl. "You gotta know about him. He's a... displacer."
Her eyes bulged. She grabbed Gabriel by the arm and pulled him into the restaurant, which was mostly deserted aside from an elderly couple, bent over their soup bowls in a corner booth.
"Seriously, where are your street smarts?" the girl said as she steered him between the tables and chairs. "You stupid white guys. Would you go up to a drug dealer in daylight and ask for heroin, too? Wait at the bar."
As she disappeared into the back, Gabriel took a seat at the bar. His cheeks were hot with embarrassment. Frank had told him to be discreet, but it hadn't really struck him that he was doing something illegal. Perhaps it was the absurdity of it all.
Going back in time? Gabe, you're insane. There's no such thing. Perhaps you should just get up and go back home before you make a complete ass of yourself.
Back to Anne? Back to that face that lights up with trust every time I walk in the door? Back to her constant waiting for me to be okay, for us to be okay? Never. This is it. I gotta fix this. I gotta get rid of Merridy.
A rustle of silk interrupted his inner debate, and the girl returned. In tow was a pretty teenage boy, no older than seventeen. He wore a traditional Chinese robe with the customary dragon pattern, but beneath he wore jeans and dirty sneakers. His gold nametag sported the name "Fred Yao" in black letters.
The teenager eyed Gabriel with a frown, then said something in Chinese to the hostess. She shrugged and went back to the front of the restaurant, her silk robe swooshing as she walked.
The teenager looked at Gabriel. He didn't appear happy.
"Let me guess," he said in broken English, walking behind the bar. "You're one of Frank's friends."
"That bastard. He backed out of his displacement, and now he's making a buck out of referring people to me because he can remember. How much did he ask from you for the solution to all your problems? Five thousand credits?"
Gabriel's cheeks flushed. "Eight thousand."
"Ah. I hope you have enough to pay my displacement fee."
Gabriel got his wallet out and slid a plastic card across the counter. "Frank said ten thousand would do it."
The teen took the card and scanned it at the register. He raised an eyebrow in approval at the amount. "Looks like we're in business, mister...?"
"Corcoran. Gabriel. Whichever, really."
"Gabriel it is. I'm Fred."
"Not Mr Foeyard, then."
"Oh, that." Fred nodded to the girl at the hostess stand. "Lin thought of it. A displacer should have an anagram alias, she claims."
"Displacer, jumbled letters. I get it. Funny."
"She thinks so." Fred rolled his eyes, and took out two cups and a bottle from the bar. Pouring the drinks, he glanced at me. "So, what are you here for, Gabriel?"
"You know. I need the past fixed."
"Yeah, I get that. I just like to hear what it's all about. Displacing causes a hell of a headache, you see, and I don't do that for trivial stuff. So spill it."
For a moment, Gabriel felt like just getting up and leaving. It was bad enough that he had to carry the memory of Merridy, the smell of her hair constantly playing in his nostrils, the sound of her voice sparkling in his head, the sensation of her small breasts in his palms. Now he had to tell this kid about her, speak her name out loud?
Fred saw his hesitation. "Come on, Gabriel. Your credits are already in my account; you'd be a fool to back out now."
The kid pushed the cup of rice wine toward him. Gabriel took it. He had no choice, really.
"It's a girl. A fairy, actually."
"Ah, fairies. They bring me so much business, you have no idea." Fred shook his head. "Those girls should come with a warning label stamped on their wings, as many human hearts as they break. Let me guess: you love her, you lost her, and now you want to win her back. That's a classic."
"No, I don't want to win her back," Gabriel said. "Not even close. Merridy ruined my life."
Sure, Gabe. But only after she made you come alive.
Fairies had probably had the easiest time during the integration. Even before the laws changed, they began to filter into the human population. Their beauty was breathtaking, and being sensual creatures, they had gained a complete monopoly on prostitution and strip clubs. It was just a matter of time before they found their way into the beds of the most powerful men. Some said the integration was all thanks to the convincing pillow talk of some senator's fairy mistress.
Gabriel didn't doubt that for a second. He knew all the games a fairy played in bed, and Merridy Redwing played them very well.
They'd met in SoHo. Gabriel and his wife Anne had been shopping, and while Anne went into a bookstore, he'd waited outside, enjoying the sun. A gorgeous little redhead came out of a cafe with a cup of coffee in her hand, not looking where she was going, and they bumped into each other on the busy sidewalk. Her hot latte spilled all over him, and he cursed at her as the coffee burned through his shirt. Her cherry-colored lips had trembled at his outburst; quick to tears as fairies are, she had sobbed so hard, her crimson wings shook. He had felt awful about it.
Three days later, they were in her apartment, her smooth legs wrapped around his waist and her voice crying his name with a passion that Anne's never had. He was lost. And ten years with Anne couldn't keep his heart tethered--he fell, and he fell hard.
All this, Gabriel told Fred, but the teenager looked skeptical. "Ten years of marriage, and you throw them away for a fairy?" he said, pouring Gabriel another cup of hot rice wine.
Gabriel swept the wine and slammed the cup down on the polished counter with a crack. "It had nothing to do with my marriage in the beginning. I wasn't craving other women; Merridy wasn't a replacement for anything I lacked. Anne and I were fine, we didn't have any troubles."
"If you let the fairy in, Gabriel, there were troubles."
"She grew on me," Gabriel said to Fred. "Imagine that you've only tasted vanilla ice cream your entire life. And you're happy with it, because ice cream tastes good. But then you come across chocolate raspberry truffle, and it explodes in your mouth. For the first time, you know what flavor is. How are you supposed to ever go back to vanilla after that?"
"She rocked your world, I get it. Fairies do that. They addict you to them. It's like giving it to a Lolita with wings."
"It wasn't just sex, Fred. She brought color into my life."
"But that's not love. It never is with their kind."
Gabriel shrugged. "Perhaps, but it was easy to believe she loved me. The midnight phone calls, the constant neediness. And she knew how I felt, and she let me love her. Which to me meant she wanted my love. Wanted me."
"But she didn't, I guess. She ended it, didn't she?"
"Yes. When she tired of me, she told me to go back to my wife. But I can't. Not while I still remember what chocolate raspberry truffle is like." Gabriel clenched his fists with frustration, his nails digging into his palms. "Anne is wonderful. I told her about Merridy, and even though it crushed her, she forgave me. She wants to work things out, and I said I did, too. But when she touches me, it makes my skin crawl, Fred. She makes my skin crawl, even though I love her. I don't know how to make a future with her anymore, no matter how much I want to."
"So you want me to displace time the moment before you met Merridy."
"Can it be done?"
"Sure it can be done."
"It won't... cause problems? Unexpected consequences? I've heard of the butterfly effect."
"Step on a butterfly and the Commies take over, or a tornado destroys Beijing, and thunder rolls ominously. Trust me, Gabriel. I've stepped on much bigger things than butterflies during displacements, and the thunder isn't rolling, no matter what Bradbury says. But that doesn't mean it's a predictable thing."
Fred took Gabriel's cup away from him and looked at him with stern eyes. All of a sudden, he looked much older than seventeen. Gabriel noted with fascination that the kid's Chinese accent was gone.
"I can take you back to that moment. And you can choose to go into that bookstore to your wife instead of staying on the sidewalk. But perhaps another fairy comes out of that bookstore and drops an encyclopedia on your toe. Or maybe, a week later, you come across Merridy in a park or on the subway, and you end up in the same situation. All that talk about dire consequences and butterfly effects, that's all hearsay. But you need to understand that displacement does not guarantee happy endings, either."
"Well, it can't get worse than what I've been through."
"Some say it's better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all."
"Bullshit." Gabriel felt anger rise up his throat like a hot tide. "Listen, kid, I've paid you ten thousand credits and I've told you the story. I'm not here for you to talk me out of this."
Fred held his hands up in a defensive gesture. "Fine. We'll do it right now. I'll go get my coat."
They took a hover-taxi to SoHo. Most people had stayed out of the rain, except for a few undines who had taken their clothes off and stood writhing, welcoming the sheets of water that brushed against their grey, undulating bodies. With no traffic, it took just ten minutes before Gabriel and Fred stood huddled on the sidewalk across from the cafe where Gabriel had first met Merridy.
"You ready?" Fred asked, pulling his coat around his neck. "The displacement is gonna pull you from the past into your present existence, a melding of sorts. After all, there can't be two of you. Most people get nauseous, so don't feel bad if you throw up."
"I'll be fine," Gabriel said.
Fred took hold of his hand. It felt odd to hold hands with another man, especially one whose skin felt like warm velvet. Gabriel instinctively withdrew, but Fred took his hand again and held it tighter.
"It has to be this way. I gotta touch you to find the right moment. Be still."
Gabriel stopped fidgeting, and stood still in the rain. He felt an icy cold raindrop slither its way beneath his collar and run down his back. It reminded him of how Merridy used to draw her fingernails along his spine. He shivered, but out of pleasure.
This is why I have to forget her. She's everywhere. I can't see a fairy without thinking about her. I can't drink coffee anymore. Hell, I can't even sit at a red light without thinking about her name.
Fred's thoughts butted in, startlingly clear in his head. Then off we go, Gabriel.
The world tilted and went dark, and Gabriel's thoughts tumbled into the bottom of his belly. There was a flash of white. When the world came back into focus, Gabriel fell to a sun-warmed sidewalk, throwing up rice wine mixed with bile.
After retching for an eternity, he dried a trail of vomit from his chin and got to his feet. He looked around, certain his little show would have gathered a crowd. And there was indeed a crowd. But none of them looked at him; none of them even moved. Everyone on the sidewalk was frozen in mid-step, mid-conversation--mid-living--except for himself and Fred.
"Are you alright there, Superman?" Fred asked.
Gabriel brushed the dust off the knees of his pants, and looked across the street. He saw the bookstore, and next to it, the coffee shop. Without hesitating, he weaved his way across the stilled hover-taxis and onto the sidewalk on the other side. Fred followed.
Gabriel walked around the people on the sidewalk, looking at their petrified facial expressions. He stopped to study a pair of yuppie fauns, frozen in the midst of an argument, their goatees slick with pomade, and then scanned the spot near the coffee shop where he had crashed into Merridy. He distinctly remembered leaning against the façade of the building right next to the door, but the spot was empty now.
"So I'm not here," he said to Fred. "My past self, it melted into me?"
Gabriel turned away from the sidewalk and instead peered into the window of the dim bookstore. He caught a glimpse of Anne between two bookshelves. An overhead spotlight beamed down on her blonde hair, making it glow like a halo. He didn't see her face, but that was all right. He knew he would soon have lots of time to see it--and want to see it.
Fred appeared behind him. "Are you ready?"
Gabriel nodded. "What happens now?"
"My presence here is what displaces time; it slices time apart, pushes the past back a bit. When I go back to the present, time shudders back on track. You will have ten seconds before it catches up with you. When that time is up, you will not remember any of this: you will not remember me, the Turquoise Pavilion, Lin, nothing. If, before the shudder, you've gone into the bookstore, your fairy will pass you by and you won't meet her. Case closed. Happily ever after. Hopefully."
Gabriel looked toward the coffee shop. "Is she in there now?" he asked.
"Unless you remembered it all wrong, then yeah, she's in there."
Gabriel's heart beat harder. He hadn't seen Merridy for almost a year. While he recalled details of her, most of his memories had been mutated by time, pulled apart and twisted by grief. He longed to see her again--the real, alive her.
"Just give me a moment," Gabriel said, taking a step towards the coffee shop.
"Gabriel, that's not a good--"
But it was too late. He saw her, and again, he was lost.
Her face was turned towards the window. She beamed towards the man behind the counter, and her hand was outreached to receive the cup of coffee she had ordered. As usual, she floated an inch off the ground: she was never shy about using her wings and she had always moved like a dancer. Gabriel had wondered many times what she had worn that day; he hadn't remembered. Now he saw it; a red and brown polka-dotted dress. She was his chocolate raspberry truffle ballerina.
Fred appeared next to him. He shifted from one foot to the other. "Listen, I gotta go, I can't hold off time any longer. But I can see what you're thinking, Gabriel, and I advise against it."
Gabriel responded with feigned naivete. "What are you talking about?"
"If you go into the bookstore to Anne, your life will change. You will have a chance at finding bliss with her. But if you stay here and let that fairy bump into you, you'll face the exact same future that you're trying to forget. You won't remember any of this, so you can't make anything happen differently with Merridy."
"Maybe it won't be the same," Gabriel said. "Maybe something will change."
"Or maybe this is the third, fifth or tenth time we're having this conversation."
"Is it? Have I done this before?"
"If you had, I wouldn't know, but yeah, it's possible." Fred looked over his shoulder as if he was chased by something. "The shudder is coming. I'll be gone in a moment. Make the right decision, Gabriel. Don't let her spill that coffee over you again. It will burn just as much as last time."
Things started to slip out of focus again. Fred flickered out of sight. Gabriel swallowed.
Another round of amazing, painful chocolate raspberry truffle, or satisfactory, safe vanilla. Blonde or redhead. Burn or cool. Rinse or repeat.
He heard time close in on him, rumbling and rolling.
He preferred to think it was thunder.
This story was first published on Friday, February 18th, 2011
I was challenged to write a story where a choice in the end would be left up to the reader to ponder. I wrote this story as an allegory for a change I had to make in my personal life recently. While there are obviously not any dragons walking around New York City, I hope that the readers will find some truth in the emotions of the tale.
- Sylvia Hiven
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