art by Liz Clarke
by A.G. Carpenter
***There's adult language in the words to come. Be forewarned -Ed***
He can't be more than fourteen. Couldn't have been, my mind corrects. Now he's dead in the sunburned street, a sticky sweet puddle of blood growing larger with every second.
The crowd surges around me. A few well-intentioned pedestrians are trying to apply makeshift bandages, perform CPR, and in general, save a life that is already gone. I drift on the current of gawpers, slowly putting distance between myself and the accident.
It wouldn't be smart to dash off. Someone might make a connection. Nor is it in my best interest to stick around until the crowd thins. I've been in this city for a while, the cops might start to recognize me if I hang around.
I do the casual step-slide, turn-and-weave, till I can walk away unhindered and unnoticed. In the distance sirens scream; the paramedics coming too late. Overhead the blades of a news chopper hammer the air, camera lenses protruding from its belly like dead eyes.
It'll be all over the evening broadcasts. Kid bites it in freak traffic accident. Mothers will hug their sons and everyone will murmur how it was a shame he died so young and a little paper shrine decorated with cheap flowers will be erected on the corner. By morning he'll be forgotten.
"Excuse me." The voice is light, feminine.
"Yeah?" I give the girl my best fuck-off stare but she doesn't take the hint.
"Did you see what happened back there?" She jerks her head at the crowd.
"Traffic accident. Some kid stepped in front of a high-speed tram." When she doesn't move, I step around her. My stomach knots up as a dozen possible-future timelines stream through my brain. In most of them I just walk away, but in one...
"I saw what you did." Her hands are fists. Not so much to threaten, I think, more like to keep them from shaking. But she doesn't back down when I turn around.
"What did you say?"
"I saw you push him."
The knot in my stomach turns cold and sharp. It happens sometimes that one of us is seen working. Usually it's a minor glitch in the analytical software that picked a wrong turn three hours ago and put an agent at the right place with the right target but with a witness who isn't distracted looking for a bus pass or arguing over who hailed the taxi first. It happens, but the instance is so rare the statistics can't even reflect it without dropping to the hundredth power.
Something about the way this girl looks at me, I know it's more than just an oversight by a tech a thousand miles away. Something about the way she looks at me snuffs all the possible-futures and for a heartbeat or two I exist only in this moment.
"Sorry," I say. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Green eyes get darker. With anger, maybe. Or disappointment. She shakes her head and mud-brown hair falls across her face.
The world turns fuzzy again, overlapping lines of what is and what might be filling my head like static. There are at least a few lines that have me dragging her into the nearby alley and coming back out alone. I ignore those. She's not flagged as a target and I never have liked collateral damage.
I shove my hands in my pockets and turn up the street toward home. The lump in my stomach gets bigger with every step, forcing a cold sweat that sticks my shirt to my back. A glance over my shoulder; the girl's gone.
Three in the morning and I can still smell the blood on my hands. Figurative blood. I didn't even touch the kid after his sudden introduction to the high-speed tram. Metaphysical blood.
I get up and pad to the bathroom, wash my hands again. The soap is cheap and overly perfumed. The scent of death lingers, like cotton candy and rust.
All in my head.
I splash some water on my face, take a squint in the mirror. Need to shave. Maybe in the morning. What I really need is sleep.
The mattress is the most expensive thing I own, bought in a last ditch effort to try and beat the insomnia. Extra thick, space-engineered foam for optimum support with 800 thread count sheets in the coolest cotton. I might as well be sleeping on rocks or cactus or the floor for all the good any of it does me. I flop onto my left side and stare out the window, waiting for the twinkle of distant traffic at the horizon to lull me to sleep.
The insomnia is inevitable. Hell, they've even got it listed in the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Right after paranoia, before insanity and death. It's part and parcel of the responsibility of being a Preservationist, but I guess, being a field agent, I get it worse than the techs. They get glimpses of the Big Picture, the better-brighter-safer planet Earth.
I get glimpses too, but they're always blood-spattered and usually far too young.
In the street outside a car horn blares, immediately answered with a string of obscenities. I could hang my head out the window, blame them for keeping me awake, but I know the problem is all in my mind. The phantom smell of blood. The nightmares. The growing whisper in the back of my head that none of this is necessary.
And in eighty percent of the possibles in my head, yelling out the window only results in a very large man breaking down my door and threatening to pitch me into the street.
I dig a pencil out of the clutter on the nightstand and make a mark on the calendar beside the bed. What with the marks from last month this makes forty-six nights in a row the insomnia's hit me. I've waited to tell anyone about it, hoping it will go away. It has before. Nixing caffeine worked for a while. Then I used those over-the-counter pills for a year or so.
This time none of it's working. Not the pills. Not the meditation. Not the three-thousand-dollar mattress that cradles my strung-out limbs like a cloud. I grin at the ceiling. All the shit in the world we can change, but the insomnia's inevitable.
I reach for the clicker. Might as well rattle through a few hundred channels on the tube while I wait for the sun to come up. Got my weekly with my handler in a few hours. Guess I'll tell him my time is up. They'll put me on a desk job, boring but far away from the grit and grind of the field.
The smell of rust turns my stomach. Better wash my hands.
Grady sits at a booth in the back of the diner, cigarette in one hand and coffee mug in the other. "You're late."
I sit down with a shrug. "You know how it goes."
Of course, he doesn't. A handler doesn't have the plate antenna in the back of his skull directing his movements through time. He can take whatever route he damn well pleases. I'm subject to the whims of The System's analysis. Turning left instead of right at an intersection; crossing through traffic instead of waiting for the lights to turn--all of it makes a difference. It also makes me late as I'm directed along a specific stream to achieve maximum positive impact.
He lights a fresh cigarette from the stub of the last one and takes a hard drag. "You look like hell."
"Thanks." I raise a hand toward the girl behind the counter, summoning coffee.
"Everything all right?"
"I'm not sleeping."
"Yeah. Pretty bad this time." I chug down the mug of coffee, ignoring protests from my throat about the heat.
"I'll get you some pills." He reaches for his phone, ready to call the departmental psychiatrist.
"I don't want pills. I want out."