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art by Liz Clarke


By day A.G. Carpenter is a mild-mannered, stay-at-home mother. By night she writes fiction of (and for) all sorts. Her microfiction has been published at Every Day Fiction, Trapeze Magazine and Cuento Magazine. She prefers Die Hard to When Harry Met Sally and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly over Animal House. Her favorite color is black. She lives with her husband and three-year-old son in the not-so-wilds of Tennessee. She blogs at agcarpenter.blogspot.com and Twits @Aggy_C

***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."
"Insomnia again?"
"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."
Grady pauses, eyes bulging. "What?"
"I want out. Before I lose it completely."
He sets the phone down, careful-like. "I'm afraid I can't do that."
"Put me on a desk job. I can't work in the field anymore." My hands are pressed tight against the tabletop in an effort to keep them from shaking. The coffee in my stomach roils, hot and acidic.
"I'm short on agents already and you want me to put you behind a desk?" Sweat bubbles out through his skin. "How bad is it?"
"Bad. I haven't slept in over a month and a half."
"I'll get you some pills. They'll sort you right out." His smile promises everything will be fine, but his eyes are already calculating just how much further he can push me.
"I don't know how much longer I can keep it all straight," I say, desperate.
The future washes through my head like all the taps in a house running at once. In a dozen or more timelines Grady relents and calls in the order to have me taken out of the field.
In reality he just shakes his head. "I'm sorry. But the work you do is too important to pull you out now." Again with the smile. "They'll get the pills to you by this evening, and I promise, you'll sleep like a brick." He smashes his cigarette out in the ashtray, tosses back the last cold swallow of coffee and stands. "Right now I've got things to take care of."
I want to argue, but the feed from The System tells me it's no use. This part of the future is locked in. "Okay," I say instead.
"Same time next week?" He's already padding toward the door. "Try not to be late."
"Yeah." I slump back in the booth, digging a knuckle into my forehead to try and ease the sledgehammer banging away at the back of my eyes.
"Can I get you another cup? Maybe some pancakes?" The waitress looks tired.
My stomach's still volatile but experience says food will smother the tremble in my hands. "Toast. And eggs. And fresh coffee would be great."
Walking home, I catch a whiff of spinach and gasoline--the sensory trigger The System uses to notify me I've acquired a target.
I'm really not in a mood for saving the world today, but it's not like I have much of a choice. I turn left when my hand tingles, heading into the sun.
In the movies they make it look all clean and neat. With graphics and actual lines stretching out like a map. But the reality is a mind-bending rush of ghosts all trampling in different directions, popping in and out of existence as the future shifts and shifts again. It's hard enough to keep straight when I'm well rested, but I haven't been that in a long time.
I pause at the next corner and rub my eyes. When I lower my hand I see her.
The target.
The girl from the day before.
She's crossing the street toward me, digging through her messenger bag for something. And two blocks away a truck is hurtling toward her.
I've seen this scenario enough to know exactly what I'm supposed to do. The guy standing next to me will shout a warning. A warning I'm supposed to prevent him from giving.
I take a step forward, ready to shoulder him to one side, throw him off-balance and keep him too busy to say anything to the girl with the dark green eyes.
It all muddles in my head. She lies smashed on the pavement. She walks down the street looking pale and flustered by a very near miss with death. The truck takes out half-a-block of downtown trying to miss her.
When I was younger and could still sleep at night, I thought that if I were to fold up and do the wrong thing, to fuck up the timeline The System presented me with, at least it would be for someone worthwhile. A sexy brunette maybe. Or a blue-eyed cherub of a kid.
This girl is neither of those. And she knows the truth about me. I have every reason to elbow the guy beside me in the gut and walk away while she walks into the front of a dump truck. On any other day, I'd be okay with that. But today, with the specter of the past as well as the future crowding my mind, I just can't.
I step forward and grab her by the arm, pushing her back out of the way.
The hair on the back of my neck stands up as the truck hurtles past, the driver leaning on the horn with one hand and gesturing out the window with the other. The bloody-mess-on-the-pavement future and the explosion-rocks-downtown future blink out of existence like a blown light bulb.
A still-alive girl with muddy brown hair and green eyes looks up at me with a frown. "What..." Recognition hits, then comprehension and she goes all jelly-legged.
I quickmarch her to the safety of the curb, keeping her upright with one hand on her elbow and the other scrunched tight in the back of her shirt. "Don't stop now," I say, hoarse. "We need to get someplace safe."
We sit in my apartment, twitchy and nervous.
I walked her around the city for hours--turning, backtracking, taking shortcuts through alleys, talking to strangers--all trying to avoid a future in which we both get snuffed. Eventually someone deskside must have realized I was using the information flowing from The System to outmaneuver whatever agents they had sent after us. After nine years, six months, and thirteen days the crush of possible-future's stopped.
Since I could no longer control what happened next, I went home. The girl came with me.
She sits in the chair that normally acts as a closet, feet tucked up under her, chewing her thumbnail back to the quick.
I've got the clicker in one hand, slamming through channel after channel in a desperate attempt to fill the sudden silence in my head.
"Are they going to kill us?" Her voice is steady. She could be asking if I want chicken for dinner.
I have to try several times before I can get a single word out. "Yeah."
She pushes lank hair out of her eyes. Dark green eyes. "Why?"
It would be easy to mistake the question. Why will they kill us? But I know that is not what she is asking.
"It felt wrong," I say. "Today it just felt wrong." My head is spinning. I lean back against the pillows, settling more comfortably on the three-thousand-dollar mattress. "How big a difference can one life make, anyway?"
She doesn't say anything. My eyes are sliding closed. The sleep that's eluded me for weeks pours over me like the tide, sucking me under and away before I even have time to say Goodnight or Help yourself to whatever's in the fridge.
I sleep like a rock.
When I wake up the girl stands at the window, face pressed close to the glass. The wedge of sky visible over her head seems redder than usual, even for dawn.
"What's going on?" I rub my eyes, scooting across the bed toward her.
She points and I stand up, slow. Disbelieving. Across the horizon smoke and flames climb skyward. The city's burning. Hell, everything's burning.
She leans close, one hand closing around mine, tight. "I think you made a mistake."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 9th, 2012
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