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The More They Stay The Same

Alter S. Reiss lives in Jerusalem with his wife Naomi and their son Uriel in an apartment that might someday not be under construction. His fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Nature, F&SF, and elsewhere, and he has published a short novel, Sunset Mantle, with the Tor.com imprint. He is very occasionally on Twitter, as @asreiss.
"I can't actually change the way things are. More than anyone else can, I mean."
The shop looked like a crappy antiques store, not like what Jane had expected, and the guy looked like some college kid working at Target, not like... whatever someone who could change reality should look like. It'd all been some stupid prank anyway, and Jane had made an idiot out of herself again.
"Sorry, I just, my friend told me that--"
"What I can change is how things got the way they are."
That didn't make much sense.
"Like, let's say you were coming here to get back together with an ex. I can't do that. But if you want, instead of them dumping you, I can make it so that you dumped them. The fewer people involved, the easier it is, the more I have to change besides memories, the harder it is. Like... what sort of car do you drive?"
"It's a Hyundai," said Jane, cautiously, not looking at the guy. Paying someone to change things sounded stupid, but the more she'd thought about it, the more she knew that she needed it. Now it was all falling apart and she wasn't ready to face how much of an idiot she was.
"So, like, if your parents bought you that car, I could make it so that you bought it yourself. Your memories, your parents memories, nothing else. Doesn't have to be that you bought it yourself, either. Could be that you inherited it from a man who you smiled at once, or whatever. But whatever I do, it'll still be the same car; same features, same dings, same gas mileage."
Jane shook her head. "So, what's the point?" That came out a little harsher than she had intended. "I mean, it's the same car."
"Sure," said the guy. "But, it's like, okay. Think about everyone's life like a tennis ball, flying in the air. Then let's say you freeze the room full of flying tennis balls. I can't change where the ball is. But I can change how it got there, and how fast it's moving. And that changes where it's going next, you know?"
That made sense. More or less.
"So what did you want?" asked the guy. "I mean, you came in looking for a change. What sort of change did you want? We can start from what you want, see if I can do anything for you."
She wanted the change, needed it, but saying what she needed?
What the hell. She wasn't going back there ever anyway. "Yeah, um. It's just..." she looked down, then back up at him, trying to keep eye contact, which was hard. "I need to be tougher," she said. "I mean, there are a thousand different times where I just did what people wanted me to do, where I didn't stand up for myself, because I was afraid to make waves. I don't know if I can change all of those--"
"It'd cost you," said the guy. "And probably not."
"Fine," said Jane. "But it's not like I need to not have given Gavin Johnson my book report in elementary school--I mean, it still bugs me, but whatever. I need to stop letting my manager claim all my achievements when talking to C-suite, and I need to--"
"Got it," said the guy. "Okay. How much have you got in the bank?"
Jane hesitated. He made a reassuring sort of gesture. "No, it's okay. I'm just going to charge a few hundred bucks. But how'd you like to have stolen the money?"
"Stolen?"
"Yup. Grabbed a Vermont driver's license and some credit cards from a girl who looked like you, went to Vermont and bought a pistol, then robbed three banks in upstate New York. If you have thirty thousand in the bank, that'd be the way they got there. After a day or two, you won't be able to remember anything different."
Jane gaped at him. That was... she'd never done anything like that. She hadn't even considered it. It was... "Shit," she said.
"Yeah," said the guy. "You threw the gun in a lake somewhere, ditched the rental that you used for the getaway. The girl you stole the license from was solidly alibied, so that's it; unsolved, off the books. Nobody killed. Be the sort of thing that'll give you a little more self-confidence when dealing with low-level management, anyway."
It would. It damn well would. To have done that? Hell. "Okay," she said. "What do I have to do?"
"Three hundred dollars," said the guy. "And take..." he looked around the shop. "The mirror there." It was big and ugly and wouldn't fit anywhere.
"What? Why?"
"Because when the IRS audits my business, it's a good idea to have a business."
"Not the mirror," said Jane. "I don't have anywhere to put it." She looked around, picked out a rocking chair that didn't look terrible. "What about that?"
"Four hundred," said the guy.
So, a hundred bucks for a rocking chair? Not terrible. "Fine," said Jane, passing him her credit card.
And once the transaction cleared, she'd done it. She'd totally done it. She'd seen the girl at a bar, and saw her driver's license when she was IDed. That girl had slumped over, and dropped her wallet; Jane had slipped the driver's license out as she gave it back, and then it was just... shit. Buying the gun had been easy as hell. Then she'd spent the weekend between strung out on adrenaline, and petrified with fear. She'd been sure that as soon as she deposited the money, they'd catch her. But they hadn't. Three thousand dollars a month until it was all in her bank account, and that was it.
The money had come from that robbery spree, and had also come from her great aunt Dorothea, but the Dorothea thing was... hadn't really happened. Longer she thought about it, the less like it seemed that had happened.
She walked out, head held high. It had been so easy, though. She hadn't even planned much; just happened to have run across a driver's license when it got dark early, and then robbed those banks. If she needed to do it again, it wouldn't be too hard. Hell. If Shirley pushed her too far, she'd....
From behind the rack full of various unmatched and chipped cups and plates, Ally watched the woman leave. Then she rushed over to the desk. "She took it?" she asked.
Guy behind the counter nodded. "Yup," he said. "Bank robbery money is hers, yours is now an inheritance from a great aunt."
It was true. That was what happened. Poor old aunt Dotty. Ally could feel some of the tension in her shoulders easing. "Thanks," she said. "Oh, God. It'd gotten...."
"Panic every time you saw a police car?" asked the guy. "That's usually what people want to get rid of. That, or personal stuff."
"There was a bit of that," said Ally. "But it wasn't just that. I mean, that was the big one. It was where the shoplifting and petty dealing and all that were headed. And it's like... you know, you feel yourself on a slide, but you can't stop it? And it was so much money. Every time I needed a little cash, I'd think about that. Thirty thousand in a weekend? Fuck. But if I kept going down the slide, it was pretty clear how that was going to end."
"And now it came from great aunt Dorothea," said the guy.
"Exactly. She pulled me back from the brink."
"Jane?" asked the guy, "or Dorothea?"
Ally hesitated, then shrugged. "Whoever," she said.
"Fair enough," said the guy. "Three hundred dollars, and take that wagon-wheel."
Ally paid in cash, and left.
That was the way it was supposed to work. They'd been at similar points, he'd shifted what one of them needed to the other one, and they were both better off. Mark shrugged, counted out the money that Ally had given him into the till. Sometimes it didn't work out well in the end, but he couldn't remember a single time when that had been his fault.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 21st, 2019
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