From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories, an anthology edited by John Joseph Adams

Fiction

The Immortality Game

Decades later the music was what really tipped Glen off. He heard a song on the radio, a brand new release, and remembered the day he’d first heard it, twenty years earlier.

Everything began to fall together then. Or maybe that was when it really started to shatter.

#

There were four of them in high school. Glen wasn’t one of the quartet. Instead, it was Fred Lipton and his gang.

But you could have said that of any of them. Derek Cho and his gang. Penelope Nantes and her gang. Casey Lucas and her gang. Casey Lucas, Barbie-blond, eyebrows as fine and wispy as fledgling feathers. Graceful Casey, but smart, too, planning on becoming a journalist, colleges salivating at the thought.

Shiny happy careers lined up before all four. Glen’s post-high school future was murkier. He was a D&D player and artist, trying not to be thought the only queer in a Catholic school while not above exploiting his sensitive side to get girls, a pursuit that beguiled him more than studying.

Casey hadn’t yielded to his best brooding looks. He suspected she thought herself above him, but the heat in the way she looked at him egged him on.

Once she’d laid her hand on his arm to steady herself, a delicious trusting pressure, and ever since then he’d always stood as close to her as possible.

So—it was perhaps not entirely a surprise when she invited him to the loft.

“What for?”

“We like to play music,” she said. “We’re pretty good, even. Come and listen to us.” She laid her hand on his, this time not to catch herself, but to snare him. He turned into his locker to hide his sudden erection.

“All right,” he said, half over his shoulder.

He’d found a magazine a few weeks ago while in the library that advised boys to play it cool at first. He didn’t want to play it cool, though. He wanted to turn and look into her blue eyes and lean close enough to smell the perfume she wore, a lemon and musk scent unlike any other girl’s perfume.

The Lipton’s house was within walking distance, but Casey gave him a ride over, along with Danny and Penelope. They knew who he was—their entire class was a few hundred kids, and only the most aloof didn’t know the names of the rest. They creaked up the stairs and into the loft, a high-ceiling, drafty space smelling in equal measures of marijuana and incense.

Fred was there, along with Jenny, a girl from the Social Studies class Fred and Glen shared, and another boy, Alf Reidle, who looked up as Casey entered and tried to catch her eye. Unsuccessful, he settled back like the others. The pellets in his grimy beanbag chair scrunched and rescrunched as he passed around an enormous bong with layers of skull-shaped bubblers in the stem.

Casey swung open the door of an old-fashioned refrigerator and gestured. Glen stared in. It was stocked with soda and beer, an emphasis on the latter. Casey took one. He hesitated. Beer made him sleepy and stupid. It might make him say or do something dumb around Casey.

“What’s the matter, worried the folks will smell it when you get home?” Fred sneered.

The door banged open and Derek barged in, grabbing the bong, discarding his jacket, a bustle that allowed Glen to grab a soda and resettle in his own beanbag.

“We’re all here,” Fred said. He slapped Jenny’s thigh jocularly and stood up. “Let’s play.”

#

The four of them sang. It was November, 1980, and they began with some of the most popular songs of the day: “Another One Bites the Dust,” “It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me,” Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer” – songs overplayed on the radio, almost perfect renditions, note for note. They all played instruments, and sometimes between songs they’d trade off according to some system Glen didn’t understand, some combination of challenge and self-declaration. The boys strutted and pranced like TV tough guys. Derek’s snarl like dark, bitter honey; Fred’s husky and sincere voice. The girls’ voices seemed interchangeable at first, but Glen began to pick out nuances. Casey’s was lower, more syrupy; Penelope’s edged with crystal.

Like Glen, Jenny and Alf were onlookers, sitting in the beanbag, watching the enchanted four play.

Then they switched to other things, music that seemed all new. Often they resorted to the synthesizer in the corner for beats and effects: ethereal glass flutes or tiger yodels or a rhythmic sandpaper rasp, magnified a thousand times, almost painful underneath the screamed defiance of the song.

As they changed instruments after something that somehow seemed more disco than disco could ever be, Glen leaned over and touched Casey’s elbow.

“Who wrote these?” he said.

She paused. She was rising from the drums, still breathing hard from playing the last song.

The moment stretched longer than it should have. He found her looking at him with an inability to answer the question, a lack of preparation that surprised him.

“We all do,” Fred said. “Someone comes up with an idea and we all contribute. We like to improvise.” He began a bouncy beat, staring at Glen. “Here’s one I like from U2, ‘Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.’”

They joined in. The words flowed along, strangely ominous. Fred’s speculative black eyes watched Glen as though assessing his reaction to each chord.

“I haven’t heard of them,” Jenny said. “Did they just release an album?”

Casey broke off playing. “Our friend Ana’s visiting,” she said, warning in her tone. Derek nodded as though in confirmation. Glen didn’t know what they were talking about.

“It doesn’t matter,” Fred said. He waved a lazy hand at the bong and shrugged. “We can play anything we like. We’re all just a bunch of stoned zombies.”

Penelope picked out the first few bars of a Beatles song, “Yesterday,” and Derek half-laughed. He picked up the bass and they launched into a version that was somehow campy and mocking one moment, and heartbreakingly sincere the next. Tears welled in Glen’s eyes as Casey sang, and he swallowed hard. Looking up, he saw Alf watching him with a frown on his face.

He could have listened all afternoon, all evening, long into the morning hours. But they could not play that long. All too soon, they were putting down their instruments, exchanging wry smiles as Alf and Jenny and Glen applauded.

“What do you call your band?” Jenny asked.

Derek shrugged. “We don’t really have a name,” he said. He was a skinny Asian boy who kept a proprietary hand on Penelope at all times. “I call it the Peaches of Immortality, but you can call it anything you like.”

“That’s a pretty name,” Jenny said. “Where’s it from?”

“In Chinese legend, the gods eat them and become immortal,” Derek said. “My grandfather believed in them. He was an alchemist back in China. I remember him telling me stories about them when I was just a little kid.”

Alf departed after a whispered, angry conversation with Casey in the corner. She shrugged off questions and settled into the beanbag next to Glen.

They smoked more pot and drank more beer and watched a movie on the dilapidated VCR in the corner.

“My folks like to get the latest thing, so they let me have this,” Fred explained. Glen thought that Fred had one of the luckiest existences: permissive parents, beer and technology, cool friends, the brains to get through classes while seeming to coast, bored and above it all. He sighed.

“What’s wrong?” Casey breathed in his ear. She leaned over from her beanbag, half settling on his. He wondered if he could slide an arm around her. How would she react? Maybe best not to.

But the article had said be bold.

His arm raised and curled around her shoulders as though by itself. She rested against him, and he could feel her warmth like a burning coal along his side. He could smell her perfume.

It made it hard to focus on the film, even more than the pot. He couldn’t make out the plot, but gathered that it was a love story, lovers separated by fate and meeting each other by chance at intervals through the years, never at the right time.

Casey nudged him. “This is my favorite part.”

The lovers in a garden.

Him to her: We only meet when we’re tangled with others, it seems.

Her to him: Someday we’ll meet at the right time.

He takes her hand, moonlight silhouetting them, a cut paper portrait.

His voice lowers. Till then, a kiss to dream about, he says.

The inevitable clinch. It seemed cliché and sappy to Glen. The sort of thing girls liked, he supposed.

Casey’s perfume filled his senses, and he was focused on the soft, round breast pressed against his side. He held still, as though afraid of frightening her, breathing in a mix of smoke and happiness.

#

But the next day at school, Casey was distant again. He saw her in the corridors, but she didn’t look at him.

Fred clued him in when he caught Glen waiting near her locker.

“Don’t let Brad Effer catch you,” he said.

Brad was captain of the football team, a hearty, handsome hunk with a touch of the bully about him.

“What?” Glen stammered.

“She’s dating him now. You’ll have to wait for your chance.”

Disappointment engulfed Glen, shading the hall a few colors darker. But he tried to keep it off his face, conscious of the odd avidity with which Fred watched him. He muttered something and turned away.

#

High school passed like high school. He never got that close to Casey again. She flitted from boyfriend to boyfriend, but by the time he was aware she’d left one, she’d already be with someone else. Once, for three days, it was Alf. Then they broke up, leaving him red-eyed and ragged.

Most of the kids watched them, knew what they were doing (which instantly became cool, whether it was bowling or wearing baseball hats), but didn’t socialize with them. It was as though the rest of the school provided a backdrop, scenery against which their stories played out.

He wasn’t sure what most of the teachers thought of them, but Mr. Laskowski warned him at one point when he caught Glen trying a cigarette—some girls liked the taste, and it never hurt to have a touch of bad boy about you—in the school parking lot.

“Don’t become like Lipton or Cho,” he said. “They’re just treading water, waiting to get through high school. Missing out on some of their best years. You can do better than that. You’re a decent artist when you work at it.”

Glen thought later, years later, that perhaps every high school had them. The boys and girls who ruled the school, whose favor or lack thereof could shape a lesser kid’s personal existence. He thought, though, that usually everything after high school was uphill for them, that they would never achieve their glory days again.

But it wasn’t so for the Peaches. Fred started a software company halfway through his time at Harvard that made him a millionaire by the time he graduated. Penelope’s novel made the bestseller list, somehow expressing the zeitgeist in a way that had every young adult in America clutching a copy. Derek was rumored to have gone to work for a government think-tank.

Casey went to journalism school. Her lively, informal prose led her to television journalism, where her looks and personable delivery netted her an early morning show.

It surprised him that they hadn’t kept up with the music. They’d been so good. But nothing of it, as though, ascending to college, they’d abandoned their adolescent passion.

Life overtook Glen. He forgot about them for the most part. He met a woman, Eloise, in grad school and married her. They had no children, but had successful careers.

He still drew sometimes, although only for himself; he never showed the pictures to anyone. Complex landscapes with machinery buried underneath, showing through like a skeleton, gears gleaming in the rent of a tree’s bark, screws bolting a clump of grass to the sidewalk.

Periodically he remembered that music. He’d hear something on the radio, some new release, and he’d think that it reminded him of a song played in the echoing loft. They had moved effortlessly from one style to another, sometimes a hard driving metal beat that had acquired a gritty edge, an undertone of concrete and late night steel, then bubblegum as vacuous and sweet as cotton candy, singing it, half-laughing all the while.

When he ran into Casey, he knew her immediately, despite the decade and a half since he’d last seen her. He could tell she knew him from the way her eyes widened, even though she tried to play it off as though she didn’t. He bought her a Frappuccino and they caught up.

As he might have expected, the four of them had stayed in touch with each other. Fred had been off in Tibet, she said, and added, “Studying some sort of transcendental stuff.” Penelope had recently approached Casey about a film project.

“A chance to break into films.” Casey’s dimples were still deep enough to lose your heart in. “It’s very kind of her, to give me that.”

Something odd about her tone. Perhaps she and Penelope had had a falling out? Glen thought better of questioning it, not wanting to bring up a potentially upsetting topic.

“I bet the others would like to see you,” she said. “Fred’s got a box at the baseball stadium, and we’re all going there next Saturday.”

His wife would be out of town. There was no reason to say no.

#

At the game, deferential ushers showed them down a hallway to the luxury box. Again, a fridge full of beers, but this time wine and champagne as well, and harder stuff, all dispensed by a bartender with teeth as white as his apron.

No one seemed surprised by Glen’s appearance after all this time. In fact, Fred said, “I was just wondering when we’d see you again.”

Glen accepted a Heineken from the bartender and settled down to nurse it. The seats were covered with soft red velvet, clean and fresh. The rug underfoot was sculpted with deep swirls. Penelope and Derek were in a corner, arguing in low whispers. Penelope looked unhappy: Dark rings splayed themselves underneath her eyes.

The rest of them played “Whatever Happened To.” Time had not dealt well with most of their classmates: several suicides, a public and inadvertent outing that destroyed a political career, multiple scandals (one involving a teacher).

“What about Alf?” Glen said.

A silence fell on the room like a curtain. Even Penelope and Derek glanced over from their argument.

“He jumped off a building,” Fred said. “Isn’t that right, Casey?”

Glen was uncertain whether or not to laugh. Fred’s tone implied he should; Casey’s angry face said he shouldn’t.

“We don’t talk about Alf,” she said briefly.

After the game, they went back to Fred’s loft, this time a place of exposed brick and floor-to-ceiling windows and stainless steel appliances and an enormous balcony somehow joined onto the side of the building. Casey followed him out onto it. She laid her hand over his. Her perfume hadn’t changed after all these years.

He closed his eyes, inhaling. The sounds of the street floated up, cars and shouts, and distant rap music. He could feel her next to him. When he opened his eyes again, the light dazzled him.

“I’ve always liked you, you know that, don’t you?” she said.

He flashed on moonlight and a grainy screen. “I have a wife,” he blurted out.

“It’s like high school again,” she said. “Never the right time. Maybe someday we’ll meet when the moment’s ripe.”

He wanted her, she wanted him, but thoughts of Eloise fettered him. “Give me something to remember,” he said. “Something to fantasize about till then.”

Years of longing pressed his mouth to hers.

#

When he woke the next morning, his lips felt bruised and raw. He stared into the mirror, wondering what to tell—if to tell—Eloise. He didn’t want to leave her, he realized. He was done with fantasies, illusions. They had built a good life together, one that outweighed any castle in the air.

Something about Casey made him wary. He’d sensed it before, first in girls and then in women—ones who thought themselves in total control of the relationship. Sometimes arrogance, sometimes just a deep belief in the power of pussy. Casey thought she had him sewed up, and that set him on edge.

Making coffee, he glanced out the window. Rain. But he’d left his hat at Fred’s loft. When he called, Fred said sure, come over and get it.

He took a cab, thinking about Casey, going over and over the memory of the kiss on the balcony, the way she had looked at him when he’d stammered goodnight. She burned in his mind. He felt himself fluttering too close. Eloise, think of Eloise, of the comfortable house and the deck they liked to sit out on and read passages of books to each other. Eloise understood him, and liked him more than he liked himself, truth be told. Was the same true of Casey? Was she amusing herself with another three-day wonder like Alf, or was she in it for the long haul?

He complimented Fred on the loft again. Fred was blue-striped, bath-robed, barefoot, and sleepy-haired.

“The place is all right,” Fred said with a twist of his lips. “The view is nice, anyway. Have you seen Casey’s place?”

Embarrassment struck Glen. What was Fred implying?

“No,” he said.

“Not yet, eh?” Fred said.

“What do you mean?”

Fred looked at him, surprised. “She wants you. You can tell that, certainly.”

“Yes,” he said. The wonder of it fluttered in his chest. He added, “But I’m married, I told her that.”

“Ah, a touch of frustration to up the tension. Well played.”

Glen had the sensation of treading water far out of his depth. “I don’t…”

Fred said, “Do you love your wife?”

“Beyond any question,” Glen replied without hesitating.

“How sad.” Fred shoved the hat towards Glen and gestured him at the door.

Glen resisted. “What do you mean by that?”

“Things have a way of working out for Casey,” Fred said.

#

Two weeks later, Eloise was hit by a car that jumped the curb when its gas pedal got stuck.

She had been on her way to the hardware store to get a washer to fix a leaky faucet. Glen’s first thought upon hearing the news was ridiculous irritation, a petty infant whimper regarding who would take care of small house repairs now.

Then the news hit him.

The bottom dropped out of his world. Shattered. He could feel himself flying in all directions, out of control. Helpless to control the explosion that tore him apart.

#

Casey wasn’t at the funeral, but Fred was.

“A real shame,” he said.

Glen fumbled for the unthinkable. “Fred … you said … did Casey have something to do with this?”

Fred studied his face. That same old avidity, a greedy hummingbird sipping at Glen’s emotions. “How could she have?”

“I don’t know … all of you four … everything seems so golden for you,” he said helplessly.

Fred grinned. “Oh, does it seem odd? Are you waking up, zombie boy? Or is this all just part of her overall game? I thought she had this one refined by now, but she’s never been finished working on you. What is it, I wonder? All that shaggy poetic charm, with your hipster beard and earnest look and outlet jeans?”

Other people in the funeral crowd were watching. Glen leaned into Fred and said, low and fierce as he could manage, “I don’t know what you mean, but I will, I promise you that.”

Fred laughed.

“What about the music?” Glen said.

He’d scored a hit, he could tell. Fred took in a breath, released it. Said, “I don’t know what you mean.” He wheeled and walked away.

#

The house was empty without Eloise. He lived on Ritz crackers and KFC. He left the radio, the television on, tried to keep sound going in the empty rooms, but inevitably it all died away into grayness.

He turned the music up on his headphones, introspective Bach cello suites, complicated as crossword puzzles. He scoured the Internet, hometown paper microfiches, talked to old neighbors, every source he could find. Looking for anything about the four. Anything and everything.

Their existence had been charmed, he discovered. Parents had died early, leaving two in the care of permissive guardians. Fred’s parents had been wealthy and aloof, Penelope’s wealthy and extremely attached. He remembered they’d given her a baby-blue Mustang convertible for her sixteenth birthday, remembered seeing them all jammed into the car, Penelope at the wheel, Derek beside her, Casey next to Fred in the back seat.

All of them were only children.

Their teachers agreed that they got the grades they wanted to, but that sometimes they seemed to be doing the minimum. All spoke of their “independent” manner, and there were some disciplinary incidents.

Derek had given him a business card. When Glen called, he agreed to meet in a coffee shop. It was a rainy day, flickering between misty and a harder torrent as though unable to decide. A strong wind pushed the rain under passing umbrellas; they tilted to combat it. One blew inside out and fluttered past, its owner struggling to reverse it.

“Whatever happened to the Peaches of Immortality?” Glen said.

Derek froze for a second before saying, “What?”

Glen pressed. “Your band from high school. I always remembered hearing you play. You guys could have gone professional.”

But for some reason, Derek relaxed. “That’s a shitty life, really,” he said. “Being famous is overrated.” He said it with authority, and Glen wondered what Derek had done in the intervening years.

So it wasn’t the music. But something about what he had said.

Standing out on the curb, he checked his theory. “The peaches of immortality,” he said, testing it.

Derek stared at the street, expressionless.

“What does it mean, Derek? What are the peaches of immortality?”

Derek sighed. “Oh, it’s this one,” he said, abstractly. “Why bother? But okay. The peaches of immortality? Think of them as something a thinker stumbled upon, and gave to a couple of friends. Not immortality, not really. But something like it. A chance to live forever, certainly, but not really forever, to loop back through one’s life over and over again.”

“That sounds horrible,” Glen said.

Derek fixed him with a hawk-like eye. “Do you really think so?” he said. “Really? A chance to go back and fix mistakes, to nudge destiny so it gives you all it can?”

The cab pulled up, splashing Glen but not Derek, who was sheltered by a trash can.

“I need to talk to you about this some more,” Glen said. “Where can I reach you?”

Derek shook his head. “I’ll call you in a couple of weeks. I don’t have much time left with Penelope, I want to spend as much of it as possible with her.”

“Is she ill?” She had looked fine, if subdued at the baseball game.

“She commits suicide this month,” Derek said. “Usually after the 15th, never before the 12th.” He swung the cab door and hopped in, rolled away. The puddle surged at Glen, infiltrating his shoes with a wash of cold water.

#

Glen was at his favorite restaurant, an Italian place named Tropea. It had been a favorite for him and Eloise, and he hadn’t dared come back until then.

He saw a profile, a fall of golden hair across the restaurant. Despite everything, his heart surged.

He forced himself to look away. This was all part of the … plan? Scheme? Machinations? He absorbed himself in picking his bread roll apart into shreds.

A presence beside him. Familiar perfume: lemon, musk. He looked up and was lost. Her dress was pleated silk, a blue that echoed her eyes. Had they been that blue in high school?

She said, “Glen, I don’t know what to say, I was so sorry to hear about Eloise.”

He lowered his gaze again as though fighting off tears. “Thank you, Casey. If you don’t mind…”

He let that trail off. After a beat too long, she said, “Oh, you want to be alone. My apologies, Glen. I’ll catch you another time.”

And she would, he knew. Somehow she’d show up, checking to see if the hooks she had planted in him years ago were still firmly set. When she was ready, she’d collect him.

#

Derek called, mumbling into the phone.

“I can’t hear you,” Glen said. “What is all that noise?”

“I’m near construction,” he said. “Look, this line isn’t safe, not really. Not like anything is safe, but come down and meet me here?”

Here was a diner, red paper placemats and the smell of coffee and burned toast. Glen slid into the booth across from Derek. He looked as though he hadn’t slept or shaved in several days. His eyes were red-rimmed, and the flesh of his face hung loosely.

“I’m sorry about Penelope,” Glen said.

Derek shrugged, curling his fingers around his coffee cup as though cradling it against harm. “It happens.”

“How does it happen?” Glen said. “How do you keep going back in time?”

Derek stared into the curling steam of his coffee. “Once upon a time, there was a smart little Asian kid,” he said. “A hyperachiever, whose grandfather spent his life trying to achieve immortality. To find the peaches of immortality. And so his grandson decided to do the same, through a combination of a bunch of things you don’t have jack shit chance of understanding, involving the basic way the universe works and he learned that you could project your consciousness back through time and relive your life. Not only that, but you could shape events through concentration and purposeful thought. And he grabbed a couple of friends, friends who had also been unloved nerds in high school and then gone on to become nerdy losers, and said, how about we give this thing a shot?”

“How do you control it?” Glen said.

Derek sighed, a long exhalation as though his soul were trying to escape. “Fred’s got it,” he said. “He stole it from me a long time ago. Now I’m just a hamster like you. A hamster with a nicer wheel, maybe, but a hamster nonetheless. Do you really think we haven’t had this conversation before?”

“How many times?” Glen asked.

“Forty, maybe fifty? Whenever Casey picks up with you again.”

The number staggered Glen. Then he thought of something even more staggering.

“How many times have you done this?” he asked.

Derek shrugged. “Hundreds. I’m pretty sure we haven’t topped a thousand yet. Who knows? It’s a game now. Fred and Casey figure out what we score points on this time, and here we go again.”

#

When Glen arrived home, Casey was sitting jack-knifed on his doorstep. She didn’t look the way he usually pictured her, put together as carefully as a fashion model, every glossy hair in careful position. Instead she wore an old sweatshirt and no makeup. She’d been crying. Rain glittered on her hair.

“What did they tell you?” she demanded. “Those fuckers, don’t you know—all they want is to keep us apart!”

He regarded her warily, even though his heart ached at the sound of tears in her voice. Had she killed Eloise? Was any of this true, or was he going mad in some complicated, paranoid way, driven insane by the stress of his wife’s death?

“Let’s go inside and dry you off,” he said.

But even muffled by a towel, the question emerged again. “What did they tell you?”

“That you all keep living the same life over and over again,” he said.

She tossed the towel on the sofa and combed her fingers through her hair. “Not the same life,” she said. “We change it each time.”

“How?”

“When you’re a baby, at first, you’re half there and half not. You can shape things.” She shrugged.

“Shape them?”

“Steer them one way or another. Money’s easy after college—you can play the stock market, but high school’s harder to change. But enough work and you can change your family, the circumstances you’re born under—not outright change, but you can push them one way or another.”

“Like eliminating a potential sibling,” he said.

“That was just a coincidence,” she said. “Do you really think we’d kill people? Even knowing that they’re still alive in another line? How ruthless do you think we are?”

“Ruthless enough when it comes to getting what you want,” he said. “How hard was it to ‘shape’ Eloise’s death?”

“I would never…” she said, but broke off at his look. “Oh, god, this one’s falling all apart. Why are you so difficult? I thought if I just set things up in high school but didn’t follow through, you’d be so ready now.”

He stared at her. “Do I count for extra points in this game you’re all playing? Do you allot so much per persona victory? What about the rules, how do you set them all up ahead of time?”

“Before we die, we manage it,” she said. “We have to all stay in touch to make sure, and Penny’s been opting out for a while, but that just means we tell her what her goals are.” She smiled. It was a mean smile.

“Who decides the goals?”

“Whoever won last time, of course,” she said with a touch of sullenness at his obtuseness.

“Get out,” he said. He couldn’t stand being in the same room with her anymore. She made his skin crawl. How many times had she seduced his other selves?

But she came toward him, pleading. “We can still recover this game, you know. And this time, this time you caught on…” She broke off.

“Caught on? What do you mean?”

She lowered her eyes. “We call them zombies, all the people we shape. They’re so slow to catch on. Most of them never do. But now you’re awake and not a zombie anymore. You can become one of us. You and I can be together over and over again.”

Over and over again, repeating their lives.

“I’d sooner die,” he said.

“All right,” she said. “I’ll go now.”

But over her shoulder she said, “You’d sooner die this time. But I can keep on trying.”

#

When he got to Fred’s, he half expected Casey to be there before him, but she was not in evidence when Fred opened the door. Glen pushed past him.

“Very abrupt and angry,” Fred drawled. “Oh my, did she actually overplay and wake you up? We used to be so careful about that sort of thing.”

“That’s why you don’t play the music anymore,” he said. “But why play it in high school?”

Fred flopped onto the couch. “Dude, do you remember high school?” he said. “It’s boring as shit. Why not be rock stars for a bit? Get people stoned, they don’t remember what they heard. Particularly when they won’t hear it again for a while. It’s an indulgence.”

“What did Casey mean about Ana visiting, all those years ago?”

Fred laughed. “That’s how we used to warn each other if we got too anachronistic. It was hard keeping all of that straight at first. We got better at it.”

“So you go back and engage in some juvenile dream of being a high school rock star?” Glen snorted.

For the first time, Fred lost his condescending calm. “We’ve been actual rock stars,” he said. “Did that a couple of times. It’s overrated. Too many people following you around all the time.” He smiled, “But just think, in another world, Peaches of Immortality hit the Billboard charts seventeen weeks in a row.”

“I want you to take me out of this game,” Glen said. “Leave me alone from now on.”

Fred said, surprised, “You won’t be joining us? It’s a rare honor. Only two people have made it, Penny and Casey. Casey took to it a lot better though.”

“Join you?” Glen said incredulously. “In your egocentric merry-go-round?”

“The alternative is to die, knowing that’s it,” Fred said. “You may relish the idea, but by the time I’m geriatric, I find myself looking forward to all that crazy kid energy again. It’s even better when you really appreciate what you have.” He stood. “Look, I’ll show you something.”

He went to the wall and took down the picture, an enormous Ansel Adams print. Behind it was a safe. The tumblers clicked as he worked the lock and took out…

…how to describe the Peaches of Immortality? They were made of light, golden light, intersecting, clustered spheres that shone from within. They filled Fred’s hands with their glow.

“How do they…” Glen stammered.

Fred laughed. “How do they work? What do you think, I’m like some comic book villain, to reveal everything?”

“Well, but how would it work if I wanted to join you?” Glen said. His eyes drank in the sight of the object in Fred’s hands. Something about its lines made him feel safe, and happy, and as though the world were filled were perfection. It was infinitely seductive.

He wrenched his gaze from it, stared out at the stone railing of the balcony where he had kissed Casey. It seemed like years ago, but it had only been a few months. He wondered what time felt like to them, after they’d lived it over and over. He thought that boredom must be a constant slow rasp, wearing against nerve and resolve. But perhaps he was underestimating the wonders of rearranging your own life.

He heard the peaches jingle as Fred turned them in his hands, a distant sound like fairy bells, like enchantment.

“The music’s the only real moments you have left, isn’t it?” he said.

Fred’s voice was strained. “You have no idea what it’s like, zombie.”

“You hate me for being what you think you are,” Glen said. “Someone helpless in the face of the Universe. Aren’t you, in the end? Either you keep reliving your lives, or you die. Why won’t you let Penny opt out?”

“She makes the game more interesting.”

“And the game is all you have.”

“It’s all we ever need.”

“Maybe,” Glen said. “But it seems … a little masturbatory.”

The peaches jingled again as Fred set them down. They sounded like far away rain on crystal spires. Tears welled in Glen’s eyes at the sound.

“You’ve surprised me once or twice this time,” Fred said. “Are you really waking up or are we going to end, as we always do, with you giving in and going back to sleep? If you’re serious this time, close your eyes. The peaches will set you up.”

“Set me up?” It made no sense, but he closed his eyes.

Like being in a dark room, putting a hand out, encountering a surface. Biting on tinfoil and feeling it like sparks inside your skull. An internal organ that had never twinged before, but now twisted with gut-wrenching intensity. Electric eels along his spine, sharp pink then soothing gold, and….

Click.

Everything aligned.

He could sense Fred’s mind, and the minds of the others, sensing him in the time loop, in the peaches. Casey with a touch of anger, as though Fred had won. Fred, reckoning points on an intricate, abacus-like structure. Derek, despair and contempt at everything, including himself. Penny, absence and presence at the same time, a hole in such a particular shape that it could only be her.

And beyond that, the feel of the possibilities, the tiny shifts that resulted in a different configuration for one’s life—not too far off course, but there were a surprising number of ways one could shift things, he was somehow told.

Fred, triumphant, flashing Casey a string of numbers and symbols, an intricate score, even as Glen reached out and grabbed the structure with his mind, wrapping tendrils of thought sinewy as muscle around it, and pulled and pushed at the same time.

A noise as high-pitched as pain shrilled from the peaches, and he felt it flay at the inside of his thoughts, more piercing than shame or grief or heartbreak. In the real world, he was falling forward, he could tell, but he flickered back and forth between the physical and mental landscape, stomach-jarring shudders of reality, falling forward on the golden object, tangling it with his head and arms, feeling the light sink into the side of his head, eclipsing the world, taking it apart. Far beyond himself, he could feel all the lives that had been contained in the loop, the lives lived over and over again, variations and repetitions, held by the peaches of immortality, escaping, slipping away like fish through a net, and his mind was the peaches and the peaches were his mind and they were taking each other apart and everything was being released and his last thought, confused and full of light, was oh the peaches are sweet.

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Cat Rambo

Rambo, CatCat Rambo writes in the Pacific Northwest. Her collection, Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight, appeared from Paper Golem Press in 2009, following her collaboration with Jeff VanderMeer, The Surgeon’s Tale and Other Stories in 2007. Among the places her work has appeared are Asimov’s, Weird Tales, and Clarkesworld.

11 Responses »

  1. Enjoyed this immensely. I’ve always found time travel a bit creepy as time travelers have a heck of a lot of power over those who can’t and aren’t aware of their manipulations. This story took that feeling and knocked it out of the park. Thank you so much for writing it and sticking with it despite the elusive ending mentioned in the Author Spotlight.

  2. That was exactly what I needed. Thank you.

  3. Gaming has infected our lives, indeed, denuding it of heart and meaning. Interesting take of immortality.

  4. I really loved this story.

    ‘But over her shoulder she said, “You’d sooner die this time. But I can keep on trying.”’ – This line gave me chills!

    Well done, Cat!

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