Keith was our culture, what little we had left. He was our poet and our troubadour, and his voice and his guitar were our bridges to the past. He was a time-tripper too, but no one minded that much until Winters came along.
Keith was our memory. But he was also my friend.
He played for us every evening after supper. Just beyond sight of the common house, there was a small clearing and a rock he liked to sit on. He’d wander there at dusk, with his guitar, and sit down facing west. Always west; the cities had been east of us. Far east, true, but Keith didn’t like to look that way. Neither did the rest of us, to tell the truth.
Not everybody came to the evening concerts, but there was always a good crowd, say three-fourths of the people in the commune. We’d gather around in a rough circle, sitting on the ground or lying in the grass by ones and twos. And Keith, our living hi-fi in denim and leather, would stroke his beard in vague amusement and begin to play.
He was good, too. Back in the old days, before the Blast, he’d been well on his way to making a name for himself. He’d come to the commune four years ago for a rest, to check up on old friends and get away from the musical rat race for a summer. But he’d figured on returning.
Then came the Blast. And Keith had stayed. There was nothing left to go back to. His cities were graveyards full of dead and dying, their towers melted tombstones that glowed at night. And the rats—human and animal—were everywhere else.
In Keith, those cities still lived. His songs were all of the old days, bittersweet things full of lost dreams and loneliness. And he sang them with love and longing. Keith would play requests, but mostly he stuck to his kind of music. A lot of folk, a lot of folk-rock, and a few straight rock things and show tunes. Lightfoot and Kristofferson and Woody Guthrie were particular favorites. And once in a while he’d play his own compositions, written in the days before the Blast. But not often.
Two songs, though, he played every night. He always started with “They Call the Wind Maria” and ended with “Me and Bobby McGee.” A few of us got tired of the ritual, but no one ever objected. Keith seemed to think the songs fit us, somehow, and nobody wanted to argue with him.
Until Winters came along, that is. Which was in a late-fall evening in the fourth year after the Blast.
His first name was Robert, but no one ever used it, although the rest of us were all on a first name basis. He’d introduced himself as Lieutenant Robert Winters the evening he arrived, driving up in a jeep with two other men. But his Army didn’t exist anymore, and he was looking for refuge and help.
That first meeting was tense. I remember feeling very scared when I heard the jeep coming, and wiping my palms on my jeans as I waited. We’d had visitors before. None of them very nice.
I waited for them alone. I was as much a leader as we had in those days. And that wasn’t much. We voted on everything important, and nobody gave orders. So I wasn’t really a boss, but I was a greeting committee. The rest scattered, which was good sense. Our last visitors had gone in big for slugging people and raping the girls. They’d worn black-and-gold uniforms and called themselves the Sons of the Blast. A fancy name for a rat pack. We called them SOB’s too, but for other reasons.
Winters was different, though. His uniform was the good ol’ U.S. of A. Which didn’t prove a thing, since some Army detachments are as bad as the rat packs. It was our own friendly Army that went through the area in the first year after the Blast, scorching the towns and killing everyone they could lay their hands on.
I don’t think Winters was part of that, although I never had the courage to flat-out ask him. He was too decent. He was big and blond and straight, and about the same age as the rest of us. And his two “men” were scared kids, younger than most of us in the commune. They’d been through a lot, and they wanted to join us. Winters kept saying that he wanted to help us rebuild.
We voted them in, of course. We haven’t turned anyone away yet, except for a few rats. In the first year, we even took in a half-dozen citymen and nursed them while they died of radiation burns.
Winters changed us, though, in ways we never anticipated. Maybe for the better. Who knows? He brought books and supplies. And guns, too, and two men who knew how to use them. A lot of the guys on the commune had come there to get away from guns and uniforms, in the days before the Blast. So Pete and Crazy Harry took over the hunting, and defended us against the rats that drifted by from time to time. They became our police force and our army.
And Winters became our leader.
I’m still not sure how that happened. But it did. He started out making suggestions, moved on to leading discussions, and wound up giving orders. Nobody objected much. We’d been drifting ever since the Blast, and Winters gave us a direction. He had big ideas, too. When I was spokesman, all I worried about was getting us through until tomorrow. But Winters wanted to rebuild. He wanted to build a generator, and hunt for more survivors, and gather them together into a sort of village. Planning was his bag. He had big dreams for the day after tomorrow, and his hope was catching.
I shouldn’t give the wrong impression, though. He wasn’t any sort of a tin tyrant. He led us, yeah, but he was one of us, too. He was a little different from us, but not that different, and he became a friend in time. And he did his part to fit in. He even let his hair get long and grew a beard.
Only Keith never liked him much.
Winters didn’t come out to concert rock until he’d been with us over a week. And when he did come, he stood outside the circle at first, his hands shoved into his pockets. The rest of us were lying around as usual, some singing, some just listening. It was a bit chilly that night, and we had a small fire going.
Winters stood in the shadows for about three songs. Then, during a pause, he walked closer to the fire. “Do you take requests?” he asked, smiling uncertainly.
I didn’t know Winters very well back then. But I knew Keith. And I tensed a little as I waited for his answer.
But he just strummed the guitar idly and stared at Winters’ uniform and his short hair. “That depends,” he said at last. “I’m not going to play ‘Ballad of the Green Berets,’ if that’s what you want.”
An unreadable expression flickered over Winters’ face. “I’ve killed people, yes,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m proud of it. I wasn’t going to ask for that.”
Keith considered that, and looked down at his guitar. Then, seemingly satisfied, he nodded and raised his head and smiled. “Okay,” he said. “What do you want to hear?”
“You know ‘Leavin’ on a Jet Plane’?” Winters asked.
The smile grew. “Yeah. John Denver. I’ll play it for you. Sad song, though. There aren’t any jet planes anymore, Lieutenant. Know that? ‘s true. You should stop and think why.”
He smiled again, and began to play. Keith always had the last word when he wanted it. Nobody could argue with his guitar.
A little over a mile from the common house, beyond the fields to the west, a little creek ran through the hills and the trees. It was usually dry in the summer and the fall, but it was still a nice spot. Dark and quiet at night, away from the noise and the people. When the weather was right, Keith would drag his sleeping bag out there and bunk down under a tree. Alone.
That’s also where he did his timetripping.
I found him there that night, after the singing was over and everyone else had gone to bed. He was leaning against his favorite tree, swatting mosquitoes and studying the creekbed.
I sat down next to him. “Hi, Gary,” he said, without looking at me.
“Bad times, Keith?” I asked.
“Bad times, Gary,” he said, staring at the ground and idly twirling a fallen leaf. I watched his face. His mouth was taut and expressionless, his eyes hooded.
I’d known Keith for a long time. I knew enough not to say anything. I just sat next to him in silence, making myself comfortable in a pile of fresh-fallen leaves. And after a while he began to talk, as he always did.
“There ought to be water,” he said suddenly, nodding at the creek. “When I was a kid, I lived by a river. Right across the street. Oh, it was a dirty little river in a dirty little town, and the water was as polluted as all hell. But it was still water. Sometimes, at night, I’d go over to the park across the street, and sit on a bench, and watch it. For hours, sometimes. My mother used to get mad at me.”
He laughed softly. “It was pretty, you know. Even the oil slicks were pretty. And it helped me think. I miss that, you know. The water. I always think better when I’m watching water. Strange, right?”
“Not so strange,” I said.
He still hadn’t looked at me. He was still staring at the dry creek, where only darkness flowed now. And his hands were tearing the leaf into pieces. Slow and methodical, they were.
“Gone now,” he said after a silence. “The place was too close to New York. The water probably glows now, if there is any water. Prettier than ever, but I can’t go back. So much is like that. Every time I remember something, I have to remember that it’s gone now. And I can’t go back, ever. To anything. Except…except
with that….” He nodded toward the ground between us. Then he finished with the leaf, and started another.
I reached down by his leg. The cigar box was where I expected it. I held it in both hands, and flipped the lid with my thumbs. Inside, there was the needle, and maybe a dozen small bags of powder. The powder looked white in the starlight. But seen by day, it was pale, sparkling blue.
I looked at it and sighed. “Not much left,” I said.
Keith nodded, never looking. “I’ll be out in a month, I figure.” His voice sounded very tired. “Then I’ll just have my songs, and my memories.”
“That’s all you’ve got now,” I said. I closed the box with a snap and handed it to him. “Chronine isn’t a time machine, Keith. Just a hallucinogen that happens to work on memory.”
He laughed. “They used to debate that, way back when. The experts all said chronine was a memory drug. But they never took chronine. Neither have you, Gary. But I know. I’ve timetripped. It’s not memory. It’s more. You go back, Gary, you really do. You live it again, whatever it was. You can’t change anything, but you know it’s real, all the same.”
He threw away what was left of his leaf, and gathered his knees together with his arms. Then he put his head atop them and looked at me. “You ought to timetrip someday, Gary. You really ought to. Get the dosage right, and you can pick your yesterday. It’s not a bad deal at all.”
I shook my head. “If I wanted to timetrip, would you let me?”
“No,” he said, smiling but not moving his head. “I found the chronine. It’s mine. And there’s too little left to share. Sorry, Gary. Nothing personal, though. You know how it is.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know how it is. I didn’t want it anyway.”
“I knew that,” he said.
Ten minutes of thick silence. I broke it with a question. “Winters bother you?”
“Not really,” he said. “He seems okay. It was just the uniforms, Gary. If it wasn’t for those damn bastards in uniform and what they did, I could go back. To my river, and my singing.”
“And Sandi,” I said.
His mouth twisted into a reluctant smile. “And Sandi,” he admitted. “And I wouldn’t even need chronine to keep my dates.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. So I didn’t say anything. Finally, wearying, Keith slid forward a little, and lay back under the tree. It was a clear night. You could see the stars through the branches.
“Sometimes, out here at night, I forget,” he said softly, more to himself than to me. “The sky still looks the same as it did before the Blast. And the stars don’t know the difference. If I don’t look east, I can almost pretend it never happened.”
I shook my head. “Keith, that’s a game. It did happen. You can’t forget that. You know you can’t. And you can’t go back. You know that, too.”
“You don’t listen, do you, Gary? I do go back. I really do.”
“You go back to a dream world, Keith. And it’s dead, that world. You can’t keep it up. Sooner or later you’re going to have to start living in reality.”
Keith was still looking up at the sky, but he smiled gently as I argued. “No, Gary. You don’t see. The past is as real as the present, you know. And when the present is bleak and empty, and the future more so, then the only sanity is living in the past.”
I started to say something, but he pretended not to hear. “Back in the city, when I was a kid, I never saw this many stars,” he said, his voice distant. “The first time I got into the country, I remember how shocked I was at all the extra stars they’d gone and stuck in my sky.” He laughed softly. “Know when that was? Six years ago, when I was just out of school. Also last night. Take your pick. Sandi was with me, both times.”
He fell silent. I watched him for a few moments, then stood up and brushed myself off. It was never any use. I couldn’t convince him. And the saddest part of it was, I couldn’t even convince myself. Maybe he was right. Maybe, for him, that was the answer.
“You ever been in the mountains?” he asked suddenly. He looked up at me quickly, but didn’t wait for an answer. “There was this night, Gary—in Pennsylvania, in the mountains. I had this old beat-up camper, and we were driving through, bumming it around the country.
“Then, all of a sudden, this fog hit us. Thick stuff, gray and rolling, all kind of mysterious and spooky. Sandi loved stuff like that, and I did too, kind of. But it was hell to drive through. So I pulled off the road, and we took out a couple of blankets and went off a few feet.
“It was still early, though. So we just lay on the blankets together, and held each other, and talked. About us, and my songs, and that great fog, and our trip, and her acting, and all sorts of things. We kept laughing and kissing, too, although I don’t remember what we said that was so funny. Finally, after an hour or so, we undressed each other and made love on the blankets, slow and easy, in the middle of that dumb fog.”
Keith propped himself up on an elbow and looked at me. His voice was bruised, lost, hurt, eager. And lonely. “She was beautiful, Gary. She really was. She never liked me to say that, though. I don’t think she believed it. She liked me to tell her she was pretty. But she was more than pretty. She was beautiful. All warm and soft and golden, with red-blond hair and these dumb eyes that were either green or gray, depending on her mood. That night they were gray, I think. To match the fog.” He smiled, and sank back, and looked up at the stars again.
“The funniest thing was the fog,” he said. Very slowly. “When we’d finished making love, and we lay back together, the fog was gone. And the stars were out, as bright as tonight. The stars came out for us. The silly goddamn voyeuristic stars came out to watch us make it. And I told her that, and we laughed, and I held her warm against me. And she went to sleep in my arms, while I lay there and looked at stars and tried to write a song for her.”
“Keith…” I started.
“Gary,” he said. “I’m going back there tonight. To the fog and the stars and my Sandi.”
“Damnit, Keith,” I said. “Stop it. You’re getting yourself hooked.”
Keith sat up again and began unbuttoning his sleeve. “Did you ever think,” he said, “that maybe it’s not the drug that I’m addicted to?” And he smiled very broadly, like a cocky, eager kid.
Then he reached for his box, and his timetrip. “Leave me alone,” he said.
That must have been a good trip. Keith was all smiles and affability the next day, and his glow infected the rest of us. The mood lasted all week. Work seemed to go faster and easier than usual, and the nightly song sessions were as boisterous as I can remember them. There was a lot of laughter, and maybe more honest hope than we’d had for quite a while.
I shouldn’t give Keith all the credit, though. Winters was already well into his suggestion-making period, and things were happening around the commune. To begin with, he and Pete were already hard at work building another house—a cabin off to the side of the common house. Pete had hooked up with one of the girls, and I guess he wanted a little more privacy. But Winters saw it as the first step toward the village he envisioned.
That wasn’t his only project, either. He had a whole sheaf of maps in his jeep, and every night he’d drag someone off to the side and pore over them by candlelight, asking all sorts of questions. He wanted to know which areas we’d searched for survivors, and which towns might be worth looting for supplies, and where the rat packs liked to run, and that sort of thing. Why? Well, he had some “search expeditions” in mind, he said.
There was a handful of kids on the commune, and Winters thought we ought to organize a school for them, to replace the informal tutoring they’d been getting. Then he thought we ought to build a generator and get the electricity going again. Our medical resources were limited to a good supply of drugs and medicines; Winters thought that one of us should quit the fields permanently and train himself as a village doctor. Yeah, Winters had a lot of ideas, all right. And a good portion of ‘em were pretty good, although it was clear that the details were going to require some working out.
Meanwhile, Winters had also become a regular at the evening singing. With Keith in a good mood, that didn’t pose any real problems. In fact, it livened things up a little.
The second night that Winters came, Keith looked at him very pointedly and swung into “Vietnam Rag,” with the rest of us joining in. Then he followed it up with “Universal Solider.” In between lyrics, he kept flashing Winters this taunting grin.
Winters took it pretty well, however. He squirmed and looked uncomfortable at first, but finally entered into the spirit of the thing and began to smile. Then, when Keith finished, he stood up. “If you’re so determined to cast me as the commune’s very own friendly reactionary, well I guess I’ll have to oblige,” he said. He reached out a hand. “Give me that guitar.”
Keith looked curious but willing. He obliged. Winters grabbed the instrument, strummed it a few times uncertainly, and launched into a robust version of “Okie from Muskogee.” He played like his fingers were made of stone, and sang worse. But that wasn’t the point.
Keith began laughing before Winters was three bars into the song. The rest of us followed suit. Winters, looking very grim and determined, plowed on through to the bitter end, even though he didn’t know all the words and had to fake it in spots. Then he did the Marine hymn for an encore, ignoring all the hissing and moaning.
When he was finished, Pete clapped loudly. Winters bowed, smiled, and handed the guitar back to Keith with an exaggerated flourish.
Keith, of course, was not one to be topped easily.
He nodded at Winters, took the guitar, and promptly did “Eve of Destruction.”
Winters retaliated with “Welfare Cadillac.” Or tried to. Turned out he knew hardly any of the words, so he finally gave that up and settled for “Anchors Aweigh.”
That sort of thing went on all night, as they jousted back and forth, and everybody else sat around laughing. Well, actually we did more than laugh. Generally we had to help Winters with his songs, since he didn’t really know any of them all the way through. Keith held his own without us, of course.
It was one of the more memorable sessions. The only thing it really had in common with Keith’s usual concerts was that it began with “They Call the Wind Maria,” and ended with “Me and Bobby McGee.”
But the next day, Keith was more subdued. Still some kidding around between him and Winters, but mostly the singing slipped back into the older pattern. And the day after, the songs were nearly all Keith’s kind of stuff, except for a few requests from Winters, which Keith did weakly and halfheartedly.
I doubt that Winters realized what was happening. But I did, and so did most of the others. We’d seen it before. Keith was getting down again. The afterglow from his latest timetrip was fading. He was getting lonely and hungry and restless. He was itching, yet again, for his Sandi.
Sometimes, when he got that way, you could almost see the hurt. And if you couldn’t see it, you could hear it when he sang. Loud and throbbing in every note.
Winters heard it too. He’d have had to be deaf to miss it. Only I don’t think he understood what he heard, and I know he didn’t understand Keith. All he knew was the anguish he heard. And it troubled him.
So, being Winters, he decided to do something about it. He came to Keith.
I was there at the time. It was midmorning, and Keith and I had come in from the field for a break. I was sitting on the well with a cup of water in my hand, and Keith was standing next to me talking. You could tell that he was getting ready to timetrip again, soon.
He was very down, very distant, and I was having trouble reaching him.
In the middle of all this, Winters comes striding up, smiling, in his Army jacket. His house was rising quickly, and he was cheerful about it, and he and Crazy Harry had already mapped out the first of their “search expeditions.”
“Hello, men,” he said when he joined us at the well. He reached for the water, and I passed my cup.
He took a deep drink and passed it back. Then he looked at Keith. “I enjoy your singing,” he said. “I think everybody else does, too. You’re very good, really.” He grinned. “Even if you are an anarchistic bastard.”
Keith nodded. “Yeah, thanks,” he said. He was in no mood for fooling around.
“One thing, though, has been bothering me,” Winters said. “I figured maybe I could discuss it with you, maybe make a few suggestions. Okay?”
Keith stroked his beard and paid a little more attention. “Okay. Shoot, Colonel.”
“It’s your songs. I’ve noticed that most of them are pretty…down, let’s say. Good songs, sure. But sort of depressing, if you know what I mean. Especially in view of the Blast. You sing too much about the old days, and things we’ve lost. I don’t think that’s good for morale. We’ve got to stop dwelling so much on the past if we’re ever going to rebuild.”
Keith stared at him, and slumped against the well. “You gotta be kidding,” he said.
“No,” said Winters. “No, I mean it. A few cheerful songs would do a lot for us. Life can still be good and worthwhile if we work at it. You should tell us that in your music. Concentrate on the things we still have. We need hope and courage. Give them to us.”
But Keith wasn’t buying it. He stroked his beard, and smiled, and finally shook his head. “No, Lieutenant, no way. It doesn’t work like that. I don’t sing propaganda, even if it’s well-meant. I sing what I feel.”
His voice was baffled. “Cheerful songs, well…no. I can’t. They don’t work, not for me. I’d like to believe it, but I can’t, you see. And I can’t make other people believe if I don’t. Life is pretty empty around here, the way I see it. And not too likely to improve. And…well, as long as I see it that way, I’ve got to sing it that way. You see?”
Winters frowned. “Things aren’t that hopeless,” he said. “And even if they were, we can’t admit it, or we’re finished.”
Keith looked at Winters, at me, then down into the well. He shook his head again, and straightened. “No,” he said simply, gently, sadly. And he left us at the well to stalk silently in the fields.
Winters watched him go, then turned to me. I offered him more water, but he shook his head. “What do you think, Gary?” he said. “Did I have a point? Or did I?”
I considered the question, and the asker. Winters sounded very troubled and very sincere. And the blond stubble on his chin made it clear that he was trying his best to fit in. I decided to trust him, a little.
“Yes,” I said. “I know what you were driving at. But it’s not that easy. Keith’s songs aren’t just songs. They mean things to him.”
I hesitated, then continued. “Look, the Blast was hell for everybody, I don’t have to tell you that. But most of us out here, we chose this kind of life, ’cause we wanted to get away from the cities and what they stood for. We miss the old days, sure. We’ve lost people, and things we valued, and a lot that made life joyful. And we don’t much care for the constant struggle, or for having to live in fear of the rat packs. Still, a lot of what we valued is right here on the commune, and it hasn’t changed that much. We’ve got the land, and the trees, and each other. And freedom of a sort. No pollution, no competition, no hatred. We like to remember the old days, and the good things in the cities—that’s why we Like Keith’s singing—but now has its satisfactions too.
“Only, Keith is different. He didn’t choose this way, he was only visiting. His dreams were all tied up with the cities, with poetry and music and people and noise. And he’s lost his world; everything he did and wanted to do is gone. And…and well, there was this girl. Sandra, but he called her Sandi. She and Keith lived together for two years, traveled together, did everything together. They only split for a summer, so she could go back to college. Then they were going to join up again. You understand?”
Winters understood. “And then the Blast?”
“And then the Blast. Keith was here, in the middle of nowhere. Sandi was in New York City. So he lost her, too. I think sometimes that if Sandi had been with him, he’d have gotten over the rest. She was the most important part of the world he lost, the world they shared together. With her here, they could have shared a new world and found new beauties and new songs to sing. But she wasn’t here, and…”
“Yeah,” said Winters solemnly. “But it’s been four years, Gary. I lost a lot too, including my wife. But I got over it. Sooner or later, mourning has to stop.”
“Yes,” I said. “For you, and for me. I haven’t lost that much, and you…you think that things will be good again. Keith doesn’t. Maybe things were too good for him in the old days. Or maybe he’s just too romantic for his own good. Or maybe he loved harder than we did. All I know is that his dream tomorrow is like his yesterday, and mine isn’t. I’ve never found anything I could be that happy with. Keith did, or thinks he did. Same difference. He wants it back.”
I drank some more water, and rose. “I’ve got to get back to work,” I said quickly, before Winters could continue the conversation. But I was thoughtful as I walked back to the fields.
There was, of course, one thing I hadn’t told Winters, one important thing. The timetripping. Maybe if Keith was forced to settle for the life he had, he’d come out of it. Like the rest of us had done.
But Keith had an option; Keith could go back. Keith still had his Sandi, so he didn’t have to start over again.
That, I thought, explained a lot. Maybe I should have mentioned it to Winters. Maybe.
Winters skipped the singing that night. He and Crazy Harry were set to leave the next morning, to go searching to the west. They were off somewhere stocking their jeep and making plans.
Keith didn’t miss them any. He sat on his rock, warmed by a pile of burning autumn leaves, and out-sung the bitter wind that had started to blow. He played hard and loud, and sang sad. And after the fire went out, and the audience drifted off, he took his guitar and his cigar box and went off toward the creek.
I followed him. This time the night was black and cloudy, with the smell of rain in the air. And the wind was strong and cold. No, it didn’t sound like people dying. But it moved through the trees and shook the branches and whipped away the leaves. And it sounded…restless.
When I reached the creek, Keith was already rolling up his sleeve.
I stopped him before he took his needle out. “Hey, Keith,” I said, laying a hand on his arm. “Easy. Talk first, okay?”
He looked at my hand and his needle, and returned a reluctant nod. “Okay, Gary,” he said. “But short. I’m in a rush. I haven’t seen Sandi for a week.”
I let go his arm and sat down. “I know.”
“I was trying to make it last, Gar. I only had a month’s worth, but I figured I could make it last longer if I only timetripped once a week.” He smiled. “But that’s hard.”
“I know,” I repeated. “But it would be easier if you didn’t think about her so much.”
He nodded, put down the box, and pulled his denim jacket a little tighter to shut out the wind. “I think too much,” he agreed. Then, smiling, he added, “Such men are dangerous.”
“Ummm, yeah. To themselves, mostly.” I looked at him, cold and huddled in the darkness. “Keith, what will you do when you run out?”
“I wish I knew.”
“I know,” I said. “Then you’ll forget. Your time machine will be broken, and you’ll have to live today. Find somebody else and start again. Only it might be easier if you’d start now. Put away the chronine for a while. Fight it.”
“Sing cheerful songs?” he asked sarcastically.
“Maybe not. I don’t ask you to wipe out the past, or pretend it didn’t happen. But try to find something in the present. You know it can’t be as empty as you pretend. Things aren’t black and white like that. Winters was part right, you know—there are still good things. You forget that.”
“Do I? What do I forget?”
I hesitated. He was making it hard for me. “Well…you still enjoy your singing. You know that. And there could be other things. You used to enjoy writing your own stuff. Why don’t you work on some new songs? You haven’t written anything to speak of since the Blast.”
Keith had picked up a handful of leaves and was offering them to the wind, one by one. “I’ve thought of that. You don’t know how much I’ve thought of that, Gary. And I’ve tried. But nothing comes.” His voice went soft right then. “In the old days, it was different. And you know why. Sandi would sit out in the audience every time I sang. And when I did something new, something of mine, I could see her brighten. If it was good, I’d know it, just from the way she smiled. She was proud of me, and my songs.”
He shook his head. “Doesn’t work now, Gary. I write a song now, and sing it, and…so what? Who cares? You? Yeah, maybe you and a few of the others come up after and say, ‘Hey, Keith, I liked that.’ But that’s not the same. My songs were important to Sandi, the same way her acting was important to me. And now my songs aren’t important to anyone. I tell myself that shouldn’t matter. I should get my own satisfaction from composing, even if no one else does. I tell myself that a lot. But saying it doesn’t make it so.”
Sometimes I think, right then, I should have told Keith that his songs were the most important thing in the world to me. But hell, they weren’t. And Keith was a friend, and I couldn’t feed him lies, even if he needed them.
Besides, he wouldn’t have believed me. Keith had a way of recognizing truth.
Instead, I floundered. “Keith, you could find someone like that again, if you tried. There are girls in the commune, girls as good as Sandi, if you’d open yourself up to them. You could find someone else.”
Keith gave me a calm stare, more chilling than the wind. “I don’t need someone else, Gary,” he said. He picked up the cigar box, opened it, and showed me the needle. “I’ve got Sandi.”
Twice more that week Keith timetripped. And both times he rushed off with a feverish urgency. Usually he’d wait an hour or so after the singing, and discreetly drift off to his creek. But now he brought the cigar box with him, and left even before the last notes of “Me and Bobby McGee” had faded from the air.
Nobody mentioned anything, of course. We all knew Keith was timetripping, and we all knew he was running out. So we forgave him, and understood. Everybody understood, that is, except Pete, Winters’ former corporal. He, like Winters and Crazy Harry, hadn’t been filled in yet. But one evening at the singing, I noticed him looking curiously at the cigar box that lay by Keith’s feet. He said something to Jan, the girl he’d been sleeping with. And she said something back. So I figured he’d been briefed.
I was too right.
Winters and Crazy Harry returned a week, to the day, after their departure. They were not alone. They brought three young teen-agers, a guy and two girls, whom they’d found down west, in company with a group of rats. “In company,” is a euphemism, of course. The kids had been slaves. Winters and Crazy had freed them.
I didn’t ask what had happened to the rats. I could guess.
There was a lot of excitement that night and the night after. The kids were a little frightened of us, and it took a lot of attention to convince them that things would be different here. Winters decided that they should have their own place, and he and Pete began planning a second new cabin. The first one was nearing its crude completion.
As it turned out, Winters and Pete were talking about more than a cabin. I should have realized that, since I caught Winters looking at Keith very curiously and thoughtfully on at least two occasions.
But I didn’t realize it. Like everyone else, I was busy getting to know the newcomers and trying to make them feel at ease. It wasn’t simple, that.
So I didn’t know what was going on until the fourth evening after Winters’ return. I was outside, listening to Keith sing. He’d just barely finished “They Call the Wind Maria,” and was about to swing into a second song, when a group of people suddenly walked into the circle. Winters led them, and Crazy Harry was just behind him with the three kids. And Pete was there, with his arm around Jan. Plus a few others who hadn’t been at the concert when it started but had followed Winters from the common house.
Keith figured they wanted to listen, I guess. He began to play. But Winters stopped him.
“No, Keith,” he said. “Not right now. We’ve got business to take care of now, while everybody’s together. We’re going to talk tonight.”
Keith’s fingers stopped, and the music faded. The only sounds were the wind and the crackle of the nearby burning leaves. Everyone was looking at Winters.
“I want to talk about timetripping,” Winters said.
Keith put down his guitar and glanced at the cigar box at the base of concert rock. “Talk,” he said.
Winters looked around the circle, studying the impassive faces, as if he was weighing them before speaking. I looked too.
“I’ve been told that the commune has a supply of chronine,” Winters began. “And that you use it for timetripping. Is that true, Keith?”
Keith stroked his beard, as he did when he was nervous or thoughtful. “Yeah,” he said.
“And that’s the only use that’s ever been made of this chronine?” Winters said. His supporters had gathered behind him in what seemed like a phalanx.
I stood up. I didn’t feel comfortable arguing from the ground. “Keith was the first one to find the chronine,” I said. “We were going through the town hospital after the Army had gotten through with it. A few drugs were all that were left. Most of them are in the commune stores, in case we need them. But Keith wanted the chronine. So we gave it to him, all of us. Nobody else cared much.”
Winters nodded. “I understand that,” he said very reasonably. “I’m not criticizing that decision. Perhaps you didn’t realize, however, that there are other uses for chronine besides timetripping.”
He paused. “Listen, and try to judge me fairly, that’s all I ask,” he said, looking at each of us in turn. “Chronine is a powerful drug; it’s an important resource, and we need all our resources right now. And timetripping—anyone’s timetripping—is an abuse of the drug. Not what it was intended for.”
That was a mistake on Winters’ part. Lectures on drug abuse weren’t likely to go over big in the commune. I could feel the people around me getting uptight.
Rick, a tall, thin guy with a goatee who came to the concerts every night, took a poke at Winters from the ground. “Bullshit,” he said. “Chronine’s time travel, Colonel. Meant to be used for tripping.”
“Right,” someone else said. “And we gave it to Keith. I don’t want to timetrip, but he does. So what’s wrong with it?”
Winters defused the hostility quickly. “Nothing,” he said. “If we had an unlimited supply of chronine. But we don’t. Do we, Keith?”
“No,” Keith said quietly. “Just a little left.”
The fire was reflected in Winters’ eyes when he looked at Keith. It made it difficult to read his expression. But his voice sounded heavy. “Keith, I know what those time trips mean to you. And I don’t want to hurt you, really I don’t. But we need that chronine, all of us.”
“How?” That was me. I wanted Keith to give up chronine, but I’d be damned before I’d let it be taken from him. “How do we need the chronine?”
“Chronine is not a time machine,” Winters said. “It is a memory drug. And there are things we must remember.” He glanced around the circle. “Is there anyone here who ever worked in a hospital? An orderly? A candy-striper? Never mind. There might be, in a group this size. And they’d have seen things. Somewhere in the back of their skulls they’d know things we need to know. I’ll bet some of you took shop in high school. I’ll bet you learned all sorts of useful things. But how much do you remember? With chronine, you could remember it all. We might have someone here who once learned to make arrows. We might have a tanner. We might have someone who knows how to build a generator. We might have a doctor!”
Winters paused and let that sink in. Around the circle, people shifted uneasily and began to mutter.
Finally Winters continued. “If we found a library, we wouldn’t burn the books for heat, no matter how cold it got. But we’re doing the same thing when we let Keith timetrip. We’re a library—all of us here, we have books in our heads. And the only way to read those books is with chronine. We should use it to help us remember the things we must know. We should hoard it like a treasure, calculate every recall session carefully, and make sure—make absolutely sure—that we don’t waste a grain of it.”
Then he stopped. A long, long silence followed; for Keith, an endless one. Finally Rick spoke again. “I never thought of that,” he said reluctantly. “Maybe you have something. My father was a doctor, if that means anything.”
Then another voice, and another; then a chorus of people speaking at once, throwing up half-remembered experiences that might be valuable, might be useful. Winters had struck paydirt.
He wasn’t smiling, though. He was looking at me.
I wouldn’t meet his eyes. I couldn’t. He had a point—an awful, awful point. But I couldn’t admit that, I couldn’t look at him and nod my surrender. Keith was my friend, and I had to stand by him.
And of all of us in the circle, I was the only one standing. But I couldn’t think of anything to say.
Finally Winters’ eyes moved. He looked at concert rock. Keith sat there, looking at the cigar box.
The hubbub went on for at least five minutes, but at last it died of its own weight. One by one the speakers glanced at Keith, and remembered, and dropped off into awkward silence. When the hush was complete, Keith rose and looked around, like a man coming out of a bad dream.
“No,” he said. His voice was hurt and disbelieving; his eyes moved from person to person. “You can’t. I don’t…don’t waste chronine. You know that, all of you. I visit Sandi, and that’s not wasting. I need Sandi, and she’s gone. I have to go back. It’s my only way, my time machine.” He shook his head.
My turn. “Yes,” I said, as forcefully as I could manage. “Keith’s right. Waste is a matter of definition. If you ask me, the biggest waste would be sending people back to sleep through college lectures a second time.”
Laughter. Then other voices backed me. “I’m with Gary,” somebody said. “Keith needs Sandi, and we need Keith. It’s simple. I say he keeps the chronine.”
“No way,” someone else objected. “I’m as compassionate as anyone, but hell—how many of our people have died over the last few years ’cause we’ve bungled it when they needed doctoring? You remember Doug, two years ago? You shouldn’t need chronine for that. A bad appendix, and he dies. We butchered him when we tried to cut it out. If there’s a chance to prevent that from happening again—even a long shot—I say we gotta take it.”
“No guarantee it won’t happen anyway,” the earlier voice came back. “You have to hit the right memories to accomplish anything, and even they may not be as useful as you’d like.”
“Shit. We have to try….”
“I think we have an obligation to Keith….”
“I think Keith’s got an obligation to us….”
And suddenly everybody was arguing again, hassling back and forth, while Winters and Keith and I stood and listened. It went on and on, back and forth over the same points. Until Pete spoke.
He stepped around Winters, holding Jan. “I’ve heard enough of this,” he said. “I don’t even think we got no argument. Jan here is gonna have my kid, she tells me. Well, damnit, I’m not going to take any chances on her or the kid dying. If there’s a way we can learn something that’ll make it safer, we take it. Especially I’m not gonna take no chances for a goddamn weakling who can’t face up to life. Hell, Keithie here wasn’t the only one hurt, so how does he rate? I lost a chick in the Blast too, but I’m not begging for chronine to dream her up again. I got a new chick instead. And that’s what you better do, Keith.”
Keith stood very still, but his fists were balled at his sides. “There are differences, Pete,” he said slowly. “Big ones. My Sandi was no chick, for one thing. And I loved her, maybe more than you can ever understand. I know you don’t understand pain, Pete. You’ve hardened yourself to it, like a lot of people, by pretending that it doesn’t exist. So you convinced everybody you’re a tough guy, a strong man, real independent. And you gave up some of your humanity, too.” He smiled, very much in control of himself now, his voice sure and steady. “Well, I won’t play that game. I’ll cling to my humanity, and fight for it if I must. I loved once, really loved. And now I hurt. And I won’t deny either of those things, or pretend that they mean any less to me than they do.”
He looked to Winters. “Lieutenant, I want my Sandi, and I won’t let you take her away from me. Let’s have a vote.”
It was close, very close. The margin was only three votes. Keith had a lot of friends.
But Winters won.
Keith took it calmly. He picked up the cigar box, walked over, and handed it to Winters. Pete was grinning happily, but Winters didn’t even crack a smile.
“I’m sorry, Keith,” he said.
“Yeah,” said Keith. “So am I.” There were tears on his face. Keith was never ashamed to cry.
There was no singing that night.
Winters didn’t timetrip. He sent men on “search expeditions” into the past, all very carefully planned for minimum risk and maximum reward.
We didn’t get any doctor out of it. Rick made three trips back without coming up with any useful memories. But one of the guys remembered some valuable stuff about medicinal herbs after a trip back to a bio lab, and another jaunt recalled some marginally good memories about electricity.
Winters was still optimistic, though. He’d turned to interviewing by then, to decide who should get to use the chronine next. He was very careful, very thorough, and he always asked the right questions. No one went back without his okay. Pending that approval, the chronine was stored in the new cabin, where Pete kept an eye on it.
And Keith? Keith sang. I was afraid, the night of the argument, that he might give up singing, but I was wrong. He couldn’t give up song, any more than he could give up Sandi. He returned to concert rock the very next evening, and sang longer and harder than ever before. The night after that he was even better.
During the day, meanwhile, he went about his work with a strained cheerfulness. He smiled a lot, and talked a lot, but he never said anything much. And he never mentioned chronine, or timetripping, or the argument.
He still spent his nights out by the creek, though. The weather was getting progressively colder, but Keith didn’t seem to mind. He just brought out a few blankets and his sleeping bag, and ignored the wind, and the chill, and the increasingly frequent rains.
I went out with him once or twice to sit and talk. Keith was cordial enough. But he never brought up the subjects that really mattered, and I couldn’t bring myself to force the conversations to places he obviously didn’t want to do. We wound up discussing the weather and like subjects.
These days, instead of his cigar box, Keith brought his guitar out to the creek. He never played it when I was there, but I heard him once or twice from a distance, when I was halfway back to the common house after one of our fruitless talks. No singing, just music. Two songs, over and over again. You know which two.
And after a while, just one. “Me and Bobby McGee.” Night after night, alone and obsessed, Keith played that song, sitting by a dry creek in a barren forest. I’d always liked the song, but now I began to fear it, and a shiver would go through me whenever I heard those notes on the frosty autumn wind.
Finally, one night, I spoke to him about it. It was a short conversation, but I think it was the only time, after the argument, that Keith and I ever really reached each other.
I’d come with him to the creek, and wrapped myself in a heavy woolen blanket to ward off the cold, wet drizzle that was dripping from the skies. Keith lay against his tree, half into his sleeping bag, with his guitar on his lap. He didn’t even bother to shield it against the damp, which bothered me.
We talked about nothing, until at last I mentioned his lonely creek concerts. He smiled. “You know why I play that song,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “But I wish you’d stop.”
He looked away. “I will. After tonight. But tonight I play it, Gary. Don’t argue, please. Just listen. The song is all I have left now, to help me think. And I’ve needed it, ’cause I been thinking a lot.”
“I warned you about thinking,” I said jokingly.
But he didn’t laugh. “Yeah. You were right, too. Or I was, or Shakespeare…whoever you want to credit the warning to. Still, sometimes you can’t help thinking. It’s part of being human. Right?”
“I know. So I think with my music. No water left to think by, and the stars are all covered. And Sandi’s gone. Really gone now. You know, Gary…if I kept on, day to day, and didn’t think so much, I might forget her. I might even forget what she looked like. Do you think Pete remembers his chick?”
“Yes,” I said. “And you’ll remember Sandi. I’m sure of that. But maybe not quite so much…and maybe that’s for the best. Sometimes it’s good to forget.”
Then he looked at me. Into my eyes. “But I don’t want to forget, Gary. And I won’t. I won’t.”
And then he began to play. The same song. Once. Twice. Three times. I tried to talk, but he wasn’t listening. His fingers moved on, fiercely, relentlessly. And the music and the wind washed away my words.
Finally I gave up and left. It was a long walk back to the common house, and Keith’s guitar stalked me through the drizzle.
Winters woke me in the common house, shaking me from my bunk to face a grim, gray dawn. His face was even grayer. He said nothing; he didn’t want to wake the others, I guess. He just beckoned me outside.
I yawned and stretched and followed him. Just outside the door, Winters bent and handed me a broken guitar.
I looked at it blankly, then up at him. My face must have asked the question.
“He used it on Pete’s head,” Winters said. “And took the chronine. I think Pete has a mild concussion, but he’ll probably be all right. Lucky. He could be dead, real easy.”
I held the guitar in my hands. It was shattered, the wood cracked and splintered, several strings snapped. It must have been a hell of a blow. I couldn’t believe it. “No,” I said. “Keith…no, he couldn’t …”
“It’s his guitar,” Winters pointed out. “And who else would take the chronine?” Then his face softened. “I’m sorry, Gary. I really am. I think I understand why he did it. Still, I want him. Any idea where he could be?”
I knew, of course. But I was scared. “What…what will you do?”
“No punishment,” he said. “Don’t worry. I just want the chronine back. We’ll be more careful next time.”
I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “But nothing happens to Keith. I’ll fight you if you go back on your word, and the others will too.”
He just looked at me, very sadly, like he was disappointed that I’d mistrust him. He didn’t say a thing. We walked the mile to the creek in silence, me still holding the guitar.
Keith was there, of course. Wrapped in his sleeping bag, the cigar box next to him. There were a few bags left. He’d used only one.
I bent to wake him. But when I touched him and rolled him over, two things hit me. He’d shaved off his beard. And he was very, very cold.
Then I noticed the empty bottle.
We’d found other drugs with the chronine, way back when. They weren’t even guarded. Keith had used sleeping pills.
I stood up, not saying a word. I didn’t need to explain. Winters had taken it all in very quickly. He studied the body and shook his head.
“I wonder why he shaved?” he said finally.
“I know,” I said. “He never wore a beard in the old days, when he was with Sandi.”
“Yes,” said Winters. “Well, it figures.”
“The suicide. He always seemed unstable.”
“No, Lieutenant,” I said. “You’ve got it all wrong, Keith didn’t commit suicide.”
Winters frowned. I smiled.
“Look,” I said. “If you did it, it would be suicide. You think chronine is only a drug for dreaming. But Keith figured it for a time machine. He didn’t kill himself. That wasn’t his style. He just went back to his Sandi. And this time, he made sure he stayed there.”
Winters looked back at the body. “Yes,” he said. “Maybe so.” He paused. “For his sake, I hope that he was right.”
The years since then have been good ones, I guess. Winters is a better leader than I was. The timetrips never turned up any knowledge worth a damn, but the search expeditions proved fruitful. There are more than two hundred people in town now, most of them people that Winters brought in.
It’s a real town, too. We have electricity and a library, and plenty of food. And a doctor—a real doctor that Winters found a hundred miles from here. We got so prosperous that the Sons of the Blast heard about us and came back for a little fun. Winters had his militia beat them off and hunt down the ones who tried to escape.
Nobody but the old commune people remember Keith. But we still have singing and music. Winters found a kid named Ronnie on one of his trips, and Ronnie has a guitar of his own. He’s not in Keith’s league, of course, but he tries hard, and everybody has fun. And he’s taught some of the youngsters how to play.
Only thing is, Ronnie likes to write his own stuff, so we don’t hear many of the old songs. Instead we get postwar music. The most popular tune, right now, is a long ballad about how our army wiped out the Sons of the Blast.
Winters says that’s a healthy thing; he talks about new music for a new civilization. And maybe he has something. In time, I’m sure, there will be a new culture to replace the one that died. Ronnie, like Winters, is giving us tomorrow.
But there’s a price.
The other night, when Ronnie sang, I asked him to do “Me and Bobby McGee.” But nobody knew the words.
© 1975 by George R. R. Martin
Originally published in Epoch.
Reprinted by permission of the author.