Mabel blurred through the Doorway and stumbled into a wall. She groped for a fingerhold, anything to prop herself up until the gut-twisting vertigo passed. Every time she experienced the blur it got a little worse. All that worse added up to worst because she had made hundreds of auditing trips to the past during her thirty-nine year career in cross-time accounting. One of the reasons her career in the CTA office would soon be over. Except that it was already over the second she made this unauthorized trip.
A hand touched her shoulder—she cursed and slapped it away. She needed to orient herself, make sure she had arrived at the right place at the right time. She pressed her forehead against the cool wall, trying squeeze the headache out. Noises throbbed in her head—the babble of voices, musicians sound-checking their equipment, a screech of feedback through a microphone—but she could pick out individual sounds now. That was good. When she opened her eyes it was like trying to see through a sheet of wax paper at shadows that slowly resolved into murky silhouettes. She braced herself for the final wave of nausea that always hit just as the metallic scent of scrubbed oxygen from her own time faded. Her stomach clenched as the odors slammed into her, a potpourri of sweet smoke and stale beer, honest sweat and cheap perfume.
She knew enough to keep the nausea manageable—she hadn’t eaten anything more solid than vitamin paste laced with anti-emetics since she got back from her last 20th-century audit.
The mix of odors—to be honest, the stench—made her smile.
Mabel knew this stench, this place, this time.
She was in the Daisy Theatre, Beale Street, Memphis, 1956. She was in the hall behind the stage that led past a restroom and payphone to the rear exit.
“Hey, girl, you all right?” asked a voice beside her. “You don’t look so good.”
Her mind raced. Maybe it was only a “bouncer.” During this time period they would have had someone watching the back door. It was probably the same guy who’d touched her shoulder a moment ago. “I’m fine,” she said. She staggered away from the wall to end the conversation.
He followed her, damn it. Her vision was clearing, enough to see that he was huge. Maybe twice her size. His job was to keep out—or bounce out—people who didn’t belong. She desperately wanted to belong.
“Just leave me alone,” she snapped. The adrenalin that shot through her system brought a fresh surge of nausea. Her training kicked in: If you step through a Doorway into a populated room or area, use local period slang to get your point across quickly while you acclimate and shake off the blur. She had practiced the most effective phrases so she could use them without thinking. “I need some space.”
“Do you want something to drink? Some water?”
“I want you to fuck off right now,” she said. She took a deep breath to calm herself and find her center of gravity. If language didn’t work, she had been trained to use other methods of extrication. Usually an aggressive posture was enough—which was good, because she didn’t think she could take this guy alone, not yet.
He laughed at her, and she tensed, but she realized there was no cruelty in it.
“Al’right, al’right.” He pointed to a stool by the back door, which was cracked open to let fresh air in—a notion that seemed as foreign and wonderful now as it did the first time Mabel witnessed something like that during an audit. “When you change your mind, you can find me over here,” he said.
“Al’right, al’right,” she said, trying to match his pronunciation and cadence. All the hours working with audio never fully prepared you for the period dialect. But she had a good ear and could adapt quickly—it was one of the things that had helped her excel at accounting. “Thanks.”
She leaned against the wall and took a deep breath.
Her ears popped from a sudden change in pressure as recycled air rushed into the hall. Someone had just opened a Doorway. They had found her somehow, despite the fact that she had covered her steps in the office, left dozens of clues to false destinations, and didn’t bring anything they could use to track her through time.
A hole in the world materialized, revealing a small sealed room filled with repurposed machines and piles of spare parts. A man stepped through and the hole blinked out of existence. She grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket and threw him against the wall by the payphone because it was the only cover at hand. She glanced quickly to see if the bouncer had noticed them, but his attention was focused on something or someone in the alley.
“Aren’t you a little young to be hanging out in this blunt?” slurred a familiar voice with the same training she had: use local period slang to get your point across quickly.
“Joint,” she whispered furiously. “Joint, Harry, not blunt. And not that kind of joint. And not funny! How long has it been?”
She’d seen him only ten minutes ago in her personal temporal reference, but she wouldn’t have recognized him if she hadn’t heard his voice. His suit was too small and was covered with dust as if it had been pulled off a museum exhibit, which it probably had. He was over forty—you had to be before they would let you step through a Doorway—yet he appeared much younger than the last time she saw him, which meant that he’d stepped through a lot of Doorways between then and now. The sandy blond hair that made his pale skin even paler was new, as were the contacts that turned his eyes an icy blue. Only the confused, angry expression on his face was normal for him, and that had nothing to do with the blur.
“We need you, May,” he said. “Come back with me.”
One of his hands inched slowly toward his jacket pocket. Mabel grabbed his wrist, digging her thumb into a pressure point, and pinned his arm against the wall. With her other hand she twisted his collar tight enough to choke him and banged his head against the phone, which answered with a dull metal clang. “How long has it been?” she asked.
“About two and a half years,” he choked out.
She loosened her grip on his collar to let him catch a breath, then twisted it again. Ten minutes for her, two and a half years for them—so she had hidden her destination well. With such limited resources in her own time, she expected them to give up long before then. “Why? Why couldn’t you just let me go?”
“You don’t know how bad it’s gotten, May. Worldwide crop failures the past two years. Population is under a billion, and there are at least a million people dying every day. Plant and animal species are dying out even faster. It’s an extinction event, and the only creatures thriving are the cockroaches. Maybe they’ll evolve into intelligent life after we’re all dead.”
It felt like someone had pinched her heart. “That’s nothing new. Why do you think I left?”
“So you did it. You did go Button-down?”
The incredulity in his voice surprised her. Benjamin Button had been the CAO’s first auditor, the man who discovered that going into the past reversed the auditor’s age. Button finished up as a small boy obsessed with twentieth century writers. In the end he ran away in time to meet them. One writer—F. Scott Fitzgerald—even wrote down a garbled version of Button’s story. Going Button-down was selfish. It meant putting yourself before humanity. It was the worst thing a cross-time accountant could do. But it was something every auditor thought about in those dark hours of the soul. That’s why they banned you from taking any more trips when you reached a certain age or a certain number of trips. Mabel had timed it so that her age and trip limit would hit on the same day.
“What if I did go Button-down?” she asked. “I reach terminal age tomorrow. I only had one more Doorway to step through before I reached my limit. I’ve done everything I could—now it’s your turn or someone else’s.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Look at me—tight dress, lipstick, high heel shoes—these were damn hard to get. I’m not here on business!”
“You have to come back,” he said. “You’re the best expert we’ve ever had on the 20th century, at least since Button himself. We’ve pinpointed our last chance to change history in 1945, but Womack thinks we need you to make it work.”
Her emotions twisted in different directions. She had been arguing that the 20th century was the pivot ever since the CTA program changed from surreptitious resource extraction—thus “accounting”—to active historical intervention. The proximists had argued for altering events closest to their own century, to minimize the changes. Everyone was afraid of timeline multiplication—that they would save an alternate world but leave their own unmarked. She’d come to believe that timeline multiplication was inevitable, because nothing they altered seemed to work. And yet . . . the mid-20th century, that was the moment things changed for the worse.
At the very back of her consciousness, she’d been aware of voices at the club’s back door for several seconds, but now a shout and the brittle rattle of a bar stool hitting the floor caught her full attention. Her reaction came almost before recognition—she grabbed Harry and shoved him in the other direction, toward the club.
“Keep your head down—it’s hoods,” she said, trying to hold down the panic in her voice.
“It’s what?” Harry asked.
“Hoods,” as if it were self-explanatory. Which it would be if he had done good prep. She had intended to run with him for the front door, but she saw that another group with pillow-case masks and bedsheet robes emblazoned with swastika-eagles had also forced their way in. There was a crowd around them trying to get out, but the hoods were shooing them back inside.
She grabbed Harry by the hand and dragged him across the dance floor, toward a dark spot behind the steps at the edge of the stage. She glanced over her shoulder again. Hoods! There wasn’t any record of this in the histories, only the protests that took place tomorrow.
“Let’s go home,” Harry said, pulling the callback switch from his jacket pocket. She grabbed his hand to prevent him from using it.
“I’m not going back,” she said. The callback was poorly disguised as a disposable lighter—even though those wouldn’t be invented for decades yet. She hated the way some people in the office got sloppy with their history, as if everything within a hundred years happened at the same moment. “What’s the target?”
Of course, it would have to be Hitler. Her mind raced for a second. This was the summer of 1956, so Hitler was in Brazil. The winds off the Atlantic carried the radiation from Great Britain all the way to Germany at this time of year. Stalin, Mao, and Nixon were all easier targets, but Hitler made sense.
“Where and when is the Doorway?”
“The Führerbunker, end of April ’45. That’s why Womack wants you. The Doorway is narrow, less than an hour in a tight enclosed space. Nobody else is good enough to crack it open.”
“Don’t flatter me,” she said, even though she knew it was true. It was as tight a Doorway as the one here, which is why Harry had popped in a moment after her. They’d used her calculations. If they could do any better, they would have arrived a few minutes before her and caught her when she was still weak with the blur.
The Führerbunker in ’45?
The timing was right. Hitler had just married Eva Braun, so he was distracted. The Third Reich was at its lowest point. Vulnerable. The weak spot in the causality chain. But she didn’t see what they could do to reroute the river of time. “I don’t see any way to prevent Hitler’s last-minute alliance with the US against the Soviets. The chance to deplete the resources of two enemies at once was too tempting for the US to resist, and that drags the war on for another five years until Hitler uses nuclear weapons in Europe.”
The whack of a nightstick on a table interrupted them. “Where’s the band?” shouted one of the hoods.
“Don’t let us interrupt your jive,” another said, twisting the word to make it sound like an insult. “We’re all friendly here. Just making sure everything is peaceful.”
“The goddamn band better start playin’,” the first one shouted again.
Mabel tried to melt into the shadows. Their best option was to hide until the hoods went away. The hoods weren’t here for them. This was a random event.
“There’s one way to make it work,” Harry said, brushing some of the dust off his suit. “Suicide mission.”
“Yes. If my life—if our lives—can balance the spreadsheets even a little, and bring our world out of the red, it’s worth it. Come with me, Mabel. Werde mein Valkyrie.”
“Every day of our lives is a prolonged suicide,” she said, fighting to keep her voice down. “The air has too much carbon to breathe, the oceans have too little oxygen to support life, the food—when we can grow any—is too poisoned to eat. And your German pronunciation is terrible—the initial sound is ‘veh’ and you have to elide the words.”
“See, that’s why we need you.”
“I don’t want to die, Harry. I want to live.”
“So go ahead and live,” said a new voice.
“Mind your own—”
The words froze in her throat as she turned to look up at the man on the steps to the stage. It was him, the reason she had gone Button-down to this day, this place. He was tall and lean, with an Errol Flynn mustache, a shiny pompadour, and a guitar slung over his shoulder. But it was his hands that caught her eye—they were large, strong, and masculine. When she glanced up again she noticed him staring at her, up and down and up again, openly appraising her. Then he smiled and it made her knees feel weak.
It had to be the last lingering effects of the blur. She had long ago outgrown that kind of reaction to any man’s attention. “I’ve been a fan of yours my whole life,” she said, remembering, even as the words came out of her mouth, that he’d been only been performing for five or six years.
He laughed and his smile turned smug. “Uh huh. And how long would that be?”
“Tomorrow I turn sixty—” She caught herself. “Sixteen. Tomorrow, I turn sixteen.”
Another whack on a table made her jump. “Play some music,” the hoods shouted again.
The singer winked at her. “See, even these hillbillies make an excuse to come listen to me. That’s how good I am. So I guess the show’s gotta go on.” He paused at the top of the steps. “Hey, what’s your name?”
“Maybellene,” she said. “With two ells.”
“All right Maybellene with two ells. Maybe I’ll sing a song for your birthday. So you better stick around.”
As if I have a choice, one part of her thought. The hoods still blocked all the exits. The other part of her was thinking, Maybe he’ll sing a song for my birthday!
He swaggered across the stage to the microphone. Her heart pounded with anticipation and she wondered if this was how Benjamin Button felt when he met Fitzgerald.
“Who’s that?” Harry asked.
“Chuck Berry,” she said. “He should have been famous, should have been the king of American music. He mixed country and the blues, white music and black music, bringing together both traditions into one new sound, and created songs like nobody ever heard before or since. But this is his last show. The witnesses said it was his best show, as if he knew something was going to happen. Then tomorrow afternoon he’ll go to a protest in Tom Lee Park, which turns into a riot when the hoods show up. He gets kicked to death by a sneering cracker thug named Elvis Presley.”
“We have some unexpected guests in the audience tonight,” Berry said from the stage, and the crowd, already tense, fell silent. “I’m sure they’re here because they’re lovers of music, and so I’m going to start off with a song about a man who had a lot to do with music. A relished memory in my mind, he is, and a pretty good musician. So I hope he forgives us for using his name. Roll over, Beethoven.”
As soon as his fingers touched the guitar, Mabel had to fight the urge to dance. She saw others struggling the same way—the song had so much energy. Berry didn’t hold back. If anything, the presence of the hoods made him play even harder.
It had an effect, but maybe not the one he expected. The hoods started moving among the tables, tapping people on the shoulders and telling them to get out on the dance floor. People went, but they moved self-consciously, tightly constrained dancing, doing anything to avoid attracting negative attention. A few of the hoods pointed and laughed, mocking the way people moved. Mabel had a very bad feeling, like she was sitting on dynamite watching the fuse burn.
“Okay, you met him,” Harry said, taking hold of her arm. “Now it’s time to stop playing around and go home.”
“I’m not going,” she said. She tugged her arm once to free it, but Harry held on tight.
“I never thought you could be so selfish.”
“Selfish? Things are hard here, but the people have hope, they have joy. If I go home, I’ve got neither. I’d rather live one day here than die for ten more years at home.”
“Womack said you’d say that. I thought I knew you, swore to him I could persuade you. But he was right—you’re selfish. And that’s why I’m authorized to bring you back against your will.”
If he had just clamped the handcuffs on her wrist so she couldn’t escape him and then used the callback, they’d already be on their way home. But Harry wasn’t that clever. She grabbed one of his fingers, bending it back until it snapped. Harry’s eyes went wide with pain—he dropped the handcuffs and his knees buckled.
She used the moment to climb over the steps and make her way through the dance floor. All she had to do was stay away from Harry until she could find a place to hide or a way out. She meant what she’d said, even if she didn’t know it before she arrived—she would rather die here than live another day in her own time.
The song stopped and there was scattered applause, some perfunctory and some genuinely enthused. The crowd on the floor stopped moving. Mabel made sure she was surrounded by people when she stopped.
“I see a pretty little girl on the dance floor,” Berry said from up on the stage. “Her name is Maybellene, with two ells, and she’s got a birthday tomorrow. I want you all to help her celebrate tonight. Go on, make room.”
He pointed to her and everyone stepped back, leaving her in the center of the floor and the center of attention. She wanted to bolt, but if she bolted it would only draw more attention, so she smiled and acted shy and gave people a little wave. A few people wished her happy birthday. One woman complimented her on her dress.
“Let’s go, Maybellene,” Berry said, strumming out a riff on the guitar. “I want to see you twist.”
That made some people around her laugh and Mabel flush. Twist was slang for dancing and also slang for sex. Musicians in this time period often played word games with both meanings.
As the band started playing “Ida May,” another of her favorite songs, Harry’s good hand clamped on her arm like a shackle. Sweat poured off his forehead. “That’s enough. Let’s go.”
His other hand, the one with the broken forefinger, reached for the jacket pocket with the callback. She grabbed his wrist and they struggled, a strange dance for control as the music filled the hall.
“What’s going on here?”
They both froze. Hoods surrounded them in a circle.
Up on stage, the drummer missed a beat.
“You two a pair of mutes?” the hood said. The toes of shiny cop shoes peered out from under the hem of his robe, and the bulge on his hip appeared to be a holstered gun. He was tapping a nightstick in the palm of his hand. “Or do you want to explain what salt is doing in this here pepper shaker?”
Harry’s usual confused and angry expression summed up his understanding of the situation. Mabel pulled her arm free and tried to explain. “Oh, it’s noth—”
“I’m not talking to you,” the hood said. “At least not yet. I’m talking to him. White women aren’t good enough for you, you got to come down here and mix with coloreds? That girl there is dark as coal. Why do you want to plant your seed in that kind of dirt? You a traitor to your own race, son?”
Harry slipped his hand into his pocket. Mabel knew he was going for the callback, and she had no idea how she was going to explain his sudden disappearance to these men. She formulated a plan to fall down screaming about the devil—on one other audit that went bad, something similar had helped her get away.
But she didn’t get a chance to use it. The cop in the hood also saw Harry reach into his pocket. He swung the nightstick so hard that Mabel heard bones crack and the callback shatter. Harry screamed and collapsed on the floor. He yanked his hand out of his pocket as he fell and extended his fist toward Mabel. Blood ran between his fingers and down his arm.
A different hood stomped on Harry’s wrist, pinning it to the floor. “You want to drop that, mister?”
Harry squeezed his fist tighter. The hood ground boot into bones, until Harry gasped in pain. His fingers uncurled, spilling the shattered pieces of the callback on the floor. On stage, the last notes of music sputtered to a stop.
“Thank you, thank you very much,” the hood said. To the cop he added, “Looks like a toy, maybe bakelite, I don’t know. It’s not a knife, it’s not a gun.”
The cop crunched them under his heel and kicked them out of the way. Then he turned to Mabel. “You have some part in this, girl? You a whore or something?”
“No, sir.” She lowered her eyes and swallowed hard. She’d been on audits that had gone poorly before, but never this bad. She might get a chance to test her resolve to die here instead of going home.
“Maybe you sell drugs. Maybe you got marijuana on you. Some, what do you call it, reefer. You got reefer on you, girl?”
The cop nodded to the stomper, who came over to check her pockets, which were empty. So he unbuttoned her dress and slipped his hand inside the cups of her bra, just groping her, not even pretending to search. She tried to stand absolutely still, but he liked that and his breathing got heavy. When he lifted up the hem of her dress, she squeezed her legs together, but he forced his hands between them and up inside her panties. Bile rose in her throat and she trembled with a mixture of fear and outrage. It was worse because he didn’t have a face, because none of them had faces, only masks. She could feel him staring at her, wanting the attention of a reaction, so did everything she could to deny him even that.
“She’s got nothing to write home about,” the stomper said when he was done.
Cop nodded at her. “So now I’m asking you. What’s going on here?”
“I just came to listen to the music, sir,” Mabel said, though the sir felt like poison on her tongue. “That man, he just showed up here and started talking to me. I tried to walk away but he followed me and grabbed me.”
Those were all true statements, more or less. If the hoods had asked the bouncer at the back door anything, that ought to corroborate what he would’ve already said. More or less.
“What did he want with you?” the cop asked.
She thought hard and fast. Say too much it would make things worse, say too little and it would do the same. “He asked me to go away with him and I said no.”
Harry lifted his head to look at her, and stomper kicked him in the face. His head snapped back, cracking against the floor and his body went limp. Mabel realized she was shrieking and covered her mouth to choke off the sound. Poor Harry—he was unconscious if he was lucky, dead if he wasn’t.
In just a few seconds, the mood in the club changed from tense to explosive. The cop sensed it too. One hand slipped inside his robe and rested on his gun. With the other, he swung the nightstick in a slow arc at the crowd.
“Now listen up, you dumb niggers. Sometimes a fool gets it in his head to associate with folks he’s got no business associating with, and so he goes and talks to people who don’t want to be talked at, like this here fellow did with this here girl. So all of you better take care to stay with your own kind and we’ll stay with ours. You take care of your problems, we’ll take care of ours. Nobody wants mixing, right? Right.”
He gestured for the hoods to leave out the front. As soon as the hoods guarding the back door joined their friends, people ran to leave that direction. Mabel stayed rooted in place, fighting back tears, while two hoods dragged Harry away by his heels, bumping his head along the floor as they went.
Berry appeared beside her, rested a hand on her shoulder. She was aware of it, tensed when he touched her, but it was a reflex to what had just happened. She felt so numb she wouldn’t have known it was there if she hadn’t seen it.
“You all right?” he asked.
“You have any idea what that was all about?”
“No, no idea.”
He blew out a breath and said softly, “Oh, Maybellene, why can’t you be true?”
She didn’t reply. The pieces of the callback device lay scattered on the floor. Harry had wanted his life to mean something and instead he had wasted it coming back for her. Her choices opened up like a pair of Doorways. She could gather up the pieces, try to fix the device, go back to her own time, to a place she hated—a place that needed her. Or she could leave the callback on the floor, walk away, and enjoy whatever time she had here, in a place she wanted to be.
“I can tell you’re upset,” Berry said. He took his hand off her shoulder. “So you do what you think is best. But you’re welcome to come backstage and sit, have something to drink, calm yourself down. It’s up to you.”
He took a step away and Mabel spun around.
“I want—” she said, and hesitated.
“What do you want?”
“I want to live,” she said. And then a second later, she added, “I want to twist.”
He answered her with a suggestive grin that didn’t ignore the pain or the humiliation that either one of them knew, but a grin that promised life was worth living despite all the bad things that happened, all the cruelty and injustice visited by other people. It was a grin that made her knees feel weak all over again, and this time she knew it had nothing to do with the blur.
“Come on,” he said, holding out his hand. “Let’s get started.”
She glanced at the pieces of the callback one last time, then slid her fingers across his palm and took hold. It was her life, after all, and her choice wouldn’t make any difference to the future or the past, not now.
How could it?
© 2012 C. C. Finlay.