“Dear Bob.” I can’t believe I’ve written that. Did I ever think you’d read this letter?
I’ve done it. I’m writing the letter.
How are you? But I won’t know that, will I? Not until I read your letter. Don’t forget—put it where you found mine, between Asimov and Bester, fourth shelf up in the science fiction section of Cray Point’s library, just as we agreed. I’ll pick it up when I’m next through, I promise, and God willing, I’ll leave you another letter that day. Then we’ll swap letters, just like that couple in 84 Charing Cross Road, swapping our lives between the lines.
It’s weird being back in Cray Point. My parents brought me to the Jersey coast every summer, but I hated it back then. Dad insisted we stop here because it was so much quieter (i.e., cheaper) than Atlantic City further south, but it was a dump. A rundown resort that had never really made it, just waiting for rich New Yorkers to swoop and pick up the beachfront condos for a bargain. But now—I don’t want to leave it. I still can’t explain why I wanted to come here, just as I couldn’t in NYC, when we talked about going down the coast. I guess the other people coming here can’t either—maybe it’s the Coney Island Effect, the nostalgia of a cosy resort, a little bubble of the past.
I do like it here. The inhabitants who used to live here—there wouldn’t be any left, right? Not after two years—had barred windows and Keep Out and Warning Dog signs all over their bungalows, but people are different now. They leave the houses tidy and the doors open, they put up signs that read Please Leave This The Way You Found It. I’ve even seen barbecues. People share more. They take what they need from the Walmart and don’t try to stockpile. I wish I could stay.
I wish I could stay with you. I miss our time in NYC. I keep thinking about all the things we did in our two weeks together. I spend hours in the library dreaming of our tour of Tiffany’s, skating down Fifth Avenue on a fire hydrant’s frozen overflow, standing at the tip of Manhattan and squeezing the Statue of Liberty between our fingers like the guy out of Kids in the Hall. Where were all the people? We kept talking about how we expected Escape from New York, not The Omega Man. It felt like we were the only people left in the world.
Before you, Bob, I felt like I was the only one in the world. People don’t do well in this world on their own. So when I saw you standing under the Williamsburg Bridge, as naked and confused as I’d been, I thought, Go on, Alice, take a chance. What have you got to lose? You looked so innocent, a little Jake Gyllenhaal, with that permanent dazed look, not dazed because you were stupid but because you couldn’t believe how amazing the world was. Cute, too—that long curly black hair, that geeky tall tree stoop. That’s why I came out of hiding and showed you where you could get clothes for a New York January. I close my eyes and I can hear your soft voice telling me stories.
The dollar in the envelope is for the bet. You remember? Which of us would go first? I hope you can find somewhere you can still spend it! I ended up in northern Canada—pretty savage in February, but I won’t bore you with my adventures. But I will say that the wilderness people you meet aren’t as bad as you might think. A Chinese girl gave me a lift south in a truck that still had gas in it. She didn’t have to—it was just a good gesture. So I did what you would do and told her stories to keep her company.
I’ll wait as long as I can for you.
• • • •
My sweetest, dearest Alice—
Bet you didn’t expect this! I bet you were thinking, I’m going to drop off that letter and no one’s ever going to read it and New York City will have just been some crazy dream I had. But I found your letter, Alice! I’m carrying it now, and if there was a way I could take it with me when I go, Jesus, I would.
And do I still hear your voice? Hey, I close my eyes, and you know, I can see you and me walking around Cray Point. You’re pointing out all the places you were dragged around as a kid. We pass the local cinema and they’re still showing that Harry Potter sequel from two and a half years back and you’re telling me that you loved the movies more than the books too. And you’re the spitting of little Maggie Gyllenhaal, same dark pixieness, same let’s-have-a-go look in your eyes, and sure, the scaredy-cats around here think we could be brother and sister, but I know that we’ll always be much closer than that. And I’m sitting in the library dreaming of New York Fucking City, too, my girl and me freeing the penguins in the Central Park Zoo and flicking through the photo books in Barnes & Noble, looking at the faces of all those folk who had absolutely—no—fucking—idea what was coming.
We still have no idea what’s coming. You want to hear about my adventures? Well, four months ago, I found myself buck naked on the shore of a huge lake, savannah behind me, tropical skyline before me. So sticky that my body felt like I’d been dripped into my boots. Skeeters squealing around me like vampires at a crucifixion. No one in sight.
Welcome to the future, right?
You’re sipping cocktails with your girl in a New York City bar and then—pop!—you’re a million miles away. Or ten miles down the road. How the hell would you know? You’re doubled up with nausea from the sudden wrench and you’re so terrified someone will be startled and take a shot at you that you can’t think straight. That disorientation hasn’t changed since that first sudden wild day in February, when folk started popping out here and in somewhere else randomly, your best friend disappearing in front of you, the President vanishing at a press conference, strangers turning up in your kitchen or bathroom, totally bewildered. Newspapers said alien invasion. Me, Jason, and the gang said it was an army experiment in quantum entanglement gone haywire. The Government said nothing. But we were all just babbling. And you can still see people with that first trauma stamped into their faces, sitting down wherever they land with thousand-yard stares—but every time each of us pop, we look like that. The look’s not new, it’s just coming back to the surface.
But you learn to cope. You and me, Alice—we’re survivors. First thing I did was find out where the hell I was. There were no houses or newspapers, nothing, so I set off through the jungle until I found a dirt road, then a highway. There were billboards for Isuzu cars and Coke, but they were in English. Occasionally I’d spot someone, and whether it was because they didn’t understand me, or didn’t want to get involved with a crazy naked guy, or didn’t know either, they just shrugged and hurried on up the highway. I got excited when I found a McDonald’s, but I looked at everything there, the signs on the wall, the menus, the packaging on the rotting food round back, and I really could have been anywhere.
Finally, I found road signs. Turns out it was Africa—used to be Ghana, which I knew shit about, except that it was in the western half of the continent and faced the Atlantic. I made my way to the coast—some friendly travellers told me to stay away from the old capital, Accra, where ex-army types were enjoying a soldier of fortune’s playground, so I ended up in Tema on the Gulf of Guinea. Folk there were trying to keep things together. I made some good buddies there—my work-gang was a real mixture, an Albanian, a Jamaican, a Malay from Christmas Island, and bizarrely, five Argentineans (none of whom knew each other). Not much English, but I remembered what you said about telling stories, so I started telling everyone the plots of all the movies I’d seen. Everyone kind of liked the sound of my voice, so I got along just fine.
We re-tooled old boats—rusty fishing hulks mainly—and built small dhows from scratch. One team was even trying to resurrect a huge oil tanker. You found yourself a team and they’d all take turns to pass their skills onto you so that when one of you popped, the rest knew enough to teach the next recruit. While I was there working on the Baby Jane, ten people rotated through our team. When the Baby Jane was ready, the team became a crew and we learnt a bunch of new skills. Once we stocked up with oil from Tema’s still plentiful tanks and whatever food and water the passengers brought with them, we sailed Baby Jane across the Atlantic. Whether America was a stopping point or a destination, all of us wanted to get home.
And would you believe it, ten days out, I popped—and arrived in Cape Canaveral. Knew it almost immediately from the kudzu and dead rockets lying around. Who’d believe my luck! Anyway, I’m from Michigan originally, so I was drawn up the seaboard. But it wasn’t Michigan I was heading for. I know that now. It was Cray Point—it was you, Alice.
And I’m still heading for you.
• • • •
You got my letter! I can’t believe it! I came back here, felt behind my favourite Alfred Bester and it was gone. Incredible—just as I imagined. But I wish you were here to tell me all your stories in person. I wish I could lean out of my ship as it passed yours and grab a kiss—just one kiss, it would be enough.
It’s been eight months since my last letter, I think. I’ve been moving around a lot. I must have jaunted nine or ten times.
I know it sounds weird, but the idea of jaunting makes me giggle. You must think I’m crazy, but really, I laugh every time I see it—a half-eaten banana suddenly dropping to the ground, a woman crouching over a toilet that’s no longer there. I once saw a guy suddenly appear, thrusting into thin air, then asking sheepishly where his woman had gone! And that popcorn noise we make when we disappear—like elephants treading on bubblewrap. I used to dread that noise, but I find it comforting now. All the women used to lie awake in the barracks listening for the tiny firecrackers, wondering which of us—or the guards—had gone.
The thing I can’t get used to is the clothes. I remember seeing one of our guards’ jeans and vest crumple to the floor, and I had to do everything to stop smiling. Look how flimsy you are too! You see them all over the place—little bundles in the street, all over floors. Do you remember seeing the heaps all the way down Fifth Avenue, as if the angels had come down and scooped up all the people and taken them to Heaven?
I laughed about these things with Cara, but it wasn’t the same as talking with you, Bob. Cara was too serious. She was still trying to understand everything. Cara had been a research student in Perth University in Australia and for a few months after it all started, she and her colleagues tried to study what was going on—calculating atomic disturbances during jaunting, shooting particles through freshly-opened spaces to measure the sudden nothingness, all that high-end physics stuff. Cara told me they also used to tag people to see what transported with the body, what didn’t—recent meals, hair transplants. I don’t think they got very far with that either.
Once I did ask her if all our memories teleported. Who knows—maybe we lose a few each time it happens. Cara said she hoped so. There were some things she’d be happy to lose. But that scared me, and I lay awake, re-telling over and over all our conversations in NYC.
I met Cara in southern Russia. I’m not exactly sure where, but it was dry steppe country and there were oilfields everywhere. Kazakhstan? I checked it on the atlas and it’s near the Caspian, but I didn’t see it during my incarceration. A lot of the men who ran the labour gangs certainly looked Mongolian and spoke Russian. Maybe they were locals who kept returning home after their jaunts, the way I keep coming back to Cray Point. The labour gangs were mainly made up of women—I never did find out what they did with the men. They were trying to get the old oilfield equipment running again, and were always arguing over how to re-start those rocking horse pumps. They used us to simply recover oil from the drums stacked up in the depots and lying abandoned in the rocks, then traded the oil for food and rifles. I guess the work itself wasn’t too bad.
The women didn’t talk much. Some were Americans, or at least, had been at one point. They didn’t belong anywhere anymore. The only time we got to speak was at night, when we huddled together for warmth in the oil workers barracks. I told them stories. I told them about The Great Escape and Stalag 17 and even Hogan’s Heroes, and then I told them about you and NYC and about the letters. They listened quietly until I ran out of things to say. It kept them from thinking which of the men would come over that night.
Cara and I got pretty close. You’d have liked her, Bob—she was too serious, she was trying to be realistic. But she remembered all the old movies and if we kept our voices down, we could talk about our favourite movie stars for hours. But she was gone after three months—I wonder where she is now? I asked her about swapping letters, but she wasn’t hopeful. After Cara, there was nothing else to do but keep telling stories about anywhere but there and endure like the other women. Some of us left quickly. I waited five months.
After Kazakhstan, I was a few weeks here and there. I lost a lot of weight, but finally jaunted close to one of the pickup points for the Northern Railroad crossing the States. I’d heard about this. You have to do your share to keep the railway going. For me, that was only a few weeks shadowing one of the drivers in the cockpit in case she jaunted suddenly. She was sweet, she looked after me. But then it was my turn to be a passenger—back to Cray Point, back to you, my love.
I stay in the library most of the time now, reading the books and telling myself stories about us. I can barely remember the people I spent a lifetime with before jaunting, but after our two weeks together, I will always see your face. Do you have a beard now? Would a beard teleport with the rest of you? What about a parasite that got into your body? Or a memory? We lose our clothes each time. Can’t we lose the bad things too?
Waiting for you,
• • • •
My very own Alice—
Did you ever wonder why we always pop out on dry land? Eighty percent of the planet’s surface is water. Are we really that lucky?
About a month after my last letter, I popped into the middle of an ocean. One second, thinking about that beach boardwalk in Cray Point, the next I was way out at sea. Nothing but a horizon of water all around me.
Stay calm, I thought. Be rational. Yeah, right—and all that panic just busted loose and I was screaming and splashing my arms and sinking.
But then I thought about you. You’d have endured whatever was happening. No, my Alice wouldn’t give up. I wondered where you were, and I don’t know why, but I guessed you were westwards, so I picked the sun, said a little prayer and started swimming. And I was just on the point of exhaustion when my prayer was answered and my angel Alice smiled down and sent a fisherman to rescue me. From his Viking beard, a Scandinavian I guessed—found out later his name was Per. I asked him if this was Heaven—or failing that, the Baltic Sea. But he didn’t know any English, so he shook his head and sailed towards the shore.
A long time after, I worked out I was along the Vietnamese coast, but all the months I was in Per’s fishing community, I didn’t know where I was. I don’t think anyone was really sure where we were. No one cared. And I say community, but it wasn’t like Tema and my old buddies. Yeah, we all lived together in the bungalows of an old beach resort like a summer holiday going on forever, but everyone pretty much stuck to themselves, just working their own boats and minding their own business. If you wanted to go fishing yourself, you had to inherit the boat of someone who popped. That took me three weeks, a long time given no one was big on charity. But I was able to keep myself fed through little errands for the others—collecting firewood, fixing nets, and above all, telling stories about my adventures. Who’d have thought it? I had a gift!
It was mainly men, lots of Russians and Chinese. I didn’t get to know any of them really. When they weren’t out fishing, they were spending all their spare time getting ready for their next trip—working out, steeling their bodies against the cold by walking naked at night. They scavenged the resort for anything else useful and small enough to shove up their asses. They walked like they had the worst haemorrhoids, and even when they found their neighbours’ empty clothes with little plastic-wrapped Swiss army knives and batteries still there, they always kept trying. They were determined to evolve with the times.
No—this wasn’t why this shit was all happening. That something was happening, I was—am—convinced. Think about it. Despite my ocean adventure, the odds for sea landings say I should have a pretty good breaststroke by now. This can’t be random. Sure, something’s evolving, but it isn’t people.
And knowing that, I knew I had to leave. For as long as I’d be allowed to stay, this was a good life. But if all this was for a reason, and I have to believe it is, I couldn’t stay. So after eight months there, I decided to beat the pop and head out. I packed dried fish into a backpack I found in the hostel and donated my boat to the next newcomer in line. I knew where I had to go.
Per took me up the coast in his boat. He thought this was stupid, unnecessarily dangerous. Who will fetch you out of the sea next time? he asked. Who’s going to save you?
Alice, I told him. Who? Per replied, so I told him our story.
That’s a good story, he said. And I suddenly realized, He’s right.
• • • •
I’m sorry I haven’t written in so long. I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to say.
At the start, I didn’t want the child. Each time I jaunted, I was sure it’d be left behind. Each time, it followed me. It wasn’t just nausea from travelling now, it was morning sickness. It wasn’t fair. Why don’t other things follow you, things you could use? Why is it only the bad stuff?
But then my heart changed. It’s hard to explain. I’m not even sure if I can remember properly now. I just remember arriving somewhere—couldn’t even say where now—and wanting to keep the child. People thought I was crazy. They’d look at my belly getting bigger and wonder, Why? What could I tell them? They wouldn’t understand—only you can, Bob. In NYC, we talked about children, our favourite names, how many boys, how many girls. I knew that you’d want the child, even if it couldn’t be yours, even though I can’t bear to remember its conception. You’d teach him—I was sure it was a boy—fishing and boat-building and hunting and you’d tell him stories about how we met and how we finally got together in spite of everything.
There was a French woman in the Brazilian jungle who really thought I was nuts. After finding me at the edge of the rainforest, she screamed at me all the way back to her village. (Or what passed for a village now. Have you noticed how communities are getting smaller and smaller? This place was barely a handful of transients in old construction worker prefabs. But I was lucky to find them—wandering in my state, I could easily have walked past without noticing.)
The woman wouldn’t stop shouting. She kept asking me how I expected to give birth. What if I’d been at the end of my term and was alone in the jungle? What would I have done then? And why would I want to bring a child into this world anyway? Did I think the Curse wouldn’t descend on the baby too? Did I want to see my newborn jaunting from my side right into the middle of nowhere? Among all the unburied and mutilated bodies around us, the ones dying of starvation or some horrible explosion or maybe just heartbreak, hadn’t I seen the corpses of enough children?
Yes, I had. What was I thinking? How did I believe this was going to be okay? Somehow I got thinking that you’d find me before I gave birth and everything would be fine. It felt like cold water breaking a dream. But the French woman was so angry that she refused to help me, said I didn’t deserve to survive. I was desperate—none of the others had any medical knowledge and I was too scared to travel on. But ten days after, one of the girls found a Tamil man digging for tubers in the jungle. A doctor. He knew something abut the local plants and made me something that triggered an abortion. I lost a lot of blood. He was kind, he looked after me for a month, but I caught an infection. I dreamt I was lost in the sea but you came and rescued me in a boat.
That must have been at least a year ago. It’s hard keeping track of time, I keep feeling I’m still in that dream. I’ve forgotten half of the places I’ve gone to. I know I was in Nevada, and travelled up to the Northern Railroad, but it was no longer running. Cars everywhere, but no oil. Later, I was in west Africa and made my way to a place where I’d been told you could find crews and boats. But when I got to Tema, there were only refugees camping on the dockside, fighting with each other as they waited for boats that never arrived.
Eventually, I came just north of Montreal and headed south. I thought about going to NYC, but I couldn’t go back without you. And anyway, I had to get this letter to Cray Point. You’re the only thing that keeps me going now.
• • • •
My Angel Alice—
I know, I know—I haven’t written in over a year. What can I say? I’ve been so busy!
I did get as far as Mexico six months ago and started north. But near Chihuahua I met a traveller and told her our story and she was so lifted by it that she told me about a new community along the former border that could do with a story like that. I couldn’t resist the call, so I dropped into Nike Town, not a place on the atlas but a few scraps sticking to an old maquiladora factory. Folk had recently come across the company store, but I could see that the supplies wouldn’t last for much longer. They’d need something else to hold them together.
Oh yeah, they needed our story. Most days, folk lay in their bunks, waiting to pop. No one spoke to each other much, except at night, the only time they got together, when they sat on the factory floor and told their tales in the torchlight. When it came to my turn, they sat rapt, listening, just like everyone else who’s heard our story. And when I was done, they felt different, you could tell. Folk look different when hope fills them up.
A few there told me about more groups of people on the Texan side of the Rio Grande, even worse off than they were, and of course, I couldn’t deny the chance. That’s how it’s been, Alice. I start out one way but get pulled another. It’s not me—it’s what the story does. Folk want to hear it—it does something to them, reminds them that there are other things they could become than simple scavenging animals. I’ve got a whole repertoire of stories now—Odysseus making his long way back to Helen, the lovers in that old movie Cold Mountain—and I can make a pretty good spell with those. But it’s us everyone really wants to hear about. They want the story of Alice & Bob. They may not realize it at first, but as soon as they hear the description of my Angel Alice, her shiny black curls, her beanpole grace, and how we took a chance on each other in New York and promised to swap letters at Cray Point and how we’d never forget each other, they feel as if the story’s always been there. Everyone asks me the way to Cray Point.
I’ve been all over—from the blackened ruins of old Cape Town to the empty outback of Australia. Or rather, the story’s been all over. It’s even taken me to the Antarctic. I arrived in the middle of all that ice, naked, not a penguin in sight. But I didn’t think twice about it—I gave a prayer up to my Alice and aimed for the sun and I knew I’d be fine. It took me four miles and my feet were pretty wrecked, but I wasn’t surprised when I found the weather station. I may have lost a toe, but I knew the story wouldn’t let me down. In a crazy way I can’t explain, it knew about the old Chinese guy there and how he needed the story to lift him.
The story sustains me. I can see our numbers dwindling, and it’s not hard to see why. You can be in the middle of nowhere and you can smell why. They were the ones who dropped on the ice or lost at sea or worse.
But not us—I don’t know why, but I’m starting to believe that all this happened just so the story could exist. Whether it was some god-like alien intelligence needing entertainment or the next stage in human evolution or whatever, I don’t know, but I don’t care anymore. All that matters is the story.
And all stories need an ending. I can feel it. It’s coming together, Alice.
• • • •
So—back in Cray Point. A lot’s changed—but has it changed in the two years since my last letter or have I just not been paying attention?
The windows are barred again, like they used to be when Mom and Dad brought me here. The doors are still open, but I’d be crazy to go into any of the bungalows. You don’t know who’s in there. Same with the shops—I don’t scavenge canned food anymore because enclosed spaces are too risky. Hunting’s easier. I only go inside to look for guns now.
Not many homes left anyway. Most have been burnt out. A riot? Just about everything in the town centre’s been fire-bombed.
The library, too.
The roof only partially collapsed, and if you approach from the south, there’s nothing tell-tale like scorched window panes or gaping walls. But even from the south, the pages blow along the ground towards you, past the strange bouquets of flowers and notes that people have left on the grass outside. Reading the notes, people have come here from all over. I don’t why—maybe the notes are for someone who died here.
The pages rustle around the park bench where I’m writing. A harmless old man is laying his own bouquet and picking up the papers. Wanted to talk to someone but I told him to wait until I’d finished the letter. I keep looking down, thinking I’m going to see one of the other letters. Did any of them survive?
I don’t know why I’m writing this now. There’s no place to put the letter. And if there hadn’t been a fire, what would the point be? It would just sit there with all the others I’d written and left between Asimov and Bester, useless and unread.
Apart from that first one. Maybe that’s why I’m still writing—the shock of finding that first letter gone. But what did I think would happen? That “Bob” had taken that first letter, that by writing it, I had somehow summoned him, instead of someone taking it for scrap paper or it accidentally slipping behind the shelves? I never looked properly. Of course I didn’t. Why spoil the illusion? But if I’d looked, who knows what I might have found—maybe even a reply to any of my letters.
Early on, I used to imagine what Bob’s letters would have been like. I could almost see the letters in front of me, how intimate his handwriting would have been, the sweet nicknames he’d have for me. I’ve been doing that ever since I saw that guy in NYC, looking so vulnerable as he stood under the bridge. I keep thinking about what he’d have said if I’d had the courage to come out of hiding, wondering whether he’d have agreed to this crazy letter scheme.
I have to stop this. Writing the letters kind of made it real to me. But—it’s stupid. No—worse. It’s dangerous. These fantasies will kill you. I’ve lived with Bob for so long that I don’t know how to let go—but I have to. We’ve no use for stories now.
The old man’s waving me over to the pile of paper he’s made. Stupid. The wind will just come and blow it all away again. I feel so tired, I just want to go to sleep. Still, he was pretty desperate to tell me the story about the library, as if it wouldn’t let him go until he had. Better go and listen.
• • • •
Can you see me? Yeah, that’s me, down there, waving with my one good hand, the one that can just about keep the handwriting straight. Can you see your very own Bob?
If you can, maybe you can tell me where I am. I’m pretty sure this is an American city and I’m pretty sure that I visited a lot of US cities six, eight, ten years ago and I’m pretty sure this wasn’t one of them. I should be checking it out, but I got to keep with my priorities. First, letter, then adventure, then another letter. I might even be writing next time to say that this is New York City. I always wanted to visit New York when I was a kid. This would be my first time—now how ironic would that be?
And if you’re really looking down from our Heaven, maybe you can tell me what you see. Sure, you see Bob—but I can use a few more clues now. I’m beginning to forget what he looked like. I didn’t have a lot to go on at the start—just that letter you left me in Cray Point. Or left for the real Bob, but I don’t make any apologies for that. That was the story’s work, arranging a hundred different apparent accidents to get me to pass through Cray Point on my way north from Cape Canaveral, ending with the rainstorm that shepherded me into that library. I found your letter, I read it. That was all I did. The story did everything else.
I did my part to keep the story going. I told everyone I met about “us” and the letters and the library, but those people are telling other people and the story’s going round and round. It doesn’t need me anymore.
It was just one of those things. I was waving my arms or something, probably in the midst of making a telling point to someone with my hands, when I popped. Stop fidgeting, my aunt used to tell me that. Guess that confused the angels or whatever’s been causing us to pop, and my left arm materialized inside a lamp post.
I think I’ve got most of the metal fragments out, though I still can’t see out my left eye. One eye’s enough, but what really worries me is the bleeding. I tied that tourniquet as tight as dammit, but it just keeps seeping. I’ll have to tie it again when I finish the letter. At least I don’t have to go far to send the letter—I’m resting on the pavement with my back to a mailbox. That’s kind of funny now. For once, I’ll send a letter, not fold them up and bury them in the earth.
I hope you did meet up with the real Bob, Alice. And if you didn’t, at least, I hope you get to hear our story. That somehow, it finds its way back to you, gives you some kind of hope the way it did for me and the others.
I guess you can’t see me up there. But maybe you can hear me. Listen. I love you, Alice. Wherever you are, I’ll always be with you. So good night. Sleep tight.
Spread the word!