Pat Cadigan is achieving two firsts today. She is the writer of the first fiction to appear on this site and she is the first award winning writer to grace our pages. She is the winner of two, yes two, Arthur C. Clarke Awards, an annual award for the best published SF of the year, and she was the first person to win the award twice.
Her work explorers a question that most gamers are familiar with – What is real? When high technology or magic distorts what we understand as reality, how do we react, cope and change? Even in the magical universes we game there are rules to how it works but it is always those adventures that bend and break the rules that stand out.
By Pat Cadigan
The day JFK got shot, things got really crazy for Jimmy Streubal. For me, too—hell, for everybody—but mostly for Jimmy.
It wasn’t like things weren’t already screwy for him. He had this really messed-up family situation. When his parents were together, they used to have the kind of fights that the neighbors called the police about. After they got divorced, legend had it the custody fight was back-asswards—his mother tried to force his father to take him and vice-versa. In those days, the scandal of having divorced parents in a small town was bad enough but when neither of them wanted you, it was like going around with the word TRASH tattooed on your forehead.
But it was even worse than that for Jimmy. He had a lot of relatives on both sides of the family—aunts, uncles, all kinds of cousins, and grandparents—and none of them wanted him any more than his parents did.
Social Services was forced to intervene, as my mother put it. She worked in the admitting office at the local hospital and she knew everybody in Social Services, including Jimmy’s social worker, Mrs. Beauvais. Because there were so many Streubals and Streubal in-laws in town, my mother told me, Mrs. Beauvais was under orders to get one of them to take Jimmy. The county had only one group home for orphaned or unwanted boys but it was over thirty miles away and filled to twice its official capacity with kids who were worse off. The state’s foster-family subsidy was good enough that she could usually talk a reluctant relative into a ninety-day trial period. Unfortunately, Jimmy never lasted that long. Four or five weeks later, Mrs. Beauvais would get a call telling her to come and get him now. All she could do was take Jimmy back to her office and call the next relative on the list.
My mother didn’t normally share this kind of information with me but Jimmy and I had been friends since kindergarten and she wanted me to know the facts rather than the gossip. So she swore me to secrecy, promising to kill me if I let anything slip (in those days, if your parents loved you, they threatened your life at least once a week).
I dutifully vowed not to say a word. I didn’t tell her that I had already heard the same thing, generously embellished, from Mrs. Beauvais’ neice, who sat behind me and served as the class distributor of any gossip worth repeating. Big problems in a small town; if you had any, there wasn’t a hope in hell of keeping them quiet. Nor did I mention that I had heard even more detailed information from Jimmy himself. Neither my mother nor Mrs. Beauvais’s niece knew, for example, that he was always evicted before anyone called the Social Services office; when Mrs. Beauvais arrived, she would find him waiting out on the sidewalk, regardless of the weather or time of day (or night), with a note listing all of his sins and general shortcomings pinned to his shirt.
“My mom said I stole from her purse,” Jimmy told me. “My dad claimed I smoked his cigarettes and sneaked out at night when I was supposed to be in bed.”
“Where did you go?” I asked him.
“Dunno. He never said.” Jimmy wrinkled his nose. “Just out somewhere, getting into trouble and he couldn’t control me.”
“Uz,” Jimmy added, grinning a little. If you split the syllables between two kids, it didn’t count as swearing.
“Did you ever ask him?”
“Ask him what—where I went? Are you kidding? You think I wanted a fat lip?” He ran a hand over his crewcut. Jimmy always had crewcuts, even in the coldest weather. On the first day of school in first grade, the teacher swore she saw lice in his hair so every few weeks, Mrs. Beauvais dragged him to the barber to have clippers run over his head. His hair was so short that it was hard to tell what color it was. I didn’t think it was fair but Jimmy said it was better than getting his head scrubbed with disinfectant shampoo.
“That stuff smells funny,” he said. “Like you oughta wash floors with it, not your hair, and if it gets in your eyes, it stings worse than anything. I got some in my mouth once and I couldn’t taste anything else for days.”
It was an odd friendship, Jimmy and me—a boy and a girl, the class troublemaker and the straight-A student. It started, as I said, back in kindergarten. I first noticed Jimmy because he was actually doing something wrong: he was over at the small sink in the corner where Miss Campbell had us all wash our hands after fingerpainting, and he was filling a paper cup with water and pouring it into the trashcan, over and over again.
I remember this so vividly that even now I can close my eyes and see it like a clip from a movie—an indie production shot in a budget, The Chant of Jimmy Streubal, maybe. I can see Jimmy moving from the small, white sink to the trashcan, also white, round-topped with a swing-door, and slightly taller than he was, and back again with an expression of deep concentration on his face, a little man with a mission.
I remember the other kids standing around watching in horrified anticipation of what will happen when Miss Campbell finally looks up from whatever she’s engaged in and sees what he’s doing; this is so far off the misbehavior scale that there no one can imagine what sort of punishment Jimmy is in for.
Most of all, I remember that I understood immediately what he was doing: he wanted to know how many cups of water it would take to fill the trashcan all the way to the top. This was something I had wondered about myself and I had even contemplated trying the same thing to find out. Ultimately, I had decided against it as it seemed to be the sort of thing that would make Miss Campbell scream and yell and call your mother. As it turned out, I was right but that was no fun. Fun would have been Jimmy telling us exactly how many cups it took and Miss Campbell writing it on the board for him, not to mention getting to see a trashcan full of water, instead of what actually happened.
Strangely, that’s the one thing I can’t remember—what happened when Jimmy got caught, or even how he got caught. Whether one of the kids finally got tired of waiting for the storm and called out, Miss Campbell, look what Jimmy’s doing! or whether Miss Campbell herself suddenly realized there was too much running-water noise and turned to see what fresh hell her teaching degree had visited on her now, I have forgotten completely.
I’ve also forgotten exactly how Jimmy was punished for this stupendous feat of transgression but shortly after that, we became friends. We didn’t talk about the Trashcan Incident until a few years later when, after confirming I’d been right about his intentions, I asked him how many cups of water he thought it would have taken.
“At first, I thought maybe a hundred,” he told me, his voice thoughtful and serious. “But I was just a little kid, I didn’t even really know what a hundred meant. Now I know it would have taken a lot more and I would have had to pour a lot faster—water was leaking out all over the floor.”
That surprised me—I didn’t remember any water on the floor. Just Jimmy pouring cup after cup into that white trashcan. I asked him if that was when all the trouble had first started, with one very bad morning in kindergarten.
“Nah,” he said, “it had already started at home. The kids next door were playing with matches one day and they set their room on fire. They told their parents I did it and everyone believed them. I couldn’t even tie my own shoes let alone light a match but everyone believed them anyway.”
In a properly-aligned universe, Jimmy would have been throwing rocks at me, putting spiders in my desk, spitting in my hair when my back was turned, and extorting my lunch money out of me. He didn’t actually do anything like that to me or anyone else but for some reason, everyone was sure he did. I couldn’t figure it out; Jimmy said it was his lot in life. His karma, he called it. I had to look that one up, something that didn’t happen very often even when I was ten years old. It didn’t occur to me to wonder how Jimmy would know about something like that. I just figured he was as brainy as I was and hiding it. No one would have believed he was really smart—if he’d ever gotten an A or even a B, everyone would have accused him of cheating. Kids like Jimmy weren’t smart and they weren’t talented. They couldn’t be—otherwise their parents would have wanted them. Wouldn’t they?
Big problems in a small town; messy questions with neat answers.
Where were you when you heard Kennedy got shot? had a neat answer for everybody. I was in school—just another day in fifth grade—but Jimmy wasn’t there. Thrown out again, I thought; he was always absent when someone threw him out. This time it was his Aunt Linda. Mrs. Barnicle (I swear to God, that was really her name) raised her eyebrows at his empty desk and then got this look like she smelled something bad. That was how she always looked at Jimmy and I hated her for it. I don’t think she knew that she was doing it, which made me hate her even more.
As if she sensed something, she looked over at me, her expression changing to puzzled and then disapproving, and I realized I had been scowling at her with that same bad-smell expression on my own face. If I didn’t cut it out, I was going to get the chair—i.e., the wooden chair in the far corner. You’d get exiled to it for chewing gum, passing notes, answering back, or other high crimes, and if you didn’t sit completely still, it let out a godawful squealing noise. I had never sat there; Jimmy, of course, had done more time in it than anyone else in the class, maybe more than everyone else combined. It never squealed when he sat in it, which seemed to annoy Mrs. Barnicle more than if he had made it sing The Star-Spangled Banner.
I looked away from her quickly and started sorting my books and papers, hoping she wouldn’t decide to come over and ask me if there was something I’d like to share with her and the rest of the class. Fortunately, the Moran twins went up to her with a complicated question about a math problem we’d had for homework. I kept my head down. With any luck, she would forget all about me.
The day progressed unremarkably. Judy LeBlanc got caught with a Beatles magazine and was sent to the chair for the rest of the day, Beatlemania being the bane of Mrs. Barnicle’s existence. Judy cried steadily if quietly for the first half hour; she was afraid she wouldn’t get the magazine back and so were the rest of us. She had promised to show it to us at recess and obviously that wasn’t going to happen now. Disappointment hung over us like an indoor cloud.
Then someone called Mrs. Barnicle out of the classroom and when she came back, she looked as if she’d been hit over the head with a baseball bat. I don’t remember what she said, not the exact words. I just remember disbelief and shock, and an echo of the feeling I’d had when my father had died, a sense that all the things that were supposed to be steady and permanent were actually no more substantial or enduring than soap bubbles.
I automatically turned to look at Jimmy. His empty desk sat there as if it were it were anyone else’s, as if it belonged to a kid who just happened to be sick today and not someone whose aunt was kicking him out. As if everything were really quite normal and it wasn’t a world where the president had just been assassinated.
Assassinated. That was the word Mrs. Barnicle used. She said it over and over and it was so scary, not even the biggest loudmouth jerks in the class sniggered at it.
They let us out early. On my way home, I passed people crying on the street. Grown-ups crying in public, as if JFK had been someone they’d known personally. Maybe it was Kennedy or maybe it was the tenor of the times, or maybe it was both. Whatever it was, I can’t imagine it happening now; at the time, it made everything even scarier and more messed-up. My mother was still at work, unreachable except in an emergency and since I had neither been shot nor done the shooting, this didn’t qualify. Even if she had been home, she would have been glued to the news and telling me to be quiet. Didn’t matter to me—I wanted Jimmy, not my mother. Jimmy knew about messed-up things. I hurried home, changed out of my school clothes, and went to look for him.
His Aunt Linda lived four blocks away from our apartment building, which wasn’t quite outside the boundary my mother had told me I was confined to when she wasn’t home. As a latchkey kid, I was under strict orders not to roam the streets, something my mother considered both dangerous and disgraceful. Personally, I didn’t see the harm in going for a walk but after discovering the hard way that she somehow always found out when I disobeyed—secret mother radar? superpowers?—I did as I was told. The only person who didn’t make fun of me for this was Jimmy, which I thought was above and beyond the call of friendship. Hell, I made fun of myself for it.
I walked over to Jimmy’s aunt’s house wishing it weren’t too cold to ride my bike—otherwise I could have been over there and back in under fifteen minutes. Less if his cousins were outside, because then I wouldn’t have to ring the doorbell and talk to his aunt. You could never depend on an adult for a straight answer in a situation like this anyway and Linda Valeri wasn’t the most approachable person in town. Chances were she’d just yell Mind your own business! and slam the door in my face. His cousins, on the other hand, would fall all over themselves to tell me where he was just to show off how much they knew.
The afternoon sky was graying up so that the day looked colder than it really was. I remember that and I remember I could almost smell snow in the air. Six days to Thanksgiving and it hadn’t snowed but a couple of times; what was left from that wouldn’t have made a decent-sized snowman. I was thinking about how early it got dark, how it would be like midnight by six o’clock which was when my mother got home from work. I had to find Jimmy before then because I wasn’t supposed to be out after dark, especially not on a school night. Then I turned the corner onto his aunt’s street and walked right into the middle of his latest crisis.
All three of Jimmy’s cousins were outside in front of the house along with his Aunt Linda. She had been crying and still was a little, dabbing at her reddened eyes and nose with a wad of tissues about twice the size of a softball. She was talking to two people standing with their backs to me, a woman in an expensive tweed coat and a turquoise velvet hat and a tall skinny guy in a trench-coat. A big boat of an Oldsmobile and a little red VW w
ere parked nose to nose at the curb, or sort of nose to nose—the VW had one tire up on the curb. I was thinking the Olds looked familiar when one of Jimmy’s cousins suddenly yelled, “Hey, I bet she knows—she’s his girlfriend!”
All three adults turned to see who she was, Jimmy’s aunt glaring as if I had killed Kennedy and the other two looking like they thought I could catch the person who had.
“Hello? Little girl?” said the woman, bending down a little with a slightly desperate smile. Her turquoise hat had a small net veil; I’d never seen anyone wear something like that outside of church. This was Jimmy’s social worker, Mrs. Beauvais, I realized and I stepped back, wondering if it were too late to run. “What’s your name, dear?”
“She lives in one of those big blocks on Water Street,” Jimmy’s aunt said. From the tone in her voice, you’d have thought she was talking about maggots.
Mrs. Beauvais tossed her an irritated glance and turned back to me, her smile becoming more desperate. “It’s OK, dear, you’re not in trouble.”
The tall skinny man next to her rolled his eyes briefly; when he realized I had seen him, he gave me a big thousand-watt, pleading smile of his own. “Well, of course she knows she’s not in trouble, Jean-Marie,” he said, his voice going all gooey. “We just want to ask you if you know where Jimmy Streubal is. Are you really his girlfriend?”
“No!” I said hotly, looking daggers at Jimmy’s cousins. If the adults hadn’t been around, I’d have punched them out for that slander. They knew it, too; they made faces at me behind Mrs. Beauvais’s back. I was tempted to take a swing anyway, in the hope of getting a lick or two in before the grown-ups stopped me. “We’re just friends. I gotta go home—“
“No, please, wait a minute—at least tell us your name,” said Mrs. Beauvais, also going all gooey now. “It’s so nice for us to meet a friend of Jimmy’s.”
I was probably the only one they had ever met, I thought as I told her who I was.
“Oh, you’re Janet’s daughter!” Mrs. Beauvais exclaimed as if this was the most wonderful thing she had ever heard. “I know your mother very well, I see her whenever I’m at the hospital—”
“The hospital?” Jimmy’s aunt snapped, stepping forward. “Oh my God, you mean her mother’s a nurse?”
“No, she works in the admitting office,” Mrs. Beauvais said, still sounding utterly delighted. “And a lovely person she is—“
“Oh, that’s just great.” I thought Jimmy’s aunt was going to spit with disgust. “She’ll know all our private business and so will this little shit here—“
Mrs. Beauvais straightened up instantly. “I have warned you before—do not use that language about children in front of children, especially your own, or Jimmy won’t be the only child going into care tonight.”
Jimmy’s aunt stared at her openmouthed—she needed a dentist bad, I thought—then turned to look at her daughters now lined up on the sidewalk next to her. Their faces were so terror-stricken that I forgot I wanted to punch them out. I tried to will Jimmy’s aunt to bend down, gather them into her arms, and tell them they didn’t have to be afraid. Instead, she turned back to Mrs. Beauvais. “You got someplace to take them, you go right ahead, lady. I need a rest and I can’t get a babysitter.”
All three girls burst into loud tears. It was all I could do not to cry with them.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, shut up!” Jimmy’s aunt shouted, dabbing at her eyes with the enormous tissue wad. “You’re not goin’ nowhere, they don’t got nobody to take care of you. Now shut up before I give you something to cry about!”
This only made them cry louder. Mrs. Beauvais turned to the skinny guy like she expected him to do something; he scowled back at her. She deserved it; she’d started it by threatening Jimmy’s aunt for nothing more than a little bad language. Every kid I knew had heard worse than that, if not from their parents then from grouchy neighbors. It didn’t mean anything except someone was having a bad day, or was drunk. I didn’t know anyone who took it seriously, just as I didn’t know anyone who couldn’t appreciate the humor value of your mother calling you a son of a bitch (you had to be careful not to laugh, though).
But anything about being taken away from your folks was going too far, no matter who said it. I was wondering how much trouble I’d be in if I yelled at both Mrs. Beauvais and Jimmy’s aunt for being stupider and then the skinny guy did something even stupider—he went over to the girls and tried to comfort them.
Naturally, they thought he was trying to take them away. Screaming at the top of their lungs, they ran into the house and slammed the door. Even then we could still hear them wailing and sobbing. I looked around, wondering why the neighbors weren’t coming out to see what was going on and then remembered about Kennedy. They’d all be glued to their TV sets. Besides, they were probably used to hearing Linda Valeri’s kids cry.
“Oh, what are you lookin’ so upset for?” she asked the skinny guy, who was pinching the bridge of his nose like he had a bad headache. “You don’t have to live with that—I do.”
“Mrs. Valeri—“ he started.
“Don’t Mrs. Valeri me, you—you—“ she hesitated, as if she’d been about to say something and then caught herself. “You social worker. You never mind about them or my brother’s kid. We’ve got real problems now. Kennedy’s been shot, probably by some Communist! This time next week we could have Russian tanks rolling down Main Street, unless they just drop the bomb on us. You gonna take my kids away then?”
Mrs. Beauvais and the skinny guy looked at each other for a moment; then she turned to me with a pained look that was trying to be a smile. “Sweetheart, an awful lot has happened today and it’s got everyone so upset they’re saying things they don’t mean—”
Obviously she didn’t know Jimmy’s aunt as well as I did but I didn’t say so.
“—but right now, I’m very, very worried about Jimmy because nobody seems to know where he is.” She stared into my face as if she really expected me to solve all her problems.
“Well, he wasn’t in school today,” I offered.
She nodded patiently. “Yes, we know that now. His Aunt Linda said Jimmy left the house this morning just like always so she thought he was in school. When he didn’t come home with his cousins, she called to see if he was with me. Now we’re all very concerned—“
“Include me out,” said Jimmy’s aunt. “That kid can take care of himself just fine.”
“Please, Mrs. Valeri—“ said the skinny guy.
“Don’t Mrs. Valeri me!”
He looked like he wanted to say something; instead, he turned his back and moved away a couple of feet. What did she want him to call her, I wondered—Aunt Linda? Your Majesty? At least none of us had to call her Mommy; inside the house, Jimmy’s cousins were still wailing and sobbing.
“There, you hear that?” Jimmy’s aunt said, gesturing with the wad of tissues. “That’s my night shot to shit. Smooth move, Ex-Lax, thanks for nothin’. You’re so worried about Jimmy, go look for him. I did what I was supposed to do. I tol
d you to come and get him after school. It’s not my fault if he took off. All I can say is, I just better see a check for the last month and a half or I’ll sue you and the city.” She marched into the house and slammed the door behind her. A moment later, we could hear her screeching at the kids who began crying louder than ever.
Mrs. Beauvais seemed to sag all over, even her face, as if she were deflating. Then the skinny guy touched her arm and nodded toward me. She squared her shoulders and made herself smile. “I have an idea,” she said, trying to sound cheerful. “Why don’t you help me look for Jimmy? We’ll drive around in my car.”
I looked at the big Oldsmobile. “I’d have to ask my mother but she’s still at work, and I’m not supposed to call her there unless it’s an emergency.”
“That’s no problem, I’ll call her,” said the social worker airily. “There’s a payphone in the candy store up the street, we’ll call her from there.”
“Well…I guess,” I said dubiously. First it was ‘I’ll call her’ and in the next breath it was ‘We’ll call her? Sounded like a classic double-cross to me. But even if it wasn’t, I didn’t think this was going to go over very well. It had the feel of something that was supposed to be a good deed but would somehow end up backfiring and getting me into trouble.
The skinny guy bent down so we were eye to eye. “Look, Jimmy might have been intending to go straight to school when he left his aunt’s house this morning and then had an accident or something. He could be lying hurt somewhere, unable to call for help and hoping that someone, anyone would come looking for him. I bet he doesn’t even know what happened to the president.”
I shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, imagining myself lying unseen all day in a ditch with a broken leg or worse without anyone knowing it. The fact that there were no ditches where even a mouse could have lain unseen all day between my house and school didn’t matter.
“Good girl.” The social worker was ushering me toward her car quickly, before I could think of an argument. “Hop in, we’ll drive to the store.”
I pulled away from her. Getting into someone’s car without permission? Unthinkable, even if I got permission afterwards.
“Please,” Mrs. Beauvais said wearily. “It’ll take me half an hour to walk all the way there, make the call, and walk back again. That’s half an hour when we could be looking for Jimmy and it’ll be dark soon.”
I gave in, hoping that somehow my mother either wouldn’t find out or would make an exception to the rule this one time. Like if Jimmy really were lying hurt somewhere and would have died if I hadn’t gone looking for him with his social worker. Nobody would punish a kid for saving someone’s life, I thought.
The guy behind the counter at the candy store was watching a little black-and-white TV with the sound turned down low. Every minute or so, he would change the channel, which meant he had to fiddle with the antenna. Occasionally, a lady would come out from the back room and ask him what was happening now. Then they’d look at the skinny guy and say something like, “Can you believe it? What’s this country coming to?” The skinny guy would nod and say something similar, all the while glancing over at Mrs. Beauvais, who was on the payphone with my mother. Getting her permission for me to drive around with her and look for Jimmy was taking a lot longer than I’d thought it would. Not a good sign—the longer it took, the more trouble I would probably be in later, whether we found Jimmy or not. Hoping I wouldn’t have to talk to my mother myself, I stayed by the counter with the skinny guy, who had told me he was Mrs. Beauvais’s assistant.
The conversation went on and on; I couldn’t imagine what they were saying to each other and I didn’t want to. The candy-store guy had flipped around the dial six or seven times when Mrs. Beauvais suddenly looked up and beckoned to me, pointing at the receiver. My heart sank but I went over anyway.
“—absolutely right, Janet, I don’t know what it’s like to bring up a child as a single parent,” she was saying. “But you’ve known me for years and I would hope you know that I would never let any harm come to a child in my care. There is absolutely no danger and if I thought there were—“
Long pause. Mrs. Beauvais patted my shoulder reassuringly and then held onto it to keep me from walking away.
“I highly doubt that anyone would think anything bad about you or your daughter just because they saw her in my car, and if anyone ever did say anything, you have my assurance that I would correct them—“
“Well, then, how about just until four-thirty? No matter what, I will drive her home at four-thirty on the dot.” Pause. “Yes, I promise. Four-thirty on the dot. Yes, she’s right here—“ Mrs. Beauvais put her hand over the receiver and held it out to me. I took it from her thinking that JFK had been lucky to have a quick death.
“Hi, Mom,” I said miserably.
“Why does Social Services think you know where that boy is?” she demanded. “Where on earth would they get an idea like that?”
“I don’t know,” I said even more miserably.
“However you managed to get involved in this, you’d better be home at four-thirty on the dot. Because I’m going to call the house at four thirty-five and you’d better answer by the third ring.”
She went on but the social worker took the phone away from me and talked over her, thanking her profusely for allowing me to help a child who through no fault of his own was in trouble and what a day this was with one thing and another, isn’t it just awful what happened and again, thank you so, so much. I was pretty sure my mother was still talking when Mrs. Beauvais hung up and turned to me with a bright, professional smile. “I guess we’d better get a move on if I’m going to get you home on time.”
“Four-thirty on the dot,” I reminded her. My mother was going to kill me.
“Where are you two going to look first?” the skinny guy asked Mrs. Beauvais as we left the store.
“Well, where do you think we should look?” she asked me brightly. “Is there any special place Jimmy likes to go that only he knows about and nobody else does?”
I wanted to laugh in her face. If only Jimmy knew about it and nobody else, then I wouldn’t know about it either. Then I thought of the embankment and the area under the Fifth Street Bridge.
“Maybe,” I said. “There’s this place where we go sledding when it snows.” I looked down at her feet. She was wearing boots but they had heels and looked dressy and expensive. “It’s over by the playground. The one near the bridge.”
“That’s where we’ll be,” she told the skinny guy.
“I’ll go uptown, then,” he said and headed for his VW. I almost called after him not to bother—Jimmy never went uptown if he had a choice—but Mrs. Beauvais was stuffing me back into the front seat of the Oldsmobile like she was afraid I’d change my mind.
Back then, the Fifth Street Bridge was one of the longer bridges in that part of the county. It connected the main part of town with the more suburban south side, stretching over the railroad tracks that went to and from the state capital and, parallel to the tracks, the Nashua River, which in those days wasn’t so much a river as a waste run-off from the paint factory and a couple of paper mills. You could tell how good business was by color of the water—bright red, ink blue, puke green, or milk of magnesia white were all signs of an economic upturn, more so if there was a particularly bad stench.
Mrs. Beauvais parked the car across the street from the playground and peered through the windshield, worried. “Do you think Jimmy is on the bridge?” I knew she was looking at the concrete arches on the near side. They were a bit flatter and more stretched out than a certain company’s more famous golden ones. Locally, they were more notorious; high school boys showed off by walking all the way up and over them. Occasionally, the fire department would have to come out and rescue someone who’d reached the top and then lost his nerve, and everyone knew someone who knew someone who had seen the kid who had fallen off and splattered all over the road, although no one seemed to know exactly when this grisly event had occurred. I knew Mrs. Beauvais was wondering if Jimmy planned to walk over.
“No,” I said, “he’s not on the bridge. He’s under it.”
She looked at me, horrified. “But it’s dangerous down there. The railroad tracks—he could get run over by a train. Or he could fall in the river—God only knows what would happen to him if he did!”
I shrugged. Getting hit by a train seemed to be a lot more difficult than avoiding it—it wasn’t like a train could sneak up on you, after all, you could hear it coming for miles which gave you plenty of time to get out of the way. The river we gave a much wider berth. It was generally accepted among kids that if you stuck your finger in the Nashua, all the flesh would dissolve off it, leaving the naked bone. But that was pretty easy to avoid, too—you just stayed far away from the water’s edge. Not hard to do—there was a lot of land under the bridge, overgrown and wild, a jungle in the middle of town.
As if Mrs. Beauvais caught a sense of my thoughts, she said, “You know, sweetheart, sometimes bad people hide down there. Tramps passing through, criminals on the run from the police. If Jimmy ran into someone like that—well, there are people
so bad they do that, you know. They hurt kids.”
I didn’t say anything. I had a vague idea of what she was talking about but as far as I knew, bad people like that didn’t hide in the undergrowth beneath bridges—they lurked around outside schools with bags of candy.
“Do you and Jimmy spend a lot of time down there?” she asked, looking into my face seriously.
“Everybody goes sliding here when there’s enough snow,” I said. “There’s a steep part and a part that’s not so steep. Sometimes if it’s slippery enough you can build up enough speed to go all the way to the tracks, practically.”
“That’s very dangerous,” Mrs. Beauvais scolded. “A train could come along at exactly the wrong moment and there’d be nothing left of you.”
“Nobody’s ever slid onto the tracks,” I said. “I don’t think you could go fast enough.”
She sighed heavily and looked toward the bridge again. “You think Jimmy’s down there now?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “We’d have to go down and see. If you want, I’ll go down by myself and come back and tell you.”
Mrs. Beauvais shook her head so emphatically, the little net veil on her hat wiggled. “Didn’t you hear me just tell you it’s dangerous? Besides, I don’t just want to know where he is. He has to come with me.”
“Why?” I asked.
She looked startled at the question. I was startled myself at my sudden and hitherto unsuspected nerve. Never in my life had I ever asked an adult to explain herself.
“His aunt kicked him out, didn’t she,” I said.
“I’d rather you didn’t put it that way,” Mrs. Beauvais said and I realized she was embarrassed, which startled me even more.
“Where’s he going to go now?”
She tapped her gloved fingers on the steering wheel. “That’s a good question. I think Jimmy may have finally run out of relatives.”
“Why can’t you just make his mother take him?” I said. “Isn’t it against the law or something for a mother to refuse to take care of her own kid?”
Mrs. Beauvais gave me another startled look. “I’m sorry, that was indiscreet. I shouldn’t have said anything about Jimmy,” she said in that brisk way grown-ups use when they’ve done something wrong and a kid bags them right in the act. “It’s nothing that concerns you. These are matters that you’ll never have to worry about, God willing. Now let’s see if we can find Jimmy.”
We got out of the car and Mrs. Beauvais followed me over to the easier way down, which wasn’t all that easy for her in those boots and her dress and her nice tweed coat. I thought she probably would have had a hard time anyway at her age; I had no idea how old she was but all grown-ups seemed to be too old for everything kids could do. Every time I looked back at her clambering down the uneven slope after me, I was tempted to tell her to forget it, Jimmy probably wasn’t down here, it was too cold.
I guess she knew from the look on my face because she kept telling me to keep going, she was doing fine, she had actually been a kid once herself, even if I found that hard to believe. What I found hard to believe was that I would get her back up the hill to the car fast enough so she could drive me home in time for my mother’s 4:35 phone call. How could I have been so stupid, I thought furiously. If I’d been with another kid, it would have been simple: I could just say I had to go home or my mother would kill me and then leave. The other kid wouldn’t have blamed me for taking off. But if I left Mrs. Beauvais here, I would somehow end up in worse trouble when my mother found out. And she would find out, because Mrs. Beauvais saw her several times a week. She’d made a point of telling her.
That was grown-ups for you—do them a favor and they’d end up making stuff that should have been simple into something so complicated you ended up in trouble no matter what you did. Maybe that was why Jimmy’s life was all messed up, I thought—he’d done some adult a favor once and he’d been paying for it ever since.
Finally we reached the bottom of the hill where the land sloped gently toward the railroad tracks. Mrs. Beauvais stood there for a few moments, swaying on her high-heeled boots, her pocketbook swinging from the crook of her elbow. Jeez, why hadn’t she hidden that under the front seat, I wondered as she grabbed my shoulder to steady herself.
“I don’t suppose there’s an easier way back up?” she asked, puffing a little. I shook my head; I was doomed.
After she caught her breath, we continued down the slope and I led her toward the patch of land directly under the bridge. In the summer, big weeds grew up around the bridge support, overgrowth tall enough to hide in. I had thought most of it would have been gone now, killed off by the cold but a lot of the thicker stalks were still there. They were yellow and dry as old corn husks but there were plenty of them.
“Jimmy?” I called softly, moving ahead of Mrs. Beauvais. “It’s me, are you down here?” I glanced back at the social worker picking her way along the frozen ground, both arms out for balance as if she were walking a tightrope or something. I should have made her wait in the car, I thought, watching her pause to frown at her right boot. She’d stepped in something.
Without waiting for her, I plunged into the thickest part of the tall dead weeds close the bridge support, both arms out in front of me so I wouldn’t go face first into the cement if I tripped. Abruptly, one of the stalks tilted down and hit me right on the bridge of my nose. Tears sprang into my eyes even though it wasn’t quite as bad as the time the Army brat who lived upstairs from us punched me in the nose. I staggered sideways, my hands grabbing for something, anything. Weeds broke off in my left hand; what felt like several jets of warm, humid air hit my right palm and then I was sitting on the ground with Jimmy standing over me. He was wearing only a light, threadbare brown plaid shirt and jeans, and he’d just had a crewcut—he said he always got crewcuts because everyone thought he had lice if he didn’t—but he didn’t look cold.
“What’re you doing here?” His voice sounded tired and old.
“Looking for you.” I got up and brushed myself off. “Just like everybody else in town, I think. Well, your social worker and her assistant, anyway. The one who drives the red VW. They made me help them.” I spotted Mrs. Beauvais about twenty feet away, looking turning around with a desperate, bewildered expression on her face. I waved at her. “Hey, over here!”
Jimmy pulled my arm down. “Don’t bother. She can’t hear you. Or see you.”
I twisted out of his grip. “What are you talking about? She’s just right there—“ I raised my arm to wave at her again and saw the air in front of me ripple, as if it were shimmering in intense heat.
“OK, go ahead—wave, yell, yodel for all I care.” Jimmy chuckled. “Can you yodel?”
I couldn’t but I tried waving and yelling some more. Mrs. Beauvais didn’t even look in our direction as she stumbled around in her expensive boots.
“Jeez, Jimmy. How are you doing it?”
“I’m not doing anything. They are.” He jerked his thumb upward. I looked. Instead of the underside of the bridge, there was—
Well, I don’t know what it was; I still don’t. That might have been because only part of it was visible, as if someone had torn a strip out of the world overhead so it could show through, like a hidden attic between a ceiling and a roof, but I don’t think so. It did remind me of an attic but it also made me think of a submarine. Or, strangely, a cross between Mrs. Beauvais’s pocketbook, still swinging from the crook of her arm, and the roof of my mouth.
Too weird; I wanted to lower my head but my neck wouldn’t move and closing my eyes made me feel dizzy. There was another, worse feeling creeping up on me as well, a strong sense of not mattering, of being so small next to everything else that I might as well not exist. It was horrible and scary but at the same time I also felt oddly relieved to know where I stood in the universe of things. But not happy; definitely not happy.
“Jimmy?” I said weakly.
“I know,” he said. “This is my dharma.”
I’d never heard the word before; it lodged in my brain like a barbed hook. “Who—or what—is up there?” I asked. I thought I saw faint shadows moving in the vaulted darkness. Later, much later, I thought of a church or a cathedral but it wasn’t like that at all.
“I just told you—my dharma. That’s what they said, anyway. It means this is how it is for me.”
“Oh.” I wanted to tell him that my neck wouldn’t move but I couldn’t remember how to say something like that.
“I don’t know if that’s really the right word, considering they’re doing it to me,” Jimmy went on. “Probably doesn’t matter—I can’t stop it. They’re just gonna keep doing anything they want to me.”
“What are they doing?” I asked.
Jimmy hesitated. “They’re still trying to find a word for that. If they ever do, it’ll probably be a bad word. Really bad. But what it is, they make me know things.”
My neck was starting to hurt. “They tell you stuff?”
“No, they make me know things.”
“That’s what I meant—they tell you things.”
He made a frustrated noise. “No. It’s not the same thing. I could tell you something but that wouldn’t mean you’d know it.”
“What’re you talking about?” I said, getting frustrated myself, both with the argument and not being able to move my head. “If you tell me something, I’ll know it.”
“Oh, yeah? I can tell you I ran a mile without stopping and got tired but you won’t know my feet hurt and my legs were wobbly and my lungs burned like fire. Even if I told you that, too, you still wouldn’t know it, because it didn’t happen to you. Unless I could make you know it my way.”
“Oh.” I managed to get both my hands up behind my neck and started rubbing it, pushing on the base of my skull as I did. After a bit, I could feel my head tilting down again little by little. Finally I was looking straight ahead instead of straight up. Mrs. Beauvais tramped back and forth in front of me and although I could see her mouth opening and closing, I didn’t hear her. I didn’t hear anything except Jimmy’s voice and under that, a soft rushing noise, like when you put a seashell to your ear.
“Is that why you weren’t in school today?” I asked. “Because someone was making you know something?”
“I didn’t want to,” he said. “I tried to run away but I ended up here.”
“Have you been here all day?”
“Not exactly here. But all day, yeah.”
“Mrs. Beauvais’s assistant thought you might be stuck somewhere, like lying hurt in a ditch and unable to call for help. He said you probably didn’t even know about what happened to the president.”
“Oh, I know,” Jimmy said. “I know all about it. I know everything.”
“Yeah. They made me know.”
The pain in his voice made me turn toward him. In the same moment, I suddenly noticed that the daylight was all but completely gone. Everything of the day seemed to rush down on me like an avalanche—Jimmy’s empty desk, Mrs. Barnicle, Judy and her Beatle magazine, hearing that Kennedy had been shot, Jimmy’s aunt and his cousins, Mrs. Beauvais and her assistant, the phone ringing in our empty apartment with my mother on the other end of the line getting madder and madder. Then I felt Jimmy’s hand take hold of mine.
A riot of new images bloomed in my head.
I saw the presidential motorcade from several different angles and people lining the Dallas streets; sunlight gleamed off the shiny cars as JFK smiled and waved until part of his head exploded into red mist; Jackie Kennedy, slim and angular in her refined pink suit and pillbox hat, elegant face twisted in anguish, crawling onto the back of the car, not to get the attention of the bodyguard there but to grab up something that had landed on the trunk—part of her husband’s skull. People screaming, sirens screaming, the air itself was screaming, electric with the fear that came with the breaking of the social compact we made not to kill each other.
Only I didn’t know about things like social compact, not the words, not the concept. Well, yes, I knew but I didn’t know that I knew. As brainy as I was, I was still supposed to be safe from knowing that for a long time.
Mrs. Beauvais stumbled across my field of vision looking bewildered and scared. Social worker; social compact worker. Her and her assistant, trying to keep Jimmy within the social compact, trying to catch him when he fell outside of it. But they didn’t know about this. Whatever this was.
“Jimmy.” It was an effort to speak. “Let’s go.”
“To her. Mrs. Beauvais.”
“You can. They’re not done with me yet. There’s more to come.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do.”
“When will they be done?”
“When they are.”
“I just showed you,” he said, almost snapping. “I made you know some of it. Only a little.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I could because you wanted to know.”
Mrs. Beauvais was standing in front of me almost close enough to touch now. The air between us shimmered again. I should reach out and pull her in, I thought.<
“You can’t,” Jimmy said, as if I had spoken aloud. “There’s no room for her in here. No room with them. She’s too full. Maybe you’d better go now before they make you know something.”
“You think they would?”
“I dunno. They might. If they do, you could end up like me. Nobody’ll want you. And you don’t have as many relatives as I do. If your mom doesn’t want you, you’ll have nowhere to go.”
“That wouldn’t happen,” I said.
Jimmy gave a small, bitter laugh. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. But I do. They messed me up, making me know things. It’s like I’ve got scars, only they don’t show the way normal scars do. People look at me and they know something’s wrong. They don’t know what, they just know there’s something off. They try to figure it out—some think it’s a bad smell, I don’t wash maybe, or I’m looking at them funny, like I don’t respect them. Or they can’t see me, they see someone bad they used to know. Maybe some of them even dream that I do things I haven’t done and then think it was real a
r they wake up.
“What about me? I don’t think any of those things,” I said. “And what about Mrs. Beauvais? She doesn’t, either.”
“Yes, she does,” Jimmy said. “She holds her nose and forces herself to smile and try to help me because it’s her job. But deep down, she thinks I’m bad. As for you—“ he hesitated. “Well, there’s some people who don’t get a rash from poison ivy. You’re like one of them.” He sighed. “You better go. They’re coming back for me.”
“I don’t want to leave you here,” I said.
“You have to. If they come back and see y—“
His voice didn’t so much stop as it snapped off like a dry twig. I wasn’t going to look up again because I knew if I did I wouldn’t be able to look away again. But knowing that made it impossible not to look. I raised my head.
I’m not sure what I expected to see—monsters that looked like Frankenstein or the Creature From the Black Lagoon or maybe a robot like the one in The Day The Earth Stood Still. But they were nothing like any of those, the ones who made Jimmy Streubal know things. They were something I had never seen before, something I knew I would never see again. So I took a good, long, hard look at them, I memorized every line and shadow and feature while they looked back at me and did the same. And when I was sure I knew exactly what they looked like, something in my mind clicked, like a switch or a lock, and to this day if I try to describe them even just to myself, no words or gestures will come.
The one thing I can describe, however, is the way they sniffed at me, tasted me, and then gently pushed me away.
I tried to reach for Jimmy—whether to stay with him or pull him with me, I still don’t know. It didn’t work. The air around me shimmered and I fell, rolling over and over on the dead weeds in the cold, to stop at the very expensive boots of the very, very surprised Mrs. Beauvais.
She pulled me to my feet and started yelling at me about how I had scared her. I didn’t say anything, just waited for her to pause for breath so I could suggest we go back up to her car. Even if four thirty-five was long gone and my mother was probably on her way home, I hoped I might get off a little more lightly if I had to face the music with Mrs. Beauvais beside me.
But she kept yelling and yelling and yelling, and she was holding my shoulder so that her fingers were digging into my shoulder harder and harder. I thought she was going to twist my arm off if she didn’t scream her own head off first.
I tried to pull away from her but that only made her madder. She started jerking me back and forth and it really hurt. I struggled to get away from her and she was trying to hang onto me and finally I just pushed her as hard as I could.
She went over backwards and I started to run away. But she didn’t get up and yell some more and I knew something was really wrong. I went back to look. She had hit her head on a rock and there was blood all over the dead grass and her velvet hat, more blood than I had ever seen in my life.
I turned to run and a small movement caught my eye. Over by the bridge, the air was shimmering, as if heat were rising from an unseen fire. For a moment, I had a powerful urge to plunge back into it. But I couldn’t leave Mrs. Beauvais lying there, not even if I had killed her.
It seemed to take forever to get up the easy slope. By the time I reach the top, I barely had enough breath left to run to the nearest house for help.
I don’t think that I’ve ever had so many people yelling at me for so long, before or since. Everyone who saw me seemed to feel compelled to yell at me for something, even people I didn’t know. Somewhere in all the noise, someone—probably Mrs. Beauvais although it could have been my mother—convinced the police to conduct a thorough search of the area under the Fifth Street Bridge. One of the TV news programs in the capital got wind of it and actually sent out a reporter and a camera crew, and we saw thirty, maybe forty seconds of every cop in town poking around the dead weeds under the bridge. One of them went right past a spot by the bridge support where the air seemed to wiggle and shimmer like it did when it was very hot, but that could have been the film or the TV.
Nobody found anything. There was no sign of Jimmy, no sign of anything, nothing but dead weeds and Mrs. Beauvais’s blood. There was plenty of that.
I was positive she would bleed to death by the time the ambulance got there. But when they brought her up on the stretcher, she was not only alive but conscious and talking, insisting that they take me in the ambulance with her. So she could have me arrested at the hospital for pushing her down, I thought but I was wrong about that, too. She told the ambulance guys on the way in that she had been about to take me back up to her car so she could drive me home when someone came out of nowhere and gave her a hard shove that knocked her down and although she didn’t see who did it, it must have been Jimmy. It couldn’t have been anyone else.
They asked me if I’d seen Jimmy do it; I told them no but I don’t think they believed me. Then we got to the hospital emergency room where my mother was waiting for me and the yelling began.
I spent Thanksgiving vacation under house arrest. I did a lot of reading and watched a lot of TV. I saw JFK’s funeral and the film of Jack Ruby killing Lee Harvey Oswald. I didn’t see Jimmy.
When school resumed in December, Jimmy’s desk was still empty and it stayed that way. Mrs. Barnicle said he was missing. Unfortunately missing was how she put it. Nobody knew where he was.
Even after my house arrest was lifted, my mother threatened me with dire punishments if I should ever show the incredibly bad judgment to go down under the Fifth Street Bridge again. I didn’t tell her the threats weren’t necessary; I had the odd sense that she felt it was her duty to make them.
Eventually, trains ceased to run on that stretch of track. Environmentalists cleaned up the Nashua River. It looked beautiful but you couldn’t have paid most people to go near it anyway.
I had been living in Chicago for ten years when my mother wrote to tell me that the Fifth Street Bridge was to be torn down and replaced with a better structure. She sent newspaper clippings; I read the articles, looked at the photos carefully but there was nothing to see.
I still wonder why Jimmy didn’t come with me out of that strange space under the bridge, whether it was because those…beings, whatever they were, wouldn’t let him go or whether he was just sick and tired of having to be at odds with the whole world. Either way, I always feel a sense of seriously deep loss when I think of him.
It’s not just the loss of Jimmy himself, although he did leave a big hole in my childhood life. I can’t help thinking that we lost an opportunity for something—‘we’ as in people in general. The way Jimmy was being made to know things—I think eventually more people would have been made to know things. Really know them, in the profound and meaningful way that leads to understanding and possibly even—pardon the expression—enlightenment.
But it didn’t agree with us. I felt how difficult it was when Jimmy made me know what happened to JFK. It was overwhelming and I shut my mind off from it as best I could, partly because Jimmy wasn’t there to help me with it. But mostly because for as long as it was vivid in me, people were angry with me. Jimmy had been right—when you were made to know things in that way, it messed you up with other people.
I still look for Jimmy. I look for that shimmer in the air, like from intense heat. And whenever I see it, I look the other way.
(c) 2008 by Pat Cadigan
Jimmy first appeared in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Sixteen Original Works by Speculative Fiction’s Finest Voices.
Nominations for this year’s Hugos, the annual awards of the Science Fiction Worldcon, are now open. Any member of the 2008 Worldcon or 2009 Worldcon may vote. Pat would love to add a Hugo Award for Best
Short Story Novelette to her collection of awards.