It wasn't as if he hadn't seen it before.
After all, he'd had his head in the Evenwhen more than once.
It'd been awhile, and he'd found some distance from it. But it was happening again, a stutter in the wheels that moved everything, a slip in the cogs. Steve caught a glimpse of something that was too large to comprehend yet fit in the palm of his hand, a distortion of perspective. Something was passing through, had dropped a pebble in the middle of a pond and created ripples, and he felt one pass over them but never got a chance to evaluate it before the distortion looped back and created itself again.
Neal turned his attention to something over Steve's right shoulder, between them and the glass wall, something that put a look of alarm on the guitarist's face. Disbelief. And then three shots were fired in rapid succession.
The acoustics made the noise unbearable. But even more unbearable was the sight of Neal recoiling back into his chair as he was shot, trying to twist away from it. One tore into his throat; the next punched into his forehead, shattering it. The last missed him altogether.
Steve felt himself turning his head, felt his chair tip over backwards when he slammed out of it. The table tilted, and both paper cups tipped over, spilling coffee across the table to reflect the patterns of light above. Warmth had splattered on him, and he wanted it to be coffee but it wasn't. He saw too much; the barrel of the gun, the extended arm, the wild gaze of a kid that had passed them twice while they'd been sitting there.
Nearby shoppers dove for cover unnoticed; their screams went unheard as Steve turned his head again to watch Neal slide out of his chair to the floor. There was so little blood pooling on the floor because the guitarist was already dead. One hand went on tremoring against the tiles in reaction to something its owner didn't feel any longer.
"How's it feel?"
Steve didn't hear it at first, ears ringing from the shots. The voice was muffled in the chaos.
"I said how's it feel!" the kid screamed, and Steve jerked around to look at him.
He didn't recognize the boy. Dark skin, dark hair, even features. Dressed in nondescript clothing. There was something about the eyes he should have known, but time ran out before he could truly look. The gun was leveled on him by then, the barrel wavering slightly but not enough to miss him if the trigger was pulled.
"You did this," the kid said, raising his voice to be heard over the people panicking around him.
The barrel of the gun lowered slightly, pointed at his midsection, and the kid's finger tightened on the trigger again. Steve turned his head again and stood frozen, hyperventilating, staring. Lost.
"That's enough," a voice said close to his ear. The voice was angry, and familiar, but he couldn't look. He could only stand there and stare at Neal with the inside of his head screaming in denial.
Then it was all gone.
* * *
It wasn't dark or light, cold or warm. He wasn't awake or asleep.
Then he opened his eyes and he was sitting cross-legged in the desert. The sand was dark red, and warm; a sun the color of blood oranges set to his left. The colors were bright and obvious to him. He wasn't hyperventilating anymore but he felt like it.
A silver-haired, silver eyed girl sat cross legged in front of him, looking concerned. A slight breeze was picking up from the same direction the sun was setting in. He realized that small, intermittent patches of the sand they sat on were fused to glass.
"I know you," Steve said. "I'm not awake."
"Not to yourself," the girl said.
He didn't bother puzzling over that. "What about--"
"That's up to you, this once," the girl said.
"I don't understand," Steve said. She didn't reply. Her silver eyes were like mirrors in her face, reflecting him and the red-orange light.
"Siarion," he said. The name came out of nowhere.
"Do you remember me, pretty bird?" she said, and her eyebrows furrowed into sad lines.
"I need...that to not happen," Steve whispered.
"I can't do that," she said. "You, and the walker, are capable of that. But right now, there's only you. The walker's gone on. And I only walk between."
"I..." Steve paused, too shaken to get the words out. It was all he could do not to beg. "That can't happen."
"This timeline could alter," Siarion said. "Several possibilities opened up in the moments before I took you away because of who was involved. There were too many entities in that one small space, and the line is open. None of the possibilities are painless. I can't help you choose. Each has a price."
Steve stared at her, then looked at the fading sun. It didn't hurt his eyes like it should have.
"Hurry, Er Rai."
Steve snapped his head around. "I want Neal alive. And not hurt."
"Is that all you require?"
He realized he was shaking, tried to still it by scooping up a handful of the sand. It was even warmer to the touch, dark rust-red and coarse, crumbling in his hand, revealing smooth sections where it had melted to glass. "I don't want anyone hurt," he said.
"That's not one of your options," she said.
He looked up. He couldn't think; he knew he must have been dreaming, or something close to it.
"Settle for something, quickly, before all the doors close," she said.
He clutched the section of glass tightly, startling when the edge of it cut him. He opened his hand again, dropping the glass. Blood welled up in his palm and spilled into the sand. He clenched the hand into a fist. "Don't let Neal die," he said. "Why'd you pull me away, if you can't--"
"Goodbye, Er Rai," she said.
He was staring into the patterns of light on the table. The world was loud; he glanced up, saw the trailing edge of the namer's telltale orange smear as it walked away from them. He didn't grab for Neal, didn't say anything, just felt a moment of panic that it was happening again. Neal glanced up at him, face changing to alarm. The guitarist tried to say where is all the blood from, because the singer was splattered with it, but Steve was twisting around in his chair. He saw the kid. It was a couple of seconds at best; jeans, t-shirt. Dark hair, dark skin, a blank look, a gun held out at arm's length, past him, toward Neal.
It was happening again, all of it, happening again.
Steve was on his feet without realizing he'd made the motion, the chair skittering away across the tiled floor. His hands were balled to fists, held away in a convulsion of denial, willing it all to stop. He screamed, body rigid and head thrown back under the weight of it.
There were no shots. There was, instead, a gathering in the air that could be felt in the floor, that rippled like a shockwave, expanding soundlessly.
And the glass wall shattered.
Tons of glass sheeted downward from an unseen, directionless blow, cascading across the floor in a sparkling, deadly wave. Instead of blowing outward, it buckled, shards lashing out in all directions; the framework that held the oversized blocks in place had been built to withstand earthquakes, but it twisted and shrieked under the assault, left in tatters. People screamed and dove for cover beneath the tables, into the stores, anywhere but out in the storm of glass. Part of the ceiling caved along with the wall, panels and recessed lighting collapsing inward.
Steve tried to pull in a breath but couldn't. He felt something sting his face. Then his feet were out from under him and Neal was pulling him under the table. They listened to the last of the wall falling away as the screams began to taper off. A foot-thick and tire-sized chunk of glass hit the tabletop above them squarely, buckling the metal a little and moving the table by nearly a foot. It buckled the tile flooring inches from Neal's left hand as it bounced down from the table and slid away from them.
Steve gradually became aware of things again; aware that Neal had looped an arm over his head to shield him, aware that his hands and face stung, that his chest and back ached. His body hummed, he could feel his bones vibrating with what was left of what he'd turned loose, and he kept his eyes closed. No, that hadn't been him, he hadn't turned anything loose. It had torn loose, dragging him along behind it like a dog dragged behind a truck.
He'd blown something open inside as well as out. He felt the difference and didn't understand it yet, didn't care enough to look.
Neal was shaking him, and he opened his eyes. Time had passed again, and it took him a moment to realize what had really happened. People had begun to congregate and exclaim over the mess and what they'd been doing when it had begun. Speculating. Mall security was asking people to step back, to stay clear of the glass, to move to the exits or the other side of the mall.
Neal pulled him out from under the table. There was blood, on the floor and table where Steve touched it. His hands. They'd been slashed on the glass on the floor, when he'd been under the table.
There was a figure on the floor only ten feet away, arms flung out and feet together in a crucified pose, coated in a frost of glass. Security hung around it, trying to revive it. The kid. Steve got a glimpse of a slack mouth and sightless, blood-filled eyes. Blood had run from nose, mouth, ears, as if he'd burst from inside...
Steve was looking at his own hands, at the blood on them, and was aware of nothing else.
* * *
Jon had pulled to the right with everyone else when three fire trucks, two aid cars and a handful of police wailed by. He figured at first that he'd be passing a whopper of an accident within the next few minutes. Or trying to, if it backed traffic up as bad as he thought it might. But no accident manifested itself. He'd talked to Neal a bare ten minutes earlier, and now a three alarm was called in the same direction. There was no way that was coincidence.
Liz hadn't seen him fall in the driveway. He was at least grateful for that, the way he was grateful that whatever he'd felt hadn't been a heart attack. It had only felt like he imagined a heart attack would.
They were still alive. There would have only been silence otherwise.
He turned onto the four lane that preceded the main entrance to the mall, and slammed on his brakes. It was all flashing lights in the parking lot. He cursed, changing lanes and inching into the main lot, which police were trying to cordon off. He parked in the spot nearest to the street and set off on foot at a run.
* * *
"No," Neal said again. "He's fine. He's, uh....narcoleptic. Any excitement, he's out like a light. He'll come around in a minute."
He'd been warding paramedics off, and trying to keep from having to answer questions. He simply said he hadn't seen anything. Luckily no one had had a chance to point Steve out for his behavior just prior to the moment the wall had blown. And no one was surprised that the singer had blacked out after looking at the kid. Everyone was too shell-shocked to pay any attention.
Anyone who didn't need medical attention was being interviewed and herded out the exits. Anyone who did need it was taken outside to one of the aid cars. It wasn't bad; the flying glass had caused a few cuts, nothing else. It was amazing that it hadn't crushed anyone. It would take them awhile to figure out how the kid with the gun had died. And even then it wouldn't make any difference.
He'd seen the kid walk up, and he'd had just enough time to realize he was looking down the barrel of a gun. No time to do more than think oh shit. Then Steve had come unglued. Neal had felt the buildup, as short as it was. He was shaking then, not because of the scream or the glass or even the fact that he'd come just short of being killed. Not just that. He was thinking about the moment in the hospital when Steve had seen him and pinned him in place.
He had blood on him, before that kid walked up. I saw it. It wasn't the lights.
He had to get them out of there. He hoped Jon was outside somewhere, and not as scared as he was. He jostled Steve again, hoping it worked. The singer's eyes fluttered open. Dark, unfocused, but open. He'd never been asleep, just somewhere else.
"Come on, Perry," he said. He snapped his fingers in front of Steve's face, trying to draw his attention. It worked a little, and he got his hands under Steve's arms, pulling him up enough to stand against the wall. "You gotta walk out of here with me, or they'll haul you away."
He linked an arm in Steve's and pulled him forward a little, relieved that Steve seemed to shake himself awake. They walked away, out of the area that had been cordoned off. A minute or so later, they were out the nearest exit. Neal noticed there was no temperature change when they walked outside, then realized that the missing wall had let the elements in. There weren't nearly as many people on that side, but the curious were milling in the well-lit parking lot by then. A news crew was setting up, trying to get a wide shot the on-air personality could stand in front of.
They angled around all of it, keeping to the fringe, trying to get back to where Neal had parked. Neal hoped Jon would be able to find them, in all that. When they found the Bronco, they leaned against it and stared at what was visible of the carnage. They could see part of where the wall had been from there. After a moment, Neal glanced at Steve and dug in his own jacket, retrieving a handful of napkins, throwing all but two on the hood of the Bronco.
"Hold still," he said. "Your face is bleedin' again." He used one hand to push the singer's bangs back while he dabbed at the scratch that ran across one side of Steve's face and had narrowly missed an eye. It didn't look like it had any glass in it. The singer's clothes were splattered with blood, but the only injuries Neal could find were the scratch on his face, and the cuts on his hands. Nothing to indicate where it had all come from.
Steve's gaze was fixed straight ahead, shocked but still completely aware, trying to take everything in. Neal didn't ask him anything, was afraid to hear the sound of Steve's voice, feared his attention. He left a hand on the back of Steve's neck, not questioning the need for contact. Not questioning the fact that they were somehow still alive.
Jon found them like that, and didn't waste time on relief. He stood close to them and said, "Namer?"
Neal nodded, holding Jon's gaze. Steve didn't say anything and hadn't made a sound since screaming. The three of them stood together and watched the activity from a distance. Another news crew and several more aid cars arrived.
Jon said, "Let's get the hell out of here." He glanced around. "Leave your wheels here, come back in the morning?"
Neal shook his head. "Cops'll get real suspicious. They'll be lookin' for an explanation for a long time, on this one." He knew what Jon was trying to do; keeping the three of them together was safer. "We'll follow you."
Jon looked between them for a moment, then nodded. Glancing over his shoulder, he headed back for the Suburban.
It was a tense, wordless fifteen minutes to Jon's. Nothing came out of the back seat; nothing ran into the road to stop them; nothing dropped on them from above in the dark. Steve was horribly still, strung into impossible knots while he watched the darkness for anything that Neal would never see. Neal felt it and tried to keep quiet, not wanting to risk triggering anything else.
Steve hesitated getting out of the Bronco until Jon set off the motion-activated safety lights, and Jon looked at Neal. Neal nodded a little, acknowledging it. Liz met them at the door.
"News break came on right after you left," she said to Jon. Her voice didn't hold any judgment. They walked into the livingroom, and stared collectively at the TV long enough to discern that the local station had moved on to something else for the time being.
Jon turned to ask what the hell had really happened, then stared at Steve for a moment in the light. There was blood all over him. He said, "Christ. Your...hands."
Blood had smeared between Steve's fingers and long since dried. He had both hands clenched around wads of napkins. Jon reached out to take one hand for a closer look, and Steve jerked away from him before he could make contact. Surprised, Jon said, "Whoa," and backed a step away. Steve didn't look alarmed; his features were set, determined.
Jon glanced up, met Neal's eyes, and read the warning in them.
Liz darted a hand out and caught Steve's elbow. "Let me have a look at your hands."
He followed her obediently, keeping his eyes on the floor, watching for what shouldn't be there.
Jon was staring at Neal. When Steve and Liz were out of earshot, he said, "What the fuck--"
"I thought the mall would be okay," Neal said. Even to his own ears, it sounded like a plea for forgiveness. "Public, lights, the whole thing. Steve says the namer was there. I couldn't see 'im. But next thing I know, I'm lookin' up and this kid--maybe 16,17--is walkin' up with a gun pointed right at my face. I didn't have time to do anything but look. He was between us and that wall. No one else, just him."
Jon nodded a little, hating where it was all going. "It was all Steve," he said.
"He opened up," Neal said. "I thought the place would turn inside out. He meant to stop that kid. And he did. That wall was just the last thing to go, Jon."
Jon swallowed hard. "Dead?"
"Yeah," Neal said softly. "Like he'd been dropped off a building. And even Steve is bleedin', but there isn't a scratch on me, like...like I was exempt."
Jon caught his breath. Neal heard it and stared. Not as if he was waiting for anything, but making sure Jon had all of it.
Jon made an unwilling connection. "Then where's the blood from? Not his hands. They're not smears. They're splatters. You don't have any on you."
Neal went on staring.
"You should," Jon said. "You're right, you were exempt. Something else happened tonight."
"I'll talk to him," Neal said.
"I don't think you should," Jon said. "If he'll talk to you, let him. But you're all he's got right now. You know that, don't you?"
Neal looked at him. "Jesus."
"Yeah, that's kind of different," Jon said.
* * *
It took warm water to loosen the napkins from Steve's hands; the blood had dried the paper to his skin. Then Liz made him sit down while she hunted around for tweezers. Then she set about removing glass splinters from the singer's hands as if he was one of her own children. If it was painful, Steve didn't give her any indication. She spoke to him without asking any questions, picking up on his refusal to talk. An application of hydrogen peroxide, Neosporin and bandages later, she ushered him into the upstairs guest room.
He sat cross legged on the bed and stared at nothing, arms braced across his knees, hands held out away from his body. Liz purposely left the door open, and left him to his thoughts.
He wasn't sure when Jon entered the room; Jon never spoke or tried to get his attention. He turned his head, and Jon was just there, staring off into space. Hours could have passed.
"You ever gonna talk again?" Jon said, and there was no sarcasm in it.
Steve didn't answer.
"You might not have a choice," Jon said. "Late news says they've got the tape from the security camera that was pointed in your direction."
What he didn't say was that one local station had shown it, unedited and without permission just once before having it yanked. The thing was damn unnerving, even jumpy, even with only intermittent color. The kid had come at them with the gun. Then the picture had flipped a little, and Jon had asked himself if it had been their cable reception, or the station, or the film itself. But he knew it was the film. The thing had flipped just a little, a barely discernible stutter, and Steve had screamed.
The police were looking for him. But the tape had only picked him and Neal up from behind and above.
"Neal barely had time to look," Jon said. "But you were already moving. Neal could see the kid better than you, but you were already trying so hard to keep something from happening that you were willing to trade almost anything for it."
Steve remained silent, staring at nothing.
"You had to buy Neal back, didn't you," Jon said.
Steve closed his eyes, and Jon knew he had his answer. The conversation was over, and he left Steve to himself.
* * *
Sometime in the night, unheard by either the dogs or the humans within, Steve walked out of the house and away into the dark.
* * *
He asked himself why, later.
Why did I fall asleep? Why did I wake up and know he was gone, but not realize it during the night?
Neal had raised the alarm, when he'd realized Steve was gone. When he'd awoken, when he'd remembered what had happened to them, he'd gone straight to the guest room Steve had been in. Gone. Just gone.
Out of a locked house. The deadbolts were all still engaged.
He and Jon had searched the house, then the studio, and turned up nothing.
"He's not here," Jon said. "We know it. So tell me where the hell you think he would go."
Neal shook his head and headed back for the house. He called his own house and let the machine answer, asking Steve to pick up. He waited until the machine cut him off, then tried Steve's house and did the same thing.
Liz had already fed the kids breakfast, and has sent them to play downstairs. She watched Jon and Neal surreptitiously.
"I'm gonna go home," Neal said. "See what's left of it, see if he left his things. Then we gotta try and track him down, 'cause there's no way he's thinkin' right."
"By yourself," Jon said. "After last night."
"They got regular folks after you, now," Jon said.
"Why?" Neal said. "Why a regular, messy way of gettin' rid of me? Why not snap their fingers and do it? Why a kid and a gun?"
Jon shook his head. "It's clumsy, it's like..."
"Like they gotta use other folks to get their business done," Neal said. "Like they can only reach so far in here. Like the rules of this place aren't like the rules of the places they're used to."
Jon said, "I can't think about this anymore. It just goes on not making sense, Neal. Everything's at a distance and from a distance, with us in the middle."
"I know," Neal said. "We can't let him just wander around out there, though."
"Why not?" Jon said, turning to face him completely. "Why not? It doesn't make any difference."
"I would've agreed with you, before," Neal said. "If not for last night, if I hadn't been hangin' out with him for the last couple of weeks, if I hadn't seen and heard some of the stuff I--"
"If you didn't have a hard-on for him all of a sudden," Jon corrected.
Neal closed his mouth and stared at Jon. If he hadn't known Jon as well as he did, he would have snapped back. But it was all fear driven, and he knew it. In his peripheral vision, he saw Liz, and glanced at her. Her eyebrows were raised, and she looked ready to lay into Jon then and there. "I don't need your help, then," he said evenly to Jon. "I'm tellin' you, it's all downhill from here because we're separated. That's all."
He walked away.
"Neal," Jon said, and the guitarist didn't turn around, just kept walking. "Way to go," Jon said aloud to himself. When he looked at Liz, she had her arms folded and was frowning.
* * *
Neal knew the moment he walked in--over?--his front door and into the house that Steve wasn't there.
He searched the rooms anyway. Nothing had been disturbed beyond the fact that the door had been blown off. He searched the backyard. He drove the surrounding streets.
Jesus, I need to know where he is.
He thought he'd know if the singer was hurt. Anything. Anything but the blankness.
I need him or I can't go on.
He had no idea where that came from, what it meant, and was too scared to look at it. All he knew was that things had changed, whether they were his changes or not. He had no idea where to look, either, there was nothing beyond his conviction that Steve would go back to the mall.
And that he was dangerous. Beyond dangerous.
What happened? What really happened?
He went back home and called Jon.
"Tell me he walked back in after I left," Neal said. "Tell me he was just walkin' to clear his head."
"I can't," Jon said. "Not there?"
"His stuff is still here," Neal said. "But his personal stuff, like his keys and wallet, they're gone. So he was here first. He's got a plan for somethin', it's not like he's just wandering and bein' freaked out. He's not answering his phone. I've torn the goddamn neighborhood apart. He's gonna do something stupid, because of that kid. I just can't figure out where or how he's gonna do it." He paused. "I'm gonna call the local cab companies, see if he called one from here. And that's only if he used his name."
"I'll get the hospitals, if it'll make you feel any better," Jon said. "But I think we both know I'd have felt it if anything happened. Meet me at the mall in half an hour, and we'll go from there. He's probably gonna try and find out who the kid was. It's where we'd start."
"And if we're lucky, he'll fall asleep somewhere and get taken in," Neal said.
* * *
The damage was significantly worse in the daylight; painfully so. Most of the south parking lot was cordoned off, and that whole side of the mall was closed while police and a preliminary construction crew started the cleanup. There were already sections of plastic sheeting over the gaping hole where the glass wall had been. It billowed faintly with the occasional breeze.
They surveyed the damage from a distance for several minutes. Then Neal said, "A spooked Er Rai ain't a good idea, Jon. Trust me."
"I know," Jon said.
"Now maybe we know why they've been comin' at us from an angle up until now," Neal said. "I got a feelin' he can do a lot more than that."
Jon was silent.
"I still can't help thinkin' there was a way I could've prevented this one," Neal said. "I mean, if Steve could do what he did...maybe I got somethin' over here."
"I think the point of this one was to keep you from being able to make that choice," Jon said. He kept the one-sided conversation he'd had with Steve to himself. He also kept the small, traitorous feeling of relief he'd had when he discovered Steve was out of his house and away from his family.
And he'd begun to wonder if he should have just left well enough alone to begin with.
"You ready to talk, now, or you got more smart comments to make?" Neal said.
"I'm done," Jon said. "I'm sorry."
Very sorry, when he'd finished explaining things to Liz. He wasn't sure what the hell was wrong with him beyond the fact that he was tired of the whole thing.
"It isn't happening to me," Jon said, "not really, but I'm not taking it any better than you are. Okay?"
Neal nodded. It wasn't an outright acceptance of the apology, but it opened things up again. It was permission to go on. "All we got is what's already happened, but part of me knows that's bullshit. I can't jump the lines to see what's really goin' on. Don't it feel to you like this is parts of a movie spliced together? Like it's out of order?"
Jon shook his head. "I'm not a walker, though," he said. "That's not my part. If that's how you feel, then that's probably what's going on. So we gotta ask whose movie, what parts and why."
Neal sighed. "I think it's like we were gettin' at before, that...they're havin' a bad time gettin' their hands in here. It's like we're on a turntable on an old LP, and they're tryin' to put the needle in the right place all the time. And I think you're humorin' me."
"I'm not," Jon said. "Goddamnit, I'm the one along with Ross who's done all the reading on shit like this, but compared to you and Steve, I'm on the fuckin' outside here. I can't hear or feel what you guys do. I can't. I don't know what the fuck Inverse means besides reversing things. I gotta sit around and wait for something to happen, I'm limited. Okay?"
Shrugging, Neal said, "They're hit and miss with that needle. They're confused about this place the way we would be if we managed to get into their part of things, it's a whole different frequency. Better to snag someone who actually lives on the same plane with us, and jerk them around until they take us out."
"And in the meantime, they're jerkin' us around too," Jon said. "They've got us doing and saying things, so why a kid with a gun?"
"There was somethin' else going on there," Neal said softly. "I got a feeling that wasn't just a kid. It wasn't some street kid they chose, to walk up and plug us. It's just a feeling, that's all, and I gotta work from it. Because otherwise we got nothin'. Until the needle hits again."
Jon let that settle for a moment. "When you looked up and saw the gun, did you feel anything?" he said.
"Yeah," Neal said. "Fuckin' scared to death. I thought it was over." He paused and looked harder at Jon. "You mean like, did I try and do something? Rewind us, screw with time? No. Never occurred to me to even try, I didn't have time. I only had enough time to look up, see Steve, and look past him and see the gun pointed at me."
"Pointed at you," Jon said. "Not Steve."
Neal blinked. "You saw the tape."
Jon nodded. "We got namers standing on your porch pretending to be you, tellin' him he's gonna suffer for what he's done to Existence. Then we got probably the same one tellin' you you'll have to 'sleep first' right after you threatened to fuck up the line to keep it from taking Steve. Next thing you know, you're getting shot at."
"You mean, if it took that threat seriously, that maybe I've already done what I said I'd do?" Neal said. "Did I maybe screw with the timeline, and can't remember it? I've always remembered before."
"I think Steve had time to do something he hasn't been able to do before, but all you had time to do was look. You guys are the only ones who'll ever know what really happened."
"I can't do any of that stuff over here," Neal said. "Not without bein' part of Steve. Not without havin' possession of him the way the namer wants. What the hell could've happened that was worse, that would've made me..." He paused. "Aw, shit."
Jon nodded, purposely not looking at him.
"You don't think we actually chose what happened," Neal said.
"I think someone did," Jon said softly. "If it wasn't you that rewound things, who was it? Maybe you've got the feeling it wasn't just some kid because you had to look at him more than once. I'm pretty sure you guys got set up, and you're not done bein' set up."
They were silent for a long moment, trying to piece things together.
"We got someone pushin' you guys together, and we got someone else doin' whatever they can to keep you apart," Jon said. "We've met the guy trying to keep you apart. That's probably what the gun was for, because you threatened to do whatever you could to keep it from getting Steve."
"It wants him," Neal said. "And yeah, that's what it sounds like. He's access to the Evenwhen, like he said. It fucked up the first try because it really doesn't understand 'mortal'. It's gonna do whatever it can to get in. How or where it got the idea to try what it did with him last night, I don't know. I don't wanna know. If it gets him, for all we know it'll be able to get into the Evenwhen and do whatever it wants."
"Then someone else is choosin' you over that thing," Jon said. "They've elected you to 'get' him and they don't know what the fuck they're really asking."
Neal went on looking at the plastic sheeting while it moved in the air currents from the mall.
"Then what?" Jon said. "You and him, tangled again? You were able to do a lot more walking without the messy side effects when you had part of him before. Something's blocking you now. Or it might just be you."
Neal turned his head quickly to look at Jon. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"You're the one who said you thought you should be able to do your thing over here, since the rest of us are," Jon said. "If you can't, maybe it's 'cause you're waiting for it to be safe. It'll damn near kill you unless you have--what'd you say--possession?"
Neal was shaking his head. "I ain't the one doin' this," he said. "The price never stopped me before. I wouldn't be usin' it as an excuse now. What the hell is with you?"
"We gotta find out who that kid was," Jon said. "Then maybe we can trace some stuff back. But it'll never make a difference, there'll be a thousand kids, and sooner or later we'll be too slow."
He walked back to his car.
* * *
The memories let go of him again.
Steve felt the cool graininess of the concrete beneath his hands, heard himself gasping for air. He hurt; there was no part of him that didn't. He was back in what he thought of as the present for a moment, aware of himself again. It had stopped.
He stared at the concrete between his hands, his nose inches from the gray, striated surface. He heard nothing--no traffic, no murmur of voices.
He lifted his head slowly, carefully, afraid he might set off the string of disjointed memories--no, lives--again. His head was pounding hard enough that he saw it behind his eyes. It wasn't daylight pooling on the concrete around him; it was too harsh. Fluorescent. He braced himself up on his elbows and looked around.
A parking garage.
He lay between rows of cars. How he'd gotten there, he didn't know. If someone had told him he'd been thrown there from a moving vehicle, he'd have believed every word.
Why is this happening? Is someone doing this to me? Or am I just caught between, and can't find home base anymore?
He was no longer sure of what had happened and what hadn't.
He'd left Jon's house in the dark, unable to stay or stay still. He'd gone back to Neal's and gotten his wallet and keys.
And what a goddamn moment of fun that'd been. Standing out in the yard staring at the gaping doorway, too frightened to go in. Listening so hard that it'd made him feel crazier than he already had. Aching all over from whatever had come shrieking out of him earlier that night. He'd finally gone in, ready to run out of there in a moment. Ready to lash out again, like he had at....
He focused carefully on the present. He managed to sit up, and that made him feel a little better. He looked for any indication of where he was, found nothing but row markers.
He'd called a cab and headed home, knowing it was nowhere to hide but not knowing what else to do until it got light.
The trouble had started almost the moment he left Jon's. He'd lost a few moments at Neal's, lost another bit of time between there and his house, and that time filled with memories of things he didn't remember living through. He was dreaming with his eyes open.
It was like the burst of emotion that had shattered the wall had broken through something else, too. Like the barriers that held him where he was had been reduced to handholds, and only shaky ones at that. He was ricocheting through the lines, but was awake for it. The memories were having him instead of the other way around.
He was no longer sure what had happened and what hadn't. It was all real. It just wasn't his reality.
Neal had been murdered onstage in front of them during the Escape tour. He remembered it. He remembered Jon being drowned as a child and locked away in another line, remembered being pulled into the Evenwhen, remembered being married and having children with a woman he didn't recognize.
He remembered Neal murdering him in a tower in the Outlands.
That didn't happen. It can't have.
But he felt it. He had no sense of when, but the how was clear. When was a concept he'd been losing a grip on ever since he'd...
...tried to stop that kid from killing Neal. He clapped his hands over his ears and closed his eyes, silently willing doors to close. But the mental locks he'd been depending on had been torn away. There was nothing to stop the memory of cold stone floors and a grip that had been more than physical.
He tried to get to his feet as quickly as he could, trying to distract himself, and failed. He tried to tell himself part of it was being tired, but it wasn't, and he knew it. He wasn't going to sleep again, maybe not for the rest of his life, and the thought terrified him. That's what I get, he thought. That's my sentence. Tuirnarin said 'unrelenting consciousness'.
After a couple of shaky tries, he made it to his feet. Things wavered a little in his vision, he was desperately thirsty, and he ached, but he seemed to be intact. His wallet and keys were still where they should be. He looked down at his clothes. Rumpled, like he'd slept in them. But they gave him no indication of where he'd been or for how long.
And he knew for certain he hadn't slept.
Had he talked to Jessica? Had he made it that far?
He looked in his wallet and found her business card again. Another goddamn thing he couldn't get straight. She had never given him her card. So where the hell had it come from? He'd found it while...
He didn't know. He wasn't sure what had happened in what order.
That's fuckin' rich, comin' from someone who remembers more'n one timeline.
Neal had said that to him, and he didn't remember when. There was no way it was only two days earlier.
Jesus, is Neal still alive? Which thing happened?
He walked a little, looking for an exit sign, brushing himself off. Had he decided to call Jessica before, or after finding the card? It didn't matter. If he'd already called her, he'd call her again. She already knew something was fucked up about the whole thing, so she'd listen to him. He had to find out who that kid had been, because if he looked hard enough, he'd find a link.
If he could stay in the now.
He found a walkway and crossed it, exiting the parking garage at street level and realizing he wasn't all that far from his house. Lemoore. He was maybe three or four blocks from the place he'd been hit.
The overcast daylight looked like afternoon. He didn't remember that morning. He remembered a million other mornings, but not that one. There was a payphone on the corner, and he crossed to it. He dialed the number off the card.
He got her voicemail, telling him she wasn't available and if it was an emergency to dial 911. Then she rattled off her pager number, and he memorized it, hung up, and dialed again. He punched in the payphone number when prompted, then hung up and looked around. The automated clock in the parking lot of the bank across the street told him it was Saturday, November 27th, 1:04pm, 64 degrees.
He glanced down the street, trying to figure out what the hell he was going to do if Jessica ignored him. He glanced at the clock again, and it said 1:27.
What the fuck is going on!
The payphone rang and startled him. He picked it up.
"Hello? Someone paged me at this number."
"Detective Keenan?" he said, even though he's been calling her Jessica in his head. "It's Steve Perry. The one who--"
"Was hit by the bus. I couldn't possibly forget you, Mr. Perry. How can I help you? And why are you calling me from a payphone?"
"How'd you know I--"
"My female intuition," she said. "Oh, and I'm a cop, remember?"
"Shit," Steve sighed. "Look, I'm sorry. I...I need your help. Did you see any news last night, or this morning? About the mall in Novato?"
There was a beat of silence. Then Jessica said, "The kid with the gun, and the wall collapsing?"
"I need to know about that kid," Steve said.
Jessica recognized the voice, but she had the distinct feeling she was talking to someone else. "Do you have information regarding that incident?" she said carefully.
Steve hesitated at the officious tone. He couldn't risk being detained. He couldn't. But he'd have to tell the truth. "Can you meet me somewhere?"
"I'm serious," Steve said. "I need to know who he was, where he was from, where the gun came from. I know something. But not enough."
"Like you said, this isn't my jurisdiction," she said.
"But I'll bet you know someone who knows," he said. "Please. Help me out with this."
"As ludicrous as this sounds," Jessica said, "why not just call the local authorities? Why me, specifically?"
"Because you know something's wrong," Steve said. "Because you didn't give up, you called me a liar, and you had the balls to track me down to do it even though the evidence you had said somethin' else."
There was a beat of silence. Steve felt his grip on things begin to slip a little.
"Where?" she said finally.
"Where I got hit," Steve said. "Three o'clock. I'm not tryin' to be melodramatic. Please. Just hear me out. And...if I'm a little late...wait for me."
He heard her agree. Then he lost his foothold on reality and slid somewhere else for awhile.
* * *
"Where to now?" Jon said.
Neal was on his couch, looking morose. They'd checked all the hospitals. Neal had been all the way to Steve's and back, had driven the surrounding neighborhoods, had called Marv. Jon had also called Ross to keep him up on things. Neal had secured his house and called someone to put the door back on and replace the hinges.
"I don't know," Neal said. "I don't wanna call the cops, even once he's been missin' for 24 hours, because I don't know what'll happen if he's confronted."
He hated saying it. But he had no idea about Steve's mental state.
"And sooner or later that thing'll come back out of hiding and have another crack at him," Neal continued.
"You think he'll just come back?" Jon said.
Neal thought about the blood and the glass and how Steve never let things go. Then he said, "No," and it felt like slamming a door.
* * *
He hadn't thought it would be that bad.
Chilled, shaking, Steve walked past the spot where he'd been hit without looking at it.
He crossed the street and stood in front of the bookstore directly across from the bus stop and stared off at nothing. It was 2:45. He'd taken the time to use the restroom at a fast food place up the block to wash up. He felt a little less out of sorts. He'd only blanked out for ten or fifteen minutes after hanging up the phone, and he hadn't seen anything all that horrible. Something about being a child on a world where it did nothing but snow. That was a memory, too, and he wasn't sure whose.
Something else made him pause.
He looked quickly around. Something familiar was close by, something besides the echo of what had happened there two weeks earlier. There was traffic, people passing him on the sidewalk...
Across the way, a woman was leaving her apartment, walking across the lawn and down the sidewalk. A woman with short, dark hair.
There was no color associated with it; he simply understood that she held something under the surface. She seemed benign, and he stared in amazement. What did she remind him of? Where had he seen...
She held my hand, he thought suddenly. It's her, she's the one who held my hand.
He watched her walk away, afraid to go after her. Maybe she would scream at the sight of him.
But he realized he could feel what made her glow, from there. She felt...like Neal.
* * *