When the world broke, did it break for you? Did it break for everybody?
Or did it just break for me?
If it did break for you, I hope…well…I guess you’d know.
My friend Doug and I were planning a road trip across the States. Been talking about it for years but now we were going. He’d just lost his job with the government and my marriage to Nicole had just been buried in ink.
“We’re going now,” Doug had said, “because we might not be here again.”
So while we’re planning the trip we slap a big map of the U.S. up on the wall of his garage. It was one of those tri-colour ones, all white and washed out reds and blues, and we’re mapping out our route in pieces of yellow yarn, generally planning to follow old Route 66.
That’s when the first break happens. I think.
Because suddenly the map seems to twist in the centre and it isn’t quite right anymore. For one thing, the route now skirts around the entire continental United States in a bastardized square and then crisscrosses it like a badge. For another, along the northern border, somewhere just shy of the eastern edge of Montana, the border bulges up into Canada, stretching for a few thousand miles into parts of Manitoba and northern Ontario like a cold front.
Except this isn’t a weather map. It’s still the good old tri-colour. The political kind.
Then there’s another twist — but I can feel this one — and the map’s right back to the way it’s supposed to be and Doug and I are in his garage figuring out where to begin. I freeze, trying to figure out what just happened, but Doug’s just standing there and everything seems fine, everything’s the way it was…
Except that Doug says, “I don’t want to start on the east coast. I want to start at the beginning. We should start with Washington.” And it looks like we’re going to be driving along the top of the U.S. after all.
The world is sunny and bright the day we hop into Doug’s convertible Grand Prix in Seattle. I’m feeling better than I have in months and the cotton-candy puffs of cloud make the ashes of my marriage seem a thousand years away.
“A road trip is like quantum physics,” Doug says as we hit I-90 going east. “You get to be all the people you might have been and still might be in another dimension.”
Doug talks like that sometimes. Done it ever since I’ve known him, which is since kindergarten. Somewhere around the fourth grade for me, sixth grade for him, I finally accepted the fact that Doug was smarter than me and that was just that. Doug was talking metaphysics and life and comparing the two when I was still struggling with long division. Still, he never held his brain against mine, or rolled his eyes when I didn’t quite get it, and so I never told him just how much I hated science.
So there we are, two wounded guys, driving through those crazy trees they have in Washington, hoping the smell of loam can dress our wounds and clean our cares away.
And for me it must have worked, because by the time we cross the mountains and the land opens up east of Great Falls, I realize that the world is big and clean and whole, and I start to relax. Because in a world like that, despite all the yelling and the screaming and that cold, cold room filled with lawyers and muttered recriminations, it couldn’t have all been my fault. It ain’t much, but it’s a hell of a lot better than I had been, and anyway the sky is a wide unbroken blue, full of possibilities. Maybe Doug is right and I can be someone else.
As for Doug, he seems alright, though he doesn’t talk much about his job. Which is understandable since he didn’t really talk about it when he had it. Not cause Doug’s a reticent guy or anything, he just couldn’t.
I don’t know a lot about what Doug did for a living. All I know is that Doug worked for the government, and whatever he did must have been science and it must have been secret enough that they shut him up. Even after it was over.
I also know that at a pit stop just outside of Williston, I catch him staring at a newspaper box with an odd expression on his face. On the front page there’s a headline that reads: “Project Sidestep a Success,” and a bunch of guys in Navy whites standing on an aircraft carrier in front of what looks like a big steel gumball.
“So they did it,” Doug muses and looks into the sky.
This is where the second break happens. And this one I’m sure of.
Because the world cracks like a picture frame — the portrait falling, falling away — and Doug turns to me and says, “I’m going to get some ice cream,” and walks inside the ice cream parlor. Except that Doug is lactose intolerant — like real intolerant — and, even if it is a road trip and we get to be all the other people we never were, Doug still can’t eat ice cream.
But then the world breaks again and Doug emerges from the gas station with a bag of Tostitos.
“I shouldn’t eat these,” he says. “The doctor says I need to cut down on my cholesterol.”
And a chill goes down my spine like that air-conditioning they force into courthouse rooms, because something’s gone wrong, something’s…
Then Doug honks the horn. I hesitate, then buy a newspaper and run back to the Corvette.
Now like I said, I hate science, so I couldn’t begin to understand or explain about time-travel or dimension hopping or whatever it was those Sidestep people were trying to accomplish, although the gist of the article seemed to suggest that they were trying to do neither of exactly those things or maybe it was a little bit of both. Apparently, they succeeded. And when they did, maybe something, somewhere, slipped.
That last part’s mine, not the paper’s.
Cause when the third break happens — there’s a sound now, a thousand distant wine-glasses shattering under a thousand distant heels — Doug and I are somewhere between New Winnipeg and Thunder Bay and a car is approaching us, going the other way.
And Nicole is driving the car.
It hits me like a bucket of bricks, but before I can turn to Doug and scream, “Do you see that? Do you fucking…” the world breaks and the car changes hues and it’s no longer my old friend Doug and me driving down the highway, it’s my old friend Dave and me driving down the highway, which is insane for a whole hell of a lot of reasons, the two most significant being: A) Dave is not Doug, and B) Dave is dead. Died two years after I married Nicole.
But Dave watches the car drive by and turns back to me and the world breaks and Doug says, “The new Falcon’s are nice. I think I’ll get one.” And I’m left clutching the inside of the car-door like it’s the only solid thing in the universe.
Look, it’s not like I don’t know anything about science. I remember in high school they forced us to read this short story about some guy who traveled back in time to hunt dinosaurs but got lazy and stepped on a butterfly and screwed up his future instead. Which is fine, except that I didn’t step on anything, and I haven’t traveled anywhere except across the northern United States in a convertible Thunderbird, not like, say, a bunch of jackoffs in a gigantic steel gumball.
So why the hell did I just see my ex driving across the top of America? And why the hell is a dead guy driving our Eclipse?
Peter and Paul try to explain it all in Sault St. Marie. Who the fuck are Peter and Paul? Peter and Paul are who Doug becomes after the fifth or sixth break — I start to lose track, the world is breaking…
I have no idea who Peter and Paul are. Never met them before in my life. But in the sixteen minutes we spend together in a restaurant painted the exact same god-awful shade of beige that painted the last place I stood with Nicole, Peter and Paul act like they’ve known me for years. Peter reads the paper in awe and talks about how there are billions of universes like and not like this one, all coexisting and overlapping one another like pages in a photograph album. Then he tells me something about a box and a cat that both makes a kind of sense and hurts my head at the same time and I put some serious thought into grabbing the knife by the butter dish and putting it through good ol’ Petey’s eye, just to see if I can make…it…stop.
Then the world breaks and Dave and I leave the restaurant and I’m back to clutching the car-frame.
The breaks happen more often now and I think, maybe, they’re layering on top of each other too, like that photograph album. It’s hard to tell. Everything is breaking, breaking around me, but I’m already broken, so everything’s breaking out from me, I’m breaking the world, the words are broken…
Everything comes to a head at a massive mall just past Sudbury. Doug and I actually drive past the mall before he says, “There was a dealership back there. I want a new convertible.”
So Doug turns the Impala around while I try to crush tensioned steel, and we both drive into the mall as the world breaks with the sound of a billion gold rings clattering to the floor…
Two guys and a girl are standing in the parking lot.
“Hey,” Doug says in surprise. “It’s those two guys we met in Winnipeg.” The two guys are Peter and Paul.
The girl is Nicole.
The world breaks and Dave gets out of the car and greets Peter and Paul. They look a lot younger than they did in the Sault, about twenty-two, same age Dave was when he died. The three of them start chattering away about Thunder Bay and I’d probably be looking for that butter-knife again but for the moment I’ve forgotten about Dave and Doug and Peter and Paul. I’ve forgotten about all the things that are broken in the world.
She’s leaning against a car like I’ve never seen before, sort of a sleek Volkswagen Beetle but with tires like a Hummer. I don’t really look at the car though.
She can’t be much more than eighteen, about the same age I met her. We married young, maybe that’s why it didn’t work, all though god knows we tried for the better part of ten years. The last time I saw her, I mean before this road trip when the world was whole, she had lines of rage etched into her forehead, her lips drawn thin, and her eyes were cold and flat. And sad. If I’m to be completely honest, there was more than a little of the last.
Now she’s just sitting there like the world made new. Her eyes are bright — there’s a dimple in her cheek that I’d forgotten she had. Not a trace of regret scars her skin. She’s eighteen and free, for a while longer, from the weight of time.
She is also, if I am to be completely honest, fucking hot.
She catches me staring. I try to cover by saying, “Nice car.”
Nicole glances down at the car, then up through her lashes, with a little mischievous smile, unfooled.
“Thanks,” she say coyly. “My boyfriend bought it for me.”
I can’t help it. The world is broken, but I smile anyway.
“He’s a lucky man.”
“That’s sweet,” she says, her smile intensifying. Then her eyes twinkle and she bounces off the hood of the car and walks over to me. “You’re sweet,” she says, and kisses me softly on the cheek.
Then the world breaks — but I think something’s different now — and she’s backing away, smiling, and a voice behind me says, “Hey, babe, who’s this?”
I turn. Peter and Paul are gone, as is our car, but Dave’s standing there. Behind the young punk approaching me with the challenging look in his eyes. He looks familiar.
“Just a friend,” Nicole says, sitting back on the hood of the car. The tires are bigger now.
“A friend. Hmph.” The kid stops in front of me. Tries to swagger a little. I try not to laugh.
“Come on, Sweety,” Nicole coos, sliding down from the hood. “Gimmie the keys, we’ll be late for the dance.”
The kid looks me in the eye, thinks about saying something else, then turns, tosses Nicole a set of keys, and gets into the car.
“She was cute.”
Dave steps up beside me, as I watch the Beetle with the big tires stutter towards the exit ramp. Nicole never could drive a standard.
I’m not sure if the next break happens before or after I start running after the car, but the world breaks — and yes, there’s definitely something else going on — and the Beetle with big tires that looks nothing like any car I’ve ever seen becomes more so. It loses a wheel and the better part of its shell. Now it looks like a souped-up tricycle within a cage of roll-bars.
The vehicle stops and a single person gets out. It’s the kid, but he’s not so young anymore, maybe almost thirty.
He looks around, dazed, then back into the empty vehicle. Then at me. “I think I lost someone.”
Yeah, I think. I’m amazed how sorry I feel for him. Yeah, kid…you did.
Then the world breaks again — or maybe it’s not breaking — and it’s just Doug and me.
We’re still in a parking lot, but now we’re in front of a club, not a mall. I can hear the thump-thump-thump of dance music through the walls.
We’re standing in front of a vehicle that amounts to little more than two wheels, an axle, and a couple of seats.
“Now that is a convertible,” Doug whistles in admiration.
I stare at the car. Not a lot to hold onto.
The doors to the club burst open, filling the night with sound. I laugh as I recognize the song. It’s the first song Nicole and I ever danced to.
Two people are pulled into the parking lot with the song. It’s the kid and Nicole, but now they both look like they’re pushing fifty. He’s in some kind of silver Lemay suit and she’s in a white dress, wrapped up in some god-awful rug of fur. They’re both drunk and cackling at the top of their lungs.
“Always should be the one you laaavvvveee!” Nicole wails, careening towards me. “Hold up, sweety,” she yells over her shoulder as the guy stumbles towards the two-wheeler. “Don’t lose me.”
She almost trips, but I catch her arm. She comes up abruptly, stopping about a foot from my face.
“Well, hello,” she says, reeking of gin. She looks down at her arm, then back up at me. “Aren’t you sweet?” Then she kisses me on the cheek.
The noise from the club seems to be getting louder. I’m grinning like a madman and my cheek is tingling. Before Nicole pulls away, I lean in and say, “I love you. And I’m sorry.”
She blinks in surprise, which seems to effect her body like the recoil of a gun. She stumbles back, then catches herself and grins.
“Sweety, you don’t have to apologize for anything.”
I think I’d like to say something else, but it’s definitely getting louder and I don’t think it’s the club. Then the final break happens with a glow like an infinite number of golden threads coming together and the sound of shattered glass falling, falling up from the floor…
And the last thing I see are Nicole’s fifty-year-old dimples and then Dave, calling my name, and tossing a set of car keys at me as he mashes into a sea of gold…
Then it’s just me. In a hallway, painted a god-awful shade of beige. I turn…
Nicole’s standing behind me, by the door to the courtroom. Her expression is set and flat.
“I’m sorry,” she says. Her voice is as cold as her posture. There is not one shred of apology in her eyes.
Her last words. The last time, I’d turned and stalked away, hearing only the tone, not seeing the look behind her eyes. This time…
Somewhere out there, in the layers, there is a girl, leaning against a car, a dimple in her left cheek. And there’s an older woman, in a white dress, and dimples…
I step forward. “It’s okay,” I say, taking her hands in mine. Her eyes flinch, but she doesn’t step back.
“You don’t have to apologize for anything.”
Her face remains set for a moment, then something in it relaxes and falls away.
“I…” she says.
“It’s okay,” I say again. I give her hands a gentle squeeze. “Really.”
I lean in and kiss her on the cheek. A final squeeze of her hands. Then I turn and leave the courthouse.
Outside, Dave’s waiting for me behind the wheel of a red convertible.
I think it’s new.
Ian Donald Keeling is an odd, loud little man who acts a little, writes a little, and suffers from delusions of grandeur whenever he can. As a poet, he has won poetry slams and been published in various lit magazines including Grain and Queen’s Quarterly. His speculative fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy and On Spec. He recently finished his first novel, BELIEVE. He says:
Ah, “Broken” once called “Blur”. I have a soft spot for this story. As you may be able to tell, it started as a dream (I know, terrible isn’t it?). In the first drafts, it was a lot more weird and based on idea. The car actually broke down until the protagonist was riding down a broken highway on a single wheel like those old BC cartoon strips. The story also had a lot of writing experiments in it — at one point, I kept switching tenses in order to literally “break” the story, but I couldn’t quite get it to work. Finally, after many drafts and a great workshop at Anticipation, I asked the question every writer should ask: What’s the story? And to me, it’s about a guy whose world is breaking up A) with the weird sci-fi backdrop, but more importantly B) with his marriage. So I made it far more character based, which is what I prefer anyway, and the whole thing finally clicked. Or at least, I hope it did. Cheers.