A Better Place

Cover the window! There — the curtains. Hurry up, just —

Thank you. Thank you. Jeez, didn’t you even read my file? Yes, windows count. Especially when it’s getting dark. During the day, maybe it’s not so bad, but even then, it’s bad enough. And why take chances, right? And, uh, hey. How about covering the water cooler? And ditching your glasses? Just, I don’t know, put them in the desk or something. I don’t know how you’re going to take notes, but I gotta tell you, that’s not exactly my highest priority right now. Record this. What do I care?

Is it okay if I stand? I’m a little too keyed-up to do the couch thing. Pacing helps me relax. Kind of. I like to keep moving. Got in the habit.

You know, my brother Jeff had this thing about windows when he was a kid. Had a bad dream or something. There was a giant, like this huge troll-man-thing, and it bent down and peered in the window to watch him. Eyeball took up the whole window, Jeff said. And when it saw him, when it made eye contact, it picked up the whole house and shook it, rattling it around like trying to get the last Cracker Jack out of the box, and Jeff is flying around in there and he knows he’s the last Cracker Jack, and if the thing shakes him out through the door or breaks the window, it’s gonna pop him in its mouth and crunch. Fee fi fo fum, right?

Just a dream, but it was a couple of years before he could be in the same room with an uncovered window at night. I thought it was stupid at the time, but I get it now.

Me? Hell, no. Do I look like I’m six years old? No, my thing is … different from that. And before you go mentally thumbing through that book there looking for the diagnosis, I get it, I know I sound crazy. Classic blah-de-blah delusion something psychosis or some crap, I’m sure. What can I do? It is how it is.

You know this isn’t going to do any good, right? Okay? Okay. Long as we’re clear on that. In that case, I’ll start at the beginning. Let you earn your paycheck.

The first time I noticed something was weird about me, I was like twenty. I’d slid into manual labor after barely squeaking out a high school diploma. Education wasn’t really a thing in my family, mostly because it lost the tug of war with meth abuse, far as my folks were concerned. I dodged that bullet, but by the time I figured out school might be a good thing, it was too late. Extra stupid, when you consider it was a college town. Anyway, I was doing night shift janitor work at the university, playing a little music on the side. Same deal, every night. I’d go get my mop and my beat-up gray bucket out of the closet, slop water all over the halls. Clean the toilets, and let me tell you, nobody’s got college kids on pure meanness when it comes to leaving a goddamn mess for somebody else to clean up. So one night, I’m there in the men’s bathroom, literally cleaning shit out of a sink, trying to figure out what must have gone through the head of the nimrod who’d decided it would be a good idea to drop trou and squat on the sink in a public bathroom in the engineering building. How does that even happen? And so I’ve got my rubber gloves on and I’m running the faucet and trying not to gag, and I happen to glance into the mirror, and — what the hell? I can see the bucket in the mirror, behind me, right where I put it, only it’s not gray anymore. It’s like recycle-bin green.

I turn around, thinking somebody’s messing with my bucket. Nope. It’s right there, still gray. I turn to the mirror and it’s back to this smug gray, like “gotcha, sucker.” I try to pretend it was a trick of the light, but I’m not even fooling myself. It wasn’t like the thing was gray and then dark gray, you know?

So after that, I’m watching mirrors all the time, right? I’m curious. Nothing happens for about four days, and the whole business gets this fuzzy did-I-dream-that haze around it in my mind. Jeff comes over, like every week, and I think about telling him about it, but before we can even sit down and have a beer, we get in a screaming match about him borrowing more money from me when he’s never paid any back from the last time.

The next time it happens, it’s 2 a.m. I’m in a different bathroom, wiping down the counter, and, one more time, I catch sight of something in the mirror. This time, it’s the counter itself. Just a shade different, a little more yellower in the reflection, but the counter runs right up to the mirror, so I can compare the two directly, side-by-side, and this is not something it’s possible to be wrong about. They’re different colors, period. And now that I look at it, I think the pattern in the wallpaper behind me is slightly different, too, and I almost turn around to check, but then I remember the bucket thing, and I don’t dare look away from the mirror, because maybe the whole thing will vanish again, and really this is the most interesting thing to happen to me maybe ever. Like, there’s not even a close second place. I look over the whole room in the mirror, and then swing up to meet my own eyes.

I look normal, but I can feel this — I don’t know. Pull. Like when you lean back on a chair and get to that point where it’s ready to tip, and you know all you’d have to do is move like a tiny fraction of a degree. Not that you’d want to tip your chair over, but you know.

In this case, though? Yeah, I pushed. It was like falling forward, though, not backward, and simultaneously turning a hundred and eighty degrees and flipping ass-over-tea kettle, and there was a moment of pure, disorienting betweenness when I had no arms or legs or maybe even body and there’s no gravity and a total interruption in any sensation except maybe vision and I’m not even too sure about that but then —

But then I’m staring into the mirror. And the counter in the mirror is the same color as the counter I’ve got my hands on — and they’re both the wrong color. And I turn, and the wallpaper is wrong, the little raised pattern crosshatched instead of covered in rows of parallel lines. And the wallpaper in the mirror is still wrong, too, but now it at least matches what’s behind me.

Still wrong …

No, that wasn’t all. The other thing … The other thing, the thing that took me a few hours to notice, was that there were all these details that had, uh, doubled up somehow. It’s hard to explain.

Give me a minute, huh?

Okay, I got it. You ever hold up, like, a pencil in front of your face? Maybe a foot or so away? And if you’re not focused right on the pencil, you can see two ghost pencils, one in each eye, and the perspective on each is just a little different, so on the right one you can see more of the right side and on the left one you can see more of the left? So they’re the same pencil, but you’ve got two simultaneously different perspectives on it? It was like that, only with memories. Small stuff, mostly. Like, I remembered that I’d put my laundry basket on the washing machine, but I had an equally clear memory of putting it at the foot of my bed. I knew which one was “real,” or at least where I’d be able to find the actual laundry basket, but I still had that other memory.

Long story short, I figured I’d gone through the looking glass to a world that’s pretty much the same as the one I left. Got the same job, same apartment. Jeff still hits me up for money every week, Ma still ain’t talking to me, and the old man is still doing life without parole. Kind of a pointless trip.

Soooo, I started spending a lot of time around mirrors. The idea being hey, if I could make a pointless trip, why couldn’t I make a better one? Isn’t that something from philosophy? Like, two of something is suspicious. If two, why not three? If three, why not a hell of a lot more?

Took me four days to find it. I was doing this solo gig at Eddie’s, which is pretty much a shithole, but the owner — Bill, don’t ask why he calls it Eddie’s — he pays fair and I drink for free. I took a break halfway through, and I was staring over my beer into the mirror with this like really awfully drunk girl hanging off me, thinking I’d damn well better not drink too much or we’d be passing out in each other’s vomit later, which has happened to me so don’t laugh, and I noticed: In the mirror, she’s wearing a blue tank top instead of the black halter deal she had on next to me. I looked up, made eye contact with myself, and boom. One dizzy spell and out-of-body experience later, and I was on the other side. Just like the time before, both sides of the mirror were the same now, and I had a paired-up set of memories. The woman’s name on this side was Amber, and here she’d introduced herself to me after the first set, and she was hardly drunk at all, just friendly.

We didn’t go home together, maybe because I hadn’t drunk enough courage to ask, maybe because she wasn’t in a hurry. But we hit it off, and I got her number. That wasn’t the only message I took away from the encounter, though: It wasn’t that everywhere was simply different. Some places were better.

Jeff didn’t hit me up for money that week, or only a couple bucks for gas anyway. He came over to my apartment and shot the shit with me for an hour. Talked about his job with city animal control, showed me where he’d gotten the crap bitten out of him by an angry shih tzu that week. Told me Ma wanted to talk to me, and you know what — I remembered. Here, the fight had never happened. Ma and I weren’t on the greatest terms, but she’d never had that screaming fit and I’d never called her, um, what I’d called her, and we had peace.

I called Amber the next day. We went out a couple days later. Dinner was nothing fancy — a cheap diner with greasy food — but that didn’t seem to matter. We took turns drawing terrible pictures of sea creatures and cartoon characters on the back of the paper placemats while we traded stories about growing up. For once, I had the sense to stick to the G-rated, normal kid stuff so I didn’t seem like a freak, but I got the sense she saw through most of that, and she was okay with it anyway. I learned that she was one of those dentist assistants. If she had a problem dating a janitor and mediocre part-time musician, she didn’t show it. She smiled and said she thought I was kind, which I didn’t really get, but it made me feel ten feet tall and maybe like I should be kind, both at the same time. She liked my hands.

After that date, a kind of amazing thing happened, which was that we started seeing each other regularly. I got in the habit of avoiding mirrors. Look, I get that I wasn’t exactly living large, still spending eight hours a day cleaning weird gunk out from behind toilets, but things didn’t suck, either. I was on top of my bills, more or less, and family stuff was better than ever, and there was Amber. Even I know that there’s a million more ways to screw something up than to get it right, and this — this was good. Good was enough. Better than enough.

I got into a routine. Sleep during the day, as usual, and most nights see Amber some. Go into work at 10 p.m. and clean up. At the end of my shift, Amber would be getting up, so she’d call, we’d talk for two minutes, and I’d leave work feeling a hell of a lot better than I had any right to. Then one day, I was crossing Palisade Street, not even going anywhere in particular, just walking and thinking how good I had it, when I heard a shriek of tires and a screaming kid and before I could move, I got blasted out of my shoes by the broad side of a skidding delivery van. I flew, I dunno, twenty feet, thirty, and hit the pavement tumbling like a bundle of bloody rags. I can’t even describe the pain. It was this roaring red haze over all my senses. I couldn’t lift my head. I couldn’t move my feet, and my hips had been crushed, taking on the shape of a soggy sack of pennies. My right hand had actually come off somehow, maybe when it hit the post of the stop sign or maybe in the skid or I don’t even know, but the ragged stump pumped gouts of blood onto the grungy black asphalt of the street, and, man, that wasn’t even where most of the blood was coming from.

You hear people talk about their life flashing before their eyes, or this sudden calm coming over them in these near-death deals, but I don’t know anything about that. I panicked. My heart slammed, every square inch of my body screamed, and this awful, sickening dizziness whirled me around like I was inside a washing machine. Not that you could have seen any of that. I was getting reports of pain from every quarter, but nobody was taking orders in return. I think I managed a weak flop. Maybe some shivering. Probably some shivering. I heard a scream, or maybe only an echo of the first, and I let my head fall to the side.

In the pooling blood by my face, not quite in focus, I saw my own eyes. And that was it. I was outta there.

Jesus, look at me sweat. Can I — can I have some water? Paper cup, if you’ve got one. Thanks.

On the other side, I was kneeling by a pool of blood coming from a dog that had picked the wrong time to step off the curb. That was it. Just a dog.

I walked home. Town was different. The bakery on the corner was closed, boarded up. I remembered when that happened, weeks ago, even though I also remembered that it had been open that morning. I remembered lots of things. I knew that when I got home I’d see mold forming from a leak in the roof, sagging water damage in the ceiling that neither me or the landlord had bothered to fix for six months. I’d been staring at it, morosely, every day. I knew that the fight with Ma had happened, on schedule, and she’d actually taken a shot at me. Like, with a frigging gun. I hadn’t seen her since, but not out of spite half so much as fear for my life. The old man was dead, shanked in prison. Oddly enough, I was on pretty good terms with Jeff — except I could tell he was getting sick of me borrowing money from him. Oh, and I’d picked up a bit of a heroin habit, and if I didn’t score a little something here in about six hours, I’d start climbing the walls.

I didn’t even make it home. I checked every window pane, door knob, shop front, and puddle on the walk and jumped ship right the hell out of there as soon as I managed to catch my eye.

That’s when I learned the real truth of what I’d suspected before. There are a million more ways to screw things up than not. Maybe more than a million. It flat out sucked in this world, way worse than having a moldy ceiling. It took me a day to find another way out, and I took it. Then another. And another. All crazy, all bad. Ma winged me with the gun, and I walked with a limp. Dad snapped when I was a kid and near beat me half to death, and I walked with a limp. Jeff and I got crossways over a crappy watch my uncle had left one of us, and that got vicious and brutal and I got my ear torn half off, and he swore if he ever saw me again he’d kill me. I lost my job. I slept on the streets. I got in a fight with somebody I caught pissing on the floor in the bathroom of the gas station I worked at, and I went to jail. I got bacterial meningitis and almost died. I got in debt to a guy who went by the name of Sharkie, which probably tells you all you need to know about him, and as a result, I walked with a limp. I got in debt to a guy named Wilhelm, which came out with the same ending. No Amber in any of those places. Hell, I didn’t even want to be myself in any of them, carrying around the weight of all the screwups and bad luck and just plain bad shit. Maybe if you’re a Bush or something all roads lead to being mostly fat, rich, and happy, but the hole I started in? Deep, and some asshole greased the sides.

I hopped around, randomly. No direction but away. At first it was just to escape, to try to find some place that wasn’t horrible, but eventually, when nothing got any better, it turned into a kind of messed-up tourism. Spend a day, two days, five, somewhere, then hop somewhere else and see how I’d screwed up my life there. Or how the world had been screwed up. The farther I went, the bigger the changes. I found a world in which 9/11 hadn’t happened, which was kind of cool, except that my life sucked even more in that one than in most of the others. Found another where some new kind of mad cow disease had wiped out an ungodly number of people. I kept going and going. A few years of traveling later, I came across a whole mess of worlds where the 2008 recession had turned into full-blown depression, complete with riots in the streets. I almost got shot by the National Guard in the last one of those I found, so after that I started paying a lot more attention to where I was headed.

There were tricks to that, I learned. You could arrange it, to some degree. Nothing so obvious as what I tried the first time, which was holding a newspaper up to a mirror. Because the guy on the other side needed to be holding it up, too, and who would do that, normally? But I could read one next to the window and glance into the reflection, and sometimes that worked. It kept me out of some real hellholes, I think. You see a headline like, “Unknown Contagion Continues Spread Through Midwest: 82,000 Confirmed Dead,” and you think about spending your summer vacation somewhere else, you know? Another time, I saw that I was missing three fingers on my right hand, blood still seeping through the bandages, and I thought maybe whatever was going on there wasn’t worth it. There was other stuff, too. Background cues. The way people dressed or looked at each other or conducted business with each other. I got better at it. Got pretty good at it, actually. By then I’d been wandering about eight years, I guess, and as I worked out the navigation stuff, I actually started down the path of finding better places without even being aware of it. When I finally noticed, I stopped screwing around and put the pedal to the metal.

This time, I learned something new, which I wished I’d figured out a lot sooner: The good ones cluster together, sort of. Not in a reliable way, exactly, which is how I’d missed it to begin with — choose at random and take a big step and that step is almost certainly a bad one. But with a little care, you can pick up on the cues and at least kind of steer a course. Since most changes are small changes, nearby worlds are mostly similar, so if the one you’re in is generally good-ish and you’re careful, the next one will likely be good-ish. The trick is to find the ones that are better.

Clear as mud? Okay, try this: Picture a big old flat plain. Mostly flat, that is, with only a few steep hills scattered around. You’re trying to get up as high as you can, only you can’t see where you are, and it’s foggy out. Wherever you are, most steps aren’t going to take you too far up or down. Most just go to the same level anyway. If you find yourself on a hillside, though, climbing up, you want to be real careful. Take a big step without being able to see very clearly where you’re going and you might just roll a long way down. Make sense?

I figure I was down in some kind of ocean trough or something when I decided to head for the hills. I knew it was going to be a slog, but what else did I have on the calendar?

I climbed out. Up, anyway. Found a decent enough world a long series of jumps from where I had been. I was a plumber there. Had my own truck and a couple of employees, and I’d kept Wilhelm at bay with regular payments, and the limp was almost gone.

I was out on call when something odd happened. I was in the kitchen, just next to the living room, and I crouched down to get something out of the toolbox. In the glossy black side of the upright piano they had there, I saw my arm reaching for the wrench. It stopped, though, just short of the toolbox even as my own fingers touched the wrench handle. Slowly, and very, very deliberately, the hand curled into a fist. Slowly, and very deliberately, a middle finger extended from the fist.

I stared at it with a seasick feeling of unease. This hadn’t happened before. Maybe, I thought, it wasn’t actually directed at me. But who else?

The homeowner showed up then, grumbling and cursing as he carried too many grocery bags in through the front door. I looked away from the piano, got up and helped the guy out, and went back to my tools. Throughout the rest of the job, I kept sneaking glances at the black surface, even once waving my hand in front of it, but I got nothing for my trouble.

The experience ate at me the rest of the afternoon, but by evening I’d caught a glimpse of myself in a nicer shirt and a cleaner apartment, and I moved on.

Two days and five worlds later, I found myself in a little better spot. I had a decent place to live, and maybe my girlfriend Emily and I were on the rocks again, but at least I had family. Jeff was over for his weekly visit, and I had the fifty I owed him. I had a hard time concentrating, though. I wasn’t used to it anymore, for one thing. I’d spent so much of my life just marking time from one hop to the next. Worse, all the Jeffs had started to blend in my mind. There’d been so many. I still had a clear recollection of this one, but it had blurred with the others, and it took a lot of focus to pick out the right one. I got halfway through a “Remember when” story before the look on his face told me he did not, in fact, remember when.

I got up to rinse my face, thinking that the water might clear my head, and if not, it would at least feel good. The cold water felt gritty against my skin. I checked the mirror, as was now reflex. The other side was grungy, spotted with mildew, and over there I had a stained shirt and a bruise on my arm. I needed to stay away from that, I thought. No problem — that, too, had become a reflex.

Except the bastard on the other side moved. He suddenly dropped to a crouch and shifted down to the left and that was it. My eyes met his, and I was flung out of my body. The next thing I knew, I was standing in a mildewed bathroom, breathing in the stink of a moldering floor mat and holding my bruised arm, which I’d whacked on the sink.

I staggered to the bed and sat heavily on the mattress, still reeling. Why had I thought I was the only one in a million million versions of myself who could jump from world to world this way? I hadn’t even once considered that there might be others, but why wouldn’t there be?

What if it wasn’t just one? What if it was all of them?

I wasn’t sure why this hadn’t happened before, but it was easy to guess. In most cases, the moves were small, lateral or nearly so. But with the climb up, at every stage, I’d booted somebody from a better place to a worse one. I’d be pissed at me, too.

Two other thoughts occurred to me in rapid succession.

First: There were lots of mes I’d displaced on the way up. Hundreds? Thousands, maybe? And if they hadn’t known before about our unusual talent, they did now, and they were probably running around pissing off thousands more in some godawful spreading chain reaction.

Second: Like I said, there are lots more ways to screw up than not. Which means there’s a lot more bad worlds than good ones. Even if it’s infinite — did you know some infinities are bigger than others? I’m not even making that up. You can look it up. I found that out in one world where I never moved out of the college town, and I stayed up too late getting drunk with a guy I knew from the physics department. It blew my mind. I didn’t fully understand it, but I knew this much: With a small infinity of good worlds and a big ol’ nasty infinity of mes looking for a home in them, the gold rush was on.

I started running. You can’t imagine the chaos. Every reflective surface a potential exit, every one a potential attack. Jump, search for the nearest mirror or water glass or still puddle, check it for any details that will give you even a hint of where you’re about to end up, and then go. Oh, and hope you don’t get fooled by one of the bad versions of yourself and get kicked downstairs again. I jumped twenty-two times in the first hour before options thinned out. I started having a harder time finding good places. I tried carrying a pocket mirror with me, but that didn’t work at all. The unsuspecting versions of me in the good worlds didn’t carry one, so they never looked, but the dogs at my heels sure did.

I kept running. Jump, search, jump again. The searches got harder and harder as all the surfaces filled with pissed-off versions of me who would have been just as happy to see me dead. They shook their fists and made obscene gestures and shouted. I started to imagine I could hear a constant clamor coming from them, the sound of a furious mob right before it explodes into violence.

I climbed. We all did. We got smarter about it. I dressed in torn clothes and stuck to the streets when possible to avoid giving anybody the impression I was in any way well-situated. The others took the opposite tack, pulling out the Sunday best and slipping into expensive restaurants. I got fooled once that way and ended up the nicest-dressed person on my block in a world full of toxic skies and black smoke, and I got mugged thirty seconds after setting foot outside. Probably set me back forty jumps.

If I’m counting right, I ran for sixteen years. Ten thousand jumps, maybe more. Ten thousand lives.

I got here this morning off the reflection in the bedroom TV. Standing there in my underwear, the details of this place rushed into my mind. Sunshine streaming through white curtains of a cute two-story house in the suburbs. Clean sheets. Place smells nice, unless the dog has been wet. Got my head above water — well, I think we were a little late on the last mortgage payment, but that’s just because I got slow-payed by a client. It’s all good now. Kids doing all right in school.

Amber walked in while I was getting my bearings. White scrubs, laugh lines around her eyes. She kissed my cheek and asked if I was okay. Said I looked a little out of it. I smiled and told her I was so happy I might explode, and it was true. She laughed at me, kissed me again, and grabbed her keys from the nightstand.

I’ve been here before. Not for long, but long enough to recognize it. It was, what? Two years ago? Since then I’ve been all around, and I promise you, this is every bit as good as it gets. There might be higher hills out there somewhere, but I’d have to go down through an awful lot of shit to get there, there’s no guarantee I’d ever get back up, and they’re probably occupied anyway. And it doesn’t matter. This is good. Better than good. I’m done wandering.

The decision was easy. Natural. The most sensible thing in the world. I closed my eyes and felt my way out to the kitchen. Found the knife block and pulled one out at random. Being careful to hold the knife in a way that I’d never see my reflection in the blade, I opened my eyes. I held the point an inch in front of my left eye, and I hesitated. I was afraid, mostly of the pain, but partly of missing and damaging something else. Going too deep. Was that possible? My hand shook. I gathered my courage, steeled myself, and —

Well, you probably heard, even if you didn’t read the file. Amber came back to get her checkbook, and I was so focused I didn’t hear her come in, and she found me and screamed, and I freaked out and dropped the knife, and it took a while for the panic to subside, for me to talk her down, but she wasn’t buying it and anyway she’d already called for help on the grounds that I was a danger to myself and here I am.

I wish she’d come back two minutes later. So much safer that way. Every reflective surface is a trap. I can’t go out. I can’t look around. I can’t even look closely into her eyes. We’ve been married nineteen years. I remember all of it. And now I’m afraid to make eye contact, in case a tiny little version of me in some stinking foul universe happens to look back.

Jeff was here this afternoon. Nice of him to visit. He looks good. I got him confused with another Jeff, which I wish I hadn’t done, because whatever he thought before, now he’s pretty sure I’m losing my grip. He probably told you, right? I don’t blame him, I really don’t.

What happens now? I still think the way to go is to just blind myself and have done with it, but I guess they’ll never understand, and I’ll end up committed for more than a seventy-two-hour suicide watch. So I guess I’ll just try to keep my head down. Watch out for windows. Silverware. Polished floors. Ignore the hammering and screaming, the violent gestures flickering in every surface. Pretend I can’t feel the hate of thousands of pairs of eyes on me wherever I go. Tune out that soundless, imagined clamor, smile at my wife and hug my kids. Provided you people let me out of here, I mean.

Well, yeah, it sounds hard. It sounds hellish. I don’t know how I’m going to make a living. I’m not even sure how I’m going to function. But what choice do I have? Of all the worlds I’ve been to, of all the lives I’ve lived, this is the very best one.

Jamie Schultz is an author, songwriter, and guitarist who spends a lot of time writing about bad people, messed-up people, and bad, messed-up people. His novels include the gritty urban fantasy Arcane Underworld series. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, son, and an unseemly number of guitars. Visit jamieschultz.net for more information.