(Read earlier chapters.)
Reuben stood on the terrace looking over the sun-drenched expanse of blue. Lake Como was a mirror reflecting the perfect, cloudless sky. The stillness was interrupted with an occasional whisper of a breeze. Sailboats dotted the lake's surface. Sunbathers lined the beach. It was a perfect summer afternoon in northern Italy.
Reuben had been to this chateau once, several years before. It was one of the Keyes' smaller homes, just ten or so bedrooms. There was something jarring about the experience of being back with the Keyes, once again recuperating. But it was different this time.
It was definitely different.
On the table in front of him sat a copy of a manuscript. It was the document the old man had shown Reuben in the Dacha, turned to the page with the diagram Reuben had been looking at on the train before everything changed.
This page, this picture, was the key. Reuben was certain of that.
The effect should be easy enough to recreate. If Reuben stared at the diagram long enough, he would begin to feel as he did that night on the train that something was coming loose. Something that was supposed to be fixed in place could be moved. And he, Reuben, could move it.
He quickly looked away from the picture whenever this sensation arose, the feeling had become both familiar and terrifying. But he kept returning to it, drawn to the sensation that he sensed he must by all means avoid.
The glass door to the terrace slid open. Betty Keyes stepped through. She was dressed in shorts and a baggy shirt. Her sunglasses were perched on the brim of her straw hat, and she carried a canvas beach bag.
"I've been looking for you," she said.
"I've been here most of the day. It's hard to beat this view."
She took a moment to look over the lake herself.
"Yes, it is spectacular."
She seated herself across the table from Reuben and gestured at the manuscript.
"I see that you've decided not to follow my advice."
He smiled. Betty had told him the night before to leave the mystery alone for a while. The old man had left that day to meet someone in Paris who was supposed to have all the answers. Reuben wasn't holding his breath. In any case, it was an odd twist on recent events: the old man setting out in search of answers while Reuben remained behind.
Frankly, Reuben had had his share of odd twists. But the manuscript wouldn't let go of him.
"I can't help it, Betty. I've tried reading, going for a walk it doesn't matter. I always seem to end up here, staring at this damn thing."
"Well you need to stop it," she said sternly. She reached across the table, flipped the manuscript closed, and set it in front of herself. "There. Does that help?"
"Sure. For a minute."
She shook her head.
"What am I going to do with you, Reuben? First you spend all your time moping about that Russian girl. And then as soon as you learn that she's okay, you park yourself here with this moldy old book."
Reuben smiled. He realized that Betty was right. He had been with the Keyes for nearly two weeks. He had spent his first few days with them fretting over Ksenia's fate and making repeated requests that the old man get in touch with Sergei about her. When the news finally came, it was good if a little baffling. Sergei reported that Ksenia was back home in Moscow with her brother, safe and sound. Just to be sure, Reuben requested that Sergei check on the name of the brother she had been reunited with.
Of course his name was Pavel. Did he go by the dimunitive, Pasha?
Reuben didn't bother to ask.
This added bit of weirdness was all the impetus Reuben needed to begin to think seriously about what it was that was happening to him. He asked the old man for a copy of the manuscript. Keyes was not sure at first what Reuben was talking about. But as his godson spelled out the details of the drawings and the mysterious language, a look of recognition slowly came over the old man's face. Of course, he could get a copy of that manuscript for Reuben. It would be no problem at all.
He seemed absolutely delighted that Reuben had ever even heard of the thing.
"I beg your pardon," Reuben said to Betty, drawing the manuscript back to his side of the table and re-opening it, "I do not mope."
She sighed and shook her head again.
"I was just about to take a walk along the shore. Will you join me?"
"Another walk? No thanks."
"Well, then, why don't we go to Milan this afternoon? We could do some shopping, maybe take in a movie."
Reuben shook his head.
"I wouldn't be any fun, Betty. Besides, you and I need to talk."
Her eyes grew just slightly wider.
"What is it?"
"Well," he said, flipping the manuscript closed once again "I have something I need to tell you. And then there's something I need you to tell me."
Betty picked up the manuscript and casually dropped it in her beach bag. She snapped the bag closed with a maternal finality.
"I'm all ears, Reuben."
"Okay. It has to do with the other scenario. And with this one."
Reuben had settled on the term scenario to describe each of the sets of circumstances he had encountered: the circumstances he remembered represented one scenario; the dramatically different world around him represented another. The old man used a different term, but Reuben would have nothing to do with it.
"You know why I was on that train. I had gone to work for the old man. I was looking into the origins of the document, trying to find out what information it contains."
"The same thing Michael is doing now."
"Right. But has it occurred to you to wonder why I, of all people, would undertake a task like that? Does that really sound like something I would do?"
"No," she said. "Actually, I never would have believed it if you hadn't told me yourself."
"Exactly. Now let me tell you why I was doing it. You know about the document, right? Alchemy and all that? Eternal life?"
"Don't tell me that Michael finally wore you down? That you're starting to see the world as he does?"
"Well, I wasn't, not really. After what I've seen these past few months, I'm not so sure. But before that, no. When I started my trip, I had no real conviction that there was anything to this. Just a faint glimmer of hope that there might be."
"I see," said Betty. She set her hat on the table in front of her.
"So what would inspire you to go after such a long shot?" she asked.
"I did it for you, Betty. To try to save your life. In the other scenario, you were very sick. You don't didn't? have long to live."
She stared at him for a long moment.
"I see," she said again.
Neither of them spoke for a while.
"Thank you, my dear," Betty said at last. "I should have realized it would be something like that."
"So you can see why I can't exactly walk away from this project."
"I no, Reuben. You can. You've accomplished what you set out to. I don't understand how or what it means. I have no memory of being ill. But look at me: I'm fine."
Reuben reached across the table and took hold of her hand.
"I can't tell you how happy that makes me, Betty. Three undeniably good things have happened to me in the past couple of months. The first was getting out of prison and coming here. The second was learning for sure that Ksenia is all right. And the third and by far the most unexpected was learning that you're okay."
He turned and looked out over the lake for a moment.
"But now I need you to tell me something. You and the old man have skirted around this since I got back, but I have to know. What happened to me, Betty?"
She studied her fingernails for a few seconds, then turned up to meet his gaze. Her eyes were darker, more vivid than he remembered from the Dacha. Her face had fewer lines. But there was pain here just as there had been there. A different kind of pain, clearly.
And no small amount of fear.
"How did I die, Betty?"
She didn't blink or look away.
"Don't be ridiculous, Reuben. Here you sit. You obviously didn't die."
"But you remember that I did. Just as I remember that you were sick. And I think you remember more than just the fact of my death. I think you saw me dead. Right? There was a funeral. If you wanted to, you could tell me where I'm buried. You've seen my grave."
Betty reached down for her bag. She began rummaging through it, looking for something.
"I need you to level with me on this. And what happened to Charlotte? I know that's different, here, too. Did I go first? Or is she still alive? Has she remarried? Whatever it is, I want to know."
Betty produced a packet of tissues from her bag. She peeled one from the top, wadded it, and looked at it. She didn't dab her eyes; she wasn't crying. This was a stall tactic. Reuben tried to remember Betty ever doing anything to avoid an unpleasant discussion, but he couldn't think of a single example. Ever.
"Tell me what happened to Charlotte," she said. "What you remember."
"All right," he said. "It was three years ago last week. She was driving home from Dillon. She had spent the weekend in the cabin. There was a thunderstorm. Low visibility, fog, wet road. And she was driving too fast."
Reuben paused, remembering his wife.
"She would do that, you know?"
"She lost control of her car on a steep downgrade. She jumped a guard rail and hit a rock wall doing almost eighty." His voice cracked as he spoke. "It killed her instantly."
"Reuben " Betty started. She pulled another tissue from the packet and began to twist it into a little rope.
"Was there every any suggestion did anyone ever say " She shook her head.
He looked at her, puzzled.
Betty cleared her throat.
"That her death was maybe not an accident?"
The words hit Reuben with physical force.
Had anyone ever said that?
No one had ever said it because Reuben wouldn't allow it. Wouldn't hear it.
Sure, he and Charlotte had had their problems. All couples have their problems. And Charlotte had had some trouble with depression, everybody knew this. Things had not been good between the two of them. Not for a long while. Charlotte was unhappy with where they lived, with Reuben's job, with so many things.
But they were turning the corner. Or they were just about to. Reuben had decided to leave the agency, and had already given his notice. They would move, go wherever she wanted. And she was talking about going back for treatment. There had been a time, a few years earlier, when medication had moved her depression to the background of their lives. It had only been for a short while, and it had been some time before.
But it had given Reuben hope, especially when Charlotte made mention of that period in their lives as she did once in a while and offered up some vague intention of going back in for treatment. She had never gotten around to going back, but Reuben knew that she would in time. She was bound to.
It would be the best thing for both of them.
At some level, Reuben knew that he had lied to himself about his wife's death. But then he had, by and large, lied to himself about her life, and about their life together. With her gone, it became easier, so much easier to remember how intelligent she was, and how beautiful. How happy they had been together: their whirlwind romance following a chance encounter at a party in DC; their marriage a few months later; the blissful first two years. There was no need to dwell on the rapid downward spiral that occurred after that. The fights, the terrible temper tantrums. Her bouts of rage and melancholy so severe that from time to time Reuben began to think that he was losing his own grip.
There was no need to dwell on any of that, and Reuben did not, except for the occasional regret that he had not done more to make her happy. While part of him knew that was impossible, there was another part that believed that had he only cared more, had he only tried harder she might have been happy.
But he wasn't focused on her happiness the weekend it happened. He was thinking of himself.
He was planning to have a talk with her that weekend. He would let her know that he was ending it; he was leaving. He had been down that road before, and had somehow never managed to broach the subject. Ironically, this time it was an argument that provided the pretext for avoiding the discussion. In the heat of the moment, he told Charlotte that she could just have the cabin to herself that weekend. Then he stormed out of their house.
When he returned a few hours later, she was already gone.
If things had been different if he hadn't said whatever it was to make her so angry that fateful Friday afternoon it would have been him, Reuben, behind the wheel on the way home.
And everything would have been different.
"It was an accident, Betty," Reuben said at last. "Charlotte and I had some problems, sure, but she loved life."
After a while she said, "I really don't know how to talk about any of this, Reuben"
She stood up and walked to the edge of the balcony. She looked out over the lake for a moment before turning back to face him.
"Maybe things really are different in that other situation."
Betty wouldn't even use Reuben's word.
"After all, I'm not sick. And I've never been very sick, never once in my life."
"I know," said Reuben.
"I personally think these two different worlds or histories or whatever you want to call them are some kind of trick of the mind. One of us is right, and the other one is crazy."
"Or we're both crazy."
She smiled sadly.
"In any case, my darling, the fact is this: while you remember your wife as loving life and being incapable of killing herself, and dying in a terrible tragic accident, that is not what happened. At least not to the recollection of Michael or myself."
"Or anyone else," Betty continued. "Charlotte killed herself, Reuben. She shot herself in your cabin in the mountains, two days before the accident that you remember."
No one said anything for a while.
Reuben remembered he had never forgotten, of course the gun that was found in the trunk of the wrecked car. The gun that he didn't even know his wife owned.
"I see," Reuben said at last.
"But why are you telling me this? I wanted to know how I died."
Reuben knew this was not true. He had specifically asked about Charlotte. He dreaded hearing any more. As bad as what Betty had told him was, he could sense that something worse was coming.
She walked back across the balcony. She sat down at the table, this time beside, not across from, Reuben.
"Charlotte turned the gun on herself after she shot and killed her husband."
A long way off, on a yacht making its brisk way across the lake, a bell rang. Reuben looked out and watched it for a while, watched as its prow cut a neat wake in the smooth blue water. The wake opened up behind the vessel, ever widening as it faded off to nothing.
"I'm sorry, Reuben."
Betty reached out to put her hand on his shoulder. He shrugged her away and continued to look at the lake.
"I'm glad I know the truth," he said at last, his voice trembling. "Things are different here. What happened here and what happened there they're different."
But that was a lie. She had the gun. In Reuben's scenario, the world where she died in an automobile accident.
She had the gun.
She would have killed him. Charlotte, his beloved wife, the woman he was still in love with wanted him dead. She hated him that much. That fight they had, the one without which, Reuben had believed he would have saved her life that fight had in fact saved his life.
He turned and to look at Betty. Tears ran down her face.
"Of course they are," she said. "That's why you're here, Reuben."
"Just because it happened here "
"It doesn't matter, Reuben, " she interrupted. "Look at you, alive. Alive. I saw you dead. I saw you buried."
It would be a long time before either of them spoke again.
"Betty, do you hate her?" Reuben asked at last.
She shook her head.
"No, dear. I don't. I did at first. But mostly I hate what she became. I hate the sickness that destroyed her."
"That's good. Because I wouldn't want you to "
He stopped himself. What was the point?
"I know that Charlotte, the real Charlotte, would never have hurt you," Betty continued.
Reuben wondered about that.
He had never had reason to doubt it before, and yet now here was Charlotte murdering him in one to hell with it, why tiptoe around it; the old man was right parallel universe and apparently intending to kill him in another. One Betty was sick and another one wasn't. It made sense to try to figure out who the real Betty was. But the real Charlotte? Wherever she showed up, she wanted to kill him.
So what difference did it make?
Reuben laughed bitterly. He knew that wasn't the right response, but the right response wouldn't come. Maybe there wasn't one.
She had the gun. She wanted to kill me.
What that meant was going to sink in. Someday. But he couldn't quite make it register.
"Not right now," he said aloud.
Betty looked at him, puzzled.
"What do you mean?"
He shook his head.
"Betty, what if there are more of these scenarios? If there's one where you didn't get sick and one where I didn't die, do you think there might be one where Charlotte didn't die?"
She looked down at the table.
"I don't know, Reuben. I suppose there are as many possible delusions as there are human desires."
He took her hand.
"That's too easy. You know you aren't a delusion, don't you?"
"And I know that I'm not one. As long as we trust each other there must be more going on here than just delusions."
She shook her head.
"Your logic is terribly flawed. It's like the ontological argument for the existence of God."
Reuben smiled, in spite of himself..
"Well never mind. Let's just say that you can't lift your feet off the ground by pulling your own bootstraps. And you can't prove that something is real just because two people believe it."
"Whatever.I don't doubt that it's hard to prove that God exists. But I'm right here. This is really me. Alive." He touched his forehead. "And I've lived through things that couldn't possibly have happened, not in this scenario."
Betty sat back in her chair. She looked dubious.
"Well, it's hard to argue with the fact that you're here. You are."
"Then let's just say for a moment that there really are different scenarios."
"All right," she said. "How many?"
Reuben considered this for a moment, and as he did the balcony began slowly to fall into a subtle spinning motion. He looked up. Or was it the lake and the sky somehow beginning to rotate around each other? It was the same feeling as before, the sensation that something had come loose. He looked straight ahead and blinked. It wasn't real, of course. Just some kind of sensory illusion. Maybe it was inner ear damage, the result of his head injury.
Reuben felt a twinge of queasiness. The spinning could make him nauseous if it kept up. He put his mind to the question again. The sensation of motion became more intense.
Reuben stood up. He put his hand on the table to steady himself. He shook his head for a moment to clear it. The spinning stopped.
"I don't know how many there are. And I don't care to think about it. It's a disturbing question."
"All right," said Betty. "It doesn't matter how many. Say they are real. Then what?"
"Well, then everybody dies."
She gave him a quizzical look. That wasn't what Reuben meant to say, but he knew at once that it was the truth. If the different scenarios were real, then so was the shadow that Reuben had sensed that day back in the dacha. It didn't belong in the world, there were no scenarios that could or should include it. That's what he had sensed about it first, the idea that it came from someplace deep. Someplace behind.
Reuben could feel the shadow's presence, could almost see it: the shadow fell both on this world and on the one he had left behind. Moreover, it fell on the stage where all the different scenarios were built. It fell on the ability of worlds to exist in the first place. For anything to exist. The shadow insisted that nothing should be allowed to exist, and that everything that did must somehow be stopped.
His stomach felt worse.
"That's not what I meant," he said, suddenly finding it difficult to breathe. "It's not that everybody dies. It's worse than that. It's having everybody removed. Erased."
Betty put her hand on his.
He looked in her eyes. The balcony began to rotate again. His head was pounding.
"I think they're made of memories somehow."
"What is made of memories?" she asked "Or who?"
"All of us. The scenarios. One set of memories is one scenario, a different set is another scenario. The things don't have to be there. The people don't. And the places, events, whatever can all be different. It's just the memories that matter."
He slumped back down in his chair. He took in a slow, gulping breath. The nausea was easing.
"I don't understand, Reuben."
He reached out his hand and touched her cheek.
"I don't either," he said. "Things can be the same; things can be different. It's all memories. If I'm alive or dead. If Charlotte " his voice trailed off.
"Maybe one is as good as another," he said after a moment.
He took her hand in his.
"Or not as good. As true."
"But what would happen?" he asked, knowing she couldn't answer. Not really sure what he meant by the question. "What happens if the memories get taken away?"
"Well I'm not sure. But it looks to me as if they get replaced by other memories. Better memories, Reuben."
Reuben turned and looked at the lake again. He wanted to believe that, but he couldn't.
The spinning stopped again.
"I don't know," he said. "I hope so."