“And then,” I said, “everything was back the way it was. I was standing there again, in the dark, shoes and socks soaked in that stinking, ice-cold liquid. To say it was a weird feeling doesn’t do it justice, because at that moment I had a distinct memory of the explosion happening and an equally clear memory of it not happening.”
This seemed to confuse Arnie, understandably enough. He said, “So, did the plane go down or not?”
“No.” I paused for a moment and said, “It didn’t. Not yet.”
This confused Arnie further, but he waited patiently for me to explain. A good reporter, down to the last.
I said, “And as I was standing there, in the stench and the darkness, a thought came into my head, perfect and clear. The voice of that thing, the shadow man. ‘This moment,’ it said, ‘is forever.’ And I understood right then that all moments are forever and that they can go back there to that spot at any time, in the wet, stinking belly of that plane. They can go back and short that wire or jam open some valve and blow Amy out of the air along with two hundred other people. But that ain’t so strange, is it? You drive to the doctor’s office to hear the results of your X-ray and you pray that it isn’t cancer. Isn’t that what you’re praying for, that God will reach back in the past? Back before the X-ray was taken, before you even saw the doctor. Months before, so He can stop that tumor from forming in the first place?”
Arnie nodded and said, “Only this was the opposite, right? A threat. They were tellin’ you they can go back and make bad things happen, take your girl out of the equation. Anytime they want. So you wake up someday and see empty bed beside you and say, ‘Gosh, it’s a pity Amy died in that plane crash all those years ago.’ And you look and see all the headlines have changed and all those lives are lost and history is tweaked. Changed to suit their needs.”
I said, “You do catch on, Arnie. It takes a little time, but you do catch on.”
“And the message,” he continued, “was that you need to back off. ’Cause why else make the threat? They were saying you need to stop interfering with whatever plans they got, because if not they’ll go back and cut Amy out of the timeline.”
I started to speak, couldn’t, then swallowed and finally said, “You see, I screwed it up. I had it just right in the beginning, I had no connections. No family, no money, no career, no nothin’. What could they do to me? What could they take from me? But all that changed with Amy. Now they’ve got me, now they’ve got a hold on me. And I see her and she’d look up at me with those green eyes and I think, hey, saving the world, that’s Hollywood bullshit. The best I can do is save this little bit of the world, this little corner that me and this girl stand in. And every time I think that, somewhere I can hear laughter. Them laughing. Like the game is over, check and mate.”
Arnie said, “And you never ate her?”
“You never turned into a monster and ate her?”
“No. I’ve never turned into a monster at all.” I thought for a moment and said, “As far as I know.”
“But you’re going to?”
I shrugged. Arnie let out a breath, then stood up off the floor and brushed off his pants with his hands. He said, “I don’t know what this’ll mean to ya, in light of what you just said. But I think you should hear it.”
“Are you going to tell me everything this time, Arnie? The real reason you’re here? Because I’m gonna tell you now, if you do decide to write all this up as a feature article it’s gonna suck.”
“For the purposes of what I’m gonna say,” Arnie began, “we’re gonna start with the premise that the shadow people are real, okay? Not that I’m convinced, but just for the purpose of what I’m about to say.”
“And that time don’t mean the same thing to them as it means to you and me. And, like you said, they can reach backward and pull you right out of the past and present and everything and nobody is the wiser.”
“Right, right.” I motioned impatiently for him to go on.
“So how far back do you think they could go? Could they go back and vanish the guy who cured polio?”
“Oh. I don’t—I don’t think so.”
“But say they worked it like links in a chain, they touch the guy who pulled Bill Gates out of a car wreck thirty years ago. Make it so that guy was never born, so he could never save Gates. Gates dies as a child and tomorrow we wake up in a world where everybody is using Macs?”
I shivered. “Oh. I don’t know, Arnie. Do you?”
“You mentioned earlier that you got a box on your TV that you play games on? The games where you wander around and shoot people?”
“Well, John’s does. He’s got six of them, if you count the ones in his closet. A PlayStation and an Xbox and whatever else they sell.”
Arnie nodded. “Those names mean nothin’ to me. Tell me, you don’t find anything weird about it? Don’t get a funny feeling when you play on those things?”
I shrugged. “I dunno. Not really.”
Arnie, said, “The first time I saw one of those game machines was a month ago. And then, everybody had one.”
He waited, but I didn’t reply.
“I got a nephew,” continued Arnie. “Eleven years old. He’s all about comics and his remote-controlled cars and Rob Schneider movies. But a few weeks ago I come home and I see him sittin’ on the couch, leaning forward like he’s entranced. I mean, I never saw concentration like that on a kid’s face. Never. And he’s got this plastic thing in his hands with buttons on it and he’s just hammering away. And I turn to the television and I almost get sick. There’s just a gun barrel on the screen, at the bottom, muzzle flash shootin’ out the end and people getting ripped to shreds. Sprays of blood everywhere. And I realize, with a feeling like I ate something rotten, that he’s controlling the gun. He’s sitting there operating a damned murder simulator and his mom comes in and tells him to say hi, that his uncle Arnie is visiting and she glances at the TV like it’s nothin’, like it’s perfectly normal for a kid to do somethin’ that used to make new recruits puke back in the war. To look at a human shape—and the people on the screen looked like they were real as you and me—to look at a human shape and pull that trigger and watch it go down and not even flinch, to not feel that instinctual twinge at causing a death . . .”
Arnie wiped sweat off his brow.
He said, “I served next to some coldhearted bastards in the war, guys who had that stare, you know, kids from the streets, kids who got beat before bed every night growin’ up. And even those guys, those hard characters, they would freeze up the first time they had to pull a trigger with a living thing at the other end.”
I said, “Well, they’re pretty violent but they’re just games—”
“Open your ears, Wong. I’m not tellin’ you these games have been around and I’m such an old geezer that I never noticed them. These games, the devices that play them, they didn’t exist before last month. And now they’re everywhere, on every TV set and, hey, ask around and people say they’ve been common for years and years. I’m a journalist, I travel, I got kids in the family, I know the world. And they didn’t sell these game boxes before, I know they didn’t because it’s insane that they do at all. But I start seeing the shadows move and I get up one day and suddenly every kid is glued to a box that’s training him. Tell me it ain’t. Millions of them, all over the country, all over the world, millions of kids spending hours and hours getting quicker and quicker on the trigger, getting truer and truer aim and colder and colder inside. That’s training. That’s conditioning if I ever saw it. And in your world, in this world, this version of reality that played out, nobody finds this strange? Really?”
“Well . . .”
There was nothing to say. The thought that the bad guys had that kind of power just sank me, left me numb. The bad thing was I couldn’t even write off Arnie as crazy, since he had already wasted most of his day on me and that really wouldn’t be fair.
“And the thing is,” said Arnie, “as time goes on I can feel it fading. Like a dream. I get used to the idea, I think, ‘Yeah, sure, they’ve always been there, these games. It’s me, it’s the stress, it’s age, it’s the drugs I did back in the day comin’ back.’ But then I flip around on the news and I see other little differences, things I know ain’t right. Like the pope. Pope John Paul the second, still out there popin’ and lookin’ one hundred years old. I remember that guy getting shot and killed, way back in the early nineties. He got replaced by a guy named Pope Leo the something. And I squint and I can almost picture that other pope’s face. A black guy. Younger, in his fifties. But no. No, he’s nowhere to be found now and here’s yet another little thing that’s been tweaked. And it’s impossible and it’s so big, the idea of it, that thinkin’ about it makes me feel like a worm stuck in the treads of a tire on an eighteen-wheeler. You know what I’m saying?”
I nodded, slowly. “Yes. Yes, Arnie, I do.”
“So what do we do? If this is really what’s goin’ on, what do we do?”
“I’m going to suggest ‘nothing.’ ”
He turned to me. “Because you’re afraid they’ll take Amy. Look, if we entertain the idea that these things are real and that this thing, this ‘Korrok’ is really tampering with the world, and I assume it’s not for the purpose of making it better, then surely there’s something we can—”
“Oh, there is, Arnie. I know there is. It’s called being willing to sacrifice everyone around me for the cause. And why not? All of the great men do it. The pyramids were built with tens of thousands of nobodies who were worked to death so that the big thing could be achieved. That’s the name of the game, that’s how you defeat the bad guys. Just be willing to spend your friends like pennies, that’s all. You asked me earlier if I was a sociopath. Well, you’d better hope I am because the world was built by sociopaths, men willing to send a million innocent boys into battle to be chopped to screaming giblets, all so a banner can be raised over another piece of land with houses and markets and roads soon after.”