by Jane Carnall
He's in a car when he wakes up: the driver is someone he knows, but he can't remember the name. Outside the car windows it's night.
"Where are we?" he asks.
"Minnesota," the driver answers.
This seems enough for the moment. He stares out of the window at the unwinding Interstate. It's warm in the car, and seems very quiet. After a while he realises that it's because the radio isn't on.
"Isn't the radio working?" he asks.
"I got tired of hearing it," the driver says.
"Where are we going?"
"Seacouver," the driver says.
He can't remember whether that's in Canada or America. He doesn't have a passport with him, and he can't remember whether that matters. He supposes he should ask, but the road is having an almost hypnotic effect: ahead of him he can see the black surface with the white lines appearing in the headlights and rushing away underneath the car. It's fascinating to watch, and he watches it for a long time.
It's daylight: he thinks to ask "Aren't you tired?"
"Yes," the driver says. "But the sooner we get there the better."
The sky overhead is clear and blue. It's autumn, it occurs to him: when they get out to piss, the air has that faint chill to it that, further east, will make the maple trees begin their annual blaze of black and red. He remembers the trees blazing, the smell of the smoke harsh in his nose, chemical in his mouth.
"We were up a tree," he says, and the driver looks at him.
"No, we weren't," the driver says, his voice calm, but not reassuring. The driver has an odd accent, but it's familiar.
"I remember the tree," he says, and the driver shakes his head.
"I don't know what you remember," the driver says, "but it wasn't a tree."
They get back into the car. He wonders why. "Where are we going?" he asks.
"Seacouver," the driver says again.
"Why are we going there?"
"I know people there."
He thinks about this. "Do I know anyone there?"
"No. But you will."
He nods. It makes as much sense as anything else. The car starts. The driver's face is calm and intent. He still doesn't remember the driver's name.
It's dark when they reach Seacouver. He sees the name on signs beside the road, he doesn't recognise the city. They make one stop, outside a small brick building -- all the buildings here are too small -- but the driver comes back to the car shaking his head. "It's closed. I know where he'll be."
The second stop is outside a bar. A neon light says it's Joe's. Outside the car, he feels a noise: he stumbles, nearly falls, but the driver catches his arm and hauls him up. "He's here."
Inside the bar is dark and warm and quiet: there's a TV on with a movie playing, but the sound turned off. A white man comes towards the driver, smiling. "Connor," he says. "God, it's good to see you."
"That's not your name," he says to the driver, and blinks a moment. "Nash," he says. "Your name's Russell Nash."
"Not any more," says the driver, holding him firmly.
The noise rises, intense and shattering. The TV screen seems to zoom in at him, the scene from the movie growing and engulfing him. He goes to his knees, barely keeping his head up, unable to drag his eyes away from the tiny screen and the burning buildings. It looks so real. So real?
After a while he realised he was sitting down, at a table, with Nash and three other white guys. One of them was the bartender. The bar seemed to have closed up for the night. There was a plate of sandwiches in the middle of the table. Mechanically, he reached out and took one, and realised, biting into it, that he was hungry.
"We're in Seacouver?"
The three other guys looked at each other, then at Nash. Nash was shoving a sandwich into his mouth, and didn't answer. The bartender said, with a lift at the end of his voice, "Yeah?"
"Look, this is gonna sound real dumb," he said, thinking even as he said it that the word wasn't dumb but crazy, "but what day is it? I mean what day of the week?"
"Friday," the bartender said.
Friday didn't make sense. But then when he thought about it, any other day didn't make sense either. He'd got up early that morning to get to work before eight, because Mister Boss had a meeting scheduled with an old client, rich guy, always looking for long-term investments, Russell Nash. Mister Call Me God liked to see everyone sitting at their desks when he came in, looking busy: so when there was an early meeting scheduled for Mister Kiss My Ass, everyone else came in early too. That was Tuesday. Definitely Tuesday. Breakfast was a bagel and a coffee on the way in.
There had been a night and a day since then. He was sure of that. But they hadn't flown from New York to Seacouver, they'd driven. If today was Friday, this could be Seacouver, but if today was Friday, where had Thursday gone? Or was it Wednesday that had disappeared?
And then it hit him, in the middle of the last mouthful of cold beef and tired lettuce, and he swallowed through a dry throat and said it out loud "I've lost my job."
One of the other guys laughed. The bartender frowned. "Son, I think you've lost more than that."
"Yeah," he said, cold. "I got student loans to pay off, I got credit card debt, I got rent to pay, and I've been gone for three -- four days -- " He'd been drawing unemployment for six weeks after the dot com he'd been working for went bust seven months ago, but if he'd just walked out on the job with Mister Mini-Me, that wasn't going to help find another job. "I have to get back for Monday morning -- "
Nash finished his sandwich and looked up. "No, you don't."
"Where's my wallet?" He fumbled in the pockets of his jeans, realising that not only were the pockets empty, but even his jacket was gone. And these weren't his own jeans: they were a little too big for him.
"You lost it," Nash said.
"Where did I lose it?"
"When we got out."
"Shit, where was that? Minnesota?"
"No," Nash said. He jerked his head at the TV screen. It was still showing the same scene from the same movie as it had when they came in, but now CNN subtitles were flowing past underneath it. "When we got out from there."
He got up and went across the room, and the closer he got to the screen the more it looked like a movie: awesome special effects, more realistic than Independence Day, the plane crashing and the bloom of fire and one of the towers of the model WTC crumbling into a vast cloud of dust and debris, and extras running, running, to get away from the cloud funnelling up Broadway.
But it was on CNN. The subtitles underneath were headlines. The movie stopped, and a news commentator came on, a familiar face.
He turned away from the TV set, and came back to the table. The other guys were looking at him. "You're not trying to kid me that actually happened?" he said, keeping his voice cool and steady. Russell Nash was an important client with the firm. If he put in a word, there was just a chance. No good being rude, no point acting like a fool.
"Yeah," the bartender said. "Tuesday morning."
"Come on," he said again, still cool, still steady. "No way."
"Sit down," Nash said, gently enough.
One of the other guys said "Joe, did you put the papers out for recycling yet?"
"I know where they are. I'll get them."
The Seacouver Tribune for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. The Seacouver Post for Thursday and Friday. The New York Times for Wednesday. The Washington Post for Friday. The front page of the two Wednesday papers was a photograph that looked like a still from the movie that wasn't a movie. The papers were battered, frayed from handling, stained with beer -- they were real. It really was September 14, and something wholly bizarre had happened in New York on September 11.
"Who did it?" he said, staring at the front pages, not yet venturing to turn through and read the words. "Do they know?"
"A group called al-Qaeda," one of the other guys said. He had a peculiar accent -- not as strange as Nash's accent, but definitely not American. "That's their best guess for now."
"How did they do it?"
"They hijacked four planes. Big intercontinental jets. Two for the WTC, one for the Pentagon, and one -- nobody knows: it crashed somewhere in Pennsylvania."
He shook his head. "And they -- just flew the planes right into the WTC? And the Pentagon?"
"How did they expect to get out?"
"They didn't. They expected to kill themselves doing it. Themselves and everyone else on the plane."
"What did they do it for? I've never heard of Alkayda -- who were they?"
Nash, the bartender, and the other guy with the peculiar accent tried to explain it to him. He got the impression that they didn't get it either. The fourth guy was silent. He'd laughed, once, but he hadn't spoken.
At least it helped get their names straight. The bartender was Joe. The guy with the accent was called Mac when Joe spoke to him and Duncan when Nash spoke to him. The silent guy was David. He was not going to ask Nash what his own name was: it would come back to him.
After a while, Nash and Duncan had got back to the 1930s, and Joe was still talking about the 1980s. It didn't seem to explain anything about last Tuesday. So what if the Russians invaded Afghanistan the year he was born? "Ancient history," he said suddenly, interrupting, feeling tired. "None of this is about now."
There was a long moment when all four of them were silent, staring at him. He shrugged, realising that had sounded kind of rude. "Sorry. But you know. So there's this bunch of nutters in Afghanistan ruling the roost -- let's go get them. End of story. What's it got to do with the Soviets? They're not running the place now, are they?"
"No one's really running the place," Duncan said. "The Taliban are the only ones trying, and what they're doing -- is unworkable. What they're trying to do doesn't work all that well in Saudi Arabia, where they've got plenty of oil money to play with. It's a poisoned mess where they haven't even got the resources to feed the people."
"When were you last there?" Nash asked.
Duncan shrugged, and gave him a curious, assessing look. "A while ago. Does he know?"
"No." Nash glanced at him. "He was? that was his first."
"God," Joe said. "Son, we -- you -- they need to explain -- " He glanced at the other three men. David was the only one still smiling. "Well, come on, it's not my job -- "
David laughed out loud. It was inordinately cheerful, careless of effect, and somehow he wasn't surprised that the other three men looked at David, annoyed. "Well, someone has to tell him," David said, the longest speech he'd made yet.
"Tell me what?"
It was just Nash and Duncan this time: Joe stood up, moving slowly and awkwardly, and went over to the bar to polish glasses. David had fallen silent again.
Listening made him angry. A near-speechless, frustrated rage. So many details. So much pointless elaboration.
"Fuck," he interrupted, at last, and didn't apologise. "Fuck all this. There's all this happening -- all these people dead, these crazy guys trying to attack America -- and you want me to mess round with swords?"
"I know what it sounds like," Duncan said. He sounded very sober. "But it's true, and you're not going to help anyone by refusing to survive."
"Hey, I'm immortal," he said, with intense sarcasm.
"You can still die," Nash said. "That's why I brought you here." He looked at Duncan, who shook his head,
"No." It was a quick, definite rejection. "I don't have time. Why don't you do it?"
Nash grimaced. "I -- don't have -- " he shrugged, and looked at David. "What about you?"
"No," David said, still grinning. "You found him. You keep him. Besides," he glanced at Duncan, "both of us are getting out of the country."
"What?" Nash looked at Duncan. "Where -- ?"
"Afghanistan," Duncan said. "As soon as the international flights start again." He glanced over his shoulder at Joe, but looked back again at Nash. "Look, we all know what's going to happen. The US is going to attack Afghanistan. They'll do it soon, and they'll do it hard, and they'll kill a lot of people. The country's in the third year of a famine. They need help. I've lived there. I know them. But I can't take a new student with me into a situation like that -- " and looked back at him. "What languages do you speak?"
"English," he said. "Spanish." A bit.
"You'll find it's easier to pick up languages now," Duncan told him. He glanced at David. "Now, if you wanted to come -- "
"You know me better than that, MacLeod," David said.
"He's all yours," Duncan said to Nash.
Joe came back over and sat down again. "You sure about this, Mac?"
"Yeah," Duncan said, shortly.
"Where are you going, David?" Joe asked.
"Somewhere warm, sunny, and out of the way," David said. "Want to come with me?"
That simple question seemed to startle both Duncan and Joe: even Nash looked a little surprised. David propped his chin on his hand and looked at Joe. "They won't let you go to Afghanistan," he said. "Not now. So what are you going to do, Joe -- stay here and tend bar, play jazz on Wednesday nights?"
Joe's mouth went tight, and his eyes dropped. "I don't know."
"I'm going," David said, "and I'm not coming back. Not in your lifetime. MacLeod's going, and you know him: he might not be back. Come with me and we'll find somewhere warm where you can play guitar and I'll drink ice-cold beer and be your perfect audience. Somewhere well above the rising water. Somewhere far away from storms. Come with me."
There was silence: not for long, but long enough to make him feel uncomfortable. David was a lot younger than Joe, but it sounded like they had some kind of thing going. That was none of his business, of course. But if Joe went on looking at David like that -- well, it looked like they might do something more than talk.
America's under attack by mad ragheads, I am sitting in a bar somewhere near the Canadian border with four white guys, two of them queer for each other, and all of them seem to think I should be learning how to fence.
Put like that, it cleared his head. "Uh? Joe?"
"Yeah?" Joe's gaze slid away from David's face.
"Need a favour. Can I crash here tonight?" Tomorrow he would start the long process of hitching back to New York.
"Sure," Joe said, after a moment. "But -- " He looked at Nash.
Nash was sitting with his shoulders hunched, looking extraordinarily tired. "No," he said. "I'll get us a hotel room." He glanced at Duncan. "Are you sure about this?"
As if in answer, Duncan tossed him a set of keys. Nash caught them neatly, one-handed. "You can use the loft. Hell, you can have the dojo. You'll need it." He glanced over the table, his eyes measuring.
"I've got a sword he can have. Spanish, 18th century, good steel. Looks the right length for him. Garcia y Arroyo."
"The master of Toledo?" Nash looked interested. "Ramirez knew him."
"Ah, Ramirez knew everyone."
"Where did you find one of his swords? I thought they were all lost."
"Paris, 1945," Duncan said. "Lot of things showed up then."
"That's true." Nash stood. "If you don't mind," he said, speaking to Duncan, "we should go. Dawson -- " he hesitated, "I think you should take our elderly friend here up on his offer. Things will not be good in this country for the next few years."
"You're planning to stay?"
Nash looked over at him. He had the same measuring gaze as Duncan. "For a while, I think we must: to drill the basics into this young man's hard head."
"Look, I don't want to be rude," he said out loud. "But there's no way I'm staying. Just -- no way. I'm getting back to New York somehow -- starting tomorrow morning. I'd appreciate it if you'd call my boss, but -- "
"Leo Hanff?" Nash shrugged. "He's dead. And I suppose the firm you worked for may still exist in some nebulous sense, but -- boy, you saw the papers. The World Trade Center is destroyed. There is nothing there but a smoking, stinking hole in the ground. Your job is gone. Your former life is gone. Everyone you worked with is dead. You are staying here."
"We got out. How do you know they didn't?"
"Do you remember how we got out?"
He shook his head.
"We got out the only way we could. No one else could have survived."
"I've got family in New York. Friends. They -- "
"They know you're dead." It was Joe who interrupted, and his voice was trenchant. "They know you went to the World Trade Center on Tuesday morning, and they know where you worked, and they know you haven't been seen since. Son, they know you're dead. You can't go back."
"I -- " It came over him. "I have to get to a phone. I have to let them know -- "
"No," Nash said, overriding him. "You're dead. I'm dead."
"You can use the island if you have to," Duncan said, a comment that made no sense in the middle of nonsense.
"We're alive, for Christ's sake," he said furiously. "Even if I can't remember my own fucking name, I can tell them I'm alive -- "
"Your name is John French," Nash said. "And you can't tell them you're alive."
John French. It slid into place and seemed to unlock a barrier that had blocked him. His name, on the plastic plaque by his desk, that he had sat and stared at and tried not to be afraid as they felt the building swaying underneath them, like a rotting drunk with a hot foul smell. Far away the sounds of screaming, sobbing, wailing, whimpering prayers.
Nash, moving through the office with swift long strides, abandoning his meeting with Hanff as if it no longer mattered, moving down on him and hauling him up out of his chair and over to the window --
The glass had shattered, and the air outside was full of dust. The fall had lasted forever.
Not forever: it had ended in a grinding, smashing, astonishing pain, and darkness. And the darkness had been death.
He was weeping. What did you do to me? Where am I? Who are you?
Who am I?
He was afterwards aware that there had been some conversation, or at least some words exchanged, but he could never remember what was said. He could remember what it felt like to splatter against paving. He could remember what it felt like to die, shattered bones tearing jellied flesh. He could remember what death felt like. They were right: how could he speak to his mother, from a mouth that had split open, jawless and toothless, biting stone, breathing blood into burst lungs?
Strong arms were holding him, holding him together, forcing him to walk on legs that seemed to remember how thigh bone had smashed like glass and knees had torn like paper and feet had crumpled --
Put him in the car, a voice said remotely. The dojo, another voice. Can you hold him till we're there? A third voice, this one familiar.
Nothing was clear again until John felt a hard shape against his hands -- hard, cool, familiar -- and realised, without knowing how he knew, that this shape had been there for some time.
It was a beer bottle. He was sitting on a couch in a room he'd never seen before, but the youngest of the white guys from the bar, David, was kneeling in front of him pressing a open beer bottle into his hand. Budweiser.
His hands closed round it. David nodded and smiled. "Drink it."
It tasted like beer. His mouth and throat and stomach tasted it, felt it, absorbed it. Beer. Cold. His mouth and throat and stomach whole. The rest of him. Real.
"You okay?" Nash was standing a bit further back. He looked uneasy.
"What did you do to me?" he croaked.
"I got you to jump out of the window," Nash said. "I know it was bad. I jumped with you. But staying would have been worse."
"How -- " his voice cracked. "How could it have been worse?"
"You could still be under the tower where it fell," David said. He had sat back on his heels when he was apparently satisfied that John wasn't going to drop his beer bottle. His voice was horrifyingly matter-of-fact. "And if you hadn't been decapitated, you would still be alive, and dying. Think about living in the moment when you hit the ground, French. Think about living in that moment for days. Or weeks. Or months."
"The worst that could happen, if I got you to jump, was that you'd lose your head. Or I would." Nash sat down on the couch beside him. He was holding two bottles of beer: he gave one to David. "And we'd die. But he -- " Nash jerked his head at David, who smiled, "is right: the odds were too high on us living if we stayed to be buried."
"David Price," David said, as if introducing himself to Nash, who nodded, as if accepting an introduction.
"Connor MacLeod. For the time being." He hesitated. "Are you going back -- ?"
"Oh no," David said. He sounded faintly sarcastic. "MacLeod -- excuse me -- Duncan MacLeod will be bidding a manly yet tender farewell to his favourite watcher, who will be trying to convince himself that he stands a chance of keeping up with his favourite immortal in the wilds beyond the Khyber Pass. He doesn't, and he knows it, and I think he'll come round to my way of thinking, but it will take half the night and a good deal of honourable dialogue exchanged before they both accept that MacLeod is going to do what he must, and Dawson's not going to follow him this time." He tilted the bottle to his mouth, and took a long swallow. "And then I'm going to persuade him that he might as well wait for MacLeod anywhere but here."
"Where are you going?" Nash asked.
David shrugged. "That needs a bit of study. But even now the world's large enough to stay out of trouble."
"Are you Canadian?" John asked. David's voice was very nearly accentless, educated American, but there was something there, behind the vowels, that wasn't quite right.
"No," David said. He lifted his eyebrows and grinned.
"Why are you leaving the US now? Are you scared of the ragheads?"
"No," David said. "And I think you're under a misconception, John. I'm no more American than he is." He jerked his head at Nash.
"Why are you going, though?" Nash asked. "He's got a point: this is still one of the safest countries on earth to live in -- if you don't care about guns."
"I like Europe," David said detachedly. "More churches." He took another long swallow of beer. "Connor, where were you, on the sixth of April, 1940?"
"I was in Germany," Connor said.
"I was living in the Rue des Récollects," David said. "I had very good papers. I was a Frenchman born of French parents in Alsace, speaking French and German. I planned to mind my own business, keep my head down, and survive." He spoke without much expression. "But I'm circumcised. And so I spent some time in a camp, before I could manage a way of dying that did not mean being fed into the furnaces. When a body is burned to ashes, the head is rather finally detached from the body." He stopped. After a moment, he smiled. "It was perhaps the most appallingly stupid thing I have done in many centuries, to stay in Paris when I knew it could not withstand invasion, to believe I could survive by minding my own business under a regime mad with fear and hate."
"You're crazy," John said, not sure whether astonishment or anger predominated. David was not much older than he himself. "Americans aren't fucking Nazis, and you aren't old enough -- "
"Americans are a generous, kindly, arrogant, and xenophobic people," David said. "And they are unaccustomed to feeling vulnerable to attack. A good politician, I think, could get very far with them by playing on their fears. I'm not staying around here to find out how far."
There was a silence. Nash was still drinking beer. John looked at him: he looked young. Russell Nash, one of the firm's oldest clients. David lifted his bottle, and drank: the muscles moved in his throat. He looked younger than Nash, but he'd spoken of centuries as casually as years.
"How old are you?"
The two of them exchanged glances, and said nothing.
"How long am I going to live?"
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