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A Novel by Kathleen Ann Goonan

 Chapter One



March 21 1991, Washington D.C,

UK Kindle Edition
Kathleen Ann Goonan 2011


THE WORST THING was that Jill Dance couldn’t talk about what had happened when she was seventeen.  Not with anyone.

Their mother had vanished, history had flipped to a new path, her brother and sister had no memory of the years Jill had stolen from them, and the tragedy was entirely her fault.  She had been reckless and impulsive, like any teenager, but the consequences had been so shattering that words, explanations, and many memories had been swept from her and her family with the force of a hurricane scouring away homes, historical artifacts, even entire lives. Hurricane Jill.

She kept it inside until she was forty-one, a doctoral student in political science at Georgetown.

The tall, wavy-glassed windows in the old classroom stood open.  A cool, page-riffling breeze, the distant cries of children, and the first sunlight in weeks encouraged students to think of little else.  Certainly, no one but Jill was paying attention to their professor, a Soviet expat.

A slow and measured speaker, Koslov framed his English precisely.  His pause after “In this case . . .” seemed to last forever.

Jill said, “I disagree.”

“On what grounds?” Koslov responded, his normally placid expression roused to interest.   One of the undergrads sighed loud.  Koslov, a seasoned debater in his seventies, was Jill’s doctoral advisor, and they often got into long, obscure disagreements.

Jill stood, and leaned forward, her palms pressed against the desk.  “After the Soviets took Berlin—“

“Would you mind repeating that?”  Koslov’s eyes narrowed.  He pushed his shaggy gray hair from his forehead and waited, hands on his stocky hips.

“I . . . “  She paused.  Everyone was looking at her with great interest.

Wait a minute.  The Soviets had not taken Berlin.  The Allies had not handed East Germany to Stalin on a silver platter.  Instead, Patton, ignoring orders, forged through Germany and took Berlin before the Soviets could get there, which dramatically changed postwar politics and territories.

She said, “I mean, after Patton argued with Eisenhower about taking Berlin and finally obeyed Eisenhower’s orders—“ That was right, wasn’t it?  Yes.  That was what had happened, here . . . .  Or was it there, before?


She stopped speaking.  Somewhere, a bell rang.

Relieved, she stuffed her Q, an all-purpose computer and communicator, into her pack and hurried toward the door, tired and wondering what the hell had gotten into her.  It was the last class of her last day at Georgetown--a make-up class, actually, to satisfy her doctoral requirements, one that she would have ordinarily taken when working on her master’s degree.  She worked part-time at the World Bank, and the full-time job she had taken a hiatus from awaited her, with near-doubled Ph.D. salary.  She also worked part time in her bookstore, Serendipity, and took care of her five-year-old son, Stevie.  She didn’t have time for this, or much of anything else, either.

Koslov boxed her in by the door in as the other students rushed out behind him.  “Jill?”

“I have to get to an appointment.”  She tried to get past him.  He stepped sideways, blocking her exit.

“Please.” Lev Koslov, tie askew, as usual, and his brown suit rumpled, moved in a perpetual haze of acrid cigarette smoke.  He favored a Russian brand with a wolf on the package, and did not care if the ashes fell on the floor, on his suit, or on a student’s desk as he strutted past, waving his arms and expounding.  With a reputation for being blazingly intelligent, he had little patience with idiocy.  Several students, all much younger than Jill, glanced back in surprise as they left, having expected, no doubt, a more barbed approach to her outburst.   Like other professors at Georgetown, he frequented her nearby book shop, Serendipity, so she was not at all intimidated by him.

However, she did not want to discuss her lapse.

He fished his classbook from his jacket pocket.  “This is not the first time that you have mentioned such . . . ideas.”  The book-sized screen lit with print when he touched it.  He found what he was looking for and handed it to Jill.  “Last week’s test.”

“I already checked my grade.“

“Yes, I gave you an A.  As usual.  It was the extra credit question, which you did not need for the grade, as it turned out.  I didn’t take off for your answer.”

She read, “Since the assassination of John F. Kennedy . . .  Oh.”  She gave the reader back to him.  Kennedy had not been assassinated.  Not here.  He was an international statesman, a celebrity, the father of the space program, as well as the father of several children born to women not married to him.  “I’m sorry.  I think . . . “  she tried to imagine how to gloss over her idiotic outburst, and failed.  Either she could say she was going crazy, which she didn’t think would cut much slack with Dr. Koslov, or . . .

“I’m writing an alternate history,” she said.

“A what?”

“An alternate history.  I used to write comic books when I was in high school, and . . .”  Damn.  Worse and worse.  She still had to defend her dissertation before this man.  “Well, I must have been thinking about it when I wrote this.”  She smiled briefly, and, she hoped, disarmingly.

“Mmm.” Koslov’s long look, from deep-set pale blue eyes beneath tangled gray eyebrows, was one of keen appraisal.  “And in this alternate history, what happened after Kennedy died?  I seem to remember that Franklin Roosevelt died too, in his fourth term, before the war was over, instead of completing two years of his fifth term and negotiating the settlement with the Soviet Union that made them relinquish Poland, Hungary, and Rumania.  What did that difference lead to, in your alternate history?  I’m just asking in theoretical terms.”

“I’m sorry, but I have to leave.”  Angry to hear herself apologize for the third time in five minutes, she pushed past him into the now-empty hall and hurried down the stairs.

Jill unlocked her bike, adjusted her helmet, and coasted off-campus, disturbed and distracted. Lost in thought, she turned left onto M Street from Wisconsin street instead of right, as she had intended. She passed a rare diesel-powered Metrobus and coughed in the cloud of exhaust. Mostly, the streets swarmed with tiny electric cars, and the new fleet of smaller electric and alternate-fuel Metrobusses. As charging kiosks became more plentiful, it was easy to use a pre-purchased pass or a credit card to pick up a car, bike, or scooter, and drop it off at another kiosk, but Jill preferred her own custom-built bike.  

But riding through the city was sometimes unpleasant, especially when she was tired.  Stress removed some filter, so that the landscape of the city appeared as it was before, when the city, and time, and everyone’s history, was, sometimes subtly, and sometimes starkly, other.  She saw the old streets, before a particular overpass was built, before a block was razed for offices.  She saw houses, for seconds at a time, that were no longer there.  Of course, everyone did, to a certain extent; cities were in constant flux.

Except that Jill saw some houses, she was sure, that never had been here, in this history.  Instead, she saw a District of Columbia that was different than the one she lived in now.  Different in its past and, and therefore changed in those textural details, great and small, that belonged to her previous historical reality.

She saw houses of people who no longer seemed to exist, whom she could never find if, even with Q.  For instance, she sometimes saw the house of Bridget Donnally, she of the long nose, pale face, and superior attitude who regularly made pronouncements such as, “Dance, if you don’t do your best, you won’t get anywhere.”

Bridget’s house, which Jill had often visited, was in a neighborhood that had never existed in this world.  For a year or two, Jill had done a lot of research, trying to reconcile the discrepancies, but there was no evolution of land use from residential to commercial.   There was only stark difference.  The old plat in City Hall showed the Donnally home site as the location of a small hotel for the past hundred-and-fifty years, in a commercial area presently quasi-bohemian.  In Jill’s childhood, the same corner held a welcoming old-fashioned single-family house surrounded by oaks and spilling over with Bridget’s siblings, also non-existent in this world, on a block of houses built to order, in a time when that was the norm.

Bridget had always called Jill by her last name.  Even in sixth grade, Jill found this odd, coming from another sixth-grader.  Jill had been surprised and somewhat gratified to see normally dauntless Bridget immobilized down in the creek bed one day when they were gathering sand to enhance their cardboard Egyptian school project because she suddenly noticed the snake Jill had leapt over without even thinking about it.

“It’s just a rat snake.  It won’t hurt you.”  Jill grasped it behind its head to show Bridget, but Bridget trembled, all color drained from her face, and insisted that Jill lead her back upstream and uphill to the safe, snakeless sidewalk.  This chink in Bridget’s intellectual detachment was Jill’s first deep awareness of the difference between persona and hidden emotional triggers.

Bridget was real as real could be.  But there was no trace of her or her six siblings on any records Jill found.  No one by the name of Donnally had ever attended Jill’s school.

So, the hard question to herself, constantly, was Did I kill them all?  Did they never exist?

Did the potential nuclear holocaust that hung over the world back then actually happen?  Did Vietnam worsen and consume the United States, as it did in my alternate past?  Or are they all happily living, somewhen, each with their own six children, in that world in which Kennedy actually did die in Dallas in 1963, twenty years ago?

The mere fact of Kennedy’s living had unfurled a new history.  The history she lived in, shared many aspects of the one she remembered.  But not all.  It was keeping the details in place, some to one history, and some to another, that was so damned hard.

She cut down a cool, leafy avenue, reflecting that she’d been a fool to go into political science, given this very large problem.  But then, history had become like a puzzle to her, one without a solution, but only different resolutions, or a kaleidoscope.  If you moved one piece, turned the tube one click, the whole picture might change.  She wanted to think she was studying the pivots of history, the real world-changers, but she had discovered that every major historian had his or her own opinion of what such pivots might be.

Jill remembered, as clearly as if looking down one of those lost streets, that Sam Dance, her father, had marveled at the swift miniaturization of computer components, the internationalization of communications satellites and the like, once Kennedy and Khrushchev achieved their historical 1965 alliance.  The great scientific and technological minds of the entire world were free to work together, and they had enabled the sudden emergence of Q in 1983.

She knew that, along with her, Sam could look down the other road of the Sixties that they had also lived through, the one with massive Soviet crackdowns, the American assassinations, the Vietnam War, with its ten million Asian and sixty thousand American casualties, and attendant, deadly international student riots.

She also knew that no one else in the milieu in which she lived now—she had taken to calling it a timestream, which elicited the sensation of  precarious fluidity that sometimes overwhelmed her—could do that.  If they existed, she had not heard from them.  She was enveloped by a world that seemed more peaceful, more cooperative, more focused on communication and education, and less focused on aggression.  She hoped this was just the beginning of a huge change in human history, which was almost entirely a history of wars.

But her father had vanished.  Perhaps, when Sam had disappeared, five years earlier, he had just taken another road, one newly opened.  Perhaps he had found an avenue to Bette, Jill’s mother, who had vanished in November of 1963.  She too went on a trip, as far as Jill’s brother and sister knew, and never returned.  Kind of like going to the corner store for cigarettes, leaving your family to gradually realize that you might be gone for good.  But perhaps Bette Dance, nee Elegante, had not had much choice.

Jill had to think so.  It was wrenching to think that your mother would willingly abandon you.  But she had a more precise idea of what had really happened, and all of that was because of the Infinite Game Board.

She downshifted, with a smooth click of her gear-changer, to climb a small rise.

She’d had no warning that her father was leaving.  Why hadn’t he spoken about what had happened?  Why hadn’t she asked?  It always seemed like there would be time for that later, when she would be somehow be able formulate questions about the enormity that had occurred, or even venture to mention it.  Maybe he had felt the same way.

A horn blared to her left.  Jill, startled from her reverie, veered out of his way and became aware of her surroundings.

She was back on a busy street and not anywhere near Serendipity Books, across from where Key Bridge traffic flowed onto M Street.  Instead, she was only about a mile from her old family home, Halcyon House, which was in a completely different Washington neighborhood.

Damn!  She wiped sweat from her forehead as she braked for a red light.  Traffic whizzed past in front of her.  She was falling into these fugues more and more often, and was screwing everything up.  Elmore was expecting her to take over in their bookstore after her class today so that he could work on one of his important cases.  He didn’t actually work in the store any longer, but she’d implored him to open this morning when Jane called in sick, so she could attend this last class.  No doubt he’d been calling her frantically, but she had not heard over the roar of traffic, the roar of her own thoughts.

All of his cases were important--much more important than what she was doing, it seemed.  Elmore had been complaining for three years that she was doing too much.  Translation:  suspend your doctoral work so that I don’t have to take care of Stevie.   Or at least, if you’re going to go to school, get a useful degree.  In law.

His complaints were wearing her down, but he’d get over it.  He’d have to.  She loved Elmore.  Loved her bookstore, in a townhouse they’d bought for a song, which was actually a fortune to them when they’d first married.  They’d finished the gutting that time, neglect, and a leaky roof had begun, then built it into their dream:  a home upstairs, a bookstore downstairs.

Now, they had moved to a finer address, one with more cachet, one that would impress the partners in Elmore’s law firm.  New dreams.

Just not, exactly, hers.

But she could not actually say what her dream might be, any more.

Sometimes, when she perched on a stool inside behind the counter, studying as customers browsed, she might look up and see a different store, one filled with counterculture freaks.  Young men with long hair and beards.  Young women wearing brightly colored skirts, Mexican hauraches, or bell-bottom jeans.  And then, on her shelves, other titles wavered:  Steal This Book, The Whole Earth Catalogue, Howl.  Instead of the classical music her customers preferred, she heard lively, lovely, humane rock-n-roll with lyrics decrying war.

Jill knew she was insane to long for that world, that history.  It was like wanting to revert to dysfunctional, emotionally stunting, but comfortingly familiar family behaviors, wanting to slip back into patterns of pain instead of living the new, happy life years of therapy had wrought.  Yes, she thought, the ancient human familiarity with war, the straight lines in which one must march, the submersion of one’s own will to that of national intent, were all so much better than peace.  The new, spreading peace sprang from positions of strength, not from appeasement.  People chose peace because, strange and simple as it might sound, people now knew better.  With more education, with greater understanding of the costs of war, and of what the results of various actions might be, people worked to find solutions less expensive than war.

This different world had wars, of course.  Obscure, distant, small wars.

The problem still was that her small, obscure war was another person’s holocaust.  Any war was.  But what was the solution?

In Jill’s opinion, education was the solution.

Radical peace groups distributed classbooks imbued with Q all over the world.  Each classbook contained all languages, and adapted to the one it heard when the first person picked it up.  .   Q constantly assessed and challenged each user, meshing with individual learning styles.  Anecdotal stories about a child walking through a field or a slum, picking one up, and having it talk to her, show her pictures, shapes, games, anything that would get her moving her fingers and thereby her mind, abounded.  Jill had heard rumors that an international children’s pidgin, like Esperanto, was evolving, but from the bottom up instead of being foisted on adults, so that it actually worked. 

    Before the age of eight, the manipulation of concrete, physical objects were necessary to lay down neural pathways, but once those were in place, learning could become more abstract.  Classbooks taught everything, from reading to calculus and beyond.  The content was so broad that every age, from preschoolers to adults, could benefit from it.  Enhanced communication was changing everything rapidly, facilitating the integration of information previously isolated.  It was like atomic fission, generating enormous energy, except that this energy was intellectual, artistic, and completely of the human mind.   Naturally, many people and organizations were against internationally distributed classbooks, and even free-access classbooks, on various grounds, and destroyed them whenever possible.  But Q was everywhere; classbooks were unstoppable.  Those who wanted one could get one.

Across the circle from Jill, the light changed.  She should turn around and go back to the store, but that seemed too difficult.  She should call Elmore, but didn’t feel up to an interrogation or scolding at the moment.  Desperately thirsty, she looked around for a place to buy a bottle of water, but traffic compelled her onward, through the intersection.  Had she eaten breakfast?  She couldn’t remember.  Her legs shook as she pedaled, and then there were only nine more blocks, eight, I can make it, I know I can . . .

She flung her bike on the overgrown front lawn when she reached the old house, pushed her way through the towering bushes that hid the sidewalk.  Bleeding from brambles, she gained the rickety steps of the front porch.  Her leg went through a rotten board.  She yanked it out, leaving a deep gash she barely noticed, and stomped onto the porch, with its mold-greened, cobwebbed wicker chairs, and an antique, rain-ravaged rocker.  Hands trembling, she went through her keys.  Townhouse, bookstore, upstairs bookstore, car, storage shed, a friend’s house when cat-sitting, Emore’s office, storage shed—where was the key to this house, the house of her childhood?  Had time swallowed that too?

She flung the keys into the empty clay pot that once held her father’s geraniums and grabbed the heavy wooden rocking chair by both of its furled arms.  Lifting it chest-high with astonishing ease, she smashed it through the picture window, where scenes of her other life were obscured by closed, wooden Venetian blinds.

She did not feel the gashes the broken glass made on her arm, her chest, as her momentum carried her through the window, onto the dusty old carpet of her childhood, taking the Venetian blinds down with her with a crash.

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