|This story is a work in progress.|
“Isn’t there anywhere we can hide?” Jon demanded. He was gripping the handle over the door for dear life as we careened through the Seattle streets. “I thought you knew this town. You live in this area, don’t you?”
“I do, I do,” I said defensively, hauling on the steering wheel to take a left on Dearborn Street. “But nobody lives in this part of Seattle, it’s all—” I grunted as I took another left onto Seventh, heading back north to throw off any possible pursuit. “Warehouses. Industrial shit. Markets and run-down storefronts. We’re too far south of the International District. You see anybody behind us?”
Jon turned and looked out the back window of the Tercel, past the piles of mail and odd bits of clothing residing in my back seat. “There’s a car behind us. I think it’s following us.”
“They’re all following us,” I said, more savagely than I had intended. “It’s a one-way street, they’re all going to be heading north.”
“Oh.” Jon continued to look behind us, trying to spot the red sports car we had seen at the Pike Place Market. With the haste of nervous nervous relief, he said, “He’s not there. I don’t think he’s there. It’s been ten minutes. I don’t think he’s following us.”
“Good,” I said, though I didn’t feel good. “You think he’s got some way to track us? Some way to find us?”
“I don’t know,” Jon admitted, turning to face forward. He saw the skyline of Seattle looming again ahead of us, and unconsciously he put his foot down on the floorboards, as if trying to brake. “Wait, why are we going this way? The freeway was that way. We’re going back into the city!”
We hung tightly as I made a dangerous right turn onto Jackson, heading east. “Just trying to be unpredictable,” I said. “Where can we go? Back on the freeway? Get out of town?”
“He — he changed a whole city block,” Jon said nervously. “I think we have to get out of here. They all — they turned into —”
“Where can we go?” I asked again, clenching my teeth. Freeway entrance signs were approaching rapidly. “Doug’s house?”
“He’s half an hour away.”
“He’s farther. An hour from here, maybe.”
I shook my head. “He won’t be home, and I don’t have a key to his place any more.”
“Just stop anywhere,” Jon said urgently. “We have to hide. Anywhere. Get off the streets.”
“There,” I said, pointing to the side of the road. “That Asian market.”
“That’s no good,” Jon protested. “We can’t hide in a store.”
“Behind it,” I said, gesturing vaguely with one hand while flipping on my turn signal with the other. “Those apartments. I think I know somebody who lives there. If she still does.”
“Can she hide us?”
“How should I know?” I said, irritated. “It’s better than sitting around outside hoping that guy doesn’t see us.”
We found a place to park behind the grocery, somewhere I could put the Toyota where it wouldn’t be visible from the street. We climbed out of the car. My legs were still weak and shaking from the shock of everything. What we had seen — neither of us could have imagined it was possible, that anything like it had been possible. Jon’s face registered a blank, numb fear. I suspected I looked similar. From force of habit, I locked my car, and we surveyed the alley behind the apartment building with unease.
“Who is she?”
“Heather. A friend from theater,” I said. “Opinionated, liberal, very vocal. Kind of on the near side of freaky New Age. Theater major. Dancer. Great body.”
“Oh?” Jon asked with some interest temporarily overriding his anxiety.
“But also a lesbian,” I said immediately. “Don’t worry about her. She’ll help us — if she’s home.”
She was home.
We found Heather in front of her television, wearing pink-and-black striped tights and a figure-hugging black leotard. Her brunette hair was pulled back with a pink headband. Behind her on a spacious mat at one end of her studio apartment were several similarly clad women doing a tae-bo exercise routine to the thundering sounds of Melissa Etheridge.
“Corey?” she said, puzzled, with the door in her hand. She was sweating lightly, breasts visibly heaving in the exposed collar of her leotard — Jon and I tried hard to pretend not to notice. “What are you doing here?”
“We just —” I hesitated, unwilling to put our recent fright into words. “We just saw something really weird, down by Pike Place. Scared the shit out of us, actually. Just wondered if you know . . .”
“What it is?” she asked astutely, and raised a delicate eybrow at us. Heather had, as I mentioned to Jon, a fantastic figure: slender, athletic, and abundantly curved. She was not conventionally beautiful in other regards; her eyes were somewhat too close together, making her nose look a trifle large, but her expression was alert and intelligent and sympathetic.
Heather looked us both over. “What kind of weird are we speaking of, here?” she wanted to know. “Are we talking lunatic-at-the-bus-stop weird, or spaceships-in-the-sky weird?”
“People-melting-and-being-turned-into-black-marionette-things weird,” I responded dryly.
I expected her to protest, or to object to my description. It sounded crazy even to me, and I’d seen it. Heather only looked grave, and chewed her lip for a moment. “I see,” she answered. “I think the others will want to hear this. Come on in, you two.”
A few of the women in her exercise class turned their heads, curious at seeing men enter the studio. Heather gestured to one of them, a serious-looking woman wearing a yellow tanktop, small and lithe, with swarthy skin and her short, black hair in spikes. The woman in yellow went to the front of the room and picked up a tiny iPod and shut off the music. Now all the women turned to watch us. Some of them picked up towels and wiped the sweat from their brows. Others simply used their towels to self-consciously drape around their collars, hiding any extra flesh.
One woman, a well-rounded and dark-haired beauty about five foot five with blue eyes and an impish smile, touched my arm lingeringly as Heather led us to the front of her class. “Who are these, Heather?” she asked in a seductive, gravelly contralto. “New toys for us to play with?”
The woman in yellow with the spiky hair snorted and rolled her eyes. “You can have them, Marcie,” she said, and added under her breath, “and you probably will.”
Marcie appeared not to have heard. Instead, she turned her attention to Jon as he passed, bringing one red-nailed hand up to idly scratch the skin of her overflowing low-cut décolletage. “That’s very generous of you, Dom,” she said, still smiling. “I think I’ll take them both.”
“That’s not very fair,” another woman objected. This one was slender and pale, with thin arms, long legs, longer blonde hair, and wide gray eyes. She wasn’t as busty as Marcie, but her tight exercise outfit left even less to the imagination.
“Shut up, Hannah,” Marcie said, and laughed curtly. “You’ll get your share when I’m done with them.”
“Never mind them,” Heather instructed us, once we were at the front of her class. To her students, she announced, “These two guys have seen something we should know about.”
The women fell into an uneasy hush.
“Where?” Dom asked. Her stern, dark face seemed more serious than ever, and her dark eyes seemed troubled.
“Down by Pike Place,” Jon said. “We saw him . . . I think it was a him,” he faltered, and fumbled for his digital camera. “I didn’t get a good look. Maybe one of my pictures came out—”
“I’m pretty sure it was a man,” I interrupted him. “We were driving down along 3rd, near the Market. I happened to look to the right as we passed the intersection at . . . Stewart, I think. The diagonal one that cuts through the Market.”
A bosomy girl in a rose-colored tee shirt nodded, her auburn hair bobbing. “Stewart,” she agreed.
“Everybody down there was . . . I don’t know, I can’t explain it. Not really exploding. Not melting. Just sort of —” I couldn’t find the words for it. “It wasn’t really bloody or violent, but you could see . . . muscles unhooking, skin peeling away, very slowly and delicately. Like a ballet.”
“There were these black, smoky ribbons, coming from above,” Jon said absently, thumbing the button on his camera. He was looking for the photo he had taken. “Like they were all puppets. Marionettes.”
“There wasn’t any gore,” I said. “It was all very quiet. Nobody was screaming, or anything. Nobody even seemed to notice. It was like they were all . . .”
The auburn-haired girl spoke again, nodding knowingly. “Unwinding,” she said distinctly.
“Yes,” I said. “Unwinding. Being unmade. And there was this guy there, floating just off the street in this cloud of black waves. It was almost as if he were directing it all, commanding these ribbons to come down and unmake everybody.”
“He looked our way,” Jon said. “I know he saw me. He seemed surprised. I got this very bad feeling, like he was going to come after us.”
I nodded at Jon. I had had the same feeling, but I hadn’t mentioned to him at the time. “I just put on the gas and got the hell out of there.”
Jon found a photograph in his camera, and held it up as evidence. “He held out his hands, and the black ribbons spun this car out of thin air. A red convertible, I think a Mercedes.”
“We didn’t wait to see if he was going to get in,” I explained, embarrassed. “We just left. I took a lot of turns, tried to throw him off the scent.”
The women, like Heather, didn’t object to such a fantastic tale. They simply nodded solemnly and murmured sympathies in our direction.
“When was this?” Hannah asked softly.
“About twenty minutes ago,” Jon said. “It hasn’t been much more than that. Damn it,” he said to his camera, exasperated. “I know I got a picture of it.”
Heather shook her head and pursed her lips. “You can’t take pictures of magic like that. Not with that camera. It won’t show up.”
“It happened,” Jon said, still obviously frustrated. “I know it happened. Where’s the picture?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I muttered. “Who’d believe it anyway?”
Heather responded, in a voice at once confident and fearful: “We do.”
The man was known as the Spinner, we were told. He could unwind history and reweave it according to his own imagination. His powers to remake the world were astonishing, and seemingly unlimited. The Spinner could unwind one of his victims back to the day they were born, remove the threads of their existence from the tapestry of the world — and he could re-spin them into any shape he wanted, place them anywhere, in any situation, in any condition. There are ways to protect yourself, the women told us. Ways to avoid his notice. They weren’t easy to learn, nor were they freely available to all. Few enough people ever even saw the Spinner and recognized him for what he was; they would be unable to conceive of ever learning the techniques with which they could defend themselves.
Did that mean we could? we asked them. Could we learn this technique?
The women shook their heads, almost as one: probably not, was the answer.
Nobody could explain who the Spinner was really, or where he had come from, but his presence in the world, his magic, left tangible imprints on the world. In his wake, every time he reshaped the men and matter around him, some artifacts remained, like pockets of magic remaining like tidepools in the rocks when the tide went out. Some of the remaining magic could be harnessed by those who studied the proper methods.
“He’s not all-knowing, thank God,” said Marcie, waving one red-nailed hand expressively. She was bubbly and gregarious, speaking her earthy opinions without grace or inhibition. “If he knew we were here, he’d have come busting down the damn door already, right? And you can tell he hasn’t, because if he had been here, Hannah might actually have some tits.”
“At least I didn’t buy mine,” Hannah said, and stuck out her tongue.
“Those are implants?” asked the busty auburn-haired Dee Dee. She made a moue and cocked her head to examine Marcie’s abundant chest. “They look pretty good, Marce. Where’d you get them done?”
“Oh, they’re not silicone,” Marcie laughed, touching her bosom lightly with her fingernails. “Magical implants, they’re way healthier.”
“Can we stop talking about your breasts for just a few minutes?” drawled a woman near the window, a cynical blonde named Chandra with a cigarette tucked between her dainty fingers. She blew a puff of smoke out the open window and turned her sleepy eyes on Marcie. “I mean, my God, you wave the Twins in our faces enough as it is, I swear you’ll be giving them names next.”
“The Spinner has a small army,” Heather said calmly, pushing the skittering, spiraling conversation briefly back on course. “He’s got men everywhere under his spell, watching out for his interests. He isn’t easy to fool, but they are. He isn’t the one you need to watch out for. By the time you run into him it’ll be too late.”
“What do they look like?” Jon asked anxiously.
Dominga’s answer was immediate. “They can look like anything the Spinner wants them to,” she said flatly. “They’re usually human. And usually men. But not always.”
Hannah reached out and touched Jon’s forearm reassuringly, and beamed when Jon looked her way. “Don’t worry,” she said softly, brushing her straight blonde hair from her face. “If you can see the Spinner, you shouldn’t have any problem seeing who his men are.”
“Do they have the same power he does?” I wondered aloud.
By the window, Chandra shook her head briefly even in the middle of a drag on her cigarette. “Nope. They’re just regular schlubs. They’re his eyes and ears, though. If they happen to see you, then he might see you, through them. Best not to risk it, if you like the shape you are.”
“Can you . . . get out of range, or something?” Jon asked.
Chandra gave a harsh, barking laugh. “Good luck with that. Let me know how it works out for you.”
“His range is actually quite short,” Heather said diplomatically. “But within that range, he is very powerful. Time and space mean very little to him, within his range.”
“That means,” Dominga said darkly, “that unless he sends his men around, he can’t be listening in or watching us this very minute.”
Marcie sighed theatrically and tugged up the deep scooped collar of her tank top. “Shame,” she said, mock-wistfully.
“He can’t read minds either, thank goodness,” Dee Dee added. “He’s powerful but he’s not that powerful.”
“Powerful enough,” Dominga muttered.
“What can we do to hide?” I asked the girls. “Anything? Anything at all?”
Heather looked contemplative. “We don’t know as much about his magic as he does. We only use the leftover magic that he spreads around in his wake.”
“In the tidepools,” I said, remembering the metaphor.
“Exactly,” Heather nodded briskly. “And we know he’s not aware of it. He doesn’t even seem to realize he’s left that magic behind. We can use this magic, and he has no idea we’ve used it up.”
“So we can use his own magic to hide you,” Hannah offered, patting Jon’s hand again. This time, he didn’t look her way, and I saw a quick look of annoyance flash across her face.
“Most of the magic is in the form of artifacts,” said a woman who hadn’t yet spoken. She was pale, with full lips and a dark pageboy haircut. Her features were almost elfin and her eyes were deep and direct. “He leaves behind enchanted items. Magical devices. Sometimes as crude as bits of sidewalk, stones in the street, leaves from trees near to where he has enchanted someone. We collect as many of them as we can, even though we don’t know what most of them do.”
Marcie laughed, her eyes bright. “Yeah, I don’t know what any of them do. It’s a little bit too much for me. Dana’s the smart one.”
“Somehow, his unwinding and remaking magic gets permanently caught in these objects,” Dana explained. “We can use them to eject that magic back out onto a subject.”
“Why would we want to do that?” Jon asked. He was beginning to sound alarmed. “If it can remake us—”
“Do you want to evade him, or not?” Heather asked simply. “If the Spinner has men looking for you, he’s surely told them what you look like. If you get remade into something else, you can throw them off the scent.”
“Remade into what?” I asked. I was feeling nervous, myself.
“We’ll start with something simple,” Heather judged, looking at the two of us. “Dee Dee? Over to you.”
“This ring,” Dee Dee said, pawing inexpertly through a drawer of trinkets, “is enchanted to . . . it’s a ring, enchanted to remake . . . where is it? . . . into a couple. You and the other person wear one. There’s two rings. And it unmakes everything and makes you into a couple . . . there’s one.” She withdrew a plain, unmarked gold band and set it on the countertop of the studio kitchenette. “There’s one,” she said again, as if to keep herself focused. “Okay. And the other ring is . . . I know it’s in here . . . Dana was testing it out on . . . just a minute, no, that’s a different ring. I think. No, that’s the other pair.” Another ring went on the counter beside the first, but this one was silver and marked with diamonds around its circumference.
“Dee Dee,” Marcie said warningly, hiding a smile behind her hand. “You’re making these two men very nervous. Do you know where the rings are?”
“I’m sure they’re in here,” Dee Dee said distractedly. “Look, there’s one. This one is the match to . . . that one,” she said. I tried to pretend she didn’t sound as if she were guessing.
“You are such a scatterbrain,” Chandra said from the window. She had finished her cigarette and was starting on a bottle of Heineken. “Didn’t you think to label any of these things?”
“Labels are too dangerous,” Dominga cautioned. “If anybody found them, then they’d know what they were for. And they’d know that we knew what they were for.”
Marcie rolled her eyes. “Sounds like spy stuff.”
“Oh, wait, here it is,” Dee Dee announced, holding aloft a fourth ring. None of them matched. Three of them were men’s rings, the fourth a woman’s.
“Are you sure you know which ones match, Dee Dee?” Heather said, eyeing them with a smirk. “If you get it wrong, Corey and Jon could end up married to each other.”
“Good,” said Dominga. “Then at least one of them would learn something.”
Heather took a breath, marshaling her calm, and said, “Dom, I love you, sweetheart, but there had to be a better way to say that.”
Meanwhile, Chandra showed genuine interest for the first time since we’d arrived. “You mean if you got the rings wrong, one of them would end up being the man and the other one would end up being the woman?”
Dana nodded somberly. “Yes, I’m afraid so.”
Chandra smirked. “Then maybe they should draw straws.”
“If you insist,” Heather said. “Because they’re going to be marrying some of us.”
“I’m willing to take that chance,” Chandra drawled, cocking one eyebrow in a devilish look.
“I’m serious,” Heather said emphatically. “We need to change their historic signatures just enough that the Spinner won’t recognize them. In order to do that, we need to unmake them as single men, and re-make them as husbands. We need to unwind them back in time by several years and see them married. So — any volunteers?”
The women exchanged silent glances.
“We are trying to save their lives, ladies,” Heather said reproachfully.
“Why don’t you volunteer?” one of the women asked, one I hadn’t met yet.
“It wouldn’t work,” Heather said in a firm voice. “I’m not into men.”
Dana smiled faintly. “You would be, if you were remade.”
“You might even be the man, if we got the rings wrong,” Chandra grinned.
“I do not have the rings wrong,” Dee Dee insisted.
I could tell from the way the women had circled around, and were exchanging knowing looks, that there were unspoken questions in the air — challenges among them, rivalries for dominance — that would not be answered in our presence. I put one hand on Jon’s shoulder and steered him away from the circle of women. “Come on, Jon,” I said. “Let’s let them talk this over.”
We sat uncomfortably at one end of Heather’s apartment-cum-dance-studio while the girls discussed which one of them would volunteer to marry us. Neither of us were prime catches, it must be said; though somewhat handsome, we were both a little overweight and out of shape, with less-than-stellar careers and, given the Spinner might be after us, few likely prospects for the future. Occasionally the hubbub of female voices would rise and fall, and one of them would call out a question: “Do you live in the city?” or “What was your major in school?” or “You don’t already have a girlfriend or anything, right?”
After twenty minutes, we had our answer. Two of the girls approached us: one shyly, the other bold and beaming.
The smiling young woman extended her hand to us, and we each shook it in turn. “I’m Laurel,” she said in a strong, confident voice. “I’m willing to marry one of you. This is Natalie.”
Laurel was a statuesque woman nearly as tall as myself, with wavy, autumn-colored hair — as beautiful as any of the other women in the studio, I realized, and why not? They had access to the Spinner’s leftover magic, so they could make themselves as lovely as they wished to be. All of them had, I guessed: all except Heather and Dominga, who were not unattractive except compared to the magically enhanced beauty of the others, beside whom they looked plain. Laurel’s eyes were a bright, living green, and she had the vivacious personality of a natural extrovert. She was wearing a pair of thigh-clinging black bicycle shorts and an equally clingy green sports bra.
At her side, Natalie was an inch or two shorter, and was an astonishingly platinum blonde, with almost invisibly gray eyes. Her skin was pale, and her nose faintly freckled. She wore a baby blue camisole top with white shorts and white running shoes. The valley between her breasts was freckled as well, I noticed, drawn to examine the spot even as Natalie self-consciously adjusted her spaghetti straps to cover her bra straps. She was smiling now too, but shyly. “We thought it would be better if you chose which one of us you wanted,” she said hesitantly.
“So here we are,” Laurel said, still giving us that winning, charismatic smile. “I’m the go-getter outdoorsy type, rock climbing, cycling, dancing, having fun girl. She’s the quiet, intelligent one who will talk your ear off once you get to know her. Oh,” she added as an afterthought. “There’s just one condition. We’ve already had a chance to use magic on ourselves, to spruce ourselves up a bit,” she said, touching her collarbone modestly. “It’s only fair that we get to change you, too.”
The other women had drawn nearer, interested in the proceedings. Upon hearing them, one among them — Hannah, the stick-thin girl with the straight blonde hair — said, “That’s not fair, I didn’t know we could do that!”
“Be quiet, Hannah, you had your chance,” Marcie laughed raucously.
Jon and I exchanged a look. “I’m sure I speak for both of us,” I said slowly, “when I say we’re extremely grateful you’re going to help us. The whole marriage thing has come up very suddenly — I’m not really sure how it going to help, really. I guess I just don’t understand why you’re so keen to do this. We hardly know each other.”
“We were talking it over,” Natalie said in her soft tones, her eyes going between us uncertainly. “I’m certain you’re the only men we’ve ever seen who could ever see the Spinner. We’ve been aware of him for months, and we gradually came together for protection, but we’ve never seen any males who recognized him for what he was.”
“So you’re something like celebrities, I guess,” Laurel joked.
I have never taken compliments easily, so I shrugged. “I don’t know about that. I’m just not sure I can choose on such short notice.”
“It won’t seem like short notice, once we remake you,” Natalie said quietly. “We’re going to unwind the present back into the past, and remake all the choices that brought us to this place. Only this time, when the future gets woven together, we’ll be married.”
“So choose,” Laurel repeated firmly.
I glanced at Jon, who was looking between me and Natalie questioningly. For my answer, I reached out to take Laurel’s hand. “Thank you,” I said softly to her.
Laurel’s smile widened.
Beside me, Jon took Natalie’s tiny hand in his own, and she blushed.
“What do we do now?” I asked. Holding the hand of a perfect stranger seemed very awkward, but Laurel didn’t seem to mind.
“Now,” she said, opening her other hand, “the rings.”
“You’re sure you have them paired right, Dee Dee?” Chandra asked idly.
“Yep,” Dee Dee chirped. “Positive.”
“So there’s no chance that one of the guys will end up the wife, or something like that?”
“What the hell kind of fun is that?” Chandra objected.
“Don’t make me even more nervous about this,” Jon said, as Natalie handed him a ring, but Chandra just laughed harshly.
Laurel handed me a ring of my own, then looked into my eyes with those amazing green eyes of hers. “Are you ready?”
“Put them on,” Laurel said, and we did.
When I put on the ring I became aware of a coldness, and a great rushing sensation, as if a chill wind was blowing through my brain. Everything was streaming away into a distant blackness, twirling out in great strands: my arms, my legs, my thoughts, my past. Little flashes swept past me, recognizable only for the briefest of eyeblinks as the restaurant where I had worked, the community college I had attended, the high school where I had studied. An image the size of a house rose up and was turn apart in the silent maelstrom: the hospital where I had had life-saving transplant surgery. Strains of music, garbled and reversed, churned in quadraphonic stereo. Voices spoke somewhere beyond the edge of recognition. Other sensations blurred by: the smell of sagebrush, the buzz of insects, the feel of carpet under my bare feet, a familiar kiss.
As my life un-happened before my eyes, my very memories of the events swirled away out of my brain. Even as the image of my childhood home, a towering three-story gabled house on the waterfront, loomed before me, even as I recognized it for what it was, the knowledge of it seemed to seep out of me, and I stared in goggle-eyed wonder at it as it collapsed into the dim fog of the future.
My very mind began to break apart. Shavings from my consciousness whipped away into nothingness. Understanding shrank and senses dimmed. There were still sounds of speech, but I had forgotten that the words had any meaning. Then I forgot about hunger, forgot about pain and sound, about light, then I forgot entirely about myself.
There was nothing at the end but a warm redness, and a slow, rhythmic thunder. My vocabulary had dissolved; I had no words. I couldn’t even describe the sensation of weightless, endless slumber.
In the very deepest core of consciousness, something remained, wrapped safely inside like a pearl within an oyster. I was aware of it — or perhaps it was aware of me — but somehow, I was not aware that I was aware of it. It was a seed of my former self, planted in my unknowing id.
I must be unborn, in the womb, the seed said to itself. I think that’s my mother’s heartbeat. Am I a baby, or am I simply an unfertilized egg? Is this what they mean by unwinding? I’ve reverted back to before the time of my birth.
Something happened there, something profound, that completely escaped my notice. I had the strongest feeling — or at least the seed of my ego did — that I had been unwound to this point for a reason.
Am I being remade? the seed asked of the cosmos. Is my DNA being rewritten? A different sperm conjoined with a different egg? If I had different DNA, would I still be myself?
There was no answer. Instead, the cosmic winding began afresh, this time in the proper direction. Lights and sounds surged and the first years of my life breezed by. Gradually I became aware that I was aware again: the shapeless, formless id was coalescing into a personality. I was— —standing in a huge, rough field of dry, lumpy grass. Children swarmed in the distance in the dry, dusty infield adjoining a rusty backstop. A low, brick school building slunk at the edges of the field beyond a fringe of sawdust. I was six.
Baseball tryouts. Little league.
I was still largely unconscious of the future. I was only a child, my mind still a fog. But that tiny seed remained, and it recognized this field, this school, and this day. The day that probably kept me out of athletics for the rest of my life. And here it came, bouncing irregularly over the uneven grass, a ground ball knocked out my direction so they could see if I had any natural talent. As it had before, thirty years ago, the baseball took a bad hop—
It caught me in the teeth. I was more frightened than hurt, and there wasn’t much blood. I didn’t have any permanent teeth yet to lose. My mother comforted me on the sidelines, of course, sitting me in her lap so she could stroke my hair.
“Do you want to try again, sweetie?” she asked me gently, kissing my head. “It’ll be okay if you don’t want to.”
But this time — this time, instead of retreating from the failure at the field, instead of withdrawing into academia where I knew I could demonstrate my ability, this time—
“I’m gonna try again, Mom,” I sniffled. “And I’m gonna catch it this time.”
She smiled down at me . . . and an instant later, the world was rushing past again in a tangle of black threads and fog and interweaving strands of history.
And then I was on another dusty baseball field, six years later. This was Bucknell Field, before the billboards descended and the roads were widened and the parking lot paved. I was in seventh grade, now, and I was up to bat. There was a man on first — Donald Miller, I think — and any minute now, I expected someone to catcall derisively from the dugout, “Go on, hit it with your big brain!”
When last I had stood here in the batter’s box, I had laced a single to right field, quite beyond the expectations of my classmates. Nobody had known that I could hit. Proving myself moderately capable at sports had silenced my enemies, but it hadn’t made me any friends, either.
This time, there were no catcalls as I connected solidly on a nice, sweet swing that sent the ball careening into the left-field corner. Instead I heard something like . . . encouragement.
Again the world whipped out of sight, exploding into a shower of unraveling black strands. When it resolved again, I was four years older, a junior in high school. This was the office of the careers counselor, and she was saying—
“You have very good grades, Corey. In addition to that, you do a lot of extracurricular work, in the theater, in music, in the school newspaper, and on the baseball team.”
Baseball team? that tiny seed of ego asked. A lot has certainly changed in this lifetime — I was never in organized music before, and I was certainly never on any sports teams.
“All you have to do,” the careers counselor said, “is fill out some of these scholarship applications. I’m sure you have a very good chance of making the University of Washington on a baseball scholarship. What do you say?”
Just as I was saying yes, the world unraveled again.
My life is being remade, the seed thought with marvel. I’m moving through my life at lightning speed, moving to crucial decision points and changing the course of my future. Will I still be myself when this is all done?
I was slow-dancing with Brandy Bartlett at the senior prom, the same Brandy who was the chestiest girl in the senior class by a full cup size. She hadn’t been my date last time around, but evidently this time I had asked someone else — someone who had before been far out of my league. She kissed my neck and hugged me more tightly, and sniffled, “I’m really am happy you got your scholarship. You will call me, won’t you?”
“Of course I will,” I said, and stroked her hair.
Everything sped away again, galloping into the past. There was no disorientation as I hopped from moment to moment through time: the tiny abstract seed that was separate from myself observed everything as might a stone skipping over water, catching glimpses here and there, but the larger Self which was living the life, the bundle of electrochemical reactions and neurons was swimming the sea itself, developing a personality, accumulating memories. It always knew where it was; it knew no more of the Other Life that had been unmade than a fish is aware of the sky.
Now I was in a brick plaza, one the seed instantly recognized as the University’s so-called Red Square. Around the square, groves of ornamental trees blazed with leaves of fiery orange. Students crossed the square carrying their books, or rode bicycles to class, or sat in the benches along the margin to read. Magisterial buildings of orange and white brick rose imposingly from the perimeter, facing the square with stolid white window frames and steep, ornamental gables.
And I was extending my hand in greeting to —
“Jon,” the young man introduced himself. He was perhaps eighteen to my twenty-three, and he was handsome in a square-jawed, windswept, southern-California-surfer kind of way, hair parted on the left and brushed absently to one side. “I made it on a soccer scholarship.”
“Welcome to the U,” I said, shaking his hand. Deep inside me there seemed to be a faint voice trying to get my attention, and I had the oddest sense of dTja vu. Responding to that tiny voice, I asked, “Are you from California?”
Jon nodded, puzzled. “Yes. And you play the piano, right?”
“Yes,” I said, returning the nod. “You know, I have the strangest sensation that I should know you.”
He broke the spell first. “The rings,” he said, and then his expression turned to surprise, as if he himself could not believe what he had said. “We’re being remade, aren’t we?”
“I think so,” I said, at the suggestion of the tiny seed of Self. “It’s really confusing. Hard to remember. How did you get to Seattle?”
“I chose a different school, I think,” Jon said. “It just worked out that way.”
Everything vanished again. Jon and I were rushed apart by the strands of reality unraveling the world around us.
I was sitting idly in a bar in the University District. A mug of Pyramid ale was on the counter before me. It was New Year’s Eve.
What year is it? the seed asked. I’m getting confused. Nothing like this ever happened in the previous life. Why am I here? Why this moment?
Across the table from me, jauntily wearing a sparkling party hat, was Laurel. “Well,” she said with a tipsy grin, putting her chin on her hand clumsily. “Sure as hell beats sitting at home with kidney stones, isn’t it?”
“This is the New Year’s I missed?” I asked in realization.
“You spent several days on the couch in agony,” she said brightly, and took a drink of my beer. “Instead you’re here. Getting to know me. Damn, I drank too much.”
I couldn’t help but smile at her. Even though I had only known her a few minutes, I had also, in another sense, known her for six months. I loved her. “So what are we doing here?” I asked. My face was tingling. I must have been drinking, also.
“In a minute,” she said, attempting to sit up straight, “we’re gonna get married. But you have to do something first.” “Oh?” I asked. “What’s that?”
She stole another drink of my Pyramid ale. “Propose, you goof.”
“Laurel,” I asked, reaching into my pocket for the ring, “would you marry me?”
Another tangle of reality swept aside and we stood together at the altar. Laurel was radiant in a white dress, and she looked much more calm than I felt. “I do,” she said quietly, looking up into my eyes.
The world blurred again. Jon and I found a place to park behind the grocery, somewhere I could put the Toyota where it wouldn’t be visible from the street. We climbed out of the car. My legs were still weak and shaking from the shock of everything. What we had seen — neither of us could have imagined it was possible, that anything like it had been possible. Jon’s face registered a blank, numb fear. I suspected I looked similar. From force of habit, I locked my car, and we surveyed the alley behind the apartment building with unease.
We knocked on Heather’s door. She answered it, in pink-and-black striped tights and a tight, low-cut black leotard. Melissa Etheridge thumped a 12/8 bass beat in the background.
“Hello, boys,” Heather smiled at us knowingly. “You must be here to pick up your wives.”
The last tangles cleared away. Jon and I stood together in Heather’s dance studio with our rings on. Natalie and Laurel stood with us; Natalie’s smile was embarrassed but proud; Laurel’s was wickedly triumphant.
“And that,” my wife said, slipping her arm around me, “is how it works.”
In this new life I was much more athletic than I had been before: well-toned and tanned, muscular, and at least two inches taller. In correcting my defects, Laurel and Natalie had removed my dysfunctional liver, edited out my kidney transplant and year of dialysis, and given me a more positive attitude toward the rewards of hard work. After all, in this world, everything I now had came from hard work: my body, my beautiful former-cheerleader wife, my career.
They hadn’t been too enamored of my career in the hospital’s low medical billing department, and had given me the skills and the degree that placed me as the hospital’s chief financial officer. Similarly, Jon had once worked in a research library; now, he was a published historian.
My other life remained accessible to me — it still formed part of who I was, albeit a smaller, more distant part than before. All the events of my previous life seemed somehow flat and sterile, subject to re-interpretation, as if that life had been a dull story I had once indifferently skimmed through. Memories of the new life lurked in the back of my brain, making themselves known at opportune moments, twisting my thoughts. I had been shaped into a slightly different person, slightly better, by the remaking, and I had to admit, if Laurel came along with that, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. “Okay, kitten, I’m confused,” I said to Laurel. “Did we see the Spinner in this life, or not?”
“Yes,” she said slowly. “I’m sure you did. And then you came here.”
I thought about it. “So the Spinner knows what we look like?”
“No,” she said. “The Spinner isn’t aware that anything has changed. At least, he shouldn’t be. You have always been someone else, but the Spinner only knows the man you used to be. Your . . . not signal, not sign . . .” My wife frowned and waggled one hand, trying to find the right word. “Your signature has been changed.”
I took her hand and kissed it. “So by marrying me, you saved me from the Spinner?”
Laurel grinned, her eyes bright. “You can find some way to pay me back later.”
I laughed softly and kissed her hand again. “Kitten, you didn’t just save me from the Spinner, you gave me this . . . this great body. You made me an Adonis. You made me into the perfect man for you.”
“You can thank me for that separately,” Laurel said, and closed her eyes as I nibbled at her fingertips. “Yes,” she breathed, smiling. “That would be one way.”
“Later?” I asked her suggestively.
She took a deep breath. “Yes,” she said. “Later. Right now, let’s go visit your friend Doug.”
I was momentarily taken aback. “You know who Doug is?”
“Of course I do,” Laurel said. “I’m your wife. You and Jon have been planning this weekend for months, coming up to Redmond to visit Doug.” “I guess so,” I said sheepishly. “It’s hard to get used to this remaking business.”
Our wives said their goodbyes to the other women of Heather’s exercise class. Laurel lingered with Hannah, speaking in low tones about something. Hannah seemed devious and determined somehow, as if she were trying to convince my wife of something; she kept glancing our way. Laurel looked as if she were objecting strongly. Jon’s wife Natalie gathered their things, and had a few quiet words with Dee Dee. She appeared to be showing off her new wedding ring.
We went outside and got into the Jaguar. I had actually unlocked all the doors with the electronic key before I realized it wasn’t my car — that is, it wasn’t the Toyota I remembered.
“Jaguar?” I asked Laurel, as she slipped into the passenger side, sliding over the leather seats.
“Don’t you remember?” she asked, amused. “It was your birthday present.”
“I do remember, now,” I said, patting her thigh. My previous life seemed terribly far away, and the present one, with Laurel as my wife, seemed simultaneously real and dream-like — impossibly wonderful but nevertheless true. “Thank you again.”
We left Seattle bound for the floating bridges over Lake Washington. The Jaguar handled beautifully, its engine was responsible, and the ride suitably comfortable. Laurel chatted merrily with Natalie via cellular phone, catching up on all the details that had changed since the re-winding. Evidently Jon was now a historian, and I was head of the hospital’s finances; essentially, our existing careers had been extended to their logical conclusions. Jon and his wife were following behind in their Mercedes.
I listened, bemused, to the litany of revisions. They seemed unusual, but at the same time, eminently familiar. All the things that had happened in this life, I could remember doing, despite knowing I had never done them. Periodically, I would remember something from my true life, and there was an instant of dissonance where I tried to reconcile the Life That Was with the Life That Used To Be.
Doug lived in the suburbs of Redmond in a battered apartment complex in a curiously new part of town — or at least he had, previously. Something about the place had changed, though I was at a loss to explain why.
Jon, in the car behind, noticed it as well. “Jon says it looks like they’ve fixed up the place,” Laurel relayed as I maneuvered the Jaguar up the inclined driveway to the complex. “At least, since the last time he was here.”
Since Jon had called Doug from his cellular phone, giving him advance warning that we were en route, Doug was ready to meet us at the base of the staircase to his apartment. He was looking a little wild around the eyes, uncombed and rumpled, as if he had gone to sleep in these clothes and woken up only recently. Doug worked the night shift, as I recalled.
I thumbed the electric window as he approached the Jaguar.
“Am I crazy,” he began, bending down to look in the driver’s-side window, “or crazier than usual, anyway, but is there something strange about my apartments?”
“Strange?” Laurel asked alertly.
“Yeah. They didn’t used to be this . . . nice,” he said, looking around. “It’s like they painted the whole place. And fixed the stairs, over there. And the landscaping looks nicer.”
“You still work nights, right?” I asked. “Maybe they’ve been working on this stuff and you just didn’t notice before.”
“Maybe,” Doug said, in a profoundly unconvinced voice. “I think I would have noticed if they were doing carpentry during the daylight hours. It would have woken me up.” He appeared to notice the Jaguar for the first time. “Whose car?”
“Mine,” I said. “Birthday present from my wife.”
Doug looked stunned. “When did you get married?”
“Four years ago. You’ve met Laurel, right?” I tried to sound casual, but evidently something was amiss. Whatever had happened to rewrite history and everyone in it, it had somehow missed Doug.
He rubbed his eyes. “This is too weird,” Doug mumbled. “You look like you’ve lost a lot of weight, too. What the hell is going on?” I sighed. “Let me park somewhere and we’ll talk about it inside.”
“That way, you can find some parking,” Doug said, gesturing. He followed his own finger to where a neat row of shrubbery adorned a sidewalk. “Well, there used to be. How about over . . . there?”
We gathered in Doug’s apartment as best we could. It wasn’t really spacious enough for four visitors. Jon sat on the recliner near the sliding glass door, with Natalie perched on his lap and one arm twined around his shoulder. Laurel and I sat on the futon-sofa together, hands intertwined as if we were still newlyweds; in one sense, I suppose we still were. Doug sat on the other end of the futon, looking between Jon and me with a puzzled expression. He had not fully accepted our explanation.
“At least it explains why I seem to remember you being a little bit heavier,” he said with a quick grin. “I keep remembering things from the other life.”
“I used to be out of shape,” Jon admitted. “In this life I stay pretty active.”
“It keeps you looking good,” Natalie assured him, patting his shoulder.
“Thanks,” he said, and kissed her.
“But it doesn’t explain what happened to my apartments,” Doug went on. “If all that got unwound was you four, then why did my apartment complex change?”
“I suppose it’s possible that something in one of our lives had a peripheral effect on yours,” I guessed. “I can’t remember any particular reason why that might be. Maybe the manager of the apartment complex visited the hospital where I work, in this life?”
“It’s awfully far away,” Doug said, shaking his head. “Maybe. But I doubt it.”
“Maybe the Spinner knows somebody who lives here, and wanted the apartments to be nicer,” Jon suggested.
“The Spinner could have made them nicer than this, darling,” Natalie said diplomatically. “He could certainly have done better than a paint job a some landscaping.”
Laurel has been thinking. “If he had a friend here, he could have installed him into a mansion and left the apartments alone,” she concluded. “So it’s probably peripheral. An unexpected side effect.”
“The real question is, why do I remember it?” Doug asked. “If what you say is true, most people don’t even notice. My neighbors didn’t. I haven’t seen anybody asking questions today, wondering when things got fixed up.”
Natalie and Laurel exchanged a look. “You might be like Corey and Jon,” Natalie said slowly. “They’re the only two men so far we’ve found who seem to realize what the Spinner is doing. Up until today, the only people we ever found who had seen the Spinner were women.”
“Hence the coven,” Laurel joked, tickling my knee.
“So what does that mean?” Doug asked, some nervousness apparent in his voice. “Am I going to have to go into hiding as well?”
“Not yet, we hope. We don’t really know,” Natalie said candidly. “The Spinner might be aware of you, considering that your apartments have mysteriously been changed. It may or may not suggest ill intent.”
“Although if you want some camouflage,” Laurel suggested, “Dee Dee did say there were other wedding rings.”
“Why not just use the ones you used before?” Doug asked curiously.
Laurel shrugged. “The devices we find only work one time, and disappear into the worldline.”
“Ah,” I said, nodding. “That’s why you keep combing the tidepools for additional magic.”
“Exactly,” she said.
“So I suppose we could go back and see Doug safely married.”
“Ugh, back?” Natalie said, and made a face. “No offense, Doug, I like Dee Dee a lot, and I think you’d make her a great husband, but we came straight here from exercising. I need a shower so badly right now I can taste it.”
“You can take the Mercedes home,” Jon offered. “I’ll ride with them in the Jag.”
We had a lot to explain to Doug on the way back to Heather’s studio. In particular, we tried to paint a picture of Dee Dee, the woman who we thought might end up as Doug’s wife.
“She’s good-looking,” I said. “Auburn-colored hair. Pretty stacked. She had on a pink something, might’ve been a sweater. Bit of a scatterbrain.”
“Natalie says that’s an act,” Jon said in Dee Dee’s defense, from the back seat of the Jaguar. “She only does that around guys. Tries to pretend as if she isn’t as smart as she really is.”
“She’s the one who suggested marriage in the first place,” I explained. “She found the rings, among all their trinkets. The others teased her, said she would get them all mixed up.”
“And what if she did get them mixed up?” Doug asked, laughing.
“Then Dee Dee would end up wearing the pants, and you’d be the blushing bride,” Jon grinned.
“But she’s not there,” Doug said thoughtfully. “That’s what the girl said, right?”
I nodded, and flicked on the Jaguar’s turn signal to change lanes. “Heather said Dee Dee would pick out a set of matching rings, but she wouldn’t be able to stay long enough to meet you tonight. Fortunately, there’s no rush. The Spinner hasn’t figured out you can see him — or so we suppose.”
“I’m not sure I like the sound of so we suppose,” Doug said in a joking tone. “But heck, if I end up looking anything like you two, all buffed up, I guess I could wait until tomorrow to meet her. I mean, she’s only going to be my wife and all.”
“It might not be her,” I warned him. “Heather just said that Dee Dee would find some matching rings. I don’t even remember if she was married herself. I didn’t really check.”
“She’s gorgeous and busty and you didn’t check?” Doug laughed, astonished.
“I’m married,” I protested, and stopped. “Well, I wasn’t married then. Not in that world. But they’re all gorgeous. Almost all of them used whatever leftover magic they could find to make themselves beautiful.”
Doug nodded, and watched the lake buzz by outside the Jaguar’s passenger window. We were cruising along the floating bridge at a pretty good clip. “Who else might it be?”
“Heather didn’t say,” I said.
Jon put his hand on the back of my seat. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing forward through the windshield.
Up ahead there was a cloud of blackness developing, the center of a tangle of swirling strands. The Spinner was somewhere ahead of us.
Jon thumped my seat. “Stop!”
“Where?” I demanded. “We’re on a bridge!”
“Can’t we turn around?”
“Bridge!” I reminded him, exasperated. “There’s no exits here, unless you want me to drive into the lake.”
“Is he waiting for us?” Doug asked, alarmed. “What is all that stuff? Is that the unwinding?”
“Yeah,” I said, gritting my teeth. “All right, we can’t go around him. I can’t see what he’s doing from here, but it looks like he’s right around the I-90 tunnel.”
“What can we do?” Jon asked. I didn’t risk a look back at him, but he was beginning to sound a little panicked.
“Not much we can do,” Doug said. “There’s no way off the bridge. We can just go right by him and hope for the best.”
“Or we can stop,” Jon suggested forcefully. “We can just stop. Pretend we have car trouble or something.”
“There’s no shoulder,” I said. “If we stop we’ll just draw attention to ourselves.”
“Just drive on by,” Doug urged me.
“We don’t have a choice, we’re almost there,” I said.
And then we were. The Spinner stood on a single black ribbon that rose undulating from the surface of the lake like a Lovecraftian tentacle. His uniformly black clothing, a longcoat and slacks and a loose-fitting peasant shirt, whipped in the wind of his uncreation. Around him, from his hands, black strands entangled the world, dismantling the substance of the Lake Washington bridge itself. The cars careened on, driving over an empty expanse of water, unimpeded, and the drivers completely failed to notice.
“He looks young,” Doug said, startled, as we sped past. “Maybe twenty.”
“Don’t look at him,” Jon hissed.
I didn’t say anything. I just gripped the wheel and tried to follow the car ahead of me. I could no longer see the road; there was nothing under our wheels but water.
“Did he see you?” Jon asked, hunched down in the back seat.
“I don’t know,” Doug said. “Maybe. He watched as we went by, but I don’t know if he really saw us.”
The back of the Jaguar exploded into black strands. Air rushed into the compartment with the howling voice of freeway speeds, disarranging our hair. I looked into the rearview mirror and saw that the trunk, the back window, and most of the back seat had been unmade, and the Spinner stood with his arm outstretched toward us, emitting a desperate, unearthly shriek.
“Yeah,” Jon said dryly. “He saw us.”
“Go faster,” Doug said.
Whatever the Spinner was doing to the bridge, it was more important than pursuing us. We had temporarily managed to escape the limited range of his power, but we were all certain that, once again, he would pursue us when he had leisure. Our brand-new disguises had been completely blown.
“Shit,” I said. “I was beginning to like being rich and well-to-do. Now we have to get a different disguise?”
“Either that,” Doug said, “or we go back to the Spinner and apologize. I’m sure he’d like that.”
“No way,” Jon said. “Let’s find Heather. There’s got to be some other disguise we could use.”
“Is that a car following us?” Doug asked, hunched over to look in the passenger-side mirror.
“Oh, shit,” I said, more emphatically. “Keep an eye on it. It’s probably one of the Spinner’s men. We’ll have to try to lose him.”
“Half the car is gone,” Doug pointed out. “How are we gonna lose him? We’re sort of obvious.”
Jon gripped the edge of Doug’s seat. “Up there,” he shouted above the wind. “There’s Jackson Street.”
“I see it,” I said, hauling on the wheel grimly. “And there’s the Asian market near Heather’s studio. Is that car behind us?”
Doug and Jon turned as one to watch out the back of the disintegrated Jaguar. “Nope,” Doug said. “I don’t see it.”
“He’s back there,” Jon said, darkly. “I just know it.”
I jammed on the brakes and turned quickly into the alley behind the studio, the motor still running.
“And there he went,” Doug said with relief as a car passed the alley entrance.
“All right,” I said, climbing out of the Jaguar. “We don’t have much time. Let’s go see Heather.”
Over an hour had passed. Most of the girls had gone home. Heather answered the door to her studio wearing a bathrobe, her hair pulled back into girlish pigtails. Her pigtails were wet. In one hand she had a glass of wine. “Well, hi,” she said brightly, leaning on the door frame. “I didn’t esspect to see you back soo soon. So soon,” she corrected herself. “We were just having some wine to relax. Come on in! Dee Dee left your drinks on the counter. Did I say drinks?” Heather asked blankly. “Rings. I meant rings. Come on in, have some wine.”
“Heather, we just saw the Spinner,” I said, glancing over my shoulder. “His car just went right by here. Can you hide us with something?”
“Hide you? Again?” she asked. She tugged her bathrobe tighter, as if trying to pull herself together. “Sure. Come in. Let me find something.
“Is this Doug?” she asked, stepping aside as we entered, and closing the door behind us. “Dee Dee mentioned something about him. I guess he won’t need that ring, now. We’ll need a stronger disguise. Go say hello to the girls and I’ll be right back.”
The only women that were left behind, besides Heather herself, were Hannah and Marcie and another woman I hadn’t met, a gorgeous brunette with full lips and a ripe body. She had stunning, hypnotizing gray eyes, and her name was Margot. All the women were sitting in a Jacuzzi in a cedar-paneled room adjoining Heather’s studio space: Hannah wearing a form-fitting one-piece, Margot straining the strings of a bikini top, and Marcie unabashedly topless. We waved and gave them an awkward greeting. “Heather told us to wait here while she sorted out some kind of disguise for us,” I explained, remembering to keep my eyes off of Marcie.
“Another disguise?” Margot asked languidly, sipping at her wine, her eyes half-closed. “I thought you were just here an hour ago being disguised.”
“We ran into the Spinner on the floating bridge,” Jon said. He, too, was careful to make only eye contact.
“Well, well,” Hannah drawled, looking over Jon and me with undisguised desire. She draped one of her pale, slender arms across the back of the Jacuzzi beside her, dripping water onto the roiling surface. “It’s the married men, back again to give us another chance.”
“Another chance?” Doug asked blankly.
Hannah barely looked at Doug; instead, her eyes were on us. “You know, there’s nothing sexier than a married man.”
Marcie laughed raucously. “Hannah, the only guy you ever do find sexy are the ones you can’t have.”
Hannah shrugged. “With a married man, you know he’s got experience. You know he’s got something going for him. With single men, you’re always taking a chance.”
“We’re not here to give you another chance,” I said firmly to her. “We need Heather’s help in coming up with a disguise. The Spinner might be after us right now.”
“But after you have your disguise, perhaps?” Hannah asked, her gaze very direct. “What about then?”
I gave her a chilly stare. “I’m married, Hannah.”
“Not really,” she said, feigning a yawn. “An hour ago you were single. And an hour later you had been married for four years. It was arranged. You were unwound and remade with magic. You don’t really love Laurel, do you?”
“Of course I do!”
“Really?” she asked, and sighed. “It’s all artificial. You didn’t have any choice in the matter. It’s just a disguise which has outlived its usefulness. Now, if I were to help disguise you—”
“You can help us?” Jon asked, warily.
Doug’s response was more blunt. “Why would you?”
“When you get made into my disguise, there would just be a small part written in for me. Mistress, perhaps. Or I could be a sexy secretary having an affair with her boss.” Hannah looked entirely unashamed at her forward proposal. “I could be a cute little maid. Or a cook. You would be the rich husband who is unsatisfied with his wife’s attentions — oh, don’t give me that look. You know as well as I that your marriages are fake. They’re just fiction. I, on the other hand, can offer you a very useful disguise, and a home away from home when your wife is starting to become tiresome—”
Marcie laughed again. “You never give up, do you?” she said rhetorically, and Margot simply gave her a cool, distant look, neither approving nor disapproving, as if she were merely appraising Hannah’s technique.
“If you are so interested in us,” Jon said stiffly, “then you should have said so before.”
“You weren’t married before,” Hannah said, and yawned again. “You were dull and overweight and single. You’re much, much more interesting now.”
The door to the Jacuzzi room opened, and there was Heather, holding her bathrobe closed at the collar. She seemed to sense that there was an odd atmosphere in the room, and she glanced at the girls in the hot tub with brief curiosity. “I think I’ve found something,” she said, turning to us. “But you’re going to have to choose soon.”
“Why’s that?” Doug asked.
“Because,” Heather said, “there are some men coming into the building.”
Jon, Doug and I exchanged a brief look, then we turned together toward Heather. “What have you found for us?” Doug asked.
“A belt, a hat, and a bottle,” Heather said. “They all look different, but they’re magical remnants from the same enchantment. We found them after the Spinner . . . altered some men near Pioneer Square. All of them do essentially the same thing.”
“Do what?” I wanted to know. I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“They’ll turn you into women,” Heather said simply. And she smirked.
“Permanently?” Jon asked, worried.
“All unwinding and remaking is permanent,” Heather reminded us.
“And do you have something to reverse the effects?” Doug asked.
“Possibly,” she said. “We don’t exactly have a color catalog of all the pieces. There might just be reversals for one of you. Maybe two.” Over in the hot tub, Hannah yawned and stretched meaningfully. “It sure would be a shame if you all ended up as women,” she sighed. “If only there were an alternative.”
In the room beyond, there was a knock on the studio door. Heather looked at us.
Without glancing at the others, I said to her, “We’ll take it.”