I was on the verge of breakthrough with my time travel experiments when my future self appeared to me, urging me to reconsider. The shock was so great that the idea, which had seemed so monumental just moments before I appeared to myself in the past, that is the present, from the future, that is the other present – the idea was driven completely from my mind. I slapped my palms against my skull, in an attempt to force the revelation back up the pipe before it trickled away completely.
“Don’t bother,” I told myself, sipping a mysterious daiquiri–a future daiquiri?– “Time travel is impossible anyway.” I had apparently taken advantage of the intervening years to cultivate a weedy little strip of a goatee, what I had heard referred to as a “soul patch.” This made it difficult to take myself seriously.
“Pardon me,” I ventured, stroking the smooth spot on my chin in a gesture of past-superiority, “but I had actually just arrived at a fairly decent working model. You see, the trick is leaving time, that is t, as a variable, but also as a constant. You just don’t solve for time, and it ceases to be a hindrance. Of course, you don’t need me to tell you this. It’s–”
“Nope,” I replied, a little too smugly for my own tastes. “It’s just not albedo.”
“It’s not albedo. Doable. Sorry. A well-documented effect of the neural chronic displacement: the subject will sometimes speak unwittingly in anagrams.”
“Oh, alright then. I thought it was some stupid future slang.”
“Redoubt.” I did a little waggling thing with my eyebrows, which I noticed were considerably bushier than my own, though I’ve never bothered with plucking or weeding. They were also arctic blonde, unlike my current ones, and actually resembled a llama pelt to a startling degree, both in consistency and in odor.
I experienced an upheaval in the region of my spleen. I would like to describe it as a sharp pain, since that is the sensation normally associated with spleen issues, but it was really lingering and nothing like pain. It was more of a harrowing of the invisible organs.
When I saw me clutching at the area below my lower left rib cage, where the spleen is known to reside, I nodded with irritating gravitas. “I suppose you could have predicted this would happen?” I shouted at myself. I nodded again, like a real bastard–incidentally, I am a real bastard, wedlock-free child of a feckless roustabout and a really quite penitent Sister of the Church–but I have never acted like one. I was beginning to like myself less and less. “So what, is this one of the unpleasant, possibly moribund side effects of time travel?” I asked.
I shook my farcical head, which, I now noticed through bleared vision, was, though identical to my present physiognomy–minus the stupid ursine patches of shag, like some caveman display of testosterone–swollen to about 113% of its usual size. It was tethered to my shoulders like an unshorn zeppelin. “I told you,” I explained sanctimoniously, “time travel is impossible. This is probably an adverse reaction to the cytotoxins in my futuristic daiquiri.”
“But I haven’t been drinking the daiquiri,” I pointed out.
“Yes I have.” It was difficult to argue with this.
“Okay,” I tried again, switching tactics. My left side, which felt as though it had been pierced with a lance or a poleaxe, was leaking some sort of lime-green mucus, apparently directly through the pores. This didn’t seem promising; it was really a disgustingly unnatural shade of green. “So I have been drinking the daiquiri. But I haven’t been drinking it. Personally. So why am I being effected, and not myself, when I’m the one who’s actually been drinking it?”
I’ll admit that I could probably have worded this better; still, it was somewhat discouraging to see how long it took me to work it out, susurrating the entire time, my lips wriggling wordlessly like fat maggots. After several excruciating minutes, my stupid gibbous face settled into an easy grin. “Well, it’s all pretty right forward sat, isn’t it? Impels, I mean. Not a problem. See, I’m in the past, aren’t I?” I shrugged noncommittally. “Well, it follows that anything I do in the past will affect my past self, right? And since I’m from the future, nothing bad can possibly happen to me in the past, right? Or else I wouldn’t survive to make it to the future. So I’m immune, obviously.”
I pretended to pick lint off my argyle sweater. It was a feeble feint, since the foul-smelling green stain, which was actually starting to turn orange as it dried, had rendered any such minute cultivations superfluous. It was amazing, what a hamfist I was when it came to temporal matters. I think looking down at my sweater upset my equilibrium, because when I looked up again, I was on the ground. From this vantage, I could now appreciate the pretentious future cleats that I was wearing. They buckled directly to my pants, except the buckles weren’t real buckles, just Velcro made to look like buckles. I watched as I pulled a future-spanner from my future-vest, which wasn’t argyle at all but was decorated with dizzying swirls of mauve and taupe, and two little spigots above the nipples. As I observed myself from the floor, I began to attack the radiator with my future-spanner, which looked suspiciously like a normal spanner wrapped in aluminum foil.
“What are you doing?” I asked from my supine position.
“Destroying your time machine, once and for all.”
I didn’t bother to correct my mistake.
That summer, Atlanta cooked over low heat.
Detective Pectin suspected foul play. We all did, from the moment that one of the Strawberry twins – was it Mary or Sherry? – turned up missing at her long-anticipated ballet recital, which is to say that she didn’t turn up at all. Around the same time, the Rhubarb boy – Franky I think he’s called – was making a polite telephone call to the Strawberry residence. Harry picked up. Franky, who had been hoping to talk to one of the girls, spent ten crucial minutes mumbling over gracious how-d’y-do’s. Eventually Harry asked him nicely to stop being so damned obsequious, and so Franky spilled the beans over why he was calling in the first place. It was an awkward situation, he began.
It seems Sherry or Mary – the other one from the one who wasn’t at the dance recital, in any case – had been slated to meet Franky out by Lake Allatoona for a secret kind of rendezvous. Harry hadn’t been informed; so far as he was concerned, she was studying kinesthetics with her friend Cinnamon. But the rendezvous had been planned out weeks in advance, Franky and the Strawberry girl had rented a cabin, and there was no friend named Cinnamon anyhow. Franky would have known, surely. The missing girl shared everything with him, and besides, kinesthetics wasn’t a subject they taught at Chamblee High School. Harry was always the last to know.
To hear Ms. Lemon, the Strawberrys’ live-in maid, tell it, Harry’s face got red as a beet when he heard about that. But the Rhubarb boy says the old man’s voice was dead calm when he asked why, exactly, Franky was choosing that night to impart this delicate information.
Well, sir, because she’s late. Twenty minutes, to be precise. You know ___ry’s never late, sir.
Harold Strawberry had to admit this was true. Neither of his daughters had ever, to his knowledge, missed an appointment in the entirety of their young well-ordered lives (the line being tied up by Franky’s awkward fawning, he had not yet received the news about the recital). And did the boy know where she might have been detained?
Franky was hoping to hear it from the old man, to be honest. He was hoping, awful as it sounded, that the girl had been bitten by a sudden flew. High fever, and…. Harry was sorry to say that she hadn’t. He thanked the boy for letting him know and hung up the phone.
Ten minutes later, the call from the police finally came through. Even so, it wasn’t long before they found the bodies. They’d been hulled and halved, according to Dietrich Sugar, who discovered the remains in back of their pecan grove, which ran right up alongside the Strawberrys’ own. They were bleeding from some unknown source; when the forensics people loaded them into the body bags, they had released some of their juices, leaving bright-red prints on their identical torn white dresses. This was a red herring in the case for a long time, but Detective Pectin eventually came to the conclusion that their confluence of dress had no real significance. They’d simply both had the same idea at the same time, as twins often will.
There were discolorations in the skin of one that suggested she had been kept in a freezer, or some very cold place at any case, for some time prior to her death. It was impossible to identify, at this point, which of the twins was which, their bodies had been so mangled. Their underpants were missing entirely, though the forensics people couldn’t find any concrete evidence of rape, nor any concrete evidence against it. Bizarrely, it seemed that the bodies had been handled with sterilized metal tongs, dipped in water hot enough to leave permanent marks on the girls’ skin.
Most significant, in the long run, was the fact that the bodies weighed no more than eighty pounds by the time they were discovered. The true meaning of this puzzling oddity wasn’t realized until Franky Rhubarb was stopped by police on his way back to town, to be questioned initially as a witness only. That all changed when they, detecting the alcohol on his breath, popped his trunk as a formality and discovered several jars of a gelatinous red liquid that wasn’t immediately identifiable as blood. Once they’d made that connection, of course, it wasn’t long before they matched it up with the missing girls.
For a feverish few hours, it seemed that Franky Rhubarb was the prime suspect. Then it came out – Sherry’s friend Cinnamon was the first to say it, I think – that Mary had been going with Stanley Sugar, Dietrich’s nephew, behind Franky’s back. Moreover, she had noisily and publicly broken it off with Stanley in the halls of Chamblee High on the very afternoon of her disappearance. Suddenly, Franky’s culpability didn’t seem so certain.
While investigating the Stan Sugar connection, Dt. Pectin brought some other strange secrets to light, secrets that had been kept sealed for nearly as long as the two families had been living alongside one another. First, there was the fact that the Strawberrys’ live-in maid, Ms. Lemon, had prior to her residence there been under the employ of the very same Dietrich Sugar who had discovered the bodies in the first place. She claimed to have been witness of many secret encounters, not only between Mary and Stanley, but between Stanley and Sherry as well. It wasn’t until she’d walked in on Dietrich and Mary – then barely a familiar face at Chamblee High, mind you – that she’d been canned by the Sugars. How much of this information had changed hands when, a week later, Harold Strawberry had hired her remains a matter of contention.
Following this new evidence, Dt. Pectin ordered another autopsy to be performed on the girls, to be looking specifically for DNA evidence linking them to either of the Sugar males. This was all within a day of the discovery. What he found was shocking: both girls showed trace evidence suggesting recent (and apparently discrete) amatory encounters with not only Stanley Sugar but with Franky Rhubarb as well. However, there was no evidence of force being applied.
Most shocking, however, were the revelations that followed this re-opening of the forensic investigation, specifically having to do with the long, curled silver hairs discovered pasted, with the victims’ own tacky blood, to the breast of one and the stomach of another. The hairs were found irrefutably to belong to Ms. Lemon herself. No statement was give regarding how this obviously crucial bit of evidence was passed over the first time round.
Needless to say, the new suspect was zested and juiced in questioning. Without actually denying her part in the crimes, she has remained oddly quiet, almost graceful under the slow boil of the steadily warming weather. Harold Strawberry insists that her reticence is just stubbornness, that she be put to trial at the earliest possible date. He is, understandably, impassioned by grief for his two young daughters.
Dt. Pectin, however, suspects the lady might be keeping silent for a different reason. He’s seen the way her eyes lock, through the two-way mirror, with those of the grieving father. Complicit in their bubbling hatred.
On the other side of the glass, Harry’s gaze hardens, cooling slowly. Ms. Lemon’s in a jam.
On October 11th, 2011, Johnny Carson filed a $10,000,000 lawsuit against one Ed Purkins, of Gainesville, FL, from beyond the grave, citing grievous personal injury and loss of public dignity. This was the start of the troubles.
Ed had been plumped down in his recliner, a sweaty beer in one hand, the remote control in the other. Flipping the channels, as they used to say. Not really paying much attention to what was going on in the little TV screen. It was late, the beer was having its desired effect, and he just needed a surfeit of noise and color to wash out the troubles of the day. From his testimony: “I’d finished the can, y’know, and was just thinking about putting my fat ass to bed. I used to be bigger, then. Tossed the can into the basket, and I missed it by, oh, I dunno, three inches. Half-foot tops. Anyway, I thought about just letting it sit there, y’know, I could always throw it in when I replaced the bag, but then I thought, it’s late, I gotta get up sometime…so I got up, dropped the remote down on the chair, and picked up the can, just like my momma taught me.
“That’d be about when I heard the noise coming from the TV. I mean, there was always some kinda noise or other coming from the TV, that’s what it’s there for, right? But this was different. It was sort of a…scraping kinda noise, like pushing a big heavy rock across the sidewalk. And you could feel it, too, in your gut like. I looked back over, thinking maybe I’d see some smoke or something coming outta the set, but it looked fine from where I was standing. Course, I couldn’t see the screen properly; I was sorta off to the side. So I went over, checked out all the connections, the speakers and whatnot, and everything seemed to be in working order. It was still making the normal TV noises, but underneath the grinding sound, and there was something a little odd about them. Like, one second I’d hear Johnny talking about this or that…they were doing some kinda marathon on him, y’know…and then I’d hear this “meep-meep!” and sorta zips and zooms. Figured something musta gone funny with my cable. I’d call the guy in the morning, y’know. It was late.”
The defendant then returned to his recliner, obtained the remote, and prepared to power down his television. “I hadn’t really looked at the screen, figuring the problem was audio, y’know. If I had, of course I wouldn’t have tried to turn it off. I’m not a cruel guy, anybody’ll tell you that. But then Johnny started yelling something, and the audience was going crazy like.” As Mr. Carson’s estate put it, testifying on his behalf, “Johnny was scared, he was hurt, and he needed to get this boob’s attention somehow. If the idiot had turned off the power, it would’ve been goodnight, Johnny. He needed to do something drastic to catch hold of Mr. Purkins’s beer-addled interest. We remind the court that, were it not for Mr. Purkins’s senseless flipping, Johnny would never have found himself in that dangerous and degrading predicament to begin with, would never have been forced to drop his televised persona in a desperate plea for the most basic form of mercy.”
When the defendant turned to investigate the ruckus on the TV, he was met with a then-unprecedented sight. “It was like the picture was stuck in-between channels, which I guess was what all the grinding was about. On the right side of the picture, there was the Tonight Show, the audience all sort of mushed together on the bottom, two or sometimes three to a seat; on the left side, there was some cartoon canyon, y’know, big fluffy clouds, red rock, green cactus. Johnny had somehow got himself stuck right in the middle, where the two pictures met. He looked wedged in there good.” Indeed, Mr. Carson sustained a fractured hip, a displaced collarbone, and several puncture-wounds to his right arm from the prolonged contact with the cartoon cactus. “Don’t let the bright colors and simple shapes fool you,” (from his attorney), “those things are as sharp as the real thing. We’ll be having a few words with WB after this.”
It took Ed Purkins several minutes to come to terms with this unaccustomed sight. “I’d always thought that all the channels were separate, y’know. I mean, it’s TV. I thought maybe the beer had been too much on such a hot night.” It then took another three hours for the acclaimed television personality to convince the muddled Mr. Purkins to contact the proper authorities on his behalf. During that time, he suffered severe sunburn to his right side, due to the unnatural brightness of the yellow cartoon sun, and the sustained, awkward position may have resulted in as-yet undiagnosed chronic complaints. He was also pecked on the forehead three times by a belligerent roadrunner.
The case was decided in favor of Mr. Carson, for the full amount, which Ed Purkins is still working to pay off. His advice to other would-be TVers: “Pick a channel, and stay on it. I just wish somebody would’ve told me something like this could happen. I feel bad for Mr. Carson and all, but sometimes I think I’m the victim in all this, too.”
Since the Carson v. Purkins case, there have been over 75 class-action lawsuits filed by television personalities, many of them frivolous. The troubles came to a head with the infamous case of Theodore Cleaver, who intentionally tried to “wedge” himself between channels, an action which resulted in the young man’s death. “He only thought it’d be a laugh,” said Wally, the boy’s older brother. “He wanted the attention more than the money. Ratings haven’t been good lately for us black ’n’ whites.”
Congress is currently in session to discuss a bill that would disable the actions of remote and built-in television controls, effectively “fixing” every television set permanently on one channel, and in the “powered-on” position. Many of the aggrieved television personalities, whose ratings would suffer from such action, see this as a writing-off of their troubles. Some have called for Congressional representation, and a few of the more violent personalities (led by several well-known cartoon animals) have murmured about secession.
For a more in-depth study on this fascinating and controversial issue, see “Flickering With The Stars: The Secret Lives of Television Personalities,” by E.G. Pickersham.
Detective Alex Trencher, with measured calm, lowered his coffee mug, letting it snick quietly against the table. He pretended to examine his stubble in the one-way reflection of the two-way mirror. It was a sham of a sham: the suspect knew it was a two-way mirror; with all the cop shows on these days, you couldn’t fool anybody with a television anymore. And if this was the guy they were looking for, there was no doubt he had a television.
Detective Trencher cracked his knuckles against the stiff back of his chair, then pulled it out from the table. He remained standing, though. “Stefan Lockley, Pomona, California. You mind if I call you Stefan?”
The man seated across from him broke out in a slightly unhinged smile. “Certainly.”
Trencher pulled a clipboard from the table and consulted it closely. In fact, he had to hunch his face mere inches from the pale printed pages; the toner in the station’s printer was low, apparently, and half the words were unreadable even if he squinted. “Says here,” he began, wrinkles pouring from the corners of his squinched eyes and spreading across his forehead, “that you work at the local children’s library. Why don’t you tell me a little about that.”
“Well, Alex,” the man beamed, “I’d have to say that my favorite part of that job is story time. My love of knowledge began at the local library, and I’d like to think that in that way I’m an inspiration to children everywhere.” He gave directed a happy little wave to the two-way mirror. “And I’d just like to say, Alex,” he added, “that it’s a thrill to be here.”
“Well, it’s great to have you,” Trencher replied uncertainly. This much was true, at least. If this was really who they thought it was, he had been tormenting police all over the state for months now. Even if he wasn’t, the guy was obviously overdue a lock-up. “Look, I have some questions for you…”
“I’m very comfortable with questions,” the man replied. “I’m sure you have already seen my answers.” That right there was probably enough to get him convicted, but Trencher wanted to be sure he could make it stick.
“Who was Pueblo Martin?” He narrowed his gaze, ocularly frisking the suspect for any twitch, any unconditional admission of guilt.
“Despite its undistinguished win record, the high school rowing team in Winnetka, Illinois featured future Olympian rower Dan Turnbull as well as this man, as coxswain.”
Trencher blinked. He took a sip of his coffee, slowly, deliberately. He wasn’t even angry that it had gone cold. “Stefan,” he tried again. “Who was Sarah Handler?”
“A popular television jingle for Drippy Donuts, with lyrics by this woman, invites you to ‘Drip your troubles away.’” The suspect, grinning, turned again to the two-way mirror.
Trencher drew his lips taut, trying to reel in the impending snarl. “Stefan. I believe you know what we’re trying to ask you. But you need to remain focused.”
The man’s grin shattered instantly. “I’m sorry.” He shook his head gravely. “But I’m afraid that wasn’t in the form of a question.”
The detective straightened up, reached for his coffee, then withdrew his hand. Anything he put in his hand he would just end up breaking on the guy’s skull. “I’m going to ask you about one more person, and I need you to answer in as straightforward a way as possible. Not what they feed their dog, not what position they played in Little League. Just what this name means to you. Okay?” The other man stared ahead blankly, as though he had been shut off. “Okay. Now, who was Elijah Teller?”
The suspect paused, his brows knitting. He appeared to be reading something, but when Trencher followed his gaze, he found only empty space. “In 2012 he left audiences ‘Frazzled and Dazzled’ when that film, for which he served as Director of Photography, opened to surprise success.” He smiled again.
Detective Trencher took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then released it slowly, like letting air out of a tire. “Are you capable of answering a simple question?” he asked, trying to shake the rage out of his throat. He lifted the coffee mug. “What is this?” he demanded.
“Milk with this flavor syrup is the official drink of the state of Rhode Island.”
“Coffee! It’s coffee!” The detective slammed it down, letting it leap from the mug and splash against its wrist. It was actually hotter than it tasted. He leapt up and down, sucking furiously on his reddened flesh.
The suspect’s face fell. “I’m sorry, but that wasn’t in the form of a question,” he intoned.
“You want a question?” Trencher shouted. “Fine. In this room…who’s psycho?”
“Sigmund Freud was responsible for creating this kind of analysis.”
“That’s very funny, that really is. How about this one: what is the death penalty? You’re going to be able to answer that one first-hand very soon, my friend.”
“Due to questions of justice, the state of Illinois has ceased the practice of these.”
“Dammit!” Trencher shouted, banging his fist against the mirror. It left behind an oily white rose, mapped from the pores on his fingers. His heartbeat throbbed against his sinuses. Slumping down in the seat, face pyramided in his hands, he tried one last time. “Stefan, I’d love to help you. I really would. But first you need to tell us…where did you hide the bodies?”
The other man’s eyes swept back and forth like a typewriter, reading from some invisible script. He began to speak, then fell silent again. Detective Trencher leaned forward, bloodshot eyes straining against their lids. The suspect, without changing his expression, began to whistle a familiar tune, one that had since 1964 become synonymous with mulling over a difficult problem. Eventually, he spoke:
“This ‘hidden’ location, at the end of an unfinished highway, is a literal ‘dead end.’”
Detective Trencher swept the half-full mug off the table, rose puffing to his feet, and stomped across the thick porcelain shards out of the interrogation room. His partner stopped him in the hallway. “Well?” he demanded. “Did we get the right guy?”
Trencher massaged his eyelids. “Oh, yeah. He’s the Final Jeopardy killer, there’s no doubt about that.” He opened his eyes and sighed. “But I pray for the lawyer that has to convict him.”