Time travelling, which, is not quite the good clean boyish fun it's cracked up to be, started for me when this woman with the sign on her forehead looked in on me from the open doorway of the hotel bedroom where I'd hidden myself and the bottles and asked me, 'Look, Buster, do you want to live?'
It was the sort of question mat would have suited a religious crackpot of the strong-arm, save-your-soul variety, but she didn't look like one. And I might very well have answered it—in fact I almost did—with a hangover, one percent humorous, 'Good God, no!' Or—a poor second —I could have studied the dark, dust-burnished arabesques of the faded blue carpet for a perversely long time and then countered with a grudging, 'Oh, if you insist'
But I didn't, perhaps because there didn't seem to be anything like one percent of humour in the situation. Point One: I have been blacked out the past half hour or so—this woman might just have opened the door or she might have been watching me for ten minutes. Point Two: I was in the fringes of DTs, trying to come off a big drunk. Point Three: I knew for certain that I had just killed someone or left him or her to die, though I hadn't the faintest idea of whom or why.
Let me try to picture my state of mind a little more vividly. My consciousness, the sentient self-aware part of me, was a single quivering point in the centre of an end- less plane vibrating harshly with misery and menace. I was like a man in a rowboat in the middle of the Pacific — or better, I was like a man in a shell hole in the North African desert (I served under Montgomery and any region adjoining the DTs is certainly a No Man's Land). Around me, in every direction—'this is my consciousness Fm describing, remember—miles of flat burning sand, nothing more. Way beyond the horizon were two divorced wives, some estranged children, assorted jobs, and other unexceptional wreckage. Much Closer, but still beyond the horizon, w»e State Hospital (twice) and Psycho (four times). Shallowly buried very near at hand, or perhaps blackening in the open just behind me in the shell hole, was the person I had killed.
But remember that I knew I had killed a real person. That wasn't anything allegorical.
Now for a little more detail on this 'Look, Buster,' woman. To begin with, she didn't resemble any part of the DTs or its outlying kingdoms, though an amateur aright 'have thought differently—especially if he had given too much weight to the sigil on her forehead. But I was no amateur.
She seemed about my age—forty-five—but I couldn't be sure. Her body looked younger than that, her face
older; both were trim and had seen a lot of use, I got the impression. She was wearing black sandals and a black unbelted tunic with just a hint of the sack dress to it, yet she seemed dressed for the street. It occurred
'to me even then (off-track ideas can come to you very swiftly and sharply in the DT outskirts) that it was a costume that, except perhaps for the colour, would have fitted into any number of historical eras: old Egypt, Greece, maybe the Directoire. World War I, Burma, Yucatan, to name some. (Should I ask her if she spoke Mayathan? I didn't, but I don't think the question would have fazed her; she seemed altogether sophisticated, a real cosmopolite—she pronounced 'Buster' as if it were part of a curious, somewhat ridiculous jargon she was using for shock purposes.)
From her left arm hung a black handbag that closed with a drawstring and from which protruded the tip of silvery object about which I found myself apprehensively . curious.
Her right arm was raised and bent, the elbow touching the door frame, the hand brushing back the very dark bangs from her forehead to show me the sigil, as if that had a bearing on her question.
The sigil was an eight-limbed asterisk made of fine dark lines and about as big as a silver dollar. An X superimposed on a plus sign. It looked permanent.
Except for the bangs she wore her hair pinned up. Her ears were flat, thin-edged, and nicely shaped, with the long lobes that in Chinese art mark the philosopher. Small square silver fiats with rounded comers ornamented them.
Her face might have been painted by Toulouse-Lautrec or Degas. The skin was webbed with very fine lines; the eyes were darkly shadowed and there was a touch of green on the lids (Egyptian?—I asked myself); her mouth was wide, tolerant, but realistic. Yes, beyond all else, she seemed realistic.
And as I've indicated, I was ready for realism, so when she asked, 'Do you want to live?' I somehow managed not to let slip any of the flippant answers that came flocking into my mouth, I realized that this was the one time in a million when a big question is really meant and your answer really counts and there are no second chances, I realized that the line of my life had come to one of .those points where there's a kink in it and the wrong (or maybe the right) tug can break it and that as far as I was concerned at the present moment, she knew all about everything.
So I thought for a bit, not long, and I answered, 'Yes.'
She nodded—not as if she approved my decision, or dis- approved it for that matter, but merely as if she accepted it as a basis for negotiations—and she let her bangs fall back across her forehead. Then she gave me a quick dry smile and she said, 'In that case you and I have got to get out of here and do some talking.'
For me that smile was the first break in the shell—the shell around my rancid consciousness or perhaps the dark, star-pricked shell around the space-time continuum.
'Come on,' she said. 'No, just as you are. Don't stop for anything and—' (She caught the direction of my immediate natural movement) '—don't look behind you if you meant that about wanting to live.'
Ordinarily being told not to look behind you is a remarkably silly piece of advice, it makes you think of those 'pursuing fiend' horror stories that scare children, and you look around automatically—-if only to prove you*re no child. Also in this present case there was my very real and dreadful curiosity: I wanted terribly (yes, terribly) to know whom it was I had just killed—a forgot- ten third wife? a stray woman? a jealous husband or boy- friend? (though I seemed too cracked up for love affairs) the hotel clerk? a fellow derelict?
But somehow, as with her 'want to live' question, I bad the sense to realize that this was one of those times when the usually silly statement is dead serious, that she meant her warning quite literally.
If I looked behind me, I would die.
I looked straight ahead as I stepped past the scattered^ brown empty bottles and the thin fume mounting from the tiny crater in the carpet where I'd dropped a live cigarette.
As I followed her through the door I caught, from the window behind me, the distant note of a police siren.
Before we reached the elevator the siren was nearer and it sounded as if the fire department had been called out too.
I saw a silvery flicker ahead. There was a big mirror facing the elevators.
'What I told you about not looking behind you goes for mirrors too,' my conductress informed me. 'Until I tell you differently.'
The instant she said that, I knew that I had forgotten what I looked like; I simply could not visualize that dreadful witness (generally inhabiting a smeary bathroom mirror) of so many foggy mornings: my own face. One glance in the mirror ...
But I told myself: realism. I saw a blur of brown shoes and black sandals in the big mirror, nothing more.
The cage of the right-hand elevator, dark and empty. was stopped at this floor. A crosswise wooden bar held the door open. My conductress removed the bar and We stepped inside. The door closed and she touched the controls. I wondered, 'Which way will it go? Sideways?'
It began to sink normally. I started to touch my face, but didn't I started to try to remember my name. but stopped. It would be bad tactics, I thought, to let myself become aware of any more gaps in my knowledge. I knew I was alive. I would stick with that for a while.
The cage sank two and a half floors and stopped, its doorway blocked by the drab purple wall of the shaft. My conductress switched on the tiny dome light and turned to me.
“Well?' she said.