“But you don’t know?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I’ll go get the doctor.” She mumbles something as she leaves, but I can’t quite make it out.
As the door closes again, I glance at the door across the hall. It’s open, and the exam room is empty. I’m not really sure what I expected to find there, really. But deep down, the girl in the other room worries me. Maybe she’s Maris. Or a friend of Maris’s.
A few minutes later the doctor comes in and goes over pretty much all of the tests Amy put me through. “Well,” he says.
“I’m sick,” I offer weakly.
“Yeah, no kidding.” The doctor grimaces. “I’m going to prescribe you an antiviral, and I’d like you to come back in a day or so with a stool sample.”
“You want… my poo,” I say.
“And that will help you determine what I have?”
“Possibly,” the doctor shrugs.
I pause for a moment, suppressing a sneeze. “How about chicken entrails? You want a side of those, too?”
“Just go out into the lobby and make an appointment,” the doctor says, rolling his eyes. “I’ll have the prescription for you in a bit.”
I trudge back into the waiting area to find the blonde girl from before sitting and reading an ancient copy of Highlights for Children. She looks bored. That in and of itself is not surprising, given that it’s a clinic waiting room and that Highlights was never really all that interesting to begin with, but there’s something about how this girl is bored that goes beyond ordinary boredom. She looks like she has an active contempt for the magazine.
The girl inside that room stares me in the eye for the split-second that we can see each other, before a tall woman in gray scrubs exits the other room. Abruptly the door to my room closes, and I’m left staring at the cheap wood paneling of the door.
Did that girl know me? Do I know her? Maybe she’s a time traveler. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. It’s hard to tell the difference anymore. I close my eyes for a moment, trying to clear the fogginess from my head.
“Fran? Fran?” A tall black woman is speaking to me as I open my eyes. “You all right?”
I sit up– when did I lay down?– and look at the woman. “I guess I dozed off,” I say, my voice thick and crusted.
“Hmm,” the woman says. “I’m Amy, the physician’s assistant,” she adds. “Let’s have a look at you, shall we?” We go through the usual motions of a physical examination, with Amy clucking here and there as she checks my vitals. “Well.”
“Well?” I ask.
“You’re sick,” she says, with apparent finality.
“Something,” I repeat. “Can you be more specific? Is it the flu? Zombie-itis? Flesh-eating ebola?”
“Well, you’re not a zombie,” she says, “and most of you is still here, so we can rule out those last two.”
“Have you been keeping busy?” the orderly asks, smiling.
“A little,” I croak. My voice is crackling and broken; I haven’t spoken more than five or ten words today. My throat feels like it’s on fire, and the world is swaying around me; even looking into the mirror was a bad idea, because it threatened to throw off my equilibrium. Only the sight of the Steamer anchored me, which when you think about it is really perverse.
Then again, my answer is a bit of a lie, as well. It’s true that finals wrapped up last week, and that Kyle has been flitting back and forth between the apartment and the student center in order to get all her papers in order for the move to New York. Naturally, helping her has consumed a lot of my time. But, if there had been any time travelers passing through this era lately, I wouldn’t have had time to help her pick out clothes. Subsequently I wouldn’t have gotten drenched in that rainstorm last Friday.
“Well, just sit right down, and the PA will be with you soon,” the orderly says. She waves vaguely at the examination bed in the room on the left. I nod and pull myself up onto it. As she closes the door to the exam room, the door across the hall opens.
Episode 5: What You Have Gathered From Coincidence
Tuesday, May 22, 2001
“Fran?” The orderly pops her head into the small waiting room as she calls my name. Shakily, I stand up and walk to the door, rubbing my nose and sniffling pathetically. I’m really not trying to play up the whole thing, but I can just feel the stares of the other patients in the waiting room.
I do not get sick often. In point of fact, I hardly ever get sick. When I do, though, it hits me hard. I can power through your basic colds and coughs, I can even handle a day or so out of sorts. Motion sickness is just a minor little inconvenience. But in the unlikely event that I catch something really nasty, I’m down for quite a while as I recover. Kyle says it’s because I have a strong metabolism, but coming from the girl who thinks french fries should count as a vegetable I consider pretty much all her health advice somewhat suspect.
As I pass by the examination mirror in the hallway, I glance at the Steamer on my chest. It’s grown ever so slowly since February, to the point where it’s about fist-sized now. Its red core isn’t yet there, but I have the odd feeling that it’s not too long now before it does open up. I’ve tried to ask Peter about it, but every time I try to arrange a meeting with him, some extremely contrived situation arises to prevent me from making it. The deluge of junk mail was a real subtle hint, I think.
“I gotta ask, though,” I say. “The forward-progress rule. That is an absolute, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not like she could have been telling the truth, is it?”
Peter nods. “Time travel’s still a very much inexact science,” he says. “We might find some other way of traveling non-destructively, but I don’t think that there’s any way to safely travel into the future, except the hard way.”
“And what’s the hard way?” I ask.
“One second at a time,” Peter says, grinning. “One second at a time.”
As I settle into bed that night, I glance down into the covers, at the part of my pajamas that’s rising and falling gently with my breath. The Steamer is still there.
Lisa screams in rage and frustration as she’s led to the long black LTD parked in the alley. “I can’t leave!” she screams. “I’m in a loop! I can’t–”
“You said yourself,” I call back. “If I get you out of the loop, it collapses. Turns out, there’s another way around it.” Peter chuckles at this. “Goodbye, Lisa.” With one last wail, the back door to the car is shut, and the two goons get into the front seat.
“I believe this is yours,” Peter says, handing me the notebook. “I can’t believe you would try pulling something like that off. What made you think of it?”
“You did, actually,” I say. “Couple days ago, when you mentioned that I did something to the notebook. Didn’t say what, of course, but it wasn’t hard to figure out.”
“So when you asked me to swap for the notebook we found, you knew you weren’t going to put any more entries in it,” Peter says. He flips to the last page in the notebook, past a bunch of blank pages– far beyond where Lisa looked– and points to a handwritten entry saying that a second notebook had been needed. I’d written that in before handing Peter the notebook last night. “I was as shocked as you are.”
“It’s such a little favor,” I say, producing the long-barreled candle lighter from my pocket. “It’s really such a trivial thing.”
“And this trivial thing is?” she says.
“One sec,” I say. I set the coffee can on the ground and put the notebook in. “Could you stand over here for a second? The wind is making it hard to light this.” Lisa nods and obliges. I click the lighter two or three times before it finally catches, producing a tiny, flickering yellow flame. I lower it gently onto the notebook. Within a moment, the fire spreads through the pages, and it becomes a little blaze in the coffee can, in the snow. “And now, what I’d want from you.”
“Anything you desire, Fran,” Lisa says. “You’ve earned it.”
“I want you to turn around and put your hands on your head,” I say, grinning. Lisa’s face becomes a mask of confusion for just a moment, before she’s forcibly turned around by a rough pair of hands. The two big guys flanking Peter have her in handcuffs within seconds.
“I hope I’m not too late,” Peter says.
“What… what?” Lisa stammers. “That’s the notebook! I saw you burn it! I watched you… How?”
“Think about it in prison,” I growl. “You’re gonna have plenty of time to figure it out.”