The Second Rat
by David Barr Kirtley
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of On Spec, and in audio format as part of the MechMuse podcast. The illustration is by Thomas Meldgaard. Learn more about the story here.
My wife, Debbie, has been talking to that damn visiting nurse again.
"She says you're dying," Debbie tells me, hollowly.
I can barely speak. I try, but my lips move awkwardly. I say, "She's right."
I want it to happen at home, with my family. I'm feeble now, frail. My face is twisted and I can't untwist it. I try to avoid looking in the mirror.
Debbie feels my forehead, as if it might help. "You're too warm," she says, and twists the blinds closed. A line of sunlit dots stretches across the blanket near my ankles.
"You're still so young," she says, absently.
I'm thirty-four years old.
"It's just not fair," she adds.
I pull her close and stroke her hair. "It's all right," I tell her, and then think to myself that it is fair. It's more than fair.
My body is only thirty-four, but my mind has lived more than its share of days. I can rewind life, you see. Even now, I could escape death that way. I could flee back to those healthy, free days of my youth.
But I won't.
Once, I went on national television and talked about how I can rewind life. I thought it would be a lot of fun. Besides, no one would remember afterward, anyway.
They stuck me at a desk, with bright lights shining in my face. Beyond those, in the darkness, I could see the shadowy figures of technicians, and black bunches of cable that looked like coiled snakes.
Dan Findley from The Evening News interviewed me. He had curly, greasy hair.
"Mr. Todd Rawlins," he said, "Welcome."
"Glad to be here, Dan," I replied.
"Now, Mr. Rawlins. You've made remarkable amounts of money investing in the marketplace. Tell us, what's your secret?"
"It's really quite simple, Dan," I said. "You see, I can rewind life."
There was long pause. I heard a technician cough.
"I'm sorry," Findley said finally. "What was that?"
"The way you rewind a tape. I can do it in real life. I can go back to any point in my past and start over. I observe which stocks do well, then rewind and invest in those."
"This is a personal philosophy of yours?"
"It's not philosophy," I said. "I mean it quite literally."
Findley shot a confused glance towards the studio director. "Mr. Rawlins, you're saying that you control time?"
"I can make it go backward, yes. Forward is always normal speed."
"That sounds very strange."
"I can prove it."
Findley leaned back in his chair and tossed his pen out on the desk. "All right, then."
I pointed to his pen. "Write something on a piece of paper. Don't let me see it. I'll proceed into the future and find out the answer. Then I'll rewind time and tell you what the paper says -- before I've ever seen it."
Findley shrugged. He scrawled something in his notebook, then placed it face down on the desk. "Now what?"
"Show it to me."
Findley frowned, and held up the notebook. It said 'Evening News.'
Rewind a few seconds.
Instantly, everything resumed its former condition. Again, I watched as Findley placed his notebook face down on the desk. "Now what?" he asked.
"You wrote 'Evening News'."
"Yes, that's right." Findley held it up so the camera could see.
"Do it again. Something harder, something personal-- something nobody could possibly know."
He scribbled on the paper.
"Show me," I said.
He had written 'Gruddie.'
"My stuffed rabbit," Findley explained, with a touch of embarrassment. "I had it as a kid."
Rewind a few seconds.
Findley was still writing.
"It says 'Gruddie'--your toy rabbit."
Findley didn't move for a while. Finally, he turned and stared at me, his face a mixture of confusion and awe.
"You're serious about this?" he said.
"How do you do it?"
"I don't know. I just do."
Findley chuckled and shook his head. "Wait, wait. Let me see that again. One more time."
"All right," I said. "Just one more time."
Rewind a few months.
I was getting bored with that interview, anyway.
I haven't always been able to rewind things.
When I was a little kid, they brought me to the hospital and I was scared.
Dad broke the news. He always wore flannel shirts, and a floppy blue baseball cap. He worked as a machinist in a paper mill.
"The tests came back, finally," dad said. "I'm sorry, Todd."
"What does it mean?" I asked.
He took off that floppy hat, and scratched at his straw-colored hair. "It means you're very sick."
"Like mom?" I asked. Mom died when I was three. She had Huntingon chorea. Now, I did too.
I swallowed hard, and the world seemed all fuzzy around the edges. "Is it gonna kill me?"
Dad scrunched up one side of his face and stared toward the window.
I begged him, "Please don't lie."
"Yeah it is," he answered, almost immediately, and then added, "eventually."
I stared down at the turquoise blankets. "When?"
"The doctors don't know, for sure. They said if you're lucky you could live well into your thirties."
"Thirties," I echoed. "How old are you?"
Dad grimaced. "Um. Twenty-four."
I stared at him, and he stared away. He put his hat back on.
My eyes ached from unwept tears, and I started to snuffle. "I told you not to lie..."
Most people probably feel that acute desire -- to take it back, to do it over, to make it right. I was different, I just wanted more time.
I always saw the universe as a great clock that ticked toward the end of my truncated life. All I ever wanted was for it to run the other way.
Rewind one second. Rewind two seconds. Rewind one minute--
I was twenty, in my dorm at college. I lay in bed, lost in exhaustion and confusion, and my 8:00 a.m. alarm droned mercilessly on.
"Turn it off," my roommate moaned.
Rewind one minute.
I could feel it happen that first time, that first second. It was like electricity dancing up and down my spine. I saw the clock and suddenly it was 7:59.
"Did you see that?" I mumbled, startled suddenly awake.
But my roommate was still asleep. Then the clock hit 8:00, and the alarm went off.
He wasn't aware it had happened, no one was. No one could perceive that time had progressed beyond the present, and that I had yanked things back.
At first I was afraid to rewind very far. Instead, I did simple experiments.
I flipped a coin on my desk. It landed heads.
Rewind five seconds.
That same coin spun wildly at the apex of the exact same toss. It bounced across my desk several times, quivered in place, then came to rest.
It showed tails.
Scientists call it chaos -- this fundamental randomness.
Some things were predictable: words on paper, the top card in a deck, people's immediate intentions. Also the progression of fatal illnesses, and the average change in stock market prices over long periods of time.
I spent a few years after school investing in the market, making money, getting more comfortable with my ability to rewind. I gave that TV interview.
That all started getting boring after a while, though. I was ready to move on to bigger things.
The farthest back I ever went was sophomore year of high school, because there was something I needed to do.
Rewind ten years.
Willy Pierson, whose breath smelled like onions, loomed over me like some damn vulture.
"Hey there, Rawlins," he said, and shoved me forward.
My heavy backpack rolled off my shoulders, over my head, and it exploded across the floor. Books and papers spread away from it like waves on the beach.
I turned. Willy stood at least a head higher than me.
"You know," I told him, "you've been asking for it ever since eighth grade."
He sneered. I punched him.
My knuckles exploded with a pain that shot up my arm. Willy's face turned away, then snapped back, and he shoved me hard. My head struck against the grill of a locker, and the world turned in wrong ways, and then my cheek was squashed against floor. Willy was somewhere above me, kicking --
Rewind a few seconds.
He went to shove me, but I dodged aside and wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled, and we both went down. I was vaguely aware of the dark press of faces and knees and shoes and chanting, which went, "fight, fight, fight!"
I got on top of him, and pressed my knee into his spine, but he caught me in the jaw with a wild elbow and --
Rewind a few seconds.
I threw my face away from his elbow as it came and I seized his curly hair in my tight fingers, and slammed his goddamn forehead against the floor until it ripped open and a thin line of kickball-red blood ran out and dripped bright, spattered spots across the tile.
Fight, fight, fight.
That death I'd feared so long seemed banished forever. I would never die. I would always be young and healthy. I would experience every possibility that life could offer.
I ran away from home when I was seventeen and spent a few months living around Vegas, hustling. I didn't mind leaving home that way. When I was done in Vegas, I'd just rewind things, and everything would go back to the way it used to be.
I was worthless at roulette. That crazy steel ball might bounce anywhere -- chaos theory again.
I preferred a good game of blackjack.
I had my hole card, plus a king.
"Hit me," I told the dealer. It was always worth a shot.
He dealt me the six of clubs. My hole card was a nine. Makes twenty-five.
Rewind a few seconds.
"I'll stay," I said.
One night I met a dark-haired girl on a street corner there. Her skin and her eyes seemed to glow, bathed in that otherworldly neon light.
"I saw you at the tables once," she said. "You're really good."
"It's all just luck," I replied.
I had some booze back at my apartment. She had this friend who sold us acid and other stuff. We smoked some, and snorted some, and ingested the rest. Then I went to bed with her.
When it was over, she started crying.
"I'm so fucked up." She kept repeating that, rocking back and forth on the edge of the bed. "I'm so fucked up."
"No you're not," I said. "It's all right."
"I can't believe this." She glanced around the hotel room with wild, wet, ferret-like eyes. "What the hell am I doing here?"
The room seemed to rock back and forth like it was a boat. The couch glowed, and the walls were singing out of tune. "Everything's going to be okay," I tried to tell her.
"I should go -- now." She stumbled across the carpet, knocking over a small table, and our illicit things spilled across the floor.
She bumped into the doorframe. "I did it again," she said crazily, half to herself. "I told myself I'd never do it again."
She stared at my eyes. "I'm sorry. You need to get yourself tested, you know? I'm so fucked up. I'm so -- " She stumbled out of the room.
I lay back on the bed among the thick red blankets and stared at the oddly shifting ceiling. I shrugged. I didn't need to get tested, of course, but I hated this place anyway.
Time to leave. Time to go home.
Rewind a few months.
But nothing happened. The apartment retained all of its confused presence. I blinked a few times, and stared around that smoky room.
Rewind a few months. Rewind a few--months. Rewind! Nothing happened.
I leapt out of bed and ran half-naked through the empty apartment halls. I couldn't be trapped. Oh god, not here -- anywhere but here.
I moaned and screamed and pounded on the walls. This was retribution, I realized suddenly. This was my own private hell. I had been proud, and this is how the universe would pay me back.
I broke out through a service exit and into a crumbling alleyway. I ran stricken through those mad, gleaming streets. Far away, beyond the pavement, I found a patch of loose dirt and yellow desert grass and fell on it. I ripped at my clothes and sat feverishly staring at the blurry lights that quavered in the distance.
Then I thought of something else.
I was wrecked, trashed. I was stumbling, incoherent -- I'd taken all that shit and it was screwing with my head. Maybe when I sobered up I'd be able to rewind things again.
I closed my eyes, and waited a long time beneath that dark, horrible Nevada sky.
Rewind a few months.
Then I was home, in my old bed, before I ever ran away. It was Christmas break and I started to cry, gasping great sobs of relief.
Dad opened the door. "Jesus, Todd. Are you all right?"
I was curled up, stiff and ragged. I started to shake. "I had a bad dream, dad," I said softly. "A very bad dream."
Half an hour later, I was back in control. My heart had slowed, my breathing was normal.
Rewind one hour.
I didn't want dad to remember seeing me like that.
I didn't rewind for a long time then. I was afraid it might not work, and then I'd feel as helpless and stranded as I had that horrible night in Las Vegas.
My sense of mortality returned.
Rewinding was no guarantee of safety. I had been aware of that before, in some abstract sense, but now it came to haunt me. I might die in an explosion, a sudden car crash, a gas leak -- I might die in my sleep. I could never let my guard down, not for a moment.
A man tried to kill me in New York.
I stepped off the subway, and he came out of the crowd and stuck a knife right in my chest. It tore through my T-shirt, ripping out a great, hanging mass of muscle. I fell back against the closing doors and sank to the pavement, coughing up great spouts of blood and bile, smearing my innards across the grimy steel.
I might pass out within seconds, I realized madly. I might be dead within minutes.
The man who had done it looked down at me with the oddest expression of rage and fear. He was tall, with a wild beard and long, scraggly hair.
Rewind a few days.
I stood in dad's kitchen. I tore open my shirt and rubbed desperately at my smooth and uninjured flesh. I drank some water from the sink. Then I went to the bathroom, and vomited.
I didn't have any idea who he was. It was a random act of violence then, by a disturbed individual. I would probably never see him again.
Still, if I did see him, I wouldn't rewind so far. I'd find out who he was first, and why he wanted to kill me.
I spent the next five years driving up and down the east coast, working in various places, earning enough money to get by.
I met a girl named Debbie.
She'd graduated in the spring from college in Minnesota and come to Boston to do graphic design. We went to the museums, the cafés, the galleries. We took our shoes off and walked barefoot through the park as the clouds began to turn toward pink and orange.
Debbie said, "The interesting thing about Mozart is that he was such a terribly flawed man. But I guess you don't have to be a perfect person to write perfect music."
"Yeah," I agreed, and then, "Can I kiss you?"
Her hazel eyes narrowed, and she smiled. "Well -- all right."
We got married two years later, I was twenty-six. Our first years together were wonderful. I wouldn't change a thing.
One night, I awoke to panic. My every joint was stiff and bloated. My whole body shook violently. Pains shot up my limbs and into my stomach.
"Todd?" Debbie mumbled drowsily. "What's wrong?"
"Symptoms." I groaned. "I'm getting sicker, Deb."
I was thirty-one years old.
The night before, we'd talked seriously for the first time about having kids. If our first child was a boy, we were going to name him Timothy.
The next morning, Debbie made me breakfast in bed. It hurt to swallow it. It even hurt to talk.
"I waited too long," I told her. "I should've married you a lot sooner."
Debbie sighed. "Don't think that way. It's all in the past now."
I nodded. She was right.
I was still lying there when Debbie left for work that morning. "Bye," she called up the stairs. "I love you."
I pulled myself out of bed and hobbled to the window. I watched Debbie pull our little Honda out of the garage, and head away down the road.
I had been complacent with time, careless. I had let it lead me to this place of sickness and pain. I shouldn't have to live like this, and neither should Debbie. There was a better place out there. A young, eager place where we could be happy, and free.
"I love you too, Deb," I whispered to the window, "and I'll find you again. I swear I will."
Rewind ten years.
Debbie had gone to college in Minneapolis, so I drove there. I spent a few days searching for her, and then I found her, just by accident. I was walking past this bagel place on the corner, and there she was, sitting at a booth reading a book.
I sat down across from her. "Deb," I said softly, grinning like a fool.
She looked up. I reached for her hands, I couldn't help it, and she pulled them away. "Do I know you?" she frowned. I was unnerving her, I could tell.
Rewind two minutes.
I took a few deep breaths. Debbie sat at her table, reading.
I approached her booth. "Hi."
She looked up from her book. "Hi."
"Do you mind some company? I'm new in town."
She eyed me for a minute, then shrugged. "Sure. Have a seat."
"My name's Todd," I said, offering my hand.
She shook it. "I'm Debbie."
We talked for a while. I told her I had just moved from New York. She said she was studying biology in college, but was thinking about switching her major to art.
"I mean, I do like art," she continued, "but I'm not sure I'm the right kind of person for it. It seems like you really have to be passionate, and I never seem sure how to feel about anything."
"Well, it's kind of like that thing you said about Mozart," I said, playfully.
"That you don't have to be a perfect person to write perfect music."
She frowned. "I never said that."
I arched an eyebrow.
Rewind a few seconds.
Deb said, " -- and I never seem sure how to feel about anything."
"I think you'd make a great artist," I said.
"You hardly know me."
I shrugged. "Even so."
We talked for another half hour. At one point, Debbie put her chin in her hands and scrutinized my face. "I have the weirdest feeling like we might've met somewhere before." She took a napkin and wiped a bit of cream cheese off her lip. "Does that ever happen to you?"
I nodded. "All the time."
This time, I was only nineteen when I married Debbie. I figured that would be plenty of time.
Dad was worried.
I told him, "I asked Debbie to marry me and she said yes. End of story."
"You know what your problem is?" dad said. "You think the whole universe just revolves around you."
I grinned. "Not all the time, dad, but sometimes it does."
He frowned and shifted uncomfortably. "It's just that you're so young. You hardly know this girl."
"But when I'm with her," I replied, "I feel like I've known her my whole life."
We waited until Debbie finished school, then moved to a small house in Boston. We lived there for a few months. Debbie was pregnant. Everything seemed right.
That same man tried to kill me again in Boston.
I was standing on a street corner, where a small crowd waited for the light to change. Loud and angry cars whizzed by us. Suddenly, I heard someone gasp and I turned my head just in time to see the barrel of a shotgun being raised toward my face.
Rewind one minute.
I spun around and spotted him immediately, about ten yards behind me. He had the same straggling hair, the same cold eyes. I could see the vague outlines of the shotgun that he grasped beneath his trench coat. There were five or six people on the sidewalk between us. Even if he went for the gun, I'd have plenty of time to escape into the past. He met my gaze.
"Why?" I shouted, spreading my arms. "Why are you trying to kill me?"
He took a few more steps toward me, then froze. Some people stopped and watched. Most others pushed on by. The man's voice was gravelly and harsh. "To make it stop."
I frowned. "Make what stop?"
"I saw you on TV," he said. "You're the one who keeps making the future disappear."
I dropped back a few steps. "You remember that?"
"I remember everything," he said, "and I'll get you someday."
Then he went for the gun again.
Rewind -- rewind, rewind away.
I had been so stupid, so careless. This madman was aware of my rewinding, and because of that stupid interview he knew who I was. There were some things even I couldn't take back.
I fled with Debbie to Chicago, where the murderous man wouldn't find us. We bought a nice apartment and went to Cubs games on weekends. I was twenty-three years old. There was plenty of time still to build a future, raise a family.
Our son was born, and we named him Timothy.
Timmy was bold and bright. He had his mom's eyes, and sand-colored hair just like my dad. But most of him was just -- Tim.
When he was four, he found a dead bird by the side of the road. "What's that?" he asked me, pointing.
"A bird," I said. "It's dead."
I think it was a robin, though it was hard to tell. A lot of it seemed to be missing, and I wasn't sure which of the dark regions were its natural coloring, and which were dried blood. Timmy bent over to examine it more closely.
I warned him, "Don't touch it."
Timmy stared at that bird for a long, long time. Later, he said, "I wish they didn't have to die."
He was a good kid. Things were going all right for us. I had gotten to the point where I wasn't rewinding life at all.
Then something happened.
It was a bitter cold evening in February, and I stood looking out the half-open window. The world outside seemed edged in blue, and dark leaves fell softly on the porch. The phone rang.
I said, "Hello?"
The voice on the other end seemed distant, insubstantial. "I'm looking for a Mr. Todd Rawlins?"
"I'm very sorry, sir. I'm afraid there's been an accident. Your wife is going to be all right, but your son Timothy -- "
I gasped. "No."
I didn't want to hear those awful things. Timmy was injured, maimed -- he was dead.
The man began again. "I know this is -- "
"Don't say a thing," I shouted at him. "Don't say a goddamn word to me."
Rewind. Rewind twenty-four hours.
Shuddering, I walked through the dark hallways to the room where Timmy lay safe, breathing softly in his sleep.
I was out in my front yard playing catch with Timmy the third time that murderous man came. I didn't realize he was there until I heard him chuckling softly behind me.
I turned. He stood just a few feet away, on the sidewalk outside my fence. His long hair still ratty, he wore the same gray trench coat. He held a pistol, pointed toward my head.
Rewind one minute.
I spun around again, and gasped. He was still standing there, his gun pointed straight at me. How long had he been waiting like that?
Rewind five minutes.
This time he was out on the street, the gun held by his side.
"I could have done it," he called out immediately. "I could have shot you."
I met his gaze, and held it a long time. What he said was true. I waited. Finally, I said, "All right."
"I want to talk."
I turned to my son. "Timmy, go inside. Now."
Timmy nodded. He dashed across the lawn, bounded up the porch steps, and disappeared into the house.
I turned to the man with the gun. I took a deep breath.
"Okay," I said. "We'll talk."
The man said, "I told you I'd get you some day."
We walked two-and-a-half blocks along crumbling sidewalks to the town park. It was autumn, and dead leaves were strewn through the grass.
I said, "Who are you?"
The man with the gun kept his eyes turned toward the dull, gray clouds overhead.
He said, "I read about this experiment once. They put two rats in a cage and give 'em electric shocks. One rat can push a lever to make it stop for both of them, the other rat can't. Even though they always get the same amount of electricity, only the second rat dies -- the one with no control."
He turned and stared me in the eyes. "That's me, Rawlins. I'm the second rat."
We stood near a dark picnic bench made of damp, warped wood. The nearby swimming pool was covered over by a giant sheet of blue plastic.
"I'm Ian Kyle," he said, "the man who watches life vanish. I can be walking down the street, or reading a book, or sitting on the goddamn toilet -- and then suddenly it's five minutes ago, or the day before, or the year . . . "
He shook his head. "I was going to kill you, Rawlins. That's what I came to Chicago for. I didn't know you had a kid, though."
I said, "His name's Timmy."
Kyle sighed. "You're a dumb shit," he said. "Killing you now would be a favor."
I frowned. "And why's that?"
"Your family -- your kid."
He broke off suddenly. "I had kids once, you know, a long time ago. Two beautiful little girls. Ashley was three, Katie was five -- though they got younger sometimes, in fits and starts. One day I blinked and they had never been born at all."
Kyle heaved a great, wretched sigh. I watched him, and I felt a mixture of sadness and horror.
"I'm sorry," I said softly. "I didn't think -- "
He cut me off. "My marriage disappeared too. My wife didn't recognize my face. I'd been a painter, then one day my art had never been. I had nobody, nothing -- nothing but an empty apartment and some bastard on TV named Todd Rawlins, who proved that he had caused it all."
I stared at the ground. "I had no idea," I said slowly, "I thought I was the only one who knew."
"Well, you were wrong!" Kyle hissed. "I knew! You should be thankful it was just me, or there'd be a lot more people who'd want you dead."
I tried to explain, "I was born sick. All I ever wanted was to live."
Kyle grinned sourly, and shook his head. "Don't we all, Rawlins? Don't we all?"
I spread my arms. "What do you want from me?"
"I want you to suffer." Kyle inclined his head toward me. "You should never get too attached to anything. I learned that the hard way -- now it's your turn."
"What are you talking about?"
"It won't bother me now if you rewind, I've got nothing to lose." He pointed at me. "But you're stuck. You love your family. You don't want them just disappearing all the time. Now you have to choose -- what's more important? Your family, the rest of the world? Or you? Either you suffer, or you die."
He watched me a moment, then turned and started to walk away. "Whatever you choose, I've got my revenge."
Ian Kyle was gone, but his words haunted me. He was right. I was caught in a trap of my own making, and there was no escape.
If I didn't rewind at all I'd die, but every time I did I lost a piece of my life. I rewound in bits and pieces. A week here, a day there, or an hour.
"Hey, Timmy," I said once. "You want to go fishing?"
Timmy nodded. "Okay, I guess."
"You remember how?"
He looked confused. "No."
Debbie called from the kitchen, "He's never been, Todd."
He had, of course. I'd taken him myself, to that smooth blue lake off Sycamore Drive. We'd paddled through the rocks, through the shaded and murky waters beneath those great mustard-colored trees. Timmy had picked it up quickly. "I got one!" he'd exclaimed. "Look, dad. I got one!"
I had rewound back past that part, though.
"Come on, Tim," I told him sadly. "I'll teach you."
I wanted it to count. I wanted Timmy to remember all the places I took him, all the bedtime stories I read him, not just some. Each time I rewound, I would watch him struggle over the same schoolwork he'd once known, and I felt guilt and misery.
There was something else, too. As long I lived, Timmy could never be more than ten years old -- or thereabouts.
"I want to be a fireman when I grow up," Timmy said one evening, "or a vampire."
Sadly, I tousled his soft brown hair. "I think that you'll be something wonderful when you grow up."
So I'm dying.
Rewinding now is out of the question. I couldn't steal the last year from Timmy. I couldn't take the last month, or the last week, even.
Debbie brings him into the bedroom. He's crying, and he jumps up on the bed with me. "I don't want you to do die."
"It's all right, Tim," I tell him. "You have to take good care of your mom for me, okay?" Timmy nods solemnly.
My dad's here too now. He's wearing a flannel shirt, and that same stupid blue cap.
I can rewind life. I could be young and healthy and free. I could fight Willy Pierson and win. I could make a fortune in Vegas, or on Wall Street. I could be on TV. I could be kissing Debbie again for the very first time.
I could do all those things. This instant, if I wanted to.
Timmy watches me, with an expression of trust and hope.
I can rewind life.
But I won't.
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