In the halcyon days of that final fall, when you worried in the abstract about the havoc Alistair Gilby might wreak on the off chance he were elected, you never thought about the silence. Nuclear winter, of course. The cold and the dying of a withering world, but in those nightmares you imagined a death rattle alongside every war cry. Sonic booms and siren shrieks. Even the patter of acid rain on rooftops. You never imagined it would be like this–only the whisper of snowfall, the crackle of fire, and the wheezing rattle in your own failing lungs.
You’re not cut out for the silence any more than you are the solitude. Before, before, you always had your headphones on. At your desk, on the metro, in your bed. As you worked and as you slept. You grew up in a world of earbuds and smartphones; you were addicted to the cadence of other people’s battle songs. Music was your constant lullaby in a dangerous world.
To say nothing of the human element, the riot of noise and love that made you feel so alive. Henry’s off-key humming and Hannah’s offbeat laughter. Hell, even talentless buskers and aggressive drivers. You were a city boy, through and through–raised in San Francisco, came of age in New Haven, lived in DC ever since–all you knew was noise.
Now the whole world’s a silent graveyard, and you’ll never be out of mourning.
So when they come for you with helicopters that beat the snow bank like egg whites, you’re sure the apocalypse they promised all those years ago has finally arrived–the one that you told yourself, in the darkest hours of the night, would have been a blessing. Maybe you’ve lived this long as penance, to see the price of your cowardice, and now this clamor that could fracture the firmament itself is here to call you to your reckoning. Not the trumpets they promised, but the endless roar of rotors calling you to meet your fate.
You leave your tea kettle whistling on your wood-burning stove, stalling only to jam your feet into shredded scuffed galoshes and drape an old hunting coat over your shoulders. You’re dressed in threadbare flannel pajamas, but there’s nothing you can do about that now.
Outside, the helicopter has landed, and half a dozen men and women dressed in fatigues disembark. They’re armed to the teeth, bandoliers and automatics over their shoulders, as if they’re stepping into an active warzone.
The woman who steps forward to meet you, where you’re guarding your hearth as if it’s still worth something, is taller than you are. She’s thin but not emaciated, not like most of the earth’s ailing population. Her faded auburn hair is done up in a tight bun, her skin like crepe paper. Age is difficult to guess–everyone tolerated the radiation differently–but you’d guess sixty, if you had to. The truth is you wouldn’t know her from a common foot soldier if it weren’t for the four stars embroidered in metallic gold thread at her collar. That, and the unequivocal note of command in her voice when she calls your name. “Arden Chang-Haas?”
“What’s left of him,” you wheeze, then cough into your fist. It’s been months since you last used your voice, and now you fear your larynx is just another instrument in disrepair.
“Your country needs you, Mr. Haas.”
“It’s Chang-Haas, and I didn’t think I had a country anymore.”
“What’s left of it, then,” she smiles. “See, I believe you’re operating under the false assumption that you have a choice.” She snaps her gloved fingers, and her goons level rusted assault rifles at your chest.
Warily, you consider your options. An open grave here is no different than what you had come to expect in a handful of months. Whatever she’s offering, it’s something other than dying alone at your in-laws’ lake house. You don’t dare assume it’s a chance to atone, but Henry would have wanted you to try. “All right.” You raise your hands in mock surrender. “What do you want?”
“Get your things. We leave in ten.” She waits for you to turn away before she calls out, “Oh, and Mr. Chang-Haas? You won’t be coming back.”
Ten minutes to pack up a life you’ve already lost. What relics do you have left?
So you throw your tattered clothes into a duffel bag, and you rifle through the piles of ephemera on your desk. So many memories like sand through an hourglass, sifting through your fingers until they’re lost. In the end, you save only a stack of photos with curling edges and your set of crumpled journals. All you have left of your family and the stories you wrote to them, after they were gone. The words you used, in vain, to fill the silence, as futile as raindrops sieging a dam.
By the time you join the general aboard the battered helicopter, only five minutes have passed.
Noise-canceling headphones damp the screech of the tin dragon. Strapped between a cold bulkhead and a silent soldier, you watch the Blue Ridge Mountains recede to lumps of sugar on the disappearing horizon.
You fly for hours, sunrise chasing at your tail, and you stare through the porthole at the ruins of the country below.
It’s all alike. Amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties, and the fruited plain leveled to a barren wasteland. A frontier gone white with ash and snow.
They tell you later that the bunker where you land is under the desert of New Mexico, but truth be told, there’s no way you could tell the difference.
The General sends you off to the dorms after you land. Tells you to rest up because there’s a briefing at 0900.
Soldiers lead you to a double room no larger than a prison cell and just as sterile. They shove you in and lock the door behind you.
There’s a woman in the far bed, curled away from the door, weeping rivers into her pillow. As desperate as you are for human contact, you don’t have it in you to disturb her.
You choose to believe what’s left of the army has evolved enough to arrange gender-neutral housing, rather than default to the mislabeled F on your birth certificate. For a brief shining moment, when there was a Camelot, you were a man in the eyes of the law, until Alistair Gilby rolled back every law and statute on transgender rights. Took away your personhood—your manhood, to be exact— with a swish of his Mont Blanc. Thought that would be enough to strip you of your manhood, too, as if your masculinity were as fragile as his, but yours was forged in fire–tested, tempered, shatterproof.
You clean up with icy water in the en suite bathroom before you lie down on the your egg carton mattress of the empty bed. Remove your boots, but you don’t bother with anything else. Stare up at the mottled concrete ceiling, looking for constellations in the fault lines.
You don’t sleep.
At the briefing, an aide-de-camp arranges you and a dozen other civilians around a conference table like dolls at a tea party.
Presidencies usually age their presidents, but Gilby was preserved in amber, rendered immune through an uncanny marriage of bioengineering and modern medicine. His presidency aged the rest of you. Everyone here is gray and haggard, every face a topography of canyons and drought-cracked deserts.
Unlikely heroes for this, the last resistance. Or so you assume.
At the head of the table sits the woman who pulled you from your home. General Constance Fletcher, you learned. Lesser generals perch like prized birds at her side. She stares you down with her steely blues and informs you, “The thirteen of you are the last hope of a hopeless nation.”
The yarn she spins, the twine between such unlikely suspects as a pastry chef, a zookeeper, and a journalist, is something out of this world. The kind of story your editor never would have published, even if you’d had a four-star general as an anonymous source. But, this world hasn’t been itself in twenty-two years, so maybe–maybe time travel is no more surprising than fascist dystopia was all those years ago.
Fletcher talks about lynchpins and pivot points. Fulcrums and levers. People who had–who have–the power to change history. “If we send the right person back, we can prevent the War from ever happening,” she says. “Reverse nuclear winter before it starts.”
“And you think that’s one of us?” your roommate asks with a stiff lower lip. Her warm brown skin glows under the fluorescent lights.
“According to our calculations, Ms. Amador, all of you have the potential to rewrite the past.”
You feel sick, a swarm of locusts in your stomach, because you know what they want you to do. What you should have done, all those years ago.
Just like you know why there are only thirteen of you assembled at this table, and why you’re such an odd fellow bunch. Everyone else–every other pivot point, every citizen who resisted, every person who had any real power then–is dead. All killed by Gilby’s secret police.
Like you would have been, if you’d done then what they want you to do now.
That afternoon, you sit across from Fletcher under the glare of halogen lamps. The far wall is a lustrous mirror. Your own reflection stares back at you, ragged beard and scraggly hair, but you blink past it.
One-way glass. No doubt Fletcher’s cronies are listening from the other side.
You know an interrogation when you see one.
“Do you understand what we’re asking of you, Mr. Chang-Haas?”
“Go back in time. Kill Hitler. Stop the war. I think I’ve seen that movie.”
“This isn’t a joke, Mr. Chang-Haas. The future of the free world is at stake, here.”
“I think you mean the past.”
“I mean your husband’s life, and your daughter’s.”
“My daughter wouldn’t have had a life, if I’d published. Gilby would have had me killed a year before Hannah was even born.”
Fletcher scoffs. “Supposition. A coward’s escape hatch on a sinking ship.”
“Supposition?” You seethe. “Do you remember how many journalists they killed? How many accidents and disappearances went uninvestigated? Because I do. I watched my friends, my colleagues, the best investigative writers I knew, die.” The most courageous journalists of an era buried in empty coffins under platitudinous headstones.
“But the tip you threw away, Mr. Chang-Haas, had the power to destroy Alistair Gilby, once and for all. You had proof of an impeachable offense. If you’d published, Congress would have removed him from office. The FBI could have put you in protective custody. You’d have been safe, if that’s all you cared about.”
“You don’t know that, not for a fact.” You debated all of this twenty-two years ago. You agonized over your pro and con lists, and all you found was doubt. Your life depended on the good graces of the country’s most corrupt politicians–men who proved, again and again, that they’d rather kneel before Gilby’s iron fist than fight for anyone.
But then again, so did you. You gave up your reputation as a hard-hitting political correspondent and became the kind of journalist who wrote puff pieces about the First Lady’s dresses–sugar-spun confections, empty calories for polite consumption–while the whole world burned.
“Do you know, Mr. Chang-Haas, what sets you apart from the other men and women we’ve assembled here?” Wan lips drawn thin, Fletcher sneers, “You knew. The rest of them didn’t realize what power they had, but you? A journalist with one of the most prestigious papers in the country. A scandal that threatened to crack the very pillars of our democracy. The story of the century fell into your lap, and you threw it away. You threw it away knowing damn well what could happen.”
You did. You knew, you did. You sink in your chair, like the spineless jellyfish Fletcher thinks you are under the force of her scrutiny.
Fletcher leans forward, her palms flat against the table. “Can you really tell me you’re prepared to make that same mistake twice?”
“What do they want you to do?” Esperanza Amador whispers in the artificial silence of your dorm that night. Over the course of an hour, the two of you lie in your respective beds, tracking the ceiling with hooded eyes, exchanging sob stories, the only currency you have left. Your voices never break a furtive whisper, an unavoidable habit of living in a panopticon for too many years.
She is the daughter of undocumented immigrants, who watched Gilby deport her entire family when she was only seventeen. She got a job as a pastry chef at an upscale bakery in Georgetown, made a life for herself, but she was alone.
You tell her about your life as a second-generation Chinese-American trans man, about your Black Jewish firefighter-turned-soldier husband, and about your brilliant daughter, who wanted to be a journalist, like you, and would have lit the world on fire if only she’d had the chance.
“They want me to poison him,” Esperanza admits into the forgiving dark.
“They want me to tell the truth,” you confess in kind.
Even in the dark, you mark the furrow of her brow. Not a fair exchange, in her mind. Her life, forfeit, and yours? Redacted question marks in goldenrod files. “Would it have been so bad?”
“I thought it would, at the time.”
“Worse than this?”
The room is silent but for the whir of recirculating air and the shudder of your breathing.
While Esperanza sleeps, you huddle on the cold linoleum of the bathroom, and with numb fingers, you shuffle through the photos you brought with you. Your eyes have adapted to the dark, but even so, you can barely make out the shape of faces you used to know better than your own.
You stare and stare at a dark-skinned man in his dress blues, who holds a toddler in a red gingham dress at his hip. He wears a slick-billed cap over his buzz cut; she has his freckles and his button nose, along with a gap-toothed smile and curls for days. There are other photos, photos of the three of you, or you and Henry years earlier, or you and Hannah years later, but it’s this that nares your attention. The last photo of him, home on leave from the Middle East before they sent him to the Balkans. And the last of her without a ghost in her eyes of the father she lost.
You smooth your fingertips over the ink. Trace their faces like you used to. Like you can’t, ever again.
You made a choice. You lived, and the whole world died, including the two people who made it a place worth living. All you have left is the silence and the guilt that eats away at you like moths in a darkened closet.
You were so afraid, then, of what Gilby could take from you. What you didn’t understand was how easy you made it. You clung so tight, you squeezed the life out of the very thing you were trying to protect.
You don’t know what you were expecting, but it wasn’t this. Not a DeLorean or a TARDIS. Not the Guardian of Forever. Just a high-backed wooden chair with restraints on the armrests.
“You’re sure this isn’t just a glorified electric chair?”
“Would it make a difference?” Fletcher asks as you sit.
Her aide-de-camp straps you in with a clinical touch. Cool leather chafes your wrists. Fletcher looms over you.
“What does it feel like?” you ask her. “Will it hurt?”
“You won’t feel anything at all.”
A needle sinks into your skin as they hook you up to an intravenous drip. Clear, viscous fluids from two sacks, a paralytic and a sedative, seep into your welcoming vein.
Fletcher lowers a perforated metal helmet over your head, occluding your vision.
You shut your eyes. Breathe in deep. If this works, you’ll see Henry again; if it doesn’t, well, you were a dead man, anyway, and not just because of the cancer rotting you from the inside out. You wrote your own death sentence the day you said no. Everything else has just been solitary confinement on death row.
“Good luck, Mr. Chang-Haas,” Fletcher croons in your ear. “You’ll need it.”
Music. Roaring organs and a driving beat. Beyoncé, your alarm and wakeup call.
The power ballad jolts you to consciousness. All at once, sensory overload, a million forgotten sensations. A warm comforter draped over you, a solid body at your back, and music, honest-to-god music in your ears.
“Morning.” A greeting mouthed against your skin. An invocation. A voice, Henry’s voice, and god, oh god–
“What day is it?” Your own voice, rough with sleep, rather than radiation poisoning.
“Very funny,” Henry laughs, a warm rumble that tumbles from his diaphragm. “You’ve been counting down and marking off days on the bathroom calendar for a year and a half. The first Tuesday following a Monday in November….”
Which means they sent you back early. To election day. You’re sure they meant it as a gift but you can’t see this as anything other than cruelty wrapped in a barbed wire bow. To remind you what you had, what you lost, what you’re fated to lose all over again.
Now Henry’s kissing your back, your shoulder, the nape of your neck, and it’s so much, too much, every fuse in your body short-circuiting all at once.
“Sorry,” you breathe, “sorry,” and extract yourself from his embrace.
So you run to the bathroom and brace your arms on the counter. Lose a staring contest with your reflection.
What you see is a body shaped and sculpted and chiseled by testosterone, only just beginning to go soft again. For you, for the molting body you left behind, it’s been fifteen years since your last T shot, since you last felt at peace in your own skin. Hormone replacement therapy was just another casualty of the war that killed the world. Now you’re twenty-seven again, in the prime of your life. Unblemished skin and a full head of hair. Bare-chested, your top surgery scars are still red, clearer than they’ve been in years.
Your knees give out and you spill into a puddle on the cold tile floor. That dam you built inside yourself finally gives out, collapses under the pressure of a tidal wave of feeling. And you cry and cry in a way you haven’t in months, not since the day Hannah died.
You didn’t think this was possible. Part of you still doesn’t; your rational brain’s still searching for any other explanation–dream, hallucination, afterlife–but this feels so real. The tile stamping one-inch indentations into your kneecaps, the phlegm clogging your sinuses, the ache where your heart is supposed to be.
Now that you’re here, now that you’ve heard Henry, felt his warmth against your lonely skin, all you want is to beg forgiveness. Tell him you’re sorry you weren’t stronger.
“Arden?” Henry calls through the door, concern a claxon in his voice. “You okay in there?”
“I’m fine.” You know your voice is ragged, worn as thin as the clothes you wore yesterday, the fabric of your lie just as fragile. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
You scrub your face with a washcloth until the rest of it is as red as the rims of your eyes. You blow your nose, and you breathe and breathe until you’re sure you can face him without crumbling.
So you open the door, and you look at Henry Charles Haas for the first time in seventeen years. Your
husband fiancé. Smiling at you with dusky lips and pellucid hazel eyes. Dressed only in boxers and a Henley.
Memories cascade through you like running water. Henry in a tux, under cherry blossoms, sliding a gold band on your ring finger. Henry holding your hand in a hospital room as you pushed and pushed until Hannah’s first cry pierced the air. Henry pushing Hannah on a rope swing under the willow tree at the lake house. And you remember the call, remember the words
killed in action that stopped your heart.
Except none of that has happened yet. None of that will ever happen if you complete your mission. Casualties of the road less traveled.
Henry’s not smiling anymore. He’s right in front of you, his hand arching up to cup your cheek, and you can’t help it, it’s been so long, your eyes flutter shut. “Arden,” he murmurs, half caress and half reproach, “you’re scaring me.”
You force your eyes open. Twist your lips into a sketch of a smile. Pour humor into your voice like seasoning. “Sorry, just had a minor panic attack thinking about the possibility of Alistair Gilby winning tonight.”
“Heaven forbid,” Henry laughs, limpid as a lake in summer, as he tilts your face up and endeavors to kiss your worries away.
Henry never thought Gilby stood a chance. He scoffed when your colleagues projected that Gilby had a one-in-six-shot at the presidency. After all, Gilby was a third-party candidate, no matter how popular he might have been, he shouldn’t have had a viable path to victory. Still, you told Henry that you still bring an umbrella when there’s a fifteen percent chance of rain, but he just laughed. Maybe you do, Arden.
You didn’t really think he’d win, either, but that didn’t stop you from worrying about it. From writing out against him, every chance you had. He even called you out at a press conference, once, a few weeks before the election. Called you a liar and a slur you’d rather not repeat. Questioned your citizenship, too. You could laugh about it, then, because he didn’t have any power. You thought, if you wrote clear and hard about the clear and present danger he presented to the nation, it would be enough.
It should have been enough.
You don’t bother voting. You did, the first time, of course you did. Wore your I VOTED sticker like a Medal of Freedom. Thought, one day, you’d tell your child about the day you voted for the first Muslim president.
Today, you don’t want to puzzle out whether voting twice on account of temporal displacement counts as voter fraud, and you know your vote won’t count either way. It didn’t count the first time, and you’re no Sisyphus. There’s no point waiting in hour-long lines to push a single boulder up a hill when you know how the story ends–with the boulder careening down the hill and crashing into your face.
Instead, you go to work. You sit in your cubicle at The Post, and you shed smiles on people whose funerals you attended. Don your over-ear headphones and blast percussive pop songs you used to hate. Stare at the documents you left open on your laptop but don’t type a single word. Glance up at the flat screens, where pundits on every major news network spell infinite variations on it can’t happen here.
You leave at four o’clock, hours before the first polls close.
The first time around, you spent election night at work, of course you did. It was your job; elections are journalists’ Super Bowl, or maybe their Thunderdome. So you spent the night in your cubicle, biting back tears over a cup of instant noodles, and knocking back shots of your editor’s bottom drawer scotch in your tea-stained coffee mug.
This time, you go home. You go home to your Logan Circle apartment to spend the last night before the start of the end of the world with your
Let this first point of divergence be yours.
“I wasn’t expecting you,” says Henry when you come home with enough Chinese takeout to outlast a hurricane.
“Are you complaining?”
“Not at all.” Then Henry’s wrapping his arms around you, hugging you tight even though your raincoat is slick with dew and you haven’t had a chance to set down your bags. He buries his face in your sopping wet hair and breathes in the petrichor-sweet scent of you, as if he can’t quite believe you’re real.
“What was that for?” you ask when it’s over.
“You came home.” He smiles, as if it’s that simple.
You don’t remember how you ever lived without this.
One by one, red and blue states alike turn yellow. The screen flickers like a faulty Etch A Sketch. Sure things change colors like a game of Manhunt, the one Hannah used to play with her friends. The same pundits you watched earlier sputter in disbelief, their commentary as mercurial as the sprinklers on Capitol Hill. The twin candles Henry lit burn down to stumps as the Electoral College sways and tips, a tree listing before it falls, and Henry’s arm turns to timber around your shoulders.
“Unbelievable,” he mutters, alongside a train of expletives you’d rather not repeat. You missed this, the first time, missed the flash boil of his anger and the unadulterated fear in his eyes. You remember only the next morning, when you came home in wrinkled shirtsleeves, two ships crossing paths for mere moments before he went to work, and he reassured you with not-quite-stoic surety that everything was going to be all right.
This time, he fetches two beers, Sam Adams, from the kitchen. He hands you yours without comment, but seldom raises his to his lips. He cradles the sweating bottle in laced hands and worries the water-logged label with his thumbnail until it crumbles, flake by flake.
When they make the call and anoint Gilby President-Elect with polite smiles and staid praises, citing the largest electoral margin in thirty years, Henry plants one last wet kiss on your cheek before he goes to bed in disgust.
He leaves you alone on your mid-century modern sofa, and you crumble, too.
You feel weepy all over again, a leaky faucet in disrepair. Maybe it’s because knowing how the story ends doesn’t make a plot twist any more believable on a second read-through. Or maybe it’s because this body is off T for the first time in five years, just starting fertility treatments so you and Henry can make a family together. So you can make Hannah. Your brilliant daughter, who laughed as easily as rain in winter, who loved like an oncoming freight train. Who grew up reading history books filled with screenshots, tweets that started wars, snaps that brought down empires. Who died at nineteen, with jelly bean tumors riddling her malnourished form. Last fall, you were too weak to give her the burial she deserved, so you hauled her lifeless body out to the willow tree with the rope swing. You left her under a white sheet, the only shroud you could find, and left her to the embrace of the cold, cold snow.
The television bathes you in pale blue light, every teardrop a prism, and you sit and sag while the world somehow keeps on turning.
It snows the day Alistair Gilby is inaugurated, powdered sugar sifted over the National Mall. Under a black umbrella, he takes the oath, so help him God.
The army marches down Pennsylvania Avenue in full regalia during the inaugural parade, and the White House summarily blacklists anyone, journalist or politician, who objects.
Later, examined through the blood-stained looking glass of two long decades, it will seem obvious to you that Alistair Gilby did not suddenly take hostage an unwilling nation, as it seemed to you then. Election fraud notwithstanding, his candidacy awoke the murky things that lurked far beneath the surface, along the black of the ocean floor. The eels and anglerfish were always there, but he roused them with the scent of blood. Made mainstream the darkest undercurrents of American ideology, ideas as old as they were ugly.
Which meant the carnage Alistair Gilby wrought did not happen overnight.
However, in the moment, it did feel instantaneous, as if fascism rose as easily as raising a flag at dawn. You awoke one morning to a traitor’s colors uttering over the nation you called home. And when you told yourself, in those first few days, that you would scale any and every flagpole to tear down his banners, you really, truly believed it.
The call comes just as you remember it, thirteen days after the inauguration. Unknown number, digitized voice, impossible to trace. All they give you is a time and an address and an abrupt hang up.
Already, Gilby has closed the nation’s borders and threatened enemies and allies alike with force, all while schilling his xenophobic policies as patriotism of the highest order. Already, police and national guardsmen patrol the streets in riot gear.
Nothing has changed except you. Your war-torn consciousness in a body at its prime. Afflicted with phantom aches and a psychosomatic cough. You are the only variable.
The first time you got the call, your jackrabbit heart beat with as much excitement as trepidation. You saw intrigue and political espionage, glossy and glamorous as a Hollywood spy thriller; you didn’t understand, yet, how much it would cost.
Now, your phone slips from your sweating palm as dread seeps into you like saltwater through the cracked hull of a sinking ship.
The location for the meet is the same as before, a hipster burger joint on the Hill, the kind of greasy spoon that dirties up clean cutlery to give it character, full of bargain-suited interns and tourists in American flag ponchos.
You choose the closest table to the kitchen, the farthest from the windows so you have a view of the whole room and perpendicular to the door so that neither of you will have your back to it. You made different choices the first time, and your contact was twitchy the whole time, her hand never straying from her holster beneath the table. Last time, you also ate the chef’s special burger with the kitschy Americana name, but today, your stomach’s too turbulent for anything solid. So you sip your vanilla malt, and you wait.
Then comes the woman who has haunted your nightmares for the past twenty-two years and sits down across from you with a veggie burger and sweet potato fries. She’s lean, lithe, and butch, in her utility jacket and buzz fade, her skin a deep umber, a few shades darker than Henry’s.
You know as much about her as she knows about you, but you can’t let her know that. Swallow your malt, instead, and ask her, “Are you the one who called me?” When she doesn’t answer right away, tell her, “I’m Arden Chang, but I think you already know that.”
“You have quite the reputation, Mr. Chang.”
“And the death threats to prove it,” you parry. “How do I know you’re someone I can trust?”
Wright flashes her FBI badge quick. You don’t spare it so much as a glance, but you did the first time. Stole a momentary glimpse of her name. Looked her up, later, using The Post’s databases. Special Agent Kristen Wright, a preacher’s daughter. Served three tours in Afghanistan before she went to Quantico, where she graduated first in her class. You read everything you could about her because you wanted to understand; you needed to know what made her brave.
You never did figure it out.
So Wright tells you, in hushed and coded phrases, about the FBI’s investigation into a private security firm’s tampering with voting machines in two dozen states. She implies, just this side of plausible deniability, that Gilby’s campaign worked with that private security firm, and she suspects that Gilby himself knew. When you ask her why she’s telling you this, she says she has hard evidence of an impeachable offense, but the FBI won’t break Gilby’s gag order. She’s a whistleblower, and she needs you to be her megaphone.
But you already knew that. Just like you know, the first time around, she died two months after you turned her down.
“Are you interested?”
You go to the Capitol Visitor Center, after. You’re only two blocks away, and it’s been so many years. So you go and take a guided tour. Stand in the rotunda with a hundred tourists. Stare up at the murals. Remember that the introductory video called this room, where the country’s most honored dead lie in state, the temple of your democracy, as if democracy were a religion that promised eternal salvation.
And you pray.
You’ve never been a religious man.
That Friday, you spend Shabbat at Henry’s parents’ brownstone in Alexandria. His whole family lives and works along the Beltway. His father teaches ethics at GW, and his mother works for the ACLU. His oldest sister clerks for a liberal Supreme Court justice, another lobbies against tobacco, and the youngest studies literature at Georgetown.
Henry holds you tight against him through the prayers, and you break challah with your in-laws for what might be the last time.
You’re quiet during the meal, considering the merits of parables and poetry as you listen to anecdotes and reminiscences. You muster benign pleasantries when they ask you about wedding planning, and you hope they don’t see right through you.
The Haas clan doesn’t, but Henry does. As he drives back into the city on a dark road illuminated only by the distant bulbs of taillights, he steals sideways glances at you while you keep your gaze fixed on the horizon.
For weeks he’s been nagging you to stop by the tailor, the baker, the florist. Preparations for a wedding you won’t live to see. But you remember everything you chose the first time around–white tux, raspberry mousse, cherry blossoms laced with peonies–your dream wedding, on the banks of the Tidal Basin. It was easy, then, because you said no. Threw yourself into wedding planning so you wouldn’t have to think about the guilt. Now, since your meeting with Wright, you can barely bring yourself to go through the motions of normalcy, and you’re drowning in another kind of guilt.
You haven’t told him. You can’t tell him.
“Would you tell me,” murmurs Henry, “if something were wrong?”
The whole world’s gone wrong, you don’t tell him. “I’m scared,” you admit. In a story with such a clear-cut antagonist, you don’t think it gives anything away to admit you’re scared of Gilby. As a gay trans man of color, you’d be crazy not to be.
He’s itching to reach out, but he keeps his hands on the wheel. “I won’t let anything happen to you,” he swears.
And your eyes slam shut because you know where that promise leads.
He holds you all through the night, and you don’t sleep a wink. You lie on your side, the heat of him curled around you like a question mark, as you ask yourself, again and again, what the hell you’re doing.
Filter pros and cons through a fine mesh sieve as you watch night shadows flicker across your bedroom wall. Pro: you save the world, maybe. Con: you die, probably. How’s that for a cost-benefit analysis?
At dinner Henry’s sister talked about her favorite poems and poets, of futures lost as irretrievably as tennis balls at twilight and wastelands razed in the shadows of valleys of stars. You almost asked her about Frost, but you restrained yourself. In her professional opinion, what the hell is the point of two roads diverging in a wood if they both have the same destination? Why choose one over the other when both converge on your vanishing point? Why walk down either when neither has a happy ending?
Two lives, and neither has a happy ending. In one, you live long and alone, guilt fermenting in you like grapes in a wooden cask. In the other, you’re a tragic hero, at best, and at worst? Nothing changes. There’s no guarantee publishing the article will motivate corrupt congressmen to introduce articles of impeachment. No guarantee Gilby won’t blacklist everyone at The Post to punish you before he kills you. No guarantee he won’t still kill the world just to prove he can.
It’s a zero-sum game, and either way, you lose.
You lose Henry. You lose Hannah.
You lose every last inch of the life you fought so hard to build for yourself.
You meet with Wright eight times over the next three weeks. Always in public, always a different location. The last time, you pick the place.
An upscale bakery in Georgetown, all done up in frills and pink lace like a pampered poodle.
Wright reads a draft of the article you might not have the courage to publish. It’s a hard copy, typed on a rusty typewriter, the only way to keep it safe from all-seeing, surveilling eyes.
As she proofs her own story, you nibble at a maple bacon cupcake and try to think about anything but the hieroglyphs she etches in red ink along the margins. Think about the cupcake, instead. Remember you’ll have to brush your teeth before you go home because Henry keeps kosher and won’t kiss you with pork on your breath. Now think about kissing Henry. Think about his rough hands on your skin. Think about the weight of his arms around you. Think about the hickory taste–
Think about the wedding you won’t have. The daughter you won’t conceive. The life you won’t share.
The cupcake is a sticky, cloying thing in your stomach.
“What does your editor think?” asks Wright, just in time to distract you.
“He doesn’t, yet.”
Her gaze shutters. “I see.”
Lie. Lie quickly and convincingly, and don’t ever let her see your doubt. “I wanted your opinion, first. To make sure I got it right.”
That appeases her, but she still leaves in a hurry. Leaves you with your marked-up draft and your stomachache and your doubt, churning in you like butter.
At the counter, you ask the cashier, if, by chance, Esperanza Amador is in.
Moments later, a girl in a chef’s jacket comes out to greet you. Flour dusts her warm brown skin. “Can I help you, sir?”
“I’m Arden,” you say. “Arden Chang-Haas.”
She smiles at you with polite incomprehension. “Did you order something?”
Lie again. Easily, as if it costs you nothing. After all, you’re getting so good at it. “Yes, sorry, I was wondering if you did custom wedding cakes.”
She’s young. She’s so young. Reminds you of Hannah, with her easy smiles and unconscious naivety. An ingénue, so out of place in a story like this.
The Esperanza you roomed with in New Mexico was kind but hard, glazed and brittle like the surface of a crème brûlée. This isn’t her.
Fletcher must have sent her to a different, later point in the timeline.
Or maybe the choices you’ve made–all the divergences you’ve hoarded so selfishly–have already irrevocably severed this timeline from the original. Maybe your mistakes have made it impossible for them to send anyone else because you’ve erased the future from whence you came, winked it out like so many stars at twilight.
In which case the entire future of humanity hinges on you and you alone.
In bed, in the dark, you’re brave enough to ask Henry the question you’ve wanted to ask him for weeks. “If you knew there was something you could do that would save lives, even if it meant sacrificing everything you held dear, would you do it?”
He says yes before the ink of your question mark is dry.
Stupid question. Henry runs into burning buildings. He suits up in futuristic gear like the superheroes in all your favorite comics. And he enlisted. As soon as he decided Gilby’s extracurricular military activities jeopardized homeland security, he said it was his civic duty as an able-bodied, red-blooded American to fight to defend it. To defend you, his sisters, the elderly woman and her yowling cat who live in the apartment above you. He died for a war he didn’t believe in because that’s the kind of person he is. Heroism, stitched into his skin, the very fabric of who he is.
It’s ironic, because everyone used to tell you you were so brave. For being trans, for coming out, for transitioning. Every step you took toward living as the person you already were, people told you that you were brave. Family, friends, strangers the moment after they clocked you. But it wasn’t bravery; it was a survival tactic.
You’ve always been good at doing what you had to, to survive.
Even when you shouldn’t.
He turns to you, his eyes catching the glint of the streetlight like matches. “What’s this about, Arden?”
Search for a lie and come up short. Tell the truth–about the story, not the time travel. Talk him down from his fears while downplaying your own. Say impeachment and protective custody as if they’re sure things rather than pipe dreams.
So you rest your head on his shoulder for what might be the last time, and you let him hold you as if you’re about to disappear.
“Are you sure?” your editor asks you the next morning.
Dev Chandrasekhar is a Hindu man, devout when it suits him and judiciously agnostic when it doesn’t, who told you, once, the news was like the universe, endlessly destroyed and recreated, the same old stories eternally reincarnated as stars birthed in nebulas formed from the ashes of their ancestors. No news, he told you, is ever really new, but he dared you to prove him wrong.
You think of Hannah, seven years old when she found a box of back copies of The Post in your closet, telling you so earnestly that she wanted to grow up to be just like you.
You want to be the kind of man your daughter would be proud of, even if she never lives to see it.
Set your hands flat on his desk to stop the shaking. Tell him, “Yes,” you’re sure.
Hannah Charlotte Chang-Haas is born in spring.