Girl Next Door

Bad things happen and sometimes there’s no one to blame. But each time I heard that from some well-meaning friend, the knife twisted a little further, cut a little deeper. I didn’t need them to tell me I was throwing everything to the wind: career, money, marriage. It wasn’t as if I had a choice.

Damned if I was going to lose my daughter–not again. Each death was a little harder to bear than the last.

So I pulled the photos from the envelope for one last look, even though I was running late for the divorce hearing. It gave me pleasure knowing Suzanne’s lawyers probably billed her by the minute.

I tilted the photograph on top for a better look. Except for a desk lamp, the apartment was in darkness. Beyond the picture window, downtown city lights glittered distantly thirty stories below. Suzanne used to call the place god’s platform and it did seem rather apt. My money had bought me that: luxury and distance–and other things besides.

In the photo, Alyson looked happy. We’d had a row the morning of her death, a stupid, pointless little argument. But I saw no trace of lingering resentment on her face now. I tilted the photo to catch the light, wanting to be sure.

Tomorrow (or maybe the day after) this would all be gone: the apartment, the houses, cars, investments–all my assets liquidated. But it would buy me the most important thing of all.

And that was all that mattered.

“Well screw you, Max,” Suzanne said. She slapped her hand down on the table to emphasize her anger. By itself, it wasn’t much, but she had on those gaudy rings I’d never liked and a cluster of bracelets jangled at her wrist. When all that metal hit the conference table, it sounded like a gun going off. I flinched. Emboldened, she did it again, only the repetition somehow diminished the effect, turning it into nothing more than a childish tantrum. Too late, I realized I’d let a smile play across my face.

“You think this is funny, Max? You think I won’t go through with it?”

My gaze flicked to her lawyer. To his credit, the man looked faintly embarrassed. I tried to keep my face neutral. “I’m sure you’ll make this every bit as excruciating as it needs to be.”

“You bet I will. I’m serious about this, Max. I want what’s mine. I want my share.”

I spread my hands. “What if I don’t have it to give you?”

Suzanne stood, face flushed. In that moment she seemed vulnerable; weary, beaten down, and I couldn’t help remembering all the conversations, the hopes, the dreams–and the heartaches–we’d once shared. All gone now, though.

“You took from me the most important thing I had. You did that, Max. You. I hold you to blame for it all. So don’t try to deny me this.”

If I thought I’d put up barriers against that kind of hurt, I realized I was wrong. I could feel the tide rising again–not that it was ever in retreat for long. That was the thing about a tide: it always turned, rising up again and sweeping everything before it. Mine was a tide of grief and loss, and carried on its cold, black waves were the flotsam and jetsam of memories.

It seemed like a good time to leave. There was nothing more to be said.

My legal team told me how it would play out. There would be a court petition and an investigation into my financial affairs, possibly protracted if we chose to make things difficult. But I didn’t have any clever financial bolt-holes, no hidden portfolios. I was a straightforward kind of guy. I started out with nothing, clawed my way up by building a business that lasted long enough for me to sell out and cash in. I was no smarter than a thousand others with drive, ambition and one good idea in their pocket. I just got lucky. Started out with nothing and now it looked like I’d end up with nothing. Which made what happened in between just a blip. Could you truly lose something you never had in the first place?

The money would be enough to buy me a few more months of data, maybe a year’s worth. But if Suzanne’s lawyers were sharp and they got to it first, I wouldn’t even have that long.

And then I would lose Alyson all over again.

She had made herself late for school talking on the phone. I’d heard her prattling to some friend about last night’s TV, some science documentary that had grabbed her attention and got her all fired up. I reacted the way any parent would. I did the whole being a teenager means taking more responsibility for yourself thing. What I should have done was told her to wait for the next bus and take a late mark in the class register. Would that have been so terrible? But she’d gone sulky on me. Sarcastic, too. Oh well if you’re too important to give me a ride… And like a fool I’d caved in.

A traffic snarl-up between Main Street and 3rd forced me to detour a couple of blocks east to find a smoother flow. (How was that my fault?) At the lights, I eased left on green just, it turned out, as some utter moron was racing to make it across the intersection even though the lights must have turned red on him fifty yards back. (Not my fault either).

I’d started my left turn when the world jigged sideways as if scene shifters were pushing trees and buildings and road abruptly past me. The wheel beneath my hand came alive, tearing itself from my grip. It was strangely quiet inside the car. (Later I would recollect the concussive thud of the impact, the crump of bending metal, and realize that some part of my brain had simply decided to ignore those stimuli. This isn’t happening it beamed out to the rest of my consciousness).

Oh, but it was.

I saw little clouds of dust lift from the dash and settle again, falling in slow motion like fine snow, and in the same heartbeat the interior of the Toyota seemed to grow narrow as if the car was exhaling, sucking in its cheeks. The passenger side–Alyson’s side–bore the brunt. I tried to turn in my seat to reach out to her but the geometry of the car was shifting. I remember explosive pain to the side of my head, and just enough time to think, this must be how it feels to have your skull cracked like the shell of an egg, before blackness washed over me.

I came round in the back of the ambulance; woozy, confused. Alyson wasn’t there. Much later at the hospital a blue-gowned surgeon with tired eyes and a carefully neutral expression, told me they’d tried but there hadn’t been anything they could do. I remembered nodding slowly, wisely, much like I might have done on being told the Toyota needed a new gearbox. Shock does that apparently.

None of it was my fault. Everyone said so. That’s what I kept telling myself, too. None of it.

But it changed nothing.

When Dr Benjamin Lanois and his weird theories first hit the headlines, I missed it all. I was too deep in grief to care about anything else. Everything had contracted to a little whirlpool of intense suffering with me at its center, drowning. Drowned.

But eventually I bobbed to the surface of my pool of anguish, like some bloated, glassy-eyed corpse. Numb didn’t begin to describe it, but at least I was no longer submerged. And then one day, I sat down and found the strength to open a newspaper again and colors from the real world started to bleed back into my life.

The first story I read was an editorial retrospective, a kind of “Where are they now?” of big news items that had passed into oblivion. BIGGEST CON-MAN EVER? screamed a headline. DISGRACED SCIENTIST FORCED TO RETRACT CLAIMS, another. Digging further, I thought I saw the pattern and the truth of it. A research team, led by an unfeasibly young and charismatic Benjamin Lanois, had announced some rather startling implications of an obscure branch of quantum theory. Nobody really seemed to understand the math, but the experiments Dr Lanois proposed to back up his hypothesis–quickly dubbed the ‘sneak peek’ machine by the media–were just too sensationalist for the academic community to stomach. It all smacked of self-aggrandizement. And then the media unearthed a satisfyingly scurrilous background. Dr Lanois, it turned out, had passed a debauched, hippyish time at college, mostly spent partying, boozing, womanizing, smoking pot and flunking courses–not necessarily in that order. Yet when it really mattered, Lanois had aced his post-graduate panels–clearly a brilliant, erratic mind that just needed some focus in his life. A purpose. When Lanois, angered and hurt by the ridicule and invective leveled at him, had the temerity to claim experimental proof–proof that he was not yet ready to publish, however–the media pretty much fell upon him and his work like a pack of wolves on a tethered goat. The university cut off funding, disavowed the research, and would have disowned Dr Lanois had they not somehow granted him tenure the year before. That was the end of it. So much for Lanois’ ‘sneak peeks.’ The only thing that didn’t go away, it seemed, were the persistent rumors that the experiments had some basis in truth. The question was, how much?

Genius or charlatan? The media posed the question a thousand times. And then, like a passing summer storm, they moved on to other things, the story grown stale.

I didn’t believe, either. Not at first–though god knows I had my reasons for wanting to. But I was a man with nothing to lose, except maybe his fortune.

I made enquiries.

We danced like lovers in a crowded room. Sometimes the music brought us closer together only to whirl us apart in different directions. At every turn there were strangers who only seemed to get in the way. Dr Lanois is not accepting appointments at the moment. Dr Lanois is travelling. He is visiting with friends; speaking at a conference; at a retreat. Dr Lanois has no interest in propositions of any kind, no matter the circumstances. And from the university, although never directly voiced, Dr Lanois is persona non grata. We do not discuss his research or the results he claims to have achieved.

But my money gave me access to resources and cunning. The investigative agency I hired had no difficulty providing me with a private address.

We met at last on the stone steps of a rented townhouse. This was the edge of the city suburbs where the smart money lived, cozy in modest three-floor terraces on tree-lined streets where it was still safe for the children to play in the parks, in daylight hours at least. It was raining lightly as I stood blocking his way. Lanois tugged the oak door shut behind him. “Yeah?” he asked. I saw a little flicker of fear before he forced his face to relax. With his long unkempt hair, jacket worn over a designer-logo’d tee shirt and expensive sneakers, he could have been some up-and-coming record producer or graphic designer. Or con-man.

“I left messages. Called at your office.” I raised my hands and shrugged. “There seemed no other way to reach you. I’m–”

“Yeah, man. I know who you are,” he said. “I don’t give interviews, okay? I know what you’re trying to do here.”

“I’m not a journalist, Dr Lanois. I’m here to offer my help.”

“Help? Oh, right. Know much about quantum mechanics, do you? Come to point out some holes in my theories? Some errors in the calculations?”

“Help of a different kind. I think you’ll find I have a fat check-book and a rather generous streak.”

He’d taken a step toward me as if to push past but now he hesitated. “I get it. A benefactor, right? And what’s in it for you?”

“Let’s not beat around the bush, Dr Lanois. You’re tainted. Your work has stalled. I doubt there’s a research funding body in the land who wants anything to do with you. But I can help you move ahead again, prove your doubters wrong.”

Lanois scratched at the stubble on his cheek. “Maybe they’re not wrong. Had you thought of that? Everyone else seems to think my work is just a big zilch.”

“Well is it?”

Lanois shuffled uneasily. I was still blocking his path, though god knows, the last thing I wanted was a scuffle in the street. “How much are we talking?”

“Let’s discuss that back at your lab.”

After a moment, he nodded curtly. I’d had a strong sense the offer of funding would swing it. Money always does. But sometimes it only buys you what you want to hear. I knew that, too.

“Can’t do it,” Lanois said. “You’re wasting your time. Location is always going to be the issue. Sorry, man. You should have done your homework before you got in touch.”

I forced a smile. “Believe me, I did. And nobody said this was going to be easy, did they?”

“Amen to that. Look. You know why the media dubbed it the ‘sneak peek’ machine, right? Because that’s all we can do: open a tiny little slit and peer through. Like putting our eye to a keyhole to make out the room beyond. Limited view, limited resolution. And even just creating that slit is phenomenally difficult and vastly energy-intensive. Predetermining the location is harder still. Impossible, maybe. Hell, we’re talking about peeking into another universe! Some days I still can’t get my head around that.”

“But with more work? More funding?” I asked encouragingly.

Lanois flapped his hands. “Who knows, man? Maybe. But just in energy terms alone the cost of every captured photon is crippling, and with limited directional control… You heard there are government wonks sniffing around? They think maybe if we glimpse some shiny, silvery new invention–say something that makes killing people a whole lot more efficient, you know?–that we can just copy the idea and the skunkworks guys save themselves a ton of R&D budget. Arseholes. They don’t get it. They just don’t get that even with a billion billion branches at the quantum level, it still pretty much looks like the same damn universe as ours.”

“But I get it, Ben,” I told him quietly. “The differences are subtle. Unpredictable. But there are differences, aren’t there? Tell me about Quantum Line 33-1172.”

Lanois looked surprised. I guessed he wasn’t used to lay-people who’d clued themselves up as much as I had. But I had a good grasp of his ‘clustering’ theories of alternative universes. Not the discredited model of near-infinite branching; multiple realities that were supposed to pop into existence with every flip of an atom’s spin or decaying nucleus–such ideas always struck me as daft. A multiverse so profligate, so out of control, had to be insane. But Quantum Lines, parallel realities where clusters of those quantum branches harmonized and combined like standing waves rising from the ripples on a pond–that I could relate to. A Quantum Line, just like the standing wave, had a separate existence; distinct, unreachable from its neighbors. A superposition of a quintillion invisible changes; essentially the same, yet subtly different.

What Lanois had done (claimed to have done, I reminded myself) was find a way to steal information–photons–from neighboring lines. I had struggled to find an analogy but I liked to imagine tiny wind-blown droplets of water flicked from the crest of one standing wave to the next. His apparatus allowed a few photon to bleed across the gap from a neighboring Quantum Line. In return, we traded some of our own. Thus balance was maintained; matter and energy conserved.

I asked him again what made this particular Quantum Line special.

“QL 33-1172 shares some kind of quantum harmonic. The energy transfer function works more efficiently. It’s all there in the math. When we collapse wavefronts to create the slit, the energy values work in our favor. There may be other harmonics; it’s too early to say.”

Lanois rose from his chair and paced across the tiny office, his motion creating little dust eddies that rose from the haphazard piles of journals stacked on the floor. “I know what you want from all this,” he said. “But have you considered that in almost every respect QL 33-1172 is no different to our reality? Virtually indistinguishable in almost every respect?” He didn’t look at me as he went on. “There’s every chance your daughter has died in this alternate reality too. Did you think of that?”

I nodded, not wanting to trust myself to speak.

“And even if she lives, she is still dead in our universe, no matter what. There’s no bringing her back. No crossing over. This other girl… She’s similar, identical even. But she’s still just…” He struggled for the right words. “Just the girl next door.”

I insisted on access. I wanted to see the details. I wanted my tour.

The capture chamber itself was small and uncluttered, almost claustrophobic. It’s not how I had pictured the gateway to a neighboring universe. With Hollywood in charge, there would have been an arch-shaped portal glowing with a soft blue neon light, maybe the hum or crackle of electricity punctuating the reverent silence. This… This looked like some old hot water tank kicked on its side with an old-fashioned plate camera strapped to one end.

Maybe it was.

On the wall, a digital counter edged into the sub-minute zone. “We should leave,” Lanois said.

“Is it dangerous?”

He shrugged. “Stay and find out if you like.” He’s trying to intimidate me, I realized. Or impress me.

Back in the outer room, Lanois threw himself in a chair, letting it roll across the floor, carrying him to the main console. It all seemed a bit stagey, an unnecessary show just for my benefit.

He typed a long string of commands on the keyboard, so fast the keys sounded like falling raindrops. It could have been gobbledygook–or he could have done this so often it had become second nature, I reminded myself. I took a step closer to see but he stabbed the enter key and the screen changed. On a second monitor an image formed briefly: black and white, fuzzy. Hard to make out anything. Before I could get a good look, it vanished. A sheet slipped out of a printer, a smudge of gray tones, but Lanois snatched that up too. He stared at it for a moment, gave a tired, ironic little laugh and crumpled it into a waste bin.

“We get a run roughly every forty minutes,” he explained. “Twenty four seven, as long as we pay the electricity bills.” He dipped his head towards me. “Thanks for that, by the way. It takes that long to recharge the storage capacitors and then–” He made a jabbing motion with his first finger. “Peekaboo.”

I did a rapid calculation. “About thirty pictures a day?”

“Thirty six. Most of what we get is crap. Blank walls, patches of tarmac. Or it’s night time. We steal photons, but it’s a fickle process. Our capture control is getting a little better, but the calibration factors for positioning…” He snapped his fingers. “Come on. We can find a better place to talk than this. And I could use a drink.” He pushed off from the console and coasted halfway across the room like some little kid.

He paused to type a few reset commands at one of the terminals and unseen, I bent and retrieved the crumpled paper from the bin. I slipped it into my pocket just as he turned back. “Kill the lights, will you? Wouldn’t want to waste electricity, would we?”

It was obvious Suzanne didn’t want to be there, obvious that she was uncomfortable in my presence. But I was too excited to let her frostiness deflect me. I made her sit at her own kitchen table and fussed over her, trying to get everything just right, summoning up the courage to find the right words.

I slid the envelope towards her. Suzanne glanced at it but made no move to take it. Her eyes came back to rest on me; cold, lifeless eyes. I reached forward and spilled the contents onto the table in front of her. “These,” I said, “are quite possibly the most expensive photographs ever taken. You wouldn’t believe–” I bit down on the rest of the sentence. I didn’t want her thinking it was about the money. It wasn’t about the money. It was about the miracles the money has bought.

Three black and white ten by eights spilled out; grainy and a little out of focus. I arranged them in front of her as if their neatness and symmetry was somehow important. “Alyson.” I heard the catch in my voice as I said her name. I took a deep breath before continuing. “Taken just last week. I know how impossible this sounds, but it’s true. This one–” I pushed one of the photos fractionally closer to Suzanne who hadn’t moved, but her eyes had locked onto the pictures. “This one was taken as she finished classes. This one as she arrived for school. It’s pretty much guesswork about when and where she might be. For every one picture, we discard a thousand others. And every photon of every image comes at a price. But it’s her, Suzanne! It’s really her! Our daughter alive and well again. Isn’t that miraculous?”

Suzanne stared at the pictures wordlessly.

“There’ll be more. The process can be refined. We’ll look for her in other places–netball practice, maybe. Remember how she was trying out for captain? Or down the mall with her friends. I know these are just glimpses. It can never be more than that. But just knowing how she’s doing, knowing that in some parallel universe our daughter is living her life, growing up–”

Suzanne moved suddenly, like a robot jerking into life. She swept the photos from the table. “This is not my daughter! This doesn’t even look like her. My daughter died in the passenger set of your car with you at the wheel. You were responsible, Max. It should have been you that died that day, not her. Nothing you do now can ever bring her back. This…” Her mouth worked silently for a moment. “–Is just make-believe.”

My daughter. Those were her words. Not our. My.

“I thought I knew you better than this, Max. This Lanois, he’s a charlatan. Can’t you see that? A peddler of hi-tech snake oil.”

I shook my head. “No, he’s not. I’ve seen his work. It’s real.”

She looked at me with pity in her eyes. “It’s only real because you want it to be.”

In a way it was a kind of shrine, but I didn’t think of it like that. It was just a place where I kept new pictures of my daughter, where I watched from afar as she grew and matured in that other, unreachable place. Alyson. My girl next door.

I hung one or two of the better photos in frames on the wall above my desk. With the lights down low, the images blurred into little more than random patches of light and dark. Somehow that made it better. It was easier to see the details that way, like picking out shapes in the clouds. An impression of a face, unruly shoulder-length hair, perhaps the hint of a smile (or is it a scowl?) captured in an off-guard moment. Always a bright kid, I wondered if she was doing well at school. How many times had I teased her about becoming a doctor, a scientist, a lawyer? Next year would be college, though that hardly seemed possible. Children grow up so fast.

And then I remembered that it was my Alyson I was thinking of. This Alyson might be different. Maybe she hated school. Maybe she hung around the malls all weekend with the other dropout girls? Smoked weed beneath the underpass.

Hell, no. Not my Alyson; not any version of her. Wiping away the sting of tears, I snatched up a marker pen and scrawled I love you across the bottom of the picture. I felt better after that.

Lanois had warned me to expect no obvious differences in this quantum line. He’d said that billions and billions of sub-atomic changes could add up to a whole heap of nothing at the human scale, that parallel universes would almost certainly be indistinguishable. Yet against all the odds Alyson was here in this one; whole and healthy. Or so it seemed. How far could I trust anything Lanois had told me?

And then there was that other matter…

I opened the desk drawer and smoothed out the crumpled paper filched from Lanois’ bin weeks before. I guessed the image had caught part of a newspaper billboard. To still be legible in such a grainy, out of focus photograph, the words must have been written in three inch high letters. OBAMA HEALTHCARE REFORMS LATEST: it read. The words beneath were harder to make out; smaller, blurred. Yet there seemed to be no mistaking them. MICHELLE ENACTS KEY MEASURES INTO LAW.

Was this all some kind of elaborate joke? A scam? Yet Lanois had granted me full access–and full accountability of how my millions were being spent. If it was a con, I couldn’t spot it.

In the end I realized it didn’t much matter. Because Suzanne was right. I did want to believe, no matter what.

Photography was never my thing–not the proper, old-school photography, I mean. I liked the technology well enough, all the gadgets and the paraphernalia but never had the patience–or the eye–for it. And when smartphones came along, suddenly what was the point? Who wanted to lug around a bulky SLR, sling a bag of lenses and filters over a shoulder, endlessly fiddle with aperture, speed and ASA settings, juggle spare memory cards?

Me, as it turned out.

I suppose I needed something. With my business interests all disposed of, I was unemployed and drifting. My life was on hold. Suddenly it became important to recreate Lanois’ blurry pictures as accurately as I could in this reality–finding the exact spot where they must have been captured. I spent hours flitting between photos and viewfinder, trying to work out angles, even comparing shadow lengths to figure out the time of day. I was looking for differences, too; searching for some kind of tangible proof to convince myself this wasn’t all just some cruel hoax.

Not easy. For starters, it was hardly acceptable for a newly single, middle-aged man to be stalking school corridors with a camera. But plenty of Lanois’ images were captured in public places; familiar, accessible places.

Yet time and time again I failed. Lanois’ pictures all seemed to have an elusive elevation to them. One day, I laboriously traced back to the exact spot across the street from the public library where, in the picture I was holding, Alyson had just emerged onto the steps, clutching her shoulder bag, the wind catching her hair and lifting it as she made some remark to a friend at her side. I knew I had the exact same viewpoint, but the grainy picture had been captured maybe fifteen or twenty feet above the spot where I stood. I would need a step-ladder, and a tall one at that, to exactly recreate the image.

What did that prove? If Lanois was a fraud, he was both clever and cunning–but that hardly made him unique.

I brooded on this as I worked on my project. I never found any detectable differences–save for the obvious one, the presence of Alyson. Naturally the weather varied, or the vehicles and pedestrians passing by in my recreation were missing in the original. But I assumed that was down to timing. It was impossible to capture my pictures at the same moment as Lanois’ apparatus. I might be able to locate the exact spot but I would be days or weeks out of sync.

But the pictures of Alyson were coming from somewhere.

Their poor quality made it hard to be sure yet I thought I could see changes: her hair growing longer and wilder, her figure filling out, her nose just a little sharper than before as she shed the last of her puppy fat. I would have given anything to be able to step through some portal and be there with her. It gnawed away at me to think there must be some version of me living in that Quantum Line, blissfully unaware of his blessings. The most I could hope for were brief, tantalizing glimpses of my daughter, my girl next door.

As the weeks passed I realized I was… Happy? No, I could never be that. But I did feel content. My daughter wasn’t completely lost to me. The sneak peeks kept me connected to her in that strange, parallel universe, like letters and family snaps sent from a distant relative on birthdays and high days.

All well and good. It wasn’t enough, but what else could I do?

And then the pictures stopped coming.

I waited for Lanois in his office, feet up on the only little patch of bare desk–the one I’d made when I kicked a pile of his papers onto the floor. I was finding it hard to keep my anger in check. If he was startled to see me lounging in his private sanctum, he hid it well. Actually, he looked hung-over. “Not happy about this, Ben,” I said. “Not happy at all.”

Lanois swore. “Look, what do you expect me to do? It’s like she’s just not there anymore. No trace. We’re looking in all the usual places and there’s just nothing.”

I stood up, feeling like a man teetering on the edge of a precipice, dangerously out of control. “Find her,” I said through clenched teeth.

Lanois sighed. “Jeez, I understand. Really. But have you considered your daughter may be… gone… from this reality stream now? Some of the math seems to imply that local fluctuations tend to settle out in the end. The same patterns will re-establish themselves across the Quantum Lines sooner or later.”

“Are you saying this is just fate?” I almost spat the word. “That Alyson is supposed to die, no matter what? No. I won’t accept that. Look harder.”

I paced the room, like some caged animal. Desperate. I would do whatever it took, but I wouldn’t lose Alyson again. “More funding? God knows, I’ve pumped in millions already, but–” Then I smacked my head. Why hadn’t I remembered before? “Wait. You talked about other Quantum Lines once before. Have you tapped into any others?”

Lanois snorted. “Oh sure. There are other viable QLs alright. But the energy barrier to reach them is an order of magnitude higher. Simply out of our league with the equipment we have right now. We’d have to–”

I stopped him with a gesture. I wrote a number on a scrap of paper on his desk and turned it so that he could read it. “By bank transfer. Later today, if I can arrange it. A first instalment anyway.”

Lanois swallowed and looked at the number hungrily while I tried to keep my face expressionless. Even with the last of my investments disposed of, all that was left didn’t amount to a quarter of what I’d just promised.

But it would buy time.

The new set of photos arrived in less than two months, quicker than I had dared hope. The quality was as poor as ever yet I was certain it was Alyson I saw in that crowd of students: the way she held her head, the angle of her shoulders–even if no one else could see it.

The pictures came from QL 57-4625. A different universe, yet virtually indistinguishable. Not that it mattered to me. It was a universe that contained Alyson. My girl next door as still there, after all.

Then, just weeks later, I answered a knock on my apartment door to find Lanois standing there. The packages were always couriered but this one he handed to me in person, a tight, anxious expression on this face. “What’s this?” I demanded, snatching the envelope before he could mumble an explanation.

There were photos inside, but not the ones I was expecting. All I could make out was a bad reproduction of the city’s Evening Chronicle. Then my eye found the headline two thirds of the way down the page. PROMISING STUDENT KILLED IN RUSH HOUR SMASH. The tiny print of the story was harder to make out but the school yearbook photo underneath the headline made the rest unnecessary.

“I’m sorry, man.”

QL 73-3269 was a strong harmonic, according to Lanois, all be it at the limit of range and viability of the current equipment and power sources. But we drew a blank. No trace of Alyson in the expected places, no record of her death either.

Months passed. Time and time again Lanois explained about the unpredictable, non-linear gaps between Quantum Lines. And though each Quantum Line had its own immutable differences, it was impossible to calculate what they might be and it took time to gather sufficient samples to be certain. Whilst I didn’t understand the physics, I understood the concept of needles and haystacks, and the tradeoff between input energy and resolution.

I had other problems, too. My finances were drying up faster than spit in the desert and Suzanne’s lawyers had their sights firmly set on the little that remained. How many more promises could I break before Lanois lost patience with me? I was on the point of despair.

And then she showed up again in QL 84-1293.

I watched Alyson’s progress in her freshman term at college like any proud father would. She’d chosen the local university, the same campus where I visited Lanois.

It helped, he said, keeping things local. Locational control for the sneak peeks was improving but still difficult.

Three months passed. Three months of quiet contentment as I watched from afar. Then I lost her again.

We followed her into QL 86-2201, picking up where we’d left off. I awaited each packet of photos with barely concealed impatience. I wrote checks against lines of credit that were mostly non-existent. Lanois continued to improve the equipment. I was dismayed when I saw Alyson using a crutch, her right leg stiff and obviously giving her pain. But I ceased my fretting when I realized the implications. All realities have a tendency to collapse down to a common state, Lanois had said. It was as if some things were just meant to be, a kind of universal inevitability. If that were true of Alyson’s accident, wasn’t it possible that crisis had now passed? That she had somehow survived the crash that killed her in those other Quantum Lines? I dared to hope.

And then, out of the blue, Suzanne called and once more my own personal reality shifted.

A few lights were still burning in the lab; late shift domestics working their vacuum cleaners down the long halls and one or two night-owl post-grads fuelled on caffeine crunching data. And Lanois. I’d recognized his car in the lot as I turned in. The night watchman let me in with a curt nod. As a frequent visitor at all hours, I had earned that right.

I found Lanois hunched over inside the mesh cage housing the capture chamber, door propped open by an open toolbox. Was I supposed to believe he was making some kind of repair or recalibration before the next run, due–according to the timer on the wall–in just eight minutes?

With the outer door locked behind me and the key in my pocket, there was no one to disturb us. Now I slipped the hammer out of an inside pocket where it was nestling awkwardly. Lanois still hadn’t heard me enter.

But he heard the sound of shattering plastic well enough as I brought the hammer down on the nearest console, little plastic keys flying in all directions like Scrabble tiles. My next strike shattered a monitor.

“What the–?”

I took a step towards Lanois, swinging the hammer loosely and got momentary pleasure in seeing genuine fear in his eyes. He backed further into the cage as I moved to block the doorway. “Easy, man. Whatever’s wrong, we can sort this, okay?”

“You think?” I tugged out my phone and triggered the audio file Suzanne had emailed. “And how are you going to do that, exactly?”

At first there was just background noise on the recording: a bar or crowded restaurant. Then Lanois’ voice, easily recognizable. And a woman’s voice. I could hear the slur in Suzanne’s words, hear how the conversation veered towards flirtatious as the evening wore on. I had a sudden image of her in that low-cut red dress I’d bought on the last wedding anniversary we spent together, a lifetime away now. Suzanne seemed to be hanging on his words, entranced but not simpering. Clever, oh so clever. For the last few minutes she had been maneuvering the conversation with consummate subtly. Lanois seemed oblivious. Now she pounced. “And is it?” she asked demurely. “True, I mean. About your research? Can you really do what’s been claimed?”

On the recording, Lanois seemed to sigh. “You’d be surprised who would fall for a story like that.”

“Really?” I heard Suzanne say. I could picture her leaning forwards and Lanois’ gaze inevitably sliding downwards. “Tell me more,” she murmured. And Lanois had done exactly that.

I shut off the recording.

The need for violent, unreasoning destruction rose up inside me like vomit. I cratered a work bench in a series of violent hammer blows, took out another computer screen, shattered a printer into fragments of plastic and metal. I might have been bellowing too.

“Stop!” Lanois yelled.

“It’s over,” I told him. “All of it. The lies, the deception. I’m done with it. Done with you.” I shook my head. “You really took me for a fool, didn’t you?”

Lanois eyes flicked to the clock. Less than a minute and a half to the next sneak peek. Or maybe not, if I continued my wrecking spree. He raised his hands in front of him. I wasn’t sure if he was pleading to save the equipment or trying to protect himself. “You’ve got this wrong, man.”

I swung the hammer suggestively and was gratified to see him flinch. “Just give me a chance to explain, okay?” He nodded at the clock. “Let’s go through to my office. We can’t stay in here.”

I took a step towards him, backing him right up against the chamber itself. Outside the metal cage, I could see a wall of rack-mounted equipment–red, green and blue lights flickering frenetically. “I’m not going anywhere,” I said.

“Look. I only told her what she wanted to hear, that’s all. I swear.”

“You told her this was all a big deception.”

“It’s what she wanted to hear.” He gave a bitter laugh. “Look, you know I screwed up pretty badly at the start, right? I should never have gone public when I did. The media ripped me to shreds and I’ve no one to blame but myself. ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.’ That’s what they said–and I didn’t have it. Back then plenty of people thought I was no better than some kind of hi-tech con-man. And there’s plenty who still think that.”

“So you don’t deny it?”

“You know what your wife told me? Maybe she didn’t share that part with you. About how she’s moved on. I guess it didn’t seem possible at first, but she made it happen; got through her pain and grief somehow. She told me that after that kind of journey, she couldn’t stand the thought of her daughter being alive in some alternate reality, one that she herself could never inhabit, one that she could never reach out to. She couldn’t lay her daughter to rest knowing that, could she?” Lanois’ voice dropped. “Did you even know she felt like that?”

I let my silence answer his question.

“Look, Max. How could I tell her the truth knowing that? All I did was tell her what she wanted to hear from me, that the research was bogus. A convenient lie, nothing more. But you believe me, don’t you?”

Somewhere a little alarm was buzzing insistently, warning us to leave. Lanois was trying to sidle towards the mesh door but I waved the hammer menacingly.

“Please–” The clock showed less than thirty seconds. Now the room seemed to be humming and it took a moment to realize it wasn’t just inside my head. I could sense a power surge building in the equipment around us, gathering itself to rip a hole in the skin of the universe.

“Look around you,” Lanois said. “Surely all this must convince you?”

But by itself, it meant nothing. Would it have been so hard to fake all those photographs? Probably not. It had only taken money–my money–to equip a lab and tinker with electronics. How could I be sure any of it had a purpose? And yet…

Stupidly, I felt the sting of tears forming in my eyes, blurring my vision. I felt the hammer slip from my grasp and then Lanois was steering me by the elbow out of the cage, the door clanging shut behind. We hadn’t gone three steps before an intense white light washed out everything. I threw my arms up to protect my eyes but the light was already fading, the burst over almost as soon as it had begun.

In that moment, I knew.

What was the truth of it? Only that truth didn’t matter so much after all. In the final analysis, I believed because I wanted to. Because there was nothing else left.

The rain had stopped and sunlight glinted off the slick sidewalks beneath my window. All along the tree-lined avenue, branches drooped with their extra burden and droplets fell in golden streams where they caught the sunlight. It was quite beautiful: the stillness, the freshness after a sudden shower. I reached for my camera.

But all I seemed to see was my own reflection in the window, face partly obscured by the camera, a face I hardly knew anymore. Maybe it was time I ventured outside again. Started to put my life back together.

There were no pictures on the walls anymore. Not discarded–I couldn’t quite bring myself to do that–but tucked away in a drawer I chose not to open. All except one, that last photograph sent by Lanois. The money was all gone by then but he’d sent it anyway; his reasons unclear. Had he even realized its significance, I wondered?

The photograph was not unlike the one that once hung in pride of place: a carefree, teenage girl smiling at something out of shot. The same picture I had scrawled “I love you” across one night as I reached the nadir of despair.

But this was different: a photograph of a photograph. The quality was poor, as ever. I could just make out the original image and my scrawled message, and beneath that, “Love you too” written in some different hand. Try as I might, the grainy resolution made it impossible to recognize the handwriting for certain.

All the same, I knew.

I had stopped being an observer. I no longer counted the days and hours to the next sneak peek. I was done with it for all sorts of reasons–and not just because of the money.

But I still wondered sometimes who was watching me. Snatching sneak peeks into my life and wondering about what might have been. Wishing there wasn’t a universe that separated us.

Someone who’d shown they cared.

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