Family Preunion (A Centuries Unlimited story)
The taser fits right in my hand: light as a pack of cigarettes and cool as a sleeping beetle.
“Press the button,” says the man from the future.
I press it and the taser spits a fat blue spark. Pigeons flee over the bazaar at Future Pier and I laugh out loud.
It’s the spring of 1930, with grass blades peeking out of the mud and the kind of Chicago air that you might like to swim up into.
“Rudolf’ll be sore when he finds us,” Billy frets.
I give my little brother a pat on his cap and glance around the bazaar for signs of the approach of any son of a meat-magnate. “You let me handle Rudolf, kid.”
“And he’ll tell Mother.”
“I’ll handle Mother too.”
Billy gives me a dubious look.
“I will,” I tell him.
In fact what I intend is avoiding Mother entirely during the Preunion party. Afterward I’ll escape her house and go frolic at liberty through the seedy underbelly of Chicago. When I return home safely on the day after tomorrow, Mother will be so impressed at my foresight and self-reliance, she’ll have no choice but to cut the apron strings.
Billy isn’t done whining. “I don’t like that dingus, Ruth. Who do you need to give the electric cure, anyhow? You could knock somebody up with that thing.”
“Um,” says the man from the future. “What. No?”
“He means kill someone,” I translate.
“Oh. Naw. Hurts like fuck, though.” The man grins at our expressions. “That’s the way we talk where I come from, kids.”
The salesman’s fresh complexion and the zipper on his cardigan make him look like a kid himself. And not a rich one, judging by the blue canvas pants with the rips across their knees. He doesn’t act like a street urchin, though. He acts like a grifter.
“Now,” says the man from the future, “if you guys do want to kill somebody, I stock a little magic trick that’ll be illegal as soon as your government finds out about it…”
Billy grimaces as if someone has snuck a slingshot onto the school yard. “You can’t sell deadly weapons to girls.”
“What? Where’s the girl?” The salesman squints at me. “He mean you? You told me you were 19.”
“You bet I did,” I say. “And I was on the up and up.”
The man from the future scowls. “Shit, you Up-timers. Learn to speak modern English.”
That comes out “learn-na speak marrern Ing-lish.” Some kind of English this mug speaks.
“I’ll take the taser,” I enunciate clearly, “if you would be so kind as to sell it to me, sir.”
The grifter’s shoulders move. “That’ll be 5 dollars.”
Billy whistles. “You could eat out for a week on that.”
I pat my coat’s pockets. We’re both dressed for the party with our up-time relatives, me in my cloche hat and evening dress under the coat that’s almost too heavy the weather, Billy in a more fashionable cap and cardigan. The knee-socks spoil the look, though.
“Why do you want that taser dingus anyhow?” he whines.
“Why, to grill five sacks of hamburgers,” I say, “with onions and pickles. What do you think I need it for?” I find my roll of cash, peel off a bill, and hand it to the grifter.
“Awesome,” he says. “Anything else I can interest you in? If you’re into personal defense, I’ve got mace, keychain weapons, Swiss army knives…”
I don’t see any maces or chains. Or the Swiss army, neither, but before I can ask for clarification, Billy tugs on my sleeve.
“Don’t run away, Ruth.”
I sigh. Billy found out about my run-away plan this morning, when he saw that roll of cash.
“I’ll only be gone for a night or two,” I tell him. “And dummy up about it.”
“What’s the point if you’ll only be gone a day?”
“You want me to stay away forever? And I said dummy up.”
Billy’s voice drops to an agonized whisper. “But Mother says the streets full of down-time disintegrators and ray-guns getting sold to malcontents and agitators.”
I hold up the taser. “Maybe I’m looking forward to doing some agitating of my own, hey?”
I put the taser down, though, and wipe the smile off my face, when I see Rudolf.
“Ruth,” my suitor slips through the crowd with the determination of a spawning trout. The face of one, too. “Billy. There you are.”
“Rudolf.” I mutter the down-time merchant’s vulgar word and stuff the cash and the taser into my pockets. “There you are. Because we have also been looking for you.”
Rudolf stares me in the eye and smiles with his lower lip. Maybe he’s trying to tell me something with that look he’s giving me, or maybe it’s just gas. It’s hard to tell with him.
Rudolf Bleirer is the son of a baron of sausages, and has spent the fall and winter asked me to marry him on a more or less weakly schedule. I would be more flattered at his persistence if it weren’t so clear that he’s only after my family’s political influence.
Since, for her part, Mother is only interested in his family’s money, she guesses it’s a match made in heaven. She’s the one who told Rudolf to help me fetch party guests from Future Pier, maybe hoping the task would require the boy to demonstrate his marriageable qualities.
“We’re to meet our guests over there, hey?” I point down the peir and Rudolf’s eyes track the movement as if he’s about to flick out his tongue and swallow my hand.
“Yeah,” says Billy, “let’s blouse. I want to meet my future self.”
The salesman shakes his head, mutters something about blouses, and turns to fleece some other natives of 1930.