William is standing behind Mother, who is still arguing with the Kishas, and he isn’t just looking at me, he’s staring like I’m a ghost. So are two Kishas and a Cheryl. And I’ve had the same horrified fascination from almost everyone at this gathering of my future family. It’s as if they’re watching the beginning of a train wreck.
My earlier suspicions grow cold and solid. Something happens to me in the spring of 1930. Or somebody wants me to think so. My hand goes to my jacket pocket. “What the hell is this?” I mutter.
“Just what I’m wondering.” Rudolf’s eyebrows meet in the middle of his forehead. So that’s what worry looks like on him. “Everyone is awfully touchy, but nobody will tell me why.”
“Someone’ll tell me,” I say, and put down my champagne flute. “So long, Rudolf. See you at the airport.”
I meet William in the same place Billy and I used to go to get away from Mother’s parties. The closet under the stairs is empty of furniture now and tall enough for us both to stand comfortably.
“Quickly.” William is sweating, face red, eyes shifty. “They’ll miss me soon.”
“Oh, they will, will they?” I sneer. What sort of dumb cluck does he think I am that I haven’t caught on to his game yet? “Because Mother doesn’t want you talking to me? Isn’t that right, William?”
“She forbade me explicitly.”
“As if I should believe you. You think you can play me for a sucker? I know what goes on.”
“I very much doubt you do.” William wipes his brow. “Saints alive, I wasn’t this nervous when I was plotting to overthrow the United States government.”
That throws me. “You what?”
“Staged a revolution.” He tugs on the lapels of his uniform. “But that’s not important.” He leans closer. “Ruth, I have to tell you – ”
I hold up my hands. “Right. You’ve some dire horse feathers to sell me about how my future self ruined her life.”
“Horse feathers?” repeats William as if he doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase.
“Admit it,” I say. “You and Mother want me to believe all my plans will end in tears. So you arranged for this whole parade of descendants to come here and show me so.”
William shakes his head, blinking. “We haven’t arranged – ”
“And even if it weren’t a load of hooey, things will be different this time,” I assure him. “I’ve got a…well. Let’s just say I can protect myself now.”
“No, Ruth – ”
“Let me finish,” I say. “I’ve made my own plans, and unless you give me an awful good reason – ”
“Ruth!” William’s voice is choked. “Don’t get on that plane with Rudolf.”
“Rudolf?” I repeat dumbly. I thought he was about to forbid me to run away.
“Break off your engagement,” says William.
“Take it easy,” I tell him. “I’m not engaged. I’m not even thinking about marriage.”
William glances over his shoulder at the door to the closet. “Mother will be here any moment. Listen. What’s your relationship with Rudolf?”
“Relationship? That’s an odd way to put it.”
“Did he invite you to go on a plane ride to Denver?”
I move my shoulders. “Yeah?”
“Jesus.” He’s shaking. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, don’t go with him, Ruth. You’ll marry him, Ruth, and then you’ll – ” He breaks off, shakes his head, runs his hands across his face. “No. Not you. She. She committed suicide.”
I feel as if I’ve been kicked in the gut. “She who? Your sister, you mean? My counterpart?” That might explain her kids’ reaction when they saw me. Suicide. Jesus. “Why?”
William shakes his head again. “I don’t know why she killed herself.” Then, as if he knows all too well, “It was after the War, when Rudolf came back from the Pacific.”
“That’s that war with Japan, you mean,” I say. “But now there won’t be a war.”
“I don’t give a damn about any old war!” says William. “Rudolf is still going to…” He closes his eyes and shakes his head, the back of his trembling hand pressed to his mouth.
I’m out of patience. “You think Rudolf drove me – my counterpart, I mean – to suicide. Swell. Did she tell you how? Because that’s what I’d like to know.”
“She never told me,” admits William. “My sister and I drifted apart during the war and I saw her only once between 1945 and her death. That was for Betty’s christening in ’47.”
“Betty. My daughter,” I say. “I mean her daughter.” The one who wouldn’t come to this house and wouldn’t tell Rudolf why. Mother of Ginevra, who couldn’t bring herself to look at me, grandmother of Kisha, whose three counterparts who had descended like furies on Mother.
“Betty was her second daughter.” William levels a look at me like a melancholy cannon. “Ruth, your counterpart’s eldest daughter was born in 1930.”
That’s not a kick to the gut; it’s a pie in the face. “Go on with you. I’m not pregnant, for Christ’s sake.”
“Not yet,” William says.
“Not yet, he says.” I’m starting to heat up again. Someone is playing me, even if the game isn’t what I thought it was. “It’s already 1930 and I don’t intend becoming pregnant before, what, the end of the month?”
William’s expression makes me double-check my math. I think about that romantic plane ride. Could butter-sandwich Rudolf actually seduce me?
Could he do worse?
I take a sharp breath. “What are you telling me, William?” But I know what he’s telling me. The skin on my neck prickles and all of a sudden the closet seems awfully dark and close. The air is clogged with old horror.
“I suspect,” says William, voice as heavy as a tax audit, “that young Rudolf has gotten tired of waiting.”
He’ll to force me to marry him. That’s what William is saying. Nine months later, my first daughter will be born, and I’ll stay with Rudolf for her sake. Then, when Rudolf comes back from the war 18 years later, he’ll rape me again. I’ll have another daughter, and that’s when I’ll decide to take my own life.
“The Kishas were right, damn them,” mutters William, rubbing his chin as if he feels dirty. “You deserve to know this even if Mother – ”
“Mother doesn’t want me to know any of this.” I point a shaking finger at him. “You spilled this whole story to her just now. That’s what you came here to do in the first place. And that job you offered me in the Nuclear Commons – ”
“I was wrong to do so.”
“– it was to get me out of this house.”
William sighs miserably. “Your mother refused, in any case. But, Ruth, you can still – ” William touches my shoulder and I twist away.
“Get your hand off me.”
“I’m sorry. I felt I had to tell you.” He looks out the closet again. “But you can see I also had to tell Mother.”
My fingertips are tingling. I see for the first time that William is between me and the closet door.
“Mother,” he swallows. “Your mother, that is, she says the future safety and, and prosperity of the family are worth your marrying Rudolf.”
“Oh she does, does she?” I raise my voice. “Her safety is worth the sacrifice of my whole damn future?”
William wrings his hands and snivels, but it isn’t he who answers.
“What are you sacrificing, Ruth? Much less than I ever had to.”
Mother is at the closet door.
“Go to hell, you dirty, rotten harpy,” I tell her, since nothing better comes to mind.
She brushes off the insults like silverfish crawling in the lace at her breast. “Weren’t you listening, Ruth? We shall prevent your suicide.”
“Not the rape, though,” I say. “That, you’re attempting to ensure.”
“Don’t make her marry that man,” pleads William.
Mother rolls her eyes. “Of course she must marry him. The Bleirer family brings us through the Great Depression. You told me so yourself, William.”
“There won’t be a Great Depression now,” he says. “Not in your timeline.”
“That misses the point a good ways,” I say. “How about I find someone better to marry, my own damn self?”
“And whom would you choose?” Mother shakes her head. “It has become clear to me that women in our family are afflicted with the urge to marry the strangest men they can find.”
I think of my father. He lives on the other side of town and opposes everything mother does, but I wouldn’t call him “strange.”
William also looks perplexed. “Beg pardon?”
“Nothing,” says Mother. “Ruth, I have been too lenient – ”
I shout over whatever lecture she has prepared. “You’re about to sell my virtue for a share of the Chicago meat packing business, you hag.”
Mother’s lip curls. I’m reminded of Ginevra. “Keep your voice down, Ruth.”
“Selling my virtue,” I shout louder, “for the possibility of – ”
“For our family’s safety,” she hisses. “Yes. And you, Ruth, would make the same decision if you were in my position.”
“Oh I would, would I?”
Mother puts her hands together and presses her fingertips to her lips, eyes closed as if praying. “Once I was foolish like you,” she says in a calmer voice, “and two persons were killed.”
I’m back up in the air. Mother’s killed people?
“Mother?” asks William.
“No,” Mother opens her eyes and drops her hands. “There is no reason for you to repeat my mistakes in order to learn my lessons, Ruth. You can simply listen to me now. And as for Rudolf, I shall ensure his good behavior.”
Her voice makes William and me shiver. I almost feel sorry for that vile, lizard-eyed rapist. Although not sorry enough to spend another minute in his company.
“He will treat you as a gentleman should,” says Mother. “In all other ways, however, you two are to carry on as canonical history dictates.”
“As you dictate, you mean.” Why am I arguing with her? I could never change Mother’s mind about anything. Now I can’t bear even to stay in the same house as her. She can go to hell. This whole city go to hell. This whole damn era of history!
I reach into my pocket. “I won’t let Rudolf rape me, Mother.”
She winces. “Language, Ruth. Why did you tell her, William? For God’s sake, don’t let her past you.”
William makes helpless little circles with his hands, and I see that Mother doesn’t need a time machine to turn an old bird into a little kid. “But you don’t need the Bleiers,” he says. “You can all come live with me. Be reasonable!”
Mother barks out a laugh. “Live? In your half-baked pseudo-Marxist utopia? No. As always, I must stay behind and create safety while others dive into danger. I must stay the course.” She points at me, finger like the barrel of a manicured rifle. “And your course, young lady, is set.”
I pull the taser out of my coat. “I’m fixing to un-set it.”
Mother’s eyes focus on the weapon and her powdered forehead wrinkles. “What is that? Some sort of gun? Put it away, Ruth, before someone sees you with it.”
William slaps his forehead. “Gun? The gun! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! This is the spring of 1930! Ruth was planning to run away!”
“Run?” Mother’s glare twitches from me to William. “So stop her! She won’t shoot you.”
William reaches out for me. “My sister had a gun, but that thing looks like – ”
I stick the taser in William’s armpit and press that button.
There’s no spark this time, just a hideous chattering sound like the jaws of a giant insect. But I keep my hold on the weapon as William spasms away from me. Brandish it like a cross in Mother’s face. She’s smart enough to get out of the way, but not smart enough to start screaming until I’m out the front door.
Clouds pile up in the northern sky, but ahead, the air between me and Future Pier is clear and blue. I haven’t my hat or the love of my family, but I’ve got the taser, my money, and the key to the Landau, which is right where I parked it.
I tear open my car’s door as they pour out of the house after me. Elmos and Ignacios, Denises and Cheryls. The Kishas advance on me like a troop of Valkyries, but I press the starter button and roar away down the street.
I don’t have much time. Mother will turn this whole city into a machine for capturing me. Billy is probably crying. I might feel a bit lousy about William. I don’t suppose I’ll be able to take him up on his job offer now. Mostly what I am, though, is glad to be in a position where I can just give up on all these mugs and get out of town.
I grip the wheel so hard it hurts and take a left turn onto Lake Shore Drive. Hooked streetlights and young trees flash past, and Future Pier stretches off to the east. Tickets on the time trains come dear, but I’ve got this big, valuable car, haven’t I?
I pat the dashboard. “Time to trade you up, old boy,” I say, “for something that can fly.”