Since all of us would be going to church together in the morning, Aunt Claire suggested that I spend the night at her house. “There’s no point in you sleeping on the floor. You could use one of the guest rooms and sleep in a bed instead of being on the floor. Then, when we’re ready in the morning, you can drive us to the Roberts’ house for breakfast.”
Catherine had the brilliant idea of all us kids sleeping over at Claire’s. After all, each of them had their own room. That way we could watch classic movies in Claire’s basement theater, eat popcorn, and afterward, play arcade games, shoot pool, or play foosball. There were a variety of things to entertain us before bedding down for the night.
Everyone else ate dinner when they stopped for some fast food on the way home, but Theresa knew I’d be hungry. So, when she arrived home, she fixed something quick for me and I ate before heading over to Claire’s.
Sleeping at Claire’s was something new for me. She directed me to stow my bags in a guest room on the rear side of the house. It was down the hall from the kids’ rooms, two doors down from Claire’s master suite. From the balcony, I had a view of the backyard, pool, and tennis court.
The girls had already determined the evening’s entertainment would be Casa Blanca, which I learned was Catherine’s favorite classic movie. Pam said she wasn’t feeling well. The muscle she pulled in her abdomen was bothering her. But she insisted on watching the movie with us. She fell asleep on my shoulder. I continued sitting there, watching a movie I’d never seen before in its entirety, loving it more because the experience was shared with Pam, even though she was sound asleep.
David and Stephen left the theater early to shoot pool. When finally, the movie ended, Pam woke, complaining again about the muscle she must have pulled in her side. Though it worried me, she insisted she’d be fine. Catherine, Pam, and I joined the boys, and I called the winner of the pool match. Pam and Catherine played some foosball while waiting their turn.
Despite having eaten in Columbus before coming home, the Roberts kids were hungry again. I was too. Catherine, who used to work at a local pizza parlor that delivered, called in a last-minute order to one of her friends and past co-workers for two large pies. I learned that both David and Stephen preferred everything on their pizzas — except for anchovies — just the way I liked it. Catherine and Pam loved pepperoni, sausage, black olives, and green peppers.
As we sat around the dining room table, eating, talking, telling stories, and laughing a lot, the guys split one pie, the girls the other. Pam complained about not really being hungry, so she only had one slice. The guys helped take care of what remained.
During a lull in the conversation, Catherine asked me a few things about Kevin, mostly about his family and how long I’d known him. I had never thought about it until then, but I met Kevin my first day at Countryside. It hadn’t been the best experience. I didn’t mention any of the past issues I had with him and didn’t even touch the subject of “Brent Who” or any of the other past run-ins I’d had with him. That was ancient history. Kevin matured a lot in the past year and so did I. By the time the wrestling team started winning consistently, nothing from our past episodes mattered anymore.
From Catherine, I learned that Sunday night, Kevin would be joining us for dinner at a restaurant. I was glad they were hitting it off so well, but I also wondered how long it would last. Kevin didn’t have a great track record with relationships. Then, as I learned from conversations with her siblings, Catherine had a reputation for brief ones as well.
With the realization of the late hour, that it was almost two in the morning, we all went to bed, knowing that waking in the morning would come early. We needed to go across town to the Roberts’ house for breakfast and then, on to church.
* * *
Uncertainty clung to me like a wet blanket as I searched the darkness. Despite having been late going to bed, I woke before dawn. The room was strange, its ambiance disturbing me because of the absence of sounds I might have been unconsciously listening for. The guest room’s smooth caress of satin sheets joined the light fragrance of fresh-cut flowers to beget the mental image of the place I’d just slept for a few hours, pleasantly coaxing me back from nocturnal delusions, but it didn’t feel as comfortable as Pam’s house or home or Pam’s. Maybe it was just my imagination.
Tossing back the comforter I planted my feet into the plush carpet, smooth on my bare feet as I stepped out to walk over to the double French doors. Opening and stepping out onto the balcony, I sampled the deep chill of the nascent morning’s breath.
There was certain clarity to my thoughts, a level I had not known before. I’d resolved everything important at school, hadn’t I? All that was left was tennis season — a change that I was looking forward to beginning tomorrow.
Once dressed, I went for a walk in the neighborhood.
What bothered me that morning was that whenever I blinked, there was a glimpse of mapped patterns, the plexus of the infinite choices inherent in the progressing present. It had never happened before but as I could not shake it, I suspected I’d need to get used to it. Still, it felt unusual, like I was watching a movie, or rather several slightly different versions of the same movie all at once, their nearly transparent images layered one upon the other. If I held my eyes closed, I could see the nexus, a critical decision soon to arrive. Not always binary, sometimes ‘maybe’ wedged between yes or no. Other times there was vast grayness between the extremes of black and white — the indifference of youthful angst between more mature variants of euphoric joy and soul-crushing despair. Branches from straight-ahead allowed for myriad directions toward the left and the right, and a few that looped back from the end to the beginning.
The sun’s warm caress tickled every waking face beneath the glowing red horizon that brightened by the moment. Savoring breaths of the lingering coolness, I turned back the way I’d come. In that instant the uppermost part of the sun’s disk broke through, establishing transition. The new day forced my raised hand against the glare.
When my eyes adjusted, I continued up the driveway, my car was not where I parked. Panicked, I broke into a run, looking in every direction from the far side of the house to the garage — though there was no one who would have moved it. Had someone stolen it? In a gated estate within a guarded community?
Anger, rage, and violation comingled and stirred. I opened the door, crossing the threshold into an unfamiliar house. Had I walked up the wrong driveway? Was this even Claire’s house? There was a doorstep, entirely wrong for the easy accessibility of her wheelchair, and though the entrance was double doors, they were both too narrow to accommodate a wheelchair. This must be the wrong house. In the dimness of early morning, I’d made a mistake. But how had I entered through the gates at the bottom of the driveway? The clicker I’d picked up from the table near the door before I left had worked.
Stepping back through to the outside, I heard a voice.
“Can I help you, son?”
Turning, seeing the man’s elderly face, I focused on his eyes, his features. He looked familiar.
“I seem to be lost. I was looking for the Carson place.”
“Then you have the right place. Do I know you?”
Then it struck me, the picture I’d seen on the wall in the foyer. Alternate path, different circumstances. Not knowing how or what had happened, I could only deal with the facts. “You’re Nelson? I mean, Mr. Carson.”
“I’m afraid you have the advantage. You are?”
“Woods, Brent Woods.” Nervously, I offered my hand.
“What brings you here this morning, Mr. Woods?”
“Call me Brent.”
“I would if we were properly acquainted. To me, it appears I interrupted your nefarious caper.”
“Me? Oh, you think…well, I suppose you would, naturally. But no, I was, well it’s hard to explain. You see, I’m not supposed to be here.”
“That’s exactly my point, young man.”
“No, you don’t understand…well, I guess you do understand that much. This is different. It’s not where I intended to be.”
“Perhaps you should explain your presence to the police.”
“No, please. I need to speak with Claire, your wife. She can straighten this out.” I hope.
“You seem to know an awful lot about me and my personal affairs. How is that?”
“I’m not sure how much good it will do, but can I at least talk to her?”
“I’m sure she is still sleeping. It’s Sunday morning. She likes to sleep in before we go to church.”
“You don’t go to breakfast with the Roberts?”
“Why would we?” He frowned. “Claire is not on the best of terms with any of her family.”
“That surprises me, a little anyway. She is such a nice person.”
“Maybe you should come inside with me.”
“No, I think I should be going.”
“I insist, Mr. Woods. You do not strike me as an ordinary burglar. You carry no tools or bag. And obviously, you know a good deal about my wife and me, a fact with which I am not comfortable. I believe I’d like to hear your story and find out more about you.”
“Then have me arrested?”
“That depends. There was no real crime, except for trespassing. I should have locked my door, but I was just out for a morning walk.”
“I went for a walk myself.”
“Do you live around here, Mr. Woods?”
“No sir. I’m from South Charleston.”
“Isn’t that over to the far side of Springfield?”
“Yes, in that direction.” I pointed.
“You are far from home. How did you get here?”
“I drove, but I can’t seem to locate my car.”
“Did you forget where you parked?”
“No, I’m sure where I parked. Just my car is no longer there.”
“Then, it was stolen?”
“I think there’s something else going on.”
“That’s why I would like to speak to Claire.”
“What could she possibly know about your car’s whereabouts?”
“I’m not sure either, but I think talking to her might help.”
“Come inside,” he stepped past me to enter and held the door open until I was through. I followed across the foyer into a formal dining room, where he turned to me. “Have a seat.”
Everything inside the house was different from what I recalled. Granted, I had only seen part of the house during the quick tour Pam and Catherine gave me the previous night.
The table, chairs, and dish hutch were stained a different color and were early American, not Traditional. The kitchen I should not be able to see from my vantage for a wall was replaced with two round columns, lending airiness and the appearance of one vast, connected room. Cabinets within the kitchen were different as well, though obviously custom made of hardwoods but not arranged in the same, easily accessible configuration as I expected.
Across the backyard in the early light of the new day, I could see a meticulously maintained hedge that formed a labyrinth where I expected an open stretch of lawn. The pool and the tennis court were where they belonged, though the surface of the court was red clay, not green asphalt.
“Now, Mr. Woods. How do you know so much about my wife and me?”
“I’m afraid it will sound crazy.”
“Then, I’ll be prepared.”
“Somehow I’m not where I should be.”
“No, I mean, this…this place…everything is different, here.”
“Give me an example.”
“This house. Over there, those double doors I do not remember. Instead, there was an open archway leading into a vast playroom. I assume it’s a ballroom, as that was likely its original purpose.”
“Yes, it is a ballroom. I’m afraid we do not entertain quite as much as we once did. So, the room is hardly ever used. We used to have the company Christmas party here, but since I retired–”
“Nelson?” A familiar voice came from upstairs.
“Do we have a guest so early?” She continued to descend the stairs.
“Yes, a Mr. Brent Woods. Says he knows you.”
“I don’t recall anyone by that name. Should I?”
“No, but he is beginning to tell me an interesting story.”
I stood as she entered the room, startled at her appearance, mostly how slender and petite she was, but mainly that she was not in a wheelchair. She had the same well-maintained attractiveness. Her eyes were just as piercing and alert. She offered her hand, and we shook. “I should think I’d recall a handsome young man like you.”
“Mr. Woods here seems to know some things about us and says our house is arranged differently than he expected.”
“It has been this way for years — at least ten. Wasn’t that the last time we replaced the furniture and repainted the walls?
“Yes, it was just before I retired.”
“That means you would have been a boy when you were last here.”
“Mrs. Carson, I know you very well, in fact, but not like this — not as you are now.”
She sat at the table, across for her husband, and gestured for me to return to my seat as she asked, “How am I different?”
“I’m not sure your husband would know some of the things.” I glanced down. “I’ve never met him before this morning.”
“He’s deceased…at least that’s what I remember.”
“I assure you I’m not. Picture of health was what the doctor said at my last physical.”
“You see, everything is different here. It’s like I shouldn’t exist.”
Claire reached across the table, gently touching the back of my hand. Immediately a flood of memories filled my mind, her memories. “You are from an alternate version of the here and now.” Her inner voice said.
I turned to look at her, focusing on her eyes. “Does Nelson know? That you’re a witch?”
Her brow raised. “No one knows that…except for…my coven…and apparently you.”
“There was an accident over ten years ago. It left you paralyzed from the waist down.”
“I think I prefer my memories to yours, then.”
“I was a guest in this house, in the room upstairs on the far side of the master bedroom.”
“We use that room for storage but go on,” Claire said.
“Pam, your niece, and I are dating, steadily. Her brothers and sister are also staying over. You always come to their house on Sundays for breakfast and then together all of you go to church. But everyone except for Pam attends Ohio State and they are home on spring break. Pam is a senior in high school. You insisted we all stay for the night.”
“My niece? I have four nieces. None of them are named Pam. One is from Nelson’s side of the family. The others are from my side. I have not seen any of them for years.”
“Pam is Theodore’s youngest.”
Claire’s eyes widened with surprise as she sat back. I sensed the tension in her body. “What cruel trick is this?”
“I’m just telling you what I remember.”
“Theodore died twenty years ago.”
Her eyes supported the truth she told. She had no cause to lie. Still, her words chilled me. What absurdity was this world? How did I arrive here?
The sun rose above the trees, its light distracting me, glinted from the mirrored back of the china hutch, momentarily blinding me.
“You’re up early,” Claire’s voice startled me as she rolled across the floor from behind me. I turned to look.
Had I imagined it? “I-I guess I couldn’t sleep.”
“I’ll bet you’ve always gotten up early.” She halted close to the edge of the table where I sat.
“Usually, I get up early and exercise. This morning, I went for a walk.”
“Did you sleep well, though?”
“Yes, the bed was comfortable. I’m not used to that level of luxury. But with all the strangeness, I guess I woke early. Maybe it’s too quiet here.”
She laughed. “Nelson and I used to have guests over quite often. Since he died, the rooms are hardly ever used. Madge stays in the one at the end of the hallway across from yours. She likes to watch TV at night, and the noise of it disturbs me. So, she decided it was best to stay down the hall.”
“The room where I slept, was it ever used for storage?”
“A long time ago, before Nelson passed. Why?”
“I’ve been having some strange experiences. That’s all.”
Claire tilted her head to one side. “Of being in another place, another house like this?”
“Not exactly like this. But yes. Why do you ask?”
“Tell me, which version of this house was it?”
I frowned at her. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“How was this house different?”
“A lot of ways. There was no playroom. The cabinets in the kitchen were not accessible for you…because you weren’t paralyzed. Outside the hedges were a maze — ”
“Where there is an open lawn now?”
Claire drew a deep breath. “I was concerned that might happen, because of your sensitivity. You’ll grow to control it over time, but the wrinkles of morning diverted you.”
“I shouldn’t have invited you to spend the night here. I was tired and it seemed like a good idea. I wasn’t thinking clearly, perhaps. But with your gifts, of course, there would be a potential for this.”
“What about these wrinkles?”
“The pattern has changed. You know that, though, don’t you?”
“This is an alternative of some sort.”
“Rather, it is one of several.”
“Was it the past I was in?”
“No, that was the present, merely another layer beyond all this.”
“It was the world you changed.” I ventured.
“You’re astute,” Claire smiled. “Yes, as you surmise, I changed my world because my family was wrong, Brent. They were wrong about many things, especially when it came to our unusual heritage.”
“The dark, dirty secret that for centuries we kept hidden. I was raised in the belief that it was to be averted and controlled, never embraced. I was ashamed of my abilities. I never told Nelson, for example. And then, after he died and my accident, I felt nature punished me for shunning the truth…my truth. Many, many times I tried to fix the past, to avoid my accident. In doing so, I generated numerous wrinkles that, for those as sensitive as you, are accessible in the moments just before dawn.”
“Did you create this?” I made a sweeping gesture.
“No, it doesn’t work that way. No individual could create anything as complex as an entire world, or rather a new universe. No mortal being, anyway. But I made links, and pathways as I sampled possibilities. And those established the wrinkles.”
“You wanted to find a version of the world where you weren’t paralyzed?”
“No, I sought to escape the one that killed Theodore and Theresa before Catherine could be born.”
“You changed what happened?”
“All the power and knowledge I have — some of which you have as well — I opted for another version of my life, not knowing all that it would alter. But at the time, I didn’t care. I wanted Theodore back. It was my fault as much as anyone else in the family. They went away, going to start a new life on their own, running from all of us and our negativity. I expected there would be unforeseen consequences, just I didn’t realize the extent. That’s why, after all the finagling I did early on, I have never changed another thing.”
“But it’s not right to change things.”
“What is not right about it? We change things every day, Brent with every choice we make. It’s controlled, confined in the present moment. But with magic, the present can shift and so can the decisions that change everything around us.”
“You shouldn’t be confined to a wheelchair. Nelson would still be alive…”
“I traded one set of circumstances for another, the best compromise of alternatives, I suppose. I loved Nelson with all my heart and soul. He always knew that. But to change what happened to Theodore and Theresa meant that I had to accept a world where he left my life prematurely. You see, with magic there is always a trade-off.”
“Because a balance must be struck.”
“You can set things back the way they were, though. Right?”
“For what benefit and with what result? Do you want to be in that world, Brent? There is no Pam there.”
I looked away.
“Could you give up everything that has happened since you met her?”
“There must be some other way.”
“Maybe there is, but why meddle? Theodore and Theresa’s children have given me more joy than I could have ever known short of having my own. And for that, I accept the negative aspects of the bargain.”
“You could have changed that, too.”
“Yes, I could have. I still could. But what would it mean for everyone else I love and for Pam who you love? She is how she is for a reason. I’ve altered enough things. On balance, I believe what is here and now was the best balance for the overall good.”
I glanced down at the newspaper that was spread open on the table before me. Suddenly, I recalled seeing the headline before, but when? I shivered.
“Two places at once, indeed,” Claire said. “And to be cursed to know multiple versions of one lifetime.”
“I could change things for you if you tell me how.”
“Then the burden would rest upon your shoulders. What are you willing to give up, Brent? It always comes down to that — the price. The balance must always be restored. Using our abilities, whether we consider them a gift or a curse, upsets things. Many other things adjust to allow for whatever we change. The bigger the change we make, the more things are set out of kilter.”
“I feel helpless, now.”
“I know the feeling.” She sighed. “It is part of being aware.”
“How much is Pam like us?”
“I’m not sure. She is rare, rare enough to be exceptional. She is a gift to the world borne of my meddling with the past, as are her brothers and sisters. But only she and Catherine are aware that they are different.”
“Why is that?”
“You tell me, Brent. Your situation is similar enough. There are surely scenarios in which your brother lived and neither you nor your sisters were born. That creates a seam in the fabric of the world. There are places I can go where you do not exist. It’s the same with Catherine, Pam, David, and Stephen.”
She looked away. “That’s how the gifts work. There is a cruel compensation about it — always trade-offs. We can know how the illusions work and manipulate things to suit ourselves, but at what price? Most people are not aware. At times they wake from their dreams into a slightly different version of the world than the one they were in when they went to bed. After all, dreams often change us in ways we are unaware.”
“So, the gifts come to those who have gaps in their alternative possibilities.”
“The gifts are universal. But those who have fewer realities in which we exist seem to have a greater concentration of potential that we tap into with our gifts.”
“There’s more magic inside of us.”
“Yes, you can think of it that way. You see, before I was born, my mother chose between marrying a man she did not truly love and taking strong medicine that would cause an abortion. In most of the scenarios, she had that abortion. Of course, this is one carried forward from a different choice.”
Claire nodded slowly and soberly. “Of course, you won’t mention any of this to Pam or the others.”
“Of course not.”
“They will wake soon, and they will bring both of our worlds to life for another wonderful day. But I will warn you. Although there is usually more than enough hot water for any needs, it strains the heater to simultaneously supply showers for four teenagers.”
“Adding me into the mix-”
“Yes, you’d best take your shower now, while you have the chance.”