She said, “Did I dump too much on you?” “No. I just gotta think about it a while,” he said. “Right now, I'm thinking bad, I guess. 'Cause I want them all dead, all of them who bad anything to do with . . . what happened to Dad. But I'll work on it, Mom. I'll try to be a better person.” She smiled. “I know you will, Chris.”
During her conversation with Chris and for the few minutes of mutual silence that followed it, Laura continued to be plagued by the feeling that they were not yet out of imminent danger. They had gone about seven miles on the ridge road, with perhaps another mile of dirt track and two miles of pavement ahead before they connected with state route 38. The farther she drove, the more certain she became that she was overlooking something and that more trouble was drawing near.
She suddenly stopped on the spine of another ridge, just before the road dipped down again-and for the last time-toward lower land. She switched off the engine and the lights.
“What's wrong?” Chris asked.
“Nothing. I just need to think, have a look at our passenger.”
She got out and went around to the back of the Jeep. She opened the tailgate, where a bullet had punched through the window. Chunks of safety glass broke out and fell on the ground at her feet. She climbed into the cargo bed and, lying next to her guardian, checked the wounded man's pulse. It was still weak, perhaps even slightly weaker than before, but it was regular. She put a hand to his head and found he was no longer cold; he seemed to be afire within. At her request Chris gave her the flashlight from the glove compartment. She pulled back the blankets to see if the man was bleeding worse than when they had loaded him into the Jeep. His wound looked bad, but there was not much fresh blood in spite of the bouncing that he had endured. She replaced the blankets, returned the flashlight to Chris, got out of the Jeep, and closed the tailgate.
She broke all of the remaining glass out of the tailgate window and out of the smaller rear window on the driver's side. With the glass missing completely, the damage was less conspicuous and less likely to draw the attention of a cop or anyone else.
For a while she stood in the cold air beside the wagon, staring out at the lightless wilderness, trying to force a connection between instinct and reason. Why was she so sure that she was heading for trouble and that the night's violence was not yet at an end?
The clouds were shredding in a high-altitude wind that harried them eastward, a wind that had not yet reached the ground, where the air was almost peculiarly still. Moonlight found its way through those ragged holes and eerily illuminated the snow-cloaked landscape of rising and falling hills, evergreens leeched of their color by the night, and clustered rock formations.
Laura looked south where in a few miles the ridge road led to state route 38, and everything in that direction seemed serene. She looked east, west, then back to the north from which they had come, and on all sides the San Bernardino Mountains were without a sign of human habitation, without a single light, and seemed to exist in primeval purity and peace.
She asked herself the same questions and gave the same answers that had been part of an interior dialogue for the past year. Where did the men with the belts come from? Another planet, another galaxy? No. They were as human as she was. So maybe they came from Russia. Maybe the belts acted like matter transmitters, devices akin to the teleportation chamber in that old movie, The Fly. That might explain her guardian's accent-if he'd teleported from Russia-but it didn't explain why he had not aged in a quarter of a century; besides, she did not seriously believe that the Soviet Union or anyone else had been perfecting matter transmitters since she was eight years old. Which left time travel.
She had been considering that possibility for some months, though she'd not even felt confident enough about her analysis to mention it to Thelma. But if her guardian had been entering her life at crucial points by time travel, he could have made all of his journeys in the space of a single month or week in his own era while many years had passed for her, so he would have appeared not to have aged. Until she could question him and learn the truth, the time-travel theory was the only one on which she could operate: Her guardian had traveled to her from some future world; and evidently it was an unpleasant future, because when speaking of the belt had said, “You don't want to go where it'll take you,” and there had been a bleak, haunted look in his eyes. She had no idea why a time traveler would come back from the future to protect her, of all people, from armed junkies and runaway pickup trucks, and she had no time to ponder the possibilities.
The night was quiet, dark, and cold .
They were heading straight into trouble.
She knew it, but she didn't know what it was or where it would come from. When she got back into the Jeep, Chris said, “What's wrong now?”
“You're crazy about Star Trek, Star Wars, Batteries Not Included, all that stuff, so maybe what I've got here is the kind of background expert I seek out when I'm writing a novel. You're my resident expert in the weird.”
The engine was switched off, and the interior of the Jeep was brightened only by the cloud-cloaked moonlight. But she was able to see Chris's face reasonably well because, during the few minutes she had been outside, her eyes had adapted to the night. He blinked at her and looked puzzled. “What're you talking about?”
“Chris, like I said earlier, I'm going to tell you all about the man lying back there, about the other strange appearances he's made in my life, but we don't have time for that now. So don't snow me under with lots of questions, okay? But just suppose my guardian- that's how I think of him, because he's protected me from terrible things when he could-suppose he was a time traveler from the future. Suppose he doesn't come in a big clumsy time machine. Suppose the whole machine is in a belt that he wears around his waist. under his clothes, and he just materializes out of thin air when he arrives here from the future. Are you with me so far?” Chris was staring wide-eyed. “Is that what he is?”
“He might be, yes.”
The boy freed himself from his safety harness, scrambled onto his knees on the seat, and looked back at the man lying in the compartment behind them. “Holy shit.”
“Given the unusual circumstances,” she said, “I'll overlook the foul language.”
He glanced at her sheepishly. “Sorry. But a time traveler!” If she had been angry with him, the anger would not have held, ' for she now saw in him a sudden rush of that boyish excitement and a capacity for wonder that he had not exhibited in a year, not even at Christmas when he had enjoyed himself immensely with Jason Gaines. The prospect of an encounter with a time traveler instantly filled him with a sense of adventure and joy. That was the splendid thing about life: Though it was cruel, it was also mysterious, filled with wonder and surprise: sometimes the surprises were so amazing that they qualified as miraculous, and by witnessing those miracles, a despondent person could discover a reason to live, a cynic could obtain unexpected relief from ennui, and a profoundly wounded boy could find the will to heal himself and medicine for melancholy.
She said, “Okay, suppose that when he wants to leave our time and return to his own, he presses a button on the special belt he wears.”
“Can I see the belt?”
“Later. Remember, you promised not to ask a lot of questions just now.”
“Okay.” He looked again at the guardian, then turned and sat down, focusing his attention on his mother. “When he presses the button-what happens?”
“He just vanishes.”
“Wow! And when he arrives from the future, does he just appear out of thin air?”
“I don't know. I've never seen him arrive. Though I think for some reason there's lightning and thunder-”
“The lightning tonight!”
“Yes, but there's not always lightning. All right. Suppose that he came back in time to help us, to protect us from certain dangers-”
“Like the runaway pickup.”
“We don't know why he wants to protect us, can't know why until he tells us. Anyway, suppose other people from the future don't want us to be protected. We can't understand their motivations, either. But one of them was Kokoschka, the man who shot your father-”
“And the guys who showed up tonight at the house,” Chris said, they're from the future, too."
“I think so. They were planning to kill my guardian, you, and me. But we killed some of them instead and left two of them stranded in the Mercedes. So ... what are they going to do next, kiddo? You're the resident expert on the weird. Do you have any ideas?”
“Let me think.”
Moonlight gleamed dully on the dirty hood of the Jeep. The interior of the station wagon was growing cold; their breath issued in frosty plumes, and the windows were beginning to fog Laura switched on the engine, heater, defroster, but not the lights.
Chris said, “Well, see, their mission failed, so they won't hang around. They'll go back to the future where they came from.” “Those two guys in our car?”
“Yeah. They probably already pushed the buttons on the belts of the guys you killed, sent the bodies back to the future, so there're no dead men at the house, no proof time travelers were ever there. Except maybe some blood. So when the last two or three guys got stuck in the ditch, they probably gave up and went home.”
“So they aren't back there any more? They wouldn't walk back to Big Bear maybe, steal a car, and try to find us?”
“Nope. That would be too hard. I mean, they have an easier way to find us than to just drive around looking for us like regular bad guys would have to do.” “What way?”
The boy screwed up his face and squinted through the windshield at the snow and moon glow and darkness ahead. “See, Mom, as soon as they lost us, they'd push the buttons on their belts, go home to the future, and then make a new trip back to our time to set another trap for us. They knew we took this road. So what they probably did was make another trip back to our time, but earlier tonight, and. they set a trap at the other end of this road, and now they're waiting there for us. Yeah, that's where they are! I'll just bet , that's where the}' are.”
“But why couldn't they come back even earlier tonight, earlier than they came the first time, back to the house, and attack us before my guardian ever showed up to warn us?”
“Paradox,” the boy said. “You know what that means?” The word seemed too complex for a boy his age, but she said, “Yes, I know what a paradox is. Anything that's self-contradictory but possibly true.”
“See. Mom, the neat thing is that time travel is full of all kinds of possible paradoxes. Things that couldn't be true, shouldn't be true-but then might be.” Now he was talking in that excited voice I with which he described scenes in his favorite fantastic films and comic books, but with more intensity than she had ever heard before, probably because this was not a story but reality even more amazing than fiction. “Like suppose you went back in time and married your own grandfather. See, then you'd be your own grandmother. If time travel was possible, maybe you could do that-but then how could you have ever been born if your real grandmother had never married your grandfather in the first place? Paradox! Or what if you went back in time and met up with your mom when she was a kid and accidentally killed her? Would you just cease to exist-pop!-like you'd never been born? But if you ceased to exist-then how could you have gone back in time in the first place? Paradox! Paradox!”
Staring at him in the moon-painted darkness of the Jeep, Laura felt as though she was looking at a different boy from the one she had always known. Of course, she had been aware of his great fascination with space-age tales, which seemed to preoccupy most kids these days, regardless of age. But until now she hadn't gotten a deep look inside the mind shaped by those influences. Evidently the American children of the late twentieth century not only lived interior fantasy lives richer than those of children at any other time in history, but they seemed to have gotten from their fantasies something not provided by the elves and fairies and ghosts with which earlier generations of kids had entertained themselves: the ability to think about abstract concepts like space and time in a manner far beyond their intellectual and emotional age. She had the peculiar feeling that she was speaking to a little boy and a rocket scientist coexisting in one body.
Disconcerted, she said, “So . . . when these men failed to kill us on their first trip tonight, why wouldn't they make a second trip earlier than the first, to kill us before my guardian warned us that they were coming?”
“See, your guardian already showed up in the time stream to warn us. So if they came back before he warned us-then how could he have warned us in the first place, and how could we be here where we are now, alive? Paradox!”
He laughed and clapped his hands like a gnome chortling over some particularly amusing side-effect of a magical spell.
In contrast to his good humor, Laura was getting a headache from trying to sort out the complexities of this thing.
Chris said, “Some people believe time travel isn't even possible 'cause of all the paradoxes. But some believe it's possible so long as the trip you make into the past doesn't create a paradox. Now if that's true, see, then the killers couldn't come back on a second, earlier trip 'cause two of them had already been killed on the first trip. They couldn't do it because they were already dead, and it was a paradox. But the guys you didn't kill and maybe some new time travelers could make another trip to cut us oft at the end of this road.” He leaned forward to peer through the streaked windshield again. “That's what all that lightning was off to the south when we were weaving to keep them from shooting us-more guys from the future were arriving. Yeah, I'll bet they're waiting for us down there somewhere, down there in the dark.”
Rubbing her temples with her fingertips, Laura said, “But if we turn around and go back, if we don't drive into the trap ahead, then they'll realize we've outthought them. And so they'll make a third trip back in time and return to the Mercedes and shoot us when we try to drive back that way. They'll get us no matter which way we go.”
He shook his head vigorously. “No. Because by the time they realize we're on to them, maybe half an hour from now, we'll already have turned around and driven back past the Mercedes.” The boy was bouncing up and down in his seat with excitement now. “So if they try to make a third trip in time to go back to the beginning of this road and trap us there, they can't do it, because we'll already have driven back that way and out, we'll already be safe. Paradox! See, they got to play by the rules, Mom. They're not magical. They got to play by the rules, and they can be beat!”