As they neared the old townhouse on St. Botolph Street—not far from Symphony Hall—where she had her apartment, Trix sat up and clasped her hands in her lap. She checked out the cars parked along the sidewalks and recognized some of them. She saw a tall, thin woman walking her standard poodle along the street and went to wave. But would Mrs. Wilkinson recognize her with her pink hair and punky gear? In this world, yeah, Trix thought. It’s only me who doesn’t recognize myself. She lowered her window and leaned out to put that to the test, but by then they’d passed Mrs. Wilkinson and Jim was pulling up at the curb.
“I’ll come with you,” he said.
“No, Jim, it’s okay, I’ll—”
“I’m coming with you!” His tone invited no dispute. She tried to smile, and he reached out and squeezed her hand. “Trix,” he said. “Whatever we find …” He looked past her at the building.
“I know,” she said. “Whatever we find, I’m still me.” She opened the car door, got out, and stood waiting on the sidewalk, staring at her apartment’s drawn curtains. They did not look familiar. And when she ran up the three steps and checked the nameplate beside her buzzer, she groaned and leaned against the wall.
“It doesn’t mean …,” Jim began.
Trix went to try her key in the front door, but it had been left unlocked and drifted open as she leaned against it. Inside, she heard music emanating from her apartment. The harsh, thrashy guitars, drums, and growling lyrics of the Dropkick Murphys. You couldn’t be young and living in Boston and not know the Dropkicks, but they had always been a bit too brash for her taste. “Jim,” she said, “I always open my curtains in the morning.”
“Maybe not this morning.”
This morning I was someone else, she thought, and she swayed as unreality washed over her. She felt Jim’s hand steadying her and leaned into him, and then a horrible sense of anticipation lit inside her chest. Who am I going to find in there? she wondered. In her real life in the real world she hadn’t had a girlfriend for over a year, since her last long-term relationship had ended badly. And as Jim’s hand rested against her upper arm, a startling, electrifying certainty hit her.
This was a world with different rules. Perhaps here Jenny loved her as much as she loved Jenny.
She headed for the apartment door, already knowing that her thinking was skewed. No one knows Jenny, she thought. But no one knew the Jenny she and Jim remembered. Maybe here she was someone else entirely.
She tried her key, and it did not fit.
“Doesn’t mean anything,” Jim said.
Trix’s heart was thumping as she reached for the buzzer, but she held back, kneeling instead and lifting the letter flap. It had a draft shield on the inside, and as she pushed her finger through and lifted it, she closed her eyes, because everything was already strange. That music’s not mine, my key doesn’t fit, I smell Chinese and I hate Chinese, and …
She looked into the apartment. “That’s not my home,” she said. The décor was different, the furniture, and as she watched, a strikingly tall black woman walked naked from the bathroom, across the hallway, and into the living room.
Trix caught her breath. Perhaps we’re lovers, she thought, but then a man emerged from the bathroom, naked and sheened with sweat, smiling and still semi-erect.
“Ice?” she heard the woman call, and Trix let the letter flap close softly as she rested back on her heels. Instead of being shocked or upset or disturbed, all she could wonder was how they could still make love with the city falling apart around them.
“Trix?” Jim asked.
“We can go now,” she said, standing and walking toward the stairs.
She turned to him and was sad to see the hope fading from his eyes. “We’ll look somewhere else,” she said. “We need to go to someone who will listen.”
Trix glanced back at the familiar building one more time, glad that the rain would camouflage her tears.
“In the car,” she said. “We need to leave here. I’ll explain then.”
Chapter 4 - Rare Ould Times
AS JIM drove through the city, windshield wipers battling the rain, he glanced at familiar stores and landmarks. His sense of dislocation had increased, despite the absence of any obvious changes. Every detail of Boston remained the same, at least based on a cursory inventory, and yet somehow it seemed as alien to him as if a tornado had dropped him into Oz. “Seriously, Trix, where are we going?” he asked.
“I told you. State Street. Try to get a parking space near the Old State House.”
“Easier said than done,” he said.
Trix nodded, peering out the rain-slicked passenger window. “I know. But we only need a few minutes. Double-park if you have to.”
Jim jerked the steering wheel to swerve around a taxi that stopped abruptly in front of them. One wheel splashed through a pothole, and he swore. Trix reacted not at all, and he glanced at her, trying to figure her out. Her appearance had changed dramatically, even her body, but she was still Trix.
It should have given him comfort, having a close friend beside him, going through all of this with him. Instead, it scared the shit out of him. It had been terrifying enough to think—as he had at first—that Jenny had taken Holly and vanished from his life intentionally, and then to suspect a meticulous and cruel conspiracy of abduction. And when he had begun to believe that he might be insane, his fear had bloomed into something near enough to lunacy that he might as well have been crazy. But this … somehow, this was worse. Trix remembered the world the way Jim did—remembered Jenny and Holly—and that meant that neither of them was crazy. Instead, it meant that the world had suddenly become hideously malleable. Reality had turned fluid.
“You’re really not going to tell me what we’re doing here?” he asked.
She squeezed her eyes shut a moment, then opened them and turned to look at him. Her new look—the pink hair, different makeup—made her seem more intense, but her eyes were the same as ever, and glinting with unshed tears. “You know how much Jenny means to me, right?” she asked. “Jenny and Holly, I mean?”
Trix loved Jenny almost as much as he did. In truth, he had always suspected Trix was deeply in love with his wife, though Jenny had always insisted that whatever feelings Trix might have for her were in the past. Every time Trix ended a relationship with a girlfriend and the three of them would get together and drink too much wine, he would see that old wistful sadness in Trix’s eyes, but eventually he had learned not to mention it. Things were what they were. Jenny and Trix had a powerful bond, but Jim had never felt threatened by it.
Trix might be Jenny’s best friend, but she had become one of his closest friends as well.
“Yeah. I know,” Jim said.
“Then I’m going to need you to trust me for a little while. There’s someone we need to talk to—a woman named Veronica Braden—and if I find her and she can’t help us, then we’ll think of something else. We will, Jim. We’re going to figure out how this is possible, and we’ll find them.”
He laughed darkly. “You sound so sure.”
Trix turned to look back out at the rain. “I have to be. And you’ll have to be, too.” She lowered her voice. “Whatever this is, it can’t be the first time it’s happened to anyone. I’ve read Stephen Hawking, y’know? Parallel dimensions and black holes and all that shit. We’re going to figure this out, and we’re going to get … get your girls back.”
Silence filled the space between them then, save for the shush of the wipers and the rumble of the road beneath his tires. He drove down Congress Street searching without luck for a parking spot. Roadwork took up two long blocks on the right, and the left had parked cars bumper to bumper. As he approached State, he took a chance and turned left onto narrow Quaker Lane, saw a spot, and pulled in.
“There’s a sign,” Trix said.
Jim didn’t respond. He killed the engine and climbed out, cold rain spattering him and drops running down the back of his collar. Trix stepped out of the car, and they both looked at the sign she had pointed out, a list of parking restrictions. She had said they wouldn’t be long, but he found he could not care about tickets or tow trucks.
“If you want an umbrella, I saw one on the backseat,” he said, slamming the door.
Trix turned her face up to the sky, seeming to relish the cold rain. “Fuck it.”
They walked up Quaker Lane all the way to Devonshire and turned right. The rain was little more than a drizzle, but Jim kept wiping it from his eyes. Trix pushed wet hair out of her face, the rain having taken all the punky spikiness out of the pink dye job. When they came to the end of Devonshire, where the Old State House stood on the corner, Trix frowned and glanced around. Then she set off along State Street.
“What are you looking for?” Jim asked, avoiding puddles that had started to form in the warped, uneven sidewalk.
She ignored him, picking up her pace, weaving around people who had just come out of the State Street T station, which was located beneath the Old State House. At the corner, she glanced up at the building’s front balcony, then across the street. They’d walked three quarters of the way around the old brick structure now. “There,” Trix said, setting off again.
But this time she did not go far, only to a traffic island that jutted into the street. In the island was a wide circle made of cobblestones set in concentric patterns. Trix hesitated as though about to walk across hot coals. Jim could only stare, wondering what she was up to, but then she turned and held out her hand. “Come on.”
“Where?” he asked.
“Right here,” she insisted. “You said you trusted me.”
He stared at her, pink hair plastered to her scalp and face now, rain running in rivulets down her cheeks, and he wondered if he had made a terrible mistake, if whatever sinister manipulations were at work here, Trix was a part of them. But then she pushed the hair from her eyes and he saw the pain in her imploring gaze, and chided himself for hesitating.
Jim took her hand, and together they stepped into the cobblestone circle.
Revelers going into the city for the night maneuvered around them, umbrellas sluicing rain. Hardy tourists gave them a wide berth, though hardly anyone really looked at them, the two nut jobs standing in the rain for no apparent reason.
Trix held his hand tightly, closed her eyes, and began to whisper. Jim leaned in to listen, feeling her breath warm and intimate on his face.
“… Jennifer Anne Garland Banks and Holly Marie Banks,” Trix whispered. “They’ve vanished and we have to find them. We love them, and our lives—our world—are falling apart. We need your help.”
Jim pulled back, staring at her. Sensing his withdrawal, Trix opened her eyes in alarm. “No,” she said, tugging him back toward her. “You said you trusted me.”
“I do, but …” This is crazy, he wanted to say. “You dragged me halfway across the city to fucking pray?”
Trix gripped his hand harder. “I’m not praying. But right now, on this spot, you’ve got to ask for help.”
“Who am I asking?” he said, eyes narrowed, as he looked around at the rain-swept street and the umbrella people passing by. He pointed at the sky. “Someone up there?”
Trix laughed uneasily. “The way I understand it, you’re asking Boston.”
She nodded. “The city. Yeah.”
Jim let his shoulders sag. “Oh, Jesus, Trix, you can’t believe that. You wasted all this time—”
“When we could have been doing what?” she snapped, her gaze intense. “Look at me, Jim. There’s nothing normal about this. We can’t hire a private detective or something. Another search of your apartment isn’t going to turn up shit. So please, just … let me try.”
“Who even told you about this?”
Trix took a deep breath. “My grandmother. I’ll explain later. But for now … I need your help.”
He let out a breath and nodded, trying to think of a next step, something he should be doing to try to find his wife and daughter in a world where they had apparently never existed. “All right,” he said, a great void opening up within him. Whatever hope he still had had begun to fade.
“You have to ask for help.”
Jim tried not to pay attention to the people passing around them, to faces halfway hidden beneath umbrellas, to conversations and cell phones and a burst of laughter from half a block away.
He closed his eyes. “Please,” he whispered, his heart breaking all over again as he surrendered to the truth, that he had no chance of finding them himself. “I’ve got to find them. I can’t live without them.” The moment the words were out of his mouth, he knew they were true. He would never be able to survive in a world where his two reasons for living had simply vanished, where all that he loved had been taken away. Deleted.
“Okay,” Trix said, squeezing his hand. “Let’s go.”
Jim let her lead him. “Where?”
She looked up at the street signs on the corner. “To dinner.”
“Are you serious?” he asked. “I couldn’t eat anything right now.”
Trix let go of his hand and he saw his own heartbreak reflected in her eyes. “What about a drink? I’m not screwing around, Jim. There’s a place we need to go.”
Jim exhaled. They should be out searching, but where would they even begin to look? “And over a drink, you’ll tell me what this is all about?” he asked.
“I swear,” Trix said.
“Then lead the way. Maybe a whiskey will steady my nerves.”