I wanted to break my brother’s face again. My knuckles burned from my previous efforts.
Dark mascara ribbons streaked down Bridgette’s cheeks. Roger’s smooth features, darkened with fury, no longer bore a single scrape. The bruises he’d left on my body throbbed.
This time I had to fix things without getting hurt. More than that, I had to do it without killing Bridgette.
The activity in the lounge concealed Roger’s rage and Bridgette’s sobbing. Romantic and fast-tempo music thrummed, with laser ribbons etching the air above the diners and dancers. Waiters weaved among private tables filled by lovers in every stage of intimacy. All but me seemed oblivious to the lone exception I stared at, my brother and his now fiancée. My former lover.
Veins throbbed on Roger’s thick neck as he screamed without sound. The low lighting edged his brow and shaved head in shadow, heightening his uncontrolled rage. Bridgette shrank as if each word crushed her further into her chair.
My fingers flew over the network grid keypad suspended in front of me. My anger seethed. Thick nicotine-stick vapor stung my eyes, further curdling my mood. I sent it scattering with a wave of my hand. The fumes scoured my throat whether they were safe second-hand or not.
The code I wrote flashed complete. I stabbed the green button in the grid to activate the program. The network node on Roger’s belt blinked with an incoming call. His enraged eyes darted across the lounge as he answered. I raised the opacity of my grid to block his view. He’d spotted me before and the memory still ached. After a few moments, I dialed the opacity down and watched him through the sea of scrolling grid data that tracked my virus.
Without my interference, Bridgette would hurl her glass at him, a curl of icy water freezing his rage in place. A few seconds later he would slap her and haul her out of her chair by the arm. The memory of them struggling in the vapor haze burned indelible in my mind.
Disrupting the thread to confront him had gotten me an ever-progressing tally of damage. The little I managed in return disappeared with each restart. His assaults silenced the lounge each time. Luckily, they never tangled the threads too much for me to displace for a different approach. Hopefully a smarter one this time.
The fly, the same goddamn fly, landed on the lip of my coffee mug, jittering its legs over its bulbous eyes. It came back every time I displaced, no matter what I did to it. Little things always stayed the same, like this fly landing on my mug. I let it wander across the rim and dart away.
Roger slammed his node on the table. His voice rose enough for me to hear this time, anger without coherency. Bridgette flinched in her seat. She reached for her water glass—no god damn it, don’t backtrack on me—but she lifted it to her lips instead of throwing it. I slid my finger off the displacement toggle with relief.
Roger threw his napkin over his plate and stood up. He stormed toward the door in such a fury that he forgot his node on the table. Her eyes followed him as he left, a conflict of fear and relief mixing across her face.
Bridgette looked beautiful, just like she had a year ago when I’d left her. Tight curves and toned muscle under a smoky black dress and rich auburn hair. She lifted a nic-stick to her lips and lit it with a twist. Smoking was new for her. The electric glow flared red and highlighted the haunted shadows under her eyes. Those were new too, but no surprise with Roger still around. I choked down a last mouthful of bitter coffee and weaved through the crowd to her table.
“Nick.” Bridgette’s breath caught when I sat down across from her. Her eyes flashed with anger. Tears carved furrows through her makeup, exposing the discolored skin of old bruises underneath. “What are you—”
“My mother told me the news.”
Her mouth became a colorless line. White vapor streamed from her lips. “That’s what got you to come back?”
“She expected me to be happy for you and Roger.”
She took the nic-stick from her lips and let it dangle from the crook of her fingers. Forefinger and thumb spun her gold engagement ring by its glittering diamond, obscene in its size. “What else was she supposed to expect?”
“That I’d be the asshole’s best man. She’s delusional.”
Bridgette dropped her hand as if realizing what she was doing. She picked up her napkin and dabbed at her eyes. “Roger will probably ask just to see if you’ll show—Jesus, what happened to your face?”
“A fight. Doesn’t matter. Bridge, you can’t be serious. He left you in tears for a work call. You never smoked or had to cover up bruises before. He’s destroying you.”
Bridgette frowned. She took another pull from her nic-stick and blew it in my face. “How did you know work called him?”
I struggled against a cough. “He’s a cop, I’m a grid programmer. He runs for a homicide call. I know how to fake a dispatch.”
“That’s very brave of you, standing up to him like that.”
“Dammit, that’s not the point. Why are you marrying him?”
She shrugged. “For as bad as the bad times are, the good times are just as good.”
Same conversation, this time not from a restart. I picked up his scotch without thinking and drained it. “I’ve never seen these mythical good times, but they must be stellar.”
“Of course you haven’t seen them. You’ve been gone a year. You haven’t seen anything. What gives you the right to sit down with me after walking out like you did?”
“Nice. You find a spine when he isn’t around.”
She ran a fingertip along the rim of her water glass, nic-stick still dangling. I tensed for a moment, expecting her to fling the glass at me this time.
“I could say the same thing about you,” she said.
“He’s not the kind of guy you go toe-to-toe with.”
Her eyes fixed on my bruised face and darkened with realization. “You know, Roger was a boxer at the Academy.”
“Damn it, fine. He beat the shit out of me when I confronted him before. How someone as smart as you stays with a guy like him I’ll never know.”
“You displacers never stop messing with things, do you?”
I winced at the unintended reproach her words held. “I am not going to let him treat you like this. You can’t stay with him.”
“You aren’t going to let him treat me like this,” she mocked. “I can take care of myself. I don’t need saving.”
I started to speak, then snapped my teeth shut. I remembered having this conversation with her too, a year ago. Backtracking myself.
“This isn’t just about you, Bridge. I can’t stand you being with him.”
“So this is about you,” Bridgette looked sideways at me for a moment through the swirls of vapor. “You don’t get to decide to have me just because you find out I’m engaged. You shouldn’t have left in the first place.”
“I had to. When he found out we were having an affair—”
“You ran. He found out, and you disappeared. You never said anything or even contacted me. How can you expect to walk in and start right where we left off? You just left.”
“I didn’t have a choice.”
“You’re a displacer! All you have are choices, as many as you want. You didn’t even try.”
“He killed you, Bridgette.”
She stopped talking. I tried to make out her expression through the blur that started to coat the world.
“God, Bridge, I would have displaced forever to get you away from him. But when I told him we were leaving together, he grabbed a kitchen knife and….” I picked up the scotch glass, empty, and set it back down. Tears stung my eyes. “He said he would do it every time you tried to leave with me. He told me to restart as far back as I could and disappear, or you’d stay dead.”
Bridgette looked away. She stared blankly at the grid feeds around the bar, vapor curling from her perfect red lips. “You aren’t lying.”
She knew me too well, even after a year. “Why else would I stay away all this time? Why would I leave without a word? God damn it, I love you.”
Her breath stumbled. A pearl of liquid welled at the corner of her eye and slid down her cheek. “All this time I thought you ran because Roger found out about us.”
“I stood up to him. Look where that got me. I couldn’t see a way to stay without getting you hurt.”
She touched her fingers to her chest, tracing the imagined cut. The vapor trailing from the nic-stick drew a slash through the air. “He killed me just to keep me with him.”
“That’s what kept me away. But when I learned the bastard was marrying you, I had to stop it.”
The fear that had disappeared crept back into her eyes, deepening to horror as she absorbed my words. “How can I leave him? He was willing to kill me before.”
“He’s not here. He’s on a phantom call across town. He won’t even know you’ve left. And I’m a displacer, Bridge. It’s not as all-powerful as you think, only a few hours back at most. Sometimes only a few minutes. But I will do everything I can to protect you.”
She cupped her hand again, spinning her engagement ring with intent. She was quiet for a long time.
“Can we go tonight?” she asked. Her voice was a whisper. “Can we go now?”
My heart leapt. “We need to go now, before he comes back.”
One last spin and the ring slipped off her finger. She dropped it in her water glass, the heavy stone tumbling to the bottom. The nic-stick followed, its tip sputtering in the water.
A smile broke across her lips. “I’ve waited too long to do this,” Her eyes were puffy but clear, hope swallowing her fear. “I want to be with you.”
I couldn’t contain myself. I rose from my chair and cupped her cheeks in my hand. She leaned in and our lips met. I tasted nicotine and tears but didn’t care. The feel of her kiss, her body against mine, overwhelmed everything. God, it was thrilling to forge a completely new thread.
Something hot burst across my chest. I pulled back as a warm mist sprayed across my face.
Blood bubbled from Bridgette’s lips. For a moment her eyes clung desperately to hope, to love, to life, then dimmed. She gurgled and slumped forward. Her head flopped, half-severed from her neck—an eerie echo of a year ago, almost a perfect backtrack of that horrifying, long-erased moment.
Roger slipped the nearly invisible molecular knife into his breast pocket and sat down beside Bridgette. No blood even touched him.
“Forgot my node,” he said, and scooped it up from the table next to me.
I barely heard him. I stared at Bridgette lying in an expanding red stain on the tablecloth.
Roger pulled her nic-stick from the glass, shook the water away and slipped it between his lips. “Fuck happened to your face, bro?” Pale gray vapor filled the air between us.
I grasped Bridgette’s limp hand, felt the lingering impression of her engagement ring.
“Learn how to fake a dispatch,” Roger said. “I knew within ten blocks.”
My stomach churned and I gagged. It took all my strength to keep from retching. I wanted to cradle her, to scream, to strangle my brother, but instinct held me back. Stay calm. Don’t disrupt things. Don’t tangle the threads.
“I thought it would never come to this after you left,” Roger said. “But I knew how hung up she was on you, and the only way I could deal with a displacer—”
My voice trembled, struggling against my self-control. “God damn it, Roger.” I swept my eyes over the lounge. With the throbbing music and dim lighting no one noticed Bridgette’s murder. “You sick bastard.”
A dark mockery of Bridgette’s realization descended over his face. “I did it before. That’s why you ran,” He grinned. “My plan worked, then.”
My eyes drifted back to Bridgette and I couldn’t tear them away. “You killed her.”
“No I didn’t. You’re going to save her.”
I looked up at him. Blood and vapor burned my eyes. My pulse drummed in my ears. “That’s why you’re so calm,” I said. “You want this to never happen.”
“I see you anywhere alone,” he said, jabbing the nic-stick at me. “And I kill you. Pre-empting an illegal displacement, I’ll say. Mom will be heartbroken, but she’ll get over it. You’ll be dead and I’ll still get Bridgette.”
His voice was calm, morbid with the dead body lying next to him. A glassy pool crept across the table and he draped his arm over the back of the chair to avoid it.
“But not this time,” I said. I struggled to get the words out.
“This time you’re going to displace before someone notices her and tangles up the threads. You stay gone this time.”
“Or I don’t.” I didn’t have the strength to make it more than a murmur, Roger snorted. “The only way to end this forever is to leave her dead. Or restart again and try to kill me. We know you can’t do either.”
Anger crept in to my words. “You have no idea what I’m capable of.”
“Better than you I do. I know killers. You don’t have it in you. You’re smart enough to know that if I don’t end up dead,” he nudged her limp head with his elbow, “she does.”
A smile broke across his lips, and I wanted to break his face again.
He picked up his empty scotch glass and swirled it. The ice clinked. “Ma’am,” he called to a waitress, catching the nearest one by the sleeve. “Refill?”
The waitress turned toward our table. Her eyes widened in horror. Her mouth opened into a scream—
I wanted to break my brother’s face again.
Dark mascara ribbons streaked down Bridgette’s cheeks, and I knew I could do nothing. The blood felt cold and sticky on my shirt. Bile burned my tongue. I let her hurl water in his face, let him slap her and drag her out of the lounge. I didn’t interfere.
I reached for the cup of bitter coffee in front of me. Drying blood peppered my quaking hand. I had to get out of here before someone noticed me.
A lone fly skittered through the air to land on the rim of my cup, rubbing its legs across its bulbous multifaceted eyes.
I crushed it between my crimson-stained fingers.
© 2014 by William Reid
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