It was, beyond doubt, the most comfortable waiting room Kirby Foster had ever been in. The wingback chair was soft and inviting, the air conditioning neither too hot nor too cold, and the cup of complimentary coffee—fresh ground mocha java—sweet and light to the exact degree he preferred each. The situation was so relaxing, in fact, that it was several minutes before he realized that he had no idea what it was he was waiting for, nor how he had gotten there in the first place.
That distressed him; his father had gone senile, near the end. Despite the pain in his knees and the intermittent flutter in his heart, the possibility of losing his clarity was the one thing Kirby truly feared about growing older. But he’d barely had time to fret when the pretty red-haired receptionist smiled up from her post, and said, “Mr. Foster? Mr. Janus will see you now. Go straight down the hallway, third office on the right.”
He considered asking her why he was meeting this Mr. Janus, but decided not to bother her with the worry that a customer might not be in his right mind.
The sign painted on the glass of the third office door on the right read “Summerland Rentals.” Bells chimed as he entered, a chain of small jingles on a silk ribbon hanging from the doorknob. The sound recalled childhood memories of his grandparent’s country home. He found himself smiling as the room’s occupant, a sharply dressed dark-haired man with an eagle’s beak of a nose, rose from his computer station to greet him with a hearty handshake.
“Mr. Foster, welcome! My name’s Janus. I can’t tell you how big a fan I am. I’ve been following Nut Clusters since it began.” He had a slight, indeterminate accent.
“Thank you, that’s very kind.” Actually, the fellow didn’t seem old enough to have read Kirby’s comic strip for that long; he’d begun Nut Clusters right out of college, more than forty years ago. Janus didn’t look a day over thirty. But perhaps he’d read the collections. “I’m afraid I’m having something of a senior moment. I honestly don’t know why I’m here.”
“Not to worry,” Janus said, gesturing him towards a chair that proved, if anything, even more comfortable than the one in the waiting room. Janus sat back down at his work station, and began punching keys. “A great many of our customers have the same problem, at first. You’re here so that I can help you move into your new residence.”
“A new home? But Renée said she’d never move again—”
“This is more in the way of a summer rental; hold on just a minute while I pull your file up.”
He did a little mouse-work, pointing and clicking. The noise mixed with the soft notes of a bit of music drifting in from no place specific; Kirby nodded in time to the beer-barrel beat, and smiled again. “I like your company’s taste in muzak.”
“You know the tune?”
Kirby nodded, grinning. “Neil Hefti, Gotham City Municipal Swing Band. It was the theme for this local TV show, old monster movies . . . God, I loved that show.” He lowered his voice confidentially. “It's even in my will that I want it played at my funeral, just to, y’know, remind everybody that life isn’t so serious . . . ” It took a moment for the dime to drop. “Oh.”
Mr. Janus paused at his computer. “Worked it out, eh?”
Making no reply, Kirby patted at his jacket. “I wondered why I was wearing this monkey suit; I only put it on for weddings and funerals—ah!” Reaching into his right pocket, he produced a pint bottle of Irish Whisky. “Well, it looks like my brother Clint kept his word after all.” From the left pocket he pulled two shiny new pennies. “I suppose I owe these to the ferryman?”
Mr. Janus shook his head. “All pre-paid.”
“That’s cool.” Kirby sighed. “Damn, I was really looking forward to retirement. How’d I go?”
“Quietly, in your sleep; if you want more details, I can look them up. Congratulations on putting it all together so quickly, by the way. Most clients take a lot longer.”
Kirby shrugged. “Summerland Rentals; the name alone should have tipped me off. My daughter Brandy, she’s into all this new age stuff, Wicca, modern paganism, all that. She told me about the Summer Land a few times. Where good Pagans go when they . . . you know.”
“It must have rubbed off, or else you’d have wound up at Heavenly Acres, or Elysium Estates, or one of the other subdivisions.”
“The way she described it, I expected the afterlife to be a lot more rustic.” Twisting the top off of the bottle, Kirby drank a double-shot’s worth. “Care to join me?”
“Well, I don’t know why not.”
Taking the offered bottle, Janus downed a healthy swig before returning it; Kirby was surprisingly unsurprised to find that the bottle was still full. “So, the pharaohs had it right, eh? If you’re buried with it, it’s yours forever?”
Janus laughed. “Well, that was a bit before my time, but no, they didn’t have it right. Mummy movies to the contrary, the ancient Egyptians didn’t believe in reincarnation, which is how things actually work.”
Kirby fought to keep a smug smile off his face. He almost succeeded.. “I always thought that idea made the most sense. So, do I have to go back, ah, downstairs then?”
“Not for a while, no; that’s why I’ve set you up with one of our rental properties.” Janus stood, gesturing Kirby towards the door. “My car’s out back.”
That car, as it turned out, was a classic 1951 Hudson Hornet coupe in two-tone green and white, gleaming in the sunset glow.
Kirby's eyes gleamed back. “Jesus, my Grandpa had one just like this. We took a road trip to Disneyland one year . . . .”
“August, 1959.” Janus gunned the engine into life; seconds later they were on a freeway filled with vintage vehicles of every description. Kirby stared about in fascination. Not only were the cars period pieces, so was the freeway, the roadside filled with billboards in a profusion he hadn’t seen in decades, advertising products straight out of a nostalgia magazine. Not once did they pass through the terra-cotta valleys of modern sound-barrier walls, rolling instead through thickets of neon motel signs and brightly-lit Madison Avenue poster-board.
As Bobby Lewis belted out Tossin’ and Turnin’ on the radio, Kirby asked, “Is it far? That coffee’s going right through me.”
“Long enough for another drink; can I have that bottle again?”
“Drinking and driving—” Kirby began; then he giggled, and handed the bottle over. “Hell, why not? What can happen, we’re dead already.”
“You are. I’m staff. But it’s all right; the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh.” Janus removed both hands from the wheel. Sure enough, the car continued to maintain course, accelerating and changing lanes on its own. Janus took a long slash from the bottle. “If you drive by hand here, it’s for the sheer pleasure of it. No accidents in the Summerland.”
Soon they entered a bucolic suburban landscape of long, curving hillside roads. “Hey,” said Kirby, “I know this town; this is where I grew up.”
“Imagine that. Has the neighborhood changed much?”
Staring at a tract of flat-topped GI-bill housing that, on Earth, had long ago been torn down to make way for a gated community, Kirby shook his head. “No, it hasn’t changed at all.” They passed a grocery store, of a chain that had ceased to exist in the late eighties. There was a fireworks stand in the parking lot. “Fourth of July? Is that ‘summer’ thing literal then? The last I remember it was late March.”
“Earthly time doesn’t matter much here. But the idea of ‘summer’ has strong associations for you Americans; school vacation, personal freedom, sleeping late, all of that. Summerland's been getting a disproportionate number of your countrymen lately; it affects the landscape.”
They turned an extremely familiar corner, and pulled up in front of a blue-and-white ranch house just as familiar. “Be damned; this is my folk’s place.”
Janus produced a set of keys, and tossed them to Kirby. “Yours, now.”
He hesitated at the door. “Hey, are my parents inside? Together, I mean? ”˜Cause if they are I’m not sure I want to go in. I had enough of their screaming matches back when. “
“Just don’t think about them; they won’t be here unless you want them to be.”
Kirby nodded tightly. “Good. Divorce improved their relationship about a thousand percent.” As the door swung open, the bombastic notes of The Gotham City Municipal Swing Band drifted out. Kirby couldn’t stop his grin. Sure enough, the twenty-one-inch Philco black-and-white console was tuned to a familiar studio set. “Well, it looks like we’re in time for Creature Features.” He shot Janus a sidewise glance. “That’s no coincidence, is it?”
“No accidents in the Summerland. They’re showing Attack of the Mushroom People tonight.” Picking up a bowl of popcorn from a coffee table he offered it to Kirby. “Want to watch?”
Kirby took a handful; the kernels were still warm from the stove. “Maybe later; let’s look around first.”
His old bedroom was much as he remembered it, from the shelf full of plastic dinosaurs to the student desk, whose top, spread with a protective layer of newspaper, held a half-finished Aurora monster model kit. Opening a desk drawer, he found a pile of Blackhawk comics, and a Disneyland ticket book, empty except for a pair of unused “A” tickets.
In the kitchen, the fridge was filled with soda cans that required a church-key to open, and whole milk in glass bottles.
“Shall we check out the second floor?” suggested Janus.
“What second floor? It’s a ranch house.”
But, sure enough, there was a stairwell where his parent’s room should have been. He climbed the steps, knees aching. The air was filled with an enticing aroma, a mix of bluegrass smoke and sandalwood incense. At the second-floor landing was a studio apartment, door open, with numerous mattresses on the floor. The walls were plastered with posters ranging from a map of middle-earth, to a black-light portrait of Ché Guevara, to a Fillmore West advertisement for Muddy Waters. On a table that had begun life as a telephone cable spool were an assortment of hand-made pipes, a cigar box filled with dubious-looking dried plant matter, and a surprisingly expensive turntable/tuner spinning side one of Magical Mystery Tour.
“My God,” Kirby breathed, “Gentleman Jim’s crash-pad on Frederick Street. I spent most of the summer of ’69 here.” He wandered about, examining the titles on a cinder-block and wood-plank bookshelf, a mix of Tolkien, Kerouac, Burroughs and Charles Schulz. A cardboard box on the floor held a few dozen well-thumbed Marvel comics, mostly Doctor Strange. “Christ on a crutch, I almost expect Jim to walk through the door himself.”
“Ask and ye shall receive, brother,” said a voice from the landing.
Kirby’s head snapped towards the doorway; standing there was a ferret-thin figure of a man dressed in multiple layers of denim, curly black hair hanging over his shoulders. There was a strange hazy shimmering outlining him, but before Kirby could get a clear look at it the two were entangled in a wrestling match of hugs and back-slaps.
“Shit man,” Gentleman Jim said; “you got old!“
“Wish I could have said the same of you.” Kirby blinked tears out of his eyes. “Damn Jim, what were you thinking, mixing your medicines like that?”
Jim shook his head. “I always was the leave a good-looking corpse type, I guess.”
“Well, I guess you managed that. You’ve been here ever since, huh?”
Jim snorted. “I wish; nah, I couldn’t make the rent, I’ve reincarnated twice since ’72.” He tilted his head to one side, eyes focusing on something distant. “Matter of fact, right now I’m an eleven-year-old black girl in Chicago. Hey, cool, I’m reading one of your books; the Sunday Not-So-Funnies collection. Good shit man.”
“Ah, thanks. I guess.” The thought, “So there is drug abuse after death!” flitted through Kirby's mind.
It must have shown on his face; Jim brayed like a donkey. “Hey, no, dude, it’s not like that. Look, I gotta go; got a poltergeist gig back in the Haight.” He hooked a thumb at Janus. “Just listen to old two-face there, he’ll set you straight.” He flashed a peace sign, and vanished, leaving only the echo of the word, “Later” hanging in the air.
Kirby raised an eyebrow at his guide. “Old two-face?”
Janus smiled a slightly puckish grin. “As Gentleman Jim would put it, ‘That was an old gig, man.'” He fanned the air. “Let’s step out to the back yard, and I’ll explain; another minute in this atmosphere and I’ll need a bag of Oreos.”
The back yard was identical to the one Kirby’s brother Clint had owned in the seventies, right down to the redwood deck circling a huge above-ground swimming pool. Janus pulled a pair of ice-cold Buckhorn beers out of a cooler, handing one to Kirby, who sat down in a folding chair and popped the top. “So, if Jim is somebody else in Chicago, how can he be here?”
Janus spun his pop-top ring on one finger. “What you were talking to wasn’t Jim McManus, just his memories. You see, when a soul reincarnates it can’t take its life experiences with it; so they form a false body—we call it a shade—to keep them safe. You can visit with old friends and loved ones, even if they’re currently incarnate; all you have to do is think about them, and they’ll be drawn to you.”
“Huh.” Kirby drank deeply, enjoying the taste. He hadn’t seen Buckhorn since before his father died. “So, if Jim's memories are still around will he, or that little girl, or whoever, eventually recover them?”
“Mmm, well, eventually yes. But he'll have to attain true enlightenment first. That can take a while. Buddha nature doesn’t grow on trees, you know. And once someone works up to the Avatar-slash-Saint Level they don’t hang around rest stops like this place. They move up to Nirvana, or one of the Seven Heavens. You know; the high-rent districts.”
“Yeah, rent; Jim mentioned rent. So, you guys use money around here?”
“Not as such; there is a bookkeeping system though. You pay your rent with positive karma.”
Kirby mulled that one over. “So, if I go into arrears, I reincarnate as a banana slug, or something?”
Janus laughed. “Animal reincarnation is a myth, except for cows, sometimes. And you can’t reduce your base karma level past the point you last died at. It’s like a trust fund; while you’re here, you can’t spend the capital, just the interest.”
Janus pulled a PDA from his sports jacket, and punched a few buttons. “Man, I love these things; they beat scrying mirrors all to Hell. Okay, here are the stats on that little girl in Chicago; right now she’s reading the Nut Clusters storyline where you dealt with teenage suicide . . . .”
Kirby winced. “That one cost me a few newspapers.”
Janus nodded. “But you stuck by your guns, which earned you extra points. Bravery is always a good investment option. Anyway, that girl lost a close friend recently. Your story is helping her cope. That earns you interest.” He pressed another button, held the display up for Kirby to see. Two numeric values showed: One was constant, in six figures. The other was considerably smaller, but steadily rising. “Every time your memory inspires someone, each time your work puts a smile on their face or brightens a dull hour, that post-death positive karma goes to your drawing fund, which pays your expenses until you decide to reincarnate.” His dark eyebrows rose; “Which won’t have to be any time soon.” He whistled deep and low.
“Good bank balance?”
“Compared to you, Scrooge McDuck is a pauper.” He rose, tossing the empty beer can behind him; it vanished in mid-air. “I’ll see you a month from today, four-fifteen sharp, to collect the rent, and review your portfolio.” He headed down the deck steps.
“Next month? But . . . I don’t know how things work here . . . “
Janus continued towards the back-yard gate. “You’ll figure it out. Just relax, and enjoy afterlife for a while. And upgrade that old-man body; no need dealing with aches and pains, not with your numbers.”
“How do I—”
Janus called back, “Just think young!” as the gate swung shut behind him.
Kirby remained seated for a minute or two, finishing his beer, staring up into the clear night sky. Then he rose, tossed the can behind him as Janus had done, loosened his tie, and, with a scream of “Banzai!” leaped, fully clothed, into the pool. He emerged a few seconds later, ten years old and dressed in swim trunks, splashing like a dolphin and howling for joy at the top of his lungs, until an old woman’s voice from the yard next door interrupted his exuberance:
“Hey, keep it down; some of us are trying to sleep. Damn kids.”
Rent Day: Twelve-year-old Kirby Foster rocketed down the steepest hill in town on a bright red Schwinn Varsity ten-speed, hot summer wind whistling through his crew-cut hair. He knew those hills, knew every curve, every dip, with knowledge held deep in his muscle memory, engraved by a daily catechism of trips to school and grocery, cub scout meetings and paper routes, and by the sheer joy of motion for the sake of motion. He’d ridden those streets in his dreams long after arthritis had forced him to forgo the sport, and now that he had the thrill of the pavement back, he was determined to never miss an opportunity again.
He’d been older earlier in the day. He’d spent a pleasant two hours as a sixteen-year-old, tuning up his first car, a 1956 Studebaker, in the company of his father’s shade, who had offered advice, and occasional Buckhorns. Then he’d driven to the Dairy Belle Freeze for a burger basket lunch before aging up to twenty-two, trading the Studebaker for the VW camper van he’d practically lived in during the beach-bum summer he’d spent after university. He was smiling at a shoreline filled with perfect four-foot barrel curls, one step away from taking his surfboard down from the roof rack, when he suddenly realized that his appointment with Mr. Janus was just a half-hour away. Damn, but it was easy to lose track of time in the afterlife.
He’d immediately ditched the comfortable-but-slow VW, transforming his ride with a thought into the Honda 750 he'd ridden in his college days. He’d peeled out, splitting lanes and daring amber lights to stop him, with the reckless abandon of the pre-deceased. By the time he’d reached the outskirts of his home town he had made up almost enough time. But, even pressing deadline, he couldn’t resist the urge to try and beat his own downhill bicycle record, and had shifted himself young the moment he’d left the freeway.
He was doing a good thirty miles an hour, backpedaling for balance, his hands loose on the handlebar brakes, as the hill bottomed out just on the turn to his own street. He took the turn wide, as he always did, counting on a bounce up to the sidewalk to reduce his momentum; it would have worked, if his elderly next-door neighbor hadn’t picked just that moment to check her mailbox.
The collision was unlovely, cushioned only by the fact that both of them were effectively indestructible. That didn’t mean there was no pain or shock. Kirby recovered first, rising on wobbly legs to find the old woman groaning on the sidewalk, trying to lift herself up on matchstick arms, her deep-lined face a caricature of anger. He felt his twelve-year-old heart drop with the certainty of a tongue lashing on the near horizon. For diplomacy’s sake, he spent a moment’s concentration adding two decades to his age before offering a hand up and a sputtered apology. “I’m sorry; it was an accident—I didn’t mean to hit you.”
He expected a stinging reply; in the month he had lived next door her words to him had been few, but uniformly delivered at a decibel level suitable for a civil defense system. Instead, she curled in on herself like a turtle retreating into its shell; her staccato whispers were barely audible. “I know. It's okay. Just don’t. Just don’t . . . ” Suddenly her eyes snapped open; she blurted, “You’re not!” and exploded to her feet like an oversized trap-door spider. In two long-legged leaps she was at her door, slamming it shut behind her.
Kirby hardly even noticed when the two-tone Hudson Hawk pulled up behind him.
Mr. Janus sat his laptop computer atop the polished mahogany wet bar, and began booting it up. “Nice digs.”
“Thanks.” The third floor of Kirby’s one-story ranch house was devoted to the luxury condominium he and a very pregnant Renée had leased with the advance from the first Nut Clusters hardcover. “I don’t spend a lot of time up here. It’s kind of lonely without the wife and kids.” He sipped a tequila sour, and snorted at himself. “Sorry; ‘Poor little rich boy,’ and all of that.”
“Not at all,” Janus replied. “It’s perfectly normal to go through a period of mourning for the living. Just remember, you’ve earned every bit of luxury. I mean, just check out this portfolio.” The screen lit up with the image of a soldier in 1940’s vintage combat gear. “Sergeant James Madigan, born 1919; died during the Normandy invasion; posthumous Medal of Honor. That was you.”
“Huh. Hey, wait a minute, I know that face.” He moved nearer the screen, eyes narrowing. “Jesus Christ, he was my father’s top-kick during the war. Dad always sent flowers to Arlington on Memorial Day, said he’d never have made it off Omaha Beach without him.”
“Yeah, that happens a lot, souls interacting across incarnations. Your father’s currently your grandson Richard, by the way.” Janus moved the mouse, pointed and clicked; the picture changed to that of a thin-faced woman in a nurse’s uniform. “Grace Barbara Williams, born 1891, died during the influenza epidemic of 1918; worked with a gauze mask on, to avoid infecting others. She wouldn’t leave her post, even with a hundred-and-three degree fever. “
Further clicks revealed a Cree Indian warrior who’d died in the Battle of Cut Knife; a portly black woman who had guided sixteen escaped slaves to freedom on the underground railroad before being cut down by a recovery agent’s pistol; and a Chinese peasant woman of no particular note except that she had died at the remarkable age of one hundred and six years. Each portrait was accompanied by a display of graphs and charts. Each had left their next incarnation with an improved karmic balance.
“Wow, even Grandma Wong there? I mean, she didn’t even die heroically or anything.”
“No, but she plowed all of her interest back into the main account by reincarnating early. Good thing too; it helped balance out the previous five cycles.” He showed the next five lives in a single display, an eclectic mix of genders and ethnicities; their karmic charts could have been cut-and-paste copies of each other.
“Jesus, talk about being stuck in the rat race. What happened?”
“Suicide loop. Killing yourself gives your karma a bad case of the stutters. You reincarnate into the exact same situation, which can lead you right back to another suicide. Lather, rinse, repeat.”
Kirby finished off his drink, frowning. “That doesn’t sound fair; what if you had inoperable cancer, or . . . “
“The system adjusts for things like untenable pain, or heroic sacrifice. Technically Sergeant Madigan committed suicide by jumping on that German grenade, but it didn’t hurt him any.” He thought that one over, and grinned sheepishly. “Karmically speaking, that is. It’s suicide from self-pity or despair that costs you.” He powered the laptop down. “Enough business; how are you adjusting? Like the neighborhood?”
“It’s a little different; my daughter would love it—lots of candle-and-crystal types and a Renaissance Faire every weekend.”
Janus nodded. “Yeah, before this big paganism revival Summerland mostly got the undecided. Atheists, agnostics, the occasional Deist . . . .” He chuckled. “Man, you should have seen the look on Asimov’s face; thought he’d never stop laughing.” Stepping behind the bar, he mixed himself a martini, very dry. “So, no problem neighbors?”
“Well, I didn’t say that.” Kirby refreshed his own cocktail. ” My neighbor at 206; what’s up with her?” He stepped to a picture window overlooking the house next door. Both front and back yards were a jungle of overgrown grass and hedges gone wild; the only exception was a well-maintained rectangle of garden in the back. “Lord, her lot is a mess.” He shrugged. “I can't hold that against her, I guess. I hate yard work myself. But the only time she comes out is to yell at people. She ought to try being a kid for a while, it might relax her.”
“Her name’s Rachel Ward.” Janus sipped his drink. “She’s a Section Eight case.”
Janus stared blankly at the remark, and then smiled. “No, no, not the military term, ‘Section Eight’ as in housing assistance.” Nibbling his martini olive he moved next to Kirby at the window. “Her drawing fund bottomed out a long time ago, but she refuses to move on. So, basic housing only, no luxuries like age control, extended interiors, or self-tending lawns.”
“That must suck. Bankrupt in paradise.”
“It’s her call.” Janus checked his wristwatch. “Whoops, almost close-of-business; I’ve got to get going. Let’s settle the rent.”
“Sure. Ah, do I write a check, or . . . ?”
“Just hold out your hand.” Kirby did so. Janus took it in his. “Now say, ‘I authorize this transfer.'”
Kirby shrugged. “I authorize this transfer.” There was a tingling in his hand, like a mild electric shock. “That’s it?”
“For the next thirty days, yeah, that’s it.” Janus picked up his laptop and showed himself out, leaving Kirby alone with his thoughts. He’d never particularly liked being alone. He could always call up a shade or two of course, but the trouble with embodied memories was that they never had anything new to say. He supposed he could try harder to connect with his neighbors, but he just wasn’t the dance-naked-at-solstice type.
Kirby wandered back to the window, and looked down at the tar-paper roof of Rachel Ward’s home. He wondered what it looked like inside; probably very Norman Rockwell, with needlepoint samplers on the walls and lace doilies on the tables, he decided, and undoubtedly much smaller than his own.
Janus had emphasized that he deserved his luxury, but deep inside Kirby Foster was a child of the sixties. For all his commercial success he had never left the communal ideal of from each according to their ability; to each according to their needs behind him.
Hell, if nothing else, he owed her an apology.
He reduced his age to a gap-toothed nine years as he came up her walk the next morning. There was a massive cast-iron knocker on the door; he lifted it, and let it slap itself down with a heavy metallic thud. Several seconds passed before the door opened. Rachel Ward was dressed in a flannel bathrobe, her long silver hair caught up in a kerchief. “Humph. What do you want?”
Kirby took his baseball cap off, and held it in front of himself in both hands. “Pleath ma’am, I jutht wanted to thay I’m thorry for running over you yethterday.” Damn. He’d forgotten how badly losing his front teeth had exaggerated his childhood lisp. He hadn’t planned on overplaying the winsomeness card so completely.
To his relief, she bought it. “Well, just don’t let it happen again.”
“I won’t ma’am, but I’d like to do thumthing to make up for it. Do you have any choreth you need done?”
She rolled the idea behind her pale gray eyes for a moment. “Well, I suppose the yard needs tending. Do you have a lawnmower?”
“Thure.” Damn it, he should have known it would be yard work. Karma truly was a bitch.
It was a warm morning, as they all were; by the time he finished running his father’s old push-mower around, and clipping the hedges, he’d worked up a serious sweat. He was pleasantly surprised when Rachel Ward emerged from her house, dressed in a faded floral print sun dress, and holding a tray with a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses. She looked over his efforts with a stern eye, and nodded approval. “Good work. Why don’t you take a break for a while?”
He joined her on a creaky wooden deck, sitting down on a straight-backed chair that had seen better days. The lemonade was first-rate, freshly squeezed and deliciously tart, chilled with random chunks of ice that Kirby suspected had never seen the inside of a modern refrigerator. “That’s real good.” His lisp had dropped away when he’d added a couple of extra years before tackling the lawn. “I’d forgotten how much better things taste when you’re a kid.”
She drew herself up primly in the seat. “I wouldn’t know.”
Gaah!Open mouth, insert foot! He searched for a way to correct the new gaffe. Hey, sure, why not? “How’d you like to try it for a while? My treat.”
She paused with her lemonade half-way to her mouth. “Do you mean it?”
“Sure. I can afford it.”
She set the glass back down on the tray. “Well . . . it has been a long time . . . .”
He held out his hand. She reached her own out, hesitant, and trembling slightly. He grasped it firmly, and said, “I authorize this transfer.”
There was the same slight, ticklish tingle; then Rachel Ward’s aged frame seemed to shimmer in the summer morning light, and she melted down into a half-size version of herself, an eleven-year-old girl, thin as a yardstick, all strawberry-blonde pigtails and denim coveralls, her right eye sporting a magnificent shiner. She shivered all over for a moment, then picked up the lemonade. A tentative sip turned into a greedy gulp that nearly emptied the glass. “Oh, golly, you’re right; it is better this way.”
Golly? She actually said “golly?” Kirby managed not to laugh out loud. “Glad you like it. Jeez, where’d you pick up the black eye?”
She touched her eye, wincing slightly. “Oh my. It must be . . . I was playing stickball on my eleventh birthday, and I missed catching a pop-fly.” She grinned slightly. “I guess I was a bit of a tomboy.”
Stickball? Holy crap, how old is she, anyway? “Hey, if the lawn’s done good enough for you, why don’t we go down to the park? There’s always somebody batting the ball around.”
“Oh, I couldn’t; it wouldn’t be ladylike.”
“You’re not a lady right now, you’re a tomboy, remember?” It took only two minutes of persuasion and a second glass of lemonade to talk her into it. She was a lousy infielder, but one hell of a batter. It was nearly sunset by the time they got home. She thanked him solemnly for the afternoon’s fun, and then resumed adulthood before closing her door behind her. But she seemed just slightly younger than she had before. Perhaps. Maybe.
“I’ve never had lay-zanya before,” said Rachel, sniffing suspiciously at her first forkful of casserole. “My Pa’d thump me if he knew I was eating wop food.” She twitched slightly, and blushed. “Excuse me, I mean Eye-talian.” She placed the pasta in her mouth; the first bite was followed quickly by a second, and a third. “It’s good.”
The pair dined by the flickering light of the Philco, which presented an endless stream of re-runs. Re-runs, that is, to Kirby; to Rachel, who had never been introduced to the wonders of Sky King or Rocky Jones: Space Ranger, they were a fresh wonderment. “It’s like havin’ a movin’ picture show in your house,” she mumbled around a mouthful of cookie.
“I’ve got a color set upstairs; want to check it out?” He’d love to see her reaction to Star Trek.
Rachel frowned. “Best not. Sooner or later, you’ll be heading on. I don’t want to get too used to these sorts of things just to have to give them up later.” She stood, brushed cookie crumbs off her lap, focused for a moment, and aged up to somewhere in her middle forties. “It’s time I headed home for the night. Thank your mother for me?”
“Sure. Hey, we’re still on for the Saturday matinee, right?” A complete classic serial, twelve episodes back-to-back, plus cartoons and short subjects. Some parts of the afterlife, Kirby felt, were well worth dying for.
“Of course.” She came close to smiling. “Might as well enjoy the good times while they last.”
“Marco!” screamed Rachel, her eyes tightly closed.
“Polo!” Kirby responded, pushing himself off the pool wall just in time to avoid Rachel’s grasping hand. For someone who had never heard of this game before today, she had a wicked sense of echolocation.
“Polo!” He grabbed the pool ladder, scrambling out onto the deck as silently as he could; he circled around, and was ready to slide back in as far from her as feasible, when she did the unexpected.
“Fish out of water!”
“Damn it!” He hated being “it.” An escape route presented itself via the all-weather electric clock hanging on the side of the garage. “Whoops, I’ve got to get ready for Mr. Janus; it’s rent time in twenty minutes.”
“Chicken,” she replied, “Buck, buck buck!” He helped her onto the deck, where she dried off with a fluffy towel. “Thanks again for the swim suit.”
“No problem.” The concept of special clothes for swimming had caught Rachel flat-footed; in her day, back at the swimmin’ hole, you either skinny-dipped, or wore an old nightshirt. “See you tomorrow for breakfast? Mom’s making waffles.”
“It’s a date.” She reverted to her adult form as she left the gate. She looked to be in her late twenties today. He adjusted his own age up to his mid-thirties, manifesting jeans, sneakers, and a Hawaiian shirt in the process, and then set up a pitcher of martinis in the kitchen while he waited for Janus’ arrival. The Hornet pulled up to the curb right on schedule, but the look on the Rental Agent’s face told Kirby that he wasn’t in the mood for an early cocktail hour.
Janus stormed in without so much as a “Hello,” and set his laptop up on the living room coffee table. “Somebody’s been screwing around with your account.”
The computer screen displayed side-by-side comparison charts. “The left is your income versus expenses for last month. The right is this month. Your outflow has increased by more than a thousand percent in the last thirty days.”
“That’s—kind of unlikely.” Kirby felt a nasty chill of suspicion creeping up his spine. “Outside of buying some presents, I haven’t touched the account at all.”
“Presents? For who?”
“For my next-door neighbor.”
“Rachel Ward?” Janus winced. “Can you describe them?”
Kirby began listing the various age-adjustments, amusement-park visits, and matinee double-features, at least those of them he could recall. Janus tracked each on the laptop. “That only accounts for about fifteen percent of the additional outlay—or it should.” He pointed at a column of figures. “Tell me, did you give the transfer to her directly, or did you use the forwarding system?”
“Forwarding system?” There were few things Kirby Foster hated as much as feeling stupid in retrospect.
“Didn’t my receptionist give you the pamphlet package when you arrived?” Janus slapped himself on the forehead. “Zeus Pater, no wonder you didn’t know how to pay your rent. Outside of official service providers, you never transfer karma without either using the forwarding system, or specifying the precise amount. What you’ve been doing is the equivalent of signing a restaurant credit card slip without putting an amount onto the tip or total lines; she’s been writing in whatever she felt like, and pocketing the difference.”
“I don’t believe it.” Except that he did. What he meant was I don’t want to believe it.
“Blast it! I knew I should have warned you about her, client confidentiality code be damned.”
Correction: there was nothing Kirby foster hated as much as feeling stupid in retrospect. “So, this isn’t the first time she’s done this?”
Janus laughed bitterly. “She’s got red tags all over her file, a real professional eye for the soft touches—nothing personal.” His eyes grew suddenly bright, and he pounced on his keyboard. “She’s outsmarted herself this time, though. It's been a lot of years since she last pulled this trick; she's got no idea how fast modern billing software works—and this month’s book-keeping cycle doesn’t close out until five o’clock today.” He punched a few more keys, and pressed “Enter”. “There; I’ve returned all your transactions to the base amount; you’re stuck with that, but the excess karma reverts to your account—and she gets stuck with the service fee.” He grinned like a shark. “At five o’clock she’ll have a negative account balance—and that’s an automatic ticket back to Earth.”
Kirby fought to keep the frown off his face. “Kind of harsh, but I guess she deserves it. No way for her to get out of it now, huh?”
Janus chortled. “Not unless somebody gives her an extra hundred karma units in the next twenty minutes.” He slapped his hands together. “Damn, I feel like celebrating. You got anything to drink around here?”
Kirby nodded. “Sure, I’ve got martinis set up on the top floor. Make yourself comfortable, I’ll bring them down.” He was out of the side door and through the backyard gate in ten seconds.
He hammered the knocker on Rachel’s locked front door, to no response. Circling to the back yard, he found her, still a woman in her twenties, working in her garden patch, wearing that same faded floral print sun dress.
She started, leaping to her feet and turning to face him in a single move, her face pale. “I’m sorry; just don’t—” She paused, and her face went red with anger. “You’re not—who the hell are you?”
It suddenly struck Kirby that, in the entire month they had been friends—in the month that she had pretended to be his friend—Rachel had never seen him in an adult body, except for that first, stunned moment on the street. “It’s me, Rachel. It’s Kirby.”
“Oh—oh, of course.” The anger faded, and she smiled. “Well, it’s a little late in the day for playtime right now . . . .”
“I agree,” he said. “Playtime’s over. Why did you steal from me, Rachel?”
Her eyes went wide. “What? Why I don’t know what you mean—”
He shook his head tiredly. “There’s no time for the innocent act. Janus knows, Rachel, he knows all of it.”
“Janus!” She spat the name. “You’re goin’ to believe that two-faced liar instead of me?”
“What I believe or don’t believe isn’t the point. What matters is that you’ve got less than twenty minutes to persuade me you’re worth trusting again. So tell me; why did you steal from me? Damn it, I was happy to share.”
Fury rode across her features. “Share, oh yeah, share your lucky breaks, you and your fancy home, and your fancy tell-a-vision box, and your fancy Eye-talian food. You got no idea what it’s like growin’ up like I do, you and your happy little momma and daddy!” This time she actually did spit. “Well, you can take it all, and go runnin’ back and be a baby again; I’m stayin’ right here!”
“No, you’re not.” His blood was running hot now. “Janus took back what you stole. You’re account’s about to go into the red, and then you get your skinny ass booted back to Earth.”
Her face paled once again. “No—no, I can’t. Kirby, please, there’s got to be something you can do; I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She shimmered, and reduced to ten years old, the same pigtails and coveralls, and the same magnificent shiner. “Please Kirby, didn’t we have fun?”
“Fun time’s over.” He sneered. “And you need to watch your details if you want to be convincing; the black eye was on the right side before.”
She touched her swollen left eye, and winced. “You—you don’t know anything! I can’t go back, I just can't. Please Kirby, I’ll do anything—” A wild look flew across her face, and she shifted forward into a sixteen-year old, the faded floral dress now bright and pretty, strawberry blonde hair flowing long and loose, the pipe-stem frame suddenly ripe with the promise of womanhood. “Please, I mean it, anything! Just help me—”
“Jesus Christ! What kind of sick twist do you think I am?” He shook his head, feeling a rich disgust rising within him. “How many others have you taken this way, huh?” His eyes lit on the back door of her house. He strode over, flung the door wide, and stamped his way in. “How much swag have you got hidden away in here, any . . . way?”
The first thing that hit him was the stench, a thick mixture of mildew and wood-rot, not enhanced in the least by the pot of cabbage bubbling away on an ancient wood-burning stove. The sink, piled deep with unwashed plates, had a single hand-pump. As he had surmised, there was no refrigerator, just an old-fashioned ice-box whose enamel had long ago worn off, revealing bare, rusted metal. There were stacks of ancient newspapers piled in every corner, and a ragged mop sitting in scummy water in a tin bucket.
Rachel rushed in after him. “No, get out! You can’t be here!”
Kirby felt his stern resolve vanish. “Rachel—I’m sorry. I didn’t know—”
“You still don’t,” she whispered. “Damn it, I’m too young, too rattled, can’t never think to switch when he's—just get out before he—”
She was interrupted by a voice from the next room, which bellowed “Rachel Girl?” ‘Zat yew?”
The kitchen door swung open, and a pot-bellied, scraggly-bearded scarecrow of a man burst in, dressed in faded trousers held up by suspenders over the top half of long, woolen underwear. His hazy, shimmering outline revealed him to be a shade—but that didn’t improve the smell of cheap rot-gut on his breath. “Dang it, girl, why ain’t yew out workin’ the truck garden like yer supposed to be?”
Pushing past Kirby he grabbed Rachel by one arm and threw her to the floor. “An’ who’s he? Yew bringin’ strange men home now, yew little whore?” He spat at her. “If’n yew hadn’t kilt yer ma’ comin’ out, this’d put her in her grave.”
Rachel cowered before the awful memory. He raised one hand to strike her. Kirby grabbed it, trying to twist him down. The shade turned with the pull, and landed a round-house left on the point of Kirby’s chin. Kirby went down, hard, rising to his knees only to find a pair of gnarled hands around his throat.
He can’t kill me, Kirby thought; I’m already dead. But that didn’t stop the pain in his lungs, the desperate, burning need to breathe that pounded in his temples. The grinning scarecrow-man laughed whiskey fumes in Kirby’s face—
—And then his features went slack, as did his fingers around Kirby’s neck. He let go; Kirby fell to the floor, gasping, and saw the ghost turn to face his daughter, who held a foot-long kitchen knife in her hand; a knife that dripped hazy, shimmering blood.
The shade crumpled, fading as it fell, and vanished into nothingness before it reached the uneven wooden slats of the floor. Rachel stared at the knife, her face expressionless, tears leaking from her pale, gray eyes. Then she turned the blade on herself. It did no damage, of course; the dead cannot die, as much as they might want to. She curled up into herself; sobbing, aging, changing back into the shrunken-apple doll of a woman Kirby had first met.
He crawled to her. “Rachel, take my hand, please.” She remained curled; he pried her hand loose, forced it into his own. “I authorize this transfer; one hundred karma units.” There was no tingle; he tried again. “One hundred karma units; I authorize this transfer.” Nothing. “Damn it, I know what I’m doing now! I authorize this transfer!”
He was still trying long minutes later, when the kindly ones came to take her away.
He found Janus sitting comfortably on the living room couch, the pitcher of martinis from the kitchen on the coffee table before him. Janus raised his glass in a lazy salute. “I couldn’t find the olives, but you mix a good drink.”
“You manipulative bastard.” Kirby dropped like a rag doll into his father’s favorite recliner. “You played me like a tin whistle from the start.”
Janus shrugged. “Don’t sell yourself short; if you’re an instrument, you’re a Stratocaster, possibly even a Stradivarius. But you’re right; I do know how to carry a tune.”
Kirby closed his eyes in disgust and defeat. “I should have realized when I collided with her; it shouldn’t have been able to happen. ‘No accidents in the Summerland,’ right?”
“I’ll admit the timing was tricky; we had to track you starting down the hill, and make sure her mail was delivered at just right moment. But if you two hadn’t connected then, we’d have managed it later. You were her ideal target, after all; a perfect blend of disposable income, naïveté and liberal guilt.”
“Christ. Pour me one of those, will you?” Janus complied; Kirby drained the glass before continuing. “How many times has she been through the cycle?”
“Sorry, customer confidentiality . . . “
“Don't pull that shit on me, you two-faced son-of-a-bitch! You made me your Judas goat. You owe me! How fucking long has she been caught in a suicide loop?”
Janus sighed deeply, slumping in his seat. “Sixty-seven cycles. Sixty-eight, if you count the one that starts tonight at midnight. They’ve already picked out the rat bastard who’s going to be her old man this time.” He shuddered, and drained his own glass. “We keep hoping she’ll work her way out.”
Kirby laughed, with no trace of humor. “Christ, what are the odds? Dead mother, abusive drunken father—Jesus! I thought those black eyes were faked! And all of it capped off neatly with a murder-suicide. She’s been walking in that circle so long she’s worn a hole in the floor, can’t even be a kid again without making his memory too fresh to keep back. How the hell is she supposed to work her way out of that?”
“It can be done. You did.”
Kirby thought about that. “Yeah, I did, didn’t I?” He placed his empty glass on the coffee table. “I want to go back, Janus. Back to Earth.”
Black eyebrows rose. “This soon? Well, maybe it’s a good idea, forgetting all this and feeding your interest income back into the base fund.” He refilled his drink, and brought it to his lips. “I’ll come over in the morning, and we’ll work out the details—”
Kirby lifted a finger in interruption. “I want to go back tonight. And I want to go back with her.”
Janus coughed gin all over the coffee table. “You’re crazy! Tying your karma up with hers?”
“You said it happens all the time.”
“Not on purpose! Not when the two cycles are so far out of synch! Think about it man, don’t you want to be here when your wife arrives?”
“She’s a strong woman; she’ll get by. We’ll hook up on the next go-round, maybe. But Rachel needs someone, or she’ll be stuck spinning in place forever. I don’t know what she did to deserve her first life in that hell-hole and I don’t care; she needs a hand up.”
“It’s my karma, Janus.”
Janus sighed again, and surrendered. “Yeah, it is.” He booted his laptop back up, and worked industriously for several minutes. Then he stood, straightening his tie. “Okay, it’s all in place; you understand there’s no guarantee you won’t end up getting caught in the loop with her?”
“I’ll take the chance.” The edges of his lips twitched slightly. “Some things are too important to worry about.”
Janus held out his right hand. “You know what to do.”
Kirby nodded tightly, and clasped it. “I approve this transfer.”
The previous transactions had been the tiny tingle of static shock one might get from rubbing their feet on carpet; this time lightning struck. Kirby’s muscles went rigid, his back arching, his eyesight fading to a blue glow. At length, when the charge cut off, he fell to the floor.
It was Kirby Foster who fell to his knees. It was Sergeant James Madigan who rose, staring at his own hands in silent wonder. An instant later his form shimmered, and was replaced by a woman in a starched white nurse’s uniform, her thin face hidden by a gauze mask. A heartbeat further, and her place was taken by a Cree warrior, a bloody war-hatchet still held in one hand, and then there stood a portly black woman, who barely registered on the eyes before becoming a tiny, incredibly aged Chinese matron. And now the transformations flickered and strobed, less than a blink between incarnations, drifting backwards in time to Rome, and Greece, Egypt and Sumer, finally pausing at the far end with a brutish figure more beast than man, who smiled with a mouthful of uneven teeth before once more becoming Kirby Foster, the same smile still curling his lips.
“You manipulative bastard!” There was something in the way Kirby said it this time that made it a compliment.
Janus pressed his hands together, palm-to-palm, and bowed deeply from the waist. “Congratulations on your promotion, Enlightened One.”
Kirby laughed, a generous belly-whopper of a guffaw. “You sly, sneaky son-of-Olympus; just couldn’t wait for me to wake up on my own, huh?”
Janus made an exaggerated shrug, both palms up. “It isn’t every century we get a Bodhisattva so close to moving up to Buddha state; I figured, waste not, want not.” He chuckled. “Returning to the wheel voluntarily; now that’s what I call capital re-investment.”
The newborn boy wiggled in the double-sized bassinette that he shared with his twin sister, his eyes shut tight against the light. His memories were still fuzzy around the edges—enlightened or not, there is a limit to how much knowledge a newborn brain can process—but he already knew who he was, and what his job would be.
A rough-edged male voice filled the room, at much too high a volume for a nursery. The newborn didn’t understand the words—his language skills were one of the things that hadn’t yet booted back up—but he knew it must be their new father; the tone carried the precise mix of anger and arrogance necessary to the role. Their mother, of course, would have died in childbirth, as per the pattern. The sound set his sister crying. Unlike him, she had carried no knowledge of self between lives—but it would be surprising indeed if a soul so long damned to repetition had not suffered a sense of déjà vu.
A newborn shouldn’t have had the motor control to reach out and grasp his sister’s tiny hand in his own, but he managed it. She quieted almost instantly. That’s right. It’s okay. You’re not alone anymore. Relaxing, he let his body drag him down into a slumber deep and dreamless. There was no need to rush. They had, both of them, all the time in the world to get things right.