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The Futility of ‘Hitler Assassination’ Fantasies

H.G. Wells appears to have invented the idea of a device that could transport someone forward or backward in time as desired, or at least, his short novel The Time Machine is the first such tale to become famous. It remains so well over a century after it was written, but the present-day reader will immediately be struck by the story’s focus on the far future, whereas most time travel stories since then have been obsessed with the idea of going back into the past in order to change it. Why so? I believe the key is in this observation by the Czechoslovakia-born literary novelist Milan Kundera in his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten.

For three quarters of a century, the best-known fictional theme about changing history retroactively has been that of the time traveler who assassinates Hitler before his rise to power. My first published novel, The Severed Wing, was a variation on this theme. It has been treated with greater or lesser success by such a variety of authors that several years back, the science fiction publisher Tor Books posted online a very funny spoof of the whole trope. 

It is impossible to dispute that the world would have been a better place had Hitler never lived, or had the Germans stopped his rise to power. There were in actual historical fact numerous attempts to kill the sonofabitch, aside from the well-known July 1944 plot that came within a hair’s breadth of success. (It’s questionable whether those military and Nazi Party conspirators deserve to be celebrated as much as they have been, when they only found the courage to act after it had become blindingly obvious that Germany was going to lose the war catastrophically, and the only way for them to salvage anything was to get rid of Hitler and sue for a negotiated peace.) Again, there’s no question that innumerable lives would have been saved and that the world would therefore be a better place had any of these attempts on Hitler’s life succeeded.

But what does it mean that we who live so long after these horrible events are obsessed with trying to change the unchangeable past? And is it altogether healthy for us to convince ourselves of the idea that the way to stop dangerous demagogues is by assassinating them?

I wrote the following short story reflecting on that point in 2011, when the current era of what I have dubbed farce/fascism was just getting started. Back then, the new fascism’s best-known avatar, Donald Trump, was still collaborating with NBC to put over on the public the gigantic con that he was a successful businessman, via the grotesquely misnamed medium of “reality TV,” and his political ambitions were still widely regarded as a joke. So this story wasn’t written with him or any similar, real-world figure in mind. I couldn’t get it published at the time, but I think the reflections in it were and are valid. Judge for yourself.

The Curse of History

In those days I worked as a public defender out of the county courthouse in Sidwell. We were barely over an hour’s drive from the outer suburbs of Dallas, but we still had a lot of that old small-town Texas feel, for better and worse. The courthouse in particular was a world unto itself. Everybody knew me as one of the few full-time lawyers available to represent the indigent, what with the constant budget cuts and all. But I didn’t mind; it made me feel important, doing necessary work like that, and it paid the mortgage and groceries for my son Jason and me. Sometimes I even won a case.

We were all on first-name terms in the courthouse, so I wasn’t terribly surprised when Christine Judson, Judge Thompson’s clerk, came into my office unannounced. But it wasn’t like her to burst in without knocking, though the half-joking protest died in my throat when I got a good look at her face.

“What is it? What’s the matter?” I said, leaping out of my chair so fast the damn thing fell over backward.

She took a deep breath, swelling her already ample chest. I noticed that her carrot-red hair was damp with perspiration. “I just got a text message from Dylan.” Her only son, who was a sophomore at Lyndon Baines Johnson High School, a year ahead of my Jason. “There’s been a shooting.”

My face felt as if someone had taken a vacuum cleaner to its interior. Chrissy grabbed my arm to keep me from toppling over. “How — how many?” I gasped.

“Just one kid was hit, he said.” Before the words had finished leaving her mouth, I was already fumbling through the morass of papers on my desk for my cell phone. When I found it I jammed my finger so hard on the preset call key for Jase that I chipped a nail. It went straight to voice mail. “Hi, this is Jase. If you can’t figure out that I ain’t got time to talk to you right now, you’re too dumb to be worth talking to anyhow.” I’ve told him a million times to change that message, you never know who might hear it, but of course he doesn’t listen. I saw his phone lying in a spreading pool of blood beside his motionless body so clearly that I couldn’t see Chrissy standing in front of me and bumped right into her. “J-Jason, please — ” There was a beep before I could say any more. It was a text message. I fumbled with the phone and nearly dropped it.

im alrite dont wory mom scool closed c u @ home

My knees buckled and hit the tile floor, and I nearly banged my head on the edge of my desk. Chrissy helped me to my feet and asked me if I was all right. I muttered some reassurance, pivoted and ran out the door into the corridor, charging blindly past startled cops, lawyers and clerks.

When I ran in the door of my house ten minutes later, after a hectic drive in which I ran at least two red lights, I found Jase sprawled in the big green easy chair in front of the TV. I choked back familiar annoyance when I saw that what he was watching was a special news report from just down the street, where a Barbie-esque reporter from one of the big Dallas TV stations was holding a microphone under the familiar weatherbeaten face of Sheriff Jim Giddens.

“I understand you have a suspect already in custody,” the reporter said.

The sheriff scratched his thick salt-and-pepper mustache and nodded. “We are questioning a person of interest, that’s correct.”

“Is it true that he knew the victim?”

“The matter is under investigation.”

“But we just heard two students say they heard the gunman ask the victim’s name, and shoot him when he confirmed it.”

“The matter is under investigation,” he said, looking annoyed. “I cannot comment further at this time.”

“Is it true that nobody else was harmed but the victim, Toby N — ”

“Listen here, missy,” Giddens snapped, grabbing the microphone, “I ain’t confirmin’ the victim’s identity until his family has been notified. And I don’t want his parents learning that he’s dead from a TV bubblehead like you, am I clear?” He shoved the microphone back into the stunned reporter’s hands and stalked off. She began babbling about the terrible tragedy that had overtaken the peaceful town of Sidwell, and Jase clicked off the TV.

“Did you see it happen?” I asked quietly.

“Yeah,” he said, without moving or looking at me.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

He shrugged. “Ain’t much to tell. It’s just like the newslady said. We were having gym outside, when this strange guy walks right up to Toby and asks, ‘Are you Tobias Nevins?’ And when Toby says yes, he pulls out a gun and shoots him two or three times, pop pop pop. I thought it was some kind of joke until he fell over and I saw the blood. Everyone just stands there frozen for a second, then Coach Stevens jumps the guy and knocks him over. He didn’t fight back at all or even move till the cops got there three minutes later.”

“Did you know him? Toby, I mean.” The name wasn’t one I remembered hearing.

Another shrug. “Yeah, I knew him. We used to hang. I was over his house once or twice. His mom seems real nice. A little scared of his father, who works over at the base.” That would be the army base at Fort Milson, five miles from town. Mr. Nevins was in good company. About half the adults in town were employed there, directly or indirectly.

“We weren’t close or anything,” Jase added. I looked at him carefully. A month before his fifteenth birthday, he already had two inches on me and looked like he was going to grow up to be a tall rangy type like his father, whose narrow nose and squarish head he had also inherited. No sign that he’d taken up drinking yet, though, for which I was duly grateful. Jase didn’t seem to remember his dad too well — he’d only been five when I scraped together the courage to leave Roy after one too many totaled cars and failed rehabs. But then, Jase didn’t get to see much of me either, during the following five years that I spent running between minimum-wage cashier jobs and law school at night, a sleep-deprived nightmare I was still recovering from.

Now his acne-scarred face was as unreadable as the far side of the moon, so I gave up and turned toward the kitchen. “I’m going to make myself a sandwich, want anything?” I asked over my shoulder.

He shook his head, but then he seemed to hesitate and asked, “Mom. You’re not going to end up representing that psycho, are you?”

I’d been trying not to think about that. “Hopefully not,” I said. “But even if I do, you know, it’s not like your whole school has to know.” He snorted. And neither of us was very surprised when my cell phone rang halfway through my egg salad on rye.

Half an hour later when I walked into the county lockup, which was just across the street from the courthouse, I was met inside the door by Sheriff Giddens himself. He looked troubled.

“Jim,” I said, “I’d like to see my client now, please.”

“Of course, Viv. But there’s something I think you should see first. Two things, actually.” I followed him into his windowless interior office. The air conditioning was broken and my blouse was soaked through by the time I sat down. Jim mumbled apologies and turned on a rotating desk fan that rattled the papers on his desk but did next to nothing to cool things down.

“What’s this about?” I asked as I accepted a Dixie cup of tepid water.

“Here’s your man’s driver’s license,” he said, sliding an unremarkable plastic rectangle across the desk to me. I glanced at the photo of a balding, harmless-looking white guy in his mid-forties. Paul Stephen Rinkowski was a resident of the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. I noted with interest that the state of Illinois was now using three-D holographic images rather than conventional head shots. When I held the card in my hand and turned it slightly toward the light, the frontal view switched to a three-quarters profile. Neat, I thought. It wouldn’t be long before Texas got on board, no doubt. Two of the past three presidents had been governors of Texas, and the current guy, Ron Danvers, didn’t want to be behind the curve.

“Look again,” Jim said when I looked up at him inquiringly. “Look when it expires.” I shrugged and glanced at it, then did a double-take at the date, which was twenty years in the future.

“A bad fake?” I said, handing the thing back to Jim, who shrugged.

“That’s our working hypothesis, yeah. There’s no Paul S. Rinkowski in the Illinois DMV’s database. And his fingerprints don’t show up in the National Crime Information System. Maybe you can get him to tell you his real name.”

I smiled. “You want me to do your job for you, Jim?” I had nothing against the sheriff, and even if I did I’d still have had to cultivate a decent relationship with him.

The left side of his mouth tugged upward for a second. “Funny, Viv. I just thought you deserved the courtesy of knowing what a weird-ass client you got yourself this time, before I throw you in there with him. Now, here’s the other thing.” He opened a drawer, stood up and reached over his desk to hand something to me. I glanced at it without much interest. It was a worn, waterlogged paperback that was missing its covers and the first 20 pages or so.

“This was the only thing in your client’s possession when he was arrested. We found it in his pants pocket when we got him back here. He’d been perfectly docile until that point. Then he started to struggle and shouted something about how it was his property and his lawyer needed to see it. Krebs had to Tase him.”

“Krebs lives to Tase people,” I snapped, glancing without much interest at the book. The pages were yellowed and dog-eared, with brownish coffee stains and spots of black mildew. It looked like the kind of thing you might find for 50 cents at a yard sale. I began to wonder if Rinkowksi wasn’t yet another of the seemingly endless parade of the mentally ill, those throwaway people society refuses to take responsibility for but is more than happy to arm to the teeth. I’d have to speak to my friend Dr. Kelly, who had provided expert testimony in dozens of murder trials in Texas where the defense rested on an insanity plea. “I’ll save someone’s life some day,” he liked to say with his sad little smile.

“I’m just advising you to be careful, Viv,” the sheriff called after me as I walked out his office door and toward Interrogation, where they sometimes let me consult with my clients. I knew the way as well as I know the way to my own bathroom in the dark. I sat down and absently started flipping through the pages of the book while I waited for them to bring me my client. It appeared to be cheap science fiction, something about a dictatorship in a future America, written by one of the dictator’s advisors years later after the regime fell and he was facing execution for his own crimes. I didn’t have time to do more than form a low opinion of the hackneyed writing style when Krebs himself pushed my client into the room and shoved him into a hard-backed chair. Under any other circumstances, I would have called the police if I saw a huge lout like Krebs manhandling a mousy little guy like Rinkowski. Unfortunately, Krebs was the police.

“Sergeant Krebs, would you mind leaving me alone with my client?” I said, when the huge hunk of beef showed no signs of doing so.

“No way, Ms. Grenville. He’s dangerous. He attempted to assault me.”

“But I’m his counsel, sergeant, and it’s his constitutional right — ”

“There’s no need for that, Ms. Grenville,” Rinkowski broke in. His voice was a mild, cultured baritone, with a slight Midwestern tang. The voice of a college professor, or maybe an accountant. “There’s no point in my speaking to you yet.”

“There’s no point in your speaking to me yet?” I echoed. “Mr. Rinkowski, do you understand that the district attorney is preparing to indict you for first-degree murder before the end of the day?”

“I’m sure he is,” Rinkowski said calmly. “I did my research before I came here to stop that monster Nevins before he could get started. To change the course of history.” He sounded reasonable, even banal, as he said it, as if he was saying that he always flossed twice a day. I gritted my teeth while Krebs chuckled, a noise like a garbage truck rolling down the street. To change the course of history. I found myself thinking irrelevantly of the stream that ran through the park across the street from where I grew up. I spent so many hours there, fascinated by the running water, trying to dam it up with pebbles, twigs and leaves, whatever came to hand.

“Read the book, Ms. Grenville,” Rinkowski, or whoever he was, continued calmly. “Then you’ll understand why I had to do what I did. And then we can talk, tomorrow morning.” And with that, he stood up and let Krebs manhandle him out the door.

When I got back home Jase was out. He had left a short, almost illegible note, something about hanging with his buds and I shouldn’t bother making dinner for him. Well, it did make it easier for me to do my job. I left Kelly an urgent message to call me and sat down to have a closer look at Rinkowski’s book. I thought I’d just flip through it quickly and try to pinpoint how a pulp novel had might have fed into my client’s presumptive mental illness. Kelly would have to do the real work of diagnosing him and providing the court with his professional opinion.

It was a little hard to get my bearings at first since most of the first chapter was missing. The story picked up when the unnamed narrator (or maybe his name was on those missing pages) and the future dictator were high school freshmen at LBJ High in Sidwell, Texas. OK, that was a weird coincidence, and a sinking feeling started in my guts when I read that “most of the legends that grew up about Nevins in later years were simply untrue — both those that made him out to be a superhero and those that portrayed him as the Antichrist from birth. When we first met he was a pretty ordinary kid, it seemed to me. He was new in town since his father had just been transferred to Fort Milson…” That’s it, I told myself, I don’t have to read any more. It looked like Rinkowski had somehow became obsessed with poor Toby Nevins and wrote the book himself to justify murdering him. What’s he going to do tomorrow morning, I thought, show me his time machine? Let Kelly deal with this. It’ll probably be an interesting case for him. Hell, he can probably publish a paper in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology about it. Though Rinkowski will be dead by the time it comes out.

But somehow I kept reading. According to the book, “ordinary” Toby Nevins didn’t particularly stand out as a leader in his class, but nor was he a picked-on loser. The only thing at all remarkable about him, and this was why the narrator starting “hanging” with him, was his ambition to be a rock star. The two of them organized a pickup garage band, and they even played a couple of high school dances, “though the chicks didn’t exactly throw themselves at our feet as much as Toby had hoped.” But Nevins really threw himself into it, partly to piss off his father and partly because he was convinced he was a musical talent bigger than Elvis, the Beatles and Michael Jackson put together. So he was crushed when “America’s Top Talent” came to Dallas and he didn’t even make the first cut. It was the first time the narrator had seen him really angry. “Those know-nothing, no-talent TV fakes, of course they don’t recognize genius when they see it!” he ranted to his friend. But then, the anonymous masses out there on the other side of his computer screen didn’t get it either, traffic on the band’s Internet site remaining in the low four digits. For the narrator the band was more of a lark, and eventually he drifted away from Toby out of fear that he might “go all Columbine on LBJ High.” Nothing of the kind happened and the narrator didn’t tell anyone about his suspicions, but he and Toby were not close for the final two years of high school. “Not that he was close with anyone, far as I could tell. He did have a girlfriend his senior year, Haley McEvers, but she went to the prom with someone else. I never was able to find out what happened to her, though the rumors ran the gamut from a well-timed escape to Australia to a variety of especially grisly fates in the IOWA Camps.” What was an IOWA Camp? Somehow I didn’t think it was a summer camp where they grew corn. I began to get sick to my stomach, but I read on.

The narrator went off to community college and completely lost track of Toby for a year or two. “Sorry, Posterity, I know that’s the most interesting period for you, but I was too busy getting drunk on weekends and fighting with my mom about my grades to take much interest in anyone else, let alone a misfit no-talent garage-band loser I’d been friendly with years before.” The reason for Posterity’s putative interest became apparent two pages later: several months before the narrator would (might) have received his associate’s degree, a devastating cyber-war broke out. It was never clear afterward whether a conventional power such as China or Iran, a terrorist group like al-Qaeda or even a lone individual was responsible for the devastating series of strikes that took down first the financial system, then most of the federal government, and finally the electrical power grid in more than half the country, but the morning after the Fourth of July Attacks there was coast-to-coast chaos. Three nuclear reactors had melted down, including Indian Point just north of New York City, and adverse winds carried so much fallout southward that millions of people ended up abandoning the megalopolis. The refugee camps stretched from southern Maine to the South Carolina border, the latter state’s governor having ordered his National Guard troops to turn back anyone without an in-state driver’s license at the border. But most of the evacuees pouring down I-95 were on foot, since you needed a military ID to buy gas.

The federal government kept issuing statements in the president’s name over the relative handful of radio stations that had managed to get back on the air — the cable- and satellite-dependent TV networks seemed to be down for the count — that everything would be back to normal in a matter of weeks, but as summer turned into fall and the chaos only spread, people began to lose hope. No one had actually seen the president, who was not all that popular to begin with, since before the Fourth. Rumors spread that she and the vice president had been killed in a helicopter crash in the early hours of the Meltdown, or that they had fled together to South America. The government put out a tape of the president denouncing the rumors, but people said it didn’t sound like her. She, or whoever was impersonating her, declared martial law, but was widely ignored. As it had once before, South Carolina’s secession proved the start of a trend, and by midwinter the country was effectively split into six or seven pieces. A loose south-central confederation headed by Texas was one of the larger ones, but Governor Danvers wasn’t really up to the challenge.

It was during this period that the narrator met Nevins again. His former friend had been serving in the Texas Air National Guard but had deserted when the “lonestars” printed in Austin proved to be worthless as pay. He was understandably bitter about that experience, and still angry over his rejection by America’s Top Talent. The narrator thought that was a little bizarre, given the state the country was in, but Toby insisted it was all of a piece. “‘Why is America in such a mess?’ he demanded. ‘How can it be that things fell apart so quickly just because of some slanty-eyed hackers? The old can-do America would have been back on its feet before the end of the day. People knew how to take initiative. But the government and the big corporations have made people weak and lazy. Really talented individuals get the brush-off, while fakes and mediocrities make it big. We need to learn to stand on our own two feet again!’ Now of course, everyone in the world has heard a version of this speech a thousand times in the years since, but back then it was new and exciting. We’d meet at McDonald’s or Wendy’s, which was about all either of us could afford, and kick it back and forth.”

Late one night — the narrator was a little vague about when — Toby burst into the motel room they were sharing and told him excitedly about a new political party that had just held a torchlight rally at a closed-down strip mall. It was hours after curfew, so the meeting was illegal, and the Texas Independence Party itself was in a gray area under Danvers’ emergency regulations. But there hadn’t been that big a crowd, maybe fifty people altogether, so the cops had left them alone. It didn’t sound like much, but Toby was more excited than the narrator had ever seen him. “‘They’ve got some really great ideas,’ he exclaimed as he paced back and forth, ‘but this Bob Drexler character they’ve got running the show is about as exciting as old Booger-Hair Graham’s algebra class. He even looks like him, with that sticking-up gray hair and those horrible glasses. What they need is someone who can actually speak to a crowd. I think I can do it,’ he said, grabbing me by the shoulders. ‘Don’t you think so? You remember how I’d get people whipped up at those stupid school dances we used to play.’”

I jumped about a mile when the phone rang. It was Dr. Kelly, and the first thing he did was ask me whether Jase was all right. I said I supposed so, though it was already getting dark outside and there was no sign of him. Then we talked about my client. I told him about the crazy “book” I was reading and he sighed. “Sounds like a really elaborate delusion this guy has cooked up. You say they haven’t been able to figure out who he really is? That’s a shame, because he’s bound to have a psychiatric history… maybe paranoid schizophrenia… I’m booked up all day tomorrow, but I’ll try to get down before the end of the week to evaluate him.”

I thanked him and hung up, but something was bothering me. As a public defender I’ve had plenty of mentally ill clients. Rinkowski, however, seemed as normal as they come. True, I’d only had a brief conversation with him, but he didn’t even strike me as being particularly imaginative. And if he had written the book himself, how had he managed to make it look like an aged paperback? I shook my head and ploughed back in.

Toby turned out to be a born public speaker. Under his leadership, the Tippies grew from a whacky fringe group that was little more than a club for remember-the-Alamo romantics, misfits and paranoiacs into a real political party that drew tens of thousands of people to its rallies. Danvers sent the Texas Rangers after them, but the crowds were already too big, and half the lawmen defected to Toby’s side, drawn in by his rhetoric of self-reliance. “Why is our beloved Texas, why is our God-blessed America in such a mess?” he’d shout to the crowds, who roared their approval. “We were stabbed in the back, that’s why! Stabbed in the back by the lazy bureaucrats and the corporate fat cats… stabbed in the back by the welfare cheats and the wetbacks our traitorous leaders brought here to steal our jobs! But that wasn’t enough for them, oh no! They let Ay-rab turrists blow up planes and kill thousands of people so’s they could have an excuse to take away our freedom!” The noise was deafening. “They knew, and they let it happen! Now they let the Chinks and the Eye-ranians take away the electricity and the freedom of the road that is every American’s God-given birthright! They knew, and they let it happen!” It was a call and response, the most popular part of his routine. Food rationing? They knew, and they let it happen! Gangs of armed robbers setting up roadblocks? They knew, and they let it happen! So-called refugee camps crawling with the scum of the Eastern cities? They knew, and they let it happen! Then Toby would break out his generator-powered electric guitar and the throng would solemnly join him in his version of “God Bless America:”

God bless America

Land of our pride

We’ll be braver and save her

From the traitors and leaches that hide.

Break our chains so that our land can

Be a place where free men roam

God bless America, my home sweet home,

God bless America, my home sweet home.

Within a month Toby was leading a column of one hundred thousand die-hard individuals south down the deserted lanes of I-35 toward Austin. “I ain’t afraid to die, are you?” he’d shout through a bullhorn as they marched. But there was no violence. Governor Danvers was long gone by the time the mob, which had swelled to over half a million people, reached the state capital.

The second half of the book was a lot less vivid than the first. It had a secondhand feel, as if the narrator was relating a well-known history. The years of the Reunification, the peaceful absorption of the devastated country from Kansas to Minnesota, where people were only too glad to have the Rangers put down the urban gangs and the highwaymen and get the power back on. The bloody battles of Chicago and Dearborn, the desert campaigns culminating in the obliteration of Salt Lake City. “Whatever our so-called prosecutors say, we were not the ones who detonated that hydrogen bomb. It was the Mormon dead-enders,” the narrator insisted. He also denied that the Tippies had deliberately planned the so-called Rape of Washington when the Rangers reached the old national capital. “It was terrible, and Toby and I did our best to get our people back under control, but there’s a reason why ‘rape, pillage and slaughter’ have been the clichéd accompaniment of war throughout human history.” Finally, what had happened in the IOWA camps was a perversion of Toby’s original intent. “‘Individual Opportunity through Work Alliance’ meant just that. It was a nongovernmental, wholly private-sector initiative that we encouraged as a humane measure, to protect the illegals and the gangbangers from the American people’s wrath and rehabilitate them into self-reliant individuals and useful members of society. Unfortunately, corrupt and sadistic individuals infiltrated this noble effort, and the mass graves — ”

It took a long time for me to get back on my feet after I finished emptying the remains of my lunch into the toilet. It was hard to believe I had so much in my stomach so many hours later. Gray predawn light was coming in the window as I staggered back to the kitchen table. I skimmed the chapters detailing the second civil war leading to the Tippies’ downfall and the narrator’s pathetic rationalizations for Nevins’ crimes. He himself had always been a moderating influence, he claimed, and it simply wasn’t true that he kept a harem or that he cruised the streets of Austin in a souped-up BMW, stopping whenever he saw a pretty girl so his bodyguards could seize her for him. “I’ve been happily married to my wife Shawna for many years now,” the narrator wrote on the last page of the book. “I won’t pretend to regret that she has taken our children to a place of safety, far from the vengeful rage of our hypocritical persecutors and their victors’ justice. I’m only glad that my mother didn’t live to see me defamed, convicted and executed by this kangaroo court. It would have broken her heart.” The non-confession concluded with the narrator’s name and a facsimile of his signature.

A couple of hours later, after a quick nap and a bleary drive back to the county jail, I was sitting quietly with my folded hands resting atop Rinkowski’s book on the plain wooden table in the interrogation room when Krebs shoved him back inside. The big policeman gave me a sarcastic salute with his fingertips and closed the door behind me and my client. Rinkowski, who was still in the same clothes he had worn the day before, had a peaceful, almost triumphant smile on his face that quickly faded when he got a look at my eyes. “What’s the matter?” he said quietly. Again his calmness was striking.

I took a deep breath. “Paul — may I call you Paul?” He nodded. “You’re going to need another lawyer right away, Paul,” I said as quickly as I could. “I’ve already asked Judge Thompson’s permission to resign as your counsel.”

“But why?” He really ought to be more upset than he was. The way he was sitting, his head propped on one elbow and a concerned but not frantic expression on his fleshy face, you’d have thought he was dealing with a slightly involved accounting problem and not with his own fate. Was it possible he really didn’t know why I couldn’t represent him? My heart began to pound. As much as I wanted to, had to, remain professional, it was hard to be coolly objective when my own son was being presented as an accomplice to the worst mass murderer since Hitler. When I said something along those lines to Rinkowski, instead of getting upset his face softened even further. Was that pity in his eyes?

“I’m so sorry. I had no idea you’re Turnbull’s mother,” he said.

“That was my married name. I don’t use it anymore,” I said, feeling more than a little flustered. “Can I ask you why you brought my son into this? Can you give me a reason?” Please don’t tell me you were targeting him too, I thought.

He shook his head. “It’s not a question of what I did, Ms. Grenville. It’s a question of what Jason would have done for the Nevins regime.” He spoke as if he was genuinely sorry, but sorry in the way you are for the victim of a famine or an earthquake in some hellhole of a “developing” country, not in the way you are for something that you’ve done wrong.

I had a strange impulse to let him take me by the hand and comfort me. Instead I tried to match his gentle tone as I said, “You can’t possibly expect me to accept the premise behind what you’re saying. Not on the basis of a tattered old sci-fi novel that you could have written yourself.”

He nodded to himself for a moment before sitting up straight and pushing his right sleeve up. I found myself staring at the weirdest tattoo I’ve ever seen, and believe me, with my client list you get to see quite a few doozies. This thing was an almost perfect rectangle about one inch by two, filled with a mottled, pure black pattern. It looked like a Rorschach blot. Or maybe a two-dimensional bar code.

“I was a 3-F in Davenport,” he said in a monotone. There was a faraway look in his eyes. “‘Enemy of Liberty.’ Our whole town got that designation, after Chicago fell. I suppose I should have been proud, but I’d never done any actual fighting. Much less Gina.” He bared his teeth and I did a double take, they were so crooked and broken. “We had the luck to be deported to an IOWA Camp in the actual state of Iowa, you know? Rather than some real hellhole like North Dakota. But they didn’t even bother taking Gina to the women’s camp. They shot her as soon as they herded us out of the tractor-trailer they’d shipped us in. We’d been crammed in there with like five hundred other people for two days without food or water. I mean, why bother dragging Gina all that way just to shoot her? Could they tell she was diabetic just by looking at her?”

“I don’t want to hear any more,” I said, but Rinkowski ignored me. He was going on and on about Davenport and what had happened to him there, stuff that it sounded like he must have read in books about the Holocaust or the Soviet Gulag, all mixed up together, with some futuristic touches thrown in like the use of virtual reality “boxes” to disorient and demoralize the prisoners. “I never would have survived if it wasn’t for a 2-B called Luis Gomez,” he said. “A ‘hereditary criminal’ who shared his food with me. He — he didn’t make it…”

I couldn’t take any more of this. “Listen,” I said, standing up and gathering my handbag. The “memoir” I left on the table. “I believe that you believe what you’re saying. But short of bringing your time machine into court with you, I doubt anyone else will.”

“Hmm? Time machine? There isn’t one. Not yet, anyway. I used to be a graduate assistant on the Large Hadron Collider at Argonne National Laboratory, in Urbana, Illinois. I was there on the Fourth.” He had that faraway look again. “We were seeing certain anomalies — I won’t get into the details. But that’s the other thing that kept me going in Davenport, besides poor Luis. The possibility that if I ever got out of there and made it back to the LHC, I could send myself back in time and undo all the terrible things that had happened.” He smiled sadly. “I thought I knew how to change the course of history.”

“But you have,” I said, once again suppressing the impulse to take him by the hand. “I mean, you believe that you have.”

“Yeah, but there’s the good old ‘grandfather paradox.’ You know, if I go back in time and shoot my grandfather when he’s still a boy, I’ll never be born, so it’ll be impossible for me to invent a time machine to go back and shoot him, so I will be born… The equations I used in setting up the LHC gave several possible solutions to this paradox. I didn’t know which one was right, and I didn’t particularly care. Though I was hoping for the one that would wipe out my existence after the moment of the change. Or give birth to a different Stephen Rinkowski, one who had never been to Davenport.” He smiled once more. “You can’t have everything, I guess. I do still have my memories.”

Which were terribly real enough to him, even if they were only delusions. I felt the same sort of pity for him that he had felt for me a few minutes before. Now I did reach out to touch his hand, which lay as still and cold as a corpse’s on the table. “Good luck, Paul,” I said. “Somebody from the Public Defender’s Office will be in touch.” He barely nodded as I made for the door.

I tried to put the whole thing out of my mind, but I’d forgotten that Dr. Kelly had arranged to do an evaluation. He called to tell me that while Rinkowski certainly had an elaborate delusional system worked out, he couldn’t in good conscience give him a diagnosis of mental illness. “There are certain things you look for in a paranoid schizophrenic,” he began, before I cut him off and explained to him that Rinkowski was no longer my client.

It was impossible, though, to ignore all news of the trial, which was the biggest thing ever to have happened in our little corner of Texas. It even made the national news for a day or two, how some crazy school shooter, representing himself at his own trial after refusing further help from the Public Defender’s Office, had claimed to be a time traveler who’d killed to prevent the rise of a future Hitler. There were scenes of him in the witness box, reading from Toby Nevins’ henchman’s purported memoirs — it was with an enormous feeling of grateful relief that I noticed Rinkowski had managed to keep Jason’s name out of it. The judge eventually cut him off, but not before he’d “prophesied” that America would be attacked on Independence Day, like in some bad old movie, and that “as Sinclair Lewis foretold, ‘It can happen here.’” Throughout this performance he displayed the same calm mien as in the interrogation room. That worked against him, as did the book itself; the D.A. said it showed evidence of premeditation. I was there in the spectator’s gallery the day Judge Thompson accepted the jury’s recommendation that Paul Stephen Rinkowski be sentenced to death “for the heinous crime of gunning down an innocent boy before the horrified eyes of his peers, as part of some bizarre fantasy with no reality outside the defendant’s mind.” Paul happened to look up and catch my eye as the bailiffs were leading him away. That sad smile came out again, to haunt my dreams for months afterwards.

The high school reopened a week after the shooting, and with Jase back on his regular routine I began to hope that things would soon return to normal. But it seemed the murder had affected him more than he was letting on. His grades, which were never stellar to begin with, began to slip even further. He began staying out late, and more than once we had a huge blow-up when he came back home in the small hours with alcohol or marijuana on his breath. It was worse when he began driving, and I had to worry that he’d wrap the car around a tree or a pedestrian, on top of everything else. But what could I do? If I’d refused to let him take driving lessons, he would have done it anyway without my permission. For a while he and a couple of stoner types played at starting up a garage band out of my house. I put up with the racket because at least I knew where he was, but they were so awful even LBJ High wouldn’t let them play school dances.

I was relieved when Jase did manage to graduate, and even more relieved that he decided to go to community college, but it ended up just being more of the same. On the rare occasions we saw each other all we did was fight. I went a little crazy with worry when I came home late one night after seeing yet another client off for a decades-long stretch in prison and found a note from Jase saying he was moving in with “some buds,” but in my heart of hearts I had to admit that things were a lot more peaceful without him around. Chrissy had finally gotten sick of Judge Thompson and moved over to the community college office, so I was able to keep up to date on Jase’s progress (or lack thereof, but at least he was still going to class). As summer drew near Chrissy told me Jase wouldn’t be able to graduate in June, but if he worked a little harder he should be able to make it by December. I began to imagine what it would be like to celebrate Christmas with Jase after he graduated. Then came the Fourth.

Since then I’ve tried so hard not to ruminate about Rinkowski, who I assumed had died on a prison gurney long ago. I told myself it was just a coincidence that the Meltdown took place on the Fourth (or who knew? Maybe the hacker or hackers responsible had been inspired by the trial itself), and that Rinkowski had had an eerie glimpse into my son’s future. Time travel is a myth, and it’s hard enough surviving day-to-day right now, that was my mantra. Until tonight, when I was on my way back from the Ration Center with my half-dozen eggs, one-pound sack of flour and quarter pound of butter that are supposed to last me and Jason (the prodigal son has returned) until the 15th. I walked quickly as always through the dark, deserted streets of my subdivision, feeling about equally afraid of muggers and drunk militiamen. God forbid my grown son should walk with me. He’s always off at some torchlight “meeting” in an abandoned strip mall, listening to crackpots who would have been confined to Internet chat rooms in the old days.

I spun around when I felt a tug on my sleeve, barely avoiding dropping my eggs on the sidewalk. But it was only a harmless, hungry-looking old man with a bushy beard. “I’m sorry, I haven’t got enough to eat, myself,” I started to say automatically, when I got a closer look at the beggar’s face. A line of poetry shot into my mind, blazing brighter than the full moon overhead. An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, unless soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing, for every tatter in its mortal dress. It was the eyes that did it. “Rinkowski,” I whispered.

The white fringes of his beard turned upward. “Ms. Grenville,” he said. “Don’t worry, I’m not a ghost! My appeal was still working its way through the courts on the Fourth. An automatic appeal, you understand. I didn’t care myself. I’d just as soon have had it over with. And it looked like I was going to get my wish, after it became clear that the power wasn’t coming back on, and that food deliveries had stopped for good. The warden had half a dozen guards take us out into the exercise yard. But he didn’t give them quite enough ammunition.” His laugh was the worst thing I had ever heard. “The locks on the gates were electrical, of course, and had failed when the power went out. So a few of us were able to push our way out. And I alone am escaped to tell thee.”

In that moment my rationalizations all fell away. I had to grab his shoulder to keep from falling over. “But you did it, Paul,” I said. “You changed the course of history.”

Again the fringes of his beard moved. “It seems I did, yes,” he said. “And somewhere my Gina is still alive. She was in college in Madison on the Fourth. She ought to have a decent chance.” It came to me then that Paul deserved one, too.

I can hear him calling out in his sleep in my basement now, as I sit upstairs writing this by candlelight. My handwriting is terrible. I don’t think I’ve written anything longer than a shopping list by hand since I was in elementary school. There are so many lost arts we will have to recover. The struggle to survive will be so much harder than it was for our great-great-grandparents. But I can’t think about the hard years ahead right now. All I can think about is that tired old metaphor, the course of history, and that stream in the park across the street from where I grew up. Over time I graduated to more elaborate dams, using bricks and broken cinderblocks. And I found out that it really was possible to change the course of the stream. I could divert at least part of the flow by creating miniature lakes that swelled and swelled till they looked wide enough to bathe in.

But my dams always broke in the end, and when they did, the flood was something to see.

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