Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 64
Stories
The God Down the River
by J.P. Sullivan
IGMS Audio
Bar Scenes with Time and Entropy
Read by Alethea Kontis
Vintage Fiction
The Singing Tree
by Rati Mehrotra
Bonus Material

Hard Times in Nuovo Genova, or How I Lost My Way
    by Chris Barnham

Hard Times in Nuovo Genova, or How I Lost My Way
Artwork by Kelsey Liggett

I see them occasionally, wandering through Columbus Plaza or hanging around the lakefront. Always alone.

They're obvious, if you know what to look for: something a bit off about their clothing; maybe the material or style sticks out--buttons on the shirt when everyone here has those tiny hook and eye things; blue denim worn tight when the men of Nuovo Genova favor baggy cotton pants.

It's how they act, too. They drift up behind market traders on a cigarillo break and eavesdrop while pretending to tie a shoelace. They sit alone outside a café, pretending to read a newspaper. But they never turn a page as they listen to the talk at the table behind.

They're passing through and they need to learn about the place fast. It's not as if they can ask: Excuse me, what country is this? Was Roosevelt president in 1940, or was it Lindbergh?

I spot them easily because that was once me. Before I lost the Way.

Sian is waiting when I appear. She puts a finger to her lips and leads me off the beach. We sit with our backs against a tree, facing the lake.

The air is cold, with no sound except our breathing and the murmur of waves. I sniff the air. There's something odd about the smell: metallic and smoky, like ash washed by rain. I look south toward Chicago, but there are no lights.

"It doesn't feel good," Sian whispers.

"How can you tell?"

"You develop an instinct. We should stay here until light."

It's hard to sleep on a cold beach when you have just arrived somewhere completely unknown. Several times, I am close to dozing off when a noise from the trees makes me stiffen and pull Sian close. There's a screech like an animal in pain, followed by a low scraping sound, moving away inland. Another time, an eerie howling, like a pack of wolves a mile away.

"Maybe it's a werewolf," I say. "Full moon, after all."

"You think you're joking."

Somehow, we sleep and wake to daylight the color of dirty dishwater. A bloated, rusty sun emerges from the lake. Oily cords of cloud paint stripes across the sky.

"Look at the city," Sian says.

At first glance, the skyline is comforting in its familiarity. Then it comes into focus: stunted towers, like broken teeth; a wall of dark buildings, lit in places by sunlight on jagged remnants of windows. A rusted hulk of a ship half-submerged in the lake two miles south.

We stay on the beach all day, watching the dead city, but we see no movement. We leave with the moon.

I strike up a conversation with the guy. His name is Willis and he's keen to talk. After a coffee in the square I offer to show him a good place to eat.

"You're new in town," I say, as the waiter puts food on the table. There's bread and olives, and a plate of the tiny lake fish that the locals eat whole, marinated in oil and garlic.

"Is it obvious?"

Above our table, colored lights are strung through the vines that crisscross the restaurant garden. The center of Nuovo Genova reaches almost to the lakeshore. There are tall buildings behind us on Piazza Colombo, but in front there is a strip of park sloping to the water. When the weather is hot like today, it's easy to remember the city sits on the same latitude as Rome. In the winter--when the lake freezes and snow sweeps down from Victorialand--not so much.

"It's obvious," I say. "Not to everyone, but I used to travel like you."

"I haven't mentioned any travels."

"I'd like to hear." I dip bread in olive oil and chew it slowly, allowing the silence to prompt him to talk.

"There's not much to say. I'm just passing through."

"Of course," I say. "Where are you from originally? I can't place your accent."

"You won't know it. Tiny place back east."

"Any problems crossing the border?"

"Not especially."

He doesn't know what I'm talking about. I'm sure that, like me, in the world he's originally from this city is called Chicago, with no borders between here and the east coast. However he got here, I'm sure he didn't cross the border from New England.

I sense he's keener to listen than to tell me anything. I used to be the same. I help him along, and as we work our way through the first bottle of wine I give him a potted history of Nuovo Genova, under the cloak of telling him about myself. It's after nine, and we're on the second bottle, when I think he's relaxed enough to move the conversation on a bit.

"I was like you once."

"In what way?"

I need to handle this delicately. I don't want to scare him off by pushing too hard to soon.

"Five years ago, I arrived in the city and it was completely alien to me. I mean completely. I knew no Italian. Had no clue about the city's history, or how it worked now. I ended up here by pure chance."

"Where did you start out?" He watches me closely, shadows in his eyes from the lights above. "How did you get here."

"I met a girl."

Sian Serota walked into the coffee shop in downtown Evanston late on a steamy July day. There were no other customers and I was about to close early and hit the beach, or maybe check out the pick-up softball game on the lakefront.

The door opened, admitting a waft of tropical air that felt like it had leaked out of someone's shower. A young woman walked in. She paused in the doorway, and I saw her clock that no one else was there. I think she might have slipped back out if I hadn't made eye contact.

"Come on in," I said. "But let the door close or the air con gets sucked out."

She ordered an iced latte and sat by the window. I studied her as I made the coffee. She looked like she'd come off a long journey, but she had no baggage other than a leather back pack. There was something intense about the way she watched the road outside, taking an unusual interest in passing taxis and CTA buses.

"I've not seen you here before." I slid her coffee onto the counter in front of her.

"Just passing through."

She was still there when I turned the Closed sign around on the door. "I know a bar not far away," I said. "If you're not in a hurry, I could buy you a drink."

"I'm not in a hurry."

Right away, I knew Sian would be special. Her arm brushed mine as we walked across downtown and it was like a faint electrical charge. I saw her again the next evening and then two days after that. It was on this third date that she told me about the Way.

"I'd like to show you something," she said. It was late, and we were alone on the beach. Looking south, the lakeshore curved gently east. Ten miles away Chicago's skyline was an outcrop of glittering crystals on velvet night. A full moon hung over the lake, a line of silver ran across the water towards us like a ghostly path.

"Tonight's the best night." Sian took my hand. A low dune hid us from the road. The only sound was the whisper of small waves against the beach. "Tell me what you see," Sian said. "Further down the beach, close to the water."

"Sand."

She studied my face for a moment, then stepped behind me and put her arms around my waist. "Close your eyes."

I did so. I wondered if this was some kind of prelude to sex on the beach. Which was fine with me.

"Breathe in time with me. Keep your eyes closed."

"I can't say this happens on every date."

"Don't talk. I'm serious."

I shut up and did as she asked. We stood like that for some time, the peace disturbed only by the murmur of a car inland.

"Now open your eyes. Stay touching me and tell me what you see."

"I see the beach. Some trees further away."

"What else?"

"Moonlight on the water, and. . . Hang on."

The strip of moonlight still rippled across the surface of the lake. But where it hit the shore it didn't stop: a thin strip of mist crossed the beach from the edge of the water and disappeared over the dunes, glowing faintly as if lit from below.

"Hold my hand, and don't let go," Sian said.

We moved to within a couple of feet of the strip of light. Looking down on it from above I could faintly see the sand beneath it, silvered by the luminous path above.

"What is it?"

"It's called the Way. Not everyone can find it."

"It wasn't here a minute ago."

"It was, but you couldn't see it until I helped you."

"But what is it?"

"I can't explain," Sian said. "I have to show you."

I pour Willis the last of the wine and signal with the empty bottle to the waiter, who hurries over with another. The restaurant garden has filled up. It must be after ten, but the night shows no sign of cooling. Even the air from the lake is hot and dry.

"So, what happened?" Willis asks me.

"You're going to make me say it? Even though you know?"

"How would I know?"

I take a sip of my wine. It is deeply chilled, dry enough to clean paintbrushes. The label says it's Orvieto, but it isn't expensive enough to be imported. It must be from New Sorrento, the vineyards that in this world take the place of North Carolina's tobacco fields.

"This path," I say. "What she called the Way, it was some kind of short-cut across different versions of reality. Other worlds."

"Come on," Willis says. "How could that be? What were you smoking?"

"Scientists have believed for a long time that there may be multiple universes. It's undeniable that there are particles--quarks, quorns, whatever you call them--that appear and disappear, going someplace we can't detect. If particles, why not people?"

"But a ghostly path in the moonlight? That's a fairy story, not science."

"I don't make the rules. I'm just saying what happened."

Willis shakes his head and drinks more wine. His act isn't convincing. He shows no reaction to my mention of Chicago or Evanston. No one in Nuovo Genova has ever heard of those places.

It isn't possible for two people to travel together on the Way. But Sian had given it some thought. She pulled something out of her rucksack and bent down to lay two lengths of cord on the sand, a few inches apart. They were the same length, about six feet.

"You go first." She put one of the cords in my hand. "Do exactly as I say."

"Okay. But what is this?"

"When you step on the Way, it takes you somewhere else."

"Where?"

"That depends how far you walk. The further you go, the more different it is when you step off again. But every place you go is, I don't know, a different version of the world. A copy of this world but one where some time in the past different choices were made, alternative decisions taken."

I looked again at the glowing strip across the sand. In one direction, it rolled across the water toward the moon, in the other it crossed the dunes and headed toward downtown Evanston.

"That sounds like a good description of Iowa," I said. "You'd have to follow this a long way to reach it."

"Just try it and you'll see."

I'd had a couple of drinks, and Sian was an attractive woman, which always helps persuade me of things. I did as she said. I picked up the piece of rope and closed my eyes, facing the ghostly path at our feet. Sian held my hand and told me to step forward. My foot encountered a spongy firmness a few inches above the sand, like hard rubber.

"Keep your eyes closed. On the next step, I'll let go of your hand. Open your eyes, walk to the right, and step off the Way exactly at the end of the rope."

Her hand fell away. The sound of the waves also stopped, as if a door had closed. I opened my eyes. The beach, the lake, the moon, the sky--all gone. I was in a tunnel through what looked like smoke, lit by light from an unseen source. Where Sian had stood, there was a milky wall of mist. I reached my hand out to touch it. The tips of my fingers disappeared as if they had gone behind an invisible screen. I pulled my hand back.

A voice in my head was shouting at me to do something, anything--run, scream, tear my clothes--in the face of the impossibility of my situation. But I followed Sian's instructions. I placed the end of my cord at my feet and carefully unrolled it in as straight a line as possible, taking care not to move the end from its original position. The tunnel was straight, but it was difficult to see more than a few paces.

I spooled the cord along the Way. Bending down, I was able to tune out most of the impossible scene around me, although not the glimpses through the path itself, where there were rapid movements and flickering shadows beneath my feet, as if an out of focus film was projected onto the ground below.

At the end of the rope, I again did as Sian instructed. I picked up the cord and turned to my right. The glowing tunnel wall a few inches in front of my face rippled like boiling milk. I took a deep breath and stepped through it.

I was back on the beach. There was no sign of Sian. It was hard to believe she could have moved far away in that brief time. I looked towards the lake. Something was different, but at first I didn't register the change. There was no sign of the full moon that had been there moments before. The night had become instantly overcast, and if the moon was still there, it was now hidden behind clouds. The ghost path was also gone.

There was another change. Beyond the southern end of the beach, low waves slapped against a jumble of rocks and a wooden rowing boat danced against its mooring on a short pier. Further south, the lakeshore arced gently to the left as before, but something was missing. Something important.

Chicago. The far-off glitter of the city was gone. Where before there was a crowded lakeshore of glowing towers so tall and bright they cast a glow into the sky above, there was now unbroken darkness. The smiling curve of Lake Michigan's shore was toothless and empty.

"Wow, it worked." Sian spoke behind me.

"Where did you come from?"

"Same place you did." She followed my gaze south. "Ah, no city here."

"Maybe there's clouds in the way," I said. "You can't just make Chicago disappear."

"Nobody made it disappear," Sian said. "In this world it was never there." I studied her face, wondering if this was a joke, but she coolly returned my gaze. "Never mind the city." She took my hand. "Let's see what's closer to hand." She led me away from the beach, toward Evanston.

Except Evanston wasn't there either. Instead of the strip of park beside the beach, with its barbecue pits and picnic tables, we passed through a flat expanse of marshy grass, dotted with thorn bushes. The clouds over the lake began to clear, bringing the bone-white glow of a full moon. This was the only light to guide us: there were no streetlamps, no lights from the verandahs of elegant lakeside homes, no distant glitter of downtown office buildings.

"There should be a road here." I pulled Sian to a stop when we were a hundred yards from the shore. When we stopped moving I became conscious of how quiet it was. "I don't get it. Where are we?"

"It's the same place. The same piece of Lake Michigan shoreline. Just a different version of it. Chicago and the cities around it haven't been built."

"What do you mean, we've travelled back in time or something?"

"Not time. It's weirder than that. The Way can take you to slightly different realities. Different versions of the world, but similar in many ways."

"How many different worlds?"

"The possibilities are endless, in theory. There are places where we didn't meet, places where we met in different ways, at different times. Places where early explorers decided to start a settlement in a different place. This looks like one of those."

"Have you been here before?"

"I don't think so." Sian looked at the knotted gorse bushes that stretched away into darkness. "Not exactly. I've been to worlds where there was no city of Chicago, or it was very different."

I let out a long breath. "It's hard to take in."

"I know." She placed a hand on my chest. "Let's go back. We don't know how safe it is here. We can talk somewhere more comfortable."

"But I want to explore. This is amazing."

"I just wanted to show you how it worked," Sian said. "We can visit places a lot more interesting than this."

This time, there is a city where Chicago should be, but it's called something else, a French-sounding name that I forget. We walk into town on an unpaved road. There are no cars, and no sign of railway tracks, no planes in the sky. Transport is mostly on foot, with hand-drawn carts and some horses for better-dressed, wealthy-looking citizens. The buildings are wooden, except for the tall, stone walls of the fort where the river flows into the lake.

It's like the Old West, but in a French movie instead of the Hollywood version. The locals are friendly and we manage to make ourselves understood with gestures and our few French words. Everyone assumes we're from Quebec. The local wine and lake fish are excellent and cheap, enabling us to live comfortably for a month on the proceeds of the gold necklace that Sian sells to a dealer on the day we arrive. Life is peaceful here, with very little connection to or news from the world beyond Grandes Lacs, as locals call them. We have a restful time, eating and sleeping and doing some river fishing. But we're bored by the next full moon.

So we move on.

After that first trip on the Way, the weeks until the next full moon gave Sian and me time to get to know each other. She moved into my apartment a week after we met. She had to hide from the landlady, who lived on the top floor, but it saved money.

I showed her the sights of Chicago. She obviously knew the city, but it was as if she had a version in her head that was out of date, or slightly altered. She had been to versions of Chicago before, but not this exact one. We took the El downtown and although she knew where the station was she had no idea how to tackle the ticket barriers. On the train, she stared hungrily out of the window. I pointed out Wrigley Field.

"We could take in a ballgame," I said. "Have you been before?"

"Sure. They have the Cubs in lots of the cities."

"They won the World Series this year."

"Wow," she said. "That never happens."

That first month, we spent almost every minute together: every night, every meal, every free moment when we could go to the beach, or explore a corner of the city that Sian had not yet seen. Even when I had to work, Sian came into the coffee shop and sat reading, or wrote in the notebook she always carried.

I was so suddenly, so deeply in love with her that every minute was a unique jewel, emerging fully-formed with no ties to the past or responsibility to the future. All that mattered was that we were together, right here, right now. Maybe that's why I discovered so little about her past. She didn't offer much and I didn't question her. It was obvious that she did not come from this America, but she never said much about the world she came from, and why she didn't go back.

The next full moon came at the end of August. I was three weeks from my return to college, so I hadn't thought much beyond another trip on the Way. I didn't consider what might happen at the full moon in September or October. I didn't think that far ahead.

Sian did.

"Do you want to come with me?" We were alone in the coffee shop again, late afternoon. Sian had sat by the window for the last half hour, bent over her notebook as I cleared up. I paused in my work and leaned on the mop. The low sun outside haloed her head in gold.

"Where were you thinking of going?"

"Not just one trip," she said. "I mean, would you leave this behind? Would you give it up and travel with me?"

I looked down at the dirty head of the mop in its bucket. I thought about the boring days here before Sian walked in. I pictured the sinuous silvery ribbon of the Way, shimmering above the dark sand, a doorway to an endless parade of worlds beyond my imagination. I didn't think about my college course.

"When do we leave?"

"You'll want to know the history of this world," I tell Willis over coffee at the end of our meal. "You won't want to ask too obviously. It's a bit of a giveaway."

"If you say so." He persists in his innocent act, which is irritating, but I tell him what he needs to know. How in this world Columbus discovered the New World, but he did it in 1490, not 1492. He didn't need to wait for the Spanish monarchs to bankroll him, having already secured support from rich bankers in his native Genoa. With Spain behind the pace and disadvantaged in European wars by its lack of American gold, settlement of the new continent happened more slowly than in the world I knew best, and involved more European countries.

Hence the city of Nuovo Genova on the shores of what other worlds call Lake Michigan, major city of the loose confederation of Italian-speaking states that stretched from the river I used to know as the Mississippi, to the Atlantic coast.

When we leave the restaurant, Willis agrees to meet again next day. I have no reason to distrust him, but I follow him home, just in case. He is staying in a room above a bar close to Piazza Vespucci.

We travel together for over a year. Of course, there are strains. You can't spend every waking and sleeping minute with someone without tensions. But mostly it's heaven for me--jumping from one world to the next, exploring a dozen different cultures without ever leaving the Illinois landscape I know so well.

We see many variations of Chicago. There's the city without skyscrapers, still crammed with untidy wooden tenements downtown, where the 1871 fire didn't happen. There's another French version of the city, called Dusable, much smaller than the city I knew, poisoned by a heavily-polluted lake.

One time, we step off the Way into a snowstorm. The beach is a moonscape of snow dunes, with pennants of ice crystals strung from the peaks by a bone-chilling wind off the lake. We scramble into the lee of a snowdrift and pull warmer clothing from our packs, then hunker down together and wait for morning. There's a deep moaning sound from somewhere, but I can't tell what it is.

It's hard to tell when daylight comes; the sky gradually shifts from black to grey. When I peer out from our shelter I can just make out the lake. I walk closer to it and solve the mystery of the moaning we heard through the night. The frozen surface rises and falls like the chest of a buried giant, grinding shards of ice against the beach.

We walk inland. At first, I think we're in another world where Evanston didn't get built. The only things that break up the mounded snowscape are the trunks of dead trees. It's the trees that bring things into focus. They march in straight lines, north and south, parallel with the lakeshore, as if they once grew beside roads. Further inland, the snow rears up into higher dunes, some of them flat on the top and sides.

"They're buildings," Sian whispers. "Or they were."

We find a place where the snow has blown away from the side of a wall. It looks like it was once the lower part of an office building. There is scorched brickwork, ending in a jagged line above our heads, where the wall was broken by some impact or explosion.

Nearby, we find an abandoned car, half-buried in the snow. I pull a door open and we slip inside to shelter from the wind. There is a newspaper on the passenger seat, its pages brittle with age. The front-page headline says: 'U.S. Imposes Arms Blockade on Cuba on Finding Offensive Missile Sites; Kennedy Ready for Soviet Showdown.' The date is October 23, 1962. Neither of us speaks. I get out and scrape the windshield. The deepest snow, against the glass, contains fine grains of ash.

We sit in the car for the rest of the day. Nothing moves on the road or in the sky. Then we get out and retrace our steps to the beach and Sian conjures up the Way. We move on.

"We could just stay here," Sian said. "We don't need to keep moving all the time."

"But think what we'd miss."

Late on a summer afternoon, we were eating at a pavement table outside a bistro in Galena, Illinois, looking east down a gentle slope to the green ridge of the Galena River levee. People were out for the evening promenade along the river bank--women in long gowns with lace parasols, men in tuxedos, like a painting by Renoir.

"I get tired," Sian said. "When you find a nice place like this, don't you want to stay a while?"

"You've seen more than me. I've got a lot of catching up to do."

Where I came from, Galena was a quaint historic district of brick buildings, visited mainly by weekending Chicagoans. In this world, it was a city of half a million, grown rich on its position as the northern gateway to the French territories on the western banks of the Mississippi. As far as I could work out, the divergence was the lack of Napoleonic Wars in Europe, and the consequent failure of France to sell its North American possessions to the fledgling United States. Here, Galena was a border city.

"You can't exactly catch up, since you need me to find the Way," Sian said.

"So, are you going to stop me?"

"I didn't say that." Sian watched the strollers on the levee. "But the grass isn't always greener."

The first sign of her discontent. I should have paid attention. But I didn't.

We moved on to Nuevo Genova. It was a hot summer night when we stepped off the Way, minutes apart, and into the yard behind a small farmhouse. A dog barked and a light came on in the house as I lifted Sian to climb the wall, and scrambled over behind her. We shouldered our packs and headed east toward the lakeshore, where there was usually some variant of Chicago.

Sometimes, we moved on immediately, catching the second night of the full moon. Some worlds were dangerous, or deserted, or just uninteresting in their similarity to places we'd already seen. This Italianate version of America charmed us enough to stay the full month. We got a room on the top floor of a mansion in the bend of the river, about half a mile from the lake. Plenty of people spoke English, and they readily believed that we were travelers from the south. Nuovo Genova and other cities of the north traded with the Carolina Republic.

Our argument blew up out of nothing, and in other circumstances we would have patched it up, but the timing was wrong.

The afternoon of the next full moon, our bags were packed ready to go, but Sian didn't want to. We had a drink at an outdoor taverna. Barges bringing grain and vegetables from upriver farms cast long shadows on the water in the low sun.

"We don't have to keep moving," Sian said. "It's lovely here. Why don't we stay longer?"

"It's a bit of backwater. There's so much else to see."

"It gets tiring. Constantly moving on."

"For you, maybe," I said. "You've done more than me. There's so much I want to see."

Sian toyed with her drink, her face stiff. "Sometimes it feels like you're only interested in me for the Way."

"That's rubbish."

"It's just how it feels."

"I can't deny the Way's fantastic," I said. "But it's being with you that's important to me."

"So, staying a bit longer with me in this lovely city shouldn't be too hard, should it?"

What could I say?

Willis and I agreed to meet in a taverna close to the harbor. He's not there when I arrive. I order a beer and take a table by the window, sitting with my back to the few fishermen and stevedores in here this early. The fat moon heaves itself up from the surface of the lake. Of Willis, however, there is no sign.

I finish my beer and leave, striding through the cobbled streets to his lodgings. The building is dark. My rapping on the door produces no movement inside. I stand in the street, unsure where to turn. It feels like a deep hole has opened at my feet.

If Willis is taking advantage of the full moon to use the Way, he needs isolation. If he has taken transportation and left Nuevo Genova, there is nothing I can do. But if he is still close by, I have a chance. He needs to be away from crowded city streets, which means either the lakefront or the wooded park just north of here, between the Palazzo Ducale and the shore.

I gamble on the park and break into a run.

Sian and I let the full moon go and settled in for another month in Nuovo Genova. At the time, the argument felt like a cloud blowing in front of the sun. The wind would carry it away and the day would warm up again. But things became overcast between us. Sian now suspected I saw her simply as my ticket to ride the Way. I was careful how I talked about it. But this meant that the way I talked began to sound fake, even to me, as I avoided tricky subjects.

There are a lot of unhappy versions of Chicago out there. Nuovo Genova isn't one of them, and we should have had a fantastic month there. Instead, we began to argue. Little things became the subject of contention. After one argument, I thought for the first time about what would happen if Sian decided to end things between us. A split would be more serious than moving apartments and dividing up books and records. I couldn't use the Way without her. What if she decided to take me home and leave me there? After everything I'd seen, going back to the Evanston coffee shop would be purgatory. This thought didn't make it easier to get on. It made it harder for me to be honest with Sian. I kept my mouth shut and pretended everything was fine, when she could tell that it wasn't.

Two days before the next full moon, things came to a crisis. I had avoided mentioning the Way, but both of us knew the time was coming. One morning, Sian broke the silence.

"You want to move on, don't you?"

"If you're ready. Maybe we've seen all we need to see here?"

"What is it that you need to see, exactly?"

"You know what I mean," I said. "There's so much out there."

"Not much better than here, in my experience."

"Well, you've had the advantage of more experience. Don't stop me enjoying what you've had."

"Maybe you'd like to go on your own. Maybe it's the travelling that interests you rather than me."

"I can't go on my own, can I?"

"Oh, so otherwise you would?"

"Well, I wouldn't sit around waiting this long for you."

Sian's face froze, as if I had slapped her. "I see," she said.

"What I mean is, I could go on a trip and come back. You wouldn't have to come along every time. I didn't mean. . ."

"It's OK," she said. "You're right. We've probably stayed too long."

We barely spoke during the next two days, as we settled our affairs in Nuova Genova and packed for the trip. It was obvious I had upset her, but the best thing was to keep my mouth shut until we'd moved on. Wherever we ended up next, I would make it up to her. A new town, new world, new start. I would work harder on our relationship, worry less about the thrill of the next trip on the Way. But it was fine; we could leave this place and start afresh somewhere new.

The first night of the full moon, we waited until after midnight so that there was no one else around. Silence hung between us as we walked into the trees near the lake. Falling rain gossiped among the leaves around us in the darkness.

The Way appeared as a strip of neon light winding among the trees. I took the rope out of my pack and waited for Sian to do the same.

"How far this time?" I said.

Sian stepped forward and turned to face me, silhouetted against the Way behind her. "Let's do it slightly differently."

"Okay. What do we do?" I couldn't see her face clearly, with the glow of the Way behind and shadows between us. She took a step backwards.

"We need a break." Sian's words sounded like they had been recorded earlier. "I'm sorry." She turned away and took another step towards the glowing path.

"Wait!" I lunged forward and grabbed her arm. She didn't resist, simply stood rigidly in place. The Way was a luminous braid of mist about eighteen inches from her feet.

"Let go of my arm," she said through clenched teeth.

"Sian, don't do this. I know I've been a dick, but we can sort things out. The next place we get to, you'll see."

"Let go of my arm."

"Okay, then we'll talk."

She nodded, and I released her arm. We were both breathing heavily. Sian glanced behind her at the Way. The light from the path briefly lit up her face. Her lips were a tight line and her cheeks were wet, either from the rain or from tears, I couldn't tell.

"I'm sorry," she said again, and before I could react she jumped away from me. I grabbed again for her arm but could only get hold of the strap of her rucksack. With a fluid twist of her torso she slipped out of the straps and stepped onto the Way. There was a flicker of blue light and Sian winked out of sight. The Way disappeared with her, flooding the woods with the sudden darkness that follows the extinguishing of a light.

I stood alone in a version of Illinois far from the world I was born into. There was cold rain in my eyes and Sian's rucksack hung from my hand. The Way was gone and I had no means of bringing it back.

In the park, low bushes, arranged in formal lines. A statue of a nymph holding a child, rendered ghostly by moonlight. No sign of Willis or anyone else. I run toward the lake, through a narrow aisle of beech trees.

I emerge onto a broad lawn, which slopes down to a concrete wall. Beyond that, a bony stretch of beach and black shimmer of water. The moon is high now, its reflected light a river of silver on the lake. The Way crosses the beach and plunges into trees to my right. The ghost path moves slightly in the winds of other worlds.

Willis is between me and the Way, his back to me. He wears a dark hooded jacket and carries a heavy back pack.

"Wait!"

He turns. I move a few steps closer and stop, concerned that if I move too fast or too close he will step onto the Way and be gone.

"Please," I say. "Let me come with you."

"I don't think that will work."

"You know my story. I can't do it alone. I'm stuck here unless you help me."

"I'm sorry." Willis shakes his head. "I can't change things for you. If you weren't stuck here you'd be stuck somewhere else. There are worse places."

"No, this is the worst," I say. "It's the one world I know she's not in. At least somewhere else there's a chance."

"Come on, don't torture yourself. Get on with the rest of your life. Give her up."

"I can't."

"Face it, she knows where you are. If she wants you, she can find you."

I wonder what would happen if I threw myself past him and onto the Way, while his presence holds it here. Can I really be that desperate? It would be a huge gamble, a one-off trip to somewhere unknown, with uncountable odds against Sian being there. And as Willis says, there are many versions of reality worse than Nuovo Genova.

His face softens, as if he can read my thoughts. The look of pity he gives me is unbearable.

"If I see her, I'll tell her," he says. "To come back and find you. She owes you that."

"Wait--," I say again, but it's too late. Willis takes a step back and onto the glowing path. There's a ripple of colored light and he blinks out. I run forward, but the Way has gone, leaving only shadows and dark sand and the mocking chatter of waves against the shore.

There's one. I can always spot them.

The stranger's eyes flick from side to side as he ambles among the morning market crowd. He has a khaki rucksack slung over one shoulder.

He passes my table and I catch his eye. I push the chair out with my foot to offer him a seat.

"You look tired, my friend," I say in English. "Let me buy you a drink."


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