Chris was trying to drive down the narrow lanes between the trailers. It felt funny without Mr. Vezina in the driver’s seat, coaching him. Although, strangely, he knew that Mr. Vezina wasn’t there without looking over to see, and that made him sad. There was a fat, old crow (although he also didn’t know how he knew that it was old) in the middle of the lane, looking under the rails of a trailer porch at something Chris couldn’t possibly see, and didn’t want to see.
Chris wanted to take his foot off the clutch and inch forward, but the crow wouldn’t move. And then he was on a bike instead of driving a car. The crow looked away from the railings, rolling its head up to stare at him. It didn’t move, and for some reason the lane was too narrow to cycle by it, either. And then he was standing, and the way was still too narrow. Frustrated, Chris yelled, “Move it!”
The words were fat and heavy in the air like nothing that came before them. That was because, Chris realised, as he opened his eyes, he’d spoken them aloud, and he was now awake. “No, you move it!” He heard his sister say, muffled by the partition across their room. He heard her bare feet hit the floor, and, after a long second, the tapestry in the doorway being pushed to the side, the metal rasp of the hooks against the rod loud in the cold, pine-smelling bedroom. Charlotte poked around. She was dressed, and her hair half-dried. She had a brush in one hand, and was presumably in the middle of doing all the things that she did to keep her hair looking the way that it did.
“Great. You’re awake. Because if I had to wake you up one more time-“
“You would have just dumped a bucket of water on me. Well, you haven’t done it yet.”
“You haven’t tried sleeping in on Christmas Eve yet.
“Is that today? I didn’t notice.”
Charlotte reached around the drape. Her hands came back into view with a bucket in them. Her eyes were gleaming. “That’s it, bro!”
Chris had to roll out of the bed fast to miss the contents of the bucket, which turned out to be something that smelled intensely flowery.
“What’s that?” He asked.
“Soap and water,” his sister said. “See. I’m streamlining your routine. You’ll smell nice if you happen to run into any supervillains. I hear that’s an issue. You’ll have to do your own hair, though.”
Chris reached up to pat the crusty remains of his part. “Like you should talk!”
“I’m a girl. Girls brush their hair once for every year they have to wait until a guy finally asks them out. That’s a lot of strokes.”
“Is that some kind of slam at boys?”
“Anyone I know?”
Surprisingly, Charlotte flushed and said, so fast he could barely make out the words, “None of your business!”
“You’ll tell him!”
“Is it Tyrell? Corey?”
Charlotte started laughing.
“You don’t have a clue, bro.”
Charlotte sucked in her breath. “Yeah, I was just wondering just how exactly I would run my BFF over with a tank.”
“Rose has a crush on Jameel?”
Charlotte knelt down, propping her head on her hands, her elbows carefully resting on the one part of Chris’s bed that wasn’t soaked, so that she could stare into his eyes at the level. “Don’t tell him.”
“Got it. Don’t tell anyone about anything at any time. This is just like school.”
“Maybe we can just get some psionic to put a memory block on you so that you can’t tell anyone. Like the way Bulldozer can’t tell anyone this address.”
“Would I have to go to jail, like Bulldozer? I’m too pretty for jail.”
“No, Corey’s too pretty for jail.”
Chris was almost halfway surprised. He still didn’t have much of a handle on the way they did things in the 21st Century. “Corey’s gay?”
“You want the complete rundown, brother mine? Emily, Rafaella, Rebecca, Cousin David, Tyrell’s brother, Bill…”
“No, no, that’s okay. Say. What about Don?”
“He says not.”
“Hmm. Okay, if I’m up, I guess I should go have a shower.”
“There’s plant food in a little packet under the soap. Just throw a little on when you’re done.”
“What does that mean?”
“You figure it out.”
Was there anything to it? Chris asked himself. Did he have a crush on Sailor Loon? Or was it that she was just so sexy in that skirt of hers? The thought of the skirt made for an uncomfortable shower. So did the thought of his sister breaking with sweet, timelost little Rose over a boy. Chris knew his sister well enough to read a lie.
Clean and dressed, Chris walked downstairs into an unexpectedly bustling house. Of course, he thought, as he hit the second floor landing and heard voices from the somewhat unexpected direction of the living room. He was up early enough that no-one had left yet. He hoped he wouldn’t have to fight for breakfast. Jason and John could inhale a whole kitchen worth of food between them, and he had no idea how much was going to be left.
Chris followed the noise into the living room. All the usual suspects were there: his cousins, the Neilsens, Rafaella, John, and Dora Guzman, too. Crushed into the corner by the weight of all the personalities in the room was Rose. Jason looked up at Chris. “Ready for breakfast? And lunch? We’re going to the Golden Dynasty!”
Chris thought about that. “We’re not going to throw away the whole day flying across the country again, are we? I mean, the Star-Racer’s neat, but four hours is four hours.”
“No,” May said. “It’s Christmas Eve. Father Asplin will open the gate for us. Now can we get a move on? I want breakfast!”
At least Chris had enough warning to put on old jeans and proper boots. He really wanted to check the fences on the Bench if he had a chance.
It turned out that there were enough of them to fill the Wong’s Mazda and the Neilsen’s SUV. May, Amy, Dora, the Neilsen girls, and Jason all loaded bags of Christmas presents in the trunk. They were going to meet people, Chris figured. Feeling a little left out, he outmanoeuvred Charlotte to sit to one side of Rose. He looked over at Charlotte, and she glared at him. He could read the message: ‘What are you doing?’
“Hey, Rose,” Chris asked, “What have you heard about the Plague?” Actually, Chris had the gist of it from Billy, but he wanted to hear it from the lips of the thirteen year old girl who had been sent three centuries back in time to stop the Apocalypse Plague, and somehow ended up in an alternate universe where it hadn’t happened. Yet.
“In our timeline, the Apocalypse Plague was first reported in Spokane, Washington when three medical staff at Sacred Heart admitted themselves on November 5th, 2011. Now, first admission does not mean ground zero. It’s only six days ahead of the Livorno outbreak, and the Plague virus mutates spontaneously from less lethal to more lethal forms. We can model the mutation rate stochastically and say with moderate confidence that the doctors and nurses in Spokane were infected by Patient Zero. But we need more data. Above all, more evidence of Pacific Northwest connections, especially since Patient Zero was probably a sailor. Which is why, in lieu of further Nothwest connections, investigation will revert to the Livorno case, followed by Capetown and Singapore in that order.” Rose sounded as though she were reciting.
Then her voice switched to something more normal. “Dr. Vox and the CDC are awesome. They came up with three more data points: the Greyhound driver from your bus is an asymptotic, nonshedding carrier, who lives in Albany. Projecting the mutation rates forward, he could be the Albany Patient Zero from the January outbreak there. So that’s a Pacific Northwest connection.”
Then she shrugged. “Unfortunately, so was a tissue donor from an FBI unsolved crimes case. Which had all of its paperwork thrown out sometime during World War II. Fortunately, we have the vial label, which says that it happened in Washington in 1934, so at least it matches our data set.”
“What if, whoever was killed in 1934 in our timeline lived in yours to be Patient Zero, Rose?” John Roy asked from the back.
“Then it took the virus population in the patient’s body eighty years to mutate in Patient Zero, and that’s unlikely. As in, ‘more zeros in the number than there are atoms in the universe’ unlikely. And then there’s Eve, who is an asymptomatic non-carrier, meaning that she was exposed just before the Sentinels brought her up to the Twenty-First Century, and that the plague was present a hundred thousand years ago.”
Charlotte leaned over. “But that’s possible, right? Like, it’s got other carriers.” Her face wrinkled. “Amoeba-thingies that get into everything that lives in ditch water. Worms, bugs, slugs-”
Rose nodded. “Yeah, that’s why we can’t get rid of it in the future. It’s everywhere in the ecosystem. But that happened after the pandemic. We think. If it happened a hundred thousand years ago, we’d all be dead by now.”
Which was all very interesting, but wasn’t what Chris wanted to hear about. “So how did Professor Paradigm hear about it? And why did he try to kidnap us?”
Rose seemed to ignore the question for a moment as they watched while May carefully pulled out and drove around Snowflake, who was riding his bike in circles in front of his group home again, evidently tired of the endless figure 8 he rode through the neighbourhood from the mall to Tatammy to Pemberton to the Panther Heights Rec Centre that he mostly travelled on days when he was out of school. The massive folds of his white jacket draped over and almost hid the banana seat of his bicycle. At least you could see him that way. Chris wondered where you even got one of those stick-up warning flags in bluey-green. It wasn’t the most conspicuous colour. Although it did remind him of someone. Chris shifted in his seat.
As they sped up back into the flow of traffic, Rose looked at him. “Two main theories: the first is that he’s being manipulated by your Dad. His M.O. is to get unstable supervillains mixed up in stuff and then backstab them. Mrs. Wong says that’s not likely, because word is that Kwan is in trouble with his boss right now. Second is that there’s some kind of back channel from a two-bit hood named Tuney who bought some gadgets from Paradigm and tried them out up at the Bench last summer. If that’s so, though, Paradigm knows a lot more about what’s going on than Tuney does.
Jason spoke from the back seat. “Maybe his gadgets told him? We’re already having that issue with some of the gadgets Tuney used. Ones that transmitted to goddamned Doctor Destroyer. If you think your case isn’t scary enough.”
“Jason,” May said over her shoulder. “I still don’t like having you Rugrats messing with that file.”
“May,” Amy said quietly. “Destroyer is dangerous, and we love you. You shouldn’t have to go up against his organisation without backup.”
“If I could go on-“
“Sorry, Rose,” Jason apologised.
“As far as we know, Paradigm’s instruments didn’t transmit any information to him. So how he knows about the Plague, and what he wants with it is a bit of a mystery. War plagues are totally alien to his M.O. He wants to change reality, not kill everyone.”
Jason prompted. “’A bit of a mystery?’
Rose paused for a long moment, until Chris wondered if her quiet personality was reasserting itself. “I think that it shows that we don’t know nearly as much about the Apocalypse Plague as we thought we did. I think that it’s no coincidence that my time machine ended up on this timeline instead of my home line, and six months after my target window.” And then she fell silent. Nothing that Rose did in this timeline could change the disaster that was happening/would happen/had happened in her home line. Chris couldn’t even really wrap his head around the idea of changing the past, anyway. Ms. Telmantassar said that if Rose changed things the right way, “conservation of causality” would preserve the changes and wipe Rose out of reality. Which was really heavy.
Evidently, everyone in the Mazda was thinking the same thing, because the car was quiet for long enough for it to pull into the front parking lot of a half-block shopping strip with a Denny’s in the middle, following the Neilsen’s SUV. St. Elizabeth’s church stood on the corner on one side, and a 7-11 with a gas station made up the last third of the block, its lot bleeding into the strip’s.
“Oh, boy! I’ll bet they have pancakes!” Jason shouted.
“Yeah, that wasn’t hilarious last time, either, bro,” Amy replied.
“Practice makes perfect! Now come on!”
“I think-“ Chris started, before realising that Jason was doing it on purpose and shutting up. Besides, all the other kids were gathered around the back of the vehicles, shoving each other and pulling their bags of presents out. Chris drew close to Charlotte. This was a family thing, and he felt on the outside, looking in, again. Rose drew in from the other side. Evidently, she was feeling the same way.
Eventually, everyone had their presents, and May led them into the Denny’s. “Wongs? We have a reservation,” she said to the hostess inside, a short, smiling Black girl.
“This way, please,” the hostess said, leading them through a dining room mostly filled with families that looked and sounded like they’d come for a miracle cure for their stress and somehow found it. Chris was starting to like Christmas Eve.
A big table had been drawn up on the far wall of a long, dark meeting room at the back of the restaurant, with blackened wood features and plush, sound-absorbing cushion reaching halfway up the wall in the same dark hues. It looked cozy, except for the exit door smack in the far wall, complete with the brightly lit sign overhead. Chris started. He had thought that Uncle Henry and Auntie Ma weren’t coming. But a second look showed that Asian man and woman at the centre of the table weren’t his uncle and aunt at all, but much younger people. And, with a shock, he recognised Jenny and the tall blond man next to her as the mysterious couple who had come for them in the hospital the day after Mom died. She would be, Chris thought, his cousin, Jenny. There were piles of Christmas presents on the table, and it was all starting to make sense to Chris.
Quick introductions followed. Chris and Charlotte met “their cousin the doctor,” as Auntie Ma said, David, who was tall and skinny, and took after his mother. Henry, the law student, was tall and massive, and took after his father. The other giants were Dora’s elder sister, Juanita, the student, who was engaged to Henry, and a familiar blond was the premed (even if even his sisters said that wasn’t really a thing in first year) Brad Neilsen, similarly engaged to Jenny, also a “student,” which Auntie Ma used in Jenny’s case to imply vast disapproval of her daughter’s plans to become a mere veterinarian. Chris wasn’t sure why. His uncle, Doctor Dawson, was married to a vet, and they were the richest people in Oroville. Though that also had something to do with owning half the west side of the Lake.
Anyway, there were presents for everyone, including a three season “Happy Days” boxed DVD set for Chris and a white scarf for Charlotte. As soon as she put it on, Ginger hopped out of her hiding spot in Charlotte’s pocket onto her shoulder.
“I hope your bird knows to make herself scarce before the waiter shows up,” Jenny Wong said. “I’m hungry.”
“Are you still growing, Jenny?” May asked.
“Why, thank you for noticing. I would like to borrow your jeans.”
“Yeah. Slim to none on that, big sis.”
But when the waiter arrived a moment later carrying a massive tray of Waffle Platters, he didn’t even bat an eye. The next waiter following put a plate of French Toast and sausages in front of Chris without even asking, and a third put a steaming urn on the table. John reached over to pour a stream of milky white fluid into his cup.
May looked at it, and her voice rose in question. “Milk tea? I guess if Mom can’t be here in person…”
Henry waited until John was done, then poured himself a cup. “Don’t complain. You can’t get this stuff in Palo Alto.”
“You can’t get that stuff anywhere,” May said, making a face.
“Not true,” Jenny said, pouring herself a cup. “There’s some good Tibetan places in San Francisco.”
“Just don’t mention ‘feudalism’ while you’re there.” Brad cautioned. “Like some people do.”
“What? My Mom’s a princess. I have a very complicated relationship with feudalism,” Jenny pointed out.
“That is something that you may have to learn to communicate more effectively, Jen-Jen,” her boyfriend pointed out. Jamie spat her orange juice into her cup, choking. “And we are aware of the irony in our comments,” he continued. “You’re not going to die on me, are you, sis?”
Breakfast over, the entire gang put on their winter gear and left through the back exit, walking single file. Apparently, breakfast was on the Wong’s tab. Also, apparently, his cousins did this a lot, because for some reason (Chinese magic blah blah) the siblings couldn’t meet around their Mom. This was a very special Denny’s. Apparently.
It didn’t really look special from the back. There was a tiny staff parking lot, cupped within a low building sticking out from the back of the restaurant, presumably the kitchen. Dr. Wong led them across the lot and then over a sagging sleeper lightly dusted with snow onto the cracked pavement of a back alley to an even less special lot mainly distinguished by a crumbling old stone townhouse just slightly too big for a family today and too small for a rich person, although its layout problems seemed irrelevant given that the boarded up windows.
That is, it didn’t seem special until Chris realised that the townhouse was backed in by houses and duplexes on the other side. Somehow, this house didn’t have a street address! Dr. Wong stepped up on the front stoop and put a key into a padlock. They walked into the cold, barren house, through a living room that spread around a rickety staircase, and then a kitchen in the back, and then they were outside again, in a neatly kept garden spread around a patch of burned ground in the centre. Father Asplin was waiting for them, wearing a long but light blue, modern jacket over his clericals, black winter gloves, and a Russian-style fur hat. For some reason, he was still carrying his golf umbrella. “You guys ready to go? Newbies, this isn’t complicated. Just walk into the ashes and turn clockwise.”
Chris followed the instructions, and was instantaneously transported to the familiar surroundings of St. Elizabeth’s in Gennessee, Washington, eight miles from downtown Oroville on the west side of Osoyoos Lake. He followed the crowd out into the church yard. He looked over at the Golden Dynasty just in time to see a battered old car with Canadian plates pull up behind the building.
More importantly, parked in front of the church was a familiar Land Rover SUV, with a crew cab behind it. And standing next to them were an old, old man and woman that, after a moment, Chris recognised as his aunt and uncle.
After a second, he realised that he was crying.