Two: Nothing Means Anything
Liz and Dash walked down the meadow to the shore of the lake. Liz had picked up Dash’s gun, and walked along examining it before putting it in her other pocket. Dash was on the lookout for ruins, long-buried streets, the odd bit of plastic, but there was nothing like that. Liz seemed inclined to silence, and Dash had enough to think about. They reached the shore and stood looking out.
“So what do you do to eat?” asked Dash.
“I hunt,” replied Liz.
“Gonna shoot that moose out there?”
“I don’t use my Beretta for hunting,” she replied, as if it was the stupidest idea ever. She turned along the shore of the lake and he followed. The moose watched them, then moved lazily off through the shoulder-deep water. Dash was pretty sure this would be Lake Road if it was in First World, but she was right, it seemed bigger, much bigger. Near the corner of the lake where the outlet stream flowed happily down a natural sluice—just where the dam was in Sheridanville as Dash knew it—there was a little copse of short trees and tall shrubs, much denser than the pine forest a quarter of the way around the lake shore where Dash had first arrived. Where, in fact, in that other Sheridanville, his house had been; where, he supposed, right now (in some sense), there was a lovely chalk outline of himself on the walk.
Amidst this copse was a door made of very rough thick boards pegged together. Liz put her hand on the stout wood stick that was the handle and pulled the door open. Inside was a hollowed-out cave abode, a sort of redneck hobbit house. It was one room, dug back perhaps twenty feet, with wooden boards and small logs for the roof of the front part, and some sort of thatch ceiling with roots dangling through it in back. There were various uses of tree trunks and logs: a couple of tables, three stools, one actual chair, more or less. There was a sort of pantry on the side with four shelves: one had tools, one had metal and wooden parts scattered about, one had some food items—jerky? cheese? bread? and some apples—and the top one was crammed with books. Three mugs hung from bent hanging roots. The floor and much of the walls were covered with furs. There was one window, on the right side, with no glass.
“It’s not my main home,” she said. “It’s just a hunting camp.”
“Okay,” said Dash. “I have a ton of questions, of course.”
Liz led the way into the hobbit hole, and took the chair, a sturdy thing consisting of a piece of tree trunk with a sort of wicker back. Dash looked around and chose one of the tree trunk stools. She picked up a flask from the floor near her chair and took a swig, then handed it to Dash. He took a swig: some sort of brandy, not horrible nor obviously poisonous.
“Okay, shoot,” said Liz.
“Speaking of that,” said Dash, “just curious, are you going to keep that gun?”
She leaned to her right and pulled his .32 from her left pocket. She looked at it. “It’s kind of antique,” she said. “Colt 1903. They stopped making them after World War Two. Used to be officers’ sidearms. Must have looked way modern back then.” She turned it this way and that, looking at it, then put it back in her pocket. “If you’re good, you get it back.”
“Oh kay. So. You die, you come here? Or just if you’re shot?”
“No, it seems like everyone comes here when they die. Then they die again and they leave.”
“Even people dead of old age?”
“They come here as oh, thirty or so. That makes them really reckless, I’ll tell you that.”
“Yeah. You get shot once, the next time you’re likely to be careful. You die of old age once, you figure you’re on Spring Break. Shot a guy like that once. Funny story there.”
Dash took this in. He said, “Aborted fetuses?”
“Actually,” said Liz, “I haven’t seen any very young babies either. I’ve seen a few toddlers. That’s it.”
“What? You don’t have a soul till you’re two? What does that mean?”
“Look, pal. Maybe it means something, maybe it doesn’t. Until you find out for sure, maybe it’s best just to stay alive in this world, because one thing hasn’t changed. We don’t know why we’re here, and we don’t know where we go next. No traveler returns. Okay? Got that?”
“Got that,” said Dash, looking out the window.
Dash took another swig of the brandy and set it down. “You make that yourself?” he asked.
“No, I trade for it,” said Liz. “Want some cheese?”
“Oh. Sure. Heh heh. Dying sure makes you hungry.”
“Must be the blood loss,” said Liz.
She smirked. “No. I have no idea why.”
He let that sit while she pulled her chunk of cheese closer and sliced a couple of pieces off with a big knife. She handed him a piece. They each ate a bite in silence, and then he asked, “So what about animals?”
“Well, how would I know? I kill a deer. Am I supposed to go over to it and ask if it remembers ever doing this before? I mean, they don’t talk. Oh, the birds talk. The damn crows make all kinds of noise. But who knows what they’re saying. Besides, they might not even know they died and lived again.” She got a far-away look and added, “But on the other hand.”
“What? The cats have second lives? They should have nine, right?”
“I know. Funny, isn’t it? Yeah.”
“No, really,” said Dash, “they do? Cats??”
“I guess so. Dogs too, I think. I mean, I suspect.”
“How do you suspect? You met your old dog?”
“No, my old cat,” she said. “Hangs around my house. My main house.”
“Ohhh kay. Livestock?”
She actually laughed. “That would be weird, wouldn’t it? You kill a steer and eat the steaks and then you get plugged and come here and get to eat the same damn steaks again?”
“That seems very weird. What about the books?”
“I don’t know. I find piles of them places. I suspect they show up near, I don’t know, libraries or bookstores or something. I found these ones right near here, actually—a couple of times, I found piles of books just overlooking the stream down from the lake a bit.”
“Ah. Yes,” said Dash. “The Sheridan Carnegie Library. No, I’m serious.”
“So you’re from here, huh?” said Liz.
“I was actually born in Rhode Island,” said Dash. “Sheridanville is my home. I can’t help notice a lack of Sheridanville out there now, however. So people come through, as do their murder weapons, but the towns stay behind?”
“If you want buildings, you have to build them yourself. And people do. Wait till you see what they did with Portland. That’s where I bought it. It’s my Second World birthplace, it is. I guess no one much bought it around here till you did.”
“Well, lots of people must die of old age. Heck, my dad died at the Sheridan River Nursing Home. That’s only about five miles from downtown Sheridanville: they’re just over into Littleton.”
“And you think he should have stuck around for you?”
“No, he would have headed for New York City as fast as his long legs could carry him.”
“Your mom there?” Liz asked.
“No, she’s still a going concern at 99,” said Dash. “We’re a long-lived family. Um, kinda blew it on that one, I guess, but it wasn’t my fault.”
“Heh heh. Lead poisoning,” said Liz. “No idea who shot you? Your ex, I think you mentioned?”
“Ah, it couldn’t have been her. No motive. It wouldn’t be in her interest, and it’s not the sort of thing she’d do for fun.” He pondered a bit in front of her, then raised his eyebrows and said, “Ah, what does it matter.”
“It matters. Because they might come after you later.”
He gave her a look. “And this is where people here go for motivation? That the guy who killed you might want to kill you again?”
“No! I’m not like that at all. I hunt. I love nature. I never realized it when I was in First World living First Life. No, my friend.” She got her Beretta out, which required her to twist around in a way that reminded him that she was actually rather attractive. “No, I was happy as a bug in a rug until you came along and told me Boogie Carter was around here somewhere.”
“Well, I’m so sorry about that,” Dash replied. “I suppose you’d rather not know till he showed up and put a bullet through your head and sent you off to do research on the Third World. Which I used to think meant, you know, Honduras and Mozambique and Bangladesh and, you know, Alabama. But what makes you think he’s going to come looking for you anyway?”
“What would you do?” Liz challenged him. “I wrecked his lovely little gangster life, I made him kill me and go on the lam, and then apparently my info got him shot dead. Which is practically the definition of ironic.”
“What would I do? If I were an insane gangster murderer drug dealing guy who shot people himself because he couldn’t find good help? Homicidal maniac? I’m sorry, Liz, but I don’t have the equipment to make even a wild guess. But I do have experience being shot and then waking up in the Second World. And I can say with some authority that it made me question pretty much everything I thought I knew about Life.” He waved his arms, whacking his right elbow into a log wall beam. “Life,” he added, “don’t talk to me about life.”
Liz had rolled her eyes several times during this speech, and rolled her eyes again just so Dash would catch it. Then she aimed her eyes at his—hers hazel to brown, his blue to green—and said, “Are you done? Because Boogie Carter is a special guy, and take it from the expert, dying isn’t going to do a thing but intensify that.”
“So what’s your plan?”
“Go find him. Kill him. Send him to find out if there’s a Third World.” She hefted her Beretta. “With his own murder weapon. With this. Where did they kill him, anyway?”
“Um, northern Vermont,” said Dash. “He’d gotten as far as Texas, I guess he was afraid to try crossing to Mexico, but he came back to New England to be near his mom. I guess the Vermont woods were a good place to hide.”
“They’d be even better now,” said Liz. She stood up and got his gun out of her pocket. To his surprise, she handed it over. “And you’re coming with me.”
“I’m what now?”
“You’re coming with me,” said Liz. “I give you back your gun. I could use backup.”
Dash blinked, smiling. “I don’t even know where to start. Why am I coming with you? Why do I care about the gun? It bleepin’ killed me, that gun did. Besides, I don’t know one thing about shooting. You say it’s a .32? I don’t even know what it’s thirty-two of. I don’t have a clue what a caliber is. So, backup? Like, I’m going to somehow help? Even if I want to?” He laughed nervously, because she was just gazing at him.
After a long moment, Liz said, “You wonder perhaps where your murderer is?”
He blinked, not smiling. “No. No, I don’t wonder that.”
She smiled, but not happily. “And you presumably don’t wonder if there’s a Third World after the Second World. And a Fourth and a Fifth and so on.”
He stared at her, then said, “Go on. You’re getting somewhere.”
“Oddly,” said Liz, “knowing that if you die the first time you get to live again—it doesn’t make people less likely to kill each other.”
“I can see that.”
“You should be able to. I never killed anyone in my first life. Here, I’ve killed oh, five people? And three moose, a dozen deer, a good two dozen turkeys and any number of rabbits, squirrels, ducks—!”
“And you’re obviously typical.”
“No. But you can see where this is going.”
“You shot three moose with your pistol?”
“No, you dope. I have a bow to hunt with.” She reached up into the tangle of roots from the ceiling and pulled it down: a long, thin bow of wood. She handed it to him.
“Not going to take on Boogie Carter with the bow and arrow?” he asked.
She raised her Beretta and pointed it just over Dash’s shoulder. He flinched. “No,” she said. “There’s the psychological aspect to think about. And by the way, the safety’s on.”
“The psychological aspect?” Dash repeated. She stared at him, so he got up. They were both standing, filling up most of the front of Liz’s hobbit hole hunting lodge. She had her bow in one hand and the Beretta in the other; he had his Colt or whatever in his right hand, held with a sweaty looseness fitting his discomfort. “You mean you need to see him see you see him through the sights—?”
“Something like that,” she said, sighting out the door at a loon on the lake.
“For gosh sake, don’t shoot it,” said Dash. “They’re endangered.”
“Not in Second World they aren’t,” said Liz. She raised the gun. “But I find them a bit gamy, personally. And like I say, this isn’t a hunting weapon.” She stepped outside, and he followed, and she said, still looking out over Poplar Lake or its simulacrum, “Anyway, I’m not reckless. I may or may not have murdered my boyfriend, but I don’t waste ammo.”
“Is it hard to come by? It doesn’t come through with the weapons?”
“No. I buy it from a guy. In Marshall Maine. It’s about twenty miles. My buddy Foster. He makes his own, he’s got quite the operation.”
“Marshall? It’s more like ten.”
“Um, thing about that,” said Liz, “double all the distances. About. Second World’s bigger. So, twenty miles?”
“I wonder why that is.”
“There’s no why,” she said, still aiming vaguely over the lake. “Nothing means anything.” She went back in and started grabbing up supplies. She stowed the cheese and the bread and the jerky and the flask and some apples in a backpack, to which she added some tools and a few books; she found a quiver and slung it over her shoulder over the backpack. Then she pointed her gun at a back corner. “I have an extra pack,” she said. “It’s yours. You’ll never guess whose it was before.”
Dash picked up the bag, not sure she wouldn’t shoot him if he said no. It was full, but not heavy: bedding, mostly. “Ralphie,” he said.
Suitably packed, Liz and Dash stepped out of the hobbit-hole. Liz pushed the door shut—not painted green, not round, no knob in the middle, no mark of the wizard’s staff—they pocketed their guns and started off along the lake shore.
“So, first to Marshall Maine to ammo up,” said Dash, “then off to North VT to gun down the guy what gunned you down last game.”
“Last game?” Liz repeated.
“This is really reminding me of my Tomb Raider days.”
“You played Tomb Raider? I grew up on Tomb Raider.”
“Yes, of course, you’re still trying to look like Lara Croft.”
Liz gave him a sharp look, then looked smiling over the lake. “I’m nailing it, I think,” she said, “and I’m not even trying. Although I’ll never have anything like her front porch.”
“Her impossible overhang,” Dash agreed. “Well, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be, or whatever. Still.”
They both came to a halt, staring forward at the apparition who had just stumbled from the bushes, holding a large and shiny hand gun. The apparition, a woman with shoulder-length red-brown hair, wearing jeans and a University of Minnesota tee shirt, stared right back at them.
Dash was the first to mobilize. “Well, hello, Eudoxia,” he said. “The difference between shocked and surprised, exhibited once again. Liz Leduc, this is Eudoxia Gibson. Dox, this is Liz. Dox and I used to be married.”
“This is your ex?” asked Liz.
“This is my ex.”