NYC Tenement Feb/02/1935

This story was originally written as a flash fiction contest entry. It had to be in the suspense genre, set on a fire escape, include a mattress, and be written in 48 hours. The entry did not place, but I tried submitting it to a few places. Based on feedback from rejections, I made several revisions, including changing POV from first to third and back to first, changing the tense, and expanding the story. I like some of the things I am trying here, but it seems too obscure (or rough) for publication. Posting it for anyone who might be interested. Comments appreciated.

Black and white photo of brick apartment buildings, with metal fire escape platforms and ladders.
Public domain photo.

I’m always dizzy after a jump. I lay still, eyes closed, listening. There is distant street noise — cars, horses, and shouting — but nothing nearby. The metal bars of the fire escape warm my back, and the cold mist of the jump fades fast. It is hot, muggy, and the stench of sunbaked garbage reminds me of growing up in a place like this, thirty years from now.

I turn my face away from the sun and open my eyes. I’m five floors up, with a view of other buildings facing the courtyard. Shadows move behind dirty windows and torn screens. Laundry hangs still, no breeze. There’s a metallic creak somewhere below, and a line of laundry jerks and squeals, moving towards a window.

Tonight, she’ll be sleeping on this platform. I always land where the target will be. I once asked how they knew and how they placed me. I didn’t want to materialize in mid-air or mid-street, and they’d laughed, and not answered. At least they had not punished me. Questions are discouraged.

The instructions are to climb up one floor and wait in the apartment above until she is asleep. I climb the steps to the platform above, look in, confirm the apartment is vacant, and slip through the window. The interior of the top floor apartment is stifling. More memories. My dad  proudly installing an air conditioner in the apartment window and mom telling me I can’t sleep outside anymore. A few months later the air conditioner was repossessed, and they argued. After that, dad started working nights too, doing something mom didn’t like. He said he didn’t have a choice. He told me to never open the door for anyone. When they came, they didn’t knock. I tried to stop them, but they locked me in a cupboard. “If you could see me now, dad.” There is probably a timeline where the air conditioner is not repossessed.

I find a sheet among painting rags on the floor, take it outside, shake out the mouse shit. After the apartment it is almost comfortable outside. I drape the sheet around myself and settle face down on the fire escape platform. I can watch for her, but from any angle I look like a pile of rags. The vibration will alert me to anyone climbing down from the roof. I pass the time.

At the end of the testing and training, they told me I was an assassin. I don’t know what the other options are. They told me many were tested, few survived, and being an assassin was considered an honour. I’d be defending the state from traitors. They made it sound important. Makes no difference what they call me. I’m a prisoner, or a slave, always doing exactly what I am told because I have no choice. 

I hear her come home, and she starts cooking. The smell of frying fish in cheap oil drifts up. Apart from the tasks, I am treated well. I get any food I want, delivered any time, with no cooking odors. Luxury apartment, always comfortably warm, with fresh air even though there are no windows. And a great selection of videotapes. Everything from classics to films that must have been made after they took me. The mini phone/computers are cool, but the bulky cars are ridiculous. And the porn – wilder than anything I used to see in Times Square. At first, I was worried there were cameras in my apartment, and they could see me, but now I don’t care. They don’t care what I do as long as I respond when ordered to workout or get ready for a task. If I ignore a summons, there’s no food delivery and the movies stop working. Once, a long time ago, I tried to see how long I could last. I don’t know how long I lasted, but they punished me. I don’t ignore a summons. 

The courtyard fills with shadows but gets no cooler. The fire escapes come to life in the dark. People fight, neck, read, and set up mattresses for sleeping. This past is so close to mine I could probably visit my dad. I’d tell him not to buy an air conditioner on credit. The woman below, the traitor, is washing her dishes, humming some pleasant tune I don’t recognize. My instructions are to wait until she is asleep before acting, as usual.

Not all tasks are killing traitors. Those are the easy ones. Arrive, shoot or poison or drown, leave. Other tasks are harder, more complex. Tonight, it is another “seduce and impregnate the female.” They never resist. At least, not in the timeline they send me to. In another timeline, maybe they do. And in another, nothing happens to them, either because they get away with it, or aren’t traitors. Sometimes I’ve been sent to kill the same person in different timelines. Maybe one day I’ll be sent to kill a women I’ve impregnated in a different timeline. That might be hard. But in another timeline, they live, so it does not matter.

During the testing and training, there was something about timelines, timewaves, and trigger points, but I still don’t understand how it works. How people in the past can be traitors does not make sense either. Once I thought they could be travellers like me, hiding in a timeline or time away from whenever the state actually exists, and whatever the proper timeline is. But in hundreds of tasks, no one has ever expressed anything other than mild surprise. The goal of the killings, the impregnations, the woundings, even the odd assignment to throw a brick through a window, is not something I can worry about. 

The woman below pushes her mattress out the window onto the fire escape. She is younger than I expect. She looks up but does not see me. She tucks a gun under her pillow. They must know she has a gun. The task will succeed because it did.

I wait for her to fall asleep. Why do they have to be sleeping, especially when I have to wake them first? So they think they are dreaming? Then why do I always arrive before they fall asleep? It’s something to do with trigger points. Like the times I visit. As far as I know, I’ve never been earlier than 1835 or later than 1985. Could be something to do with my lifespan, but I don’t know how old I am.

The metal stairs creak as I climb down. She doesn’t stir. The noise is lost in the urban evening rumble. I miss it in my quiet apartment. I glance down at the last step, lower myself  to the platform, turn, and freeze. The gun is aimed at me. She’s holding it with both hands. Sitting up.

 “Mark. They told me you would come.”

 “Who told you I’d come?” She’s expecting me? I remind myself that the task succeeds.

She gestures with the gun. “Sit down, at the end.” I sit at the foot of the mattress. “I’ve never had the chance to ask. Why do you do it? The killings, the rapes?”

“I don’t have a choice.”   

“You always have choices. When you’re out on a task like this, you’ve never tried to escape?

She’s another traveller. “I can’t. That is, I haven’t. I always come back. They bring me back from wherever I am.” I have tried little changes – even accidentally not being where I am supposed to be for the return. It doesn’t make any difference. And I don’t want to be punished again. “There’s an implant – don’t you know?”

“You think I’m not prepared?” She lowers one hand from the gun and palms a scalpel from the sleeve of her pink house coat. She leans towards me and waves the scalpel in front of my chest. I try not to look down, so I can be ready if she lowers the gun, but she doesn’t, and I do. She grins and places the scalpel on the windowsill while keeping her eyes on me. In the glow of the courtyard, they look green. She takes the gun with both hands again. “I don’t take it out tonight. Not enough time. Let’s get this over with.”

I look up. I can see the stars between the bars of the escape platform above. In another timeline, I live. 1985 turns into 1986, and I stay a dishwasher, sharing a roach infested apartment and playing piano in a third-rate band at dive bars. It was a good life. I didn’t go for that job interview. In another timeline, this task succeeds.   

She stands and gestures with the gun. “Go on, get up.”

“What difference does that make?”

“I need to get pregnant, remember. Your task?”

“So we’re going to have sex now?”

“Don’t be stupid, Mark, although I suppose that’s how you ended up here. Me too. We all were. There’s a cup in the bathroom.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Jerk off into it.”

“No, I don’t understand…who you are, how you know, why you need to get pregnant by me. None of it makes sense. They never answer – can you tell me?” I gave up seeking answers years ago, and now I’ve found someone who might have them. Or she found me.

“Not now. Maybe another time. Leave the cup in center of the bathtub. Trust me, I’ll take care of the rest, later.”

“You’re asking me to trust you?”

She waves the gun and smiles. “You don’t have a choice, remember? Your task. Do it.”

I stand. She backs away, slowly raising the gun to keep it aimed at me. “You said I always have choices. Maybe I’m choosing to trust you.”

“Are you?”

I nod, unsure who I am trying to convince.

She hands the gun to me. The metal is warm from her hands. I aim it at her forehead. She doesn’t move. Her eyes are twinkling, reflecting the lights of windows around us. Someone turns up a radio, and an instrumental version of “The Carioca” echoes in the courtyard. I know it from Flying Down to Rio.

They will understand why I kill her, do not impregnate her. She must be a traitor, a travelling traitor, and they do not know. How can they not know? What else don’t they know? I’m being tested. This close, I can’t miss. I can make it quick and painless — and ensure she can’t reach the scalpel.

What if I don’t shoot her? Is this a timeline where the gun isn’t loaded, or misfires? She stares at me, ignoring the gun. She isn’t scared or defiant. Just waiting. She’s passing time, part of every task, as if she expects this.

“Mark, you won’t shoot me, because you didn’t shoot me.”

“Maybe I shoot you in this timeline.”

“There is only one. They tell you there are many, constantly diverging, but they lie to make you feel comfortable about what you do.”

“That’s bullshit. I’ve been to multiple timelines. I’ve killed the same people in different timelines.”

“There are different pasts, but only one present. That’s why the state works so hard to control it, and why we need to defeat it. You can’t just say everything is fine in another timeline.”

I step forward. “You’re a traitor.” The gun is almost touching her forehead. She keeps her hands steady at her sides and presses her head against the gun.

“So are you. You were already planning to lie in your report, saying you waited in the apartment above as per instructions when you actually waited outside on the escape. You’re not going to say you were close enough that I could reach up and grab the gun. You know they don’t notice the small ripples. Make a larger one. Make your resistance count.”

 I lower the gun and hand it back to her. She slips it somewhere inside her housecoat, retrieves her scalpel from the windowsill. “Remember, leave the cup in the bathtub.” A gust of cold air washes over me.  “I’ll see you again, sometime.”

“Wait!” I call into the mist, but she is gone. I climb into the apartment through the window. The apartment is still hot, still smells of fish. I consider my future, something I have not done for a long time.

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