Fiction is a partnership between author and reader. No author can create a fictional reality alone — stories only come to life in the minds of the readers. Readers may imagine the story in ways the author never anticipated. The words of the author and the imagination of the reader combine to create the story.
A Choice of Evils is a serial project that will rely even more on the author-reader collaboration. Every week, on Wednesday, I will post a new chapter of the story. From Wednesday through Sunday, you, the reader, will make suggestions about where the story should go. What should happen next? What did these events really mean? What is the next twist? It’s all up to you. I’ll take the best suggestion, and write it into the next chapter.
Collaborations like this can take stories to places neither author nor reader ever anticipated. I hope you decide to participate. This will be fun for everyone involved.
A Choice of Evils
Sometimes, I slip so seamlessly I almost don’t notice. In the middle of Sam’s sentence, it’s not raining. Did the rain stop? Or did it never start?
The sidewalk under our feet is dry. The cars on Biscayne Boulevard no longer splash through grimy puddles. Where gray clouds hung overhead, the sun peeks through the fronds of the royal palms lining the road.
Sam’s a redhead now. It suits him, especially in the olive suit. I never would’ve thought.
He’s staring at me, waiting for an answer. Distracted by the slip, I missed the question.
“Right,” I say, nodding. I search the pockets of my slacks for the gum I put there this morning. Doing something with my hands buys me some time to catch up. No gum; a pack of cigarettes instead. It’s hard to imagine myself as a smoker, but just brushing the pack with my fingertip triggers the craving, and my hand pulls a cigarette out before I can stop it. I may as well smoke one before I get a withdrawal headache.
Sam leans toward me so I can hear his voice over the traffic. “Tony Belmonte isn’t a man to trifle with, Abe,” he says in a conspiratorial mutter.
Nothing about our conversation changed during the slip. That’s a relief. I nod. “I know.” I light a cigarette, supressing a shudder of revulsion as my lungs welcome in the delicious smoke. I feel the days vanishing from the end of my life as I breathe in, flickering out of existence one at a time. I shake my head to call my attention back from the future to right now. “Where has he got her?”
“The Bird of Paradise.”
“Hallandale,” I say. “That’s a long way from North Miami Beach.”
“Only about five miles.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know,” Sam says. “Be careful. This could get you killed.”
“Sam,” I answer, “death was my business, my stock in trade.”
He shakes his head. “This isn’t the same thing and you know it.”
Something inside me demands I take another puff of the cigarette still smouldering in my hand. I flick it to the curb and crush it out under my heel. “I appreciate you sticking your neck out for me like this,” I say. I extend a hand and he shakes it before getting back into his car.
As Sam pulls back into traffic, I scan the opposite curb. Two hacks are parked there, engines idling. The cabbies lean on them, chatting. The train probably doesn’t go to Hallandale in this reality, either. When traffic breaks, I step into the street.
This time, I can’t miss the slip. All the urban noises — the traffic, the horns, the half-heard conversations — die. The only sounds left are the wind through the ruined buildings, the waves lapping against the concrete, and a steady ticking. The boat I’m in rocks gently. The breeze carries a fresh smell of salt, and an undertone of decay.
Miami spreads out before me, broken and flooded. It looks like a sandcastle made by giants and demolished by the tide.
I hate it when the slips happen so closely. I can look forward to a headache whether or not I’m a smoker. I need at least a couple days between slips to acclimate myself.
The ceaseless ticking will drive me crazy if I can’t figure out what’s causing it. I search the boat for the source, and find a yellow box with dials and a needle. A geiger counter. I’ve never used one before, but I don’t think it’s ticking fast enough that I should be alarmed.
“No contact here, Abe” comes Sam’s voice, tinny, from a radio speaker.
I pick up the handset and try a button. “Everything’s empty here, too,” I say. Sam’s a good friend. He’s different in every reality, of course, but I can always count on whatever version of him I meet.
Navigating to Hallandale is going to be tricky. The buildings have tumbled into waterways that used to be streets. Jagged concrete slabs protrude from the water. It’s easy to imagine an obstacle lurking just below the water’s surface, waiting to shred the boat’s hull.
I start up the motor. Next to it, an automatic rifle leans against the gunwale. Something in this ruined city is dangerous enough that I felt the need to arm myself. Probably pirates, from the look of things. I pick the gun up. Holding it feels unnatural, like it was designed to fit someone else’s hands. My grandfather carried a rifle. I’m not him. I don’t know how to use it, and probably couldn’t bring myself to. I put it back down.
I pull the boat into the middle of the street and head north. Hopefully, I can avoid any trouble without having to resort to violence.
Not that I would let pirates stop me.
Reality is woven from the threads of millions of possibilities. From each moment, they stretch into the future, a thousand different timelines, parallel but invisible to each other. They aren’t invisible to me.
One thing is true in all the possibilities. I won’t let anything in any of them get in my way.
My name is Abe Fleischmann. I’m on a mission. Nothing will stop me.
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(The image on this page is modified from “choose your way” by Alex Yosifov. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)