After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

Food arrived, custom-designed pizzas, served with class upon good dishes. Chianti was available and therefore seemed called for as an accompaniment—Jerry had absorbed this as an article of faith during his early college years, and Jan expressed a willingness to be converted.

They ate, sipped wine, and talked. Jan, it appeared, had been born in California and had grown up in San Francisco. In Chinatown? Jerry wondered. But he didn’t as yet feel quite sure enough of himself to ask her that.

He had spent the earlier part of his own childhood in one of the smaller, more distant and less affluent suburbs of Chicago. Then, when he was about ten years old, his parents, had been able to move to the more affluent Lombard.

“Every spring they have a Lilac Festival there—it’s pretty famous. It reminded me of that today, when I saw the lilacs out at New Salem.”

” ‘When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed—’ “, Jan quoted. It was really marvelous, how daintily she could eat pizza, and what a respectable amount this technique allowed her to put away. “That’s Walt Whitman. It has something to do with Lincoln too.”

“Oh.” Jerry felt a certain sadness. “I haven’t had a lot of time to look into poetry.”

His companion looked sympathetic. “In your field I can understand that. It must keep you very busy. Poetry is one of Dr. Pilgrim’s favorite things.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you. Does Dr. Pilgrim have a first name? I saw a first initial on the note he left for me.”

Jan smiled. “If he does, I haven’t heard anyone use it.”

“Oh.” Jerry smiled back. “Hey, is that lilac perfume you’re wearing?”

“Actually it is.” Now she was pleased to the point of giggling. It was a quiet giggle, as if it might concern secrets. Then, seemingly with her next breath, as if there might have been a transition but Jerry had somehow missed it, she was asking him: “Was there ever a moment—probably in your childhood—that you thought you had lived through twice? Or maybe more than twice? I don’t mean déjà vu, that’s something else entirely. I mean twice in rapid succession, like bing-bing. Know what I mean?”

Jerry sat back in his comfortable chair, regarding his companion’s ivory skin, face and slim neck and bare shoulders over the red dress. He had the sensation the martini and the wine were rapidly turning to water in his blood, that full sobriety had suddenly returned.

He said: “Funny you should ask. There was a moment just today… not exactly what you’re asking about, but…”


“Well, it was nothing, really. I had just arrived at New Salem, and I was starting to look for you and Dr. Pilgrim. Directly across from the hotel there’s a footpath leading up into the park, and I went up that way and came on the log cabins without any warning. I looked into the first one, and there was a woman inside wearing a costume just like what Lincoln’s mother must have worn. Making cornbread over a fire. And it shook me for just a moment. Like maybe I had really stepped into some kind of time warp—know what I mean?”

Jan was listening with calm interest. “I suppose she was one of those historical society people.”

“Yeah.” Jerry paused; then let it go at that.

“Most people—” Jan had to suppress a tiny, lady-like, chianti-hiccup. She began again. “Most people would not be really shaken, even for a moment, by such a trivial experience. And yet I get the impression, from the way you talk about it now, that you really were somewhat taken aback—if only for a moment. Now, why should that have been?”

Jerry popped a fragment of pizza crust into his mouth and followed it with another sip of wine. He chewed meditatively.

“Well?” Jan sounded genuinely interested.

“Well. Funny you should get me to talk about it. No one else ever has. There was one time, when I was a kid, when something happened that was really very strange, along the time-warp line. Or at least I have this memory of a strange thing happening, whether it ever actually did or not. Maybe some part of me is always on the lookout for something like it to happen again.”

“Tell me about it.” Jan Chen’s voice was sympathetic, her eyes intent.

“I will. Though I’ve never told anyone else about it until now.” He sipped his wine again. “Before my family moved to Lombard we lived farther out from the city, in a house we were renting on the edge of a small town—it was almost like living on a farm. I was only a little kid then, it was a lot of fun.” He paused for a deep breath. “Anyway, one day the house we were living in burned down. Something wrong with the wiring. My dad—he’s my stepfather, really—was at work, and my mother was visiting a neighbor.”

“Excuse me. You were an only child?”

“Yeah. Anyway, I was just coming home from school. I was the first one, or almost the first one, to see the smoke and flames. The fire was just getting a good start. All I could think of was that my mother must be in the house somewhere. I wasn’t even scared, except for her.

“There was a neighbor woman running across her yard toward our place, shouting my name. But I paid her no attention. I ran on into the house, yelling for my mother. First I looked in the kitchen for her, and then in the other lower rooms—it wasn’t a big house; it only took me about five seconds to discover that my mother wasn’t on the ground floor anywhere. All I could think of was that she had to be upstairs.

“There were flames on the stairs already, just getting a start there, but I hardly thought about that. By that time I was in a total panic. I ran up the stairs, yelling my head off. I had to get my mother out.”

“You were a brave little boy.”

“I was a crazy little boy, maybe. I’m telling you this like I remember it. What my memory of today tells me happened.”

“I understand.” Jan nodded. Her concentration was more intense than ever; her dark eyes had widened subtly as she listened.

“My mother wasn’t upstairs, either. There were only a couple of rooms up there, and it took me only a few moments to make sure she wasn’t home. But still, by the time I got back to the head of the stairs, the fire had spread. There was no getting down those stairs anymore. It would have been like stepping into a furnace.”

“You could have crawled out of a window,” Jan whispered. It was the same almost reverential whisper she had used in Lincoln’s tomb.

“I might have. Except, as I remember, it was still winter and we still had these big tough storm windows on. And the window sills were high, well above the floor. I’m not at all sure I could have got out of one before the smoke got me, or the fire, the way those flames were spreading. Anyway, at the time I’m not sure I even thought about windows. Oh, one more thing. When I was running up the stairs, my left arm and my left shirtsleeve got burned. Pretty badly. But I didn’t feel the pain that much right away. You know how it can be when you’re excited?”

“I know.”

“But once I was upstairs I started feeling the burn. Still not real bad. All I could think of—standing there at the top of the stairs and knowing I couldn’t go down them—was that it had all been a great mistake. It had been wrong for me to come upstairs. I should have known better. If my mother had been in the house when the fire started, she would have noticed it burning and got out. She never slept during the day. There had been no need for me to come up here looking for her.”

“So what did you do?” His soft-voiced listener, posing with unconscious art in the soft light of the candle on their table, was leaning her pale chin upon one slender wrist.

Jerry sipped his wine. “I guess,” he said, “I decided not to come upstairs after all. That’s how I remember it.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“I know damn well I don’t. Everything that I’ve told you happened, I remember it happening, as surely as anything in my life has ever happened. And yet, there I was, downstairs again, standing just inside the front door, a good ten or twelve feet from where the fire was just getting started on the stairway. And neither my arm nor my shirt were burned at all.

“The stairs were no longer a mass of flames, at the moment they looked almost safe, just as they had when I—came in the first time. I could have run up there, but I didn’t, because I had just been upstairs, and I was sure my mother wasn’t there.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred