Lil's parents went into their jars with little ceremony. I saw them just before they went in, when they stopped in at Lil's and my place to kiss her goodbye and wish her well.
Tom and I stood awkwardly to the side while Lil and her mother held an achingly chipper and polite farewell.
“So,” I said to Tom. “Deadheading.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Yup. Took the backup this morning.”
Before coming to see their daughter, they'd taken their backups. When they woke, this event—everything following the backup—would never have happened for them.
God, they were bastards.
“When are you coming back?” I asked, keeping my castmember face on, carefully hiding away the disgust.
'We'll be sampling monthly, just getting a digest dumped to us. When things look interesting enough, we'll come on back.” He waggled a finger at me. “I'll be keeping an eye on you and Lillian—you treat her right, you hear?”
“We're sure going to miss you two around here,” I said.
He pishtoshed and said, “You won't even notice we're gone. This is your world now—we're just getting out of the way for a while, letting you-all take a run at it. We wouldn't be going down if we didn't have faith in you two.”
Lil and her mom kissed one last time. Her mother was more affectionate than I'd ever seen her, even to the point of tearing up a little. Here in this moment of vanishing consciousness, she could be whomever she wanted, knowing that it wouldn't matter the next time she awoke.
“Julius,” she said, taking my hands, squeezing them. “You've got some wonderful times ahead of you—between Lil and the Park, you're going to have a tremendous experience, I just know it.” She was infinitely serene and compassionate, and I knew it didn't count.
Still smiling, they got into their runabout and drove away to get the lethal injections, to become disembodied consciousnesses, to lose their last moments with their darling daughter.
They were not happy to be returned from the dead. Their new bodies were impossibly young, pubescent and hormonal and doleful and kitted out in the latest trendy styles. In the company of Kim and her pals, they made a solid mass of irate adolescence.
“Just what the hell do you think you're doing?” Rita asked, shoving me hard in the chest. I stumbled back into my carefully scattered dust, raising a cloud.
Rita came after me, but Tom held her back. “Julius, go away. Your actions are totally indefensible. Keep your mouth shut and go away.”
I held up a hand, tried to wave away his words, opened my mouth to speak.
“Don't say a word,” he said. “Leave. Now.”
“Don't stay here and don't come back. Ever,” Kim said, an evil look on her face.
“No,” I said. “No goddamn it no. You're going to hear me out, and then I'm going to get Lil and her people and they're going to back me up. That's not negotiable.”
We stared at each other across the dim parlor. Debra made a twiddling motion and the lights came up full and harsh. The expertly crafted gloom went away and it was just a dusty room with a fake fireplace.
“Let him speak,” Debra said. Rita folded her arms and glared.
“I did some really awful things,” I said, keeping my head up, keeping my eyes on them. “I can't excuse them, and I don't ask you to forgive them. But that doesn't change the fact that we've put our hearts and souls into this place, and it's not right to take it from us. Can't we have one constant corner of the world, one bit frozen in time for the people who love it that way? Why does your success mean our failure?
“Can't you see that we're carrying on your work? That we're tending a legacy you left us?”
“Are you through?” Rita asked.
“This place is not a historical preserve, Julius, it's a ride. If you don't understand that, you're in the wrong place. It's not my goddamn fault that you decided that your stupidity was on my behalf, and it doesn't make it any less stupid. All you've done is confirm my worst fears.”
Debra's mask of impartiality slipped. “You stupid, deluded asshole,” she said, softly. “You totter around, pissing and moaning about your little murder, your little health problems—yes, I've heard—your little fixation on keeping things the way they are. You need some perspective, Julius. You need to get away from here: Disney World isn't good for you and you're sure as hell not any good for Disney World.”
It would have hurt less if I hadn't come to the same conclusion myself, somewhere along the way.
I found the ad-hoc at a Fort Wilderness campsite, sitting around a fire and singing, necking, laughing. The victory party. I trudged into the circle and hunted for Lil.
She was sitting on a log, staring into the fire, a million miles away. Lord, she was beautiful when she fretted. I stood in front of her for a minute and she stared right through me until I tapped her shoulder. She gave an involuntary squeak and then smiled at herself.
“Lil,” I said, then stopped. Your parents are home, and they've joined the other side.
For the first time in an age, she looked at me softly, smiled even. She patted the log next to her. I sat down, felt the heat of the fire on my face, her body heat on my side. God, how did I screw this up?
Without warning, she put her arms around me and hugged me hard. I hugged her back, nose in her hair, woodsmoke smell and shampoo and sweat. “We did it,” she whispered fiercely. I held onto her. No, we didn't.
“Lil,” I said again, and pulled away.
“What?” she said, her eyes shining. She was stoned, I saw that now.
“Your parents are back. They came to the Mansion.”
She was confused, shrinking, and I pressed on.
“They were with Debra.”
She reeled back as if I'd slapped her.
“I told them I'd bring the whole group back to talk it over.”
She hung her head and her shoulders shook, and I tentatively put an arm around her. She shook it off and sat up. She was crying and laughing at the same time. “I'll have a ferry sent over,” she said.
I sat in the back of the ferry with Dan, away from the confused and angry ad-hocs. I answered his questions with terse, one-word answers, and he gave up. We rode in silence, the trees on the edges of the Seven Seas Lagoon whipping back and forth in an approaching storm.
The ad-hoc shortcutted through the west parking lot and moved through the quiet streets of Frontierland apprehensively, a funeral procession that stopped the nighttime custodial staff in their tracks.
As we drew up on Liberty Square, I saw that the work-lights were blazing and a tremendous work-gang of Debra's ad-hocs were moving from the Hall to the Mansion, undoing our teardown of their work.
Working alongside of them were Tom and Rita, Lil's parents, sleeves rolled up, forearms bulging with new, toned muscle. The group stopped in its tracks and Lil went to them, stumbling on the wooden sidewalk.
I expected hugs. There were none. In their stead, parents and daughter stalked each other, shifting weight and posture to track each other, maintain a constant, sizing distance.
“What the hell are you doing?” Lil said, finally. She didn't address her mother, which surprised me. It didn't surprise Tom, though.
He dipped forward, the shuffle of his feet loud in the quiet night. “We're working,” he said.
“No, you're not,” Lil said. “You're destroying. Stop it.”
Lil's mother darted to her husband's side, not saying anything, just standing there.
Wordlessly, Tom hefted the box he was holding and headed to the Mansion. Lil caught his arm and jerked it so he dropped his load.
“You're not listening. The Mansion is ours. Stop. It.”
Lil's mother gently took Lil's hand off Tom's arm, held it in her own. “I'm glad you're passionate about it, Lillian,” she said. “I'm proud of your commitment.”
Even at a distance of ten yards, I heard Lil's choked sob, saw her collapse in on herself. Her mother took her in her arms, rocked her. I felt like a voyeur, but couldn't bring myself to turn away.
“Shhh,” her mother said, a sibilant sound that matched the rustling of the leaves on the Liberty Tree. “Shhh. We don't have to be on the same side, you know.”
They held the embrace and held it still. Lil straightened, then bent again and picked up her father's box, carried it to the Mansion. One at a time, the rest of her ad-hoc moved forward and joined them.
This is how you hit bottom. You wake up in your friend's hotel room and you power up your handheld and it won't log on. You press the call-button for the elevator and it gives you an angry buzz in return. You take the stairs to the lobby and no one looks at you as they jostle past you.
You become a non-person.
Scared. I trembled when I ascended the stairs to Dan's room, when I knocked at his door, louder and harder than I meant, a panicked banging.
Dan answered the door and I saw his eyes go to his HUD, back to me. “Jesus,” he said.
I sat on the edge of my bed, head in my hands.
“What?” I said, what happened, what happened to me?
“You're out of the ad-hoc,” he said. “You're out of Whuffie. You're bottomed-out,” he said.
This is how you hit bottom in Walt Disney World, in a hotel with the hissing of the monorail and the sun streaming through the window, the hooting of the steam engines on the railroad and the distant howl of the recorded wolves at the Haunted Mansion. The world drops away from you, recedes until you're nothing but a speck, a mote in blackness.
I was hyperventilating, light-headed. Deliberately, I slowed my breath, put my head between my knees until the dizziness passed.
“Take me to Lil,” I said.
Driving together, hammering cigarette after cigarette into my face, I remembered the night Dan had come to Disney World, when I'd driven him to my—Lil's—house, and how happy I'd been then, how secure.
I looked at Dan and he patted my hand. “Strange times,” he said.
It was enough. We found Lil in an underground break-room, lightly dozing on a ratty sofa. Her head rested on Tom's lap, her feet on Rita's. All three snored softly. They'd had a long night.
Dan shook Lil awake. She stretched out and opened her eyes, looked sleepily at me. The blood drained from her face.
“Hello, Julius,” she said, coldly.
Now Tom and Rita were awake, too. Lil sat up.
“Were you going to tell me?” I asked, quietly. “Or were you just going to kick me out and let me find out on my own?”
“You were my next stop,” Lil said.
“Then I've saved you some time.” I pulled up a chair. “Tell me all about it.”
“There's nothing to tell,” Rita snapped. “You're out. You had to know it was coming—for God's sake, you were tearing Liberty Square apart!”
“How would you know?” I asked. I struggled to remain calm. “You've been asleep for ten years!”
“We got updates,” Rita said. “That's why we're back—we couldn't let it go on the way it was. We owed it to Debra.”
“And Lillian,” Tom said.
“And Lillian,” Rita said, absently.
Dan pulled up a chair of his own. “You're not being fair to him,” he said. At least someone was on my side.
“We've been more than fair,” Lil said. “You know that better than anyone, Dan. We've forgiven and forgiven and forgiven, made every allowance. He's sick and he won't take the cure. There's nothing more we can do for him.”
“You could be his friend,” Dan said. The light-headedness was back, and I slumped in my chair, tried to control my breathing, the panicked thumping of my heart.
“You could try to understand, you could try to help him. You could stick with him, the way he stuck with you. You don't have to toss him out on his ass.”
Lil had the good grace to look slightly shamed. “I'll get him a room,” she said. “For a month. In Kissimmee. A motel. I'll pick up his network access. Is that fair?”
“It's more than fair,” Rita said. Why did she hate me so much? I'd been there for her daughter while she was away—ah. That might do it, all right. “I don't think it's warranted. If you want to take care of him, sir, you can. It's none of my family's business.”
Lil's eyes blazed. “Let me handle this,” she said. “All right?”
Rita stood up abruptly. “You do whatever you want,” she said, and stormed out of the room.
“Why are you coming here for help?” Tom said, ever the voice of reason. “You seem capable enough.”
“I'm going to be taking a lethal injection at the end of the week,” Dan said. “Three days. That's personal, but you asked.”
Tom shook his head. Some friends you've got yourself, I could see him thinking it.
“That soon?” Lil asked, a throb in her voice.
In a dreamlike buzz, I stood and wandered out into the utilidor, out through the western castmember parking, and away.
I wandered along the cobbled, disused Walk Around the World, each flagstone engraved with the name of a family that had visited the Park a century before. The names whipped past me like epitaphs.
The sun came up noon high as I rounded the bend of deserted beach between the Grand Floridian and the Polynesian. Lil and I had come here often, to watch the sunset from a hammock, arms around each other, the Park spread out before us like a lighted toy village.
Now the beach was deserted, the Wedding Pavilion silent. I felt suddenly cold though I was sweating freely. So cold.
Dreamlike, I walked into the lake, water filling my shoes, logging my pants, warm as blood, warm on my chest, on my chin, on my mouth, on my eyes.
I opened my mouth and inhaled deeply, water filling my lungs, choking and warm. At first I sputtered, but I was in control now, and I inhaled again. The water shimmered over my eyes, and then was dark.
I woke on Doctor Pete's cot in the Magic Kingdom, restraints around my wrists and ankles, a tube in my nose. I closed my eyes, for a moment believing that I'd been restored from a backup, problems solved, memories behind me.
Sorrow knifed through me as I realized that Dan was probably dead by now, my memories of him gone forever.
Gradually, I realized that I was thinking nonsensically. The fact that I remembered Dan meant that I hadn't been refreshed from my backup, that my broken brain was still there, churning along in unmediated isolation.
I coughed again. My ribs ached and throbbed in counterpoint to my head. Dan took my hand.
“You're a pain in the ass, you know that?” he said, smiling.
“Sorry,” I choked.
“You sure are,” he said. “Lucky for you they found you—another minute or two and I'd be burying you right now.”
No, I thought, confused. They'd have restored me from backup. Then it hit me: I'd gone on record refusing restore from backup after having it recommended by a medical professional. No one would have restored me after that. I would have been truly and finally dead. I started to shiver.
“Easy,” Dan said. “Easy. It's all right now. Doctor says you've got a cracked rib or two from the CPR, but there's no brain damage.”
“No additional brain damage,” Doctor Pete said, swimming into view. He had on his professionally calm bedside face, and it reassured me despite myself.
He shooed Dan away and took his seat. Once Dan had left the room, he shone lights in my eyes and peeked in my ears, then sat back and considered me. “Well, Julius,” he said. “What exactly is the problem? We can get you a lethal injection if that's what you want, but offing yourself in the Seven Seas Lagoon just isn't good show. In the meantime, would you like to talk about it?”
Part of me wanted to spit in his eye. I'd tried to talk about it and he'd told me to go to hell, and now he changes his mind? But I did want to talk.
“I didn't want to die,” I said.
“Oh no?” he said. “I think the evidence suggests the contrary.”
“I wasn't trying to die,” I protested. “I was trying to—” What? I was trying to… abdicate. Take the refresh without choosing it, without shutting out the last year of my best friend's life. Rescue myself from the stinking pit I'd sunk into without flushing Dan away along with it. That's all, that's all.
“I wasn't thinking—I was just acting. It was an episode or something. Does that mean I'm nuts?”
“Oh, probably,” Doctor Pete said, offhandedly. “But let's worry about one thing at a time. You can die if you want to, that's your right. I'd rather you lived, if you want my opinion, and I doubt that I'm the only one, Whuffie be damned. If you're going to live, I'd like to record you saying so, just in case. We have a backup of you on file—I'd hate to have to delete it.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I'd like to be restored if there's no other option.” It was true. I didn't want to die.
“All right then,” Doctor Pete said. “It's on file and I'm a happy man. Now, are you nuts? Probably. A little. Nothing a little counseling and some RandR wouldn't fix, if you want my opinion. I could find you somewhere if you want.”
“Not yet,” I said. “I appreciate the offer, but there's something else I have to do first.”
Dan took me back to the room and put me to bed with a transdermal soporific that knocked me out for the rest of the day. When I woke, the moon was over the Seven Seas Lagoon and the monorail was silent.
I stood on the patio for a while, thinking about all the things this place had meant to me for more than a century: happiness, security, efficiency, fantasy. All of it gone. It was time I left. Maybe back to space, find Zed and see if I could make her happy again. Anywhere but here. Once Dan was dead—God, it was sinking in finally—I could catch a ride down to the Cape for a launch.
“What's on your mind?” Dan asked from behind me, startling me. He was in his boxers, thin and rangy and hairy.
“Thinking about moving on,” I said.
He chuckled. “I've been thinking about doing the same,” he said.
I smiled. “Not that way,” I said. “Just going somewhere else, starting over. Getting away from this.”
“Going to take the refresh?” he asked.
I looked away. “No,” I said. “I don't believe I will.”
“It may be none of my business,” he said, “but why the fuck not? Jesus, Julius, what're you afraid of?”
“You don't want to know,” I said.
“I'll be the judge of that.”
“Let's have a drink, first,” I said.
Dan rolled his eyes back for a second, then said, “All right, two Coronas, coming up.”
After the room-service bot had left, we cracked the beers and pulled chairs out onto the porch.
“You sure you want to know this?” I asked.
He tipped his bottle at me. “Sure as shootin',” he said.
“I don't want refresh because it would mean losing the last year,” I said.
He nodded. “By which you mean ‘my last year,’” he said. “Right?”
I nodded and drank.
“I thought it might be like that. Julius, you are many things, but hard to figure out you are not. I have something to say that might help you make the decision. If you want to hear it, that is.”
What could he have to say? “Sure,” I said. “Sure.” In my mind, I was on a shuttle headed for orbit, away from all of this.
“I had you killed,” he said. “Debra asked me to, and I set it up. You were right all along.”
The shuttle exploded in silent, slow moving space, and I spun away from it. I opened and shut my mouth.
It was Dan's turn to look away. “Debra proposed it. We were talking about the people I'd met when I was doing my missionary work, the stone crazies who I'd have to chase away after they'd rejoined the Bitchun Society. One of them, a girl from Cheyenne Mountain, she followed me down here, kept leaving me messages. I told Debra, and that's when she got the idea.
“I'd get the girl to shoot you and disappear. Debra would give me Whuffie—piles of it, and her team would follow suit. I'd be months closer to my goal. That was all I could think about back then, you remember.”
“I remember.” The smell of rejuve and desperation in our little cottage, and Dan plotting my death.
“We planned it, then Debra had herself refreshed from a backup—no memory of the event, just the Whuffie for me.”
“Yes,” I said. That would work. Plan a murder, kill yourself, have yourself refreshed from a backup made before the plan. How many times had Debra done terrible things and erased their memories that way?
“Yes,” he agreed. “We did it, I'm ashamed to say. I can prove it, too—I have my backup, and I can get Jeanine to tell it, too.” He drained his beer. “That's my plan. Tomorrow. I'll tell Lil and her folks, Kim and her people, the whole ad-hoc. A going-away present from a shitty friend.”
My throat was dry and tight. I drank more beer. “You knew all along,” I said. “You could have proved it at any time.”
He nodded. “That's right.”
“You let me…” I groped for the words. “You let me turn into…” They wouldn't come.
“I did,” he said.
All this time. Lil and he, standing on my porch, telling me I needed help. Doctor Pete, telling me I needed refresh from backup, me saying no, no, no, not wanting to lose my last year with Dan.
“I've done some pretty shitty things in my day,” he said. “This is the absolute worst. You helped me and I betrayed you. I'm sure glad I don't believe in God—that'd make what I'm going to do even scarier.”
Dan was going to kill himself in two days' time. My friend and my murderer. “Dan,” I croaked. I couldn't make any sense of my mind. Dan, taking care of me, helping me, sticking up for me, carrying this horrible shame with him all along. Ready to die, wanting to go with a clean conscience.
“You're forgiven,” I said. And it was true.
“Where are you going” I asked.
“To find Jeanine, the one who pulled the trigger. I'll meet you at the Hall of Presidents at nine a.m..”
I went in through the Main Gate, not a castmember any longer, a Guest with barely enough Whuffie to scrape in, use the water fountains and stand in line. If I were lucky, a castmember might spare me a chocolate banana. Probably not, though.
I stood in the line for the Hall of Presidents. Other guests checked my Whuffie, then averted their eyes. Even the children. A year before, they'd have been striking up conversations, asking me about my job here at the Magic Kingdom.
I sat in my seat at the Hall of Presidents, watching the short film with the rest, sitting patiently while they rocked in their seats under the blast of the flash-bake. A castmember picked up the stageside mic and thanked everyone for coming; the doors swung open and the Hall was empty, except for me. The castmember narrowed her eyes at me, then recognizing me, turned her back and went to show in the next group.
No group came. Instead, Dan and the girl I'd seen on the replay entered.
“We've closed it down for the morning,” he said.
I was staring at the girl, seeing her smirk as she pulled the trigger on me, seeing her now with a contrite, scared expression. She was terrified of me.
“You must be Jeanine,” I said. I stood and shook her hand. “I'm Julius.”
Her hand was cold, and she took it back and wiped it on her pants.
My castmember instincts took over. “Please, have a seat. Don't worry, it'll all be fine. Really. No hard feelings.” I stopped short of offering to get her a glass of water.
Put her at her ease, said a snotty voice in my head. She'll make a better witness. Or make her nervous, pathetic—that'll work, too; make Debra look even worse.
I told the voice to shut up and got her a cup of water.
By the time I came back, the whole gang was there. Debra, Lil, her folks, Tim. Debra's gang and Lil's gang, now one united team. Soon to be scattered.
Dan took the stage, used the stageside mic to broadcast his voice. “Eleven months ago, I did an awful thing. I plotted with Debra to have Julius murdered. I used a friend who was a little confused at the time, used her to pull the trigger. It was Debra's idea that having Julius killed would cause enough confusion that she could take over the Hall of Presidents. It was.”
There was a roar of conversation. I looked at Debra, saw that she was sitting calmly, as though Dan had just accused her of sneaking an extra helping of dessert. Lil's parents, to either side of her, were less sanguine. Tom's jaw was set and angry, Rita was speaking angrily to Debra. Hickory Jackson in the old Hall used to say, I will hang the first man I can lay hands on from the first tree I can find.
“Debra had herself refreshed from backup after we planned it,” Dan went on, as though no one was talking. “I was supposed to do the same, but I didn't. I have a backup in my public directory—anyone can examine it. Right now, I'd like to bring Jeanine up, she's got a few words she'd like to say.”
I helped Jeanine take the stage. She was still trembling, and the ad-hocs were an insensate babble of recriminations. Despite myself, I was enjoying it.
“Hello,” Jeanine said softly. She had a lovely voice, a lovely face. I wondered if we could be friends when it was all over. She probably didn't care much about Whuffie, one way or another.
The discussion went on. Dan took the mic from her and said, “Please! Can we have a little respect for our visitor? Please? People?”
Gradually, the din decreased. Dan passed the mic back to Jeanine. “Hello,” she said again, and flinched from the sound of her voice in the Hall's PA. “My name is Jeanine. I'm the one who killed Julius, a year ago. Dan asked me to, and I did it. I didn't ask why. I trusted—trust—him. He told me that Julius would make a backup a few minutes before I shot him, and that he could get me out of the Park without getting caught. I'm very sorry.” There was something off-kilter about her, some stilt to her stance and words that let you know she wasn't all there. Growing up in a mountain might do that to you. I snuck a look at Lil, whose lips were pressed together. Growing up in a theme park might do that to you, too.
“Thank you, Jeanine,” Dan said, taking back the mic. “You can have a seat now. I've said everything I need to say—Julius and I have had our own discussions in private. If there's anyone else who'd like to speak—”
The words were barely out of his mouth before the crowd erupted again in words and waving hands. Beside me, Jeanine flinched. I took her hand and shouted in her ear: “Have you ever been on the Pirates of the Carribean?”
She shook her head.
I stood up and pulled her to her feet. “You'll love it,” I said, and led her out of the Hall.
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