I might have garnered some looks as I crossed Bourbon Street for my daily visit to my favorite coffee shop, a thick newspaper tucked under one arm. Why would people look? Well, for one, it was the twenty-first century. Newspapers were antiquated, though I still had one delivered to my doorstep every Sunday. Secondly, my outfit was rather conspicuous. It was as dated as the newspaper I carried, and the newspaper was marked for Sunday, February 17th, 1929.
Altogether, I was an odd sight. Long coat, a bowler hat that even a hipster wouldn’t be caught wearing, and an immaculate getup that was pressed clean from bowtie down to shined shoes.
And I was on Bourbon Street, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The nerve of me.
It was all for a good reason, I assure you.
I trod down the sidewalk, avoiding both passers-by and collections of roadwork and construction. The French Quarter was ever-changing. A part of my coffeeshop visit, every afternoon, was watching its progress. It anchored me, and I appreciated that. I’d played at being so many people before, and this daily stroll reminded me where I was, and what time it was.
I was Bartle White. This was my life.
PJ’s coffee shop and café was an unremarkable place, shadowed under balconies and flags. The old architecture was a stark white, but without the sun on it, it failed to stand out against the hotel next door. The only way to recognize the building was an unremarkable sign which, during the day, was as bland a sign as you could find in the Quarter. Circular, blue with red lettering. Bah. At night, it shimmered under a neon glow, casting shadows in all the right places, but I didn’t drink coffee at night. And this unremarkable chain joint was my favorite coffee place.
A man held open the door for me on his way out. He was tall, with a lean face that didn’t match his well-built form, and shaggy black hair.
“Thank you,” I said.
He smirked at me, and his smirk wasn’t friendly. It promised violence. Not the ‘bump you in the shoulder as I pass’ sort of violence, but more of the ‘rip your fingernails off, smash your hands with a hammer, and leave you in an alleyway with a few bullet wounds in the face.’ That kind of violence. The more familiar kind, in my case.
He knew who I was. And I had the feeling I knew him. But he wasn’t the person I’d come to see, so I tipped my outrageous hat at him and left him behind.
I shouldered my way up to the counter, pausing to avoid an impatient patron hurrying past with a cup of joe. In that pause, I checked the clock hanging on the wall. Ten minutes ahead of my usual time here. I’d always just missed his shift, so this should put me right on schedule. All I had to do was wait in line.
I saw him at the counter. He didn’t look exactly the same as the last time I saw him, but he had the same nervous smile, the same haircut, the same thin-rimmed glasses. Even though his facial structure and skin tone were different, I recognized the way he moved, and the cadence of his all-too-familiar voice that I’d spent hours listening to.
It had only been a hunch, but I was more sure than ever. I’d found Jefferson Lombardo. And that confirmed we both were in a whole lot of trouble.
I sidled forward in the line, trying to figure out how to greet this man. What would get to him? Would he remember me?
Then it was my turn at the counter. My target, probably-Jefferson, tapped a finger on the counter twice, checked his watch, and called out to a coworker, “My shift is almost over, Kenzie! Is Bradley here?” Then he eyes fell on me. Not a note of recognition.
“Hullo,” he said, tapping his fingers on the register. It was him, no doubt about it. “What can I get for ya?”
“I don’t know, Jefferson,” I said. “What’s your favorite drink?”
Probably-Jefferson started, then leaned forward and peered at me through his librarian glasses. “Huh? You’re mistaken, sir. My name is Jermaine.”
I waved a hand. “Oh, my bad. You remind me of an old friend.” I’d had a different name back then, as well. No surprises there. “My sincere apologies.”
“No matter,” he said, retreating to the cover of his register. “What would you like?”
Second try. I had to keep pushing. “Well, let’s see. Why don’t you tell me what my favorite is?” I winked at his stunned face. “You should know me rather well.”
Jermaine blinked and shook his head. “Pardon me, sir, but—”
No time to hold back. I set Jermaine with a start and straightened my coat, calling his attention to the old-fashioned clothes. Remember, I thought. Remember, you intellectual dunderhead.
“You know me,” I said, trying to maintain eye contact. The eyes are the windows to the soul, as it has been said, and even if I was in a different place, with a different look, at a different time, I was the same soul.
I knew I’d gotten through to him when his face turned white.
“No,” he said. “Oh, no, no, no!”
“Yes, yes, yes,” I said. “I’ll have a hazelnut blend. But you knew that.”
“You can’t be here!” he said.
“But I am,” I replied. “And we need to talk. But I’m still thirsty.”
Jermaine’s hand’s were shaking so badly that I worried he’d get burnt if he poured a cup. I looked up at the clock and sighed.
“Your shift is over,” I said. “Order your own drink, and we’ll talk.”
“We, ah…” Jermaine swallowed. “Can talk later. Earlier? Gah!” He put his head in his hands. “This can’t be happening,” he said. “It can’t, it can’t.”
“Jeff,” I said, using his old name. His face snapped up to gaze at mine, completely terrified. But not of me. I’d known he would react like this. Poor fellow. I still had worse in store for him.
I held up the old nineteenth-century newspaper I’d brought in.
TWO LOCALS DEAD IN WHAT WITNESSES CLAIM AS ARSON
YOUNG FAMILY ESTATE DESTROYED
Jermaine’s jaw hung in shock, and I was certain he was about to faint. I reached across the counter and lightly patted his cheek.
“Cheer up, old chum. I’ve got a plan. We need to sit down and have a little chat, that’s all. If we want to live through tomorrow. Or, as it were, the roaring twenties. Capiche?”
“No, no, no,” he muttered. I gave him a reassuring smile.
“Trust me,” I said. “I can explain everything.”
Jermaine turned away, without another word, and passed responsibility for my drink onto his fellow barista, Kenzie. She gave him the evil eye for the short notice, but performed admirably, and soon I was seated with a hot hazelnut-flavored cup of salvation. I sipped the concoction and sighed. Coffee like this didn’t exist in the 1920s. It was good to enjoy the flavor while I could.
Jermaine didn’t show for a few minutes, but I wasn’t alarmed. Reading people and, well, manipulating them was a specialty of mine. Don’t judge me, it has its uses. Every beggar, every manager, every person who has been in a relationship, heck, every person who has chosen to use either polite or coarse language in a social situation is a manipulator. It’s all about how people perceive you, and by extension, themselves and the current situation. So everyone does it.
I was just better than most, by virtue of control, practice, and a consciousness of my own mannerisms.
Just as I finished my coffee, Jermaine burst out of the staff door of the coffee shop, looking frazzled. His hair was now mussed, probably from him running his fingers through it. That was a habit of his, and I more aware of that than he was. His jacket was draped over his shoulders, covering up his PJ’s uniform, and he clutched at the jacket with one hand, knuckles white. His eyes darted back and forth, searching for the man who had positively ruined his day.
I gave him a little wave, and he focused on me with a jolt of nervous movement.
Easy there, buddy, I thought. You look like you might bolt. It’s making people antsy.
Jermaine glanced around, straightened his jacket, and then made way to my table, every step as stiff as a board. I stifled a grin. It wouldn’t do any good to let him know that I was amused by his lack of nerves. I maintained my posture, empty cup set aside, and flashed a warm smile as Jermaine sat across from me. He didn’t return it.
“Sorry to drop in on you like this,” I said.
“Making the world drop in on me, you mean. Darn it.” Jermaine gathered his coat around himself, as if cold. “You can’t exist. You can’t know.”
“About your dreams?” I raised an eyebrow. “Our dreams?”
“Not possible.” My friend looked down at the table, at the paper. He blinked a few times. “Cripes, it’s just not possible.”
I grinned. “Nobody uses that word anymore. It looks like you’re just as lucid as I am. Thank heavens.”
“Lucid, huh? I know what you mean by that, and I still don’t believe it. I’d sooner believe that you’re reading my brainwaves.”
“Hah. Because it’s more convenient?” I chuckled.
“It’s not funny, and you know it.”
“Right. Shall we get right to the theory, then? Like we usually do. But this time I’ll be explaining things to you. With less math.”
“Just a second.” Jermaine squirmed in his seat. “Can I… can I touch you? Make sure this is real, and that I’m not crazy?”
I pushed my chest forward, exposing the neat button-down shirt I wore underneath the long coat. “Go for it, my good fellow.”
“Stop talking like that,” he muttered, reaching one finger forward. It firmly prodded my chest, and then he pulled back, trembling.
“Reassured?” I asked.
“It’d be more reassuring for me to be crazy,” he said.
“But you’re not, and we’ll settle for that.” I sat back in my seat and tapped the newspaper. “Now that we know that we’re both sane gentlemen, we need to talk.”
“It’d be easier if we didn’t.”
“It would. We also might die. No pressure.”
Jermaine sat back in his chair, and some of the tension left his shoulders. He seemed defeated, but if that’s what it took for him to relax, I’d take it. “Alright,” he said. “You’ve had time to think about this, apparently. What do you think is going on?”
“It’s just a theory,” I said. “But it fits with the facts.”
“What even are the facts? Seems like you’re ignoring several ‘facts,’ just being here.”
“Fair point.” I raised a finger. “Fact one: We’ve both been dreaming of life in the 1920s, for years now. We don’t have perfect recollection, but the dreams are pretty consistent.”
“February 1929,” Jermaine whispered. “I remember last night pretty well.”
“Good. Fact two: Our dreams intersect. You are Jefferson Lombardo, and I am Benito Waller. We attend the same college, and you are my math tutor.”
Jermaine groaned and again ran his fingers through his hair, mussing it up even more.
“Fact three,” I said. “The reason I’m here. Jefferson Lombardo and Benito Waller really existed, in Boston, Massachusetts. I’ve double checked. Our past is there in detail. And on February 16th, in the year of our Lord 1929, we both are burned to death by the infamous Gustin Gang, in your very own home.”
“No, no, no…” Jermaine snatched the paper and read frantically, shaking the time-worn pages. I let him. It would do him good to feel the evidence, to see it with his own eyes and remember the house he grew up in. From the way Jermaine’s shoulders shook, then sank, I got the feeling that he was ready to accept it.
“My theory,” I said, my voice gentle, “is that while many of our dreams mean nothing, some of them relate to other lives that we are living. I think that it’s fairly common across the world, but since we don’t remember our dreams when we wake, nobody notices.”
“But dreams are crazy,” Jermaine said. “What kind of reality is that?”
“You remember them being crazy,” I said. “And some are. But how can you rely on your memory? I usually forget dreams as soon as I wake.”
Jermaine gave me a distraught look, but I paid him no mind, and continued.
“When lucid individuals are linked together, like you and me are, it puts them close together in real life.”
“Whoa, whoa.” Jermaine held up a hand. “Linked together like what? What puts us close together?”
“In the millions of years that this world has existed, there have been billions upon billions of human lives that have run their course. There may be trillions more. And yet, you and I are speaking together, both here in New Orleans and in Boston, year 1929. Tell me that’s not fate.”
“It’s not fate.” Jermaine pointed a finger in my face, rather rudely. “You sought me out!”
“I happened to see you and recognize you,” I said. “Number crunch the odds on that for me.”
I saw his mind working, and his face fell as he realized that I was right.
“Not to mention, I ran into a fellow as I was coming in this place. I think I recognize him, too. And he knew me.”
“A friend?” Jermaine asked.
“No. Part of the Gustin Gang. A business associate, in a way.”
Jermaine’s eyes widened. “You work with them?”
“In 1929, I was a con man,” I said. “I worked with a lot of different people under a lot of different guises. I’m guessing that’s why they want me dead. Sorry to get you caught up in all of this.”
Jermaine stared at me, then swallowed. “Oh,” he said. “I thought it was my doing.”
“You?” I was momentarily baffled. “What did you do? You’re just a math student!”
Jermaine grimaced. “I’ve used my number skills in other ways, too. Last week, er, last week in 1929, I might have depleted the Gustin Gang’s account with some slippery tax deals.”
I gaped at Jermaine for a moment, until he looked away. This guy, I couldn’t remember his 1929 self perfectly, but the nervous fussbudget in front of me was definitely the same timid nut I’d known. There was no way he’d do something like that. “You’re kidding me,” I said.
“Hey,” Jermaine cracked an uneasy smile. “Gimme a break. It was the 1920s, and I was just a kid.”
I couldn’t help it, I laughed. Jermaine chuckled a bit, but I caught him glancing down at the paper again. Still grinning, I snatched the paper from him.
“Alright, you deviant,” I said. “Time for business. We’ve got the rest of today to make a plan, or we’re not waking up tomorrow.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “We might just lose our dreams if we die in 1929. But people like us, I like to call them ‘lucid,’ as you’ve noticed, are too connected with our other lives. If we die there, I don’t think we’ll fare well here.”
“What will happen to us?”
“Ever hear of Sudden Death Syndrome?” I asked. I let the words hang in the air. There was a finality to them, and I didn’t need to add anything else. It was a scary thought, to just up and die without any cause. I sure wasn’t going to chance it. And besides, I wasn’t keen on dying anyway, even if it was in the Roaring 20s.
“I’ve got a plan,” I said. “And I think we can work it out.”
“What are we going to do?” Jermaine reached for the paper, but I held it away. “You can talk about fate, dreaming, and mind-jumping all you want, but I can’t believe in time travel. It doesn’t scientifically work. Reality is reality, and we can’t change the past.”
“I know. That’s why we need to plan. We’re going to make sure that the past comes to fruition.” I held up the paper and tapped the cover. “And we’re going to make sure we live through it.”