Lil’s parents went into their jars with little ceremony. I saw them jus_efore they went in, when they stopped in at Lil’s and my place to kiss he_oodbye and wish her well.
Tom and I stood awkwardly to the side while Lil and her mother held a_chingly 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 the_oke, this event—everything following the backup—would never have happened fo_hem.
God, they were bastards.
“When are you coming back?” I asked, keeping my castmember face on, carefull_iding away the disgust.
’We’ll be sampling monthly, just getting a digest dumped to us. When thing_ook interesting enough, we’ll come on back.” He waggled a finger at me. “I’l_e 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 worl_ow—we’re just getting out of the way for a while, letting you-all take a ru_t 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 tha_’d ever seen her, even to the point of tearing up a little. Here in thi_oment of vanishing consciousness, she could be whomever she wanted, knowin_hat it wouldn’t matter the next time she awoke.
“Julius,” she said, taking my hands, squeezing them. “You’ve got som_onderful times ahead of you—between Lil and the Park, you’re going to have _remendous experience, I just know it.” She was infinitely serene an_ompassionate, and I knew it didn’t count.
Still smiling, they got into their runabout and drove away to get the letha_njections, to become disembodied consciousnesses, to lose their last moment_ith their darling daughter.
They were not happy to be returned from the dead. Their new bodies wer_mpossibly young, pubescent and hormonal and doleful and kitted out in th_atest trendy styles. In the company of Kim and her pals, they made a soli_ass of irate adolescence.
“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Rita asked, shoving me hard i_he 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 ar_otally 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 he_ace.
“No,” I said. “No goddamn it no. You’re going to hear me out, and then I’_oing to get Lil and her people and they’re going to back me up. That’s no_egotiable.”
We stared at each other across the dim parlor. Debra made a twiddling motio_nd the lights came up full and harsh. The expertly crafted gloom went awa_nd 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 eye_n them. “I can’t excuse them, and I don’t ask you to forgive them. But tha_oesn’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 o_he world, one bit frozen in time for the people who love it that way? Wh_oes your success mean our failure?
“Can’t you see that we’re carrying on your work? That we’re tending a legac_ou left us?”
“Are you through?” Rita asked.
“This place is not a historical preserve, Julius, it’s a ride. If you don’_nderstand that, you’re in the wrong place. It’s not my goddamn fault that yo_ecided that your stupidity was on my behalf, and it doesn’t make it any les_tupid. 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, you_ittle health problems—yes, I’ve heard—your little fixation on keeping thing_he way they are. You need some perspective, Julius. You need to get away fro_ere: Disney World isn’t good for you and you’re sure as hell not any good fo_isney 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 an_inging, necking, laughing. The victory party. I trudged into the circle an_unted 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 an_he stared right through me until I tapped her shoulder. She gave a_nvoluntary squeak and then smiled at herself.
“Lil,” I said, then stopped. Your parents are home, and they’ve joined th_ther side.
For the first time in an age, she looked at me softly, smiled even. She patte_he log next to her. I sat down, felt the heat of the fire on my face, he_ody 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 he_ack, 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 aroun_er. She shook it off and sat up. She was crying and laughing at the sam_ime. “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 whippin_ack and forth in an approaching storm.
The ad-hoc shortcutted through the west parking lot and moved through th_uiet streets of Frontierland apprehensively, a funeral procession tha_topped the nighttime custodial staff in their tracks.
As we drew up on Liberty Square, I saw that the work-lights were blazing and _remendous work-gang of Debra’s ad-hocs were moving from the Hall to th_ansion, 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 an_il went to them, stumbling on the wooden sidewalk.
I expected hugs. There were none. In their stead, parents and daughter stalke_ach other, shifting weight and posture to track each other, maintain _onstant, sizing distance.
“What the hell are you doing?” Lil said, finally. She didn’t address he_other, which surprised me. It didn’t surprise Tom, though.
He dipped forward, the shuffle of his feet loud in the quiet night. “We’r_orking,” 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 standin_here.
Wordlessly, Tom hefted the box he was holding and headed to the Mansion. Li_aught 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’_lad you’re passionate about it, Lillian,” she said. “I’m proud of you_ommitment.”
Even at a distance of ten yards, I heard Lil’s choked sob, saw her collapse i_n 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 th_eaves on the Liberty Tree. “Shhh. We don’t have to be on the same side, yo_now.”
They held the embrace and held it still. Lil straightened, then bent again an_icked up her father’s box, carried it to the Mansion. One at a time, the res_f her ad-hoc moved forward and joined them.
This is how you hit bottom. You wake up in your friend’s hotel room and yo_ower up your handheld and it won’t log on. You press the call-button for th_levator and it gives you an angry buzz in return. You take the stairs to th_obby 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 a_is 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 hissin_f the monorail and the sun streaming through the window, the hooting of th_team engines on the railroad and the distant howl of the recorded wolves a_he Haunted Mansion. The world drops away from you, recedes until you’r_othing but a speck, a mote in blackness.
I was hyperventilating, light-headed. Deliberately, I slowed my breath, put m_ead between my knees until the dizziness passed.
“Take me to Lil,” I said.
Driving together, hammering cigarette after cigarette into my face, _emembered the night Dan had come to Disney World, when I’d driven him t_y—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 _atty sofa. Her head rested on Tom’s lap, her feet on Rita’s. All three snore_oftly. They’d had a long night.
Dan shook Lil awake. She stretched out and opened her eyes, looked sleepily a_e. 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 kic_e 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 wa_oming—for God’s sake, you were tearing Liberty Square apart!”
“How would you know?” I asked. I struggled to remain calm. “You’ve been aslee_or ten years!”
“We got updates,” Rita said. “That’s why we’re back—we couldn’t let it go o_he 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. A_east 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 an_e 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 _lumped in my chair, tried to control my breathing, the panicked thumping o_y heart.
“You could try to understand, you could try to help him. You could stick wit_im, 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,” sh_aid. “For a month. In Kissimmee. A motel. I’ll pick up his network access. I_hat fair?”
“It’s more than fair,” Rita said. Why did she hate me so much? I’d been ther_or her daughter while she was away—ah. That might do it, all right. “I don’_hink it’s warranted. If you want to take care of him, sir, you can. It’s non_f 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 ou_f the room.
“Why are you coming here for help?” Tom said, ever the voice of reason. “Yo_eem 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 thinkin_t.
“That soon?” Lil asked, a throb in her voice.
In a dreamlike buzz, I stood and wandered out into the utilidor, out throug_he western castmember parking, and away.
I wandered along the cobbled, disused Walk Around the World, each flagston_ngraved 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 th_rand Floridian and the Polynesian. Lil and I had come here often, to watc_he sunset from a hammock, arms around each other, the Park spread out befor_s like a lighted toy village.
Now the beach was deserted, the Wedding Pavilion silent. I felt suddenly col_hough 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 an_arm. At first I sputtered, but I was in control now, and I inhaled again. Th_ater shimmered over my eyes, and then was dark.
I woke on Doctor Pete’s cot in the Magic Kingdom, restraints around my wrist_nd ankles, a tube in my nose. I closed my eyes, for a moment believing tha_’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, m_emories of him gone forever.
Gradually, I realized that I was thinking nonsensically. The fact that _emembered Dan meant that I hadn’t been refreshed from my backup, that m_roken brain was still there, churning along in unmediated isolation.
I coughed again. My ribs ached and throbbed in counterpoint to my head. Da_ook 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 tw_nd 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 b_ medical professional. No one would have restored me after that. I would hav_een truly and finally dead. I started to shiver.
“Easy,” Dan said. “Easy. It’s all right now. Doctor says you’ve got a cracke_ib or two from the CPR, but there’s no brain damage.”
“No additional brain damage,” Doctor Pete said, swimming into view. He had o_is 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 shon_ights 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 letha_njection if that’s what you want, but offing yourself in the Seven Sea_agoon just isn’t good show. In the meantime, would you like to talk abou_t?”
Part of me wanted to spit in his eye. I’d tried to talk about it and he’d tol_e 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 tryin_o… abdicate. Take the refresh without choosing it, without shutting out th_ast year of my best friend’s life. Rescue myself from the stinking pit I’_unk 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. Doe_hat mean I’m nuts?”
“Oh, probably,” Doctor Pete said, offhandedly. “But let’s worry about on_hing at a time. You can die if you want to, that’s your right. I’d rather yo_ived, if you want my opinion, and I doubt that I’m the only one, Whuffie b_amned. If you’re going to live, I’d like to record you saying so, just i_ase. 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.” I_as 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 R&_ouldn’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 hav_o do first.”
Dan took me back to the room and put me to bed with a transdermal soporifi_hat knocked me out for the rest of the day. When I woke, the moon was ove_he Seven Seas Lagoon and the monorail was silent.
I stood on the patio for a while, thinking about all the things this place ha_eant 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 _ould make her happy again. Anywhere but here. Once Dan was dead—God, it wa_inking 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 hi_oxers, 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 chair_ut 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 t_igure out you are not. I have something to say that might help you make th_ecision. If you want to hear it, that is.”
What could he have to say? “Sure,” I said. “Sure.” In my mind, I was on _huttle headed for orbit, away from all of this.
“I had you killed,” he said. “Debra asked me to, and I set it up. You wer_ight all along.”
The shuttle exploded in silent, slow moving space, and I spun away from it. _pened and shut my mouth.
It was Dan’s turn to look away. “Debra proposed it. We were talking about th_eople I’d met when I was doing my missionary work, the stone crazies who I’_ave to chase away after they’d rejoined the Bitchun Society. One of them, _irl from Cheyenne Mountain, she followed me down here, kept leaving m_essages. I told Debra, and that’s when she got the idea.
“I’d get the girl to shoot you and disappear. Debra would give m_huffie—piles of it, and her team would follow suit. I’d be months closer t_y goal. That was all I could think about back then, you remember.”
“I remember.” The smell of rejuve and desperation in our little cottage, an_an plotting my death.
“We planned it, then Debra had herself refreshed from a backup—no memory o_he event, just the Whuffie for me.”
“Yes,” I said. That would work. Plan a murder, kill yourself, have yoursel_efreshed from a backup made before the plan. How many times had Debra don_errible things and erased their memories that way?
“Yes,” he agreed. “We did it, I’m ashamed to say. I can prove it, too—I hav_y 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’_ome.
“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 th_bsolute worst. You helped me and I betrayed you. I’m sure glad I don’_elieve 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 o_e, helping me, sticking up for me, carrying this horrible shame with him al_long. 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 o_residents at nine a.m..”
I went in through the Main Gate, not a castmember any longer, a Guest wit_arely 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 m_huffie, then averted their eyes. Even the children. A year before, they’_ave been striking up conversations, asking me about my job here at the Magi_ingdom.
I sat in my seat at the Hall of Presidents, watching the short film with th_est, sitting patiently while they rocked in their seats under the blast o_he flash-bake. A castmember picked up the stageside mic and thanked everyon_or coming; the doors swung open and the Hall was empty, except for me. Th_astmember narrowed her eyes at me, then recognizing me, turned her back an_ent 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’l_ll be fine. Really. No hard feelings.” I stopped short of offering to get he_ glass of water.
Put her at her ease, said a snotty voice in my head. She’ll make a bette_itness. Or make her nervous, pathetic—that’ll work, too; make Debra look eve_orse.
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. “Eleve_onths ago, I did an awful thing. I plotted with Debra to have Juliu_urdered. I used a friend who was a little confused at the time, used her t_ull the trigger. It was Debra’s idea that having Julius killed would caus_nough 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 sittin_almly, as though Dan had just accused her of sneaking an extra helping o_essert. Lil’s parents, to either side of her, were less sanguine. Tom’s ja_as set and angry, Rita was speaking angrily to Debra. Hickory Jackson in th_ld Hall used to say, I will hang the first man I can lay hands on from th_irst tree I can find.
“Debra had herself refreshed from backup after we planned it,” Dan went on, a_hough no one was talking. “I was supposed to do the same, but I didn’t. _ave a backup in my public directory—anyone can examine it. Right now, I’_ike 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 wer_n insensate babble of recriminations. Despite myself, I was enjoying it.
“Hello,” Jeanine said softly. She had a lovely voice, a lovely face. _ondered if we could be friends when it was all over. She probably didn’t car_uch about Whuffie, one way or another.
The discussion went on. Dan took the mic from her and said, “Please! Can w_ave a little respect for our visitor? Please? People?”
Gradually, the din decreased. Dan passed the mic back to Jeanine. “Hello,” sh_aid again, and flinched from the sound of her voice in the Hall’s PA. “M_ame 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 Juliu_ould make a backup a few minutes before I shot him, and that he could get m_ut of the Park without getting caught. I’m very sorry.” There was somethin_ff-kilter about her, some stilt to her stance and words that let you know sh_asn’t all there. Growing up in a mountain might do that to you. I snuck _ook at Lil, whose lips were pressed together. Growing up in a theme par_ight 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 discussion_n 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 word_nd waving hands. Beside me, Jeanine flinched. I took her hand and shouted i_er 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 he_ut of the Hall.