JENNIFER’S LOVER

Robert Silverberg is one of the true giants of science fiction. He is a multiple Hugo winner, a multiple Nebula winner, has been a Worldcon Guest of Honor, and is a Nebula Grand Master and the author of numerous acknowledged classics in the field.

 

***

Finch had married very young—he had been only twenty-three, and Jennifer even younger—and even so he hoped they would live happily ever after. Marriage had been back in fashion for a few years then, but all the same it was unusual to do it so early, and friends and relatives warned them of the risks. Get out and live in the adult world for a while, they said. There’s plenty of time later for settling down.

But marrying was more than a matter of fashion for Finch. He had, since adolescence, felt himself to be a basically married person. Like one of the primordial creatures of Plato’s Symposium is how he saw himself—a twofold being that somehow had been divided and could not be happy until it had been reunited with its missing half. He searched diligently until he found Jennifer, who seemed to be that separated segment of himself; and then he quickly took care to join her securely to him once again. They settled in a sleek and snug Connecticut suburb. He sold portable computer terminals for a dynamic little hi-tech outfit in Bridgeport, and she worked for a publishing company in Greenwich, and before long they had a daughter named Samantha and a son named Jason, after which Jennifer quit her job and began doing some volunteer work at the local museum. Their parents, who had been pretty wild items in their own day, doing dope and marching for peace and trashing campuses, were amazed at the way everything had come around full circle in just one generation.

Finch was on the road a lot, making sales calls in a territory that stretched from Rhode Island to Delaware, and occasionally he wondered if Jennifer might someday amuse herself with a lover. But the idea was really too alien to make sense to him. Even when he was away from home three or four nights in a row, sleeping in drab motels in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, he saw no need to go outside his warm and secure marriage, and he imagined Jennifer felt the same way. He wondered if that was naive and decided it wasn’t. As a couple they were complete, a single entity, a unity. Naturally the early raptures were only warm memories now, but the expectable cooling of passion had been followed by deep friendship. They were together even when they were apart; a lover would be a superfluity; Finch told himself that if he learned Jennifer had been unfaithful to him, he would not so much be jealous as merely mystified.

And of course there were the children to bind them always: Samantha was already beautiful at seven, a slim golden creature who was as apt to speak French as English. She awed them both, and they were immensely proud of her precocious elegance. Jason, not quite six, was of a different substance, a stolid and literal person whose toys were made of microprocessors and LEDs. He had his father’s love of technology, and Finch saw in him a chance to create what he himself had not managed to be—a genuinely original scientific intellect rather than a peddler of other people’s inventions. Whenever he returned from a long trip he brought gifts for everyone, a book or a record for Jennifer, something pretty for Samantha, and invariably a computer game or mechanical puzzle for Jason. They were splendid children, and he and Jennifer often congratulated one another on having produced them.

At a computer showroom in Philadelphia one rainy autumn afternoon, Finch bought a wonderful toy for Jason, a little synthesizer that played lively tunes when you tapped out signals in a binary code. Not only would it develop Jason’s musical skills—and that side of the brain needed to be trained too, Finch thought—but it would sharpen his ability to count in binary. It was so expensive that he felt guilty and eased his conscience by getting the new supercassette of Die Meistersinger for Jennifer and a sweater of some glittering furry fabric for Samantha; but on the long drive home he thought only of Jason creating buoyant melodies out of skeins of binary digits.

Jason accepted it politely but seemed not very interested. He watched as Finch demonstrated it, and when it was his turn he generated a few fragmentary atonal squawks. Then a call from Jennifer’s parents interrupted things, and afterward, Finch noticed, the child wandered off to his room without taking the synthesizer with him. That was disappointing, but Finch reminded himself that six year olds had a way of being preoccupied with one thing at a time, and possibly Jason’s preoccupation of the moment was so compelling that even a wondrous new device could not gain much of a grip on his attention.

After dinner, feeling a little miffed, Finch took the synthesizer to Jason’s room and found him hunched over an odd glowing thing the size of a large marble. When he saw Finch enter, the boy disingenuously pushed it into the clutter on his tabletop and pretended to be busy with his holographic viewer. “You left this in the living room,” Finch said, giving him the synthesizer. Jason took it and obligingly hit the keys in his mild, obedient way, but he looked uncomfortable and impatient. Finch said, pointing at the little glowing thing, “What’s that?”

“Nothing much.”

“It’s very pretty. Mind if I see it?”

Jason shrugged. He generated a jagged screeching tune. Finch picked up the sphere. Jason looked even more restless.

“What does it do?” Finch asked.

“You press it in places. It turns colors. You have to get it the same color all over.”

“Rubik’s Cube,” Finch said. “An old idea brought up to date, I guess.” He put his fingertips to the sphere and watched in surprise as colors of eerie indefinable hues came and went, blending, shifting. Touch it a certain way and there were stripes; another and there were triangular patterns; another and the surface of the sphere burst into thick, brilliant, throbbing patches of color, almost like a Van Gogh landscape. He had never seen anything like it. “Where’d you get it?” he asked. “Jennifer buy it for you?”

“No.”

“Grandpa Finch send it?”

“No.”

Finch felt himself growing annoyed. “Then who gave it to you?”

The child looked momentarily troubled, tugging at his lower lip, twisting his head at a peculiar angle. Then he began to contemplate the synthesizer, and the old serene Jason, imperturbable, studious, returned.

“Nort gave it to me,” he said.

“Nort?”

You know.”

“I don’t. Who’s Nort?”

Jason was manipulating the synthesizer, quickly getting the hang of it, making something close to a tune emerge. He had dismissed Finch from his awareness as thoroughly as though Finch had been transported to Pluto. Gently Finch said, “You aren’t answering me. Who’s Nort?”

“He plays with me sometimes.”

Finch decided to drop it. Jason would tell him about Nort in his own good time, he supposed. Meanwhile the boy was mastering the synthesizer with gratifying swiftness; no point distracting him from that. Finch picked up the sphere again, stroked it so that it went through a whole new series of color changes, and brought it almost to the single hue that apparently one was meant to achieve. But he did something wrong and kicked it into a geometrical pseudo-Mondrian pattern instead. A clever gadget, he thought, and went off to find Jennifer and to catch up on local gossip. The mysterious Nort quickly slipped from his mind, and he might never have thought of him again at all if Samantha had not remarked, when he was in her room to say good night to her, “I’m glad you’re back. I don’t like Nort, really. I hope he doesn’t come here any more.”

Very calmly Finch said, “Oh, he was here again?”

“Two days, this time. Tell him not to come, will you?”

“I don’t know if I can do that. You know who Nort is, after all, don’t you?”

“Sure. Maman’s nephew. A nephew is something like a brother, 
n’est ce pas?”

“A little bit,” said Finch. He kissed her lightly. “I’ll see what I can do about Nort, all right? And if he comes back when I’m gone, you tell me about it, sweet. I don’t think I like him either. But let’s not say anything about this to maman, okay? She’s very fond of her nephew, you know, and it would upset her if she knew that you and I didn’t like him.”

He paused a moment in the hallway, pressing his forehead against the wall, catching his breath. Maman’s nephew. Jennifer had no nephews. Finch was trembling. Visiting lovers usually claimed to be uncles, he thought. A nephew? Jennifer’s lover? It was craziness, a phantasm, a melodrama of a tired mind. Jennifer had no lovers. Finch could visualize their marriage, that abstraction, as a solid concrete thing, a gleaming polished marble sphere rather like Jason’s glowing toy, and in the perfection of that sphere there was neither need nor room for lovers. In his own way he would find out who Nort was, he resolved, but above all else he would stay calm. He poured himself a drink and rejoined Jennifer, studying her covertly as if looking for signs of adultery on her forehead, in her cheeks. She was playing Meistersinger, humming along with the jollier choruses. When they went to bed, he turned to her as he always did when he came home from a long trip, but he imagined that something strange had descended between them like a curtain of metal links, and he was unable to embrace her. The unknown Nort lay as a barrier in their bed. Finch ran his hands halfheartedly over her breasts and flanks but did nothing else. “You must be very tired,” Jennifer whispered.

“I am. All that rain—the traffic skidding around—”

She kissed the tip of his nose. “Get a good night’s rest,” she said.

He had trouble sleeping. He felt her presence inches away as a pulsating vibration that made his fingers and toes tingle disagreeably. That she might have a lover frightened him, for it meant he held faulty assumptions about their relationship, that his evaluation of reality was defective. And he had to admit that he was upset on a much simpler level: a stranger was creeping into his bed, and he hated that as a violation of his rights. He found his reaction embarrassing. Mere jealousy, he thought, is ugly and stupid and very much beneath me. Nonetheless, beneath him or not, he felt what he felt, and it hurt him keenly.

Eventually he fell asleep, and when he woke to brilliant October sunlight streaming through the blazing leaves of the red maple outside their bedroom everything seemed normal again. Jason was using the synthesizer, getting it to play something that almost might have been Three Blind Mice. Finch was intensely pleased by that. At work that day he thought sometimes about Nort, but not in any very painful way—some neighborhood person, he supposed, an artist Jennifer had met at the museum, maybe, who drops around for a drink and some artistic chitchat, most likely gay, gentle, fond of children, harmless. He was much more interested in that peculiar glowing sphere. That night he went into Jason’s room to examine it again. Ingenious, the play of colors, the tantalizing way it almost went one-toned as you handled it and then slipped away into patterns. He had no idea how it worked. Sensitive to skin-temperature fluctuations, perhaps, or possibly even pressure-sensitive, though it was solid as a marble. And what generated the changing colors and projected them to the surface? He was tempted to ask Jason to get a second sphere from Nort that he could try to take apart.

The week after next he was up in Boston for three days on his regular monthly trip. The first two went well; but on the evening of the third, as he returned to his motel after an overly winy dinner with a buyer from a Cambridge data-shop chain, the incandescent image of Jennifer getting into bed with Nort suddenly blazed in his soul. The Nort that Finch invented was older than he, perhaps thirty-seven, dark and muscular, with a dancer’s supple body and an easy, self-assured manner. Finch bit his lip and tried to force the unwanted vision away, but it grew ever more vivid and ever more graphic, and the pain of it was astonishing. He thought seriously of driving home in the middle of the night. But that would be insane, he realized.

He came home on schedule with the usual gifts, and when he gave Jason his—a little screen on which he could draw with a light-pen—he feared the boy, still enthralled by some phenomenal incomprehensible thing that Nort had just brought him, might snub it. But Jason said nothing about Nort and was instantly fascinated by the screen. Finch felt a surge of relief until Samantha drew him aside, an hour later, to tell him, “He was here again.”

“Nort?”

“Oui. Mardi et marcredi.”

“Mercredi,” he corrected automatically. Her French still had some flaws; but she was only seven. He turned away to hide his look of torment. Two nights, again. Tuesday, Wednesday. He had no idea what he was supposed to do. Confront her with his suspicions and demand an explanation? They had never even had a real quarrel. Swallow his agony and count himself grateful that there was someone here protecting his home and family while he was away? Sure. Sure. In a dull voice he said, “What do Nort and maman do when he’s visiting her?”

“They have dinner after we go to sleep. Then they stay up late and talk. In the morning he asks us questions about school and things and tries to be nice to us.”

In the morning. Finch winced.

He forced himself to make love with Jennifer that evening so she would not suspect that he suspected, but he was without desire and barely managed to enter her, which made it all even worse. Guilty herself, she would want to assume the worst in him, and this uncharacteristic failure of virility after three nights away from her probably would lead her to think he had been with women in Boston, which would encourage her to give herself even more flagrantly to her own lover, which—

In the two weeks before his next road trip he thought constantly of what would take place between Jennifer and Nort while he was away. He was jittery, remote, short-tempered, and morose; Jennifer seemed to be trying to please him, but whatever she did was counterproductive, and he was reduced to pleading business worries and headaches to keep from having to blurt out what was really on his mind. He wanted no confrontations with her. The love he bore her should be great enough to allow scope for a little discreet adultery, and if it did not, well, he would try to work on his attitudes.

But as he drove off toward Hartford under gray November skies, he imagined Nort’s car gliding into the garage, Nort entering the house, Nort with his hands on her breasts, Nort leading her toward the bedroom. The absurd intensity of his obsession alarmed and dismayed him. But he could not control his feelings. In Hartford he checked into his motel and drifted like a man in a daze through his first three calls; he must have seemed in terrible shape, because everyone commented on the way he looked; he had two drinks before making his fourth call, which he never did, and then he canceled the call and returned to the motel. There he had another drink, ate a hamburger in the coffee-shop, and stared unseeingly at the television set until midnight, when he abruptly rose, dressed, stumbled outside, and grimly began to drive homeward. He knew that this was absolute madness. He would let himself into the house and catch them in bed together, and then the three of them would sit down and discuss things. And he had no idea what would happen after that.

Just before two in the morning he parked in front of his house and saw, with perverse satisfaction, that a lamp was lit in the bedroom. Strangely calm, Finch peered through the garage window, but saw only Jennifer’s station wagon inside. So Nort was a neighborhood person, Finch thought. She phones him and he walks over here and she lets him in.

Noiselessly Finch unlocked the door, punched in his identity code on the burglar-alarm keyboard, slipped off his shoes, and tiptoed upstairs. His heart pounded with such startling force that he began to fear real damage to it. At the top of the stairs he paused, paralyzed with shame and misgivings. Leave them alone, he told himself. This is unquestionably the most stupid and reckless and self-defeating thing you’ve done in your life. He was quivering. He did not dare go forward.

“Dale?” Jennifer called from the bedroom. “Dale, is that you? It better be you!”

“Me,” he croaked, and lurched into the room.

She was alone, sitting up in bed, looking frightened and surprised. Finch, ashen and shaking, still had the presence of mind to scan the room for spoor of Nort, an overlooked wristwatch, a stray sock. Nothing. Jennifer was naked. She slept that way with him, but she had once told him that she always wore pajamas when he was away, for warmth. Certainly Nort was still here. Nobody jumps out a second-floor window to escape an angry husband. In the closet? In the bathroom? Under the bed? Finch knew he had created a preposterous farce.

“I felt ill,” he mumbled. “Dizzy—hot flashes—I couldn’t be alone. I just climbed into the car and headed for home—to be with you—the kids—”

“Dale, what’s the matter? What hurts you?” She was as tense and anguished as he was, but she seemed to be recovering her poise. She got out of bed—were those the red imprints of Nort’s fingers on her breasts and thighs?—and pulled on her robe and came to him. “If you were so sick, you shouldn’t have tried to drive all the way from Hartford. Why didn’t you call first? Why didn’t you try to have the motel get you a doctor?” He swayed. His legs felt like concrete. He leaned against her, sniffing for the other man’s cologne or even the smell of his sweat, and let Jennifer ease him down to the bed. He wanted to ask her where she had hidden Nort. But the words would not come. She helped him undress and brought him aspirins, and turned the thermostat up because he was shivering so violently, and clasped him in her arms. Her body was so warm and yielding and tender against him that he nearly began to cry. He let himself relax in her embrace, and to his amazement his desires rose and he reached for her. She tried to quiet him, telling him she was too exhausted for any such thing, but there was no halting him and he took her quickly and with uncharacteristic force. Jennifer met his thrusts with a vigor he had not encountered in months. It must be because Nort’s done all the foreplay for me, he thought bitterly, and came at once, with a sob, and collapsed against her breast. At once he was asleep, and in the morning it all seemed like a dreadful dream, nothing more. Finch insisted on going back to Hartford and making his rounds, and would hear no objection from Jennifer. But first he went into Samantha’s room and, cutting short her expression of surprise at seeing her father return from his trip so soon, asked her bluntly whether Nort had come for dinner the night before.

“Yes,” she said. “He was here when I got home from school. Is he still upstairs with maman?”

Finch asked himself, as he drove shakily back to Hartford, whether to seek the advice of friends, his parents, the local minister, a therapist. He had never done any of that. His life had always been an amiable progression toward deeper happiness. By the time he reached the motel, he knew he would consult no one, would take no action at all, would simply wait and see. He would let Jennifer make the next move.

But she said nothing and he said nothing and after his next trip, a brief one, he found Jason with another strange new toy, an arrangement of gleaming wires that crossed and recrossed and seemed to disappear at one juncture into a baffling uncharted dimension, visible only as a dazzling flicker of green light. Yes, the boy said, Nort had given it to him. Finch felt a surge of frantic anger. He was almost desperate now to bring this thing to some sort of resolution, for it was devouring him. Jennifer remained tender and loving and outwardly unchanged. Finch suffered. He could not push his fears and confusions below the threshold of awareness for more than an hour or two at a time; he was losing weight; everyone commented on his frayed and frazzled appearance. He was drowning in the silent turbulence of his altered life.

A second time he returned prematurely from a sales trip, hoping to catch them together. Again the light was on in the bedroom in the middle of the night. Again he stumbled in to find Jennifer flustered but alone. He explained that he was drunk and bewildered. “I think I’m having some sort of a breakdown,” he told her, and this time he called in sick and took a week off, though the Christmas holidays were coming and it looked very bad to do that now. Impulsively he went with Jennifer to Bermuda for four days, leaving the children with his parents, and it was like a second honeymoon for them, the pink sandy shore, the palm trees. But the moment they came home his mind was full of Nort again. A few days before Christmas he had to go to Pittsburgh for a meeting, but when still at the airport he was consumed with the awareness that Nort was in his house, joking amiably with Jason and Samantha. Grimly Finch boarded his plane, sat in a cold funk of silence all the way and, in Pittsburgh, bought a ticket on the next flight back to JFK. A light snowfall had begun, and his car, sitting in the vast lot, looked dainty and virginal in its thin white mantle. He reached home at midnight. The bedroom light was on. Finch let himself in and took the stairs two at a time. Jennifer was sitting up in bed, naked at least to the waist, her bare breasts blazing at him like beacons, and next to her, relaxed, comfortable, his hands clasped behind his head, was a slender, naked young man, perhaps thirty at most, with cool green eyes and dense red hair that clung to his head in a curious caplike way.

Finch felt a kind of relief. “You’re Nort?”

“Yes. Is time we finally met, I think, Mr. Dale.”

“Mr. Finch. Or Dale.” Nort had some slight accent. Finch said, “I don’t know what the protocol is in a thing like this. I suppose I should be furious and smash things and make threats. But I’m hollow inside by now. I’ve known about this a long time.”

“We know,” Jennifer said. “Why else would you have kept coming here trying to catch us in the middle of the night?”

“Twice,” said Nort. “This be the third. I thought this time I’d stay and talk with you.”

“You were here the other two times?”

“Certainly. But Jennifer wanted no face-to-face. So when the Dale-detector went off, I did the vanish. You follow?”

Finch stared wearily at his wife. “Jennifer, who is this man and how did he get into our lives?”

“He’s my nephew,” she said.

“You have no—”

“—eleven generations removed.”

“What?”

“A remote descendant in my sister’s line. He comes from A.D. 2215. He’s here to do research.”

Finch thought of the toys Nort had given Jason. His eyes glazed.

Nort said, “I make the field trip, you follow? I do genealogical research, visit the ancestors, family anecdotes. In my era is very important, knowing the history. I have made many journeys over a long span.”

“He has my whole family tree,” said Jennifer. “I never knew it, but I’m descended from Millard Fillmore and Johann Sebastian Bach and possibly John of Gaunt.”

Finch nodded. “That’s fascinating.”

Nort said, “We do not interfere, you know. We move around like spies, doing our studies and never interacting with the past-folk, out of fear of consequences, of course. But this was an exception. I was captivated by Jennifer instantly.”

“Captivated,” said Finch bleakly.

“Captivated, yes. We became lovers. It is a kind of incest, I imagine, but is not very serious, outside the direct maternal line, yes? My studies suffer. Now I come only to this year. Jennifer is a wonderful woman. You know?”

“I know, yes.” Finch looked toward Jennifer. “I haul my ass over eight states peddling primitive data-processing devices while you amuse yourself with a lover from the twenty-third century. That absolutely captivates me, Jennifer. I can’t tell you how—”

“Dale, please. You know I love you. But—but—”

Nort looked troubled. “You are not accepting of this?”

“I am not accepting, no,” Finch said.

“But this is the late twentieth century, a decadent time for the marriage custom, and you are sophisticated, educated, elite persons. It is my understanding that toleration of non-marital sexual inter-personation is widespread in your cohort. You are displeased I love your wife?”

“Very,” said Finch in a gray voice. He lowered himself into the chair by the window and said, “You’re a hell of a guy for keeping a straight face, Nort. I have to admire that. Throughout this whole routine you’ve been very convincing. But I’m worn out, and I can’t take any futuristic rigmarole any more. Please put your clothes on and go away and don’t come back, and leave Jennifer and me to pick up the pieces of our marriage. OK? Because if I catch you here again, I might do something violent, which is against my nature, and I’ll probably have to divorce Jennifer, which is the last thing in the world I want to do even now.”

“You doubt I am from a future time?”

“I doubt you are from a future time, yes.”

Nort climbed out of the bed. Finch noticed a thin plastic band of some constantly oscillating greenish color around his left thigh. He touched it and disappeared, and when he reappeared, a moment later, he was in a different corner of the room, holding out a folded newspaper to Finch. Finch glanced at it: the New York Times for April 16, 2037. The main headline was something about Pope Sixtus performing Easter services on the moon. Finch made a little choking sound and started to scan the other stories, but Nort, with an apologetic smile, took the paper from him, vanished again, and reappeared without it, back in the bed. “I have sorrow,” he said softly, “but I am forbidden to let you inspect the newspaper in detail. Shall I do other things? What would convince you I am genuine?”

Finch wanted to sob. He shook his head and said, “Don’t bother. I don’t need to know. You probably are what you say you are. Will you go away now? Go annoy Millard Fillmore.”

“I am loving your wife.”

“You have loved my wife. That’s the correct grammar. It’s over. Listen, I’m a ruthless late-twentieth-century man, and you’re on dangerous ground. I have weapons. If you’re killed while on a field trip, will you stay dead in 2215?”

Jennifer said, “Dale, stop talking that way.”

“What do you want me to say? He flashes in here like something out of Buck Rogers, he screws my wife every time I look the other way, he upsets my daughter and alienates my son with his crazy future toys, and now I’m supposed to—”

“You mustn’t threaten him, Dale. You’re behaving extremely prehistorically. Haven’t you ever had an affair?”

“Never. Not once.”

“Those motels—”

“Not once. I suppose you’ve had plenty, though.”

“Two before this one,” she said, reddening a little. “I thought you knew. This isn’t 1906, after all. They were both absolutely casual.”

Finch thought of that polished perfect sphere that was his metaphor for the flawlessness of his relationship with Jennifer. He thought of the two-bodied male-female entities of Plato’s Symposium. His face was leaden and his hands shook.

She said, “This is more serious, Dale. I’m terribly fond of Nort. I love you as much as ever, but he’s shown me other aspects of life, things I never dreamed of, and I’m not talking about sex. I mean spiritual concepts, human potentialities, the—”

“All right,” said Finch. “I won’t try to compete. I won’t shoot him and I won’t punch him and I won’t do anything else uncivilized. Why don’t the two of you get the hell off to A.D. 2215 and carry on the rest of your affair there, OK? Go have a flying fuck in the century after next and let me alone. OK? OK? The two of you. Let—me—

Nort disappeared. So did Jennifer.

“Alone,” Finch finished weakly. “Jennifer? Jennifer? Where are you? Hey, I wasn’t serious! Jennifer! Goddamn it, what kind of sadistic stunt is this? Where are you?”

The cruelty of their game astounded him. He waited for them to pop back into the room as Nort had done with the newspaper, but they did not, and as the minutes went by he began to suspect that they were not going to. Numb with disbelief, he prowled the house, searching closets for them. Suddenly horror-struck, he rushed to Jason’s room, then to Samantha’s, but the children were still there, Jason asleep, Samantha awake and troubled by the shouting she had heard. He picked her up and held her a long moment, and tears came to him. “It’s all right,” he murmured. “Go back to sleep.” He returned to the bedroom and sat there until dawn, waiting for Jennifer.

In the morning he phoned the office to say that severe family problems had forced him to return from Pittsburgh suddenly and that he needed an indefinite leave of absence, with or without pay. His supervisor was wholly understanding, not at all skeptical, as if Finch’s voice communicated precisely how stunned and bewildered he was. He managed to deliver the children to school, and then spent the morning by the telephone, hoping to hear from Jennifer. But no word came from her all day. In late afternoon he called his parents to say that Jennifer had gone off somewhere without warning and could they please come early for their holiday visit, because he wasn’t sure he could handle all this domestic stuff alone. They arrived the next day and asked blessedly few questions. In their generation, he thought, it must have been the usual thing for marriages to break up without warning.

Jennifer did not come back. He felt like someone who had been given a single wish and had used it stupidly: now she was off in the inconceivable future with Nort. Was that possible? Was this not all some kind of bizarre dream? Apparently not, for on Christmas Eve a note from Jennifer materialized inexplicably on the living room table, dated 14 Oct 2215 and wishing him happy holidays and assuring him of her love and telling him not to expect her back. “Sometimes you simply have to follow your destiny,” she concluded. “I had only a fraction of a second to make my decision and I made it, and maybe I’ll regret it, but I did what I had to do. I miss you, darling. And you know how much I miss Samantha and Jason.” Next to the note was a little package with a tag marked Merry Christmas from Nort. It contained a tiny crystal ball that when held close to his eye showed him what looked like an Antarctic landscape, gales howling and placid penguins wandering around on an ice floe. He put it down, and when he picked it up a second time it displayed the Pyramids with a long line of tourists milling about. Finch flung it against the wall and it cracked in half and turned cloudy. He wished he had not done that.

Getting through the holidays was even more of an ordeal than usual, but his parents were an immense help, and his friends, once they discovered that Jennifer was gone, came magnificently to his aid. He was scarcely alone the whole week, and he suspected that it would not have been hard for him to find company for the night, either, but of course that was out of the question. The children were perplexed by Jennifer’s disappearance, but after some disorientation they appeared to adapt, which Finch found more than a little chilling. He hired a housekeeper early in January and, feeling like a sleepwalker, went back to work. Because of the change in his family circumstances, the company took him off the outlying routes, so that he would not have to spend nights away from home.

Some time in early spring he started genuinely to believe that Jennifer had skipped away into the future with her lover. Notes from her arrived now and then, always friendly, with regards for the children and reminders about oiling the furnace and taking the cars in for tune-ups. She said she was having a wonderful time but missed him terribly. There was never any mention of coming back. From time to time, also, little gifts appeared—gadgets, toys, knickknacks of the future. Perhaps they were meant for Jason, but Finch kept them himself, hoarding them in his closet and examining them at night with awe. He had always loved gadgets—computers, remote-control devices, wrist videos, and such—but these seemed more like miracles than gadgets to him, and he ceased to doubt that Nort was what he said he was. Finch hoped another of the crystal balls would turn up, but it never did. He did get something that appeared to tune in the music of the spheres, and another that could be programmed to give him the dreams he wanted, and one that displayed abstract color-fields of a serene unearthly kind.

When summer came, he drifted with surprising ease into a romance with Estelle, the company’s PR consultant, and that carried him into late autumn. Gently she extricated herself from the relationship then, but he had learned how to meet and win women once again, and he ran through a lively bachelorhood in the months that followed. The first anniversary of Jennifer’s disappearance passed. The notes from her and the gifts from Nort came less frequently and then not at all. He was quite competent at running a family without a wife by now, but he had never lost that old sense of himself as an innately married man, as half of a couple, and so, admitting that Jennifer was never coming back, he filed for divorce and won an uncontested decree. That was the strangest part thus far, the knowledge that he was no longer married to Jennifer. He looked for a new wife in his diligent, serious-minded way and, within six months, found one. Her name was Sharon and she was warm-hearted and lovely and rather like Jennifer, though her interests ran more to drama and poetry than to music and painting. She had had an unhappy marriage just after college and had a boy of four, Joshua, very bright. Joshua got along wonderfully with Jason and Samantha, they accepted Sharon readily as their new mother—Jennifer was only a hazy memory to them now—and everything seemed to have worked out for the best. Sometimes Finch called Sharon “Jennifer” when they made love, but she was very understanding about that. Sometimes, too, he woke up drenched with sweat, wondering where he had misplaced his one true wife, his sundered half; but whenever that happened, Sharon held him until he regained his grasp on reality. He moved up nicely in the firm, which was expanding at a remarkable rate, and stayed trim and agile all through his forties. Samantha and Jason turned out well, too: Jason went to Cal Tech, joined a West Coast company, and invented an information-encapsulating device that made him a stock-option millionaire by the time he was twenty-two. Samantha grew tall and radiant and even more beautiful, pursued her interest in French, and achieved splendid translations of Rabelais and Ronsard and married the French ambassador. Finch saw less and less of his children once they were grown, of course, but they always came home for a family reunion at Christmas. They were with him that afternoon twenty-three years after Jennifer’s disappearance when Jennifer reappeared.

Finch did not know who she was, at first. She quite suddenly was there in the living room, a handsome, slender, full-breasted young woman of about thirty, with golden hair in tight waves against her scalp, who wore a clinging garment of metallic mesh. She blinked and looked about and gasped as she saw Finch, who was in his mid-fifties and reasonably youthful-looking for his age.

“Dale?” she said doubtfully.

He let his drink clatter to the floor. “No,” he said. “It isn’t possible. Christ, what are you doing here?”

“I had to come back. Oh, Dale, it’s the wrong year, isn’t it? I wanted to see the children again!”

“There they are,” he said stonily. “Take a look.”

“Where—which—”

Jason was there and Samantha, and also Joshua and some of their friends; and obviously Jennifer did not recognize her own. Finch pointed. The stocky broad-shouldered young man with the earnest myopic gaze was Jason. The long-legged, awesomely beautiful woman was Samantha. Jennifer’s glossy poise seemed to shatter. She was trembling and close to tears. “I wanted to see the children,” she whispered. “They were so small—he was six, she was seven—oh, Dale, I’ve set the timer wrong! I’ve made a mess of it, haven’t I?”

Samantha, quick as always, was the only other one who understood. She went toward her mother and stared at her as though Jennifer were an intruder from some other planet. Finch had heard that Samantha often used her beauty as a weapon, but he had never before seen it. Jennifer appeared to shrivel before the sleek, dazzling woman she had helped to create. In a low husky voice Samantha said, “You don’t belong here now, you know. This is a happy time for us, and we don’t need you and we don’t want you. Will you go away?”

“Wait,” Finch muttered.

Too late. Jennifer, reddening, dismayed, nodded and said to Samantha, “I’m terribly sorry. I’m sorry for everything.” She ran from the room. Finch raced after her, out to the hall, but of course she had disappeared. White-faced, Finch returned to the party. He looked toward Sharon, who was both smiling and frowning. He had never told her or anyone else exactly what had become of his first wife.

“Who was that?” Sharon asked amiably. “Some girlfriend of yours, Dale?” There was nothing like jealousy in her voice. She was only mildly curious.

“No—no, nothing like that—”

“I wonder how she got in here. Like coming out of thin air, almost. Strange. Why did she dash away like that?”

“She didn’t belong here,” Finch said hoarsely. He poured himself another drink. “She was in the wrong time, the wrong place.” He glanced at his daughter, who was flushed with triumph. What power she had, what force! All the same, he was starting to regret that Samantha had driven her off so quickly. With a wobbly hand he raised his glass. “Merry Christmas, everybody! Merry, merry, merry Christmas!”

For a few years after that he found himself wondering, as the holiday season approached, whether Jennifer would make another appearance, like some ghost of marriages past coming round again. Had she tired of Nort and Nort’s century? Did she yearn for all she had abandoned? Though there was no longer any room in Finch’s life for her, he held no grudge after all this time; he was almost eager to go off and talk with her a little, to find out who she had become, this woman who had once been part of him. But she never again returned. Perhaps she spent her holidays with Millard Fillmore now, he thought. Or singing carols by the blazing Yule log at the fireside of great-great-great-grandpa Johann Sebastian Bach.

Copyright © 1982 by Agberg, Ltd