A Crowd of Possibilities
Eric Del Carlo
Ric Rivarde's favorite rum was distributed, here, in an hourglass bottle. Luck had it that the brand and contents matched what he remembered from home. Quite a number of those vaguely feminine-shaped bottles had passed through the seedy room he'd been renting these past seventy-seven days.
Some of the rum sloshed inside him as he journeyed through the city's night, as uneasy an excursion as he'd anticipated, full of starts and startles, strange sounds and sights that made him cower deeper into his coat. The many reflective surfaces - storefronts, bus windows, damp pavements - showed Ric the cringing, slovenly, precarious creature he had become.
Why had he come here? He'd had such a cocksure and absolute answer for that before leaving home. The reality of this venture had struck almost immediately upon arrival, a devastating blow, a crippling one. All his uninformed certainties had been canceled. He just hadn't known - how could any person truly know? - what he was getting into.
The pamphlet he had received in the mail was in his coat pocket, warped and worn by a week of sweaty handling. It was still a great curiosity to him, one which had brought him out on this misty night in this forbidding foreign city.
DO YOU WANT TO GO HOME AGAIN? That was the staggering question the pamphlet asked. Inside were the details of where and when he should go if the possibility of going home interested him. Of course it must be some commercial shtick selling him God or transcendence or real estate or whatever traps this strange culture laid for the unwary consumer.
And yet the envelope which contained the pamphlet had arrived with his name and address rendered in careful penmanship. No computer printout. Ric had made a few skittish inquiries of his neighbors and had learned that no, nobody addressed junk mail by hand. That, at least, was one aspect of this crazy world that corresponded with home.
Actually, there were many matches between here and home, and a near-infinitude of similarities. But the differences bit with fangs and slashed with claws. They so undermined his trust in reality that abject fear was the only reasonable reaction, and rum, for his part, the most sensible means of accommodating that nagging terror.
Ric Rivarde reached his stop near the end of the bus line. He had been living - and could continue to do so for years to come, by his calculations - on the money from the pocketful of diamonds he had brought with him to this world. Even so, frugality was prudent, and so he'd taken the bus, not a cab, to this mysterious meeting which promised to show him the way back home.
Street addresses followed the familiar pattern here, and so he kept to the odd-numbered side and found, after two reversals, that here was the place. It was a dispiriting discovery.
Squinting, red-veined eyes saw several people smoking just outside the basement door. All had Styrofoam cups steaming in hand.
Night meetings held in church basements meant one thing in the world Ric Rivarde called home. Having learned through disappointment, disillusionment, and mental trauma not to take such things for granted, however, he paused on the stairs, observing. The smokers were engaged in spirited conversation, though Ric couldn't make out the words. They were a range of ages, dressed according to random fashion sensibilities. One man, silver-haired and dark-browed, glanced up, saw Ric and offered a smile that might have indicated anything. The middle-aged woman with him looked at her wristwatch, and the group migrated as one inside. With the area now cleared, Ric saw a sheet of pastel paper with a black marker taped to the door. It said: A.A.
Nonetheless, crossing the fog-wet city with all its attendant frights and disorientations had drained him. His head felt light in a way that had nothing to do with the rum. Perhaps he ought to go inside anyway, just to catch his breath. His hand shook and found the damp metal handrail. A head with dark eyebrows poked back out the door.
"Time to start," the middle-aged man said to Ric in a friendly tone. "You're coming in?"
It almost wasn't a question. Ric straightened and, resisting the wooziness, entered the basement. He hoped the rum couldn't be smelled on him, realized it was probably a forlorn hope if this man was a onetime professional drinker.
So, this was what DO YOU WANT TO GO HOME AGAIN? was all about.
There were folding chairs and collapsible tables, apparently standard equipment in both his world and this one. There were two gigantic prehistoric urns at one end of the basement, along with powdered doughnuts. Some forty or fifty people had gathered. The setting wasn't formal, though the chairs were laid out in rows facing the tables. There was a great deal of last minute chatter and seat-finding. The members of the larger assembly were as diverse as the ones he'd already observed.
Ric took the first chair that presented itself, in the rear row. His body ached with misery and fear, and the rum buzz was starting to lift, leaving behind twitchy discomfort. Stubble on his jaw itched, and his clothing oozed with odor. He wished he'd showered more recently than he had. What a state to be in for his first A.A. meeting, he thought with wry glumness. And he not even a bona fide alcoholic.
Someone took the chair next to his and proffered a cup of hot, dark coffee. "Here you go, kiddo. This'll keep you in it."
Ric took the Styrofoam cup, nodding his thanks. His seatmate was the middle-aged man with silver hair.
A woman in her early thirties, wearing an orange head-wrap and roomy blouse, presided over the meeting. Her manner was relaxed, almost mischievous. She had a worldliness about her, however, that hinted at past times which hadn't been so merry.
"So," she was saying, her voice carrying easily, "let's get to our featured speaker for tonight. Most of you know him already, a longtime friend of this association. Freddy, it's all yours."
Up stood Freddy, a rugged, hardy male of the type that might have been sixty as easily as forty. Enthusiastic applause ensued. Ric's new companion somehow managed a few claps with a coffee cup of his own in one hand.
Freddy wore a sport coat over an immaculate white T-shirt. Like every other person in this broad low-ceilinged basement, he was somebody you could pass on the street any day. Well, so went alcoholics, as Ric recalled from his unofficial, mostly TV-inspired education in the matter. Addiction could claim anyone.
Freddy presented a charming and self-effacing smile. He waved off the applause good-naturedly. When the room had quieted, he said, "Thanks, thank you, good evening, everybody. Yes, I'm Freddy, and Shondrel's right in that many of you know me. But I'm going to tell my story anyway, because, well, it's just so fascinating, you know? So unique. I promise--you'll get chills."
It was a laugh line, and he got a hearty knowing one. Ric recognized it as an insider's joke and felt an outsider's pang. He would have left that moment if he could have slipped out unseen.
"Today was a good day for me," Freddy said. "I woke up this morning, and I knew where I was. Not just the bed I was sleeping in, or the room the bed was in, or the apartment that contained them both--I knew it all. Right from the minute the alarm clock went off. And that, my friends, is a good day."
A wavelet of applause agreed with the sentiment. Again Freddy dispersed it. He wasn't up there just milking it, Ric noted. Freddy leaned forward, knuckles on the tabletop. His gaze, more somber now, swept the assemblage.
"But there were lots of bad days, once upon a time. And there are still bad days--and not just when I'm opening my eyes in the morning. Pressing an elevator button and not knowing what it's supposed to do. The car horn from a block away that makes you jump out of your skin. Freezing up when you're paying a store clerk for a can of soda because you don't recognize the president on the dollar bill."
Someone nearby murmured, "Oh, God," in agreement. But Ric was puzzling over that last comment by Freddy. Was he talking about losing one's bearings due to chronic drinking...?
"It's not possible, I don't think," Freddy said, tone positively grave now, "to feel more alone than we here in this room have felt. You could drop your typical person on an ice floe with nothing to read but the ingredients on a tube of tooth paste and nothing to eat but what they could fish out of the water, and that person would still feel more connected to his world. He'd know what was going on, even if he didn't like it much. There are certain guarantees that would never be reneged on. He would have basic assurances. Even if he never saw another human being again, he would still be home."
Ric started slightly at the last word. Home. Home. It was an infinitely lovely word, one emanating promise and an end to fear. It was the sole word which had enticed him from his room tonight.
"But," Freddy said. "That isn't license for any of us to feel sorry for ourselves. It's a luxury we just can't afford. Our cases are too extreme. We start down the pity-me-pity-me road, and chances are none of us will be back. We all understand in our hearts just how fragile we are."
Freddy finished up with a great gushing of gratitude for this fellowship, for the opportunity to share his own experiences and thus help to heal and blah-blah-blah. More robust applause erupted at the conclusion, while the woman named Shondrel in the orange head-wrap resumed informal authority over the meeting. She was spouting further palaver that Ric wasn't listening to. Far from inspired by Freddy's lecture, Ric was feeling fearful, sullen, angry, miserable. What good was this doing him? When he woke in the morning, he might very well not know where he was - but it wouldn't be because he'd gotten plastered the night before. No. His disassociation with reality was something far more profound.
This was how it was going to be, no denying it, for the remainder of his days in this horrifying world.
Shondrel, consulting a note, called his name. "Ric Rivarde, is Ric here tonight?" Ric blinked. Once. Slowly.
Then the middle-aged man in the adjacent seat turned with his friendly smile and asked softly, "Hey, kiddo, that's you, isn't it?"
And that, simply, was the limit. He had had enough. These people, with their smug camaraderie and smarmy affability, were just asking for it.
"I'm Ric Rivarde," he announced to the room, bypassing warning impulses and barely registering surprise at the booming quality of his normally soft voice. "Here I am. That brochure you sent duped me, and I hope you're proud of yourselves. You asked if I wanted to go home again. You bet I do! I can't tell you how sick I am of this place. How strange it is. How every day I discover a dozen, two dozen, a hundred things that don't make sense. And every one is a new betrayal. I thought I was ready for this. I embraced the possibilities! Doesn't that make you laugh? I wanted adventure. I wanted to be a pilgrim from my world. I wanted to touch another facet of existence. And, well, I did just that. And this world stinks."
This last he shouted so loudly that pain cinched around his skull. He reeled but kept his feet, sweat flushing his face. The outburst, while draining, had also been liberating.
Now, of course, he had to get out of this basement as quickly as possible. These past seventy-seven days he had observed strict cautions. He had been prepared for this journey in that respect at least, if no other. He'd known enough to hide his identity.
But his seat neighbor, standing, cupped a firm hand over Ric's shoulder. A hard heartbeat of reasonless panic shot through him, and he thought, I am found out, I am caught!
At that same skittering instant a fresh wave of applause broke out.
"Yes, yes," the woman named Shondrel called happily. "It is indeed Mr. Ric Rivarde, who we all hope will become our latest member. Let's give him a big hello and welcome him to Alternates Anonymous!"
"The shape butter comes in, from the grocery store--that was the tweak for me."
"The color of the mailboxes here."
"When I learned that actual atomic weapons had been used in this World War II..."
"Well, if we're talking the big stuff, I still can't believe the bad rap Judas Iscariot gets in this world."
That provoked appreciative chuckling, but this time Ric Rivarde didn't feel quite so excluded by it. Laughter was a defense mechanism for these people, and a useful one. He was starting to understand.
The meeting had broken up. This discussion was taking place around the last of the coffee and doughnuts, among the half dozen members who hadn't yet departed into the night. Among them were Shondrel, Freddy and Ric's erstwhile seatmate, whose name was Markus Mahaffy. Alternates Anonymous was a facetious name, another inside joke. This group was indeed posing as the sort of A.A. meeting familiar to Ric's -and evidently numerous other - worlds. But it was just a front, a means of hiding in plain sight.
Ric was glad it was down to just this small clutch of people. He wasn't at all sure he could have heard too many more stories. A Confederate victory in the Civil War; a Mob-dominated world, where Prohibition had never been repealed; John Kennedy surviving his assassination attempt; Malcolm X as the first black U.S. president; a Roman empire that was the planet's only modern superpower; wars that had never happened, plagues that had killed off continental populations, historical figures who had never been born or had died in obscurity, unknowns who had left their marks, both sublime and terrible, on the many worlds, so very many...
Markus had it right, though, about the packaging of the butter. It was the little things, those constant confounding flusters that had been working on Ric's mental stability since his arrival. Those were the tweaks - as these people said - that had pushed him nearly to insanity.
But here, among this exceptionally diverse group, was commonality. Each person who had come to the meeting this night had experienced the same kind of traveling. The reasons varied. Ric was startled to learn that some had been sent into the dimensional swirl as punishment, a penal exiling. But the methods were the same. On all these members' home worlds, the means of traveling had been discovered, and on all those worlds it was a one-way process.
It was the dimensional signature which the procedure left behind that allowed travelers to be tracked in this world. The founding members of Alternates Anonymous had created the detection system and had set about gathering their fellows.
"Why was I contacted so obliquely?" Ric asked. "A brochure in the mail. Why not knock on my door?"
Shondrel explained. "Because you have to want our help. You must want the company of others like yourself, for the comfort, for the healing it offers. Not everybody does want it, and it can't be forced on an individual."
Markus Mahaffy had offered to sponsor Ric in the program. The meetings were weekly, but Ric could call Markus anytime he liked, day or night. Markus even offered Ric a ride back to his lodgings.
He felt no trace of the rum in his bloodstream. Markus drove through the city night, which now somehow didn't seem quite so awful and foreign. Georgia, Markus' wife, made pleasant chitchat. The pair had come from different worlds, had met through the association. With the various connections of the fellow members, Ric could get himself a better place to live, a job if he wanted one. These people had acclimated to their situations, and they were eager to help. Helping him would help them.
Ric scratched at the stubble on his face, ran fingers through his tangled hair. Whatever else, his first act would be tidying himself up. Then he could set about ordering his new life.
When they were just a block or two from his stop, a question occurred to Ric. He voiced it: "Why did that pamphlet you people sent ask if I wanted to go home again? I mean, I can't. None of us can, right?"
Markus quirked a knowing smile at him as he eased the auto to the curb in front of Ric's building.
"Kiddo," he said, "you are home."