Another foray into the unexpected. Sorry, but that’s just how things go sometimes.
Music matters? Yup, always:
So? Ready? Well then, off we go…
Sun turnin’ ‘round with graceful motion
We’re setting off with soft explosion
Bound for a star with fiery oceans
It’s so very lonely, you’re a hundred light years from home
Mick Jagger / Keith Richards 2000 Light Years From Home
Boston, Massachusetts September 2002
His hands were still shaking, eyes closed and with his head bowed forward, sweat running down his face – now resting in his outstretched, cradling hands – as if hands alone could hold these errant, fleeting thoughts. ‘I think this is what you call an existential crisis,’ he muttered into the thin air surrounding the palms of his trembling hands. ‘That, or I’m losing my mind…’
But then he leaned back and looked at his skin wondering if it really was his – or maybe it belonged to someone or something else, like maybe to the echoes that just wouldn’t stop?
He was in his faculty office and had just started sitting for his daily office hours session, but already he felt like getting up and leaving. It was only the first week of the term and surely no one would drop by after just a few days of class…?
But no, he heard someone knocking on his door.
“Come on in,” he groaned. “Door’s open.”
But no, the head of the department stuck her head in the door to see if he was alone, then she came in and shut the door behind her. Then, without saying a word, she came and sat across from him.
“Gene? How’re you doing?”
“I’m not sure, Susan. Matter of fact, I’m not really sure of a whole lot right now.”
She shook her head and looked out the window: “You should’ve taken the term off, Gene. It’s just too soon, and I’m not even sure how you’re functioning right now.”
“Habit,” Sherman muttered, as he looked down into his hands.
“Do you want to talk to someone?”
“You mean, like a shrink?”
She shook her head. “Do you think you need a psychiatrist?”
“No. No I don’t. Of course I feel bad about what happened but I don’t feel responsible or even guilty, for that matter,” he said, trying his best to keep a lid on what had happened two days ago, just after he’d returned from his trip out west. “But things happened, Susan, bad things. I watched them happen and I can’t get the image – of them falling – out of my mind.”
“I couldn’t either, not if I’d seen something like that. In fact I’m not sure how you made it down off the mountain…”
“In a helicopter,” he said sarcastically, scowling as another memory came flooding in. “Hans and I came down in a helicopter.”
“That was a good call.”
“Do you climb?”
“A little. Nothing like what you’ve done.”
He nodded. “I’m done. With climbing, that is.”
“That’s understandable, Gene.” She hesitated, looked at him for a while then decided to ask the question that had been bothering her since she learned of the accident. “Gene? Do you believe in God?”
He shrugged. “Oh, I suppose like most of us I try to keep an open mind, Susan, but by and large I haven’t given the matter a whole lot of thought.”
“Well, teaching cosmology…I’d assume you’re at least conversant in the basics…?”
“I am, at least I think I am. But Susan, what are you driving at?”
“You seem confused, Gene. And I don’t want to intrude but you are, in a very real sense, my professional responsibility, and I need to be sure that you’re able to meet the needs of our students.”
He groaned inwardly, because he knew the hard pitch was coming next: “And what do I need to do to assure you I’m competent,” he sighed.
She took a deep breath, hovering over the edge of her own indecision, then she stepped into the heart of it: “If you don’t think you need to speak with a psychiatrist, what about, well, what about a theologian?”
“You mean like a priest? Excuse me, but are you fucking serious?”
She looked him in the eye and nodded. “There’s someone I know over at BC. He’s a Jesuit and a historian but he also teaches a series on the history of science, religion and science, those kinds of courses.”
“And – so he’s also a priest, I take it? I mean, Jesuits are priests, right?”
“Kind of,” she said, chuckling a little. “He’s a Jesuit and a priest but he’s also the most open minded…well, he’s so open-minded he’s almost an atheist, and, well, in this city that’s saying something. Anyway, he’s developed a reputation around town as a good listener.”
“Listener? Is he, like, are you saying he’s a counselor? Is that what you’re telling me? That I need to speak to a priest in order to keep my job?”
“No, actually, he’s not a counselor, and no, you don’t have to talk to anyone about this if you don’t want to. As long as you’re meeting our students’ expectations…”
“Okay, yeah, I got it. So, this priest. Why him? What is it about this guy that makes him…”
“Gene,” she said, passing over a post-it note with a name and telephone number written on it, “give him a call…but only if you want. You don’t need to tell me if you do, it’s all up to you, but I hope you do.”
She got up and let herself out, and as soon as she was gone he looked at the post-it note sitting on his desk, then picked up the phone on his desk and dialed the number.
He didn’t really know where else to meet this priest so he settled on The Chart House. It was the most relevant place he knew to the events in question – and besides, it still felt like a safe space.
Father Andrew Kerrigan, SJ, arrived a few minutes early and walked up to Sherman, who was then at the hostess’s desk checking in. “You Sherman?” Kerrigan asked.
“Yup,” Sherman said as he looked at the collar, then holding out his right hand.
“Would you like to sit outside?” the hostess asked Sherman.
“I’d rather not,” Sherman said quickly, perhaps a little too quickly. “I’ve had a too much sun this summer, if you know what I mean.”
Kerrigan shrugged. “Suits me, but you might regret that decision come, say, next January.”
“On second thought,” Sherman said as he grinned at the girl, “outside sounds about right.”
Either of you care for a cocktail?” the hostess asked as she seated them close to the patio’s edge, and they had a semi-unobstructed view of the harbor and Logan airport beyond. Sherman watched a group of small sailboats rounding a big orange buoy in the middle of the inner harbor and he almost smiled.
“I never learned to sail,” he sighed as he looked up at the hostess. “That almost looks like fun. And I’ll guess I’ll have a MaiTai, if you please.”
“Never too late to learn,” Kerrigan said before he turned to the hostess. “I’ll have the same.”
She walked off and Kerrigan turned to Sherman. “So, you never learned to sail?”
“No, I was into football and skiing, and summers I usually spent with my dad up in the mountains.”
“Climbing. He was addicted to hot showers and camping wasn’t really his thing.”
“Sounds sensible to me; I like him already. Is he still around?”
Sherman shook his head. “Passed a month ago.”
“Sorry. Did I read something about you in the Globe? A climbing accident in Zermatt?”
Sherman nodded. “Yup.”
“I noticed your leg walking in. You made the climb with a prosthetic limb?”
“Pardon my French, but that takes balls – like big brass ones. So, what happened up there?”
Echoes buffeted him and he tried not to grab hold of the table, but then he realized his eyes were clinched tight and when he opened them again Kerrigan was looking away, looking at the boats out there on the water.
“Sorry about that,” Sherman said.
“Flashbacks?” the priest said.
And then Sherman took a deep breath, deciding then and there that he had to trust someone and that someone might as well be a priest. “Tell me, do multiple people usually experience the same, well, call them flashbacks, and at the same time? And, well, is it possible that, to the same degree, the experience leaves them all physically exhausted?”
And Kerrigan shrugged, turning back to look at Sherman: “Who am I to dispute what you say?”
Sherman seemed taken aback by that, like he was expecting this priest to roll his eyes and get up and leave.
“You know,” Kerrigan added, watching the expression on Sherman’s face, “why don’t you start at the beginning and get me up to speed on all this?”
And so, for the next hour Gene Sherman did exactly that, covering the entire year – from when he’d first met Beth Cohen to the accident on the Matterhorn’s summit – and he did so in as much detail as he could muster. Yet it turned out that Kerrigan was not simply an attentive listener, he had a prosecutor’s eye for detail and he asked probing questions of his own, especially concerning the guides on the climb and their role as both guides and also as de facto climbing instructors.
“Is this the sort of climb rank amateurs routinely make,” Kerrigan asked, suddenly perplexed by the idea that such a climb was routinely made by anyone who wanted to give it a try. “This whole climbing thing seems rather strange to me.”
“Well, I take it Europeans are somewhat more lax regarding personal choice, especially when it comes to mountaineering. I think they look at it as something like: ‘Well, it’s your life, so…’”
“But how many people have died on that mountain?”
“Oh, I think it must be close to 400 now. Usually about ten a summer. Falls and exposure, of course, but most accidents that happen usually involve people with little to no experience, and of course those trying to make the climb without a guide. The results are predictable, I think.”
“And it’s legal? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Again, I don’t think the people over there are into that kind of regulation, but the fact of the matter is the same situation exists over here, even in our national parks. Lot’s of people try to climb Half Dome in Yosemite every summer, and more than a few don’t make it. All that’s required these days is filling out a permit and off you go, no background checks, no nothing.”
Kerrigan shook his head. “Extraordinary,” he sighed. “Reckless, too. Did you feel that Beth and Betty were qualified to make the climb?”
“Yup. And both guides evaluated each of us before we set out. They would have stopped any one of us from making the climb if we weren’t fit enough, or not competent enough, for that matter.”
“Well, that’s that, then, isn’t it?”
“No, it isn’t.”
“I see. The flashbacks. When did these start?”
“You know, I’m more comfortable calling the phenomenon an echo.”
“An echo? How strange. Why an echo?”
Sherman looked down and clinched his fists, then he looked at the priest again. “I’m trying to be precise now, because words matter, but it gets weird from here on, Father. Okay?”
Kerrigan shrugged. “I can handle weird.”
Sherman nodded. “We’ll see. Anyway, turns out about the time the accident happened on the summit my old man died. I mean like almost down to the minute, okay? Hans, my guide, called a helicopter to take us down to the village and after that I packed up and left the hotel. I mean right then. I had a cable from home, my mom telling me that dad was close and to hurry home…”
“But I thought you said…”
“Yup, the cable was about eight hours old by then. Anyway, I flew straight home, to California, and once there I learned Dad had passed, and I also learned I had a son, a 30 year old son…”
One of Kerrigan’s eyebrows arched. “Indeed. How unsettling that must have been, given the circumstances, I mean?”
“Yeah. Understatement of the year, but yeah. After we spread my dad’s ashes we came back here to pick up Beth and Betty’s ashes and to take them to Colorado. My guide, Hans, showed up at Logan with their ashes and he wanted to go too…”
“To Long’s Peak, in Colorado.”
“They wanted their ashes spread from…?”
“Yup. We spelled all that out before we left for Zermatt, by the way. And then Hans gave me the contact information for Betty’s surviving family, which turned out to be her twin sister…”
“And don’t tell me, she decided to come along, as well?”
“And how did that go?”
“Strange. That’s when the echoes started, but my son, Jordan, was the first to experience them. While we were driving west. These things started with, for him, visions, nausea, unsettled dreams.”
“Not until, no, well, we were in Colorado Springs, at the Broadmoor.”
“And you experienced the same things?”
“I did, yes. And Hans did as well, but his started on the day we set out for the summit, but that’s when everything went all to hell…”
“It’s difficult to put into words, but I felt like I was phasing into another time and I was back up on the Matterhorn one second and then I was back on the Boulder Field…”
“Part of the climb up Long’s. About a mile or so of hopping from boulder to boulder on your way up to something called the Keyhole.”
“And phasing in and out? You saw both places? At the same time?”
“And all three of you did?”
“At first, yes, then all four of us…”
“You mean Betty’s sister?”
“She experienced this as well?”
“Okay. So, what’s the bad part?”
“We were falling then, falling towards some kind of ocean…”
“An ocean? Really?”
Sherman closed his eyes and grabbed the table as another echo crashed through his conscious mind.
“Excuse me,” the priest said, now staring at Sherman’s right hand, “but is it happening again? Now, I mean?”
Sherman shivered, shook his head. “Just an echo,” he said, grimacing.
“Look at your hands, Doctor Sherman.”
He opened his eyes and looked down, and he saw blueish static discharges arcing off his fingertips.
“Does this usually happen when they come?” Kerrigan asked.
“Nope. First time.”
“Up on the mountain, you were falling? What happened next?”
Sherman kept staring at his hands, only now several people at nearby tables were staring at them, too. “In a sense nothing happened. I was aware we were hovering over the rocks…”
“The Boulder Field, you mean?”
Sherman nodded. “That’s right. Like maybe ten feet up, then we woke up – but we were all drenched, in seawater. Only now we were surrounded by a bunch of other people making the climb, and all of them told us pretty much the same story. They saw us inside a blue sphere, hovering over the rocks…”
“A blue sphere? Surrounded with blue discharges like these?” Kerrigan said, pointing at Sherman’s hands.
“Okay. You said something happened a couple of days ago. What? What happened?”
“Well, oddly enough I think all this started then…”
“But, this all happened a few weeks ago, did it not…?”
“That’s right, and I understand your confusion. But first, tell me, Father, just for purposes of this discussion, do you think that time travel is possible?”
Kerrigan stiffened then slowly leaned back in his chair. “Why do you ask?”
“A simple yes or no will suffice here, Father. Do you think it’s possible?”
“No, I don’t imagine I do, but I think that perhaps we ought to pay up and get the fuck out of Dodge, Professor, before those hands of yours get us onto the cover of the National Enquirer…”
“Know anywhere we can talk for a while?”
“Are you kidding?” Kerrigan said, smiling as he grabbed the check.
“No, please, let me,” Sherman asked.
“No way, Professor. If you reach into a pocket you’ll probably burn your clothes right off your body, and that just wouldn’t do! Know what I mean?”
They sat inside the nave inside St Mary’s Chapel, across from the Jesuit residences on the Boston College campus, and Sherman’s hands were still simmering, still glowing an iridescent cobalt blue.
“So, what has time travel got to do with all this?” the priest asked.
“We climbed up Long’s,” Sherman sighed. “Hans said a prayer for Pete, up on the summit.”
“Pete? The priest?”
Sherman nodded. “Yeah. The odd thing about it, Father, is that there were maybe thirty people up there with us, and they’d all seen us inside the sphere. Once they learned why we were there a kind of mystical aura surrounded our climb…”
“You mean a visible aura?”
“No, no…sorry. Poor choice of words. Maybe ‘purpose’ is a better one. Anyway, most of the people up there were serious climbers and a few had heard about our Matterhorn climb, so there was a kind of reverence, if you know what I mean…?”
“Well, every one of us, I mean the four of us as well as this entourage we’d acquired, made it back down the mountain and we each went our separate ways. We, the four of us, went to Palo Alto and dropped my son off, then Hans, Heather and I drove over to the Grand Canyon. I also asked Heather if she knew of a way to send the car back to Europe with Hans and that gave her something to work on while we drove back to Charleston.”
“Oh, yeah. The Beast. A flame red Eldorado convertible with a white interior…”
“Dear God in Heaven,” Kerrigan grinned, crossing himself. “You mean, like, a real pimp-mobile?”
“Exactly. And Hans loves the thing. Anyway, by the time we got to South Carolina Hans and Heather were screwing like rabbits and madly in love so I dropped them there and flew back here, and that pretty much brings us up to the events of a few days ago.”
“And this is the part of the affair that involves time travel, you say?”
“Yup. First, a little back-tracking. An associate of mine at MIT, and she’s a Nobel laureate…”
“Quantum mechanics, quantum field theory…”
“So, not exactly a crackpot – isn’t that what you’re really saying…?”
“Yup. She came to me with a Harvard undergrad, music theory, a pianist I think, with the usual crackpot BS about ‘if you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you?’ Well, I said it was improbable at best but that I thought that if something happened once that was probably it. You couldn’t change time…”
“You do know that’s a remarkably, well, a theological point of view, Sherman.”
“That’s what she said, too.”
Kerrigan nodded. “Basic Determinism, pure and simple.”
Sherman nodded. “Yeah, well, that wasn’t what drove my answer…”
“Not consciously, anyway.”
Sherman shrugged. “Anyway, a couple of days ago she comes by my apartment with this kid and they ask if I could go back to the Matterhorn and change the outcome would I?”
“Would you what?”
“Go back and change the outcome.”
“You didn’t. Tell me you didn’t.”
“You just about got that right, Father.”
His left hand on the large fixed rope, his right getting the Leica out of his pack, Gene Sherman knew in an instant he was back on the Hörnli Ridge, not far from the icefield and the final stretch to the summit, and then, without looking down he realized that Peter and Beth were just below him, Betty still climbing up to reach them…
…and yet his mind knew, really knew on every level imaginable that the three of them had been dead for weeks – and that he was in the living room of his apartment…
…then he was photographing the dawn and repacking his camera…
…and following Hans up the icefield to the summit…
…waiting at the statue of Saint Bernard, digging the camera out of his pack again, shooting the same images again as Beth, then Betty gained the summit…
But this time, when Hans asked him to cross the ridge – he did. And he insisted on holding a solid belay when Pete and Beth and Betty crossed. When it was time to cross again, back to the lower summit, he again insisted that Hans lead, but that Pete bring up the rear in order to maintain a really solid belay on the girls while they crossed.
And this time the same gust tore into Pete, now bringing up the rear, and this time he pulled Betty and then Beth over the edge. Again.
Same outcome, only the order of their return had changed a little, and yet this change in order, he suspected, had caused a spreading series of changes that, like ripples spreading across a pond, were reverberating across time.
“Only there’s absolutely no way to know which actions or what results belong to what timeline,” Sherman sighed.
“I’m curious, Sherman. When you returned to the Matterhorn this second time, what was happening to your quantum mechanic and her musician friend?”
“They never left my apartment.”
“So, you think these echoes happened as a result of your second trip to the mountain?”
Sherman shrugged. “I have no idea, not really, but it’s the only thing that’s come to mind.”
“Have you noticed your hands?” Kerrigan whispered.
And Sherman looked down, saw his hands were ‘normal’ again, just the pale flesh of his usual self.
“I’ve been watching them as you talked,” Kerrigan said. “The more you talked, the more you recounted those events, the brighter they became, then everything just stopped.”
“When you were describing your second visit to the summit.”
Sherman began to shiver and he suddenly felt like crying. “Something is happening to me, Father. Something inside has changed, is changing.”
“Oh? How so?”
“I feel like I’m on the wrong heading, going the wrong way…”
“Wrong? What makes you say that?”
“Obviously something won’t let the past be changed, and obviously that something has to be God.”
“That seems obvious to you?”
“Doesn’t it to you?”
“Not in the least, Sherman. You might just as well have stumbled upon some new law concerning the nature of reality, or even of the universe, and that doesn’t necessarily imply divine intervention. Tell me, if you don’t mind, what is your academic background?”
“Annapolis, naval aviation…”
“You were a pilot? In the Navy?”
“That’s where I lost the leg, Father.”
“Oh, okay. Then what?”
“I thought about going to med school but settled on astronomy, got my Ph.D…”
“Stanford, then I came here, to MIT, to work on a post-doc in cosmology, and I got a second Ph.D.”
“Why medicine? Or really, why didn’t you go into medicine?”
“My dad, I think. We were both into astronomy.”
“What did your parents do?”
“Dad taught physics at Stanford, mom was a physician and a lecturer at the medical school there.”
“Ah, of course. You mentioned being on the wrong heading, so that comes from your background as an aviator, but I’m really rather curious now. If you could change your heading again, which way would you go – now, not then?”
“I’ve been thinking of little else since the Matterhorn, Father.”
“I, well, I’ve been thinking about medicine again, at least I was until…”
“Until your second trip to the summit? Yes, I can only imagine. And now?”
“I’ve been thinking about seminary.”
Kerrigan nodded. “Yes, of course. I think I would too, under the circumstances. But why not do both?”
“Both? What do you mean?”
“Are you catholic? Ever been married?”
“Yes, and no. What are you saying?”
“Get your medical degree while you work on your studies as a seminarian.”
“What? Here? Is that even possible?”
And Father Kerrigan laughed at that, he laughed long and hard. “After what you’ve just been through, what you’ve experienced, you’re asking me if that’s possible?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean simply this, Professor Sherman. With you the line between the possible and the impossible seems to have been blurred a bit. By what or by whom I have no idea, but in light of this I feel that the rest of your life will be rather meaningless unless you are looking for an answer to why that line has been muddied. And, well, I could be wrong about this, but you don’t really strike me as the sort who simply throws his hands up in despair and gives up.”
Flickers of blue erupted from Sherman’s fingertips and he held his hands up, looked at the glow as torrents of fear and awe washed over him.
“And frankly, Professor, I don’t think this is the type of decision you can put off. Not for long, anyway. You’ll probably run out of clothing, and soon, too.”
© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this is a work of fiction, pure and simple. All rights reserved.
We’re in the home stretch, so don’t give up yet…