by Ken Grimwood



Pamela’s house in Topanga Canyon was as isolated and difficult to reach as any home so close to a major city could possibly be, set in the middle of a five-acre plot that had gone wild with vegetation: jacarandas, lemon trees, grape vines, blackberry bushes … all in an undisciplined tangle of unchecked growth.

‘You ought to trim back some of that,’ Jeff said as they wound their way towards the house in her Land Rover. She handled the four-wheel-drive vehicle with easy confidence, unaware or uncaring of how incongruous she looked in it, with her smart grey skirt and lacquered fingernails. She’d put her tailored jacket on the back seat and kicked off her shoes to better operate the clutch but otherwise still looked as if she belonged in the boardroom of an insurance company, not driving down a dirt road off an untamed canyon.

‘That’s the way it grows.’ She shrugged. ‘If I wanted a formal garden, I’d live in Beverly Hills.’

‘You’ve got a lot of good fruit going to waste, though.’

‘I get all the fruit I need at the Farmer’s Market.’

He let the matter drop. She could do whatever she wanted with her land, though it galled Jeff to see such lushness gone to seed. He still didn’t know much about her. After tersely verifying what he’d suspected, that she was a replayer too, she’d insisted on hearing his own story from the beginning, and had frequently interrupted to grill him for more details. He’d left out a lot, of course, particularly some of the episodes with Sharla, and he’d yet to hear anything about her own experiences. Clearly, though, she was a person of many contradictions. Which made perfect sense; so was he. How could either of them be anything else?

The house was plainly but comfortably furnished, with an oak-beamed ceiling and a big picture window on one side that looked over the messy jungle of her property to the ocean far below. As in her office, the walls were hung with framed mandalas of many types: Navajo, Mayan, East Indian. Near the window was a large desk stacked with books and notebooks, and in the centre of it sat a bulky, greenish-grey device that incorporated a video screen, a keyboard, and a printer. He frowned quizzically at it. What was she doing with a home computer this early? There was no –

‘It’s not a computer,’ Pamela said. ‘Wang 1200 word processor, one of the first. No disk drive, just cassettes, but it still beats a typewriter. Want a beer?’

‘Sure.’ He was still a bit startled by her quick recognition of what he’d been thinking as he looked at the machine. It was going to take some time to get used to the idea that, after all these decades, he was in the presence of someone who actually shared his extraordinary frame of reference.

‘Refrigerator’s through there,’ she said, pointing. ‘Get me one, too, while I get out of this costume.’ She walked towards the back of the house, shoes in hand. Jeff found the kitchen, opened two bottles of Beck’s.

He surveyed her shelves of books and records as he waited for her to change. She didn’t seem to read much fiction or listen to a lot of popular music. The books were mostly biography, science, and the business side of the film industry; her records were weighted towards Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi.

Pamela came back into the living room wearing faded jeans and a baggy USC sweat shirt, took the beer from him, and plopped down in an overstuffed recliner. ‘That thing you told me about the plane, the one that almost crashed; that was stupid, you know.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘At the end of my second cycle, when I realized I might go through it again, I memorized a list of every plane crash since 1963. Hotel fires, too, and railway accidents, earthquakes … all the major disasters.’

‘I’ve thought of doing the same thing.’

‘You should have already. Anyway, what happened next? What have you been doing since then?’

‘Isn’t this all a bit one-sided? I’m just as curious about you, you know.’

‘Wrap up your story; then we’ll get to mine.’

He settled himself on a sofa across from her and tried to explain his voluntary exile of the last nine years: his ascetic sense of union with things that grew in the earth, his fascination with their eternal symmetry in time – living entities that withered so they might flower, blossoms and green fruits that sprang recurrently to life from the previous year’s shrivelled vines.

She nodded thoughtfully, concentrating on one of her intricate mandalas. ‘Have you read the Hindus?’ she asked. ‘The Rig-Veda, the Upanishads?’

‘Only the Bhagavad-Gita. A long, long time ago.’

‘“You and I, Arujna,”’ she quoted easily, ‘“have lived many lives. I remember them all: You do not remember.”’ Her eyes lit with intensity. ‘Sometimes I think our experience is what they were really talking about: not reincarnation over a linear time scale, but little chunks of the entire world’s history occasionally repeated over and over again … until we realize what’s happening and are able to restore the normal flow.’

‘But we have been aware of it, and it keeps on happening.’

‘Maybe it continues until everyone has the knowledge,’ she said quietly.

‘I don’t think so; we both knew immediately, and it seems you either recognize it or you don’t. Everybody else just keeps going through the same patterns.’

‘Except the people whose lives we touch. We can introduce change.’

Jeff smiled cynically. ‘So you and I are the prophets, the saviours?’

She looked out at the ocean. ‘Perhaps we are.’

He sat upright, stared at her. ‘Wait a minute; that’s not what this movie of yours is all about, is it, setting people up for …? You’re not planning to –’

‘I’m not sure what I’m planning, not yet. Everything’s changed, now that you’ve shown up. I wasn’t expecting that.’

‘What do you want to do, start some kind of damned cult? Don’t you know what a disaster –’

‘I don’t know anything!’ she snapped. ‘I’m as confused as you are, and I just want to make some sense of my life. Do you want to just give up, not even try to figure out what it means? Well, go ahead! Go back to your goddamned farm and vegetate, but don’t tell me how I’m supposed to deal with all this, OK?’

‘I was only offering my advice. Can you think of anybody else qualified to do that, given the circumstances?’

She scowled at him, her anger not yet cooled. ‘We can talk about it later. Now, do you want to hear my story or not?’

Jeff sank back into the soft cushions, eyed her warily. ‘Of course I do,’ he said in a level tone. There was no telling what might set her off. Well, he could understand what she must have been through; he could make allowances.

She nodded once, brusquely. ‘I’ll get us another beer.’

Pamela Phillips, Jeff learned, had been born in Westport, Connecticut in 1949, daughter of a successful real-estate broker. She’d had a normal childhood, the usual illnesses, the ordinary joys and traumas of adolescence. She’d studied art at Bard College in the late sixties, smoked a lot of dope, marched on Washington, slept around as much as the other young women of her generation. True to form, she’d ‘gone straight’ not long after Nixon resigned; she’d married a lawyer, moved to New Rochelle. Had two children, a boy and a girl. Her reading habits veered towards romance novels, she painted as a hobby when she got the chance, did some charity work now and then. She’d fretted about not having a career, sneaked an occasional joint when the kids were in bed, did aerobics to keep her figure in shape.

She’d died of a heart attack when she was thirty-nine. In October 1988.

‘What day?’ Jeff asked.

‘The eighteenth. Same day it happened to you, but at 1:15.’

‘Nine minutes later.’ He grinned. ‘You’ve seen the future. More of it than I have.’

That almost brought a smile to her lips. ‘It was a dull nine minutes,’ she said. ‘Except for dying.’

‘Where were you when you woke up?’

‘In the rec room of my parents’ house. The television was on, a rerun of “My Little Margie.” I was fourteen.’

‘Jesus, what did you – Were they home?’

‘My mother was out shopping. My father was still at work. I spent an hour walking around the house in a daze, looking at the clothes in my closet, flipping through the diary that I’d lost when I went to college … looking at myself in the mirror. I couldn’t stop crying. I still thought I was dead, and this was some bizarre way God had of giving me one last glimpse of my time on earth. I was terrified of the front door; I really believed that if I walked through it I’d be in Heaven, or Hell, or Limbo, or whatever.’

‘You were Catholic?’

‘No. my mind was just swirling with all these vague images and fears. Oblivion, that’s a better word; that was what I really expected to find when I went outside. Mist, nothingness … just death. Then my mother came home, walked in through that door I was so frightened of. I thought she was some kind of disguised apparition come to drag me off to doom, and I started screaming.

‘It took her a long time to quiet me down. She called the family doctor, he came over, gave me an injection – Demerol, probably – and I passed out. When I woke up again my father was there, standing over the bed, looking very worried, and I guess that was when I first began to realize I wasn’t really dead. He didn’t want me to get up, but I went running downstairs and opened the front door, walked out in the yard in my nightgown … and of course everything was perfectly normal. The neighbourhood was just the way I’d remembered it. The dog from next door came bounding over and started licking my hand, and for some reason that set me off crying again.

‘I stayed home from school for the next week, lay around my room pretending to be sick, and just thought … Tried at first to figure out what had happened, but it didn’t take me long to decide that was a hopeless task. Then, as the days went on and nothing changed, I started trying to figure out what I was going to do.

‘Remember, I didn’t have the options you did; I was only fourteen, still living at home, still in junior high school. I couldn’t bet on any horse races or move to Paris. I was stuck.’

‘That must have been horrible,’ Jeff said sympathetically.

‘It was, but somehow I managed. I had no choice. I became … I forced myself to become a young girl again, tried to forget everything I’d been through in my first life: college, marriage … children.’

She paused, looked down at the floor. Jeff thought of Gretchen, and reached out to put his hand on Pamela’s shoulder. She shrank from his touch, and he withdrew the gesture.

‘Anyway,’ she went on, ‘after a few weeks – a couple of months – that first existence seemed to recede in my mind, as if it had been a long dream. I went back to school, started learning everything all over again, as if I’d never studied any of it before. I became very shy, bookish; totally unlike the way I’d been the first time. Never went out on dates, stopped hanging around with the crowd of kids I’d known. I couldn’t stand having these memories, or visions, of the adults my friends would become in the years ahead. I wanted to blank all that out, pretend to myself that I didn’t have that kind of awareness.’

‘Did you ever … tell anyone?’

She took a sip of beer, nodded. ‘Right after the screaming episode when I first came back, my parents sent me to a psychiatrist. After a few sessions I thought I could trust her, so I started trying to explain what I’d been through. She’d smile and make little encouraging sounds and act very understanding, but I knew she thought it was all a fantasy. Of course that’s what I wanted to believe, too … so that’s what it became. Until I told her about the Kennedy thing a week before it happened.

‘That unnerved her completely. She got very angry and refused to see me any more. She couldn’t deal with the fact that I’d described the assassination in such detail, that this “fantasy” of mine had suddenly become a reality in the most awful, devastating way imaginable.’

Pamela looked at Jeff for a moment, silent. ‘It scared me, too,’ she went on. ‘Not just that I’d known he was going to be shot, but because I was so sure that Lee Harvey Oswald was the one who’d done it. I’d never heard of this Nelson Bennett person – of course, I had no idea you’d gone to Dallas and interfered the way you did – and after that my whole sense of reality changed. It was as if one minute I seemed to know everything about the future, and then all of a sudden I knew absolutely nothing. I was in a different world, with different rules. Anything might happen – my parents might die, there could be a nuclear war … or, at the simplest level, I could become an entirely different person than the one I’d been, or maybe imagined myself to have been.

‘I went to Columbia instead of Bard, majored in biology, then went on to med school. It was tough going. I’d never cared much for science before; my whole training had been in art the first time around. But, by the same token, that made it far more interesting, because I wasn’t just repeating something I’d studied before. I was learning an entire new field, a new world, to go with my new existence.

‘I didn’t have much time for socializing, but during my residency at Columbia Presbyterian I met a young orthopaedist who … well, he didn’t really remind me of my first husband, but he had a similar intensity, the same sort of drive. Only this time it was something we had in common, a shared devotion to medicine. Before, I’d hardly even known what my husband did every day, and he’d just assumed I wouldn’t care about it, so he never discussed his legal work with me. But with David – that was the orthopaedist – it was just the opposite. We could talk about everything.’

Jeff gave her an inquisitive look. ‘You don’t mean –’

‘No, no; I never told him what had happened to me. He would’ve thought I was insane. I was still trying to put it out of my own mind. I wanted to bury all those memories and pretend they’d never happened.

‘David and I got married as soon as I’d finished my residency. He was from Chicago, and we moved back there; he went into private practice, and I worked in the intensive care unit at Children’s Memorial Hospital. After having lost my own children irretrievably – well, you know what that’s like – I kept putting off having another, but in the meantime I had a whole hospital full of surrogate sons and daughters, and they needed me so desperately, they … Anyway, it was an extremely rewarding career. I was doing exactly the sort of thing I’d dreamed of when I was a frustrated housewife in New Rochelle: using my mind, making a positive difference in the world, saving lives …’ Her voice trailed off. She cleared her throat and closed her eyes.

‘And then you died,’ Jeff said gently.

‘Yes. I died, again. And was fourteen years old again, and totally helpless to change a goddamned thing.’

He wanted to tell her how thoroughly he understood, that he knew the deepest hurt had been her knowledge that the sick and dying children she had tended were then destined to go through their suffering once more, her efforts to help them having been obliterated; but no words were needed. The pain was all there on her face, and he was the only person on earth who could comprehend the depth of her loss.

‘Why don’t we take a break,’ Jeff suggested, ‘get a bite to eat someplace? You can tell me the rest of your story after dinner.’

‘All right,’ she said, grateful for the interruption. ‘I can fix us something here.’

‘You don’t have to do that. Let’s just go to one of those little seafood places we passed down on the Pacific Coast Highway.’

‘I don’t mind cooking, really –’

Jeff shook his head. ‘I insist. Dinner’s on me.’

‘Well … I’ll have to change again.’

‘Jeans are fine. Just put on a pair of shoes, if you feel like going formal.’

For the first time since he’d met her, Pamela smiled.

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