REPLAY
by Ken Grimwood

 

FIFTEEN

‘I grew up in Cincinnati,’ Stuart McCowan told them. ‘My father was a construction worker, but he was an alcoholic, so he wasn’t always able to find work. Then, when I was fifteen, he got drunk on a job and let a cable slip. He lost a leg, and after that the only money we had coming in was from my mother – she did piecework for a company that made police uniforms – and what I could pick up in tips as a bag boy at Kroger’s.

‘My father always got after me about being so skinny and not very strong physically; he was a big, powerful man himself, had forearms half as thick again as Mike’s, there. After he lost the leg everything got even worse between us. He couldn’t stand the fact that, puny as I was, I was at least whole. I had to carry things for him sometimes, when he couldn’t manage both an armload of packages and his crutches. He hated that. He really got to despise me after a while, and the drinking got worse …

‘I left home when I was eighteen; that was in ’54. Went west, out to Seattle. I wasn’t very strong, but my eyes and my hands were steady. I managed to find work at Boeing, learned to machine-tool some of the lighter aircraft parts, trim tabs and such. I met a girl out there, got married, had a couple of kids. It wasn’t so bad.

‘Then I had my accident in the spring of ’63, the one I told you about. I’d been drinking a little myself, not like my dad used to, but a few beers on the way home from work, and a shot or two once I got home, you know … and I was drunk when I hit that tree. Didn’t come to for eight weeks, and nothing was ever really the same after that. The concussion had screwed up my hand-eye coordination, so I couldn’t hack it at work anymore. It seemed like everything was happening to me just the way it had to my dad. I started drinking more, and yelling at my wife and kids … Finally she just packed up and moved out, took the children with her.

‘I lost the house not long after that; the bank foreclosed. I went back out on the road, started drifting, drinking. Did that for almost twenty-five years. One of “the homeless,” as they call it in the eighties. But I always knew what I was – just a bum, a wino. I died in an alley in Detroit; didn’t even know how old I was then. I figured it out later, though; I was fifty-two.

‘And then I woke up, back in that same hospital bed, coming out of my coma. Like I’d just dreamed all those bad years, and for the longest time I believed I actually had – I didn’t remember much of them, anyway. But I remembered enough, and pretty soon I could tell something really strange was going on.’

McCowan looked at Jeff with a sudden sparkle in those eyes that had gone weary with telling the story of his first life. ‘You a baseball fan?’ he asked. ‘Did you bet on the Series that year?’

Jeff grinned back at him. ‘I sure did.’

‘How much?’

‘A lot. I’d bet on Chateaugay in the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont first, ran up a good stake.’

‘How much did you bet?’ Stuart persisted.

‘I had a partner then – not another replayer, just somebody I knew from school – and between us, we bet almost a hundred and a quarter.’

‘K?’

Jeff nodded, and McCowan let out a long, low whistle. ‘You hit the big time early,’ Stuart said. ‘Me, all I could scrape up was a couple hundred bucks, and my wife damn near left home early when she found out – but not after I got back twenty thousand; she wasn’t going anyplace then.

‘So I kept on betting – just the big things, the obvious ones – heavyweight championships, Super Bowls, presidential elections, all the things that even a lifelong drunk couldn’t have forgotten how they came out. I stopped drinking, gave it up for good. Never have had so much as a beer since, not in all the repeats I’ve been through.

‘We moved into a big house in Alderwood Manor, up in Snohomish County, north of Seattle. Bought a nice boat, kept it in the Shilshole Bay Marina; used to cruise up and down Puget Sound every summer, sometimes over to Victoria, BC. Life of Riley, you know how it is. And then – then I started hearing from them.’

‘From …?’ Jeff left the question hanging.

McCowan leaned forward in his chair, lowered his voice. ‘From the Antareans, the ones that are doing this.’

‘How did … they get in touch with you?’ Pamela asked tentatively.

‘Through the television set, at first. Usually during the news. That’s how I came to find out it was all a performance.’

Jeff was growing increasingly edgy. ‘What was a performance?’

‘Everything, all the stuff on the news. And the Antareans liked it so much, they just kept running it over and over again.’

‘What was it that they liked?’ Pamela asked, frowning.

‘The gory stuff, the shooting and killing, all that. Vietnam; Richard Speck, who did those nurses in in Chicago; the Manson thing; Jonestown … and the terrorists – Jesus, yes, they really get off on the terrorists: Lod Airport, all the IRA bombings, the truck bomb at Marine headquarters in Beirut, on and on. They can’t get enough of it.’

Jeff and Pamela exchanged a quick look, a brief nod. ‘Why?’ Jeff asked McCowan. ‘Why do the extraterrestrials like violence here on earth so much?’

‘Because they’ve grown weak themselves. They’re the first to admit it. For all their power, controlling space and time, they’re weak!’ He slammed a thin fist down hard on the table, rattling the saucers and cups. Mike, the hefty attendant, looked over with raised eyebrows for a moment, but Jeff waved an OK signal, and the man went back to his jigsaw puzzle.

‘None of them ever dies anymore,’ Stuart went on impassionedly, ‘and they’ve lost the killing genes, so there’s no more war or murder where they come from. But the animal part of their brains still needs all that, at least vicariously. That’s where we come in.

‘We’re their entertainment, like television or movies. And this segment of the twentieth century is the best part, the most randomly bloody time of them all, so they keep playing it again and again. But the only people who know all this are the performers, the ones on stage: the repeaters. Manson is one of us, I know; I can see it in his eyes, and the Antareans have told me. Lee Harvey Oswald, too, and Nelson Bennett that time he got to Kennedy first. Oh, there’s a lot of us now.’

Jeff kept his voice as calm, as kind, as possible when he spoke again. ‘But what about you and me and Pamela?’ he asked, looking to evoke some remnant of rationality in the man. ‘We haven’t done all those terrible things; so why are we replaying, or repeating?’

‘I’ve done my share of appeasement,’ McCowan stated proudly. ‘Nobody can accuse me of slacking off there.’

Jeff felt suddenly ill, and didn’t want to ask the next question, the one that had to be asked. ‘… You’ve used that word before: “appeasement.” What do you mean by it?’

‘Why, it’s our duty. All of us repeaters, we have to keep the Antareans from getting bored. Or else they’ll shut it all off, and then the world will be over. We have to appease them, entertain them, so they’ll keep watching.’

‘And – how have you done that yourself? Appeased them?’

‘I always start off with the little girl in Tacoma. I do her with a knife. That one’s easy, and I never get caught. Then I move on, do a couple of hookers in Portland, maybe Vancouver … never too many close to home, but I travel a lot. Overseas, sometimes, but mostly I do them here in the States: hitchhikers in Texas, street kids in LA and San Francisco … Don’t think I’ll try Wisconsin again; I got caught here pretty early this time. But I’ll be out in four or five years. They always say I’m crazy, and I end up in one of these places, but I’ve got real good at fooling doctors and parole boards. I always get out eventually, and then I can go back to performing the appeasement.’

Pamela leaned against the doorframe of the car, sobbing, as they drove through the swirling snow.

‘It’s my fault!’ she cried, the tears flowing unchecked down her face. ‘He said it was Starsea that – that gave him “a sense of purpose.” With everything I’d hoped to accomplish through that film, all I ended up doing was encouraging a mass murderer!’

Jeff kept his hands tight on the wheel of the rented Plymouth, negotiating the icy road. ‘It wasn’t just the movie. He’d started killing long before that, from the very first replay. He was insane to begin with; I don’t know if it was that accident he had, or the shock of replaying, or a combination of the two. Maybe a lot of different factors; there’s no way to tell. But for God’s sake, don’t blame yourself for what he’s done.’

‘He killed a little girl! He keeps on killing her, stabbing her, every time!’

‘I know. But it’s not your fault, understand?’

‘I don’t care whose fault it is. We’ve got to stop him.’

‘How?’ Jeff asked, squinting to see the road through the enveloping sheets of snow.

‘Make sure he never gets out this time. Get to him next time before he starts killing.’

‘If they decide he’s “cured,” they’re going to release him no matter what we say. Why should the doctors, or the courts, listen to us? Do we tell them we’re replayers, just like McCowan, only we’re sane and he isn’t? You know how far that would get us.’

‘Then next time …’

‘We go to the police in Seattle, or Tacoma, and tell them this solid citizen, with his expensive suburban house and his yacht, is about to start roaming the country, murdering people at random. It wouldn’t work, Pamela; you know it wouldn’t.’

‘But we’ve got to do something!’ she pleaded.

‘What should we do? Kill him? I couldn’t do that; neither could you.’

She wept quietly, her eyes closed against the deathly whiteness of the winter storm. ‘We can’t just sit back and let it happen,’ she whispered at last.

Jeff cautiously turned left onto the highway heading back towards Madison. ‘I’m afraid we have to,’ he said. ‘We have to just accept it.’

‘How can you accept something like that!’ she snapped. ‘Innocent people dying, being murdered by this maniac, when we know in advance that he’s going to do it!’

‘We’ve always accepted it, from the very beginning: Manson, Berkowitz, Gacey, Buono and Bianchi … that sort of aimless savagery is part of this time period. We’ve become inured to it. I don’t even remember half the names of all the serial killers who’ll crop up over the next twenty years, do you?’

Pamela was silent, her eyes red from crying, her teeth tightly clenched.

‘We haven’t tried to intervene in all those other murders, have we?’ Jeff asked. ‘It’s never even occurred to us to do so, except that first time when I tried to stop the Kennedy assassination, and that was something of a very different order. We – not just you and me, but everyone in this society – we live with brutality, with haphazard death. We almost ignore it, except when it seems to threaten us directly. Worse, some people even find it entertaining, a vicarious thrill. That’s eighty per cent, at least, of what the news business is all about: supplying America with its daily fix of tragedy, of other people’s blood and torment.

‘We are the “Antareans” of Stuart McCowan’s demented fantasies. He and all the other subhuman butchers out there are indeed performers on a stage, but the gore-hungry audience is right here, not somewhere in outer space. And there’s nothing you or I can ever do to change that or to stem even the smallest trickle of that blood tide. We simply do what we’ve always done and always will: accept it, put it out of our minds as best we can, and go on with the rest of life. Get used to it, just as we do with all the other hopeless, inescapable pain.’

The ad continued to draw responses, though none bore fruit. In 1970, they cut back on the number of publications in which it appeared; by the middle of the decade it was being printed only once a month, in fewer than a dozen of the largest-circulation newspapers and magazines.

Their apartment on Bank Street, in the west Village, came to be dominated by rows of filing cabinets. Jeff and Pamela saved even the most vaguely promising replies to the ad, along with clippings from the voluminous stacks of periodicals they pored over daily in search of potential anachronisms that might indicate the handiwork of another replayer somewhere in the world. It was frequently hard to be certain, one way or the other, about whether some minor event or product or artwork had or had not existed in the previous replays; they had never before focused so intently on such minutiae. Many times they contacted inventors or entrepreneurs whose indifferently publicized creations were unfamiliar to them; without exception, the apparent leads proved false.

In March of 1979, Jeff and Pamela found this story in the Chicago Tribune:

WISCONSIN KILLER FREED: ‘SANE,’

SAY DOCS

Crossfield, Wisc. (AP) Admitted mass murderer Stuart McCowan, declared not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1966 slayings of four young college women at a sorority house in Madison, was released today from the private mental institution where he had been held for the past twelve years. Dr Joel Pfeiffer, director of the Crossfield Home, said McCowan ‘is fully recovered from his patterns of delusion, and presents no threat to society at this point.’

McCowan was accused in the mutilation-killings of the four coeds after a witness identified his car as the one seen leaving the parking lot of the Kappa Gamma sorority house in the early morning hours of February 6th, 1966, the day the bodies were discovered. Wisconsin State Police apprehended McCowan later that same day, outside the town of Chippewa Falls. They found a blood-stained ice pick, hacksaw, and other implements of torture in the trunk of his automobile.

McCowan freely admitted having murdered the young women, and claimed to have been instructed to do so by extraterrestrial beings. He further claimed to believe that he had been reincarnated a number of times and had carried out other killings in each of his ‘previous lives.’

He was named as a suspect in similar multiple slayings in Minnesota and Idaho in 1964 and 1965, but his connection to those crimes was never established. On May 11, 1966, McCowan was judged incompetent to stand trial and was committed to the Wisconsin State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He was transferred at his own expense to the Crossfield Home in March 1967.

Pamela pulled the rubber tubing tighter around Jeff’s arm, showed him which vein to hit and how to slide the hypodermic needle in with the bevel upward and the slender shaft parallel and lateral to the vein.

‘What about psychological addiction, though?’ he asked. ‘I know our bodies will be free of it when we come back, but won’t we still crave the sensation?’

She shook her head as she watched him make the practice injection, the harmless saline solution flowing smoothly into the bulging blue vein in the crook of his elbow. ‘Not if we only use it a couple of times,’ she said. ‘Wait until the morning of the eighteenth: just do enough to keep you sedated. Then double the dosage to the amount I showed you and inject that a few minutes before one o’clock. You should be unconscious by the time … cardiac arrest occurs.’

Jeff emptied the syringe into his arm, waited a beat before he withdrew the needle. He tossed the hypodermic into the wastebasket, swabbed the injection site with a wad of cotton soaked in alcohol. Two matching leather kits lay on the coffee table; each contained a supply of fresh sterile needles and syringes, a coiled length of rubber tubing, a small bottle of alcohol, a box of cotton wads, and four glass vials filled with pharmaceutical-quality heroin. It hadn’t been difficult to obtain the drug and the equipment with which to use it; Jeff’s stockbroker had recommended a reliable cocaine dealer, and the dealer was equally well stocked for the growing upper-middle-class heroin trade.

Jeff stared at the expensively tooled death kits, looked up at Pamela’s face. There was a delicate tracery of fine lines across her forehead. The last time he’d known her at this age, the tiny wrinkles had been at the corners of her mouth and eyes; her forehead had been as smooth as when she was a girl. The difference between a lifetime of happiness and one of almost unrelieved anxiety was etched into the patterns of her skin.

‘We didn’t do a very good job of it, did we?’ he said glumly.

She tried to smile, faltered, gave it up. ‘No. I guess we didn’t.’

‘Next time …’ he began, and his voice trailed off. Pamela reached out to him, and they squeezed each other’s hand.

‘Next time,’ she said, ‘we’ll pay more attention to our own needs, day to day.’

He nodded. ‘We kind of lost control this time, just let it slip away.’

‘I got carried away with the search for other replayers. It was kind of you to indulge me so, but –’

‘I wanted to succeed in that as much as you did,’ he interrupted, bringing her hand to his lips. ‘It was something we had to do; it’s no one’s fault it turned out the way it did.’

‘I suppose not … but looking back, those years seem so stagnant, so passive. We seldom even left New York, for fear of missing the contact we kept waiting for.’

Jeff pulled her to him, put his arms around her. ‘Next time we take charge again,’ he promised. ‘We’ll be the ones who make things happen-for us.’

They rocked together gently on the sofa, neither saying what was most deeply on their minds: that they had no way of knowing how long it would be before Pamela would rejoin him after this new death … or even if the next replay would enable them to be together again at all.

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