Enjoy an excerpt from Tom Prentice’s “Bouncer” featured in our new anthology ON TIME.
“I know where you are.”
Those were your first words to me. It was odd because you were standing over me at the time. But I get it now: amongst its many flaws, English lacks a pronoun for your own duplicate from the future. It can make some statements a bit ambiguous.
“I’m Nathan,” you said. “It ain’t my real name. I don’t really have one.”
You were American, just like I said you would be. The other me, that is.
I was still hooded and cuffed to the chair. Scared, sure, but I would have ranked confusion as my top emotion. I suppose that’s why you brought me in after meeting
me myself him. Damage control.
“This ain’t no interrogation, John,” you said. “I already know what I need to know.”
We were in some large industrial space. The sound echoed around just like at my job. Judging by the overpowering smell of damp and rat shit, it was disused. There was muted radio chatter, rhythmic beeping of equipment, and the temperate tip-tapping of someone being moderately productive at a keyboard.
“We just gotta chill for a while,” you said, pacing.
I tried to speak; to plead. You nipped it in the bud.
“No, no, no, no…” you said, pressing your finger to the hood, over my lips. “We’re damned for what we know, not just what we do. Just ask Adam.”
I he had said you’d bring up the Bible, too.
“Intel ain’t my game. No more outbursts. I don’t want to gag you. I consider myself quite civilised, okay?”
I nodded coyly. As you wandered off to attend to something, I used the time to get my head around the events of that morning. Or, at least, try.
Back in my Lambeth shithole, my usual morning routine of oversleep and panic was interrupted by a shadow emerging from my excuse for a kitchen. I overcame the initial shock, affected the posture of a confident brawler, and demanded he leave. But he just stood there, clothed in the morning sun that slanted through the mucky back window.
It took a second or two to discern his features, darkened as they were against the light. Then, it stung like a cigarette burn to the brain: I was looking at myself, but greyer, rougher, scarier; like I had been broken and put back together not quite right.
I he carried scars that looked like they had never been stitched but also wore a determination that had, so far, been missing from my short, pedestrian life. I he grabbed me, but the dissonance took a stronger hold. I don’t recall everything I he or I said, before he stole my scooter, before a pair of black khakis kicked down my door, and I—this I, the I sitting here writing this to you—was bundled to that garage in a black van. I he told me that you would be coming. There was something about a message. A message for you. But I couldn’t remember it; not that you would have let me relay it. Intel wasn’t your thing.
You strutted back over, your suit shoes reporting crisply against the hard floor. “It’s not unusual for a jumper to seek out his counterpart. They always need help, and who else would believe…”
“No, no…I don’t want to know anything, please…” I begged, like they did on TV, hoping to avoid becoming a loose end. Then, the sobbing came.
“Shhh, it’s okay…” You patronised me only a little. “I know it ain’t your fault. In fact, you’re the victim here. The instant your prime made contact, your future was stolen from you. Gone. Every second of every day will now be different from how it should be…how it was ordained to be. You literally did it to yourself, but it’s not your fault…if you catch my drift.”
I asked why you were telling me all this.
“It don’t matter now. The die is cast. You’re in God’s hands. But, don’t sweat it. We’ll take down your prime before he causes any more trouble. He don’t belong here.”
“You’re going to kill him?” I asked. “The man from my flat?”
“Yep, what’s crooked cannot be made straight.”
“So…you’ll let me go?”
“There’s a time to every purpose.”
Your cryptic responses did their job: I stopped asking questions. You were quiet then, for a short while, as you considered which part of your repertoire to perform.
“You believe in God, son?” you finally asked.
I said I didn’t know.
“Blind in more ways than one,” you said.
I remember being glad you were a believer. I thought that it implied mercy. That there were lines you would not cross.
“Know this one?” You paused to adopt a ceremonious tone. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We…”
No pages turned, but the delivery was pulpit-worthy. My thoughts went to my vinyl.
“Boney M?” I said, desperate for approval.
“Yes, good. I have heard that rendition of one thirty-seven. But Boney M was smart to leave out the end: ‘Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.’”
I had nothing more to offer. I tried instead to focus on my breathing, to find some calm. The fabric clung to my face with each long, deep draw.
“By little ones, it means their babies…the Babylonians’ babies…”
I let out a gasp to convey interest—even awe—not wanting to be mistaken for indifferent. Not by a religious maniac.
“See, when Nebuchadnezzar took the Jews away from their home, it should’ve broken them, having their traditions, their pride, their relationship with their land all cut down to the stump. Instead, it lit a fire under them that never died. Made them rethink everything. To change what they believed.”
I nodded hollowly. A regular dreary day at work seemed pretty good right about now.
“They cast aside their old selves and renewed their spirit. Because of that crime, John, they started to write The Good Book, to walk themselves through much darker times in the centuries to come.”
I feigned a small epiphany. “Ahhh.”
“History is hardship, son. We’re forged by pain. It’s how we got where we are. That’s the way it’s meant to be—prisoners of fate. We have the right to make our own mistakes and face final judgement—good or bad. No re-runs, no training wheels.”
I had to break the deafening silence.
“Judgement from God?” I asked, naively.
“Don’t fuck with time, John. That’s the moral here.”
That was the bouncer philosophy in a nutshell. Whatever your clients were planning—be it a product launch, a corporate takeover, an assassination, a terror attack—they could take out a policy to protect against temporal interference. You all liked the money and the lifestyle just fine, but it was pure belief that walked you through. Not necessarily in the same god, but you shared a cult of destiny where any action was deemed righteous as long as it was performed forwards. That was divine providence. But course-correcting history undermined The Man Upstairs. Interference was always the greater crime.
That’s why, collectively, you would take down every jumper whether you had a paying customer or not. Whether they were trying to deliver JFK from Oswald or an inconsequential family of four from a drunk driver, you took each one out before they could complete their mission.
You would take money from all, including the worst of human filth, for a job you would have happily done for free. And none of you had ever failed. So far.
Tom is a writer and English language teacher currently living in Dublin, Ireland.