I considered declining the invitation. It was too weird, too expensive, too far, too dangerous, too weird. Way too weird. An invitation like that would never come again. I’d regret it if I didn’t go. It lay on our kitchen table for three weeks while I argued out the pros and cons with Mabel. She listened, made suggestions; I countered her, then argued her part, then made both arguments, then reversed them again.
“How do I know it’s not a hoax?” I asked, studying the list of backing organizations for the twentieth time. “The website looks legit, but how could it not be a hoax?”
“Look at it this way,” Mabel said. “Either you’ll be part of a ground-breaking event in human history, or a groundbreaking psych experiment. Someone benefits either way. And you’ve never been to eastern Canada, so at least you get to see someplace new even if you just end up standing in a field somewhere looking silly.”
She always had a way of making an adventure out of things that would otherwise stress me out. Four months later, I flew to Nova Scotia, took a bus to a seaside town too small for a dot on a map, boarded a ferry to Secord Island, and stepped through the waiting portal into an alternate-reality resort hotel lobby swarming with Sarah Pinskers. At least two hundred of us by my estimation, with more straggling in.
It was easy to tell who had just arrived. We were the ones planted in the lobby, bags in hand, eyes wide and mouth open. My body and face, even my expression, reflected back at me in two hundred funhouse mirrors. Stranger even than that, an energy in the air that I couldn’t quite explain, a feeling that every single Sarah had stepped through to the exact same thought, to the same curious-amazement-horror-wonder, to the same rug-yanking confirmation that the invitation had been real and we were no longer alone, or maybe we were more alone than we had ever been.
Large groups gathered around the hotel check-in desk and SarahCon registration, no doubt trying to pick themselves off the long lists of near-identical names. A third faction, which I decided to join, had adjourned to the lobby bar, hoping to use alcohol to blunt the weirdness of coming face to face with our multiverse selves. I found a barstool and shoved my suitcase and backpack under my feet. Space was tight amid the other suitcases and backpacks.
“The stout,” I said when I caught the bartender’s attention, pointing at the third tap handle.
He grinned and held up a glass. “Seventh one in a row. You all go for the stout or one of the good whiskeys.”
I filed that information away. Took a sip. The Sarah next to me did the same. We both put our glasses down at the same time. Both raised eyebrows at each other.
The bartender hovered. “Room number for your tab?”
“I haven’t checked in yet. Cash isn’t okay? Oh. The cross-world currency thing.”
“You can put her drink on my tab,” said the me next to me. She wore her hair in a long braid down her back. I’d worn mine that way when I was thirteen.
I lifted my glass and toasted in her direction. “Thanks. Appreciated.”
“My pleasure. I’ve never bought myself a drink before. Well, not like this anyhow. Do you know how many there are altogether? How many of us here, I mean.”
I shook my head. “No clue. You could ask someone at registration.”
A third Sarah, maybe a decade older than me, joined our conversation. My parents were married years before they had me. I’d always wondered if I’d still be me if they hadn’t waited. “I’m sure she’ll tell us the numbers in her opening address.”
“She?” asked One Braid. “Sorry if it’s a stupid question. I checked into my room but I haven’t braved convention registration yet. I hate lines.”
Older Sarah rummaged in a SarahCon commemorative tote bag and pulled out a program. She turned to a bio page and started reading. “’Sarah Pinsker [R0D0]’—I don’t know what ‘R-0-D-0’ means—‘made the discovery creating the multiverse portal. She is a quantologist at Johns Hopkins University.’” She looked up. “I think that’s her over there. She’s been rushing back and forth as long as I’ve been sitting here.”
We followed her pointing finger to a Sarah bustling through the lobby, walkie-talkie to her lips. Her hair was pixie-short, defeating the frizz that plagued me. She looked harried but better put together than most of us, elegant in a silk blouse and designer jeans that fit and flattered. I had never been anything approaching elegant. Never had the guts to cut my hair that short, either.
“Quantologist,” I repeated.
Older Sarah paged through the program. “It looks like there are four other quantologist Sarahs on the host committee.”
One Braid scratched the back of her neck. “I’ve never heard of quantology. I don’t think it’s a real field of study where I’m from.”
“Not where I’m from, either. Where are you from? I mean, answer however you want.”
“I’m from all over the place,” One Braid said. My usual answer. “But I live in Seattle.”
Eerie. “Me, too. I went out for a job after college and stayed.”
“Same! Summer job, then I met my girlfriend and settled for good. I’m in West Seattle. How about you?”
“Ballard.” I raised my glass to clink hers, though that particular girlfriend and I hadn’t lasted.
Older Sarah chugged her beer and waved for another before turning back to us. “Our Seattle was destroyed in an earthquake.”
We both stared at her. She sipped her fresh beer and continued. “I never got out west myself, so it wasn’t a personal thing for me, but it was horrible. Four thousand people died. The city never recovered.”
I pictured our little house bucking and buckling, our yard splitting down the middle. Mabel, my friends and neighbors, the coffee shop up the street. Shuddered. It was too much to imagine. “This is so damn weird.”
Older Sarah waved her program at me. “That’s the name of the first panel. ‘This Is So Damn Weird: Strategies for Navigating SarahCon Without Losing Your Mind.’”
One Braid and I both reached for our beers.
The registration line thinned as a programmed cocktail hour began in some lounge somewhere. Since I’d already been drinking for a while, I took the opportunity to check in and register.
“Find yourself on the list,” said the Sarah behind the convention registration table. I could tell she was fried, like she was already too tired to remember how to put expressions on her face. I knew that feeling.
Looking at the list, it was easy to see why she’d had a long day already. My mind was still boggling at the handful of Sarahs I’d met; she’d come face to face with all of us.
The list grouped us by surname first. Mine the most common, a trunk instead of a branch. I paged past, curious. Mostly Pinskers like myself. Made sense if we were the closest realities to the Pinsker who had invited us. There were other random surnames I chalked up to marriage. A full page of Sarah Sweetloves. I’d never really considered changing my name for anyone, even Mabel, but apparently others had.
After surname came city, divided evenly between Seattle, Toronto, and Baltimore, with a few outliers in Northampton, Somerville, Asheville, New York, Pretoria. After that came birthdate, occupation. The occupation list read like a collection of every “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’d ever answered. Geneticist, writer, therapeutic riding instructor, teacher, history professor, astronomer, journalist, dog trainer, barn manager. I was the only insurance investigator. In fairness, it had never exactly been on the greatest hits list.
Address messed with me the most for some reason. Someone else here shared my full name, birthdate, and address. She worked as a program director at a non-profit. That was the only place our lines on the list differed. Where else did we diverge? Did we move around our house in the same ways at the same times? Had she fallen in love with the kitchen first, too? Did she live with an alternate Mabel?
“There’s a Making Connections board over there.” The volunteer behind the table pointed to a poster on the far wall of the lobby. She sounded like she’d said it a hundred times already. “In case you come across somebody you absolutely have to meet. Judging from your face, you just found somebody on the list who intrigues you. Somebody who wears the same life as you, or near to it.”
It brought to my mind those grade school puzzle pages with six or nine near-identical cats or robots drawn in a grid, where you were supposed to find the matched pair hidden among the ones with slight differences. In the same moment I had that thought, a Sarah perusing another copy of the list said it to me.
I looked her over. The invitation had said, “Be yourself.” We both wore jeans and Wonder Woman T-shirts, hers with a graphic from the 70s TV show and mine from the 2005 Gina Torres movie. We both had our hair pulled back in messy ponytails. The only difference I noticed was that her skin was much better than mine.
The volunteer didn’t bother to look down at the list when I highlighted my name and returned it to her. She handed me a program and a tote bag. “You can decide whether you want to bother with a nametag.”
I looked at the markers and stickers piled on the table. “Is there a point?”
“Not with a name like yours, unless you have a nickname you think is particularly original. Though it probably isn’t. There are a few non-Sarahs. They’re the only ones who really need to bother. Right at the beginning we tried making people choose a nickname, but the first eight tried their identical middle names, and then four had the same roller derby name, and three asked for the name they all used as counselors at Girl Scout camp, and we gave up.”
It didn’t seem worth it. I went over to the hotel check-in line, made slightly easier with individual registration numbers. The desk clerk was one of us too, in a business suit and a manager’s gold nametag that suggested this was probably her home reality.
“The credit card you registered with will be charged by a third party billing company that’s handling the cross-world weirdness. Bill anything you buy to your room.” She spoke with an accent I couldn’t place.
“Where are you from?” I asked her.
“I live just over on the mainland. You?”
A sympathetic look crossed her face.
I tried to change the subject before she told me Seattle was gone in this reality too. “So why is this being held on Secord Island?”
“Everyone asks.” She smiled, showing gapped teeth. She’d never gotten braces. “It’s a sovereign island off the east coast of Canada. You know Canada?”
I nodded, wondering what variation had prompted that question.
She continued. “Sovereign island, at least in this reality, so the organizer didn’t have to worry about visas or passports. You’re all allowed here, then back to where you came from.”
“What if someone tried to skip off this island? Not that I would. I’m an insurance investigator. Professional questioner of motives.”
Another grin. “That’s why all the boats were sent away for the weekend. We’re stuck with you, or you’re stuck with us.”
She put a keycard in a paper sleeve and pulled out a pen. “Do you have keycards in your world?”
“Yeah.” I glanced at the number she’d written, committed it to memory, pocketed the card, and handed her back the sleeve to discard.
“You’re the only one so far to do that,” she said. “Congrats on being original.”
I gave her a little salute and went to find my room in the annex, the cheapest room available when I’d registered. Her directions led out of the original building and down an L-shaped hallway tacked onto the back. I passed a stressed-looking housekeeper pushing a cart full of cleaning supplies, then two Sarahs trying to wrangle a cot into a tiny room, under the direction of a third, who looked up and waved. They must have taken advantage of the room-sharing option in the questionnaire that followed the RSVP. I’d liked that offer; it meant the Sarahs who attended wouldn’t only be those with the time and privilege to do so. That had even gotten Mabel to tone down some of her teasing about the whole event.
Around the next bend, a different type of cold than the air-conditioned lobby, that of Canadian November penetrating a closed system. Someone had propped open the fire door at the hall’s end. I unlocked my door, dropped my bags in my bathtub, then went to get a look outside.
When I leaned out the fire door, I found two Sarahs smoking, shoulders hunched against a biting wind. A vivid bruise of a cloudbank pressed down overhead, making it seem much later than it was. The air tasted like cigarettes and salt water. We had a dramatic landlocked view of a loading dock and a couple of dumpsters, but I felt the sea lurking nearby. I felt oddly displaced, jetlagged without the jet. Portal lag, maybe.
“Join us?” The curls spilling down her shoulders were dyed carrot orange, a color that said it was not trying for anything natural. They looked wild and luxurious, when I only ever managed feral at best.
The other looked less healthy. Beneath her toque, her cheeks were gaunt, and the No Good Deeds T-shirt under her bomber jacket swam on her. She held out a pack of American Spirits.
“I’m good,” I said. “But hey, No Good Deeds. They were a cool band.”
She grinned, showing yellowed teeth. “ARE a good band. Bam! Diver-gence point! In my world they’re on album number six and still awesome.”
“The hall isn’t getting too cold, is it?” Orange Curls asked. “The door locks if we shut it. I had to walk around the whole building earlier. It’s huge.”
The other lit a new cigarette off her old one, then stubbed out the butt with a worn combat boot. “I’ve got to go back inside in a minute anyhow.”
She didn’t look like she was in any hurry. I assured them it wasn’t too cold, mostly because I didn’t want to be That Person, which they probably knew. We didn’t like to inconvenience people.
“So why are you here?” Orange Curls was the chattier of the two.
“What do you mean? I got an invitation.”
No Good Deeds shook her head. “She’s asking what made you accept. Excitement, curiosity, wonder, a desire to exploit? Not that you’re limited to those choices.”
I thought about it. Mabel had said the whole thing was an exercise in narcissism.
She’d read the invitation, then tossed it on the table, laughing. “Who discovers how to access infinite realities and then uses that discovery to invite her alternate selves to a convention?”
“Some other me, apparently.” As I’d said it, I’d known it was true. “Why, what would you do?”
Her response came easily. “Talk to world leaders or scientists. Find out why one reality is running out of water and another is doing fine, or how one made the transition from fossil fuel to solar. Check in on the state of democracy. Something useful. Anyway, you hate decisions. This’ll just make you question every choice you ever made. Should you have gone to grad school? Should you have stayed with this ex or that one? How would your life be different if you’d managed to buy that horse you loved as a teenager? If I were you, I wouldn’t want to know the answers. I mean, you’ve got to go, obviously, but it’s a wasted opportunity if you don’t talk about some of that stuff.”
Everything she’d said was true, like usual.
I looked back at Orange Curls. “Curiosity. I guess I’m here because I’m curious. And maybe a little because if I stayed home I’d always wonder about it.”
The smokers shot each other a satisfied look.
“She’s asked twenty-one Sarahs that question now,” No Good Deeds said, “and that’s been the answer every time. Even the same phrasing.”
I retreated to my room. Stripped the bedspread, checked the mattress for bedbugs. Searched the room and the bathroom for cameras and peepholes in case we really were all part of someone’s psych experiment.
Concerns assuaged, I dumped my backpack’s contents onto the table and repacked the stuff I wanted to carry with me for the evening, then flopped onto the bed to read the program. It contained a basic explanation of the multiverse theory, a welcome note, a sponsor page, a thank you page, a map, and “Fun Statistics!” based on the questionnaires we’d filled out prior to arriving. Ninety two percent of us played instruments. Five percent of us owned horses, thirteen percent owned cats, eighty percent owned dogs. One person lived in a world where dogs had been rendered extinct by a virus. So much for fun.
A program schedule took up the rest of the pages. Some of the serious stuff Mabel had wanted to see was mixed in: “Let My World Solve Your World’s Water Problem,” “Climate Change Strategies That Actually Worked.” “The Way It Could Have Been: Political Divergence Points.”
Alongside that, the topics piquing my own curiosity. “Gender, Sexuality, and Me.” “Driving Forces: Favorite Cars, Stolen Cars, Those Who Never Learned to Drive.” “Let’s Talk Family.” “The Babysitting Incident and Other Divergence Points.” “Why We Live Where We Live.” “Horses and Dogs and Cats, Oh My.” “Outliers.” “Yes, Another Horse Panel.” “Music and Art.” Some were listed as panels, others as moderated large-group discussions.
The second evening was filled with concerts and readings and art shows by the more creative among us. Tonight featured a keynote speech by the host, followed by a DJ’ed dance. Normally that wouldn’t be my thing, but the thought of a dance with a self-curated song list—I pictured upbeat soul, Bowie, 80s pop—and an entire room full of enthusiastic but uniformly terrible dancers, excited me more than I’d admit. There’d be nobody to watch who wouldn’t understand. Maybe I wouldn’t even be the worst dancer in the room. A girl could dream.
I glanced at the clock on the table. Enough time for a nap before dinner. The organizers of “This Is So Damn Weird” were probably sitting in an empty room, sighing to themselves, wishing they could grab a few minutes’ sleep too.
We had all just started on our salads in the banquet hall when the Sarah from hotel registration approached my table. Her uniform still made her one of the easier ones to recognize.
The hotel employee knelt by the Sarah to my left, who had my haircut and who was wearing the same T-shirt as me, only with a long sleeved shirt underneath it. She was the only one I’d seen with a prosthetic hand. It was a good prosthetic; I wouldn’t have noticed it if we hadn’t stood at a washroom sink next to each other before the meal. Other than the hand, she’d looked more like me than most; I desperately wanted to figure out where we’d diverged, but hadn’t worked up the nerve to ask her yet.
“Pardon,” said Hotel Sarah. “Did you say earlier you were a detective?”
Prosthetic Hand shook her head. “I wouldn’t have said that. Not anymore. Go fish.”
I traced the scar on my own left wrist and wondered how many worlds you had to travel away from mine before you reached one where Go Fish wasn’t a game.
Hotel Sarah straightened up, put her hands on her hips, scanned the room. I debated not identifying myself, just to observe how she approached the problem of discreetly finding the sole detective in a room full of functionally identical people. My curiosity over why she was looking for me won out. Curiosity and pity; I recognized the panic just under her surface. Everyone at the table recognized it. It rippled over us like a wave.
“Right table, wrong person,” I said in a low voice. “How can I help you?”
Her relief was so obvious I felt guilty for having considered withholding. “Would you mind coming with me?”
Seven faces watched as I stood up from the table: prosthetic hand Sarah, left handed Sarah, bearded Dare, bearded Josh, stubble-faced Joshua—the three of them had sat together to compare notes, they’d said—and two random Sarahs I hadn’t yet managed to meet or distinguish because I was more interested in the others. They reopened questions I had closed for myself. From the way we had all allowed them to center conversation, I guessed that was the case with everyone else who’d sat down at this table, too.
All seven had pushed the olives to the side of their salads, as I had. I pictured dishwashers scraping the entire room’s worth of olives off our plates at meal’s end. Wondered how the organizers had proactively made the entire weekend vegetarian, but forgotten to tell the kitchen we didn’t like olives. Maybe whoever had set the menu was an outlier who assumed they were in the majority.
I stuffed a dinner roll into my bag in case I missed the entire meal. The others all nodded approvingly, knowing we didn’t work well when hungry.
Hotel Sarah led me through the lobby and down another doglegged corridor, this one in the opposite direction of my own. I pictured the building’s aerial footprint, a sprawling figure. We passed a tiny convenience store, a shuttered boutique, a small arcade where a lone Sarah manipulated a claw machine. An elevator waited open at the end of the hall. Once inside, she used a key to unlock it and pressed for the third floor, the top.
The elevator was the slowest I’d ever ridden. I waited for her to tell me where we were going, or why. When no explanation came, I concentrated on figuring out the observable differences between us. There were none, or none beyond the superficial. Her tailored uniform, her short, tight curls versus my shaggy ponytail. She was sizing me up in the same way; I wondered what she saw.
The elevator opened onto a dark room. An enormous nightclub, I realized, as my eyes adjusted. There was a long bar down one side, and on the opposite side a row of well-dressed folding tables holding some kind of display. In the center of the room, dozens of small tables ringed the perimeter of a dance floor. Beyond the dance floor, a high stage with a single podium and a DJ table. It took me another few seconds to notice the slumped figure in the stage’s shadow.
As I approached, I saw what had the hotel manager so spooked: a dead Sarah.
Not me, my logic brain understood, even though some tiny part of me screamed something was wrong. I’d made it through the entire afternoon talking with people who were more like me than an identical twin would be, but the body was somehow more real. The others down at dinner all had stories to remind me I was still myself, that I could still be differentiated. Absent stories and quirks, absent a person talking at me to prove we were not the same, the vacuum came rushing in. Who was she? In what ways was she me, in what ways was she not? Who would mourn her? I tried to imagine the shape of my own absence from my own world. It was an impossible exercise.
I struggled to regain control over myself. “You know I’m an insurance investigator, right? Dead bodies aren’t my area of expertise.”
“You’re the closest thing we’ve got. None of us are medical doctors, and it’s too late for one anyhow, and I figured you investigate things. I couldn’t find any of the organizers, so I thought I’d look for you.” She must have had a good memory for details, if she managed to find me in that dining hall based on one short conversation. Maybe that was a thing we all had in common.
Anyway, she was right: I did like a good puzzle. Not that I had any idea if this even was one yet. “Are there lights in here?”
She disappeared from my side, and the house lights came up a moment later. The room looked much smaller without the depth of shadow.
The body wasn’t me, I told myself. I concentrated on the differences rather than the eerie familiarity. Her cheeks were hollower than mine. She had more freckles, close-cropped hair. My empty stomach lurched.
She was starting to cool to the touch. I felt for a pulse, though I didn’t expect to find one. Her eyes were open, her pupils tiny in the blue. For some reason it brought the 90s John Lennon song “Change Your Tune” into my head, lyrics twisted. You’ll change your eyes, dear.
I shook the song away. Focus. She slumped against the stage, half-sitting, head leaning back against the stage. She wore a silk dress with a hibiscus flower print, louder than anything I’d wear, but not in a bad way.
“What’s your story?” I asked her under my breath.
I crouched to examine her hands and arms, trying not to move her too much. The nails had been bitten painfully short, but there was nothing under them that implied a fight. Some bruises and track marks on the insides of her arms, not all of them scabbed over, but nothing to suggest she’d tried to protect herself from the fall. I didn’t see any blood anywhere, but I didn’t want to move her until police or a coroner came.
Hotel Sarah stared at the body, absently chewing on her thumb.
“Why me?” I asked.
Not the question she’d expected, or else she’d tuned me out. “Pardon?”
“I know you said I was the closest thing to a detective, but why do you need someone to investigate? Aren’t the police on their way?”
She shook her head. “Gale force winds on the Sound tonight. They can’t make it out here by boat or helicopter.”
“What about a medical team? Surely there’s a medic here.”
“We paid a paramedic team to come out to the island this weekend, but they turned around because of the weather, too. My staff have basic CPR and first aid, but, well…”
I finished her sentence. “—but she’s obviously already dead.”
“Yeah. I thought maybe you’d be the next best thing to police, until they can get here. If she had a heart attack or stroke or just fell off the stage, it’s sad but nothing to worry about. If it was foul play”—the phrase sounded funny, like something on television—“we’re stuck with a murderer all weekend. If the police don’t get here in time, we can’t keep people from the portals. They’re timed precisely.”
“How about security? Surely you have security staff.”
She dismissed them with a wave. “They’ve never had to handle anything worse than kids setting off the fire alarms.”
“And I know I said this already, but you understand I’m in insurance? I investigate fraud. People lying about whiplash, that kind of thing. Not even the glamorous cheating-spouse stuff.”
She shrugged. I decided not to give her any harder time about it. She’d made a decision, never my strong point. She was probably already questioning herself, wondering what other option she hadn’t considered.
I was what they had. Right. So until police got here, I played coroner, law, and order. Not a role I was comfortable with at all, made weirder by the circumstance. Victim: Sarah. Investigator: Sarah. Suspects: All variations on the theme, other than the hotel staff. Hard to imagine one of us murdering; I knew I didn’t have it in me to kill someone. Also hard to imagine the hotel staff bothering; most murders involved somebody the victim knew.
I summoned up my inner TV detective. “Just to rule this out, nobody on your staff has any beef with you that you’re aware of? Nobody would be driven to kill by an entire hotel full of your dopplegangers?”
“I think we’re all weirded out by that, myself included. But I don’t think any of them hate me and I don’t think I work with any killers, though I guess that’s what everybody says. ‘He was such a nice man. He kept to himself.’” She touched her nametag. “Anyway, if they hated me, I’d think they go after me, not one of you. I’m easy to spot.”
“True enough. I’ll put them aside for now.” Though that meant focusing on the Sarahs again. “Were you the one who found the body?”
“No. The DJ did. She called me.” She held up her walkie-talkie.
“The DJ is one of us, right? Not your staff?”
“All the performers this weekend are attendees.”
“And where is the DJ now?”
“She went back to her room. She was a little freaked out.” Understandable, if her reaction to seeing her own dead twin was anything like mine.
“Has anyone else been up here?”
“The Sarah running sound and lights came up to check the system earlier for the host’s speech.”
“The host. Have you told her yet?”
Hotel Sarah chewed at her thumb again. “That’s the thing. Like I said, I haven’t been able to reach her. The organizers are all on walkie-talkies since your phones don’t work here, but she’s not answering hers. Nobody on the committee is answering, actually. That’s why I took matters into my own hands. Last I saw her, she was down in their Operations room, but she’d been up here earlier, so she could have come back for something.”
I looked down at the body. Tried to remember the woman who had breezed through the lobby earlier. “Are you saying you think this might be the organizer?”
She didn’t say anything, so I continued. “Do you remember anything specific about her? Anything to differentiate her?”
Her look suggested the question was a pointless one. “She was a little thinner than most. I think she runs marathons. Most of the committee do.”
The body was freckled and thin. She could have been a runner. A runner with a possible drug problem seemed a little counterproductive, but maybe she had pain issues or something.
“How about her clothing? Do you remember what she was wearing?” The woman I’d seen earlier had been in a blouse and jeans, not a dress, but she’d had time to change her clothes.
She shook her head. “I have a pretty good memory for detail, but everyone’s blending together…”
“You don’t have a registration list, do you? That might be useful. We need to try to identify the body before anything else.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t think to bring one up here. That couldn’t be her, right? Should I try to find her again? She’s going to need to notify the next of kin, and create a procedure to bring a body cross-world. Nobody’s ever died in the wrong world before.”
Infinite permutations. Surely someone must have. Except that for all the individual crossworld expeditions, according to the program this was the first gathering of its kind. Our host, one of us, the Sarah who had created the crossworld portal. It made me feel like I had wasted my life, in comparison. What would I have had to do differently to become a scientist? Her branch of science didn’t even exist as a field in my world. And now she was possibly lying dead in front of me.
Focus. If I hadn’t been carrying a backpack, I’d have put my ID and my keycard into my front right pocket. Her silk dress had a shallow pocket at the hip. When I slid my hand into it, I came up with a driver’s license. Her ID gave her name as Sarah Pinsker, which wasn’t much help. An address in Baltimore; the host worked at Johns Hopkins.
I held up the license. “Do you know how many here this weekend live in Baltimore?”
“Forty or fifty? There would be more if so many hadn’t been lost, from what I understand.”
“A bunch of Seattles were lost in tsunamis or earthquakes. Some of us moved from Baltimore to Seattle or Seattle to Baltimore…”
I followed her train of thought, pictured a giant wave swallowing my house. Shuddered, brought myself back to the situation at hand.
“So this might still be our host. One in forty or fifty in that city, but maybe we can narrow it down when names and addresses come into it. It probably isn’t the sound person, since she’s dressed up a bit. Isn’t the DJ, since the DJ found her. The host wasn’t working alone this weekend, was she? The registration desk, entertainment, programming… She had a committee, you said?”
“Yeah. Four others pretty similar to her. They’d all been on the verge of making the same discovery, so they were the first ones she reached out to.”
Next question, if I was acting sheriff. “I don’t suppose this bar has a walk-in fridge or freezer?”
“Why? Oh god. Shit. Yeah, there’s a walk-in fridge.”
“You take the legs and I’ll get the arms?”
As I positioned myself, the body’s head tipped forward, and I saw what I would have looked for earlier, if I were a real detective: a sickening, deadly deep indentation at the back of the skull. A cave-in. The hair was matted and sticky-looking, blood and—I didn’t want to look closer.
“I think I found the cause of death,” I said. “And I think we can rule out natural causes. Fuck.”
I didn’t want to touch the head any more than I wanted to look, but we still had to move the body. I grabbed a towel from the bar and wrapped her like she’d just stepped out of the shower. It still lolled against me as I lifted, and I fought the urge to be sick. She wasn’t heavy, wasn’t yet stiff. Rigor mortis started two hours after death. An odor came off her; a body doing body things, I told myself.
We put her in the walk-in in a recreation of the position she’d been sitting in. I inspected her exposed parts. No blood other than the back of her head. No bullet holes. Some bruises, as I’d noted earlier, but none that looked like they came from a fight or a fall. I wasn’t comfortable looking any further than that. After, I waited while Hotel Sarah rummaged in a drawer for notepad and tape and made a thick-markered “Do Not Open” sign for the fridge door.
“So do you think she just fell and hit her head?” she asked. “Or do you think she was murdered?”
There was a hopeful note in her voice on the first option, but below that, I could tell she didn’t believe it any more than I did. “You do, or else you want me to reassure you that the track marks suggest she overdosed and stumbled off the stage. Otherwise you wouldn’t have asked me up here. You would have dealt with it quietly, to keep from scaring the rest of the guests or harming the convention. You still want to deal with it quietly.”
She shifted from foot to foot. I recognized her restlessness. She felt helpless. Wanted something concrete to do, a decision made for her, a plan.
“Okay, here’s what I need from you,” I said, taking pity. I didn’t know my next step, but I could give her a task. “Go back down to registration, make me a copy of whatever you’ve got down there. Um, and what time was that dance supposed to start? They can decide if they want to have it in some other space, but they probably shouldn’t have it in here, in case there’s still evidence to be found. And, you know, out of respect. I’m going to look around right now, but I’d think the police would still want this left untouched.”
“I think they’ll cancel the dance. The DJ didn’t look fit to play.”
“I’m going to need to talk to her, too. But maybe downstairs, so she doesn’t have to come back in here? And the sound person.”
She nodded and left.
There really wasn’t anything else to do without the registration list. And it wouldn’t do any good to interview people without the right questions. Hard to ask who else was up here, when everyone looked the same. Hard to ask “Where were you at x o’clock?” if you didn’t solve for x. I could at least guess at that.
Or start with the crime scene; I walked back over. The stage was about chest high. I’d only had eyes for her before, but looking now, there was a blood smear on the stage’s lip just above where the body had been. The spot where she’d hit her head? No, the lip wasn’t the right shape to have caused the damage, I didn’t think. I pictured myself tripping or slipping off the edge of the stage, but I couldn’t imagine a way I would have fallen that would have had that result. No scuff marks, no chips in the wood, no bone fragments or hair. Just the one small smear and a deeper bloodstain where her head had been resting when we got to her. The wound itself hadn’t bled a lot. Maybe a forensic expert could see more.
A coroner would be useful, too. They’d be able to say if she’d fought someone, though I didn’t think so. She hadn’t looked scared or angry or horrified or even distressed. Dead. An absence of her, an absence of me.
The stage had two narrow curtained wings, and stairs on both sides. I walked to the front of the stage, to the spot where she must have slipped off or fallen after being hit. I tried to imagine falling from here. If someone had hit me from behind, I’d have put my hands out, fallen forward, unless they had dropped me in my tracks. There was no scenario I could think of that would result in stepping straight off to hit the back of my head on the stage. Maybe if I was looking behind me as I walked, and missed the edge? Even then, I’d expect more of a twist, a person trying to catch herself as she went down.
Something caught my eye a few feet from the stage, under the pedestal foot of the first table. I hopped down carefully. A keycard, still in its envelope. Room 517. The dead Sarah’s pockets were shallow enough that it could have fallen from her pocket, though the trajectory didn’t seem quite right. I dropped it into my bag and looked around to see if the floor held any other secrets, but didn’t see anything. Back to the stage.
The far wing was packed with music equipment and PA speakers. I hefted one of the mic stands. It had a pedestal base, heavy enough to hit someone with. There were six of them in a row, and any of them could be a murder weapon, though I didn’t see blood, and they were rounded where the wound had looked angular.
The wing closer to the DJ table was empty except the top of a travel case. It was black and silver, all the edges and corners reinforced with metal. I hefted it: heavy, and this was the unpacked half. The underside was foam, cut to fit the turntables. It had a small dent in one corner, and I flipped it to look at it closely. The shape was right, but it would be an awkward thing to wield. Still, I mentally added it to the list.
I felt around the edges and found a luggage tag. Sarah Pinsker. The unmoored feeling caught me again; it was getting more familiar. Seattle address, in Rainier Beach, if I was right about the zip code. One of the cheaper neighborhoods to rent in the city, at least in my world.
The DJ equipment was set up on a table in front of the alcove. Under the table, two full record crates. I thumbed through them, amused I’d guessed the genres correctly. On the table, two fancy looking vinyl turntables with a mixing console in between, all cushioned in the other half of the travel case. I knew nothing about DJ gear, didn’t know if this was expensive or cheap equipment. There were two records already on the turntables, the Sharon Jones/David Bowie cover of Bowie’s “Modern Love,” and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.” I’d have had fun dancing to those. Too bad the dance wouldn’t happen now.
There was an “SP” in silver marker at each record’s center, and on each piece of equipment. I pictured tomorrow’s lineup of musicians, all with the SPs that normally differentiated their gear from others’.
I ran my finger over a spot where the foam had separated from the protective casing. Some glue would stick it back, an easy repair, except as I touched it I realized something had been pushed down in between. I crooked a finger into the gap and felt around until I snagged a tiny envelope. Tapped it out into my palm: eight tiny pills. I didn’t recognize them, but I didn’t have any knowledge of narcotics. They could be ibuprofen, for all I knew, though most people didn’t go around slipping envelopes of ibuprofen into secret cubbies. In my world, anyway.
“Hello?” someone called from the back of the room.
I tucked the pills back in the envelope and the envelope into my pocket alongside the keycard. “Over here.”
A Sarah made her way over to me. She wore cargo shorts, black combat boots, and a T-shirt for a band I didn’t recognize. She walked with a swagger. Interesting to consider how we might have developed different walks.
“They asked me to bring up a copy of the registration list.” She held a red three-ring binder out to me.
I hopped off the stage to take it from her. “Thanks. Are you the sound tech?”
“Yeah. I’d introduce myself, but it hardly seems worth it.”
I smiled. “Hardly. But I wouldn’t mind if you pointed out which name is yours, so I can start taking notes.”
She took the book back from me and flipped to the last page in one sure movement. “Mine is easy, since I took my wife’s last name. Yarrow. Last person in the whole book.”
I grabbed my pen off the table where’d I left it and circled her occupation to remind myself who she was. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
“What time did you come up here?”
“Three-thirty. There wasn’t a whole lot to set up, but it always takes a little longer when you’re not working with your own gear. I soundchecked the DJ, then the keynote speaker. Figured out how to run her slideshow. After that I took some time to get situated with the light board. I’m not really a lighting person, but it’s pretty well labeled. I think I was out of here by four-thirty.”
“Were they both still up here when you left?”
“No. The DJ left after we tested her gear through the PA. She’d managed to haul her big case and one crate of records up here in one go, but she said she had to get a second crate from her room on the other side of the hotel.”
“And she didn’t come back?”
“I figured she got to talking to someone, or took a nap or something. She didn’t come back while I was here.”
“And the host stayed? The, ah, keynote speaker?”
“She said she wanted to go over her speech while nobody was in the room.”
“Did anybody else come up?”
“Not that I saw.”
I paused to consider what else I needed to ask. “Would you recognize the keynote?” She cocked her head, and I amended my question. “You don’t have to be definitive. But if you know it’s NOT her, that would be helpful.”
I led her to the fridge. “I should have asked: are you okay looking at her? I can warn you it’s a little freaky looking at a dead person who looks like you.”
“This whole thing is freaky. I’ll be okay.”
We approached within a couple feet of the body. The vertiginous feeling hit me again.
“It could be her?” she said, half statement and half question. “But, uh, she was wearing something else. She had on jeans, not a dress. Maybe she left and changed into what she was going to wear tonight and came back?”
That made sense. Or the manager’s fear that this might be the host was unfounded.
“That definitely helps,” I said. “You can go if you need to.”
She nodded. “They’re going to have to find someplace else for tonight’s programming, so I should probably find out where they want me. But, hey, it’s good to have something to do, right?”
I hadn’t considered it until then, but it was true. As disturbing as the idea of a dead me was, something about the whole weird weekend became more concrete now that I had a purpose. No wonder so many had signed up to run sound and registration and play music and lead discussions. The other volunteers must have been self-aware enough to recognize it before they arrived.
I sat down on the stage’s edge with the list. Flipped to the “Sarah Pinsker” section, the big section, and put stars next to the ones who lived in Baltimore. The host and eleven others, since several Baltimore Sarahs had taken other surnames. Five of the remaining Sarahs were Quantologists. They all had a big C after their name. Committee, I guessed. All five lived at the same address, the address on the license in the deceased’s pocket. The lone difference between them on paper was a designation in the last column. R0D0, R1D0, R0D1, R1D1, R0D1A. No clue what that meant, but the program had listed a parenthetical R0D0 after the host’s name, so I circled that one.
I paged through the book for a while, making notes beside the entries for the DJ, the hotel clerk, the sound tech, and a few others I’d met who stood out from the pack. It would have been really interesting reading material any other day; now it was a headache.
I still hadn’t finished my circuit of the room. I searched the bar for something with the right shape and heft to be the murder weapon. A couple of the bottles might have fit the bill, but I would have thought they’d smash on impact.
My desire for diligence didn’t extend to alone-time with the body, so I decided against searching the fridge. I wandered across the floor. The back of a chair or barstool? Or the leg? Possible, and a pain to check them all.
On the far side of the room, four folding tables covered with velveteen tablecloths. A printed sign hung on the wall behind them: Sarah Pinsker Hall of Fame.
Each table held a series of objects. A few had explanatory notecards in front of them, but most spoke for themselves. I remembered the questionnaire: “Do you have any special awards or achievements you’d like to show off? Bring them for our brag table!” I’d have thought they’d have better security, but then again, up until now I would have thought I could trust my other selves.
If the list of occupations had made me feel like an underachiever, this display reinforced it. A Grammy for Best Folk Album 2013, a framed photo of a Sarah in the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle, a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, a stack of novels, a Nebula Award for science fiction writing, an issue of Quantology Today containing an article with a seventy word title that I guessed amounted to “Other Realities! I Found Them!” A few awards I didn’t recognize, though I wasn’t sure if that was because they didn’t exist in my reality or I just hadn’t heard of them.
Two of the awards looked like they had the shape to be the murder weapon, and one of them looked like it had the weight as well: the Nebula, a three-dimensional rectangular block of Lucite, shot through with stars and planets. What did you call a three-dimensional rectangle, anyway? I didn’t want to pick it up without gloves, but I used the back of my hand to push it gently backward. It was heavy enough, for sure.
As I touched the award, I felt a strange certainty this was it. That if I were to murder someone, which I absolutely wouldn’t do, this would be the weapon of choice. Not the mic stands, not the chairs, not the turntable case: this glittering block that would travel back to another reality at the end of the weekend with its owner none the wiser. I shuddered and shook the thought off.
Stooping to examine it closer, I didn’t see any sign of blood or hair. In fact, there wasn’t a single fingerprint on it, which was odd enough in itself. The other statuettes had fingerprints, but this one looked like it had been polished clean.
If this was the murder weapon, what did that say about the murder? Was it an act of passion, carried out with an item at hand? Was there any significance to the choice? If it was premeditated, that would narrow the list of suspects to the people who knew it would be up here: the host committee and the writer who had brought it. The list of people who had seen it here was probably more or less the list I’d already made of people who had been up to the room. Not much help.
Nobody else came upstairs, and after a while I got sick of waiting. I headed back down to the lobby. Passed the arcade, now empty, and the convenience store, now closed. The registration table, cluttered with nametags and markers, otherwise abandoned. A few people sat in the lobby, but the mood was markedly different than it had been before dinner. I gathered word had spread.
A new clerk was working the front desk, an acned non-Sarah in his late teens or early twenties. I held up my registration binder like an overlarge badge, trying to look harried and committee-bound. “I don’t suppose if I gave you a name and ID code, you’d tell me what room someone is staying in? Official business?”
He nodded. I flipped to the DJ’s name and pointed. After a moment’s typing, he looked back up at me. “107. That’s in the annex. Do you know where that is?”
My room was in the annex, but if the committee members were all staying in the tower, I didn’t want to break the illusion. I let him point me in the direction of my room. Her door was a few down from my own.
I knocked a few times before she heard me. When the door swung open, I recognized the person on the other side. “That makes sense! I didn’t realize you were the DJ.”
She smiled blankly. I pointed at her T-shirt. “We met outside earlier? When you were smoking? No Good Deeds?”
“Oh, yeah.” She replaced the empty smile with a warmer one. “It’s hard to keep everyone straight. Can I help you?”
“I’m, uh, investigating the death of the Sarah you found. I’m a detective. Do you mind if I come in and ask you a few questions?”
She opened the door wider, and I followed her into the room. The first bed’s bedspread lay in a heap on the floor. Her duffel’s contents were scattered across the second bed, in some sort of half-organization. A pile of greyed-out underwear, a few T-shirts, neatly folded, a pile of tampons, pack of cigarettes.
“Sorry,” she said. “I always spread out in hotels. You can have the chair.” She flopped down on the first bed. “Did you say you were investigating her death? She looked like she fell off the stage to me. Not that it wasn’t freaky to see her, you know?”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “But the hotel manager asked me to look around a little. Because of the circumstances.”
“Are you alright with me asking you some questions?”
“Go ahead. It’s all a little upsetting, though. I’m not sure I’m thinking straight.”
That might be chemical, if the pills I’d found were hers. “Can you walk me through the afternoon?”
“I loaded my stuff into the room around four. Set up, soundchecked. Came back down here to get my second crate of records. When I went back, that’s when I saw her.”
“Do you know how long you were gone?”
She shrugged. I tried to remember when I’d run into her. She must have gone out for a smoke before going back with the crate.
“Where were you when you saw her? Where in the club, I mean?”
“As I was coming down the aisle toward the stage. She was just sitting there. I thought she had sat down, but then I realized the posture was funny.”
“And—sorry—was she definitely already dead by then?”
She bit her lower lip, bringing it to the white of her teeth. “Her eyes were open. I nudged her leg, but she didn’t respond, so I checked for a pulse.”
“Was she warm or cold to your touch?”
“Warm. I’ve never seen a dead person before, and she looked so…” She shuddered. I did too.
“And then you left her there? To go for help?”
“No! I made a call on her walkie-talkie. I figured the other people in charge would be on the other end, and maybe someone from the hotel.”
I closed my eyes to mentally revisit the scene. “There wasn’t a walkie-talkie there.”
Her eyes widened. “There was. I swear, I called on it. Ask the manager. It was next to the body. She’d been carrying it around before, complaining it dragged her jeans down.”
“Her jeans? Before she changed into the dress and came back?”
She gave me a quizzical look.
There wasn’t really much point to asking her anything else if she couldn’t even get basic details right. Her confusion felt genuine. “Thanks for letting me in. ‘Questions lead to questions lead to answers lead to answers,’ right?”
“I hope so,” she said absently, standing up and ushering me out. “I hope you get her home okay.”
She’d completely ignored the No Good Deeds lyric I’d used as a peace offering. Second and last album in my world, their one hit single. I wondered if it was the drugs or the shock, or she just wasn’t the fan I’d thought she was earlier.
Back in the hallway, I dug in my bag for a pen. I’d normally have taken notes while she talked, but I’d had a feeling it would have shut her up. Instead of a pen, I came up with the dinner roll I’d taken earlier. I ate it in two bites. Diving in again, my fingers settled on the key card I’d found in the nightclub. Room 517. In the tower, I guessed. Might as well check it out.
I rode the tower elevator—much faster than the one to the nightclub—with two Sarahs who were making eyes at each other in a way that made me deeply uncomfortable. I was happy to escape.
Room 517 was around the corner and down the hall. My shoes sank into plush carpeting. Pushing a luggage cart through it wouldn’t be any fun, but maybe tower people paid bellhops to do the grunt work. The halls up here had actual wallpaper, tasteful stripes, in contrast with our bare-walled wing.
I paused for a moment outside the room, trying to hear if there was anyone moving inside, preparing myself to find… I didn’t know what. I hadn’t gotten clearance to do this. Then again, nobody had told me not to, which was basically permission. I knocked, waited for an answer, knocked again.
The swipe card worked on the first try. I stepped inside. The light had been left on. The furniture looked like hardwood instead of plywood, and the room was maybe a foot or two wider, but I didn’t really see anything to justify the cost difference between this space and mine.
Three dresses hung in the open closet, in styles similar to the dead woman’s. Worn gym clothes lay crumpled in the corner next to the first bed, a pair of sneakers half-buried underneath the pile. The closer bed had obviously been slept in; if she was the organizer, she’d probably been here a night or two early to get situated before the rest of us arrived. She’d dumped her suitcase—mostly underwear and bras—out on the second bedspread. Maybe in her world hotel bedspreads got washed along with the sheets.
A toiletry bag had been emptied on the bathroom counter. Ipana gel toothpaste, the exact same product I used. How much could toothpaste change from world to world? The makeup was an assortment of familiar and unfamiliar brands, so maybe I was wrong. A damp towel hung over the shower curtain rod. So far, this was the room of someone who had assumed she would be coming back. I flushed the toilet for her, as a courtesy. Immediately regretted it as disposing of evidence.
The room door clicked shut, startling me. Had I left it open? I didn’t remember closing it when I’d entered. Maybe someone had gone into another room on the hall and the wind had pulled this one closed. I’d lived in houses where that happened. I opened the door and peered down the empty hallway.
I’d left her second bag for last, under the hope there was a clue waiting somewhere for me. A clue, like I was a real detective, not somebody who flushed away evidence. The bag was an expensive-looking leather satchel. My style, if I had the cash for it.
There were a few things I was expecting to find and didn’t. I’d expected a registration binder like the one I had in my bag. I didn’t see a walkie-talkie or charger, though maybe the charger was in the convention’s Ops room the manager had mentioned earlier, wherever that was. I did find a program, with a couple of items circled. Not the ones I expected. “Sarahs in the Sciences” on Sunday morning and a penned in Information Desk shift from 12–4 PM on Saturday. Not the keynote. Maybe she didn’t have to circle it because it went without saying.
The rest of the bag was filled with the usual odds and ends I carried: pens, gum, emergency flashlight, loose change. A dog-eared paperback novel called Parable of the Trickster.
No wallet. I looked in all the places I’d have left a wallet if I were her: all her bag pockets, the TV stand, the nightstand, even the sink. There wasn’t a room safe, so it couldn’t be there.
I wouldn’t have noticed it at all if I hadn’t kicked it on my next circuit of the room, hidden half-under the second bed. Maybe she’d tossed it in the bed’s direction in a hurry and missed? Or knocked it to the ground as she left? It was unlike me. I wasn’t the neatest person in the world, but I was careful with the important things.
I kept making assumptions she’d think like me, and they kept paying off. Still, I had to keep reminding myself we weren’t the same person. We were and weren’t. Our experiences had shaped us, the differences in our worlds. Something had convinced her to become a quantologist, but whatever had driven her would have had a different effect on me, in my quantology-free reality. Given all that, it didn’t seem unreasonable we would have different opinions on where to leave your wallet in a hotel room.
The other option, obviously, was that somebody else had been in here. How hard would it be to flash the desk clerk an ID and say you’d lost your room key? Or even without ID, to rattle off one of the numbers the hotel had used to differentiate us? Whoever it was might even have still been in the room when I entered. That would explain the door shutting while I was poking around the bathroom. In which case, the question now wasn’t only what could the room tell me, but what couldn’t it tell me? I would never know if something was missing.
I opened the wallet. No cash, but that wasn’t unexpected since we couldn’t use it here. No driver’s license, since that was in the body’s pocket. Two credit cards, car insurance, Johns Hopkins ID, some store discount cards. The university ID could be important, if only a few Sarahs worked there.
The only thing personal—the only thing personal I’d noticed in the whole room, really, if you didn’t count fashion—was a cropped photo tucked behind her health insurance card. I tapped it out, sucked in my breath. It was a picture of her—not me, I told myself—standing with my friends on a mountaintop at what I was fairly sure was the Grand Tetons. I had gotten somewhat used to the surreality of seeing my face on strangers, but there was something even odder about seeing a picture of myself, with my friends, in a place I’d never been. Mabel, my Mabel, with an arm wrapped tight around another Sarah’s waist. All in someone else’s wallet.
It was impossible to tell which details were piquing my interest because they were pertinent, and which were piquing my interest because they were me. What would it be like to be this Sarah? I remembered my own professors’ homes, pictured myself coming and going from a majestic old house with a glassed-in sunroom. Did she live with alterna-Mabel? This Sarah lived in Baltimore, not Seattle; I couldn’t imagine Mabel leaving Seattle.
If I stayed any longer I’d start trying on the dead Sarah’s clothes, and I was pretty sure they wouldn’t fit, mentally or physically. I left everything where I’d found it.
The Sarah in the room across the hall and I both closed the doors at the same time. I panicked for a second before realizing I was supposed to be there. Or at least I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
She gave me a curious look. “Are you the detective?”
“Yeah. How did you know?” I looked her over. Another flowered dress, freckles, runner’s build. Another short haircut. She’d either had her breasts reduced or run all the fat off her body. The body of somebody with a whole lot more determination than I had. One of the quantologists from the committee, I guessed.
“I’m in charge, and you’re coming out of her room.” She gave extra weight to the word “her.” “The hotel manager said she’d called you in. Thank you for your help.”
“You’re in charge? In place of the, ah, host? The quantologist?”
“In place of? Everyone on our committee is a quantologist, but I’m the one you’d call the host. I’m the keynote speaker.” She waved a sheaf of handwritten papers in my direction.
“Wait—is the speech still going on?”
“We moved it, obviously. It’ll be in the dining hall. The dance is cancelled, out of respect.” Her walkie-talkie squawked and fed back, loud enough to generate an echo. She dialed the volume down without looking at it. “And I rewrote my speech, of course.”
“But we were looking for you—the manager thought you were the dead woman. Do you know who she is?” As I asked, I understood. “Oh, I had the wrong one. She’s one of the others from your committee.”
Her face crumpled for a second, like she was trying not to cry. She pulled herself together. Bit her lip until it turned as white as her teeth. “Yes. We hadn’t known each other that long, obviously, but she was tremendously helpful. Working with her, well, it was like working with myself, if that doesn’t sound too narcissistic. We were on the same page about everything. They said they’d given you a registration list? She’s the one from R1D0, by our designation. I’m R0D0. I ID’ed her when the manager took me up to look a few minutes ago.”
“It’s not my fault you’re identical,” I said, a little angry with myself for not having considered the possibility. “I’m not even this kind of detective.”
She patted my arm. My feeling of inadequacy blew over as soon as I said it, leaving her gesture as sincere commiseration, not condescension. Her smile was genuine, sympathetic. “I wouldn’t have suggested getting you involved in all of this, but I wasn’t there when the hotel manager panicked. I think she must have fallen off the stage and hit her head, but we’ll bring in the authorities as soon as the weather lets up. No need for you to worry about it.”
Everything I’d learned was still lurching and settling into new positions. The clothing change made sense if it was a different person. Everything I knew about the one fit the other.
“How close are your worlds? I mean, do you know the divergence point? I don’t think I’ll get the science of it, but I get the divergence points concept.”
“I’d love to talk more,” she said, “but my speech is supposed to start in a few minutes.”
“Do you mind if I walk with you? I have a couple more questions I wouldn’t mind asking. Even if you think I don’t need to investigate.”
She shrugged and started walking. I followed. “Why didn’t you answer your radio when they called for you?”
“I was in the shower. I must not have heard it.”
“Do you know what she was doing in the nightclub?”
“No clue. Looking for me, maybe? Or adding something to the Hall of Fame display? A few people brought items they hadn’t mentioned on the questionnaire.”
We waited for the elevator. A couple more Sarahs joined us, giving the same curious once-over we were all giving each other. If they were staying in this tower, they were likely on the richer side of the spectrum. Both were dressed the way I’d dress if I could afford nicer clothes, but one had cut her hair shorter than I’d ever cut mine before, the back shaved, the top still curly. It looked good; I wished I had the guts. Neither wore glasses. Contacts or surgery or some fluke of genetics? I’d have asked if I wasn’t more interested in the host.
I didn’t want to question her much in front of strangers without knowing what had already been said to the general public. I searched for a more neutral topic. “Why did you choose this hotel?”
The elevator chimed and let us in. We stood silent while it descended; I used the time to study the others. Hair and clothes had been the easiest ways to catalogue differences at first, but I was starting to see that we fell into a few different basic phenotypes. The host and the other athletic Sarahs on one side of a spectrum that ranged lean to soft. Still no way to suss out anything beyond the superficial without asking.
Once the other Sarahs had walked away, the host answered my question as if there had been no gap. “Secord Island is a tiny dot in the Atlantic. I won’t bother getting into the geopolitics, but it’s independent in nine identified worlds. Three are home to private mansions, six to private resort hotels. In this one and only this one, one of us is manager, though she’s one of the more distant iterations I identified, from a subset who went to university in Nova Scotia and then stayed in the east. This place was perfect. So inhospitably perfect we were able to guarantee to our sponsors and grantees that nobody would go AWOL. One weekend, in and out. No risk.” She flashed a rueful smile.
“What do sponsors and grantees get from this?” Mabel had asked me, and I’d wondered ever since. I repeated Mabel’s question.
“The usual name recognition, for those in worlds where they exist. And if it goes well—if it had gone well, I guess—the chance to explore doing it for other purposes: recreational, educational. There’re a couple of travel companies, a couple of charitable foundations, a couple of think tanks. I’m hoping I’ll still be able to convince them her death would have happened anywhere, nothing to do with the event.”
I nodded. “One more thing. Is there a way for me to talk to your other committee members? You’re the ones who would have known her best.”
She looked for a second like she was going to say no, but then she lifted her walkie-talkie to her lips. After a brief back and forth, they agreed to meet me at registration after the keynote.
“Anything else?” she asked. “I still say there’s no point in you investigating before the police get here, but if you think there is, I’ll cede to your expertise.”
I wasn’t sure if that was a dig or not. She was probably right. I had no idea why I was still asking questions. Except I did like having something to do, and I was suspicious of anything dismissed too easily. If I were lying in a hotel fridge, I’d want someone asking questions for me.
A crowd bottlenecked at the dining hall entrance; I guess none of us liked arriving too early. We didn’t like jostling either, so the result was a polite alternate-right-of-way situation that worked itself out pretty quickly. The room was still arranged in a constellation of eight person tables, but a microphone had been set up on one end of the room. I peeled off to find standing room beside the entrance, where I could watch the speech and the crowd at the same time.
The host walked to the microphone. She wore small heels with her dress. Heels always made me walk like a moose on a frozen lake, but she came across comfortable and confident. I couldn’t help coveting her poise. She glanced at the clock above the door—for a moment I thought she was looking at me—and then started to speak without consulting her notes.
“Welcome, friends. First, I think by now many of you have heard we’ve had a death at the conference. One of my committee members, perhaps the person who worked most closely with me, Sarah Pinsker. It’s so strange to say that name, my own name, the name that many of you call your own, in this context. We’re still waiting for the authorities to arrive to tell us what happened. We’re also working to inform her family, and to find the proper way to memorialize her. I’m sure she’s in all our hearts.
“I say ‘in all our hearts,’ and I know it sounds cliché, but it’s literally true. She is every one of us. So we can imagine what her loss will mean to her own world and her own family. At the same time, it’s impossible to imagine. Even now, when I say her name, you picture yourself, not her. Not the things that made her distinct from you or me. In that way, we grieve her as friend and family, not a stranger, even those of us who didn’t know her as an individual.”
The door creaked, and I looked over to see the DJ slipping from the room. The speaker continued.
“You all took such pains to get here, it didn’t feel right to cut the weekend short. I’m sure she would have wanted it to go on, because I know I would have wanted it to go on, after all our work. Tonight’s dance is cancelled, out of respect. There’ll be rooms available tonight and tomorrow for support groups if anyone needs to process in that setting. There will also be a Shabbat service in the chapel tomorrow morning at ten if anyone wants to say kaddish for her, led by Rabbi Sarah Pinsker. Stand up, Rabbi?”
A Sarah stood, raised a hand in solemn greeting, then sat again. The only rabbi, I thought. Was there a panel on our more unexpected career choices? I knew what had led me down my road, but not what had led her down hers.
“Without invalidating anyone’s grief or confusion, I have to say that this death, tragic as it is, highlights the reason we’re here: to learn from each other. I’ve got a panel tomorrow where I’ll explain in more detail how this all works, but I think this is a fitting moment to explain the basics, to explain how we are all different and the same.”
Her tone changed, as if she was now on more comfortable ground. “It’s human nature to center ourselves in the narrative, but I encourage us all to consider the larger picture. I’m standing here before you not because I am the first, or the best, or the trunk of a branching tree. I’m here due to two things I can own: a discovery and a decision. I’m the one who figured out how to open a door; I’m the one who invited all of you to walk through it. Nothing more, nothing less.
“There are others among us who are as accomplished in their own fields, who could invite us through other doors, figuratively speaking. There are others among you who made ordinary decisions that nonetheless changed you significantly: leaving school, pursuing higher education, adopting children, or not. Even the smallest decisions, like kissing someone instead of waiting to be kissed.”
I wondered how many of us thought of Mabel.
“I’m sorry I’m not feeling up to doing my whole intro to quantology speech, but I can leave you with one more thing to think about, something that may provide comfort on a night like tonight. Not only can I say nobody here is prime, I can also say all of us have always existed. It’s hard to wrap your head around, but it’s true. Those divergence points, where we discuss pets and girlfriends and boyfriends, wrong turns and big decisions? They work backward and forward. The moment a divergence point sparks, the new one has always existed too.
“I tried to invite Sarahs with some variety, to learn from each other, but Sarahs who are still recognizably us. This conference exists in infinite variations: some where I invited a different group of Sarahs, some where you chose a different dessert, where you sat next to someone else at dinner, some where my friend Sarah is still with us. They are no more or less valid for having diverged, no more or less real. You are all you, we are all we, constantly shaped by and shaping worlds.”
It was a good line, delivered by a good speaker, meant to buoy everyone. What would it be like to be a good public speaker? To be a discoverer of worlds? We all clapped, both for her speech and her attempts to reconcile the moods of the occasion. That was why I clapped, anyway. I kept extrapolating outward from myself.
I spotted the older Sarah I’d had a drink with earlier, and went to stand beside her as the crowd started to file from the room. “In the bar a few hours ago, you pointed at someone and said she was the host. How did you know?”
She shook her head. “Sorry, that must have been somebody else. I haven’t been to the bar. Sober ten years.”
There was more than one older Sarah, or more than one who looked older than the rest of us. A good reminder not to make assumptions, even here.
Three Sarahs stood clustered around the registration desk, as promised. I didn’t see the host, but I was pretty sure she was still behind me in the dining hall. I’d already spoken with her anyhow. So a committee of five, minus the host and the dead woman. They all wore silk; I guess they didn’t sweat the dry cleaning bills.
They agreed to talk to me one at a time, in the lounge seating area between registration and the bar. The bar was starting to fill up again, but it wasn’t yet too noisy for conversation. A knot of Sarahs with guitars gathered on the other bank of couches, but the odd timbral similarity of their voices made them easy to tune out. They’d found a way to eke joy out of the situation, and for a moment I envied them.
I’d have saved time by talking to them all together, though; their answers might as well have come from the same mouth.
Q: Where were you between four-thirty and six pm?
A: Registration, then the cocktail party, then up to take a nap and shower. I figured a shower would be worth being a little late for dinner.
Q: Were all of you at the cocktail party?
A: Yes! I think. At the beginning, anyway.
Q: Including the one who passed away?
A: Yes. I think. It’s hard to say. We were mingling.
Q: When did you first realize something was wrong?
A: When the hotel manager came to find us, toward the end of dinner.
A: The committee. She found all of us except—her.
They all gave the same weight to “her” that the host had upstairs.
Q: What did you do then?
A: Figured out which of us she was. Cried. Freaked a bit. Talked about what to do next.
Q: How did you figure out which of you she was?
A: Um, a roll call. I know that sounds silly, but I can’t tell any of the other four apart without asking them questions or knowing what they’re wearing. I had friends in seventh grade who were identical twins, and I never had a doubt which of them was which. This is different.
Q: Did anyone use the radios to contact any of you?
A: Not that I heard? I might have been in the shower.
Q: Is there anything else you know about her that might be helpful? Anybody who she was angry with? Anybody who was angry with her? Jealousies, rivalries?
A: There’s no point in a cross-world rivalry. We were all a little jealous of R0D0, of course. She made the breakthrough we were all trying to make. But not R1D0.
Q: Do you know your divergence point from the others on your committee?
A: Eleven days before the big discovery, R0D0 and R1D0 made a mistake in an equation. The rest of us got it right. It was the mistake that was the key. The three of us differ in ways barely worth mentioning, all within a month of each other: a hospital visit, a sprained ankle on a run, a birthday party the rest of us skipped.
Q: What about R0D0 and R1D0, then? Where do they diverge? Would there be any reason for the host to be jealous of the deceased?
A: If anything it would be the other way around. They diverged an hour before the discovery. R1D0 went out for an anniversary dinner with her girlfriend; R0D0 cancelled dinner and stayed in the lab. If I were R1D0, I’d have carried a little resentment over that, but if she did, she never showed it. Anyway, someone said it was an accident, right? Is there any chance it was anything else?
“She hasn’t been examined,” I said. “She’s got one hell of a knock to her head.”
I left it deliberately vague, to see if any of them gave anything away. They all gave me the same look, stressed and relieved, hopeful and guilty about that hope. I found myself wishing all of my insurance interviews were with Sarahs. My job would be much easier if I recognized every expression on everyone’s face.
I was desperate for something to break one of them from the pack, but nothing came. Even their divergence points were mundane. They were the same person. I thanked them for their help and let them go. They had all looked genuinely upset. I had believed all of them, and the identical answers were as good as corroboration. They were all willing to help, but convinced it was an accident. They couldn’t figure out why I was still asking questions when the answer seemed obvious.
In their shoes, I’d be desperate to believe it was an accident too. Better than thinking somebody might have it in for me. If I were one of them, I’d be terrified and trying to hide it. I’d be looking around every corner for a killer, trying to live up my last moments, to settle accounts, just in case; except we were all trapped for the weekend, unable to contact anyone we loved or go anywhere.
I was one of them. Without the science background, without the urge to be the first or the best or whatever it was driving them. Which was an interesting line of questioning I hadn’t followed at all: what was driving them? Why were they so ambitious, when the rest of us weren’t? What had made them go into quantology? Could any of them still make the same discovery, for their world, or had the host Sarah spoiled it for everyone? I looked over to see if they were still standing by registration, but they had all gone.
The bar was half full, and when I slid onto the nearest empty stool, the bartender handed me a tumbler of bourbon, neat, without my needing to ask. The guesswork was gone from his job: there was a plastic cup over the handle for the stout. I hoped he had another keg somewhere that he hadn’t had time to tap yet. Down the row, six other Sarahs sipped from identical glasses.
“Cheers,” said the Sarah next to me, holding up her drink. She was wearing a Wonder Woman T-shirt too, an Alex Ross illustration, deflecting bullets. She looked exhausted, like she’d spent the evening deflecting bullets herself. “It’s hitting you too, huh?”
“The difference question. You’ve noticed a thing about yourself, or a thing about someone else here that isn’t true of yourself. You can’t quite tell if you should feel bad about it, if it’s a flaw in you, if there’s something you did wrong along the way. You thought one more drink might let you fall asleep without it keeping you up all night.”
We clinked glasses.
I wandered back to my room still mulling it over. Wind whipped down the chilly hallway, but I saw only one figure silhouetted against the open door, with her mass of flaming curls.
“Where’s your friend?” I asked, leaning out. A gust hit me hard enough to knock me off balance; in its wake, the air was heavy with the promise of rain. The smoker whirled to face me when I spoke. “Sorry if I scared you. I was the one who chatted with the two of you out here earlier, in case you can’t tell.”
She shrugged. “Haven’t seen her. I heard she found the body. Maybe she needs some alone time. I know I would. Drink?”
She held a flask out to me, and I took it with a nod of thanks. Bourbon. Cheaper than the stuff the bartender had served, but still decent. Another gust of wind tore the top of a dumpster off its hinges and sent it tumbling over the loading dock wall. We both watched it cartwheel away.
“New question for tomorrow,” she said, taking her flask back. “You get to test it first. What are you most afraid of?”
My answer was instant. “Everything. Earthquakes. Bombs. Random violence. Falling tree branches. Losing people I love. Cancer. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This storm. Missing out on something because I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Missing out on something because I’m afraid. I try not to let it control me—my job helps desensitize me a little—but… yeah. Long answer to a short question. You?”
She took a long drag on her cigarette. “I’d have stopped at ‘Everything,’ but, yeah, same basic theme. Pretty amazing that we’re all here despite being chicken. Afraid to ride bicycles but willing to step out of our own reality completely for a weekend.”
“Maybe it falls under ‘Afraid of missing out on something because I’m afraid?’ We all push ourselves in the same ways?”
“Maybe. I guess I’ll see what everyone else answers tomorrow. You know what you didn’t list, in that long list of things you were afraid of?”
“What?” I replayed my answer in my head to figure what I might have missed.
“Dying alone, far from the people you love, surrounded by strangers who wear your face and mirror your thoughts. I would think that would make your list, since it makes mine.”
I considered. “The first part, maybe. I’m starting to get used to the second part. And I’m still more afraid of the storm than the other Sarahs.”
Lightning cracked the sky open to punctuate my sentence, close enough to make the hairs on my arms stand on end.
“Bam. Divergence point,” she said, with less enthusiasm than her smoking buddy had earlier. “I’m getting a distinctly bad vibe from all this. Do you have Agatha Christie in your world? Isolated island, bad weather. I’m still waiting for us all to be picked off one by one.”
“And yet you were standing out here all alone. So either you’re not as scared as you say, or…” As I said it, I wished I hadn’t. If I was joking, it wasn’t funny. If I was implying she was a suspect, well, everyone was except me, since I knew I hadn’t done it. That didn’t make it a smart move to address the subject directly.
“…or I’m the killer, in which case you’re the one in trouble, not me.” She gave me a look that told me she agreed my comment had been in poor taste, and held out the flask, daring me to take it. “I’m not a killer. I can’t prove it, of course, but I know I’m not. Which makes me pretty sure none of us are, because I can’t imagine the circumstance that would bring me to kill someone.”
“I can’t imagine killing someone, but I also can’t imagine the circumstance that would have turned me into a smoker.” I swigged whiskey. “Or a hotel manager, or a quantologist, or a DJ.”
She took one more drag, then dropped the butt and crushed it with her boot. “It’s the storm and the island that made me say the Christie thing. I’m way more nervous about this storm than being killed by a serial Sarah, at least while there’s still only one body. Hopefully I won’t have cause to revise that. In the meantime, there’s facing fear and there’s being stupid. We should probably go inside before we get hit by lightning.”
As if in response, the sky opened up. We were both drenched in the two feet to the doorway.
“If the lights go out, start counting Sarahs,” Orange Curls said before squelching off down the hall.
Back in my room, I stripped my wet clothes off and replaced them with another T-shirt and boxer shorts. The whiskey didn’t do the job I’d hoped it would, so I spent the night in imaginary conversation with Mabel. The rain battering the window filled in her side of the dialogue. I walked through the order of events, everything I’d found. I had ideas, but they weren’t cohering. The timing was important, I knew that. Murder weapon would be lovely, but I didn’t expect a forensic report any time soon. As for suspects, for all the people giving me alibis and vouching for themselves and each other, it could still have been anybody.
I drifted away from the case itself. The host said she wasn’t the Prime, wasn’t the trunk of a branching tree, but she’d labeled us all in relation to her. We were all in close proximity. Even the most distant of us were still recognizable. Tiny differences. I hadn’t run into anyone who lived in a post-water shortage America, or post-flu, or post-oil. We all knew how to flush toilets.
What would it look like if we had radiated out from me instead of the host? Or if we had all radiated out from the hotel clerk, whom the quantologist had said was one of the farther iterations? There were other realities between these, ones she hadn’t chosen. N Sarahs, in N realities, where N was unknowable and constantly changing. Why had she chosen us and not others? Was I the most interesting of a string of insurance investigators, or the only one available this weekend? I had more questions than I’d had before I arrived.
Why did I go into detective work, not one of the sciences? I hated my calculus teacher, dropped it after a few weeks; because of him, I didn’t get far enough in math to pursue a college major in bio or physics. Maybe he didn’t exist in the other worlds, or maybe the science Sarahs hadn’t let him get the better of them. Maybe they pushed themselves to spite him. Some went on to become geneticists or researchers or science fiction writers. Same mind, applied differently. Choices, chances, undecisions, non-decisions, decisions good and bad.
Maybe I shouldn’t have come. Maybe one of me was sitting at home with Mabel right at this very moment, another me, another Mabel, another reality where my curiosity hadn’t won out. But if I’d stayed home, who would be asking questions for the Sarah in the fridge? If nothing else, I was good for that. Even if I hadn’t yet found any answers.
It was still raining when I woke. The thin carpet felt vaguely damp, like the weather had come up through the foundation. My head hurt. I had a vague sense that I had unlocked something in my sleep and forgotten it again.
I took a quick shower, hoping it might clear my head. No luck.
Breakfast was served buffet-style, which was good since I was ravenous after only eating a roll the night before. I built a tower of eggs, potatoes, and toast, a second tower of fruit, and deposited both plates on the nearest empty table. When I came back from the tea station, the table was full.
“How are you enjoying the weekend?” asked the Sarah next to me. I didn’t think I’d met her before. “Other than… You know.”
“I haven’t had much time to do anything,” I said between mouthfuls. “Duty called. Well, not a duty I expected to have, but I’m trying to figure it out.”
“Oh, were you the one who got pulled away from the table last night? It would be a shame if you didn’t get to go to anything.” That was Dare; I remembered him from dinner, with his copper and silver beard and mustache. His talk on gender was one I’d circled when I thought I’d get to actually attend programming. “It’s not like we’ll have this chance again.”
“You don’t think so?” another asked.
Dare shook his head. “No. Somebody died. That’s not exactly an encouragement to the backers to bring us back for a sequel. Even if it was an accident, the logistics of explaining her death on the other side of the portal will be a nightmare.”
“Infinite variations,” said another Sarah. “Maybe next year we’ll get invitations from an iteration where she didn’t die.”
That made my head hurt. “I think I need to get back to work after I leave breakfast. I still need to interview the hotel staff, and anyone who talked to her yesterday afternoon…”
My neighbor speared a chunk of pineapple and waved it at me. “Stay. One talk won’t hurt you. We’ve got a big-group discussion on ‘Horses and Dogs and Cats, Oh My’ in this room right after breakfast. All you have to do is not stand up.”
Her argument on its own might not have been persuasive, but inertia won out. Inertia and jealousy and a bad feeling I shouldn’t have eaten as much as I did and I might still be sick if I moved very quickly. Besides, everyone else had already had a chance to get to know each other a bit, and all I’d talked about was one unfortunate dead person whose death I wasn’t even supposed to be investigating anymore. I lingered as the mics were set up and the buffet tables cleared.
The setup was loosely structured, with a leader and a few planned speakers to kick things off. The first storyteller sat to speak. She was trim, polo shirt tucked into worn jeans. She looked like she’d spent time in the sun.
“When I was a teenager, I spent my summers working at a trail riding stable in upstate New York.” Several Sarahs snapped their fingers. I realized a system had developed while I was snooping around. Snap to say that had been your experience too. Too late for me to snap with them, but so far this story was mine as well.
“I had a favorite horse, Smokey. An Appaloosa.” I snapped along. She didn’t bother describing his color, like a white horse that had rolled in dirt, or his dustbroom mane and tail. I had loved him even though he was ugly as anything.
“One afternoon, a man drove up with a little girl, maybe five or six years old. My boss put the little girl on Flicker. Flicker wasn’t the first choice for someone that small, but the kid-friendly horses were both out with another guide. There wasn’t even a children’s-sized saddle left, so we had to run the stirrups all the way up to the top hole and then flip them over. Even then, she had to stretch her toes to reach.”
We all snapped quietly. We knew this story.
“I took them on the usual circuit: through the woods, circling the pond and the far field, back into the woods, then looping out to the dirt road. The road was the problem. We sometimes raced the horses home that way when we were goofing around. It was a dumb thing to do, teaching the horses to rile themselves up and anticipate the run back to the barn, but all the teenagers working there had been doing it for as long as anyone could remember.
“I spent the whole hour thinking about ways to avoid trouble. I decided to take them back through the field so they wouldn’t race, but we still had to cross the road. Smokey jigged a bit as we crossed, but listened to me. It was Flicker who bolted toward home. She probably didn’t even realize there was someone on her back, the kid was so small.
“Make your horse WALK,” I remembered shouting to the father before I took off after his child. “Don’t let him race us.”
It wasn’t hard to catch up with Flicker: Smokey was much faster. The problem was stopping a running horse from the back of another running horse. I couldn’t think of a safe way to do it. If I tried to grab Flicker’s reins, I’d pull her head to the side, and her body would bow away from me, and the kid would be thrown.
Even after a summer of tossing hay bales, I knew I wasn’t strong enough to pull her onto my horse. The only thing I could do was reach over and steady the girl, who was clinging like a burr to the saddle. I kept picturing her little body slipping off onto the hard-packed dirt, or the barbed-wire fence that ran parallel. All I could do was hold her where she was.
I held the girl up there until the horses reached the top of the road and stopped, just like that, race over. Flicker dropped her head to graze. The father came up the road just behind us, grabbed his daughter, called me a hero. When we got back to the barn, he explained to my boss as if I had saved his kid from a freak occurrence. I would have said I minimized the damage in a totally avoidable near-catastrophe.
At summer’s end, my boss offered to let me take Smokey home for the off season, as thanks. I wanted to say yes so badly, but I knew it was impractical. I did the research, visited a dozen barns, worked out the expenses, and finally called the barn, weeping, to say I couldn’t afford to take him. The next summer when I went back to work, he wasn’t there. I couldn’t bear to ask where he’d been sold, since I knew I’d blown my chance at any claim on him.
“In the end, I found a way to make it work to bring him home with me,” the storyteller said, going off the script as written in my head. I had forgotten she was still talking. Up until she changed the story, she’d sounded just like my own interior monologue. “I found a barn that let me give lessons on him to cover board. I saved enough to buy him the next spring. He was my extracurricular, my only extracurricular, the joy my whole life revolved around. When I decided to go to community college for large animal management instead of going to university, it was for him. From talking with all of you, I’m pretty sure this was a major divergence point, so I thought I’d tell you I had him until he died of old age at thirty-two.”
I wiped a tear from my eye. The sniffles around me suggested others were doing the same. One was openly weeping, another holding her. “It wasn’t your fault,” the second one said, loud enough for me to hear. “You couldn’t have saved her. We couldn’t all save her.”
Something nagged at me. She had left out a few things, to the point where I didn’t know if they had only happened to me. My boss had sat me down after the father and daughter had driven away. We spent an hour going over what had happened, with him suggesting different phrasings, different ways of thinking. “If anyone asks, you don’t need to mention that Flicker isn’t normally a kid horse, right? Or that the stirrups were too long?”
That was the seed of my investigative career: the hour where we sat at the picnic bench and massaged the truth into something litigation-proof. I was exhausted, drained of adrenaline, at once sickened and fascinated at the way the story changed before my eyes. I understood the need for the lie, understood that he’d lose the business if he was successfully sued, went along with it. At the same time, his casual erasure of the truth horrified me.
All these other Sarahs had either missed that moment or internalized it in some other way. Was the rabbi here? Maybe this was the incident that started her search for meaning. Maybe the quantologists had launched their careers looking for a way to do that day over again.
Part of me wanted more than anything to trade places with this barn manager. To have had sixteen years with a horse I loved, to have made a decision based on gut instead of practicality. I knew that ship had sailed, but I still wanted it. That one change had defined her life. She was happy. I was happy too. I’d left that incident alone as a disappointment but not a defining one, or maybe a defining point but one that had shaped me without tearing me down. The weeping Sarah might argue otherwise. Divergence points. Divergence points were the key to everything.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered to the woman who was still crying over the little girl, as I got up to leave.
The hotel manager was standing in the lobby talking to a couple of her employees when I passed. I debated telling her where I was going, decided against it. Probably stupid, I reflected without slowing, as I walked down the mildewed-smelling hall to knock on a murderer’s door. I heard footsteps inside, and the door swung wide; she opened it without checking who was on the other side.
“I know.” I didn’t need to say more. She’d believe me.
I pictured her hitting me over the head, running down the hall and out into the storm. That was the movie scenario, the dramatic culmination: the two of us wrestling on some wind-wracked cliff. Why wasn’t I afraid of that? I knew she had considered it and rejected it in the same moment. That wasn’t the kind of person we were. I was pretty sure of that, though not as sure as before I figured out what had happened.
She let me in. She was still wearing the No Good Deeds T-shirt, which looked even more rumpled than before. When she turned away there were sweat stains under the arms and all down the back, like she’d been exercising.
“I was going to take a quick shower,” she said. “Do you mind? You can look around.”
I nodded, let her go. She didn’t bother to close the bathroom door, or left it open out of courtesy to show me she wasn’t plotting anything.
I poked through the DJ’s stuff, scattered on the second bed. An ancient laptop, an ancient MP3 player, decent looking headphones. More pills. A twist-tied baggie with a brown lump in it, another baggie of what looked like ground coffee. A few T-shirts, one pair of ragged jeans.
She emerged from the bathroom in a towel, the picture of good health.
“Do you mind?” she asked, and I moved aside for her to take a pair of underwear off the pile. She poked her finger through a hole in a seam. “I didn’t think about this part. How I’d have to wear someone else’s used underwear.”
“Was it worth it?”
She cocked her head, gave me a sad, unstained smile. “That’s kind of up to you, I think.”
I hadn’t considered it that way, but as she said it I knew what she meant. If I told the authorities—whatever that meant in this context—the real DJ would still be upstairs in the fridge wearing someone else’s clothes. It would all have been for nothing.
“Why?” I asked. “Why her, specifically? What’s the divergence point?”
“There are a hundred thousand divergences between her and me. She wasted herself, wasted her life. She was a decent DJ, but she was otherwise a total fuck-up. Tried a hundred times to get clean. It never stuck.”
“She was nice to me,” I said, thinking about our brief interaction, her jittery enthusiasm. “Seemed pretty cool.”
She pulled on the jeans from the bed. They fit, but not as well as the designer pair she’d worn the day before. “I researched her for a while. Trust me. She may have been nice, but she was a four alarm fire. Smoked everything in her life other than music.”
“But just because she was a mess doesn’t mean she deserved to die. I mean, you’ve still got a lot going in your life, right? You invented cross-dimensional travel. Why would you want to take on her life if you think it’s so shitty?”
She reached into the backpack on the bed and withdrew the DJ’s wallet. Pulled out the ID and tossed it in my direction.
Oh. “Seattle’s gone in your world.” It wasn’t a question.
She nodded, tears in her eyes. “Not only Seattle. Everyone. I lived in a house with five of my closest friends during grad school. I was visiting our parents back east when it happened, but everyone else was in the house when the earthquake hit. I was on the phone with Kelly when it happened—they were all watching Labyrinth—and I heard the whole thing. It took ten days to dig them out. Too late, of course. They all still exist where the DJ’s from, and she sits in her shitty apartment pretending they’re not out there. Ignoring their calls when they try to check in on her. Estranged from our parents and sisters. She never even met Mabel. There are a million Sarahs I could have chosen and wouldn’t have because they still had people.”
“But you still have other people,” I said. “What about them?”
“My lab staff might miss me, but that’s about it. Mabel left me the night I made my big discovery, when I skipped out on our anniversary dinner because I was on the verge; I got home to tell her and she was gone. Our family would have felt terrible, of course, and I felt terrible about leaving them. But they would have been comforted by the way I lived and died, I think. Knowing I did everything I had set out to accomplish. It was a good life. They knew I loved them.”
“A good life you’re willing to leave behind?” I was still trying to imagine that. “You’ll trade tenure and fame and everything for whatever she’s got left?”
“That stuff is good for my ego, but it doesn’t matter. Not like having a home. Not like people. I’ll trade it all in a second for a world where everyone and everyplace I love still exists. Where I could find her world’s Mabel—they never even met!—and see everyone else again.”
“Even if they hate you?”
She didn’t hesitate. “Yes. Relationships can be repaired. Even if they hate me, I know they’re still out there hating me.”
“And that was worth bashing her head in?”
I watched her face carefully. I could imagine the horror I’d feel if I’d lost everyone in such a terrible way, and the guilt of knowing I’d have been there with them if I hadn’t been out of town, and even sitting on one side of that haunting phone call, but I still didn’t think it would drive me to murder.
“She didn’t feel it. Dropped like a stone. She doesn’t even own a bra,” she said, rummaging in the bag. “I haven’t gone out without a bra since I was twelve years old.”
“You did last night. I saw you in the back at the keynote.” I watched her pull a T-shirt over her head for a band I didn’t recognize. “Why did that other quantologist take your place? The real R1D0?”
She sighed. “If I say we’re exactly the same, I mean we are exactly the same. Literally the only difference in our lives is that the night I actually made the discovery, she went out for an anniversary dinner with Mabel, and I cancelled dinner and stayed in the lab. That’s our divergence point. She’s pissed she didn’t stay in the lab that night. She wants the glory. She’s let that supersede everything else, thinks she’d be happy if only she were in my shoes. That’s all. I mean, I’d be pissed too, but I don’t think she’s seeing clearly. She’s still with Mabel. That matters way more than a name on a paper, even one this huge.”
“Her decision must have been spur of the moment,” I said. “I think she heard the call you made, and switched clothes with the body when she realized she was the first one there. I’m not sure why she took both radios, but maybe that was panic. I heard the second one inside her room when I was standing in the hall with her. Anyway, I saw her speak last night. She could be you perfectly.”
“She is me. Nobody will know the difference. She can have them. Now I don’t have to feel guilty about leaving my family, even; it’s her world that’ll have to deal with her absence. Anyway, she might have been headed up to the club to do exactly the same thing I did.”
I shuddered to think that was true, and how many murderous Sarahs actually existed in that case. “Was that your whole motivation for going into quantology? To switch places?”
“No! We were already in a physics masters program, so finishing that degree and going into quantology wasn’t a stretch. We wanted to know if there really were realities where Seattle still existed. Where Kelly and Taylor and Allison and Scott and Andrea were still alive. Not to go there, just to know.”
I didn’t know who Andrea was, but Kelly and Taylor were my best friends other than Mabel, and we’d all lived in Scott and Allison’s house in Capitol Hill when I first moved to Seattle. I couldn’t imagine the guilt of living in a world where they had all died and I had been spared by some quirk of timing. And Mabel had broken up with her on top of that. She’d lost all of them. Even hearing her say it, it hit my gut as if I’d lost them myself.
“So you weren’t always going to kill someone?” I was still having trouble imagining this ambitious Sarah ditching everything she had to become a DJ, but it didn’t seem as far-fetched anymore. Something else bothered me too. I believed everything else she’d said, but I still couldn’t picture myself bashing in somebody’s head, or taking the time to position her beneath the stage in the hopes of making it look like an accident. Every step screamed intention.
She ran her hands over her short hair, smoothing the flyaways. “I only decided for certain when she came back with her second crate. She must’ve gotten herself messed up in between; she could barely answer my questions when I tried to talk to her. Anyway, I’m sure there are other realities spawned at that moment where I decided not to.”
She believed what she was saying, I could tell, but I didn’t. I was certain she’d waited up there, taken the time to pick the perfect weapon from the show and tell table. She might even have picked in advance, when the questionnaires had come in, researching the offerings until she found the award that she could turn into a weapon; that would explain why the Hall of Fame was in the nightclub instead of someplace people could browse it throughout the weekend. It was disorienting, to hear her lying to herself and recognize it for what it was. I wasn’t her, I reminded myself again. We’d made different choices to bring ourselves to this point.
“And in case you’re wondering, I wouldn’t have killed you for your Seattle, either. You haven’t squandered it. Most haven’t. Anyway, when I started my research I thought I would be happy if I just proved that they were out there somewhere, in some other reality. That’s why we all got into quantology, to prove there were other possibilities, not to change places. And that felt like enough until I started researching all of you to figure out who to invite. Until I found her—” she pointed at herself “—and realized there was a way to make it happen. If I didn’t try, I’d always wonder about it. You’d do the same thing, right?”
I didn’t answer. I didn’t think so. I hoped not.
She kept talking. “When I reached out to the other quantologists, I picked ones who had diverged before I had that idea. Or so I thought, anyway. Maybe I was wrong about that, at least in the case of R1D0. I didn’t think about the ways they’d diverge because of the influence of my inviting them to help plan this. That was short-sighted. Do you think the others know I switched?”
“I don’t think so.” None of them had mentioned it to me. If they didn’t know, that meant they hadn’t thought of it; if they hadn’t thought of it, that left only one or two capable of murder.
“Yeah, I hope not. I want to think I’m the worst of us, other than her.” She stood before me, wearing the clothes of the DJ I’d met the day before, wearing her life. “So what are you going to do? Are you going to tell them? Turn me in?”
“Did you ever chase down a runaway horse?”
She looked confused, then nodded.
I thought about divergence points. I’d never felt I could have done anything else in that moment on the road, which was a good thing. Even the tiniest choices paralyzed me; I tried to play out every decision’s every repercussion. Better not to have time to think.
Up until I came here, I’d tried to tell myself that once I made a choice it was done, I had to own it. We all built the future with our choices every day, never knowing which ones mattered. Now I still had to own it, but I knew others were stuck living the other side of my decisions, or I was living theirs. I wasn’t even sure yet if that was paralyzing or freeing. If I let her go, if she was anything like me, guilt might wear her down to nothing. That was a punishment in itself. If I turned her in, would it be justice for the DJ, or merely proof I could solve a crime?
“If you turn me in,” she said, as if I had spoken out loud, “there’s going to be a whole lot of confusion in a whole lot of places. I have no idea how any authority will deal with it. There’ll be a dead body in one world, an accused killer in another. If you let me go, think of all the good I can do. I can repair her relationships with our friends and family. I can find her world’s Mabel. This Sarah was never going to pull out of her spin, I swear. She would be dead tomorrow or next week or next month. And she’ll still be dead tomorrow. I could do some good there in her world.”
Somewhere out there, iterations were sparking. Variations on the host, deciding and not deciding to go through with her plan. Killing the DJ, changing her mind and walking away. More iterations yet: the second quantologist, making and unmaking her split-second decision to leave her life and slip into one that was identical in all ways but a crucial one. Somewhere, another me turned in the second but not the first, the first but not the second. Both. Neither.
Some other place, the DJ had never died. She put another record on her turntable, slowed the beat to match the song already playing, shifted seamlessly from one into the other. Some other place, a hotel nightclub full of Sarahs danced awkwardly to their favorite music, shaped by their worlds, shaping new ones.
(Editors’ Note: Sarah Pinsker is interviewed by Julia Rios in this issue of Uncanny Magazine.)
© 2017 by Sarah Pinsker