Now! and Then! Contest Entry

This is my entry for the Now! and Then! Mike Carey Writing Competition for which I was a finalist.

Quick synopsis of the first half of the story before you dive into it (the actual first half is in Murky Depths issue #10. Unfortunately there are details that you can only appreciate by reading the full story. Murky Depths is a solid magazine if you like darker science fiction).

Paul is a marketing genius who has lost everything, starting with the death of his mother, followed by his girlfriend, his job and nearly his life. He gets repeated calls from a company looking to hire him, which he ignores, until finally Mr. Krohl, the company founder, shows up on his doorstep with Then! — a drink that can bring back the past in a vivid hallucination apparently without the use of psychotropics. After trying it, Paul accepts the job as head of marketing for Krohl Pharmaceuticals.

***

Paul awoke feeling sore, as though his body had been undergoing reconstruction throughout the night. His limbs moved from ungreased joints. Shaving, showering and dressing took most of the morning as he staggered around, nearly cutting himself on the glass he had forgotten about in the kitchen. He avoided looking at himself in the mirror for too long, focusing on the white cream and the annoying hair tendrils.

The factory in Battersea loomed in front of him as the cab dropped him off. It was sleek and clean, metal sides covering most of the building aside from a small glass section surrounding the entrance. He waited for Krohl in the company of massive screens advertising Now! and Then!.

The one for Now! showed a shirtless teenager mid-air on a snowboard pouring the can into his mouth, colours enhanced. It switched to a view behind a couple kissing in a meadow, trees sharpening and growing in size. It switched again to a party scene, teenagers in the midst of joyous screams, arms reaching above their heads underneath psychedelic lights.

The screen for Then! showed a family sitting around a table, toasting with raised cans of Then!. A middle-aged man blinked tears of joy and nostalgia. A young woman caressed the face of an elderly man who was turning younger, the wrinkles fading into the turbulence of time. A man played with toys he was far too old for.

Paul wondered if he were about to play with toys he wasn’t ready to handle. He wiped sweaty palms on his pants and shrugged off the chills. He had already hit bottom. The thought of that other Paul coming to life was overwhelming, and social pressure was the only thing that prevented him from bolting out of the factory altogether. Time for Clark Kent to hop into the damned phone booth.

“Mr. Gantwick!” said Abanaazer Krohl as he emerged. The eyes behind the large spectacles betrayed no hint of the late night they had experienced. He was wearing the same suit, but the trilby hat was gone, leaving a bald spot with combed tendrils snaking over his scalp. “Good to see you again.” He looked up at the screens where Paul’s attention had been. “How do you like our initial advertisements?”

“They’re okay,” Paul said as he stood up, old habits dragging from the recesses of his mind. “You’re taking a shotgun approach.” The gears in his mind turned slowly, and Paul struggled to contain the flurry of resentment that brought about.

“Precisely why you’re joining our team, Mr. Gantwick,” Krohl said, a small smile crossing his puffy face. He motioned for Paul to follow. Paul thought of all the drugs he had consumed in his lifetime, from Dexedrine to acid, none of which had achieved success through flashy advertising.

Krohl led into a white corridor, through sections for product testing and they ended up in a room where giant tubs reached to the top of the high factory ceiling, pouring into conveyor belts of bottles. The hissing of hydraulics and the grumbling of gears filled the air.

“The bottling room,” Krohl said, extending his short arms as though the surroundings had called him home. “Where the finished product is dressed up and sent into the world. We can do up to 400 bottles an hour.” He searched Paul’s face for a reaction. “I should mention that you are entitled to any of our products whenever you desire, Mr. Gantwick. We encourage our employees to develop an affinity and passion for our drinks.”

As they moved through the bottling room, Paul stared at all the liquid pouring past him. He knew he should be wary of his unlimited access to Then!, but part of him couldn’t help but feel relief and happiness at what he had hoped for.

***

“A moment saved is a test with success.”

Krohl had left Paul with those words after they were done going through the factory. The product had great power, as Paul knew, and people had to believe it could do what it said. They had to be willing to try it before negative rumours circulated out of control. There was also the matter of convincing the FSA that this fox was a dog.

Paul had heard the same wisdom before, from Geraldine. He was thoroughly put off for the rest of the day, doubled by his resistance to the sudden return to work. By the end of a litany of paperwork and legalities he was exhausted.

***

It was 5:00 pm. He sat on his couch with an unopened bottle of Then!, staring into space, trying to reconcile how Krohl had known another piece from Geraldine’s Book of Revelations. Her wisdom had been pieced together from many random sources, though, which weren’t unique.

Eventually he turned the TV on. He thought of his Old Bill bus again as he cracked the bottle of Then!. He tasted its fruity peach sweetness on his tongue, the tingle an electric reminder of what was to come. Soon, though, memories of Geraldine flooded his thoughts. He remembered the time when his mother had been dabbing at his cheek after the bloody school fight.

Paul closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Opening them and gazing at the TV, he flipped through the channels. The weather network showed that there were three small storms moving into the coast. Bad things come in threes.

He tried to force his eyes to focus when they blurred and everything around him bulged. Something itched at his cheek and he tasted blood. He reached a hand inside his mouth and felt his broken tooth, the pain lancing into his skull. The pain sharpened and suddenly the hollowed cheeks and gray hair of his mother stared at him, larger than he remembered.

“Time is God’s proving ground, Pauly.” Paul wanted to scream, to run away, but sat transfixed. He wanted to shout at her, to hug her, but he couldn’t.

He played his part as he had back then, the memories a hypnotic ritual.

The blood soaked the flannel as though Paul had just grated his cheek with a kitchen knife. He looked down at his hands and they were unblemished, a twelve-year old’s.

He wasn’t sure at what point his mother disappeared, but it felt as though she had merely left the room. He tried to let his anger come to the surface, but it sank when she was there in flesh and blood. Next time she comes in the room, he thought, I’ll let her have it.

But there was no next time. Then!’s effects had worn off, and he was staring at the walls of his lonely house.

He made a whispered vow to be careful. A shadow danced across the window, and for a second he thought it held the shape of a human. He shook his head. He’d keep it much more simple from now on.

***

Whether you go back a year or ten, you can do so with Then!

A few weeks passed. Work became easier, with the daily rituals falling back into familiarity. Paul paid his bills; it seemed worth it now. No, not now–Then!.

Paul recreated his model bus several times, placing it beside him for comfort as he watched television. Shadows threatened the corners of his vision and a few times he again thought he saw a figure watching him from the porch. He never found any evidence.

He honed his abilities with Then! until he was comfortable recreating every detail of his childhood room. He walked around in delight, amazed, transported back more lucidly than he thought imaginable.

Krohl claimed it was real and held to it as they worked together. Paul started to be convinced despite his initial scepticism. As he explored the capacities of Then!, he buffed up the advertising campaign, splitting it into three demographics that spanned almost all of humanity. There was no reason to suffer loss anymore.

Paul was turning his imagined past-derived happiness into a fine art. His happiness from Then! extended to his work, and he feverishly compared statistics, found sellers in target areas and markets. He was going to show the world the wonder of Then! and be a hero. The switchblade had found a sharpening stone.

Until the day Mr. Adams showed up. He was a personal friend of a member of the board of directors, and an ex-employee of the FSA. He was dressed in a long dark overcoat with a bowler and a moustache. His blue eyes were intense when they settled on Paul.

“You know what this stuff’ll do to the world?” Adams asked as he rotated his chair back and forth on one side of the long boardroom table. “It’ll create a society of zombies. And I’m not just talking about braindead, slow motherfuckers. I’m talking about schizophrenic psychos lost in completely separate worlds. Lost in our own minds, we then lose the little threads that tie us together. Some say that there’s no way of knowing our experiences are linked, but this just takes it all the way. People would have no link to each other aside from the vague delusional crossover.”

“They aren’t delusions,” Paul said as though he were standing in his childhood room, holding the decaled bus as his trophy.

“Of course they’re not. And that’s what makes it worse, is that you can’t just write off the hallucinations as insanity. These are real memories of things that the consumer knows existed at some point in time. Humanity already has a tendency to view the past in a golden light. This’ll just allow us to permanently shift our consciousness backward.

“The spiritually enlightened would tell you the now is what holds us, links us together, and makes life precious. Every moment is a gift that we cannot cling to, cannot hold onto forever.

“But who am I kidding? The FSA’ll probably let you do it for the right price, and the world’s sure as hell not gonna stop you from giving it what it wants. You just have to ask yourself if you really want to be the guy who gave the human race the rope to hang itself with.”

And without another word, he left.

That night, as Paul sat up in bed unable to sleep, his mind drifted to the snows of yesteryear. He pictured thousands of people staring off in bliss, sliding on the same hill, driving on the same road, as a bloody crash was imminent…

Paul shook his head violently, willing the images to go away. They did, but in their wake was Mr. Adams standing at the foot of his bed.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked, pushing himself back against the head of the bed. He pulled up the checkerwork-patterned quilt to cover his bare legs.

“Car crashes are a remote possibility compared to the psychological disasters,” Adams said, stepping closer. “You’re going to strip away the last threads holding human interaction together.

“This drink will allow people to disconnect further from the unpleasantries of strangers and go into a world of their choosing, based on loose artifacts of what used to be the real world. They will pick and choose the experiences that they will cherish and expand upon.

“There will be absolutely no reason whatsoever to introduce yourself to a person anymore–you can stalk anyone you like well in advance. You chug the drink to engage in a vivid sexual fantasy to see if you like it, then if someone is special enough to warrant a real encounter, you send them a poke. All easy and risk-free.” Adams came to the side of the bed and yanked Paul up by his shirt, who was too surprised to react.

“This will be the new reality,” Adams said, glaring at Paul. Paul cried out in Adams’s grip. The icy blue eyes seemed to be alive with passion, making Paul wonder why he remembered the man so vividly. How was this happening?

Paul closed his eyes in fright and fell to the floor.

He awoke the next morning on the carpet of his bedroom floor, a pool of drool soaking the spot next to his mouth. Spitting out the foul taste of fabric, he looked around. There was no evidence of last night’s encounter. Had he imagined the whole thing? He had thought Then! would only recall memories, not create new scenarios from them.

He poured himself a cup of cold coffee, letting the ashen sludge slide down his throat to wash away the lingering fragments of carpet. He checked the house and after a while convinced himself that it had been an effect of Then!.

How much had he resisted the idea of working? He was finally starting to become happy with his job and with his life, and this was just a natural reaction from the old Paul. His mind and body had become so accustomed to sadness that they recoiled in horror at anything that might actually bring him out of it.

What a waste of time, he thought, holding his forehead as he stood up. The past would have to wait.

…chug the drink to engage in a vivid sexual fantasy…

Paul had thought it the moment the words had come out. He would try tonight, but would need some practice to make it just right. Impatient and horny, Paul got ready for work, and as he got out the milk for his cereal, he decided to open up a bottle of Then!. Why couldn’t the snows of yesteryear fall in his office?

The Old Bill sat on his desk as he worked away that day. Every few minutes he would close his eyes and focus on something he wanted brought back, and soon he was working with some of Geraldine’s paintings lining the walls. He was surprised that he had instinctively brought them back, and felt oddly comforted.

A smiling Krohl checked in on him, a bit bloated and blurred. He gave him a knowing wink and shut the door, leaving Paul to his private past paradise for the rest of the day.

Paul rushed home and chugged a bottle of Then!. As he focused on Carol, he admitted that Adams was perfectly correct. She was there, and they made love on the kitchen table. They went through the entire memory, every act tingling with emotion and sensation, until they ended up sweaty on the living room floor.

They had covered a large distance.

***

Paul awoke shivering, a thin blanket covering him on the hardwood floor of the living room. The microwave in the kitchen read 3:30 am. He picked up the dirty blanket and tossed it into a pile along with his scattered clothes. He scarfed down a few slices of bread and walked upstairs to his bed.

On his way up he thought he heard footsteps below, and froze. He stared at the floor at the bottom of the stairs. He heard another creak. He took a few wary steps down, clenching his fists in preparation.

The only thing he found was a track of water droplets by the front entry. Had that been from his own hasty entrance? He couldn’t remember.

He only slept when he calmed enough to let his mind drift back to the night, or day, with Carol.

***

Paradise will never be lost again, with Then!.

Weeks passed and Paul recreated different memories in an attempt to mould his past into something new. He was doggedly patient, knowing that it was just a switch that needed flicking in his own mind.

***

It was the night before the premiere. The FSA had given the go-ahead. There was nothing else like Then!, so no competition to worry about.

Then! would be an unstoppable force.

No. A great blessing.

Paul closed his eyes and pictured Carol. He switched his attention abruptly to a book about assertive communication that he had picked up. He willed the two to mix, and opened his eyes to see Carol sitting on top of him.

Her ensuing shouts were too much and he was too frustrated to tolerate it again. He closed his eyes and clamped his hands over his ears to no avail.

Strip away the last threads holding human interaction together…

He had the phone in his hands before he knew it. He dialed Carol’s number, surprised he still remembered it. The image of Carol in front of him answered the phone.

“Hello?” she said, the voice coming out of the receiver next to his ear. The new voice mixed with his memory and came out in an echoing superposition. Paul stared in disbelief, slack-jawed.

“Paul? Is that you?” the double voice sounded right next to his ear and across from him.

Paul cleared his throat, keeping wide eyes fixed on the image of Carol.

“Yeah, it’s me.” His voice sounded hoarse.

“What do you want?” The Carol image glared at him.

“I just… I just wanted to see how you’re doing,” he said, feeling his hands shake with his voice.

“I’m doing fine,” she said, a hint of wariness in both voices. “How are you?”

A loud crash made Paul jump off the couch and run into the front entry, where the door was open.

“You don’t sound fine, Paul. What’s going on?” The image of Carol put a hand on his shoulder and he yelped.

He saw the bushes closing off the neighbour’s yard ruffle and he ran across the lawn in bare feet, the wet grass forming meshes underneath.

“Come back here!” he shouted, as he ploughed through the bushes and saw the shadow bolting off into the night.

“Paul, if this is some sort of joke…”

“It’s not, Carol.” He stood watching the figure disappear into the distance. “Somebody was in my house. They ran out when they heard me talking to you.”

“Paul, I can’t play these games. If you’re trying to make me feel sorry for you, it’s not going to work.”

“I’m not, Carol! I think it might just be this stuff I drank—“

“You’re drunk? Wow, I can’t believe I even answered.”

“No, Carol, please–“

Click.

***

The next morning he hadn’t intended to drink another bottle. He made it to midday, when the dreary environment of his actual office threatened to drive him to madness. Soon his computer was surrounded by action figures which calmed him as he typed, phoned and cleared up the last arrangements for the premiere. Before supper he had downed another bottle.

***

The hall was divided into tabled booths by thick red curtains. The stage was hanging from the ceiling by heavy cables—an expense Paul had insisted upon as being both edgy and the only way to ensure that all the guests could still see. Bright lights lined the circumference of the stage and massive tapestries hung from the ceiling, depicting the best outcomes of Then!. Paul walked in the hall between the booths with a clear view as Krohl took the stage.

Krohl began to give his speech when Paul again heard his mother’s words coming straight from Krohl’s mouth.

“Time is god’s proving ground. Why can’t we prove ourselves a second time?”

It was suddenly too eerie, the comments lining up as a stack of dominoes, the last tumbling down. He shook his head and pressed the sides of it with both hands. The crowd roared as Krohl continued, encouraging them to try out the drink. They were the “pioneers of a new era”.

Paul walked around peaking into the booths. Most were looking around waiting for something to happen, but some were staring with wide-eyed wonder, smiles slowly crossing their astonished faces. It was easy for him to find an unnoticed computer.

Paul had bits of memory blinking in his mind, Krohl flickering on the edge of his vision repeating Geraldine’s Bible. He searched for schools in her hometown of Swaffham, and looked at the uploaded yearbooks.

The pictures jumped out at him, taking on a life of their own as he twisted the year of her birth out of his mind. Hamond’s High School 1959 graduation. Geraldine was lovely as a young woman, with no hint of her dementia. She started lecturing him out of the corner of his vision as he flipped.

There was no Krohl. He flipped back and forth in disbelief. Had she known him some other time? Then he saw it. One student was wearing a trilby hat as he clutched a diploma, bright eyes twinkling behind thick glasses. The absurdity of the hat was almost too much to believe. Even that many years ago Krohl still wore almost the same hat he had worn when he had greeted Paul in his doorway.

Paul was back there, the bottle opened on the counter as Krohl set down the mug he had poured Then! into.

Then!” Krohl said with a slight smile.

“Then what?” Paul said.

“Our new line. Revolutionary and revelationary. We call it‑‑“

“You knew my mother. That’s why you came to me.” Paul glared at Krohl, willing the memory to disagree with him.

Krohl shrugged his shoulders and lifted his hands.  “Do things happen without reason, Mr. Gantwick? Of course I knew your mother. How would I have known how to manipulate you? Private espionage is an option, I suppose, but why would I take such pains in the first place? There are a million marketing managers I could get without much effort.

“Think. I knew your mother, and your name caught my attention. After a little bit of investigation I knew you would appreciate the true value of Then!.”

Paul felt like he was going to throw up. He felt the computer slip off his lap and onto the bench next to him. The only thing he saw was the phantom bottle of Then! slip off the counter and shatter on the kitchen floor.

“None of this is in my memory. I’m imagining this entire thing,” Paul said aloud.

Krohl shook his head. “Who said the effects of Then! would be restricted to the recreation of the past? The human brain is a complex beast, and there are connections which exist and can be made that no one can predict. The truth can be interpreted many different ways, Mr. Gantwick, even by the same individual. Where do you think–“

Paul failed to slam the non-existent door shut as he ran out.

The outside was a blurred haze of double images. It was like his brain was trying to reconcile separate inputs, the pictures superimposed like some bizarre quantum problem. If this was what it truly was like to have his life flash before his eyes, he hoped to god there wasn’t enough time for such a thing when death came.

He stumbled up a staircase he couldn’t see. He felt nauseous and fought the urge to vomit. “I’m here to talk to Krohl,” he croaked, his voice sounding small and pathetic. “It’s important.”

He tripped, the sensation of falling countered by the feeling of weight through his shoes. He closed his eyes and tried to slow his breathing.

When Paul opened his eyes, Krohl was standing beside Geraldine’s mahogany coffee table and looked at him with an amused expression on his face. “Enjoying the party so far, Paul?” He tilted his head, the trilby hat flickering into and out of existence.

Paul sucked in a breath. “You knew my mother. You went to secondary school with her.”

Krohl’s smile grew slightly. “Yes I did. I found her a most interesting woman.”

The possibilities leaped out at Paul from picture frames around the room. “You dated her.”

“Yes, Paul. That’s partly where my interest in you arose. It is one of those cases where the people you know creep back into your life in mysterious ways.” The smallest hint of a grimace crossed his face.

The connections seemed to be made before Paul’s emotions could handle them. The words tumbled out. “You… developed an interest in mind alteration when you met her.”

“I’m not sure where you get your information, Paul.”

He hadn’t refuted Paul. “You encouraged some of her… symptoms, didn’t you?”

Krohl didn’t reply. His silence told Paul all he needed to know.

Geraldine’s voice shouted at Paul; she was coming at him from the side with a baseball bat. He ran from her and focused on his hands, telling himself where he was.

It was enough that he caught a glimpse of the layout of the room. He saw the board of directors gaping at him.

Paul bolted through a door labeled “STAGE”, propping it shut with a fire extinguisher he didn’t remember grabbing.

He had been played from the start. Hell, Krohl had probably been watching his every move.

It made the peach wonder of Then! turn bitter, the pleasant tingle an electrocution. He had tried as hard as he could to dive deeply into the past, even mould it into something he could build on in his daily life.

He was seeing double, unable to draw a difference between the past and the present reality. Unable to block out the paralyzing effect of having mental associations become vivid animations right before his eyes. Tears of shame streaked his cheeks as the images washed into and out of existence.

…A remote possibility compared to the psychological disasters…

Was he imagining the staircase leading up to the stage and dais? It seemed too convenient, as though his subconscious had known where he would want to go. There was only one way to find out.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he began as he took the dais, ignoring the phantoms screaming from his consciousness. He could barely see the crowds below. “I am Paul Gantwick, head of marketing at Krohl Pharmaceuticals. Tonight you have been invited to try Then!, a drink which has the capacity to take you as far into the past as you like.

“My mother once told me something powerful. Time is god’s way of allowing us to grow in a playground until we can enter his garden.

“I’ve used the product myself for several weeks.” He swallowed, feeling as though saliva kept him from confessing. “I have an addiction to the past as bad as anyone… but it’s dead and gone. The present is the only thing in the world that’s real.” As he spoke them he felt the words weren’t right, but his head felt as though it were going to explode from overstimulation.

He squinted at the bright lights illuminating the stage. He heard pounding on the door as the stage lights went black, and knew there was only one way he would get off the platform.

He swung his legs over the railing, unable to see where he would land. His legs buckled as he impacted much sooner than he had expected. He screamed, the shock and delirium pushing him over the edge. Screams joined his and the fire alarm began wailing.

Paul laid on the ground in agony, two hundred and forty volts lancing through his right arm and down his body. His nerves spasmed. The sensations slowed down as though to draw them out and he gasped for help.

His vision flickered between nightmarish shadows and the people emerging from booths who bumped into each other, terrified from ghouls invisible to everyone else. A paranoid man bumped into another who struck him, the blood spilling from his mouth and filling all of Paul’s view.

***

Paul had no idea how he got where he was, or why he was still alive. He awoke and felt as though he had just been fired and fried by Berryman Sumpter. His right hand and forearm felt the phantom pain of the electricity, but looked fine. Both of his legs were in casts. He took several deep breaths, trying to calm himself since it was clear he couldn’t run and escape.

Several minutes later a tired nurse brought him some food and news of a visitor. Carol entered, her facial features softening as she saw him.

“I heard about everything, Paul,” she said, grabbing his hand. “It’s all over the news. Krohl’s being hammered into the ground after the night’s atrocities. I’m so sorry.”

Paul knew that even though Krohl would take a hit, the stuff was potent enough that it wouldn’t blink out of existence. And that night only increased its badass aspect and attraction.

“It’s okay,” he said, his throat untwisting itself after what must have been a lengthy period without being used.

“I’m happy to see you.” A long silence passed as they smiled at one another.

“Paul, I know this must be difficult to accept, what with your mother and all…”

“What do you mean?”

“Well–“ she sucked in a breath. “You never wanted to go near an institution.”

Paul felt as though he had been winded. It had seemed like a normal hospital. His mouth felt dry and incapable the first few times he tried to speak the words. “They think I’m crazy.”

“Paul, it’s normal to have a bit of paranoia after all that’s happened. They just want to make sure you’re okay.”

Paul wanted to lash out, to strike out at something. He wasn’t safe, but then again, if Krohl Pharmaceuticals had wanted him dead, he probably wouldn’t have woken up.

And there was Carol, beautiful Carol, back in his life for reasons he didn’t understand. He didn’t care why.

“Okay,” he said slowly. “I can deal with that. Can you stay here a while?”

Carol nodded; Paul smiled.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw an old model bus on the bedside table. It had overcoated passengers as well as soldiers, a conductor on the top deck, and lower windows that were boarded up against machine gun fire.