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Strange Loop

Susan DeFreitas Timmons has never been able to choose between fantasy and reality, so she lives and writes in both. A first-generation American of Caribbean descent, she lives in Portland, Oregon, where she serves as a collaborative editor with Indigo Editing & Publications. Her speculative work has been featured in (or is forthcoming from) City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Stories, The Portland Review, and Daily Science Fiction. Her debut novel, Hot Season, was the recipient of a 2017 Gold IPPY Award. She enjoys mysterious books, strange weather, thinking machines, and sketchy characters.

The world ended the way it always did (US dictator, WWIII), pretty much (clowns, Central Park), on a Tuesday. This time I was born in Minnesota, which seemed familiar (snow, Lutherans) but different ("you betcha"). My parents weren't quite the same, but close: my mom was a CNA from Edina, my dad a cab driver from Bangladesh. Our pets were different (schnauzer, beagle) but had the same names (Bowser, Snoopy), and when I was old enough to go to school, I made the same best friend, Chelsea (Hadley).
Chelsea and I liked the same things as before, but our interests were reversed: her, 4H, and me, PE. This time I became the athlete--Class B state champion forward--and she the geneticist. I kept in touch with my jerkwad boyfriend Steve (Alex) from high school, like always, and after Chelsea graduated from St. Olaf, she dated her biochem professor, Terry (Mark).
When the jerkwad dumped me, though, I didn't spend the night with her in St. Paul, because I wasn't all that torn up about it. (Maybe because I'd had some vague memory of the jerkwad being a jerkwad all along.) I just went to the gym, beat the punching bag, and then, when I started my shift, worked my middle-aged hard bodies a little harder than usual.
That's why, this time, I was at the gym when it happened. Alone except for the janitor, a Somali woman named Astur. Standing there together in the weight room that night, we watched the missile decimate the Wilshire Grand over and over again. All that shattered glass caught the sun, I thought, like glitter.
"Make no mistake," our dictator said, "we will have total retaliation." Last time, he'd said, "we will crush these slimeballs"--as if an entire nation could be composed of slimeballs--but our dictator this time was not quite as much of a moron as our dictator last time. The TVs over the treadmills were always tuned to Sinclair, so the coverage was all patriotic rah-rah and ominous saber rattling interrupted by ads for sexbots and blood-pressure pills.
Astur turned to me. "You have family?"
She probably meant in L.A., but in my shock, I thought she meant at all--like, was I an orphan. "Yes," I told her.
"My apologies," she said, though she probably meant "condolences."
As far as I could tell, I'd never known Astur before. Astur was new.
My parents were up north, so she insisted on taking me home with her that night, to the one-bedroom apartment she shared with her husband and their young son in Battle Creek. Despite the preponderance of knickknacks (Astur was fond of Precious Moments) I felt comfortable there--more comfortable by far than I did at Chelsea's sprawling condo in the hills. Astur's husband, Omar, had been assaulted by a sovereign citizen not long after our (would-be) dictator got elected, and I realized that's why he seemed familiar: last time around, Omar had been killed. I'd seen it on my Interface.
"Very dangerous," he said, lifting his hands like--What are you going to do?--and I felt a surge of concern for my father. The latest enemy of the American state, being Asian, lacked the melanin of both Omar and my dad, but at that point it hardly mattered--anyone seen as nonwhite was fair game.
This time around, I'd taken after my father, which probably meant I was fair game too.
The next day I marched for peace with everyone else in downtown Minneapolis, and of course we were set upon by highly militarized police, eager to use all their new riot gear, and heckled by patriotic counterprotestors packing heat. Of course at least one of us was killed by an F350 sporting a cowcatcher, and of course the protests in the nation as a whole made no difference whatsoever.
Chelsea didn't join me this time--really, even when she had protested, it had been pretty weak. "Dude," I texted her, "what happened to you? You used to give a shit." But I'd forgotten--it was Hadley, not Chelsea, who'd given a shit. As far as I was concerned, it didn't matter, because shouldn't everyone give a shit? And hadn't she eaten my dad's dal, and laughed at his jokes, and joined me in making fun of his nonironic love of Bollywood? Didn't she understand that this climate was, as Omar had put it, "very dangerous" for people like my dad, and for people like me too? "Bye, Chelsea," I texted, like, "Bye, Felicia," though that wasn't a thing this time around.
This time I introduced Astur and Omar and their boy David to my parents, and their family became part of ours. We had them over for dinner on Christmas Eve, and they pronounced my mom's kofta delicious (though what she'd actually made was pasties). We were gazing contentedly at the flickering fire on the television when Omar alerted us to the fact that someone had shot their dictator--they, the nation of slimeballs--and the new regime had disavowed their previous leader's declaration of war.
That night, even I dared to hope that our dictator would back down--would demand reparations for L.A., maybe, and all of the slimeballs' long-range missiles, but leave it at that. But then my dad, his dark face bathed in the blue light of his Interface, said, "What is this?" And he chuckled, the way you would chuckle at a house cat surprised by a cucumber.
I looked off, suddenly mesmerized by the fake fire.
"Clowns," my father announced, "have gathered by the hundreds in Central Park."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, April 16th, 2018

Author Comments

I actually dreamed this story--not the story itself, but the concept behind it: that the world came to an end during our lifetimes, but reality was caught in some sort of strange loop, where it kept running through all of its quantum timelines in an effort to find the one where the catastrophe was averted. Clearly, some subconscious fears of mine spurred by a certain "very stable genius" were making themselves known! What could I do but sit down and write the story--while I still could? :-O

- S. DeFreitas Timmons
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