Restless, Peri spun the stool, her disjointed attention landing on the oddest of things: one of the bulbs in the lotto kiosk was out, three of the tables had claw feet while the rest did not, and the wall-size gaming screen in the lounge was making an almost unheard squeal of faulty electronics. Her attention went to the clock on the microwave behind the bar, and at exactly noon, the at-table menus all reset—just as she knew they would. Why do I know this stuff?
A thump from the back room made her jump, but it was just Allen, and he shouted he’d found a footstool. Silas stood dejectedly before his defunct fire, his hands on his narrow hips as he waited for something to happen. “Peri, you’re better at this than me,” he complained as he wiped his ash-coated fingers on his jeans. “You want to take a go at it?”
“Sure.” Peri slid from the stool. Leaving her coat at the bar, she halted when she realized she’d not only drifted from her intended path, but that she couldn’t bring her eyes to the dance floor.
Frowning, she forced herself to look at her feet, heart pounding as she inched them out farther. But her attention wandered…. A dark presence at her shoulder became Jack, insufferably confident as he looked at the same chunk of yellow floor, whispering, “You’re never going to be rid of me. You like who Opti made you into, and I’m going to haunt you until you accept that. You’re bad, just like me, and without me, you’re nothing.”
“Liar,” she breathed. Wavering, she stared at the floor. Her head throbbed, and Jack chuckled. Something had happened here. She knew this. She would remember it.
She looked up, the world cycling outward in shock. Allen and Silas both looked at her in concern. Her hands were in fists, and she shook her fingers free. “Did I draft?” she asked, not remembering Allen coming back in, and Silas shook his head, clearly worried. Allen’s weak smile was uneasy, and Jack, still holding his beer, snickered, brushing by her with arrogant confidence.
“You’ll never lose me, Peri. But go ahead and try. You’re more fun when you’re fighting.” Smirking, he sat on the raised hearth, patting the stone beside him.
“You were trying to break the loop,” Silas said as he put a log on the fire—which promptly collapsed. “The sooner we get this done, the better.”
“You think?” Anxious, Peri took the brown plastic footstool from Allen and set it clunking down before a straight-back chair pulled before the fireplace. Jack snickered when she sat on the low stool, her knees almost up to her elbows.
The silver threads in Jack’s black shirt glinted as he crouched beside her, whispering in her ear. “So many bad things we did, you and me. I’m going to be here, babe,” he said, tapping his temple. “Reminding you of every single one of them, because you enjoyed it. And you think you’re going to let it go? Never. Not my girl. Bill is right. You’re the best, and you don’t let your best go. Ever.”
Allen sat down behind her and tucked close. Shifting awkwardly, Silas edged toward the bar. “Ah, I’ll just be over here.”
“No one needs you, piano man,” Jack said loudly, and Peri flushed. He was getting aggressive. He’d vanish for good if they did this right, and the illusion seemed to know it, her subconscious fighting her, lying about who she was. It’s a lie. It has to be.
Peri bowed her head as Allen’s fingers landed on her shoulders, pushing deep into exactly the right places. It was hard to relax with Jack staring at her. I don’t need you anymore, she thought as she closed her eyes, and finally she began to relax.
“Little whore,” Jack muttered.
Tension slammed into her. Sensing it, Allen sent his fingers to scrub at her scalp. “I’m sorry, Peri,” he said softly. “The last thing you need is more holes in your memories, but the only way to be rid of him is to destroy both timelines. I promise you’ll get the straight story, but any direct memories will be gone, along with Jack.”
“Never …,” Jack whispered, and she shivered.
“You’re fighting,” Allen complained. “Let me do this, or Silas will never let me hear the end of it.”
That brought a smile to her. True, Silas was more talented, but Allen had firsthand knowledge of what to remove, and she leaned back into him, even as she pondered the wisdom of letting him into her head. She’d shot at him, beaten him, left him for dead, berated him. Why should he help her?
“You’re blocking again,” Allen said wearily. “I don’t hold you to actions done in the name of closing Opti down. It was your job. We all volunteered for it.”
Crouched with his breath tickling her ear, Jack whispered, “But you hold yourself to them, don’t you, babe. Because you enjoyed it. Even Africa. Admit it,” he whispered. “You liked who you were—or it wouldn’t have taken three years to figure out. Don’t let them steal that from you. You’re alive when you’re bad. Don’t let them kill your soul.”
Peri’s pulse quickened. She hadn’t enjoyed the ugly things she’d done while at Opti. The people she’d hurt or killed were real. The wrongs she’d done were real. To have enjoyed it would make her foul. She hadn’t.
“You did,” Jack whispered, and her eye twitched.
“I’m trying,” she whispered, and as Allen’s fingers eased her into a light trance, a flash of Jack lying on a yellow floor, a blood-soaked scarf pressed to his middle, rose up.