Both Jade and Rucksack doubled over, as if they’d each been punched in the stomach. On the two streets, everyone and everything stopped moving. No one spoke. Thousands of eyes only looked around, wondering what was so suddenly different about the world.
The glaring walls of the city grew brighter yet softer. From the Agamuskara River, a breeze blew whispers and wet earth, caresses and cool summer nights. A million dawns rose from every soul in the city. Every dream shimmered like gardens in the first morning light, dewy green leaves scintillating. Though it was midday, the world seemed like the slimmest golden glimmer of sunrise, like the birth of a child, like the first time you see the person you fall in love with.
Jade fell onto one knee, her right hand grabbing the other chair at the table. All that had happened, all the doubts, all the wonderings and questions, all washed away. She was only Jade, no longer a Jade or the Jade. Just Jade. Just herself. Not her decisions and her destiny, only her possibilities. I can do anything, she thought. I can be anyone. I can choose anything and nothing and everything.
The world shimmered. Double helixes of silver-and-gold light rained down.
Shaking, Jade staggered back to her feet. Helixes. Ever since her training, The Management had said to think of decision and destiny as a double helix, the DNA of existence that flowed forever, intertwining without touching, influencing the other without crossing paths.
Of course, no one else noticed that part. She glanced.
As quickly as the world had held its breath, it exhaled. Life began moving again.
Jade looked at Rucksack and caught him staring at her. The world teemed by again. Rivers of endless people, animals, and objects flowed and flowed as if nothing else had happened but moving forward.
“No one else saw it,” he said. “But you did, didn’t you?”
She said nothing.
Rucksack smiled. “I figured you were one o’ them. You’re not the first I’ve ever seen or known, Jade Agamuskara Bluegold. I’ve seen as many o’ you as pubs I’ve lightened kegs in over the years—dozens o’ you the world over. I still don’t know quite what you do with that special wee cabinet that no one else is supposed to see, but near as I can tell you don’t do anyone evil by it, and I’m okay with that. So, let’s not lie to each other here.”
Confusion flooded her. How did he know my full name? she thought, looking away from Rucksack to the people. How could he have seen the helixes? Only Jakes and Jades can see them, and I’m the only one in Agamuskara.
The Management’s cryptic warning whispered through her: “Learn from him but keep your distance.”
But Rucksack wasn’t shying away from what they’d seen. If I were to get close, she thought, if I wanted to understand him, then he would have to understand some of me too.
The Management hovered in her mind, and their warning coursed through her again: “A man without a destiny is a man who might do anything.”
Okay, she thought, so what is he going to do?
Jade smiled. “Seeing destinies,” she said. “We’ve got that in common. Usually it’s obscured, tucked just beneath the skin of all things. What we just saw, it’s like suddenly seeing the air we breathe.”
Rucksack sighed and drained his pint. “There was a time I would’ve been able to read every one o’ those lives wandering by, helixes to heads. I would have known them all.” His fingers touched the paper in front of him. All the bluster, the bombast, the big smile, and the bigger words all vanished. He looked away from her. “I can’t do that anymore.”
The rest of him seemed as withered as his hand. Jade’s confusion turned to pity. She pulled out the chair and sat down. “Maybe. Maybe not,” she said, getting her mind out of the way and letting her instincts, her training, take over. “But I know what you can do.”
“You can help me figure out what that was.”
Rucksack shrugged. “Things happen that don’t necessarily mean anything.”
“Tell that to anyone in western Ireland just before The Blast,” Jade replied. “That meant a lot.”
“What does The Blast have to do with any o’ this?” The letter crumpled beneath his fingers.
It happened so long ago, Jade thought. Why does it bother him so much? Instead she leaned forward, locked her gaze onto him, and said, “From every person and animal and object, the helixes trailed away like paths. They should flow like bright water.”
Rucksack stared at the wrinkled sheet of paper and nodded.
“Then tell me, Faddah Rucksack, why did so many of them wither into black and ash and nothing?”
He turned to look at her, his left hand closed tight. “We don’t know,” he said.
“We don’t,” Jade said kindly. “But I think we owe it to these people to find out. It just might save their lives.”
For a while, Rucksack said nothing. The city wandered. The sun blazed. A meandering cow walked by and left behind a steaming pile of dung.
Forget it, Jade thought. She started to go back into the pub, when at last he spoke.
“Whatever changed just now,” he said, “we’ll figure it out.”
Jade turned around. “Where should we start?”
Something in Rucksack relaxed, as if he were relieved. When his gaze held hers, earth turned to stone and a fire blazed up inside his brown-and-black eyes. “I’m going to start right here, have a think and a pint. There’s tales o’ this city I need to remember. That… and I need to wait for something.”
Jade nodded. “Okay,” she said. “It’s a start. What should I do?”
“Make sure you have a bed available,” Rucksack said. “And bring me another pint o’ GPS. I need to see clearly.”
“I thought you were staying a few blocks away?”
“I am,” he replied. “It’s not for me. We’ll find out who it’s for soon enough.”
“Then I’m going to get back inside and see what else the day brings.”
She walked to the door, thinking of helixes. Then it hit her—the last thing she’d seen before the helixes had faded from sight. They had trailed from every person, every object, every animal. So many of them flashed like bright chains, only to blacken, char, and disappear.
Rucksack had sat there, staring out at the still crowd, at the shimmering helixes. But no helix had come from Rucksack. No chain of destiny, no flowing paths of decisions and possibilities. The Management was right. Rucksack was like a ghost yet alive. Wandering but without a path.
His voice stopped her at the door. “Who were you before?”
Jade looked down at the cracked, somewhat-white pavement. Years and lifetimes coursed through her like blood. She opened the door and said, “Who were you?”
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