io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we’ll be featuring a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “The Savannah Liars Tour” by Will McIntosh. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast. Enjoy!
Image © 2016 by Galen Dara.
My essence, my soul, whatever you wanted to call it, burst into that place beyond places. After dozens of trips, the ecstasy of the reverse-explosion was as intense as the first time.
I was in downtown Savannah in Chippewa Square. Streaks of perfect lemon-yellow sunlight peeked through a canopy of live oaks. Cars and tour buses glided past, silent, spewing zero pollution because they didn’t exist. Most were cruising several feet above the ground.
I caught sight of Delilah running across the street toward me, her feet flying wildly as only Delilah’s could, and felt a rush of pure, unfiltered, unqualified, innocent, overwhelming love.
You never love someone the way you do when you’re twenty. When you fall in love at thirty, or forty, your past comes with you—your broken hearts and shattered illusions—and there’s just so much of it, so many additives and preservatives mixed in that your emotions are never as pure as they were when you were twenty.
Delilah rushed to hug me, her eyes bright. She still looked twenty. Always twenty. And when I was with her, I was twenty, too.
“Hey, you,” she said.
I was tingling, full to overflowing with Delilah. I wondered if this time my hour would feel like five minutes, or a week. Time dropped through a maze here; there was no telling how quickly or slowly it might pass.
“You’ve got to hear this new song,” I said as we separated. “From a new band. They played The Bastille last week.” The Bastille had closed eight years earlier, but I liked to use locations Delilah knew.
“It’s good? Let’s hear it.”
I’d been listening to the CD every day so I’d be able to recreate it almost perfectly from memory, moving the music from my mind into the streets of our Savannah. It wasn’t what Savannah looked like now, or even what it had looked like when Delilah died; it was the Savannah we created when we were together here.
A tour trolley came around the corner. I wasn’t surprised to see it was Delilah’s trolley, the one she’d died in.
• • • •
The woman standing at the front of the trolley, clutching a steel pole to avoid being thrown when the trolley made turns, was grinning like she knew a secret—a secret that could burst the world open at the seams and have everyone dancing in the streets and hugging strangers. She seemed far too young to know such a secret. The trolley was passing a beautiful old home—a mansion, really. The bright new banner draped along the length of the interior of the old trolley, the one that read Savannah Liars Tour, flapped in the breeze coming through the open front of the trolley.
The woman pointed at the mansion. “That lovely house was built by Savannah’s founder, a Viking named Erik, who was driven from the city when Europeans arrived, outraged to find the Vikings had gotten there first.”
Laughter from the passengers, mostly tourists from out of town. Delilah’s job was to tell outrageous lies, to make them up on the spot as the trolley threaded the squares of Savannah’s Historic District. It was obvious she loved her job, and was perfect for it.
I was not a tourist. I lived in a tiny apartment on Whittaker Street, a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design. I was also in a band. Drums. We played the Bastille frequently. I took the Savannah Liars Tour every day, so I knew better than anyone that Delilah never told the same lie twice. I was in love with her long before I ever mustered the nerve to speak to her.
• • • •
“Ben? Wake up, Ben. Come on.”
I opened my eyes and tried to breathe, but I couldn’t, because my lungs were filled with fluid. I could hear the dribbling of the fluid draining through the tube clenched between my chattering teeth. The cold went straight to my bones, like fish hooks made of ice.
If entering the afterlife was like a thousand simultaneous orgasms, returning from cryogenic sleep was a hell unimaginable to those who had never experienced it.
I knew they couldn’t cover me with the thermal blanket until I was breathing on my own, but if I’d been able to speak I would have screamed for that fucking blanket. One of the aides pressed on my chest; blue water jetted from my mouth. I inhaled, choked on fluid that burned my throat like bleach, then I fell into a coughing fit. Each cough was agony.
Finally, finally, the blanket appeared. I was swaddled like a giant, quivering infant.
• • • •
Jillian was waiting at the curb with the Mercedes running, the heat cranked uncomfortably high for my benefit. My old, familiar friend guilt joined me as I slid into the passenger seat.
“Good visit? How are your Mom and Dad?” The corner of Jillian’s eye crinkled as she smiled, but it was a tense smile.
“Great. Great. No sign of Mom’s cancer recurring, and you’d never know Dad had suffered a massive heart attack.” It was an old joke, and my delivery was wooden.
I turned on the radio, tuned it to NPR, where a journalist was relating a conversation she’d had with John F. Kennedy in the afterlife.
“You want to have lunch at Chur—”
“Did you see Delilah as well?” Jillian asked before I could finish. For the past few months, Jillian hadn’t asked that question. The question—the only truly irreconcilable thorn in our eight years of marriage.
“You know I always do.” I tried to sound matter-of-fact, but defensiveness leaked into my tone.
“What did you talk about?”
“Just . . . nothing much. Music, mostly.”
“You still haven’t told her about me?”
And there it was. “She’s dead, Jillian. It’s not like I’m seeing another woman. I’m visiting the soul of my late wife.” I dragged my hand down my face, feeling exhausted, knowing the route this conversation would take and dreading the ride.
“How much of the hour did you spend with her?”
I folded my arms across my chest, realized what a stereotypically defensive posture that was, and quickly unfolded them. “You know how hard it is to judge time in there. I visit the people I’ve lost. You knew who I’d lost when you met me, and you knew I visited them.”
Things had become so much more complicated since that innocent time when I’d promised Delilah I’d always visit her, no matter what. Everyone in Delilah’s life had broken promises—her sister, her mother, the men she’d loved before me. She deserved to have one person she could believe in, and twenty-two years ago I swore I’d be that person. When I made that promise, Delilah said she wasn’t asking me to never love again, only that I reserve a small corner of my heart for her.
The thing was, my love for Delilah never managed to stay in one small corner of my heart. It took up more like half, try as I might to contain it. Did loving her too much mean I should renege on my promise?
I shouldn’t have allowed myself to love someone else in the first place. When I met Jillian, I’d been alone for ten years. That had seemed like enough time to grieve, even if visiting Delilah tended to keep the wound open.
Jillian pulled into the driveway, turned off the ignition. “It’s dangerous, going under as often as you do. You’re not twenty-five anymore.”
“The Surgeon General says cryogenic sleep is safe up to fifty.” What Jillian was really saying was the visits were expensive. Outrageously expensive. We could afford it, though. I wasn’t driving us into bankruptcy or anything.
Jillian sighed. She took my hand. “I know you’re in an impossible position. I know that. But you have to see how hard this is for me, especially with us talking about having a child.”
I squeezed her hand. “I do. I’m sorry this is so complicated.”
• • • •
On the trolley, Delilah pointed out Chippewa Square, a cozy park shaded by huge Live Oaks.
“At last count there were seventeen hundred such squares in Savannah.” She was speaking to everyone, all of the tourists on her trolley, but she was looking right at me. Her gaze sent a thrill through me like nothing I’d ever experienced. “Under no circumstances should you go near any of them. They look friendly, but they bite, and many carry disease—”
According to Delilah, a creature lived in the Savannah River that could swallow the Loch Ness monster whole. The Buddha was buried in a local graveyard.
Today was the day. I was going to speak to her.
With the tourists chanting her name, Delilah stepped off the trolley, took a bow, waved to or shook hands with each person as they exited her magic trolley, onto the cobbled street, back in the real world.
I lingered so I’d be the last off. My heart tripped as I climbed down the steps. As I paused in front of her, I could find nothing to do with my hands. They felt wrong on my hips, wrong in my pockets, wrong dangling like dead fish at my sides.
“Your show is really something,” I stammered. “I’m spreading the word, telling all my friends.”
“I was wondering when you were finally going to talk to me,” Delilah said.
• • • •
“Try another year,” Jillian suggested.
I pulled up another year from the woman’s memory file, chose a clip at random. In the clip our client—now in her fifties—was sitting in a bridal shop watching a thin woman in her twenties model a wedding dress.
“I’m not sure that’s the right dress for you, sweetie,” our client said as the bride-to-be examined herself in the mirror.
“Why not? I like this one.”
“You need a dress with more going on around the bust line. You know, because of how F-L-A-T you are.”
The bride tried to mask how much the comment stung.
“I’m trying to understand why anyone would want a permanent reminder of what this woman was really like,” Jillian said.
“She requested the monument herself, post-mortem.” She seemed like just the sort of woman who would retain control of her estate, instead of leaving it to her relatives. The cryo-trips her attorney’s representative had to make to keep her apprised were probably eating away big chunks of it. “Hey, instead of searching for those few instances where she was not horrible to someone, what if we chose a selection of her bitterest moments and harshest comments?”
“Her greatest hits.”
We both cracked up.
“Or we could show her at her best,” Jillian said. “When she’s not speaking. We choose clips of her eating a sandwich, watching TV, sleeping.”
“I’m just trying to be helpful,” our client said to the devastated bride in her incredibly whiny, nasally voice. That got us laughing harder. I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe. Jillian had tears running down her cheeks.
It took me a moment to realize they weren’t tears of laughter.
“What?” I asked? “What’s the matter?” I already knew, though.
“I’m sorry. I just can’t stop the thoughts. Any time we’re having fun together, I see Delilah’s face. I can’t compete with a woman who died when she was twenty, who doesn’t ever change.”
“You’re not competing with her.”
“I am. You know I am.” Jillian grabbed a tissue from the box on the table, blew her nose. “I understand the corner you’re in, I do. You’re loyal to a fault. It’s one of the reasons I love you. But you can’t be loyal to two women, not in that way.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “You can’t love both of us.”
“I don’t love Delilah. I loved her.” I couldn’t look at Jillian as I said it. “She’s—”
“She’s not alive. I get that. But the part of her that matters—the part you fell in love with—is still intact. Otherwise, there’d be no reason to visit.”
I opened my mouth to say something I’d already said countless times in this perpetual argument, when a realization struck me with the force of a marauding elephant.
I turned away. I didn’t want Jillian to see me cry, because I was crying for Delilah.
Jillian was right. How could I have not seen that before? She was completely right, and I was completely wrong. She deserved all of my love, especially if we were going to have a child. And I wanted to have a child with her. I did.
For years I’d been arguing that Jillian was being unfair; I’d built my case, reinforced the weak points with fresh logic, all the time feeling sick inside, because deep down I knew I was wrong.
I had to let Delilah go. I had to say goodbye. The realization was like a gunshot to the belly; it hurt more than anything I’d ever felt. Except Delilah’s death.
• • • •
The trolley wasn’t moving fast. It was a combination of things, the multiplication of slightly poor judgment on the part of Delilah, the trolley’s driver, and the individual who commissioned a local artist to create an iron mailbox that was a replica of Bird Girl, the famous bronze casting that graced the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the most famous book ever written about Savannah.
Delilah was hanging out the door of the trolley, deftly gripping the rail with one hand. The driver was watching Delilah instead of the road. The mailbox was jutting too far into the street, and it was too solid, too well built. A beautiful old wrought iron Savannah mailbox.
They had to keep the casket closed at Delilah’s funeral.
Two years later Petra Beregovoi came back from the deep freeze with her incredible news; three years after that I visited Delilah for the first time.
• • • •
Delilah leaped into my arms. We were on River Street, in front of Kevin Barry’s Pub, where we used to get drunk while listening to Harry O’Donoghue belt out “Whiskey in the Jar.” The fatigue of two consecutive nights of zero sleep, of two days of eating almost nothing, had been left behind with my body. I was bristling with energy.
“So what do you want to do?” Delilah asked. She had no idea it had only been four days since my last visit, so she had no reason to suspect anything was amiss. “You want to go to the beach?” She took my hand and pulled me in the direction of Tybee Beach.
We walked along the causeway, sea marsh on either side, egrets stepping through the shallow water, nonexistent cars gliding past.
When we reached the beach, white-crested waves crashed at our feet. Sand pipers foraged and pelicans glided on the breeze. The wind smelled like sun and salt.
I didn’t tell her.
It was one of those visits that only seemed to last a few minutes. That’s what I told myself, and what I told Jillian.
Next time. I swore I’d do it next time.
• • • •
Sigmund Freud was coming out with a new book, dictated to an army of volunteers who memorized a few paragraphs at a time and brought them back. Hemingway was doing the same. Meanwhile, the truly ancient souls, who were barely human at this point, were uninterested in human pursuits. I swept aside the newsfeed hanging in the air.
The world had been so much simpler when the divide between the living and the dead was absolute. When Petra Beregovoi had opened her eyes and dropped her bombshell, it had seemed like the most wonderful thing. But change is always complicated, even if on the surface it seems like the best, most miraculous change ever.
I went back to work, although that didn’t provide much relief. Owning a business that created walking, talking holographic memorials of people’s deceased loved ones didn’t exactly take my mind off my problems. I hadn’t slept in five days. I was no longer tired; I’d progressed into a strange hyperactive stupor that featured a constant headache.
My phone burbled. I didn’t recognize the ring at first, then realized it was the emergency tone. The somber face of a stranger materialized.
A jolt of terror rippled through me. “What happened? Is Jillian okay?”
The stranger kept her expression a flat neutral. “She was in a vehicular accident. She’s been injured, but not badly.”
I was already sprinting for the door.
• • • •
Jillian cried when she saw me. There was such pain, such grief in her sobs that for a moment I was sure the doctor had lied when he said the truck had only clipped her, that a shattered elbow was her only serious injury. I wrapped my arms around Jillian as gently as possible, and cried with her, staring in horrified wonder at the bright plastic cast on her arm.
“Is the pain bad?”
“I thought I was dying, and I was glad. Just as it happened, when I thought I was going to die, I felt this sudden burst of joy,” Jillian whispered.
I jerked my head up to look at her. “Why?”
“I was so relieved.”
“I don’t understand. Why would you hope you were dying?”
“It was one of those crazy things you think, that just comes out. If I died, then you would love me as much as Delilah.”
I buried my face in Jillian’s neck, drew her hand up against my wet cheek. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I looked up into the pain in her eyes. It had been there for years. I’d refused to see it. “I’ll make it right. Today. I promise.”
Jillian turned her head to one side. “Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t. You have to wait a few weeks, at least.”
I couldn’t wait a few weeks. I had to make this right, and I so dreaded making it right. “I just want to get this over with. I want it behind us.”
• • • •
I had to sign half a dozen waivers before they would freeze me for the third time in eight days. I scrawled my name on the forms.
How was I going to do this? Delilah didn’t deserve this. She was utterly blameless. She’d taken care of her grandmother, who didn’t eat enough because she was always trying to feed the framed photos that lined her desk and dresser. Once she’d found Grandma packed inside the side-loading dryer in the laundry room, and as Delilah helped her out, Grandma had accused Delilah of putting her in there. Delilah never complained, never lost patience or her sense of humor.
It wasn’t just hurting Delilah that I dreaded, it was losing her. I looked so forward to seeing her. I didn’t want to lose her laughter, her magic. As they prepped me, I took deep, tremulous breaths, trying to calm myself, craving the sedative like never before.
One day I would be in the afterlife, but for now my place was with the living. My promises to the living had to take priority over my promises to the dead. Those were the rules. That was how it was meant to be. I saw that now, with clear-eyed certainty. But that certainty did nothing to banish the terrible anguish I felt.
• • • •
“Hey, you.” As Delilah drew closer and saw my face, she stopped, frowned. “What’s the matter?”
I choked on the words. “I have to break my promise to you.”
A single tear popped free and rolled down Delilah’s cheek. “Why?”
“Because I’m married.”
Delilah pressed the back of her wrist to her mouth and turned away. I reached out to touch her, to turn her around and sweep her into my arms, but I stopped myself. I had no right.
“I was afraid to tell you—”
“No, I’m glad you never told me.” Delilah turned to face me, her eyes bright with tears. “I suspected. It’s been so long, after all. I didn’t want to know. I wanted our world to stay just like it is.”
“I did, too.”
“Here, that’s possible. But where you are . . .” She let the thought trail off.
“I’m so sorry.”
Delilah tried to smile, didn’t quite manage it. “I knew this day would come.” The words were meant to absolve me, but I could see how much she was hurting. The despair in her eyes almost brought me to my knees.
“Can I ask one last favor?” she asked.
“Can we pretend this is like any other visit?”
I took her hand, and we walked the streets of Savannah. We passed Alligator Soul, our favorite restaurant. We wandered Market Square, past the antique and junk stores. Then along River Street and through all the squares. There were twenty-four squares, not seventeen hundred as Delilah had once claimed on the Savannah Liar’s Tour. As we walked, I realized we were saying goodbye to our Savannah, as well as to each other.
“Is she good to you? Is she a good person?” Delilah’s words broke the silence. We were in Forsyth Park, standing in front of the fountain, where Greek gods blew jets of water out of horns.
“Do you have children?”
“Not yet, but we’re talking.”
“You’ll be an awesome dad,” Delilah whispered.
We walked on, hand in hand, toward The Sentient Bean, where they sold the best brownies in the world, our palms never growing sweaty, our feet never aching.
It was, blessedly, one of the visits that seemed to last a long time.
We ended up back in Chippewa Square, under the live oaks. “I keep expecting you to be gone, but you’re still here.” Delilah smiled, squeezed his hand. “Goodbye. I love you. I’ll always love you.”
“I’ll always love you, too.”
A trolley floating close by crashed to the pavement, startling us both. Up and down Bull Street, vehicles that had been floating slammed to the ground.
For a moment I couldn’t quite grasp that Jillian was walking toward us, along the worn brick path that bisected the square. I let go of Delilah’s hand.
“That’s her, isn’t it?” Delilah said.
“She’s never come across,” I said, stunned. “She said she never would.”
Jillian stopped a few paces away, her eyes wet with tears.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Aren’t you even going to introduce us?” Jillian asked.
“I—” I wanted to say there was no need, that we all knew who we were, but I stopped myself. “Jillian, this is Delilah.”
Jillian stepped forward and shook Delilah’s hand. The sight of them standing there together made my head spin. Jillian turned to me as she released Delilah’s hand. “Can I speak to you in private?”
“Sure. Of course.”
I led her past the Savannah Theater and around the corner, burning with guilt that Jillian had caught me holding Delilah’s hand. “Are you leaving me? I told her—I swear. We were saying goodbye.”
“No Ben, I’m not leaving you,” Jillian said. “You left me.”
“What? No, I told Delilah. I told her about you. I told her this was the last time.”
Jillian stopped walking. “I came to say goodbye. I need that closure, but after this I won’t be coming back.”
It was as if she was speaking in a foreign language. “What are you talking about?”
“You died, Ben. You died. You’re never coming back.”
I dropped to my knees. It had seemed like such a long visit. We’d gone everywhere, seen everything. Even with the slippery translation of time, I should have known something was wrong. It just never crossed my mind that I could die this young. “How?”
At forty-two? “I’m so sorry.”
Jillian folded her arms, looked at the ground. “Let’s not go there. Let’s just say goodbye. You were being pulled in two directions, and it was pulling you apart. Something had to give. You had to choose. And you did.”
“What?” How is dying of a heart attack on the cryo table a choice? I hadn’t swallowed a bottle of pills or hung myself in the garage, I’d had a fucking heart attack. That wasn’t exactly voluntary.
I opened my mouth to say that to Jillian, and then I closed it. The technicians had implored me to wait a few weeks, but I wouldn’t listen.
“I have an hour,” Jillian said. “Do you want to walk?”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. We walked, saying very little. It was a different Savannah. There were fewer wrought-iron railings, but more azalea bushes. The edges of the buildings were sharper, the live oaks’ branches less gnarled. It wasn’t just my and Delilah’s Savannah.
Half of my heart was breaking. It just wasn’t the half I’d expected.
When the cars and buses and trolleys all rose into the air, I didn’t have to look. I knew Jillian was gone.
Delilah was still in Chippewa Square, sitting on the grass in a patch of sunlight. When she saw me, she stood and squinted, as if I could be an illusion.
“I don’t understand. How can you still be here?”
“Let’s walk. I’ll tell you while we walk.” I took Delilah’s hand.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the January 2016 issue, which features 8 science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a via the link below.