Man of the Century
by Russet McMillan
OPENING of Man of the Century
Dr. Beckett writes:
I found myself lying on a flat, cool surface. I moved my head cautiously; I was in a small room, and no one seemed to be around. When I sat up, I discovered that I was wearing a flimsy paper garment imprinted with flowers and sitting on a doctor's examining table. A desk against the wall bore a placard saying DR. McCULKIN. Above the desk was a calendar (May 1975, I noted automatically) and a small mirror. Moving my head in line with the mirror, I saw the face of a woman in her forties: a strong face, pleasant rather than pretty, framed by short dark curls.
So I was a woman again. Suddenly suspicious, I looked over the examining table I was sitting on. Sure enough, at the bottom a pair of metal stirrups extended invitingly before my feet.
"Oh, boy," I said to myself. Apparently I was here to be examined by a gynecologist. This would never do. I leaped off the table, pulled off the paper smock and snatched at the clothes lying neatly folded on a chair. I fumbled hastily with a bra, unsure how much time I had to get dressed. Just as I was slipping my feet into shoes that were blessedly low-heeled, the door to the office opened to admit a middle-aged man in a lab coat.
"I'm sorry, uh, doctor," I gasped. "I, uh, changed my mind about the exam."
He cocked his head. "Changed your mind? I see no reason to think the results we got are incorrect."
It sounded as if the test was already over. "Oh. Uh --" Resolutely I shut my mouth and sat down, trying to look expectant.
"Actually, I think we'd better have a talk about those results now." The doctor settled before his desk.
"Uh-huh?" Please God, I was thinking, don't let me be pregnant again.
The doctor frowned as if he didn't understand my reaction. I tried to look more serious. "As you already know," he began, "the radiation and the operation you had were not completely successful. From today's test we know that the tumor has metastasized. That means --"
"It split and is spreading to other parts of the body," I filled in. The bra I had strapped around my chest had one cup filled with cloth sewn inside it. "I had a mastectomy -- breast cancer," I realized.
"That's right," Dr. McCulkin said. "The new growth is in your lung. So far there's no evidence of other vital organs being involved, so I'd say you still have a few months. But the outlook is not very good. We can try chemotherapy . . ."
Chemotherapy wasn't very effective when it was first tried in the seventies, I remembered. "I'll . . . have to think about it." Maybe I could postpone my decision so that the woman I was in -- Mrs. Blaine, the doctor had said -- could decide for herself. Or maybe Al would have a chance to get some information to me. It seemed to make sense that my reason for being here was related to the cancer.
"It's a decision that should be made soon, otherwise it can't be much help."
"I understand that."
"You've been going to a support group?"
"Uh, yeah, that's right."
"Good, good. You should keep that up. And if you need any further advice --" He scribbled on a pad of paper. "-- here's a number you can call. They're very good."
He seemed obscurely eager to be getting rid of me, which puzzled me at first. A patient who had just received a fatal diagnosis needed more than a few minutes of couseling, even if she had been prepared for it. But, I remembered, communication between doctors and patients hadn't been so good in the old days. The emotional part of coping with a sickness was left to the patient to figure out. It was actually surprising that Mrs. Blaine had managed to find a support group. I gave a sigh of relief as I got out of the office, fumbling for some identification.
I was staring in bewilderment at the badge in Mrs. Blaine's wallet when a hand touched my shoulder. I blinked at the earnest young man beside me; he looked in his twenties, too young to be a husband. Son?
"What did the doctor say?" He seemed concerned, but not desperately worried.
"Uh -- well, he said --" I fumbled at softening the blow. "-- he said a few months."
His gaze fell. "I'm sorry, Sally. We were all hoping . . ."
That let out son, then. Co-worker? I glanced down at the badge again. It still said Chicago Police Department, and the accompanying identification still said Lt. Sally Blaine. "Well, I knew the chances weren't real great," I mumbled. A woman police officer? A middle-aged woman police lieutenant in the mid-seventies? This woman must have a lot of character.
My companion was leading me toward the door. I followed him bemusedly, still searching for clues. He didn't particularly look like a policeman, but then I tended to associate shoulder-length hair with the counter-culture, while in fact it was commonplace in the seventies. I was on the wrong side to see if he was carrying a gun under his jacket.
He led me out to an unmarked police car in a no-parking zone, and headed for the passenger's side. I rubbed my nose thoughtfully. What if he wasn't a policeman? "Uh, listen, do you mind driving? I don't feel, uh --"
"Oh, sure, Sally." He hurried around to the other side of the car. As he turned I could see the lump under his jacket. Co-worker, then. And probably junior to me, from the way he acted.
"So, Sally," he said when we were on our way, "do you want to go back to the department or should I drop you off home?"
"Well, uh --" The watch on my wrist said 4:15. "Might as well finish the day off, huh?"
I stared nervously out of the window of the car and thought about how little I liked leaping into a terminally ill policewoman. Which of this woman's problems was I supposed to solve? It might be anything. It might be totally unpredictable. I really wasn't going to enjoy being without backup support on this one. I wondered how long I had spent in between leaps, and how soon Al would get out of the hospital.
As it turned out, I barely had time to meet Sally Blaine's co-workers before getting off shift. I found out that my partner was Frank Mason, newly promoted and transferred to this precinct. Because of her illness, Sally was mostly on desk work, but she was helping Frank with a few cases while she showed him the ropes. I didn't really have much chance to consult with Frank on those cases; I hoped they were simple.
Everyone knew the prognosis within a few minutes of our return from the hospital, although I didn't actually see Frank talking to anyone. I gathered from a few comments that if Sally stayed on the job for two more months she would complete her fifteenth year of service, which would make a difference to her pension. It seemed like everyone wanted to help Sally out; she had drawn a lot of respect from the other policemen here.
I've leaped into women before, I've been in a beauty pageant, and I've even been pregnant. It never mattered as little as it did when I leaped into Sally Blaine. She was an ordinary person, with problems which might have belonged to an ordinary man as easily as to an ordinary woman. But I sensed, from the way that her colleagues smiled at me and tried to comfort me, that Sally had made a very special impact on the world.
I managed to find the car that fit Sally's keys, blundered my way to the address on her driver's license, and found the right key to the door. It was a small house in a cramped lot, sparsely furnished but just messy enough to be cozy. I spent a while wandering through it -- feeling, as always, like a peeping Tom -- looking at photographs and trying to reconstruct Sally's life. There was a husband, it seemed, who faded out of the picture five or six years ago -- dead or divorced, I wasn't sure. Then there was a son. If I was dating the pictures correctly, he must be nearly twenty now. He didn't seem to be in residence.
I got a definite answer when, after I had fixed myself a macaroni and cheese dinner, the phone rang.
"Mom? It's me, Billy." The background was noisy.
"Oh, hi, Billy."
"Why didn't you call me like you said?"
"Oh, I, uh, it slipped my mind."
"Mom, are you OK?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
"What did the doctor say?"
I swallowed. "Well, the -- the operation and the radiation therapy didn't really work . . ."
"I know that. What else?"
"Well, the, uh, the tumor has metastasized to, uh, my lung. The doctor thinks I should be good for, well, a few months, unless other organs become involved."
"It's OK, son. I was more or less expecting this."
"Do you want me to come home?"
I hesitated. This could be an important decision; what if it was the thing I was supposed to change? "Uh, don't you have other things to worry about?"
"My classes can wait."
"Oh, but, you must have exams coming up."
"Exams aren't important."
"No, Billy, they are. You study hard, and do well in those exams. For me. OK?"
"When the term is over you can come and give me a hand. There's time now. You just keep your grades up."
"Yes, ma'am." There was a reluctant smile in his voice. "You're OK?"
"I'm fine, Billy. For now. You come home later, when I need you."
I put the receiver down with a heavy sigh. I hoped I hadn't just muffed this leap. On top of everything else, Sally Blaine had a son in college. What was I here to do?
I put my scruples aside and started searching through all the papers I could find in the house. I needed any information I could get; there was no telling what might be important. I learned that what I had been saying all day was true; Sally expected the verdict she got today. She had a will dated just last month, leaving everything to her son Billy. I learned that her husband, also a policeman, had died and that Billy would receive his benefits as well as Sally's after her death. I found Billy's tuition bills and Sally's pension plan and figured that he would have to leave school after Sally died. Even with life insurance he probably wouldn't have enough to make it -- unless Sally died on active duty. I couldn't help noticing that the benefits in that case were much higher.
Now I was really confused. Was my mission here to prevent Sally from getting killed in the course of apprehending some criminal? Or was it to make sure that Billy had enough money to finish school? The two might be incompatible with each other. Or perhaps I was here for something else entirely.
I was getting a horrible headache and feeling very lonely for Al when I heard a horn honk outside. When I looked out the window I saw the car was in my -- Sally's -- driveway. I walked curiously outside.
A dark-haired woman leaned her head out of the window. "Did you forget the meeting? Hurry, we'll be late!"
"Oh. Yeah, just let me get my stuff." I grabbed a coat, locked the house, and slipped in next to her. "Sorry. I was a little preoccupied."
She slid a glance at me between stop signs. "You saw a doctor today, didn't you?"
"The, uh, prognosis isn't so good."
"Any liver involvement?"
I blinked. She seemed familiar with the details of Sally's illness, giving mixed cues of callous unfeeling and genuine personal concern. "Uh, no, not yet."
"Well, the lung."
"Not as bad as it might be." She grinned rather painfully. "You might have a few months on me, yet."
Suddenly I understood. She was also terminally ill. That explained how she could face it so calmly and yet so honestly.
I guessed before we arrived that the "meeting" we were going to was the support group Dr. McCulkin had mentioned. Most of the people there were women, with a few men among them looking as lost as I felt.
A very in-charge-looking woman bustled up to me as I tried to fade out of attention. "Lt. Blaine! Are you ready to give your talk tonight?"
"What?" I gulped. "No, uh, I kind of changed my mind about, about talking tonight."
She pouted. "Oh, how sad. I'm sure you have so much to share with us."
"Yes, well, maybe -- maybe another time. It's just that I'm not very good at public speaking, you know?"
"That's bullshit," the woman who had driven me whispered in my ear as the organizer moved away. "I've seen you give speeches plenty of times."
"Yeah, well, it's different this time, OK?" I hissed back at her. Apparently we were supposed to be friends. I wondered how I could find out her name. Something about her seemed strangely familiar.
Then everyone was sitting down in the chairs arranged in a circle. I scrambled for a seat as the leader began speaking. A few members of the group shared the stories of their illnesses and how that had impacted their lives. I tried to be inconspicuous as the leader's gaze passed thoughtfully over me. Then she told us that she wanted to share an inspiring passage she had found. My driver/friend shifted in her seat, shooting me a mischievous glance. Suspecting a private joke, I twitched an eyebrow. That can always be interpreted several ways.
"Life," said the leader, "is like a journey, in which we travel not only through space but through time -- through our lifetimes."
Tell me about it, I thought, shifting my seat in turn. What I want to know is how to end my journey through time.
"The end of that journey," said the woman as if on cue, "is death."
"We must learn to consider death not as an abnormal truncation of life, but as the long-awaited completion of our journeys."
I glanced around the circle as she spoke. Everyone in the room was listening to her with absolute concentration. I had been pretty close to dying a few times in my life; a lot of those times had been during my leaps. I had always tried to avoid thinking about it, had always shied away from the subject. But now here I was in a circle of forty people all thinking very hard about the nature of death. It was a little hard for me to avoid the subject just now.
Inevitably, I started to envision death in the metaphor the leader had presented me, with my leaps through space and time being like the journey of life. In a picture like that, the end I was striving for -- leaping home -- could only be accomplished through death. Al had suggested something like that during my first leap, I recalled. Ziggy's first theory for how to get me home had been that I should fix a problem in the life of the guy I leaped into. That, as it turned out, was the way to finish a leap, but not the way to finish leaping. Ziggy's second theory was stopping all electrical activity in the brain -- death, as I had sarcastically pointed out to Al. The suggestion had never come up again.
My leaps, while essentially random, had a pattern to them that was statistically predictable; they were mostly clustered at the beginning of my lifetime. The time I had cross-leaped with Al, he had gone back near the beginning of his own lifetime. In all my five years of leaping, I had leaped once in the eighties and once in the nineties. At that rate, waiting for random leaping to take me back to my own time in 1999 could easily take another five years. Or ten. Or twenty.
I started to feel a little sick, thinking about it. Ziggy must have noticed this pattern already -- probably long before I did. Then why had Al never mentioned it to me? What was he trying to conceal?