This is the nineteenth—or twentieth; he's losing count—time the fish has died, and all Jedediah feels as he stares at it is tired. Perhaps that's why the fish died: exhaustion. The floating body looks weary, slumped into the water, the fins hanging limp. They stir a little when Jed taps a finger against the glass, a brief and eerie semblance of life.
5:30—if he hurries, he should be able to get a replacement fish before Zeke arrives home from work; Zeke of the too-understanding looks and the “friendship fish"; Zeke, who will be getting married and moving out in five weeks, two days.
For a moment, Jed considers ending the charade, acknowledging the fish's death and his own failure to keep it alive (again), but he's lied about it for so long that he might as well keep going. So he sighs, gets the little net out, flushes George XIX (or XX) down the I'll-clean-it-tomorrow toilet, decides not to change the fish bowl water as there's too many plants and snails to deal with, and heads out for the pet shop.
It's raining, cold enough to seep into bones and bite at joints, so Jed shoves his hands into his coat pockets and turns down the nearest likely-looking alley. And then, almost out of sight of the street and when no one's looking, he goes sideways.
The most striking difference, as always, is the sudden complete silence, like being plunged into water or vacuum. No patter of rain, no car engines or honking horns, almost no footsteps or rustle of clothing or even the sound of his own heartbeat. He hums a little as he sets off into the frozen world, just to prove he can.
Raindrops hang in the air like soft fragments of ice, caught in the halos cast by street lights and neon signs. He still gets wet as he walks through them—sort of; in between moments, where he is, water has a consistency closer to gelatin than liquid, allowing him to scrape most of it off himself as he goes.
No alleys next to the pet shop, so he has to dash a block and a half like the rest of the world does—only unlike them, he hadn't the sense to grab an umbrella when he left his apartment. By the time he reaches the shop, his fingers have begun to ache, which doesn't bode well for the fish he'll be taking home with him. There's no transfer of heat away from objects while traveling sideways through time, but he can't simply disappear off the pet shop's doorstep where someone's bound to see.
Well, he can't be the only person who's bought a fish from them in the middle of winter, so they must have solved the problem of transport somehow.
He's been here often enough to know exactly where he's going and pick out the most nearly matching fish at a glance, to make the correct change even as the cashier rings up his purchase. “Another one?" she asks as the receipt prints out.
“Yes," Jed says, the word clipped with frustration aimed at himself, not her. Perhaps she can tell this, because smiles at him, all dimples and good humor.
"Well, at least they're staying alive longer," she says, handing him the receipt, and packs newspaper around the fish's cup for insulation. "Good luck with this one!"
"Thanks," he says, trying to smile in return, and leaves. He doesn't quite run back to the alley, but he walks as fast as he can without jostling the water of out the hole in the lid of the fish's cup. And then it's back home, where Jed can add this to the list of pet shop trips he's pretending never happened.
But when he arrives, the apartment door's unlocked, and he opens it to find Zeke in the kitchen, frozen in the act of putting a pizza box on the counter, mouth open as if he's in the middle of saying something. Zeke home early with pizza means it's Friday, but the calendar says Wednesday, which means Jed lost two days somewhere—maybe that's why George XX (or XIX) died.
He really had thought he was doing better with that.
Treating Zeke as an obstacle rather than a person seems wrong, although Jed's long past noticing with anyone else. But then, Zeke is the only person he really knows, other than his mother and now-dead father.
With Zeke home, he doesn't have the time to do this properly, to introduce George XIX (or XX) to his new home the correct way. Instead, he has to carefully scoop a handful of water out of the fish bowl and deposit it in the bathtub, where it can be blamed on a slightly-leaky faucet, then carefully shake George XX (or XIX) into the hollow that leaves for him and the contents of his cup. The effect of this reminds Jed of an art exhibit he visited while in college, made up entirely of goldfish painted on and even in sheets of clear acrylic.
He hides the cup George (whatever number he is) came in under his bed, then changes into pajamas so he'll have an excuse for not knowing what Zeke's in the middle of saying, scrubbing at his hair until it can pass for slept-on. Then, with a carefully-staged yawn that become real half-way through, he (re)opens his bedroom door.
"—so I got Hawaiian instead," Zeke finishes. "But don't think this means you've finally brainwashed me."
"Okay," Jed says agreeably. "What time is it?"
"Too early for even you to be in bed," Zeke says, clearly torn between amusement and worry. "You're not sick or anything, are you?"
"Just had a long day," Jed assures him with utter truth: he spent his lunch break memorizing the medieval wing of the city's art museum, the equivalent of anywhere from a week to a month or so of time as the rest of the world experiences it. "Good, though." He loves museums almost as much as the numbers his job lets him play with.
They eat the pizza in companionable silence—or rather Jed does, while Zeke regales him with the day's quirky customers and behind-the-counter mishaps. Over the five years they've roomed together, he's mastered the art of timing his punch lines so that Jed almost but never quite chokes from laughing while eating.
Jed's coughing down the last of his dinner when Zeke leans back a little and asks, all nonchalance, "So, have any plans for this weekend?"
After a bit of wheezing, Jed manages, "Just lunch with my mother. Why?"
Zeke busies himself cleaning up the meal's detritus, banging everything around much more loudly than is strictly necessary. "Ever been skating?" Even for him, this seems a bit random.
"Roller skating, yes; ice skating, no." Jed carefully licks the last of the pizza sauce off his fingers. "Again, why?"
"The river by my parents' place is frozen over, and they're out of town until Tuesday, so they said we could crash there for the weekend if we wanted."
"We?" Jed's met Zeke's parents exactly once, and has absolutely no idea where they live—somewhere a good bit colder than the city, if an entire river is frozen over and safe to skate on.
"You and me and Melissa."
"Ah." Melissa is Zeke's fiancée; Jed doesn't know her well, but from the few times they've all hung out together, she seems nice enough. Zeke can and has spent upwards of an hour detailing all the ways she's too good for anyone including him, so Jed's always figured that's all he needs to know about her.
He doesn't know if she's the kind of person to laugh when someone repeatedly falls on their butt while trying to ice skate, but he suspects he's going to find out.
"So?" Zeke's standing in the kitchen doorway, fidgeting with a towel that probably needed to go in the wash the previous week. "What's your answer?"
"I didn't realize you'd asked a question." But really, the only reason for him not to go would be if he broke his leg or twisted an ankle or something. "Okay, I guess." His mother's always telling him he needs to stay in better sync with the world, and this is as good a first step as any. Aside from the potential for humiliation.
And Zeke is his only friend, and will be moving out and getting married soon—Jed's never been good with change, so he'd better start preparing himself for this one.
He visits his mother the next morning, as he does every Saturday. She too can walk sideways across time, sit still in the midst of it and feel it slowly pile up against her spine until she allows it to push her downstream again, back into the steady, silent flow of all existence. She can, but she doesn't, not anymore.
"It's different when you're young," she tells him over cold pasta and flat soda, the TV in front of them paused on the first chase scene from Paycheck. "When you're still discovering the world and yourself. I once spent a month of Saturdays exploring most of the eastern seaboard and memorized an April morning in Maine, and I was happy doing that. But it got harder and harder to relate to the people around me when I would step back into the world everyone else lived in. You know what I mean."
"Yes," Jed says, because he does, although he hasn't yet decided if it matters as much as she says it does; they've been having variations on this conversation ever since he had to make a choice about going to college. "The fish died again," he tells her, to change the topic. He hates to argue.
"Well, at least it lasted longer than the others," she says, accepting his silent request and unknowingly echoing the girl at the pet shop. "Have you told Zeke yet?"
Not a question Jed was expecting. "I thought we'd been over this before. No—I promised him I'd keep the fish alive, and I don't want to disappoint him. Isn't that what being friends means?"
She waves a placatory hand at him. "No, not about that. The other thing."
So, request denied, not accepted. He scowls at her. "No. I don't know why you think it's so important."
"Well, for one thing, he could help you keep the fish alive," she says cajolingly, and he can't stay irritated at her. Sighing, he flops over on the couch, head just touching her knee, face smashed against the seat cushion. He'll have creases on his face when he sits up again.
"But how would I tell him? ‘You know me as a socially-challenged accountant, but during my lunch breaks I like to wander around museums in between seconds so that no one knows I was there, and last Saturday I hiked the entire Appalachian trail and still was home in time to watch Indiana Jones with you'?"
"Well, you might not want to phrase it quite like that." She rests her hand on his hair, and it makes him feel like a little boy again.
"You never did tell Dad. Why would I tell Zeke?" he asks into the seat cushion, half-hoping she won't hear, or will at least pretend she doesn't. Instead, she sighs and removes her hand, leaving him feeling oddly adrift.
"At least tell him about the fish."
"Bad news," Zeke says when Jed arrives back at the apartment. "Melissa's twisted her ankle and won't be able to skate."
"Oh," Jed says absently, mind still playing through the conversation with his mother. And then, "Does that mean we won't be going?" when Zeke's words finally register. He tries not to sound hopeful and fails pretty badly, but Zeke doesn't seem to notice.
"Nope—just means you're going to have lots of one-on-one time with the skating master."
"And who would that be?" Jed asks without thinking, still distracted, earning himself a pillow to the face. "Oh, right."
It happens to be that 'by my parents' place' actually means 'a fifteen minute hike down a dirt trail', but Jed doesn't mind. It delays the inevitable a little while longer, and the trail is narrow and windy enough to make conversation difficult—a definite plus after the two hour car trip. Zeke is Jed's only friend, but he does like to talk. And Jed likes silence, is used to it as to a second skin; too much unbroken conversation leaves him feeling stripped bare, rubbed raw.
The river, when they get there, looks very wide, and the ice disconcertingly thin in comparison. Fragile, even. If Jed didn't have the secret ability to walk sideways across time, nothing short of bribery and a rescue team parked on the shore would get him to even step onto it, let alone what Zeke has planned. Melissa's twisted ankle suddenly looks suspiciously convenient.
"You sure this is safe?" Jed asks as he tugs on the knotted laces of his borrowed skates.
"Of course it's safe!" Zeke leans down to thump a fist against the ice, apparently pleased by the sound it makes. "I've been skating on this river all my life. Never had a problem." A gentle push off from shore sends him gliding away with a grace mostly hidden in his daily life. "See? Now hurry up with those skates and get out here."
"I'm trying," Jed calls after him, a half-hearted truth at the best; the laces are badly knotted and refuse to loosen enough for him to get his feet in, but he could easily go sideways without Zeke noticing and have them done in an apparent moment. He tells himself he doesn't want to risk Zeke glancing over at just the wrong second, but really what has him hesitating is the nagging sensation that something's going to go spectacularly wrong.
And it does. Just as he finishes with the last knot, there's a crack, followed by a shout and a splash, and when he looks up, Zeke's gone. He's up and running before he realizes what he's doing, and it takes an unpleasant groan from the ice to make him stop and think and step sideways so that he has the time to rescue Zeke without getting himself killed as well.
No way of getting help in time, so it's entirely up to Jed.
The first problem is Zeke drowning, but even after that, there'll be hypothermia to deal with. They didn't bring blankets or anything with which to make a fire, and there's no way Zeke could get back to the house in whatever state he'll be in once he's safely out of the water. And there's a river under the ice, so he's likely already been dragged out of grabbing distance of the hole.
In short, there's absolutely no way the Jed he knows could save him.
Of course, the Jed he doesn't know can do it easily, but not without making it pretty clear to Zeke that something strange was involved. Well. Jed's mother keeps saying he should tell Zeke—a practical demonstration would make it easier, and it doesn't get much more practical than saving someone's life.
It feels wrong to step away from the hole, to leave the river entirely, with Zeke still in it, but rope will make the rescue a lot easier, and there should be some back at the house, as well as blankets. If he's going to do this, he might as well do it properly.
Sunlight through the ice stains everything an odd, almost turquoise blue, but dark and cold. Despite the lack of heat-transfer, Jed can't suppress a shudder as he lowers himself in. But he pushes through the tightly-clinging water until he reaches Zeke, almost out of sight of the hole in the ice. He winds up having to thrash more than swim properly, banging his elbows against the ice several times as he tries to snag Zeke and tie the rope around him in such a way as to not accidentally damage him. Jed's never tried to move a person while between, sideways, but forcing limbs to move one way while they're caught in the middle of going another way seems like a really bad idea.
Getting out again takes longer, and requires the sacrifice of most of the skin on Jed's left hand. He'll need to remember to bandage it before stepping back into the flow of time, before his nerves and circulatory system start functioning normally again. Except moving Zeke back to the house is going to require using both hands, which means he'll have to abandon Zeke a second time to go back to the house alone and use whatever they have in the way of a first aid kit. If there was anyone to hear and any way for them to do so, he might have said "Sorry," but there isn't. So he doesn't.
After returning, still feeling irrationally guilty about leaving in the first place, he swaddles Zeke in the blankets and begins the long, slow, agonizing process of dragging him down the trail, wondering all the while why it couldn't be straighter and wider and a heck of a lot shorter—forget what he'd thought when they'd first walked it. When they finally make it to the house, he's about ready to cry.
He doesn't, though. Couldn't, even if he tried. Just stands and doesn't think and doesn't cry and waits until he feels able to move again without falling to pieces.
Getting Zeke inside is easy after everything else, and Jed deposits him in front of the fireplace, which Zeke's parents left laid out for a fire. So all that remains for Jed is to remove the remnants of river water from himself and the blankets, swaddle Zeke again, and find a lighter to start the fire.
Even as things start moving again, Zeke thrashes his way clear of the blankets with a shout, which stops abruptly when he realizes where he is, and then turns into a fit of coughing.
"Did I hit my head?" he asks once the coughing subsides, clutching the blankets around him again, visibly shaking from the cold.
It's an excuse. Not a perfect one, once Zeke has time to think through the situation and poke at all the holes in the story, but Jed could say yes. Say yes and think up some more clever lies and—
Well, if letting George the friendship fish die at least twenty times would disappoint Zeke, what would a lie of such proportions do? Besides, Jed had already made up his mind back out on the ice to tell all. More or less. "No," he says. "No, you didn't hit your head. There's something I probably should have told you a long time ago...."
However this turns out, at least his regrets will be his own, not his mother's.
(Zeke spends the entire trip home coming up with increasingly elaborate and ridiculous superhero names for him, complete with costume designs and theme songs. And Jed doesn't step sideways even once.)