Choices have consequences.
I was just finishing up in the bathroom when I walked in.
“Hey,” I snapped, before I saw who it was. “Privacy in the bathroom, huh?”
“Be quiet,” the other I said, his voice volume turned low. I spun so hard I nearly sprained something. The soap slid to the floor and skittered, spinning to a stop in front of a pair of leather loafers.
“What the hell-?”
“Honey? Is everything all right in there?” My wife called from the hall. Beyond her I heard the usual chaos of a baker’s dozen kids screaming and running through the house.
“Everything’s fine,” called the other me, in my voice. “Just dropped the soap.” He turned to me with a smile and a wink, which looked odd because when I practice that look in front of a mirror, it’s the other eye that winks. He stooped to pick up the soap, and I couldn’t help but notice that his movements were more graceful than mine.
“What the hell?” I tried again, whispering this time.
He handed me the soap. “Yes, I’m you. Sort of. You know about multiverse theory? You used to read science fiction as a kid, same as me.”
“You’re telling me you’re me from another universe.”
From behind the door, one of the kids – I think it was Danni – shrieked like she was being interrogated at Gitmo. I winced. Other-me raised an eyebrow. “Yes, I’m from another universe. I’ve decided to look up my counterparts. You know – see what might have been, if I’d made different choices.”
“Mark, who are you talking to in there?” my wife demanded through the door. Had she been listening?
“Myself,” I called back. “Who’s torturing Danni?”
“I don’t know. I’ll- James! You leave your sister alone!” I heard her footsteps retreating.
I looked at my counterpart, who seemed entirely too smug. “Let me guess. You don’t have thirteen kids.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” I said.
He looked up and ticked off points on his fingers. I hadn’t realized how annoying that could be. “Diapers, vomit, sibling rivalry, teen angst, stuff never being where you leave it, and having to fake going to the bathroom just to get a little time to yourself.”
“You don’t have any kids?”
“No. Let me ask you – who’d you end up marrying? I didn’t recognize her voice.”
“Janey McClellan,” I told him. “You didn’t marry her in your universe?”
He shook his head. “You must have met her after our worlds split,” he said. “I ended up marrying Ronnie Tyson.”
“No way. Ronnie from high school?” I felt a pang of… something. Nostalgia? Envy? Something unpleasant.
“That’s the one. I became a physicist. What do you do?”
I felt my face turning red, and I looked away from him. It was my oldest dream to be a physicist, but then I’d met Janey, and I’d had to drop out of school and get a job. “I work for Blue Farm Insurance,” I muttered. “It pays the bills.”
“Oh, of course,” he said, nodding. “You gotta do what’s right, you know?” Which was exactly what I would have said to someone I pitied.
“Look, what are you doing? Did you come here to gloat? Because it’s not going to work.” I looked him in my eye, crossing my arms. “I love my kids. I love Janey.”
“Of course you do; I know. I came here, like I said, just to see how I turned out on other timelines. I just visited one of us who became an Army colonel – got thrust into a war that’s not on my timeline or yours. Another one isn’t a physicist, either, but became a well-known science writer. So don’t feel bad; it’s not often that we get to realize our childhood dream.”
I reached for the towel I’d been meaning to grab since my hand-washing got interrupted and rubbed the rough cotton across my face. “Okay, fine, I get it. My options were more limited because of the kids, I know.”
“Hey, you’re sending your DNA off into the future,” he said. “That’s important, too.”
“Is it? When they grow up, their kids’ll have only a fourth of my DNA. The next generation will have an eighth. It won’t be long before there’s not much left of me at all.” I turned toward the mirror, noticing some of the many differences between my face and his: more lines, bags under the eyes. Another chin. “But maybe one of them will amount to something.” Just then, there was a crash and a shriek, and I heard my wife screaming at whichever kid had broken whatever. I turned back to the other me. “Why do you get to travel between dimensions, anyway? Wouldn’t it get crowded?”
He shrugged. “There are certain perks to having invented the technology.”
I shook my head, looking away.
“Well,” he said. “I’m glad we talked, but I have to get going.” He took a small device out of his suit pocket.
There came a banging on the door. “Daddy, I gotta PEE!”
Something inside me snapped, and I grabbed his wrist. “Wait,” I said. “Take me with you. Please!”
The banging continued. “Daddy, quit talking to yourself and let me IN!”
“Use the other bathroom!” I cried out.
“Timmy peed all over the seat! Daddy, I gotta GO!”
I looked into his eyes, pleading. He shook his head. “I can’t,” he said. “You have responsibilities here.”
“To hell with that,” I hissed. “I can’t stand it anymore. I made a mistake. Please!”
He peeled my fingers away. “Sorry. Space-time continuum, permanent rips, singularities – you know the drill. Take care, now!” As I watched, he turned sideways without really turning, became a one-dimensional line, and disappeared.
The door burst open, the latch splintering as Ashley tore past me. I stumbled out into the hall, slid to the grime-covered floor, and covered my face with my hands.
Author's Note: "No Kidding"