Lew and Pru at the Gotham Book Mart

(#5 in a series)

Lew looked around the store, his gaze passing over all the mementoes, the framed Edward Gorey drawings black-silhouetted on the walls, the racks of books. So many books. He smiled at Pru, the wrinkles in his face falling into their old accustomed patterns. She smiled back at him. She was looking very good, very well preserved for a seventy-year-old, he thought. Well, they had an active lifestyle. "Now, what do I think I would find particularly corrupting today?" he asked. "Any hints?" "Hmm," she said, "I've heard that Lost Girls is supposed to be a masterwork. Of course," and she tossed her head, her long hair moving over her back, "it is a perverse graphic novel which should be criminal to sell or even to own under the provisions of the PROTECT ACT, since it contains 'an obscene visual depiction of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct', and therefore is no better than the worst child pornography." "Ah. Comic books," he said, "well, doubly corrupting then." They exchanged another amused look and he rang it up at the counter. He sometimes wondered what was in all those books. He'd never read a pornographic novel, other than a few chapters of that one the day he and Pru had gotten married, so many decades ago. Pru would read them and sometimes she'd get a particularly wicked smile on her face and somehow they'd be trying something that they still hadn't tried yet. Of course, that was much less often now that they were getting old, but they still managed somehow. He suddenly slipped the book into her hand and she blushed a little.

They went walking, hand in hand, out around the nearby streets. Lew frowned and reached into his pocket and pulled out the piece of paper, now crumpled, that that silly Earth Defense Squad nun had given them. He managed to unfold it. Yes, there was the letterhead in bold: "For Great Justice." That was going to get old. He scanned it quickly: invaders from Twin Earth were apparently plotting to replace water from the Hudson, which had some kind of value in their world, with their water, which was almost indistinguishable from Earth water but had a strange chemical composition and did exceedingly odd things to Earth life. If it ever got into the Hudson it would be a catastrophe. He shrugged and folded up the paper. He didn't know why the EDS bothered giving them these things; they'd blunder into it anyways.

Pru caught his eye. He followed her gaze and there it was: two people looking distinctly paramilitary and out-of-place by the entrance to a shabby building. They went into a nearby shop, out the back, through a few twists and turns and a freight elevator and there they were; there was some kind of underground installation. "Air vents look too small to crawl through," he noted. "Good thing, too," muttered Pru. "I'm getting too old to crawl through an air vent any more." He shrugged, and they waited a bit for a shift change and just followed the off-duty guards in. They quickly turned away from the heavily-guarded control room, found a shabby computer tech's office, and sat down with a sigh to read the manuals.

He tapped away at a computer console while she looked things up. "What do you think we should get Emily for her 35th?" Pru asked. "A bassinet?" "She'll probably want to pick out her own special cosleeping one," he said. "Mmm," she said, and he thought about it for a little. Good god, their youngest child was going to be 35. "Have you figured that out yet?" he asked, raising his eyebrow. "It's confusing," she said, "their name for their water is just water, even though it's a different substance than our water. I keep getting them mixed up." "For convenience, you could just put a 't' before anything from Twin Earth," he said, "so we'd call their water twater." They exchanged a long, wordless look. "I think that calling it Twin Earth water will be fine, dear," she said, and they both laughed. She found the right part of the manual and he typed in the program. He started to test it, but then a surveillance camera suddenly swiveled so that they were directly in its view. "I think that we'd better do it now, dear, now that we're on camera," Pru said. So he pushed the last button and she picked up her shopping bag and they strolled over to the nearby dimensional interface room.

All sorts of security alarms began to go off: "Tweeep! Tweeep! Tweeep!" "Have you ever heard an alarm that sounded like that?" Pru asked. He shook his head, laughing; he was something of a connoisseur of alarms. Ever since they'd gotten married, the crises they'd gone through had seemed to have more at stake, somehow. Lew thought about the big international incident after that slave-labor scandal where they'd gotten locked in a room for two days translating Chinese into more modern Chinese according to formula, even though they didn't understand Chinese. How Pru had fumed when she found that they'd been inadvertently translating the Jin Ping Mei! Or the crises where they'd just sit together afterwards, exhausted, as one of their sick children got better... guards were surrounding them from every direction, he noted. He wasn't quite sure how they were going to get out of this one.

They stopped in front of the dimensional interface. Guards with shouldered weapons were standing all around, and their leader stepped forward. "Do you know what happens to your system when the safeties are taken off and it's set to liquid-only transfer and a solid object is put through?" asked Lew politely. The Twin Earth leader peered at their faces, then suddenly leaped back, yelling "Lew and Pru!" The guards all gasped and leveled their rifles. Pru tossed the copy of Lost Girls through the interface.

There was a low rumble, and everyone froze for a moment. The dimensional transfer machinery began to disintegrate. Lew laughed and said "Did you really think we'd just let you destroy everything?" "I mean, really," Pru sniffed, "we have grandchildren." The Twin Earth leader opened his mouth to order them to be shot, or something, but he and all his men were fading out as the dimensional transfer machine went. Their expressions as they were sent back to Twin Earth were so comical, Lew and Pru both laughed, together, their voices pealing out in unstoppable mirth, not cruel, but triumphant. So what if there was a seemingly endless supply of corrupt charismatics, interdimensional monsters, crazed "Flying Man" mystics? They would all come crashing down.

Pru dusted off her hands. "That's one that's not coming back," she said with satisfaction, looking at where Lost Girls had disappeared. "Add one to my score!" Lew was about to reply when the interface made one last burp, and as it snapped out a book came flying through to land on the floor. Lew rushed over to look at it. "It's a Twin Earth copy of Lost Girls!" he said. "Same words, same colors, even though it's printed in tink! You're still going to have to read it, Pru!" He laughed and laughed. His gaze fell on the drawing of Wendy on the cover. "Printed in tink," he muttered, "clap your hands if you believe." Suddenly he felt an awful pain in his chest. He found himself sitting on the floor, Pru holding his hand with a lovely, calm look on her face as she met his eyes. She'd always been so brave, he thought muzzily. He'd never be able to keep himself from panicking if he saw her collapse like that...

They knelt there, holding hands, and he felt the pain in his chest fade. "Oh, that's better," he said, "it's going away. Probably nothing." "No more laughing it off," she said as they stood up. "We're going to get that checked, right away." "Yes, dear," he said meekly. "And if a normal doctor isn't good enough," she said, "we've met any number of unusual medical practitioners on our travels. Some of them decidedly odd, of course." Lew laughed a bit, imagining what he might end up with. The rest of the chest pain went away and he stood up, feeling relieved. It was going to happen some day, of course. But not now, not today.

She dropped the Twin Earth copy of Lost Girls into her shopping bag. "The EDS will probably want to study this one," she said, "but that wouldn't be fair. I'll have them give me a normal one in exchange." "Add one to my score," he murmured. As they walked out, she said "You know, Lew, I was at one of those lectures, and I met a nice Indian gentleman. He asked me how you and I had met, and I told him something about those books -- nothing indecent, of course. And you know, he seemed to think that there was something -- illiberal, about the arrangement. Do you think so?" Lew met her eyes, and they kissed, and then they both had to laugh again. And they walked out, arm in arm.

For Sherri Puchalsky

Valentine's Day, 2009

2009 Rich Puchalsky

(#5 in a series) E-mail: rpuchalsky1@gmail.com

Last modified: January 1, 2015