He sat in the coffee shop, nursing an oversized black coffee with a medicinal dash of cinnamon, fingertips straying to pet his unkempt, winter growth beard as he wrote in longhand, pen caressing the thick, yellowing pages of the journal. He peered over his spectacles and stopped writing each time the doorbell chimes to announce another visitor.

When he saw Lily, his eyes watered. By the time she looked up, he was writing in his journal again but she felt a quiet jolt of surprise at the sight of him. Lily had experienced déjà vu before, but never with such a belief as she did in the moment.

He grunted and got up, left a twenty pound note on the table and walked past her and the child just as Ben shuffled in behind her. Jack let him step aside and hid the small smile when his wife looked at him.

Money well spent, he thought as she asked him if he had made reservations at the restaurant. He struggled to find a reasonable excuse, something to placate her, because after all he had taken steps to secure her for the future. He looked down at his son, ruffled his hair and grinned at him before looking into his wife’s eyes with a guileless innocence. To his delight, the ward held firm.

Jack did his better thinking outside, and all his melancholic pining had been for nothing. She had not recognised him, not to the degree he expected. The phone in his pocket worked, but had survived most of the trips he had taken to find her, or a version of her who would remember him. He dialled the number programmed into the phone and lit a cigarette as he strode away. His eyes grew wet again, but he blamed it on the wind.

‘She doesn’t remember me.’ he said.

The voice on the other end, altered through voice changing technology, chuckled and sighed with cruel indifference.

‘You’re chasing your tail, Jack.’

Jack stopped. The husband back at the coffee shop. Jack snarled and turned on his heel. Aleph warned him but the pain tugged at Jack from the inside, the patience and determination worn as armour to keep the small pieces of grief from tunneling through him and piercing his organs. There were no comparison between the two men, and not all of it Jack claimed as complimentary to him but he knew how she looked at him. His magic spoke to her, offered her a key to the gilded cage she found herself within. Incarceration did not suit her, but he re-framed the thought as more determination to dull the pain inside him.

He caught them as they were going back to the car. Lily was in the passenger seat and Ben had closed the door after strapping his son in. A shudder ran through Ben, like a sudden dose of stomach flu as he curled his hands into fists and stood his ground.

‘Don’t come any closer, sir.’ Ben said.

Jack chuckled and held the journal out in front of him.

‘I wanted to look you in the eye. I hadn’t seen it before, but a friend pointed out something.’ Jack said.

Ben looked towards the car, his family safe inside it as he took a step forwards. Jack chuckled and shook his head.

‘It’s not going down like that. Not in front of your kids, Ben.’ he said.

Ben ran his tongue over his lips.

‘You’re not taking her from me. We’ve seen to it.’ he said.

Jack smiled and opened the journal at a random page.

‘It was never about taking her from you. I showed her things could be different.’

Ben grimaced and huffed air through his nostrils.

‘You won’t take my family, you’re fucking done with her.’

Jack pointed to a particular passage.

”I’m thinking it is a ward. She sees me for a second, but then something overrides her reaction and she is hiding from me.’ I wrote it two weeks ago, after the fifth time it happened.’

Ben tried to speak, but it came out as a wet croak from the back of his throat.

‘I don’t want to take anything, Ben. I want her to have the choice.’ Jack said.

The night they had come to him, he struggled to remain upright as they stepped forwards. He could not quantify all the variations of him, some swollen with fat and riding mobility scooters, a few with lean, hard bodies from military service or life in dangerous realities and a great deal who had applied their need for Lily to direct their determination outwards.

He signed up on the spot. The memory burned a spot into his sternum and he shook his head.

‘Fuck off, Jack. It’s done. Move on.’ he said.

Jack blinked and straightened up. His eyes were cold with determination and his lips pulled back over his teeth as he put his journal back into his pocket.

‘Ask her who she dreams of at night, Ben. You’ve become a nexum and I know how to deal with that.’ he said.

Ben lifted his chin.

‘What if she’s smart enough not to want to break up her home for you?’ he said.

Jack swallowed and looked away for a second, his chest rising as he looked back at Ben.

‘If you have a way to get in touch with any of them, ask them what a nexus is. It might be something useful to know.’ he said.

He looked at the car and squeezed his hands into the pockets of his coat.

‘If it weren’t for the kids, you’d be a fucking dead man. She doesn’t deserve the light snuffed out of her, Ben. I will give her the choice.’ he said.

‘What if she chooses me?’ Ben said.

The ward was a set of instructions programmed into the operating system of universes, unrecognised commands to individuals or systems, purchased and deployed by the gathered group of alternative Bens. It avoided the question, because deep down, they all knew the answer.

Jack scratched his beard and smiled, his eyes shining with emotion.

‘Ask where the power to do it came from, Ben. You’re not a bad man, you’re weak. The weak which leads to an entire identity being caught in a nexum.’

Ben shook his head.

‘Different versions of me. One of them was a physicist. We figured it out.’

Jack laughed and pointed back at the car.

‘No, you have borrowed the power to do it from someone else. Something else, and they don’t play by the rules.’

Jack turned and walked away. He was almost flattered by the seismic ambitions allied against him.

A nexum was a contract where the debtor pledged themselves as collateral. The Bens had traded their identities in return for keeping Lily from recalling Jack at all, but the price would not be paid straight away. An entire line of identities kept some entities fed for a long time, but Jack knew whoever was behind this would not stay full. Children were acceptable too.

The war started in the winter. A series of unexplained occurrences, a lurid case of spontaneous human combustion, the sudden appearance of a grizzly bear in the Natural History Museum dressed in a suit and tie before it disappeared from the surveillance.

They happened in places we only visit in wistful recollection or sad imaginings, but some of them were close to you, but we miss the wonderful things around us all the time.

Jack found the letter from her tucked behind the seat at the coffee shop when he came back there one afternoon in April.


He folded it and slipped it into his breast pocket.

He sat in the coffee shop, nursing an oversized black coffee with a medicinal dash of cinnamon, fingertips straying to pet his unkempt, winter growth beard as he wrote in longhand, pen caressing the thick, yellowing pages of the journal. He peered over his spectacles and stopped writing each time the doorbell chimes to announce another visitor.

Maybe this time, he thought, maybe.


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