Dave Miller would never have done it, had he been in his right mind. The Millers were not a melancholy stock, hardly the sort of people you expect to read about in the morning paper who have taken their lives the night before. But Dave Miller was drunk--abominably, roaringly so--and the barrel of the big revolver, as he stood against the sink, made a ring of coldness against his right temple.
Dawn was beginning to stain the frosty kitchen windows. In the faint light, the letter lay a gray square against the drain-board tiles. With the melodramatic gesture of the very drunk, Miller had scrawled across the envelope:
“This is why I did it!”
[Illustration: Dave Miller pushed with all his strength, but the girl was as unmovable as Gibraltar.]
He had found Helen’s letter in the envelope when he staggered into their bedroom fifteen minutes ago--at a quarter after five. As had frequently happened during the past year, he’d come home from the store a little late ... about twelve hours late, in fact. And this time Helen had done what she had long threatened to do. She had left him.
The letter was brief, containing a world of heartbreak and broken hopes.
“I don’t mind having to scrimp, Dave. No woman minds that if she feels she is really helping her husband over a rough spot. When business went bad a year ago, I told you I was ready to help in any way I could. But you haven’t let me. You quit fighting when things got difficult, and put in all your money and energy on liquor and horses and cards. I could stand being married to a drunkard, Dave, but not to a coward...”
So she was trying to show him. But Miller told himself he’d show her instead. Coward, eh? Maybe this would teach her a lesson! Hell of a lot of help she’d been! Nag at him every time he took a drink. Holler bloody murder when he put twenty-five bucks on a horse, with a chance to make five hundred. What man wouldn’t do those things?
His drug store was on the skids. Could he be blamed for drinking a little too much, if alcohol dissolved the morbid vapors of his mind?
Miller stiffened angrily, and tightened his finger on the trigger. But he had one moment of frank insight just before the hammer dropped and brought the world tumbling about his ears. It brought with it a realization that the whole thing was his fault. Helen was right--he was a coward. There was a poignant ache in his heart. She’d been as loyal as they came, he knew that.
He could have spent his nights thinking up new business tricks, instead of swilling whiskey. Could have gone out of his way to be pleasant to customers, not snap at them when he had a terrific hangover. And even Miller knew nobody ever made any money on the horses--at least, not when he needed it. But horses and whiskey and business had become tragically confused in his mind; so here he was, full of liquor and madness, with a gun to his head.
Then again anger swept his mind clean of reason, and he threw his chin up and gripped the gun tight.
“Run out on me, will she!” he muttered thickly. “Well--this’ll show her!”
In the next moment the hammer fell ... and Dave Miller had “shown her.”
Miller opened his eyes with a start. As plain as black on white, he’d heard a bell ring--the most familiar sound in the world, too. It was the unmistakable tinkle of his cash register.
“Now, how in hell--” The thought began in his mind; and then he saw where he was.
The cash register was right in front of him! It was open, and on the marble slab lay a customer’s five-spot. Miller’s glance strayed up and around him.
He was behind the drug counter, all right. There were a man and a girl sipping cokes at the fountain, to his right; the magazine racks by the open door; the tobacco counter across from the fountain. And right before him was a customer.
Good Lord! he thought. Was all this a--a dream?
Sweat oozed out on his clammy forehead. That stuff of Herman’s that he had drunk during the game--it had had a rank taste, but he wouldn’t have thought anything short of marihuana could produce such hallucinations as he had just had. Wild conjectures came boiling up from the bottom of Miller’s being.
How did he get behind the counter? Who was the woman he was waiting on? What--
The woman’s curious stare was what jarred him completely into the present. Get rid of her! was his one thought. Then sit down behind the scenes and try to figure it all out.
His hand poised over the cash drawer. Then he remembered he didn’t know how much he was to take out of the five. Avoiding the woman’s glance, he muttered:
“Let’s see, now, that was--uh--how much did I say?”
The woman made no answer. Miller cleared his throat, said uncertainly:
“I beg your pardon, ma’am--did I say--seventy-five cents?”
It was just a feeler, but the woman didn’t even answer to that. And it was right then that Dave Miller noticed the deep silence that brooded in the store.
Slowly his head came up and he looked straight into the woman’s eyes. She returned him a cool, half-smiling glance. But her eyes neither blinked nor moved. Her features were frozen. Lips parted, teeth showing a little, the tip of her tongue was between her even white teeth as though she had started to say “this” and stopped with the syllable unspoken.
Muscles began to rise behind Miller’s ears. He could feel his hair stiffen like filings drawn to a magnet. His glance struggled to the soda fountain. What he saw there shook him to the core of his being.
The girl who was drinking a coke had the glass to her lips, but apparently she wasn’t sipping the liquid. Her boy friend’s glass was on the counter. He had drawn on a cigarette and exhaled the gray smoke. That smoke hung in the air like a large, elongated balloon with the small end disappearing between his lips. While Miller stared, the smoke did not stir in the slightest.
There was something unholy, something supernatural, about this scene!
With apprehension rippling down his spine, Dave Miller reached across the cash register and touched the woman on the cheek. The flesh was warm, but as hard as flint. Tentatively, the young druggist pushed harder; finally, shoved with all his might. For all the result, the woman might have been a two-ton bronze statue. She neither budged nor changed expression.
Panic seized Miller. His voice hit a high hysterical tenor as he called to his soda-jerker.
“Pete! Pete!“ he shouted. “What in God’s name is wrong here!”
The blond youngster, with a towel wadded in a glass, did not stir. Miller rushed from the back of the store, seized the boy by the shoulders, tried to shake him. But Pete was rooted to the spot.
Miller knew, now, that what was wrong was something greater than a hallucination or a hangover. He was in some kind of trap. His first thought was to rush home and see if Helen was there. There was a great sense of relief when he thought of her. Helen, with her grave blue eyes and understanding manner, would listen to him and know what was the matter.
He left the haunted drug store at a run, darted around the corner and up the street to his car. But, though he had not locked the car, the door resisted his twisting grasp. Shaking, pounding, swearing, Miller wrestled with each of the doors.
Abruptly he stiffened, as a horrible thought leaped into his being. His gaze left the car and wandered up the street. Past the intersection, past the one beyond that, on up the thoroughfare until the gray haze of the city dimmed everything. And as far as Dave Miller could see, there was no trace of motion.
Cars were poised in the street, some passing other machines, some turning corners. A street car stood at a safety zone; a man who had leaped from the bottom step hung in space a foot above the pavement. Pedestrians paused with one foot up. A bird hovered above a telephone pole, its wings glued to the blue vault of the sky.
With a choked sound, Miller began to run. He did not slacken his pace for fifteen minutes, until around him were the familiar, reassuring trees and shrub-bordered houses of his own street. But yet how strange to him!
The season was autumn, and the air filled with brown and golden leaves that tossed on a frozen wind. Miller ran by two boys lying on a lawn, petrified into a modern counterpart of the sculptor’s “The Wrestlers.” The sweetish tang of burning leaves brought a thrill of terror to him; for, looking down an alley from whence the smoke drifted, he saw a man tending a fire whose leaping flames were red tongues that did not move.
Sobbing with relief, the young druggist darted up his own walk. He tried the front door, found it locked, and jammed a thumb against the doorbell. But of course the little metal button was as immovable as a mountain. So in the end, after convincing himself that the key could not be inserted into the lock, he sprang toward the back.
The screen door was not latched, but it might as well have been the steel door of a bank vault. Miller began to pound on it, shouting:
“Helen! Helen, are you in there? My God, dear, there’s something wrong! You’ve got to--”
The silence that flowed in again when his voice choked off was the dead stillness of the tomb. He could hear his voice rustling through the empty rooms, and at last it came back to him like a taunt: “Helen! Helen!“
Time Stands Still
For Dave Miller, the world was now a planet of death on which he alone lived and moved and spoke. Staggered, utterly beaten, he made no attempt to break into his home. But he did stumble around to the kitchen window and try to peer in, anxious to see if there was a body on the floor. The room was in semi-darkness, however, and his straining eyes made out nothing.
He returned to the front of the house, shambling like a somnambulist. Seated on the porch steps, head in hands, he slipped into a hell of regrets. He knew now that his suicide had been no hallucination. He was dead, all right; and this must be hell or purgatory.
Bitterly he cursed his drinking, that had led him to such a mad thing as suicide. Suicide! He--Dave Miller--a coward who had taken his own life! Miller’s whole being crawled with revulsion. If he just had the last year to live over again, he thought fervently.
And yet, through it all, some inner strain kept trying to tell him he was not dead. This was his own world, all right, and essentially unchanged. What had happened to it was beyond the pale of mere guesswork. But this one thing began to be clear: This was a world in which change or motion of any kind was a foreigner.
Fire would not burn and smoke did not rise. Doors would not open, liquids were solid. Miller’s stubbing toe could not move a pebble, and a blade of grass easily supported his weight without bending. In other words, Miller began to understand, change had been stopped as surely as if a master hand had put a finger on the world’s balance wheel.
Miller’s ramblings were terminated by the consciousness that he had an acute headache. His mouth tasted, as Herman used to say after a big night, as if an army had camped in it. Coffee and a bromo were what he needed.
But it was a great awakening to him when he found a restaurant and learned that he could neither drink the coffee nor get the lid off the bromo bottle. Fragrant coffee-steam hung over the glass percolator, but even this steam was as a brick wall to his probing touch. Miller started gloomily to thread his way through the waiters in back of the counter again.
Moments later he stood in the street and there were tears swimming in his eyes.
“Helen!” His voice was a pleading whisper. “Helen, honey, where are you?”
There was no answer but the pitiful palpitation of utter silence. And then, there was movement at Dave Miller’s right!
Something shot from between the parked cars and crashed against him; something brown and hairy and soft. It knocked him down. Before he could get his breath, a red, wet tongue was licking his face and hands, and he was looking up into the face of a police dog!
Frantic with joy at seeing another in this city of death, the dog would scarcely let Miller rise. It stood up to plant big paws on his shoulders and try to lick his face. Miller laughed out loud, a laugh with a throaty catch in it.
“Where’d you come from, boy?” he asked. “Won’t they talk to you, either? What’s your name, boy?”
There was a heavy, brass-studded collar about the animal’s neck, and Dave Miller read on its little nameplate: “Major.”
“Well, Major, at least we’ve got company now,” was Miller’s sigh of relief.
For a long time he was too busy with the dog to bother about the sobbing noises. Apparently the dog failed to hear them, for he gave no sign. Miller scratched him behind the ear.
“What shall we do now, Major? Walk? Maybe your nose can smell out another friend for us.”
They had gone hardly two blocks when it came to him that there was a more useful way of spending their time. The library! Half convinced that the whole trouble stemmed from his suicide shot in the head--which was conspicuously absent now--he decided that a perusal of the surgery books in the public library might yield something he could use.
That way they bent their steps, and were soon mounting the broad cement stairs of the building. As they went beneath the brass turnstile, the librarian caught Miller’s attention with a smiling glance. He smiled back.
“I’m trying to find something on brain surgery,” he explained. “I--”
With a shock, then, he realized he had been talking to himself.
In the next instant, Dave Miller whirled. A voice from the bookcases chuckled:
“If you find anything, I wish you’d let me know. I’m stumped myself!”
From a corner of the room came an elderly, half-bald man with tangled gray brows and a rueful smile. A pencil was balanced over his ear, and a note-book was clutched in his hand.
“You, too!” he said. “I had hoped I was the only one--”
Miller went forward hurriedly to grip his hand.
“I’m afraid I’m not so unselfish,” he admitted. “I’ve been hoping for two hours that I’d run into some other poor soul.”
“Quite understandable,” the stranger murmured sympathetically. “But in my case it is different. You see--I am responsible for this whole tragic business!”
“You!” Dave Miller gulped the word. “I--I thought--”
The man wagged his head, staring at his note pad, which was littered with jumbled calculations. Miller had a chance to study him. He was tall, heavily built, with wide, sturdy shoulders despite his sixty years. Oddly, he wore a gray-green smock. His eyes, narrowed and intent, looked gimlet-sharp beneath those toothbrush brows of his, as he stared at the pad.
“There’s the trouble, right there,” he muttered. “I provided only three stages of amplification, whereas four would have been barely enough. No wonder the phase didn’t carry through!”
“I guess I don’t follow you,” Miller faltered. “You mean--something you did--”
“I should think it was something I did!” The baldish stranger scratched his head with the tip of his pencil. “I’m John Erickson--you know, the Wanamaker Institute.”
Miller said: “Oh!” in an understanding voice. Erickson was head of Wanamaker Institute, first laboratory of them all when it came to exploding atoms and blazing trails into the wildernesses of science.
Erickson’s piercing eyes were suddenly boring into the younger man.
“You’ve been sick, haven’t you?” he demanded.
“Well--no--not really sick.” The druggist colored. “I’ll have to admit to being drunk a few hours ago, though.”
“Drunk--” Erickson stuck his tongue in his cheek, shook his head, scowled. “No, that would hardly do it. There must have been something else. The impulsor isn’t that powerful. I can understand about the dog, poor fellow. He must have been run over, and I caught him just at the instant of passing from life to death.”
“Oh!” Dave Miller lifted his head, knowing now what Erickson was driving at. “Well, I may as well be frank. I’m--I committed suicide. That’s how drunk I was. There hasn’t been a suicide in the Miller family in centuries. It took a skinful of liquor to set the precedent.”
Erickson nodded wisely. “Perhaps we will find the precedent hasn’t really been set! But no matter--” His lifted hand stopped Miller’s eager, wondering exclamation. “The point is, young man, we three are in a tough spot, and it’s up to us to get out of it. And not only we, but heaven knows how many others the world over!”
“Would you--maybe you can explain to my lay mind what’s happened,” Miller suggested.
“Of course. Forgive me. You see, Mr.--”