Off the Trail

Book Excerpt: Chapter 14 (Ethan)

In a parallel universe, Ethan told himself, Annie was his girlfriend. She had decided to settle down, had decided that she wanted children after all. A programmer always considered multiple outcomes for every scenario, and Ethan stayed focused on the outcomes that favored his dreams. The challenge was in knowing how to effect this change. Annie’s mind did not work like any algorithm he had known, and every day his mind kept busy trying to debug it.

In the absence of clues, Ethan figured his best strategy for winning her over was plain old proximity. He attended all of her protest events and fundraising drives. He joined activists holding angry signs at busy intersections as drivers honked at them. And he sat next to her the evening that Adam Cosgrove delivered his keynote speech at the Hillcrest Community Center. The room was crowded with people who looked and dressed a lot like Annie and Adam—hemp clothing, long hair, tattoos; Ethan felt like more of an outsider than ever before. Physical proximity alone, he had begun to realize, was only making him feel more distant from her. He needed to go further if he wanted to be a part of her world. His mind whirled as Adam spoke about protests and animal rights, his battles with the law and his time in prison. And when he asked for questions from the audience, Ethan was the first to raise his hand.

“How would one go about building an incendiary device?” Ethan asked. “Like the one you used?”

To answer, Adam demonstrated. He picked up an apple-juice container from the potluck table. You needed only to fill it with fuel, he said, then to shove an old cotton t-shirt into the top and insert a slow-burning fuse. He held up a cellular phone and his iPod. He explained how to set the device off remotely, at a precise time.

Ethan had no idea how soon he would regret asking that question, how soon he would be running the scenario through his head over and over again, as if it were an algorithm he could go back and fix—the if/else equation that worked reliably in computers but always led to surprises in real life.

If Adam had not answered the question. If Adam had not provided such detail. If an unfinished condominium development in La Jolla had not been set on fire later that evening by a similar type of device. If Ethan had not raised his hand, none of these things would have happened—and Adam would not have been arrested by the FBI the following morning. And Annie would not have left Ethan to run to Adam’s defense.

So many ifs, all set in motion by one question. Ethan had always lived in a world of undos, of parallel universes. But he could not undo what he said. He could only watch as Annie slipped out of his universe and into someone else’s.

(From The Tourist Trail, Chapter 14: Ethan)