a story by

Jonathan Andrew Sheen

Gerard Conley smiled at Valerie Clark as he closed his briefcase on the supply of small fuses and solder rolls he'd just taken from stock.

"Well, you know how Tim is, Gerard," she was saying. "He thinks supper falls from the sky and lands on your plate. If anybody was going to find out about the heating system, it was going to be me."

"So how was the heating system?"

"Lousy! The neighbors were always seeing the HVAC truck out in front of the place, and there were soot stains ground into the cellar floor and walls around the furnace. Oh, and the door of the inspection panel on it was new, too. It was slightly less dull than the rest of the furnace. You know, the color of it?"

Gerard smiled and nodded. Valerie and her husband, Tim, were working on buying a house, and she was attacking the project with a singleminded and thorough determination which left Gerard awestruck. There would be no board unexamined, no wire uncertified, no paint untested for lead content in Valerie Clark's house. Problems, there might be, but not surprising ones.

"What are you smiling at?" she asked him suddenly, her own bright eyes sparkling and amused.

He looked at her for a moment, at those bright-grey, sparkling, joyous eyes, at the firm, confident line of her chin, at the humorous quirk of her lips and the no-nonsense shortness of the cinammon-colored hair that curled gently around her face.

"You," he said at last. "The irresistable force, the happy warrior, with your eyes on a goal, and the mountains parting to get the hell out of your way! You know, I really envy Timothy Clark. It must be a heady experience being married to you. Being hitched in tandem with your strength. Like being married to a force of nature..."

Valerie laughed. "Oh, puh-lease!"

"No, I mean it! Do you have any idea how extraordinary you are?"

"Yeah, but tell me again, you know I love to hear it."

Gerard chuckled, and leaned on the counter, his elbows on the equipment check-out forms she'd be filing away as soon as he left. "You may even," he murmured, "just possibly, mind you, be better than Cookie Dough Ice Cream."

"Oh, now that's going too far!"

He shrugged. "A man's entitled to his own opinions."

"But not to blasphemy!" She smiled again. "You know, I'll always be grateful to you for introducing me to Cookie Dough Ice Cream."

"Yeah... If only I'd done it five years ago."

Her eyes met Gerard's and there was a moment of recognition, not uncomfortable, exactly, but... Closer , perhaps, than either of them preferred. A moment when the lightness of his tone fell away, like a sheet pulled from a sculpture by the wind, and his banter stood naked, it's simple truth exposed for her -- for them both -- to see.

She looked down for a moment, then back up at him.

"We hadn't even met then," she said, not unkindly. The world is as it is. What might have been, is not.

She had a life, a home, a husband she loved. Her affection for Gerard was real enough, and if things had been different, if they'd started from scratch... Who knew? But things were as they were, and they hadn't started from scratch. That much they did know.

That much was certain.

He thought about her as he walked across the campus toward the Astrophysics lab, his first assignment of the evening. She'd be finishing her paperwork soon, heading home to Tim.

Gerard had met Tim a couple of times, a smallish, solid landscaper, with light brown hair and bright red eyebrows that moved with his expressions, and the shoulders of a compact comic-book superhero. When he'd talked about Valerie, his eyes had lit up, and he'd glowed from within as if lit by a small, internal sun.

As much as Gerard would have liked to hate him, he couldn't. Timothy Clark was a man who knew exactly how lucky he was -- even if he didn't always know how to say it. He knew that he lived in a home while millions of quietly desperate Gerards went home to empty, shabby lives, in empty, shabby apartments, with no one to love them, and no one there to love.

Gerard's feet rustled through the dry, brown leaves that scuttled across the footpath like small animals.

He and Valerie had become friends over the past couple of years, since she'd first been hired on as the Institute's electronic-materials clerk, finding areas of mutual interest and common desire. Pasta and the Beatles and Stephen King; Monty Python and New England Architecture and Republican-bashing. And more important things, too, harder things to define. Things that lived in the quiet, autumn shadows of the heart's neighborhood.

They'd found a common way of looking at things, thinking of things.

He remembered coming into the stockroom one day -- was it more than a year ago now? -- and finding her sitting, crying quietly behind the desk.

"Val," he'd murmured, "what is it?"

And she'd told him, half-smiling through her tears, that she'd stopped on the way to work and seen a crew tearing down the Shop-N-Save market in town. "I used to shop there when I first got my own apartment, right after I met Tim -- when we'd only been dating a couple of weeks. Every Thursday, at five o'clock in the afternoon, there I'd be, pushing my cart... And it made me feel so... Oh, I don't know, grown up, I guess. Shopping at the supermarket, for my own food, that I'd be cooking for myself, in my own apartment. I didn't realize how much that old place meant to me."

Gerard had nodded, and sung quietly, in a surprisingly sweet voice, a couple of lines from a song by the Kinks: "They put a parking lot on the piece of land/ Where the supermarket used to stand/ Before that they put up a bowling alley/ On the site that used to be the local Palais..."

And she'd smiled up at him, and completed the verse, "That's where the Big Bands used to come and play/ My sister went there on a saturday..."

Gerard had held out his hands to her, and their voices had joined together: "Come Dancing..."

And she'd stepped over, and taken his hands, and pulled him into a slightly formal waltz.

"All her boyfriends used to come and call/ Why don't you Come Dancing/ It's only natural..."

They'd waltzed for a couple of moments more, to their own slightly giggly, hummed accompaniment, Gerard preternaturally aware of the feeling of her hands in his. Then they'd parted again, and she'd laughed.

"Gerard, you always know how to cheer me up..."

"I do try," he'd responded

"Yo, Gerard! Earth to Gerard Conley, come in, Gerard!"

Gerard shook himself, realizing quite suddenly that he was in the second floor hallway of the astrophysics building, having gotten that far on autopilot. Dr. Carson Beaulieu, who was working on a quasar-modelling experiment, waved at him with a comically theatrical gesture.

"Ah, good, you're back!"

Gerard shook his head. "Okay, Carson. You caught me in Andromeda. What can I do for you?"

"You here to work on the Network Interface?"

"Yeah... I've got to trace out a break in the line somewhere between nodes five and ten."

"Think it'll keep you here for a couple of hours?"

"Yeah." Gerard thought for a moment. "With the lines I've got to trace out, I'll probably be here 'till, oh, nine-thirty or ten."

Beaulieu grinned. "Think I can get you to run a program for me then? Canberra's uploading its numbers to us at around nine o'clock, and I'm supposed to add them into the base observational data and run the new model. Could you cover that for me?"

"Sure. Same node as before?"

"Oh, yeah, of course."

"Sure, Carson. What's the deal this time?"

"Channel 50 is re-running The Best of Both Worlds tonight, on Star Trek . Both parts. It's my favorite Next Generation episode."

Gerard laughed. "Oh, for Pete's sake, Carson! Why don't you just set your VCR to tape it?"

Beaulieu chuckled, a little sheepishly. "I never could figure out how to program the damned thing! It's still flashing midnight at me."

Gerard shook his head. "Go home, Carson. Just-- Just go home."

Carson Beaulieu laughed and headed for the stairs.

By midnight -- having found and fixed the crimp in both the grand plans and one slender wire belonging to the Astrophysics Network Sysop -- Gerard checked on Beaulieu's modelling program, tweaked a couple of numbers, and headed on to the Quantum Physics research facility. Niel Nieh's special-project team wanted two more dumb-terminal ports wired into the mainframe, and ready for the terminals themselves to be installed in the morning.

Gerard let himself into the lab building with his skeleton key. There were a few lights on, here and there -- par for the course, in Gerard's experience -- but not much sign of life.

He walked quietly down toward the Special Projects section, whistling Come Dancing to himself, his tools jingling quietly in the briefcase. At the door into Special Projects, he selected another key, opened the door with it, and punched a short security code into the alarm keypad. A small green light winked. He switched on the lights


Someone had thrown a party there -- a pretty good one, by the looks. There were crumb-littered paper plates on all the desks, paper cups balanced on terminals, empty ice-cream containers and more than a few bottles scattered about.

Gerard chuckled. "Happy birthday," he said quietly, to the empty room, and looked around.

The two new workstation areas were toward the back, one having been used as a serving area for cake and ice cream -- an inferior national brand, he noticed. No Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough here!

He cleared away the debris, and began wiring in the modular telephone-type cables. The wires fed out of two smallish square boxes, which skittered back and forth on the floor a bit as foot after foot of cable wound out of them, and the coils within spread and relaxed.

With practised gestures, he ran the wires up through the squared-off conduit post that joined the desks, and into the suspended ceiling, then lifted the big beige ceiling tiles one at a time, heaving himself onto the sturdy office chairs with a grunt. Sometimes, being fat was no fun at all. Onward, he pulled and pushed the bundled wires toward the next tile and the next, in the general direction of the main computer room.

He paused to pull a chair over to the door, then clambered onto it, pushed aside the tile, fished around for a moment, found his bundle of wires, and sent it onward, over the wall, into the computer-room ceiling, then climbed down, returned the chair, and opened the door, stepping into the computer room. Gerard closed the door softly behind him.

He stood there a moment, before turning on the lights, listening to the hum of the air-conditioning, looking at the banks of moniters displaying ever-changing rows and columns of numbers, cool greens and blues in the dark room. He took a breath, felt the quiet thrum of immense technological competence in the very air itself, briskly cool, moving ever-so-slightly.

"I like it like this, too," said a quiet voice in the dark.

Gerard jumped. "Jesus!"

The voice continued, a slight underlying chuckle telling Gerard he'd been heard. "It reminds me of something out of a science fiction movie. Like the Nostromo in Alien, before the computer woke everybody up, and it all hit the fan."

"I was thinking more of the bridge of the Discovery in 2001." Gerard flicked the light switch, and ceiling flourescents began flickering on. "Hi, Dr. Nieh, how're you doing?"

Niel Nieh was sitting at a small desk toward the back of the room.

He was somewhere in his middle sixties, a smiling, quiet silver-haired man in blue jeans and a cardigan sweater, who had spent most of the last fifty years quietly filling gaps most people didn't know existed between Einstein, Tipler, Heisenberg, Hawking, Mandelbrot, Dirac and Schroedinger, to bring mankind as close as he'd ever been to understanding a Universe whose own measurements were at times flatly self-contradictory. He'd won not one but four Nobel Prizes, which he'd told Gerard he kept in a shoebox in his closet, and was still hard at work mating mathematics and sub-elementary particle-waves to the world of Men and their senses. If any living human had a chance of unlocking the puzzle, Niel Nieh was that man.

He was holding a piece of equipment in his hands, what looked like a bicycling helmet encrusted with with high-tech cyber-barnicles, trailing several cables of varying widths back to the varying computers and other odd devices in the room, all seemingly centered around a trio of Crays. His lined face creased in a slightly weary smile.

"Pretty well, I guess," he said. "I've just won another Nobel Prize today."

"That would explain the party stuff out-- Waitaminute!" Gerard interrupted himself, shaking his head. "I didn't think those were announced until October."

Nieh laughed. "Oh, they're not, they're not. But I won it today." He gestured vaguely with the device in his hands. "The experiments worked, Gerard." He sat for a moment, shaking his head. "Huzzah."

Gerard smiled and nodded, sitting across from the man. They'd become friendly, in a vague sort of way, over the years since Gerard had started working in his area. Nieh was a curious, gentle man, who wanted to know everyone and everything in his sphere, with even keels and smiles throughout. Usually, through the warmth and weight of his regard, he got them.

The silence hung companionably between them for a while.

"What is it?" Gerard finally asked, gesturing vaguely at the device in Nieh's hands.

Nieh waved it again. "This, oh, this is just a focus platform for the various quantum projectors. No, no, the real work goes on in these." He waved a hand at the computers.

"Oh, no, Doctor," Gerard murmured. He pointed at Nieh's head. "It goes on there."

Nieh smiled. "You're right, of course," he said, with a wave of the hand. It was one of the little things Gerard liked most about the man. He had a way of taking credit or praise as his due when it was due, while simultaneously dismissing it as unimportant in the general scheme of things. "But these machines execute the donkey-work."

"What is it?" Gerard asked again.

"Hmmm? Oh, I'm sorry, I thought I'd said." He put the device on a rack by the Crays and stood up. "Time travel, my boy," he said. "This is a time machine."

The paper that explained it all was called Temporal Displacement of Consciousness through Quantum Intervention.

Gerard looked at the title page for a moment, then back up at Nieh.

"I don't understand."

Nieh shook his head. "Yes, you do. You just don't want to say what you're thinking, for fear of looking ridiculous. I know you better than you give me credit for, my boy. You've got a damned fine head on your shoulders. I don't know why you're not studying here, instead of fixing the hardware."

Gerard felt the familiar flush come to his cheeks, and looked away.

Nieh saw, or sensed. "I'm sorry, lad. I didn't mean to pry. Is it a sore point?"

Gerard shook his head. "No reason why it should be. Five years ago, I was studying here. I ran out of money in the middle of my senior year."


"I was here on a foundation grant. Foundation went bankrupt. Couldn't qualify for another. So I dropped out, and took a local job, and always told myself I'd come back to the Institute. I guess this is as close as I'm going to get."

He looked at his feet. He was starting to sound bitter, sorry for himself. He hated that.

Nieh shook his head. "That's a damn shame."

Gerard shrugged. "Ah well. If everybody got what they wanted, the world would be full of astronauts, police officers, professional athletes, and ballet dancers."

Nieh nodded slowly, accepting this. "But you do understand that title," he said, pulling the conversation out of the mire it had skidded into. "Why don't you read the paper and tell me what you think?"

Gerard looked up, startled, and Nieh smiled and nodded at him. "Go on. Please."

"Okay," said Gerard, and started to read.

"Let me see if I've got this straight," Gerard said finally. "You've constructed a device that will send someone's mind back in time, into their own past, their own body?"

"No. Well, yes. I mean, that's close enough for our purposes. What I've discovered is that time's relationship to matter and energy is caused in large part by how -- and with what preconceptions -- we perceive it."

"The participatory Universe theory. I understand it -- as well as can be expected, anyway. That the universe is as it is because we so perceive it, that the answers it provides us are defined by the very questions we ask of it."

Nieh nodded. "Very good. Well, the issue of now -- the notion that every moment in the universe is now at some point, and the sequence of those nows -- seems to be one that is especially fluid.

"This device," he gestured toward the apparatus, "alters your perception of which moment is now now, and you start experiencing what I call the Now Queue from whatever previous point in your life was selected."

Gerard shook his head. "Doctor, what you're describing there is memory. Perfect total recall of past events. That's deep hypnosis."

"No. What I'm describing is real. I've been there." He smiled slightly. "I've done it. Sent myself back in time three days...

"Not just me either. Like a jackass, I just stood there gawping around, having a good time in my house, playing with corn flakes I remembered eating, and watching the old news on TV. So I sent a couple of the kids from the team back, and told them to do something. I sent Bates back, and she wrote me an essay, and handed it to me in a sealed envelope, about yesterday's supreme court nominations. I sent Searles back a day. He wrote down that day's lottery numbers -- all of them -- in advance."

Gerard nodded. That had been in the Nieh's paper. Between the lines, he sensed conflict over Searles' choice of verifiable data. The report noted that each of the lottery numbers Searles had written had proved correct: Massachusetts' Daily Number, Mass Millions, and Tri-State Megabucks. That morning's Boston Globe could confirm for him that nobody had won the multi-million dollar prizes. He'd've bet real money that simply confirming by watching the news, rather than playing those numbers, had not been Searles' idea.

"I still don't really understand how it works."

Niel Nieh shook his head gently. "I'm not even really certain I do, my boy. But it works. I do know that."

"Once. For an hour and a half." Gerard shook his head. "I'm sorry, Doctor, but that doesn't make sense to me.If it works, it should work. If it doesn't, it shouldn't. How can it be some of each?"

"I'm not entirely certain, Gerard. The mind is a tough, resilient thing, and it doesn't like being manipulated, even on a quantum level. Any mind can do it, it seems... But any one mind can only do it once. It can only remain displaced on the Now Queue for a certain amount of time. Shortest was half-an-hour, longest was a hundred and nine minutes. After that the mind no longer accepts the displacement input. Try it again, and nothing happens. I haven't worked out why yet. That's just the way it is. When I went back, after ninety-four minutes, I popped back into the present. I remembered doing things differently... But also remembered doing them that way as three-day-old memories. But I know in the intervening time, between the point three days ago when I left the past, and my arrival in the present, I... Remembered playing with the corn flakes instead of eating them, watching the news on Channel Four instead of Five... But not the reason why. No memory of the future self who motivated me. Only the actions themselves." He sifted through the papers on the desk, and came up with the original document. "If there is an answer, it's somewhere in these equations."

Gerard looked around at the computers and support machinery with new respect. "It's a hell of an achievement, Doctor. It really is."

Nieh nodded once, accepting, dismissive. "Think of the good it can do people, Gerard! Think of the good!" He shook his head in disgust. "And that young moron Searles wanted to use it to win Megabucks!"

Gerard chuckled. "Oh, I don't know, Doctor. I can understand what it's like to want money."

Nieh nodded, looking at him with his strangely likeable candor.

"I remember. How much do you make here, anyway?"

Gerard chuckled. Nieh seemed not to notice how offensively nosy the question was, and that somehow made it not. "Not enough, by a damn sight."

"You're still having money problems, then."

Gerard looked away this time. It certainly wasn't a secret that his salary wasn't covering the expenses of living alone in an apartment in Massachusetts -- especially living, as he did, in a college town. He'd talked quite readily to friends -- like Valerie -- about the vicious circle of robbing Peter to pay Paul that had eventually resulted, one week the previous month, in his losing both his gas and his electricity, while getting threatening notices from his landlord. A combination of overtime and loans from family and friends had squeaked him through that crisis... But just barely.

Gerard had told a number of his friends... But not Nieh. They weren't that close, and, even if they were... Nieh's patents made him worth literally trillions of dollars. Talking to him about his economic straights would have felt like begging, even if it wasn't. And even if it wasn't, it would've been, because he had a strong feeling Nieh would have simply paid off all his bills with a smile and a think nothing of it, and Gerard didn't think his self-respect could have survived that.

"Yeah," he said at last. "I'm on an austerity budget, I guess."

If Nieh sensed his discomfort, he ignored it. "How bad is it?"

Gerard looked at him for a long time, thinking. About his squallid, filthy apartment, about the services he kept barely ahead of disconnection for non-payment -- or sometimes failed to. About the three-hundred dollar car he'd put thirteen hundred dollars of repairs into, and the cancelled credit cards, and the collection agency notices he no longer bothered to open.

"It's bad," he said. "It's bad."

Nieh shook his head. "A mind like yours, in straights like that, while I've got a pompous little twerp like Searles, driving a new BMW to the lab, and demanding that I let him use my machine to make himself an extra few million. As if just being part of this team wasn't enough to set any man up for life. Gerard, it's an insane world."

Gerard shook his head. "I'm not a tragic figure, Doctor. Not by a long shot. I've got a lot more going for me than a lot of people. If they manage to carry on, I guess I can."

"Oh, I know, I know. But still..."

He looked down at his hand, at the sheet of paper with the equations, as if he'd forgotten it.

"Here." He held it out to Gerard. "Read this. Tell me if this makes any sense to you. Enough that, say, you could remember it."

Gerard looked the page over examined the equations one at a time. After a bit, they started to make a kind of twisted, elegant sense to him: a glimmer of order, imposing on chaos. It was beyond his understanding, clearly and far, but the pidgin he'd been able to translate from the equations spoke of wonders beyond wonders. And there was enough there to hang a glimmer of sense from. Enough to give his memory something to hold onto.

He nodded once, firmly. "Yes," he said. "If I could study this for a while, I could memorize it."

"There, you see?" said Niel Nieh. "Searles couldn't do that in a million years. He doesn't need a memory; that's what floppies are for." He wrinkled his brow in disgust. "A man like you, now..."

Nieh chuckled, murmured quietly, so quietly Gerard wasn't sure he was meant to hear at all. "A man like you is bright enough that you could probably figure out how to work this machine from having read the paper. A man could work it himself, you know. Doesn't need an operater. Bright enough to memorize the equations that make it go. Why, if you'd walked up to me five years ago, and started to discuss those equations, you'd've been on this team in a flash. And you were a student then, too..."

"But the world is as it is," Gerard said quietly. Nieh jumped, looking up at him.

He stood, walking towards the door. "So it is, son, so it is." He chuckled to himself, looking back at the device. "Well, I've kept you far too long. Let's go home."


Nieh laughed. "Oh, don't worry about the ports, lad. After today's celebrations and so on, no one was going to be in shape to work tomorrow anyway, so I gave the team the day off. Nobody will be here at all. You can come in and finish your project then."

Gerard considered for a moment, then shrugged and nodded. "All right."

He followed Nieh out the door, clicking off the lights behind him.

On the front steps of the Quantum Physics building Nieh clapped him on the shoulder. "Have a good night, Gerard. After all, the world is as it is...

"But does it have to be?"

The older man chuckled and walked off into the night, leaving Gerard standing there, gaping after him, as the implications -- possible implications -- thundered home to him.

It chased him in wheeling circles as he drove his battered Buick slowly towards home, through the foggy night. Was it really there?

He parked in front of the slightly dilapidated apartment house, walked up the stairs to his door. Mail stuck out of the slot. Gas bill, electric bill, phone bill, all striped with red to let him know he was in danger of losing service yet again.

Had there been an invitation buried in Niel Nieh's musings? Or had he simply and unexpectedly intruded on an old man's private reveries?

What couldn't be done, by a man with a time machine?

He waded through the discarded wastepaper on the floor of the shabby apartment where he spent his life alone, thinking about work, and the friends he had there. None of them, not even the dearest, had been here.

Were Nieh's words an invitation?

He imagined it, being a part of Nieh's team, not knowing -- how could he know? -- the success that inevitably awaited them. Friends, companions, acceptance. Money.

Were Nieh's words an invitation?

Did it even matter if they were? They were true enough.

The world is as it is. But does it have to be? What might have been, is not. But can it be?

He shook his head, as if to shake his whirring, spinning thoughts into order. He needed to calm himself down, to relax.

Hot Cocoa. The thought was sudden and satisfying, and he made his way into the kitchen, filled the teakettle with water, put it on the stove and turned the knob. Nothing happened. No ring of blue flame appeared under the kettle, no hiss of escaping gas sounded. He looked down at the stove for a moment, and grabbed the gas bill out of the mail.

It confirmed what he knew already. His gas was shut off. Again.

Gerard dropped the bill on the kitchen table, and stood for a long time, looking around his empty, shabby apartment for someone to share his impotent miserable shock with. Then he switched the stove off, and reached into his pocket for the keys.

It was less than two hours later that he used his skeleton key to let himself into the lab in Special Projects.

He sat at the desk he'd found Nieh at and read over the paper again, read over the equations. Studied the device on its rack. He took a deep, shuddering breath.

"What's it going to be, pal? Yes or no?"

He pulled on the helmet stepped to the nearest terminal keyboard, logged on as a super-user under the Field Service codes, and began to type instructions.

After a couple of moments, he went to a chair, trailing the wire behind himself, and sat down.

He sat for a moment, looking at the ludicrously prosaic office, and then felt reality coming apart in granules of sense that seemed both color and taste, sound and smell.

When the world reformed around him, it was daytime, late afternoon, and he was walking through a park. He remembered it vaguely, a Thursday afternoon spent looking at the trees and grass and flowers, coming to grips with the fact that his foundation grant was gone, and his college career with it. But now, that memory was not to be. He knew what he had to do, and set off briskly toward his goal, inwardly praying he could make it before he was out of time.

Valerie Standish pushed her shopping cart down past the frozen foods, pondering her future -- at least as far ahead as dinner.

She loved shopping for herself like this, cooking for herself as she would do tonight. She loved being a grown-up, self-sufficient and on her own at last.

She thought about Tim, the young man who'd asked her out last week. He was a very nice young man -- and his shoulders were beautiful, like a greek sculpture come to life!

It was with that thought distracting her that she ran into the fat man's shopping cart, almost knocking it over.

"Oh, my!" She was there in an instant, a hand on his forarm, concern sparkling in her grey eyes. "Oh, I'm so sorry, are you all right?"

"Me?" The man smiled. "Oh, fine, fine, I'm fine. My fault entirely, I swerved right in front of you."

"I still should have been watching where I was going..." Her bright grey eyes twinkled, and her lips quirked into a smile. "But, then, so should you."

He looked sheepish. "I had a good reason, though," he said. "I just saw this."

He reached into the display case and pulled down a pint container from the Ben & Jerry's section. "You ever seen this? It's brand new."

Valerie looked at the label: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream.

"Oh, my!" She grinned up at the man. "If this is what it sounds like, I'm in deep trouble!"

"It has actual globs of chocolate chip cookie dough floating around in it," he confirmed.

Valerie spoke in the tones of one doomed. "Oh, My, God."

"Let me buy you a pint," the man offered. "To make up for causing the crash. We can sit down on the benches in front of the store and make swine of ourselves."

Valerie laughed. "What's your name?"

The man held out a hand. "Gerard Conley."

She shook it. "Valerie Standish. Are you trying to pick me up, Gerard?"

He smiled at her. "I'm not sure. Let's just start with the ice cream, and see how things develop."

"You're on," she said. As she wheeled her cart toward the registers, she said over her shoulder, "You know, this is such a nice, friendly store. I'd come all the way across town to shop here."

Gerard smiled, and nodded agreement.

"Personally," he said, "I'd come considerably farther than that."