Short story I recently wrote. It’s in extremely rough draft mode. I haven’t even begun editing it. So, comments, critiques and sugar cookies are all welcome.
(pocket watch from folksy.com)
The Time Traveler’s Assistant
It was a Thursday afternoon. I was at Ye Olde Ale House, celebrating my first legal drink…alone.
I was used to being alone, sure, but at that particular moment I couldn’t suppress a feeling of loneliness. It hadn’t been a very exciting birthday. I spent the day at work, answering the phone and arranging meetings for this onerous bank executive, and then went right to the bar. I hadn’t seen my friends, but then again, I didn’t really have any friends. My mother had sent me a “thinking of you” card three weeks ago with a scrawled “happy birthday, son” inside. She was always far too drunk to ever know what was going on in my life. (Don’t ask about my father; I’ve never met him.)
So, I was most surprised, but also rather delighted, when a horse clopped in. The thing—the horse, I mean—came right up to me, its giant head inches from my left shoulder. I don’t remember having much of a reaction other than staring at the beast from the corner of my eye. The beer glass was in mid-flight to my lips.
And then the voice: the most fantastic, assuring voice I had ever heard. “Stop! Don, stop! Come back at once!” ordered the male voice. It rolled with a hint of what I’m sure good brandy sounds like, and lingered in my ears like the aftershock of fireworks.
“Well, I am just so very sorry,” the man connected to the voice apologized. He pulled the horse back by its reigns. He raised a hand at the horrified bartender and manager, “Yes, I know, I’m very sorry. I suppose this is considered a health hazard, yes?” He sighed and turned to me, “I do hope he hasn’t caused you too much distress.”
I put down my glass, shook my head.
The man (who I guessed to be no more than 40, if a day) wore a pair of tan khakis, Oxford button-down with a red vest overlay, and a rather tattered-looking gray fedora. Coupled with his voice, he looked like something out of a Conan Doyle novel.
“No, not at all,” I said as he began to lead his horse away. I nodded to the equine, “Quite a handsome specimen.”
“Oh the brute’s all right when he likes to be.” The horse snorted.
“I guess so,” I tried, fighting for the words.
“Yup.” My visitor was rightly distracted. “Well, take care.” He turned to the employees, “Real sorry. Again. Caio.”
He tipped his hat before leading the horse away. The manager erupted in an incoherent cacophony of commands and curses. I’m not entirely sure why, but suddenly I slapped down a twenty and hurried out the door.
It was chilly but at least the sun was out. I glanced around. It’s not as if a horse was inconspicuous. Then, I spotted the swish of a tail disappear around a corner.
I skidded into the alley, calling, “Hey! Hey, wait!”
The man tilted his head. “Eh?”
I shifted my weight. “Um, well, what’s with the horse, anyway?”
He turned to face me and smiled. “Don? Oh, he’s my travel companion. Handy for a sidekick, you know. No one really bothers you if you’ve a horse and all that.”
“Travel companion?” I looked at the beast. “Don?”
“Don Quixote, actually.”
The horse snorted and wagged its monstrous head. The man patted it gently and nodded.
I scratched my own, tiny head. “Where’d you come from?”
The man raised an eyebrow. “Rather curious for a stranger, aren’t you?”
“Sorry. I’m James. James Paxton.” I stuck out my hand and he eagerly shook the life out of it.
“Well, ol’ Jim boy, it’s great to meet you. I’m Gregory Larrabee.”
“Uh, yeah. Hi.” I examined my lifeless hand.
Mr. Larrabee remained for a moment then saluted again. “Well, it’s been a pleasure. See you.”
He spun on his heel and gave a low whistle. Don Quixote clopped after.
“Hey, wait!” I tried.
I’m not sure why I was so interested in the guy, but he was damn interesting. Maybe it was the horse I was really curious about. Whatever the reason, if not for my curiosity, I would have never been introduced to the extraordinary world of Mr. Gregory Larrabee.
Gregory looked over his shoulder. “Ah? What is it then?”
I glanced at the dirty papers on the ground. “Uh, well, want to get a drink?” His facial expression quickly caused me to follow with, “I mean, I’m just wondering about your horse. I’ve bet on races before and all.”
He looked at the overcast sky and then shook his arm so an oversized wristwatch slid into view. He frowned. “I’m afraid not. I’m in a bit of a hurry.”
“Oh, yeah, never mind. Some other time, I guess.”
“I’m sorry to say there won’t be a next time,” he mumbled, then smiled, “Pleasure meeting you. Take care.”
I mulled over the words as he wandered farther down the alley. He rounded another corner. I wondered where he was even going by taking the alleyway. Maybe he was lost. I was about to turn away, but as soon as Don Quixote, too, dropped out of sight, I followed.
I peeked around the corner. Mr. Larrabee and his horse had stopped in front of a garbage dumpster. He was poking around the bin for something. I wondered if he was just a homeless guy….a very articulate homeless guy…who owned a horse.
He pulled what looked to be a wide, long belt from the rubbish. Various wires and electronic doo-dads dangled from the piece. He wrapped it around Don and fastened it. He did the same with an identical belt he then pulled from the garbage. I had no idea what it was all about. Perhaps it was a new sort of harness.
“Sort of rushing this time, old friend,” Gregory muttered to his equine companion. The animal stomped its foot.
“It hasn’t worked again,” he said, pulling a brown vest from the trash bin. It, too, was covered in the same sorts of gadgets. He looked at the horse, “I keep failing, Don.”
He stared at the straps and then cleared his throat. “Well, no matter. Let’s be off.”
He pulled at his sleeve and the large watch slid into view. He poked around at it and suddenly lights and wires on his vest and Don Quixote’s belts began to glow. He replaced his fedora with a leather aviator’s hat atop his head and tossed the prior.
The wind picked up and I jumped. Papers swirled in the alley. Mr. Larrabee hopped atop his mount and the wires across them both began changing colors.
“What’s going on?” I demanded, emerging from my hiding place.
Both mammals—seemingly with the same shocked, horrified expression—turned their heads to me.
“What are you doing?” Gregory exclaimed.
“That’s what I’d like to know.” I approached for a better look at the electronics and leather.
“You must get out of here!”
I straightened. “Well, you’re being rude. I mean, yeah, I’m the asshole for sneaking around, but still. You shouldn’t order—”
“You must get out of here at once!”
“Why? What are those things?” I reached to tough one of the straps, but Gregory slapped away my hand. He caught a glance of his watch.
“It’s too late!” He gasped. He suddenly grabbed me by the collar and pulled me half on the horse. “Come here! Hold on tight to my vest—here!”
In a rush, he slapped my hand onto Don’s strap and the other on his vest. Wind rushed like a hurricane around us, screaming in my ears, and, quite alarmingly, my insides dropped and rose again.
Then, I heard birds singing and felt water—no, soft rain—on my face. I realized I had shut my eyes at some point and so slowly opened them. The alley, the city, was gone. We were in a well-manicured field. An orchard of some sort was to our left.
“Oh, get off, you twit!” My stranger-friend ordered, giving me a hard shove.
I fell onto soft grass and blinked.
“What…I…where…” I stumbled over the thoughts.
“You fool,” he snapped and then examined his horse. Don Quixote seemed uneasy on his feet. Mr. Larrabee turned to me, “You’ve gone and made him ill.”
“How’d I do that?” I glanced around at the expansive grounds. A large house sat in the distance. “Where am—”
“Because you’ve strained the machine! It’s not meant for more than 1500 pounds. We’ve been able to travel quite comfortably but your added blockheaded weight has severely strained the calibrations. The temporal flux has pulled on Don much too severely.” He jammed his finger in my face, “Thanks to your imbecilic meddling.”
“Did you say travel? Temp what?” I stopped and suddenly wretched. I vomited onto the verdant, plush green and held my head. It throbbed.
“That very well serves you right,” Gregory Larrabee chided.
I didn’t notice the three men approach us. One led Don Quixote away.
“Do check his vitals. He’s been knocked a bit this time,” Gregory called after.
“Another successful trip, sir,” another man remarked, accepting the vest, hat, and gloves from Larrabee.
“Does it look like a success?” The master of the house snapped. He looked indicatively around, then pointed at me. “Does he look like a success?” He snorted and then spun on his heel.
The subordinate hurried after him and I was pulled to my feet.
“Don’t worry about Sir. He’s most upset from traveling so often,” the servant helping me walk said. “I’m sure you must be very interesting for Sir to have taken you along.”
“Huh? He didn’t really take me along, I guess…”
“Hmm. Well, no matter,” he said. “Welcome to Briar Ridge.”
I marveled at the white-painted mansion in front of me. Vines grew around columns; tall glass windows opened to the cool, rainy breeze; exotic flowers dotted window boxes. I gulped bile and spit, and tried not to look overtly nervous.
An odd-looking car sat in front, in the misting rain. I’d never seen such an automobile. Through the slightly tinted window, I noticed a large dashboard with a series of buttons and knobs scattered about. There was no steering wheel. I’m also fairly certain the machine had only three wheels; its front slightly larger than the back.
“I’ll have to adjust the mass capacitor,” Gregory Larrabee was saying when I stepped into the large hall. I could see my reflection in the hardwood floors.
Two manservants scurried away. I watched a maid (maybe?) click her way past me with a large, potted plant. It was full of similar exotic-looking flowers as the window boxes. Gregory had been whispering furiously with the remaining assistant. He suddenly smacked his heels together and stood up straight, arms at his sides.
“Oh, Jim,” he called, “come with me, please.”
He spun back around. His steps echoed. I cleared my throat and followed.
We passed through a heavy door and into a long stairwell. Once descended into the large basement, my host pushed a button near a stack of firewood. A door swung open in the concrete wall. Gregory nodded and went through.
I weighed my options. I could try to escape, but I had no idea where I was. Whether I could get to the point of trying to figure out where I was proved debatable in any case. Maybe Mr. Larrabee had bloodhounds to chase down escapees. Maybe his “assistants” were sharp shooters.
Or, I could follow the strange man into a dungeon, possibly to never return.
I rolled my eyes to the ceiling.
“Do pick up your feet, ol’ boy,” Gregory Larrabee said, poking his head back into the light.
I twisted my mouth around but decided to tag after him into another, danker and darker stairwell.
“You must’ve figured things out by now,” Gregory posed, skipping a few steps and then waiting for me to catch up.
He stopped and stood straight. “My dear boy, that I am a time traveler.”
I’d been postulating the possibility, but the logical part of my brain refused to accept the idea.
“There’s no such thing,” I tried, though all evidence pointed to the contrary.
He gave me a quick, incredulous look and then opened the door at the bottom of the stairs with a skeleton key.
“Welcome to my laboratory,” he greeted, pushing the door open and waiting for me to pass through.
The room was vast. I could not comprehend how big, exactly, it was; it seemed to spread farther out than the house sitting atop it. A large, metal table sat to my left, covered with various models of computers and wires rushing with electricity. Various machines with blinking lights and spinning gears dotted the area, and several very large bookcases crammed with tomes sat to my right. Stairs led up and down rafters leading to other mysterious places.
In the center of the room sat a large, circular metal platform, surrounded by railings. Cords and wires ran from it to various machines. I spotted a table with what looked to be more of the odd belts I spotted on Don Quixote. These, however, were devoid of the same bright lights.
I slowly turned my head. “Where am I? And what the hell is going on? And who—”
“Am I?’ Gregory inserted with a tilt of his head. He shut the door and stepped down into the laboratory main floor. “I’ve told you. I’m a time traveler.”
I took in my surroundings and stumbled down the metal stairs after him. My head throbbed.
“It’s not very hard once you learn the knack of it,” he said. He stopped and looked over his shoulder, “Time travel, that is.”
I stopped short at a large table covered in beakers full of strange liquids. I picked up a notepad scribbled with diagrams and numbers. He quickly pulled it away with a smile.
I held up my hands. “Alright. Where the hell am I?”
“You’re at my home, specifically in my laboratory,” he answered, donning a white lab coat. “Though, I suppose what you’d really like to know is when are you.”
I didn’t argue the phrasing. I waited for the follow-up.
“It’s 2030,” he answered.
I leaned forward. “Come again?”
“2030, Jim Boy.” He picked up a small, square remote control-like device and hit a button. A newspaper page projected onto the table. “See? April 27, 2030.”
I gawked at the device, then the date, then between the two, deciding which was most impressive. I settled on the date. “I don’t believe this,” I declared. I looked around. “I need to sit down.”
Gregory pushed papers off a paint-covered chair and pulled it toward me. I eagerly accepted. “Here, here. Pull yourself together. You’re still feeling the after effects of your first jump.”
I held my head in my hands. “If that’s true, then just bring me back, okay?” I mumbled.
“I can’t do that, Jim.”
I shot him a look.
“Well,” he started, shoving his hands in his pockets, “in theory, I can…”
I tilted my head. “Huh?”
“Temporal paradox, you see,” he offered, as if I knew exactly what that meant. He quickly added, “It’s quite difficult to guarantee the time you return to is still on this plane.”
When he didn’t clarify, I demanded, “What are you talking about? Just strap me into one of those vest things and launch me back!”
Gergory Larrabee chuckled to himself. There was a sudden condescending air about him. It made me bristle.
“Jim Boy, it isn’t that easy,” he explained. He pulled a yellowed piece of paper close and began drawing. “You see, here we are right now,” he said, drawing a line and placing a dot on it. “This is our time plane and I picked you up in the past—here.” He made another dot farther down the line. He then drew a series of parallel lines on either side of the first. “This is where it gets tricky. There are other time planes, other ‘dimensions,’ so to speak. Sometimes you can affect these other, parallel, time planes by altering your own.”
I raised my eyes—slowly—from the paper to him. I let my expression do the talking. He seemed to understand my confusion and tried again.
“So, I’ve picked you up in the past, eh? Well, that may have triggered the future on this plane so much that a parallel plane has become your time line. That plane, in turn, may have been altered to compensate, and so on.” He drew crisscrossing lines here and there, connected parallel ones. “The more you change the past, the more you change each plane and the whole space-time continuum is altered forever.”
He dropped the pencil and frowned. “I’ve, unfortunately, learned that the hard way.”
I let the last comment slide. I was, at that moment, more concerned with myself and the fat, lazy goldfish I left in 2014.
“You’re saying the ‘me’ in this world might not even exist?”
Gregory grinned wildly. “Quite a thought, isn’t it?”
I looked at the paper. Then the horrifying realization dug a pit in my stomach and sat comfortably inside. “You mean,” I swallowed, “I might be stuck here?”
“Sorry, ol’ boy.” Was his response. He slapped me on the shoulder.
“Why’d you take me along?!”
“Well, it was either that or let you be ripped apart in a most gruesome death.”
I felt sick and dizzy. Again.
* * *
I woke to the setting sun streaming through an open bay window. It flooded the large, excessively decorated room I was in. Trinkets and accoutrements littered every available spot in the place. They ranged from gadgets from lost centuries, to whirring devices I had not yet seen in my day. Seven clocks of varying size and design sat on the far wall, ticking in unison. The large, mahogany fireplace was dark. It was much too warm for a fire.
Small yard birds fluttered cautiously about the overflowing plant boxes on the balcony. The breeze made me question the reality of the situation, and so I slapped myself. I quickly regretted it.
I rubbed my cheek and slid off the four-post bed. My shoes were gone. I crossed to the open door and into the hall.
It was scattered with just about as much stuff as the room. Paintings also dotted the corridor walls. I tiptoed down the staircase and debated my next move.
As I was scratching my head (which felt infinitely better), a woman dressed in a conservative black dress came toward me. She carried one of those exotic plants with the magenta flowers.
“Oh, you’re awake,” she said. “You must be hungry.”
“Head on into the dining room—just that way. It’s almost supper time,” she explained, pointing to our right. “Master Larrabee will be along shortly.”
She didn’t give me time to ask about my shoes and scuffed away. I made off in the opposite direction, to the dining room.
“Uh, hello?” I called, pushing open one of the large doors.
A long, 14-seat able was the main attraction. Floor-to-ceiling windows were drawn and an opulent chandelier hung from the ceiling.
I spotted table settings at the far end. I might as well sit, I supposed.
The patting sound of my bare feet seemed to echo. I picked up a fork and raised an eyebrow at the many dining utensils at the place setting. I sat. And waited.
I jumped at the parade of people—house hands, I guessed—suddenly coming into the room. They carried serving dishes and when they placed the food in front of me, smiled and retreated.
“Um, wait,” I tried, catching one by the sleeve.
“Something wrong?” she asked sweetly.
“Uh, no. Well, where is Gregory? And I don’t know where my shoes—”
“Oh, Master Larrabee will be along shortly. He’s been in his lab all day,” she said, whispering the last part.
She hurried away before I could reiterate the problem of my missing sneakers.
I gazed at the platters and my mouth watered. I must have waited a grand 45 seconds before my patience wore out. I reached for the spoon in the roasted potatoes.
A tremendous “BOOM” erupted through the place. I’m sure it even rattled the walls; the chandelier certainly appeared to move. I dropped the spoon (more like flung it in fright) and froze.
“That damn contraption! Worthless!” Gregory Larrabee’s voice echoed through the halls. “Do good to remind me to get an engine motor that isn’t 30 years old, will you?”
He appeared in the doorway, a manservant nodding furiously. He looked just about as worried as me.
Larrabee wore his lab coat, which was covered in dust and grime. He pushed a pair of old, polarized goggles atop his head. His face was covered in dirt, except the places where his eyes had been covered.
He stomped his way to the chair by me, at the head of the table. He dropped into the seat, slapping his hands on the arm rests. He continued to grumble until he noticed me. He shot forward with a grin.
“Ah! You’re awake finally! How do you feel? You’ve been sleeping for hours!”
“I’m okay, I guess.”
“Well,” he began immediately. I’m not sure he was paying much attention to me. “I guess that’s not fair to say. I mean, I barely sleep anymore, so perhaps you really haven’t slept that long at all,” he mused aloud.
He stabbed a hunk of ham and wiggled it onto his plate.
“Uh,” I started, “I seem to have lost my shoes.”
He held up his wine to the light and mumbled, “Well this doesn’t look particularly clean.” He switched hands and gazed at his palm. He smiled. “Oh, wait. It seems I’ve just gone and made it filthy.” He turned to me, “Has the reality—literally speaking—of your situation sunk in yet?”
I looked at my plate and shrugged. “I don’t know if I believe you.”
Gregory let out a long laugh. “What? After all you’ve been through? You’re quite the skeptic, ol’ boy.”
“I know,” I muttered, watching him grab a roll. “It’s hard to believe somehow everything about my past—even myself—is completely different.”
My dinner companion leaned back in his chair. “Yes, I’d imagine that would be difficult to understand.”
I spun a spoon around on the tablecloth. “There’s seriously no way I can go back?”
“Quite seriously. You could go back, but nothing would be the same, of course.”
“Why not? Just plop me back on the same day and all that.”
“I’ve told you, though: I cannot guarantee I would be able to ‘plop you’ onto your right timeline.” He tore the bread and munched a piece.
I stared at my plate. Finally, I offered, “Would that really be so bad?”
Gregory stopped, mid-chew, and eyed me. “If you’re okay with the possibility of people and things being grossly different than you remember. Not to mention perhaps running into the ‘you’ there.” He sipped wine.
I didn’t lift my eyes. I started to feel angry at him, but I tried to rationalize the situation by convincing myself he was right: I’d be dead if he hadn’t taken me.
He noticed my look. “Oh, come off it,” he said, patting me on the back. “It’s not all bad. You’ll stay here. I’m sure you’ll like this age.”
I tried to return his smile. He followed, “You can help me with these god-forsaken contraptions everyone’s asking for.”
“For instance, the piece of rubbish in the lab right now,” he answered, pointing to the door with his knife. “The state museum asked me to build an automated framing device. It’s useless without a powerful enough engine to power the bloody thing.”
“You’re an inventor?”
“Eh? Yes, I suppose you could say that.” He looked at my plate and then dropped two heaping spoonfulls of roasted potatoes onto it. “Would you eat something already? I haven’t had visitors in ages. The least you could do is pretend to enjoy my company.” He finished with a grin: an indication that he was just pulling my chain.
I grabbed a roll. “Okay, but would you tell me where the hell my shoes are?”
“What’s the matter?”
“My shoes. Sneakers. They’re gone,” I explained.
He blinked. “I’ve no idea. But it doesn’t matter; we’ll get you new shoes.”
I straightened but didn’t protest. It didn’t altogether surprise me.
* * *
Two months later, I was wearing my own pair of polarized goggles and welding an antenna onto the roof of City Hall. The thing was meant not only to relay radio signals, but also to provide solar electricity to the needy city officials inside.
“Alright then, Jim Boy?” Gregory Larrabee called from the ladder.
He had told everyone I was his nephew who had just returned from stowing away with the French Foreign Legion, and now had been taken under his scientific wing. A fantastic yarn, really. Sometimes I’d get overzealous and Gregory would have to nudge my side or stomp on my foot when I’d romanticize about my secret life in exotic places, tracking down corrupt shahs and cruel warlords.
I had the most terrific time, once, at a charity banquet at the state museum. I wowed the eligible young ladies with my tale of sword-fighting a powerful sheik, even going so far as pulling a sabre from a display case and showing off my (non-existent) fencing abilities.
My professor was most amused, but put a stop to my antics once the mayor arrived.
“We have to go to Ms. Pedagroo’s place after this,” Gregory shouted over the welder.
I finished securely fastening the radio-electric rod in place and flipped my goggles atop my head. “Huh? Why’ve we got to go there?”
“Her menagerie needs oiling.”
He offered no further explanation, picked up some tools, and descended the ladder.
Mrs. Pedagroo’s home was a small cottage, covered in vines and with a homey smoke trail floating from a crumbling chimney.
Gregory whistled his way through the small wooden gate and up the pebbled walk. He glanced at me over his shoulder—probably to make sure I hadn’t forgotten or dropped any supplies. I frowned. The stuff was heavy. I readjusted the bag about my shoulder.
My companion lifted the small, iron door knocker and let it fall back. Almost immediately, we were greeted by a small old woman with silver hair and sea-glass eyes. She had the most warming smile on her face. I would not have protested if she hugged me and tried to rub dirt off my cheek with a spit hanky.
“Oh, Gregory,” she said warmly, “what a nice surprise!” She held the door open farther. “Come in, please.”
“And good afternoon, Lucinda,” he responded.
We both followed her into a crowded, yet cozy living room. A large, worn-in armchair sat beneath a sunny window. An unfinished crocheted piece of something sat on an arm. A cup of tea steamed from a side table.
“Can I get you something? A cup of tea?” she asked, puttering into the yellow and blue kitchen, and then back again.
“No, we’re fine,” Gregory politely refused. “You mentioned you were having trouble with—“
“Oh!” She gave a little squeak. She stood up straight (as much as she could), and lifted her glasses from their comfortable spot, resting from a blue jeweled chain around her neck. She peered at me through the thick glass. “Gregory, you’ve brought a friend!”
The inventor smacked his forehead. “I’m terribly sorry! Forgive me. This is James Paxton,” he said, holding a hand toward me. “He’s my nephew. Been helping me out lately.”
I pulled the strap up my aching shoulder. I took her outstretched hand. It was soft and wrinkly, and very small. “Ma’am,” I said with a smile.
“Oh, what a charming dear,” she said to Gregory. She turned back to me. “It must be my lucky day to have two handsome, young members of the Larrabee family in my home.”
I spotted Gregory roll his eyes to the ceiling. He smirked.
“So, about your collection,” he interjected.
She threw up her tiny hands and gasped. “Yes!” She led us through the kitchen, to the back door. “Something is terribly wrong with the peacock. I’ve done just as you’ve said, though.” She unlatched the door and a tabby cat ran past us. “I’ve kept it nicely oiled. I don’t know what’s happened.”
The little cottage’s garden was almost as crowded as inside. Iron lawn chairs with rusted, chipped white paint sat on a tiny patio. Various garden accoutrements scattered the lawn. Colorful pinwheels and whirly-gigs danced in the breeze. A variety of birds sat perched around; two, large toucans sat on a branch just over my head.
I leaned in for a better look at an egret standing at my side. Something wasn’t quite right. Its feathers were not feathers at all, but intricately layered pieces of white metal. Its eyes were marbles. I glanced around; all the birds appeared the same.
“These aren’t real at all!” I exclaimed, poking the egret.
Mrs. Pedagroo had gotten onto all-fours and had her head in a bush. Gregory spun toward me.
“Well of course not. Do you suppose this is the appropriate climate for a peacock, scarlet ibis, or a quetzal?” He gestured to several colorful avian mimics.
One of the toucans squawked. I stood up and went to touch it.
“Don’t touch them,” Gregory scolded. I snapped my hand away.
“Did you make these?”
“Of course I did,” he replied, matter-of-factly.
“I’ve found the poor thing,” our host declared, trying desperately to right herself. I (thankfully) dropped the bag of tricks and we both rushed to her aid. “Bless you both,” she said when she was standing. She pointed to the brush. “It’s in there.”
Gregory nodded at me. “Be a good lad and fetch it out.”
“Fetch what out?”
But he was already leading Mrs. Pedagroo to a chair.
I grumbled something but reluctantly dropped to my hands and knees. It took me a moment to get the twigs and leaves out of my vision, but I spotted it. A large, round ball covered in the same metallic “feathers” sat in the dirt. Long coiled wires extended out at least three feet. Jewels and metal completed these exquisitely crafted tail feathers.
“Um, hey…bird…you okay?” I tried.
I was answered with high-pitched twitter. The “peacock” lifted its copper head and the thin, metal eyelid slowly open and closed. It opened its mouth again, but then froze. Its head twitched and a dull ticking rolled from the slack beak. It returned to normal after a few seconds.
I sighed and grabbed at it. It luckily didn’t peck at me or exhibit any sign of protest. It was, however, quite heavy.
After being jabbed in the side and eye by a twig, and scrapped by thorns, I emerged with the bird contraption. Gregory was entertaining Mrs. Pedagroo with a story. I dropped my shoulder.
“Uh, hello?” I announced.
Gregory snapped his fingers. He lifted the tool bag and rushed toward me. The peacock’s long, wiry tail feathers smacked me in the face.
“Here, put it down here,” he ordered. I obeyed. The bird wobbled and looked around. It squawk-ticked and fell forward.
“Looks like a short. Easy to fix, not to worry.”
Gregory dropped to his knees and hunted around the deep canvas. He pulled out a screwdriver of some sort. (There were far too many jagged, misshapen tips coming off it.)
“Easy to fix,” he repeated, twisting off the star-imprinted screws on a panel atop the bird’s head.
Gregory fiddled with the various wires inside the panel. Eventually he let out a “ta-da!” and snapped the cover back on. He screwed it back in place and wiped his hands on his pants.
“Good as new!”
The bird presently stood. It cocked its head to one side and then called. Mrs. Pedagroo clapped with delight. The peacock moseyed farther into the garden.
“Oh, you are a live doll, you are!” She complimented. “Thank you very much. Now, about that tea?”
“Really…” Gregory began to protest.
Mrs. Pedagroo was already on her way inside. “I won’t take no for an answer!”
We often traveled around the county, fixing other contraptions for people, much the same as Mrs. Pedagroo. I even accompanied Larrabee to an inventor’s convention where he gave a talk on time travel. He was met with stark criticism. We left: Gregory a fuming, grumbling mess of a man, and me trailing after, arms full of various papers and gadgets Gregory had picked up.
In the beginning, I wondered if I really was stuck with him. I began to accept the fact, however, after several months. I didn’t so much as mind him as I minded being stuck in his time. (In fact, we had developed quite a rapport and sometimes I really did wonder if I was his long, lost nephew.) I couldn’t help but miss “my” home.
I was very much appreciative that he had taken me in and let me become a sort of assistant. (Though, he was partially to blame for me being there to begin with. So I believe he also felt it was his responsibility to treat me as a guest. Just the same that I felt it was necessary I try to make myself useful.)
He’d attempted two “trips” (as he called them), while I was around. I had not been allowed into his laboratory when he did so. He gave explicit instructions to one of the house hands that I not be allowed in. I most certainly was irritated. Up until that point, I had done nothing short of exactly what he told me to do, with hardly any complaining. Yet, he locked me out? I was most insulted.
But then he asked for my assistance. We sat on the veranda one warm evening, sipping shandies. The sun was setting behind the clouds. Don Quixote was plotting around the large yard. Every once in a while, he would come over to see what we were up to, and to nibble at my hair.
“Jim, ol’ pal,” Gregory began, without turning from the orange-red sky. “I’ve run into a bit of a problem. I need your help.”
I raised my eyebrows. “About?”
He finally turned to me. “I’ve made some adjustments to the machine…but these adjustments also cause a problem.”
“What adjustments?” I hated that he was never direct.
“Well, I’ve discovered a way to travel back in time and control when I want to return. Remember I had set the machine to an automatic timer, yes?” He lifted a hand off the table linen. I nodded. “I’ve figured out that it’s a simple as a button.” He snapped a silver box lighter open and lit a cigarette. He continued to play with the lid. “I’ve simply placed controls on the same electronic frequency.”
I waited for him to say something else. When he didn’t, I shrugged and adjusted my position in the chair.
“Okay, that sounds great,” I offered.
He exhaled toward the sunset. “But the button…” he began. “That is the problem.” I again waited for the follow-up. He looked at me deliberately. “The button has to be pushed from this end.”
I quickly figured out where the conversation was headed. I must admit, I could barely hide my interest. “So,” I started, licking my bottom lip, “you need someone in the lab?”
He nodded. “Right. Once the button on the machine’s end is switched, it sends a signal to this end. When that happens, this button needs to be hit accordingly.”
“I see.” I desperately tried to hide my excitement. “How’d you figure this out?”
He stabbed the dying cigarette into the ceramic, turquoise ashtray. “Oh, I put the machine on the automatic setting, but because of my recalibrations, I can see when it sends the signal.”
“I thought the point was to put it on manual?”
He tilted his head. “The last I checked, a melon did not have any thumbs. I suppose it’d be quite futile to set it to manual when an inanimate object is involved.”
I looked at the table, embarrassed. I cleared my throat. “So, you want me to be on this end when you’re actually the one going, not the melon?”
“Quite so. I’d be most appreciative.”
“Why haven’t you done this before?” I finished off my spiked lemonade.
“The thought did occur to me, yes. But I never had an assistant before!”
I chuckled. “You could just have one of the maids help you.”
He sprang forward. “And risk them ruining the whole lot of it?” He sat back. “You jest. I wouldn’t trust any of them to work an egg timer.”
I was briefly touched that Gregory trusted me that much. But then again, the grandiose responsibility merely involved pushing a button.
“I’ve a trip planned for tomorrow. I’ll call on you when it’s time.” He slapped his hands on the arms of the chair before leaving, rather hurriedly.
Gregory Larrabee’s idea of “calling on me” the next morning was by flinging a pillow directly into my face.
I shot up in bed and surveyed the danger. I rubbed my nose.
“Oh splendid, you’re up!” he declared innocently.
“Hey!” I glanced at the maroon pillow and pointed at it. “Did you just throw that at me?”
He waved a hand. “Hardly the point.” He spun on his heel and called over his shoulder, “Well, come on, we haven’t got all day.”
I wanted to throw the pillow back at him. Instead, I grumbled as I ripped back the blankets. I planted my feet on the rug and grabbed for my house robe.
“Can I at least go to the bathroom? Brush my teeth?” I didn’t let him answer. I was already crossing to the washroom connecting to my room.
Gregory frowned, but said nothing.
“What’s so important, anyway? Where on earth do you go?” I mumbled.
“To the past,” he responded. He passed through the door. “I’ll be waiting in the lab.”
He was adjusting the straps of the vest when I walked down the lab’s stairs. I spotted a two-foot-long rectangular portable control box on the table by him.
“I was beginning to think you’d occupied yourself with something more deserving of your interest.” He scowled. I didn’t respond.
Gregory held out the control box to me. “Here it is,” he said. “It’s an extremely primitive version. It’ll be much smaller and cordless one day.” With my eyes, I followed the wires from the box to a tall machine closeby. It looked like a computer from the 1960s.
“Is this all?” I flipped the box upside-down. Gregory nearly had a heart-attack.
“Careful!” he warned, lunging to catch the machine should I drop it. I held it steady and he tugged at his vest. “And, yes, as a matter of fact, this is all.”
“Not much to it, huh?” I inquired, squinting at the knobs. The entire mechanism only had two knobs, a small lever, and a very long antenna.
“Mock all you’d like. It’s an incredible advance in the realm of time travel.” He turned to the larger, standing machine (covered in infinitely more levers, knobs, lights and panels). “This, here,” he said, pointing to a light bulb protruding from the metal, “will alight and a most excruciatingly annoying sound will erupt when the button—here—on my end is pushed, indicating I’m quite ready for you to pull that lever—there.” He pointed to the individual components, respectively.
It seemed simple enough. Then I made a realization. “Wait a minute,” I started, as he fiddled with some buttons. The machine whirred and clanked to life. He made his way to the large, metal platform. I followed. “You mean I’ve got to sit here at just wait?”
He smacked his heels together and stood, arms to his sides. “Yes, obviously,” he affirmed. He raised a hand toward the horse. “Right, Don, let’s be off.”
Don clomped his way over the small ledge, onto the platform. He didn’t seem overly excited to go. I wondered if we could trade places. Gregory hopped aboard his mount. He looked down toward me.
“Right then, best stand back,” he said, slapping his goggles over his eyes. “And watch for my return call, will you?”
I saluted and returned to my spot by the table.
“See you then,” he said and pushed a button.
Electric blue jolts shot up from the platform. The wind picked up. It was the same reaction as my time travel experience. I did my best to shield my eyes. Suddenly, with a loud “zap”-like noise, they were gone.
Some loose papers floated back to the ground. I cautiously approached the platform. There wasn’t a trace of them.
“Humph,” I snorted. I turned on my heel and plopped onto a stool.
I was most jealous that Gregory had never invited me along on any of his trips. He was very secretive about them. I wondered where he went all the time.
I moved around some papers. When I tired of that, I spun around on the swivel stool. I started to get nauseous, so I quickly stopped that. I was already bored.
It only got worse, too. I puttered around Gregory Larrabee’s lab, nosing about the papers and gadgets out of boredom and curiosity, and wandered up and down the platforms. I flipped through a couple of large, fat books on Quantum Physics, but almost immediately gave up that academia.
I was mumbling and scowling about my mentor by 8; remarking about his genius by 9; and by 9:30 I was asleep and snoring.
I was shaken from my slumber by the most obnoxious ringing sound. I fell off the stool and hit myself squarely in the back on a discarded wrench. I pulled at the paper stuck to my cheek (apparently I’d been drooling), and scrambled to my feet. I held my hands over my ears. I spotted the light blinking.
“Oh shit!’ I hunted around for the control box. “Where is it?” I demanded of no one.
I spotted it beneath some yellowed maps. I lunged for it and flicked the small lever. Nothing happened. I panicked, cursed, and grabbed at my hair.
Then I remembered the larger lever. I traced the wires to the large panel on the computer-like machine. After staring blankly for a moment, I yanked the large, silver handle. Things sparked and the rush of wind returned.
“By God, I thought you’d forgotten about me!” Larrabee’s voice made me re-open my eyes.
He and Don left the platform. Gregory began removing Don’s straps, then removed his own vest.
“The thought did cross my mind,” I muttered.
“Eh? What’s with you then?”
I changed the subject. “Did you have to make this thing have such an annoying sound?” I tapped the metal.
“Like I said, I wouldn’t want you forgetting about me.”
He hung his vest and Don Quixote’s straps over the platform railing. Don clopped across the room to a large metal door. The horse lifted a hoof and stomped on a large, square button on the floor. He whinnied and awkwardly backed away as the door opened. When the path was clear, Don moseyed up an incline and out of site. I could only assume the passage led outside.
“Well isn’t that something?” I posed, looking after the horse.
“What’s that?” Gregory asked, hunched over a computer. He punched a few keys.
I watched him for a moment. I twisted my mouth around. “Say,” I started, moving a pair of pliers around on the table. “How about letting me come along next time?” I braced for the answer.
Gregory paused. He glanced at me. “You don’t want to go where I go.”
It was an odd thing to say.
“Why not?” I protested. “You don’t ever take me along…” I suddenly regretted raising the subject. I felt like a child being left with the sitter while his parents went out.
“I don’t go to happy places,” he answered quickly.
“Well, okay. But can’t—”
“It is none of your concern!” he scolded, smacking his hand against the table.
I was more surprised that the topic made him so upset than about the fact he yelled. I stood in my own shock and then declared, “Fine!” I stormed away, up the stairs, out of the lab.
It was a very immature display, I can tell you that.
I sat in an iron lawn chair, scowling at the birds twittering happily in the grass. I slapped at one of the exotic magenta flowers in an opulent pot nearby. The petals sailed to the ground. I sighed.
I cared that I missed out on the Extraordinary Adventures of Gregory Larrabee and Don Quixote, sure; more, though: I cared that I was left behind. After all, I’d left my entire world behind (not that there was much in that world). As much as Gregory made me feel welcome, I felt like an outcast. I didn’t think I belonged anywhere. I thought maybe tagging along with Gregory on his trips would help ease that feeling. Or make it disappear altogether.
I must’ve fallen asleep. I woke suddenly to someone calling my name.
I looked around and jerked at the jabbing pain in my neck. Gregory Larrabee stood close by, arms to his sides, staring down at me. It was dark. The light from the hall inside spread across the concrete patio.
“What? What is it? What’s the matter?” I asked, rubbing my neck. I made a mental note to never again fall asleep in a metal chair.
He set his jaw, briefly looked at the stars. “I’d like you to accompany me,” he said.
My eyes darted left and right. “Where?”
“A trip. I usually can’t take more than one trip a month or so, but I’m making an exception for you.”
“What do you mean you can’t take it? Does it cause cancer or something?”
“No,” he answered. He seemed impatient. “But it is, in a way, quite painful.”
I blinked. “Wait. What—”
“Please. I’ve got it all set just now.” He sort of nodded and then started for inside.
“Hey, right now?”
I hurried after him. A maid was there to offer me a cup of tea. I shook my head. I was much too distracted for a cozy cup of tea.
“No time like the present. That is what they say,” Gregory recited. In passing a manservant, Gregory said, “We’re off on a trip. Please see that Don gets a nice rub down before bed.” The man seemed surprised, but nodded.
The inventor swung open the basement door. “If you ask me, though,” he whispered to me, “it is the past that can be far more worthwhile.”
I followed him into the lab. He lifted a switch and the place lit up. Dim, yellow glow from vintage hanging lanterns—modified to hold incandescent bulbs—filled the room.
He quietly—almost sadly—descended the metal steps. He absently turned on the machine and punched a few buttons.
“I must warn you, Jim, boy,” he started, pulling on his vest, “you may witness something unsettling. Or, you may be witness to one of the grandest occurrences ever experienced.”
He held out an identical vest. I took it reluctantly and looked it over.
He nodded. “That’s yours.”
I didn’t have time to be grateful. He waited as I put it on. When we both were ready, I followed him onto the platform. He turned the dials on his wrist-watch and pressed a button on it.
“We haven’t got much time. I’ve set the timer.”
I barely nodded. I wanted to be excited and jumping for joy that I was finally going along. Instead, I felt dread. Something was wrong about the situation. I swallowed. Gregory clicked another button on his watch and then the air rushed by my ears.
I forced my eyes to remain open. The lab faded before my eyes. Furniture disappeared, then the walls turned slowly, brick by brick, to solid sheets of plaster. Blinding light rushed around us. Then, it stopped. We stood in some sort of storage closet that was much too small to comfortably fit two men.
I stared at the metal shelf in front of me. The corner of a box scraped my cheek. I felt nauseous.
“Er, sorry, ol’ boy,” Gregory apologized, sliding by me to find the door. “Guess I didn’t think about where we’d end up.”
I leaned over, onto my knees. “I don’t feel so great.” Saliva coated my mouth. I closed my eyes.
“Just breathe through your nose, slowly,” my fearless leader suggested. “It’ll pass.”
Soon, it did. I stood on wobbly feet. Gregory smiled.
“As I’ll ever be.”
“You get used to the jolt after a few goes.”
I frowned. “Sure.”
“Let’s see if we can’t make some sense of our location,” he said, opening the door a crack. Presently he let a “Ah! Perfect” and opened wide the door.
I cautiously followed him into a brightly lit corridor. The walls were empty and the floor was covered in grey carpet.
“Right. This way, I believe, “Gregory said.
I caught him by the shoulder. I pulled at my vest. “What about—?”
“Oh dear. I almost forgot!” He retreated into the broom closet and removed his vest. I did the same and handed it over. He stashed them in an empty box and set it atop a shelf, in the far back.
“How do you know they’re still going to be here when we get back?” I asked when we were out in the hall again.
“I don’t, of course,” he answered. “But it is a risk I must take.”
I didn’t press the subject.
We wandered farther down the hallway until we emerged into a large gathering space. People dressed in business attire hurried here and there. Large glass windows showed a blue sky and warm sunrays. A large, circular reception desk sat in the middle of the room. Men and women punched away on computers or spoke hurriedly into phones.
“Where are we?” I inquired and then quickly followed with, “When, I mean.”
“This is the E.A. Gordon Financial Building in Boston,” Gregory said, tilting his head to a whisper. I had never heard of such a place. “It is May 14, 2023 at 2:30 in the afternoon.” He looked at his watch and fiddled with a dial. “I believe we are in the right place.” He raised his head, squinted, and remained still.
He let out a pleased sigh. I waited as he crossed a crowd of people, to a lounge-like area. He returned with a newspaper. I looked around as he looked over the pages.
“Ah yes! President John Darling,” he read. Satisfied, he flung the print atop a nearby trashcan.
“Wait, what? Who’s John Darling—”
“He was the runner-up in the 2020 Presidential Election.”
“But it seems he actually won, here.” He let out an incredulous “humph” and smiled.
“Remember? We aren’t on our time plane any longer, my dear Jim, boy.” He pat my shoulder and headed for the door.
I tried to process the situation. When Gregory was too far away for my liking, I ran after him.
It was warm. There was a slight breeze that made the leaves flutter ever so slightly. Nothing seemed overtly out of place, as if to give the impression it was not the 2014 I knew. Yet, somehow, it felt different. It felt as if I had left a room for a few minutes in which case something was taken. The trouble is, I had no idea what was taken.
I followed Gregory across the street and down the sidewalk. He stopped at a small coffee shop and sat at one of the colorful bistro tables set up along the walkway.
He looked at his watch again. A waitress came to the table; Gregory ordered us coffees. Despite the very pleasant atmosphere, I could not relax.
“What’s going on?” I finally asked. “Why are we here? I mean, why did you pick this place?”
He held up a hand. “You’ll find out in a few minutes.” He remained silent, looking about.
The waitress returned with our coffees. Gregory didn’t seem to notice. I smiled and thanked her. My companion added cream to his cup and began stirring with a spoon. I had never seen him so distracted.
Just when I was about to protest further, Gregory lunged forward. His face fell and he swallowed.
“What? What is it?” I demanded, following his gaze.
He was watching a woman cross the street. She wore a white dress, dotted with small, red flowers, and a blue sweater. She was coming toward us, toward the café.
She reached our sidewalk, politely said hello to a patron leaving the shop, and then went inside. Gregory rose from the table. He tapped the side of his leg nervously. It suddenly became quite apparent that the woman was why we were there. I twisted around in the chair so I, too, could watch the door.
She emerged with a to-go cup and Gregory practically tripped over the chairs to get to her. She stepped away and looked him over.
“Are you okay?” She asked, a bit apprehensively.
“Do you recognize me?” Gregory asked, though it sounded as though he already knew the answer.
The woman shook her head. “I’m afraid you have me mistaken—”
Gregory held up his hands. “Please. I know this will sound weird, but would you mind having a coffee with my friend and me? Just for a few moments?”
The woman looked past him, to me. I didn’t know what else to do, so I smiled. She turned back to my friend. “I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head, “I am very late already…”
“What are you late for?” Gregory tried, calmly.
“I’m going to a lecture on time travel, not that it’s any of your business.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, who is giving the talk?”
She gawked at him. She shifted her weight. “I don’t know, some Larrabee something or other. Look, I don’t have an extra ticket, so—”
Gregory held her arm. “Please stay, for just a moment.”
She pulled her arm away. “I don’t know who you are.”
“Are you positive? Absolutely positive?”
“Maybe you saw me somewhere before. I don’t know. I have got to go. Sorry.” She started down the sidewalk.
“Wait!” Gregory called. She started to cross the street. “Lucy!” he called again.
She briefly looked over her shoulder. She was about to say something, but nothing ever came out. The truck hit her, full-force. I let out a yelp and clamped my hands over my mouth. Onlookers screamed and rushed to her aid. It would be fruitless—she would have never survived such impact.
I sprang from my seat and turned to Gregory. He stared after her, tears forming in the corners of his eyes. He set his jaw and before I could say anything, was crossing the street. I had no idea if that dimension had the same currency, but I dropped a ten on the table anyway before sprinting after him.
* * *
Gregory flung his vest as he stomped up the stairs. It hit a table with a thud and skidded across the papers until it fell onto the floor on the other side. I worked to free myself from my own vest and scrambled after him.
“Hey, wait a minute!” I shouted. “What the hell was that?”
He stopped. He turned his head slightly. “That is what always happens. It is the same every time.”
“What? Who is that woman?” I draped my vest over the railing and clomped up after him.
He spun around to face me. “Her name is Lucy. She was my wife,” he said. “And she is dead. Everywhere, she is dead.”
He turned to go but I grabbed his arm. “Wait a minute. You can’t just go away without giving me an explanation.”
He frowned. He looked around the lab, then back at me. “Three years ago Lucy was in a car accident. She died at the hospital not long after,” he said. He started up the stairs again; I followed.
“She was a great scientist. Studied astrophysics, mostly,” he explained as we ascended to the main floor.
“But she was right there?” I posed. I was confused.
“Yes. The Lucy in other time planes…”
I mulled it over. “So,” I began after a few seconds of silence, “she died here and so you are trying to find her somewhere else?”
We stopped in the main hall, by the basement door. Gregory put his hands in his twill jacket pockets. “Yes, that’s what it turned into.” I let him pause. He continued, “We built The Machine together. The basic principles; the research. But then she died. I was determined to finish it. When I did, I tried to rewind time, tried to stop her from leaving that day. But she died anyway, a few days later. Electrocuted while changing a light bulb.”
I looked at the ground. “I’m…sorry. I had no idea.”
He started down the hallway. “I was devastated. I thought I’d saved her, but then it didn’t matter.” He stopped to touch some exotic magenta flowers. “These were her favorites,” he said as an aside. I suddenly felt horrible I had hit that one flower on the patio.
Gregory continued on his way to the parlor, “Then I had an idea. I could save her, be with her, in some other place, some other time. So I explored temporal paradoxes. I made a trip. I found her. She was in the airport, on her way to Tuscany.” He crossed the room to the fireplace. “She was on a bachelorette trip. Apparently, I learned as I watched, hidden, she and I had met the soon-to-be-wed couple at a bar. I was to be a groomsmen.” He sat in an armchair and pulled at the fabric. “It was a strange sensation to watch myself interact with her. I was…jealous, almost…of myself.” He looked up. “But it didn’t matter. Her plane crashed very shortly after take-off.”
I sat across from him, in a large red chair. “She died there, too?”
“Everywhere. No matter how hard I tried, I could not save her. She died at the same time she did here, in every dimension I visited.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“I’ve gradually come to realize that there is no saving her from her fate.” He finished and smiled sadly. He sighed.
“I—I don’t know what to say,” I finally offered.
Gregory looked at the fireplace, then around the room. “Do you know I had this place built for her?”
I shook my head. “It’s a great place.”
“I wanted someplace she would feel free. She loved to ride horses.”
I thought of Don Quixote. Then the flowers. I wondered what it had been like, all alone, in that great big house.
We were silent for a few moments. Gregory stared into the empty fireplace until he stood up.
“Well, ol’ chap, I’m off.”
Where, I hadn’t a clue, but I didn’t ask. He left the room and I looked at the carpet. I felt nauseous.
* * *
I was seeing Mr. Darby to the door when a house hand came up to us and stood silently, waiting.
I glanced at the man out of the corner of my eye, but kept my focus on the client. “So, if it causes anymore trouble, just bring it back. We’ll replace the whole thing,” I said, handing back his small mantle clock. It doubled as a weather forecaster and contained several hidden compartments.
“Thanks very much!”
Mr. Darby tipped his hat and made his way off down the steps.
I spun around to the attendant. “Well, what is it?”
“Mr. Larrabee requests your presence in the conservancy.”
I had no idea what a conservancy was, much less that there was one in Larrabee’s house. “Where is that?” I asked before the man got too far away.
“Follow me,” he replied.
I did, and was pretty confused as to where we were headed. I’d realized I had never ventured into the wing of the house we were in. It seemed every day that there was some new part of that house to explore.
We stopped at two large glass doors. I peered inside; leafy green plants reached across the place. The gentleman opened the door and waited.
“Sir,” he said.
I moseyed inside. Sunlight streamed fiercely through the glass ceiling. I heard running water. I peeked at the variety of plants and passed a settee and small table with curled iron legs.
I rounded a very large fichus. “Gregory?”
He was standing in front of a large concrete water fountain, hands behind his back. “Yes, hullo, James.”
“I fixed that clock for Mr. Darby…”
“Splendid,” he said. He reached a hand out to touch one of Lucy’s flowers.
I shifted my weight. “Were you looking for me?”
“Yes. Indeed I was.”
I waited for the explanation, but when it didn’t come I cleared my throat. “Is something the matter?”
He still didn’t say anything for a second. Finally he said, “I’ve discovered something, Jim, ol’ boy.” He inhaled slowly. “All this time I have been desperately trying to prevent Lucy’s death. I had never stopped to think about the other variables.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have tried to prevent her death by trying to keep her by my side during the fated hour. Yet, every time, she still dies. It does not matter how hard I try to ‘jump in’; she still dies.”
I didn’t respond. It wasn’t time yet.
I noticed him swallow. “I’ve discovered the variable that needs to be negated in order to save her.”
“What is that?”
He finally spun to face me. “Me.”
“What are you talking about?”
He tilted his head to one side. “There is something—often quite a bit more than one thing—different in each time plane. The only thing consistent is that Lucy met me once upon that time, and thus we ended up together. I’ve made a diagram of each way Lucy has died; all of them are because we are together.”
“That’s ludicrous,” I suggested.
“She was electrocuted here because she lived here, with me; she was killed a plane crash because she was going to a bachelorette party of friends she met at a bar, with me; she fell out the building window where I worked because she came to visit me… I could go on, but it is far too painful to think of each one, individually. But you, personally, saw her hit by a car because she was on her way to a lecture, by me!”
“Isn’t that a little desperate?” I tried.
“Each time she has died has been a result of us being together.”
I straightened at his sullen disposition. He reached out a hand to some of her flowers in a pot nearby.
I raised my shoulders. “So what do you want to do?”
“I am going back, one more time. I will save her.” I opened my mouth to say something, but he cut me off. He said, “I am not entirely sure it will save her everywhere, but my studies have shown that if I tweak this one thing, it will domino into other planes. I can only hope it will prevent her deaths, there, as well.”
“What do you plan to do?”
He didn’t answer the question, specifically. “You can come with me, if you’d like. Actually, I’d prefer the companionship.”
He started past me, his head lowered.
He didn’t share his definition of ‘soon,’ but later that evening, he approached me in the parlor. I was reading up on my Quantum Physics. I was having a horrible time of it, too. I glanced up from the intimidating tome as he crossed to me.
“Am I interrupting?” He asked, peering at the book.
“Not in the least,” I said, letting the cover fall shut. I stood and dropped the book onto the cushion. “I have no idea what that thing is talking about…”
He stared at the book and then sniffed. “Quite ready then?”
“Uh, sure. If you really want to do this.”
He didn’t answer, just tried to smile and gave a nod. He spun on his heel and we were on our way. (To what, exactly, I hadn’t a clue. Though, that was a common occurrence.)
He didn’t say much as we descended to the laboratory. I didn’t try to make conversation. I was mulling over his plan. I wondered, really, if it would work. It was an extreme decision to make. It was, after all, the love of his life. I wondered if his plan was suited for the situation. I declined to offer the idea of “fate,” and nonetheless kept my thoughts to myself.
“I’ve done some careful calculations,” he said, adjusting a few knobs and buttons on the machine. “It will take us to precisely 19 years and 265 days ago, our time.”
“How’d you manage that?”
“Simple, really,” he said. “I’ve recently discovered a way to pinpoint the precise coordinates for our dimension.” He emphasized with his hands. “Though, I haven’t the slightest idea how to do it for other dimensions. I don’t suppose I’ll get to that point, though.”
I didn’t particularly pay attention to the last part. “Wait, you can choose exactly where you want to go now?”
He knew where I was headed. “Yes, Jim. And I would desperately like to pay you back for all that you’ve done for me by returning you to your home.”
I blinked. I couldn’t hide a smile. “Well, gee. That’s…” But then I stopped. I couldn’t decide if that was a great discovery or not. I didn’t want to think about it at the moment. “Well, should we go?” I asked instead.
“Right. Very good,” Gregory said with a nod.
He handed a vest to me and put his own on. He set the timer on the machine. I followed him to the platform where he wiggled some knobs on his watch.
“I do appreciate you accompanying me, Jim, ol’ boy.”
“Yeah, sure—” The trip cut me off.
My head whirled. I leaned over my knees. “That does not get better, Gregory,” I mumbled. I blinked at the asphalt.
“I’m sorry you won’t be able to get used to it,” he answered quietly. I didn’t know what he meant.
I steadied myself. We were in an alley of some sort. Gregory didn’t bother to remove his vest, so I didn’t either. He made his way to the sidewalk of a very busy street. Tall buildings rose all around us. A gentle mist fell from a gray sky. I stepped out of the way of a woman running past us. She was talking furiously into her cell phone.
Gregory sighed. He looked at his watch. “We’re just in time,” he said. He glanced up the sidewalk and then the other way. After second he stepped past me.
He leaned in to whisper, “Do you see that small shop there?” He nodded to the very busy coffee shop. Patrons rushed in and out, receiving their hot cups of coffee before the day.
I nodded. “Yeah, sure.”
“That is where I met her.”
I straightened. “What?”
“We, quite literally, bumped into each other. I was coming out as she was going in. We ended up sitting at a table inside, just by the window.”
“Wait, why are—?”I started, but he put a finger to his lips.
“Just a moment,” he said. “Just wait.”
I waited, and then I saw it—or rather, him. Gregory quickly moved so that I blocked his person. He said, “Do you see?”
I nodded. A younger, slightly thinner Gregory was moving through the crowd, into the coffee shop. He wore a pair of dress pants and a blue sweater. His hair was combed back and a pair of brown glasses sat on his nose. He smiled politely at the other patrons around him and disappeared into the establishment.
“Am I gone?”
“Yeah…” I breathed.
He studied his watch and looked around. He inhaled sharply. I spotted what he was looking at: Lucy. I was sure it was her. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a loose braid. She carried an armful of books. She seemed in a hurry.
Gregory tapped his leg: his nervous tick. He frowned. “I must,” he whispered, though not to me.
He stepped out and casually walked toward her. Then, all of a sudden, he plowed directly into her. She spilled her books and dropped to the sidewalk. He bent down to help her pick them up.
“I’m so sorry!” he apologized.
She barely looked up. “It’s okay.”
“I wasn’t looking where I was going,” he kept on.
She piled the volumes back into her arms and stood. At the same moment, the younger Gregory passed through the doors, sipping his coffee. He looked at his watch and made his way down the sidewalk. Then, he disappeared around a corner.
Young Lucy stood and mumbled “thanks” before passing through the café door. Gregory remained standing, staring after her. I cautiously approached. Tears welled up in his eyes.
He didn’t let me ask. “It is strange,” he said. “This feeling is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Just in this moment I can now remember two different worlds. I still remember life with her, but I also remember all these years without her.”
I swallowed. “Gregory…”
“But,” he started, sadly, “the memories with her seem so far away. Like they were just dreams.”
I put an arm on his shoulder. He shook his head.
“Right,” he tried. “Off we go.”
I didn’t protest, but I looked in the direction of Young Gregory, then to the café. Suddenly, I felt sick. But it wasn’t the trip.
* * *
Gregory was in his study when I knocked on the doorframe. He was standing in front of the large holographic television. The news was on.
“Gregory?” I asked, going into the room.
“Shh,” he said, quietly.
I stood by him and studied the news. There was a story regarding a NASA space mission. It appeared that a robot had sent back photos of the universe, from behind the Milky Way.
The news anchor read the teleprompter, “Astrophysicists Dr. Lucy Rafferty and Dr. Michael Welch are here to discuss the anticipated results of this extraordinary accomplishment. Doctors?”
The camera panned out to show an older gentleman with gray hair and wrinkled hands, and a woman about Gregory’s age. They both wore casual suits. Lucy’s hair was pulled into a tight braid. She smiled.
“I’ve done it,” Gregory said. He smiled at the screen, at her. He looked at me. “I saved her.”
I wondered, at what risk. I asked, “But how are you?”
He sighed. “It doesn’t matter. At least she will be safe,” he said. He turned from the television. “I don’t suppose there is much use for The Machine any longer. I think I shall destroy it. That is, after you leave.”
I kicked at the carpet. “Sure, but I’ll help you do it.”
He tilted his head. “But wouldn’t you like to go home?”
I paused, and then, “I’m not sure.”
It took him by surprise. “What do you mean?”
I shrugged and went to the window. “I don’t really have anything to go back to,” I suggested. I looked over my shoulder with a grin, “Besides, I kinda like it here.”
He didn’t seem to know how to react. Then his lips turned into a smile.
“And also,” I put in, “You are going to kill yourself one of these days, building all those stupid machines. Somebody has to be the common sense of this operation.”
He chuckled. “Quite right, Jim, ‘ol boy. Quite right.”