It’s easier when I pretend not to know him–when I think of him as a stranger and remind myself that he will still have a normal life. Maybe a better one, even.
I used to wear a mask or a fake beard to disguise myself, but he hasn’t recognized me for a long time. Follow us on social meedia at topquartile .
I let myself into his second-floor apartment using a key hidden under the mat. I sit on his couch and hit play on the stereo remote. Radiohead’s Amnesiac, like always.
At thirty-two minutes past the hour, I kill the music and walk to the kitchen window. Rain splatters the street below. I can almost hear it.
I try not to see the chef knife on the counter. Nightmares are made of the time when things went bad. When I screwed up the dose and he woke up. There was a struggle and I panicked. I avoid knives, now.
He rides up to the building and locks his bicycle to a post. I retreat to the bathroom and wait behind the door. I remind myself how much I need this. It’s not hurting him. Not really. If you don’t know what you’ve lost, you can hardly miss it.
I first met Annabelle one year, twenty-seven weeks, and two days prior to our wedding. That was nineteen weeks and six days before my dissertation defense; three years, fifteen weeks, and a day prior to the birth of our daughter, Maggie.
I met Annabelle at an Italian restaurant near Green Lake.
What I remember about the evening–the thing about that first meeting that I’m surprised I remember–is the bit of cork floating in my wine. Each time I return to that scene, to my seat at the bar, as close to the piano as possible, it’s the tiny cork raft that I see, floating on the black-red ocean. And it’s a nocturne for piano that I hear.
I was the token grad student at a faculty recruitment dinner. My adviser, John Hicks, was present, along with several other epidemiology professors. My job was to eat quietly, drink little, laugh at the candidate’s jokes, and answer occasional questions. Patrick, someone might say, tell us about the temporal trends in your VA cardiovascular cohort, and I would tell them. If you are facing bankruptcy you are probably experiencing severe financial problems. The last thing you want is to Ñ–ncur more expences then look at here. You may be thinking that you would not even need a bankrupcy attorney if you could afford to have one in the first place.
I was the token grad student at a faculty recruitment dinner. My adviser, John Hicks, was present, along with several other epidemiology professors. My job was to eat quietly, drink little, laugh at the candidate’s jokes, and answer occasional questions. Patrick, someone might say, tell us about the temporal trends in your VA cardiovascular cohort, and I would tell them.
Disjointed phrases of “Girl From Ipanema” filled the space between personal anecdotes and pithy discussions. I had noticed a piano over by the bar when we entered, but I couldn’t recall when the music had started. I strained to assemble the notes in my head–to follow the syncopated melody. Then it ended, to be replaced by Chopin’s “Murmures de la Seine.” I lost track of the table conversation completely–hadn’t a clue who or what was being discussed. By the time I recognized my distraction, there was no way to recover. I couldn’t go back and replay the conversation that I’d missed. The only way to avoid embarrassment was to head for the restroom before anyone asked my opinion.
The pianist sat with her back to the diners, facing the lounge. Pale braids circled her head and a halter top dress displayed a tall neck and smooth shoulders dotted with freckles. Her elbows floated away from her body with each swell of the melody. Long fingers dripped from her hands to the faux-ivory keys. Extended trills and rapid arpeggios seemed effortless. I allowed myself a backward glance as I passed. Her eyes were closed, her lips parted.
On my return to the table, she was playing “Time Is On My Side.” She looked up and smiled.
I have no memory of the rest of dinner. I must not have said anything too foolish, as the candidate ultimately took the position, but my mind was far from the conversation. I was consumed by fantasies–dreams of summoning the nerve to speak to her. No conscious ideas of sex or romance yet prevailed. I just wanted that smile again.
When dessert was finished, John offered me a ride.
“Thanks,” I said. “But I’ve got my bike and it’s barely sprinkling.”
“Come by my office tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve got an opportunity with your name written all over it.”
Avoiding new projects is a critical skill for grad students actually interested in finishing their degrees. “Sure,” I said. It was a skill that I had not acquired.
I followed him out, and made a show of unlocking my bicycle, but when he’d gone, I locked it up again and returned to the bar. The pianist saw me, smiled again, and transitioned from Bizet’s “Habanera” to Pearl Jam’s “Wish List.” I ordered a glass of the house Chianti.
She played a mix of familiar classics, pop songs, show tunes, and jazz. When she finished a piece, sometimes there would be applause; usually she would go straight into the next. After an hour, when only a few diners remained, she joined me at the bar.
I had rehearsed what I might say: you play beautifully or you have such elegant fingers.
She took the stool beside me and said, “There’s a floater in your wine.”
“Um…” I began, but intelligent speech failed me.
“Could I have mine sans cork?” she said, then, extending a hand, “I’m Annabelle.”
She worked in a music shop during the days and played piano at the restaurant four nights a week. I told her about my work and she put on a convincing show of interest. We talked of music and local artists. We had attended many of the same shows.
“Would you like another glass?” I said, when she’d finished her wine.
She hesitated a moment before blurting out, “I don’t want a relationship.”
I was startled and didn’t reply, so she continued.
“I mean–shit. I’m sorry… I wanted to get it out there, so… you know, less confusion. I broke up with someone and I’m not ready.” Neither of us spoke. We looked at our empty glasses, mine with its bit of cork stuck to the wall.
Finally, she said, “I’ve just ruined–“
“No,” I said. “I understand. I don’t really want…” I couldn’t lie. I wanted.
She folded her napkin, unfolded it, set it down, picked it up again.
“Do you think we can pretend I didn’t say anything?” she said. “Go back to a minute ago, when you suggested another glass? If I’d accepted one, where might that have led us?”
“The counterfactual scenario?”
“Counterfactual?” she said.
“It’s the term for ‘what if things had been different?’ We use it in epidemiology. Say you want to figure out how many heart attacks are due to eating hamburgers. You have to know how many of the people who ate hamburgers and had heart attacks would have had heart attacks anyway if they hadn’t eaten hamburgers.”
“Can’t you just look at how many people who don’t eat hamburgers have heart attacks?” she asked.
“That’s pretty much what we do,” I said, “but it’s not perfect. See, you can never know for sure that the non-hamburger eaters don’t differ from the hamburger eaters in some other way. Some factor that we can’t detect. And maybe that other factor also influences the risk–“
She started laughing. “I don’t eat burgers.”
“Desserts, then,” I said. “The point is, we’d like to be able study the exact same group of people twice–once with them all eating dessert, and once with no dessert.”
“Have your cake and eat it too, huh?”
“That’s the counterfactual,” I said. “What would be different now–“
“I get it,” she said. “So let’s go back and try again. Let’s say you just asked me if I wanted more wine.”
“It’s not the same,” I said. “We’re different people than we were even five minutes ago.”
“Now I think you’re missing the point,” she said. Her hand found my knee and she winked. “Pretend?”
I raised my glass.
“Alright then.” She snapped her fingers, and said, “No, thank you, I’ve had plenty of wine for a first date, but I’d love some tiramisu.”
That was four years, thirty-eight weeks, and one day prior to Annabelle’s death by motor vehicle accident, three blocks north of the Aurora bridge.
A key turns in the lock and the apartment door creaks. I hear his voice talking into a phone.
“…a quiet evening in with the data. Why? …but John, I’ve come to three of these dinners already and… Can’t you parade one of the other… Okay, okay. I’ll just clean up and then bike over on my own.”
His cycling shoes clatter against the linoleum floor. He enters the bathroom and I strike. He sees me in the mirror too late. My left arm circles his neck, and I pull his head to my chest. I squeeze his throat in the crook of my elbow. He struggles, fights, but I know his every move before he makes it.
As consciousness deserts him, our eyes meet in the mirror. What he sees in my face–I don’t know what he sees. I’m not him.
What I see in him is surprise. Surprise, anger, confusion, denial, and maybe, for just one moment before he passes out, acceptance. I envy him that–the acceptance.
“How’s the paper coming?” John Hicks leaned back, his head silhouetted against dual monitors cluttered with spreadsheets, code windows, and manuscripts for review. He looked tired, older even. Maybe he’d returned to the office after dinner and worked all night.
“I’m still waiting on GIS overlay figures,” I said, “but our part is done. Should go out to co-authors by Tuesday.”
I didn’t need that long. I was padding my time. A pleasant hint of premonition nagged and I hoped to enjoy the weekend.
“Good. What else is on your plate?”
“Well… we’ve got another dataset from the Group Health cohort and–“
“Anything that can’t wait a couple days?” he said.
“Why? What do you have in mind?” The next grant deadline was weeks away, so he shouldn’t be panicked about our renewal yet.
“There’s a sort of fellowship. A job.” A day could hardly pass without him pushing another funding opportunity on me.
“It’s by referral only,” he said. “A short-term appointment to test new protocols. Novel techniques for longitudinal cohort studies. I want you to apply. Get the training, at least.”
“Training?” I said. “What, like a new software package?”
“No… actually, I can’t tell you yet. There’s some proprietary technology and right now it’s all a bit hush-hush.” He chuckled. “I’m involved though, and I can tell you, this will revolutionize our field.” He leaned forward. “And the pay–if you were accepted, you’d make more than most full professors.”
“I’m intrigued,” I said. “Why me?”
“You get stuff done,” he said. “No procrastination, no whining, no bullshit.”
I didn’t reply, so he shifted in his seat and tried again.
“What’s the big problem with cohort data?” he asked. Was he quizzing me on study design?
“Well,” I began, “you’re limited to measuring a small set of exposures, which–“
“Skip that. You finish your data collection and you’ve got perfect follow-up on all subjects. What do you still have to worry about?”
“Underlying differences between exposed and unexposed… that are unrelated to the exposure of interest.”
He clapped his hands. “Bingo. Comparability across exposure groups. And there’s nothing we can do about it unless…”
He seemed to want me to finish his sentence. I waited. After a long pause he said, “Patrick, are you seeing anyone?”
“What?” I said. He wasn’t the sort to pry.
“It’s none of my business. Forget I asked. This job though–they’re only considering single applicants.”
Was I seeing anyone? An evening’s conversation. Wine and dessert. The touch of her lips on my cheek before she ran to a bus. It meant nothing. Technically, I was as single as I’d been twenty-four hours before. No, I wasn’t seeing anyone.
“Actually, I kind of am,” I said.
He raised an eyebrow. “Kind of?” he said. “You’ve never mentioned.”
“It’s a new thing,” I said. Was it really even a thing? “We just met. Last night.”
He frowned. “After the dinner?” I could see him puzzling it out. “The girl at the piano, right?”
I nodded, shifted my feet.
“I can’t tell you what to do, Patrick, but this job–it’s not something to miss.”
“Neither is Annabelle.” Until I said it, I hadn’t realized that it was true.
“I guess you can’t regret this if you don’t know what you’re missing, but if you knew, I think you’d choose differently.”
“Another damned counterfactual,” I muttered.
He chuckled. “Right. Sure.”
Then, after a pause, he said, “I guess I’m happy for you, Patrick. She must really be something, this pianist.”
And for a time, we were–really something. Me and Annabelle, and later, me and Annabelle and Maggie.
There are some things that cannot be.
A visit at work, in the middle of the day, from a police officer with beads of rain studding his jacket. Words that could not be, coming from his mouth.
A home appliance delivery truck, southbound on Aurora avenue. Its driver asleep or drunk. A blue hatchback rolled and crushed. A broken body on wet pavement. Words that made sense, sounded plausible, but would not fit with my world. Could not be true.
I asked one of Annabelle’s friends to assemble the music. I probably suggested Barber’s “Agnus Dei”–Annabelle’s favorite. I don’t remember whether it was played. What I do remember–what I remember hearing that day is Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” when someone hit the wrong playlist. There was a stifled laugh. I remember that.
I remember that the sun shone that day, and I remember Maggie. I remember how she wouldn’t be held. How she cried the whole time. Stumbled around on wobbly legs, calling for her mother. Fell down and cried more. My parents tried to distract her. Eventually, she fell asleep on a pew and later, I carried her to the car.
The people who should have been at the reception were there. Annabelle’s mother and sister. My parents. Annabelle’s friends, my friends, John Hicks.
What I remember about John that day is that he wore a hat, and when he came into the church, he took it off. His hair was thinner than I’d remembered. He probably said something to me. I don’t know.
Afterward, at the reception, I ate some carrot sticks and a piece of cheese. That’s all I remember of the day. A day that could not be.
Then anger, bargaining, depression. I was told acceptance would follow. I could not accept that. Check these out elizabethnelsonstudio .
“How are things, Patrick?” John’s voice through my phone. “How’s Maggie?”
“John, I can’t come back yet. To work.”
“No worries, Patrick. Take next quarter off. I can teach your seminar.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe.” I was sitting at my desk, looking at the wall. Looking at photographs on the wall. Photographs of me and Annabelle, and of me and Annabelle and Maggie.
Maggie was asleep beside me. I had moved the crib into my office to keep her close. She was irritable and if I wasn’t there the moment she woke, she might cry for hours.
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Come explain to a seventeen-month-old why her mother’s gone. Get me something better than aspirin for this headache. Remind me how to focus…on anything.”
“What about the grandparents? I met your folks and Annabelle’s mom at the–” He couldn’t say it. The other F word.
“They help a lot,” I said. “But if I’m not with Maggie, she gets… It might be a while.”
“Can you work from home?” he asked. Drafts of three unread papers sat on my desk, awaiting comments.
“I don’t seem to be making any progress,” I said. I flipped through the first manuscript. It was covered with notes and edits, written in my own hand. I couldn’t even remember making them. “I’m just not functioning,” I said. “I’m falling apart. Forgetting stuff.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, Patrick, how are you set financially?”
“That’s another problem,” I said. “I guess I can move in with my folks if it comes to it.”
There was a long pause. John doing the math on how long he could get the department to keep paying me after I’d stopped teaching or writing grants. Finally, he spoke.
“You remember that job I mentioned a few years back?” He took my silence for acknowledgement. “I can still get you in, and it pays a lot.”
“I can’t,” I said. “I have to be with Maggie.” She stirred and started to fuss. I rubbed her back, stroked her head.
“You’d have to go in for a day of training and orientation, but after that, you’d work from home and Maggie could have you all the time.”
On cue, she started crying. I told John I’d think about it and I hung up. I lifted Maggie from the crib and held her. She kicked and wailed. I carried her to the kitchen and prepared a bottle.
“I need her,” I said, as Maggie sucked greedily at the rubber nipple. “I need your mother.”
I met John in the cafeteria of the university hospital. The hospital where Maggie was born–where I’d attended prenatal classes with Annabelle. To John, it was just a convenient place to talk–and eat.
“You don’t look so good,” he said. “You eat today?” I hadn’t seen him in person since the memorial service. He looked like he’d aged a decade.
“You’re looking a bit run down yourself,” I said. “Everything alright?”
“Let’s get some breakfast,” he said.
When we’d sat down with our trays, he squeezed ketchup onto hash browns. I picked at a bagel.
“So, recall that old problem,” he said, “with ensuring comparability across exposure groups?”
“There’s a way,” he said. “A way to do it perfectly.”
“Don’t tell me,” I said, “you’ve got cohorts of human clones that you’re raising on desert islands?” I tore a chunk from my bagel.
He laughed. “Nope,” he said. “Better.” He shoveled eggs into his mouth and chewed. “I remember being in your shoes,” he said, “when they first told me. Your world’s about to turn upside-down.”
“Again?” I said. “I don’t know if I can handle that.”
What John told me, sitting there in the hospital cafeteria over eggs and hash browns was that time travel, when it finally came along, was a big disappointment.
“Think about it,” he said. “Say you’re the secretary of defense. People are always pushing new technologies at you. Stuff with military potential, you know. When a team of physicists out on the West Coast claims to have transported a video camera into the past and back, it’s got to be a joke, right? But if it’s not… well, think of the applications!”
Early on, the few scientists and defense guys who knew about it were scared. “You don’t have to be a physicist or a sci-fi geek to understand the inherent dangers of traveling into the past. Paradoxes, accidentally erasing your own parents from history, et cetera.”
So they ran tests, out in remote locations–tried to alter insignificant events. In the Mojave Desert, a concrete plinth was transported five years into the past. In the present, there was no trace of it. A reconnaissance drone was sent to the same time and place. It returned, bearing three weeks of astronomical observations–enough data to definitively prove that it was transported to the past. “But the plinth–it wasn’t in any of the drone’s photos.”
Bacteria, fungi, and plants were sent back and then examined on their return. No adverse effects. Then mice, rats, dogs, a goat, and two pigs all made the round-trip without mishap.
“Safe for animals; safe for humans,” said John. “And at first it seemed that way. Travelers went and returned over and over. They could snap pictures, bring shit back with them, describe historical events, but any time they tried to change little bits of history, when they came back, our present was exactly as they remembered.
“There was a setback when a traveler went twenty-four hours into the past, planning to tail himself for a day, watch his own departure, and then just stick around and pick up where he left off. He’d have lived one day of his life twice. A loop.”
John stopped talking and took a long swig of coffee. He pushed wisps of hair back off his forehead.
“So, what happened?” I said.
“It didn’t work,” John replied. “That guy, he left and, he was just gone. He never returned. Ever. After that, human trials were suspended for a long time.”
“Okay, John,” I said, “you keep talking about the past. What about–“
“The future?” he said. “Yeah, theoretically, it was supposed to work as easily as going into the past. All the drones sent to the future disappeared though. Never came back as scheduled. And they are never sitting there, broken down and waiting for us, when their target date rolls around.”
Every destination in time, John told me, regardless of whether the traveler is drone, human, or a single atom, becomes a branch-point. A divergence. The birth of a new parallel universe.
“All those changes that people tried to make in the past… they were successful,” he said. “They changed the past, alright–just different pasts that can never influence our own.” John laughed. “The military–the politicians that knew about it–they were pissed when they found out they couldn’t use it to fix their mistakes.”
The reason none of the drones returned from the future, was because when they jumped back to the present, they were creating a branch point. They returned to a present that looked like their own, but it was really a different present with a different future.
“And that guy who jumped back a day, and disappeared,” said John, “he was successful too. He went back, watched himself for a day–watched himself disappear–then continued living the rest of his life, presumably working on the same project, performing more travel tests. He just did all that in a different universe and never even knew it.
“I guess that wasn’t any comfort to his wife and kids,” I said.”
John shook his head. “He was single,” he said, “but his parents don’t know what he was doing, and they’re still scouring the globe for him. Won’t give up.”
John wiped his hands on a napkin and said, “Now, say you’re a scientist, and you’re looking for an ideal study population.”
“John,” I said, “have you actually done this? Created other universes–gone back in time?”
“And say you’re sick to hell of dealing with institutional review boards and ethics panels and–“
“Shit, John,” I said. “Ethics panels? This is insane. You’re serious about this? You’re really…this is real?”
“Sure, you’ll have to prove your findings in your own timeline too,” John said. “Nobody will buy the answer to a question that hasn’t been properly asked.”
John pushed his chair back and stood. I followed him to the exit. He held the door for me and grinned.
“But when you already know all the answers,” he said, “you always ask the right question. The one for which the answer is yes.”
No more negative studies. No more investigational dead ends. What the world sees as intuitive genius–an uncanny knack for getting it right every time–it’s still trial and error. It’s just that all the errors are hidden. They’re dumped on another universe.
And if it nags at your conscience a little bit–what you might be doing to all the people in all those other universes you’re creating, well…it’s amazing, given enough time and incentive, what a person can justify to himself in the name of science. History is full of it.
John led me through a cold drizzle toward a two-story brick building by the lake. Lake Union. Where Annabelle and I would sit and talk. About the future. About us. Where Maggie would babble and point out the ducks, the boats.
With every trip to the past, John–or whoever–had created a whole other Lake Union. Other ducks. Another Maggie. Annabelle. Another me.
My stomach folded up and I got dizzy. I thought I might be sick. I believed John’s words even while my mind rebelled against them. Words that could not be true; that threatened my understanding of the world.
John kept walking. I took a couple deep breaths and caught up.
“How did our department get a hold of the technology?” I asked.
“Everything trickles down eventually,” John replied without turning round. “Defense engineers slide into private industry jobs. Senators gobble up campaign contributions. Favors are repaid, and that which was secret is soon for sale.”
We passed the main entrance to the building and continued around two sides, to the back.
“The original scientists, though,” he said, “–the physicists who developed time travel in the first place–they were here–right here–and they were smart. They understood the subtleties of intellectual property law.”
The university held exclusive rights to non-governmental applications. When the Department of Defense cleared the technology for civilian use, the university bared its teeth. “Made the corporations beg,” said John. “Forced them to contract with us for all of their time travel needs. And we aren’t cheap.”
Small black lettering on the door of the building read Experimental Physics Library Annex. John punched a series of numbers into a keypad and the lock buzzed. We entered a low room, ten feet square, with bare walls. Cameras glared down from the ceiling. Another door with a keypad faced me. I heard the lock of the first door click behind me and John keyed us in through the second.
“What if you meet yourself?” I said.
“In another universe?” said John. “It can get complicated. Dangerous. I’ve done it a couple times. I had to get myself out of the way in another past to prevent some of my own research.”
“Out of the way?” I said.
“We’ll assign you to projects that are completely unrelated to your real-world work,” John said. “You’ll never have to meet yourself.”
I followed him through a series of windowless hallways. At an elevator door, John posed, wide-eyed before a camera that scanned his retinae. There were no buttons in the elevator. The door closed behind us and my insides jumped with the rapid descent.
“Was this building ever a library?” I asked.
“Some little corner of it still is, I suppose. We just call it EPLA.” Ee-pluh.
We exited the elevator into a concrete tunnel lit by fluorescent tubes. Heavy doors lined the walls. John picked one marked “Procedures” and grasped the handle. He turned to face me.
“This is right for you,” he said.
“What if I back out now?” I asked. “Just refuse to proceed?”
“You would get an injection–a cocktail of benzos and such–and then you’d wake up a few hours from now, with a headache, and no memory of the past couple days.”
“John,” I said, “I had a really bad headache last week.”
“Grieving takes time, Patrick. A few days can make a big difference.” He opened the door. “I think you’re ready now.”
I watched the surgery in real-time on a monitor. I watched the surgeon’s hands as she anesthetized the back of my neck, and then cut a vertical incision. She held a tiny cigar-shaped capsule up to the camera.
“Doesn’t look like much,” she said.
It was an inch long and a quarter that in diameter. White metal, with a sandblasted surface. She inserted the capsule into the space she’d created and then sewed the layers of flesh closed over it.
When finished, she handed me her card. “I’ll see you again to remove the sutures. You can call me for anything, but only me. No hospitals.”
After that, John and I watched TV.
“John,” I said, “when you return–when you come back from an alternate timeline–how do you know you’re in the right one?”
“What, that you’re not like the guy who went back to watch himself and never came back?” said John. “I could cite experiments. They might reassure you. Ultimately, though, you never know. You always wonder. Is all this happening somewhere else–without me?”
Sharp pains pricked my neck–not just at the incision, but above and below too. I reached a hand to the place, but John stopped me.
“It’s the tendrils growing,” he said. “They pass through sensitive tissues on their way to the brain and spinal cord. If they weren’t so small, you’d be on the floor, right now, writhing in agony. Tell me when you start hallucinating.”
It wasn’t long. First, a simple square–just four straight lines–floated across my visual field. Then a circle and a triangle.
John sat with me in front of a monitor, while I learned to move the shapes around with tiny flicks of my eyes. He typed a series of commands into a terminal and a menu of options blinked into my vision.
“Try scrolling up and down,” he said. “Kick your gaze right to select and left to move up the directory tree. Nothing is active yet, so don’t worry about going anywhere by mistake.”
My visual overlay was mirrored on John’s monitor and when he was satisfied with my progress he said, “Now you learn to travel.”
When I arrived at my parents’ place, Mom opened the door and Maggie ran to greet me. I picked her up and held her for a long time–until she started squirming and saying, “down, down. Down!” I had only been away from her eight hours. I hadn’t seen her for two weeks.
After a series of short training jumps to and from various desolate locations, I had traveled back two weeks and holed up in a guest suite inside the EPLA building of a parallel universe. I ate instant meals, ran on one of the best treadmill systems of the year and studied how to get faster and faster run times.
“You need a haircut,” Mom said, after she’d hugged me. “I didn’t even notice it this morning–how shaggy you’re getting.”
I studied theory and applications of travel until the stitches came out. A traveler could keep jumping forward within a parallel timeline and still return to the point of origin in his own universe. Downstream effects of his actions could be observed, elsewhere, in other people, without consequence for his own world.
“You’ll stay for dinner, won’t you, Patrick? You look exhausted.” I followed Mom into the house, through the toy-strewn living room, to the kitchen. She poured me a glass of water and I watched her cook.
For a price, EPLA would assign teams of consultants to design and execute studies. Marketing firms, insurance companies, and financial institutions all contracted regularly. My work would be for a Swiss pharmaceutical giant.
Maggie marched into the kitchen with a tattered paperback of Lost Horizon that she’d decorated with purple crayon. She presented it to me and I showed Mom. “This okay?” I said.
“Oh, dear,” she said, “I just can’t keep up with her anymore.” I followed Maggie to the living room, where she climbed up on the piano bench and banged out a song of her own invention. In a couple years, Annabelle would have started teaching Maggie to play.
I go back thirty years. I spend a day in February of 1987–in another universe. I plant information about the latest hypertension med–a drug that isn’t even out of phase one trials in my own present. I pass the tip anonymously. It looks like a leak from a disgruntled employee of a competing firm.
I jump to 1992 of the same timeline to verify that they have acted on the information. Their front-line blood pressure cocktail is thirty years ahead of its time. I make five more stops in that timeline, at four-year intervals. I collect the results of major cardiovascular studies in the alternate past and in that past’s future.
My employer wants rapid turn-around, so I eat and sleep in alternate time. I spend an extra day at the final point, analyzing and compiling the results. Then I jump back to my exact moment of departure. Eight days in the blink of an eye.
And then I do it all again. Three more times.
First, I replicate the previous trip. Then I go back to two more alternate pasts to plant bogus data. Nothing that will set researchers back in their work. Just negative controls to account for unmeasurable impacts of my interference.
It’s never perfect. I don’t stop aging, changing. I’m a slightly different me each trip and, at least in theory, even the subtlest differences could have significant effects. John says that they can track my travels–check up on me. He also says that so long as I deliver the goods, they probably won’t bother.
At the end, I take my four parallel universe meta-analyses to a dedicated workspace in an alternate near past and compile a report. All told, I spend thirty-four days on the project. I deliver my report two minutes after receiving the request.
I linger a moment over Maggie, asleep in her crib beside my desk. Maggie. Above her hang the photographs. The three of us together. Annabelle.
I blink up my travel interface and take another trip.
As his body relaxes, goes limp, I release his neck and ease him to the bathroom floor. I only have to delay him. Prevent him from going out tonight. And, of course, he has to forget that I was here.
I’m good with the needle. It helps that I’m going for the same vein in the same arm of the same person every time. A hefty slug of midazolam greased with just a whisper of propofol. He’ll wake up with a headache.
Sometimes I talk while I drag him down the hall to the living room and arrange him on the couch. I try to explain. I tell him why I’m there.
I tell him it’s for her, that it’s better if he never meets her. Maybe that way she won’t die. But of course, all of this is really for me. It’s my fix. Those early days with her, again. And again and again and again.
I can have it all. My daughter by day and a new Annabelle every night. It’s almost enough.
Sometimes he wakes up a little when I turn on the stereo. This time he even opens his eyes for a moment and I think maybe he understands.
And then he forgets.
I wait for Annabelle at the bar. Wait for her to finish playing. I swirl the wine in my glass. The bit of cork is there, just as it should be.
She’s played Chopin, “Ipanema,” Pearl Jam, the Stones. And she smiled when I walked past.
When she finishes at the piano, she will join me and we will talk. I might be older than she would like, now, but I will understand her. I will say the right things. She will see past my age.
Maybe this time I won’t overplay my hand. She won’t be spooked by how I know her so well, so quickly. It will all feel natural and I will reclaim what I’ve lost. At least for a while. Weeks or maybe a month. There’s a limit to how much I should age. Too much and people will notice. Maggie will notice.
Perhaps, one of these times, I’ll forget all of that. I’ll forget my daughter and I’ll stay here forever. We will be us again. Me and Annabelle. And then maybe me and Annabelle and… someone. But not Maggie, not my Maggie.
Some things cannot be.
“Everyone is impressed with your work, Patrick.”
John and I sat in a cedar-paneled restaurant by Lake Union, eating chowder and drinking ale. “You’ll be getting your five-thousand-hour bonus soon.”
“Not bad for two weeks,” I said.
“Be careful, Patrick. That’s five months you’ve lived in fifteen days. You look like shit.”
“I’m just doing it till I’ve built up some reserves.” I mopped up the rest of my chowder with a bread crust. “I want to put something away for Maggie–you know, for college, grad school if she wants.”
“You’ve got plenty of time.” He waited for me to meet his eye, then said, “Don’t you? You’ve aged a lot more than five months. Anything you want to tell me?”
“Ever since Annabelle…” I began. “Well, I just can’t seem to get over it. And Maggie… If something ever happened to me–“
“The best thing you can do for Maggie is stay young and healthy. Be a dad for as long as you can.” His hand, thin and freckled with liver spots, trembled as he lifted his glass for a sip.
When I didn’t speak, he continued. “I wouldn’t have given you this if I didn’t think you could handle it. I want to help. But I’m concerned about whatever else it is that you’re doing. Do I need to start tracking–“
“You’re concerned, John?” I set my glass down too hard. People at other tables turned, but I ignored them. “Look at you,” I said. “When we met, you were what, forty-five? Just how many trips have you taken? You could be ninety! How can you sit there and–“
“I don’t have anyone.” His words cut me. “I was alone when I started, and I’m alone now.” Neither of us spoke. We gazed across Lake Union at the houseboats. Rain dulled the water. Millions of grey rings forming on a flat cold surface, spreading, colliding, and then gone.
“So why do you do it, John?” I said. “You could have retired long–“
“Retired? I’ll never retire.” He paused. “I’m hooked.”
“So you travel for your own–“
“Of course I do, Patrick. Just historical curiosity at first, poking around here and there. Now I’ve lost track of the number of parallel timelines I’ve created. The pasts I’ve changed–tried to fix–for other universes. God, I’ve fucked up a lot of universes.” He laughed and gestured to the waiter for another round. “I tell myself it’s okay because I’m not hurting anyone who matters, but…”
The beers arrived and we both took long draughts.
“Fact is,” he said, “I don’t even know who I’m hurting–or which universe is real. Ours sure isn’t.”
I choked on my beer and coughed.
“Funny, right?” he continued, “A small team of scientists, at one single university, discovers this impossible technology. On their own. Do you really believe that? In a world still slurping fossil fuels? A world that cuts tumors out with knives and can’t even cure a cold?”
“You’re saying the technology was planted,” I said. “That we’re part of someone else’s–“
“It doesn’t matter,” said John. “What’s important is that this is the world you’ve got and it’s time for you to start living in it.”
“But if it’s contaminated by some other universe’s future–“
“Shit, Patrick, you know how it works. Nobody matters if they’re not in our timeline. That’s what we tell ourselves, right?” John’s voice was getting loud and sloppy. How many beers had he drunk before I arrived? He continued, “Hundreds–maybe millions of people we’ve affected and they’re each living their own lives, without a clue, and we don’t give a damn and…”
“What’s your point?” I said.
“Hell, I’m not sure anymore.” He got quiet. “But what you’re doing–what we’ve both been doing–this cherry-picking and re-living of favorite moments… it’s the behavior of an addict and it’ll destroy you and everyone you love.”
“It’s a job,” I said. “As soon as I get my finances straight, I’ll quit.”
“It’s not just a job, Patrick. Not for you or me or anyone. You have to let Annabelle go. Get out of this. Live.”
When she finishes at the piano, Annabelle walks past me and sits at the far end of the bar. I have to remind myself that I don’t know her name. I ask the bartender to pour her a glass of wine. She turns to me and frowns, puzzled. I approach and sit, leaving an empty seat between us.
“I saw you earlier,” she says. “You’ve been here a long time.” She doesn’t look at me.
“You play beautifully,” I say. “When I finished dining, I thought I’d stay and listen.”
“My father used to do that,” she says. She hesitates. I can see her thoughts. See her asking whether I’m creepy or harmless. In either case, I’m old. “When he was alive,” she continues, “sometimes he would be in Seattle on business and not tell me he was coming. He’d just show up and listen to me play.” She says nothing for a while, then “This is going to sound strange, I know, and it’s not that you look anything alike, but when I saw you earlier, you reminded me of him. The way you seemed so deep in the music.”
Old and harmless. And fatherly. The role I crave is lost to me now. It was bound to happen.
I push my glass away. “You miss him a lot,” I say. Anabelle–my Anabelle–had rarely spoken of her father’s death. It was still a fresh wound when we met. Would be equally raw for this Annabelle now.
“I do,” she says. “Especially here. It gets lonely, playing like this. Before, I never knew when he might show up, so I always hoped and it was always possible. But now…” She swallowed and looked away.
“Thank you for the Chopin,” I say. “Someone I– My wife used to play that nocturne. Your interpretation is the same.”
She says nothing for a while. Then she turns to look at my face. What she sees in my eyes–I don’t know what she sees. What I see in hers is compassion. “Do you have children?” she says.
“No,” I say. It’s a habit. It’s what I always say when she asks. But this time I say, “I mean yes, I do have a child. A daughter.”
She waits for me to say more, but I don’t. She reaches out to place a hand on mine, but I stand and fumble for my wallet.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I need to go. I should be with her–my daughter. She’s…” I leave a twenty on the bar. “She’s waiting.”
Annabelle smiles and says, “Come back some time.”
Some things cannot be. I step out into the rain.
Eleven people attended John’s memorial service. He’d made all of the arrangements in advance. A minimum of ceremony. By a normal calendar, John Hicks was only fifty-one; he died a very old man.
The end was on his own terms. He’d purchased the revolver a week before–the day after I’d last talked to him. A letter explained that he had a brain tumor and wasn’t going to let the cancer turn him into someone else. He’d lived a full life and didn’t want anyone to grieve.
The EPLA Surgeon was at the service, and afterwards, I followed her to the parking lot. We sheltered under her umbrella to talk while rain pelted the vehicle beside us.
“It’s the device, isn’t it,” I said. “It was killing him.”
“No,” she said. “That had nothing to do with it. If you live long enough, you have to die of something. John was old.”
“I want mine out,” I said. “Can you remove it.”
“It’s part of you now,” she said. “The tendrils are everywhere. In your brain, spinal column–even peripheral nerves. It can’t come out.”
She looked around. We were alone. “I can turn it off, though,” she said. “If that’s really what you want.”
“There’s something I have to do first.”
“One more trip?” she said. “Don’t. Stop now, if you’re going to.”
“This is different,” I said. “I’ll be okay.”
One final trip. This time, with a knife.
I don’t go to his apartment. I don’t stop him from meeting Annabelle. I don’t try to replace him at the bar. I can’t be that me ever again.
I don’t even go to that day. I go to a later one. Four years, thirty-eight weeks, and one day later.
I rent a car and drive to a warehouse north of Seattle. Boxed appliances are being loaded into a truck. Nobody notices as I edge up beside it. When the truck is full, a man climbs into the cab and starts the engine.
I strike. The tire is tough and I nearly break the knife. I try again. I slash, rather than stab, and I cut part way through the sidewall. The wound is deep, and with another stroke, the blade penetrates. The screech of air from the tire is covered by engine noise.
I escape undetected.
Twenty minutes later, I stand beside Aurora avenue, just north of the bridge. I watch cars speed through pockets of standing water. A blue hatchback, driven by a young blonde, passes. It continues across the bridge, out of sight.
Annabelle. Not my Annabelle, but still, an Annabelle, and she’s safe.
A single selfless act. A final gesture. Does it compensate for the thousands of universes that I have created, sabotaged, and exploited? Does ninety minutes of beneficence atone for some twenty-five years of selfishness?
But, of course, ultimately, this trip is selfish too. This universe–it’s for me. I won’t inhabit it, but I will know that it exists. My one perfect counterfactual.
The me that is here, in this timeline, will never travel. He will never sacrifice years of his life–the healthy years that should be spent with his daughter–in order to pursue a love that he will never have lost.
I could watch his future unfold, if I wanted. I could jump forward to see him grow old with his Annabelle, watch them with their Maggie. But that is their future, not mine.
When Maggie asks why I look as old as her Granddaddy, I tell her I’ve just lived fast. She doesn’t understand, but she giggles anyway.
We sit by the lake, watching geese, until the rain drives us to the shelter of a pastry shop.
Sometimes Maggie asks about the scar on the back of my neck–the surgical site. I tell her that I got hurt when her mother died. She’s old enough, now, that she doesn’t reach up to touch it anymore. She knows there’s something about it that’s not right.
Remotely deactivated. That’s what the surgeon said, but sometimes I still wonder. If I called up the interface, would it be there for me?
“But Daddy,” she says, through a bite of cinnamon roll, “I thought you weren’t in the car when she died.”
“No,” I say, “but I still got hurt.” She seems to accept this. At least for now.
Some things cannot be. Others just are–even some impossible ones.
I can accept that now. This me can.
Copyright 2014 M. Huw Evans
About the Author
After devoting the first decade and a half of his adult life to medicine, research, and public health, M. Huw Evans put away such noble callings to pursue his life-long dream of writing fiction. In 2012, he attended Clarion West, where he wrote the first version of this story–for none other than the master of time travel herself, Connie Willis. In addition to writing, Evans is a stay-at-home dad and the new workshop administrator at Clarion West.