Colors faded and cooled as the light dimmed and the shadows grew and vanished, an early winter night setting in. Elena was walking with brisk steps, thinking about nothing in particular, in that space between stress and the rest of the day where she didn’t really register the world except to avoid walking into people. There was a diner on 3rd Street, where she was headed. She was supposed to meet Daniel there for dinner and a talk, and she was late. He had said that he needed to talk to her soon. She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. At this point she didn’t even know which things were good and which were bad, so whatever happened she probably still wouldn’t be sure.
Thinking of what it could be was distracting. Her mind flitted between possibilities – Daniel saying “I think we should take a break” in a deep flat voice, Daniel lowering himself to one knee and looking up at her with round hopeful eyes, Daniel knocking over a glass and storming away forever. There was a mess of emotions weltering in her chest at each scenario, but she wasn’t clear-headed enough to figure out what they were.
When she got to the block with the diner, she paused. The people walking behind her nearly bumped into her, and as they stepped around her one of them made a slit-eyed nasty face at her. The other paused. He was a middle-aged man with a beard clinging to his jaw and hair beginning to let go on his scalp. Elena took an involuntary step back as he moved closer to her, and he held up a hand in reassurance.
He said, “You don’t know what will happen, but you could.”
“Um.” She gave him her best I-don’t-talk-to-crazy-people look. “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know who you are – ”
“No, of course not.” He shook his head, as if impatient. “You would’ve. But no, that’s not the point. Listen, you’re at one of those crossroads right now, one of the things that decides everything. You ever think about the fact that in twenty years, this will be a memory you can barely hold onto? I mean, the pattern of events in the future is unknown now, but everything that’s going to happen is already going to happen.”
“That’s very interesting,” Elena said, backing away as slowly as she could, hoping he wouldn’t see her feet moving. “But I – ”
He interrupted her again. “No, no, you’re still not getting it. I mean, I can see that and it looks like you don’t know what will happen but you could. I could, you know, like with a remote control – what’s it called? Where you speed up a movie? Fast forwarding. You can do that if you want, be ten years later or twenty or something, and already know all of what’s so awful and scary now.”
That sounded crazier than the last bit, but Elena was intrigued. After all, the worst that could happen was nothing. She looked down for a moment, and shrugged. “I suppose. I mean, I guess. Why not?”
The man had a smile on his face that wavered between triumph and something that looked like sorrow. “Okay, listen then. You just need to shut your eyes for a minute, and then I’ll, you know, press the remote control button.”
Elena nodded and took a breath, closing her eyes. She didn’t feel anything except, abruptly, the sun on her skin. There was a shriek of joy, and her eyes snapped open. Ricky was chasing around that little girl – what was her name? Natalie? She really should remember it by now. It was nearly 5:00 already, and she stood to call the kids inside. They started at the sound of her voice, and slumped into the kitchen.
For a moment she felt dizzy. There was a memory tickling at her mind, a younger version of herself. She remembered not being sure if it had worked – what had worked? In the past few years her memory had gotten so spotty. She liked to joke that having kids was using all her brain, and she didn’t have a whole lot left. Jack laughed every time she said it, and then she would joke that he only thought she was funny because he loved her. He laughed at that too, every time. The kids would usually laugh along with their dad, too. But what was it she could almost remember –
She had been walking to that diner somewhere downtown, going to meet – who was it? Daniel, right? He was a sweetheart. She was going to meet him for dinner, and they were going to talk, and in the end she didn’t go. She turned around right on that same block and went home, and she deleted all the messages he left. The memory felt distinctly confused – she had been so bewildered, she just hadn’t known what to do.
That was after the time-traveling crazy man, though. She couldn’t remember why she had listened to him, but after him she’d just gone home, and never even talked to Daniel again. She could almost remember making that decision, an impulse that pushed her away. It seemed very odd – she could remember everything after meeting the crazy man and closing her eyes tight, but it felt so recent. It felt like she had just opened her eyes to sway unsteadily in the summer breeze, dropping there from that city street so long ago. Despite everything that happened after, everything that lay in scrambled memories. Leaving Daniel – she remembered doing that, but somehow she felt as though she hadn’t yet made the decision.
“I wish I hadn’t done that,” she murmured.
“Mom, what did you say? I’m thirsty.”
The kids were getting restless. Elena blinked and the remains of the memory slunk into the shadows. She smiled and got up, to go make them chocolate milk.