Bad Timing

What he saw was so out of place that for a moment he questioned whether he had jumped through time. There somebody was, right in front of him, talking on a cellphone! It was pressed to her face hard enough to leave lines on her face, if she ever peeled it off. He definitely was not in 1814 anymore. What was happening?

“Harold,” he said to himself, “Don’t be ridiculous. Take a breath.” He took a long, steadying breath. He blew out, lips pursed, and shook himself. Of course he had jumped through time. He couldn’t very well have stayed in 1814 forever. It was simply too difficult, tripping over ladies’ hoop skirts all day and having to worry about tuberculosis and such. Not to mention the cows. Centuries ago, there were entirely too many cows all over the place. And then there were horses, too. It was just not to be borne, and so Harold would be very glad to be back, once he got over the shock.

It was always a jolt to his system every time that the time changed. The jump wasn’t a choice, exactly. Once, he had been able to control it. With just a squint of his eyes and a moment of concentration, he could skip back to the Jurassic Period and run from some dinosaurs until he got bored and decided to come back. He had done that, and some other epochs as well, until once in the early Middle Ages he had gotten stuck. He had lived among the filthiest people for a full year before he was able to pull himself back to the present. That seemed like a good time for a break, and several hot baths in a row. Eight of them, actually. Luckily, nothing bubonic had happened yet when he had been, or anything else that came back with him. It was, in a manner of speaking, a clean break.

Eventually the skips had just started happening, dragging him along without his doing anything and certainly without his consent. There really is only so much time one person can spend in the past. Before too long, you get bogged down, held back, tied up, and entirely irritated. All in all, Harold was relieved to see a cell phone, though he’d been in the nineteenth century for such a time that it took him a full ten minutes for figure out what had happened.

“Well, I supposed I’d better get out of these clothes,” he muttered, tugging at the cravat. Once he had untucked his blouse from his pants and disposed of the frock coat, he felt almost normal. At least when he traveled, he stayed in approximately the same place. This had been awkward for a while until he figured out that he’d better make sure the heights matched. He’d gotten quite good at doing research on past architecture and geology. This meant that he wasn’t far from home, now that he was back to his time. He could walk, and he did.

When he got home, the door was locked. Nineteenth-century gentlemen don’t carry around twenty-first-century house keys, so of course he didn’t have one with him. There should have been one under the frog statue, but he couldn’t even find the frog. “Bloody hell,” he said to himself, and pounded on the door in frustration. He sagged.

“Yes?” Harold almost fell into the hallway when the door swung open. A young woman was looking at him, a phone in one hand and a sponge in the other. Her eyes narrowed to see a disheveled man in a blouse with sideburns falling down. He looked up at her.

“Cecilia?” He was flabbergasted. His mouth hung open.

“Yes, Harold?” She was impatient, and fit herself into the crack between the door and the frame so that he couldn’t see past her.

“What on earth are you doing here? You, um, you died. You died in 1813. A year ago. I mean, two hundred and two years ago. What? What.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re such a man. My goodness. You think you’re the only person in the universe, the only person like you, and the rest of the humans are all just little ants or something, don’t you?”

“What. What? What?”

She slapped him across the face. Gently. “Well, you couldn’t expect everyone to live like that forever, right? I was quite fond of you, but my God, embroidery gets very boring. And I didn’t know you could time travel too. I’d just gone on little trips before, ones that I could get away with.”

“What?” Harold scrunched up his face and opened his eyes wide. He was definitely awake. “You’re a, I mean, you time traveled?”

Cecilia sighed. “Yes, I did. And do. And I came here because I thought two hundred years would make a nice change. I looked up your last name, on a whim, and was very surprised when I found you. There can’t be that many Harold Edgartonvilles in the world, so I lied to a locksmith and got into your house. I’ve been living here ever since. I didn’t expect you back, honestly.”

Harold stared at her. It was like a fairy story. “It’s like a fairy story,” he said.

“Why?”

Suddenly he was nervous. “I mean, because I liked you. Um, I loved you. And then you died? But now you’re here.”

She smiled. He had missed that dimple in her cheek, and the way she glanced down when she was happy about something. “So my parents said I’d died, huh? Of course they did. They probably assumed I’d run away or something. Can’t have that. How weird.”

“Cee, uh, what about me though? You’re living in my house. I need to live here. And you could, you know, say something back about how I feel. How you feel. We’re not in the nineteenth century anymore.”

“Oh,” she said, her dimple deepening. “I can answer you.” She tilted her face up and looked him in the eyes.

He blinked and the world wrenched itself around his body. When his eyes opened again, he was in the countryside. In a field, far off, he could see a peasant girl bent to the ground. He was surrounded. He sighed. Cows again. So many cows.

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How Will I Ever

\When Simon started time traveling, he had no idea where it would lead. Of course, now he walks the tattered streets of days gone by and he still doesn’t know where he’s going. He thought he would know by now, in something resembling the clear-eyed flushing certainty of youth, but with each flick through the years that had all drained away.

At first, all that he could do was revel in the new shining beauty of it. The travel worked, and he took a trembling step into his seventh birthday party. It was an easy memory and as he stood in the back, he could see right through the magician’s tricks. He clapped and cheered along anyway, and his voice blended right in. The party quieted and Simon wandered away, letting his feet lead him to the old elementary school. He remembered it so well as it was, now in front of him, layered in leaves just starting to blush and covered in autumn sun.

Simon’s giddiness was fading in the afternoon light, and his sweater was starting to prickle under his arms. He squirmed, concentrated, and traveled. He went to high school, to the corner behind the gym as the buses were leaving. There had been a girl. Gloria? It didn’t matter, though, her name. He did remember the tilt of her nose and the timbre of her voice. It was a very odd churning feeling, to watch his young self put his hands on her shoulder blades and his face close to hers, waiting like a patient child until she kissed him. Then Simon’s throat tickled and he coughed, and high-school-Simon turned away to look around. He and the girl didn’t seem to see anything. They resumed after only a second’s suspicion – but now-Simon shivered. When he thought about it later, he traced all the confusion, the snarls and the tangles, to that tickle of the throat.

He backed away from the teenaged couple where they stood entwined, nestled in a corner of the brick wall. Simon squinted and traveled back to the moment he’d left in his present time, where he’d been standing in his bedroom with Sophie. She’d been crying. He was there then, in the room, but it wasn’t his room. The walls were yellow instead of white, and there was a little bed with a patchwork blanket. There was quiet – no wife sobbing- and the scent of fake lemon choked the air. Simon thrust through the door, past the living room, and burst into the hallway outside in a panic. The hallway was just the same. The number on the door of the apartment-that-was-not-his was 46. His number. Simon took the elevator down, dazed, and stumbled out of the building to the street. It was the same street, the same address. His phone was in his pocket, and he pulled it out to check the date. May 12th, 2013. Same date. He called Sophie, pressing his phone to his ear. He yanked it away and cursed when half a ring gave way to a screech. No Sophie.

Simon’s mind buzzed and his heart beat in a panicked hurry that made blotches bloom on his sweaty skin. He closed his eyes and put his hands over his ears, shutting off the city street, and he traveled. It might have been something at the birthday party that threw him off, so he stepped back toward it. His heart must have been pounding too fast, his breath too ragged, because he missed. He landed instead, with a thump, in the summer of his tenth year. Now-Simon watched boy-Simon walk right toward him. The boy was listening to Grady deliver high-pitched invective on all the video games of the past year.

Simon wasn’t thinking as the boys sidled around him, arguing now. He had to do something, so he forced a deep breath in and out, then traveled back to the moment with Gloria. She wasn’t there, and neither was his teenaged self. There was nobody, just the cold brick corner of the building. He went forward a day, then two, then three. Younger Simon was never there. Gloria was, with somebody else.

Now-Simon left high school and went early. There he was, a little boy fidgeting with crayons at a restaurant. The smells of food filled the room, and a pang struck Simon’s stomach. For a moment, he could only stare hungrily, and then the boy looked up. Now-Simon’s gaze locked with then-Simon’s and the restaurants murmur sprawled in his ears. The boy looked away, disinterested. Older Simon traveled away.

Memory is a funny thing, in all its knots and webs. When Simon thought about it later, he remembered being in the restaurant, bored because his dad had stopped playing tic-tac-toe, looking at a familiar stranger who disappeared in the space of a blink.

When Simon tried to travel back, to revisit something else, it wasn’t there anymore. he tried his seventh birthday party and got lost on his own street. There were people he’d never seen in his house one day. There was a woman he didn’t know teaching his tenth grade math class. A strange man was holding hands with his mother, the year Simon would be forty. An unfamiliar couple recognized him and spent twenty minutes talking to him in a supermarket. Every time he traveled, he knew he was entangling himself further. Every step he took to a different time changed it – or him – a little. He couldn’t even watch something important, because he was terrified he’d change history that he knew had happened. His throat might tickle. If too many memories switched all at once, he worried that he might go insane. Maybe he already was.

There wasn’t anything else to do, so Simon kept traveling. He visited every moment of his life and then doubled back to watch the tiny shifts in time that spread and covered everything. He held onto the hope that somehow it would all come back right and that he could get back to the version of the world he knew, back to Sophie and the mundane loveliness he’d known. He didn’t, though. He didn’t go back to the time he’d come from, that evening in May, not for more than a day at a time anyway. He kept going, hopelessly raveled in time and enmeshing himself further, like a cobweb that clung, that he couldn’t get free of. He is traveling still.

Jump

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.