Copyright is held by the author. This is Part Two of a five-part, week-long story.
AFTER CLEMONS departed, Dr. Fields and I grabbed a cup of coffee out on the patio. Her two assistants stayed in the loft to monitor Clemons’ vitals. I assumed they had their usual wagers with each other regarding the client’s chances of surviving translation, out and back. I suspected the old coot would come out just fine. Clemons reminded me of a lizard you couldn’t kill. Foundation researchers tape the client’s time travel experiences by placing cellular cameras into the client’s bloodstream during prep. These cameras slither their way throughout the body and record the experience. Shortly after the client returns, we conduct post-translation interviews with the client. The differences between recorded history and personal recollection are stunning.
The foundation sits on the bank of the Mandan River on the western edge of Bismarck, North Dakota. A decade-long drought has left the river’s water level its lowest in more than 200 years. When I was a teenager, my brother and I often swam in the river during the summer and went fishing in the spring and fall. Now I could walk from bank to bank without getting my knees wet. Vegetation along the river is virtually nonexistent, and what is left is brown. During the day, flies swarm the river’s banks searching for the latest carcasses. Despite the bleak landscape, technicians, researchers, doctors, and executives filled the patio’s tables. Two elderly women, whom I assumed were clients, sat behind us. The temperature stood at a comfortable 88 degrees, a cool day along the 46th parallel. “So, what do you think of Clemons?” I asked Dr. Fields. “A tad old for hitching a ride on the Arrow”?
Dr. Fields glanced at the old women behind us and leaned forward. She spoke softly. “These old coots keep the foundation running and keep rude technicians employed. What’s your problem, Henry? You’ve been cranky the past few weeks, which is fine. Charm was never your strong suit, but, at least you always were courteous and efficient. The past few months, however, you’ve been argumentative and rude with the clients. Last week you practically scared poor Alicia Sandburg to death filling her with stories of clients suffering strokes on the table or becoming depressed and suicidal after their experience — and telling the poor woman that going back in time is like going on a first date: always a letdown. That poor woman spent her life savings just to go back and see her mother. She almost suffered a stroke during prep. And now this row with Clemons? Who cares if he wants to go back and fiddle with his past? Allow the clients their delusions. As long as the checks clear, who cares? For Christ’s sake, ‘Enjoy the ride’? What were you thinking? Clemons could get you fired if he wanted.”
“He’s delusional and arrogant,” I replied. “They all are. It wears on me. He should have never been allowed to enter the chamber. What if he dies? The foundation doesn’t need another geezer croaking in the void. He’s wasting his money and the juice required to sling his bones back. The energy required for time travel is enormous, a huge drain on the local power grid. That’s where 80 percent of the cost lies.”
“All this may be true, but be careful,” Dr. Fields said. “You can’t afford to lose your job. Your short-term savings are depleted and the job market still sucks, especially for men in your age group. You’re 53 years old. Do you really want to start looking for work now?”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “I’m too old to start over and too far from retirement.” I gazed out over the river. A black hawk circled over the western shore looking for scraps. Dr. Fields was right. Losing my job now would be a financial disaster. I can’t access my modest pension for another 10 years, at least not without suffering huge tax losses and penalties. I can’t access Social Security for another 20, and my 401(k) isn’t at the level it was five years when I made a huge withdrawal. I should be glad the foundation hasn’t laid anyone off in a while. The foundation isn’t flushed with assets either. Time travel is not the money making endeavour the foundation had envisioned when it took over the research from the government and changed its business model from a not-for-profit to a for-profit venture. The physical stress of time travel and its limitations have diminished the public’s enthusiasm for it. Seriously, if you can’t go back and hunt dinosaurs or screw Mary Magdalene, what is the point? Where’s the fun?
Dr. Fields cradled her coffee cup and relished a sip. “Simple pleasures,” she said with a smile. “You should cherish life’s simple pleasures, or try to. I know it’s been a tough road for you but you are alive and employed. The first is a gift; don’t waste it. Given the economy, don’t take the second for granted. Me, I am a simple woman: All I need is a handsome man to love, a fast car to drive, stylish clothes to show off my fabulous figure, and a good cup of coffee to saviour, and I’m happy.”
I laughed. “That’s all? I pity the man who must meet your expectations.”
“Many have tried and few have succeeded,” she said. She turned back toward the river. Sweat tinged her brow. She did not like the heat. Unless she moved north into Canada, she couldn’t escape it, and she had no intention of moving back home to Yellowknife. “We’ve been friends a long time, Henry. I care about you. You’re like the idiot older brother I never had, but that doesn’t mean I want you living in my basement playing with your stamp collection. You need to keep your job, Henry. You need to save your money so you can go back again to see your son.”
“Aw, man,” I said. “I wished you hadn’t brought up Jason. It is terrible to admit but there are days when I don’t think about him at all or even want to. There are days I wish I could permanently erase his image from my mind, delete his memory. You can’t embrace a memory and hold it tight in your arms. You can’t hear its voice, and you can’t quiet the pain it brings.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I assume your behaviour is related to Jason. Isn’t this about the time he passed away?”
“A day before his birthday, which is this Friday,” I said as my eyes teared up. I buried my head in my hands and tried to ignore the knives digging into my gut. The horizon began to tilt. I placed my cup aside and grabbed hold of the table. I felt as if I were falling back into a familiar and never-ending hole, one I may not have the strength or the will to climb out — again. At the bottom of this hole lay another memory, a vivid memory of my ride along Time’s Arrow: It was roughly five years ago when I took my own place on the table and jumped back 23 years to seek justice for my boy.
As I emerge within myself, I don’t feel two of the more common symptoms typically associated with time travel. I am neither nauseous nor anxious. Of course, I screamed with all the gusto of a terrified four-year-old during the breakdown process, but once I completed the translation, I felt calm and only slightly disoriented, as if I had one or two too many glasses of wine and had endured a hard night’s sleep. I don’t experience the sense of being out of my body and watching myself from above as many have clients reported. I am simply me. I carry the cumulative memories of my 48 years. I possess the same fears and desires. There is, though, an echo behind my left ear, a murmur as if I have the television on in another room. My younger self, the body I occupy now, doesn’t sense me nor will I be a memory, a shadow in my conscious for the rest of my life. There are no paradoxes in time travel—at least that is the published theory.
For the next hour, I have free range to do anything I wish, and I wish this: I want to murder the man who molested my son, a Mr. Matthew Popper. Today, as I stand on the streets of Bismarck, North Dakota, I am recently married. I have a new job in a fascinating field at the foundation. I am young and strong. I fill out my five-feet-10 inches with lean muscle. At the Bismarck Institute of Technology and Cultural Studies, I ran cross country and track.
Matthew Popper is 37 years old, single, 30 pounds overweight and balding. He has an artificial hip and speaks with a lisp. He is a mess: My research has shown he doesn’t date or associate with friends. He is a cliché, a goddamn loner who spoke pleasantly to all and honestly to few. He won’t abuse my son for another 15 years. By that time, when I am 40, I will suffer from an immunity disorder that will rob me of my strength and endurance. Eight years later, when I take my ride on the Arrow, I will be 48 and divorced. I won’t date, either. I won’t socialize outside of work. My routine will consist of work and home, where I will take comfort in books, particularly novels about time travel—ones where you can change your past.
Today I have the next best alternative. I will serve up my own sense of personal justice. I will ignore the cruel negligence the universe heaped on my son, my wife and me. Without concern for morality and consequences, I will kill.
You’ve got to love time travel.
I stand outside Popper’s Antiques. It is 7:25 a.m., and I have approximately one hour before I am thrown back into the lab where I will again suffer the joys of translation. I paid for the full effect, the full time limit — emptying out my short-term savings, selling my auto, and draining my retirement account. Only my pension remains intact. The penalties for early withdrawal are absurd, more than 70 percent. Unless I win the lottery or come into “found money,” this will be the only opportunity of my lifetime I will have to time travel. I won’t return. I am not qualified to be a researcher.
Popper arrives at 7:35 a.m. The asshole is late to open up his store. Now I have only 50 minutes left, plenty of time to commit a murder. Yet the adage “time is money” is never more true. Each minute has cost me $6,000. One hour of time travel is equal to the value of my home, which I lost in the divorce. Maybe lost is inaccurate. Sarah, my ex-wife, sold our house for roughly the same amount. After paying off the loan, we split $120,000 of equity. This 10-minute delay cost me $60,000. I assumed Popper showed up to work every day on time or a few minutes earlier to set up the computers and other daily tasks. Without critical public records or access to the mundane, daily details from his life, I had to be reasonably certain where he would be at any given time. I choose a Wednesday morning during the summer, a popular time for tourists to go shopping, but not as popular as a weekend day. Time travel limits a client’s options: I couldn’t just translate into his home—I never was in his home. The option wasn’t available. I had walked down this street. Who knew he would be late? At least he wasn’t on vacation.
“An early riser,” Popper says.
I see a glimmer of recognition in his eyes. Although I don’t believe we had met before this moment, he might have seen me walk past his door on my way to work. My job allowed me a comfortable two-mile stroll to the foundation each day. Fuel prices at this time were reasonable, but we didn’t own an auto during our first few years of marriage, not with school loans to pay. I believe he sees in me the features that my son will possess, and these features stir up his hate.
“Another hot one,” he adds.
Yeah, I think. It’s going to be like this for the next 30 to 300 years.
Popper unlocks the door and enters. He turns back briefly. While his banal smile remains, his eyes flash concern. I doubt he receives many visitors in the morning. If he does, they are probably older women looking for a bargain or just a day away from their spouses.
I follow him in, and my legs wobble. Muscle becomes jelly. My stomach turns. I am not surprised with this onslaught of anxiety. It is the anticipation. I saved and waited for this day for years. This is a present to myself. Call it selfishness. Call me narcissistic. Call me a criminal. I don’t care, nor am I delusional. I know my son’s history will not change. Sarah and I will not know or even suspect the anguish and humiliation Jason endured until we discover his diaries a week after he hangs himself in our basement. Our marriage will crumble and dissolve in silent frustration and overt pain. We will divorce. Sarah will flee to Florida. I will fall apart. I will consider suicide. Only my fear of physical death will prevent me from this final desperate and selfish act. I understand why Jason killed himself. He believed the pain would never end — all the drugs and therapy in the world could not and would not end the pain. There was no solution for the trauma he suffered. In his heart he didn’t want to die. He simply couldn’t bear living anymore.
I take a deep breath as the door closes behind me. I step off to the side and pretend to examine a pair of wooden chairs. I grab hold of one and wait for my balance to return. Everything in the store looks as it has been lifted from a farmhouse in the late 1800s. It is not an unattractive store. There is an interesting mix of old furniture and smart sales tools. When I touch a barcode on the chair, information regarding its history rises and floats in front of my eyes. These are expensive pieces; the chair I am using for balance sells for more than $5,000. I also suspect Popper has cameras discreetly placed throughout the store. My parents would have loved a store like this, but I never entered one even though I must have walked past this shop hundreds of times. I grew up in Bismarck, attended Bismarck High, and worked in Bismarck. Not once do I remember considering entering the store. I know little about or care about antiques, which may seem odd for a man whose job is to facilitate sending people into the past.
Popper’s registers come to life. I recognize the familiar chord of an Apple computer. I take another deep breath. My legs feel more stable, but I need another moment. I keep my gaze outward. Graphic images and sales bulletins flash on the window—more smart glass. I touch the window and web options emerge. Popper must come from money. Twenty-three years ago this technology was new and expensive. I step aside and look toward the north. If I had enhanced eyesight I probably could see my home, which stands only three kilometres from here: It’s a small, three-bedroom Cape Cod snuggled among a grove of red pine. Sarah adores our house, including the expansive view of the river and the easy access to the freeway. She is a high school math teacher—algebra, calculus, and geometry. She hosts a virtual classroom from her studio. At this moment our life is exhilarating with all the hopes and promises of being young, employed and newlyweds.
“Can I help you, sir?” Popper asks. Concern undercuts his tone.
I smile and take one more look down the street. The buildings cast long shadows. Cars travel slowly and silently down the boulevard. Except for the digital signage and smart graphics hanging in the air, the town possesses a timeless feel, straight out of the late 1900s to early 2000s. It’s a lovely place to live. The city isn’t overcrowded. The economy in the area is better than most with the oil and natural gas production. The people are friendly. Monsters such as Popper can turn up anywhere. Sarah wanted to leave Bismarck right after Jason died, but I couldn’t. It felt too much like a retreat, and I, a coward fleeing home. Besides, I couldn’t leave my job. Where would I go? I have a history degree with a minor in mathematics. Moreover, for years I enjoyed my job. The bitterness didn’t set in until Jason died. Before Sarah left, she suggested I quit the foundation and go back to college to get a teaching certificate, but being around kids every day would have broken my heart only more. I would have seen Jason walking around every corner or entering every classroom.
“Looking for anything in particular?” Poppers asks. “Something special for the home?”
I glance at my watch: 45 minutes remain. Although there is plenty of time to serve up my personal dish of justice, I must act now. I shouldn’t delay. I check my reflection in the glass. I look sick: Sweat descends from my brow and stains the underarms of my shirt. I have the steady twitch of a drug addict. Popper must suspect something is amiss. Yet, he doesn’t look too concerned. His self-containment must be part of the evil — every act can be rationalized, every sin forgiven. Fuck this bastard. Fuck the nerves.
I straighten up. My heart pounds with excitement. Yes, this is right. I have no reservations about my motives or actions. I don’t care that this moment will be no more than an echo in a history only I will know exists. “Yes, Popper, you can help me,” I say and stride toward the beast slouching in the corner.
I slip between a row of dressers on my left and two bedroom sets to my right, and because the universe is not indifferent—it exacts cruelty upon its inhabitants according to its whims — there is a group of farm tools standing against the wall next to Popper’s sales desk: ideal weapons for a brutal murder. Yes, I want the murder to be painful and gruesome. I want to see pools of blood on the floor, splatter marks on the walls. I want to see fear in Popper’s eyes. I want him to plead “Why?” as he descends into oblivion. I want him to go to his grave not knowing why the universe had betrayed him. I am sure my son asked “Why?” and I am sure Popper did not give him a reason.
Popper peers down at his computer screen. His pursed lips look obscene, puffy and red. His stringy hair hangs down to his shoulders. He wears a cream-coloured shirt with pockets on his sleeves, the fashionable style of the day — perfect outerwear for the man who begs for a beating. With a shrug of my shoulders and a smile beaming from my lips, I glance back toward the windows one more time. Granted, it doesn’t matter if anyone sees us, yet I want privacy. I don’t want some pain-in-the-ass bystander interrupting my fun.
There’s no one at the door or passing by the window. Swinging my gaze throughout the store, I am amazed at how the room looks. Every colour appears backlit. The colours pulse. Textures deepen. The horizon expands; its edges stretch as if being pulled at its corners. It must be an effect of the drugs. My anxiety abided, I now feel strong — inhumanely strong. Heat rushes through my limbs. My mind is now lucid and clear and filled with clarity of purpose.
Christ, you’ve got to love time travel. At this moment, I can’t recall why people don’t do this more often.
I pick up speed and rush toward the farm implements standing to the right of his desk. Oh, which tool shall I choose? The pitchfork? The metal scythe? The sickle? The hoe? The simple shovel?
I choose the shovel, a classic killing instrument—blunt and easy to wield—and raise it above my head.
Popper’s gaze is filled with wonder. His mouth hangs open. His eyes stare at and past me. He is soft and plump. Sitting at his desk, he is nothing but a vulnerable lamb tethered for the slaughter. Is this man, this pathetic man-child, really the monster who fucked my boy and ruined his life? The humanity within me almost feels pity for this creature. Almost.
“Sir,” Popper utters, “please don’t handle the merchandise. Let me guide you.”
I turn toward the creature. “I’d like to buy this, please,” I say and streak toward him.
Sliding back into the corner, Popper raises his hands and ducks his head. “Why?” he exclaims.
Why? Are you serious? Beautiful irony-coated justice. You know why. You may not have harmed my boy at this point in your timeline, but you must have harmed others now. Have you deluded yourself into thinking your acts are either normal or justified?
I don’t answer Popper. From a high arc, I drive the shovel toward his skull and close in for the kill. Each moment is an exquisite taste of the heaven I know doesn’t exist. I await the cleansing sound of metal crushing bone. I have waited for this day for so long, since the day I discovered my son hanging in the basement and the subsequent days and hours and minutes and seconds that dragged on for eternity. This is for all I have lost—my son, my wife, and my dignity. This is for all my son endured—his humiliation and his pain. This is for all those who had suffered and who will suffer because of the hate slithering in your soul.
“No!” Popper shouts.
Yes. Oh yes.
As the shovel’s head descends, Popper slips and falls to the floor. He is remarkably quick. The shovel’s head glances off his shoulder and slams into Popper’s computer. The glass screen explodes, sending shards all directions. My momentum, my excitement, my rage causes me to miss my target. No problem. I raise the shovel again, but my legs suddenly buckle. Popper has grabbed me at my knees and pulls them toward him. I fall backward. My arms flail. My attempt to hold onto the shovel’s handle and grab the table’s edge fails. The shovel reverberates off the counter and I fall flat on my back. My head bounces off the floor.
The air rushes out of me. I am looking up at Popper’s ceiling. Popper’s hands crawl up my shirt, toward my neck. Inexplicably, this soft man, nothing more than a human doll, has gained the advantage. He drives his knee into my groin. He swings his head back and then forward and into my forehead. I don’t see stars; I see galaxies explode. I see creation itself shatter into a blinding light.
Then, darkness descends.