Copyright is held by the author. This is the fourth part of a five-part, week-long story.
“I ENTERED my younger self about 30 minutes before my wife’s death, just as the foundation and I had planned. I was in my study and alone. The physical side effects were just as I had expected, too. I was disoriented. I felt as if I was floating above myself and watching my actions. This I admit upset me greatly. I’ve never liked heights of any sort. The combination of vertigo and spatial disorientation immediately affected me. I vomited and, in doing so, soiled my shirt and made horrible retching sounds. I was surprised the staff didn’t hear. I’m glad they didn’t. I needed time to get myself in order and to recover from that awful translation. I knew it would be stressful, but I didn’t expect it to be that bad. Neither your lawyers nor the documents your foundation gave me fully indicated how painful the process would be. Terrible. Just awful. I should be angry with you. Hell, I should sue the foundation just to make your lives miserable, but I won’t. I suspect if any client fully understood what awaited him, he would back out. Does anyone go through this process more than once?”
“Researchers,” I said. “It is disconcerting. Apparently, it gets worse each time, as if the universe becomes personally annoyed with your hubris. Still, they go back, but after a dozen or so trips, they must stop. A few have died.”
Apparently his question was purely rhetorical. Clemons looked at me as if I was a waiter interrupting his dinner at an improper time: The help speaks only when asked or required.
Clemons cleared his throat. The veins in his face appeared deeper and darker than before his little excursion. Furthermore, any colour his pale skin held before he left had been completely washed out by his experience, and he still stank. His vitals may have been solid, but he still looked like a well-dressed cadaver. He squirmed a bit, and for a moment I thought he might draw his legs up like a child. He didn’t. He straightened his posture and spoke clearly and deliberately. I suspected as a younger man he commanded any room he entered. “Fortunately, it took only a couple of minutes for my vertigo to fade and I fully slipped back into my younger self. Except for a slight headache, I felt better. I spent the next five minutes cleaning myself up. I had a full bath and bedroom next to my study. I was tempted to shower, but instead I brushed my teeth and washed my face and hands. I then changed my shirt. Since I spent a great deal of time in that room, I kept a change of clothes there. It was my office and quasi-apartment. I managed most of my business affairs from my study, tracking investments, keeping in contact with my managers. Even now I work extensively from my study.” He stopped and smiled as if recalling an amusing story or incident, which he wouldn’t share. “I suppose I should retire someday, but without children or an heir or hobbies, I prefer to keep busy.” He shrugged. “None of this matters, I guess. Does any of this matter? The detail?” Clemons gazed up at the loft. “The good doctor appears vexed. She will let me finish?”
“Yes. Don’t worry,” I said. “Please continue.”
“Anyway, after I dressed, I fixed myself a drink.” Clemons stopped. He reached up and rubbed his brow and then the back of his head. He looked up at the monitors. He then looked around the room. He appeared puzzled.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. He just sat, turning his attention inward. I checked his vitals. His blood pressure had fallen — not terribly, but it was obvious his energy level had diminished. I thought he might leave then. I suspected with reasonable certainty his trip had not gone as planned. I’ve heard hundreds of time travel tales and they all come to similar denouements: The clients come back disappointed or worse–angry, frightened, or sad. I kept waiting for a happy ending, but it never came, at least to me. I didn’t have access to all the stories. So maybe there is a hard drive full of wonderful tales of lovely reunions and glorious epiphanies, but I doubt it. I believe the universe hates our meddling: It fights any attempt to correct it, massage it, or relive it. The laws of quantum physics include enough uncertainty without us adding more variables to the equation. It punishes those who try. Apparently having silly little primates like us going back to the past annoys the piss out of it.
“Look, Mr. Clemons, I know this is difficult for you. If you need to rest a few minutes, please do. I’m not going anywhere.”
“This is difficult,” he agreed. “Given my nature, I don’t have a confidant, and this is personal.”
“I understand,” I said. “Time travel should be a private experience, but unfortunately it’s not. Let’s just get through this the best we can. Why don’t you lie down for a few minutes?”
“No, no. I’m fine. Keep recording,” Clemons said. He looked up at me, and his eyes narrowed. His posture stiffened. His moment of vulnerability had passed. “I finished my drink, and then I fixed another. I wasted a good 15 minutes before going to see my wife. I never anticipated being so goddamned, well, let’s say, uncertain. I kept remembering what you said before I left — that we shouldn’t try to change the past. Everything I was doing was futile, a waste of time. I refused to believe it, though. I was in the past. I was 20 years younger. Once the translation effects subsided, I felt strong, young. I mean, who would have thought 70 years old would feel like 40? I thought it would be like stepping into one of those virtual tours, where everything looked real, but felt phony and you knew it was an illusion. This was not an illusion. I felt normal. I was back in my past and I could do anything I wanted. Complete fucking freedom. Damn it, Henry, do you know what it is like to have complete freedom to do anything you wish? A chance to relive any moment you want again?”
“I can only imagine,” I replied.
Clemons snapped his fingers and pointed to the water tray. I poured him a glass and handed it to him. He drained the whole glass quickly and handed it back to me.
He continued. “I had the urge just to leave the room and go for a walk, or just experience what it felt like to be healthy, where every step felt easy. I felt as if I could do anything I could as a younger man, if you get my drift. But, I had come back to the past for a purpose. I made a promise to myself, which I needed to honour. Hey, who is to say that the past, the one I had returned to doesn’t still exist? The past feels no different from the present, and that means Cheryl’s suffering was just as real as before, and now she lay on her deathbed, again. If I could ease her passing, then all the expense of time travel and all the suffering I had endured would have been worth it — an opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted. Pity only the wealthy should experience it.”
“Stay calm, Henry,” Dr. Fields said.
“Yeah, yeah,” I whispered into the smart microphone woven into the fabric of my work shirt.
“I had one more drink and entered the hallway,” Clemons said. “The hospice nurse we hired to watch over Cheryl stood in the hallway—Flora, a lovely young woman from Honduras. An RN. Exceptionally attractive.” Clemons eyes grew wide and bright. “Not too young, either — maybe 45. Smart. We had a number of long conversations during her stay. She worked for us full time and stayed in a guest room for the last three or four weeks of Cheryl’s illness.”
“I bet he screwed her,” one of the technicians jumped in. “Thirty dollars says he never made it to his wife’s room.”
I forced myself not to turn toward the loft, and I kept my expression attentive and calm.
Clemons shifted uneasily on the table, seeking a comfortable position. He stood briefly and stretched out a kink in his back before sitting back on the table. “Flora stepped close and drew a hand to my chest. She said, ‘We don’t have much time. Her breathing has slowed terribly. It’s laboured. I can put the mask back on to help her breathe. However, she may not be able to speak.’ I said no. Cheryl told me no more machines. Nothing. I thanked the nurse and walked toward her room. I must admit my heart began to pound. I hadn’t seen my wife for more than 20 years, and I couldn’t help but think I should have chosen a different moment. Why go back and face this terrible time? How much more pain could I endure?
“I couldn’t back out, though. Not now. So I entered her room, and looked upon my wife. She looked worse than I remembered—so withered and alone. We did our best to make her comfortable. We had removed most of the IV lines and monitors and dressed her in her favourite nightgown. We kept her hair combed. Even though her fingers had shrivelled down to the bone, she still wore her wedding ring. Her favourite necklace hung around her neck. It didn’t matter. She looked wretched. Not more than three years before she was still a beauty — graceful curves, long red hair, and green eyes. She had the bone structure of a model, but all that was gone, long gone. Her womanhood and her humanity had already died. Yet, her eyes remained alert, and they followed me as I entered the room and sat next to her bed.
“I reached for her hands. They had shrunken down to the size of a child’s. They felt as if they might crumble within mine.” Clemons stopped and drew a deep breath. I peeked at my handheld monitor. His heart rate had slowed, fewer than 40 beats per minute. His blood pressure had dropped some more.
Dr. Fields’ voice came through my earplug. “We’re right here. We can always pump up his vitals if necessary. Let’s get this over with.”
I nodded and thought about his wife’s last moment. It is at the hour of our death when we are most human — our humanity in full withering flower.
“Her hands were cold, trembling at my touch,” Clemons said. “I smiled at her, but I didn’t know what to say. I waited for her to speak. It was roughly now that she had blurted out her question. She had asked it without preamble. This time she didn’t say anything. I leaned over and kissed her cheek. It was so cold. I kept looking into her eyes. There were tears and goddamn if I didn’t start to cry, too. I wanted to be strong for her, as before. I didn’t cry the first time. Perhaps knowing what to expect made it worse. The first time I had watched her wilt over the course of three years. We had become hardened, just waiting for the moment, her end, to arrive and pass through us. This time, I just cried. It was all a mistake.”
“Mistake? How?” I asked.
“Because Cheryl always tended to my needs first, placing my wants above her own. She was a good wife, a faithful companion.”
“Fetch, Fido. Clean the floor, woman. Suck my..,” a technician whispered. I heard Dr. Fields shout something and the technician’s mic turned off.
“I couldn’t hide my tears,” Clemons said, “and Cheryl, even in her final moments, wanted to comfort me. Whatever questions she needed answered played second string to my needs.” Clemons shuddered. “Unlike the first time, she cried and cried hard. Her laboured breaths turned to gasps. Her chest rose and fell. Her face grew taut. Her back arched. I sat there, not moving, my hands not knowing where to go. Words formed, but they died on my tongue. I just watched her. I watch the terror in her eyes as she realized death had begun its final assault. She wasn’t going peacefully, not like before. I sat inert and impotent. I didn’t even tell her I loved her. I just sat there, useless and watched her….” Clemons stopped. He leaned back on the platform.
I stood and hovered over Clemons. “Sir, are you okay?”
“Why didn’t she pose the question?” he asked. “Was it my delay?”
“I don’t know, sir. The moment had been altered, but the result was the same. She passed. You did your best to comfort her.”
“Perhaps. Maybe my going back had changed everything. Maybe now she believed I had been faithful to her? It’s worth considering, no?”
I sighed. “With time travel,” I said as if it were a vulgarity, “we go out expecting one thing and we get another. In the end, however, the timeline remains. Only our memories change. Only we change. We must learn to respect the past and accept it. Anything more is arrogant and narcissistic.”
“You believe this?”
I laughed. “Depends.”
“How much I miss my son.”
Clemons shielded his eyes with his forearm. “I didn’t notice before,” he said, “but those lights give off quite a glare.” He turned to me. His tone hardened. “It shouldn’t have mattered to Cheryl whether I stepped out on her. She should have accepted what being married to a man like me meant. Despite her beauty, she didn’t feel good about herself. She never understood that a man in my position, with my wealth, and my power, and my responsibilities, is allowed a few indiscretions. She was weak, too vulnerable. I was right all along. I should have never told her the truth.”
Jesus save me, I thought. Any compassion I had developed for the old man vanished. “Your mistake was your unfaithfulness,” I said, “and hers was marrying a first-class douche bag like you. I don’t care how much money you have. I don’t care what you have persuaded yourself to believe. You never cared about her. The sole reason for your trip was to unload the guilt you carried. Here’s the truth: Every moment of your marriage was a lie. The only part that held any truth was when you confirmed your unfaithfulness. Hell, your vanity killed her more than the cancer.”
“Jesus, Henry,” Dr. Fields said. “What the hell are you doing? Oh crap, his vitals…”
I smiled. Clemons’ eyes rolled back into his head. His mouth hung open.
I watched the monitor flat line. “Have a pleasant trip,” I said, and left the lab.
Check back tomorrow for the conclusion of this story.