Copyright is held by the author. This is the third part of a five-part, week-long story.
I REMEMBER waking awash in blackness, the cold concrete floor pressing against my chest and muddled whispers in my ear. I try to move, but my hands are bound behind my back, my legs spread out and strapped apart by wire. I am naked. A pungent smell of feces and heat fill my bowels. A heavy weight presses against me. There’s laughter, and I pray for the moment to end. We always pray harder when we suspect the prayers will not be heard. I desperately wonder how much time I have left before I slingshot back home. Too much time.
I don’t know if I died before my trip back. It doesn’t matter. Although the moment doesn’t exist and never occurred, the memory remains within me. I cannot erase it nor can I change it. I cannot forget Popper’s assault on me nor can I forget my pleas for mercy. I cannot forget my tears pouring forth, the cruelty of his voice as he mocked me nor my childish cries as he pumped his rage into me.
It doesn’t matter now that he long ago died of cancer, his insides rotted out by malignancy. The thing that matters is my son no longer has to bear his pain. He has left this world for a better place—oblivion. Suicide was his best option.
I know this with complete certainty.
“Henry? Henry, what’s wrong?”
Dr. Fields’ voice pulled me back from the nightmare, a welcome relief from this incessant memory I cannot quiet. I breathed a sigh of despair and forced a smile. “Sorry,” I said, and reached for my cup of coffee, “a momentary lapse from the present.”
She leaned forward. For a moment I thought she was going to hold my hand. I quickly brought the cup to my lips, avoiding contact. If she was upset, she hid it well. Since my wife left, I cannot bear being touched. Any level of physical intimacy is no longer an option. It has taken all my emotional strength to maintain my friendship with Dr. Fields. She has become my lone confidant.
“You were thinking about Jason,” she said. It was not a question.
I forced another smile, but I doubted one emerged. A sob sat in my throat. “He’s always on my mind or lurking just beneath my thoughts. I’m also thinking in nine years I will be 62 and have full access to my pension. It may not be much, but if I cash it out, and maybe if I take a second job, scrimp and save, and market one of my kidneys or one of my lungs, I can afford to go back.”
She knew I wasn’t kidding about selling my body parts. “Two jobs and selling off the bits. Extreme measures, Henry, and you have no moral concerns about the latter?”
“My moral concerns,” I said, “are based on need and want.” I took another sip of my coffee; it had grown cool. The café didn’t have smart cups to keep it warm. “Even with selling off a piece of the old machinery, money will be tight. Of course, until then, I have to keep my job. Given my current behaviour, this may be a problem.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Dr. Fields said. “It’s your choice.”
“Agreed.” I leaned back in my chair. The older women stood and left. Off to the past, I thought. To these wealthy women, their excursion was the equivalent of going on a shopping trip or a day vacation. “Maybe losing my job wouldn’t be the worst option. My life would be simplified, my worries more basic. Who needs fancy things like clothes, cars or computers?”
“Or food or shelter?” Dr. Fields added.
Dr. Fields waved at a member of the foundation board, who took one of the empty seats at the table next to us. The older gentleman nodded, sat and immediately engaged his laptop. No time for the help, even the physicians.
Dr. Fields brought her cup up but didn’t drink. “Henry, if you did go back, I expect you would take your own advice and use your time to visit your son this time — choose a pleasant memory to relive.”
“If I were smart,” I said and paused. I glanced at the board member, and then leaned forward and whispered. “Maybe I just need another crack at Popper…”
“Mercy, Henry, that’s the last thing you need.”
I shrugged. “Maybe Clemons and the rest aren’t deluded. Maybe deep down within ourselves we know an inherent truth: The past can be changed and uncertainty reigns. Think about it. What keeps the foundation going? Money? I don’t think so. We can’t even afford smart tableware. I think it’s the lure of power, the ultimate drug. Think about the power you would have if you could manipulate the past and change realities. Once you hold Pandora’s Box in your hands, you cannot resist opening it. It’s impossible.”
Dr. Fields didn’t disagree. She stared hard at me, daring me to turn away. “I think you should see your son and forget the rest,” she said.
One of the technician’s voices spoke through our earpieces: “It’s time. Mr. Clemons has entered translation.”
Dr. Fields took another sip and stood. “Be good, Henry.”
As I entered the chamber, my thoughts continued to linger on my son and Popper. Did I even possess the courage to go back and confront Jason’s molester again and would the outcome be any different? Did it matter whether I hurt Popper? The course of his life could not be altered. He would continue to assault young men until weeks before his death. My son could not be saved. My life would not be changed. Even if I had managed to hurt Popper, or kill him, I would still feel the weight of Jason’s pain every day. Any trip back would only be an exercise in narcissism. Dr. Fields was probably right: If I did go back again, I should visit my son — although, I must admit, I feared I lacked the courage necessary. I feared I could not risk any more heartbreak. I didn’t know if I could look into my son’s blue eyes or hold him in my arms without breaking down. Could I bear the soft touch of his skin? His voice? His cries? Could I even watch him from afar? Could I stand in the shadows among the trees or skulk behind building corners watching him play on the swings with his mother or kicking a soccer ball with his friends? Not touching him? Not hearing his voice? I did not have the answer, but just thinking of any of these scenarios made tears form. I did my best to push these thoughts aside and concentrated on Clemons.
Amid the flickering lights rising and falling like fireflies and shrouded by a luminous fog, Clemons reformed cell by cell within the glass bubble. It was like viewing a time-lapsed video of a skyscraper rising from the earth. The first time I saw a client translate home, I stood slack-jawed, arms hanging to my side like an ape discovering fire. It’s a wondrous vision for the observer, and for the patient coming back it is not nearly as painful as going out. Coming home, the universe is more forgiving.
The translation process lasted less than 10 minutes. When finished, one of the technicians announced in my ear piece it was safe for me to begin post-op procedures. After the glass dome lifted, slipping back into neat folds above the table, I removed the needles from Clemons. He felt the usual disorientation. He moaned and twisted within the confines of the straps. His skin was warm and moist.
I looked at the monitors and shook my head, amazed at the normalcy of his vitals. “One tough lizard,” I said and lifted my head toward the loft. Given our conversation at lunch, I knew what Dr. Fields was thinking. “He’s doing better than I did,” I said.
“I thought we were going to lose you,” she replied. “You had a heart attack on the table, less than a minute after you completed translation.”
“Sometimes, I think I might have been better off if you had let me go.”
“Don’t say that,” Dr. Fields said harshly. “It’s always better to endure.”
“Endure and not live?” I said. “That’s what I have been doing since Jason died — enduring. Is that the best way to live? Or any way to live?”
“Living is always better than dying,” Dr. Fields said. “Besides, if you left us the heavens would weep and the stars would fall.”
I laughed. “How about you?”
“I would miss you,” she said. “Who else would clean up the mess the clients leave on the table? Not me. That is a job for history majors.”
I heard the two technicians laugh.
“I suspect Clemons will recover sooner and better than most,” Dr. Fields added. “Now, remember what I have always said: You don’t have to care. You just have to pretend to care.”
Like a good servant, I thought.
Clemons’ post-translation recovery started well. He slept for 30 minutes, snoring soundly as if he had fallen asleep in his recliner in front of the television. When he awoke he typically questioned whether his experience had been real or a dream. I assured him it was no dream. I then bathed him. I offered to help him dress, but he declined. I checked his vitals; they were strong and steady, save for his heart rate, which fluctuated between 77 and 115 beats per minute. Again, nothing serious. His heart rate probably spiked higher when he climbed the stairs. “Once your legs feel strong enough,” I said, “I will lead you to post-recovery. You will have your chance to review the recording of your trip and offer your thoughts. Unfortunately, you will have to wait awhile to eat. Many of the drugs linger for awhile. We don’t want you ruining your clothes.”
Clemons stopped buttoning his shirt. “Recording?”
“Yes, it’s in your contract. We planted recording devices during pre-translation.” I held up a needle and smiled. “It’s necessary for our research. The foundation believes an oral history of your trip is as important as the recording. It believes your emotional response to the event is critical.”
“My emotional response,” Clemons said, “is none of your business. Time travel should be a private affair and not a source of amusement or entertainment.”
“It’s neither,” I said. “It’s research, and it is part of your contract, sir. You have no choice. If you hadn’t agreed to this and any stipulation, the foundation would have rejected your application.”
Clemons smirked. “With the donation I gave, the foundation would have accepted my dog’s application.” He slipped on his sports jacket, a garment worth four months of my salary, and hopped off the table. “You see, my legs are fine. I’m going home.”
I laid the needle on the tray with the others. “Sir, this doesn’t have to be difficult. We only need an hour of your time or so, and then you may leave.”
“I may leave now, but I’ll think about it and come back another day, maybe.”
“Memories are slippery, sir. We must do it now.”
“I don’t give a damn about oral history nor about my contract,” Clemons said. “I don’t.” He took a deep breath and exhaled, then folded his hands together and raised them to his chin. “Look,” he said softly, “I’m tired. I’d rather not talk right now, and I don’t want to watch the recording. I’ve been through this twice. I’d rather not go through it again. Respect my privacy.”
I sat in the chair next to the platform, giving Clemons the high ground. “Trust me, sir. I know it’s difficult. Time travel should be a private enterprise. Unfortunately, it’s not. You must give witness to your event. No one is immune to the foundation’s whims. If you prefer, you may tell me your story, now. We can record it here. You don’t have to review the video. This is your only other option.”
“Henry, this is not standard,” Dr. Fields said in my ear. “You’re putting your job at risk. Follow procedures.”
“No,” I whispered. “I can’t.”
“You can’t,” she asked. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, and at the time I didn’t know why I needed to accommodate the old man. He didn’t remind me of my father. He didn’t spark a communal empathy I had for all our clients. Maybe I simply had reached my tipping point; I had grown tired of the drudgery of my daily existence and most of all I was tired of accommodating the foundation’s silent lies and overt deceits. Perhaps, I simply wanted the day to end, even badly.
I pulled my chair closer to Clemons. “Sir, I’ve heard more than a thousand accounts. Nothing you say will shock me or embarrass you. Talk to me, and then you can go home.”
“Henry, please,” Dr. Fields insisted. “Let’s take him to post-op.”
I looked up at Fields. She held up her hands, perplexed. “Please begin recording,” I said, and turned back to face the old man.
Clemons removed his jacket. He sat back on the edge of the platform, and then exhaled a breath of sadness I didn’t expect from him. “You’re right. I must honour my contract. You’re as good a witness as any.”
He grimaced and began his story.
Check back tomorrow for the fourth part of the story.