MY Novel–Even God Makes Mistakes: Chapter 1

With apologies to my longtime readers, I have decided to repost the first chapter of my as yet unpublished novel, for the benefit of my new twitter and Facebook friends! I hope you enjoy what you read here and find inspiration in it!

Each chapter begins with a poem.

I could tell you life is fleeting.

But that’s a truth everyone knows.

It doesn’t bear repeating,

Isn’t worthy of a refrain

Read while a tired body lies in repose.

As it’s a fact that too often shows

How little control we mortals maintain.

-An excerpt from the poem Nothing Is Forever by Madeline Mailer

Chapter 1.

Death, Part 1

            

              Terrence McDonald is 55. The year is 2045.

      

       The TV is on, and I’m on the couch, leaning as far back as I can. My heavy, indecisive brown eyes—their lenses blurred ever since my tumultuous entrance–flutter between open and shut. I am half-watching half-listening to a football game on a Sunday afternoon. Was that the doorbell?

“Who is it?” I call out, expecting to hear my daughter Megan’s voice. These days she is the one person who visits me. The only person who knows I’m making my home in this little oasis fashioned from wood felled by my own hand.

“Terry, it’s Mom. I’m here to help you move.”

       My mom? That’s not possible. She’s…

       Wait, to help me move? Oh, God.

I rise from the couch and glance back at my lifeless body. Five-foot-eight standing up, but now it’s slumped over, grayish-blue. A few stray locks of the black hair my father gave me spill over into my unseeing eyes.

       Shit. I still had more I wanted to do, damn it! Was it my cerebral palsy? We’ve co-existed forever. Has it somehow—in its slow, indirect way—finally done me in?

I turn back around toward the TV, and I see my mom materialize in front of me, a concerned look on her face.

“Are you okay?”

“No, of course not!” I scream. “So is that it? I’m dead. Just like that?”

She doesn’t say anything, but her silence says everything.

“How? How did I die?”

Mom puts her hand on my shoulder like she always did when I was a kid and I was upset and needed some time to calm down. “You don’t remember?”

“No, Mom. If I remembered, why would I ask?”

She is silent for another beat. “If you don’t remember… then it’s probably best if I stay quiet for now. My job is to take you Home.”

“I am home,” I shoot back.

“You don’t understand. Where I’m taking you… this is a different kind of Home. This is the place where you’ll find out what happens next.”

“Is there any way around this? Any way at all?”

These words are as close as I’ve ever come to arguing with my mom. That’s because arguing with her does not come naturally to me. And, considering the life I have, I never thought I’d hear myself plead for it.

“No, Terry. I’m sorry, but there’s not. You know that, if there were a way, I’d tell you what it was. But this has been decided.”

I pull away from her. Am I frightened? No, not exactly. But I am… disheartened.

Before I can get too far away, she takes my hand. “Come with me, Terry. I love you.”

It’ s been so long since my mother said those words to me—I love you—that I’d forgotten how true and convincing they sound in her voice, and how much I missed them—and her.

Without warning, we’re not in the cabin anymore, and I find myself in a house so familiar I am comfortable in seconds. The smells are familiar. The floor plan. The art on the walls. This is a replica of the home I shared with my wife, before she got sick and I moved into the cabin.

“See, it’s not so bad,” Mom is saying. “I picked it out and furnished it myself. Just for you.”

It is a nice place. Much nicer than I’m used to these days, that’s for sure. Not that I have anything but a vague idea where we are.

Now that I’ve calmed down some, it isn’t just this new house I’m appraising. I’m also getting my first real good look at Mom in twenty years. Hers is a face looking as youthful today as it appeared in the photograph announcing her entrance into womanhood—taken in her eighteenth year. I remember seeing this picture in a family album decades ago.

“You’ve got all the comforts you’re used to,” Mom explains. “Along with a couple you might have forgotten about.”

“So this is where I’ll be living now?”

The frown on her face hints at the fact that things aren’t that simple. “Well, that depends on your appointment, but I sure hope you will. Your father and I are just down the street.”

“Dad’s here?”

“Yes, he made it.” She smiles.

“My appointment?”

“Everyone has an appointment when they first get here.”

“What happens? Who is the appointment with?”

“I can’t tell you, Terr.” Mom takes a seat in the first of three chairs arranged in front of my large television screen. This is the only liberty she’s taken in the design. The original home had two chairs in front of this television, because two was enough for Mattie and me, but I sense Mom gave me the extra seat in case I should have company over. “Those who have been through their own appointments, like me, are expressly forbidden from sharing any details with newcomers, like you. Each one is different based on the soul and the life it concerns.”

“Ah.” Now I’m nervous. And not just because I get the feeling at this moment that Mom is spouting some section of a well-rehearsed monologue. I wonder if, at this appointment, everything in a person’s life is considered.

“Yes, everything is considered,” Mom says.

I shoot her a confused glance. Did she just read my mind?

“Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t often use spoken words or languages here. I mean, we can. And we will, especially in cases when explanations or announcements need to be delivered to a large number of people. God prefers spoken language Himself. But it’s more common, for those who have been Home a while, to communicate telepathically. I thought that was what you were doing.”

I shake my head.

“Well, in a few days, once you’re feeling acclimated, let me know. You can call me on this.” Mom produces what looks like a cell phone. “That’s a direct line to me and me alone. When you’re ready, I’ll come and pick you up and take you to your appointment.”

“Okay.”

But first, she thinks, get some rest. You look terrible.

I am a little tired, but what do you expect? I’m dead.

“You’re getting the hang of our telepathy already.” She laughs, gives me a hug. “I’ve gotta get back to cook your father’s pot roast, or he might go a little nuts.”

Sounds like Dad. A hungry Carl McDonald means an irritable, hard-to-deal-with Carl McDonald (I was going to say hard-to-live with, but the word doesn’t fit).

Mom pats my shoulder and disappears. This new Home is going to mean some big adjustments for me.

                                   

                      ***

 

       I’m going to guess it’s taken me the better part of three days—spent resting and recuperating from life–to convince myself that I’m really dead and, secondly, that I’m ready to face whatever might be in store for me. I have to guess at how much time has passed because, as it turns out, this new home of mine–furnished by my mom–does not include a clock. Not one. I only discovered this flaw after she departed, so there was no way to readily remedy it. Stores specializing in electronics aren’t plentiful in The Afterlife.

Wait, that’s not true. Maybe they are. I don’t know what lies beyond these four walls yet. I’ve barely moved since I got here. But I am as prepared as I’ll ever be for my personal appointment, so I pull out the cell phone Mom gave me for just this situation. It doesn’t require dialing. My connection to her is immediate.

“Terry?” she says.

“Hi, Mom.”

“You’re ready for your appointment?”

“I guess.”

“Okay.” She pauses, a bit too long for your run-of-the-mill pause. Something’s bothering her. “Okay, I’m glad to hear it.”

“What’s wrong? You’re gonna pick me up, right?”

“I was planning on it, but it looks like your Grandpa Jack needs to be picked up today.”

“Oh, you mean he’s-”

“Yep.”

“I’m sorry, Mom. Boy, he lived forever, didn’t he?”

She laughs. “Pretty darn close. I’m just glad he got to go out the way he wanted; peacefully, in his sleep. Anyway, your dad and I have to be there for him, but I’m sending your old friend Charlie out to you. He’ll get you where you need to go, no problem.”

Charlie. How nice it will be to see him again. It’s been a long time. This isn’t the only thought I have upon hearing Charlie will be here soon, but it’s the only thought I feel comfortable sharing, in case Mom can read my thoughts through the phone as easily as she could standing in the same room.

“Okay, thanks. Tell Grandpa Jack I say hi.”

“I will. And you call me when you and Charlie get to your appointment. Otherwise, you’ll have me worried.”

“Sure thing.”

We hang up, and I wait. There’s the sound of tires churning gravel and then a knock at the door twenty minutes later… I think. I answer it.

“Charlie Ewell’s limousine service.” He smiles and nods his head toward a jet-black vehicle closely related to a town car that’s parked nearby.

I step back. Blink. Once. Twice. He’s still there. My mind doesn’t know how to make sense of this.

It really is Charlie. Well, of course it is. Mom told you he was on the way. Yet despite my mom’s assurance, there is this part of me that snickers at most religions, labels them NOT FOR ME, and I never warmed all the way up to the idea of Heaven. Therefor, even after seeing her again, I doubted that my old friend Charlie would show up. You’re telling me Charlie will be here! Charlie? Yeah, right.

Just like I couldn’t bring myself to argue with her—Charlie can’t possibly be on his way, Mom!–I can’t deny it now.

       “It’s you,” I say.

“Sure it’s me,” Charlie says, as though he’s just shown up to my most recent—and last?–birthday party, cheer on his face, a gift in his hand.

“Like, really you.”

“Yeah. It’s really me.”

       “How?”

“I know it’s a lot to take in when you’re new,” he says, “or when you’ve just come back. I was so glad when your mom called and asked me if I would pick you up. I’ve missed you so much.”

“Same here,” I admit. The initial shock of seeing Charlie is ebbing slowly, like adrenaline leeching out of my bloodstream after an earthquake.

“It’s so good to see you, Charlie.” We enfold each other in a backslapping, how-have-you-been hug.

When we’re apart again, he says, “And you, Terry. It’s just now dawning on me how odd this circumstance is.”

“True. But under what other circumstances would we see each other?”

“Good point. In one of your dreams, maybe. You ready to get going?”

“Sure. Is there a set time we have to be there? My mom always said it’s better to be early than late, no matter what the occasion.”

He throws his car keys in the air, catches them, as we make our way down my temporary home’s front steps.

“Don’t worry about time anymore,” he reveals. “Time is a human invention. It is seldom kept here.”

“That would explain the lack of clocks.”

“Which always throws newcomers off. And don’t be nervous. Sure, no one who’s been through an appointment can tell you what your appointment will be like. That’s because appointments are unique to each soul, but they aren’t to be feared. Your appointment is a place where you will get the chance to ask questions and learn.” Charlie flashes a quick grin. He opens one of the back doors for me, and I see that in the car rides an elegant woman. “Terrence McDonald, this is my wife, Patty Ewell.”

Patty turns in her seat, puts out her hand. “It truly is a pleasure to meet you, Terrence. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

I give her my hand, as is customary, but can find no words. I’ve never met Patty before. She passed away the night I made Charlie’s acquaintance.

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A Trip To A Magical Place–A Short Story!

This post is a particularly fun one for me. Fun but time-consuming, requiring a good deal of concentration, and it’s taken me a while to complete. It involves me, being creative. I have taken the last few days to compose a story that, in my mind, epitomizes the kinds of stories I’d love to read and which I enjoy writing. I like to write main characters who are like me, because there just aren’t enough of them out there. I am also fascinated by the idea of time-travel. But you don’t have to share my fascination to enjoy this piece. At its heart I hope this story has and shows its heart. I hope you love it!
D
This story is for Scooter, Katie, Mom and Dad, and my new friends on twitter!

Looking back, it wasn’t as perfect as I thought it. It wasn’t as simple as I made it–as everyone around me made it seem. There were struggles and hardships and tough times, of which I had little more than an inkling, and I never knew the full extent. But that’s because I was a kid then, and kids aren’t supposed to know those things.

With this realization heavy on my mind, I step into the “machine”. I’m still unsure it will work as advertised. Even though it’s worked as advertised for so many before me. I look around, wondering if the inside will somehow be grander than its bland, barely-painted exterior. Short answer: No. It isn’t a phone booth, because I swear to you those don’t exist anymore and are all but fazed out, except in the most rural locales, but it isn’t much bigger; a compartment, let’s call it. It’s the size of a one-car garage with one red button and one green button positioned next to each other on the wall opposite its accordion doors. Their functions are easy enough to understand. Red: If you get cold feet, press this button, and the mission is scrubbed, and someone will be in to retrieve you post haste. Green means: All is a go, and the one-minute countdown will begin in ten seconds. All of this was covered in the mandatory “pre-flight conference call” of an hour ago. Other than the buttons, the little room is a sterile white-cream, no adornments whatsoever besides a little round loudspeaker in the precise middle of the space that lets only tinny sound escape it.
“You ready?” one of the mission-controllers calls over that loudspeaker.
“No. But it’s time, isn’t it?”
“It is, Mr. Spade. We need to go now. The window will close soon.”
“Then let’s do it.”
“You will have five days in your past to do what you need to do. We don’t need to know what that is. In fact, we don’t care what that is. Not to sound callous, but we just don’t concern ourselves with such things.”
Other than changing history. They hate the idea of any passenger even attempting to change history. Changing history is expressly forbidden. When they say “do what you need to do” I think they mean simple things. Moments. Maybe you want to relive a particularly memorable Christmas party, the moment you won the state championship and were the most famous person in your town for a good month and a half. A first date. A marriage proposal. The first time your child said, “I love you.”
“What about conversations?” I posed this question to Kelly, my “account executive”, as we talked by phone a few days before I made the trip out to the rural town in Nevada where the time-travel facility is located. (Yes, the place has a name, and yes, I know it. But I also know if anyone inside that company reads these words, I won’t be long for breathing. I like breathing. Maybe I’m being dramatic and  they’d just have someone break my legs, but that would suck, too.)
“You can have conversations,” Kelly counseled with what sounded like a smile, probably forced and probably worn daily. “Small-talk, for example, is fine, Mr Spade.”
“Colin. Call me Colin.”
“Okay, Colin. Yeah, small-talk is fine. ‘How’s the weather?’ ‘Do you have the time?’ That sort of thing.” I found her last small-talk example ironic and blinked at it, but I don’t think she noticed. “We just can’t have you giving away state secrets. You know, what’s going to happen in the future, who lives, who dies, which happy couples will be divorced within five years. That type of communication would throw off the balance of the universe.”
“How do you know?” I asked. I wasn’t challenging her. I was just curious. I wanted to know everything I could before I took my flight.
“It’s time travel, Mr. Spade. In order to get it to work, something once thought impossible, we have some of the finest minds in the world working with us.”
It was the kind of response that, while it came in the form of a statement, did not invite me to reply. My next couple of queries died on their vine, wilting in the open grasslands of my mind.
The thought of Kelly and of small-talk and what might happen when I press the green button fades, and my current reality returns. The disembodied voice in the speaker still droning on.
“In the unlikely event that you should break any laws while in the past, you will have to answer for them…”
I’ve tuned out that loud-speaker-voice. It isn’t hard to do, considering you really have to focus to understand it in here, anyway. Now I’m working on slowing my heart rate, breathing evenly and deeply, as entry into the past is supposed to be made easier if the passenger is as calm as possible. As an aside, if my past self, whom I’m about to go back and inhabit, saw that I was willingly using so many adverbs, he might try to have my writer’s license revoked. It’s a metaphor, there isn’t such a thing as a writer’s license, of course, but trust me. I was past me, and I know past me, and it would annoy him enough to turn his face red.
As for my mission and the flight I’ll soon be taking…
The window will close soon. What does that mean? Isn’t it cool how I not only know what I’m thinking, but I can guess, with alarming accuracy, what you’re thinking, too? Imagine time as a wide sky, its vastness nearly incalculable, encompassing everything that’s come before and all that will come after. Each “flight” along time’s skyway must take off within a specific window of time during which the time and events the “passenger” wishes to go back and relive are most accessible, best aligned. Think of the shifting alignments of the planets, and you’ve got a pretty good idea what we’re dealing with. Taking a flight to an event outside its best windows is not advised. It’s dangerous and could result in “the unexpected–and permanent–loss of the passenger to his or her time period and any and all others”. Essentially, they’re talking about death (without talking about death). It’s not clever. It’s lawyers speaking a language reminiscent of English.
My mission is a simple one. Or maybe it only appears that way because it hasn’t begun in earnest yet. I haven’t broken the tethers of my own time to float free among the eons. Tell Dad to go to the doctor. When he asks why and says he’s perfectly healthy, and besides he hates doctors, tell him you’ll be having a baby soon, and you want him there when she’s born. That’s what I have to do. It’s mostly true, and it doesn’t totally tear the small-talk rule asunder, if I am careful. I met my wife a year and a half after Dad passed (Mom loved her from the start and swore Dad would have loved her, too), and ten months after we met she was pregnant. We were married before the baby came, and we’ve been married twenty years now. Our baby is successfully navigating her way through collegiate academia.
Dad was gone. Mom was grieving his loss much differently than I was (she wasn’t eating lots of pizza and watching too much baseball, claiming it’s what she would have done with my dad if he were still here; that was what I was doing.) She had decided to go back to school for creative writing, something I’d always wanted to do but for which I’d never found the guts; she reasoned that Dad would have been proud of her, and it was a career-change the avid reader inside her had been calling for since she became a mother and began gathering material.
My mom was just as well suited for the work of writing stories as for that of raising a child. But her first journey into motherhood would prove to be her only trip, for which I’d always felt guilty. She wanted a kid, sure, but she didn’t want a kid with cerebral palsy. No one ever does. The fact that she couldn’t do better than me hurt, and I took it personally. Maybe, unbeknownst to me, the difficulties that came with my rearing took such a toll on her she couldn’t–or didn’t want to–have any more.
I met my wife, Ellie, at this point in my life, no doubt the lowest. There aren’t too many junctures competing for that crown. A trusted friend of mine, seeing how down-in-the-dumps I was, suggested I join a dating site.
“I don’t want to do that,” I argued. “I’m used to rejection–I send out queries for my stories, and rejection is a part of the deal–but that doesn’t mean I’m eager to invite it into my personal life.”
“You don’t have to tell anyone you have C.P. until you’re ready, until you think they’re ready,” she said on the rainy Sunday afternoon that she helped me set up my profile.
“You’re advising me to lie?” I shot back, surprised. We had been friends for a couple years by then, and this friend had never struck me as the dishonest type.
“I’m advising you to do what’s best for you. “I know you. You’ll tell anyone who needs to know that you have palsy, that it’s a part of who you are. But why reveal it until you absolutely have to?”
She had a point. I relented and let her mark (none specified) when the website asked for my body type, hoping that lack of a designation would weed out some of the more superficial people.
I found Ellie about a month later, following a succession of awful dates that almost put me off on-line dating altogether. Thank God I persevered. She responded to a note I’d sent after I came upon her picture–a cute brown-haired girl in a baseball cap with a dimpled smile wearing sunglasses and a real grin on a nothing-but-blue-sky day. She stood next to a black lab on a sidewalk, her hand atop its head, apparently giving the dog a good scratch behind the ears. In my note I mentioned that I, too, had a black lab, a fondness for baseball, and was a stickler for grammar, which she had correctly navigated in her profile. She wrote: “Thanks for writing me. You’re cute. (She added a smiley-face here.) My name’s Ellie. Hope I’ll hear from you again soon! Have a good night!”
I did. That night was wonderful. The joy of a relationship at its beginning. The projection you can’t help but participate in. Maybe she’ll love movies and books like I do. Maybe she likes the same music and believes in the same values and ideals. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. It always is. A relationship is a lesson in compromise. But on that first night you’re aware of the existence of someone who thinks you’re cute, compromise is the farthest thing from your mind.
By phone, I tell her that my dad just recently passed away. Instant sympathy points. She’s coming over! If I play this right, I might get laid. I have cerebral palsy. She knows and says it’s no big deal to her, as long as I’m the guy she’s been talking to for the past three months. I assure her that I am. If I play this right, I might get laid. Horay for beginnings.
The only problem with “getting laid” is that it might lead to having a child. She’s a little girl I hadn’t expected but for whom my heart just broke when I first saw her in the hospital nursery, and it has broken, overflowing with love and appreciation–the need to protect her–every day since. I’m not sad I have her, by any means, but if anything or anyone can make me instantly emotional, dissolve me into a pile of goo, it’s Casey. If you’re a parent, you know what I mean. There’s just this certain look she can give me, and I know that little Case could have–and will have–anything she wants.
Since her birth, and her ascent into teen-hood, she has learned from me a few things. At least, I hope so. She has learned that cerebral palsy is what I have and what I must deal with. It does not, however, define me. She has learned to love baseball and football, and that these sports are great times to sit in front of the TV or at a ballpark or a stadium and bond with Dad.
She has also learned that I miss my dad. And she’s encouraged me to do what I’m here doing today.
“Sure, Dad, you’ll be breaking the rules, but sometimes rules need to be broken. And I think this is one of those cases.”
“Why?” I asked, still uncertain as we drove–she drove, because I’m not allowed to drive, and I rode–towards my “free consultation” with the company, which Casey insisted on attending. “I’m no more special than anyone else. Why should I be allowed to break the rules, while everyone else had to abide by them?”
“That’s not what I’m saying, Dad. I’m saying it’s a stupid rule, and it should be thrown out. You might be the first person to break it, or you might be the fourth, or the fortieth. We just don’t know. You’re going to tell these people you want to go back to your childhood, to relive a day back in a simpler time. They’ll buy it, and it’s what you’ll write in your paperwork.”
Casey is convincing. And I know she’s right. That is what I will do. But I’ve always lived my life on the safe side of Caution street, and:
“What if it changes history? I could be in deep trouble then.”
“You could, that’s true. But there are also good things that might happen, if you manage it. If you change history, then I might get to meet Grandpa. To me, it’s a win-win. You get to go back in time and see him. Win. You might change history, and I might get to see him also. Win. Stop doubting yourself, Dad. You’re doing this!”
I look at the machine’s clock. It’s on the far wall of this room, one of those old things we all used to see in school that the teachers employed to show you how to tell time. The white face. The numbers. The two hands, Big and Little. It reads: 3:40, and I know Casey is glancing at her own clock, or will be soon. Home from school, her weekend just beginning, she’s aware my trip is about to commence. She’ll be cheering me on, my window at its widest. (She came with me for the consultation, we made a weekend of it, had a great time that involved a small theme park and some In N Out Burgers, but Elie wouldn’t let her be here for my “launch”. “You have school,” Ellie said. “And your dad will be gone longer than three days, we have to assume. I’ll go see him off, and then the two of us will be back home in no more than a week.”)
A week. Yes. That’s right. Lest I forget that, just as there’s a juncture when a flight’s window is at its widest, flight windows can also all but close. Mine will be closed in a week, which means I’ll need to return by then, or I likely won’t return at all.

I take a deep breath. Like diving into the deep end of a swimming pool. “Here we go,” I say, but I’m not sure anyone hears me.
I mash the green button. They can tell you what they think is going to happen when you launch your time-flight–“Your ears will probably pop with the change in air pressure. It is going to be loud. Rock-concert loud. Protect your ears”–but the people giving that advice have never traveled as I’m traveling now. Suddenly, a thunderous sound emanates from somewhere within–just over my right shoulder? It’s not so much loud as it is downright overpowering. The room expands and seems to wobble in front of my eyes, as though something, or somewhere, else is trying to replace it.
Then something does.
The machine is gone, but now I understand–remember–why it resembled a garage. That was explained to me sometime ago.
“You can find a garage just about anywhere,” Kelly, the account executive, told me. It was one of the last things she’d said to me before we hung up and I began in earnest preparing to travel through time. Somehow I’d retained everything else she said but forgotten these words, or tucked them so far back in my head as to render them almost inaccessible. “If there isn’t a garage nearby, maybe there’ll a barn, or a shed, and those types of places work just fine. Our technology finds the nearest suitable landing area–it has to be empty, mind you. If someone actually sawa time traveler materialize as time-travelers do when moving from time to time, they’d either be so surprised they might faint dead away. Or worse, they could run and tell an authority figure. Now, it depends on the time to which one is traveling, but if that person isn’t thought to be crazy, if they are taken seriously, that could put the company–all it does for the word, as well as its employees–in grave danger.”
I was tempted to ask, What does your company do for the world? Because that sounded like a reach to me, like she was overplaying a not lackluster but far from wonderful hand. Yet I stayed quiet. I have a mission here, and it won’t be helped if I piss this woman off.
I pick myself up off the dusty ground. I fell as the machine “landed” with a lurch and a shudder. Then I make my way to the garage door and wrench it open by hand, unsure what I’ll see next, or where I might go, and even shakier than I’m used to being on my feet; cerebral palsy compromises my gait and my muscles, but it is no match for time travel. Before I step from this garage, I give my legs and hips–both are screaming at me–a moment to acclimate. Good. Now you’re ready. Or as ready as you could ever be. Go do what you need to do, Colin. Staring at me as I exit, my appearance as unexpected for him as if his own deceased father just walked back into his life with no preamble whatsoever is my father. Still big and muscular. No gray in his hair yet. It is the color of a sunburned wheat field. He’s outside my childhood home gathering up fallen branches, casualties of a wind storm I don’t recall.
“Colin?” he says, his eyes full of wonder and… could that be worry?
“Dad.” I nod. As if to say, Yep. It’s me. You’re not seeing things. But I feel like I might be.
“Rick, what was that noise? Is everything alright out there?”
It’s my mother’s voice. Not that of the older woman I help take care of now, known family-wide as Grandma Sally, even though she technically has only one grandchild. She bakes cookies for Casey whenever my daughter gives her a day or two of warning that she’ll be stopping by the senior community where Mom resides, and where she has lived for a good five years now. Since it became too much of a chore for her to get around her house without the occasional–and begrudging–assistance of a walker.
“Did I make a noise?” I whisper to Dad.
“Yeah,” he whispers back. “It sounded like every single tool in there fell to the ground at the same time. Sally–your momprobably thinks I hurt myself.”
She is my mom. I can picture her without seeing her. Something about this ability makes me feel glad. We must be in the midst of a weekend, that’s why Dad’s doing around-the-house stuff, what he called his chores. I’m guessing I’ve gone back to a Sunday in… it feels like September or October. Football-watching is done for the day. So my tiny mother is wearing a comfortable sweater, the first time all year she’s gone into her sweater collection. “I like them because they’re comfortable,” she used to defend herself when I’d ask why she was always wearing sweaters. “I don’t always wear them, but I like them.” And she’s preparing the biggest meal of our week, maybe a pot-roast or a meat loaf.
I take in the full scope of this long-gone scene. I haven’t seen this house, or the property on which it sits, for five years, since I sold it, and when last I laid eyes on it, it was in disrepair. But I haven’t seen this house–freshly painted, the entire six-acre lawn mowed, and is that my favorite dog running after a goose out there in the distance?–since before I left for college. I couldn’t wait to leave then, to go off and meet new people, experience new things. Now I’d give anything to have those simpler days back.
“Is that Scooter out there?” I ask Dad, indicating the dog with a quick head movement in its direction.
He lifts his eyes to me. He’s in mid-stoop, picking up a monstrous branch (good firewood), but my words stop him mid-grab. He sets the branch back down. Then he ascends to his full height and comes to stand next to me. “Yeah. That’s Scooter. He’s been barking at those geese all day.”
As usual. I remember him doing that, the joy he took in goose-torment. “Can you call him for me, Dad?” I’d do it myself, but I don’t want my mom to hear my voice. Talking with Dad is one thing. I can keep the talk small. But if I see Mom… if she sees me… she’ll start in with her version of twenty questions, and who knows how that would end, or what history it might alter?
Dad calls the five-year-old canine. He’s five? How did I know that? That means I’m in the off at school, in the seventh grade. Middle school. Not the greatest experience ever, and if you think it was, you must be looking at your youth through glasses tinted rose. Scooter bounds toward his name. When he gets to me, he sniffs. He wants to bark–stranger, stranger!–but there’s something in my scent familiar to him, and instead he leaps up, which he doesn’t do often, it’s not in his personality, and licks me across the face.
“Boy, do you know who that is?” Dad says,
“I sure love you, Scoot,” I say quietly yet firmly. I let go a tear, just one, and watch it soak into his fur, as did so many of my childhood tears.
Dad brushes his hands on his jeans. He wants to ask me something, but I’m not sure he’s clear on how to put it. He gives it his best, though.
“When does Scooter… when does he… go?”
“Five years from now. He’s chasing a goose when his heart gives out.”
Dad looks down at the dog, his gaze now a knowing one. Pats the top of his head.
“And me? Am I still…. no, wait, I don’t want to know that,” he says, changing his mind mid-thought.
I don’t blame him. As I stand here, I think about how I wouldn’t want to know when I was going to go, either, neither the date nor the particulars, even if I could, assuming there was nothing I could do to change it. That’s just too much knowledge for a person to have at their disposal, and it’s knowledge that wouldn’t be all that beneficial. If someone told me when I was going to pass on to whatever’s next, I could imagine me taking in this information at the same time I inhaled a sharp breath… and then living the rest of my life frozen, unable to move. My body will fail in thirty years, and no matter how much exercise or healthy eating I do, that’s going to be that.
Dad rephrases his query. Something’s eating at him. That’s my fault.
Maybe coming here wasn’t such a good idea, after all, though it is wonderful to run Scooter’s fur through my fingers again. (The two of us were buddies. Towards the end, his end, right before I left for college, Scooter would sleep in my room every night. Sometimes, the two of us would share a nacho plate. I ate the nachos and most of the cheese. He licked up the leftovers gleefully with a look that said, I knew there was a reason I liked you.) To think about Mom making her pot-roast again. I wouldn’t be coming to dinner tonight. That would be tempting fate to an extent with which I wasn’t comfortable, because I’d have to eat dinner… with myself. History was sure to change then. I was trying to change it but to do so clandestinely. A gust of wind, a remnant of the former windstorm, rushes the air and tousles my hair.
“Colin… do you come from a time… that I’m not in?”
“Y-yes,” I say.
“Did you come here for a specific reason? To tell me something, maybe?”
Good. Dad gets it. He knows that, if an older version of his son has appeared, has time-traveled back to talk to him, regardless of how such travel was accomplished, this is something to which he should give his attention, undivided. He holds Scooter by the collar while he awaits my response, looking tense.
I have to remember exactly what I need to tell him, and I must be precise, yet intentionally a little vague on some details. I’m only gonna get one shot at this. Once what I’m doing is discovered–and it will be discovered, as all flights receive a post-flight report and de-briefing upon the passenger’s return–I will not be able to travel in time to anywhen ever again.
Out of my right pant pocket I produce a single sheet of typewritten paper. White. On it: All I wanted to say, so I wouldn’t forget a syllable. The words double-spaced and sized so that my bad eyes and I can read them easily, hopefully get through the recitation without stopping, without emotion hindering me.
“Dad, I’m not sure in what year we’ll meet–this technology is still an inexact work in progress, and you can never be sure when it will put you, although they insist its safe, and they always aim for a certain time period, but if I’m reading this, that means I’m in front of you right now.”
I wasn’t supposed to stop. I get that. But something inside me makes me lift my eyes from the page and wink at him. He touches my hand and squeezes a silent three-pump I… Love… You. Now keep going, Colin, his body language says.
“I need to tell you a couple of things. I am happy, and my health is good. I can still walk pretty well. I had been afraid my palsy would take my steps away eventually. It hasn’t yet.
“I am forty-five.” A tiny shiver runs up my spine. I’ve always been young. Always looked it, always felt it, except in my eyes and my legs, my two time machines into the future, activated well before the time machine was ever invented. In use in every waking hour. The idea of being middle-aged is not something I’m ready for, in the least. “I’m married now. Her name is Ellie. You’d like her. Mom does.”
“Ah, so your mom is still-”
I glance up at him. “Let me get through this, okay?”
“Right.”
“We have a daughter. You have a grand-daughter. Her name is Casey. She’s a chip off the old block, Dad. She loves sports. She and I watch them together like you and I used to. When she gets exasperated with a bad call, or when she jumps up and screams when someone makes a diving catch, I see you in her eyes. We’re a great family. We do everything together, yet we like our alone time. I think that’s key. You gotta let people be who they are, and sometimes that means letting them do things without you. That way, when you do things together, it’s even more special.
“But what I really came here to say… I don’t know that it will do any good, but I have to try.” I wouldn’t want to know when I was going to go, assuming there was nothing I could do to change it. “Dad. The day after your forty-eighth birthday, right after I return to college after the celebration, you’re watering the Christmas tree when something goes wrong and a fire starts. They never found the exact cause, but it was probably electrical. You don’t make it. I don’t know how else to say it, or how much more plain I should make it. I know it’s our tradition to get our Christmas tree on the weekend closest to your birthday. I’m asking you if, that one year, we might forgo the tradition?”
Dad looks into my eyes. Hard. He’s taking some unknown measure. For a second my spine tingles again as I think he might doubt me, might think I’m some inexplicable hallucination. But then he wipes away a tear of his own.
“Done,” he says. “Give me that letter. I want to hold onto it, put it in a safe place.”
That was easier than I thought it would be. I hold out the note, expecting that he’ll take it and then, as much as I want to stay for whatever’s cooking inside, as much as I want to spend the next week telling Scooter I love him, I’ll go back home. To my current home, my current family. But that’s not how things work out.
The moment he takes possession of the note, the ground begins to rumble. It starts into a violent fit of shaking.
An earthquake? I guess.
I look at Dad. No. Whatever this is, it’s not an earthquake, because he isn’t feeling it. He isn’t experiencing it like I am. His piece of ground remains still. But he does appear concerned. My expression must be communicating that something’s wrong. He reaches out a hand in vain, and I find my eyes glancing down at his feet, where five-year-old Scooter lays, content and curled.
With a shudder, I’m thrown to the ground. Dad and my favorite dog are gone. I’m back in the present-day version of the machine. My cheeks are hot. Alright, Colin, prepare yourself. They might want your head for what you’ve just done.
I think I banged my hip pretty hard. I must have. Ah, well. I’ll be okay, I decide, and walk gingerly to the door. As I swing it open, Ellie is looking at me, her face brimming with fright.
“Are you alright?” she asks.
“I’m fine,” I say. A few bumps and bruises are announcing themselves, but they aren’t visible. Not worth alarming my wife.
“What happened? Tell me everything.”
I’ve learned a man doesn’t get anywhere by arguing with his wife, except maybe a one-way ticket to The Dog House. So I tell her everything.
“Wow, you saw your dad and Scooter. That’s so special.”
Ellie seems to be talking a bit too loud for the kind of two-person confab I thought we were having. I quickly catch on that we aren’t the only ones participating in our reunion.
“How long have I been gone?” I ask.
“Three days.”
Three days. Three days lost in the present in exchange for twenty minutes in my past. I wonder if this equation stands for all trips, or if its unique to mine. I would bet on the former.
“Honey.” Ellie is holding her cell phone out to me. “There’s a call for you. It’s Casey.”
I took the phone, eager to hear my daughter’s voice. “Case. What’s up, kiddo?”
“Oh, not much,” she says, in a way that tips me off to the fact that there’s something she’s intentionally holding back from me. Whatever it is, she’s saving it for a surprise, and she’ll tell me soon. Maybe… right now. “I just thought you might like to know I’m sitting here with Grandpa.”
“You’re… you’re what?”
“Yeah. He’s here making me dinner. Chicken strips, corn and macaroni and cheese. He says that used to be one of your favorites, and that he’d make it for you on the nights when Grandma had had a long day and was too tired to cook. Says you asked him to come over and check in on me while you and Mom were out of town.” She lowers her voice to a whisper. “Dad, he just finished telling me the story of my birth.”
“What?”
“He was there the night I was born. He drove you and Mom to the hospital.”
“No, he didn’t. We took a ca-”
But just now a torrent of memories I’ve never had–but which I’ve always had–run like an angry river into my Bank Of Long-term Memory, whose vaults are open to accept an inordinate amount of recollections not to replace their predecessors but to stand alongside them. There’s the memory of that one Christmas season when we deviated from our tradition, and Mom never knew why, because Dad didn’t want to tell her. Kid me was against it, too. But Dad said he had his reasons. Then, years later, there was Casey’s birth, Dad driving us to the hospital. Dad and I together teaching Casey how to ride her bike. The three of us at Casey’s first baseball game. So many 45h Of Julys and New Year’s Eve’s our family spent with my parents that hadn’t been there before. Christmases. Birthdays. The last memory that comes, flashing, to me: The two of us, and a sobbing Ellie, moving Mom into her assisted living facility when it became clear she needed it, that Dad could no longer take care of her on his own, as hard as he tried. I guess you can’t change everything.
Life… revised.
“Thanks for letting me know, Case,” I say into the phone, my voice shaking a little. “Mom and I will be home soon, okay?”
“Okay. Love you, Dad.”
“You, too, sweetheart. Tell Grandpa I love him, too.”
“He loves you, too,” she says, and sounds farther away. She comes back to me. “He says he knows.”
“Bye, Casey.”
“Bye, Dad.”
I press END, and Ellie takes the phone. We fold into each other, a thankful hug soaked in disbelief.
“Shall we go home now?” she suggests.
I can’t get home fast enough. And that trouble I’d feared I’d be in, for changing history, never comes to pass. In the de-briefing, I am asked, “What was it like reliving a day in your childhood? Did you enjoy yourself?” I’m not sure if they realize how little time I actually spent back in time, and I don’t feel like correcting them.
“Yes,” I reply. “I enjoyed it very much.”
Then Ellie and I climb into our car. I wave a nostalgic good-bye to the building in which the time machine resides–a blank redbrick building. If you didn’t know what was in there, you couldn’t possibly guess.
They have a good marketing team. I never thought I’d thank God for a super bowl ad, but that was where Casey and I–and so many others–first heard time travel was, at last, possible.