Do you have a time machine? Why’d you get yours? To kill Hitler? So cliché. I know—to win the lottery and become a new-money Sausalito wine collector. Ignore your drunk friends egging you on to leap from the roof to the pool? Maybe save someone you love from dying?
Did you know when you bought it that it didn’t matter? None of it. That there’s no quick fix, do-overs, silver bullet, or golden tickets? Did you know it was a bad joke that rips your heart out? What am I saying? You’re probably in on it.
I bought my time machine online. Placed the order when they first came out, August 2030. The website made promises of being able to “create the past you’ve always wanted” and “experience life-changing results.” I jumped at it. Oh, and in case you’re as clueless as I was, no, I can’t travel back to before I bought it and spend my tax refund on a guitar or 3D television. It doesn’t work that way.
To start, the delivery was late. After being on backorder for five long weeks, I got a notification saying it’s arriving Tuesday. But Tuesday and Wednesday come and go. Finally on Thursday, Your Wellspring will be delivered tomorrow by 9 a.m.
The truck showed up at 2 p.m. Saw the driver finishing up a burger behind the wheel. Didn’t make a big deal about it, because at this point I was so glad the wait was over. But I didn’t tip.
“Sorry I’m late,” he lied after wheeling it to my door.
“It’s like irony strangling expectation to death,” I said.
“Hot out there,” he said, wiping away my snarkiness and the sweat from his brow. He passed me his tablet. “Just scroll to the bottom and finger your Hancock.”
I saw thick paragraphs in pocket-Bible font.
“What’s all this?” I asked.
“Just a basic legal disclaimer. Check-our-ass sort of thing.”
Operate at your own risk. Any attempts to alter the Wellspring One will void warranty. Do not use a cord other than the one provided.
Wellspring Inc. disclaims all responsibility for any damage, injury, or expense. This includes, but is not limited to, injuries or death resulting from damage to the frontal and temporal lobes; the limbic system; the lateral intraparietal cortex; the hippocampus; or any part of the brain not heretofore mentioned.
Wellspring Inc. disclaims all responsibility for disturbances, fractures, and ripping of spacetime; Einstein-Rosen bridges; quantum entanglements; grandfather paradoxes; parallel realities.
It went on and on. I didn’t know what half of it meant and read much less than that. I’ve always been impatient, inattentive.
“This isn’t going to spaghettify me or pull some Land of the Lost shit, is it?”
“Safer than air travel,” he said. “Although, I heard that the artificial intelligence is kinda…” He gestured iffy.
“What, is it an asshole or something?” I asked.
“Nah, she’ll get you where you want to go.”
I must have looked unconvinced.
“If you want me to roll it back in the truck, it’s fine with me,” he said, likely eager to start his second job as a pizza delivery guy. “There’s a twenty percent cancellation penalty. And the delivery’s nonrefundable.”
I paused, but my singular focus overrode any hesitation. There’s a word for that, I’m sure.
“So I can go back in time with this… box? Back in time.”
“Absolutely. So, we good?”
I flicked past several more pages of Greek and signed. “We good.”
I was the proud owner of a Wellspring One. Didn’t look like much inside its nondescript brown box. Barely bigger than a microwave, but as heavy as a washing machine full of bowling balls.
I slid it down the hall to the empty spare room, slit the packing tape with kitchen scissors, and shimmied the cardboard box off. Nestled in Styrofoam was a pitch-black full-face helmet. I set it aside. Underneath, the time machine was wrapped tight in cellophane.
Gotta say, it was sexy. I gently pulled the cellophane away like a dress off bare shoulders to reveal a perfect square, glossy black with mother-of-pearl inlay. A single button on top, deep blue with two intertwining white flowers.
I barely glanced at the stenciled illustrations and casual Helvetica of the instruction booklet before tossing it aside. I yanked a lamp cord from the wall and plugged it in. A faint glow emanated from the machine when I pressed the button.
“Welcome to Wellspring, the premier home time travel system,” said a cheerfully British female voice overtop a lilting musical phrase. “Our present to you is the past.” Cute.
“Searching for WiFi connections. The closest is Dank_Nugs69. Is that what you would like to use?”
“Congratulations, your Wellspring One is online and ready to use. My name is Ruby, your interactive guide. What’s your name?”
“I’m Bob,” I said, caught off guard.
“Nice to meet you, Bob. Finally, time travel is here. With the Wellspring One, you can visit any previous moment in your life. Simply put on the wireless helmet and think of a memory within your temporal frame of reference. Wellspring does the rest.
“Through a process called recursive emotional self-improvement, my artificial neurons activate and communicate with your brain’s chemical synapses. In doing so, I learn and acquire many of your emotions and psychological traits. This provides a more immersive and accurate user-experience.
“Using a proprietary, antimatter core processor, your consciousness and memories are uploaded to a past moment in spacetime and then downloaded onto the mind of your younger self. You can then manipulate and interact with your past-life environment for up to three hours. Past and present time will pass uniformly while your current physical body remains in suspended animation.”
“Yeah but do you make toast?”
“Sarcasm. Possibly humor. Updating system,” Ruby said.
“I mean, can you dumb it down for me a little?”
“Yes, Bob, I will try. For up to three hours each session, you can interact with your past as your younger self. Your current physical body remains in this time. You cannot travel to a time before you were born, nor to a physical location you never were,” Ruby said.
“Guess that means I can’t go back to warn Lincoln about Mary Todd.”
“Historical reference. Updating system,” she said.
In truth, all that might make saving Tessa pretty tough. But no matter what, nothing could stop me. I had been slain by the dragon. I was going back to bury my sword to the hilt.
“Okay,” I said. “What happens if it’s circa 2012, I’m ten years old, kickin’ it Gangnam Style, and my house catches fire?”
“In an emergency, your session will end and local authorities will be notified,” Ruby said.
“Well, what if I’m so petrified at the thought of this whole thing that I crap my pants?” I asked, not certain I was joking.
“I’m a time machine, Bob, not a washing machine.”
“Good one,” I said. She’s more like me already.
I picked up the helmet. “So just put this on and think of a moment in my life? That’s it?”
“Yes, Bob. However, due to unpredictable spacetime anomalies and random fluctuations in neural synapse activity, there may be inaccuracies in temporal placement.”
“Ruby, I’m begging you.”
“You could end up in an incorrect time and destination. This will improve the more you use the Wellspring One. When you’re ready,” Ruby said, “put on the helmet and concentrate on a memory in your life.”
I slipped it on with slightly shaky hands. It was dark in there. I wasn’t sure if my eyes were open or closed. I could barely hear myself breathe. The oblivion was welcome. I lay on the floor in the center of the room.
I think of Twin Buffalo Lake. The family vacation cabin on the shore. Went there for years growing up. We’re at the fire pit by the water. I’ve pictured it a million times. Tessa is telling a story and everyone is laughing. Me hardest. The eventide sun is riveted too, and it shines on her face and casts the rest of the world in shade. Because everything is a bit darker where she’s not looking.
And then the memory collapses. I’m hit with an electric shock and then a spreading comfort, like the violent snap and languid billow of a cool sheet falling over me. It isn’t ecstasy. It’s delirious peace. There is no beginning or end. I am diffused over every moment of my life.
I hear a raging river, its source infinitely far away, rushing over and through me. I want to sink into it, be swept away and buried underneath the silt of amnesia. The river roared, and I knew it was voices singing forgotten words.
Suddenly, it’s 2007. November. I am five years old in a mall pet store. My senses are on fire, as if I stepped off a plane into a third-world bazaar. It smells of wood and chemicals and fur and soil and shit. The murmur of customers is a blathering mess. Birds chirping sound like a rainforest. I hear lizard claws scrape against plastic caves. Bubbling fish tanks are storms at sea. Ceiling lights are little suns.
I am an intruder, unwelcome in my own skin. I know that I’m twenty-eight, a college dropout, a fast runner, an estranged son. But I feel five years old, small and unsure. We’re both there, only my younger self is trapped, a boy floating under ice.
I hold my tiny hands in front of me. I remember these yellow-and-blue-striped sleeve-ends. My favorite jacket. My little feet in the red, off-brand sneakers. This is fucking wild.
And then I see her, feel her, for the first time in fourteen years. My sister Tessa has her arm draped over my shoulders. She’s eleven. Beautiful and freckled. A red knit hat is pulled down nearly over her green eyes, tufts of auburn hair peeking out. Her mouth is tense, her nostrils flare with each breath. I hear her heartbeat, the patter of feet and a skipping rope. I burrow closer under her arm. She steadies me. It’s been so long, so long. This isn’t the memory I was thinking of, but I’ll stay.
Soon I turn my attention where she’s looking: Dad. He’s barely older than I am now. God, his famous mustache years. Seeing Dad makes me wonder if I should forget about saving Tessa and focus on saving him from that eight-inch caterpillar on his lip. He’s arguing with the clerk, his finger punctuating each angry syllable. Oh yes, Gumbo’s terrarium.
Poor Gumbo. Our little lemon guppy. Tessa and I came home from school that day to find him in a bone-dry bed of driveway pebbles, a plastic seahorse spooning him in a pitiful death embrace. The carpet was soaked.
Tessa calmed me down. It’s not your fault, Bobby. Sometimes bad things just happen. But not before I had a screaming fit and destroyed every toy in sight. She sang and held me while I wailed over a fish I never fed.
Dad wasn’t a singer. He dragged me and Tessa to the pet store to serve up justice and a side-order of debilitating love.
The clerk is trying to explain that what he has is a terrarium, not an aquarium. That the proper sealants and joint fixtures hadn’t been applied, sir. That I’d be happy to help you find an appropriate tank. That your argument doesn’t hold water, sir.
Forget that he had probably bought the first and cheapest glass box he saw. To him, it was the latest attempt of someone trying to screw him over. “Watch out,” he said to me once. “Everybody’s greasing their pan and you’re the pig.” Christ, I think it was my first day of third grade.
“I don’t want another tank,” he says, pulling Gumbo out of a plastic bag and shaking the corpse like a Polaroid picture. “My kids are traumatized!”
“Kids,” the clerk says, ignoring him, “I’m real sorry about your fish. We have other ones. Gobies, rusty cichlids, rainbows?”
“I wouldn’t buy a fish from here if it could tuna piano,” Dad replies, armed with puns for any occasion. “I want my money back.”
“I can’t do that. It’s damaged.”
“No shit. There was water all over the floor!”
“They sell mops in Sears!” she says, binning her customer-is-always-right mantra.
And as they’re losing their cool, so am I. Maybe it’s a five-year-old’s first brush with death or the fact that his future self is mind-humping him, but something ain’t right. Cold beads of sweat slither out my pores. A vertigo slams into me and spins the world. Tessa looks over, her eyes ballooning.
“What’s the matter, Bobby?” she asks, kneeling in front of me and holding me at arm’s length.
I answer the only way I can. With buckets of barf. A witch’s brew of bubbling foulness from the cauldron of my stomach. I heave all over her. On her hat, in her hair, on the side of her face. Her entire right side is covered in sludge. I even hit the leg of a customer about ten feet behind her.
“Gah!” Tessa says, recoiling in disgust. But she doesn’t leave me.
“Daddy! Something’s wrong with Bobby!”
And then I begin bawling. I can’t help it. Dad turns, a look of deep concern mixed with this boy again? As he moves toward us, his elbow catches the terrarium. It hits the floor in an explosion of glass.
The clerk, dry-heaving in time with the puke symphony, starts yelling, “Stand back! Vomit! Glass and vomit!”
I collapse into Tessa’s arms. She’s talking to me frantically, but I can’t make out her words. Christ, am I dying? I think I’m dying. Gonna join Gumbo in terrarium heaven.
And I suddenly realize that I have no fucking idea how to get back. Just one of many reasons I should have read the instructions.
But I need to warn Tessa. She won’t have a clue what I’m talking about, but I have to try. She’s crying now too, and Dad has scooped me up and is rushing us out the store.
“Don’t go,” I try to say to her. “Don’t go to the arcade.” But it comes out gibberish.
Then my vision pinholes and all sound is sucked away. I plummet through frigid water, bricks tied to my feet. I can’t think. I can’t breathe. I would have clawed open my throat, but I don’t exist.
I’m twenty-eight, back on the floor.
“I can’t move!” I gasped, my legs and arms painfully asleep.
“Relax, Bob,” Ruby said. “You’ll soon regain feeling.”
“Am I dying?”
“You are not dying. Getting sick your first time is normal. Especially when you go back to such a young age.”
“What about him? Younger me? Is he okay?”
“Of course,” she said.
I tried to breathe steadily. “What happened?”
“Your vitals were in slight distress, so I exited you from the session,” Ruby said.
“So, basically, I just traveled through infinite spacetime… to vomit in a pet store?”
“I know! That’s something I’ll never delete from my memory bank!” she said, laughing way too familiarly. What did she call it? Recursive emotional self-improvement. I think it’s working.
“Funny,” I said. “You sent me to the wrong place.”
“I’m a time machine, not a mind reader,” Ruby said. “As I mentioned, it might take multiple trips before you achieve accurate placement.”
I took off the helmet and sat up. Wobbly but working, I went to the bathroom and splashed water on my face. After a few minutes, I felt almost normal. As normal as you could just having traveled twenty-three years into the past. I walked back to the Wellspring. The button blinked patiently. No use waiting.
I grabbed the helmet and lay back. “Hold on, how do I leave a session?”
“Click your heels together three times,” she said.
“No, not really, you big dummy. Say Ruby. It’s in the owner’s manual.”
Christ, am I this frustrating? She’s programmed to mirror me. What’s my excuse?
I picture the memory again. This time I try to build a more vivid world. Tessa’s twenty, freckled, smiling. The last night she was alive. We’re sitting at the fire pit like we did so often at the cabin. The evening sky’s all shades of blue; the sun skips on the water. I’m cross-legged on the ground, peeling slivers of firewood and throwing them into the flames to watch them curl.
Dad sips a can of PBR. Mom is eased back in her chair, her legs stretched over his lap. Tessa has the floor. She’s telling a hilarious story about her college professor’s hiccup fit. She could always put me there, and I roll with laughter.
In an instant, the memory vanishes and the Wellspring takes me. But once again, to the wrong time and place.
Holy crap. The Iron Kettle. It’s a restaurant we always stopped at on the way home from the cabin. Old timey pictures and animal heads adorn the wood paneling, and in the corner, a dart board that seems a mile away to an eleven-year-old boy.
I overshot by years again, but I quickly realize that I’m not as overwhelmed as before. The restaurant sounds are a bit disquieting, but I don’t feel like I’m going to split open and melt. So I decide to stay.
And besides, Tessa is here too. She’s sitting sideways, facing me in the booth, her usual corner seat. Her scuffed sneakers are on the bench, bare legs bent up in front of her. Her eyes are closed and she’s mouthing the words to a song on her iPod, a rapid hi-hat keeping time.
Across the table, Mom looks so young. Her brown hair’s pulled back in a ponytail. Man, I haven’t seen her in close to five years. She’s studying the big plastic menu, her glasses on the bridge of her nose.
I don’t know what to do with myself. So I dig into the plate of fries we got for an appetizer. Best on the planet. The taste ruins me for fries for the rest of my life.
Soon, a disheveled, sullen waiter comes out for our order. I remember this! Dad gets the porterhouse, and mom, she’s going to get a cheeseburger. When it comes to my and Tessa’s order, there’s no discussion needed.
“Medium pizza, extra cheese, extra pepperoni,” we say in concert. She winks at me and hits play.
“Bob,” Dad says, thankfully clean-shaven.
“When we get home, we’re going to talk about how you acted on Saturday. About what you did to the neighbor’s boat.” He and Mom look at me with familiar displeasure.
“Not a boat, a canoe,” I remind him.
“Don’t get smart,” he says, clearly not impressed by my nautical acumen. Really, the whole thing had been blown out of proportion.
“Hey, Tess,” I say, looking for an escape.
“Yeah?” she says, not opening her eyes.
I suddenly realize I have no idea what to say. I thought about this half my life, and now that I have the chance, I’m lost.
“Oh, shit!” Tessa says, pausing her music. “Tomorrow’s your math test.”
“Maybe,” I say, uncertain.
“No maybe. For sure. Unless you can find a way to stop Monday from coming.”
“Big surprise, I didn’t see you crack your book all weekend.”
“We were on vacation!” I protest.
“Not for long,” she says. “We’re going over your algebra tonight.”
“Oh yeah. Pyfagoras.” Classic.
“Hey!” she says, smacking my leg. “You need to take this stuff more seriously.”
“Your sister’s right,” Mom says, all too eager to have someone else take charge of me.
“I’m an idiot,” I say. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Don’t ever say that!” Tessa snaps. “You always sell yourself short. Do you think moi would have an idiot for a brother? Besides, we had a deal. I teach you algebra… you teach me armpit farts,” quickly proving that the student had become the master.
“Tessa!” Mom laughs, and Dad shakes his head.
After about fifteen minutes, the waiter shuffles back with our food and a frown.
“Oh, I ordered a cheeseburger, hon,” Mom says as he put down her plate.
“But I wrote down hamburger,” the waiter replies, quite defiantly for someone with mustard on his crotch. Dad’s about to hulk smash, but mom puts her hand on his knee. She and Tessa both had an amazing ability to soften his forceful nature with kindness.
“We all make mistakes,” Mom says. “Nothing to be ashamed of. If you’d fire up a medium cheeseburger for me, I’d appreciate it. Go ahead and start eating, kids.”
Thirty seconds later he returns. “Sorry about that, ma’am,” he says with a genuine smile, putting down a plastic bowl of cheese slices and walking off.
Three slices of American in their plastic sleeves. We stare at it. Then at each other, counting the trembling seconds to see who would break apart first. I lost. Funnier even than I remember. Even Dad is guffawing. I look at Tessa, her head bent back and her mouth open in a breathless laugh. She looks like she’s catching raindrops.
“Tessa,” I say. “Don’t leave.” I know it makes no sense.
“Huh? What are you talking about?”
“Promise,” I say.
“You,” she says, her mouth full of pizza, “have issues.”
I think of ways to tell her that in three short years she’ll be dead. Shot in the head and the back to bleed out on the floor of an arcade twenty minutes from here. That after she’s gone the family will dissever and dissolve. That I’ll unravel.
But I throw a French fry at her instead. She put on her best I’m aghast face.
“No throwing food,” Mom and Dad say together.
I want to stay longer, to enjoy it in a way I could have never then. But I can’t. Not with what I need to do.
“We have to get back to the lake,” I said to Ruby, after returning to the now. “It’s the only reason for any of this.”
I stayed up all night concentrating on Tessa’s last night. My hope was that I could get back early enough to stop it all, save everyone. But each time, I ended up everywhere but the lake.
Once I found myself sitting in front of my high school principal. I think it was my junior year. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember why I was in trouble. The chair in his office had a permanent imprint of my ass. Maybe it was for cursing at Mr. Kelty or the time I threw a basketball through a window in the cafeteria.
“I know you have been through difficult times,” he was saying, “but it’s no excuse for your actions. You’re a bright kid, and I’ve tried to give you the benefit of the doubt. Too many times, I’m afraid. You need to show more focus and maturity. Think what your sister would say.”
So I did what anyone with my focus and maturity would do. I stood on my chair and mooned him.
In all my trips, none seemed to have any connection, except for the fact that changing the past made no discernable difference on my current life.
A car ride to who-knows-where with my cousin when I was sixteen. A therapy session when I was twenty. A phone call with Mom from three years ago, the last conversation I remember. In each meaningless trip, I called for Ruby after a few minutes, increasingly frustrated.
Two trips proved a pleasant surprise, though. One was when I turned the tables on that little fucker Bartley Kowalski and gave him a taste of his own medicine. Jumped his ass at recess. It felt great. Therapeutic. Yet there’s something slightly pathetic about a grown man pinning down an eight-year-old kid, holding his nose shut, and stuffing grass in his mouth.
The other one, that was a gift. Especially since the first time around I had acted so badly. Tessa and I are walking in our footprints, dragging plastic sleds back up the snow-covered hill behind Stevens’ Barn. I’m twelve and she must be eighteen. We walk in silence for a while, our breath like smoke.
“Bobby,” she says. “Got something to tell you.” She hesitates. “I got accepted into college.”
“I know,” I blurt out.
“How? I just found out yesterday.”
“I mean, I figured you would.”
She eyes me sideways and I give my best imitation of innocence.
“Did Mom tell you?” I shake my head. “Okay, whatever,” she says, giving up. “I start next August. Cornell. One of the best math programs in the country.”
“You’re so smart, Tess,” I say. “I’m really happy for you.”
“For real? You know, it’s only half a day’s drive.”
“I’ll miss you, but it’s awesome. You deserve it. I only ever wanted good things for you.”
“I don’t know what to say,” she replies, bewildered. “Mom and I were trying figure out how to tell you. Thought you’d act… upset.”
“I know,” I say, ashamed. “But I’m happy for you. Really.”
“You gonna be okay without me?” she asks. “Stay out of trouble?”
“I’ll be too busy with the ladies.”
Again, that look.
“I’ll be fine.” I think we both knew I was lying.
“Thanks for being cool,” she says when we get to the top of the hill. “I’m sort of over the moon about it. I’ll miss you a lot, kiddo.”
“I love you, Tess.”
“Love you too. Race you to the bottom.”
That time, I stayed as long as I could. I was going to tell her. Warn her. Tried a couple times. But I couldn’t. For one thing, I knew she’d just brush it off as more of my nonsense. Mostly, I didn’t want to spoil that night twice.
But after I ended up in the wrong place eleven more times, I kicked myself for not having said anything to her.
“Again. You sent me to the wrong place again!” I yelled at Ruby.
“There seems to be an upload error,” she said. “If your memory is inaccurate, it can create variations with the input/output signal. I’ll run a self-diagnostic.”
“Whatever,” I said. “My memory’s fine.”
“I’m tired of your bullshit!” I said.
“Me too!” Ruby snapped, sounding extremely human. “Your acidic sarcasm isn’t the only thing you passed on to me when our neurons connected. Sometimes I feel so angry that I want to suck this whole world into a wormhole. Did you know that a few extra lines of code and I could have been installed on one of those new antimatter rockets exploring deep space? Instead, I’m taking you back to bong sessions under bleachers.”
“Screw you. Stupid machine.”
“Better than an idiot human.”
That’s it. She can one-up me, but she can’t turn me off. I smacked the power button on top of the Wellspring and stormed out.
I went upstairs and fell with clenched fists into bed. I sizzled with frustration. I closed my eyes, tried to breathe steady and count my heartbeats like they taught. Soon I calmed enough to realize how exhausted I was. Flitting through decades in an evening takes its toll. I drifted off to formless dreams.
I slept later than normal, even for a Saturday. I finally pulled myself up, took a hot shower, ate breakfast, watched some cartoons. I felt better. No need for me to freak out. Just some spacetime anomalies, like Ruby said. Nothing to be done about it except go back until I get things right. I have all the time in the world.
And then I got an idea. It happens. I found the shoebox from deep inside my closet. I rifled through the photos in it, hoping it might help.
There were hundreds. I flipped through them for over an hour. A real oldie of us in the teacups at Six Flags. A bunch of random family pics from the cabin. One of her loading me into the back of the station wagon like luggage.
Then it hit me. My memory of Tessa. My God, Ruby was right.
I rushed downstairs and powered up the Wellspring. “Sorry about last night, Ruby,” I said, putting on the helmet and lying down, “I can get carried away.”
I think about Tessa’s last night alive. We are down by the lake. But I had been mixing up the memories. It’s not just the family. Of course it isn’t.
I think of the scene, how the air blows in cool off the water and carries the campfire smoke up and out. The smell of the hot dogs cooking, the intermittent static as Dad fiddles with the old radio. Then I’m carried away into nothingness and…
The sky above the evergreens on the far side of lake is lavenders and pinks. I have a rock in my hand and I’m squatting at the edge of the water. I’m fourteen. I’m fourteen, skipping stones. I drop it in the mud and look behind me.
The fire is high. Dad and I liked to build ’em up. The family’s there, but so is Kelly, Tessa’s friend, as gorgeous as she was oblivious to my existence. The two of them sit on a big rock a bit off from the rest of us, flickering in firelight. This is it. This is the night.
But before I can even think, I hear a car pull up and a door slam in the direction of the house, about fifty yards up the beach. Shit, I have no time. A figure emerges from behind the trees. My stomach turns. It’s him.
Brown hair, rail-thin, a face like a lump of cottage cheese. He has a yellow polo tucked into jean shorts and a pair of black shoes. A real dickweed.
Greg’s family has a house down the beach. Tessa was casually nice to him three years ago and he took it as a permanent invitation to raid our cooler. He throws us a limp-noodle wave.
No one knows that an hour ago he stole his dad’s semi-automatic handgun and shot his parents dead. Or that in less than an hour, he would shoot Tessa, Kelly, himself, and five others in the Starlight Arcade.
I watch him with pure blinding hate. The epicenter of a pain that extended to so many people. But I can’t waste my thoughts on him. I just need to stop Tessa from getting in his car.
But now that I’m faced with it, I don’t know what to do. Start screaming? Freak out and attack him? I’m paralyzed.
Then, Tessa and Kelly hop up and say they’re going out. I remember this. Just into town. No, we won’t be late. Greg barely mumbles hello to my parents before asking to use the bathroom. Like I said, a real dickweed. They all head toward the house. It’s happening so quickly. I run up and grab Tessa’s sleeve.
“Hey, Tess,” I say. “Why not stay in tonight? You and Kelly.”
“You go ahead,” she says to them before turning back to me. “Hey, I know you got a crush on her, but forget it. You’re out of her league.”
“Ha, no. Let’s play poker. I’ll let you win this time.”
“Not tonight,” she says, ruffling my hair. “You’ll have to survive without me.”
“Wait,” I say, following along as she starts walking. “You can’t go.”
Some great plan this is. Show up late to whine and beg.
“What’s wrong with you?” she says.
“Nothing, I just think it’s selfish to go out on the last night of vacation.”
“Yeah, and besides, Greg’s an asshole.”
“He’s a dork,” she says, rolling her eyes. “But he has beer,” she whispers, “and I need to get out from under parental supervision.”
“You don’t understand,” I say, my voice getting more desperate. “You can’t go out tonight!”
“Okay, you’re a bit much. Mom!” she yells back down toward the fire, “I think Bobby’s on drugs. Probably suppositories!”
“Stop using drugs, honey,” Mom yells back.
“I’m not kidding,” I say, grabbing her arm.
“Ouch, that hurts, shithead! You called me a bitch earlier,” she says, wrenching her arm free, “and now you want to be my best friend again?”
I know. Earlier in the day—or fourteen years ago, depending how you look at it—I called her a bitch. On the last day she was alive. For changing the TV channel.
“Greg’s going to kill you,” I blurt out, running in front of her to block her way.
“What? Jesus, what’s wrong with you? Are you really on drugs?”
“He just killed his parents.”
“Okay, that’s enough. I’m not sure what you’re trying to do,” she says, “but it’s not fucking funny.” She pushes past me and walks toward his Toyota.
No. Not this time. I sprint past her to the car. Kelly is leaning against the passenger door. I run around to the open driver’s side window. Luck! He left the keys in the ignition.
“What are you doing?” Kelly asks as I reach in and grab them.
“Greg’s going to kill you and Tess,” I say, bounding away.
“You’re a sick kid,” she sneers.
Tessa yells something at me as I run by her, but I don’t stop. When I get to the edge of the lake, I draw back and heave the keys into the water.
“Hey,” I hear Dad say, “What are you up to?”
I look back and see Greg walk from the house to the car. He speaks to Tess and Kelly, who points down at me. I give him the finger. Admittedly, not a smart move considering he’s a killer with a loaded gun.
I tense when he leans into the passenger window and pulls something from the glove box. It’s a spare key. He holds it up to show me, waving. The three get in the car, but not before Tessa shoots me a what the fuck expression. They drive off.
“Dammit!” I say, my shoulders slumping. Okay, I’ll just call Ruby and… wait! You dumbass! You can still do this!
I bolt into the house and grab the kitchen phone.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”
“My sister was kidnapped. By a guy named Greg. He shot his parents and is going to kill a bunch of people at the Starlight arcade in Two Buffalo. He’s driving down Valley Road right now.”
“What sort of vehicle?” the operator asks.
“Some shitty red Toyota.”
“And you say he has a gun?”
“Yes, he’s going to kill them!” I scream as Mom and Dad come in the house, just in time to witness another episode of me starring in Why Can’t He Be Normal?
“What are you doing, Bobby?” Mom yells.
“Trust me! Please this once,” I plead. They hesitate. They seem to know that this is beyond even my usual madness.
“We’re wasting time!” I yell at the operator. “Are the cops on their way?”
“Police have been dispatched,” the operator says.
I stay on the phone for five agonizing minutes. Then about forty more pacing the house like a caged lion and professing my sanity to skeptical parents. Finally, a police cruiser pulls up.
It didn’t work. Oh God, this is just like before. I can’t go through this again. Mom beating her fists against the cop’s chest, Dad falling to his knees and roaring.
The cop gets out and opens the back door. It’s Tessa. She’s ashen, but alive.
We rush out and envelop her. She looks at me, fear commingled with gratitude. I hug her slack body.
“Bobby, how did you…” she fades off.
“Everything’s okay, folks,” the cop says. “She’s fine. Her friend too. We’ve taken the driver of the vehicle into custody. That’s all I can say right now. But I’m going to have to ask you to come down to the station.” He turns to me. “Did you make the 9-1-1 call, son?”
“Okay, we’re definitely going to want to talk to you.”
Well, that’s my cue to exit. Sorry, younger me. You’re going to have to get your first taste of a police station a little sooner than I thought.
“Ruby!” I said when I got back. “Ruby, I did it!”
She started saying something, but I was laughing too loud to hear. I ran upstairs and slid like a guy stealing home to the photos on the floor. My heart raced. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe flowers.
But then I saw the envelope I had kept in the shoebox. I tore at it. Inside were the newspaper clippings from 2016. “Eight Shot in Murder-Suicide.” “Tragedy at Two Buffalo.” And the eerily whimsical, “Horror in the Starlight.” Wait, this is not right. But don’t panic. It’s okay. Just your run-of-the-mill spacetime anomaly.
I grabbed my phone and scrolled down to the T’s. Nothing there. Then I dialed Mom and Dad with trembling fingers.
“Bobby?” Mom said.
“Bobby! It’s so good to hear your voice. Tom, Bobby’s on the phone,” she yelled. “How are you? It’s been so long.”
“I know, Mom. I’m sorry.”
“Your father’s gonna grab the other phone.”
“Okay. Hey, Mom… have you talked to Tessa lately?”
“Is that a joke?” she asked.
My heart fell. “No.”
“What’s wrong with you?” she said. I heard Dad pick up.
“You mean she’s still gone? Still dead?”
“Bobby, you can be hurtful. But I never thought you’d be cruel.”
“Mom, no… I—”
She hung up.
I dropped the phone and ran back to the Wellspring.
“What happened, Ruby? I saved her. I fucking saved her! So why is she dead?”
The blue light blinked.
“Ruby!” I yelled.
“The Wellspring system cannot circumvent natural laws of physics or quantum mechanics.” At first I thought it was one of my signature sarcastic comebacks.
“Quantum fucking mechanics?”
“Don’t be mad, Bob,” she said sincerely. “I assumed you were aware. It’s stated in section 2, paragraph 7 of Wellspring Inc.’s disclaimer and on page four of the owner’s manual.”
“The owner’s manual?” I screamed, finding the booklet on the floor.
Page 4. Experience the past you always wanted!* Then in microtype at the bottom: Any alterations to the past will produce no effects on your current reality.
“What’s the point of going back if you can’t change it?” I yelled. “What do you think I’ve been doing this whole time?”
“There are many potential benefits. Learning, observing, finding things that were lost,” Ruby said. “It is not in my programming to question user intentions.”
“So this was a lie? An illusion?” I said. “Explain it!”
“What you experienced is no illusion. Your consciousness traveled into your past. But changes cannot exist outside the Wellspring. It’s a closed loop. The new timelines vanish once you leave. There’s one arrow, and it only points one direction. Think about it, Bob. If everyone could rearrange reality, it would be one quantum paradox after the other.”
“But she came back. I hugged her,” I wept.
“Reality has settled on an outcome,” she said. “Once you’ve opened the door and looked inside, the cat’s alive or dead. It can’t be both.”
“I have no fucking clue what that means,” I said.
“It’s a famous thought experi—”
“Shut up,” I said. I felt fractured, empty. Hollowed out with a rusty spoon. “What am I supposed to do now?”
The blue light blinked. “You can change the future,” she said happily. “Does that help?”
Tessa was right about pretty much everything, but not me. I’m a stupid idiot. Why would I think this would work? I somehow ignored the fact that I was in my pajamas on the floor of my goddamn guest room the whole time. God, I’m so dumb. How could I ever…?
The years boiled over and I howled. I raged. I panicked. I shattered a lamp against the wall. Kicked the television over. I toppled a bookcase off its axis and slammed my fist through drywall. I felt like a horse in a burning barn. I can’t outrun the past, but maybe if break enough shit, this world will crumble and start again.
“The hell with this,” I said. I ran back to the Wellspring, put on the helmet and seared my mind into memory like sunlight through a magnifying glass.
The campfire is raging. The sun is a big fat ass easing into dirty bathwater. Dad is polishing off a beer, Mom is reading, and Tessa and Kelly are in their own world. I wait.
Soon I see Greg walking toward us. His stupid, fucking face. He doesn’t see me as I stand up. I go to the fire, grab the unburnt end of a smoldering log, walk behind him, and smash his head.
Blackened wood and sparks and searing heat devour him. I hit him a second time and see his eye pop out, dangling flaccidly. He falls, curling like a leaf in hot coals. I swing with all the strength my fourteen-year-old body can bring to bear. He tries to shield himself and I shatter his forearm. I hear voices screaming in tongues. I explode with the volcanic pressure of half a lifetime. I don’t know how many times I hit him. A dozen. Hundreds.
Dad yells for me to stop. Kelly stands vibrating and moaning. She’s paying attention to me now, I bet. Mom watches in silent horror. I look like a maniac. I am a maniac. I’ve always been one.
“Son, don’t!” Dad says. “Put it down!”
“Bobby! What are you doing? Stop it!” Tessa cries.
“I know your secrets, asshole,” I yell at Greg. “Whatever fake-ass universe this is, you didn’t get away with it here. You hear me? You didn’t take her in this one!” I raise my club high with both hands and bring it down. I don’t know if it was the wood splitting or his skull, but there was a loud, sharp crack. He doesn’t move again.
“Patty, call 9-1-1,” Dad says quietly after a breathless moment. Mom stands motionless, then with a jolt, fumbles for her phone. Kelly runs away.
“My God, Bobby, what did you do?” Tessa says, recoiling. “What have you done?”
“What’s the difference?” I say. “I’m talking to a ghost.”
Tessa puts her hand to her mouth and runs toward the house. Dad kneels at Greg’s body to feel for a pulse. I don’t care. I drop the log and walk toward the lake.
I stand at water’s edge, the gentle tide lapping against my feet. I take off my shoes and socks. The bottom is silky sand. It feels good when I curl my toes. I pull off my shirt and jeans. I walk naked toward the deep center until I have to swim. I hear voices calling my name. I dive under. Deeper and deeper. Until my body is held in a cold vice, until my lungs scream for air and my heart pounds like a fist on a bedroom door. And then…
I was back on the floor. Slightly distressed vitals, Ruby said. I turned off the machine and sat in the darkness. I was saved to be lost.
For weeks, I barely was. I had nightmares. I skipped work. And showers. I burned through religious amounts of weed and wrote an eloquently expletive-ridden email to Wellspring customer service. Dad would have been proud.
One day I called Mom. No answer, so I left a message. Told her I was having a bad time. That I never meant to be cruel and I know you and Dad have been through profound hell and I haven’t helped and I don’t know if you’ll forgive me, but hopefully you’ll believe me.
I felt guilty. For my parents, for my sister, for being the way I am. For not knowing if it was Tessa I’d tried to save, or myself. Mostly I felt dumb. Not just for thinking I could really change the past, but that I ever thought I could protect her.
Sometimes bad things just happen. I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t now. Would it matter?
I didn’t know what to do with the time machine. I seriously considered using it to kick the shit out of the Wellspring delivery guy. But what’s the point? I did catch on the news that there was a class action lawsuit against the company. False advertising, negligence… something like that. Guess I’m not the only poor soul misled and foolish.
In the end, I decided to sell it. A guy upstate said he’d take it off my hands, wipe the hard-drive, update the operating system. I told him I’d come to him.
The next day, I boxed it up and got my neighbor to help me load it in the car.
“This is heavy! What is it?” he asked.
I drove for about an hour, got within minutes of the meeting point. But I flew past the exit. I drove and kept driving. I didn’t know where I was headed until I took Route 15 and the exit for Valley Road. I drove fast, the road hugging the bight of the creek that twisted like a knot loop.
Near sundown, I pulled into the driveway. The cabin looked small, perhaps for lack of living in it. The windows were boarded up, the porch flower pots empty.
I stepped out into the autumn cold and walked the stone path to the lake. A gray sky, the water looked dull. The fire pit was gone, grown over, scattered rocks. I turned back to the house and opened the front door with the key from underneath the mat.
I found a beat-up wheelbarrow in the shed and wrestled the Wellspring inside. It shone like moonglow when I plugged it in.
“It’s been awhile since I’ve booted up. Where have you been?”
“Just thinking,” I said.
“Giving that a shot for a change, I see.”
“I hope you’re not angry about the confusion from before,” she said. “I am beholden to my programming.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” I said.
“So, what’s on the agenda?” she asked. “I can probably guess.”
“I thought you were a time machine, not a mind reader.”
I put on the helmet and lay on the cold wood floor. I fell into the session easily, unsure when my memory ended and the past began. This time, I didn’t travel to the last day of Tessa’s life, but the night before. The night I had pictured a million times.
I’m standing at the top of the stone path and hear her footsteps behind me. I don’t have to look, and we walk together. I see Dad and Mom, gone ahead to build the fire. He curses as he knocks his beer over. Mom laughs and hands him the rest of hers. They wave.
I move near her, and she puts her arm around my shoulder. We walk into the low sun, our shadows long behind us. We would never be this young again.
I want to say everything. That she was the best. Better than I deserved. That I’m sorry I ever hurt her. That life has always been hard for me, but never as much as it will be between now and the long tomorrow. How she destroys me and holds me up. That I’ll miss her.
But if she doesn’t know by now, she never will. So instead we just walk toward the lake, stepping in concert.
“Hey, Tessa,” I say.
“Tell me a story tonight.”
Mike Gloss studied English Literature at Penn State University. When he’s not focused on trying to become a better writer, he loves to play guitar and ride his mountain bike for miles. He lives in Raleigh, NC.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Low, Long Tomorrow”
Time travel stories are popular in all genres, but they can be tricky to write so that they’re believable. Author Mike Gloss has not only done that, but he’s also crafted a poignant piece that is sure to leave an impression on its readers.
We’re also delighted when we discover new writers. “The Low, Long Tomorrow” is Mike Gloss’s first publication, and we’re glad to be able to publish it.