by R. Gene Turchin
It was ready—not pretty but ready. A behemoth of a machine in my basement. I checked and re-checked the circuits and the wiring. Each one was powered up separately and tested. Now, all I had to do was punch the button and step through the portal: a plastic frame resembling a flowered arch. Found in the trash after a wedding and re-purposed as my gateway. I duck taped light aluminum conduit to the frame and bolted the entire construct to the floor with a flange. It should be stable enough.
I spent ten tedious years perfecting this device to return me to the year where I lost my one true love, Gina Fanucci. I stepped through the frame. Extreme vertigo. Note to self, pop a Dramamine before the next jump.
“Hey, numbnuts. Get the hell out of here! You’re gonna screw up everything.” It was my grandfather. I was in his basement. I picked a time and place to go back to where I could sneak in surreptitiously and make the changes to win Gina. I didn’t expect anyone to be there. He was sitting at his workbench. The guts of windup clock were spread over the bench top. He was turned facing me as if he were waiting.
“Didn’t you hear me? Use your little hand held gizmo and pop up in somebody else’s life.”
I stared at him. “Are you deaf? Ahhh, shit!” he got up from the bench and waddled over to where I was standing.
“Okay, genius. I’m gonna explain it real slow. You can’t do this. It won’t work. Gina doesn’t care a rat’s doo-doo whether you live or die. Ain’t gonna happen. Move on. Your time travel thing works. Now go invent something useful.”
“But how?” I asked, stunned.
“Oh geeze,” his hand snaked out grabbed the little tablet/phone/pc from my hand and punched in some numbers. “There,” he said. “Back you go.” He punched “send” and I was back in my basement standing on the opposite side of the bridal arch.
Something was terribly wrong. How could my grandfather be waiting there for me? How did he know I’d come back to win Gina? It had to be an anomalies. Then it struck me—I’d landed in an alternate reality. I needed to make some adjustments.
Two more days of work and I was sure I had the problems solved. This time I would be in the correct reality. I set the coordinates to drop me in my own bedroom while I was at school. I punched the button. Lights blinked. Circuits hummed. I step through the arch once again. Nausea struck again. I forgot the Dramamine.
My shins bumped against the bed frame. I forgot how small my room was and it smelled. My father was leaning in the door way.
“Hey son, you need to know this isn’t going to work. You need to go back and move forward with your life. Grandpa said you’d keep trying. He thinks you’re a bit slow. Gina doesn’t care about you. It hurts me to say this but she really doesn’t even like you. She just said yes when you asked her to the prom because no one else had. All the guys thought she was already booked. She plans to dump you as soon as you get there. You really need to give up on this. You know your Mom and I really love you.”
“How did you know I’d be here? I just invented time travel so I could win the love of my life.”
He shook his head. “Well, Son, lots of people have invented time travel. It doesn’t fix anything. You have to work at it.” He sighed. “I don’t understand this stuff. It’s too complicated but it has something to do with the order in the universe. It is what it is, as they say.”
“Dammit! I did work at it. I spent ten years of my life putting this thing together. Now you tell me other people have invented it too.”
He looked down at the floor. “Just punch those buttons and go back home. Really. You’ll be better off for it. Maybe you could try to invent something useful, like a toaster that doesn’t burn the toast. Yeah, that would be good or…” He looked around the room. “A robot that picks up clothes and cleans up a room. Now, go on. Scoot. Your Mom said I shouldn’t waste too much time talking to you.”
I could feel angry tears pushing against my eyeballs. I punched the code to return back to my time.
I plunked down in my beanbag chair back in my basement workshop. It’s a comfortable chair. Don’t judge me.
What in the hell was going on? A friggin’ toaster. He says I should invent a better toaster. My plan to change my past had gone awry. I looked at the flow chart scribbled in my notebook. It listed the steps in plan A and plan B. Plan C wasn’t nearly as well thought out as the other two. Looked like I was in the C-plan stage and it sucked.
A series of bad decisions on my part had impressed Gina in the wrong way. Plan A was to go back and remedy those. A few days before prom night, Dad cautioned me to clean up the car and check the oil.
“You’ll want to make a good impression,” he said. We were a two car family and I have to admit, the old Chevy that my parents gave me as a hand-me-down needed more TLC than I was willing to give it.
“She’s got a few miles on her,” Dad said when he handed me the keys. “But if you treat her well, she’ll be good to you. Keep her clean and polished. When a car feels good, they run better. Check the oil and check the tires regularly.” I did all of what he said during the first week but then it became more important to go somewhere, than to perform maintenance on the old clunker. The back seat became a repository for candy wrappers, soda bottles, dirty clothes and lost school books. The refuse soon crept into the passenger side in the front like some hungry organism. I thought that I had committed some unknown teenage faux pas when friends stopped accepting rides. Jimmy Bibble was the first to actually say something as he got in.
“Man, where’s the floor,” he said, kicking aside enough rubble to find place for his feet. “And it smells like something died in here. You got a dead groundhog in back?”
“Might be that ham sandwich from last week,” I said, “Why don’t you look back there?”
“Hell no, man. I ain’t touching nothing back there. What’s this stuff on the dashboard?” he asked, pointing to a gelatinous sludge that sort of bubbled in the sun. “You going to take your Dad’s car to the prom?”
He told me to pull over. “The odor’s getting to me, man,” he said. “Let me out here before I get sick.”
I did try to clean it. I got most of the stuff off the floor on the passenger side and tossed an old rug over the detritus in the back. I wiped the dashboard as best I could but the sludge had become one with the vinyl. I think it was a melted cheeseburger. I never got around to checking the oil.
Mom picked up the corsage for me. Dad helped me into the tux. We took pictures. How was I to know it would be the worst night of my life and cost me the affection of my one true love?
I hung two pine-tree shaped air freshers from the mirror and threw one in back for good measure. I was set but fate had other plans. Really wasn’t fate but my stupidity. A half mile from Gina’s house, the car began to shudder and slow down. I pumped the accelerator. “Come on!” I screamed at it as panic welled in my chest. “Not now!” Thick dark smoke rolled out from under the hood and there was the distinct odor of burnt metal. I coasted to the curb, jumped out and tried to lift the hood. It was too hot. I used the sleeve of my tux to push it up. Smoke poured out of the valve covers and the dip stick. Had to bend against the front of the car to reach it again using the sleeve. I pulled it out of the tube and held it up. A tiny bit of sludge clung desperately to the bottom. My pale blue shirt was smudged with dirt and oil. My sleeves were ruined. I gave up and called Dad. He drove us to the prom and picked us up. Gina wouldn’t touch me because of the dirt. That was the mistake I needed to fix. Make everything right so she had a good experience at the prom and would fall in love with me.
So maybe there was one more chance. I would go directly to Gina’s house and tell her how stupid I had been and beg her forgiveness. I programmed the coordinates to land on the sidewalk approaching her house. Damn subtlety, I was going up the front walk this time. A wave of nausea hit as I stepped through the bridal arch. It felt like a gut punch. I felt in my pocket. Still had the Dramamine just didn’t remember to take it.
Gina was standing at the top of the steps on the porch leaning against a pillar. Her arms were folded across her ample chest. She didn’t look happy.
“Not a step further you slime,” she said as I started up the walk.
“Gina, it’s me, Sam. I came back from the future to…”
“Listen, shit-bird, haven’t you gotten the message yet? I don’t want to have anything to do with you. I only said yes to you because nobody else had asked me yet. Now they have. All this time travel crap is just messing up everyone’s future. Go back to your time and make baby rattles or something.” She stormed into the house. The door slammed and I heard the latch click.
So much for plan C. I slumped toward the street. Maybe a bus would come along and I could throw myself in front of it. The way my luck was going I wouldn’t be killed, just mangled for life. I was about to go back to my bleak and lonely future when Jimmy Bibble sauntered down the street.
“Where’s your car. Okay. Wait. I get it. You’re the future Sam. How’s things?”
He sat down on one of the three steps separating Gina’s yard from the city sidewalk.
“I think I’d better explain a few things to you,” he said. “You don’t seem to have a clue.”
I sat next to him on the step.
“First off, you didn’t invent time travel. Corporations did. While you were in your basement inventing away and not watching news, it kind of became big news. It was the next big thing app. The car rental companies had it and everybody could time travel for a small fee. People went back and fixed their lives, including Gina. It was crazy for awhile. You’d remember you did something bad, told your boss off, cheated on your girlfriend if you had one.” He gave me a look. “So after a while everything was okay, in most time lines. Nobody had anything to regret except those people who missed out for whatever reason.”
“What do you mean, missed out?” I wasn’t liking where this was going.
“Well, some people lived in a certain remote area of Egypt, if you know what I mean. So things are going pretty smoothly because most people fixed what they needed to. Most people. Problem is, the few stragglers,” he looked me square in the eye again. “Stragglers are throwing a wrench into things. You need to go back and not try to fix things anymore. Gina has moved on. Your folks have moved on.”
I keyed the sequence to return into the wrist tablet and punched send. I was back in my basement. Sunlight was still streaming through the dirty window. I began powering down the unit, paused at the bottom of the steps to extinguish the lights and trudged wearily upstairs.
Dirty dishes were piled in the sink and I was hungry. Walked outside a little disoriented, like traveling from one country to another. In a day or two, if you are immersed in the culture, the mind gets confused as to what is current and what was a memory.
I was looking for my old POS car, but a newer, bland, unexceptional car rested in the driveway. Sam, I mean me, another me, was sitting in the driver’s seat.
“Where to buddy?” He asked. “Burger Joint. Guess you’re hungry, eh?”
I slipped into the passenger seat. “You’re probably wanting an explanation. Here’s the deal. I’m a future you come here to square you away. I was supposed to be here before you did the jumps but I got tied up with some business so I’m a little late,” he shrugged. “But I’m here now. “
“Yeah, like that helps. Do you know what kind of humiliation I went through?” He gave me a look.
“Duh, I am you. Look,” he said, “I was sent here by the Overlords to get you back on the straight and narrow. Fate of the universe hangs in the balance and all that.”
“Naw, I’m just jacking you, man.
We pulled into the street and started out to the mall where all the fast-food places lined both sides of the road like neon-lit trees.
“Drive through, Okay?” the future me asked. “We kind of need to minimize your interactions with people right now.”
“What about you?” He did look a little bit older than me. I wondered how far in future he was.
“I’m good. I know the score. And yeah, I didn’t age much. I’m fifteen years down the road. Live a healthier lifestyle. You need to get on that soon.”
He double ordered cheeseburgers, fries and sodas.
“This one’s on me,” he said. “I generally don’t eat this stuff but it sure tastes good once in a while.” He took a hefty bite of the bun. “So here’s the deal, man. You didn’t hook up with Gina. Some advice. Go back to school. Get a degree and a good job.”
“Do I become successful?” His face showed distaste. He sighed.
“I can’t tell you that stuff. It messes things up. You have to be half-way smart to put together that thing in your basement in your spare time.” He chuckled. “Hell, I know you are ’cause I am. Corporations spent millions with teams of hundreds of engineers to do what you did. Focus, man. Put those skills to use!”
He pulled something that looked like a cell phone out of his pocket.
“Ah geeze, man, I got to go. I live across town. You can make your own way back, right? I think the mall bus runs for another hour.” Resigned, I got out. He leaned across to pull the door shut. “Heed my advice. That’s all I can tell you. Good luck, man.” He started the car and drove off.
I needed to call someone for a ride. I felt in my pockets. No phone. I remembered it sitting on the coffee table when I had walked outside.
I still had to walk four blocks to my house from the bus stop. It was after nine when I walked through the door. There was a half bottle of beer capped with a silicone stopper. I tried not to waste too much. I flopped onto the couch, sipped the beer. It was flat.
So many theories discussed the probable paradoxes that would result, if we could do time travel. Greater minds than mine had pondered and written them all down. I apparently tripped over one of them. But Bibble said others had changed their pasts for the better. Maybe the universe allowed a limited number of time changes before it stopped. Kind of like warranties or food “use by xxxx” dates or coupons. They all have expiration dates or limited quantities. People could still travel back to the past but all the changes had been used up. Maybe another hundred years of screw-ups and the universe would allow changes to be made again. That didn’t help me. In the morning, I’d go down to the basement and start tearing the gear down. Part it out. Sell the test equipment. Get enough money to build a microwave that would actually toast bread. There had to be a way to do that.
R. Gene Turchin recently retired from teaching Electronic Technology and Mechatronics. Writing interest include science fiction, literary and comic books. Recently published works can be found in VerseWrights, 365 Tomorrows and With Painted Words. He lives in West Virginia with his wife.