From time to time I write and submit fictional short stories to various magazines. As you may have noticed by the lack of ecstatic announcements regarding publication, they’re usually (always) rejected. However, the great part of being the editor of a blog is that I can then indulge all of my narcissistic tendencies by subjecting my unknowing readers to all the content unfit for The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Since I don’t have a legitimate blog post today, I’m going to slide one of my short stories in here. Don’t worry, we have a tour of a sail loft lined up Friday, another race on Saturday, and several boat projects lined up for Sunday. Regular posts will be returning soon.
Yesterday, I was a young man.
Of course, it doesn’t feel like yesterday.
I’ve seen wars. I’ve seen the struggle for civil rights. I’ve seen women find their place in the workforce. I’ve witnessed horrors and atrocities. I’ve also been there to witness the endurance and nobility of the human spirit.
None of it surprised me. In fact, nothing for the past 50 years has surprised me.
Like I said, yesterday I was a young man … according to the calendar.
I was in my second year of grad school at University of Texas. Freaking physics. My days were split between lab work and babysitting the undergrads sleeping through 101. My nights were spent grading papers and worrying about my ever-growing student loan debt. Being a teaching assistant paid just enough to cover pizza.
That’s why I was oh so ecstatic when I got the call.
I had applied for the new research position weeks ago, and to be honest I’d all but given up hope of being selected for the program. While my grades and research were exemplary, I’d had an entanglement with a female undergrad that led to being discovered naked in what was supposed to be a clean room. That had somewhat tarnished my reputation.
However, Dr. Berk didn’t just call me personally, he also invited to his home to discuss the project, which I was sure came with a significant pay raise compared to the crap I was doing.
William Berk, PhD Theoretical Physics, his research was the entire reason I stuck around for grad school. He was a genius, and he knew it. I’d never gotten so much as a hello from him before, but that night I was headed for dinner at his house. I wondered if anyone else from the faculty would be there. This could be a huge leg up for me.
I was so excited that I arrived half an hour early. I didn’t want to seem too eager, so I strolled up and down the street a few times. I’d walk up and back, then check my watch, then up and back again. Time had seemed to come to a crawl. Of course, I was only 24 years old. I had no real reference as to how slowly time could pass.
I’ll never forget the old man watering his lawn. He lived right next door to Dr. Berk. There was something familiar about his face. He just stood there with the hose watching me go by. I wondered if I should stop and chat with him, but when I made eye contact I saw a kind of sadness in his eyes. He gave a half smile, then turned back to his flowers. I always wished I’d said, hello.
Still ten minutes early, I knocked on the door of Dr. Berk’s suburban home. He answered the door wearing a cardigan and smoking a pipe, and I thought, wow, that’s exactly how a genius scientist should look.
“Good afternoon. I do appreciate you meeting me off campus like this,” he said as he ushered me in the door. “Care for a drink?”
I normally drank beer, preferably free beer, but I felt like I needed to request something more sophisticated.
Dr. Berk raised his eyebrows in surprise and walked over to the wet bar.
“Then two gins it is. Please, sit down. Unburden yourself,” he said as he waved towards the dining room table.
I was quite pleased that I’d guessed a liquor that he would drink. This man was living up to all of my expectations of what a great scientist should be. I sat down at the table and set the folder containing my resume and two published papers on the table in front of me. As Dr. Berk sat down he slid a glass of gin towards me, and I slid the folder back towards him.
“Right to the point, I see,” he said. “I like that. I won’t pretend that I’m not always working as well.”
He opened the folder but merely scanned my resume with feigned interest for a moment before he looked me right in the eyes.
“I’ve already seen your resume, and while impressive, I’m looking for something beyond academics for this position. I think you might be the right fit, but I’m just not quite sure.”
I wanted to be the right fit. I needed this position, not just for the money, but for the validation of my entire collegiate career.
“What are you looking for, sir?” I blurted.
He continued to stare me in the eyes.
“I’m looking for resolve … fortitude. I’m looking for someone who can get the job done no matter the challenges or cost.”
“I can get the job done.” I had meant the statement to come out strong, but it sounded somehow fragile when I said it aloud. Freaking nerves.
“Is that so?” Berk replied with what seemed to be a sly grin. He obviously knew how much I wanted to impress him.
“Are you familiar with non-disclosure agreements?” he asked while retrieving a thick stack of paper from the bar. It landed on the table in front of me with a thud.
“Can I take some time to read this?”
“Some time?” he asked apprehensively. “Do you think I would have accomplished all that I have today if I looked at time as if it was an endless resource to be squandered on the fine print? Do you think the rest of us can just press pause on our lives as the clock ticks down to zero while you do some leisurely reading? No. The time for this science is now, and if you need more time, I’m sure I can find another graduate student who is indeed ready to live in the progress of the here and now.”
I sat stunned by his sudden aggressiveness and change in tone.
“I’m so sorry, sir. I was just trying to pay attention to detail. I’m fine with it.”
He held a pen out to me.
“Embrace the now, and I can guarantee that you will literally go down in history.”
I began initialing and signing pages and his smile returned.
“Excellent decision. Come with me.”
I stood up from the table and realized I’d never even taken a sip of the gin. I turned and followed Dr. Berk down the hall with anticipation. I had this feeling that I was about to become part of an elite club. I felt like the secrets of the universe were about to be revealed to me.
As we turned the corner towards the garage, Berk pulled a ring of keys from his pocket. The door had multiple deadbolts and padlocks, which seemed oddly out of place. I felt my throat tighten as thoughts of dungeons and sexual slavery started entering my mind. I didn’t want to meet the gimp.
Berk finished fumbling with the locks and swung open the door. I relieved to see it was just a very clean, very empty garage — empty that is except for two things, a 3’ x 3’ platform about 1’ high and something across the room that looked like a podium. The base of the platform was a tangle of wires and tubes. I knew advanced circuits, but this was beyond me. There was obviously something very intricate under that platform. Of course, what really drew the eye were the two large metal rings that came out of the base and encompassed the platform like upended hula hoops.
A bundle of wires ran from the platform to the podium, which actually bore the University’s seal. I wondered if Dr. Berk had asked permission to take it and if the University knew it was here. Did anyone know any of this was here?
“What is it?” I asked.
“What do you THINK it is?” Berk replied, beaming with a sort of paternal pride as he looked at the machine.
“Why is it in your garage?”
“It seems universities do not approve of time machines being constructed in view of donors, students … ‘sane’ people who have a set view when it comes to the laws of physics.”
I wasn’t sure I liked the way he emphasized the word “sane.”
“Does it work?”
“Well, that’s what we’re going to find out tonight. You, my dear boy, are going to be the world’s first time traveler.”
I felt my knees go weak as my brain bent itself around the idea. Visions of parades and accolades began flashing before my eyes. Astronauts? They’d be nothing compared to a time-o-naut. What would they even call time explorers? Hopefully not time-o-nauts. Why wasn’t I more afraid? I was just too excited to be afraid.
“I knew it! I knew you’d had a breakthrough. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was going to be amazing. This is fan-tas-tic. Where am I going? I mean WHEN and I going? Just like 5 minutes back to start? Forwards? Can I photograph a dinosaur? Can I bring things back?”
Dr. Berk smiled and raised his hands as if quieting an applauding crowd. He had stepped over to the podium and began adjusting knobs, which prompted various lights on the machine to flicker.
“You can bring back anything you like.”
“Really?!! But should I even touch things? Will that change the future?”
“It may, but I think it will have no real consequence in the grand scheme of things.”
Dr. Berk suddenly thrust an envelope in front of my face.
“For this first test, you’ll have one task. After you complete that task, you’re free to conduct your own experiments. You can gather or photograph whatever you like, BUT ONLY AFTER you complete this task. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I understand,” I said as he handed me the letter.
“For the first test, I’m sending you back exactly 50 years. It’s far enough to sufficiently prove the machine is actually folding the fabric of time, but not so far back that preserving the evidence would be an overwhelming challenge. That envelop is addressed to me and has instructions to deliver it to this house on this date, in this year, just a few minutes from now. I want you to write the date, time and location in which you find yourself and seal it in the envelope. Then I don’t care if you use the US Mail, Fedex, a courier system, or some sort of estate trust, but WHATEVER THE MEANS, do what you have to do to make sure this envelope gets delivered back to me. There should be sufficient cash of the correct vintage inside to help you succeed in this task. After that, you’re free to sightsee.”
He motioned for me to step up onto the platform.
“As soon as you disappear — if you disappear, which I’m confident you will — the letter will be delivered here to me, proving my calculations were correct, bringing about an entirely new age of science.”
He looked me in the eyes.
“Are you up to the task?”
“Yes, sir. I won’t let you down.”
He walked back over to the podium and flipped another switch. The large steel hula-hoops began spinning around the platform. I had a nagging feeling that I was forgetting something. Time the trip. Report the date and time I arrive. Find a souvenir. But …the hoops were beginning to spin very fast.
“How long will I be there? How do I get back?!!”
Dr. Berk’s eyes narrowed.
“Time. Time will bring you back.”
I glanced at my watch and rang the doorbell. I knew I wouldn’t have to wait long. Dr. Berk opened the door with an eager expression that shifted to confusion when he saw me.
“Larry, what can I do for you?”
“Today, I think the question is, ‘What can I do for you?’” I said with a smile and held out a letter. The envelope was yellowed with age.
A smile spread across Berk’s face and he snatched the letter from my hand and ripped it open.
“Big news?,” I queried.
“Oh yes, I was expecting it, but it’s great to finally have it in hand. How did you get this?”
“I’ve actually had it for a very long time.”
I stepped inside the open door without invitation and walked right past Dr. Berk to where my gin was still sitting on the table. I noticed the ice hadn’t even melted. Berk had finished reading the letter and was quite annoyed that I had walked into the house.
“Larry, I’m a bit busy right now. I really don’t have time to visit, but I do need to know who gave you this letter.”
I picked up the gin and took a sip.
“You did, Dr. Berk.”
His face went blank. He stared at me as his “brilliant” mind slowly pieced things together. I raised my glass towards him as if to affirm his logic. The wrinkled skin and liver spots on my hand stood out to me more than usual.
“Fifty years ago today, you charged me with one task, to deliver that letter, so I did.”
“But you’ve spent the past ten years living next door, standing outside and watering that damn lawn every night. Why would you wait until now to deliver the letter?!”
“Do you mean, why would I wait until now to reveal who I am? Why would I wait until now after you sent me back in time and left me to die? Why would I wait until now when you assumed you’d never have to look me in the eyes again?”
“I didn’t leave you to die. You were a quite capable young man. Do you think the first astronauts to visit Mars will be coming back? You knew the risks when you volunteered — not to mention the fact that you signed the waivers, which specifically said that if successful, this was a one-way trip.
“The waivers you wouldn’t let me read?!!”
“Well, I did say that if you signed them, you’d literally go down in history.”
Fifty years later he was still the same smug, arrogant asshole that he’d been fifteen minutes ago. I set down my glass and pulled the revolver from my coat pocket.
“Let’s not be rash,” he back peddled. “If you can afford a house in this neighborhood, you’ve obviously done well for yourself.”
“Yes, living with no surprises is quite an easy way to get ahead. It makes investing a much less risky prospect.
“You know, I was a great admirer of your work when I was a student. But now, I know more about you than you know about yourself. I tracked down your parents. I thought about killing one of them, or both of them. I thought about waiting until you were born and killing you as an infant. I thought, if you had never lived, it would save me from experiencing all this. But I’m not a killer. I couldn’t just murder a child in cold blood. And even if I had killed you, while it may have saved the future me from this torment, it did nothing to help the present me. So I kept watching you. I kept waiting.
“I thought perhaps I’d develop time travel before you. After all, I now had quite the head start. But I’ll admit it, I just never could figure it out.”
Despite having a gun pointed at his chest, Berk seemed to enjoy having his ego stroked.
“I watched myself come here today. I could have stopped myself. I almost did.”
“Why didn’t you? Why didn’t you just explain to yourself that you were from the past and that getting in a time machine was a bad idea? You’ve made the decision to go back in time twice, and you want to blame your life on me? How dare you?” spouted Berk with disdain and arrogance.
“No. How dare YOU, Dr. Berk? It’s your turn to take a trip.”
“Oh, you’re going to send ME back in time? Don’t you realize, I’ve figured it out? I know how to build the machine. I’ve got all the time in the world,” he laughed, seemingly amused with the entire situation.
“I’m not sending you back, Dr. Berk. I waited until you knew the machine worked for one reason — so you would know why I killed you.”
It seemed like the sound of his body slumping to the floor was actually louder than the gunshot. Funny how your mind plays tricks on you like that. Tomorrow every news agency on earth would know my name. I could see the headlines now, TIME TRAVEL CONQUERED. It would be such an exciting announcement that it would be more than a week before anybody even realized that poor Dr. Berk had killed himself.
I lifted my gin and toasted Dr. Berk one last time.
“To time travel.”