Molly Brown has been an armed guard and a stand-up comedienne, in addition to her writing exploits. “Bad Timing” was Brown’s first published story. It won the BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) Award for best short story of 1991, and was in feature film development for several years with Hollywood’s Bel Air Entertainment. It was first published in Interzone.
“Time travel is an inexact science. And its study is fraught with paradoxes.” Samuel Colson, b. 2301 d. 2197.
Alan rushed through the archway without even glancing at the inscription across the top. It was Monday morning and he was late again. He often thought about the idea that time was a point in space, and he didn’t like it. That meant that at this particular point in space it was always Monday morning and he was always late for a job he hated. And it always had been. And it always would be. Unless somebody tampered with it, which was strictly forbidden.
“Oh my Holy Matrix,” Joe Twofingers exclaimed as Alan raced past him to register his palmprint before losing an extra thirty minutes pay. “You wouldn’t believe what I found in the fiction section!”
Alan slapped down his hand. The recorder’s metallic voice responded with, “Employee number 057, Archives Department, Alan Strong. Thirty minutes and seven point two seconds late. One hour’s credit deducted.”
Alan shrugged and turned back towards Joe. “Since I’m not getting paid, I guess I’ll put my feet up and have a cup of liquid caffeine. So tell me what you found.”
“Well, I was tidying up the files – fiction section is a mess as you know – and I came across this magazine. And I thought, ‘what’s this doing here?’ It’s something from the twentieth century called Woman’s Secrets, and it’s all knitting patterns, recipes, and gooey little romance stories: ‘He grabbed her roughly, bruising her soft pale skin, and pulled her to his rock hard chest’ and so on. I figured it was in there by mistake and nearly threw it out. But then I saw this story called ‘The Love That Conquered Time’ and I realised that must be what they’re keeping it for. So I had a look at it, and it was…” He made a face and stuck a finger down his throat. “But I really think you ought to read it.”
“Because you’re in it.”
“You’re a funny guy, Joe. You almost had me going for a minute.”
“I’m serious! Have a look at the drebbing thing. It’s by some woman called Cecily Walker, it’s in that funny old vernacular they used to use, and it’s positively dire. But the guy in the story is definitely you.”
Alan didn’t believe him for a minute. Joe was a joker, and always had been. Alan would never forget the time Joe laced his drink with a combination aphrodisiac-hallucinogen at a party and he’d made a total fool of himself with the section leader’s overcoat. He closed his eyes and shuddered as Joe handed him the magazine.
Like all the early relics made of paper, the magazine had been dipped in preservative and the individual pages coated with a clear protective covering which gave them a horrible chemical smell and a tendency to stick together. After a little difficulty, Alan found the page he wanted. He rolled his eyes at the painted illustration of a couple locked in a passionate but chaste embrace, and dutifully began to read.
It was all about a beautiful but lonely and unfulfilled woman who still lives in the house where she was born. One day there is a knock at the door, and she opens it to a mysterious stranger: tall, handsome, and extremely charismatic.
Alan chuckled to himself.
A few paragraphs later, over a candle-lit dinner, the man tells the woman that he comes from the future, where time travel has become a reality, and he works at the Colson Time Studies Institute in the Department of Archives.
Alan stopped laughing.
The man tells her that only certain people are allowed to time travel, and they are not allowed to interfere in any way, only observe. He confesses that he is not a qualified traveller – he broke into the lab one night and stole a machine. The woman asks him why and he tells her, “You’re the only reason, Claudia. I did it for you. I read a story that you wrote and I knew it was about me and that it was about you. I searched in the Archives and I found your picture and then I knew that I loved you and that I had always loved you and that I always would.”
“But I never wrote a story, Alan.”
“You will, Claudia. You will.”
The Alan in the story goes on to describe the Project, and the Archives, in detail. The woman asks him how people live in the twenty-fourth century, and he tells her about the gadgets in his apartment.
The hairs at the back of Alan’s neck rose at the mention of his Neuro-Pleasatron. He’d never told anybody that he’d bought one, not even Joe.
After that, there’s a lot of grabbing and pulling to his rock hard chest, melting sighs and kisses, and finally a wedding and a “happily ever after” existing at one point in space where it always has and always will.
Alan turned the magazine over and looked at the date on the cover. March 14, 1973.
He wiped the sweat off his forehead and shook himself. He looked up and saw that Joe was standing over him.
“You wouldn’t really do that, would you,” Joe said. “Because you know I’d have to stop you.”
* * *
Cecily Walker stood in front of her bedroom mirror and turned from right to left. She rolled the waistband over one more time, making sure both sides were even. Great; the skirt looked like a real mini. Now all she had to do was get out of the house without her mother seeing her.
She was in the record shop wondering if she really should spend her whole allowance on the new Monkees album, but she really liked Peter Tork, he was so cute, when Tommy Johnson walked in with Roger Hanley. “Hey, Cess-pit! Whaddya do, lose the bottom half of your dress?”
The boys at her school were just so creepy. She left the shop and turned down the main road, heading toward her friend Candy’s house. She never noticed the tall blonde man that stood across the street, or heard him call her name.
* * *
When Joe went on his lunch break, Alan turned to the wall above his desk and said, “File required: Authors, fiction, twentieth century, initial ‘W’.”
“Checking,” the wall said. “File located.”
“Biography required: Walker, Cecily.”
“Checking. Biography located. Display? Yes or no.”
A section of wall the size of a small television screen lit up at eye-level, directly in front of Alan. He leaned forward and read: Walker, Cecily. b. Danville, Illinois, U.S.A. 1948 d. 2037. Published works: “The Love That Conquered Time”, March, 1973. Accuracy rating: fair.
“Any other published works?”
“Checking. None found.”
Alan looked down at the magazine in his lap.
“I don’t understand,” Claudia said, looking pleadingly into his deep blue eyes. Eyes the colour of the sea on a cloudless morning, and eyes that contained an ocean’s depth of feeling for her, and her alone. “How is it possible to travel through time?”
“I’ll try to make this simple,” he told her, pulling her close. She took a deep breath, inhaling his manly aroma, and rested her head on his shoulder with a sigh. “Imagine that the universe is like a string. And every point on that string is a moment in space and time. But instead of stretching out in a straight line, it’s all coiled and tangled and it overlaps in layers. Then all you have to do is move from point to point.”
Alan wrinkled his forehead in consternation. “File?”
“Information required: further data on Walker, Cecily. Education, family background.”
“Checking. Found. Display? Yes or…”
Walker, Cecily. Education: Graduate Lincoln High, Danville, 1967. Family background: Father Walker, Matthew. Mechanic, automobile. d. 1969. Mother no data.
Alan shook his head. Minimal education, no scientific background. How could she know so much? “Information required: photographic likeness of subject. If available, display.”
He blinked and there she was, smiling at him across his desk. She was oddly dressed, in a multi-coloured tee-shirt that ended above her waist and dark blue trousers that were cut so low they exposed her navel and seemed to balloon out below her knees into giant flaps of loose-hanging material. But she had long dark hair that fell across her shoulders and down to her waist, crimson lips and the most incredible eyes he had ever seen – huge and green. She was beautiful. He looked at the caption: Walker, Cecily. Author: Fiction related to time travel theory. Photographic likeness circa 1970.
“File,” he said, “Further data required: personal details, i.e. marriage. Display.”
Walker, Cecily m. Strong, Alan.
“Biographical details of husband, Strong, Alan?”
“Redisplay photographic likeness. Enlarge.” He stared at the wall for several minutes. “Print,” he said.
* * *
Only half a block to go, the woman thought, struggling with two bags of groceries. The sun was high in the sky and the smell of Mrs. Henderson’s roses, three doors down, filled the air with a lovely perfume. But she wasn’t in the mood to appreciate it. All the sun made her feel was hot, and all the smell of flowers made her feel was ill. It had been a difficult pregnancy, but thank goodness it was nearly over now.
She wondered who the man was, standing on her front porch. He might be the new mechanic at her husband’s garage, judging by his orange cover-alls. Nice-looking, she thought, wishing that she didn’t look like there was a bowling ball underneath her dress.
“Excuse me,” the man said, reaching out to help her with her bags. “I’m looking for Cecily Walker.”
“My name’s Walker,” the woman told him. “But I don’t know any Cecily.”
“Cecily,” she repeated when the man had gone. What a pretty name.
* * *
Alan decided to work late that night. Joe left at the usual time and told him he’d see him tomorrow.
“Yeah, tomorrow,” Alan said.
He waited until Joe was gone, and then he took the printed photo of Cecily Walker out of his desk drawer and sat for a long time, staring at it. What did he know about this woman? Only that she’d written one published story, badly, and that she was the most gorgeous creature he had ever seen. Of course, what he was feeling was ridiculous. She’d been dead more than three hundred years.
But there were ways of getting around that.
Alan couldn’t believe what he was actually considering. It was lunacy. He’d be caught, and he’d lose his job. But then he realised that he could never have read about it if he hadn’t already done it and got away with it. He decided to have another look at the story.
It wasn’t there. Under Fiction: Paper Relics: 20th Century, sub-section Magazines, American, there was shelf after shelf full of Amazing Stories, Astounding, Analog, Weird Tales and Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, but not one single copy of Woman’s Secrets.
Well, he thought, if the magazine isn’t there, I guess I never made it after all. Maybe it’s better that way. Then he thought, but if I never made it, how can I be looking for the story? I shouldn’t even know about it. And then he had another thought.
“File,” he said. “Information required: magazines on loan.”
“No, just tell me.”
“Woman’s Secrets, date 1973. Astounding, date…”
“Skip the rest. Who’s got Woman’s Secrets?”
“Checking. Signed out to Project Control through Joe Twofingers.”
Project Control was on to him! If he didn’t act quickly, it would be too late.
It was amazingly easy to get into the lab. He just walked in. The machines were all lined up against one wall, and there was no one around to stop him. He walked up to the nearest machine and sat down on it. The earliest model developed by Samuel Colson had looked like an English telephone box (he’d been a big Doctor Who fan), but it was hardly inconspicuous and extremely heavy, so refinements were made until the latest models were lightweight, collapsible, and made to look exactly like (and double up as) a folding bicycle. The control board was hidden from general view, inside a wicker basket.
None of the instruments were labelled. Alan tentatively pushed one button. Nothing happened. He pushed another. Still nothing.
He jumped off and looked for an instruction book. There had to be one somewhere. He was ransacking a desk when the door opened.
“I thought I’d find you here, Alan.”
“Joe! I … uh … was just…”
“I know what you’re doing, and I can’t let you go through with it. It’s against every rule of the Institute and you know it. If you interfere with the past, who knows what harm you might do?”
“But Joe, you know me. I wouldn’t do any harm. I won’t do anything to affect history, I swear it. I just want to see her, that’s all. Besides, it’s already happened, or you couldn’t have read that magazine. And that’s another thing! You’re the one who showed it to me! I never would have known about her if it hadn’t been for you. So if I’m going now, it’s down to you.”
“Alan, I’m sorry, but my job is on the line here, too, you know. So don’t give me any trouble and come along quietly.”
Joe moved towards him, holding a pair of handcuffs. Attempted theft of Institute property was a felony punishable by five years’ imprisonment without pay. Alan picked up the nearest bike and brought it down over the top of Joe’s head. The machine lay in pieces and Joe lay unconscious. Alan bent down and felt his pulse. He would be okay. “Sorry, Joe. I had to do it. File!”
“Information required: instruction manual for usage of…” he checked the number on the handlebars, “Colson Model 44B Time Traveller.”
“Checking. Found. Display?”
“No. Just print. And fast.”
The printer was only on page five when Alan heard running footsteps. Five pages would have to do.
Dear Cher, My name is Cecily Walker and all my friends tell me I look just like you. Well, a little bit. Anyway, the reason that I’m writing to you is this: I’m starting my senior year in high school, and I’ve never had a steady boyfriend. I’ve gone out with a couple of boys, but they only want one thing, and I guess you know what that is. I keep thinking there’s gotta be somebody out there who’s the right one for me, but I just haven’t met him. Was it love at first sight for you and Sonny?
* * *
Alan sat on a London park bench with his printout and tried to figure out what he’d done wrong. Under Location: Setting, it just said “See page 29.” Great, he thought. And he had no idea what year it was. Every time he tried to ask someone, they’d give him a funny look and walk away in a hurry. He folded up the bike and took a walk. It wasn’t long before he found a news-stand and saw the date: July 19, 1998. At least he had the right century.
Back in the park, he sat astride the machine with the printout in one hand, frowning and wondering what might happen if he twisted a particular dial from right to left.
“Can’t get your bike to start, mate?” someone shouted from nearby. “Just click your heels three times and think of home.”
“Thanks, I’ll try that,” Alan shouted back. Then he vanished.
* * *
“I am a pirate from yonder ship,” the man with the eye patch told her, “and well used to treasure. But I tell thee, lass, I’ve never seen the like of you.”
Cecily groaned and ripped the page in half. She bit her lip and started again.
“I have travelled many galaxies, Madeleine,” the alien bleeped. “But you are a life-form beyond compare.”
“No, don’t. Please don’t,” Madeleine pleaded as the alien reached out to pull her towards its rock hard chest.
Her mother appeared in the doorway. “Whatcha doin’ hon?”
She dropped the pen and flipped the writing pad face down. “My homework.”
* * *
The next thing Alan knew he was in the middle of a cornfield. He hitched a lift with a truck driver who asked a lot of questions, ranging from “You work in a gas station, do you?” to “What are you, foreign or something?” and “What do you call that thing?” On being told “that thing” was a folding bicycle, the man muttered something about whatever would they think of next, and now his kid would be wanting one.
There were several Walker’s listed in the Danville phone book. When he finally found the right house, Cecily was in the middle of her third birthday party.
He pedalled around a corner, checked his printout, and set the controls on “Fast Forward”. He folded the machine and hid it behind a bush before walking back to the house. It was big and painted green, just like in the story. There was an apple tree in the garden, just like in the story. The porch swing moved ever so slightly, rocked by an early summer breeze. He could hear crickets chirping and birds singing. Everything was just the way it had been in the story, so he walked up the path, nervously clearing his throat and pushing back a stray lock of hair, just the way Cecily Walker had described him in Woman’s Secrets, before finally taking a deep breath and knocking on the door. There was movement inside the house. The clack of high-heeled shoes across a wooden floor, the rustle of a cotton dress.
Alan stared at her, open-mouthed. “You’ve cut your hair,” he told her.
“Your hair. It used to hang down to your waist, now it’s up to your shoulders.”
“Do I know you?”
“You will,” he told her. He’d said that in the story.
She was supposed to take one look at him and realise with a fluttering heart that this was the man she’d dreamed of all her life. Instead, she looked at his orange jumpsuit and slapped her hand to her forehead in enlightenment. “You’re from the garage! Of course, Mack said he’d be sending the new guy.” She looked past him into the street. “So where’s your tow truck?”
“My what?” There was nothing in “The Love That Conquered Time” about a tow truck. The woman stared at him, looking confused. Alan stared back, equally confused. He started to wonder if he’d made a mistake. But then he saw those eyes, bigger and greener than he’d ever thought possible. “Matrix,” he said out loud.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that meeting you is so bullasic.”
“Mister, I don’t understand one word you’re saying.” Cecily knew she should tell the man to go away. He was obviously deranged; she should call the police. But something held her back, a flicker of recognition, the dim stirrings of a memory. Where had she seen this man before?
“I’m sorry,” Alan said again. “My American isn’t very good. I come from English-speaking Europe, you see.”
“English-speaking Europe?” Cecily repeated. “You mean England?”
“Not exactly. Can I come inside? I’ll explain everything.”
She let him come in after warning him that her neighbours would come running in with shotguns if they heard her scream, and that she had a black belt in Kung Fu. Alan nodded and followed her inside, wondering where Kung Fu was, and why she’d left her belt there.
He was ushered into the living room and told to have a seat. He sat down on the red velveteen-upholstered sofa and stared in awe at such historical artefacts as a black and white television with rabbit-ear antennae, floral-printed wallpaper, a phone you had to dial, and shelf after shelf of unpreserved books. She picked up a wooden chair and carried it to the far side of the room before sitting down. “Okay,” she said. “Talk.”
Alan felt it would have been better to talk over a candle-lit dinner in a restaurant, like they did in the story, but he went ahead and told her everything, quoting parts of the story verbatim, such as the passage where she described him as the perfect lover she’d been longing for all her life.
When he was finished, she managed a frozen smile. “So you’ve come all the way from the future just to visit little ole me. Isn’t that nice.”
Oh Matrix, Alan thought. She’s humouring me. She’s convinced I’m insane and probably dangerous as well. “I know this must sound crazy to you,” he said.
“Not at all,” she told him, gripping the arms of her chair. He could see the blood draining out of her fingers.
“Please don’t be afraid. I’d never harm you.” He sighed and put a hand to his forehead. “It was all so different in the story.”
“But I never wrote any story. Well, I started one once, but I never got beyond the second page.”
“But you will. You see, it doesn’t get published until 1973.”
“You do know this is 1979, don’t you?”
“Looks like your timing’s off,” she said. She watched him sink his head into his hands with an exaggerated groan. She rested her chin on one hand and regarded him silently. He didn’t seem so frightening now. Crazy, yes, but not frightening. She might even find him quite attractive, if only things were different. He looked up at her and smiled. It was a crooked, little boy’s smile that made his eyes sparkle. For a moment, she almost let herself imagine waking up to that smile … She pulled herself up in her chair, her back rigid.
“Look,” he said. “So I’m a few years behind schedule. The main thing is I found you. And so what if the story comes out a bit later, it’s nothing we can’t handle. It’s only a minor problem. A little case of bad timing.”
“Excuse me,” Cecily said. “But I think that in this case, timing is everything. If any of this made the least bit of sense, which it doesn’t, you would’ve turned up before now. You said yourself the story was published in 1973 – if it was based on fact, you’d need to arrive here much earlier.”
“I did get here earlier, but I was too early.”
Cecily’s eyes widened involuntarily. “What do you mean?”
“I mean I was here before. I met you. I spoke to you.”
“You wouldn’t remember. You were three years old, and your parents threw a party for you out in the garden. Of course I realised my mistake instantly, but I bluffed it out by telling your mother that I’d just dropped by to apologise because my kid was sick and couldn’t come – it was a pretty safe bet that someone wouldn’t have shown – and she said, ‘Oh you must be little Sammy’s father’ and asked me in. I was going to leave immediately, but your father handed me a beer and started talking about something called baseball. Of course I didn’t have a present for you…”
“But you gave me a rose and told my mother to press it into a book so that I’d have it forever.”
“Wait there. Don’t move.” She leapt from her chair and ran upstairs. There was a lot of noise from above – paper rattling, doors opening and closing, things being thrown about. She returned clutching several books to her chest, her face flushed and streaked with dust. She flopped down on the floor and spread them out in front of her. When Alan got up to join her, she told him to stay where he was or she’d scream. He sat back down.
She opened the first book, and then Alan saw that they weren’t books at all; they were photo albums. He watched in silence as she flipped through the pages and then tossed it aside. She tossed three of them away before she found what she was looking for. She stared open-mouthed at the brittle yellow page and then she looked up at Alan. “I don’t understand this,” she said, turning her eyes back to the album and a faded black and white photograph stuck to the paper with thick, flaking paste. Someone had written in ink across the top: Cecily’s 3rd birthday, August 2nd, 1951. There was her father, who’d been dead for ten years, young and smiling, holding out a bottle to another young man, tall and blonde and dressed like a gas station attendant. “I don’t understand this at all.” She pushed the album across the floor towards Alan. “You haven’t changed one bit. You’re even wearing the same clothes.”
“Did you keep the rose?”
She walked over to a wooden cabinet and pulled out a slim hardback with the title, “My First Reader”. She opened it and showed him the dried, flattened flower. “You’re telling me the truth, aren’t you?” she said. “This is all true. You risked everything to find me because we were meant to be together, and nothing, not even time itself, could keep us apart.”
Alan nodded. There was a speech just like that in “The Love That Conquered Time”.
“Bastard,” she said.
Alan jumped. He didn’t remember that part. “Pardon me?”
“Bastard,” she said again. “You bastard!”
“I … I don’t understand.”
She got up and started to pace the room. “So you’re the one, huh? You’re ‘Mister Right’, Mister Happily Ever After, caring, compassionate and great in bed. And you decide to turn up now. Well, isn’t that just great.”
“Is something the matter?” Alan asked her.
“Is something the matter?” she repeated. “He asks me if something’s the matter! I’ll tell you what’s the matter. I got married four weeks ago, you son of a bitch!”
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?”
“But you can’t be married. We were supposed to find perfect happiness together at a particular point in space that has always existed and always will. This ruins everything.”
“All those years … all those years. I went through hell in high school, you know. I was the only girl in my class who didn’t have a date for the prom. So where were you then, huh? While I was sitting alone at home, crying my goddamn eyes out? How about all those Saturday nights I spent washing my hair? And even worse, those nights I worked at Hastings’ Bar serving drinks to salesmen pretending they don’t have wives. Why couldn’t you have been around then, when I needed you?”
“Well, I’ve only got the first five pages of the manual…” He walked over to her and put his hands on her shoulders. She didn’t move away. He gently pulled her closer to him. She didn’t resist. “Look,” he said, “I’m sorry. I’m a real zarkhead. I’ve made a mess of everything. You’re happily married, you never wrote the story … I’ll just go back where I came from, and none of this will have ever happened.”
“Who said I was happy?”
“But you just got married.”
She pushed him away. “I got married because I’m thirty years old and figured I’d never have another chance. People do that, you know. They reach a certain age and they figure it’s now or never … Damn you! If only you’d come when you were supposed to!”
“You’re thirty? Matrix, in half an hour you’ve gone from a toddler to someone older than me.” He saw the expression on her face, and mumbled an apology.
“Look,” she said. “You’re gonna have to go. My husband’ll be back any minute.”
“I know I have to leave. But the trouble is, that drebbing story was true! I took one look at your photo, and I knew that I loved you and I always had. Always. That’s the way time works, you see. And even if this whole thing vanishes as the result of some paradox, I swear to you I won’t forget. Somewhere there’s a point in space that belongs to us. I know it.” He turned to go. “Good-bye Cecily.”
“Alan, wait! That point in space – I want to go there. Isn’t there anything we can do? I mean, you’ve got a time machine, after all.”
What an idiot, he thought. The solution’s been staring me in the face and I’ve been too blind to see it. “The machine!” He ran down the front porch steps and turned around to see her standing in the doorway. “I’ll see you later,” he told her. He knew it was a ridiculous thing to say the minute he’d said it. What he meant was, “I’ll see you earlier.”
* * *
Five men sat together inside a tent made of animal hide. The land of their fathers was under threat, and they met in council to discuss the problem. The one called Swiftly Running Stream advocated war, but Foot Of The Crow was more cautious. “The paleface is too great in number, and his weapons give him an unfair advantage.” Flying Bird suggested that they smoke before speaking further.
Black Elk took the pipe into his mouth. He closed his eyes for a moment and declared that the Great Spirit would give them a sign if they were meant to go to war. As soon as he said the word, “war”, a paleface materialised among them. They all saw him. The white man’s body was covered in a strange bright garment such as they had never seen, and he rode a fleshless horse with silver bones. The vision vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, leaving them with this message to ponder: Oops.
* * *
There was no one home, so he waited on the porch. It was a beautiful day, with a gentle breeze that carried the scent of roses: certainly better than that smoke-filled teepee.
A woman appeared in the distance. He wondered if that was her. But then he saw that it couldn’t be, the woman’s walk was strange and her body was misshapen. She’s pregnant, he realised. It was a common thing in the days of overpopulation, but he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a pregnant woman back home – it must have been years. She looked at him questioningly as she waddled up the steps balancing two paper bags. Alan thought the woman looked familiar; he knew that face. He reached out to help her.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I’m looking for Cecily Walker.”
“My name’s Walker,” the woman told him. “But I don’t know any Cecily.”
Matrix, what a moron, Alan thought, wanting to kick himself. Of course he knew the woman; it was Cecily’s mother, and if she was pregnant, it had to be 1948. “My mistake,” he told her. “It’s been a long day.”
* * *
The smell of roses had vanished, along with the leaves on the trees. There was snow on the ground and a strong northeasterly wind. Alan set the thermostat on his jumpsuit accordingly and jumped off the bike.
“So it’s you again,” Cecily said ironically. “Another case of perfect timing.” She was twenty pounds heavier and there were lines around her mouth and her eyes. She wore a heavy wool cardigan sweater over an oversized tee-shirt, jeans, and a pair of fuzzy slippers. She looked him up and down. “You don’t age at all, do you?”
“Please can I come in? It’s freezing.”
“Yeah, yeah. Come in. You like a cup of coffee?”
“You mean liquid caffeine? That’d be great.”
He followed her into the living room and his mouth dropped open. The red sofa was gone, replaced by something that looked like a giant banana. The television was four times bigger and had lost the rabbit-ears. The floral wallpaper had been replaced by plain white walls not very different from those of his apartment. “Sit,” she told him. She left the room for a moment and returned with two mugs, one of which she slammed down in front of him, causing a miniature brown tidal wave to splash across his legs.
“Cecily, are you upset about something?”
“That’s a good one! He comes back after fifteen years and asks me if I’m upset.”
“Fifteen years!” Alan sputtered.
“That’s right. It’s 1994, you bozo.”
“Oh darling, and you’ve been waiting all this time…”
“Like hell I have,” she interrupted. “When I met you, back in 1979, I realised that I couldn’t stay in that sham of a marriage for another minute. So I must have set some kind of a record for quickie marriage and divorce, by Danville standards, anyway. So I was a thirty-year-old divorcee whose marriage had fallen apart in less than two months, and I was back to washing my hair alone on Saturday nights. And people talked. Lord, how they talked. But I didn’t care, because I’d finally met my soul-mate and everything was going to be all right. He told me he’d fix it. He’d be back. So I waited. I waited for a year. Then I waited two years. Then I waited three. After ten, I got tired of waiting. And if you think I’m going through another divorce, you’re crazy.”
“You mean you’re married again?”
“What else was I supposed to do? A man wants you when you’re forty, you jump at it. As far as I knew, you were gone forever.”
“I’ve never been away, Cecily. I’ve been here all along, but never at the right time. It’s that drebbing machine; I can’t figure out the controls.”
“Maybe Arnie can have a look at it when he gets in, he’s pretty good at that sort of thing – what am I saying?”
“Tell me, did you ever write the story?”
“What’s to write about? Anyway, what difference does it make? Woman’s Secrets went bankrupt years ago.”
“Matrix! If you never wrote the story, then I shouldn’t even know about you. So how can I be here? Dammit, it’s a paradox. And I wasn’t supposed to cause any of those. Plus, I think I may have started an Indian war. Have you noticed any change in local history?”
“Never mind. Look, I have an idea. When exactly did you get divorced?”
“I don’t know, late ’79. October, November, something like that.”
“All right, that’s what I’ll aim for. November, 1979. Be waiting for me.”
“Good point. Okay, just take my word for it, you and me are going to be sitting in this room right here, right now, with one big difference: we’ll have been married for fifteen years, okay?”
“But what about Arnie?”
“Arnie won’t know the difference. You’ll never have married him in the first place.” He kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll be back in a minute. Well, in 1979. You know what I mean.” He headed for the door.
“Hold on,” she said. “You’re like the guy who goes out for a pack of cigarettes and doesn’t come back for thirty years.”
“Never mind. I wanna make sure you don’t turn up anywhere else. Bring the machine in here.”
“Is that it?” she said one minute later.
“But it looks like a goddamn bicycle.”
“Where do you want me to put it?”
She led him upstairs. “Here,” she said. Alan unfolded the bike next to the bed. “I don’t want you getting away from me next time,” she told him.
“I don’t have to get away from you now.”
“You do. I’m married and I’m at least fifteen years older than you.”
“Your age doesn’t matter to me,” Alan told her. “When I first fell in love with you, you’d been dead three hundred years.”
“You really know how to flatter a girl, don’t you? Anyway, don’t aim for ’79. I don’t understand paradoxes, but I know I don’t like them. If we’re ever gonna get this thing straightened out, you must arrive before 1973, when the story is meant to be published. Try for ’71 or ’72. Now that I think about it, those were a strange couple of years for me. Nothing seemed real to me then. Nothing seemed worth bothering about, nothing mattered; I always felt like I was waiting for something. Day after day I waited, though I never knew what for.”
She stepped back and watched him slowly turn a dial until he vanished. Then she remembered something.
How could she ever have forgotten such a thing? She was eleven and she was combing her hair in front of her bedroom mirror. She screamed. When both her parents burst into the room and demanded to know what was wrong, she told them she’d seen a man on a bicycle. They nearly sent her to a child psychiatrist.
Damn that Alan, she thought. He’s screwed up again.
* * *
The same room, different decor, different time of day. Alan blinked several times; his eyes had difficulty adjusting to the darkness. He could barely make out the shape on the bed, but he could see all he needed to. The shape was alone, and it was adult size. He leaned close to her ear. “Cecily,” he whispered. “It’s me.” He touched her shoulder and shook her slightly. He felt for a pulse.
He switched on the bedside lamp. He gazed down at a withered face framed by silver hair, and sighed. “Sorry, love,” he said. He covered her head with a sheet, and sighed again.
He sat down on the bike and unfolded the printout. He’d get it right eventually.