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August 15, 2022

Payback

By Chas Wallace

He sat in a booth at the far end of the diner. It was almost half full and noisy from a dozen different conversations that floated in the air and mingled together. The booth gave him a clear view of everyone that came in and yet was far enough away from the door that he would not be easily noticed. He was smoking a cigarette, a Marlboro, and drinking a cup of coffee or at least what this sorry little establishment passed for coffee. God, where was a Starbucks when you needed it. He knew he would be here for a while so he had ordered a breakfast and eaten it already. He glanced at his watch for the umpteenth time. It read 7:45 and that meant either he had gotten the time wrong or they were late. Either way the consequences could be disastrous. He took another drag on his cigarette and forced himself to relax. He picked up the paper, a local copy of The Bremerton Sun dated June 23, 1956, and pretended to read it.

The waitress, a young twenty-something girl and not at all unattractive was at the far end of the counter talking it up with some nice looking guy in a cheap suit. She glanced down his direction and saw him reading the paper, spoke a word to the suit, and came walking over to him. She smiled, looking at him, but he not at her, as she refilled his cup of coffee. "Can I get you anything else," she asked in friendly tone.

He briefly glanced up at her reminding himself his objective here was that she remember as little as possible about him. He therefore controlled his urge to say anything other than, "Nope, just a check, doll." She slapped it down on his table and replied, "Have a nice day then," even as she whirled around and started her journey back to the suit.

He glanced out the window. It was cloudy and overcast and there was still not much going on across the street. It was the entrance to the naval shipyard and even though the war had ended some ten years ago there was still a significant naval presence here in town. It employed several thousands of men who had families that lived in tiny little cracker box houses with a wife and two kids and a dog.

One such couple entered the diner now and his heart skipped a beat; here they were. He was dressed in dark green slacks and a grey shirt that was the "uniform" for all shipyard workers, and with him was his wife. She wore a dress that seemed to be in style. He shook his head as he watched them come in. My God, he thought to himself, they were holding hands. How long had they been married in 1956, almost four years? He shook his head as he stubbed his cigarette out and reached for another.

They sat in a booth, two down from him. The waitress was there taking an order, perhaps a bit too soon he thought, but then they didn't even look at the menu's so he figured they were regulars. The man wasn't making eye contact with the waitress and had a shy sort of smile. The women were talking more than necessary for giving an order which gave the indication they were friends. He shook his head, to look at them you would figure they were a normal happily married couple. Yeah, well, he knew different.

He pulled the brim of his hat down just a bit to shade his eyes and make him a bit more nondescript. They had both lit up cigarettes and she was animatedly telling him something and he was smiling and nodding, listening. All of a sudden, his face turned dark as a scowl crossed it. He pounded his fist on the table and said, "No Mildred, God damnit, I said we can't afford it." It was spoken loud enough for everyone nearby to hear. Some people looked up, most didn't though.

She sat back in the booth, and even though he couldn't see her face he could tell by the drooped head and shoulders that she was taken aback. If he could have seen her face, he would have seen she was biting her trembling lip and trying to keep from crying.

The man looked at her impatiently, the scowl gone and replaced with a look that almost bordered on contempt. He was interested to hear what they were saying and he strained to pick up the conversation.

"You're right, Chet, I guess I just thought this once we could get something nice for the kids," he heard her say.

Even though she was trying to make peace, he wasn't letting up a bit. He heard him reply,"Look Mildred, I pay the bills here and I give you an allowance for groceries every week. By God if I find out you are holding back food money I'll beat the hell out of you. I swear to God." The scowl was back on his face and it was turning red.

Unbelievable, he thought to himself, shaking his head. The mans temper was every bit as explosive in 1956. The woman's head was bowed and he saw it come up and heard her reply, "I'll not let the children suffer just so you can. . ." She never had the chance to finish her sentence.

The man, quick as lightening had swung and slapped her full across the face with the back of his hand. There was no scream but a soft gasp from her and now silent weeping. His face was filled with rage. He was up and pulling her forcibly from the booth. Briefly his eyes and the man's met. He tried to let no emotion cross his face as he looked at the man and hoped he was successful. He saw uncontrolled anger, and the moment was gone. He watched them go, him walking too fast just so he could drag her behind him. Out the door and into the parking lot they went around the corner and out of sight.

His heart raced as he glanced at his watch. It read 7:55 and he knew he only had five minutes. Was it enough time? He made a decision and got up from the booth, taking care to leave money for the bill and made his way to the door as quickly as he could with out attracting any attention. He was forced to slow down at the door and let an older couple carefully navigate their way out. All the while he was silently cursing. He got to the parking lot to see an Oldsmobile leaving and the man briskly walking across the street to the shipyard entrance. He had been too late.

He glanced at his watch. It read 7:59. He sighed within and reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a Waterman Opera Fountain pen. He looked all around to make sure no one was watching; he took the cap off and put it on the other end. The air shimmered around him and he vanished.

He sat blinking, waiting for the feeling of loss of vertigo that always accompanied a time jump to leave. He heard the voice of Diane, his assistant, off to his left, "I come in early to catch up on some paperwork and I find you all strapped in, what gives Ted? You know we have to report every jump made."

He opened his eyes and looked at her. Her soft smile, gently chiding but slightly serious let him know they could get past this, this time. He made a mental note to come in an hour earlier the next day, no -- an hour and a half. He wasn't one to leave room for error and so he chided himself for not taking into account that Diane might arrive early.

He wondered how long she had been there as he smiled back and spoke, "Diane, let me buy you a cup of coffee and you can tell me why you have so much paperwork to catch up on." As he rose he touched the keypad on the arm and erased the jump date from the display as he continued in an offhanded manner, "I was just doing some calibration on the tachyon sub routines. Remember how the readings were a little high yesterday?"

"So, how far did you jump?" she asked as they walked down the hall to the cafeteria.

"Last month," he replied as casually as he could. It was very important that Diane not have any concerns that he had done anything other than routine calibration testing. He was thinking what an idiot he was not to take into account the random occurrence of her coming in early into his planning. "I checked and verified the jump chronometer against the reference clock and was able to get within 954 milliseconds." All this was in fact true, he just neglected to tell her about the other jump.

"Excellent," she said nodding her head, "that's the first time we've gotten below a thousand, well done." She was clapping her hands softly in applause clearly celebrating with him.

He studied her without obviously doing so, trying to ascertain whether she had bought the story or not. He always told as much of the truth as he could and departed only when needed to cover up. He was pretty certain there was no problem here, but he decided to probe a bit just to make sure. "Would you like to have a look at the changes I put in to get us below a thousand?" He said this with an inquisitive look on his face accompanied by a slight smile. He knew too that while she had the background she no longer had the patience to pour through the complex coding he had done the night before in adjusting the box. He figured if there were any trace of concern on her part she would take him up on it.

She laughed out loud, "Hell no, I hate looking at code, you know that. Now come on, let's grab a seat by the window." She steered him over to the far side of the room.

He decided for one last test on the matter. "No problem," he said nonchalantly, "It's all documented in the project directory if you change your mind." This too was true, and what he hadn't told her was that he had set an event to be notified with an email message whenever anyone accessed this file. If she touched it he would know.

Finally he eased up, feeling comfortable that Diane had bought his story. Just as they sat down Diane interrupted his train of thought, "So, do you have plans for the weekend?"

"Nah, nothing serious, just hang around the house and try and keep it from falling apart any more than it already is, how 'bout you?"

"My brother flies in tonight with a weekend layover on his way to Germany. I'm gonna play tour guide and show him Manhattan. We'll go to dinner, take in a Broadway show, a museum or two, South Street Seaport, everything." She said it with a flair and a smile that told him she was actually looking forward to it.

He shook his head smiling, "You're amazing Diane, you're actually looking forward to this aren't you?"

"Hell yes, it will be mad fun, my brother is on an expense account and will foot the bill, and he's a hoot to be with. Why don't you come, it will be even more fun with three of us."

He tensed just a bit at the thought of spending the weekend walking the length and breadth of Manhattan with them, pretending to have fun. Forcing himself to relax he smiled and merely said, "No thanks."

Diane knew him well enough to know not to pursue it further. If he had said anything other than no thanks she knew she could have enticed him to go. Instead she changed the subject. "So how's your mom."

"I'm gonna see her tonight," he replied, "I was able to stay for almost an hour last week, so I hope I can stay as long again."

"Really," Diane replied," That's very good. She still isn't comfortable seeing anyone other than family though?"

"No, ever since her breakdown, she can't be around more than one or two people at a time, and then it's only family or her nurse."

"How long has that been now Ted," Diane asked?

"Almost ten years," he replied shaking his head back and forth. "I have such wonderful memories of her growing up, and now..." He left the sentence unfinished, unable to finish it, besides that it was a lie. None of his childhood memories were pleasant.

Diane reached out and touched his hand, "You've been a wonderful son to her. She knows that and loves you for it, even if she can't express it."

He didn't withdraw his hand, enjoying the feeling of being touched by another human being. "Thanks," he said.

"I really would like to come see her with you some time," Diane said. He looked at her and saw compassion and was touched.

"Thanks again," he said. "Soon, I think." They were interrupted by a wave and a shout from across the room as Vic walked over. They sat and talked about nothing a bit more and then went back to the lab to work.

Later that day he pondered the jump he had made that morning. This was the third jump he had made and he had finally made contact with them in a setting where action could be taken. This really was quite a success. The next jump should be the last. He began to plan it out in his mind. He must leave nothing to chance and after all, there was no reason to rush was there? He was unaware of a sneer that crossed his face as he was thinking about this.

A week went by and he thought about his plan. Diane had never touched the file and he was feeling more and more confident that he would succeed at last. He wanted to make sure there was no room for mistake or miscalculation. He was sure he had considered every variable and so it was with much anticipation when he sat in the chair to prep for the jump. It was 4am on a Monday and he knew there was absolutely no chance of anyone coming in at this hour on this day of the week. He punched in the date on the display, June 23, 1956 7:55am. He then entered in the longitude and latitude coordinates. He sat back and forced himself to breathe slowly, looking at the display, going over for yet another time trying to consider anything he might have forgotten. He could think of nothing and therefore reached for the enter key on the chair and touched it.

He felt the air charge around him causing his hair to stand on end as the space time field around him began to warp and take him with it. He blinked and winced as he tumbled to the ground right next to a trash can. He quickly got up and looked at his watch and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw it read 7:55. He knew he had three long minutes to prepare. Even so his hands were trembling as he lit up a cigarette and leaned against the wall. He reached into his pocket and felt the cool grip of the gun he had taken with him. He glanced over and saw the late model Oldsmobile that he knew the woman would drive away in.

Then they were there. He was dragging her towards the car and she was in tears crying. He stubbed out his cigarette and started slowly walking towards them. He caught her last words before she closed the door, "Oh, Chet, why do we have to fight like this?" and his reply, "Damn you, I can't trust you to do something as simple as buy the groceries every week."

She started the car and was driving away and he was turning to walk across the street to the shipyard. He acted in this moment, "Hey bud," he called loud enough for the guy to hear. His voice was loud and firm with just a trace of anger in it. The guy turned around and looked at him with a scowl and replied, "What?"

They looked at each other for a long moment. A questioning look crossed the man's face as he said somewhat softer though still harshly, "Do I know you?"

He had thought about this moment for years, rehearsed it in his mind again and again and to now see it playing out was almost too surreal. He had imagined dozens of responses all leading to the same outcome and yet he felt himself weakening as he looked at this man. He no longer felt sure of himself following through with his plans. He had watched the rage play out between the man and his wife, and for the first time realized he not only was a victim of it, but by coming here and contemplating and acting on his intent he was perpetuating the rage, even expanding on it.

This he hadn't considered. He had carried a gun to shoot the guy with and a virus to infect him with in case he hadn't the opportunity to shoot him. He had not considered the possibility that he would be powerless to act. Precious seconds passed as he was looking at the guy with the opportunity to take him out and he couldn't carry through. All the anger was gone to be replaced with sorrow at what he had allowed himself to become.

The guy was looking at him with the scowl growing. He raised his hands to try and calm the guy down but the guy took it as a threat and swung at him. He was knocked to the ground and the gun fell out of his pocket. They both saw the gun at the same time and reached for it. The guy got it first but there was a struggle. His intent was to get the gun away from the guy. All thoughts for harming the guy were gone and he was therefore surprised when the gun went off.

They both looked at each other surprised, the guy more so at the growing amount of blood soaking his grey shirt.

He shook his head and said, "Dad, why?"

The man, his father, looked at him and said, "Oh my God I've been shot." He hadn't heard what his son had said.

People were starting to come out at the noise. He snapped back to a sense of reality and gently laid his dying father on the gravel of the parking lot and sprinted to the back of the diner out of sight and uncapped his Waterman Opera.

He blinked in rapid succession. He realized with some irony that even though he lost his nerve and couldn't carry through with his plans they had been accomplished none the less. His father had been killed and he was the one responsible. There was no doubt about that. The weight of it began to sink into him. He could still see the blood soaking his dad's shirt and the look of surprise on his dad's face. He felt sick inside. Sick that he had harbored such rage that it had lead him to this end. The chain of anger had passed through him unbroken. With the clarity of hindsight he saw that even though he was victimized by his father's anger while he was a child he had done nothing to fight against it. He felt his anger and hate to his father turn to self-loathing for himself and what he had allowed himself to become.

For the first time he blinked and looked around him and noticed he was not in the lab, but was sitting in a coffee shop. He felt disoriented not sure of what was happening. Had he made the jump back to his own time or not. He sat and thought, reached for the pen and saw it was not in his pocket. He closed his eyes to try and stop a growing sense of panic. He realized that the death of his father had changed his timeline. There was no career in quantum physics, no lab, no study of tachyon particles, and no building a device that could harness their power to travel forward or backward in time. He thought it interesting, though, that he could still remember it all.

He reached into his pockets and put the contents on the table. A wallet with several hundred dollars in it, nice, pictures of what he realized must be his wife, also very nice, and some car keys with a BMW logo key fob. Impressive, he thought to himself. He had always fantasized he would have been better off with his dad gone and it looked like he was.

For some reason though he could not remember a thing about this life. He was staring disoriented. He reached and picked up the coffee and took a drink, and it wasn't until he set it back down that he realized he hadn't done it. He had done it, but he hadn't thought about doing it. All this didn't make sense. An attractive woman came and sat down by him that he recognized as the woman in the picture who must be his wife and he rose up and kissed her without feeling it and they sat down and began talking. He watched it all unfold like a movie, a participant with no active part. He screamed in rage, unheard, while carrying on a conversation with his wife. He listened. It was a wonderful conversation about nothing that only a couple that had been married for many years could have. More of the communication between the two of them was unspoken rather than spoken. The way they looked, and touched, brushed shared memories each one a thread woven between them that had produced a beautiful fabric. He saw all this, heard it, but could not feel it, and he knew it wasn't his.

Article © Chas Wallace. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-01-04
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