I looked around and jerked at the jabbing pain in my neck. Gregory Larrabee stood close by, arms to his sides, staring down at me. It was dark. The light from the hall inside spread across the concrete patio.
"What? What is it? What's the matter?" I asked, rubbing my neck. I made a mental note to never again fall asleep in a metal chair.
He set his jaw, briefly looked at the stars. "I'd like you to accompany me," he said.
My eyes darted left and right. "Where?"
"A trip. I usually can't take more than one trip a month or so, but I'm making an exception for you."
"What do you mean you can't take it? Does it cause cancer or something?"
"No," he answered. He seemed impatient. "But it is, in a way, quite painful."
I blinked. "Wait. What --"
"Please. I've got it all set just now." He sort of nodded and then started for inside.
"Hey, right now?"
I hurried after him. A maid was there to offer me a cup of tea. I shook my head. I was much too distracted.
"No time like the present. That is what they say," Gregory recited. In passing a manservant, Gregory said, "We're off on a trip. Please see that Don gets a nice rub down before bed." The man seemed surprised, but nodded.
The inventor swung open the basement door. "If you ask me, though," he whispered to me, "it is the past that can be far more worthwhile."
I followed him into the lab. He lifted a switch and the place lit up. Dim, yellow glow from vintage hanging lanterns -- modified to hold incandescent bulbs -- filled the room.
He quietly -- almost sadly -- descended the metal steps. He absently turned on the machine and punched a few buttons.
"I must warn you, Jim, boy," he started, pulling on his vest, "you may witness something unsettling. Or, you may be witness to one of the grandest occurrences ever experienced."
He held out an identical vest. I took it reluctantly and looked it over.
He nodded. "That's yours."
I didn't have time to be grateful. He waited as I put it on. When we both were ready, I followed him onto the platform. He turned the dials on his wrist-watch and pressed a button on it.
"We haven't got much time. I've set the timer."
I barely nodded. I wanted to be excited and jumping for joy that I was finally going along. Instead, I felt dread. Something was wrong about the situation. I swallowed. Gregory clicked another button on his watch and then the air rushed by my ears.
I forced my eyes to remain open. The lab faded from my vision. Furniture disappeared, then the walls turned slowly, brick by brick, to solid sheets of plaster. Blinding light rushed around us. Then, it stopped. We stood in some sort of storage closet that was much too small to comfortably fit two men.
I stared at the metal shelf in front of me. The corner of a box scraped my cheek. I felt nauseous.
"Er, sorry, ol' boy," Gregory apologized, sliding by me to find the door. "Guess I didn't think about where we'd end up."
I leaned over, onto my knees. "I don't feel so great." Saliva coated my mouth. I closed my eyes.
"Just breathe through your nose, slowly," my fearless leader suggested. "It'll pass."
Soon, it did. I stood on wobbly feet. Gregory smiled.
"As I'll ever be."
"You get used to the jolt after a few goes."
I frowned. "Sure."
"Let's see if we can't make some sense of our location," he said, opening the door a crack. Presently, he let a "Ah! Perfect" and opened wide the door.
I cautiously followed him into a brightly lit corridor. The walls were empty and the floor was covered in grey carpet.
"Right. This way, I believe, "Gregory said.
I caught him by the shoulder. I pulled at my vest. "What about -- ?"
"Oh dear. I almost forgot!" He retreated into the broom closet and removed his vest. I did the same and handed it over. He stashed them in an empty box and set it atop a shelf, in the far back.
"How do you know they're still going to be here when we get back?" I asked when we were out in the hall again.
"I don't, of course," he answered. "But it is a risk I must take."
I didn't press the subject.
We wandered farther down the hallway until we emerged into a large gathering space. People dressed in business attire hurried here and there. Large glass windows showed a blue sky and warm sunrays. A large, circular reception desk sat in the middle of the room. Men and women punched away on computers or spoke hurriedly into phones.
"Where are we?" I inquired and then quickly followed with, "When, I mean."
"This is the E.A. Gordon Financial Building in Boston," Gregory said, tilting his head to a whisper. I had never heard of such a place. "It is May 14, 2027 at 2:30 in the afternoon." He looked at his watch and fiddled with a dial. "I believe we are in the right place." He raised his head, squinted, and remained still.
He let out a pleased sigh. I waited as he crossed a crowd of people, to a lounge-like area. He returned with a newspaper. I looked around as he looked over the pages.
"Ah yes! President John Darling," he read. Satisfied, he flung the print atop a nearby trashcan.
"Wait, what? Who's John Darling --"
"He was the runner-up in the 2024 Presidential Election."
"But it seems he actually won, here." He let out an incredulous "humph" and smiled.
"But how --?"
"Remember? We aren't on our time plane any longer, my dear Jim, boy." He patted my shoulder and headed for the door.
I tried to process the situation. When Gregory was too far away for my liking, I ran after him.
It was warm. There was a slight breeze that made the leaves flutter ever so slightly. Nothing seemed overtly out of place, not that I would notice. Yet, somehow, it felt ... odd. It felt as though something had been taken from a room I was sitting in. The trouble though, was that I had no idea what had been taken.
I followed Gregory across the street and down the sidewalk. He stopped at a small coffee shop and sat at one of the colorful bistro tables set up along the walkway.
He looked at his watch again. A waitress came to the table; Gregory ordered us coffees. Despite the very pleasant atmosphere, I could not relax.
"What's going on?" I finally asked. "Why are we here? I mean, why did you pick this place?"
He held up a hand. "You'll find out in a few minutes." He remained silent, looking about.
The waitress returned with our coffees. Gregory didn't seem to notice. I smiled and thanked her. My companion added cream to his cup and began stirring with a spoon. I had never seen him so distracted.
Just when I was about to protest further, Gregory lunged forward. His face fell and he swallowed.
"What? What is it?" I demanded, following his gaze.
He was watching a woman cross the street. She wore a white dress, dotted with small, red flowers, and a blue sweater. She was coming toward us, toward the café.
She reached our sidewalk, politely said hello to a patron leaving the shop, and then went inside. Gregory rose from the table. He tapped the side of his leg nervously. It suddenly became quite apparent that the woman was why we were there. I twisted around in the chair so I, too, could watch the door.
She emerged with a to-go cup and Gregory practically tripped over the chairs to get to her. She stepped away and looked him over.
"Are you okay?" She asked, a bit apprehensively.
"Do you recognize me?" Gregory asked, though it sounded as though he already knew the answer.
The woman shook her head. "I'm afraid you have me mistaken --"
Gregory held up his hands. "Please. I know this will sound strange, but would you mind having a coffee with my friend and me? Just for a few moments?"
The woman looked past him, to me. I didn't know what else to do, so I smiled. She turned back to my friend. "I'm sorry," she said, shaking her head, "I am very late already..."
"What are you late for?" Gregory tried, calmly.
"I'm going to a lecture on time travel, not that it's any of your business."
"If you don't mind me asking, who is giving the talk?"
She gawked at him. She shifted her weight. "I don't know, some Larrabee something or other. Look, I don't have an extra ticket, so --"
Gregory held her arm. "Please stay, for just a moment."
She pulled her arm away. "I don't know who you are."
"Are you positive? Absolutely positive?"
"Maybe you saw me somewhere before. I don't know. I have got to go. Sorry." She started down the sidewalk.
"Wait!" Gregory called. She started to cross the street. "Lucy!" he called again.
She briefly looked over her shoulder. She was about to say something, but nothing ever came out. The truck hit her, full-force. I let out a yelp and clamped my hands over my mouth. Onlookers screamed and rushed to her aid. It would be fruitless -- she would have never survived such impact.
I sprang from my seat and turned to Gregory. He stared after her, tears forming in the corners of his eyes. He set his jaw and before I could say anything, was crossing the street. I didn't have time to contemplate paying; I was up and sprinting after him.
* * *
Gregory flung his vest as he stomped up the stairs. It hit a table with a thud and skidded across the papers until it fell onto the floor on the other side. I worked to free myself from my own vest and scrambled after him.
"Hey, wait a minute!" I shouted. "What the hell was that?"
He stopped. He turned his head slightly. "That is what always happens. It is the same every time."
"What? Who is that woman?" I draped my vest over the railing and clomped up after him.
He spun around to face me. "Her name is Lucy. She was my wife," he said. "And she is dead. Everywhere, she is dead."
He turned to go, but I grabbed his arm. "Wait a minute. You can't just go away without giving me an explanation."
He frowned. He looked around the lab, then back at me. "Three years ago, Lucy was in a car accident. She died at the hospital not long after," he said. He started up the stairs again; I followed.
"She was a great scientist. Studied astrophysics, mostly," he explained as we ascended to the main floor.
"But she was right there?" I posed. I was confused.
"Yes. The Lucy in other time planes ..."
I mulled it over. "So," I began after a few seconds of silence, "she died here and so you are trying to find her somewhere else?"
We stopped in the main hall, by the basement door. Gregory put his hands in his twill jacket pockets. "Yes, that's what it turned into." I let him pause. He continued, "We built The Machine together. The basic principles; the research. But then she died. I was determined to finish it. When I did, I tried to rewind time, tried to stop her from leaving that day. But she died anyway, a few days later. Electrocuted while changing a light bulb."
I looked at the ground. "I'm ... sorry. I had no idea."
He started down the hallway. "I was devastated. I thought I'd saved her, but then it didn't matter." He stopped to touch some exotic magenta flowers. "These were her favorites," he said as an aside. I suddenly felt horrible I had hit that one flower on the patio.
Gregory continued on his way to the parlor, "Then I had an idea. I could save her, be with her, in some other place, some other time. So, I explored temporal paradoxes. I made a trip. I found her. She was in the airport, on her way to Tuscany." He crossed the room to the fireplace. "She was on a bachelorette trip. Apparently, I learned as I watched, hidden, she and I had met the soon-to-be-wed couple at a bar. I was to be a groomsman." He sat in an armchair and pulled at the fabric. "It was a strange sensation to watch myself interact with her. I was ... jealous, almost ... of myself." He looked up. "But it didn't matter. Her plane crashed very shortly after take-off."
I sat across from him, in a large red chair. "She died there, too?"
"Everywhere. No matter how hard I tried, I could not save her. She died at the same time she did here, in every dimension I visited."
I didn't know what to say.
"I've gradually come to realize that there is no saving her from her fate." He finished and smiled sadly. He sighed.
"I -- I don't know what to say," I finally offered.
Gregory looked at the fireplace, then around the room. "Do you know I had this place built for her?"
I shook my head. "It's a great place."
"I wanted someplace she would feel free. She loved to ride horses."
I thought of Don Quixote. Then the flowers. I wondered what it had been like, all alone, in that great big house.
We were silent for a few moments. Gregory stared into the empty fireplace until he stood up.
"Well, ol' chap, I'm off."
Where, I hadn't a clue, but I didn't ask. He left the room and I looked at the carpet. I felt nauseous.
* * *
I was seeing Mr. Darby to the door when a house hand came up to us and stood silently, waiting.
I glanced at the man out of the corner of my eye, but kept my focus on the client. "So, if it causes anymore trouble, just bring it back. We'll replace the whole thing," I said, handing back his small mantle clock. It doubled as a weather forecaster and contained several hidden compartments.
"Thanks very much!"
Mr. Darby tipped his hat and made his way off down the steps.
I spun around to the attendant. "Well, what is it?"
"Mr. Larrabee requests your presence in the conservatory."
I had no idea what a conservatory was, much less that there was one in Larrabee's house. "Where is that?" I asked before the man got too far away.
"Follow me," he replied.
I did, and was pretty confused as to where we were headed. I'd realized I had never ventured into that wing of the house. It seemed every day there was some new part of the mansion to explore.
We stopped at two large glass doors. I peered inside; leafy green plants reached across the place. The gentleman opened the door and waited.
"Sir," he said.
I moseyed inside. Sunlight streamed fiercely through the glass ceiling. I heard running water. I peeked at the variety of plants and passed a settee and small table with curled iron legs.
I rounded some very large ficus. "Gregory?"
He was standing in front of a large concrete water fountain, hands behind his back. "Yes, hullo, James."
"I fixed that clock for Mr. Darby ..."
"Splendid," he said. He reached a hand out to touch one of Lucy's flowers.
I shifted my weight. "Were you looking for me?"
"Yes. Indeed, I was."
I waited for the explanation, but when it didn't come I cleared my throat. "Is something the matter?"
He still didn't say anything for a second. Finally, he said, "I've discovered something, Jim, ol' boy." He inhaled slowly. "All this time I have been desperately trying to prevent Lucy's death. I had never stopped to think about the other variables."
"What do you mean?"
"I have tried to prevent her death by trying to keep her by my side during the fated hour. Yet, every time, she still dies. It does not matter how hard I try to jump in, she still dies."
I didn't respond. It wasn't time yet.
I noticed him swallow. "I've discovered the variable that needs to be negated in order to save her."
"What is that?"
He finally spun to face me. "Me."
"What are you talking about?"
He tilted his head to one side. "There is something -- often quite a bit more than one thing -- different in each time plane. The only thing consistent is that Lucy met me once upon that time, and thus we ended up together. I've made a diagram of each way Lucy has died; all of them are because we are together."
"That's ludicrous," I suggested.
"She was electrocuted here because she lived here, with me; she was killed in a plane crash because she was going to a bachelorette party of friends she met at a bar, with me; she fell out the building window where I worked because she came to visit me ... I could go on, but it is far too painful to think of each one, individually. But you, personally, saw her hit by a car because she was on her way to a lecture, by me!"
"Isn't that a little desperate?" I tried.
"Each time she has died has been a result of us being together."
I straightened at his sullen disposition. He reached out a hand to some of her flowers in a pot nearby.
I raised my shoulders. "So, what do you want to do?"
"I am going back, one more time. I will save her." I opened my mouth to say something, but he cut me off. He said, "I am not entirely sure it will save her everywhere, but my studies have shown that if I tweak this one thing, it will domino into other planes. I can only hope it will prevent her deaths, there, as well."
"What do you plan to do?"
He didn't answer the question, specifically. "You can come with me, if you'd like. Actually, I'd prefer the companionship."
He started past me, his head lowered.
He didn't share his definition of "soon," but later that evening, he approached me in the parlor. I was reading up on my Quantum Physics. I was having a horrible time of it, too. I looked up from the intimidating tome as he crossed to me.
"Am I interrupting?" He asked, peering at the book.
"Not in the least," I said, letting the cover fall shut. I stood and dropped the book onto the cushion. "I have no idea what that thing is talking about ..."
He studied the book and then sniffed. "Quite ready then?"
"Uh, sure. If you really want to do this."
He didn't answer, just tried to smile and nodded. He turned around and we were on our way. (To what, exactly, I hadn't a clue. Though, that was not uncommon.)
He didn't say much as we descended to the laboratory. I didn't try to make conversation. I was mulling over his plan. I wondered, really, if it would work. It was an extreme decision to make. It was, after all, the love of his life. I wondered if his plan was suited for the situation. I declined to offer the idea of "fate," and nonetheless kept my thoughts to myself.
"I've done some careful calculations," he said, adjusting a few knobs and buttons on the machine. "It will take us to precisely 19 years and 265 days ago, our time."
"How'd you manage that?"
"Simple, really," he said. "I've recently discovered a way to pinpoint the precise coordinates for our dimension." He emphasized with his hands. "Though, I haven't the slightest idea how to do it for other planes. I don't suppose I'll get to that point, though."
I didn't particularly pay attention to the last part. "Wait, you can choose exactly where you want to go now?"
He knew where I was headed. "Yes, Jim. And I would desperately like to pay you back for all that you've done for me by returning you to your home."
I blinked. I couldn't hide a smile. "Well, gee. That's ..." But then I stopped. I couldn't decide if that was a great discovery or not. I didn't want to think about it at the moment. "Well, should we go?" I asked instead.
"Right. Very good," Gregory said with a nod.
He handed a vest to me and put on his own. He set the timer on the machine. I followed him to the platform where he wiggled some knobs on his watch.
"I do appreciate you accompanying me, Jim, ol' boy."
"Yeah, sure --" The trip cut me off. My head whirled. I leaned over my knees. "That does not get better, Gregory," I mumbled. I blinked at the asphalt.
"I'm sorry you won't be able to get used to it," he answered quietly. I didn't know what he meant.
I steadied myself. We were in an alley of some sort. Gregory didn't bother to remove his vest, so I didn't either. He made his way to the sidewalk of a very busy street. Tall buildings rose all around us. A gentle mist fell from a gray sky. I stepped out of the way of a woman running past us. She was talking furiously into her cell phone.
Gregory sighed. He looked at his watch. "We're just in time," he said. He glanced up the sidewalk and then the other way. After a second he stepped past me.
He leaned in to whisper, "Do you see that small shop there?" He nodded to the very busy coffee shop. Patrons rushed in and out, receiving their hot cups of coffee before the day.
I nodded. "Yeah, sure."
"That is where I met her."
I straightened. "What?"
"We, quite literally, bumped into each other. I was coming out as she was going in. We ended up sitting at a table inside, just by the window."
"Wait, why are -- ?" I started, but he put a finger to his lips.
"Just a moment," he said. "Just wait."
I waited, and then I saw it -- or rather, him. Gregory quickly moved so that I blocked his person. He said, "Do you see?"
I nodded. A younger, slightly thinner Gregory was moving through the crowd, into the coffee shop. He wore a pair of dress pants and a blue sweater. His hair was combed and a pair of brown glasses sat on his nose. He smiled politely at the other patrons around him and disappeared into the establishment.
"Am I gone?"
"Yeah..." I breathed.
He studied his watch and looked around. He inhaled sharply. I spotted what he was looking at: Lucy. I was sure it was her. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a loose braid. She carried an armful of books. She seemed in a hurry.
Gregory tapped his leg: his nervous tick. "I must," he whispered, though not to me.
He stepped out and casually walked toward her. Then, all of a sudden, he plowed directly into her. She spilled her books and dropped to the sidewalk. He bent down to help her pick them up.
"I'm so sorry!" he apologized.
She barely looked up. "It's okay."
"I wasn't looking where I was going," he kept on.
She piled the volumes back into her arms and stood. At the same moment, the younger Gregory passed through the doors, sipping his coffee. He looked at his watch and made his way down the sidewalk. Then, he disappeared around a corner.
Young Lucy stood and mumbled "thanks" before passing through the café door. Gregory remained standing, staring after her. I cautiously approached. Tears welled up in his eyes.
He didn't let me ask. "It is strange," he said. "This feeling is unlike anything I've ever experienced. Just in this moment, I can now remember two different worlds. I still remember life with her, but I also remember all these years without her."
I swallowed. "Gregory..."
"But," he started, sadly, "the memories with her seem so far away. Like they were just dreams."
I put an arm on his shoulder. He shook his head.
"Right," he tried. "Off we go."
I didn't protest, but I looked in the direction of Young Gregory, then to the café. I felt sick. But it wasn't the trip.
* * *
Gregory was in his study when I knocked on the doorframe. He was standing in front of the large holographic television. The news was on.
"Gregory?" I asked, going into the room.
"Shh," he said, quietly.
I stood by him and studied the news. There was a story regarding a NASA space mission. It appeared that a robot had sent back photos of the universe, from beyond the Andromeda Galaxy.
The news anchor read the teleprompter, "Astrophysicists Dr. Lucy Rafferty and Dr. Michael Welch are here to discuss the anticipated results of this extraordinary accomplishment. Doctors?"
The camera panned out to show an older gentleman with gray hair and wrinkled hands, and a woman about Gregory's age. They both wore casual suits. Lucy's hair was pulled into a tight braid. She smiled.
"I've done it," Gregory said. He smiled at the screen, at her. He looked at me. "I saved her."
I wondered, at what risk. I asked, "But how are you?"
He sighed. "It doesn't matter. At least she will be safe," he said. He turned from the television. "I don't suppose there is much use for The Machine any longer. I think I shall destroy it. That is, after you leave."
I kicked at the carpet. "Sure, but I'll help you do it."
He tilted his head. "But wouldn't you like to go home?"
I paused, and then, "I'm not sure."
It took him by surprise. "What do you mean?"
I shrugged and went to the window. "I don't really have anything to go back to," I suggested. I looked over my shoulder with a grin, "Besides, I kinda like it here."
He didn't seem to know how to react. Then his lips turned into a smile.
"And also," I put in, "You are going to kill yourself one of these days, building all those stupid machines. Somebody has to be the common sense of this operation."
He chuckled. "Quite right, Jim, 'ol boy. Quite right."