“I guess sometimes your whole world can change,” Lyla said, “when you see a billboard by the side of a highway,” and she felt silly the minute she said it, because the billboard hadn’t really changed her whole life, it was what happened after she saw the billboard, and she knew that Charlotte would think that a sweeping statement like that was ridiculous. So Ly was relieved when Charlotte whispered, “Sure. Billboards,” and ordered another drink, without asking Lyla a thing about it. But Charlotte wasn’t really listening, she had stopped listening once Lyla went off the deep end. It was early fall in 1984, and Charlotte was the last person who would still return Lyla’s phone calls, but not for long.
“Son of a — !” Max exclaimed, early that prior summer, when Lyla remarked on the billboard. “What the…!”
But he sounded happy when he said it.
It was mid-June, the breezes were still cool, though the sun was out, and flowers were beginning to bloom along the side of the interstate.
Max made a quick right, and the car screeched onto the exit. His 1971 Pontiac Catalina, a stupid old car, even back in 1984, stupid gas-guzzling tank, which Max loved irrationally.
“What?” Lyla asked. “What is it?”
“Frontier Town!” he exclaimed. “We used to go there every summer. Frontier Town!”
Lyla thought the billboard was tacky, an unabashedly unreconstructed image of a man on a horse, stoic, in the middle of some sort of corny old Western landscape. She and Max were on their way to visit Max’s father, prematurely old, and maybe prematurely oldishly sad. Lyla had never met him before, though by then, the summer of 1984, she had been with Max for more than two years already. He was twenty-five, she was twenty-two, and, while it was time for her to meet his father, she didn’t want to. The idea made her sad. So she was glad for the delay.
Max bounded out of the car and dashed from the parking lot to the front gate, and Ly worked hard to keep up with her lanky, energetic beau.
Once they had bought their tickets, Ly did feel as though they had entered a different world. Main Street overflowed with crowds, various side alleys stretched off in all directions, a distant lake and crisscrossing river glinted in the mid-morning sun, all of this enclosed by a thick, green forest.
Max stared up at the sign over the hotel, which advertised rooms to rent by the month. The faint ocean breeze blew through his overgrown, curly brown hair.
“I thought, when I was a kid, that moving in was a real possibility. It says that you can rent a room by the month. I wanted to. I wanted to move here, and live here forever. Me, my mom and Dad, and John.”
He laughed and shook his head.
“Even for a kid, so stupid,” he said, and he laughed again. “I really thought we could all move here. It was completely impossible, of course, but almost like … well, when you are a kid, you kind of believe that one day you could just find a fantasy world, go through a wardrobe, you know? Everyone keeps telling you that it can happen, you kind of wait for it to happen.”
“You started to believe that this was real?”
Heavily armed lawmen and thugs swaggered down the street, a couple of deputies hauled a miscreant to the stockade. A steam engine squealed into the station, and a stagecoach pulled into town.
“Yes,” he said. “I didn’t really think that this was part of the same world that we had come from. You see? I thought everything was different here. The world outside always changed, but this place stayed the same.” He looked around. “And it is still the same. They don’t know what is happening outside of this town. They don’t know there is a world out there. They’re frozen in this one day. Like Brigadoon.”
She was surprised and glad that Max could derive so much joy from such an unhappy childhood. Or, anyway, from a childhood that turned unhappy. He could look at his life before the unhappiness and remember the joy and cherish it.
They watched dancing girls in the saloon, cowered from a gunfight on Main Street and took a rowboat down a buggy, boggy creek. A mosquito bit Lyla on her nose.
They crossed over the river on a rickety wooden bridge, then followed a dirt path past a lopsided wooden mining shed, and which then widened into a clearing, where a Native American held forth, beat drums, danced around, sang songs that sounded authentic. When he stopped, he spoke for a while, and he mentioned that he was the son of the guy who ran this show from 1955 to 1972.
“You might remember me,” he said, “if you came here back in the late 1960s, I was the little boy dancing with his dad and mom.”
Then he told an old joke, something he said his dad used to tell in the 1960s.
And when he told the joke, something happened, the wind stopped blowing, and the sunlight shifted slightly, became ever so slightly less bright.
Max stared across the crowd, a little absently, at a family at the farthest edge of the crowd, a mom with a dated haircut (something that Ly vaguely thought she could identify as a “flipped bob”), who stood in the shade of a dad who, inexplicably, wore a short-sleeve collared shirt and a tie. A little boy clung to the mom. He looked four or five years old, innocent, scared.
“That looks like….”
She shook her head.
“Yeah,” Max replied. “John. And my folks. I assume little Max is around somewhere.” He cracked a smile. “I should scram, I guess, so I don’t bump into myself.”
“Max,” she said. “What are you talking about?”
Max ignored the question, stared across the clearing at the family.
“Oh yeah, we used to come here every summer. I told you that.” He squinted. “That looks like maybe the summer of 1968. I would have been eight, and I guess John was five.” He laughed, watched the family affectionately, in their late ‘sixties attire. “Yeah, that’s John. Five years old.”
The little boy wore a “Star Trek” t-shirt.
Max watched for a while, then he seemed to grow a little bored.
“Well,” he whispered. “Nice to see them again, I suppose.” He squinted at Lyla. “You want to scram? I’ve relived enough childhood for today.”
“Why are you so calm about this?” she asked him, in the dark, at two in the morning. They had checked into a hotel that looked like a castle, right on the beach. Outside, some drunken young men howled at the moon, and some drunken young women laughed and shushed them. “How can you be calm?” she asked again, over the ruckus.
“I guess because I used to see them all the time,” he said. “It upset me at first. Seeing little John. My parents held me back. My mom, you know, couldn’t really take it. She sort of died of sadness, a little while later. It wasn’t seeing him again so much, it was missing him. My dad and I, for a while we still did the same stuff, went to the same places, but eventually we stopped, we took up a new life, new things to do. We didn’t want to see them all the time, and not be able to talk to them. Now I am used to it. I see them every once in a while. It’s nice to see them. It makes me feel like they still exist, somewhere.”
He flipped over on his side, pulled the blankets up to his ears, and he fell asleep again.
She listened to his peaceful breathing, the little murmuring puffs of air. But she didn’t sleep that night at all, she just thought again and again about John, about that little boy she had glimpsed across the crowded, dusty clearing, wide-eyed and excited by what he was watching. “Each of us contains multitudes,” she said, with wasteful profundity, to Max when she woke him again, bleary-eyed, at 9 in the morning, and Max said, “The past is the past,” when of course, as she knew now, the past was not the past.
“The past is here, walking amongst us,” she said, again with an unseemly affectation.
“Amongst?” Max laughed. “Amongst?”
“Think of the children little John might have,” she said. “The women he will love.”
“The past is the past,” he said. “You cannot change the past.”
“They are here,” she said. “Right in front of us. Right in front of us.”
He stared intently at her. He brushed his fingers through her brown hair, tapped her small nose affectionately, and he tried so hard to smile. Ly could see the effort in his eyes, Max trying to be cheerful.
“You are so pretty,” he said. “You would have such an easy life, if you weren’t so stubborn.”
She stabbed a pork sausage at breakfast, in the IHOP across the street from their castle.
“We could warn them,” she said.
“When we see them next time,” she said. She blinked, the room was blurry in the glare of the sunrise. “Just warn them.”
“You cannot warn them,” he said. “Everyone knows you cannot warn them.”
“If they are there in front of us,” she said steadily, “we can just warn them.”
“Do we need to send you back to pre-school?” Max asked her in frustration.
He stabbed his pork sausage, more aggressively than she had.
“What about your mother?” he said.
“What about my mother?”
“Why don’t we warn your mother instead?”
“Warn her what? Not to raise a child on her own? Not to abandon me?” She frowned. “I would if I could.”
Their visit with Max’s father, the next day, was awkward and unpleasant. He wore a bathrobe and served them donuts from a box. He must have been in his early sixties, he didn’t look that old, Max was in his mid-twenties, only, but Max’s father had given up, retired on his paltry savings, just waiting around. Because of the tragedy. Think of what his life would have been if not for the tragedy. The tension between Max and Ly was unavoidable, and the conversation never developed beyond stilted. After half an hour, the dad said it was time for his nap, then he said, “I mean, bath.” The unhappy couple left the house and began the drive back.
“Lyla,” her friend laughed, several days later. “Everyone knows this!”
“But you see,” she replied, “I didn’t know this. Not until a few days ago.”
“That’s impossible,” Charlotte said. “Everyone knows this.”
“Again. Not everyone.”
“OK,” Charlotte said. “But listen, Lyla. There is nothing you can do about this. Nothing. I hope you will listen to me.”
Lyla had reached out to Charlotte because of her interest in the occult and unexplained phenomena. Well, more than an interest; Charlotte’s husband owned a bookstore, called “Unexplained”, which featured books on mysticism and the supernatural. Lyla thought Charlotte would know some obscure explanation for what she was experiencing. It turned out that there was nothing obscure about this, it was as common as breathing.
Charlotte walked through the bookstore, brushed against the books. Her eyes settled on a thick and faded tome on the upper shelf.
“I think there is someone who may want to talk to you,” she said quietly. “This old guy. Maybe just a crackpot. Maybe something more. A smart guy. Maybe a crackpot.”
“The book reminded you of him?” Lyla asked, and Charlotte laughed.
“Yeah,” she replied. “He’s old and dusty and forgotten, like this book that we will never sell.”
“Who is he?” Lyla asked.
“He’s an old friend of my dad, a colleague in the Math department at MIT, years ago. He has this theory.”
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Lyla called the old man, but his phone was disconnected. She called her office temp job, left a voicemail, said she needed tomorrow morning off, emergency. She woke up early, and she took the bus to a bus to a bus to a bus until she finally reached the old man’s horrible slum home. She buzzed his apartment, but the buzzer didn’t work, so she called up to him, shouted his name. At length, a mane of unruly, unkempt white hair poked out of a third-floor window.
Upstairs. The old man hadn’t bothered to comb his thick white hair, and he seemed to have hastily tossed on some clothes, a patched jacket over a pajama shirt, and wrinkled brown slacks.
“So Charlotte thinks I can help with this predicament?” he asked her.
They sat together in the small kitchen. Two steaming cups of green tea rested on the kitchen table between them.
“Everyone does know this,” he said. “The past walks with us, every day.”
“I don’t know this,” she said. “I feel as though I have dropped through a hole into another reality.”
“More like another reality has imposed itself on you. This is how it feels, yes?”
“Yes,” Lyla said, and her voice cracked a little.
“Let me show you something.”
He heaved himself out of the kitchen chair, walked to his desk in the living room, unlocked the top drawer. He pulled out a thick notebook, one of those spiral notebooks she’d used in grade school. It didn’t seem very professional to her.
He opened it to the first page, pointed to the first line, a scribbled calculation of rather remarkable complexity, with an equals sign at the end. Each successive line contained a scribbled decimal. He flipped the pages, showed her page after page of line after line of scribbled decimals.
“You see?” he said. “I run this calculation every few days. Usually it’s the same. From time to time, it’s different.”
“How did you discover this?”
“Fifty years ago, I was a graduate student in mathematics. This calculation was an early step in my theorem. Plugged it in, worked it out, moved to the next step, spent a few more years on it, solved it, then when I was just about ready to present my work, suddenly, it no longer added up. I failed of course. My adviser felt equally to blame for not having caught it, pushed the school to award me my Ph.D., but it was, you know, worthless for a man who wished for an academic career. I had a little family money, so I drifted, drank a lot, I suppose, for a while. Then a few years later, I was speaking with a couple of former colleagues from my student days, and I walked them through my abject failure. But this time, my theorem worked. We looked at it for hours that night, till the morning, testing, re-testing. The whole thing worked.”
“Did you go back to your school, show them that they were wrong, try to redeem your career?”
“You’re ahead of me, Missy!” (This was very annoying: Missy.) “Yes, of course. I returned triumphantly, but the result was the same as it had been the first time. Failed again! I tried it again and again in the following weeks, I still came up with the error. But then, two years later, it worked again, no error.”
“Did you call your friends? The ones who had witnessed all this?”
“Oh, no one wanted any part of me by then. Would they swear to the mathematics establishment that they had witnessed this, something that no one could prove? What do you think?”
He took off his glasses, tossed them onto the table, leaned back in his chair. He gestured to the notebook, open on the table.
“This kind of deviation matters only in the world of pure mathematics,” he said. “Try sending a man to Mars, if this kind of shift occurred, it would make no difference. You’d be off by a few feet, but you’d still land in the Jezero Crater, if that’s what you were aiming for.”
“But it suggests….” she began.
“That reality isn’t exactly fixed,” he said, nodding. “That physics is fluid. By a little bit.”
“But only this calculation?”
“Oh,” he said, “I have hundreds of examples. All at the edges. Insignificant.”
“Why are you able to remember something that you cannot record?”
“Because I observed the change,” he said. “I watched when reality wrinkled.”
“Imagine,” he continued, “that you look out the window and you see a robin on a tree branch. The robin flies off. To anyone else, this is an empty tree branch. To you, it is a tree branch that until recently supported a robin. Reality is a little bit different, and only you know it.”
“This is why I remember what the world was like before?” she asked. “This is what you think happened to me?”
He hesitated, then he shook his head.
“I do not,” he said at last. “Look, you raised yourself, am I right? Absent mother. No father?”
Ly nodded, surprised.
He raised a finger. “I can observe,” he said. “I know the type.”
“With such a childhood, you never learned basic things that everyone knows. Then of course as an adult, you didn’t come across it, because everyone knows this. It is uninteresting, a basic fact of life, not worth even talking about. Did you have any real family aside from your absent mother?”
Lyla shook her head.
“No elderly relatives,” he said, “so you don’t see the dead walking in familiar places. From time to time, you see people out of time, and someone says, ‘Ah, ghosts,’ and you laugh, and the moment passes. So you never knew. Now you know. But you are too proud and stubborn to accept this gap in your knowledge, you cannot admit that you are simply so terribly ignorant. So you assign cosmic significance to your own ignorance, you entertain delusions of grandeur. Or you could simply be crazy.”
“Crazy? Ignorant? This is what you think of me?”
The old man threw up his hands. “I am not sure!” he exclaimed. “After all, this is also what they all say about me.”
The two sat in silence. Darkness began to creep into the dusty little apartment.
“Maybe they are right about you,” she said. “And maybe you are right about me.”
“Either way,” he said, “there is nothing you can do.”
“What do you mean?”
“This is not an opportunity,” he said. “You cannot save the boy. The past is the past.”
“But I have been given the opportunity to look at this phenomenon with fresh eyes. Isn’t there some use for that?”
“I doubt it,” the old man asked. “The Universe is not speaking to you, I suspect. It’s random, the movement of the Universe. What everyone tells you is true. The past is here with us, all the time. We can see it. This is true. But you cannot change it. Our past, today, is as immutable as the past that you think you knew last week. You cannot save the boy, his mother, his father. It cannot be done.”
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Her relationship with Max grew more strained. She felt that Max had given up, the way his father had given up. But she would not give up, she would try to fix things. If she succeeded, she would return home to a new Max, someone with a living, loving family. She wouldn’t give up on that, she wouldn’t give up on him, even if he had. So she went to his apartment one day in mid-July, just arrived unannounced, she hadn’t seen him for a week-and-a-half, at least, and when he opened the door, he seemed to know what was coming. “Could you please not eff around with my life?” he asked, but she emphatically declined. She resigned her office temp job, no big deal, she took a bus five hours to the ocean resort that housed the Western town where she hoped to save lives, she pitched a tent in the adjoining campground/water park, and she spent the whole summer there, she visited Frontier Town every day, looking for young Max, and his mom and dad, and especially young John. She wasn’t sure if any of the cowboys, deputies, sheriffs, saloon girls or Indians noticed her, the strange woman who came to the kids theme park by herself, every single day. If they did, no one said anything. In the evening, she would sit outside her tent, drink a glass of wine, watch the turtle in the fountain, sigh at the sunset. She was going to save young John, so he could see this sunset, someday.
Then one day in August, finally, it happened. She sat in the saloon, watched the saloon girls sing, when all of a sudden, something resonated, a sung note echoed in the old building just the right way, as that very note had echoed back in the 1960s. She could feel it, an arch opening between decades. She turned, there they were, all of them sitting there two tables to her right. Max and John, and the happy parents, no idea what was about to hit them, ruin their lives. They were a little older than they had been, maybe this was 1969. The mom’s haircut was a little shorter, the dad had abandoned his tie, but he still wore a short-sleeve collared office shirt, and he had a spectacles case clipped to his breast pocket. John wore a “Banana Splits Adventure Hour” t-shirt and blue short pants, Max wore a black t-shirt and black jeans, and he looked self-consciously, aggressively bored, too cool for this kind of whimsy, all of a sudden.
The show ended, and the family headed out into the sunlight.
She knew she would have to rush. She was going to save John. She was going to save John’s mother. She would save them all.
She approached them in the dusty noon air, in the middle of Main Street.
“Mr. Bernstein?” she said. “Mrs. Bernstein?”
They looked puzzled.
“You don’t know me,” she said, unnecessarily. “But I know who you are. And I have to warn you. To help you.”
Max’s father shaded his eyes, turned away. Max’s mom bent over slightly, in discomfort. Ly tried to speak, but her words stuck in her throat, a pain shot through her lungs. Soon, she felt herself collapse to the sandy ground, her breath limited to short, choppy gasps.
You know the rest. Or you can imagine the rest. These things don’t turn out well, trying to mess around with Time, to fix the past. No one can fix the past. One can only make things worse.
She returned home. Her friends stopped returning her calls. Max left her life; he just stopped calling her. When she called him, the line didn’t connect. When she went to his apartment, no one answered the buzzer. Strangers in the street turned away in discomfort when they passed her. They saw something there, in her, all of a sudden. They could see that she was not normal, that she didn’t understand how one is meant to behave. Everyone could tell, all of a sudden. They didn’t know anything, but they could tell. She could still feel the shame inside her. It made her cough. And it made her drool. When she tried to return to the workforce, after her summer stalking the past, no one responded to her resumé or her follow-up phone calls.
Eventually she could not pay her rent, she had no one to turn to for help, and so she sat all day in her apartment, waiting to be evicted. When the men, and one woman, eventually came to drag her away, she said, “This is what you do to a person who tries to make the world better, who tries to save a child,” and one of them, the woman, replied, “This is what we do to someone who doesn’t follow the rules.” Ly thought the woman was talking about her efforts to save John. Later, she figured the woman might have meant Ly’s failure to pay her rent, not Ly’s attempt to bend Time and save lives. The simpler explanation was probably the right explanation. Ly didn’t pay her rent, and so now she was in trouble.
They pushed her into a locked car with dark windows. Ly could see out, no one on the street could see in. They drove and drove over pocked streets and past pocked buildings, till Ly could see nothing but abandoned ruins and the occasional decrepit street-sleeper. Eventually, they drove across an empty field. A drawbridge descended over a canal, the car crossed. On the other bank, they drove past a billboard, which was just blank white, clean and without a message to express.
And so Ly entered her new neighborhood, where she was to live for the rest of her life, and never leave, not even once.
She didn’t know what this neighborhood was called. She moved into a one-room basement apartment. No stores, no restaurants, no theaters, just row after row of old boxy apartment buildings, and a local relief office, where Ly went weekly for boxes of food. No trains out, only local roads, everything stopped at the drawbridge, there was no other way out. A newspaper arrived right outside of her building, just one daily copy for all the residents to share, but it was only two pages long, and it was filled with only happy news, so she figured it was all a bunch of lies.
She didn’t have any visitors, until one day, about a year after her arrival in the neighborhood, when the old mathematician arrived at her doorstep.
“You cannot violate the laws of physics,” he said, sitting in her kitchen. “You saw what happened when you tried. And now, they have sent you here. It is too dangerous, to let you walk around, out there.”
He smiled sadly, and he shook his head.
She poured him a cup of the terrible coffee she’d picked up at the relief office.
“I was here for a few years,” he added. “Nothing has changed here, really.”
“What can I do?” Lyla asked.
“Well, the local office called me. My parole officer, in a way. He knows that you will trust me. Because we are both troublemakers and oddballs. I can tell him you will behave from now on. Maybe they will let you out.”
They talked about the weather, and about the terrible coffee. The old man wouldn’t give her news from outside the neighborhood. After a while, he left, and she waited for word of her release. But she never heard from him again, or from anyone.
She kept to herself, for years and years and years, until her hair grew gray, and then white. The newspaper kept arriving, day after day, filled with more happy news.
Thirty years later, she surveyed the wreckage of her life from her cluttered, grimy basement apartment, way out in the farthest wasteland of the worst crumbling boro in the snowy north. She breathed in the stench of the polluted canal and the polluted, frozen sea, and she thought about her loss of Max, the children she and Max would never have, the children she would never have, the career at which she would never succeed, and she said to herself, out-loud, as she had done before, “It was all a mistake, it turns out, a big mistake. But I did the right thing. I think it was the right thing to do.”
Steven S. Drachman is the author of a science fiction trilogy, The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is available in paperback from your local bookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble; it is also available as a Kindle e-book.
Image by the author.