Esposito leaned closer to the woman sitting before him, remembering her once
sparkling, vivacious brown eyes.
now those eyes were lost.
brought you a new binder, just like you asked me.” He set the binder down on
the small teak coffee table, flipped through its blank pages. “See? It’s going
to make an amazing scrapbook.”
woman’s eyes failed to register him.
Bright red cover, three rings. Your favorite type.” Raymond spoke with
artificial precision, over-enunciating every syllable. “And plenty of
like a cheap salesman, Raymond grimaced. He studied the face of the woman he
loved. Most women of sixty-two would have killed for her looks. Her skin
remained porcelain-white, clear and unblemished; her cheekbones and forehead wrinkle-free;
her lips full, supple. But this beauty was only a cruel reminder of the
bountiful emotions her face had once conveyed, before the right side became
paralyzed and the roaming of the eyes set in, before her speech became slurred.
passed. Raymond decided to end his visit. But then the woman’s eyes dilated and
the lips parted. First there was a spark of recognition at his presence—a tiny,
flickering event which nevertheless filled him with hope—, followed by a surge
of understanding when she identified the binder.
you,” she said with visible effort. She cocked her head to the side. “Thank
you, Ray.” She smiled.
lived for moments like this, islands of connection in their vast sea of
welcome. I wanted to tell you something else, Donna,” he said. He straightened
his back. “I love you very much.”
didn’t acknowledge his words. Instead she said, “Pencil. Pencil, please.”
fished one from the bag of supplies he’d brought and laid it neatly beside the
binder, along with sheets of paper, soft scissors, and glue.
eyes,” she said.
frowned, not understanding.
“Closhe your eyes.”
did as instructed. Time crawled by, seconds ticked off on an antique clock. In
the stillness of the room the sound of Donna writing was impossible to miss.
Right after the stroke Donna had been better at writing than speaking, but
deteriorating motor coordination had transformed her neat penmanship into a
series of squiggles.
now,” she said.
breathed deeply and opened his eyes, bracing himself for the inevitable scrawl.
The sheet of paper was folded in four. He set it to the side, then placed his
right palm on her left hand. The nurse had warned that sudden physical contact
could upset her, but she seemed calm right now. Her skin was warm, soft. He
allowed his hand to rest atop hers. Then a look of mild apprehension crept into
her eyes, and he pulled back.
love you,” she said. She was looking straight at him. “I love you, Ray.”
read the note.
surprised that a geezer like me needs your services,” Raymond said.
man, who had identified himself to Raymond simply as Tool, grinned. His nimble
fingers tapped commands into a micro-tablet on his belt. “I need to ask you a
tensed. The van’s windows were tinted, the interior soundproofed and
EM-blanketed, but he didn’t like discussing his private life with
anyone—especially someone like Tool. “What about?”
Tool said. “Your heartbeat shot up. I think the long delay in what you’ve asked
me to do gives me the right to be nosy.”
should the delay matter? I’m paying you a substantial retainer.”
Tool said. “We’re doing this my way or no way.” He pointed towards the van’s
focused on getting his vitals under control. “Fine.”
better. What’s your relationship to Donna Esposito?”
shot him a look. “She’s my wife. Which you knew.”
baseline question helps calibrate responses. She’s currently at a nursing
facility in your hometown of Cherryville, North Carolina. Is that where I’ll
find her a year and a half from now?”
is she there?”
suffered a stroke a year ago and needs full-time care.”
she retired at the time?”
do strange things when they have free time on their hands,” Tool said. “Like
grow a conscience.”
needn’t worry about a change of heart,” Raymond replied through pursed lips.
looked at something on his ocular implant. “So why the delay?”
shifted in the van’s seat. “Donna still has a good year and a half before she
really goes south.”
see,” Tool said, making it clear he didn’t. “Why not observe her progress and
play it by ear?”
clenched his jaw. “Limiting her suffering will bring me peace of mind.”
the specific time of night?”
shrugged. “She’ll be sleeping, with minimal staff around. I need to know
exactly when it will happen. It’s
critical that you execute the plan precisely
say I get a flat and I’m an hour late.”
don’t believe someone with your reputation,” Raymond said, “would be so
right. And yet things happen.”
up your fee by twenty percent. Just make sure it gets done on time.”
the minute,” Tool said.
spoke with the same deliberateness he used with Donna. “To—the—second.”
ran a hand through his shoulder-length hair. “Normally I wouldn’t ask this, but
your case is special: Why do you want this done?”
was a tightness in Raymond’s throat. “Because she told me.”
asked you to end her life?”
in so many words. But she made her wishes clear.”
highly personal,” Raymond said.
is what you’re asking me to do,” Tool replied. “Let’s be clear. The money doesn’t
make it impersonal. It simply
guarantees the reward is worth the risk.”
reached into his pocket and produced Donna’s note. He passed it to Tool, who
unfolded it and blink-scanned it.
line from a poem by someone called William Carlos Williams. Meaning?”
used to teach literature,” Raymond said. “The line she quoted—‘The rose is
obsolete’—is significant. She was always my rose, you see. She’s telling me
she’s outlived her usefulness. She wants to go.”
if she just wanted to cheer you up with pretty poetry?”
crossed his arms. “That’s absurd. I know my wife. I’ve lived with her forty
years. I understand how her mind works. We done?”
passed him a pad. “Once we part ways today, I’ll only be reachable for
twenty-four hours the day before your specified date. If a cancellation is
needed, that’s your window.”
scanned the screen and pressed his thumb over the designated area.
have a lot of information on you, Mr. Esposito.”
I could say the same, Raymond thought, but kept
silent. Who knew how much of it was real, or traceable.
van door opened and Raymond climbed out into the rainy night.
continued cutting out pictures and gluing them to the pages of the new binder.
amazing, sweetie,” Raymond said.
latest collage interspersed personal photos with pictures of actors and models
clipped from fashion magazines. They bore a vague resemblance to Donna and
Raymond, and some of the backdrops were similar too: a boat on which they’d
gone fishing had been placed alongside a celebrity couple on a luxury yacht,
Donna on a hill appeared next to a female rock-climber on a snow-capped summit,
and so on.
Donna continued snipping away Raymond paced her small room and finally sat
beside her, violating what the nurse had defined as Donna’s “personal comfort
zone.” Forty years of marriage should
give me the right. He smelled her hair.
hands began to fidget.
it’s okay. It’s just me.”
breathing sped up and she dropped the scissors and glue.
sorry,” he said. He scooted over. “I want you to know I understood your
message. I’m going to help you.”
happened. The clock on the wall tick-tocked away. Raymond went to the window
and pulled back the curtains. The gray sky’s swollen clouds cast dark,
lumbering shadows, promising rain.
love you,” he said, rising to leave. “You won’t have to be… obsolete… much longer.”
began humming a tune Raymond didn’t recognize. Then she picked up the scissors
and glue and resumed her scrapbooking.
love you,” Raymond repeated. “No matter what happens, I will see you again.”
for an instant, Donna looked up.
like Ray,” she said, directing her
gaze back down to the binder. She pointed to a picture of Ray, seemingly
oblivious to any connection between the man standing in her room and the man
smiling in the photograph.
I like Donna,” he said, pointed to a picture of her, and gave her a peck on the
cheek before leaving.
back of the man who called himself Sideways slumped against the trunk of a
massive longleaf pine. “No time to retire like the past, huh gramps?” he asked
as Raymond approached.
like that.” Raymond caught his breath and then said, “So, let’s get to it. What
are my odds?”
face hardened. “Forty percent survival chance.”
surprised himself with his language. “That’s fucking preposterous.”
travel is fucking preposterous,”
Sideways replied. “Why do you think it’s fucking illegal?” He licked his
chapped lips and popped a stick of chewing gum into his mouth. “You’re aware of
the consequences of jumping, pops?”
whiplash,” Sideways corrected. “When you jump into the past—the only direction
you can jump—you’re stealing
information from the present. To even things out, time steals information from
the future and selects someone whose remaining
lifespan precisely equals the length of
your jump. Voilà, they’re gone.”
a quick study. Their lost future equals your gained past. You’re going to jump
back a year and half. That means the nearest person to you who was going to
die—whether by natural causes or in some other way—a year and a half from the
moment of your jump will die when you
jump instead. You steal a year and
half from time, time steals a year and a half to even the score. Are you with
nodded. He visualized himself jumping, Donna disappearing through temporal
whiplash moments before Tool entered her room—
One step at a time.
blinked. Even though sunset had given way to night and the forest was chilly,
sweat slicked his underarms and beaded his forehead. “What else?”
pay me now, in full, and you’ll receive the tech a week from today. It will
only work once, so you’ll be stranded in the past—assuming you make it that far.
Word to the wise, if anything goes wrong, do not look up my younger self. He reacts poorly to temporal visitors,
in any reality.”
passed Raymond a translucent, wafer-thin device. Raymond provided his
authorization for the transfer of funds, then massaged his temples.
real pleasure.” Sideways pulled out his chewing gum and dropped it into a small
zip-lock bag which he dumped into his rucksack. A loud humming emanated from
several of Sideways’s facial implants, now apparently working in concert. He
stood in the gathering dusk, realizing that for Sideways he had already ceased
moment Raymond Esposito was in April 2014, the next he was in October 2012.
insides felt like they’d been torn from his body and stitched back together in
the wrong order. He keeled over and puked. Clearing his eyes from the sharp
sting of the upchuck, he forced himself to stand. Brain still on overload, he
scanned his immediate surroundings.
No one around. Good.
checked for landmarks. He was in the same spot from which he’d jumped, a dirt
path on the outskirts of Charlotte, deserted at this time of night.
shuffled toward the bed and breakfast he had scouted in 2014, bones aching as
though they had been beat with a steel pipe, muscles spent as if he’d just
completed a marathon. Breathe, he
told himself. Breathe. Remember why you’re doing this. She’s worth
all of it—and more.
the time he arrived he was ready to pass out. “Hi, looking for a single room,”
gaunt young man at the front desk barely glanced up from whatever was occupying
his attention behind the counter. “You got it. Credit card and ID please.”
reached into the wallet with his fake documents and cleared his throat while
the young man ran them through the computer.
thank you… Mr. Hoffman. My name’s Bert.” With difficulty Bert made eye contact.
“Any idea how long you’ll be staying with us, Mr. Hoffman?”
Bert proceeded to walk Raymond through the amenities and timetables. “Any
think I’m good,” Raymond said, feeling anything but. He glanced at the lobby,
comforted by its lack of guests. He had picked this place because it was forty
miles from Cherryville, a prudent buffer from his past self. Raymond knew that
by jumping into the past he had already created a new parallel timestream where
the future could turn out differently from the one he knew—that was the whole
point—but he still felt it best not to interact with his past self directly.
your key card,” Bert said. “Need a second one?”
already swiveling back toward his display, Bert said, “Have a great night.”
too,” Raymond muttered, then dragged himself toward his room.
moment later Bert’s voice called out. “Mr. Hoffman!”
turned, pyrotechnic pain bursting in his temples. “Yeah?” he groaned.
any help with your luggage?”
repressed the urge to wretch again. “Actually, I left it in the car,” he lied.
His clothes and wallet were all the extras he’d been able to carry on the jump.
“Too beat to bring it in tonight.”
frowned. “You sure? I could grab it for you. No trouble at all.”
sure,” Raymond said. “And please, see that I’m not disturbed in the morning.”
made his way upstairs without turning back.
the gauzy curtains that let the sun in at an obscenely early hour, Raymond
slept until evening the following day.
he rolled out of bed he slapped his cheeks to restore circulation to his creaky
doubled his heartbeat and made his palms clammy. He guzzled two bottles of
complimentary water from the small counter, which helped, but not much.
the next hour he regained a semblance of humanity. His eyes stopped feeling
like they were dissolving in their sockets. An examination in the bathroom
mirror revealed minor bruises on his arms and back, but no welts or
protuberances. Eventually he felt clear-headed enough to venture downstairs.
found the front desk occupied by a plump woman in her mid-sixties.
I’m Chris,” Raymond said. “Room twenty eight.”
woman smiled, revealing large, perfectly white teeth. Her long gray hair was
tied in a ponytail and, make-up free, she was radiant.
Bert let me know you came in last night,” she said. “I’m Patricia, the owner.
Welcome, and I hope you enjoy your stay with us, Mr. Hoffman. Let me know if
there’s anything you need.”
I have to mail a letter.”
take care of it for you,” Patricia said. “Can it wait till tomorrow’s pickup at
noon, or do you need it to go out sooner?”
Just drop it in here.” Patricia pointed to a metallic box labeled “Outgoing.”
Hoffman—Chris, if you don’t mind—how was your check-in?”
complaints,” Raymond said, then added: “Bert was helpful.”
to hear it.” Patricia appeared relieved. “He’s always got his head buried in
his devices. I wish he’d spend more time building relationships with actual
people, like our guests. So many return, I tend to think of them as extended
family.” The word “family” sent Raymond’s mind reeling in unpleasant
directions, and she seemed to sense it. “Anyway, I’m glad you’re doing well.”
I didn’t say that, Raymond thought.
“Thanks for your help.”
went out in search of letter-writing supplies. Walking down the street he was
overcome by the magnitude of what he’d done. A simple breathing exercise helped
get him through his errand. On the way back he stopped at a coffee shop and
ordered a triple cappuccino. The barista looked at the time—quarter to nine—and
said, “Long day, huh?”
life,” Raymond replied. He sat down in a corner and began composing his letter.
Dear Self, he wrote, then
crossed it out. Hi Ray, it’s me. As in, you. I’ve traveled back from the future—He
stopped again, crumpled the page and stuffed it in his pocket. Ray, please read this carefully. You have
something in common with the person writing this letter to you: your deep love
for your wife, Donna Esposito. But don’t worry, I’m not having an affair with
her. He went on from there, explaining who he was, and providing as proof
details about his relationship with Donna that only he, Raymond, would know. He
proceeded to explain that half a year from now, if Raymond took no action,
Donna would suffer a massive stroke. Doctors
believe these strokes are preventable, he wrote. Here are the things you must do to save your wife.
the next few days Raymond waited for a response from his younger self. What if I’d received a letter from someone claiming to be me from the future? he
asked himself. What would I do? He
didn’t like the answers.
checked himself for jump-related symptoms. Other than the occasional migraine,
he only showed mild hair loss—not too bad, all things considered.
to fend off loneliness, Raymond began taking his evening meals in the communal
dining area. Occasionally Patricia would spot him and join him for a few
you had the chance to talk to someone you’d cared for a great deal,” Raymond
asked her one evening, “someone whom you’d thought lost, what would you say?”
He wasn’t actually going to talk to the Donna of this time; that would create
too many complications. But it was nice to fantasize.
didn’t seem taken aback by his heartfelt yet oddly theoretical question. If she
was, she hid it well. “I’m not sure I’d have anything to say,” she answered
after a thoughtful silence. “If I truly thought I’d lost that person, I’d have
done my best to move on.”
here I was, thinking you were basically optimistic.”
arched her brow. “What makes you think I’m not?”
don’t believe in second chances.”
grinned. “Romantics looking for a way to correct past mistakes are in for a
disappointment. The kind of letdown that doesn’t sit well with my ‘basically
Touché, thought Raymond.
continued sending letters without a return address to his younger self via a
forwarding service in New York. He didn’t worry about fingerprints, since
they’d simply point to Raymond. In the letters he included an email address for
his younger self to contact him, and he checked the account several times a
Maybe he’s getting the
had to give. The meager savings in Raymond’s bank account—set up with the
identity of a 2014 guest of Donna’s residence—would only last a few more weeks.
then there were the nightmares. Raymond imagined that the temporal whiplash
resulting from his jump had killed someone other
than Donna. One night he dreamed about an old man standing in his kitchen,
fridge door open, his face a study in horror as he was sucked into a gaping
vortex of nothingness. And if Raymond had
messed up, it would mean that Tool would carry out the hit and really kill
Donna, instead of finding her gone, an event which Raymond’s night terrors
brought to life with startling immediacy. Raymond was in the room with her when
it happened, could see every detail of her restful face as Tool appeared.
Raymond tried to save her but he couldn’t—he couldn’t—he couldn’t move, and—
woke in a cold sweat, exhausted, disoriented.
Calm down, he told himself. He
reiterated the plan’s soundness in his mind, walked himself through it for the
umpteenth time. By having Tool plan to
kill Donna in October of 2015 at a specific time, I guaranteed that her
remaining lifespan precisely equaled the length of my jump. She and no one else
must have been struck by the temporal whiplash. She just ceased to exist. No
pain. In that reality, we’re both gone.
wasn’t a particularly comforting thought.
days later he finally received an email from his younger self. The message made
it clear that his younger self was having trouble accepting Raymond’s
story—duh—but that despite his skepticism he was doing as Raymond asked. He’d
spoken with Donna and she’d agreed to a medical evaluation. They had already
changed their diet and exercise regimens. The
event you describe looms four months, three weeks, and two days in the future,
the other Raymond wrote, and you better
believe I’ll do everything in my power to stop it from happening.
read the email several times and was ecstatic—at first.
he began to wonder. If his plan worked, if Donna was saved, what was he
supposed to do with the rest of his life? He was stranded in a reality he
himself had created by jumping into the past, one which housed a younger
version of himself that was taking care of Donna—so what was left for him to
Raymond’s final evening at the bed and breakfast Patricia approached and asked
if he’d mind company.
the first time you’ve asked for permission to join me,” Raymond said.
the first time you brought a friend along.” She pointed to the dog-eared book
by his plate.
are nice, but I prefer people,” he said. “Please, sit down.”
studied him before sitting down. That kind of stare, coming from anyone but
Donna, would usually have made him uncomfortable. But not this time.
couldn’t help but notice,” she said, in a quiet voice, “that room twenty eight
has been booked by a different guest tomorrow evening.”
Raymond blew a little air out of his mouth, somewhere between a sigh and a brrrr. “It’s time to move on. Though I
haven’t exactly figured out where I’m going.”
pulled her chair a little closer to the table. “I’m glad, Chris,” she said. “I
really am. Whatever your situation is, I’m happy that you’re moving forward.
And I have a little confession of my own to make.”
a few weeks it will be my twentieth anniversary at this bed and breakfast,” she
said. “That’s a long time to be in one place. Don’t get me wrong, I love North
Carolina and all... ”
going to give myself a year off. Why not? I’ve worked hard. I can afford it.
And Bert can manage—with some help—during that time. I’ve always wanted to
travel. Go to Europe. I figure better now than when I’m old and frail.”
words slipped out of Raymond’s mouth with ease. “It’s hard for me to picture
you that way.”
smiled with her eyes. “If you still haven’t decided what your next step is when
I take my sabbatical, maybe Europe will inspire you.”
thought about his future, but he didn’t have to think for long. “That’s a very
appealing offer,” he began, “but I can’t afford—”
be my guest,” she said. “At least for the first few weeks. Then we’d find a way
to work something out.”
swallowed, at a loss for words.
don’t have to answer now. Just think about it,” she said. She wrote down her
contact information and slid it across the table.
didn’t need additional prodding. “Thank you so much, Patricia.”
scanned the title of his paperback. “Any good?”
a classic,” he said.
that mean you haven’t read it?”
both laughed. “I guess there’ll be plenty of time for that in Europe,” he
could you sort through the mail inside
the house? This is heavy! C’mon already!”
and Raymond were each weighed down by two over-stuffed grocery bags. Despite
the hot sun, he had committed the felony of stopping to check the mail on the
way in. Sweating, Raymond saw there was only junk mail. He sighed with relief,
then caught up with his wife.
they unpacked the groceries, Donna sipped diet soda and said, “Seriously hon,
what were you doing back there?”
trying to be efficient,” he said, wiping the last perspiration from his
forehead. “I need a shower.”
know,” she said, “you’ve been a little on edge lately. And this mad rush to
make us fitness buffs… it’s stressing me out. Is everything okay?”
great,” he fibbed. “I just want us to be healthy. I’m going to clean up now.”
the shower he lingered under the hot water. He hadn’t told Donna about the
letters, or how they’d stopped arriving after he’d sent an e-mail—unanswered—to
their alleged author about four months ago. He detested keeping secrets from
Donna. It was time to come clean. He would tell her there was nothing to worry
about, because even if it had all been true, the disaster day the letters had
warned of was today, so they were in the clear.
a fresh set of clothes, and already feeling better, he entered the living room,
where Donna was flipping through a magazine on her tablet. “Hungry?” he asked.
“I’ve been doing some thinking. Maybe we could talk over macrobiotic shakes?”
looked up, lips on the cusp of a smile. “Sure. But let me change into something
few minutes after Donna left the room Raymond heard a loud thump from upstairs,
and the thing he dreaded most came to pass.
admired his wife’s pensive brown eyes. He knew that she was aware of him, could
tell from the subtleties of her body language—the slight arch in her back, the
relaxed pose of her shoulders—that she was pleased to see him.
are they treating you?” He spoke at a normal pace; it helped keep Donna
engaged. “They tell me you’re making tremendous progress, thanks in part to our
preventive measures. The doctor said that in time you’ll be able to come back
home.” He paused, feeling the need, for both their sakes, to temper his
enthusiasm. No point in rushing things. Donna was going to need a year of
physical therapy to recover, maybe longer.
moved forward in her chair, and placed her hands, palms upturned, on her lap.
reached for his bag. “I brought you something I think you’ll like.” He produced
a binder, placed it on the teak coffee table. “Red cover and three rings. Your
favorite type. And here are some more pictures of us, to keep the scrapbook
in slow motion, Donna opened the binder and slid her fingers along its sleek
placed the photos beside the binder, as well as blank pages, a pencil, soft
scissors and glue.
regarded the assortment of marvels as though it represented a universe of
Not “as though,” Raymond thought; “for her, that’s exactly what it is.” He
recalled the famous poem by William Blake, the line about seeing a world in a
grain of sand.
grabbed pencil and paper.
observed her, thinking about the letters from his older self. According to him,
quoting poetry had been Donna’s way of letting his future self know that she
had had enough. That event, according to the letters’ sender, had been the
catalyst for his plan. She’ll reference
William Carlos Williams, the letter had warned. And you’ll understand.
Donna busied herself with her writing, Raymond considered events. There were
two parallel realities now, thanks to his older self: the timestream in which
Donna suffered a massive stroke and Raymond decided to jump back in time,
killing her in the process, and the reality—his
reality—in which the older Raymond arrived from the future and helped him
mitigate that disastrous outcome, so that Donna had a mild stroke. Raymond
wasn’t sure what his older self would do, now that he was trapped here, but he
knew one thing for certain. He,
Raymond Esposito from 2012, wasn’t going to attempt the experiment again, not
in a few years, not ever. In this reality, he wouldn’t contact Tool or
Sideways. He’d remain at his wife’s side, helping her heal, for as long as that
you,” Donna said, bringing him back to the present. “For you, Ray.”
read her surprisingly neat print:
The fragility of the flower
was a pause, and then she began inspecting the photos and setting some aside.
was the same poem the letter had warned about, but different lines. Donna was
his rose, his flower, and her inner fragility was unbruised, despite the
physical toll her body had suffered. Raymond smiled, folded the piece of paper
and tucked it into his blazer pocket.
you, Donna,” he said, standing up and placing a hand on her shoulder. “‘It is
at the edge of the petal that love waits.’”