For thirty years or more now calls through time have been a normal part of life. Most people don’t think anything of it anymore. It’s the same as an electric car or a holo screen or a comm to them.
I didn’t understand what time calling was until my closest friend in second grade took a call. It wasn’t often that kids got calls, and for a few short weeks after Laura took hers the two of us enjoyed the grade school fame that came with it. She was the girl who’d gotten to go to the Call Center, and I was her best friend—the only kid in class with unlimited access to the story.
Sometimes I acted as proxy to fill in the other kids at recess when Laura had too much of a crowd to deal with. I had the whole story down by heart: How she remembered going to the center, and her parents had to sign something saying it was okay for her to take the call. They seemed nervous, she said, but she was just excited to see what it was like.
The next thing she remembered was finding herself in the booth after the call ended, with a funny weighted feeling in her arms and legs. Her head and her ears were all tingly. Her parents were waiting outside the booth and they couldn’t tell her who she’d talked to or what about.
“How is that a story?” Some kid always complained, even though the rest were enraptured by the mystery.
“You wanted to hear!” Laura would yell, or I would if it were me.
“But that’s boring! Why can’t you remember talking to somebody? That’s stupid.”
Laura would cross her arms and draw herself up like she knew everything and everyone else was so dumb. It’s something I guess seven year olds are good at—I’ve seen such things since—but really I think Laura was a lot like Ivory, just blond. It’s getting harder to remember her very well, but that makes sense to me.
“Because I was talking to somebody in the future!” she’d say. “My mom says you’re not allowed to remember what they said if you’re talking to somebody from the future ’cause then you might go and change something. And some people might do all kinds of bad stuff, like steal or something.”
Of course after that everyone else would nod their heads and say Ohhhhh like they got it. I don’t know how many did, but they didn’t want to look dumb. I don’t even know how well I understood then.
Laura and I didn’t think anything else of it. It was cool for a while, and then the interest died down at school. We thought that was it, but she told me her parents were still acting strangely.
“They’re being way too nice to me and letting me eat a lot of candy and watch my shows way more often, and Dad’s letting me play games all the time on the really big holo screen in his office when they didn’t used to let me go in there, and Mom asks if I want her to make me chocolate milk like every five minutes, and last night they let me have grilled cheese for dinner for the third time in a row.”
“Wooow, really? I wish they were my parents right now.”
That weekend she and her parents went away to an amusement park, and the weekend after that they took another trip. Then another. They took her everywhere she’d ever asked to go. Sometimes she missed a day of school to make a weekend longer. Once they were gone for a whole week. I never saw her outside of school anymore.
“We’ve got to finish our story!” I complained. “We haven’t decided how the princess is going to get rescued.” We thought we were the masters of imagination, Laura and I. We spent weekends in each others’ bedrooms and back yards, slaying dragons and flying spaceships.
“We will, as soon as my parents stop being weird.”
“You’re going somewhere else this weekend?”
“Yeah...I’m gonna ask again if you can come with us one time though.”
“Fine. I love you,” I pouted.
“I love you too!” Laura giggled and kissed me clumsily on the cheek. We were on the schoolbus home. An electronic voice from a panel in the bus wall by our seat piped up to tell us Laura’s house was next, and she gathered her backpack to be ready to go to the front when we came to a stop.
That was our last conversation.
Monday morning came, and Laura didn’t come back. I spent the entire day wondering where she was. I asked teachers who evaded the question. Other kids talked, like they always did. Someone said they thought they overheard one of the adults say something had happened to her. My little heart started to pound, and I didn’t understand how anyone could know more than me. I was her best friend. I should know more than anyone.
I didn’t know anything for certain until I got home from school that day. My mom was waiting for me, to tell me there’d been an accident. She didn’t tell me what kind of accident, just that Laura was gone. I don’t remember much else, like I don’t remember much about the day St. Louis disappeared a year or so later.
There are really specific things I do remember from that evening—just a few. Like walking into the kitchen where Mom was waiting, and the way she was sitting there on the edge of a chair, chewing a fingernail. I remember the ice cream she gave me that night, and the way I didn’t register anything about it but the cold going down my throat. I didn’t really want it; I ate it mechanically, to make Mom feel better, maybe. The next summer I did a lot of the same things for Grandma Jean. She told me to eat, or sleep, so I did, only because I didn’t like the way she looked at me when she was worried. As a kid I think I equated worrying her with hurting her, and I didn’t want to do that.
I’m sure Mom worried anyway. “Do you want to stay home tomorrow, kiddo?” she asked me.
I shook my head, because what would that do? She said Laura was gone, like our cat Snowy was gone and buried in the back yard and the goldfish had been flushed down the toilet. Staying home from school wouldn’t change that. I don’t know how detailed my thoughts really were then, at seven years old, but I know I didn’t want to sit around at home and think about how we didn’t have a cat anymore and my best friend wouldn’t be around anymore, either.
The next morning I was awake earlier than I’d ever been awake for school. I practically charged the bus when it pulled up to the house.
A week later at recess my tentative hold on pretending everything was fine was shattered. Two teachers—mine and another—didn’t know I was hiding against the outside wall of the building, near a fence at the edge of the playground. It was a little chilly that day. I’d found a lee from the breeze, and they couldn’t see me around the corner. All I wanted to do was sit on the concrete and keep to myself, but I overheard them.
“—heard of parents calling back once their children are grown, just to remember what they were like then,” my teacher was saying, when I picked up the conversation. “I think that’s sweet, really. I’d do it. I thought that was all it was. I told her mother that was probably all it was. No need to worry. Lord knows, if we all worried…”
“Thank goodness she didn’t listen to you.”
“Oh, I know. I feel so awful. It must have been them after all, calling her from someday down the road. Just not for the reason I thought.”
“You didn’t know.”
“Of course not! Why would I? Who would want to think that? But I suppose it’s a blessing now, that the thought crossed their minds. They were able to spend that extra time with their daughter before she died.” My teacher sighed. “Though who am I to say? Maybe they wish there hadn’t been a call. That they had no reason to suspect.”
“It’s happened before, you know.”
“I’m sure it has. I just, I’ve never heard of—I mean I’ve never known anyone…”
“Neither have I. Just stories. It’s horrible.” Even now I can imagine the other teacher shuddering, even though I couldn’t see them. “Why would they call later if they know what it did to them when the call came in?”
“Well it’s happened, hasn’t it? I don’t know know that they could change it…but temporal mechanics is a bit beyond me.”
I didn’t want them to know I was there, but I didn’t want to hear anymore. I didn’t understand most of it. I plugged my ears and waited for recess to be over.
When I got home I ran to my mom. I was already crying, because as soon as I was off the bus and away from the prying eyes of the other kids, I couldn’t hold it back anymore.
“Mom! Mom, where are you! Mommy!”
She’d been in the kitchen, and she met me in the doorway. She must have heard me, how upset I was. She was on her knees pulling me into her arms before I could start talking.
“Hey. Hey, what’s wrong? Aurora?”
“Did…?” I dropped my backpack and shuddered as I coughed through a sob. “D-did Laura die b-because she got a call? Do we die if we get a call?” It was the first time I’d said the d-word out loud. It was the first time I’d accepted it...the first time I’d really, really realized that Laura wasn’t coming back.
“What? No...no, that’s not how it works, kiddo. It’s not. I promise.”
“No…” Mom picked me up and brought me to the couch in the living room. I still remember that couch. Soft purple microfiber and cushions you could sink into. I loved it, but in hindsight it was pretty ugly. “Why did you think that?” she asked.
I told her what I could remember. I’m sure she was furious the teachers had let themselves be overheard—that they’d talked about such a thing outside at all—but she buried it, for me. She stayed on that couch with me for the rest of the day.
She also didn’t lie to me. She and Dad never lied to me later either, really. They just didn’t answer my questions. Probably to protect me, after what had happened with Laura. So I wouldn’t worry. I still don’t know if I’m grateful or not for the way they handled it.
“They weren’t saying she died because she got a call, Aurora. They were saying she probably got a call because something happened. Was going to happen, I mean.”
“But that’s the same thing…”
“No, it’s not. Aurora, look at me.” She held my shoulders, and I did. “Time calling is just so you can talk to people. It’s a tool, like a comm or a tablet. What matters is what people do with it; it doesn’t make things happen. That’s why Laura wasn’t allowed to remember who she talked to and anything they said, so she wouldn’t know about the future. So things would happen the way they were going to happen anyway. Does that make sense?”
Mom tried her best, but I was seven. I wasn’t the most rational. And what stayed with me was this: Maybe they wish there hadn’t been a call. That they had no reason to suspect.
I still don’t know what kind of accident killed Laura. I remember Mom told me it happened on Sunday morning, but that’s all I remember. Now there’s no one left from my life then to ask. Were they back from their trip that morning? Were they just going to church, or did it happen on a trip they wouldn’t have taken if there had been no call?
I don’t know if my parents got a call before they died. If they did they didn’t tell me that, either.
My freshman year of high school I finally told Ivory and Matthew about Laura. I told them what I’d heard. For minutes after I was done there was no sound but the fall leaves rustling in the wind and the creak of the metal chains that hung a tire swing from a tree behind Ivory’s house.
I climbed out of the swing, and Ivory climbed in. Maybe it was just stalling. She looked at Matthew, who eventually cleared his throat and broke the silence.
“We knew someone too,” Ivory said.
“Not as well,” Matthew added quickly. “I mean...he was my cousin, technically, we played together some as kids, but we didn’t know him very well.”
Ivory’s hands clenched and unclenched around the swing chains. “Before you moved here he got a call, and he was dead three weeks later. We only know about the call because I heard his parents talking. We were eleven or twelve; it’s not like they would have told us that.”
I sat down heavily in the grass. “Great.”
“What?” Matthew asked.
“I just mean...I wanted to think it didn’t happen often. That the teachers were wrong.”
“It’s not like it’s some sort of conspiracy,” Ivory offered. “People die, and people who loved them want to talk to them before it happened. That’s the whole point of being able to call through time, isn’t it?”
Matthew corrected her. “One of the points.”
“Yeah, but that’s not my point.”
I was shaking my head, arms around my knees. “Promise you’ll never call me. Either of you. It’s not worth it.”
“I won’t if you won’t,” Ivory agreed readily, raising a hand. Matthew just raised one of his own to agree with us.
We didn’t talk about it often after that, but it was a promise we all planned to keep.