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Timebender

By NathanToronto All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi

Timebender

When I woke with a migraine, I knew something was up, but when I saw myself sitting across the room, lacing my running shoes, I was pretty sure I was crazy. I sat up and put my head in my hands. The migraines were coming more often now.

"Honey?" my wife asked, groggy. "What is it?"

"I need to make another appointment with Dr. Ryan. I think it's getting worse."

"I'm sure he'll give you something to make it feel better."

I grunted a vague affirmation. No need to tell her that I had just seen myself across the room, that I was pretty sure Ryan didn't really know what the problems was, that...


I finished tying my shoe, and it felt earlier than it should have for some reason. I looked at my watch. 4:43. Definitely too early. Seven minutes earlier than normal, in fact. Why wasn't I in bed still?

"Honey, are you going to call Dr. Ryan today?"

Oh, yeah. Ryan. I had just had a conversation about calling him for an appointment, hadn't I? Why couldn't I remember when I'd had that conversation? "I... I'm going for a run," I whispered, kissing her gently on the cheek.

The run felt good. It was a perfectly crisp morning in Columbus, the Buckeyes were about to play for another national title, and my tenure review was coming up. I felt good about it. The run up High Street was punishing, but I knew it would be a lot easier on the way back down. The CVS on 18th was already open when I passed. One mile more and I could turn around, right after High crested from the commercial district into the residential area where many of the Ohio State faculty lived.

When I turned around, something was wrong. A police cruiser sped passed me down High. My music had been too loud. At 22nd, when the CVS came into plain view, it was a mess. Not that it was messy, but that half the store front was gone. There was a gasoline tanker jack-knifed on the road, splayed open and glowing. At 20th, two blocks away, I could feel the heat from the flames. There were already a couple of ladder trucks there, the firefighters hard at work. The cop was setting up the police line. Sirens were approaching rapidly.

I crossed the street to avoid the police line, slowing to a walk. My hand went to the timer on my wrist. No point keeping track of time spent not running. It would throw off the pacing.

My path took me towards a scruffy-looking man in a bath robe, standing on the sidewalk opposite the disaster. Probably an undergrad who thought he'd done enough of his homework.

"Hey," I asked him, "What happened?"

His eyes stayed riveted to the flames. "Yeah, dude, like seven minutes ago this car comes screamin' out the side street, tires screeching. That's when I looked up, and I see crazy frat boy--I'm sure it was a frat car from across the street--he comes screamin' out and then it's SLAM and POW. Dude drivin' the truck didn't even have a chance to brake. Flames everywhere. Pretty spectacular. Sad, ya know, for the people that were hurt, but it's not like I'm just gonna go inside and NOT watch, right?"

"Seven minutes, you say?" My heartbeat went up even more.

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure it was seven minutes. I was out gettin' the paper, ya know? I noticed the time, cuz I tweeted it already." He checked his phone. "Yup, seven minutes."

I raced home. I called Harry Ryan's office as soon as it opened.


"There's really nothing wrong with your tests, John. I say we just help you with the pain and monitor things."

"C'mon, Harry. There must be something in there, some deviation from the mean."

"Nope, sorry. In fact, you're so healthy it makes me jealous. Some time I want you to tell me what your secret is, John."

"Except that I'm NOT healthy, Harry. I get pretty nasty headaches that no one can explain, even you, one of the top neurosurgeons in the country, in a country full of great neurosurgeons!"

"Okay, okay, let's keep a level head about this. I can help out with the the pain..."

"It's not the pain," I interrupted. "It's the not knowing WHY."

Ryan heaved a sigh. "Alright, can you tell me what brings on the migraines?"

"We've been through this before, Harry. There's no discernible pattern of events that precipitates them."

He scrunched up his nose. "Right. Your professor-speak is making me work harder than normal." He looked at me over the rim of his glasses. "I betcha there's a pattern. You just haven't figured it out yet. Have you tried keeping a journal? Recording when and how these things come on?"


I took the stairs up to Derby Hall two at a time. It was still early, but I wanted to give myself as much time as possible before I met with the tenure review committee. They were basically going to decide the course of my career. Would I stay at Ohio State, or would I have to fritter away my best creative years teaching way too many classes at some lesser academic haunt?

I started reaching to pull open the door to Derby, but reached for my head instead. Another migraine. It was only 7:00, just after sun-up, but even that paltry light was blinding. I could barely see, in fact was basically navigating on memory as I went through the doors and started up the interior stairs to the second floor. One hand was in the rail and the other was on my head. A figure was moving down the stairs. A graduate student burning the midnight oil? The figure passed close by, too close, and--to my horror--stuffed something into my coat pocket.

"Hey! What gives? Hey, stop!" The figure was gone, down the stairs and out the door. Had he taken something? No, but I reached into my pocket and found what he had put there. A slip of paper. The light in the stairwell was just dim enough to tolerate reading. There were dates and times, with today's date and 7:15 at the top. I looked at my watch. Seven-fifteen was fourteen minutes from now. The date and time from my last run were there, too, when I narrowly missed the truck explosion at CVS. There were other dates written there, but then I noticed that I had written them down. The dates and times were written in my own scrawl.

When the words on the slip of paper started to disappear, I had to lean on the metal handrail. I forced myself to move towards my office, so the vertigo wouldn't overcome me on the stairs. I reached into my pocket for my...


I was sitting at my desk. My computer screen was blank. How long had I been sitting here like that? I woke up the computer, logged in. The time said 6:54. Wait. Was that right? I checked my watch and my phone. At least twenty minutes off. I opened up my e-mail and froze. There was a message there from myself, even though I didn't remember sending it.

DON'T BRING UP THE ALIENS ARTICLE.

That was all it said, and I knew exactly what it was referring to. I would be tempted to bring that up in the review, an article I'd written a couple of years prior about the theoretical effects of contact with extraterrestrials on our understanding of how countries related to one another. It had been received well--meaning, it hadn't been panned--but it was regarded as too quirky for my career at the time. I was pretty confident going into the review, so I didn't see why I should be worried about bringing it up. I had the NSF grant for the human capital development project, and I had a book with a good quality academic press. It wasn't Princeton or Cambridge, but it was a decent press. I had also gotten teaching awards, and I was consistently publishing interesting articles in high-tier journals. What was to worry? Should I trust my common sense, which said that the aliens article would be no problem, or should I trust an inexplicable email message from myself?

When the moment of decision came during the tenure review, an obvious answer to that question did not present itself. Three of my colleagues were sitting around the table, talking with me about my scholarly contributions, nothing less than my career at stake. They didn't bring up the aliens article. Should I? I trusted the inscrutable message from myself. I didn't bring it up. Maybe there was a reason besides the message that made the decision for me; I couldn't put my finger on it. 

The review was successful. As we were saying our good-byes, one of the committee members said, "Hey, John, thanks for not bringing up that article about E.T. Very divisive."


A week before I was to leave for Africa for field research, I was making the school run with my oldest daughter in the car. A powerful migraine came on all of a sudden. I pulled over, it clouded my vision so much. As my foot pressed the brake and my hand gently turned the wheel, I saw a car materialize from where my car had just been. It wasn't a car that had been following too closely and then passed me as I pulled over. It was the exact same car as mine, as if two cars had diverged from one. I shielded my eyes and peered into the other car. I couldn't believe it, but there were two silhouettes in that car, silhouettes that precisely matched my daughter and me. The driver of that car--the other me?--must have been distracted, because he passed through the intersection on a clear red. Horrified, I saw a semi-truck bear down on the car, horn blaring, and then....


My knuckles were white, my hands gripping the steering wheel. I could feel the glean of sweat on my forehead. The car was stopped on the side of the road. My breath was coming in forceful bursts.

"Dad? You okay?" My daughter's voice broke in on my reality.

"I..." I didn't know what to say.

"Dad, c'mon. I'm gonna be late for school." The natural whine was in her voice.

"Did you see that?"

"See what? Dad, what the heck is going on? Let's go! All I see is us not getting closer to my school! I don't want to be THAT kid who's always late."

"So... you didn't see anything unusual just now?" I put the car in gear and started forward, but then I slammed on the brakes. I remembered.

"Dad!!" I ignored her. I remembered. I remembered the other car, the two silhouettes, the semi. It had just passed through the intersection, and there was no crash, no other car. My daughter grunted her disapproval as I reached into the glove box to rummage for a pen, anything to write with. I fished out the paper that had been crumpled up in my pocket for days, then I scribbled down a few notes. Would these disappear too? Wait, I remembered that, too. Not what had been on the paper, but that there had been something there at all. I wasn't crazy to keep a crumpled up, blank piece of paper in my pocket. Exhilaration coursed through me.

"Dad, c'mon! It would be faster for me to walk!"

"Okay, okay, chillax. Isn't that what you say? We're a little late, but we're going to get there. We are alive. We are alive."

"You're weird, Dad."


The next time it happened, I was in Africa. A truckload of migrant workers veered off the road to avoid a kid on a bike. I didn't want to think about how many were killed or injured. I just bent back far enough to stop the kid on the bike as the truck went passed. All I did was ask him for directions. My head hurt, but not nearly as much as it had at first. I looked at my scrap of paper, waiting for my notes to disappear. They didn't, so I wrote down the date, time, and place. I checked the paper over the next few days. The writing never disappeared.

A couple of days before I left Africa, when a hundred people were killed in a stadium stampede, I bent back two days to my research interview with the local police commissioner. I tried to make it unobtrusive, but when I went to the stadium on the day of the match, I saw a huge police presence and people with keys to the gates posted where they were supposed to be. On that run of the match (the second run?), there was disorder, but there was no stampede, and no one was killed. The writing still didn't disappear, so I bought a small notebook and transferred my notes.

Pretty soon, I moved on to bigger problems, not ways that saved people's lives, but ways that improved them. The more I helped, the less my head hurt and the farther I could bend back. I traveled to the West Bank once, to keep an IDF soldier from killing a Palestinian kid, because it had set off another intifada. I helped Mali avoid another coup. I revealed corruption in the House of Lords. With so much more time on my hands, I could do a lot more good.

I see myself all the time now. I try to say hi, have a conversation, but mostly I just smile and wave, and pass the notebook. I always pass the notebook.

I went to see Ryan for a six-month follow-up. "John," he asked, "any progress on figuring out those migraines?"

"Well, Harry, now that you mention it..."

"Yes?"

I considered telling him. "Now that you mention it, the darn things have gone away. Either I'm cured, or it was all in my mind!"

"Right. Make another appointment for six months from now, just so we can be sure there's no change, okay?"

I never made that appointment.


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