It was late at night when Professor Alex Smith finished what the world had thought unimaginable. His pale fingers turned a tiny handle, jabbed a couple of flashy buttons, evoking 80s video games, and his chest swelled in a triumphant sigh.
He picked the phone and called his collaborator. “The laser’s beam is perfect. I tested it a hundred times and realized it was just a matter of intensity.” His heart throbbed in his throat.
“Intensity? No kidding—just that?” Mary Bonini said in an anxious voice. “So… when?”
“Tomorrow?” Alex said in an orotund voice.
Silence followed until Mary said, “Oh… I thought…”
Glad as a child, Alex widened his smile. He rocked his head back, eyes shut, and roared in a sort of excitement, “I’m ready!”
That night, sleeping became a hard task for both Alex and Mary. Alex tossed and turned, his mind picturing laser beams and flashy buttons.
They met in the lab on the day after, a sunny and warm morning, which seemed to invite every Floridian to flock to parks and beaches. Even the usual humidity gave a break on that fabulous day. But inside the lab, Mary couldn’t care less about the outer world, and neither did Alex.
The latter lifted a lever, and a turbine’s hum grew. A piece of massive machinery began to spin, flash, and blow dusty air into Alex’s and Mary’s air. The machine worked as a fence, and inside it, a maze, gleaming with purplish beams of light, could pass for a mini-golf course. The rays passed through giant crystals and split, hit panels that reflected them, crossed a dozen times while figures scrolled on a screen.
Mary watched the machine in a kind of hypnotic state while wearing her lab coat. “Are you sure?”
Alex nodded, breathed deeply like the scuba divers before sinking, rubbed his glasses with a cloth, and wore them back. Brave, he inched to the maze. A generator spun like an arcade tube that makes adults and kids laugh and scream. The man entered the labyrinth, reached its center, and his image froze like a photo, except that he was gone. In a few seconds, his shape turned to air, and Mary couldn’t help gaping at the part where her colleague had just vanished, writing History.
Not even a minute after, Professor Smith materialized in the maze’s center like a rabbit from a magician’s hat. His chest swelled fast, his arms open, and that look you have when you get everything ran well.
“A—Alex,” Mary says, eyes-bulged, her fat cheeks sweated.
Alex grinned under his beard, adjusted his glasses, and loped out of the maze.
Mary couldn’t find the words “How…” She shrugged.
“Do you want to know how it was?” Alex said, hugging her like he had spent a year abroad. “It was a-m-a-z-i-n-g.”
The turbine’s din filled the quiet minute that followed. Jaw-dropped, the woman freed herself from the hug, shaking the man’s arms. “Come on. Tell me.”
Alex switched the machinery off and peeked around as if the lab belonged to his past. “Let’s have coffee. I need it.”
A long march took the two scientists to the canteen at the end of a long and bright corridor. Two groups of scientists crossed them. No one had the slightest idea about what Professor Smith and Professor Bonini had achieved.
Alex glimpsed at the windows. “I forgot how sunny today was—I mean, is.”
Sitting in a busy cafeteria, where the customers’ talks sounded in the air like formulas, data, or analysis, Alex clutched his colleague’s hands and said, “I went there.”
“There,” echoed Mary as if she found that word more exciting than what her colleague was about to tell her. “Did you show up at the park—I mean, Point B?”
“Ah-hum.” Professor Smith sipped his latte. “From Point B, I wandered along the streets, and—”
Professor Mary’s voice picked an uneasy tone. “Did you see anything odd? I mean… the cars, people—”
“Mary, I was there.” Alex shut his eyes and smirked.
With her eyes fixed on him, the woman ripped a bag of sugar, dropped it into her cup, and repeated the same action with her colleague’s mug. “There…” she added.
Why did you keep the sugar bags in your pocket?” Alex asks, grimacing.
Mary appeared distracted. “What?”
“Never mind.” He shook her hands like when kids sing a lullaby.
“So, where did you go?”
“As I told you before a few days ago, I wanted to see my family,” Alex said. He snapped a cookie and flung a piece into his mouth.
Mary swelled her eyes. “Did you…”
“Meet them?” he said, munching with joy. “Kind of.”
“What d’you mean?” she asked, leaning nearer.
A group of scientists skimmed their table. Their chatting about whether Infinity plus one equals a different Infinity inhibited Alex from talking. When their voices faded, Alex said, “I couldn’t reveal my true identity.”
“The Grandfather’s Paradox,” Mary said, taking time to utter those words like she tasted them.
“I said I was a bookseller cuz I know my parents’ curiosity for books and affinity for the agents. As I assumed, they let me in, offered a cup of tea—typical of my mom—and discussed an encyclopedia I made up—” The man paused when Mary looked anxious to speak.
“You met your family? I thought we agreed…”
“I know,” he said, nodding in a stern look.
Mary shook her head. Her blonde mane flapped like a horse’s. “That could cause…”
“A paradox?” He asked, eyes-narrowed. “Maybe.”
Mary gawked at him with raised brows.
“And yet the temptation was too overwhelming. Are we scientists or not?”
Mary swallowed and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Did you end up in the right year?”
The coffee’s aroma filled the air. Customers took turns in the cafeteria, but Alex and Mary had no plan to leave.
“You should have seen my mom, forty years younger, and heard my dad’s quick answers. They had a fat dog I barely remember.”
Mary’s lips tremble. “Where were you? I mean, the other you.”
“Upstairs. All the time. I used to spend hours in my room, reading about astronomy, chemistry, or working at my prototype time-machine.”
“Since a young age?”
Alex nodded and cracked a grin that turned his beard bigger like when a cat grows its fur.
The two Professors treated themselves with more latte and cookies. After all, that was the century’s discovery, and they expected the highest scientific awards.
“And what happened after?” the woman asked, squinting.
“When my pretexts to stay with them no longer justified my presence in that house—my home—I left the house not before assuring them I would have come back with one sample volume of an imaginary encyclopedia. ‘Our son is such a diligent kid. I know he’s going to love it,’ my mom said, making me want to stay there forever.
I knew I had to hurry and return to Point B before seven; otherwise, the space-time bridge would shut off. I thought I had plenty of time because my seventies-style wristwatch said a quarter past six, but I flinched when I glanced at the clock around my house’s corner—the very same thick clock-post my friends and I would use to hide when we played hide-and-seek—it struck five to seven. I asked a passer-by who confirmed the public clock told the truth; so, I raced to the park, cutting streets and avenues like a thief escaping the police, and when I had almost reached it…” Alex pursed his mouth, shrugging.
Mary peeled her eyes. “What happened?”
“I heard the screech of wheels, jerked my head, and saw a car almost running over me. The driver swerved and ended up against a lamp post.”
“Where were you?” Mary asked with wet eyes.
Alex drew an imaginary map in the air with his fingers. “In the middle of Maddock Street. It’s the last street before the park.”
Mary nodded. “Sure. I know it. I grew up in that area.”
“Oh, yeah. Right. I forgot that.”
“What happened to the driver?”
“I have no clue. I just know I must hurry up to not get trapped in the past and for the sake of the experiment,” he said, frowning.
Mary forced a grin. “Of course... the experiment.” Her mind seemed elsewhere.
“Well,” Alex said, rubbing his hands. “The experiment must go on. Shall we go back?”
The scientists returned to the lab, made sure they shut off the precious machine, searched for any radioactive anomaly, called the board in DC, informed the campuses, and spent a few more hours filling a computer program. They knew the data they put in the system represented a milestone in Human History. When all was set and done, they called the night watchman, moved to the changing room area, and said good night to each other.
Three months had flown since the experiment, and between ovations and journalists’ questions, Professor Mary Bonini entered a Limousine outside the Nobel Prize’s venue. It was dark and rainy at that Scandinavian latitude, utterly different from the Floridian weather, especially the sunny day of the experiment.
“Congrats, Mary,” an agent said, shaking her hands in the vehicle. The car took off, and from the rear seats, the agent and she engaged in a technical talk.
“I believe that amount should be enough for Professor Alex Smith’s Memorial,” Mary said.
“Absolutely. He deserves it.” the agent said, ordering papers.
The car stopped in front of a luxury hotel, some staff members opened the vehicle’s door, and others held umbrellas over Mary and her agent.
Mary stepped to the elevator bank, and the man opted for the bar.
“I’ll drop by your room tomorrow morning to show you some documents to sign if you don’t mind,” the agent said.
“Sure,” Mary said, smiling.
She took the elevator, trod on a costly carpet, and reached her room’s door. With the key-card in her hand, she wavered, watching the outer door as if this were one of her scientific papers. She shut her eyes and sighed. The card slipped into the metallic mouth, causing a click, and her fancy high-heel shoes stepped in a grand room, whose view over Stockholm was second to none.
A reinvigorating shower and a call to the reception to ask for a seven o’clock wakeup call signed the end of the woman’s contact with the rest of the world. Alone and focused on her thoughts, she slumped on the bed and turned on the TV. Zapping aimlessly, she found five or six channel’s reporters, talking about the century’s invention—Alex’s and her device.
“Professor Mary Bonini,” a journalist said, “one of the Time-Machine creators, will devolve a large sum to the late Professor Alex Smith’s Memorial. At today’s awards, she spent a few words, describing her colleague as a brother and a bold scientist. Sadly, Professor Smith’s trip to the past caused his death. He died on the very night of the first and last time-travel due to mysterious causes. Plenty of experts suggest the space-time structure might destroy the organism. The autopsy failed to explain the cause of his death. It seemed like the scientist’s body simply stopped working.”
Mary turned off the TV, watched the black screen, and tears left her eyes. The tears became a wail, and the wail a desperate sobbing. Lost memories floated in her head: the seventies, the Abba’s songs, the strong scent of her school books, and her dad’s hugs. And then that fateful evening, when two police officers knocked on her house’s door, her mom’s screams, and the funeral. Somehow, Mary’s grief extended to Professor Alex too.
“I’m sorry, Alex. I had to...” she said, rubbing her eyes. “I had to avenge my dad. I had to put poisoned sugar into your latte. My father would have lived if you hadn’t jogged past his car on Maddock Street in that 1977’s damned evening.
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