Three minutes. That’s all it takes. But, I’ll tell you, it makes a world of difference.
Sometimes, it’s easy. They give up the weapon, no problem. You’d be surprised how many just need someone to see them. Really see them. Others—like Jim—well, you’ve got to be a little more tactical. Can’t just kill them. That would mess with the continuum and get us all in a whole bunch of trouble—frankly, I just don’t want to try it. For these cases, I do a little of what I like to call, space-time vigilante thievery.
This machine is no career. It’s no calling either. How shall I put this? You know what Shakespeare said about greatness? Yeah, it’d fall in that last category. Could it have all been the design of my grandfather? His message was enigmatic: “for Lauren.” To some that might have been ambiguous, arbitrary even. But the moment I put on that suit, I knew what I’d been entrusted to do.
Grandfather worked in his basement many long nights, and when he came up for dinner, his mouth was always drawn into a thin-lipped smirk like he was either up to mischief or on to something really good. I let the old retiree have his fun. The man who stepped in for Lauren and me when Dad got thrown in. The man who raised us. The man who tolerated all my late-night antics. He was a good man who deserved some rest. But he really was onto something good.
Let’s back up. Lauren started Bradford High in the fall of 2002. Me, a couple years earlier. She was the kind of girl who would take in strays and make them feel like they had a family, y’know? I knew of Jim, but only in passing. He was, like most killers, a brooder who kept to himself. I guess Lauren’s problem was that she misjudged him.
He started showing up to the house. They’d sneak up to her room and I’d always thought they were having sex. But one day, I stumbled in and I found her, you won’t believe it, reading to him. Yeah, reading. The sweetest, goddamn thing I’d ever seen. His head perched on her lap, the book propped on his chest. They looked like they just…I don’t know…belonged. Like something you’d find in a museum, twisted marble limbs—as perfect as a nativity scene. So, I let them alone. That was my mistake.
They found her in the library with a book propped in her hand, hair falling on the pages in a shimmery gold waterfall. Hair like a paintbrush, mixing the dark rose puddle with the black print. She’d read a chapter of Bridges of Madison County to him, the cops said according to testimony from the survivors for minutes. And guess what? The survivors honestly thought she’d calm him down. Honestly thought he’d just drop that gun because, as she told him that day, “this isn’t you, Jim.”
The strangest thing is the first thing I thought when the cops told me this was: that’s my sister. The one who always loved those books. Who would dive into a story and never leave. Maybe that afternoon, she thought she was Scheherazade. I guess her only fault was that Jim didn’t pick up on the reference.
He turned to her—this is, again, according to eyewitness accounts—and said: “that was really beautiful.” And then, he took his shotgun and blew her brains out. Right over the page. I think it was in that moment the victims who would come right after knew all bets were off. Because if you could kill Lauren, well, you could kill anyone.
Grandpa took the news hard. Harder than me, even, which was saying a lot. He got quieter from then on, but the whole town got quieter, too, so it was hard to notice. Our conversations were stilted, like he was trying to follow a script:
“How was your day, Gramps?”
“Ah, you know, the usual. Another day. Another problem. Damned radiator won’t fix.” (Except the radiator was old news.)
“Maybe tomorrow, huh?”
He’d ignore this.
“Still working that job, sonnyboy?”
And then, Gramps died. I was 20 and working in the local library, mostly cause it was the only job in town I could get straight out of high school. Tasks included checking in and out books, sorting the shelves, and putting a happy face on to make the stale air less insipid I guess.
I was fine with the job. $9 an hour was above minimum wage and enough to pay the bills. It didn’t bother me either that Lauren had died in one of these. That some book out there, probably in the FBI’s custody, had her brain matter scattered over the pages. Call me a good compartmentalizer.
Then some kid came in with a copy of Bridges of Madison County. As you can imagine, wonders that did for my sanity.
Gramps was right. I was still working this damn job for still $9 an hour. Lauren wasn’t just going come back from the grave. She’d have wanted me to move on, anyway. That was when I realized, I guess, I really had no idea what I was doing. Purposeless in the most unromantic of senses, not that happy, aimless-wandering-albatross-discovering-himself bullshit. I was just lost, depraved, down-on-my-luck, and possibly clinically depressed. What a combo.
Job applications were my salve. Each one sent was another weight off my shoulders. Another reason to come home and not feel Gramps’ unerring eye of judgement that didn’t disappear with death, but only got keener.
I avoided the garage those first few months. I guess I thought it was just common courtesy to avoid the places of the dead for a while until time had congealed the wound. But I suspect there was a bit of apprehension, too, that I’d be uncovering some restless spirits skulking amongst the musty cardboard boxes and scattered wrenches. Worse yet, I thought maybe I’d see Gramps’ floating body and then I’d know what a ghost looked like.
But the truth was Gramps died restfully in his room on the second floor of our Tudor-style house. I stumbled upon him one morning, a smile on his face, so blissful and yet so eerie, I got those heebie-jeebies that prickle your scrotum. You know what I’m talking about, right? The kind of feeling you get in the ICU when you’re visiting a close friend or a cousin who broke his arm or something, and along the way you pass the terminal ward and can’t help but peek in at all those bald heads like sickly Maltezers, heads who are almost certainly not going to see next year. But they’re smiling. They’re always enigmatically happy, and it makes you tingle to think that they’re smiling in spite of their circumstances. Maybe because they’ve already accepted their fate—and somehow, that only makes it worse.
So stumbling upon Gramps wasn’t a surprise, per se. He’d been bedridden the past few weeks and looked like he was heading down under, and it was his time, anyway, so I was prepared to let him go. What was interesting was the abruptness with which he stopped working in the garage. One day, it was another hard day of work, toiling down there in those inscrutable depths and the next day, Bam, like he was just done. Essay finished, submitted, and forgotten.
“How was your day, Gramps?” I’d asked, per usual.
“You won’t believe, sonnyboy,” he said. “But it’s fixed. After all this time, I think. I think it works.”
And then he smiled. The same one plastered on his face the morning I found him with a stone cold pulse. Honestly, I felt happy for the guy.
Descending the staircase felt like a rite of passage. Like I’d officially acknowledged it was time to move on. It was time to recognize that I still had a life to live. The steps were carpeted on the way down, kind of like the upstairs bedrooms. I thought this was strange. For some reason that was the thing that struck me as crazy—I’d been living here for what, fourteen years, and there was a part of the house I’d never actually been to.
I flicked on the light. The way everything in the room seemed to be shrouded in blanket or cover or plastic, it seemed like there was a family that had once lived here. A family moving out.
The boxes were all different sizes. Some tall, some short, fat, thin. A sea of black peaks. Ghost thumbs. I guess I wasn’t so far off.
I pulled off the covers on the first thing I bumped into. A long, mahogany desk with claw feet. Kind of baroque, if you ask me.
Okay, grandpops. Your royal highness.
Scattered over the table there were a pile of loose pages, some bursting with numbers, equations, and diagrams. Others sketches. The sketches drew my attention. They all seemed to depict the same thing. A rectangular box. I shivered because what it really looked like was a mortuary chamber, y’know like the kind you put dead bodies in?
Lauren was always the skeptic in church. She’d be the kind of kid to ask aloud during a sermon—and I mean aloud—how we really knew Jesus had ever lived if we didn’t have video documentation. I also remember on one occasion her spouting fevered claims that she wouldn’t need heaven because she’d live forever. I guess she was convinced that science would catch up by the time she was in her eighties.
God, I thought, what if Lauren’s body is somewhere in this room?
Unshrouding the next “box” came with, as you might imagine, a tad bit more trepidation. This one was a bookshelf flush with esoteric texts. Time: A Breach of Continuum. The Pursuit of Non-time. Eigentime. Lots of titles with “time” in it. Novikov Self-Consistency Principle with a line struck through it. By Wilbur Descrants.
Weird. (What else don’t I know?)
I started pulling off the covers a little faster. Each object added to an increasingly bizarre tapestry. A dusty PC monitor. A tripod. A vitrine with a giant suit inside, like a cross between an astronaut and a scuba diver. I tugged on the handle and the case shuddered to life.
“Password authorization,” said a voice. A light flooded the interior of the case and on the glass, there was an outline of a handprint. I backed away.
“Who’s there?” I shouted at the glass.
Half of me wished I were dreaming this up. But the thing about dreams is that you go along with them. Your mind takes you to Mars and you just accept it like it’s your first day at school. But this—no, no, no this was stuff out of a Star Trek movie.
“Password authorization, please,” repeated the voice.
I took another step back and tripped on a piece of cloth.
When I hit the ground, I felt a bundle of the fabric choked inside my fist. And when I looked up, I nearly did a double take.
I saw my face in the steel. A bit rough, like how you might use the sheen of a parked car to check your teeth for asparagus, but nonetheless, there. What frightened me, though, was that this was the chamber, and my fears coalesced into a choky mass that threatened to clog my arteries. A pulsing heart. A heart struggling to pump.
Okay, I thought. Calm down. She’s not in there.
I touched the metal. Cold as bones.
I went around to the door and flipped open the latch. Deep breath.
I swung the door open and covered my eyes. Through the narrowest slit between my middle and ring fingers and I peered into the chamber.
No body. No Lauren. Just a book.
I reached in and withdrew what seemed to be a leather bound journal. On top, there was a sticky note that read, “for Lauren.” as if to complete a sentence that had since gone missing. I flipped open the cover. On the first page, in Gramps’ unmistakable handwriting:
Life has a way of fucking with the saints, doesn’t it? Mows down the good crops until all that’s left are the weeds and the dry grass?
I’m still learning to cope with Lauren. And if I see another ‘in memoriam’ I swear I’ll just about lose it.
But I’ve got Aidan to think about. Can’t let him down. Not when his Dad has already.
God help me.
I flipped the page.
Maybe I’ve been reading too much Shelley lately. I don’t know, I just wish God granted the power to resurrect in special circumstances. Like this one.
I keep thinking what would have happened if I’d kept Lauren home that day. I know it’s a crazy thought. I didn’t know.
But I know now. If only…
Is time rigid? Are the laws fixed in stone or malleable like steel. Apply the right amount of pressure and…
I flipped to the middle of the book. There was a diagram of the suit. “Should protect against time warp,” it read.
On the next page, there was a timeline of the last years. On 2001, a star was drawn. The note under read:
Jump is still too imprecise. It’s got to be at least within the day. At least.
I flipped through another few pages.
It’s so good to see Lauren. I wish…I just wish I could tell her. No, I can’t risk it.
Within the week! I can almost taste it.
And then, on the last page, there was just a poem:
What burns my soul
that makes so light the thought
yet so heavy
I leave behind the key
but not the prize.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
I shut the journal and walked back over to the vitrine. I placed my palm against the glass. Ripples of bright red light coursed under my palm. Then, a wash of blue descended over the case.
“Welcome, Aidan,” said the voice.
The door clicked and I grabbed the handle. With a little pressure, it swung ajar.
“Ah,” I said. “For Lauren.”