*** Part 1: Vic ***
Vic and Mel sat quietly as Matt, a disgraced former MIT student, gave them a rundown of the opportunity (experiment) he was offering.
"This is your chance to be pioneers! I know what the papers have been saying about me, but I assure you, this is completely safe. All the same, I will need you to sign this release of liability form before we begin."
Vic signed the form without reading it. He was ready to get out of Boston, by hook or by crook. The city had become too crowded, too polluted and way too expensive over the last fifteen years. And all that was before this latest crisis.
Vic wouldn't go so far as to say that Mel had been right, but if he’d given in to her all those years ago, he had to admit that they would be in a much better situation now. Mel had wanted to move back to Harper’s Landing for as long as he'd known her. Vic, on the other hand, had no interest in leaving Boston. It was his city, and his pride in it bordered on mania.
And even if Harper’s Landing hadn't been out in the boonies, the thought of living so close to Mel's family made his skin crawl. Mel's folks were just so… nice. Their endless support of Mel, and Vic for that matter, was so foreign to him, so abnormal, that it actually made him angry.
Now though - what with Boston being under quarantine, closed off from the rest of the world, and on fire more often than not - he was starting to see the appeal of her little podunk hometown. Unfortunately, now that he'd finally decided it was time to leave, they had no way to get out.
Vic had been in a particularly hostile mood for weeks as he stewed on this conundrum. All that changed, though, when Vic heard about this guy, Matt, a few days ago. Everyone seemed to agree that Matt was a genius, but also that he'd lost touch with reality. He promised an unusual way out of Boston. Vic thought there was a 10% chance that the kid could do what he claimed, leaving an 90% chance that they'd just die. Either way, it promised a way out of this nightmare. Plus, he was offering it free of charge if they allowed Matt to use their experience for some research thesis he was writing.
"Let me make sure I have this right," Vic said. "We go to this 'thin place' with you and get in some chamber. Then, while you do the computer stuff outside the chamber, we just have to think of the decision we want to make differently from inside the chamber?"
"Yes, I suppose that's the idea in a very dumbed-down nutshell. But this is very important," Matt said, leaning forward and making intense eye contact with Vic. "You need to remember the exact moment or conversation you want to change to make it to the right alternate timeline.
"If the decision was made, let's say, ten years ago, you'll arrive in the new timeline now, with that decision having been made ten years ago there as well, but differently. So, it needs to be as specific as possible. And you both need to think of the same moment you want to change. If you aren't clear about this and one of you thinks of a different moment, whoever sees it most clearly drives the timeline change. It'll be very unpleasant and disorienting for the other person."
Vic hadn't followed all of that, but he was pretty sure that this egg head had just called him dumb. Fortunately for Matt, Vic was too excited to leave, so he let it pass. Anyway, he'd caught the most important part - they had to remember the same moment or it would be bad.
"No chance of that. Right, babe?" Vic asked Mel, winking.
Vic had been pretty drunk but he still remembered the argument which had become their very last 'conversation' about leaving Boston. Mel gave him a quick narrow-eyed look which told him she remembered it, alright.
Unlike Vic, Mel took her time reading the short form. After a few minutes, she glanced up at the potentially unhinged inventor.
"If I understand this, my consciousness will merge with this other version of myself, but does that mean I will retain my memories from this timeline and will also have the other me's memories? Won't that drive me and other me insane, being in one mind with double memories like that? Also, what happens to me in this timeline?"
"Well, your body will stay here, but without consciousness, so... I'm afraid you'll be dead in this timeline," Matt said, slightly embarrassed. "Of course, you won't really be dead, but you saw how the press reacted when I tried to explain that about the last participant."
Mel stared at the man blankly for a moment. When he saw she wasn't familiar with the stories, he continued.
"Nevermind, then. Yes - when you arrive in the new timeline, you will still have your memories from this timeline for a while, and it might be slightly uncomfortable while your mind adjusts. Over time, the memories from this timeline will fade and eventually you'll only remember your new timeline's life. The brain is quite adept at protecting itself from things that don't make sense."
Mel looked satisfied with this answer and signed the release.
Vic smiled and grabbed her hand, saying, "You'll see, babe. This is going to be great."
*** Part 2: Mel ***
Mel's first thought upon waking to her new life was, Ugh, I think I'm going to puke.
Her second thought, which she actually said out loud was, "Holy hell, I'm pregnant!" She ran a hand over her extremely pregnant belly with fascination.
The handsome man laying next to her, who was most definitely not Vic, rolled over in bed to face her with a sleepy laugh.
"Did you forget you were pregnant?" he asked, laying a hand on her belly.
She stared at him, full of delightful triumph, as the new Mel's memories slid into place. A huge, goofy grin spread across her face as she realized she'd done it. She'd undone the worst decision of her life.
"One sec," she whispered to her kind, imperfect husband, who she remembered now. She maneuvered her awkward body out of bed and walked to the bathroom.
Once the door was closed, she opened the little bathroom window and breathed in the fresh air. It smelled of blooming lilacs and the carefree summers of her childhood. She was free.
When she finally heard from Vic, Mel was actually relieved. After three days of jumping at shadows, she got a collect call from an inmate at Marlington Correctional Facility. She accepted the charges, smiling. She should have guessed that Vic would end up in state custody without her by his side, constantly de-escalating his constant state of conflict with the world.
"Mel? Is that you? What the hell?"
"Hi Vic, I'm glad you called. I've been wanting to say thank you. You were right, this has been great."
Vic scoffed, "Sure, for you maybe! I'm in prison, Mel. What the hell happened? It's like we didn't even get married here... or then, or whatever - you know what I mean."
Mel told herself not to feel so giddy at the sound of his frustration and confusion. She pulled gently on her cheek with her free hand as if she could dim the smile on her face through physical manipulation.
"I do know what you mean, and you are right. We never got married," Mel replied calmly.
"But, that doesn't make any sense! We changed the decision about moving, like we agreed, and we were already married then..."
Mel's amusement was replaced with anger. Surely, he could not be this obtuse.
"But we didn't agree, Vic. You decided for both of us, like you always did. Just like you did about moving all those years ago. Then you badgered and bullied and shut me down until I got tired of fighting.
"So, I realized I couldn't change the decision about moving since I never actually made the decision to stay. In fact, I decided to leave almost every day of our marriage. But then, every day, my fear and paranoia talked me into leaving tomorrow instead, because maybe you'd be less angry and erratic tomorrow, or maybe I could find ONE friend of my own tomorrow, someone who would stick around even when you did everything possible to intimidate and insult them out of my life."
Mel took a breath and told herself to cool off, it was over now.
"When we walked into that chamber, I decided this was my last chance. I closed my eyes and chose to change something else - a decision that had been entirely mine to make. I thought about the day I decided to go to Boston in 1999 and imagined that I stayed in Harper’s Landing instead. And just like that, we never met."
"But, still... I thought about the fight and… Damn it, Mel! We did meet…" Vic said, trying to maintain his anger while also trying to wrap his mind around the paradox.
"No, Vic. We didn't. You know my memory has always been better than yours. The chamber chose my decision, not yours," Mel responded gently. "Soon you'll forget me and this conversation too. So, while you still remember me, I really do want to say thank you. I never would have gone to that guy without you, and I never would have known what could have been - what is, now. I mean it, Vic. Thank you."
"But… what about me?" Vic asked pathetically.
"Take care, Vic," Mel said, then hung up.
Mel exhaled and closed her eyes. Her marriage to Vic had taught her something valuable, which served her well now. She’d become quite good at holding conflicting thoughts and emotions in her mind at the same time, and choosing which one would help her get through a particular day or moment. She’d survived by carefully maintaining a complex inner world. That control was useful as she saw the two timelines running side by side in her mind. She took another deep breath, and gently released the Boston and Vic timeline, as if it were a sheet she’d unpinned from the clothesline on a windy day. She touched her belly as it flew away and dissipated like smoke.
Now - finally, she was really free.