Time for One Last Drink

Submitted into Contest #137 in response to: Write a story about a scientist.... view prompt


Science Fiction Sad Fiction

The first thing I notice about the man who walks into my bar is his watch. It’s a model I’ve never seen before, a lot larger than usual. Curiously, it doesn’t show the time. The numbers on its face are counting down, and there are only a few minutes left.

He slips onto a stool with a sigh. “Hit me again, Jim.”

I frown, confused. I know I get a lot of regulars in here, but I don’t recognize this guy. How does he know my name? But, hey, he’s a customer, my first of the young day.

“What can I get you?” I ask, setting a bowl of nuts and a cocktail napkin on the bar before him.

He smiles, like I’ve made a joke. “I forget: this is the first time I’ve been in here, right?”

“Far as I can remember.”

“Okay. In that case, your best Scotch. Straight up.”

“Hard liquor before noon? Been a long day already, eh?”

His cheerful demeanor slips, for just a second, and something dark and bitter crosses his face. “Seems like it’s lasted forever.” He sighs. “But it’s almost over.”

As I pour the whiskey into a tumbler, the man glances down at the oversized watch on his wrist.

“Something important about to happen?” I ask, nodding at the watch.

His smile comes back, hiding what came before like a mask. “You might say that. I’ve just done the most important thing I’ll ever do. That’s enough to make anyone want to celebrate, right?”

“Really?” I arch an eyebrow at him, sliding the tumbler in front of him.  “Now you have to tell me more.” I idly pick up a beer mug and a towel.

The man’s eyes narrow in a squint, his lips pursing, like he’s trying to decide whether to tell me or not. Then he shrugs again. “Why not? After all, it’s not like anything can change what I’ve done. You see, today I corrected the greatest error in human history.”

My hands, busy polishing the glass, freeze. “Come again?”

He chuckles. “I fixed the biggest mistake ever made.” He lifts the glass in a toast, then takes a sip.

How many drinks did this guy have before coming to my bar? “Is that a fact? Just the one mistake? And what was that?”

“Well, you see, I’m a scientist.” He takes another sip, sighing in relish. “Six degrees in temporal physics. I invented time travel. The ability to go back, change the past. Government grant, secret project, all that.” He waves a hand like he’s trying to clear a pall of smoke. “They wanted me to undo all our mistakes, make the world a perfect place. At least, their idea of a perfect place.”

He’s pulling my leg, of course, but I’ll play along. “That does sound like quite the accomplishment.”

He gives a derisive snort. “You’d think so.” Another sip, his throat spasming as he swallows. “But I had my own reasons, and they were purely selfish.”

When he pauses, I prod him. “Selfish how?”

His eyes lift to meet mine, his gaze haunted. “Her name was… is Sarah. About a lifetime ago, we were in love. Madly. But we followed different paths, you know the old story. Point is, the first time around, I gave her up for my ambitions, and I regretted it every day. So, when I had the chance, I thought I’d change that.” His hands tighten around his glass. “And things still didn’t work out.”

Yeah, I’m sure I’ve heard stories like this a thousand times in my bar. But his has an interesting spin, what with the whole time travel hooey. “How come?”

“To be blunt,” he continues, in a dull, leaden voice. “I ruined her life, kept her from being what she was meant to be. In another time, she was happy, fulfilled. I took that from her. I’m not the man I thought I was. Give me everything I ever wanted, and it still isn’t enough.” He glares down at his drink. “I thought she’d be enough, but I’m just too flawed.” He sips again. “And it wasn’t just her life. My… interference changed things for so many people. Made everything worse.”

“Oh, come on,” I say with false cheer. His story may be make believe, but he’s clearly down about something. “It can’t have been that bad.”

“It can be, and it was.” He gives a bleak laugh. “I tried again and again, going back over and over, sure that I could make it better.” He looks up and meets my gaze, a hollow pain in his eyes. “I couldn’t. I tell you, Jim, I don’t know how many times I’ve come into this bar this morning to drown my sorrows. To plan and scheme for a way to fix what I’ve broken.” He takes another drink. “But all I’ve learned is you can’t change the past without consequences. It’s like dipping your hand into a river: you don’t change the flow, but you cause ripples that last a long way down the course.”

I nod. “So it’s better if you never stick your hand in the river.”

He lets out a bark of laughter. “Right you are. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.”

“’Scuse me?”

“It wasn’t enough to take my hand out of the river; the damage was already done.” He glances at his watch again. “So, I erased myself. Removed myself from the timeline. Everything I ever did.” He spreads the fingers of one hand, miming something disappearing. “Poof. Gone. No time travel. No interfering with her life. No ripples. As if I never dipped my hand, because the hand was never there.”

My mouth is hanging open. I close it with a click of teeth. “But you’re still here.”

He rocks his head from side to side. “Yes and no.” He holds up the wristwatch. “This is a temporal isolation field generator. It takes me out of sync with time. Lets me observe without interacting.” He holds up his glass. “Unless I extend the field around whatever I’m holding.”

“Okay.” I eye the device. “If that’s so, then how did you… erase yourself?”

He heaves a deep sigh. “It has an interdiction function. I touch this,” he presses a button, “and do this.” He touches the empty tumbler, and it vanishes. Poof. Gone.

I jump in surprise. “What the…” I stare at him, eyes wide. “And you… did that to….” I raise a trembling finger to point at him.

He nods. “It’s painless. And since it removes the item entirely from time, backwards and forwards, no one knows to miss it. My parents, my siblings and friends… Sarah… they never knew I existed. Just like the glass.”

A frown furrows my brow. “What glass?”

“You see?” His laugh has a scary edge to it. “Poof. Gone.” A sad smile crosses his face. “They don’t miss me. They’re all better off. Especially… her. Trust me, world is so much better off without me around.”

“Okay.” I search for words. This all seems…really sad, like when a joke goes too far, and the only person laughing is the guy who started it. “But… won’t you miss them?”

“Not for much longer.” He taps the watch. “When this runs out of power, I’ll be gone, as if I never was.” A truly pained look crosses his face. “I can’t stay here. Beyond the effects I have on the world, it’s just… too painful. I can’t have her, I can’t do that to her. But I can’t live without her. So…” He looks back to me with a grin, then tosses off the rest of his Scotch. “I’m only here because I left myself time for one last drink.”

I eye him askance. Could he possibly be telling the truth? Then I chuckle, shaking my head. Nah.

“That was a good story.” I say, turning to shelve the mug. “You almost had me going there.”

I turn back around, but there’s no one at the bar. I blink, confused. Wasn’t there someone there? But no, there hasn’t been anyone all morning. Has there?

The door opens, the little bell ringing, and my first patrons of the day walk in.

I shake my head, dismissing the last of my confusion. I don’t have time to stand around wondering about what might have been. Then I notice a cocktail napkin and a bowl of nuts, sitting on the bar as if I set them out for someone… someone who was never there.

March 18, 2022 14:36

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DIANE Hunter
16:00 Mar 24, 2022

I liked your story Ian. Great imagination and almost believable! Liked the metaphor used about " dipping your hand into a river..." Element of surprise reminded me of an old TV Show "Twilight Zone"


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Riel Rosehill
09:47 Mar 24, 2022

Hi Ian! This was sucha cool story! Really sad, and also really awesome. I liked the bit about the glass disappearing, and how it foreshadowed what will happen to him. Nicely done... A well written story with the perfect ending! The last sentence was my favourite one.


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