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Romance Fantasy Drama

I’m a Time Traveler. I don’t possess any particularly exceptional abilities and I’m not sent on an extraordinary mission to an end of saving the future or achieving a greater good. I started as a Time Traveler, like many others before me, because I have money–a lot of it. Money, and a keen interest in major historical battles that I have the privilege of witnessing first-hand. 

I started traveling years ago, and since then, I’ve seen it all. The Battles of the Bulge, Gettysburg, Stalingrad, the Somme. I could see other events–in fact, my sister urges me to. I believe she’s anxious about my fascination with wartime. She begs me sometimes to go to the Mesozoic era and see the dinosaurs or visit the height of the Roman Empire, perhaps, like a normal Traveler. 

But I don’t wish to see novelties, beautiful places, or more peaceful times. I’ve had enough peace in my lifetime, as have the many generations before me. There hasn’t been war or any threat of it in over six hundred years. Though far from utopia, no one from my generation ever knew of true darkness, the mass grieving of loved ones, or the instability that comes with wartime. Peace makes us ignorant. We start to think we’re better than previous, more primitive generations, that we’ve transcended the violent pieces of our nature and shed the irrationality, the bloodlust, the tribalism that spurned all previous Great Wars. In all my travels, you want to know a secret? We haven’t. 

Generations of men exactly like me wrapped their loved ones in tearful goodbyes to go fight and die for the promise of heroism, for causes that weren’t their own. My sister and most others don’t understand why I travel the way I do. Most travelers don’t deign to expose themselves to the pain I force myself to watch regularly. Traveling is expensive, and while there’s a certain amount of historical intrigue around the Great Wars, few would voluntarily choose to throw away their vacation on watching young men die in brutal ways. 

And let me make it clear, I’m not a sociopath. I don’t enjoy watching these torments, nor have I grown desensitized to them. But to prevent the ugliest parts of humanity from rearing their heads, you need to look them square in the eyes. You need to know what they are. Knowing the ugly parts is coming to terms with them within yourself. And traveling to see the Great Wars, you had to look, you were forced to. And that’s what I do when I travel: I make myself watch. 

***

I met Emilia on the day she died in 1944. I then met her again and again over the next several years. That’s because to a Time Traveler, witnessing a death is not a real end–it’s just a starting point. Watching Emilia’s death gave me access to a thread that I could then trace back to her childhood. And after one short day of observing her, I knew I would do exactly that. 

Emilia was a United States army medic at the Battle of the Bulge. I met her during my second travel to that particular battle. Fighting was fierce and brutal, which was reflected in soldiers’ wounds. Literal loss of limb and shrapnel wounds were common. Emilia was one of three volunteers that serviced a hospital packed with 100 wounded men and, whenever possible, she and her team traversed the bitter cold Belgium streets to the nearby riding hall, where they did their best to tend to the 600 more wounded men laid out on the dirt floor. 

That’s where she met me. I had frostbite on the tips of my fingers, the skin red and mottled purple. I was disguised as one of the soldiers at the time. Disguising yourself is one of the Time Travel rules: before you travel, you are assigned a role, an authentic era-accurate costume, and script that you generally had to stick to. The best Travelers–that is, the ones allowed to keep coming back–were the ones that kept their heads down and didn’t mess with the timeline. 

Not that you could change the timeline if you tried, anyway. The reason that Travelers were allowed at all is that the timeline had a way of “snapping back” to its status quo. Scores of Travelers tested the limits of the “snapping back” effect, but the timeline always self-corrected. The costumes and scripts were more of a precautionary measure than anything else. As a Traveler, your job is to watch history play out as it actually did, unadulterated by Traveler influence. I generally stuck to these rules, making no friends and only speaking when spoken to. That is, before I met Emilia. 

She tended to many others in the room before me. She was pleasant and tender, but efficient. She approached soldiers in the most severe state of injury first–the ones who lost body parts, may require amputations, or suffered severe shrapnel damage–quickly evaluating the situation and getting to work. She did not speak much to the first few soldiers, understanding that listening or responding was more than their pain-addled brains were capable of at the time. 

What I noticed about Emilia was that she was also someone that forced herself to look. Every moment of every day, she sees the worst of mankind. And she endured it stoically. Dazzlingly. She performs amputations with a steady hand and unwavering gaze. Using cognac as an anesthetic and a serrated Army knife as a scalpel, she does not flinch or grimace as her blade bites into a man’s flesh, wearing away with the tool as flesh turns to bone, crimson blood streaking down and dripping at her feet. In the face of the grizzliest wounds that would make most contemplate their mortality just seeing them, Emilia proceeded unafraid.

But more importantly, it did not appear that she allowed her understanding of pain to at least outwardly dull her spirit. As she proceeded to the less severely wounded soldiers, she joked and smiled to ease the men’s trepidation. In a room that felt so impenetrably thick with horror, trauma, and desperation, she still managed to create a sense of peace, making the room happier, lighter. I’d never experienced anything quite like it.

Eventually, she reached me. Our interaction was unextraordinary. She inquired about my family, to which I gave her mild half-truths, and fussed over the state of my hands and the horridness of our present living conditions. 

Though I was in much pain, I assured her I felt nothing. Reservoirs of morphine were running low and of better use to those in this timeline. She seemed skeptical at my assurances but didn’t push the matter.

When she was done, she had dressed my fingers in ointment and bandages. A primitive treatment, but it didn’t matter. A Traveler can return to his timeline in one of two ways: by pressing a button on a device secured behind your ear, or dying. While certainly the less attractive of the two options, dying was the route I frequently, often accidentally, took when I traveled to the various Great Wars. I had died hundreds of times only to return to my own timeline unscathed. What was one more injury sustained before my next death? 

“Whenever possible, you need to find warm shelter or it’ll only get worse, and you’re at risk of losing your fingertips as it is,” she said. She urged me to keep my hands warm by sticking them under my armpits or even into my underwear. 

I thanked her and watched as she proceeded to the next patient. She was not stereotypically beautiful; she had thin lips, a bump in her nose, and small cleft in her chin. But there was something delicate about her face and proud about her eyes that made her difficult to look away from. I watched her until she left, several hours later, to begin tending to her patients at the hospital. That was the last time that day I saw her alive.

The hospital was shelled by the German forces in the evening. Emilia, her small team of two other medics, and able-bodied soldiers did their best to evacuate the wounded. Then, one enemy bomb landed on the building while she was inside collecting more of her patients, eviscerating the structure into a pile of crumbled debris. I helped the other soldiers as we threw ourselves onto the debris pile, shoving away bricks, ash, and smoldering wood, searching for survivors. One of the other soldiers found her. Her body was severed in half. 

They removed her remains and carefully wrapped them in a white parachute tarp. I watched as her blood soaked the tarp and the snow beneath it red. Maybe my many travels had hardened me to the losses of war and it took Emilia’s death to really appreciate the extent of who was lost in the violence. I certainly felt it now.

In the end, Emilia’s bravery and warmth in the face of brutality didn’t save her. Nor did it save any of the other bodies of the soldiers we lined up alongside her over the next several hours. 

***

I had never followed an individual back into their timeline before. Travelers were encouraged to attend moments in history rather than track down individuals. But I felt compelled to come to know Emilia. And over the months, I did. 

She was everything I had thought she was; compassionate, quietly intelligent, and strong. It came out in small ways before the war, but it was always there, simmering just beneath the surface. 

Travelers can change their physical form which allowed me to take on different figures throughout Emilia’s life without her recognizing me. I frequented the bakery she worked at when she turned sixteen. I was a student in her high school that sat in the back row of her math class. However, my favorite iteration was as a neighborhood girl Emilia befriended during her junior year summer.

“So college, huh?” I asked her, one day as we sat together on the park grass. 

“My mom said she’s not sure she can afford it,” Emilia said, considering. She turned to me and smiled. “But hey, a girl can dream.” 

“What would you study?” I asked her.

“Something in science,” she responded, “maybe even medicine. I want to feel like I’m contributing to the world, you know?” 

“You will contribute,” I said quietly. I considered urging her not to go into medicine, to begin placing seeds of doubt in her mind about the fruitlessness of war. But I knew whatever I said wouldn’t matter. The timeline would snap back anyway. Whatever I said, she was still doomed to volunteer as an army medic and die in that bombing in Belgium in December 1944. Thinking about it made my throat grow tight. “I know you’re going to do great things,” I told her instead. 

Two years into Emilia’s physician program was the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the bloody months that followed, the military was in dire need of volunteer army medics and began recognizing women as a means of bridging the manpower shortage. They doubled down on advertising. They offered attractive educational incentives and retirement privileges. Posters began being posted across every small town in America, reading things like: “Become an army medic…your country needs you!” or “Are you a girl with a star-spangled heart?” 

I knew Emilia was not immune to the societal pressure and romanticization of the war. A girl who had never left her small town suddenly offered to be swept up with other like-minded women across America and transported across the world to serve a unified purpose–even I had to admit the proposition was seductive. 

I think I know the moment she decided to join. She went on a walk one evening alone. I followed her. She went to the harbor pier, sat on a bench, and stared out at the shore for several hours, unmoving.

Not two days later she told me she had signed up. She was proud and beaming. I hugged her and told her she would do wonderfully. 

I often return to that evening at the harbor pier and watch her. “Stop it, Emilia,” I whisper to myself. I wish I could tell her not to do what she was contemplating, warn her of the hard times and horrors that awaited her. If I knew I could make her stay, I would grab her and tell her the truth, all of it, the Traveler rules and timeline be damned. But I knew it didn’t work that way. The universe is cruel and unyielding. No matter what I did, the timeline would snap back, and she would still, somehow, find herself in that horrible decimated hospital severed in two.

 So all I could do, all I would ever be able to do, is stand behind her in the cool evening, listening to the waves crash onto the shore, watching the most important person in my life settle on a brutal fate she did not yet understand.

November 12, 2022 03:46

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2 comments

Kyle Bacalzo
18:50 Nov 16, 2022

Hi! This is a really great idea! As a reader, I think it was far more interesting to see the interaction between him and Emilia throughout the years, especially when she is younger and younger. I wanted more of it! I think you could actually remove a huge chunk of the narrator explaining his own thoughts and explaining how the Time Traveling system works and instead embed it in the character interactions itself if that makes sense. Maybe as a thought to help illustrate what I'm talking about, I didn't really care about the narrator until I...

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Marian Lemont
00:35 Nov 18, 2022

Thanks for taking the time to read and respond Kyle! Your point is well taken, I appreciate the feedback.

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