There’s something about wrinkles in the morning. They’re golden with silhouettes of the issues people experienced back in high school. Jax is familiar with them like he is familiar with the ring on his middle finger that binds him to no one.
He has one, a wrinkle, and it stretches across his forehead in a diagonal sort of way. Even when he smooths out the skin, it returns, even uglier than before.
Perhaps this is the reason why his sister encouraged him to drive into the middle of nowhere with a car that can’t go faster than 30 mph. He doesn’t mind, though, when the wind swims through his hair and the car’s wheels flatten the peach blossoms and daffodils in its way.
He knows he’s late when the car sputters to a stop at his command in front of an old house with the sunset’s arms already embracing it.
Inside, he sets down his duffel bag and waits for questions. Gramps hobbles through the hallway with an unlit cigarette propped between his lips. He claps his hands with mustered glee and secures them on Jax’s shoulders.
“You seem smaller,” he says, and cackles through his teeth. It vibrates through Jax and he shudders.
Plucking the cigarette from Gramps’ lips and setting it on the counter, he replies, “Show me around.”
Gramps agrees and keeps one hand on his grandson’s shoulder while leading him through the house. The rooms all look the same, as if no one has stepped in them for fifteen years. It’s when Gramps shows him the work room when Jax notices a difference.
“You’ve worked on it,” he observes, drawing circles with his feet around the machine.
It’s bigger than he remembered, with the metal circle propped up against the wall and wires and scraps of materials sticking out of it. There’s a panel of buttons on the right side, and most of them are hanging on by just a spring.
Gramps bobs his head up and down with pride. “I’m one step closer every day.” The way he runs his tongue over his lips tells Jax about his issues. They stumble out of the work room with wisps of dust trailing them and make their way into a colorless blur with an air mattress stuck in the middle.
Jax hears Gramps explaining, “This’ll be your room for now.”
But Jax trips over his own toes and collapses onto the bed. Jax spreads longer than it, but he thinks the moon will still tumble into the horizon even if he’s uncomfortable and not watching from the bench on the hill.
Gramps rolls his eyes and clicks the door into place. Jax can barely hear him skip off and the tempo of his breathing melts into the song of the crickets.
The next day, Jax knows, is crafted from the peeled bark of oak trees and the lyrics of childhood melodies twisted. He awakes with drool dripping onto his shirt and the smell of sandals showing molding big toes wafting from his body.
If he’s being honest, he can detect Gramps’ deep coughs disguised as bubbling laughter and see haze drifting towards the ceiling. Now he knows he has something to tell his sister and it’s definitely not that staying with Gramps is boring.
Jax never cries but this time he allows a tear to kiss his cheek and rubs it off like the night’s sweat. He acts like he doesn’t care, but he knows one day everyone dies and it’ll just be him left and that’s what he’s saving all his tears for.
Soon he’s up in his clothes from yesterday but Gramps doesn’t say anything. When he does say something, it’s that he’s saving his voice for when he really needs to use it, just like Jax and his tears.
Jax follows Gramps into the work room and asks about the time machine.
“I want to go back because I want to see her.” He answers, mouth graphed into a line and eyes glued to the machine.
Understanding isn’t the same as acknowledging—that’s what Jax has learned. And although he acknowledges Gramps’ pain, he knows he can’t possibly understand it.
He picks at the wrinkle on his forehead, “Any way I can help?”
Gramps grunts in refusal, running his hands over the buttons.
“What should I do then?”
“Unpack.” Gramps sighs and produces a box of cigarettes from his pocket. He’s about to take one out, but he hesitates, tilting his head towards Jax, who pretends not to notice. Finally he decides against it and shoves them back down into what his grandson knows is a sea of lost items.
Jax exhales in reply, spinning on his socked heels and making his way through the doorway and down the hall.
The next minute he’s back in his room, his phone clutched in his hand, dialing his sister’s number. There are no rings until a robotic female voice tells him he needs to connect to the server.
Jax swears under his breath and creeps out of his room, passing by the work room where Gramps is still there, grumbling to himself, and finally entering the kitchen. It’s small and rectangular with a sink, oven, microwave, and minifridge. Everything there is scratched and worn down, like the junkyard where Jax went to get some alone time.
On the wall there’s a landline. It’s coal black, and when Jax picks it up, the cord bounces against his elbow. He knows that being able to repeat his sister’s phone number forwards and backwards isn’t really something to be proud of, but he types in the digits anyway. It rings exactly six times before she picks up.
Her voice is stressed to the point of quick gasps instead of inhales and long days with screens instead of empty green fields and Gran’s pumpkin pies.
“Have you arrived?” she asked.
Jax nods but realizes she can’t see it so he mumbles, “Yes.”
“Good.” she says, and Jax can hear his sister tossing the phone from one hand to another. “So why’d you call me?”
Jax picks at something in his teeth with his fingernail. “Gramps is smoking again, Izzie.”
Isabelle clicks her tongue in a dismissive way, “That’s none of your business. Gramps can do whatever he wants.”
Silence stings the conversation from Jax’s end. He winds his pointer finger through the cord.
“I’m busy, brother,” is what Isabelle declares before hanging up.
Jax sets the phone back into its holder and stares at the wall of the kitchen. It’s an old wall with chipped white paint like children’s teeth. He thinks about how his sister doesn’t care and about how she’s the only one left besides Gramps. And Gramps, he knows, won’t last much longer.
Jax bangs his feet down on the floor and imagines himself stomping the thought away.
Although he’s only in the next room, Gramps’ voice sounds tiny and faraway when he yelps. A crash that sounds like metal against metal erupts from the work room. It forces waves of shivers down Jax’s spine as he darts out of the room.
He stops short and kneels over Gramps’ limp body on the floor. He’s moaning and clutching his side.
Jax’s voice is shoving its way through his throat, making him stunned and unable to speak. His lips open but Gramps’ hand flies up and covers his mouth.
“Don’t.” His voice is raspy and it sounds like it just caught up with its age. “Don’t waste your tears on me, Jaxon. Don’t waste your time, either. I should’ve—” Gramps’ coughs make his body twitch, allowing the box of cigarettes slide out of his pocket, not unnoticed. Gramps curls his hand around it and continues, “I should’ve known that time travel is impossible. I just wanted to see her…”
Jax swallowed and recognized that he still understood. That was when he saw the large metal pole protruding from Gramps’ chest. His lungs filled with air and he made a choking sound that resembled a hiccup.
“Who?” Jax asked, relieved to have gotten his voice back from behind his grandfather’s shriveled hand, “Who did you want to see? Gran? Why did you want to go back in time to see Gran as a child when you weren’t alive yet?”
Gramps smiled, his hand slipping from its place on Jax’s lips. Jax whimpered while Gramps’ eyes closed and his face relaxed.
There was one thing he knew for sure, and it was that even though half his life was missing, the sun would still straighten its spine and the moon would still tumble into the horizontal abyss every morning.
He wouldn’t waste his tears on Gramps. He’d have to keep living, and that was that.