“Remember,” she whispers into my neck, tightening the clasp on my gravity vest, “We only get one shot at this.”
“And don’t forget to keep an eye on your watch.” She straps the bulky device to my left wrist and flicks the dial until a neon green date and time hover above my arm.
Date: 22nd of May 2056
“I know you don’t want to blink or look away for long, but if you aren’t diligently looking at your watch, you might miss your mark. I set the timer to go off in your prime window, but remember, no matter what happens, you only get one shot, so you have to choose it wisely.”
She sounds so confident, so strong.
“I know, honey. We’ve been through this a hundred times. Everything will be fine...”
“Maybe, but it was all theoretical before. The counselors warned us that no amount of guess work can prepare you for the real thing. This is happening in five - ” The neon clock ticks to 23:56. “- four minutes."
She kisses me.
“And when Alexis is old enough, I will explain it all to her too. She will understand. She will have time to understand. And I will teach her what to do. If anything happens to me, she will know what to do.”
I grasp her hands in mine. Her courage is beginning to falter.
“Everything will be okay.”
“Promise me you won’t take off that vest until it’s time. We have eighteen years to pass through. Your watch is set for May 2074. You cannot miss your window. Promise me, Fred. I need you to say it.”
“No matter what happens! You get one shot, just one shot at this.” She falls into my arms and sobs, finally revealing the apprehension she has hidden for so many months.
“It will all be okay, honey. I know my window, and if for any reason something happens and you need me sooner, just signal me on the board.”
Simultaneously, we look to the whiteboard at the front of the room where “Be strong! We love you!” is written in large lettering.
I look back to Molly and kiss her forehead, taking my time, hoping to grasp on to what little of it we have left before it all flashes before my eyes.
She pulls away, grasping on to what little control she has for the next three minutes, but I clench her tighter. I know what kind of pressure this puts on her, and I won't waste a single second of our final minutes together.
My wife has lived through every possible scenario of the future one hundred times over. She has anticipated and prepared for every conceivable situation, living and reliving nightmares all so that I may bear witness to the life of our baby girl and someday reunite with my family for one final, beautiful day together.
Date: 22nd of May 2056
Molly looks up at me now, tears illuminating the freckles under her eyes. “Remember me like this, Freddy. Remember me young and thin and full of life.”
“I will love you as you are today, tomorrow, and in eighteen years, no matter how time may affect us."
She walks to Alexis, who hollers from her crib.
“Come now, my sweet.” I reach my arms out, cradling our baby girl one last time before she is grown. “No need to cry. Daddy will still be here for you, always.”
A sound chimes on my wrist and Molly releases Alexis from my arms, and steps a safe distance back, just like we practiced.
I enter the acrylic chamber in the center of what used to be our living room and take a seat on my favorite lounger chair.
The watch chimes again, now paired with a blinking red button on the center of my vest.
Date: 23rd of May 2056
I place my hand on the button, lingering in the final image of my wife and daughter on the other side of the room.
As tears pour down each of their beautiful faces, I clench my eyes shut, fighting back my own emotions, and push the button.
The vest instantly tightens all around me. Hugging my chest and spine so firmly, I forget how to breathe.
I lift my chin, grasping for breath.
Every muscle in my body aches, pulling me so deeply into the chair, I fear I will burst through the floor.
But I don’t.
I catch my breath, gasping as if I’ve broken through the water’s surface after a long swim.
My heart rate slows, and my breaths become even.
I’ve practiced this with gravitational counselors. We have run through the simulations, and I know the techniques. First, focus on regulating your breath.
In – Two – Three – Four. Out – Two – Three – Four.
Breathing comes strained, but steady. I feel as though there is a fifty-pound weight on my chest, but my lungs somehow continue to fill with air, and release.
Second, reacclimate to your surroundings.
Gripping the arms of my chair, head placed firmly against its back, I open one heavy eyelid after the other.
In practice simulations, the virtual reality races before your eyes at an alarming rate. It was supposed to prepare me for what time would look like outside of the chamber. I got sick the first time - too many figures swirling around, furniture changing, everything but the floor and walls spinning on an endless stream of life continuing at 120 minutes per my one second.
In preparation for my deceleration, Molly learned techniques that would help with my motion sickness and acclimation. Small things like moving through the room with intent, staying put for two to three hours at a time so I can see her, updating the whiteboard only once every seventy-two hours her time, leaving furniture in the same place, keeping the blinds closed and the light turned on at all times, anything she can do to slow time down on her side of the acrylic walls.
Opening my eyes, I see she has taken the techniques to heart. While adjusting my breathing and opening my eyes has only taken thirty-six seconds my time, three days have already passed for Molly and Alexis.
Her movements aren’t the same as they prepared me for with virtual simulations. She does not travel through the room in a flurry of never-ending movements, but rather in snapshot one second visions.
With my head still leaned against the back of the chair, I follow her around the room with my eyes.
For three seconds, she lays in our bed on the other side of the living room.
She is perched on the couch with Alexis on her lap.
Then just as quickly, she disappears.
Four seconds later-
She is back, kneeling on the floor with Alexis.
Then seated on the couch with a book.
Then back on the floor, and resting in bed for-
Three seconds my time-
Until the snapshot process repeats again.
In twelve seconds my time, an entire day has passed for Molly and Alexis.
I watch for another 24 seconds, understanding their routine, and trusting my acclimation process enough to move on to step three.
I slowly lift my right arm, testing the strength it takes for even the smallest of movements.
But I fail.
Instead, I lift one finger, which Molly seems to have noticed.
“Great job, babe! Slow and steady wins the race!” she has written on the whiteboard across from me.
With her encouragement, I manage three more attempts at lifting my arm, and on the last try, I successfully hold it half an inch above the chair for two seconds my time.
Alexis drinks a bottle on the bed.
Molly sips coffee on the couch.
“Going to my parents’ for two days but keep up the good work, babe! We love you!” The whiteboard reads now.
With the girls gone for two days, I know I have at least twenty-four seconds my time to work on my left arm’s strength before they return. Once I lift my left arm for longer than one second, I work on task number three - time check.
I flip my left wrist a quarter turn towards myself, and slowly lower my chin to check the neon green time floating above my arm.
Date: 8th of June 2056
The time, set for odd hours, moves with the outside world and ticks away two hours every second I stare at it.
June eighth, okay, so only sixteen days have passed for them. I’m making good time.
For the next five minutes my time, I continue to work my muscles, adapting to the heavy pull of the gravity vest.
As the next eighteen years will pass around me in roughly twenty-two hours my time, I must be able to move enough to stay comfortable and keep my muscles from atrophying.
I keep my neck relaxed against the chair, still following Molly and Alexis with my eyes when I can, tensing and lifting my limbs one at a time.
“We miss you already, Freddy!” The whiteboard reads.
Alexis drinks from her sippy cup on the floor while Molly watches something on her tablet.
“We are so proud of you!” A new update on the board.
One second -
Molly reads on the couch while Alexis plays on the floor.
The next second-
Alexis cries in her crib.
“You got this!” another update.
Alexis stands on Molly’s shoes.
“Alexis took her first steps by herself today!”
I quickly look to my watch to capture the moment of Alexis’s first milestone before the board changes again.
Date: 8th of August 2056
The counselors warned me upon first agreeing to the deceleration procedure that although this would technically extend my life for eighteen years, allowing me to watch my daughter grow up, there would still be many milestones lost in the time gaps.
And they are halfway out the front door.
One – two – three – four seconds my time they’ve been gone.
My eyes feel dry.
“Remember to blink!” The whiteboard reminds me.
My neck is sore.
“Don’t forget your exercises! I can tell you aren’t doing them!”
I lift my arm.
“And don’t forget to keep an eye on the clock!”
Date: 14th of December 2056
Time itself cannot stop her from nagging me.
“It’s nice to see you smiling today.”
We knew the deceleration process would be successful for a five-year span, as that's the standard practice for most providers.
In a typical deceleration, the ratio is roughly thirty minutes outside to every one second inside the acrylic chamber.
For over a decade, that was the only option, until a group of rouge scientists discovered a way to increase the minutes per second using a stronger gravitational pull, which would, in theory, give a longer span of years in quicker flashes of time.
Alexis stands on the floor, about to walk.
Molly sits on the couch with a cup of tea.
Date: 13th of October 2056
They both sleep in the bed for –
One – two – three seconds my time.
They are gone for –
One – two – three – four seconds.
The risk wasn’t great, knowing it was a simple adjustment to the gravity vest. The true challenge was finding a subject willing to watch as fifteen plus years passed before their eyes.
Alexis plays with a toy.
Molly has friends over.
"Jan says hi!"
When my medical advisor suggested this study, Molly was hesitant. She’d rather have four good months with than spend three months preparing for a lifetime of waiting for me.
But knowing the technology was available and ready for me to watch my baby girl become an adult was too tempting to resist, and the compensation was hard to pass up.
“Alexis said ‘mama’ today. Now we are working on ‘dada’!”
Alexis cries with a band aid on her knee.
Molly and her mom sip coffee on the couch.
“I got a promotion at work!”
For only twenty-two hours of my life, and eighteen years of theirs, the scientific team promised to cover all costs of daily living, life insurance, and medical expenses for my family for up to fifty years. Which in today's economy equates to roughly two million dollars per year and rising.
“We are getting a puppy!”
Date: 1st of September 2058
Alexis walks with the puppy in her arm.
The puppy pees on the floor.
To grow up without a father is one thing, an absent father is another. I hope to live somewhere in the grey area for Alexis. A father she sees every day, who is steady and loves her more than she could possibly comprehend. A father who is there for all her milestones, watching as she grows into a successful young woman.
The puppy is now a dog, shaggy and dripping on the carpet.
“Alexis lost a tooth!”
Alexis falls off the back of the couch.
And on that day, eighteen years from now – wait –
I confidently lift my watch to my face, my limbs almost entirely adapted to the gravity vest now.
Date: 25th of December 2060
– fourteen years from now, when her father finally steps out of his acrylic coffin and they sit together in real time discussing the past eighteen years, she will know the sacrifices he made for her. A father who still provides for her and her mother long after he is gone. Afterall, isn’t that every father’s dream?
“We all miss you very much. Happy New Year! 2062!”
One year passes after another.
I check my watch each time we hit another milestone, hoping to remember the exact date and time of each update.
Date: 22nd of February 2062
“Alexis starts kindergarten today!”
Date: 1st of July 2063
“Mom passed away this afternoon… Wish you were here...”
“I am here,” I want to scream, but I know my voice will travel too slow for them to understand, so I cry for the loss of my mother-in-law and again when Alexis writes her first message on the board –
“Happy b-day daddy!”
I celebrate successes and mourn losses in my own time. A schizophrenic wave of emotions - tears of joy and pain only minutes apart.
I fight the urge to rip off my vest, to stop time and join my family once again. But Molly has not signaled for help or asked me to stop, so I push on.
Another year passes.
“Alexis joined a baseball team!”
Date: 1st of July 2068
“Alexis hit a home run!”
The more hours that tick away on my wrist, the faster they seem to progress outside.
Suddenly Alexis is a young woman.
She brings over friends.
When did the bed move?
Is that a new dog?
I hold my eyes open as long as I can without blinking for fear of missing them.
Molly’s wrinkles are defining and her waistline is filling.
The updates come less often now.
Molly leaves for longer periods of time, sometimes never coming back at the end of her day.
Or maybe I blink too long and miss it.
“Dad’s in hospice. Will be gone for a bit.”
Date: 7th of August 2071
Molly is back.
She is gone.
Date: 21st of September 2071
No updates on the board. Only quick glimpses of my girls as they come and go.
I feel stronger with every minute that passes.
“I’m so sorry we haven’t updated you in a while. Will update soon.”
I stand and sit back down, but no one is home to witness.
“Dad’s funeral is today. Wish you were here…”
My eyelids grow heavy, working harder against gravity than they ever have. With almost twenty hours my time without sleep, I feel how dry and tired they have become.
I rest my eyes for just a moment...
A sound alarms from my wrist.
Date: 1st of May 2074
I fumble in my chair, easing myself into my rehearsed acceleration position.
Molly appears in front of the box.
I straighten my spine and raise my hand to the red button on my chest.
“Hurry!” The whiteboard reminds me.
I brace myself for acceleration and push hard against the button.
Alexis slumps on the couch.
I push the button again.
A team of scientists appear.
“Fred, remain calm. You need to manually eject yourself from the vest.”
How? I don’t know how to do that.
“You need to unclasp the three buckles down the front of your vest.”
My fingers fumble over the buckles, working as quickly as I can, but wasting another six hours their time.
When the buckles are each released, I look back up to the whiteboard.
“Great. Now, when you are ready, you need to rip the vest off as quickly as you can.”
The sign changes as I finish reading the message.
“This will accelerate your time all at once, so please do this in one swift motion.”
The note changes again.
“Wait until you are ready. We will be here.”
They stand still.
I take a deep breath, lean forward on my chair, and wiggle my arms from the vest. Then, in one, quick swoop, I rip the vest off my back.
I fall to the ground in front of me, which is a much softer impact than I anticipated.
When I flip to my side, dry heaving, pulse racing, I feel her hand combing my hair behind my ear, and look up to see the freckles under her eyes, now outlined in wrinkles.
“We’ve been waiting for you.”