Eric watched them through the window. The night was cold, yet no breath fogged the glass when he leaned closer. That took some getting used to the first few journeys he made. Now, it was trivial. As always, the glass was dirty. She regularly teased him to help out around the house more. He kept up with the maintenance, but cleaning was never his forte. Still, he could have helped out more. One of many regrets.
That was when he felt it. God damn hands. They were shaking again, but he never let go of the cylindrical key fob resting tightly in his grasp. With each trip, the shaking grew worse.
A crash came from inside the house. “Oh no! Sowwy!” A child’s voice.
“It’s okay honey, just be careful not to cut yourself. Don’t touch that!” a brunette beauty warned the child before grabbing some paper towels. Always odd seeing paper towels again. But what held Eric’s attention was that of the woman and her captivating green eyes, as well as the little girl who fumbled the task of transporting a cup to the younger man sitting at the table. He was laughing, bringing a smile to the girl’s face. A tooth was missing, but her smile was still the most beautiful Eric had ever witnessed.
The man stood, hoisting up the girl. At least it’s just tiles and not carpet. “At least it’s just tiles and not carpet,” the man said, planting a kiss on the girl’s round cheek. “Here, let me help babe.” He plucked some paper towels and began scrapping the broken glass into a pile.
“Careful. Don’t want you getting cut,” the woman smiled, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“Sowwy daddy.” The little girl hugged his neck.
At that moment, hot tears streamed down Eric’s face. Little bits of lava sliding through the crevices of his wrinkled skin. That’s why he came. Those tears were the only painful happiness he could feel.
“It’s okay baby girl. Daddy’s got you.” The man nuzzled cheeks with the little girl.
I can't take anymore. Didn’t last long this time. Eric’s shaky hands fumbled with the key fob, eventually sliding the head piece back with a click. The contraption lit up when opened. Several options emitted from the small touch screen. With a few clumsy taps, he closed his eyes. A bright flash was seen behind wrinkly lids. Then he felt it: warmth.
With open eyes, he was granted the view of the what they called ‘The Waiting Room’; a small, circular capsule that housed white panels covering the most advanced tech of the era. It was somewhat eerie, even to a veteran traveler like him. But he found the thrumming from the panels soothing. Albeit, it was daunting to those unaware of their function. He knew, however. For they were descendants of his own design.
“You good?” A familiar voice asked over the loudspeaker.
Eric gave a thumbs up.
“Alright. You know the drill. Thirty seconds for acclimation procedures.”
Eric nodded solemnly, shakingly wiping the last tears from his burning eyes. Damn it! I should have stayed longer. Curse these hands!
Eventually, the door to the capsule opened and a younger man stepped inside. It was Drew, Eric’s protégé and the voice on the loudspeaker. Drew wasn’t pleased. “You're not looking so good, boss. Shaking’s getting worse. You need a break. Keep coming every day and your neurological system is going to be shot to hell.”
“I’m well aware of the risks, Drew.” Eric walked into the hall, pressing the key fob against Drew’s chest as he passed.
“We just worry about you, that’s all.” Drew took the fob and followed.
“I built the damn thing. I know what it entails.”
“How did this run go?”
Eric stopped in his tracks. Two employees in lab coats walked past, nervously nodding greetings. “It was…wonderful. Painful. Glorious and tragic. Like every time.”
“Sounds like life, eh?” Drew’s eyebrow peaked.
“It was life, Drew. It was.”
Eric sat on the edge of his bed. Curling his toes in the carpet always brought him a comforting welcome to the new day—a day he often contemplated not seeing ever again. But not this day. No, he had to see them again. One last time, he told himself every morning.
“Remove tint,” he called out.
“Removing tint,” a monotone voice replied from unseen speakers.
The dark wall before him suddenly turned into clear windows, and he was blessed with the grand view of the awakening city. Glass-plated skyscrapers and sky railways filled his sight.
Standing naked before the glass as he did every morning, he knew that none could see him. Another pleasure of high-tech windows. The bustling city was already in full swing. He could make out the plethora of drone transports on the streets as well as flying people around the city’s massive buildings. Only government and licensed companies could offer drone services. Legislation was being pushed to allow individuals to operate their own drones, but that would take years. I remember when everyone had their own car. City buses and subways were simply an option, not a requirement. Luckily, he owned several drone and railway companies, making transportation for himself a trivial matter. And the public transport drones were free for all, if one didn’t mind overcrowded, malfunctioning cesspools of crime.
A notification pinged on his tablet: a reminder of the day’s reserved Waiting Room. That capsule was for his own personal use. There was no need to schedule, he could use it whenever he wished. But he suspected he was a slave to routine, and seeing the notifications catered to that aspect of his being. But today, he was going in early, despite the risks. I didn’t see them enough last time…
“Whoa, whoa Eric! You’re way too early. You know what that can do to you!” Drew held his hands up to the older man. “Come on, be reasonable!”
“We go through this every time, Drew.” Eric waved away his concerns.
“For good reason,”—Drew blocked the Waiting Room door with a hand planted firmly against the frame—“I can't just stand here and let you do this to yourself. I…it breaks my heart.”
“What the hell do you know of broken hearts? You’ve never lost so much as a pet hamster.”
“Doesn’t mean I can't sympathize. Look, I get it. I really do. Sure, I might not have lost a loved one before, and I hope it’ll be a long time before I do. But if you croak because of this, then I will experience that loss. You're like a father to me, so call me selfish.”
Eric was touched, but he had made up his mind long ago when it came to this venture. “Look, kid. The entire purpose of me developing this technology was so I could see them again. I can't change their fate, but at least I can see them. That’s all I have left in this life—seeing them one last time.”
“That’s the problem Eric, it never is ‘one last time.’ You're in here every single day and your neurological pathways cannot handle that stress. I mean look!” Drew pulled up Eric’s hands. The tremors were worse, even moving down to his elbows.
“I don’t give a damn. My life!” Eric yanked his hands away and firmly pushed past the younger man. He snatched the key fob out of Drew’s shirt pocket and began fumbling with it. God damn hands! he cursed, smacking the shaky appendages on his thighs. “You going to come along, or you going to queue me up?”
Drew simply shook his head in defeat before exiting the Waiting Room. After a minute or so, he was heard over the loudspeaker, “Your funeral.”
“Damn straight. You know where to send me. And Drew”—he paused—“this is my choice. Not yours. Don’t take on any guilt, kid.”
The loudspeaker crackled for a bit, and then Drew finally spoke, “Yes sir.”
At that, the mechanical whir began, growing louder with each second until it reached a crescendo. Eric welcomed the rhythmic buzz. It was almost a part of him.
“Processing time sequence. Charting jump. Implementing countdown. Eyes closed, boss. Initiating jump.”
That familiar bright light and humming enveloped Eric. He remembered when he first invented the capsules. Back then it took nearly three hours to initiate a jump back in time. But now, it only took seconds. Oh, how technology flies. All the brilliant minds he employed over the decades was to thank for that. Particularly Drew. Eric was blessed to have such a worthy protégé take over in his retirement. Not only did the young man have the intellect and knowledge, but the moral coding to lead the company into the right direction. If…when I die, at least I can say he was one good thing I left behind. Even though he's not my own son.
But then Eric’s thoughts shot to the present, or more accurately, the past. He knew to open his eyes when he felt—nothing, to be precise. No temperature, no wind or summer breeze, no cool night air or misty spring morning. This was a result of the known Ericonian laws, which state that time travel is subject to observance only, and limited to traveling to the past. Thus, when one is sent back in time, they’re unable to interact with anyone or anything. They’re virtually in spirit only, taking on a ghostly presence that can only watch. Although, many of his critics suspected this was deliberately implemented, rather than a limit of technology or research. Fortunately, Eric had the world’s top lawyers to muster up ironclad patents that prevented any to take on his research until after his death. So long as he lived, the world would never know the truth behind his work. In fact, not even the company knew. Only Drew was privy to what truly lied behind Ericonian systems. And Eric trusted him to do the right thing with it once he’s gone.
A child’s laughter. That was the moment he always chose to open his eyes. Nothing was sweeter than hearing that infectious, innocent giggle. Then came hers—that golden, honeyed voice calling out to him. “Eric! Your daughter is going to be the death of me. I can't keep up!” The green-eyed goddess of his dreams chased the girl around the picnic blanket. He watched as they laughed joyfully when his wife picked up their little girl and lifted her to the sky before planting a raspberry on her tummy, much to the screaming toddler’s delight. His eyes drifted to his much younger self, lying back on the blanket with a big smile.
“Amy, don’t kill your mom please. I like her,” his younger self teased.
“Okay daddy!” Amy giggled. Another raspberry blurted out from her soft belly.
The tears flowed, as they always did. Older Eric wiped them away. Despite being invisible to them, he always observed from afar. It never felt right to intrude on their happiness with his own despair. Yet, it was still hard to watch from a distance.
Suddenly, he felt something dripping down his mouth. He reached up to discover something warm and metallic slipping between his fingers. Blood? Then he collapsed, shaking violently. No! Not yet! Not now! His vision blurred; his head felt like it was going to split open. How can it have come so fast? He forced himself to open the key fob. The shaking made it difficult to grasp the device and input the proper sequence for evacuation. I must see them one more time. Just once more!
Then came the flash, and the warmth of the Waiting Room.
“Eric!” Drew could be heard over the loudspeaker. The worry in his voice quite apparent. “Eric! Don’t close your eyes. The doc is on the way. Stay awake! Eric!”
I’ll just, close them for a moment. I'm so tired. It hurts so much. Maybe if I just sleep a little while…
“He’s waking up,” said a familiar voice.
“Thank god.” That’s Drew. Where am I? “Eric, you okay? How you feeling?”
“You shouldn’t push him too much right now. He's taken a heavy hit. Give him some time.”
“Where am I?” Eric managed to utter. His voice but a shallow whisper.
“You're in the private clinic. Dr. Jurgen says you should be okay.”
“If he stops using the Waiting Room,” Dr. Jurgen muttered. “How many times have I warned you this would happen? How many times has Drew? But nope, why listen to the experts?”
“Thanks doc,” Eric gave him a shaky thumbs up. “Now, I’d like to speak with Drew in private, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure, why not? Not like you almost died and need monitoring or anything.” Dr. Jurgen exited the room, grumbling in protest.
When they were alone, Eric looked to Drew, his head shaking uncontrollably. “It’s time.”
Immediately, tears began to well in Drew’s eyes. “I was afraid you were going to say that. Look, if you just stop using the Waiting Room, you’ll be fine. You just have to let them go.”
“I can't. You know I can't.”
“—Drew…I'm done. You know what this means.”
Drew wiped his reddening eyes, nodding reluctantly.
“Help me.” Eric stood, wobbling on shaky legs. Drew put an arm around him.
They slowly walked to Eric’s Waiting Room. Luckily, all the other employees wishing him well had gone home for the night. The building was near empty. Drew placed him in the Waiting Room’s access zone.
“You sure you want to do this?” Drew swallowed back more tears.
“We’ve discussed this a million times, kid. I made my choice long ago. I have to see them one last time.” It took all his strength, but Eric managed to smile. He lifted a shaky hand up to Drew’s face, wiping away a tear and gently patting his cheek. “I love you, kid. You're gonna do great.”
Drew lost it and threw his arms around his mentor, who returned the favor. “I don’t want to have to say it, but just in case, goodbye Eric. And tell them I said ‘hello.’”
“Will do, kid. Will do. And Drew, take me back to that moment…”
Drew nodded before exiting the room. After a minute or two, the mechanical whirring hummed.
Heh, I don’t think he noticed. In all the years Eric had taken this journey, this was the first and only time he didn’t grab the key fob from Drew’s pocket. Keep it real, kid.
The flash of light faded and Eric was once again in the past. This time, it was a park with a fairly robust playground. He saw Amy, just coming down the slide. His younger self and wife were sitting on a nearby bench, watching her play.
Shaking uncontrollably, Eric stumbled his way to her. Blood began seeping from his nose again, his vision blurring once more. This time, a needle-like piercing of a high frequency sound stabbed into his brain. But he pushed onward. Reaching into his pocket, he grasped a round device. It held a rotary knob that he slowly turned. I must do this right. I can't scare her.
He collapsed to one knee. Crawling his way forward, he managed to arrive at his daughter who stood there observing a beetle. The dial rotated a little bit more. That was when she turned to him, her eyes somewhat shocked at first. But then they softened when he smiled.
“Hi. Are you okay?” Her voice was like gentle rose petals brushing against his ears. He fought back sobbing, lest he scare her away.
“Yes, sweety, I'm okay. I just wanted to say hello,” he replied, struggling.
“I'm not supposed to talk to strangers.”
“Good, that’s good. Your mother is very smart. But I just, well. Can I shake your hand?”
“It’s okay, you don’t have to. I understand.”
Amy looked around, then back at his wife and younger self who were staring directly at her; neither appeared alarmed. Eric knew they couldn’t see him, only Amy was within range of the amplifier in his pocket. Eventually she shrugged, holding out her hand.
Tears stung his eyes as he gasped, slowly reaching out to her. So small. So fragile. He couldn’t control himself any longer. The feeling of her warm, soft hand wrapping around his thumb threw him over the edge. He feared she would run away; instead, she simply put her other hand over his large thumb and whispered, “It’s okay mister. You’ll feel better.”
He laughed, spittle and tears dripping down his face. “Thank you, sweety. Thank you. I have to go now. You…you have a fun time playing, okay?”
She nodded, then ran off giggling.
Eric turned the amplifier dial, ushering himself back into his time bubble. It was worth it. It was all worth it. Watching her run around, his thoughts flashed back to the night he was in the lab at his company and received news of the railway crash. He remembered the sound of his wailing upon discovering his family was no more. He felt the agony of finding out the railway was owned by his company. He never forgot the pain. But he also remembered it being the impetus for him to begin his time travel research. He remembered the drive to succeed in order to change the fate of that horrific day. And then he remembered why he mustn’t. He remembered why changing that day would be erroneous, and would see him never fulfilling his destiny in the first place. But this, this one moment, made it all worth it.
Eric closed his eyes for the last time. No one knew what happened to him, for he was never seen again. Drew had his theories, but didn’t dare travel back to test them. That was Eric’s time, and it was best left to him.