“Good morning, Dad.”
I look up to see Heather appear in the kitchen, greeting me with a sad little smile on her face. “Morning,” I say, the word coming out in a wheeze. I have to take a deep pull on the oxygen tank afterwards. Every breath seems harder than the last, every word a struggle. But that’s okay; it gives us a reason not to talk much. With all I can’t tell her, that’s a blessing.
Heather moves about the small space, putting on the coffee and pulling out the ingredients for breakfast. Everything in the room is clean but worn, cabinet doors and drawers scuffed and scraped, the appliances old but still working. It’s nice, in that old, comfy sweater way, but nothing you’d find on a showroom floor. It’s like something from a time capsule, everything in stasis, just waiting for someone to pop the seal before it falls apart all at once. But, hey, that describes my life, too.
“Want the usual?” Heather asks over her shoulder, though she has to know the answer already.
“Yeah.” I cough into the little hanky I always keep to hand, check the fabric. No blood this time. That’s a relief.
“Coming right up.” She pretends not to hear the cough, busying herself throwing together a simple bowl of thin oatmeal, about all I can choke down these days.
I lay my hands on the scuffed surface of the table, large hands with knobby knuckles and stark tendons, once so strong, now withered and wasted. Like the rest of me. Like everything in my life.
Heather slides the bowl in front of me. She’s done the best she can, but there’s not much you can do with oatmeal that I can eat these days. I pick up my spoon, fingers trembling, and gently stir the cereal, just to make her think I’m eating it.
She sits down across from me, a bowl of cornflakes in front of her. “So,” she says with a sigh. “What’ll we talk about this time?”
I glance at her, look away.
“C’mon, Dad,” she presses me. “I’m here, where you want me. When you want me. So let’s talk about something.”
I manage to meet her gaze, searching her face for the resentment I know has to be there, somewhere. The anger. The blame.
“The… weather?” I wheeze at last. It’s the best I can do; we’ve spent more time than we should talking about my health, and there’s a whole world of things we just can’t talk about.
She smiles, an expression as bittersweet as a chocolate chip. “Okay. Supposed to be nice, sunny and up around seventy…”
As she talks, my gaze strays back to the table’s surface, and the small stack of papers that sits there. I always keep them there, close to hand, like my hanky. I don’t suppose anything would happen if I lost them; I’m sure the company has exact copies. But it’s reassuring to have them nearby.
Time for You. A catchy name for their business, I guess. More accurate than they know.
They reached out to me, of course. I never would have imagined the service they provide. Even after hearing all the hullabaloo about time travel being not only practical, but affordable. Go back and forth, whenever and wherever. Vacations, sight-seeing, tourist stuff. None of that interested me, of course.
But bringing your past into your present, letting you hold on to what you thought you’d lost forever? Now, that was something I could get behind.
I realize Heather has stopped talking, and I look up to see her arch an eyebrow at me.
“Well?” she says.
I blink, having no idea what she said. Apparently, I’m no better at paying attention to my family now than I ever was. “What?”
“I asked if you wanted to go for a stroll around the park, since it’s so nice out.”
I let out a long, slow breath. “You know… can’t… do that.”
She exhales a sharp sigh. “Of course not.” Then she stands, scooping up her uneaten bowl of cereal. “I’d better get to my other chores. While I have the time. Finish your breakfast, Dad. You need your strength.”
Just to humor her, I shove a spoonful into my mouth, roll it around, force myself to swallow. “Thanks… honey. Delicious.”
“You’re welcome.” She moves off, going to wash dishes and do laundry, other things she does with the time she has. The time I’ve given her. The time I’m sure she thinks I’ve taken away from her.
She should resent me. Blame me. Hate me, even. Every decision I’ve made has led to this. To the two of us, trapped in this place. For me, it’s physical. I simply can’t move around enough to leave.
In another life, I was a boxer. Not a very good one. Losses piled up, but I wouldn’t give it up. To stay in the ring, I made some deals with very bad people, and didn’t hold up my end. So first they broke my body. Then they broke my spirit, leaving me with nothing to live for.
Until Time for You found me.
I took out the best contract I could afford. Four hours a day, one location, one person from my past. I could have chosen Lucy, but my wife was gone before the mob got to me, and, frankly, if I wanted constant nagging and recriminations, I could just talk to myself. So I chose Heather.
I watch her now, going about the mundane tasks she uses to fill what little time I can make for her. We’ve been doing this for years now, a rut to be sure, but the only rut we have. I have to belief it’s better than the alternative.
Now, don’t think I forced this on her, made the decision without any say on her part. The company makes sure that both parties are willing before finalizing any contracts. That she agreed still amazes me. But she did, and now she gives up hours of her present to keep me company in the future I’ve made for myself.
For a while, she really tried. Tried to make my life better. Did special things for me, cooking nice meals and stuff. Once she even managed to bring in a five-star catering service on a half-hour notice, gave me a big fancy party. Then we settled down a bit, took to watching movies or making puzzles or playing cards. Over the years, things got worse. It got hard for me to pretend, to really enjoy myself, knowing how this will all end. And my rapidly deteriorating health didn’t make things easier for her. I mean, who wants to spend their time swapping oxygen tanks and helping an old man go to the bathroom?
Even now, Heather tries. She puts on the best face she can, does her best to make me feel good about my selfish choices. Mostly, that only makes it all worse, knowing what’s coming. What’s inevitable.
I must have dozed off, because next thing I know, Heather is kneeling beside my wheelchair, gently shaking me awake.
“Dad?” she says, looking at me with concern. “You okay?”
I manage a little smile. “Define… okay.”
She smiles back. “Time’s almost up. Anything I can get you before I go?”
I shake my head. “No. I’ll… be okay.”
“I put a couple sandwiches in the fridge, and I just swapped your tank out for a fresh one.” She stands, looking down at me, then leans over and kisses my forehead. “See you tomorrow, Dad.”
She glances at the clock on the wall, the seconds counting down, and draws a shuddering breath. I guess this part never gets easier. Going back to her other life. Not knowing what’s going to happen, not knowing what she’s about to go back to. It’s in the contract that I can’t tell her anything about her future, about the years between then and now. About why I’m all alone, and why she isn’t here anymore.
About how they killed her to make an example of just how my life could be worse than my death.
I blink, and she’s gone, as if she was never there. Gone back to my past, her present, a time without hope of a future. Within an hour, she’ll be dead, murdered because of me. Sometimes I wonder—worry, really—about exactly what happens after she leaves. Does she experience the short rest of her life over and over again? Does she relive her death every day? I don’t know, and I don’t want to. My choices got her killed, and now they keep her alive. Sort of.
Does that make me selfish?
I guess a big part of it is knowing that it will end, all too soon. I can’t last much longer, and the contract won’t outlive me. I’m already borrowing money again, just to keep it going. I really never did learn anything life was trying to teach me, did I? So, one day, I’ll just die and the contract will end. That’ll be it, for me and for my daughter.
I sit there in my wheelchair, in my small, empty kitchen, alone again. Maybe that’s what I deserve. I wish there was some way to keep Heather alive, but you can’t change the past, no matter how much you want to. What has happened, will happen. Again and again. All I’m doing is buying a little time. For her. For me.
So, for now, I’ll live with the time I’ve taken for myself.