The box landed with a solid thud.
“Bloody hell, April!” Ian kicked the box, and then started hopping when he stubbed his toe. “What have you got in here, gold bars? Please tell me it’s gold bars. Anything to get back some of that stupid Stamp Duty.”
April yelled back from the other room. “Uh, will you cool it about the Stamp Duty? Seriously, how have you never heard of it before?”
“Maybe because no one in my family ever owned their own house,” Ian muttered under his breath. He knew that tone of voice from April; it was the ‘I’m done with today’ voice. Past experience told him that now wasn’t the time to bring up all grudges.
April swept into the room, dropping a stack of books on the coffee table as she went. As she stood up and ran a hand through her hair to get it out of her face, Ian’s heart skipped a beat and he grinned. Even when she was at the edge of her tether she looked beautiful. To him at least. He still couldn’t put into words what about her chubby face he found beautiful, other than ‘all of it’.
“Which box is it?” she asked.
“Huh? Oh, this one.” Ian kicked it with the side of his other foot. “Weighs a tonne.”
April gave the box a poke and peered round it, looking for labels. “Photos,” she said at last.
“Yes, photos. Why do you sound so surprised?”
“Because it’s 2021. Who has actual physical photographs these days? More over, who has an entire box full of them?”
“We do. And don’t give me that look, some of them are yours as well. Now stop gawping and get unpacking.”
As she went to move away, Ian leant over and caught her arm. “Aren’t I allowed to stare at my beautiful fiancée?” He pulled her in for a kiss. When they came apart she rolled her eyes, but she blushed.
“Stop being soppy. We’ve got things to do.” With a quick peck on the cheek April walked out, rubbing the new ring on her finger as she went.
Grinning like an idiot, Ian picked up the box of photos. This time he was ready for the ridiculous weight, but it still made him groan. He got as far as the coffee table before he had to put them down again. Seeing stars in front of his eyes, he figured it was time for a break. There wasn’t any space on the sofa yet, so he perched on the table next to the box and flicked it open.
The bottom of the box was filled with albums, but at the top there was a layer of loose photos. Ian flicked through them as he tried to straighten his spine out. Most of the pictures had people he recognised, or where even photos he recognised, back from when they’d been stuck on the walls of April’s flat-share. He was sure none of them were his, but that was a debate for another day.
As he went, a picture caught his eye. It looked familiar, and it took him a moment to realise that it was an image of their new local park. The only reason he knew it at all was that they’d had lunch there after they’d come up to view the house for the very first time.
“Back before I’d heard of bloody Stamp Duty,” Ian muttered to himself. He kept staring at the picture, trying to work out what it was about.
It wasn’t an artistic shot of the park, just a random clump of trees not too far off the path. A few people were in the picture, but none of them were familiar and none of them were the focus. It just seemed to be a picture of… well, nothing.
Ian snorted. “Probably called ‘The Vagueness of Everyday Life’, or some tosh like that.” He turned the picture over, looking for a date stamp or a name.
There was a date, although it wasn’t stamped on. It was hand written in blocky, almost square, numbers. It was a recent date, and Ian turned the picture back over before the numbers had filtered through his brain.
He was checking the front of the photo, seeing if the fashions matched the date, when he frowned and froze. After a second he turned the photo back over and read the date again. This time his lips moved as well, but it didn’t help it make any more sense.
The date written on the photo wasn’t just recent.
“It’s today,” Ian said. “But how’s that possible? How can I find a photo that’s only just been taken, in a box that’s been sealed for a week?”
There was a time written under the date. Ian read them both a few more times, making sure that he hadn’t messed up and gotten the date and the time the wrong way round.
Nope. No doubt about it. The photo was dated for that day, taken in an hour’s time.
As soon as he realised that, Ian knew there was nothing he could do but go.
Half an hour later, rubbing his palms down the sides of his trousers, Ian approached April.
“Lunch break?” he suggested.
She bit her lip as she looked round. “I don’t know, we’ve not done a lot…”
“We don’t need to do it all today, either. This is our house now, it can be as messy as we want, remember? Anyway, I was thinking of heading down to that little cafe we found, just off the park. The one with the gorgeous brownies.”
April’s face lit up. “Oh, go on then. I suppose we deserve a break. Do you want me to come with you?”
“Nah, don’t worry about it. Get some rest, and sit down for five minutes! Besides, it saves me having to find my keys!”
It was still another twenty minutes before Ian actually managed to leave the house, after completing all of April’s ‘while you’re up’ jobs. He couldn’t exactly say that he was on a deadline either. Ian wasn’t sure why he wasn’t telling his fiancée about the photo, but he knew he didn’t want to. For now, it was his thing. Given that he’d just lost ‘his space’, it was a safety blanket to cling onto. One last hurrah of a being a bachelor.
Ian jogged down the street to the path, checking his watch every few steps. It would be so stupid to miss it, even if it wasn’t anything. Which it wouldn’t be, he kept telling himself. But he’d never live with himself if he didn’t check.
When he got to the park Ian bent double to catch his breath. He scanned the park for the clump of trees in the picture, and staggered over while trying to not look like a weirdo. Charging about the park out of breath and staring at the undergrowth wasn’t a good look for someone new to the neighbourhood.
Ian found the trees with a minute to spare. The people who were in the photo were about and – yes! There on the path was someone with a camera.
Wiping the sweat off his face with the back of his hand, Ian strolled up to the photographer. He looked at the trees and did his best to act as if he were on a normal walk. So far the photographer hadn’t moved away from their camera, and Ian had no idea who they were. It wouldn’t be long before he’d gone past them as well. If he was going to say something, it was now or never.
“Hey,” Ian said. “This is going to sound really weird, but I think I have your photo.” He held up the print and laughed. Whether it was a genuine laugh or a hysterical one he couldn’t tell.
“Oh good,” the photographer said. “I wasn’t sure if you’d get it in time.” They pulled the camera away, and Ian stared into his own face.
Except it wasn’t quite his face. There were more lines around the eyes, more wear on the skin, and a jagged scar ran down one cheek. But it was close enough to the face Ian saw every day when he shaved that he could tell it was his.
“What the f–” he started.
“Come on,” said the other Ian. “We’ll attract too much attention stood in the middle of the path. Besides, you look like you’re about to fall over.”
“Can’t I? I think it’s only fair, given the circumstances.”
“Shut up, Ian. I haven’t got long, and I need you to focus.” Other Ian led the way off the path and towards the shelter of the trees, and for a lack of anything better to do, Ian followed.
Walking behind, he couldn’t help notice the trim outline of other Ian. It was a body shape current Ian would kill for. Other Ian could probably have jogged all the way to the park without his heart trying to escape, despite the age difference.
“All right,” other Ian said when they were under the trees. “It looks clear around here. Now–” Current Ian reached out and poked other Ian hard in the chest. “Ow. What was that for?”
“Checking you were real. I could handle this better if it was oxygen-deprivation.”
“Why would it be oxygen-deprivation?”
“Because… never mind. I’d rather this was imaginary though, and not actually happening.”
Other Ian prodded him back in the chest. “Really here. Really happening. Now, will you listen?”
“Are you from the future?” current Ian asked.
“No,” other Ian said with a weary sigh. “I’m from a different dimension.”
“Oh, cos that’s fine. Time traveller is weird, but different dimension? Sure, we get them all the time.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that’s the first thing everyone has said to me today.”
“Everyone?” It was stupid, but current Ian felt more than a little put-out that his other self had visited anyone other than him first.
“All the other Ians. The other ‘us’-es.”
“Yeah, let me explain. I’m a dimension traveller. I’ve been jumping between dimensions, trying to get in touch with other versions of myself. I need your help. Possibly. Hopefully.”
Current Ian’s head had started to hurt, so he just nodded. “Okay. Help with what?”
“My daughter, back in my timeline, has a rare disease. I have the right genetic material to help her, but I’m too old for my cells to be of any use. So I’m going across dimensions, trying to see if I can find a ‘me’ that is young and healthy enough to help.”
“I thought you weren’t a time traveller? But then, how can you be older than me? I thought different dimensions were stacked up next to each other. Different slivers of reality, that sort of thing.”
“They are, but they don’t always line up properly. As you jump between dimensions you can shift in the timeline as well. That’s how I was able to leave the photo for you.”
“So, when I said ‘are you from the future’–”
“I’m not from your future. Not directly. So, no, I was still right, smart-arse. Now, are you willing to help?”
For a future, alternate reality daughter I have never and will never meet? “What the hell. Might as well. What do I need to do?”
Other Ian grinned, which tugged at the scar. “Thank you. First up I just need to do a scan, to see if you’ve got the right cells. Non-invasive, you don’t even need to take your clothes off.”
“Good. Although, would it be weird if I stripped in front of you? I mean, we’re the same person, so…”
“Doesn’t matter either way. We’re not even going to leave the park.” Other Ian pulled out a small flattish device, like a handheld games console. “Just give it a second.”
As the machine whirred into life, current Ian looked around. “I assume there’s no chance of this thing giving me cancer or anything.”
“And… go!” The machine gave a loud ping and a beam of light shone at current Ian. He jumped back, clenching his fists and gritting his teeth.
“A little warning would be nice.”
But other Ian was too busy reading the results of his test. “Oh my god. That’s it. That’s perfect!”
“I can help?”
“Yes! Yes, you can. Haha!” Other Ian jumped at current Ian, crushing him in a bear-hug as he danced on the spot. When they pulled away other Ian wiped his hand down his face. “Oh, wow. That has taken too long.”
“How many other dimensions have you tried?”
“In total? I think this is about my twenty-seventh attempt. Maybe twenty-eighth. There were a few that went… badly. But I did it. I finally did it.”
The happiness was contagious, and current Ian started grinning as well. “Awesome. What happens now then?”
Other Ian’s smile faltered. “Oh. Um… yeah.”
“That’s the only bit that can be done here. To actually get the cells, you’ll need to come with me to my dimension.”
“Huh. Nothing major then.” Current Ian ran a hand through his hair. “What does that entail? Is it safe?”
“Almost? Can I hear a little more about the ‘almost’?”
“There’s always risks with dimension crossing. But it’s no more dangerous than any other sort of travel. I mean, look at me. I’ve made almost thirty crossings, and I’m fine.”
Current Ian looked at the scar on his other self’s face. “Right. And what about getting back? You’ll drop me back here, right?”
“Like, right here. Same time, same day, everything?”
“I’ll try to…”
“Oh, great. So I could end up coming back in the future, is that it?”
“Or the past. Yes, I’m sorry. Look, I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t my daughter. Our daughter, technically–”
“Only if you squint.”
“–and she needs help. She’s in so much pain, and it’s getting worse. I was going to get her a crystal for her birthday.” Other Ian’s voice drifted off into a world of memory, and current Ian couldn’t help it. That damn curiosity that dragged him out here was back.
“How old is she?”
“Six, at the moment. I left two weeks before her seventh birthday, but I don’t know when I’ll arrive back.”
“All right, all right!” Current Ian threw his hands up and exhaled. “Against all better judgment I’ll go.” Before other Ian could get excited again, current Ian points a finger at him. “But. I need to do something first. And I need your help.”
Thirty minutes later, current Ian knocked on his new front door.
“At last,” April said as she opened it. “I thought you had gotten lost. What the– Ian, why do we need so many brownies?”
“April, love of my life.” Ian pushed her back into the house and left the door open as he followed. “You know I love you to the moon and back. All those brownies are for you, to apologise for the weird I’m about to bring in.”
“Ian, you’re scaring me.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. I’ll try and explain but…” Standing in the living room, current Ian looked over his shoulder. Other Ian took the hint and walked in.
“What the f–” April started.
“April, love of my life. You are everything I want, and I can’t wait for our life together. But right now, I need to go with a different dimension’s version of me, so my cells can be used to save his daughter. Is that… is that okay?”
April looked between the two Ians for a moment. She frowned and chewed the inside of her lip. Current Ian braced himself for a yell, or maybe even a slap. Perhaps that would shake him out of this bizarreness.
“All right,” April said instead. “But you need to explain properly on the way. And the brownies are still all mine.” She marched right past the two men, grabbing her coat as she went.
“That,” current Ian said, “was not what I expected.”
“Trust me,” other Ian said. “That has not happened before.”
“Well?” April said, leaning back into the room. “Are we going or what? I thought a girl’s life was at stake.”
“Yes, ma’am,” both Ians replied. Well, the look that passed between them said, at least we know who’s in charge now.