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He looked at his watch when he heard the knock: 8:07pm. Leave me alone. Who’d want to see me tonight anyway?
But it came again, and then a man’s voice, strangely familiar. “Open up, Eric. I know you’re in there.”
He left the chain in place and opened the door a crack. In the dim hallway was an older man, trim, a full head of silver hair, odd rectangle-rimmed glasses, hooded gray sweatshirt. “Who are you?”
“Let me come in and explain. You won’t believe me if I don’t show you some proof.”
“I just want to be alone.”
“I know. Feeling sorry for yourself. What a miserable, pathetic life I have. Woe is me.” His tone was mocking, sarcastic.
Blood rushed to Eric’s face. His voice rose, indignant. “You don’t know what I’m thinking. You don’t know me at all.”
“Don’t I? Let me in and I’ll show you that you’re wrong.”
The man aimed straight for the tattered couch as if he knew where it was, carefully choosing an unstained spot. He sat, and his eyes surveyed the apartment slowly. “I’d forgotten how Spartan this place is, how impoverished you are.”
He just wasn’t right. The snug blue jeans for example – men that age didn’t wear those. And the shoes – some kind of gym shoe with a bright green edging. Eric had never seen anything like them.
The man reached into his wallet, pulled out a card, handed it to Eric. It was hard plastic, the size of one of those new credit cards that everyone on campus had been receiving. But embedded right into the plastic was a color photo of his visitor, slightly younger, without the glasses. The words Illinois Driver’s License ran across the top.
“Look at the expiration date.”
July 21, 2015. And then he noticed the name: Eric McDermott – his name.
“So, Eric what do you conclude?”
“We’re related? But this is weird. You’ve either got a drivers license that doesn’t expire for forty-three years, or…”
“Or I’m you, from the future.”
“Oh right, the future. Did Bob put you up to this? He’s always making fun of my obsession with time paradoxes.”
“How well I know. But I expected you to be skeptical. So would it help to convince you that I really am you from the future if I told you something only you could know? Something you’ve never told anyone?”
“Whatever that could be. Go ahead.”
Bright blue eyes, the exact shade he’d had seen so many times in the mirror, locked onto Eric. With a soft, conspiratorial tone the old man said, “You’re in love with your roommate, Bob. He’s at his girlfriend’s right now, just like every Saturday night, and it’s killing you that he’s not here with you.”
Cold fear rose in Eric’s stomach. He shot to his feet, looked away, paced. It was his deepest secret, a secret he’d never put into words. The old man laughed. “Your face, your body language all tell me that I’m right. Come on, Eric. We have to be honest with each other. What choice do we have?”
Eric paced the length of the small living room. Back and again, back and again. “OK, you’ve convinced me. Nobody could possibly know that. So why are you here? Why now?”
“Your obsession with time will lead to a doctorate in physics. Perfecting time travel will be your life’s work, and just in the past month, forty years from now, I’ve finally accomplished it. Only two members of my immediate staff know about it so far. I’ve travelled to a few times in the past alone, looked around, came back. It seems to work. It really does appear to be the past, but there’s a mystery that nags at me. I haven’t been able to observe how changing something in the past effects the present.”
“Perhaps that’s because there are multiple time streams and…”
“No! I mathematically proved that impossible. There’s one time stream and if something is changed, the time stream adjusts itself. I haven’t fully defined the mechanism yet. I need to observe it. Oh, I admit, I’ve only made little changes so far. Killing people, destroying things, that’s not me. I need to effect a change that I can detect.”
The old man was warming up, talking faster. Eric’s eyes were drawn to his left foot, nervously tapping. Bob had mocked him about that tapping foot many times.
“So why not change something in your own life? You’d surely notice even small changes that way,” said Eric.
“Exactly! It’s risky, but I finally decided to take that risk. My work is incomplete until I observe how the time stream adjusts itself. So here I am.”
“What are you going to do - tell me stocks to buy so you can get rich?”
The old man chuckled. “We do think alike, don’t we? Get yourself a pen and paper. I’m going to tell you exactly how we can get filthy rich.”
After Eric had written it all down, his older self said, “There’s something else. I know you’re having a tough time of it right now and I want to help you get through it.”
Eric nodded. There was no point denying it.
“Your problem comes down to self-confidence. That’s what you lack right now, and it’s the source of all your unhappiness. It wasn’t until I believed in myself that my scientific career took off. And I had to also come to terms with who I was: a gay man. If you could accept who you are now, if you could realize what a bright, good-looking, capable person you are, I think you could avoid some mistakes you’re about to make, and I’d see some real changes when I return to my time.”
He talked for an hour, describing how he rose above his fears and self-doubts; how accomplishment built his confidence; how love overcame his fear of being different. As he talked, the younger Eric’s mood changed. He felt a growing confidence. For the first time ever someone had given him sensible advice about how to climb out of the hole he was in. He’d been sitting on the floor while he listened, but as his excitement grew, he sprang to his feet and walked to the window.
“You’ve made so many things clear to me. Things that had me so stuck, so confused. This has been great!”
His older self said nothing. Eric turned around. The man lay flat on the couch, and he truly looked old now. All the energy he’d brought with him when he arrived was gone. His face was covered in dark, ominous splotches.
“What are those purple things on your hands and face?” asked Eric.
The old man weakly raised a hand to his eyes. The blotches grew larger by the second. His eyes grew big. He gestured feebly with a finger. Eric walked to the couch, fell to his knees, placed an ear to the old man’s mouth.
He talked in the faintest whisper. “This must be AIDS, a fatal disease that ran through the gay community in the ‘80’s like a firestorm. A death sentence in those early years. The time stream’s adjusting. Fast. Eric, confidence is a two-edged sword. Helps you succeed, be happier. But it can kill you too. Risky to change your past.”
He was gasping now. His hand dropped onto his chest. “Fatal even.”
He went limp. Eric placed an ear on the sunken chest. He heard no heartbeat, no breath. Could this have really happened? Had he just witnessed his own death?
He sat, staring at the floor. He couldn’t help but consider the time paradox this presented. When did his older self die? If it was before he’d invented time travel, then this evening could not have happened. But he’d only perfected time travel in the last month – in his time. And he’d been vigorous and healthy when he’d arrived. So the sudden disease must have been the result of some change that had happened in the past hour. It seemed that every scenario Eric could think of led to impossible contradictions.
Eric’s thoughts turned to the body on his couch. How could he possibly explain it? But when he looked up, the couch was empty. Only the faintest indentations revealed that anyone had recently lain on it. Numb and confused, he tried to stand, but a debilitating wave of vertigo overpowered him. He toppled back to the floor.
He awoke flat on his back, staring at the ceiling. Had he passed out? He looked at his watch: 8:08pm. Hadn’t there been a knock on the door? He wasn’t sure, but he felt much better now. His depression was gone. He felt confident – an unfamiliar feeling, but he liked it. He sat up, and when he did he noticed the sheet of paper on the side table.
Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Apple Computer, Google. Each one with a list of buy and sell dates – dates stretching into the far future, all in his handwriting. When had he written that? What were they? He held it a moment, almost put it in his pocket, then shook his head, wadded it up, and dropped it into the trash.
He’d taken two steps toward the kitchen when he heard a sharp knock, three short raps, a pause, then one more. Why that pattern seemed so familiar, so compelled him to answer the door, he couldn’t explain.
In a hospital situated among the restaurants and bars of Chicago’s gay community, a husband and wife sat beside a bed where an inert figure had just stopped breathing. Standing beside them was a slender man in his thirties, blond, with intensely blue eyes that shed tears to accompany his sobs.
“He’s gone,” the husband said in a whisper.
The wife nodded. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She stood and put an arm around the shoulder of the younger man. He buried his face in her coat.
“We’re so sorry for you, Glenn,” said the husband. “I know how much you loved him. And you’ve not only lost the love of your life, you’ve lost your mentor, the man who’s work you so believed in.”
“Could I have a moment alone with him?” Glenn asked.
“Of course,” said the wife. They walked slowly out of the room and headed down the hall toward the floor’s visitor lounge.
Glenn grasped his lover’s bony hand, already feeling a bit too cool. He looked at the face – just skin over a skull, hardly a hint of the bewitchingly handsome, playful man he’d fallen for. He leaned in, whispered words he’d said to Eric before, when he was still alive, but repeated now as a solemn pledge.
“I’m going to keep it going, Eric. We were so close. I’ll never stop until I succeed. And when I do, I’ll visit you on that day you told me about – the day you almost committed suicide. I’ll tell you how to stay alive, how to get through this, how to live long enough to reach your goal.”
He dropped the hand, sighed, turned to go, then turned back. He’d remembered something important. “I’ll use our secret knock. That way you’ll be sure to let me in.”
micheledutcher - Mark211 - This is a very impressive short story – there ideas are strong without becoming convoluted and you move the story on with impressive economy of style. The incidental details and the glimpses of character are also well drawn. I liked this part for example:  Eric’s eyes were drawn to his left foot, nervously tapping. Bob had mocked him about that tapping foot many times.
micheledutcher - Gordon Rowlinson: IMO time travel has been done too many times. To my eyes, a time travel story has to have clever twists and surprises. I thought your story had the clever twists and surprises to make it work. I especially liked the unintended negative change (AIDS) when it appeared that a positive change would occur. It added the element of time travel danger to the story. My only criticism is that there is not much description in the settings. It seemed to leave me wondering what things looked like.
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