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On Thin Ice
The Wells effect hurled him back through the decades and dropped him in a cauldron of bone-rattling sound. On and on it went, the thunderous roar threatening to overwhelm his senses.
He flung his hands over his ears and collapsed, screaming, to the cold ground.
As suddenly as it began, the noise receded, clanking off into the distance.
Dan hated trains.
He uncovered his ears, struggled to his feet, and looked around. He had landed near a railway embankment, hidden from view by a patch of holly. A small animal scuttled away, concealed beneath a layer of frosted leaves. A snarl of fishing line in the branches of a poplar. A gap in the fence where the chain-link had escaped its mooring. Dan inhaled deeply. The air was crisp and smelt of opportunities not yet missed.
Reeling from his encounter with the train, he brushed down his jeans, and pushed out through the prickles. The lake, covered with a layer of dirty ice; the bench where he had once sat, smoked, and carved obscenities into the slats.
This was it. No second chances. Unless this counted as a second chance. No third chances, then.
Focus, Dan told himself, and concentrated on slowing his breathing.
A gang of youths headed his way, shouting and ribbing one another -- his friends from forty years ago. Watching them, Dan was awash with nostalgia. Mates for life they'd thought back then... now. What became of those bonds? Drifted apart over the years, every one.
Dan scanned the group, seeking his own young face, and sagged with relief when he spotted him, lagging far behind.
A barb of empathy hooked Dan's heart, as he watched his younger self meander through the woods, oblivious to his surroundings. Easily distracted, his school reports said. On Cloud-bloody-Cuckoo Land, his ex-wife had confirmed.
The lads ignored the middle-aged man lurking in the undergrowth as they slouched past, but Dan waved to attract Young Danny's attention. The boy glared, then wandered over, his eyes beady with suspicion. Dan's heart raced. Finally, his chance to put things right.
'Where's your time machine, then?' Danny pretended to hunt around for the missing item, parting branches to peer through the foliage, checking behind a tree trunk.
'Never mind that, you need to listen now. Do not go on the...'
'Found it! Oh no, sorry. Just another bush.'
'Danny! We've got ten minutes before the Wells effect decoheres. Most of that's gone already.'
'Let's say you succeed -- you change the past. What about you, the time-traveller? You've edited yourself out of existence, haven't you?'
'It doesn't work like that. Listen will you?' Dan was becoming more febrile by the second, 'Danny: don't go on the...'
'It just doesn't, okay?'
In fact, Dan had no idea how the Wells effect worked. Watching jpegs of glowing testimonials from satisfied customers had been the total of his pre-trip research. The sales rep had spoken warmly and at length of the positive changes Dan could make to his life.
Even with a large discount for signing up at once, Dan had committed a hefty chunk of his earnings, for decades to come, to pay for this trip.
The chance of a lifetime.
Dan snapped out of his reverie to see the boy heading for the lake, and stepped smartly into his path.
'I know how you feel about Tracy,' he said.
Danny's head snapped up. 'What? T--Tracy who?'
'You know who I mean.' Dan mimed the internationally recognised sign for jerking off. 'Every night isn't it?'
Danny looked bereft. 'I never -- I mean -- I never told anyone about Tracy.'
Compassion flooded through Dan. He remembered the agony of unrequited love as if it were yesterday. Which it was, he supposed. Today, even. Poor kid.
'Maybe you should,' he said gently. 'Tell her, I mean. Ask her out.'
'She'd laugh. Laugh, then tell everyone.' Danny's head was shaking, his eyes shining. His breath was visible in misty plumes. 'I couldn't--', a flash of hope lit his eyes, 'what d'you think she'd say?'
'Honestly?' said Dan, 'She'll turn you down, for sure.'
Danny kicked a clump of grass, frost spraying into the winter air.
Dan said, 'She'll do it kindly though. She won't laugh, or tell people. Afterwards you'll know, and stop torturing yourself. And you'll realise, it doesn't hurt to be told "no," not really. And the next girl you fall for, you'll screw up your nerve and ask her out, too. It gets easier, trust me.'
'There'll never be anyone else. Not like Tracy.'
'There will be,' said Dan. 'Loads more.'
The boy looked a little less disconsolate. Perhaps now he would listen.
Danny's friends were gathered at the lakeside, where the leaders were testing the strength of the ice with their feet. Soon, Dan knew, the bravest would step out onto the surface. There wasn't much time.
'Danny, listen. Whatever else you do today -- this is important -- don't go on the...' A train hurtled past, drowning Dan's words in thunder. He tried again. 'DON'T. GO. ON. THE...' Danny cupped his ears and shook his head. The train seemed endless; time was ticking away.
Show, not tell!
Fumbling with his belt, Dan began to lower his jeans. The noise dopplered and faded as the rear carriage of the train rushed past. Dan looked up to see Danny's horrified gaze.
'Paedo!' cried the youngster, backing away.
Dan's scalp crawled as he realized how he must look -- a middle-aged man, in the woods, showing his underpants to a teenager. 'Danny! Don't go on the...'
'Stay back! Nonce!'
At the lake, the ice gave way, dumping two of Danny's friends in freezing water up to their knees. They waded sheepishly ashore, to the jeers of their pals.
Dan lurched forwards, and tripped, his hands skidding against frozen earth. He could sense the tendrils of time snaking eagerly across the decades, to drag him home.
Danny backed into the fence, near the spot where Dan had materialized. Cornered, he hunted frantically for an escape route. The hole. He ducked through, and sprinted away, desperate to put as much distance between himself and the strange man as possible.
Dan's time was almost up. 'DON'T GO ON THE...' The woods, lake and young Danny swirled away to nothingness. Dan was still bellowing as his own time materialised around him, '...TRACKS!'
He wept in frustration, as he understood his failure. 'Don't go on the tracks.'
He had re-appeared in his own time as he left the past -- spreadeagled on the ground, his trousers lowered to reveal his artificial limbs.
The ones his trip was supposed to replace with healthy legs of flesh and bone.
Danny had kept his appointment with that blunt slicing instrument, the 11:37 freight train to Manchester.
The Accident, right on schedule.
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